Friday, September 25, 2020

Movie Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Antonio Campos.
Written by: Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock.
Starring: Tom Holland (Arvin Russell), Robert Pattinson (Preston Teagardin), Riley Keough (Sandy Henderson), Harry Melling (Roy Laferty), Haley Bennett (Charlotte Russell), Bill Skarsgård (Willard Russell), Mia Wasikowska (Helen Hatton), Sebastian Stan (Lee Bodecker), Eliza Scanlen (Lenora Laferty), Jason Clarke (Carl Henderson), Douglas Hodge (Tater Brown), Given Sharp (Susie Cox), Drew Starkey (Tommy Matson), Lucy Faust (Cynthia Teagardin), Abby Glover (Pamela Sue Reaster), Cory Scott Allen (Sheriff Thompson), Eric Mendenhall (Deputy Howser), David Maldonado (Henry Dunlop), Kristin Griffith (Emma), Adam Fristoe (Priest), Michael Banks Repeta (Arvin Russell - 9 Years Old).

Antonio Campos has an impressive roster of films behind him so far in his career – his chilly, remote films Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012) and Christine (2016) suggest a heavy Michael Haneke influence, and yet unlike most who try and do the Austrian auteur’s style, he is able to bring something new to the proceedings. His films have always been violent, yet cold – but they do get under the skin of their protagonists, seeing what makes them tick, even as they do awful things. He’s also been bold stylistically – probably more so in Afterschool than the others, where he switched between his own chilly cinematography, and the YouTube videos his high school characters watch, or make themselves. He also has a flair with endings – they aren’t twists in the M. Night Shyamalan sense, but the final moments in Afterschool and Christine, certainly recontextualize everything we have seen before it. The Devil All the Time is his latest, most ambitious, most sprawling film – and sadly, it doesn’t really work at all.

The film tells a number of different stories – mostly set in the 1960s, a revolving around Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), local resident of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Before we get to him however, we have to flash back to his father Willard (Bill Skarsgard) – who remembers the horrors he saw in WWII, and who deals with more tragedy when he returns with his wife (Haley Bennett). You feel for Willard, yet you also realize that the only thing he really taught his son was toxic masculinity. And Arvin is the only male in the movie you feel for.

The rest of the motley crew of a cast are all doing horrible things. There is Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin, the new preacher in town with an eye for the young women in town, but is, of course, a massive moral hypocrite. His most prominent conquest in the film is Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) – and you’ll get no points for guessing what happens there. There is photographer Carl (Jason Clarke) and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough) – who convince various strangers to pose for pictures, that slowly turn pornographic – before they end up killing them. There are more – many more really – all circling these characters. A corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan), more morally compromised men of go (Roy Laferty) and his wife (Mia Wasikowska).

The film is based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock – who also provides the copious amounts of voiceover narration in the film, that is both tedious, and yet somehow necessary – not only to keep the various plot threads clear, but also for character motivation and feeling, because the screenplay doesn’t do a good job aside from that in making it clear. It doesn’t help any that most of the actors seem to be in different movies. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough probably fit the milieu best, and are doing genre performances, with a little modern psychology in them – but they’re too thin to be that interesting. Robert Pattison is nothing if not interesting – I have no idea what accent Pattinson was attempting here – but I love it just the same. It is a choice as they say. And it’s certainly better than Tom Holland, who goes all mumble mouthed trying for some sort of American accent (I’m sorry, but there are many American actors from the South or Midwest, who wouldn’t struggle with accents – so I’m not sure why Campos went for Brits here).

Basically, the film is one long meander to nowhere. You keep expecting it to pick up the pace or dig deeper, or something. Instead, there are a lot of short stories of sin and punishment that sort of end, and then the next one kicks off. I remember reading Pollock’s book a few years ago – and liking it. But whatever there in his prose, whatever larger themes he had, get lost in translation here. The film is a slow ramble, and when it ends, you wonder why you took the trip. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

My Mini TIFF Recap

This was to be my 16th attending TIFF. Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a damper on the proceedings. Yes, there were in-person screenings at the Lightbox, and Drive-In showings – no I didn’t attend those. If I haven’t gone to my Toronto office since March, I wasn’t going to Toronto to see a movie. The good news is I was able to attend a total of 9 digital screenings. It isn’t the same of course – even if the commercials that I see every year played before them brought a comfortable familiarity to the proceedings. But ultimately, it’s watching films from home – which I’ve done a lot since COVID. Still, I was happy to support TIFF – and overall I had a pretty good festival. As always, my recap doesn’t really go in any real order – just a loose collection of thoughts on the films I saw – I always start with the weakest, and end with the strongest, but other than that, it’s just kind of go-with-the-flow.

With that in mind, the weakest film I did see was still not horrible. Shadow in the Clouds (Roseanne Liang) was part of Midnight Madness, and it is a kind of bonkers horror/action/WWII film, and it may well have played differently for me at Ryerson at Midnight. It stars Chloe Grace Mortez, as a flight officer in WWII, boarding a plane at the last minute, with a mysterious package, and orders from on high. That certainly doesn’t stop the all-male crew from making misogynistic remarks throughout her flight – and like women everywhere, she just kind of has to grin and bear it. They place her in the under plane turret for take-off – and she’s stuck there for roughly the first half of the very short (83 minutes – with credits) film. They don’t believe her when she says she sees Japanese fighter planes – and they certainly don’t believe when they see something else – something tearing at the wing of the plane. But, of course, she’s right. The direction by Liang is actually pretty good – the film moves at a breakneck pace, so you don’t really have time to think of how absurd it all it, or how really every character in the film is an insufferable prick (Mortez less so then the others). No, I didn’t know that the movie started with a screenplay Max Landis – which they have apparently reworked as everyone involved has distanced themselves from Landis (with good reason). But you can see those roots here still. Basically, the film is silly and goofy, and gets violent, but also rings a little hollow.

The only other Midnight Madness I saw (there were only three) was significantly better. Violation (Madeline Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli) does have some hallmarks of being a debut film – the symbolism with the animals and bugs is a little thick, the mixed up timeline structure is probably too complicated for its own good. Yet, the heart of the story - a different take on the rape/revenge film, this time told from the female gaze, is quite disturbing, and the emotions quite raw. Sims-Fewer herself plays a woman, who is spending the weekend away with her husband – who she’s on the brink of divorce with – and her sister and her husband, who was childhood friends with them. Since you know this is a rape/revenge film – you know where it’s going. What I will say is that the rape is in no way eroticized – it’s seen in extreme closeups, so you don’t really see what’s going on, while the revenge gets brutal and graphic – and there is far more male nudity here then female nudity. It’s a challenging, promising debut feature for Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli – a disturbing film that will haunt you. I don’t think it’s quite as good a subversion of the genre as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, which I saw at TIFF 2017 (coincidentally, on the digital Q&A, they bring in Fargeat to ask a couple of questions – and it just made me angrier we have yet to see a follow-up from her yet) – but it’s another interesting, female led version of the controversial sub-genre.

I saw more docs than usual this TIFF – they were more on offer on the digital screenings. Undeniably the most visually stunning of these was Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi) – which admirers of his last film, the Oscar nominated Fire at Sea will likely admire as well. That film was about the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first place in Europe that migrants coming via boat land – the tragedy that unfolds there, and how the residents are basically just going about their lives. Notturno is visually similar – this time, it takes place on the border cities on the war torn Middle East. It isnt really about living during wartime, but rather the long tail of living through war – the trauma suffered, etc. The film is gorgeous – but you really do feel Rosi is staging these shots for maximum impact. You also feel uncomfortable at times – sometimes Rosi intends you to, and sometimes it’s just because you feel you shouldn’t be watching this, and Rosi shouldn’t be there (in particular, the scenes involving children reliving their trauma, that perhaps shouldn’t be fodder for a movie). Still, it’s undeniably beautiful, and stirring emotionally – but it’s not quite Fire at Sea.

The most traditional of the doc offerings I saw was MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard) is a fascinating documentary that basically tracks all the work the FBI did to track Martin Luther King during his years as a Civil Rights Activist. The film lets you know up front that more documents and especially recordings related to this surveillance will be released in 2027 – and although you kind of think that perhaps this film should have waited until then, rather than to have as much speculation as it does, the film is still a valuable historical document. In 2020, we have pretty much granted King sainthood, and his adversary here – J. Edgar Hoover – is looked upon far less charitably, so it’s important to remember that King was far from beloved during his lifetime – and not just among racist Southerners, but by nervous white Americans everywhere – in one appearance they literally ask King if he worries that by pushing for “too much, too soon” he will alienate white Americans. He does not. The film is made up of valuable historical footage – and features voiceovers by historians who have studied the record. The film doesn’t shy away from the most explosive aspects of what was apparently on those tapes – King’s extra-martial affairs – but does ask us to remember King, like us all, was human.

In the so strange it has to be seen to be believes category is Enemies of the State (Sonia Kennebeck) – who tells the story Matt Dehart – who was targeted by the FBI and local law enforcement, spent 21 months in prison awaiting trial, where he claimed he was tortured, and then tried to claim asylum in Canada – all because he says he was running servers for Anonymous, and had ties to WikiLeaks. Yet, Dehart’s case that he’s another Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Reality Winner isn’t quite so clear cut – he never actually released any information – he claims when he shut down the server, he made a copy of yet, and sent it to someone in the U.K. – but we don’t actually have physical proof of that. Still, he became a cause célèbre for many – but he was never actually charged with anything related to Wikileaks – he was charged with luring online, and then sexually abusing, minors – and by the end, you’d be hard pressed to claim he’s innocent of those charges – despite the pleas from his parents, who we see throughout the film, and give lots of interviews (Dehart himself was supposed to sit for an interview after his release from prison – but he didn’t show). Kennebeck is obviously inspired by Errol Morris – a producer of this film – and perhaps wears that influence a little too much on her sleeve. Still, it’s a fascinating film, that takes turns you won’t see coming – and generally, looks great.

By far the longest film I watched was City Hall (Frederick Wiseman) – at four hours and thirty-five minutes. The documentary giant – now 91 – has returned with one of his longest films ever – documenting what happens at Boston City Hall – concentrating on Mayor Marty Walsh. Basically, for the entire runtime, we sit through meeting after meeting after meeting – budget meetings, school board meetings, housing meetings, zoning meetings, etc. Does that sound dull? Perhaps, and honestly, the film probably could have been a little shorter. Yet, Wiseman’s point does undeniably become clear here – that government can, and should, work – and it requires a lot of people to make get involved and make it work. Perhaps if we weren’t living in the Trump era, the film could be more easily dismissed as dull. But we don’t have that luxury – and Wiseman’s point is invaluable right now. I don’t know if the film will go down as one of Wiseman’s best – but it is as fascinating as any four and a half hour movie about a major City Hall could possibly be.

It’s easy to see why Venice’s Best Actress prize went to Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman (Kornel Mundruczo). It’s an impressive performance by Kirby, as a woman whose baby dies just moments after birth, and then struggles to deal with it for the rest of the movie – as her marriage (to Shia LaBeouf – another impressive performance) falls apart, her relationship with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) becomes strained because she doesn’t act the way her mother thinks is right. All the performances in the movie are actually quite good – and the birth sequence, which runs about 20 minutes in an unbroken shot, is formally impressive. I do wish that director Kornel Mundruczo would calm down a little bit behind the camera – this is a movie requiring subtlety and sensitivity – and if there’s one thing the director of White God is not, it’s subtle. This one has proven to be divisive – and I’m right in the middle on it.

I was originally going to skip New Order (Michel Franco) – because I saw, and hated, April’s Daughter at TIFF 2017. But this won one of the top prizes at Venice, so I figured I would give it a shot. It’s far better than April’s Daughter – the first half of the movie is actually quite excellent. An upper class wedding in Mexico is interrupted by protests that have been sweeping the city. At the same time, an old family employee shows up unannounced asking for 200,000 pesos so his wife – also an old employee – can have lifesaving surgery. Only the young bride seems to care about this – something will cost her dearly. The setup of the movie is better than the payoff though – the second half sees everything descend into chaos, and will has numerous scenes that are tough to take – and while it’s all impressively staged, and shocking, but it comes at the expense of the characters. Its politics are also a little hard to parse – especially since Franco makes a young, rich woman the most sympathetic character – but I think it’s more about showing how the privileged will also suffer if wealth disparity isn’t solved, and protests turn violent – and totalitarianism takes over – but you got to work to get there.

The best film I saw at TIFF was undoubtedly Nomadland (Chloe Zhao) – which not only confirms the immense talent we saw in The Rider, but sours past it. In the film, Frances McDormand plays a 60-year woman, who basically sees her entire small town decimated when the local factory closes down. A widow, with no kids, now no home, or real job, she lives out of her van – which she has tricked out nicely. She drifts from place to place – working at a Amazon warehouse over Christmas, meeting up with other Nomads in the desert, working at a RV park for a while, or in a restaurant, or picking vegetables, etc. – and then starting the repeat the process over again. Other than McDormand – and fellow nomad, who drops back in as it were played by David Straithairn – the rest of the cast are essentially playing themselves. Zhao picked perfectly when casting McDormand, the type of actress capable of great depths of humanity – this is another one of her very best performances – but also someone who blends right in with the swath of humanity she is in (ditto Straithairn). It is also the TIFF film I most regretted not being able to see on the big screen – the beautiful vistas captured by Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards, makes this one of the beautiful portraits of the American West I have ever seen. It’s also a painfully relevant movie – a portrait of older Americans with few choices in life but to live this way. What it isn’t, in anyway, is poverty porn though. In a COVID-19 world, you cannot help but wonder about them now. It is a subtle, stirring film – clearly one of the year’s best.

And so, that closes the door on another TIFF for me. It wasn’t the same – wasn’t close to the same – to what the experience normally is. But it was probably the best we could expect under the circumstances. I hope to be back to normal screenings in 2021 – but who knows?

Friday, September 11, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Satantango (1994)

Satantango (1994) 
Directed by: Béla Tarr.
Written by: László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr and Mihály Vig & Péter Dobai & Barna Mihók based on by the novel by László Krasznahorkai.
Starring: Mihály Vig (Irimiás), Putyi Horváth (Petrina), László feLugossy (Schmidt), Éva Almássy Albert (Schmidtné), János Dergrazsi (Kráner), Irén Szajki (Kránerné), Alfréd Járai (Halics), Miklós Székely B. (Futaki), Erzsébet Gaál (Halicsné), György Barkó (Iskolaigazgató), Zoltán Kamondi (Kocsmáros), Barna Mihók (Kerekes), Péter Dobai (Százados), András Bodnár (Horgos Sanyi), Erika Bók (Estike), Peter Berling (Orvos), Ica Bojár (Horgosné), István Juhász (Kelemen), Mihály Ráday (Narrator - voice).

There are two types of people in the world – those who think Satantango is a masterpiece, and those who never seen it. This doesn’t mean that everyone should see Satantango because it would instantly be one of their favorite films – far from it. But I think the type of people who won’t like Satantango by the time the first shot ends, that the film isn’t for them, and turn it off. That first shot lasts ten minutes, and focuses on cows. The camera will eventually start slowly panning, following the cows, showing you the very small Hungarian village that the film will take place in, but in the end, the shot is 10 minutes of cows. If you’re bored early in this shot, you should probably just give up – and save yourself the next seven-and-a-half hours it would take to watch the rest of Satantango. Yes, the movie is about more than cows – far more in fact, but in that shot you discover the speed at which director Bela Tarr is going to go for those seven and half hours, the meticulous care he puts into every shot. It’s a film that demands your attention – and most people won’t want to give it that attention. This isn’t a value judgment on people. Most viewers have been conditioned by classic film grammar to expect certain things – and Tarr defiantly doesn’t give you that. The film is not for everyone – it’s not for most people. But if it’s for you, then it’s really for you. And it is a masterpiece.

For a long time, Satantango wasn’t available for home viewing. Tarr has said the film is designed to be seen in one sitting, no breaks, in a movie theatre – and while you can (probably accurately) accuse Tarr of being pretentious on that point, you also have to admit that he is right. This is a slowest burn of a film imaginable, and it builds and builds and builds over those seven hours. Watching it over multiple sittings wouldn’t work as well – you have to get yourself back into the headspace he gets you in with those cows all over again – and perhaps that’s impossible. It now is on DVD – and on the Criterion Channel (where I watched it). And it is glorious.

The film is about a small farming collective in Hungary, and what happens to it as it is slowly destroyed. The destruction is caused by Irmias, who was one of them, but has been presumed dead for months now. Then he and his friend saunter back in one day. The others in the commune don’t know that he has made a deal with a Police Captain from nearby to spy on the collective. He is charming, and good with words, and he will lay the foundation for the slow destruction of the collective.

That is the plot – sort of – although Tarr takes detours on his way there, sowing the seeds of discontent all over. There is a masterful, and almost unbearably painful, sequence that runs nearly an hour – as a little girl slowly tortures her cat to death in order to control something in her life, but then is so racked with guilt, that she walks all night with the dead cat in her arms, before taking her own life. Yeah, it’s that sort of film.

Yes, the film is unremittedly grim. Tarr shoots the film in wonderful, glassy black and white. His shots often last minutes on end – following people as they walk through the trash strewn streets in a windstorm for example, or watching drunken people dance for a long stretch of time. He focuses on their grizzled faces that you only get when you lived a hard life. Is the film nihilistic? Definitely.

And yet, that implies that Satantango is one grim, seven-and-a-half-hour slog that no one could possibly enjoy, doesn’t it? That perhaps the reason why everyone who has sat through Satantango calls it a masterpiece is simply because they sat through a seven-and-a-half film, and if it wasn’t great, then you just wasted all that time didn’t you? It’s true that can happen sometimes – show me a film that runs more than four hours, and I will show you quite a few critics who claim it to be a masterpiece. But while the outlook of the film is grim, and Tarr is certainly earned his place among the “slow cinema” giants for a reason, there is also so much humanity on display in the film. And moments of grim humor.

And the film is enthralling. It really does, as the cliché goes, cast a strange spell over your – enveloping you in this world. The cinematography is among the best in any movie you will ever see. It is every bit the masterpiece people who have seen it claim it to be. You already know if you’re one of those people – because you’ve probably already seen it. If you haven’t, turn it on the Criterion channel just to experience those cows. If you’re enthralled by the end of that shot, strap yourself in for another seven plus hours of it. It is worth the journey.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Movie Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things ***** / *****
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman based on the novel by Iain Reid.
Starring: Jessie Buckley (The Young Woman), Jesse Plemons (Jake), Toni Collette (Mother), David Thewlis (Father), Guy Boyd (Janitor).

If Adaptation proved anything, it’s that no matter what Charlie Kaufman writes, he is going to make it his own. That’s how you get an adaptation of a book about an eccentric orchid hunter, turned into a story about Kaufman struggling to adapt that book, inventing for himself a fictional twin brother, and a story of the author itself. No one else would adapt the book that way – and that’s why it’s brilliant. Kaufman does something similar with Ian Reid’s book I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman stays true – mostly – to the events in the book – which is about a young woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a long car trip to visit her new boyfriend’s parents, even as she is thinking of breaking up with him the whole time. So this isn’t a complete 180 like Adaptation was. But it’s also very clearly not a straight adaptation either. Kaufman gives the entire movie a surreal, almost dreamlike feeling that he slowly turns into a nightmare. The end of the book suggests another connection to Adaptation that I won’t reveal because it would give the game away – but Kaufman takes that and twists it as well. You cannot say that Kaufman didn’t adapt Reid’s novel – he very clearly did. But I’m having a tough time thinking of another example of a filmmaker staying so true to the events of a book, while also completely making it his own (maybe The Shining – but Kubrick changed a lot more about King’s novel than Kaufman does).

The car ride that opens the movie – and last for a good 30 minutes – feels deliberately interminable. As The Young Woman sits in the passenger seat, she is almost in her own world. We hear her thoughts – not just about breaking up with her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) but on many other subjects as well. He keeps interrupting those thoughts with questions, queries, asides – an attempt to make conversation, and like the young woman herself, we constantly feel jerked out her head, and back to this very long, very cold, very snowy car ride.

Things get more unsettled once they are at the farm house. Jake’s parents – played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis – seem like typical, loving parents. A little old fashioned, and not quite with “it” – whatever that is. The mother waves from the window, but then doesn’t come down right away. Jake and The Young Woman go exploring – a traumatic experience from childhood is revealed. They will settle into dinner – and it’s, well strange. And there are other strange happenings as well – The Young Woman’s job and name doesn’t seem consistent from scene to scene – and she’s constantly getting phone calls. Her story about how she met Jake doesn’t completely add up. And why the hell does Kaufman keep cutting away to a high school janitor throughout?

There are, of course, answers to these questions – and Kaufman isn’t going to leave them dangling. His mind may not have the mathematical precision of Christopher Nolan’s, but his films usually do answer the questions they raise – even if they do so in odd ways, which it certainly does here. Yet, for a movie that is so surreal, so much about a mounting unease, that continually shifts under your feet every time you think you have a handle on things, Kaufman, as always, doesn’t take the easy way out on any of them. His characters, even when they seem to inconsistent in the details, are not merely just playthings for him. They have agency, even if they are trapped in this weird film. This is most true of The Young Woman – brilliantly played by Jessie Buckley, who is quickly becoming one of the best actresses around. It almost feels like the creator wants her to be one thing – but she keeps twisting, insisting that she is something else entirely – so much so that eventually the creator also has to admit it.

Buckley’s performance is clearly the best in the film – but that doesn’t mean Plemons, Collette and Thewlis are great as well. Plemons has become a perfect everyman actor – and he’s wonderful at the way he twists that when needed – like in Breaking Bad, where his character is clearly a bad guy, but doesn’t quite realize it – or why others may see him that way. Here, Jake isn’t evil – but there’s something just not quite right there – and Plemons plays it perfectly. Thewlis is just odd here – a seriously underrated actor, he was great in Kaufman’s Anomalisa, and you should see his weirdness in Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour just to see how different it is from the weirdness here. And Toni Collette continues her streak of great performances – where she very definitely makes choices and runs with them.

I find that this review I’m dancing around the ending – which is brilliant, because I want you see it without knowing is coming. Ultimately, Kaufman does answer the questions he is raising. But yet, I fear that saying that will make it sound like a M. Night Shyamalan movie, in which in the end, when all is revealed, you sit back and say “ah-ha”, like you’ve completed a puzzle, and can now put it away and never think of it again. Those type of twist ending are popular – and I think perhaps you could (rightly) accuse the book of being one of those. But in Kaufman’s film, the ending serves to deepen what we’ve seen before – yes, it resolves the “what the hell happened” of it all – but also makes you want to dive back in again, and see it from a different perspective. Because doing so will make it a different experience – perhaps a sadder one, but also perhaps a more profound one. Kaufman has always been good at that – seeming to make one thing, while he’s really making another. I know this is a movie that will frustrate as many as it beguiles – and others will think that the journey isn’t worth the destination. Fair enough. But for me, by the end, the film felt so deeply felt, so deeply personal, and – not quite knowing what this says about me – deeply relatable. If it’s not the best work of Kaufman’s writing or directing career – perhaps that’s just because of how strong most of his work is. It certainly is the year’s best film so far – and a masterwork.

Movie Review: The New Mutants

The New Mutants ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Josh Boone.
Written by: Josh Boone and Knate Lee.
Starring: Maisie Williams (Rahne Sinclair), Anya Taylor-Joy (Illyana Rasputin), Charlie Heaton (Sam Guthrie), Alice Braga (Dr. Reyes), Blu Hunt (Danielle Moonstar), Henry Zaga (Roberto da Costa), Adam Beach (Danielle’s Father), Thomas Kee (Sam’s Father), Colbi Gannett (Young Illyana), Happy Anderson (Reverand Craig), Dustin Ceithamer (Smiling Man).

It should tell you something about how much the studio believed in The New Mutants, that even though it is the final installment in Fox’s X-Men franchise before Disney officially takes over, and it was released a week before Tenet, that everyone still lists Christopher Nolan’s film as the first big movie to come out in theatres since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The film has been oft-delayed, had more than one reshoot, and now that Disney owned it, but didn’t pay to make it, they just dumped it out there – hoping to make a few bucks off it, before putting in their library as just more content. It’s not particularly good – but as someone who suffered through Dark Phoenix last year, I can confidently say at least it’s not that bad.

The film is about a group of five teenage mutants – all of whom have a dark secret involving their powers, when they emerged, and were unable to control them. That’s how they ended up at the remote hospital run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) – who wants them to be able to control their powers better. Her superiors will be happy then - and they will be able to leave. Until then, they are trapped. Reyes is capable of putting a force field around the hospital to prevent escape. No matter what they do, they aren’t going anywhere.

The protagonist of the movie is Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a member of the Cheyenne, who she is told has been wiped out by a tornado – something she remembers in flashes. She doesn’t know what her powers are yet – Reyes is trying to figure them out – but her mutant energy is off the charts. She is stuck with the rest of them in the hospital – kindly Rahne (Maisie Williams), who can transform into a wolf, Kentucky coal miner Sam (Charlie Heaton) who can take off like Superman, the Russian Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is full of surprises that she hides behind her puppet, and Roberto (Henry Zaga), child of the richest family in Brazil, who doesn’t want to reveal his powers. The participate in Cuckoo’s Nest like group therapy sessions, and go on Breakfast Club like adventures around the building when they don’t think Reyes is watching.

The film is clearly setup to be an origin story – so gradually, we will get the tragic backstory of each of the five people, and learn what their powers are. Danielle bonds with Rahne quickly, and just as quickly develops a rivalry with Illyana. Mainly though, they sit around and wait for the climax.

The young, talented cast aren’t really able to do very much with their roles. Mainly, they tell you everything you need to know about them, and drop hints about what is going to happen in the end. For as much talk as there was about this being a horror film, it’s only there in fits and starts. Yes, the Smiling Man is creepy, and a Priest is also creepy – but that’s about as far as it goes. The climax is basically more CGI soup – although thankfully on a smaller scale than normal.

I think The New Mutants could have been an interesting place to take the X-Men – start using some different faces rather than Wolverine, Cyclops, Professor X, Magneto et al that we’ve been watching for 20 years now. I just wouldn’t want this production team to continue the story, as they basically found the least interesting way possible to introduce us to the story. Filmmaker needs to stop looking ahead two or three movies at what they’re going to do in the future, and make the movie they are making now better. The New Mutants doesn’t do that – and its precisely the reason there won’t be any more coming in this series.

Movie Review: Feels Good Man

Feels Good Man **** / *****
Directed by: Arthur Jones.
Written by: Giorgio Angelini and Arthur Jones and Aaron Wickenden based on original artwork by Matt Furie.

What do you do if you’re a mild mannered comics artist, who sees one of your creations adopted by the alt-right, and memed to death, supporting a cause you don’t agree with? If you’re Matt Furie, the creator Pepe the Frog, at first the answer is nothing. Pepe didn’t start his life as an alt-right troll, but as a character in Furie’s Boys Club comic – essentially a riff on post-college malaise, and male friendship. He grew out of that phase of his career, and moved onto others things. As what often happens with these things, Pepe’s journey to the alt-right started slowly – and Furie didn’t really seem to care if some fringe, basement dwellers in a small, dark corner of the internet had appropriated his creation. Besides, what was he supposed to do? It’s up to the artist to go after copyright infringement, and these people weren’t really using Pepe to make money. He just let it go. And in letting in go, he allowed it to get bigger. And by the time he decided to fight back against it, it was too late – and his fight perhaps even made things get worse. Many of the people who love Pepe are trolls – they don’t really believe in much of anything – they just want to get a rise out of you, and if they get it, they’re just keep coming back.

I almost wish the film had spent even more time than it does on the trolls on 4chan who started using Pepe the Frog. The film shows how it happened – how these basement dwellers saw an image of Pepe the Frog, and liked it, so they started using it on their boards. It slowly grew, and soon, the wider internet had adopted Pepe the Frog as well – still not as a symbol of the alt-right, but rather has a cute meme. This infuriated those who first discovered the meme – and going all “I liked that band before they got famous” on it, decided to ruin Pepe the Frog for everyone. You think he’s cute, eh? What if he’s a concentration camp guard gassing Jews? Not so cute now.

This dark corner of the internet needs a fuller exploration. We get a few of them here – who help us see how it all worked, how Trump supporters adopted Pepe, and how eventually the campaign did as well. You get the sense from those the film talks to though that they aren’t really Trump die hards – they’re nihilists. They don’t love Trump – they love that Trump makes so many people angry. And to them, that’s funny, so if they can get Trump to be President, it’s even funnier.

But the way the film goes has its merits as well. It looks at Furie, as he decides he has had enough. His innocent, stoner creation was never meant to be this symbol of hate – it is literally put on the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s list of hate symbols – and so he tries to take it back. First, he tries to kill off Pepe – which didn’t work. Then he tried to get artists to draw Pepe as a symbol of love – they did, but the trolls ruined that as well. Then, he calls a lawyer. You may not be able to sue an anonymous troll in his basement – but you can sue Alex Jones, who uses Pepe to make money.

To be fair, while Furie has made progress, it isn’t likely he’ll ever be able to “take back” Pepe the Frog. As Randall learned in Clerks II, when he tried to take back the phrase “Porch Monkey”, once the cat is out of the bag, it’s out. But he’s trying. And Feels Good Man ends up being a portrait of a nice guy – an artist who saw the worst thing that can happen to your art happen, and decide to do something. Maybe it’s not – but it’s the best he can do.

Movie Reivew: Irresistible

Irresistible ** / *****
Directed by: Jon Stewart.
Written by: Jon Stewart.
Starring: Steve Carell (Gary Zimmer), Rose Byrne (Faith Brewster), Chris Cooper (Jack Hastings), Mackenzie Davis (Diana Hastings), Topher Grace (Kurt), Natasha Lyonne (Tina), Brent Sexton (Mayor Braun).

Throughout the George W. Bush years, and through the beginning of the Barack Obama years, Jon Stewart was a necessarily voice in political discourse. Yes, he was a comedian, and no, young people should not have gotten all their news from him on The Daily Show – but he was a smart, incisive voice – someone capable of cutting through all the crap and the noise, to show you what was going on beneath it. With his new film, Irresistible, his first work of the Trump era, Stewart reveals himself to be almost painfully out of touch. He isn’t alone in this – late night comedians, including those who have followed in his footsteps from John Olivier to Samantha Bee to Trevor Noah to Stephen Colbert don’t really seem to know what to do with Trump. They attack, sure. But they aren’t getting anywhere. But with them, at least, they seem to know that we’re in a different era. If you told me Irresistible was a film Stewart wrote in 2005, and just forgot to make it for 15 years, I would believe you. But it would have seemed quaint even then.

The film stars Steve Carrell as Gary Zimmer, a bigwig at the DNC, who was confident Hilary would win, and is reeling when she loses. He wants the Democrats to reconnect with the heartland – and when he’s shown a video of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a military lifer, given an impassioned, pro-immigrant speech, at the town council meeting in small town Wisconsin, he thinks he has found his avatar – at least a way to prove that Democrats can compete for those white voters in the Rust Belt. He heads to that town to convince Jack to run for Mayor – and he agrees, but only if Jack runs the campaign personally. When it starts to draw some media attention, he is joined by GOP strategist, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), who backs the current Mayor. Soon money is pouring into the race, that takes on national attention.

Stewart, who was always (not entirely incorrectly) accused of preaching to the choir, seems to go out of his way here to paint “both sides” as bad. Yes, Faith is a hypocrite, a huckster, who will tell any lie she feels will get her ahead – Zimmer isn’t any better, except maybe he believes some of the crap he spews – but he spews so much of it, the line gets blurred, and it’s hard to tell.

Stewart seemingly wants to make a new Frank Capra movie here – although with the people Capra usually casts as the bad guys as the main characters. On his show, he never seemed to buy into the “real America” vs. “Coastal Elites” narratives Republicans spew – but he seems to here. The people in this small town just want to make their small town better – and they get no help from people like Gary or Faith. The film will become an indictment about money in politics – and sure, that’s bad, and should be fixed. It’s also not the real problem right now.

So Stewart strands his talented cast with a lot of dialogue they strain to make work. That it succeeds at all is testament to how good Carrell, Cooper and Mackenzie Davis are as actors, and Byrne’s willingness to go wherever the script takes her. But it’s a tired movie – a movie that would have seemed old fashioned when Stewart was on the air. People have pointed out recently that much of what Stewart did on The Daily Show has aged poorly. Perhaps they are right. But that type of comedy is not designed to last – it’s designed for that moment in time. Stewart, unfortunately, seems stuck there.