Sometimes it’s difficult to say if there’s a theme to the movies that came out recently versus if there’s a theme to the movies you chose to watch. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Looking back at the past six months of movies I’ve watched, it’s been a blend of nostalgia, oddball comedy, and horror.
Now as always I’m focusing on movies that came out in the past few months. But this time I’m also including a bonus feature: an older movie that I recently saw in theaters for a second time. Read on to the end to find out what it is.
The chef (Ralph Fiennes) of a pretentious fine dining establishment has invited a dozen guests to participate in his new menu. The secret ingredient? Everyone has to die.
This horror comedy mocks the gap between the wealth of customers who can afford to waste money on courses such as a nearly empty plate of “breadless bread” vs. the working class wage slaves making this stuff in the kitchen. But it goes deeper than that.
No matter what type of art, there’s a relationship between creators and consumers that can get tenuous or even resentful at times. The Menu takes that fractured dynamic and brings it to its logical (and bloody) conclusion.
The frantic pacing of the movie makes it fun to watch, though I’ll admit I missed a couple of key points on my first viewing. I thought the humor worked for the most part, with the caveat that some of the restaurant’s dishes aren’t ridiculous enough.
Best moment: The desert, of course.
The power plants (they are literally plants) are losing power and nobody can figure out why. It’s up to Searcher Clade to get to the bottom of this, along with his son Ethan. On the journey they run into Searcher’s father/Ethan’s grandfather Jaeger, an adventurer who left town to explore the mountains and never returned.
The story is strongest when it sticks to the relationships between these three generations of characters. Unfortunately like so many of these movies, the story devolved into a generic environmental cautionary tale that’s been done better a thousand times before.
What is interesting about this movie is that by making Ethan the main character, it’s skewing more towards a tween audience than your typical Disney fare. I suspect some scenes might be too scary for younger kids.
Overall I feel frustrated by this movie. It starts strong and I like the characters, but the story kind of crumbles when it should be reaching its zenith. Maybe another draft or two could have elevated this from a pretty good movie to a really good movie.
Best moment: The self-referential jab at the lack of villains in a board game, which is a little wink at those who have lamented the lack of traditional villains in modern Disney movies.
There’s a bear, and that bear is on cocaine. Turns out to be a problem for people who don’t want to be mauled by a drug-crazed bear.
This is the type of campy movie that is very upfront with its silly concept. Unfortunately the writers seemingly kept coming up short and threw ideas at the wall to see what sticks, but none of them do.
Basically we have some drug dealers, police, park rangers, and kids skipping school all wandering through the woods, and all encountering one another — as well as the cocaine bear.
These story threads don’t have much holding them together. I think it would have been much, much funnier if the story was more focused. As it is, it feels almost like Snakes on a Plane but without Samuel L. Jackson’s character to save the day from the “motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.”
Best moment: Whenever the “bear” is on the screen it’s hard not to laugh at how fake it looks. Perhaps that’s the real comedy here.
Sports movies are not my thing. They typically all follow the same formula where someone or some team has to overcome an obstacle, they succeed, and then there’s a feel-good ending. This movie kind of follows that formula except with one key difference: it’s about the business of sports rather than the game.
Sonny (Matt Damon) is a middle aged talent scout at Nike in 1984, attempting to recruit talented young basketball players to promote a company that — at the time — was only known for running shoes. His colleagues don’t think they have a chance of beating Converse and Additas, and Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) is considering scrapping their basketball division.
Feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, Sonny decides to gamble it all on a promising young basketball player and even design a new line of shoes around him. The player? Michael Jordan.
The movie is a fairly well written lighthearted dramedy. Although not all the jokes landed for me, most of the heavy lifting in the comedy department came from Chris Tucker, Jason Bateman, and Ben Affleck’s bad wig. I didn’t even know Ben Affleck had a sense of humor but he directed this movie. Maybe he should wear bad wigs more often.
Best moment: I’m going to cheat here say the art direction — everything captures the looks and sounds of the 80’s perfectly.
Smoking Causes Coughing
This French dark comedy opens with a family on a road trip listening to a song on the radio about God smoking Cuban cigars. They pull over so the boy in the family can pee, but as soon as he steps out of the car he witnesses an epic battle: the Tobacco Force fighting a guy in a cheap rubber monster costume.
The Tobacco Force is basically like the Power Rangers if they were all a little too old and had the power of tobacco smoke, whatever that means. The group’s chief is an ugly rat puppet that is somehow constantly drooling green slime.
After the opening fight, the chief sends the Tobacco Force on a team building retreat in the woods. At the retreat they exchange violent scary stories with one another and a few random visitors.
Now it’s completely fair to say this movie has no plot whatsoever, and that nothing really happens. But it commits so *hard* to not making any sense with one ridiculous twist after another that I couldn’t help but to giggle
My only criticism is the scary story segments, which were too predictable and didn’t match the wild tone of the rest of the movie. I would have liked those to be a little shorter so we could spend more time with the Tobacco Force.
Best moment: When the team is spooked by a noise in the dark, one of them suggests it could be “a pervert spying on us, jerking off.”
You already know the story of Dracula, right? Well good because this movie pretty much jumps right in, with Dracula’s tireless servant Renfield moving the vampire to New Orleans before enrolling himself in an support group for people in toxic relationships.
This is one of the funniest “B movies” I’ve seen in a while. The casting is a big part of it. Renfield is played by Nicholas Hoult, he makes friends with a cop played by Akwafina, they fight a gangster played by the nerdy and ineffectual Ben Schwartz, and Count Dracula is played by (who else?) Nicholas Cage.
The movie breezes by so quickly you might not even notice the homage to Bella Lagosi or the throne surrounded by medical blood bags. But it’s all there — this is a clever, fun movie made by people who are clearly having a good time with the monster movie material they’re working with.
Normally, Nicholas Cage has too much of a screen presence to work as part of an ensemble cast but in this case everyone seems to be aware of the fact that they’re in a movie where Nicholas Cage is Dracula and behave accordingly.
My only criticism of the movie would be the fight scenes, which are fun enough to watch but look much lower budget than the rest of the movie.
Best moment: “Did I just watch you chop off a guy’s arms with a decorative serving platter?”
Hollywood often lets the words “based on” do a lot of heavy lifting in the phrase “based on a true story.” This is one of those movies.
Before I rag on it too much I should point out that it gets one thing right: what makes the backstory behind Tetris interesting is how it was developed in the Soviet Union and escaped the iron curtain through confusing licensing agreements.
What doesn’t work is all the soap opera drama, the over-the-top Soviet stereotypes, and… a car chase? If it had ended with the Berlin Wall turning into Tetris blocks and crashing down I wouldn’t have rolled my eyes any harder.
It’s one thing to not let the facts get in the way of a good story, but the story behind Tetris is interesting on its own and doesn’t need embellishment. Go watch a documentary about it or something instead of this.
Best moment: The scenes early on at Nintendo.
Beau is Afraid
Let me trade in all my hipster points right off the bat as I admit I’ve never seen a film from Ari Aster before. Perhaps as a result, I have no idea what to make of this movie, let alone how to review it.
Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) is a guy with some psychological problems and is prescribed a new drug. What he’s suffering from is not clearly defined, but given that the movie is presented from his perspective and the hilariously balls-to-the-walls level of violent crime happening both inside and outside of his home, I think it’s pretty safe to assume he’s suffering from paranoid delusions.
There’s no way I could describe the plot of this movie, if there even is one, so I’ll sum it up by saying that Beau tries to visit his mom but fails to do so because she winds up dead. Maybe.
Something is a bit lost in the execution of this movie; while it excels at dark humor, it’s far too long at nearly three hours. Without spoiling anything the last quarter or so of the movie feels like it could have cut down significantly. Aster himself describes the film as a “nightmare comedy” which feels about right. Although nightmares in real life are mercifully not this long.
Maybe this is a strange thing to say, but I like this movie conceptually a lot more than I enjoyed viewing it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing? It does make it tricky to recommend.
Best moment: “Am I dead?”
Rating: 5 to 7/10 (this one needs a sliding scale)
Ah, the mid 90’s, a time when technology was changing so rapidly it was tough to keep up. 3D graphics, the internet, and of course cell phones all became available to home users at a reasonable price point.
Although I’m not quite sure what qualifies as the first smartphone, this movie follows a tiny Canadian startup called Research In Motion as it unveils their first early smartphone: the BlackBerry.
That’s where this movie is at its strongest: presenting the rise of the BlackBerry through a relatively straightforward dramedy as a group of hapless nerds is forced to get serious when they bring on an abrasive new CEO who’s desperate to prove his worth and make the company profitable.
The problem is that the movie doesn’t end with the rise of RIM/BlackBerry. Instead it continues on to show us the fall, which is a story that’s already been told countless times. Worse yet it’s not even an interesting story, but rather the old tale of the “innovator’s dilemma” where a company rests on their laurels instead of trying to get ahead, and ultimately winds up far behind. And we all know where this story heads with Steve Jobs coming out on stage and introducing the iPhone.
Ultimately this movie banks heavily on nostalgia for a certain era of technology, and as a member of the audience you either relate to that nostalgia or you don’t. But let’s be honest: all those early smartphones were slow and buggy as hell. If you miss that era, you probably don’t remember it very well.
Best moment: For me it was the nostalgia of the video games they’re playing (Command & Conquer: Red Alert in particular) as well as the subtle nods to id Software throughout the movie.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
To celebrate the day we humans made/will make contact with aliens for the first time on April 5th, 2063 I watched this movie in a theater on April 5th, 2023. That’s 27 years since I saw this movie when it was new in theaters, or to put it another way it’s a mere 40 years until we develop warp drive and the Vulcans show up!
Trekkies love debating over which is the best Star Trek movie, but I think most would agree that First Contact is easily the best of the movies based on The Next Generation television series.
Although the time travel storyline is largely played for laughs, the enemy is what makes this movie work: the Borg. The Borg are humanoids like you and I who have been forcibly modified with cybernetic implants that make them part of a hive mind.
From the moment humans first created tools, I suspect we’ve had nightmares that our creations might turn on us. The Borg is a terrifying manifestation of this nightmare with cybernetic implants turning any and all of us into meat puppets. With all the worries about AI these days, the Borg are perhaps more terrifying now than ever.
Now there seem to be two main criticisms of this movie: first, Captain Picard becomes too much of an action hero; and second, the Borg Queen doesn’t make much sense. I think both of these criticisms are valid but also flawed.
Picard does not try to become some action hero out of nowhere. We know he was partially affected by Borg implants in the past and this greatly colors his view of them in the present, with his uncharacteristic win-at-all-costs attitude. We also see him slowly break down, becoming more of a tragic figure by the end; he’s become captain Ahab and the Borg are his white whale.
The Borg Queen is obviously a plot device to give a face to a collective. Although her character was invented for this movie, the concept of her character does line up with the Borg’s ant-like or perhaps bee-like behavior we’ve seen in the past. She’s also such a great foil for Commander Data that it’s difficult to complain much.
There are only a handful of Star Trek movies that I think even non-fans would enjoy and this is one of them; the story is largely self-contained and some well timed flashbacks and quick expository dialog fill in the rest.
Best moment: “And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek?”