It seems like it had been been ages since I set foot inside any type of live venue, but since my last movie review roundup I have started seeing movies in theaters again. Specifically at my local Alamo Drafthouse, which follows San Francisco’s strict vaccination requirements. I saw about half of these at that theater and the other half at home.
So let’s get into it: my reviews of the movies I watched in the second half of 2021.
Dune: Part One
Just like Burning Man, almost everyone forgets that the novel Dune came out of San Francisco’s late 1960’s hippie ideology. And with both there’s politics, drugs, and some unusual ideas about religion/witchcraft all filtered through a psychedelic lens. Also, both involve a lot of sand.
How do you take a long, almost impenetrably complex story and distill it into one movie? It turns out you quietly add “part one” to the title and end it abruptly. Sort of a bait and switch, though I’m not sure how anyone could squeeze an extremely dense 600 page novel into a two and a half hour film.
I don’t feel the need to comment on the story because you’ve had what, like 50 years to read it? In that time it’s also already been adapted for film, television, video games, and comics.
The short version of this part of the story is that House Atreides is selected to be the new operator of the most valuable planet in the universe, a harsh desert planet called Arrakis. Paul Atreides, son of the Duke, has been trained in various skills… including one he technically shouldn’t have been.
What I will say is this is a film that captures the scope of the novel both in the story and in its physical universe. At the same time though between the real footage and the stunningly realistic visual effects, the most distracting thing to me is that the actors’ faces are never covered in sweat when they’re on a hot desert planet.
The cliffhanger (or perhaps just “hanger”?) ending is a double edged sword here. On the one hand it more or less completes the journey of Paul Atreides to the midpoint of the story, but I have no idea if this will make audiences want to see the sequel or leave the theater scratching their heads.
Best moment: The way The Voice is portrayed when the Reverend Mother uses it on Paul.
Rating: 8/10 (Caveat: I’ve read the novel.)
As a Child Of Deaf Adults (or CODA) Ruby is the only hearing person in her family. They don’t understand her love of music and they’re not well adapted into the hearing society around them. The father works on a fishing boat barely making ends meet with the help of his family.
When Ruby joins her school choir it exacerbates the rifts between her and her family. In an unexpected twist on your typical coming of age drama, Ruby’s deaf family has to learn how to adapt to her.
While I understand Ruby’s core struggle, I don’t really buy her family’s reluctance toward her interest in music. The drama feels like too much of a manufactured conflict to me. Yes, the family “translator” is growing up and leaving the nest with a talent her family will never be able to appreciate, but first of all it’s totally normal to appreciate a loved one’s interests even if you’re not a fan, and second they were clearly getting by before Ruby was born.
The one thing this movie absolutely nails is the casting. Ruby’s older brother and parents are portrayed by deaf actors. Ruby is portrayed by Emilia Jones, a teenage actor. Every member of the cast is pretty much perfect for their role.
Best moment: Learning the heartbreaking reason Ruby was scared to audition.
No Time to Die
I guess the James Bond I technically “grew up with” was Pierce Brosnan. Thing is, after GoldenEye all those movies were such a letdown.
So when Daniel Craig showed up in Casino Royale with a new spin on Bond as a vulnerable character whose job was slowly taking its toll on him, I was ready to give the Bond movies another chance. For the most part I’ve enjoyed what I’ll call the “Craig-Bond” movies.
No Time To Die opens with what’s arguably a prequel to the Craig-Bond movies before jumping to the modern day where Bond has finally retired and settled down with his new lover. If that sounds ominous, congratulations: you remember the end of Casino Royale.
This movie tries to pack in a lot in order to conclude the Craig-Bond era. It has to do three things to succeed:
- Follow directly from the previous movie, Spectre.
- Tell a new Bond story with at least one new antagonist.
- Get the last word in on all the Craig-Bond characters and stories and go out with a bang.
Normally if I had to categorize these I’d argue the first one is the biggest problem: the events of Spectre were too large to ignore, even though it was a critically panned movie (personally I loved Spectre despite its idiotic plot twist.) The third item is also a challenge since wrapping things up naturally while nodding back to the past can take on a clip show vibe too easily.
Alas, I was wrong: the part that doesn’t work here is the typical Bond saves the day story. The villain’s goal is sort of a challenge to pinpoint and worse yet it involves something the writers obviously didn’t see coming: the plan involves a large scale bio weapon attack. Suddenly it’s obvious why this was one of the first movies delayed by COVID-19.
The other problem is its length. At nearly three hours it feels like a long goodbye at times. If I were to edit it down I think I’d cut down several of the action sequences, especially the long gun fight sequence near the end.
As an overall fan of the Craig-Bond era I appreciated the thoughtful approaches to concluding the main character arcs. While I won’t defend every narrative choice in these films, the overall themes of betrayal and death that have permeated the era get a satisfying end.
Best moment: M reading a classic Jack London quote at the end. Weird choice but it totally fits, particularly given their seemingly shared views on eugenics.
The French Dispatch
It’s impossible to describe a Wes Anderson movie without acknowledging that it’s a Wes Anderson movie. You kind of know what you’re going to expect: lots of scenes that spring to life like an automaton, a distinct color palette, and a cast of quirky actors like Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, and Bill Murray. But this movie has a specific visual trick up its sleeve: with its setting in France, it leans heavily into the look of French New Wave cinema — and French animation.
The movie covers three stories, each from a writer at a New Yorker-style magazine written by Americans living in France. Briefly, the first concerns an incarcerated painter, the second about a student revolution, and the third covers an extremely unlikely kidnapping. Each story is presented by the fictional writer behind the piece, and bookended by the events in the editor’s room at the offices of The French Dispatch.
Though it’s kind of challenging to review an anthology movie like this, I’d say anyone who enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel or Anderson’s other recent films should check this one out. Personally I thought this was much funnier than Grand Budapest.
For some reason this movie only opened at 55 theaters nationwide, and the one I went to was sold out four nights in a row, if not more.
Best moment: The whole kidnapping sequence.
Estranged daughter and grandchildren of deceased Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (RIP Harold Ramis) are forced to move out of their NYC apartment and into Egon’s old farm in the middle of nowhere. Soon, they find themselves restoring his crazy technology and capturing ghosts.
Although Egon’s granddaughter Phoebe is the heart of the movie, her smart but ridiculous summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd, perfectly cast in this role) somehow serves as both the only living person who remembers the events from the original two movies and serves as the main source of comedy.
How do you make a sequel to a movie like 1984’s Ghostbusters? It’s a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Ghostbusters II was largely panned when it came out, partly for being too similar to the original. The 2016 reboot, well… not great. Afterlife takes a unique approach, although it does bank too heavily on nostalgia at times.
I think there’s basically one problem with making a sequel to Ghostbusters, and it’s a big one: nobody knows why the first movie works as well as it does, it’s a classic “lightning in a bottle” situation.
Oh and to add to the confusion, a whole generation of us grew up with a cartoon show called The Real Ghostbusters. That show was made for a significantly younger audience in mind, muddying the waters about the target audience for a movie with sex jokes and tobacco use.
All of which is to say, I think it was wise for Afterlife to take a sharp turn and focus on a new set of characters in a very different environment to start with a clean-ish slate. This seems to be the general template for new follow ups to old movies, aka the “legacy sequel.”
The big problem with this movie is it just isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. Most of the attempts at humor land with a thud. I’m not sure if it’s the script’s fault or if some of the parts are simply miscast. Certainly none of the main characters here match Bill Murray or Dan Akroyd at the height of their comedy careers.
Best moment: Anytime Paul Rudd is on screen.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
I’m not a big fan of comic book movies, and I’ll admit I watched this one entirely because it’s partially set in San Francisco.
Shaun/Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his friend Katy (comedian Awkwafina) are perfectly cast as coworkers at the valet stand at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill.
The “set in San Francisco” side of the movie is a mixed bag. On the one hand the establishing shots are pretty generic, but on the other the Chinese characters in the movie live in the Richmond District instead of the obvious choice of Chinatown. And that’s totally accurate — there are cultural enclaves all over the city and in the Richmond in particular where you might walk across the street from a Russian neighborhood and find yourself in a Chinese neighborhood. So thumbs up to the location scouting there.
On the other hand, what sort of kills the local theme is a fight on a “San Francisco Transit” bus (I guess Muni is a trademark?) which takes an unexpectedly fast route from Noe Valley to the Stockton Tunnel to Ghirardelli Square. This would be unforgivable if it weren’t such a memorable and well choreographed fight sequence.
That’s the main problem with Shang-Chi: it’s pretty fun when it’s a Kung Fu movie, but by the end it’s yet another big, poorly done CGI battle where you can’t really tell what the stakes are, let alone what’s happening on the screen. I get the distinct feeling they ran over budget on this one and just had to throw an ending together quickly.
Best moment: All the hand-to-hand combat scenes are incredibly well done. Too bad there aren’t more of them.
Last Night In Soho
Fashion design student Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) moves from rural England to London to continue her education. She clearly doesn’t fit in with the big city crowd, and her supernatural visions are beginning to interfere in her new friendships.
Everything seems (relatively) normal until Ellie moves out of the dorms and into her own apartment. That’s when her visions really become troubling.
Suddenly, everything skips back to the 1960’s (or does it?) and Ellie meets a woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) who’s nearly her doppelganger, albeit a much more confident one. Sandie is somehow involved with a creepy man named Jack (Doctor Who’s Matt Smith.) These “time jumps” become increasingly blurred, terrifying, and chaotic.
Pretty much everything here works, especially the music and visuals — the psychedelic visuals against the streets of London look like something from a Hitchcock-meets-Argento thriller. Without spoiling anything the big reveals at the end were shocking and absolutely not what I expected.
Unlike most of today’s movies where the pacing lulls in the middle, Last Night In Soho is more of a slow burn. Personally I like that better, but I can also see how some people might check out after the first 30 minutes if they don’t feel invested right away.
I have to praise Matt Smith for this one. Despite being a friendly familiar face, he’s absolutely terrifying here. Really got under my skin.
Best moment: When Ellie breaks through to Sandie.
The Matrix Resurrections
Of all the “legacy sequel” films (see also: Ghostbusters: Afterlife) not many interrogate what that legacy even means… except for this one.
Our hero Thomas Anderson/Neo is back, and is now under the belief that his previous memories came from a video game series he created called “The Matrix Trilogy.” Suddenly their parent company is going to make a new Matrix game, with or without them. Hey, meta commentary on why this movie was made! And if that wasn’t enough, a returning character even threatens to make a spinoff.
The problem with this movie is basically everything else.
First, there are so many scenes from the original Matrix movie that it seems like a rehash. It’s arguably worse than Star Wars: The Force Awakens because at times it straight up splices footage from the first film in instead of coming up with an excuse to recreate those scenes.
Second, the original Matrix trilogy started exploring pitfalls with the concept of simulation theory but that all seems to have been swept aside here in favor of further exploring the side characters. It’s just not compelling storytelling when the core of the story is largely ignored.
My biggest issue though are some of the fight sequences. Even at its worst the original trilogy had absolutely immaculate fight sequences. In this movie they’re very hit or miss, with the massive miss of the train fight. That entire sequence looks like something from a straight-to-video movie staring Steven Seagal. Yes, it’s that bad.
The strangest thing about this movie is that it was released at all when it’s clearly a middle finger to the studio and intended to slam the door shut on the franchise. But oddly that’s the most satisfying thing about the movie — it’s completely confident in its lack of ambition in extending a story that’s already been done to death.
Best moment: “Are memories turned into fiction any less real? Is reality based in memory nothing but fiction?”