Recent movie review round-up (second half of 2023)

Right as it seemed the movies were back in a big way, the powers that be in Hollywood screwed up with yet even more poor business decisions and a lengthy strike with two major unions. So even though I’m still going to call this one “second half of 2023” for consistency, most of these movies were released in the first quarter. Which means I’m extra late to getting around to this post.


Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

As the film opens we’ve skipped back to the past with Indiana Jones and his fellow archeologist Basil tracking down the Holy Lance. Instead, they come across half of a dial built by Archimedes which when completed with the other half is said to have the power of predicting “fractures in time.” They nearly lose the dial when chased down by Nazi physicist Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen.)

When the extended flashback ends we’re in present-day 1969 as Jones announces his retirement while the streets outside are preparing for a big parade to celebrate the moon landing. One of the scientists who helped get the rockets to the moon? A certain Jurgen Voller. And what do you know, that very same day Voller is ready to reclaim his Archimedes dial.

There’s something about banking on nostalgia that can make an already dated series feel even more dated. This is a feat that seems almost impossible, since the first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was very much intended as a throwback to the classic adventure films of yesteryear.

Part of the problem with nostalgia is it’s difficult to break new ground when you keep dwelling on the past. Dial of Destiny keeps running into this problem and solves it the same way: by distracting you with another chase scene. There are so many chase scenes in this movie that even the James Bond writers would balk. 

One of the criticisms of this film is the heavy use of de-aging for the flashback scenes. While I didn’t find it particularly distracting, it’s not quite perfect. Makes you wonder why they didn’t just cast a younger actor to play a young Indiana Jones like they did before in Last Crusade or in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series. Don’t get me wrong, what they did here was impressive — but unnecessary. Which basically sums up this entire film.

Best moment: Without spoiling anything I thought this one had a fun and unexpected ending.

Rating: 6/10


Past Lives

Whether we want to or not, most of us can’t help but to reminisce about “what if” moments in our past. What if I’d gotten into Oxford? What if I’d been in the car crash that killed my best friend? In the case of this movie, the question is what if I’d married this person instead of that one?

This subtle drama lives in that headspace where we can never truly be certain. In life you either take advantage of an opportunity or you don’t — and there’s no way of really knowing what would have happened if you’d chosen a different path.

Nora aka Na Young (Greta Lee) and her childhood best friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) grew up together in Korea. Years later, they reconnect online as Nora has a new life for herself after moving to the US and settling in New York City. Fast forward again and Hae Sung visits Nora and meets her and her (white, Jewish) husband Arthur (John Magaro.)

Although this film has a romance of sorts and quite a few moments of awkward humor, I would not call it a romcom as it doesn’t fit that format at all. I would categorize it as a drama and a sharply written one at that. This is the most original movie I’ve seen in a long time; it captures a feeling that I think we can all understand but is difficult to explain in words alone.

Best moment: Even though I’ve never been to the country, the depiction of childhood in South Korea felt authentic and somehow familiar.

Rating: 10/10


Tunnel Vision: An Unauthorized BART Ride

What is a movie? Is this one? It kind of seems more like one of those podcasts with video footage. But again, what even is a movie? 

Local aspiring filmmaker Vincent Woo (creator of attached a camera to the front of a BART train and then sort of shoehorned that into a movie with voiceovers. The footage is surprisingly mesmerizing as it’s a view that you’d normally never see unless you work as a BART train operator. Turns out much of the system is oddly hypnotic from that perspective, especially if you appreciate symmetrical modern architecture.

This movie(?) was screened in San Francisco before being uploaded to watch for free on YouTube.

Best moment: The footage of the Transbay Tube was the most interesting part to see from the operator’s perspective.

Rating: Full disclosure: I own a collectable piece of the original BART system manufactured by Rohr so I’m probably biased. But I still have no idea how to rate something as unconventional as this.


Close to Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer was a 17th century Baroque painter, best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring. Although he’s a widely appreciated artist today and often mentioned in the same breath with his contemporaries such as Rembrandt, in his time he was relatively obscure. He’s thought to have had no formal training and it’s believed only 34 of his paintings still exist, though a dozen or so more are in dispute.

Closer to Vermeer is a documentary about experts at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum traveling to other museums to borrow their Vermeer works to create an exposition of his paintings. Along the way we meet many other experts — one gets the feeling there are more Vermeer experts than actual paintings — who use both science along with analysis of technique and composition to pick out which paintings are his and which are forgeries.

Despite all the theories explored in the film, a large part of the attraction is looking at his paintings up close on the big screen. In real life his paintings are about the size of an iPad yet they still appear detailed when blown up larger than life on a movie screen. 

At merely 80 minutes this documentary goes by surprisingly fast. If I had one small gripe it’s that I would have liked to know more about how disagreements of authorship of a painting typically work in the art world. From this movie alone it seems based primarily on hunches and shaky evidence, but is that normal, or is that simply because we know so little about Vermeer himself?

Best moment: The behind the scenes moments where we get an inside look at how museum exhibits are laid out and physically assembled.

Rating: 8/10


Asteroid City

There’s a big movie recently from a famous director about a nuclear bomb, and somehow this isn’t that one. No, this is the Wes Anderson movie that is certainly about a nuclear bomb, or maybe a science fair, or an alien encounter. Or maybe it’s about car repair?

Somehow Wes Anderson’s “pop-up book” style has become almost a parody of itself, with every shot being a tracking or crane shot, or a miniature. Or all of the above. Asteroid City leans pretty heavily into this style.

I want to say Wes Anderson is “the NPR of movies” but I’m not really sure what that means. It feels right, though.

Now I have to rank on a curve here, but I will say that this is easily one of the funniest movies from Wes Anderson despite an uneven story. The scenes with Jeffrey Wright in particular both feel like they’re too ridiculous to work, and yet they’re too ridiculous for me to care. I guess I laughed either way.

Maybe the silliest moment was Bryan Cranston showing up in a scene only to forget if he was supposed to be there or not.

Best moment: “Let’s say she’s in Heaven… which doesn’t exist for me, of course, but you’re Episcopalian.”

Rating: 6/10



The biggest, longest, and loudest movie of the year, Oppenheimer tells the story of the “father of the atomic bomb,” Robert Oppenheimer. Recruited based on his experience with quantum theory, he was put in charge of the project and given enormous leeway to finish the project before the Nazis or Soviets built one of their own. After the war he was practically blacklisted due to his alleged communist sympathies.

We see and hear in a very abstract sense what Oppenheimer is thinking and feeling throughout the movie, both from close up shots of his face and a sort of “bubble field” that seemingly also represents the quantum world.

If ever there was a movie that made sense being big and loud it’s this one; ideally in a giant IMAX theater with its earthquake-inducing sound system. Yet at the same time, the movie completely hinges on Cillian Murphy’s nuanced performance as Oppenheimer.

I think at three hours, if I was going to cut something down it would be the scenes about his rather chaotic love life, which don’t add much to the movie. If the point of those scenes is to make the audience feel a sense of humanity in the guy it falls flat. But you know what this lengthy movie really needs? An intermission — especially when theaters insist on selling bucket-sized sodas.

Best moment: Niels Bohr: “We have to make the politicians understand, this isn’t a new weapon, it is a new world.”

Rating: 8/10



As a boy growing up, when I played with girls sometimes I had to play with the Ken doll. Which was always boring because it was clear he was a side character; Barbie was the one with the different jobs and playhouses. Ken was just… well Ken, with his blank empty expression.

There’s been some discussion as to how this movie relates to feminism, but I think that’s irrelevant to the greater point: it’s a comic send up about the way we perceived these dolls as children. Our knowledge of sex and gender at around four years old was so limited the only thing we really understood was that these dolls were missing some parts between their legs.

The cast of Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken might not seem like the most obvious choices but when pitted against veteran comedy actors like Rhea Perlman, Will Ferrell, Kate McKinnon, etc. they rise to the occasion as the sort of sketch comedy “guest stars” that the script calls for. And who knew that Ryan Gosling could sing and dance?!

This film is a masterclass in trolling its audience. Perhaps its greatest achievement is its production design, which takes Hollywood’s default plasticky fake look and simply dials it up a notch to make everything look like Barbie doll houses.

Best moment: “I’m just Ken and I’m enough, and I’m great at doing stuff.”

Rating: 9/10


Glitch: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia

HQ Trivia was the live game show you played on your phone. It came out of the ashes of short video app Vine, which was acquired and then shut down by Twitter.

This documentary from CNN chronicles the rise and fall of the company, with a much greater emphasis on its fall — a shock considering the games were regularly attracting millions of players. Self included: I made a total of around $25 from the dozen or so games I won.

A surprising amount of insight comes not from the behind-the-scenes people, but from the show’s original main host Scott Rogowsky.

I think the main issue with this documentary is that it won’t appeal to those who weren’t fans, or at least those who never tried playing HQ Trivia. But the almost unforgivable problem is we never hear from HQ founders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll. (Kroll died of a drug overdose in 2018.) This seems unfair as there’s nobody to respond to the allegations lobbed against them.

The documentary addresses the constant glitching of the app, the numerous HQ Trivia copycats, and the repeated falling out between the founders. Unfortunately it ends before explaining what happened when Yusupov briefly re-launched the app before shutting it down for good.

Best moment: The clip of a woman jumping up and down and screaming after winning a comically small amount of money.

Rating: 4/10


CatVideoFest 2023

Everyone loves cat videos, which is not only why this annual festival exists, it’s also (allegedly) why the internet exists.

While these short video festivals are only available in theaters, that’s also kind of the point: it exists to raise money for local animal shelters. You could donate some money to your local cat rescue organization and spend an hour or two watching cat videos on YouTube and get almost exactly the same experience, but this is curated and you’re watching along with other people.

So if this piques your interest and it’s available in your area, why not check it out? It will probably be back next summer as usual.

Best moment: If I have to pick just one, it would have to be the loud and obnoxious music video from a guy who simply wants to hug his cat. Cats of course notoriously hate being hugged.

Rating: 10/10



Donya, a young Afghan refugee moved to Fremont, California and has a job writing fortunes for a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco. She consults a psychiatrist (Gregg Turkington) to help with her insomnia, but he’s too easily distracted to offer meaningful help.

Meanwhile, egged on by a friendly co-worker and an older man who works at a restaurant, she tries dating and winds up driving all the way to Bakersfield in an attempt to go on a blind date.

This unusual indie comedy takes place here in the Bay Area, but it’s not about the Bay Area. It’s more about the absurdity of life itself. With unusual characters and plenty of long, awkward pauses, this is the kind of film that will appeal to anyone who likes comedy that tends more towards the understated than the abrasive. 

I’m told the interior shots of the fortune cookie factory were filmed at a real fortune cookie factory across the bay in Oakland. 

Best moment: The psychiatrist casually implying that he doesn’t have any friends.

Rating: 6/10


Cade: The Tortured Crossing

I watched this movie at an Alamo Drafthouse, where the defining feature is that the audience is supposed to be quiet. In spite of that, I couldn’t help myself from shouting “what the fuck?” numerous times during this insanely insipid movie.

This is a Neil Breen film. And the strangest thing about Neil Breen films is that he’s been making these movies for almost 20 years while seemingly learning absolutely nothing about the filmmaking process. They all look like those full motion video games from the mid 90’s.

The plot of this movie allegedly has something to do with a humanoid AI rescuing people from a corrupt mental hospital. But if you somehow watched this movie and didn’t figure that out, I couldn’t blame you.

Perhaps the most baffling thing about this movie is that it was shown in theaters at all.

As terrible as the trailer above may seem it doesn’t include the most ridiculous scene in the movie in which Breen gets into a fight with a poorly rendered CGI tiger — and wins.

Best moment: “The only way to find out what is possible is to go beyond what is impossible.”

Rating: 0/10, but in a funny way


Dream Scenario

Biology professor Paul Matthews (Nic Cage) isn’t a particularly memorable person… until he starts appearing in people’s dreams. Unprepared for his sudden fame he hires a questionable PR agent (Michael Cera) who offers vague promises of a Sprite sponsorship. Yet ultimately Matthews’ inability to control his fame becomes his downfall. These are other people’s dreams, after all.

Or at least that’s the surface level plot. I’m not sure I could even explain all the twists and turns the story takes but the movie is more interested in the increasing absurdity of the situation than filling in all the details.

Although this is a very funny movie, it’s also a bit uneven and some of the humor maybe goes a bit over the top by the end. Still, if you’re looking for something off kilter it may be just for you.

Oh and if any of this sounds familiar, it’s not from your dreams — the story is loosely based on a viral internet hoax.

Best moment: The awkward, lingering smile between Cage’s and Cera’s characters is somehow funnier than any line of dialog could ever be.

Rating: 7/10