- The Oscars are this Sunday. Did you know that? Do you care I understand if you don’t. 2020 was the strangest year for movies in a long time, and the nominee for best picture with the biggest mainstream buzz is likely “Nomadland,” which is as little mainstream as it gets. Even so, there are plenty of good to great nominated films like “Minari” and “Sound of Metal” that deserve your attention. I would try to see these this weekend if you can and then tune in to see if they can create the surprise.
- Martin Scorsese’s next film, Killers of the Flower Moon, has finally started production in Oklahoma. The film is based on David Grann’s (award-winning) non-fiction book of the same name, which traces a number of murders in the Osage Nation community back to the establishment of the FBI and the events in between. The film will feature Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, and a variety of Native American actors. They film on the land where the events took place and work closely with the Osage Nation leaders to ensure that everything is accurately portrayed. The film is planned for 2022. In related news, I’d like someone to beat me cold with a hammer until the film is released. Many Thanks.
- This week, the trailer for Leos Carax’s new film “Annette” hit social media. The film, which will open this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a musical drama starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and it seems literally and figuratively to be going to some rather strange places. But I really need everyone who watches the trailer for the driver’s accent unlike I’ve ever heard a person speak. His line, which I read early in the trailer for “Schnell und weit”, stayed in my head all week.
- I apologize again for the gap between binge blog rates. There won’t be any next week (vacation!), But hopefully after that there should be a normal schedule again. To make up for the lost time, my tips today are insanely good, I promise.
“The Empty Man” (2020)
VOD, rated R, 137 minutes
James Badge Dale in “The Empty Man”.
It says a lot about how “The Empty Man” was released that I, an absolute freak who spends more time reading about Da Movies than anyone should, only knew it existed a month ago. And I didn’t discover it existed until one of my following letterboxd verified it by essentially saying, “Why are people throwing this away? It’s good.” Of course, I immediately read more reviews and the vast majority were average to poor. I think it had a 2.6 out of 5 star rating on the website at the time – and anything below 3 is generally a big red flag. It seemed like this thing was unceremoniously dumped by 20th Century Studios for a reason.
But I was intrigued. It was a movie from a first-time director (but a longtime Hollywood guy) in David Prior. It features James Badge Dale, a classic underrated guy who always does a good job, even if the projects he’s on are either bad or good, but no one sees them. (I’ll never forget you, “Rubicon”.) And the movie’s elevator area – a township cop investigating the disappearance of a teenager who had come to worship the title character who is something of an urban legend – was pulpy enough to be enticing. I put the film on my watchlist and thought it would be a fun but stupid slasher to see it sometime at 1am.
Then something strange happened: a lot more critics that I like also started playing up “The Empty Man”. And not in a “funny but stupid” way. Like in an “Why the hell don’t you all see this now?” Path. So I fucking looked at it.
Folks, “The Empty Man” rocks.
Get away from that skeleton, sir! It’s bad news!
It’s not what I expected at all. In fact, it’s not a slasher at all. It’s a slow burn into a horror movie where the fear doesn’t usually jump on you so much as it slides down your spine. It is not formulaic and is not thrown together at random to make money quickly. Prior obviously cares about the story he tells, and even starts the film with a 20-minute sequence in Bhutan, which essentially functions as a short of its own. And while the movie’s elevation gain is technically correct, it’s nowhere near all-encompassing. During the 137-minute (!) Running time of the film, “The Empty Man” addresses many ideas, including the dangers of all-encompassing apathy and how easy it is to be manipulated by others when you are unsure of your beliefs. It’s also about the literal and metaphorical bridges we encounter in our lives.
It’s a lot, okay? I didn’t even mention Stephen Root showing up for a scene to utter some philosophical nonsense (right?) That only he could sell. Didn’t mention that the film has one of the best fog / white uses I’ve seen. I didn’t mention that it’s packed full of Easter eggs and metadetails; Those who enjoy going on Wikipedia and Reddit Deep Dives will be stuck in the saliva.
The film dips into a few different subgenres, but part of the fun of seeing “The Empty Man” for the first time is discovering those genres for yourself, so I won’t go into those. But even if I wanted to play the third act of the film, I don’t think I could; So much happens that I only understand 80% of it at most, after thinking about it for weeks. However, I can tell you this: The final hour of this film is the biggest one that has scared me of any film since “Hereditary” in 2018.
The cult of “The Empty Man” is now growing rapidly; The film has jumped over the dreaded 3.0 mark to letterboxd (3.2 to be exact! Should be a lot higher!) And I expect more people to get on board as word of mouth continues to be positive. Don’t you want to be an early adopter? Don’t you wanna be cool Not true? Then check out this movie!
HBO Max, rated PG-13, 112 minutes
Devin France as the title Wendy.
Continuing today’s theme of 2020 Movies That Have Bad Reviews But Actually Rule, we have Wendy, a modern retelling of the Peter Pan myth from Wendy Darling’s perspective.
Unlike “The Empty Man”, I knew about “Wendy” before it was released, but I ignored it because I don’t love the Peter Pan story in general and the reviews of that version didn’t sound different enough to make me feel like it to influence. But I knew it was Benh Zeitlin’s second film, and I really liked his first film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. I also knew he was continuing his idea of putting children without actors here, casting a variety of characters, including Yashua Mack as Peter Pan. Mack is from Rastafarian and is from Antigua, where part of the film is being shot. The rest was filmed in remote parts of Montserrat. That was fascinating, if nothing else.
When Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project, said that “Wendy” was one of his favorite films of the year, I knew I had to see him. I have not looked back.
I would have seen it earlier if I had known how easy the adjustment would be. Nobody is given a surname, and nobody has flight powers. When Wendy (a very talented newcomer named Devin France) and her two brothers run away with Peter, it is on a midnight train – then a boat trip to a mysterious island where no one seems to age. Unless, of course, someone suffers a loss. Then aging comes quickly and you are banished from the main group for fear of the disease spreading to the young people.
As soon as one of Wendy’s brothers begins to age, the group tries to find a way to reverse the process. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is basically what powers the only storyline developments in the film. The rest is pure vibes: beautiful cinematography highlighting the Montserrat coastline as well as rural America, and most importantly, conversations about how growing up is an adventure in itself.
Look at this coast!
A smaller Peter Pan movie would go the other way and leave Wendy on the island forever as a child. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen here. You won’t find any end spoilers here, but I’ll say I found it unexpected and emotionally satisfying. The film has a clear message and is beautifully illustrated.
But again, the main attraction is the graphics. Zeitlin and the cameraman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen have created an indescribably lush world full of amazement, joy and even terror in just a few scenes. Every shot has a purpose, like the rickety handheld cameras showing the force and speed of the midnight train, or the way the screen seems to create a haze of paint when the audience mum, a sacred sea creature, pervades the island’s inhabitants wakes up, meets for the first time.
Watching the trailer of the film might convince you more than anything I can say in words. “Wendy” stirred my feelings through its sheer entirety. It’s one of the biggest compliments I can give. It will also get you to call your family – hello mom and dad – if you haven’t done this in a while. It is in the right way from the heart and deserves to be seen, received and lived.