The Last Blockbuster

★★1/2

If you’re older than 25, you probably have fond memories of visiting your local video rental store on a Friday night. Spending 45 minutes browsing the aisles to find the perfect movie to rent and then picking up a pizza to head home. Maybe it was a first date in high school. Maybe it was a father and his kids bonding while mom had to work late. Maybe you just got dumped and you were going to drown your sorrows in romantic comedies.

Going to a video store was a fond memory for many, many people.

And for most people, it was often a Blockbuster Video.

That’s because Blockbuster — once purchased for $9.5 billion by Viacom — was everywhere. It ran mom and pop video stores out of business by negotiating deals directly with movie studios that made it unable for the little guy to compete. It was said at one point that a new Blockbuster location opened every 17 hours.

And something that huge and everywhere is no more. The company went bankrupt when it was unable to compete with streaming companies (more on that in a minute) and stores closed nationwide.

But there’s still one location — just one — left in the United States in Bend, Oregon. You might have read about them in The New York Times or saw a profile on CNN or Fox News. It’s the kind of quirky news that media love to report on.

The new documentary “The Last Blockbuster” (ironically available by streaming) gives an up close look at the rise and fall of the video company, complete with talking head celebrities who once worked at Blockbuster locations themselves (like comedians Doug Benson and Ron Funches and actors Adam Brody and Jamie Kennedy). But the real heart of the documentary is the focus on the manager of the last location, a woman named Sandi Harding who isn’t a massive film buff but instead is a hard working, customer-service-oriented “mom” who won’t give up even when the writing is on the wall. She’s kind of an inspiration, in many ways.

Director Taylor Morden and writer Zeke Kamm do a great job of putting the human emotion into this story, following Sandi as she purchases DVDs at Target when a customer requests something, stocking up on boxes of Airhead candies at Sams Club and physically opening up the 1990s Blockbuster computer system (still loaded with floppy discs) to repair the check-in/check-out system. She grills burgers for her longtime patrons and has employed nearly every teenager in their small Pacific-Northwest town.

The documentary itself sometimes over-romanticizes the days of video rental and relies too much on talking heads. At 88 minutes, it feels overly long and there are inconsequential sequences that probably should have been cut but were likely left in to beef up the running time, including a long scene with comedian Doug Benson browsing the store and texting his fellow comedian friends.

The nostalgia well starts to run dry way before the credits start to roll. It’s a feel good movie but even movie lovers like myself will feel like it was spinning its wheels a bit much.

But there are two big things I took away from this movie (and a good documentary either teaches me something or makes me think about life in a different way).

First is a business lesson. Blockbuster didn’t just simply die because Netflix came around. If you remember, Blockbuster tried to launch its own service similar to Netflix, with movies available by mail and you could pick them up at kiosks or in stores too. They even had streaming available (through Cable companies not smartphone apps) before Netflix did. But the reason Blockbuster died is because they didn’t have any capital to expand their streaming options. They borrowed and borrowed and when the 2008 financial crisis hit, the traditional financial leaders weren’t interested in investing in a declining corporation saddled with debt. Netflix — which offered to sell to Blockbuster for $50 million early on but was turned down — was the darling of West Coast investors and had money to get them through several years in the red (the company wasn’t profitable for a long time since costs were so high).  Now Netflix’s profits have tripled in the last three years and their margins look good, even as they continue to invest hundreds of millions in buying or creating new content. Blockbuster could have easily buried Netflix but they didn’t have the capital. They waited too long to adjust to the future.

Second thing I thought long and hard about after watching this documentary is how an abundance of options doesn’t make us any happier. We have every movie available at our fingertips. We don’t have to drive to a store and pay late fees. We can watch whatever we want. But we don’t appreciate movies as much as we used to. When we only were able to watch a movie every once and a while, it was a treat and even a bad movie was fun.

This is detailed by many psychological studies, most notably by Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz in his book “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More.” He notes that when given a million options, we take longer to decide and we end up less satisfied with the choice we eventually make, ultimately nit-picking and looking for negatives because we keep thinking about the other options that could have been available.

I would also add that the effort that it takes to go to a movie theater or a Blockbuster video make the joy of watching a movie feel like more of an event compared to streaming something on Netflix on your phone. You’re more likely to watch the movie all of the way through even if it’s not great because of the time and money you put into it.

Video stores aren’t the only things we might see become scarce or non-existent. Younger audiences go to movie theaters less and less and would prefer watching something at home, even though us old farts still say it’s better to watch it on a big screen surrounded by people (home TVs are pretty big now though). During the pandemic, more movies went immediately to streaming and that might be the future, with movie theaters becoming a niche thing for certain audiences. You might see restaurants decrease their dine-in space as more and more people choose DoorDash or GrubHub even when the pandemic ends. Keep in mind that these services didn’t really exist about a decade or more ago. Things change quickly. Will there always be a few fancy restaurants and neighborhood pubs to provide social gatherings? Absolutely. But you’ll find that restaurants will have smaller dine-in spaces and might even move to lower rent areas with less visibility if the bulk of their money is coming from delivery. And the physical DVD/Blu-Ray? I’m already mocked by younger consumers for still purchasing physical movies since everything is eventually available to stream. They will probably end up like CD’s and be on their way to extinction.

Do I want to cling to the past? Maybe a little but I understand these changes.

I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to ordering carryout or watching “Wonder Woman 1984” at time rather than a theater. It’s just easier. But easier isn’t always better and I guess my point is to remember those “event experiences” we used to have and try to seek them out in places where they still exist. Maybe it isn’t going to a movie theater or renting a movie in person, but live theater and live concerts should still be sought out. And even if you’re streaming a movie at home with carryout food, you can still make it feel special. You can set up your dining room table and put the cell phones in a drawer. I guess my point is instead of just consume, consume, consume, we need to take the time to stop and savor sometimes. That’s what this documentary made me reflect on.

Earwig and the Witch

Founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli is one of the most celebrated animation studios in the world, having produced such beloved films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and the Oscar-winning classic “Spirited Away,” all directed by co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.

My two-year-old daughter is a big fan of three of Miyazaki’s movies in particular: “Ponyo,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” also all directed by Miyazaki. The other night she was running around with her play broom, pretending to be flying like Kiki, the young witch.

As a parent, I’m always looking for quality-made animated films and shows that I can watch with my daughter and I won’t be bored out of my mind. Studio Ghibli films can vary in quality when it comes to plot/story but the animation is always gorgeous to look at and the score, often composed by Joe Hisaishi, is consistently beautiful. Sometimes we even tell Alexa to play songs by him in order to relax us to sleep.

Now, the famed studio has its newest feature film available on HBO MAX, called “Earwig and the Witch.” It premiered on Japanese TV in late December and is just now available for North American audiences with an English dub. It’s directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of the acclaimed co-founder, and it is the studio’s first attempt at a three-dimensional computer animated film as opposed to flat hand drawn animation.

The newest offering is a complete swing and miss for older viewers. Some younger kids might like it but even my daughter started asking me to put on a different cartoon.

Simply put, it’s not up to the standards established by Studio Ghibli.

It’s the story of a young girl witch, left on the door step of an orphanage as a newborn, only to later be adopted by a strange magical couple. Oh, and there’s a talking black cat too. Sounds awfully like “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

It’s based on a novel by Diana Wynn Jones, who also wrote the book for “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and it seems like Goro is trying hard to copy his father’s previous efforts but seems to miss the magic and charm of his dad’s movies.

The biggest sin of “Earwig and the Witch” is that it’s ugly to look at. The cheap-looking computer animation looks more like “Cocomelon” than anything done by Pixar (or even Dreamworks for that matter…).

Some people have argued that “Earwig and the Witch” makes a case that hand-drawn animation is superior than working solely with computers but I disagree. Films like “Soul” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” prove otherwise.

The expressionless faces in “Earwig and the Witch” actually look a lot like the generic avatars you created when the Nintendo Wii was launched in 2006.

I understand that the budget might have been smaller because it’s a TV movie, but the animation seems to lack creativity.

Studio Ghibli recently created candy for the eye with the interesting rough sketches in “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” in 2013 or the simplistic figures in “The Red Turtle” in 2016, both nominated for Oscars. To release this newest effort under the studio’s name feels more like a favor to the founder’s son rather than a production to be proud of.

I hate to sound like a snob when it comes to the look of animation, but it does matter. Animation can be an art form. My wife laughs when I complain about the cheap animation in the PBS cartoon “Dinosaur Train.”

But it’s important to have something interesting to look at. My daughter and I love watching “Hilda” or “Puffin Rock” on Netflix, the latter of which was created by the same people who directed the amazing-looking animated films “The Song of the Sea” and “Wolfwalkers.”

Maybe Goro just isn’t as good as his father. His previous two films, “Tales from Earthsea” in 2006 and “From Up on Poppy Hill” in 2011 are often panned by Studio Ghibli fan who sometimes bring up his strained relationship with his father.

For loves of Studio Ghibli there is good news on the horizon though: Hayao Miyazaki announced in 2017 that he was coming out of retirement to direct the film “How Do You Live,” which is currently under production and is expected to come out in 2021 or 2022 (no date yet).

I guess we’ll just have to wait for daddy to restore the glory.

The Right One

★★

“The Right One” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) was sold to me as a romantic comedy and it is one … sorta. It’s also predominantly a melodrama about grief.

Sara (Cleopatra Coleman of “The Last Man on Earth”) is a successful Seattle-based romance novelist suffering from writer’s block. She’s being pressured to produce by her agent and friend Kelly (comedienne Iliza Shlesinger). Inspiration strikes when she comes across Godfrey (comedian Nick Thune, best known to me for appearances on the Doug Loves Movies podcast and sorta resembling Karl Urban or Adam Scott on growth hormones) … or one iteration of him.

Sara first encounters Godfrey at an art exhibit opening where he’s posing as both pretentious art critic and pretentious artist … such versatility! She happens upon him again the following day when he’s performing as a singing cowboy in the park. Sara approaches Godfrey wanting to chat. He in turn invites her to his evening gig where he’s performing in drag as a blonde-wigged Iowa hayseed fresh off the bus. Sara again attempts to engage Godfrey. He in turn invites her to an all-night rave where he’s spinning records sporting a plush kitty head. Sara later meets Godfrey’s other personas – Matteo the Argentine ballroom dancer and slam poet Tim Demint.

Audiences also get a glimpse into the other aspects of Godfrey’s life. He successfully works as mohawked, free-spirited, over-the-phone salesman G-Money employing varying names, accents and preferences in order to assure the sale. G-Money’s boss Bob Glasser (David Koechner, only appearing in a few fleeting scenes) ignores his bizarre behavior and flagrant dress code violations as his sales are through the roof. At a local school Godfrey’s known as Mr. G. where he volunteers as a puppeteer. Godfrey’s obviously running from or repressing something in adopting these numerous identities, but what exactly?

“The Right One” is the feature screenwriting and directorial debut of Ken Mok, co-creator of “America’s Next Top Model.” (He also produced the Mark Wahlberg football flick “Invincible” and David O. Russell’s “Joy.”) The movie’s well-meaning, but misguided. It almost feels like Mok was trying to transcribe M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” as a romantic comedy, but it’s a romantic comedy that’s lacking in both romance and comedy. The romance stalls out as Coleman and Thune – both good – don’t have palpable chemistry and the plot’s too grave to give their meet-cute any meat. The film’s funniest scene finds Thune and Koechner riffing on Blues Traveler and culminates with them playing dueling harmonicas – that’s about it for laughs. The picture’s main character may not be schizophrenic, but the flick he’s appearing in sure as shit is.

PVT Chat

★★★1/2

Reviewing “PVT Chat” (available in select theaters beginning Friday Feb. 5 and on VOD Tuesday Feb. 9) proved to be an interesting experience. The first time through I was pretty tired and fell asleep only to wake up to lead actress Julia Fox graphically masturbating. My wife entered the room as this was transpiring and exclaimed/questioned, “What in the hell are you watching?!!!” Additionally, it was hard (no pun intended) for me to pull pics for this review that didn’t include displays of dildos.

As you’ve probably already surmised, “PVT Chat” is very sexual in nature. I won’t lie – prurient interests drew me to the film given the subject matter and the fact that it stars Fox, who I was enamored by after seeing her breakout performance in the Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems.” I was initially taken aback by just how sleazy the proceedings were (I’m no prude. I’m just unaccustomed to seeing erect penises and unsimulated masturbation in cinema.), but once I fell into the film’s rhythms it actually paid dividends for me and revealed sad truths about how some folks strive for human interaction.

Jack (Peter Vack, whipping his wang out like he’s Harvey Keitel in the early ‘90s) is a New York City-based loner who makes his living playing online Blackjack. He’s lamely/humorously referred to as Blackjack Jack at one point in the picture. When Jack’s not gambling he’s hitting up cam girls. He’s taken a particular shine to Scarlet (Fox), a dominatrix who claims to live in San Francisco and has aspirations beyond camming as a painter.

Lo and behold, Scarlet’s actually also in NYC as Jack spots her in Chinatown and proceeds to follow her around. Turns out Scarlet’s not the only one lying as Jack’s told her that he’s a successful businessman – when in reality he’s about to be evicted. Adding insult to injury, one of Jack’s only friends is Will (Kevin Moccia), the guy who’s been hired to paint the apartment for new tenants.

“PVT Chat” is written, edited, photographed and directed by Ben Hozie (he also cameos in the picture). It kinda calls to mind films such as “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” or “Secretary” (or any other movie where James Spader plays a pervert) as well as flicks by the aforementioned Safdie Brothers (the inclusion of Safdie veteran Buddy Duress as Jack’s other buddy who assists him in stalking Scarlet cements the deal). The picture very much has its roots set in the New York art scene – there’s even a subplot where Jack and his buddies attend the gallery opening of Emma (Nikki Belfiglio), a woman who’s inexplicably drawn to Jack despite the fact that he treats her like crap opting instead to fixate on Scarlet.

Hozie deserves credit for directing Vack and Fox in performances that fascinate. I was unfamiliar with Vack coming into the film – he’s a unique presence. The cadence of Vack’s speech is often overly formal to the point of irritation, but I suspect this has more to do with the performance as opposed to the performer – after all he’s playing a bit of a weirdo. Fox’s work here isn’t as captivating as it was in “Uncut Gems,” but she’s still quite solid and I look forward to seeing her in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move” later this year. Neither Jack nor Scarlet are particularly likable, but they’re interesting and immensely watchable despite engaging in off-putting behaviors. I wouldn’t want to be friends with either of these folks in reality, but they’re compelling enough for 86 minutes.

The Reckoning

★★★

Wowzers, there’s a lot to unpack with director Neil Marshall’s latest “The Reckoning” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday Feb. 5).

Marshall co-wrote the picture with his fiancée and leading lady Charlotte Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell (who worked in the sound department on Marshall’s “The Descent”). Kirk and by extension Marshall have become somewhat controversial figures in Hollywood in recent years. Kirk has built a reputation as a “mogul slayer” after relationships she had with former Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara and former NBC-Universal vice chair Ron Meyer got each of these men ousted from their lofty positions. Kirk received a $3.3 million settlement after signing a nondisclosure agreement. Rumor has it Marshall attempted to use Kirk’s relationship with Meyer to force him into greenlighting a new film in which she’d star and he’d direct. Marshall denies this accusation – further details suggest it was made to discredit Marshall and Kirk regarding other pending sexual harassment claims. (For the record, Kirk was 19 and Meyer was 66 when they met. I’m generally inclined to believe the younger and female half of this equation.)

You can’t watch “The Reckoning” without thinking of the #MeToo movement (purposefully) and COVID-19 (accidentally, the film was written and filmed prior to the pandemic). “The Reckoning” takes place during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Kirk stars as Grace Haverstock, wife of young farmer Joseph (Joe Anderson) and mother of an infant daughter. Joseph inadvertently contracts the plague at a tavern and opts to hang himself rather than expose his spouse and child to infection.

Shortly thereafter skeezy landlord Pendleton (Steve Waddington) comes to collect rent. Grace reluctantly offers she and her husband’s wedding bands as payment. Pendleton counters with a request for sexual favors, which she sternly denies. He in turn accuses her of witchcraft. Grace is promptly imprisoned and tortured at the hands of Judge Moorcroft (Marshall regular Sean Pertwee giving the film’s best and most interesting performance).

“The Reckoning” plays like a combination of a Hammer horror film and Mel Gibson’s particular brand of sadistic torture porn, i.e. the conclusion of “Braveheart” and the majority of “The Passion of the Christ.” I sincerely hope the process of making the movie was therapeutic for Kirk, but can’t help but feel that there are elements of the overall product that transform the proceedings into a vanity project. Despite Kirk’s Grace being tortured throughout at least half of the picture, her hair and makeup are almost always immaculate. Additionally, she seems to enjoy showing off her bum about as much and as frequently as Jean-Claude Van Damme did back in the ‘90s. Then again, this could be an instance of Kirk owning her own sexuality after having suffered trauma? She’s an attractive woman, a decent actress and a decent writer as evidenced by this work. Kirk already has another project lined up with Marshall entitled “The Lair.” While I hope their personal and professional relationships remain fruitful, I’d also like to see Kirk succeed in an industry that’s done her wrong on her own two feet.

I’m a fan of Marshall’s. I don’t think “The Reckoning” hits the heights of “Dog Soldiers,” “The Descent” (arguably the scariest film of the 21st century) or “Hellboy” (2019) (yeah, I’m one of the few who dug it), but I prefer it to “Doomsday” (if I wanna watch “Mad Max” or a John Carpenter flick I’d rather just watch “Mad Max” or a John Carpenter flick) and “Centurion.” While “The Reckoning” is handsomely made and contains some awesomely gnarly gore (I cackled when a dude’s head was crushed like a grape beneath a wagon wheel – paging Bob Dylan, Old Crow Medicine Show and Darius Rucker!), it’s also a bit of a tortuous slog due to an overabundance of torture.