Monday, June 1, 2020

Fight Club Proves Surprisingly Relevant in 2020

David Fincher is an unusual entry into the canon of modern-day acclaimed auteurs. He's a widely-revered filmmaker, and rightfully so, but he tends to eschew the types of movies that usually garner American filmmakers their enormously influential reputation. Fincher is known for his grimier thrillers that don't ease up on the blood or the violence. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Se7en, Gone Girl, Fincher loves seedy cinema. Considering his exceptional batting average as a filmmaker, thank goodness for his fascination with these darker corners of storytelling. Heck, the fact that his lone dud, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was a much more traditional drama indicates why Fincher stays in this lane so often.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Colt is My Passport Travels To Enjoyable Action Movie Territory

I gotta give a hearty thank you to Patton Oswalt for putting A Colt is My Passport on my radar. A 1967 yakuza-noir movie from director Takashi Nomura, Passport was heavily praised by Patton Oswalt in his Adventures in Moviegoing interview on the Criterion Channel. He called it the kind of movie that produces moments so cool one can't help but shout out "YEAH!" when they occur. Turns out, Oswalt, that cinematic devotee, was right on the money. A Colt is My Passport is an extremely interesting yarn, particularly in terms of seeing how it fuses together so many distinct cinematic influences.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

What Has Happened In The Last Two-and-a-Half Months of the Domestic Box Office?

On March 20, 2020, movie theaters came to a stop.

For the first time in history, movie theaters were suddenly abandoned and no longer showing movies. The entire release schedule for 2020 was thrown into disarray as the theatrical film business, like all other aspects of life, headed into uncharted waters brought out by COVID-19. One of the myriads of repercussions of movie theaters shutting down was that box office obsessives like myself suddenly had nothing to write about every Sunday morning. A Hollywood Reporter essay on the subject, published on March 23, 2020, was peppered with testimonies from box office analysts coming to terms with the new status quo of there being no box office to report.

The Vast of Night Takes Viewers Into An Eerie Sci-Fi Yarn

The Vast of Night makes no bones about its creative influences. It's quite upfront about what types of entertainment it's channeling right from its opening scene. This sequence frames the events of the movie as an episode of a TV show called Paradox Theater, an obvious pastiche for The Twilight Zone. The subsequent film also shares influences with everything from 1980s Amblin productions to the works of Stephen King to War of the Worlds. All of these influences are told in a story about radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and High Schooler Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). On a seemingly normal night in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico, a strange sound comes through the local radio station.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Les Miserables Lends an Unflinching Glimpse at Systemic Prejudice

No prisoner 24601 to be found here. Instead, Les Miserables is a 2020 French movie hailing from director Ladj Ly, one that follows an assortment of different lives in Paris, France who find themselves entangled over the course of a single day. This story begins with Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a new transfer to the Paris police department. For his first day on the force, he's paired up with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga). It isn't long before both Stephane and the viewer realize that Chris is prone to using his powers as an officer to target citizens of color. Meanwhile, juvenile delinquent Issa (Issa Perica) has sparked conflict in his neighborhood by poaching a lion cub from a circus troupe.

The Banker Is a Disappointingly Rushed and Paint-By-Numbers Affair

Ever since he was a kid, Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) was all about challenging the status quo. A math genius, Garrett has long harbored dreams of being a real estate broker. That's not an occupation usually filled by Black people in the mid-20th century. But again, Garrett's a rebel and he's not about to let the racist status quo hold him back. Eventually, Garrett, after pairing up with Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), begins to create an empire of real estate, one that most people aren't aware they control. That's because Garrett and Morris have had Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) pose as the owner of their business to white investors and fellow business owners. Steiner is the face of the operation but Garrett and Morris are the ones controlling all the cards.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Age of Innocence See's Martin Scorsese Excelling at Period-Era Romance

One of my very favorite things about Martin Scorsese is that his love for all kinds of films is reflected in the variety of genres he's explored as a filmmaker. Yes, he's done a couple of crime films, but he's also done a mystery thriller, a musical, screwball comedy/noir mixture, hell, in 2011 Scorsese embarked on a $165 million budgeted 3D kids movie! Scorsese doesn't just love one type of filmmaking, he loves all films and that's led him to dip his toes into an excitingly wide range of genres over the years. His foray into period-era costume romance cinema, The Age of Innocence, is one of the very best encapsulations of Scorsese's versatility.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why Wasn't Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time the Next Pirates of the Caribbean?

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

Ten years ago tomorrow, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was released in theaters all around the world. Armed with a $150 million budget, Prince of Persia was clearly being modeled after Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Both were Walt Disney Studios productions made with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, both were based on source material that doesn't usually spawn good film adaptations (theme park rides & video games). Heck, Disney even gave Prince of Perisa the late May release date Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End broke box office records in.

Prince of Persia, it turns out, was no Pirates. Grossing a disastrous $90 million domestically, Prince took in just $336 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. Though a better performer than subsequent mega-Disney bombs like John Carter and The Lone Ranger, this was still a disappointing turn that ensured Disney wouldn't be bankrolling further adventures of Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

But why exactly did Prince of Persia fail to replicate the Pirates of the Caribbean thunder? Prince of Persia was bad, but were there other reasons this Pirates imitator couldn't go the distance either at the box office or with audiences. Who else wants to break them down in an in-depth fashion? In the process, we'll all probably put more thought into Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time than any of the people involved in making it! Hey-o!

The Story & Characters

Part of what makes The Curse of the Black Pearl such fun to watch is that the three principal characters are all underdogs. Will Turner, for example, is just the apprentice to a local blacksmith. How could he ever earn the romantic affection of a governess like Elizabeth Swan, let alone face off against hordes of pirates? Meanwhile, Jack Sparrow's entire presence in Black Pearl is predicated on him being seen as a drunken buffoon only to actually be a far craftier soul. Elizabeth Swan comes from a more privileged background than Will or Jack. However, she's still got to face the uphill climb of reasserting her own perspective in the face of societal perceptions that, as a woman, her only job is to marry a powerful man.

Prince of Persia wants to be the next Pirates so badly, but it clearly missed this crucial underdog element that defined the protagonists of Pirates. I mean, the title alone makes it clear that the lead character is a dude from a royal background. Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) may have grown up as a street urchin but those days are long behind him once Prince of Persia begins. He's now one of the most powerful men in all of Persia. Dastan is not introduced as a regular person viewers can connect with but rather a guy who lays siege to any cities that even have whispers of carrying weapons that could destroy Persia. He's neither an underdog figure you could root for nor a wish-fulfillment fantasy character you want to be. He's mostly just boring while scenes of him laying waste to the city of Alamut make one wonder why he isn't the villain of the piece.

Female lead Tamina (Gemma Arterton) has no real personality to offer beyond fulfilling dual roles as an expository device and a love interest. Prince of Persia is already sinking based on its two boring lead characters and a similar sense of tedium plagues the supporting cast. Black Pearl wasn't just populated by underdogs. It was also home to a swarm of enjoyable backup players. A man with no tongue but a chatty parrot, Gibbs, Barbossa, Pintel & Ragetti, there are all kinds of amusing members of the cast beyond the central figures. Over in Prince of Persia, though, few in the supporting cast really leave an impression. 

Alfred Molina has moments of comedic inspiration as Sheik Amar but when even Ben Kingsley is phoning it in during a villain role, you know a movie is struggling to deliver distinct characters. Audiences can't survive on spectacle alone. We need characters we can connect to, whose adventures, romances, and triumphs we can get swept up in. Ten years later, does anyone even remember Prince Garsiv of Persia? Is there a moment from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that stands out as memorably fun? The answer to such questions is "no" and much of that comes down to the forgettable nature of the characters.

Lack of Subversion

Pirates of the Caribbean helped break a massive dry spell for pirate movies. Previously, the likes of Cutthroat Island and Treasure Planet had become such massive box office bombs that it seemed like pirate films were automatic box office poison. But then The Curse of the Black Pearl managed to do something extraordinary. On the one hand, it managed to rejuvenate this subgenre by bringing plenty of new elements to the table. Jack Sparrow was unlike any other pirate in movie history while the central premise of pirates wanting to return, not find, gold was a stroke of subversive genius. But Black Pearl also made no bones about being a pirate adventure. It reveled in "Yo-ho-ho!"'s, rum, pirate flags and every other staple of pirates in pop culture. 

Meanwhile, Prince of Persia belongs to the sword and sandals genre. Whereas Pirates was the first live-action blockbuster in decades to really lend boatloads of money and spectacle to the world of pirate movies, sword and sandals movies have had actually been quite popular prior to Prince of Persia. The Mummy in 1999 and especially the subsequent years' Gladiator brought the genre roaring back to life in the modern era. Since then, tons of other sword and sandals blockbusters tried their best to replicate the Mummy/Gladiator formula. This not only lent less of an event status to Prince of Persia in 2010 but it also meant that it didn't have something to prove.

Pirates had to be subversive to be the first successful entry in the Pirates subgenre in decades. Prince of Persia, meanwhile, relied on a more tired narrative as it planned to ride on the coattails of the success of recent sword and sandal movies. Director Mike Newell didn't plan to reinvent the wheel with Prince of Persia and that led to a problem. For one thing, just from a marketing standpoint alone, the film wasn't all that distinctive. How could Prince of Persia stand out from the glut of Gladiator knock-off's that had emerged in the last ten years? Worst of all, though, it meant that the movie itself was utterly forgettable. Pirates of the Caribbean was a breath of fresh air whereas Prince of Persia was as stale as could.

It Didn't Fit the Disney Brand

We've looked at the artistic reasons why Prince of Persia fell short. Now let's look at a key marketing reason for its box office demise, one that actually reflects a lot about the kind of Disney movies that usually find the most success.

Most movie studios aren't adherent to one type of movie. Certain parts of their past may be (the '30s saw Universal being known for horror,  the '50s saw Columbia being famous for noirs), but not usually the whole studio. Disney, meanwhile, is known for family films and especially ones that utilize brand names associated with Disney. Even when they expand outside of that field a bit to PG-13 blockbusters kids can see, it's usually with brand names like Marvel and Star Wars they've bought outright. In 2020, it's rare to see a theatrical Disney release based on material the studio doesn't outright own.

That wasn't the case as late as 10 years ago. In fact, in 2010, it was still common for Disney to crib intellectual property from other studios. For example, Disney partnered up with Walden Media for the first two film adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia may not have been something Disney owned but its family-friendly nature made it a perfect fit for the Disney moniker. On a conceptual level, Prince of Persia, meanwhile, was based on a 2003 video game that didn't have much in the way of family appeal.

Whereas Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl compensated for its darker nature by being based on a property from the Disney family, Prince of Persia always seemed like an odd fit for Walt Disney Pictures. It didn't have a familiar name audience could trust nor was it an original title that had the kind of family-friendly appeal people associated with the Disney name. If Prince of Persia had its own compelling distinct identity, then this whole point would be moot. But being a generic Pirates/Mummy knock-off only compounded problems Prince of Persia had with fitting into the Disney family. Sticking a Disney logo on intense trailers for a PG-13 action movie just made the whole affair seem even more puzzling. Why was this being released by Disney beyond the Mouse Hourse and producer Jerry Bruckheimer wanting another taste of the Pirates of the Caribbean gold?

Writing about how Prince of Persia doesn't really fit into the rigidly-enforced "Disney identity" did give me an amusing vision of what would have happened if Prince of Persia had actually been a box office hit. Would Disneyland have started trotting out parades with some buff guy dressed up as Dastan flipping a sword around on a float right after the Frozen float? Maybe that's in that alternate timeline NASA just found...

In Conclusion...

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was probably always a doomed project. That's not to say a film adaptation of this video game would inherently be bad. Rather, a film adaptation made under the pretense of trying to make the Pirates of the Caribbean lighting strike twice was always going to go poorly. The Curse of the Black Pearl was such an accidental fluke that was enhanced by spur-of-the-moment creative decisions as well as bold story details that subverted pirate movie norms. Meanwhile, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is rigidly going through the motions as it tries to replicate the aesthetic of the Pirates movies and generic sword-and-sandal adventure movies. 

How could Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ever obtain the free-spirited inventiveness of The Curse of the Black Pearl when it's so busy following in the footsteps of older movies? In the process, $150 million and a prospective franchise went down the drain. If Prince of Persia really wanted to take a cue from the original Pirates movie, it should have allowed its creators to do the bold, the unexpected. Adhering to a formula will only result in formulaic films like Prince of Persia, not the kind of creative gems that spawn hackneyed knock-off's.

Before we all forget Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for all of time, let's all remember this actual billboard for the movie, which featured its release date in such a massive size that it dwarfed both its title and lead actors. Who needs Jake Gyllenhaal when you've got "MAY 28"?

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

An Overstuffed Script Leaves The Rainmaker Dry When it Comes to Engaging Characters

The Rainmaker may sound like the name of a supervillain origin story but it's actually a film adaptation of a John Grisham courtroom novel of the same name. The protagonist of the piece is young lawyer Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon). A devotee to the law and also the owner of a zoo, Baylor finds employment working for a famous lawyer by the name of Bruiser (Mickey Rourke). While working for Bruiser, Baylor partners up with Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), who teaches Baylor the tricks of ambulance chasing. Eventually, Baylor gets entangled in a trio of court cases, the most prominent of which involves helping a family take down an insurance company that denied their son a life-saving procedure.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

It Felt Like Love Is An Appropriately Hard-to-Watch Directorial Debut for Eliza Hittman

Lila (Gina Piersanti) really wants to be like her more experienced friend Chiara (Giovanni Salimeni). Chiara's got a steady boyfriend and has already had sex. In Lila's eyes, that's an easy ticket to adulthood and independence. Thus, she quickly strikes up a relationship with a much older guy named Patrick (Jesse Cordasco). It's all the start of Lila trying her best to change herself to fit her idea of what it means to be "adult". Her hair color changes, she brags about her fictional sexual exploits to anyone who will listen and she even begins to attend rowdy parties. In the process of changing herself so drastically, though, one has to wonder what will be left of Lila when this is all finished.

Kiera Knightley Goes in a Different Direction For The Endearing Laggies

In the year 2014, you could see many unique sights on the big screen. A gun-toting raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper made his first foray onto the big screen. Rosamund Pike stabbed Neil Patrick Harris in the genitals. Tom Cruise got run over by a truck while trying to save the world. But perhaps the most unexpected and unusual sight of all came in the indie feature Laggies. Said sight was seeing Kiera Knightley not only in a movie set in the modern world but also playing a lady residing in Seattle, Washington! The queen of British period pieces traveling across the pond to play a struggling twenty-something, what a concept!

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Lynn Shelton Embraces Awkwardness and Vulnerability in the Exceptional Comedy Humpday

For much of the history of American comedies, gay panic jokes were as standard of a source of comedy as sleeping on a banana peel. Just because they were ubiquitous doesn't mean they weren't harmful or unfunny. The rampant presence of gay panic jokes no doubt contributed to pop culture broader issue of normalizing the dehumanization and mockery of queer individuals, particularly between men. Throughout the history of cinema, though, plenty of great classic comedies have managed to generate yuks without restoring to a cheap trick like gay panic gags. Among such comedies was Humpday, Lynn Shelton's second directorial effort that, on paper, seems like it could have gone down a much more mocking path.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Seberg Has a Great Kristen Stewart Performance But Little Else to Offer

Seberg is half of a good movie. Anytime it focuses exclusively on its titular character, real-life movie star Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), it's not flawless but it's certainly more assured of itself. It's actually rooted in a real person with tangible goals and discernible struggles. But Jean Seberg is not the only focus of the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. We also have an FBI agent named Jack Solomon, a fictitious character played by Jack O'Connell. Constantly cutting away from Seberg's storyline to the infinitely less interesting trials & tribulations of Solomon, that's where Seberg really loses its luster.

The Lovebirds Fails To Produce a Comedy Worthy of Its Lead Actors

Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) used to have a love straight out of a romance novel. Now, they can't stand the sight of each other. While driving to a friends' party, they come to a realization: this is it. Their relationship is over. After five years together, Jibran and Leilani have reached their endpoint. Or at least, they thought they had. But they're gonna have to stick together a little while longer now that they've become embroiled in the murder of a bicycling stranger. A random guy just took the wheel of Leilani's car (with Leilani and Jibran inside) and just ran this dude over. Now worried they'll be credited with the murder, Jibran and Leilani set out to find out who's actually responsible for the murder.