Monday, October 19, 2020

American Utopia Is Pure Bliss

American Utopia, a filmed recording of the Broadway show of the same name, begins with musician David Byrne contemplating how many neural connections we lose when we go from babies to adults. "Does that mean we get dumber as we get older?" Byrne ponders to the audience. Byrne's desire to understand what happens to those connections establishes the contemplative attitude of the whole show. American Utopia then gets into twenty different musical performances delivered by Byrne and eleven accompanying musicians. If you're familiar with the last concert film Byrne headlined, Stop Making Sense, you'll get an idea for the kind of creativity that's unleashed in American Utopia.

However, anyone expecting just a rehash of Stop Making Sense will be disappointed. American Utopia is totally its own creation and a magnificent creation at that. From its very first song, Here, American Utopia hits the ground running with such bold creative swings. Here has an ethereal quality to it, thanks to the soft chants in the background and the use of instruments like a sitar and a tambourine. Listening to it makes one feel like they're occupying some sort of dreamscape you've never seen before. The gentle vocals of Byrne are the perfect guide to take you through this new land. As the music soaks over you, American Utopia reassures the viewer that they're in masterful hands.

From there, American Utopia delivers a barrage of songs that carry the kind of distinct sounds and unique lyrics we've all come to expect from Byrne tunes. Much like Wild Wild Life or Take Me To The River, the songs in American Utopia are the kind of tunes you want to sing along to even if you're just hearing them for the first time. How can you not want to wrap your lips around lyrics like "Oh, I'm wicked and I'm lazy"? Accompanying the memorable words are sounds that just dig into your eardrums and don't let go. The drums in Lazy, for example, create an amusingly energetic contrast to the lyrics praising the virtue of lethargy. 

Such drumming skills demonstrate that, across these assorted tunes, the accompanying musicians are just as much of a treat to watch as the captivating Byrne. It's truly impressive to watch them gracefully adapt to new styles and tones whenever the songs require it. They can sound like a jubilant marching band for one tune and then immediately switch gears to carry a more somber quality when the occasion calls for it. Among the musicians, the most memorable have to be Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. At times, these two act as extensions of Byrne himself, with this becoming literal for one musical number where they move his appendages across the stage. Giarmo and Kuumba are the most prominent of the accompanying musicians in terms of screentime. However, they more than earn their pronounced presence thanks to how they can seemingly do everything from play instruments to dance to engage in physical comedy.

These talented performers play off a sparse stage that surrounds everyone with what looks a wraparound Doorway Bead Curtain. The minimalist approach to the set turns out to be a gift in many ways. For one thing, it's a great way to emphasize the focus on the actors. For another, it's easy to implement new elements to the backdrop. This is most notably seen in the musical number I Should Watch TV, which incorporated a gigantic beaming light on the side of the stage to simulate the warm glow of a television set. The set and surrounding beads are also covered in a light blue color that's extremely pleasing to look at. One can appreciate these visual accomplishments thanks to the exquisite direction of Spike Lee. Like the best visual effects, Lee's camerawork is so good because you so often forget about it. Lee immerses you in the on-stage performance to the point that we forget we're even watching a pre-recorded production.

All of these visual and musical gifts are used for splendid entertainment but Byrne also wants to use American Utopia to make the audience appreciate the wider world around them. From a segment dedicated to emphasizing the unique home countries of the individual musicians to Byrne engaging in amusing visual comedy to drive home how important local elections are, American Utopia isn't just escapism. It's also conscious of the shortcomings of the real world. This is most notably seen in the most stirring portion of the production, a rendition of the Janelle Monae song Hell You Talmbout. Here, Byrne and his musicians urge viewers to say the names of lives lost to race-based police brutality while photographs of the likes of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner are held up, sometimes by their own relatives. 

In the middle of American Utopia, Byrne goes into a monologue about dadaist artists and he describes their aims as "Using nonsense to make sense of this nonsensical world". In a way, Byrne and his accompanying musicians are aiming to do something similar. The lyrics of songs like Every Day Is A Miracle may sound like total lunacy out of context. However, tunes like this and the other ditties that populate American Utopia are grappling with matters that are all too real. Songs like Hell You Talmbout do this through appropriately overt means that force viewers to confront real systemic problems that are too often ignored. Others like Once in a Lifetime and Toe Jam tap into distinctly relatable feelings through their bold artistic tendencies. 

I was particularly struck by this latter type of song while watching I Dance Like This. The song swiftly jumps from tranquility in its verses to an aggressive sound during its chorus. To me, I took that as a realistic reflection of what it's like to live life as someone considered "different" from society. You don't always feel just one way about it. Sometimes you're at peace with it, other times you're feeling much more abrasive about it. The emotional complexities of that experience are reflected in the varied sounds of I Dance Like This. Whenever Byrne and his musicians chant "If we could dance better, then you know that we would" against harsh guitar strums, you can feel the frustrations of anyone who has ever been told to erase the things that make them "different" (like gender, sexuality, disability, etc.) This is just one example of how the songs of American Utopia so effectively channel the real world through creative means.

With I Dance Like This, American Utopia delivers a song that you can both rock out to and dissect in such an in-depth fashion. Believe it or not, the entire production is able to constantly deliver songs this good. American Utopia doesn't solve the problems of the world. No piece of art could ever do that. But American Utopia does give us a musical means to confront those problems. To boot, it emphasizes the power of unity and the virtues of individuality, two things so often ignored in this world. Watching this movie, the overwhelming nature of the world suddenly felt a bit more manageable. These qualities are reinforced by the movie's closing number, a rendition of Road to Nowhere. Never have the songs lyrics felt more inviting, more exhilarating, more like a call to action for people to be themselves, and to challenge the world they occupy. 

David Byrne and director Spike Lee have crafted something special with American Utopia. It's a toe-tapping soul-enriching experience you do not want to miss.

American Utopia is now streaming on HBO Max and the HBO app. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Is A Quaint Film About Revolution

Let's go back to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago 1970. This is where it all went down. This is where the events of The Trial of the Chicago 7 kicked off. A storm of anti-Vietnam War protestors belonging to different groups, like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), had descended on a Chicago park. Shortly thereafter, the local police decided to respond to their presence through violence. Afterward, eight of these individuals, including Hoffman, Hayden, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), were arrested for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite violence.  A trial proceeded to take place where the eight defendants all tried to get their voices heard in the face of a court more interested in using them to deter further activism than any actual due process.

With The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer/director Aaron Sorkin is squarely situated in the courtroom drama mold that he's worked with so often in film and on Broadway. His expertise in this genre means that Sorkin can play the most cathartic moments in Chicago 7 like a fiddle. Just look at a scene where Michael Keaton's Ramsey Clark reveals the real reason that he allowed two government officials to overhear his conversation with Hoffman's lawyers. It works so well because of how Sorkin knows just when to time the revelation for maximum "Aw yeah!" cheers. There's a number of other moments like that in Chicago 7 that may be cornball but are nonetheless pleasing. 

Certain parts of The Trial of the Chicago 7 don't really feel like a Sorkin movie. For one thing, not once did anyone do a Walk & Talk sequence. That's probably because Chicago 7 doesn't focus on any one character long enough for us to follow them down a hallway delivering a monologue. The feature has such an expansive focus that Sorkin is frequently cutting across different characters at different points in time. This tactic proves most interesting in scenes dedicated to police officers being interrogated about what really happened that fateful day in Chicago. Their testimony about unruly protestors is played against flashbacks (and even actual archival footage) showing police brutally harming protestors.

Unfortunately, the worst uses of this cross-cutting tactic tend to muddle characters rather than flesh them out. Sorkin's so busy hopping from one point in time to the next that the personalities of on-screen characters get lost in the process. I kept wishing The Trial of the Chicago 7 would allow me to get to know these characters out of the courtroom, off the stand-up stage, and outside of a rally. Characterization also gets lost due to the film's tendency for high-stage theatrics. The story of Bobby Seale, for example, is told here in a manner that eventually reduces him to being just a prop. Said prop's only purpose is to allow white characters (like rival lawyer Richard Schultz) to establish their credibility as not actually racist people in big dramatic line readings.

Such a scene delivers lines of dialogue that are handy for a trailer but don't do much to make Seale a person. This is especially a shame given that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives one of the best performances of the whole movie in his screentime. Alas, Abdul-Mateen II can only do so much when his character is undercut by The Trial of the Chicago 7's surprisingly blase attitude towards minorities and women. The revolution is here, but Sorkin's gaze is only focused on the most privileged of activists. In any year, that would feel like an undercutting of Chicago 7's central themes. In 2020, though, amidst rising protests against race-based police brutality, it feels especially insulting. 

The ensemble cast of Chicago 7 contains performances that are all over the map. Sacha Baron Cohen delivers great work in the lead role. It was a clever idea to have Cohen play an outsized jokester who's also an activist. It allows Cohen to play upon traits that he's bee utilizing for years as a comic while also allowing him to flex his dramatic acting muscles. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Eddie Redmayne, who struggles mightily to convey any sort of discernible personality in his performance beyond just being a broadly-defined antithesis to Cohen's Hoffman. Reliable character actor staples like Frank Langella, Mark Rylane and John Carroll Lynch do memorable work in supporting roles.

All these actors are working under the guideship of Aaron Sorkin in his second stab at directing feature films. Unfortunately, his visual style hasn't improved much from Molly's Game. Chicago 7 mostly just looks flat while the filmmaking misses a number of opportunities to serve as a visual reflection of its lead characters. Thankfully, Sorkin's underwhelming directorial work doesn't get in the way of the genuinely effective moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7. There's enough of those moments to make Chicago 7 an agreeable watch. However, Sorkin's best screenplays (The Social Network and Steve Jobs specifically) and the boundary-pushing nature of its real-life characters kept making me wish for more. The Trial of the Chicago 7 could have been more than just a familiar take on people who wanted to upend the world.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: Let Me In

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020. 

Entry #19: Let Me In

American remakes of foreign-langauge films frequently feel like a pointless exercise. Yes, good examples of this genre exist, most notably in Martin Scorsese's The Departed or The Birdcage. But for the most part, the likes of The Secret In Their Eyes or Godzilla (1998) just miss the whole point of the original property without carving their own identity as an acceptable substitute. Add to the pile of good examples of this trend Matt Reeves' Let Me In. A remake of the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, itself an adaptation of a book of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let Me In isn't just rehash leftovers. It's just a good chilling vampire yarn in its own right!

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is having a troubled time at school. Living in Los Alamos, New Mexico with his newly-single Mom, Owen is constantly harassed by bullies. Feeling all alone, Owen soon finds a friend in new neighbor Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz). Though Abby insists the two keep their distance at first, they eventually bond over, among other things, Rubik's Cubes, arcade games and the shared sense of being lonely in a town full of people. But there's a wrinkle. You see, Abby is a vampire. Not just a harmless kind of vampire either. She needs blood to live and her "father", Thomas (Richard Jenkins), has been slaughtering local townsfolk for her. Owen finally has a friend...and she's also a monster.

Tomas Alfredson's approach to Let the Right One In was one deeply rooted in European arthouse sensibilities with ts prolonged single-takes and muted atmosphere. There was a clinical approach to the movie that was as cold as the snowy ground the adolescent leads walked on. In the hands of Alfredson, that sense of detachment actually worked quite well at reflecting how the protagonists felt so isolated from the world around them. For Let Me In, writer/director Reeves smartly opts to go in the opposite tonal direction. Let Me In is a movie with lush emotional moments that can be popped, like a pin puncturing a balloon, by the grisliness of Abby's condition.

For much of Let Me In, the film could easily function as just a coming-of-age drama rather than a straightforward horror movie. Abby and Owen bonding in an arcade or the duo dancing to music in Owen's apartment while his Mom is out, these scenes perfectly capture that sensation of awkwardly navigating your first crush. Lead performers Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz impressively reflect the unique authentic imperfections of their individual characters. Across both performances, though, is the poignant idea that these two truly feel at home in each other's company. In their time together, two loners don't have to be so lonely.

Just when you're lulled into thinking the whole movie is just centered on adolescent sweetness, Reeves pulls the rug out from under the viewer. This whole thing, after all, is centered on a carnivorous vampire. Reeves commits just as heavily to the gruesome horror sections of Let Me In as he does to the coming-of-age portions. Any of the scenes of Thomas going out to capture people for Abby are especially chilling mostly due to Reeves' sense of restraint. These largely dialogue-free scenes get so much tension out of just Thomas waiting in the backseat of these cars rather than slicing people's throats open. Meanwhile, the choice to frame some of his actual killings from afar only heightens their impact. Again, in these moments, we see how Let Me In uses prudence to its advantage.

Come to think of it, a number of the best scary moments in Let Me In are built on the same thing that fuels the sequences dedicated to Thomas going out and murder people; a sense of growing dread. Abby's feigning an injury to lure a jogger or a cop breaking into Abby's home all get so much suspense out of the viewer knowing more than the characters on-screen. These suspenseful set pieces are a great use of Alfred Hitchcock's "Bomb Theory" but they're also exceptional in how well they play on the audiences' investment in Owen and Abby. No matter how much carnage is occurring on-screen, the relationship between Owen and Abby never gets lost in the shuffle. Scares work in the service of characters in Let Me In, not the other way around.

On top of all that, the movie looks great too. The camerawork is certainly not as distinctive as the bold cinematography of Let the Right One In. But Reeves still delivers plenty of memorable imagery here, particularly in an extended single-take following Thomas trying to hurriedly leave the scene of a botched kidnapping. I'm sure in 2010, when found-footage horror movies with oodles of shaky-cam dominated movie theaters, seeing this kind of crisp camerawork on the big screen was extra exciting.

I'll freely admit that, going into any American remake of a foreign-language film, I carry a good amount of trepidation. But leave it to the filmmaker who turned a pair of Planet of the Apes blockbusters into incredibly evocative pieces of cinema to also make a Let the Right One In remake that can stand tall alongside the original. Let Me In is no cash-grab horror remake. Instead, it's a thoughtfully rendered feature that carves out a bloody involving coming-of-age yarn. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

By Happy Madison Standards, Hubie Halloween Is A Treat


It's that time of year of again. A new Adam Sandler vehicle is upon us. Though they now premiere on Netflix instead of in movie theaters, the formula has largely remained the same. PG-13 humor heavy on slapstick and bathroom humor. Lots of celebrity cameos. Product placement abounds. Oh, and there's also the fact that most of these movies hailing from Sandler's Happy Madison production company haven't been very good. Hubie Halloween carries most of these very same qualities but it's also an improvement over most other Sandler vehicles. As far as general movies go, that makes Hubie just a painless but disposable production. Among Sandler comedies, though, Hubie practically looks like Duck Soup compared to Jack & Jill. 

Sandler plays one of two types of characters in his comedies. In films like Grown Ups or Just Go With It, he's an "everyman" without much of a discernible personality. Then there are the characters who are like Saturday Night Live characters he never got to play. They usually have distinct costumes and a wacky voice. Little Nicky, Sandy Wexler, Zohan, those kinds of characters. Hubie Dubois, the lead character of Hubie Halloween, falls distinctly into the second class of character. He probably would have worked fine as a one-off character in a Halloween-themed SNL sketch in the vein of David S. Pumpkins. 

As a character we follow for a whole feature-length movie, Hubie's constant muttering and Narc-esque sense of dedication to rule-following gets old.  Something else Hubie has is a penchant for being scared by, well, everything. Even his Mom's goofy Halloween decorations frighten him. But Hubie is gonna need to muster up some courage if he's going to save Halloween night for everyone who lives in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Somebody out there is making people disappear. This town has its own Michael Myers on the loose and Hubie, through a series of plot contrivances, might be the only one who can stop this menace. 

The fact that some kind of haunting figure is constantly driving the plot of Hubie Halloween already makes it a stark improvement over Happy Madison comedies.  Whereas the Grown Ups movies felt like a bunch of home videos stitched together, Hubie at least has a cogent character arc and a consistent nemesis to help keep the premise moving. The Halloween setting also make the whole movie a lot more visually pleasing than expected. Anytime there's a crowd scene, you can amuse yourself by picking out fun costumes that the various characters are wearing. It could be the New England side of my family talking, but the various outdoor environments informed by Massachusetts in Autumn prove to be quite nice to look at. Even if a gag falters, you can just turn to the background, see something pretty, and smile. 

Also, the humor isn't nearly as irritating as it is in other Sandler vehicles. Farts, for example, are kept to just one gag at the beginning. Even the recurring celebrity cameos are more enjoyable this go-around. Steve Buscemi proves particularly amusing as Hubie's new neighbor who might possibly be a werewolf. It's a weird little role but Buscemi commits to it with such amusing vigor. Really, the weak link here is Hubie. Sandler gets points for tossing himself into the part and the characters trusty thermos provides some amusing sight gags in how, like Mary Poppins' bag, it can produce any object when the occasion the calls for it.

But Hubie just isn't interesting or funny enough to hang a whole movie on. To boot, the eventual romance between him and Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen) is utterly perplexing. Hubie Halloween executes their love with surprising sincerity despite the fact that there's no reason Valentine should be this attracted to Hubie. Why does the film keep returning to their romance instead of engaging in absurdist gags (like Buscemi's character)? Hubie turns out to be the biggest problem with Hubie Halloween and keeps the whole production from really being something special. But as either a family-friendly Halloween-timed diversion or a Happy Madison comedy, you could do certainly far worse than Hubie Halloween.

In Laman's Terms: The Ever-Evolving Nature of Amazon Studios (PART ONE)

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!

Movie studios are always changing. Just look at the various forms MGM has taken on since 1924. Similarly, look at how 20th Century Fox (sorry, 20th Century Studios) went from being one of the biggest movie studios on the planet to a Disney subsidiary. Amazon Studios is no exchange. The brand of Amazon dedicated to making movies, a lot has changed since the studio got up and running. How much has changed? The studio was founded ten months before Netflix released their first original movie, Beasts of No Nation. In that time Amazon has constantly shifted what kind of movies it makes and how it releases them. The film industry is in a constant state of evolution and so is Amazon Studios.

But before all those changes, there was the founding of Amazon Studios. Two years after the first Amazon TV shows (Betas and Alpha House) premiered, Amazon Studios announced it was getting into the filmmaking business. In January 2015, news broke that Amazon Studios would be both creating and acquiring original films that would debut theatrically before hitting the Amazon streaming service. At the time, it was said that there would be "a four to eight-week" gap between the film's theatrical and streaming debut. In reality, Amazon would initially allow for a five to six-month gap between when a movies theatrical and streaming premiere. 

In announcing the news, the then-Vice President of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, said: 

"We look forward to expanding our production efforts into feature films. Our goal is to create close to 12 movies a year, with production starting later this year. Not only will we bring Prime Instant Video customers exciting, unique and exclusive films soon after a movie's theatrical run, but we hope this program will also benefit filmmakers, who too often struggle to mount fresh and daring stories that deserve an audience."

In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Price explained the kind of movies that the Amazon Studios slate would be modeled after: 

I think Whiplash, Birdman, Boyhood, Her, Mud, and also King’s Speech, and going back in time to Shakespeare in Love. That’s a great ballpark for us.

This makes it clear that Amazon Studios was made to focus on indie dramas, with clear aspirations of making it big at the Oscars like King's Speech, Birdman and Shakespeare in Love did. To their credit, Amazon did put their money where their mouth was. Their first film was Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, which certainly wasn't a cookie-cutter studio feature. From there, they released films from filmmakers like Todd Solondz, Whit Stillman, Nicolas Winding Refn and Park Chan-Wook. The studio got its first major hit, both financially and in terms of awards, with Manchester by the Sea. It's still the highest-grossing Amazon Studios release with a $47.7 million domestic cume while Manchester also made history by becoming the first film from a streaming platform to score a Best Picture nomination.

One thing to note before going forward; Amazon's movies were distributed theatrically by other movie studios. They bounced around across different distributors but Roadside Attractions was a regular distributor for Amazon fare while Bleecker Street, Lionsgate and Magnolia Pictures also handled multiple Amazon titles theatrically.

For a moment, it really looked like Amazon was eating Netflix's lunch when it came to original streaming movies. Netflix's insistence on movies debuting on streaming exclusively gave them an initial disadvantage to Amazon, who promised to give filmmakers a traditional theatrical release before a streaming premiere. Whereas Amazon concluded 2016 with a Best Picture nominee in Manchester By the Sea, Netflix wrapped up the year premiering Spectral, an action blockbuster they acquired from Legendary Pictures. Amazon was doing the artsy prestige fare. Netflix was doing broadly appealing fare like Adam Sandler comedies.

As Kwame Opam of The Verge put it in January 2017 after Manchester scored a boatload of Oscar nominations:

Amazon has the advantage for now, and it hasn’t even won an Oscar yet. It’s now on Netflix to catch up for next year.

 Seems so quaint now, huh?

2017 started out just fine for Amazon Studios. The documentary I Am Not Your Negro made a much-better-than-expected $7 million domestically. Better yet, The Big Sick ended up being a massive sleeper hit and grossed $42.9 million domestically. However, right after The Big Sick, the studio entered a slump. Titles like Landline, The Only Living Boy in New York and Brad's Status all flopped even by the box office standards of arthouse fare. Meanwhile, Netflix was finally scoring the kind of auteur-driven acclaimed dramas that Amazon was supposed to have cornered the market on. The Meyerowitz Stories and Mudbound ensured that Netflix would have a mighty presence in the 2017 award season. 

Amazon Studios, meanwhile, came up short at award season just as it was entering a new chapter in its existence. Amazon would no longer be at the mercy of other theatrical distributors. As announced in July 2017, Amazon Studios would self-distribute their movies starting with the Woody Allen movie Wonder Wheel. The endeavor got off to a poor start thanks to the $1.4 million domestic gross of Wonder Wheel. That gross looked positively divine compared to the utter cratering that greeted the studios September 2018 feature Life Itself. 

After paying $10 million for distribution rights to the film, Amazon gave Life Itself a splashy 2,578 theater launch, a sharp contrast to the platform releases Amazon usually gave its titles. The maneuver turned out to be ill-advised. Life Itself opened to a disastrous $2.1 million and grossed an anemic $4.1 million domestically. The rest of Amazon's 2018 slate, featuring Beautiful Boy and Suspiria, all flopped as well. While Netflix was scoring accolades for releasing the likes of Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Other Side of the Wind, Amazon was struggling. Badly. A change was in order.

Enter Jennifer Salke.

Salke was hired as the new head of Amazon Studios seven months prior to Life Itself crash and burning. However, her new approach to Amazon Studios was clearly informed by the outfits 2018 duds. As Amazon snatched up a wide assortment of movies at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Salke's ambition to gear the streamer more towards crowdpleaser fare was apparent. Grim films like Beautiful Boy were no longer the only things being released by Amazon Studios. Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon were now at the forefront of Amazon's 2019 slate. Additionally, not all Amazon Studios titles would get traditional theatrical releases. The Report, for example, was set to be the biggest movie yet that Amazon would debut directly onto its streaming service.

Would the new direction for Amazon Studios to work? Come back for next week's In Laman's Terms column, where I'll examine how these films have fared and how Amazon Studios has further evolved in 2020!

13 Days of First-Time Frights: The Thing (2011)

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020. 

Entry #18: The Thing (2011)

Who exactly is the 2011 Thing movie for?

If you're a total newcomer to the world of The Thing, I'm not sure the movie itself will have much value to you. The scares just aren't that scary and it's never able to establish its own compelling standalone identity. An epilogue playing over the credits that ties directly into the opening of the 1982 movie will prove incoherent for those who haven't seen it.

What about fans of the 1982 movie? Well, there's not much here either. The Thing is a prequel, not a remake, but it functions like a traditional remake. It's another story about a bunch of people trapped in an icy isolated outpost who come face-to-face with a shapeshifting alien. You've seen this before, with the primary different being that, back in 1982, trailblazing practical effects were used to render the titular Thing.

Perhaps then the 2011 Thing isn't for any audience of moviegoers. Perhaps it's target demo is studio executives at Universal. Remember, The Thing was coming eight years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre popularized the trend of remaking classic horror movies. With all the biggest library titles like Friday the 13th exploited, the trend was on its way out. Universal was now just looking to make sure they had a remake of every big horror title in their library. Thus, a Thing prequel that functioned as a remake was born. I'm sure studio executives gobbled it up. The rest of us, though, reacted with a shrug.

The Thing's protagonist is Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an archeologist called up to examine what the crew of a Norwegian research station has found in the Arctic. Turns out, they've gotten a hold of an alien, trapped for centuries in the ice. While everyone is celebrating their discovery, the beast gets loose. As Lloyd quickly discovers, this alien has the unique ability to copy its prey. Taking the shape of any organic material, this Thing is now hunting down the people on this base. Paranoia begins to grow in this chilly wasteland. There's nobody anyone can trust. Who's gonna make it out alive in this movie whose resolution was already made apparent in the original Thing?

Because this new Thing adheres so closely to John Carpenter's version of The Thing, you can't help but notice how this new version comes up short compared to its predecessor. Ennio Morricone's iconic score has been replaced by disposable compositions from Marco Beltrami. Memorable character actors like Keith David and Wilfred Brimley are here traded out for an interchangeable cast of heavily-bearded actors. Worst of all, though, is the creature effects, which are rendered through hideous CGI. The mind reels at seeing The Thing on the big screen in 2011 and seeing visual effects straight out of Spawn or Lost in Space.

Worst of all, these CGI renderings of the Thing mean the creature is out in the open for prolonged periods of time. Much like the CGI Xenomorph romping around in broad daylight in Alien: Covenant, being able to see more of a famous movie monster doesn't make them scarier. Any of the intrigue of the original is gone and The Thing fails to substitute it with anything new. It's content to just be a generic brand extension exercise. A handful of solid suspense scenes (mostly centered on more intimate matters than a giant CGI monstrosity) and game performances from the cast ensure it's harmless and more average than bad. But those positive details still can't make The Thing feel like anything more than a perfunctory prequel.

What a shame, especially since casting a woman in the lead role immediately lends the possibility of this new Thing having something new to offer. Oodles of thoughtful academia has been published over John Carpenter's Thing being a reflection on various aspects of masculinity. Making a new Thing movie that is instead a reflection of femininity could have at least been a new approach. But Kate's gender proves superfluous to the whole movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead tries her best with this role, but she can't overcome poor writing that fails to give her even the barest amount of personality. The potential to unlock new gender-related examinations in the world of The Thing goes unrealized. 

Who is The Thing for? Well, certainly not people looking for top-shelf horror. Oh what could have been if those original practical effects made it into the final cut...

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: The Blob

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #17: The Blob

Like a lot of influential horror movies, The Blob was not beloved upon its initial release. In fact, critics seemed to be mostly dismissive of the project. Amusingly, even the visual effects were widely-panned back in 1958. The New York Times even outright called the visual effects "phony-looking". The film proved a hit with audiences, though, and helped to usher in a new horror movie monster mainstay in the form of blob-like creatures. Oh, and that Steve McQueen guy, he ended up doing one or two movies you might have heard of. 

The plot of The Blob begins with sweethearts Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and Jane Martin (Aneta Corseaut) watching the stars together. However, they spy something out falling right out of the sky into a nearby field. At the same time, a local farmer goes to investigate this object and finds a slimy being inside. This being, the initial form of that Blob, latches itself to the farmer's arm and Steve and Jane proceed to take the farmer to the hospital. Here, the Blob begins to consume more people and grow in size. As Steve tries to convince the local townspeople, particularly the dubious police, that something nefarious is gobbling up their neighbors, the Blob begins to eat and eat and grow and grow.

The Blob is a B-movie from the 1950s. That right there should tell you what you're getting into here. Expect a lot of vapid teenage characters who are mostly just middle-aged people's conceptions of what "today's youth" is like. Expect some romance between the principal male and female characters that's about as romantically compelling as two mannequins toppling over each other. Also expect the runtime to be dedicated mostly to lengthy conversations. After all, those are cheaper to film than the eye-catching VFX-wizardry on the movies poster. These are all as ingrained into the genre as songs are into musicals or fight scenes are into kung-fu movies.

How does The Blob fare as an entry in this genre? Better than usual, certainly. Despite complaints from initial release reviews about the VFX used for the Blob, I actually found any set pieces involving this entity to be the most engaging parts of The Blob. The decision to eschew any anthropomorphized features for this creature really lends an eerie quality to the Blob. Much like the similarly sparsely-designed alien in Dark Star, there are no shortcuts to tell what's going on inside the head of the Blob. The lack of sound as the Blob squelches into a room also proves appropriately unsettling. The idea of this unstoppable being capable of just going into any room without making so much as a whisper, sixty years later that's still effective at jostling your nerves.

On the other hand, human-centric scenes in The Blob are more meandering than suspenseful. Throwaway characters like a doctor's landlord or a grouchy police officer blabber on for what seems like eons as director Irvin Yeaworth tries to eat up minutes in the films already short 82-minute runtime. Though Yeaworth proves successful in boosting the runtime, this effort undercuts any sense of tension in the film. The decision to film these dialogue-heavy sequences in extended one-takes further compounds their sense of listlessness. The performances from the actors also don't help, but they're adhering to the traditional acting style seen in these drive-in B-movies, so it's hard to fault the cast for just following what amounts to basic protocol.

In his first lead role, Steve McQueen lends a sense of commitment to his role as a teenager dying to be taken seriously by the dubious adults around him. McQueen can't make the dialogue of The Blob organic. I doubt anyone could. However, his soon-to-be-iconic charisma does lend a greater level of watchability to his performance compared to other B-movie lead performances. McQueen, the visual effects and a third-act that admirably embraces taking the Blob creature to its greatest extreme render The Blob an above-average effort in the halls of 50s B-movies. It also gets bonus points for how its final line ("Just so long as the Arctic doesn't run out of ice!") now registers as unintentionally ominous in 2020.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Forty-Year-Old-Version Proves To Be An Incredible Directorial Debut For Radha Blank


Success comes at a price. At least, that's how Radha (Radha Blank) sees things. She's a playwright and teacher in New York City who managed to secure a spot on a high-profile 30 Under 30 Playwrights list in her late twenties. That exciting development seemed to signal that her career was about to take off like a rocket. However, flash-forward to 2020, and Radha is approaching forty with all kinds of problems. She's reeling from her Mom's recent death, she can't get any of her plays produced, she's struggling to get through the students she her life going nowhere? Just to vent her frustrations, she begins rapping and turns out to be surprisingly good at it. Just as Radha begins to embrace her new career field, she gets a chance to have her play, Harlem Ave., produced on Broadway, albeit in a creatively compromised manner.

The Forty-Year-Old Version will resonate as all too familiar for those who make art. The eternal struggle between fulfilling what society defines as success and fulfilling your own definition of success. Radha Blank's screenplay recognizes how easy it is to just say "Yes, I'll be true to my creative self" but that it's a whole other thing navigating the world of art and being true to that. For Radha, her experience with this conundrum is compounded by problems unique to artists of color. When society's vision of "success" is only defined by powerful white gatekeepers (here personified by a character named J. Whitman, played by Reed Birney), that means bolder material can get its edges sanded off. After all, what's deemed conventionally "successful" also isn't supposed to offend or challenge white audiences.

While the fictional character Radha grapples with her creative vision on Harlem Ave. getting stifled, writer/director/lead performer Radha Blank flourishes as an artist with The Forty-Year-Old Version. Her exploration of Radha's life brim with authenticity. I love how realistically Blank conjures up complex human experiences for her protagonist, like Radha constantly putting off the act of cleaning out her Mom's apartment or Radha's stoned rap performance that goes awry. Radha's life, like anyone's, is messy. Embracing that leads to The Forty-Year-Old Version being so consistently compelling. Just like our own lives, one never knows just where Radha's journey will take her next.

The realism and detail that marks Radha is also found in the variety of entertaining characters that surround her throughout The Forty-Year-Old-Version. This trait, as well as Blank's creativity as a writer, is especially noticeable in the handling of Radha's students. These kids could have easily been a mish-mash of hackneyed stereotypes, but they all feel like real people. Plus, it's so sweet that they all turn out to be genuinely excited for their teacher. Whether Radha is rapping or getting her show produced, these students are there to cheer her on, it's so wholesome. Particularly memorable among these students is are the characters Rosa (Haskiri Velazquez) and Elaine (Imani Lewis). Their dynamic ends up going in an unexpected direction that masterfully reinforces The Forty-Year-Old Version's ultimate thesis of embracing who you are above all else.

All of these characters are captured in a monochromatic color scheme. Cinematographer Eric Branco makes particularly good use of this visual detail anytime shadows are employed in The Forty-Year-Old Version. A scene of Radha and D (Oswin Benjamin) talking in a dressing room before Radha's first public performance especially makes great use of striking shadows to instill an appropriate sense of unease. In this scene, we also see how well Radha Blank utilizes empty space as a filmmaker. With a 2.39: 1 aspect ratio at her disposal, Blank makes the world around her protagonist feel vast, you can understand why she feels so overwhelmed by it. This affinity for wider shots is particularly noticeable whenever Radha is interacting with a local homeless man by the name of Lamont (Jacob Ming-Trent). 

In his interactions with Radha, Lamont is always captured in a wide shot while Radha is framed in a close-up. This immediately conveys how the two characters keep such distance between one another. They're not friends, it's more like they're inadvertent neighbors. Plus, there's something inherently humorous about a character trying to carry on a conversation even while they're a great distance away. That's another great thing about The Forty-Year-Old Version, it's just oh so funny. There's so much to unpack in its thoughtful writing and filmmaking. But if you're also just looking for a good comedy, this movie has got you covered. A scene where two of Radha's students pitch an action/adventure play focused on a sperm warrior alone proves hysterical.

It's difficult to preserve who you are and your goals in the pursuit of success. The Forty-Year-Old Version explores this tricky process with such impressive insightfulness. Sometimes, success does come at a price. But I'm struggling to see any real downsides to creating as successful of a directorial debut as Radha Blank's The Forty-Year-Old Version.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Corpus Christi Weaves A Gripping Morally Complex Yarn

Recently released prisoner Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) has had his life changed in the slammer by religion. However, any hopes of becoming a man of the cloth once he gets out are dashed by the fact that a former convict could never get the job. But what if nobody knew who he was? What if Daniel got a shot at a whole new life? That's the opportunity Daniel gets after he shirks his new job at a sawmill. Instead of going there, he walks up the road to a small town whose local church is about to be devoid of a vicar. Posing as a preacher, Daniel is offered to temporarily take over the job on the spot. While in this position of power, Daniel finds himself struggling to keep up the facade while also becoming embroiled over local drama stemming from a recent automobile accident.

Maybe it's just the fact that I was reading about this playwright in one of my Graduate courses, but Corpus Christi, a film hailing from director Jan Komasa, evoked the kind of moral complexity seen in the works of Bertolt Brecht. In Brecht plays like Mother Courage and her Children, there aren't heroes and villains, just every day people surviving in a world far larger than any one person. As playwright Tony Kushner once pointed out, Mother Courage can do things, like barter prices while her son's life hangs in the balance, that would inspire immediate hatred in any other play. In the context of Mother Courage, though, such behavior merely inspires one to reflect on the hardships the character of Mother Courage is enduring, the hard choices she's faced with every day.

So it is with Corpus Christi, which is built entirely on a former murderer lying to a small town and taking over as a preacher. Screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz does phenomenal work in taking such a provocative starting point and unraveling such a morally intricate story from there. In the hands of Pacewicz, we may not always approve of the decisions Daniel makes, but we always understand the psychology behind them. We can see why he'd rather live a lie that could always crumble rather than live a steady but unfulfilling existence rooted in reality. There's layer upon layers of complexity in Daniel's saga and it's all executed so effortlessly. 

You're so engrossed by Daniel's story that you won't even realize the masterful screenwriting and directing Pacewicz and Komasa, respectively, are engaging in to bring it to life. That same approach to both morality and subtle craftsmanship is present in all the characters in Corpus Christi, most of whom are dealing with their own form of grief stemming from a car accident that took several lives. Whether it's the townspeople still enraged at the loss of their loved ones or the widow of the supposed drunken driver at the heart of the accident, Corpus Christi organically finds time to devastatingly explore the psychology of each of these individuals. 

Lending such nuance to the world of Corpus Christi means you never know where this story is going to hurl to next. Even the arrival of someone from Daniel's old life into this small town doesn't unfold in an expected manner. This commitment to nuance-driven unpredictability means Corpus Christi is just riddled with tension. This level of suspense also comes from how the precariousness of Daniel's newly-crafted existence is made so apparent in even the quietest moments of this production. Both the audience and Daniel are aware everything in Daniel's new could shatter at any given moment. The question of "How long can this last?" lingers over every scene of Corpus Christi to varying degrees.

Nothing lasts forever. That's just as true for new lies we carve out for ourselves as it is for exceptional movies. But it's hard to forget about either those lies or those exceptional movies. Those impactful memories actually can stick around for a long time. Certainly I'll be thinking about Corpus Christi's mesmerizing lead performance from Bartosz Bielenia for ages to come. The way he fuses a sense of quiet menace with palpable sorrow is truly impeccable. Within Bielenia's acting, as well as the various supporting performances, the intended intricacy of both the character of Daniel and the entirety of Corpus Christi is beautifully realized.

13 Days of First-Time Frights: An American Werewolf in London


13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020. 

Entry #16: An American Werewolf in London

It's strange that horror comedies have always been such a tough sell when it comes to marketing movies considering how naturally the two genres have gone together. Dating back to the earliest days of Universal Monsters, which peppered their horror films with moments of levity, horror cinema has always made use of comedy. That relationship only grew more profound when filmmakers like Sam Raimi began making movies. Raimi's Evil Dead movies are a quintessential example of groundbreaking ways to combine the worlds of scares and yuks. Coming out in relatively the same era is another notable horror/comedy, An American Werewolf in London.

Werewolf begins not with the titular beast but just two dudes backpacking together. Best buddies David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dune) are walking across the European landscape when they come across a strange pub. After this encounter, they wander further off and are attacked by some kind of hairy beast. Jack is killed in the encounter but David manages to survive. Afterward, David is visited by Jack's ghost and is informed that he's no longer himself. When the next full moon comes, David will turn into the beast that attacked him and Jack: a werewolf. David is dubious of this revelation until he actually transforms into this beast. Now, a bloodthirsty beast is loose in London and Davis is gonna have to make some hard choices if he wants to stop this monster.

You come to Gene Kelly musicals for the song n' dance routines. You come to Charlie Chaplin movies to laugh. And if you're seeking out An American Werewolf in London, you're coming for Rick Baker's makeup work. Baker does not disappoint in his practical effects work used to render the transformation of David Kessler. In 2020, an extended sequence dedicated to David gradually turning into this beast still thoroughly impresses. All the CGI shortcuts that would be used in a modern take on this story (or in that  1997 quasi-sequel An American Werewolf in Paris) are absent. What we have instead is the vastly preferable alternative of Baker's makeup work that lends a tangible quality to the extraordinary.

Equally impressive is the makeup work used to render Jack's deteriorating state as the film goes on. He initially appears to David as just Jack but with nasty scars on the side of his face. By the end of An American Werewolf in London, Jack has become a green-coated skeleton that barely resembles the backpacker David once knew. Both Baker's makeup work and the other visual effects wizardry used to realize this gradual transformation is truly impressive, particularly in how they're able to convey Jack's original personality even in his most far-gone state. That's an excellent detail that demonstrates how An American Werewolf in London never forgets a sense of humanity in its VFX work.

As for the scares in An American Werewolf in London, my favorites are the ones in sequences of David hunting down people across London for the very first time. To conceal the understandable VFX limitations in realizing a werewolf, we don't see David's werewolf all the time. We mostly see his point-of-view, particularly as he hunts down a guy stuck in the subway late at night. Much like with Jaws, a filmmaking choice meant to cover up VFX restrictions just makes things scarier. A more chaotic climax with the werewolf just mutilating people out in the open isn't really that scary since everything is so apparent. Coming hot off the effectively restrained sequences from earlier, this finale can't help but come up short despite throwing everything at the wall.

Still, there are some amusingly over-the-top moments of violence in the home stretch of An American Werewolf in London, including one guy getting his head squished amidst all the mayhem. That burst of violence reflects the dark comedy streak throughout An American Werewolf in London. Aside from a handful of clumsy slapstick gags, the jokes are able to peacefully co-exist with the more chilling atmosphere. It helps that An American Werewolf in London has a good sense of when jokes would be intrusive rather than amusing. The big eerie set pieces involving werewolf attacks don't have forced jokes undercutting the tone. An American Werewolf in London has a much better command of tone than that, a quality that's essential for any good horror/comedy. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

In Laman's Terms: OK, Where Do Movie Theaters Go NOW?

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!

On Monday, news broke that Regal Cinemas, the second-biggest theater chain in North America, would be closing all 535 of its US locations for the near future. "This is not a decision we made lightly, and we did everything in our power to support a safe and sustainable reopening in the U.S.," said Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Regal's parent company Cineworld (per NPR). In response, the other two biggest movie theater chains in America, AMC Theatres and Cinemark, announced that their locations would not be closing anytime soon. American theatrical exhibition wasn't going into hibernation again, but with Regal's locations closing on Friday, it has suffered another blow.

Back in late August and early September, American movie theaters reopened their doors after closing in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. The original plan was for Tenet to kick off a new resurgence of releases that would bring theatrical moviegoing back to its pre-COVID-19 state. In reality, Tenet ended up underperforming domestically compared to even the most generous expectations. Other new releases like The Broken Hearts Gallery and The New Mutants have also failed to bring in moviegoers. Autumn 2020 tentpoles like Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die and Candyman got delayed. Facing these factors, Regal chose to close down their locations for the near future. 

Meanwhile, frustrated individuals of power in the exhibition industry have begun to look around for what's caused the domestic relaunch of theatrical moviegoing to go so awry so fast. This has included recurring targeting of Andrew Cuomo for not reopening New York movie theaters. While I'm no expert, I can tell you right now that problems with the theatrical exhibition industry in America go way deeper than New York. If people aren't going to the local Cinemark's in Texas (seriously, the theaters around here have been so empty), they're not gonna show up in droves in New York.

The central issue here is a lack of government funding, with the Orange Fuhrer abruptly refusing to help small businesses like independent movie theaters get the cash they need to stay alive. However, another problem here is the biggest movie theater chains (big corporations like Cinemark and AMC) refusing to see that the world has shifted. Through rushing to reopen like they did, movie theater chains showed a staggering lack of self-awareness of the outside world. Comments like  "This is the worst thing that could have happened, having Tenet open and nothing behind it. It’s the worst possible outcome and we needed that Mulan one-two punch behind it," which came from a "big circuit insider" speaking to Deadline in Sept. 2020, are common.

People in the American theater industry seriously thought that successfully reopening theaters would be as simple as turning on a light switch. It's not. With a pandemic still raging across the country, comments like the one above feel like a sick joke. It's not the lack of blockbusters that's the problem. It's the fact that theaters jumped too quickly. Trying to rush a return to "normalcy" only caused more problems. Now movie studios are delaying all their movies until 2021. Meanwhile, movie theaters are just burning money staying open to play few titles to even fewer moviegoers. Cuomo isn't the issue. It's big movie theater chains putting "normalcy" over the safety of moviegoers.

The aversion to reality on the part of the biggest movie theater chains comes as movie studios have had no choice but to face said reality in scheduling their movies. Dune, The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, they've all delayed their releases in the last week, with the postponement of Dune ensuring one less potential 2020 blockbuster for theaters to play. Theaters would like to just go back to playing movies regularly. With no new major movies on the docket for two months (Soul is currently scheduled for release on November 20, but there's no way that happens), though, that desire just isn't feasible. 

Big chains like AMC and Cinemark will have to get by with a smattering of smaller titles like Honest Thief while independent theater chains (the ones who really have my sympathy in all of this mess) hope for a miracle when it comes to government aid. The government needs to give these businesses, particularly smaller independent locations, the money they need to stay operational. Meanwhile, the biggest movie theater chains need to start getting a grip on reality. Recent lucrative box office in countries like China show that movie theaters are far from dead. But if theaters keep trying to bring them back despite audiences clearly being uncomfortable with going during a pandemic, well, that could actually threaten the long-term viability of movie theaters domestically.

Where do movie theaters go now? It's hard to say given how both the upcoming release date calendar and COVID-19's impact on America changes every second. But hopefully, movie theaters, specifically ones owned by giant corporations, are going to a place more cognizant of the realities related to this pandemic.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: Blade II

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches. These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as three Wednesdays and one Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #15: Blade II 

Much like the Backstreet Boys or the McRib, Blade (Wesley Snipes) is back! That vampire-hunter is still slicing up undead baddies and has recently used his skills to retrieve his mentor Abraham (Kris Kristofferson). If you're thinking "Didn't Abraham die in the first movie?", the answer would be yes. He died pretty explicitly. We even get to revisit his death scene at the start of Blade II! But much like Men in Black II and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Blade II just can't let go of a deceased mentor figure, so Abraham is back. Anywho, Blade won't be just teaming up with mentors back from the dead. He's also aligning himself with an elite mercenary group of vampires previously trained to hunt down Blade!

Why would Blade do such a thing? Well, the powerful vampire Eli Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann) recruits Blade because he's the only one Damaskinos can imagine being able to face of and defeat Jared (Luke Goss), a new super-powerful form of vampires who could destroy normal vampires and humanity within months. So goes the story of Blade II, which goes about in the expected directions you'd expect. The most prominent female member of the mercenary group ends up being a requisite love interest for Blade. Easily predictable secret bad guys are hiding in plain sight. Oh, and Wesley Snipes still looks cool as heck slicing down foes while wearing dark shades.

All of this means that Blade II might be the most un-Guillermo del Toro movie Guillermo del Toro has ever directed (though I haven't seen Mimic). Making a sequel to a movie he had no involvement in, del Toro is strictly adhering to the trail set up by Blade II's predecessor. That's not a bad thing considering that Blade itself was a good movie, but it did make me yearn for more of del Toro's trademark weirdness. Only Damaskinos lair feels like the kind of gloriously theatrical set you'd find in a del Toro feature. Meanwhile, del Toro's trademark theme of humanizing the monstrous seems to be around when it's revealed Jared is a more complex figure than we originally assumed...but he still becomes just another monster for Blade to defeat. Oh well.

If this all sounds like I'm down on Blade II, I'm really not. It's still a perfectly acceptable action movie. But having seen Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Pacific Rim, I know that del Toro can weave real magic and real weirdness out of American blockbuster fare. Blade II can't help but pale in comparison. Like I said, though, Blade II still works fine on its own merits, particularly in any of the over-the-top action scenes where Blade gets to do exactly what anybody watching this thing wants him to do. Blade has a confident air that couldn't be shaken by the mightiest earthquake. Watching him mow down armies of vampires with his sword is a sight that, shockingly, never gets old.

Plus, whenever Del Toro's fingerprints do emerge, they provide some of the enjoyable jolts of life Blade II has to offer. In particular, the gorier death and body transformation sequences mean the horror in Blade II is a lot more akin to del Toro's Cronos than the scares seen in the original Blade. Plus, Ron Perlman, del Toro's good luck charm, shows up as the most prominently-seen of the vampire mercenaries. Del Toro and Perlman are always a good combo but Perlman's rough-and-tumble onscreen demeanor also just makes for a great flipside to Snipes' Blade persona. These two have such pronounced differences just in how they carry themselves, let alone in the fact that Perlamn's character has been trained to slaughter Blade.

Action sequences involving the vampire hunter make heavy use of slow-motion (ah, the 2000s, a post-Matrix world where slo-mo was everywhere), and CGI stunt doubles. Those two elements kept taking me out of the movie but the more outlandish stunts were able to reel me back in. Blade II is the weakest title in Guillermo del Toro's filmography and it might even be a slight step down from its predecessor. Still, it's Wesley Snipes killing vampires under the direction of the man who gave the world Pan's Labyrinth. Needless to say, that combo can't help but yield some entertaining results.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Puzzle-Fixated Tenet Has No Time To Create Engaging Characters

At the start of Tenet, a scientist by the name of Barbara (Clemence Poesy) deliver two lines that pretty much sum up the whole movie. The first is when she meets Tenet's lead character, Protagonist (John David Washington). Here, she informs him "Do not tell me your name or any other personal information." The other comes when Protagonist expresses confusion over how exactly the process of a bullet traveling backwards works. "Don't try to understand it, just feel it," Barbara advises. With these two lines, writer/director Christopher Nolan is informing audiences that Tenet is a movie of set pieces, not characters, and that it's better to just go with the flow than ask questions about the movies unorthodox action sequences. 

Before those two lines of dialogue, Tenet introduces the viewer to Protagonist as a CIA agent who's been captured by enemy forces. While they torture him for information, he swallows a cyanide capsule rather than talk. On that day, Protagonist expected to die. Instead, he awakens in a hospital bed on a boat and is subsequently informed that he's passed a test to determine his loyalty. Knowing that Protagonist will succumb to enemy forces, Protagonist is assigned with Neil (Robert Pattinson) to investigate arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Not only is Sator in the business of deadly nuclear weapons, he's also procured objects that can move backwards in time. Who knows what Sator could accomplish with this tech. Protagonist is intent on ensuring the world never has to find out.

Nolan has long been known for being a cerebral filmmaker. However, his best works have always been just as in touch with their humanity as they were with their brain. Would the ending of The Prestige be such a barn-burner of a twist if we didn't care about the characters? Ditto the scene of Matthew McConaughey's lead character in Interstellar breaking down watching decades worth of video messages from his children. Tenet sees Nolan going in his most emotionally detached direction since he started major studio projects. This is a story of set pieces, not characterization. Conceptually, Tenet is aiming to be more like the stunt-oriented works of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan than Nolan's own Dunkirk.

That's not a bad thing for a movie to aspire to as a large number of Keaton and Chan classics can attest. Unfortunately, Tenet ends up betraying its ambitions in some key ways. For one thing, Nolan's screenplay is strangely reliant on dialogue. Prior Nolan movies Inception and Interstellar garnered criticisms for overdoses of expository dialogue. However, Tenet's heavy presence of dialogue bothered me in a way it hasn't in prior Nolan features. Tenet's script can't trust its own "Don't try to understand it" line as it ends up stuffing scenes full of lines that try to explain all the time-related stuff. Instead of letting viewers get swept up in the visuals, Tenet has to tap the audiences shoulder and explain, rather than show, how things work.

This is where the lack of really interesting characters also becomes a problem. If Tenet was 90-minute action film with no meat on the bones, the detached approach to Protagonist wouldn't be an issue. But a 150-minute movie whose first-half leans heavily on expository conversations needs to give me some kind of character I can latch onto. Otherwise, I'm just listening to a lecture rather than watching a blockbuster movie. Tenet's first half being largely devoid of time-reversal further compounds its tedium. John David Washington's charisma helps make some of these scenes tolerable but he can't be expected to carry the whole film. Nolan's insistence on both lots of dialogue and stripped-down characters ends up being a combo that drags Tenet down. 

Most of the action stuff in Tenet at least looks pretty good, with the best set-piece being an early break-in to a place that stores vintage pieces of art. Editor Jennifer Lame effectively cuts across three separate points in time. This trait, as well as Nolan's writing, give the sequence a lively heist movie vibe. Tenet briefly becomes an Ocean's Eleven movie where backward-moving adversaries burst in to provide complications to the heist. That's fun! A scuffle in a kitchen proves delightful, particularly Protagonist's use of a cheese grater against an enemy. Meanwhile, the insistence on using a firetruck during a chase scene provides some personality for a mid-movie set piece. But, the climax is a far more generic affair involving. Armies in brown hazmat suits running around and firing guns in a desolate grey landscape just aren't riveting.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the lack of distinct characters, or even just cool action beats, make this expansive but drab set-piece inert. As for Tenet's use of time reversal, it has its interesting moments. One of its best uses comes in an intimate sequence. This scene concerns a conversation between Protagonist and Sator that works just as well backward as it does forwards. However, the big storytelling reveals or "Gotcha!" moments involving time reversal ends up disappointing. When you're movie is built only on the punchline, you better have a good joke up your sleeve. Tenet, unfortunately, has key story beats cribbed from everything from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure to Bender's Big Score to Future War

A similar level of familiarity permeates Ludwig Goransson's score. Though this is Nolan's first movie since The Presitge not to have Hans Zimmer composing the score. You wouldn't know it by how heavily Goransson's score leans on deep bass instruments and that "BWONG" noise. At least Goransson injects some of his trademark creativity into how interestingly mechanical the score sounds. 

If Tenet had more of a distinct personality or engaging characters, its familiarity would be excusable. But Tenet opts to focus on being a puzzle above all else. Even the sound work, which drowns out expository dialogue over the roar of jets, seems like a way for Tenet to leave audiences questioning things enough to come back for multiple viewings. Alas, Tenet has forgotten that nobody cares to put puzzle pieces together if it doesn't add up to a pretty picture. Tenet's ambition to create something original on a blockbuster canvas is admirable. Ditto its most exciting set pieces and giving John David Washington a chance to headline a blockbuster. Unfortunately, Tenet's puzzle pieces added up to something that left me cold more often than it exhilarated.