Monday, January 30, 2023

80 for Brady is an agreeable, though not especially memorable, star-studded comedy

 


The trailer and other marketing materials for 80 for Brady offer a fairly accurate picture of what to expect from this comedy. This is a featherweight movie that's been built from the ground up to be light and breezy, with many of the gags emanating from seeing esteemed performers like Jane Fonda and Sally Field engaging in wacky shenanigans like accidentally ingesting drugs or dancing. There aren't really any surprises in here, which does ensure that you won't be quoting or referencing 80 for Brady long after you watch it. But while it's flickering on the screen, it's a pleasant distraction that matches expectations. It's always better when a film surprises you, but it's not a crime to be perfectly cromulent.

Inspired by a true story (though I presume it has as much to do with its inspiration as Tag did with its own real-life source material), 80 for Brady follows a quartet of New England Patriots fans, Lou (Lily Tomlin), Trish (Jane Fonda), Maura (Rita Moreno), and Betty (Sally Field) who would rather die than miss a game or a play from Tom Brady. Spurred on by the passion of Lou, this gaggle of pals decides to make a trek to Houston, Texas to watch Super Bowl LI, a game where Brady and the Patriots will be playing. Traveling to the lone star state was easy, but keeping track of their tickets and staying out of trouble before the big game, those will be the real challenges for these die-hard fans.

If nothing else, 80 for Brady is a welcome demonstration that its primary actors won't sleepwalk even through material that's often beneath them. Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern have delivered a script that often alternates between being a formulaic comedy and a lengthy NFL commercial, but our primary leads are as awake and alert as ever. Even the supporting cast is putting in more effort than they probably should. Glynn Turman, especially, delivers a dramatic monologue in such a touching and subtly moving fashion, complete with the gradual introduction of real tears into the sequence, all in service of a very predictable gag involving Moreno's character. These kinds of performances don't make 80 for Brady a new comic gem, but they do give it a little more pep in its step than you'd expect. 

Most of the movie is pretty serviceable but deeply predictable fare, complete with celebrity references and nods to "youth culture" (are you ready to see Lily Tomlin dab?) that are probably five years out of date, at least. If the sight of older women dancing sounds hilarious to you, then buckle up, you're in for a good time. The script also has some very awkward beats, namely a subplot with Betty and her quietly pestering husband (played by Bob Balaban) that awkwardly peters out with no resolution. At least Haskins and Halpern wisely avoid giving this gaggle of friends any kind of traditional dramatic break-up at the end of the second act. There's conflict between these four chums, but they're never in danger of falling apart. After all, they've been friends for decades, will some Super Bowl-related problem really devastate their dynamic? It's a nice subtle touch in a movie that often defaults to the broad and familiar.

Their script also gets a second wind of life in the third act when it seems like all the major problems for our lead characters are solved. Without getting into spoiler territory, 80 for Brady eventually decides to make the saga of its lead character's a kind of Rogue One to Super Bowl LI's Star Wars: A New Hope. In other words, it becomes a behind-the-scenes saga involving ordinary people that reveals the circumstances that made a more famous story possible. It's a ludicrous flight of fancy, but it's a lot more inventive than the more generic shenanigans that populate the preceding story. We've all seen gags hinging on older ladies dancing before. Lily Tomlin anchoring NFL fan-fiction, now that's more novel.

Beyond this detour into historical revisionism, director Kyle Marvin's approach for 80 for Brady is keeping things easygoing, but not surprising. This very straightforward approach means the proceedings are never quite good enough to either be worthy of its four lead performers or make you forget that you're watching a 98-minute commercial for the NFL. Still, if this movie seems like it'll be your cup of tea from the promos, you'll likely have a good time. 80 for Brady is here to deliver on expectations and isn't interested in rocking the boat any more than that. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

95th Academy Awards nominations predictions

An image from Moonfall, one of the most likely movies to prominently factor into the 95th Academy Awards nominations.

Well, it's time again. Award season has been going on for a few months now and the nominations for this year's edition of the Academy Awards are around the corner. This year's 95th Academy Awards are bound to be chaotic (though aren't they every year in some respect?) in terms of projected nominees. Questions like "how many sequels will there be?" or "will there be any women-directed movies?" linger over the Best Picture category alone. Meanwhile, there have been all kinds of reports that actors from major movies like The Fabelmans could end up nominated in different categories than the ones they were campaigned for.

When the nominations get announced Tuesday morning, we're bound to have lots to talk about and tons of controversy to unpack. For now, though, let's keep things simmered down by looking at my predictions for who will get nominated in every single category at the 95th Academy Awards. I've got some bold predictions in here, with my Best Picture picks alone featuring multiple foreign language nominees (if that happened, it'd be the first time in history that this category featured more than one title told in a language that isn't English) and no signs of the Na'vi. Let's march onward, folks, and see who I'm currently predicting to have some kind of role to play in the impending 95th Academy Awards.

One note before going forward: the movies and names in my Best Picture and Best Director predictions, respectively, are listed in alphabetical order, the rest of the movies in every other category are just randomly assorted.

Best Picture:

All Quiet on the Western Front

The Banshees of Inisherin

Elvis

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

RRR

TAR

Top Gun: Maverick

The Whale

Women Talking

Best Director:

Daniels (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Todd Field (TAR)

Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick)

Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin)

S.S. Rajamouli (RRR)

Best Actress:

Cate Blanchett (TAR)

Viola Davis (The Woman King)

Ana de Armas (Blonde)

Danielle Deadwyler (Till)

Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Best Actor:

Austin Butler (Elvis)

Bill Nighy (Living)

Brendan Fraser (The Whale)

Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin)

Paul Mascal (Aftersun)

Best Supporting Actress:

Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans)

Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever)

Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Dolly De Leon (Triangle of Sadness)

Best Supporting Actor:

Paul Dano (The Fabelmans)

Brendan Gleeson (The Banshees of Inisherin

Ke Huy Quan (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Judd Hirsch (The Fabelmans)

Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin)

Best Original Screenplay:

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

TAR

The Banshees of Inisherin

Aftersun

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Women Talking

Glass Onion

Living

The Whale

Top Gun: Maverick

Best Animated Feature:

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Turning Red

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Wendell & Wild

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Best Documentary Feature:

Bad Axe

All That Breathes

Navalny

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Fire of Love

Best International Film:

EO

All Quiet on the Western Front

Decision to Leave

Joyland

Close

Best Cinematography:

Top Gun: Maverick

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans 

Babylon

Elvis

Best Costume Design:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Elvis 

The Fabelmans

The Woman King

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Film Editing:

Top Gun: Maverick

Elvis

The Fabelmans 

Everything Everywhere All at Once 

Babylon

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Crimes of the Future

The Whale

Babylon

Elvis

The Batman

Best Production Design:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Glass Onion

The Fabelmans

Babylon

Best Original Score:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Women Talking

Babylon

The Fabelmans

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Song:

"Tell It Like a Woman" from Applause

"Hold My Hand" from Top Gun: Maverick

"Lift Me Up" from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

"This Is a Life" from Everything Everywhere All at Once

"Naatu Naatu" from RRR

Best Sound:

Top Gun: Maverick

Avatar: The Way of Water

Babylon

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Elvis

Best Visual Effects:

Nope

Thirteen Lives

Avatar: The Way of Water

Top Gun: Maverick

The Batman

Best Animated Short:

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

My Year of Dicks

Save Ralph

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake, and I Think I Believe It 

Ice Merchants

Best Live-Action Short:

La Pupille

The Red Suitcase

The Lone Wolf

Warsha

An Irish Goodbye

Best Documentary Short:

The Martha Mitchelle Effect 

Nuisance Bear

The Elephant Whisperers

The Flagmakers

How Do You Measure a Year?


Let's see how my predictions fare come this Tuesday!


Some decent chuckles can't erase the major writing problems in You People

Kenya Barris has carved out a TV empire for himself thanks to being the creator of Black-ish and two of its spin-offs as well as an executive producer on a slew of Netflix TV programs. Barris has also had a recurring presence in film as a screenwriter but save for being one of the writers on the 2017 comedy Girls Trip, his writing credits have been for a wave of reboots/sequels from major studios like The Witches, Shaft, and that Disney+ Cheaper by the Dozen remake. Considering that he was one of several writers on all these films, not to mention that these were franchise pictures designed to please audience expectations rather than challenge them, it's fair to say Barris's voice hasn't been especially discernible in feature-length narratives up to this point.

With the Netflix comedy You People, Barris, who directs this movie and wrote the script with Jonah Hill, gets a chance to show off his chops at crafting a film without also having to worry about what audiences and studio executives want out of a project like Coming 2 America. The resulting feature shows a welcome willingness on Barris's part to engage in lofty ideas and put his actors in unique roles. Unfortunately, his skills at merging broad comedy with tearjerker moments (at least in the world of film) are so lacking that You People as a whole ends up floundering.

After an awkward mishap involving an Uber ride, podcaster/broker Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and Amira Mohammed (Lauren London) have hit it off and become a couple. They love doing even the most frivolous things together, like brushing their teeth or watching ridiculous TV shows. What they don't love is how their respective families respond to their relationship, with these tensions flaring up as the duo prepares to get married. For Ezra, his mom, Shelley (Julia Lous-Dreyfus) is a perfect portrait of a clueless Liberal white lady. She's the sort of person who speaks about loving Black people but also sees them as just trophies she can use to prove how progressive she is. Meanwhile, Amira's dad, Akbar Mohammed (Eddie Murphy) has a very specific idea of who his daughter should marry and it isn't Ezra. He hates this guy from the get-go and Akbar is looking for any chance to prove to his daughter that Ezra would make a bad husband.

Shortly before my screening of You People started, I realized how long it'd been since I saw a Jonah Hill comedy on the big screen. "I can't wait to see this kind of yukfest theatrically again!" I thought to myself as the lights dimmed. Unfortunately, by the time You People reached its second instance of Hill stretching out an awkward conversation with heavily-improvised dialogue, I realized that I hadn't missed this Judd Apatow-style of comedy as much as I thought I had. Hill is an incredibly talented actor, and he gets to show off his skills in various other parts of You People. Unfortunately, relying on lengthy improvised lines has just never been his strong suit and it's a shame this movie immediately leans so hard on that trait.

From there, You People picks up a bit once Ezra and Amira begin dating and hitting it off. Hill and Barris nicely eschew any post-modernism winks to the camera as these two lovebirds tenderly play footsies on their first date or laugh together in a separate restaurant. The script has enough confidence to realize that committing to romantic sweetness is enough to get the audience on your side. You don't have to earn the trust of moviegoers by poking everybody in the ribs on how common these kinds of montages are. By playing straight-faced, You People immerses us in its central relationship and allows both Hill and London to flourish as actors by depicting the characters navigating the exciting early days of a budding romance.

Just as you need rain to go with the sunshine, so too does You People's script eventually pair this cutesy romance with extended bits of cringe comedy surrounding Ezra's parents socially interacting with Amira. Some of these gags work, especially when they involve David Duchovny playing against type as Ezra's dad who has a deep affection for Xzibit that he'll talk about at the drop of a hat. Still, there's a level of preciseness in timing needed to pull these kinds of sequences off. TV shows like The Rehearsal or The Eric Andre Show are masters at knowing how long cringe-inducing laughs should go on. Cut this type of comedy too short, it never reaches it full potential, but let it go on too long, and you just end up running your gags into the ground. You People, like so many Netflix original movies, unfortunately, has some major pacing issues that undercut the impact of its multiple stabs at cringe comedy. A sequence at a strip club in the third act involving supporting characters talking about Ezra's past, for instance, goes on forever and ever. I think it's still playing as I type up this review!

As You People goes on, it, unfortunately, gets worse, especially in its third act. The last 30-ish minutes of this movie boils down to a series of characters delivering lengthy monologues about their personal feelings. It's a didactic way of communicating information that's never interesting enough in its dialogue to justify why Ezra, Amira, and everyone else in the movie is suddenly turning to the camera to explain the lessons they want audiences to take away from the feature. The largely unimaginative filmmaking from Barris and cinematographer Mark Doering-Powell is especially apparent in these sequences. If these monologues are going to exist, they should feel momentous, but they're so flatly shot and lit. There's no difference between how Ezra and Amira are filmed pouring their hearts out compared to how they're shot just eating dinner together.

The emphasis on ham-fisted pathos in the third act underscores how few of the characters inhabiting You People really come off as, well, people. Amira is especially underserved by the script, with Barris and Hill's screenplay being shockingly uninterested in this character's life beyond her dynamic with Ezra and his family. We only see brief glimpses of her job and even briefer examinations of who her friends are. Eschewing these details leaves poor Lauren London often with nothing to do. Amira is emblematic of You People's greatest problem from a screenwriting perspective. The characters are so generically-defined and arch that attempts to wring poignancy out of them fall flat. Unfortunately, this feels like a more severe case of a similar problem with Hill's last feature film screenwriting credit, Mid90s, which also struggled to lend enough dimension to its respective characters to make pathos-heavy scenes feel earned.

That's all a shame since the actors in You People are not sleepwalking through this project. Eddie Murphy especially seems to be enjoying himself in a more restrained than usual part while Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a veteran of uncomfortable comedy thanks to Seinfeld, scores some glib chuckles in personifying White lady cluelessness. Solid performances and brief glimmers of more interesting examinations of weighty ideas keep You People from flaming out entirely. Alas, while it's nice to see Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy headlining a feature-length comedy in 2023, You People comes up short more often than it proves amusing, especially in its poorly conceived third act. At least it's better than an earlier film penned by Barris, The Witches.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Disastrous high frame rate aside, Avatar: The Way of Water is another remarkable James Cameron epic

In 2010, Brad Paisley released a cheeky country song called "Water." A simple title for an exceedingly simple song designed from the ground up to be played during summertime-themed Bud Light ads. In it, Paisley takes a chronological look at all the times water has played an influential part in his life, from playing in an inflatable pool as a kid to romping around in a river bank with friends as a teenager to a lake serving as a backdrop for a romantic rendezvous with a loved one. Even by the standards of Brad Paisley tunes released between 2000 and 2013, it's nothing outstanding (though it's better than "I'm Still a Guy", at least), but its very existence does suggest the kind of personal connections we all have to water. Somehow or another, water plays a major role in our lives without us even realizing it. "The way of water connects all things," a character in Avatar: The Way of Water intones in a line that could've hailed from a cut verse in Paisley's "Water." Moviegoers everywhere will no doubt agree even before they sit down to watch the latest Na'vi adventure.

Realizing the sheer power of water and the way it can intertwine with our personal lives is one of the many ways this latest James Cameron movie succeeds. Returning to the world of Pandora all these years later should just result in a bunch of stale leftovers. Instead, Avatar: The Way of Water is a dynamic and moving enterprise, with Cameron opting to use staggering visual effects technology on some incredibly quiet sequences.

The incredibly classical storytelling sensibilities of these Avatar movies are established immediately in The Way of Water's screenplay (penned by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver in addition to Cameron) through returning protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) narrating audiences through various events that have happened since the first Avatar. I've always said that the initial feature felt like a fable you'd tell around a campfire. Having Sully speak in hushed tones about the family he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have cultivated (with no in-universe explanation for where the narration is coming from, unlike its predecessor's narration) reinforces that vibe tremendously. 

Sully and Neytiri now have a whole gaggle of children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a daughter derived from the DNA of Dr. Grace Augustine, and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), the troubled younger son of the family. Their life is tremendously fulfilling, but things get thrown for a loop when humans from Earth return to the glorious world of Pandora. Decimating the forest the Sully's and other Na'vi call home, the humans are also putting together a collection of Avatar specimens that utilize the consciousness of evil dead soldiers, such as the first Avatar's main baddie General Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Now super tall and blue, Quaritch has a grudge against Sully that he'll pursue no matter what. With such violence on their tails, Sully and Neytiri pack up their family and look for a new home. Their travels eventually take them to a tribe of Na'vi that live in the Ocean.

There's a lot to digest in Avatar: The Way of Water as it journeys across multiple biomes and straddles so many characters at once. That 191-minute runtime isn't just for show! Shockingly, it's able to juggle most of its character-based elements quite nicely. Inevitably, some figures get stuck on the sidelines in the sprawling ensemble cast (I especially wanted more for Neytiri and Kate Winslet's Ronal) but the character beats that do get put into the foreground work nicely. Kiri is an especially wonderful creation and hands down the best character to emerge from the entire Avatar franchise. The idea of Sigourney Weaver playing a teenager should be a farce, but Weaver does great work making Kiri somebody evocative of Augustine but also discernibly her own character. Her awkwardness and sense of isolation as a "freak" no matter where she goes is also handled very well. I'm always a sucker for larger-than-life characters (in this case, a blue kitty cat alien teenager) grappling with everyday vulnerabilities and Kiri is a great example of why. It's just so emotionally fulfilling to get wrapped up in the humanity of something that doesn't initially look human.

It's also nifty that Cameron's creative trajectory has now shifted onto teenage characters, a great choice to immediately differentiate this Avatar installment from its predecessor. Not only that, but there's something so quietly tragic (though not deafeningly bleak as executed here) about watching these teens existing in a world that can turn into a warzone at the drop of a hat. When you're just watching these adolescent Na'vi chilling and talking under a palm tree together or talking to a space whale about how "I met a boy", you realize these are still kids. They should be concerned with petty squabbles and teenage nonsense, not threats of extermination from greedy humans that function as a physical embodiment of capitalism. These characters are forced to focus on survival, not personal fulfillment. Cameron doesn't rub the noses of viewers in this dark element of The Way of Water's narrative. However, the innate choice to center a plot that often becomes a war movie on teenagers can't help but lend the proceedings an extra bit of tragedy and depth.

The characters are fun, but of course, what anyone going into Avatar: The Way of Water craves is the visuals. Even with the high bar of its predecessor, The Way of Water delivers stunning images that'll make you want to run to the nearest beach. All that crystal blue water is just so gorgeous to watch consume a gigantic movie theater screen while the vidid lighting allows viewers to appreciate all the finer details hiding out on the margins of the frame. It's also interesting how the biggest sign of how far visual effects have come since the first Avatar is how much more of The Way of Water is focused on having CGI characters and live-action figures extensively interact. What served as primarily the emotional crescendo of the original Avatar (for the big emotional scene where Neytiri finally see's Sully's human form) is the norm for many scenes in The Way of Water, especially anything involving human child Spider (Jake Champion). It's staggering to watch this movie and realize how naturally the artificial and discernible human blend together, the Na'vi really do look like they're right there on a ship's deck or in a laboratory. 

Of course, all those visual feats would be even easier to appreciate if it weren't for the fatal flaw of Avatar: The Way of Water: high frame rate projection. As presented in my XD 3D showing (which is basically the equivalent to IMAX 3D at Cinemark movie theaters), large swathes of The Way of Water are shown in 48 frames per second, while the rest of the movie is shown in the traditional 24 frames per second. This choice is a tragedy on several fronts, including how it's just so distracting. Key moments of characters soaring through the sky or epic confrontations between good and evil just look like they're being fast-forwarded. Just as bad is how many sequences in this feature alternate between the two frame rates. Going from characters talking in 24 frames per second before they continue their conversation in 48 frames per second is disorienting and just highlights how much better the former format is. High-frame rate camerawork has its place in documentaries and for specific sequences in movies. But it's been clear long before The Way of Water that it doesn't work for the entirety or majority of narrative features. Pandora deserved better than looking like a football game on a display TV at Best Buy.

Other shortcomings in The Way of Water are of the more rudimentary variety. I'm not going to drag Jake Champion's performance as Spider since I feel like everybody's been doing that already (the downside of getting to a movie three weeks late cuz of COVID, I miss out on being a trailblazer in the discourse!), but his work is unquestionably weak. Champion had a difficult role to play here, the one teen who plays things passively in contrast to the other youngsters in the cast who get to rebel, not to mention he's separated from the cool water stuff audiences quickly latch onto. Even considering that, his line deliveries are often terrible and the performance leaves much to be desired. A third-act battle scene, meanwhile, starts off perfectly but does get bogged down in some weird repetition by the end as characters keep going back and forth to and from one location too often.

Those shortcomings and the grating presence of high frame rate weigh The Way of Water down in some respects, but by and large, this is, much like the first Avatar, another rip-roaring classical adventure full of robots, space dragons, and a bunch of cosmic critters you'll wish you could reach out and pet. All of its told with such earnestness that entire sequences of a teenage Na'vi and a whale bonding go by with nary a self-deprecating line in sight. That sincerity, a bunch of enjoyable teen protaganists, and tons of groundbreaking visual effects techniques (I know, a James Cameron movie that pushed the VFX envelope) make this just the kind of sweeping feature that makes for such a great time at the movies. Though it may be difficult for some to believe, Avatar: The Way of Water is a better artistic endeavor involving water than Brad Paisley's 2010 single "Water."

Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Man Called Otto isn't essential, but it is moving more often than not

CW: Discussion of suicide ahead

While it's always good to see Tom Hanks in anything, A Man Called Otto can't help but feel, on the surface, like a strange and even downright unwelcome visitor. A remake of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, itself an adaptation of the famous novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Otto belongs to that treacherous subgenre of English-language remakes of foreign-language movies. For every The Departed, a proper way of translating an international film to a quality standalone motion picture, we get a dozen or so of these kinds of remakes that add nothing to the films they're adapting. They merely feel like ways to cash in on familiar brand names, regurgitate stories told better elsewhere, and quietly reinforce the idea that the only movies worth watching are the ones told in English.

A Man Called Otto's worst elements do echo the infamous shortcomings of many English-language remakes of foreign-language movies, namely in being less subtle and daring than the film that inspired it. But shockingly, writer David Magee and director Marc Forster have concocted a touching drama with A Man Called Otto that isn't breaking any new ground in its form but does prove affecting more often than not.

Otto (Tom Hanks) is a cantankerous old man who begins A Man Called Otto ready to kill himself. Just as he's ready to put a noose around his neck, though, he sees that new neighbors Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) are making a mess in trying to park their moving van. A stickler for the rules, Otto leaves his suicide attempt behind and begrudgingly helps the duo properly park their automobile. From here, Otto continues to engage in various suicide attempts, all of them stemming from the anguish and hopelessness he feels over the recent loss of his wife. However, Marisol, Tommy, and other members of his neighborhood, including a homeless cat, keep inserting themselves into Otto's life and giving him reasons to stick around just a little while longer.

Director Marc Forster has shifted gears across many genres over the years (including blockbusters with World War Z and Quantum of Solace) but A Man Called Otto sees him returning to a mold he's often occupied: tearjerker dramas. Even his foray into a live-action adaptation of animated Disney characters, Christopher Robin, adhered to the melancholy and poignant nature of many of Forster's forays into this field, such as Finding Neverland or The Kite Runner. A Man Called Otto nicely fits into this well-trodden mold. Much like with Christopher Robin, Forster isn't blazing new trails with Otto but still makes an effective weepie.

What proves especially moving here is one of the most unique visual facets of A Man Called Otto compared to the original Swedish film. This time, the flashbacks to Otto's past that occur whenever this character attempts suicide are now more directly tied to the present-day world. Occasionally, the camera will cut back to Otto murmuring portions of words he said in the past while the older and younger versions of Otto will sometimes find themselves inhabiting the other one's world. Time is a flat circle for Otto, tragedy has made everything seem like it's happening at the same time. These visual details poignantly suggest how consumed by the past Otto has become while adding a distinct visual flourish to the proceedings.

Those flashback sequences give A Man Called Otto its pathos while much of the entertainment value of feature comes from its performances. Having "America's Dad" Tom Hanks play a cranky old man may seem like obvious stunt casting, but the reliably strong Hanks proves so good in the role that it's impossible to complain about his presence in the role of Otto. Shockingly, outshining even Hanks in terms of the performances here is Mariana Treviño. An incredibly compelling performer with a sharp sense of comic timing, she proves incredibly gifted at holding her own and then some in sequences where her bubbly character has to go toe-to-toe with A Man Called Otto's disillusioned protagonist. Just watching Hanks and Treviño spar is enough to justify A Man Called Otto existing beyond being a way for someone to wring more money out of the A Man Called Ove book.

While A Man Called Otto rises above expectations in some key respects, it also, unfortunately, succumbs to several problems that plague many major American movies meant to function as a tearjerker. For one thing, subtlety isn't the strongest suit of either Magee or Forster and that problem comes to a head in the biggest emotional moments of Otto. Conceptually devastating sequences depicting Otto's most tumultuous moments from the past are undercut by needle drops that use ham-fisted lyrics to beat you over the head with the scene's purpose. Surely Thomas Newman's score could've carried these scenes. Similarly, the third act is weighed down by several clumsy instances of characters, namely Otto, practically turning to the camera when they flatly explain their major character defects before saying how they're improving as a person. That kind of overly obvious dialogue makes it hard to invest in these character arcs.

The home stretch of A Man Called Otto could've used more of the finer subtle details that make the excellently-realized flashback sequences so moving. But even when it lives up to the reputation of major American melodramas being all tell and no show, A Man Called Otto still gets a boost from some great performances and its low-key depictions of people bonding with one another. Sometimes my heart gets won over by simple things like Otto gradually bonding with endearing neighbors like peppy jogger Jimmy (Cameron Britton) or cyclist Malcolm (Mack Bayda). I'm still not sure if we needed an English-language remake of A Man Called Ove, but if we had to get one, then A Man Called Otto is a solid take on the material.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Babylon is excess to the extreme and that's one of its many commendable qualities

 "You don't get to hate it unless you love it." So goes one of the most memorable lines in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It's also a piece of dialogue that feels appropriate for Babylon, writer/director Damien Chazelle's new movie that takes audiences back to 1920s Hollywood. Here, Chazelle explores stunning excess in the form of lavish parties and the dark nature of the American film industry. The way this filmmaker holds up a microscope to the brutal and even downright dehumanizing aspects of this industry could only come from someone who loves this era, its artists, and the art they produced. You can be conscious of something's flaws and still adore it. Babylon is a reminder of that. Its onscreen debauchery and darkest moments remind us all of the horrors of the film industry while its strengths as a piece of art serve as a fiery reminder of the power of movies. It's all such an entertaining and thoughtful whirlwind of a movie that you too will come to share the "love" that drove Chazelle's creative vision.

Babylon begins in 1927, with much of the story being told through the eyes of Manny Torres (Diego Galva). He starts out the movie as just an assistant at big Hollywood parties, helping to transport elephants and get drugs for any of the partygoers. At one of these events, Torres meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wannabe starlet who harbors dreams as big as her weak spot for cocaine and gambling. From here, Babylon charts Torres, LaRoy, and a handful of other characters, like a silent movie legend named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), navigating the wild world of filmmaking in this era. This is already a turbulent industry full of unpredictability before the introduction of sound cinema comes into play and begins to phase out every aspect of silent movies, including the actors who flourished in this dialogue-free domain.

The turmoil caused for actors in the transition from silent movies to sound has always been a source of fascination for period piece features, as seen in Singin' in the Rain and The Artist. Babylon attempts to differentiate itself from the pack in several key ways, including reveling in all the debauchery it can imagine depicting the ribald excesses of the 1920s. Within the first ten minutes, elephant defecation and human urine are shown up on-screen, while drugs and nudity pepper every inch of the frame. In weaker hands, this could've been a try-hard attempt at being "edgy," but Chazelle finds a foolproof way of making all this ribald material work: make it entertaining.

The opening party scene of Babylon is incredibly riveting filmmaking, full stop. It's hard to think about any other period-era movies set in the 1920s that also wallowed in filth when you're trying to absorb every detail Babylon is throwing at you in this whiz-bang opening. This kick-off to the story see's Chazelle's camera in an incredibly confident mode as it soars through crowds of people, all covered in such richly-realized colorful costumes. Justin Hurwitz's score injects so much vibrant energy into the frame, particularly a track called "Voodoo Mama" on the soundtrack that combines an energetic and sometimes screeching trumpet and equally lively clapping. All these elements combine to make it feel like you're on the ground floor of all this glorious excess. It's tremendously impressive material peppered with great subtle sight gags, like a clearly pregnant woman partying her heart out, and punctuated with effective reminders of stark mortality that no amount of partying can fully escape. What a blast of a way to kick off a movie! 

This tour de force opening establishes the scope, debauchery, and complicated tone of Babylon that follows and it turns out to be a great place to spend three hours. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a movie with a sweeping enough scale to blow your socks off before its title card fills up the screen. All that mesmerizing mayhem is paired up with an increasingly discernible melancholy tone, with the latter bordering on apocalyptic towards the end of Babylon. It also helps that Chazelle's talent for realizing precisely-edited slices of intense cinema (see: Whiplash and First Man) is as alive as ever here (he's working with his go-to editor here, Tom Cross). Even better, this filmmaker gets to demonstrate a great talent for handling comedy. The same keen sense of timing he and Cross brought to sequences of J.K. Simmons berating Miles Teller on the drums is here exquisitely applied to memorable demonstrations of dark comedy. An early sequence depicting that cuts between the various troubles of filming a massive period-era battle sequence is an especially great demonstration of this.

Inevitably, in reaching for the stars, Chazelle's screenplay does stumble in certain respects, especially in the second half of the movie which jumps around a lot more in time. Certain character dynamics, like a friendship between Torres and Palmer, could've been fleshed out more and there are traces of ham-fisted dialogue (like Torres blatantly telling somebody over the phone "everything is about to change!" in obvious ADR after his character watches moviegoers go gaga for The Jazz Singer) peppered throughout the screenplay. I suspect the latter is the inevitable result of making a feature for a major American movie studio that costs more than $10 million (studios don't want pricey investments to be too incoherent for mainstream moviegoers), but those lines could've been more organically-realized within those confines.

But what really sticks out in my mind roughly 24 hours after watching Babylon isn't those flaws but the sights, the sounds, the laughs, and the ominous air coursing through the whole movie. That ominousness extends to Babylon's fascinatingly complicated attitude toward movies as an artform. Chazelle and company clearly have a lot of love for films, what they can do, and even the wackadoodle dedication it takes to make any of these features a reality. But he's also cognizant of the American film industry being a nightmarish place rather than something from a clean-cut magazine. The characters in Babylon never get ahead in this industry unless it comes at the expense of somebody else or even their own souls. Even the film's decadent opening sequences, which characters like Conrad eventually look back on fondly, feature frequent reminders of pitch-black reality.

Much like how the parties in Boogie Nights were laced with instances of disturbing behavior, even the "good times" for the characters of Babylon have a selfishness and darkness to them. Being cognizant of these nuances is one of Babylon's greatest strengths and lends a lasting sense of impact to the feature beyond being a sweeping visual and auditory exercise. Film itself is a beautiful medium full of rich power that can't be replicated in any other medium. It's also a tool that (in America) is built on the legacy of D.W. Griffith and has often been used to suppress voices while it's supposedly inspiring people. Similarly, one can love sound films while mourning all the lost opportunities for artists that specialized in silent film. It's with this attitude that Babylon crafts a compelling ode to films that also mourns an industry that treated its artists like cogs in a machine and not people (good thing entertainment companies don't do that anymore!)

All these rich themes and a willingness to depict the various film artists of the 1920s as people offer a great canvas for the actors of Babylon to work with. Margot Robbie especially excels in these confines, delivering a performance that carries a captivating aura (you can never take your eyes off her) emanating from how naturally she conveys aching pain creeping in through the margins of a confident exterior. She's just as game for moments where Babylon wants to contemplate mortality as she is when the film wants to engage in a lengthy vomit gag. Juggling those disparate pieces with entertaining and insightful success also makes Babylon as an entire movie an incredibly stirring watch. Come for all the raunchy spectacle and incredible score, stay for Chazelle and company demonstrating a burning passion for an era they love enough to critique. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Douglas Laman's 25 Best Movies of 2022

 

Me after each of the movies on this list ended

2022 was a strange year, though, then again, aren't all years, to some extent, strange? But 2022 was especially peculiar as we all tried to navigate what the new normal of reality was in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no going back to the status quo of pre-2020, but then, what does this new world look like? It was one of many questions that dominated people's minds in such an oddball year. Throughout the uncertainty of 2022 was a tidal wave of new movies. As with any other era of uncertainty in the history of the world, movies, like any medium of artistic expression, can be a great way to escape the confines of reality, come to terms with everyday hardships, or even do both of those things at the same time. Such is the magic of cinema.

Having seen well over 210 movies released into theaters and streamers throughout 2022, this year certainly offered a little bit of something for everyone. Much like last year's features, I was constantly impressed with how many artists still had the energy, creativity, and determination to realize new movies in the face of the countless hardships facing the everyday world.  Movies haven't gotten lost in the wave of headline-grabbing calamities that have shaken humanity in 2022. On the contrary, they've helped us all make sense of the world we inhabit and inspire us to understand our neighbors a little better.

Movies can be anything and 2022's best features proved that's just as true today as it was in 1922. Whether it was cannibal love stories, a multiverse adventure romp with an intimate emotional scope, or a Norwegian lady who was just the worst in the best possible way, the cinema of 2022 went all over the map and was all the better for it. It was hard to whittle down this list to just 25 entries (even extending things to include an honorable mentions section wasn't enough to ensure there weren't some heartbreaking exclusions from this list), but that's just a testament to the burning passion for creativity that informed the filmmaking scene of 2022. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Women Talking is as emotionally devastating as it is deeply human

 


Women Talking is a movie about characters who contemplate breaking the norms of the society they call home, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Sarah Polley's latest directorial effort subtly shatters some standards of "good" filmmaking. There's this perception among people, and I've sometimes contributed to it, that narration itself is bad, it's something that goes against the whole "show don't tell" mold that defines "good" filmmaking. To be sure, bad narration can be clumsy, but it's not innately a bad tool. For Women Talking, narration illuminating the points of view of these lead characters feels important and true to the crux of this story. These are people who, as said in an early piece of narration, don't have the language to comprehend their grief. The words in the narration aren't here to spoon-feed every onscreen detail to the audience, but rather reflect people coming to terms with the horrors that have become their everyday reality.

Women Talking, among its countless other accomplishments, quietly subverts these kinds of filmmaking norms, with its decision to focus a movie on survivors of sexual assaults and rape being equally compelling and distinct. Such bold choices are used to produce a story that clutches your eyes and burrows into your soul.

Based on the Miriam Toews book of the same name, Women Talking chronicles a collection of women living in a Mennonite colony who have a choice to make. They've uncovered the truth that the men in their colony have been raping them, an act the elders of their community are eager to dismiss altogether. These women are now grappling with what to do next. Do they just continue their existence, stay and fight, or leave for an unknown future? Much of Polley's script focuses on eight women, including the haunted Salome (Claire Foy), the dubious Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and the hopeful Ona (Rooney Mara), debating their varying perspectives and hopes for their future. They've been silenced for so long. Now, they have a chance to speak.

A friend of mine compared Women Talking in its scope and atmosphere to 12 Angry Men and that's a pretty apt comparison. Much like that 1957 Sidney Lumet film, Women Talking is proof you don't need a multitude of locations or an expansive scope to grip people's attention. Confining much of Women Talking to the top floor of a barn turns out to be a wise decision for the intimate story Polley is telling. We as viewers need to feel how few options these characters have, their world is so limited that they're unaware of the names of places lying far beyond their community. The limited scope of Women Talking's story quietly reinforces how trapped these characters are well, while the tight backdrop also affords more opportunities for the varying personalities in the script to smash into one another.

Such compelling drama unfolds when Women Talking just focuses on these dialogue exchanges, which are often punctuated by appropriately startling and abrupt images of the past (such as teeth falling out of a woman's mouth or another character waking up in the middle of the night and screaming in pain). This editing technique brings us into the minds of these women as they offer up their testimonies and, internally, re-experience their trauma all over again. We get to hear the words they choose to finally express themselves while also getting a glimpse into the horrifying realities they're reeling from. It's such a great piece of editing and directing that lends further insight into the minds of these characters without proving disruptive to the immersive world Polley is creating.

Much of that immersiveness comes from the fully-realized performances within the ensemble cast. Though they're playing women who inhabit a colony where individuality is strictly forbidden, there are still such welcome idiosyncrasies in each of their performances. Claire Foy, for instance, lends such vibrant and compelling (not to mention justifiable) passion in her line deliveries, while Rooney Mara lends believability to the poetic observations of Ona. This is a character who could have easily lapsed into being a parody of herself, but Mara just makes Ona's lines feel true, not trite or straining for profoundness. Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw, as August, a man tasked with penning the minutes of these meetings between women, is outstanding in portraying such a complicated soft-spoken fellow. It's a role that makes great use of Whishaw's gift for quiet yet impactful performances and this actor's talents in that area delivers some of the most striking emotional moments of Women Talking.

The unforgettable qualities of Women Talking even extend to its fascinating handling of religious entities. Specifically, in several moments of emotional distress, these women will turn to singing familiar religious hymns to one another to help their spirits rise again. It's such a delicate yet complex detail, as these women are, on the surface, employing songs not only heralded by their oppressors but that also promote a religion that informed their suppression. The use of these tunes isn't to minimize the horrors these women have experienced at the hands of a religious institution, but rather to show these survivors of abuse reclaiming tools once used to silence the voices. Words and passages previously utilized for the purpose of suppressing dissent are now being repurposed to encourage women to open up about their experiences. 

What an incredible element to incorporate into the narrative and one that speaks to just how detailed the psychology of these varied characters is. Such psychologies are explored without ever pushing the abusive men themselves into the forefront of either the narrative or the frame (we only see such figures in the background and often heavily obscured). We see the psychological and physical aftermath that these oppressive forces are having on the women of Women Talking, but Polley's camera is always lingering on survivors of sexual assault rather than those who perpetrate it. It's an approach that evokes, among many other movies, Kitty Green's The Assistant and speaks to the commendably subversive narrative priorities of Women Talking. The figures in this story are meant to be seen as human beings with wildly varying responses to trauma, not just figures to be exclusively used for endless and repetitive scenes of on-screen sexual misery like in In the Land of Blood and Honey.

These and other critical parts of Polley's understated yet moving filmmaking speak to how well Women Talking handles harrowing material. But what's also impressive are the handful of moments where levity breaks into the story. A well-timed joke involving an elderly character thinking she's gone blind only to then realize her glass have merely fogged up, for instance, may have seem like a weird tonal digression in a lesser movie. But here, these and other superbly-placed moments of humor accentuate the complexity of these characters who are capable of experiencing every emotion under the sun. By seeing them laugh together, we are reminded of the joy they are largely deprived of in the community they inhabit. These unique tonal moments highlight how, in this barn with just other women (plus August), Saloma, Ona, Mariche, and every other lady can finally be their complicated varied selves.

As a filmmaker, Sarah Polley has never shied away from brutal material. Her directorial debut, Away from Her, was about an elderly couple fragmented by Alzheimer's, she basically jumped into the deep end as a filmmaker right away. Meanwhile, her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell was an unflinching look at both her family's history and her own identity. That streak continues on with Women Talking, with Polley's gift for handling heavy concepts flourishing inside this feature's rule-breaking spirit. Traditional rules of movies say that you can't center narratives about sexual assault on people who've experienced it (even the recent She Said followed this rule), yet Women Talking focuses its runtime on several people who've survived rape. The history of cinema, meanwhile, is littered with the erasure of trans characters and performers, yet Women Talking makes room for trans experiences with the character of Melvin (August Winter). On and on the list goes as Women Talking constantly redefines "normal" in cinematic language, often without viewers even realizing the norms have been shattered.

Both Polley being in rare form as a director and the rule-breaking standards of this production have the incredible domino effect of also bringing out the best in all the other artists working on Women Talking, including the various members of the movie's stacked ensemble cast. A work as richly human as it is subversive of cinema norms, Women Talking is nothing short of outstanding.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Steven Spielberg compellingly delves into the past with The Fabelmans

 


They say "you can't go home again," but leave it to Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kuschner to prove that axiom wrong, at least in the very specific circumstances of The Fabelmans. With this film, Spielberg has torn the veil of allegory and just made an autobiographical drama reflecting his upbringing. Broken families have always been a part of this man's work, but now we get to see the genesis of where that fascination came from. There's a version of The Fabelmans that becomes too insular, the cinematic equivalent to a therapy session we feel uncomfortable watching. Thankfully, much like in their prior collaborations such as West Side Story, Munich, and Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner have knocked it out of the park with The Fabelmans. Whether you know a little or a lot about this man, The Fabelmans will surely work its magic on you.

The Fabelmans makes its potency and thoughtfulness clear from the very get-go in a scene depicting an adolescent Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) nervously waiting in line to see The Greatest Show on Earth at the movie theater. The camera is initially positioned in a way so that we don't see his parents from the waist up, a perfect way to suggest that we'll be seeing this movie primarily through the eyes of Sammy. As he expresses constant nervousness about seeing a feature on the big screen, his parents, Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), try to console him in ways that reflect their individual personalities. Burt gets wrapped up in explaining how the film projector works while Mitzi just tells her son that movies are like dreams. It isn't long before Sammy is sitting in that theater and discovering how right his mom was. Movies are dreams...and he doesn't want this dream to end.

From here, The Fabelmans chronicles Sammy (who eventually grows up into a 16-year-old played by Gabriel LaBelle) as his passion for making home movies grows increasingly elaborate. This stand-in for the adolescent Spielberg is apparent in this youngster's love for shooting all kinds of films, but it's also clear in the increasingly tumultuous home life Sammy must navigate. As the scope of Sammy's homemade motion pictures expands, so too does the tension between his parents. Burt becomes so wrapped up in his work that he's constantly moving himself and the whole family (Sammy also has three younger sisters) while Mitzi is prone to depressive episodes. It isn't just the images on the silver screen that will mold Sammy's life. Familiar turmoil will also shape his worldview.

A few days before I saw The Fabelmans, me and a buddy were joking about corny ways this movie could show a young Spielberg stumbling onto the ideas for his future movies ("Wow, that shark sure has big jaws!") in the same vein that many actual music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody deliver moments where musicians stumble onto the ideas for their most popular tunes. These dumb references were good for a laugh between pals, but they were also helpful in illustrating everything The Fabelmans does right. This isn't a film infatuated with making endless references that only Spielberg devotees will get or that attempts to provide a tidy narrative about how this filmmaker transformed into his recognizable self in the span of a weekend. In other words, there are no scenes like the one in Darkest Hour where Gary Oldman's Winston Churchill gets the name for Operation Dynamo by gazing at a nearby fan.

Instead, Spielberg and Kushner's script delivers a story that functions as a standalone work, with the events onscreen gaining extra (but not essential) resonance for those familiar with the former artist's background. The Fabelmans is much more interested in contemplating matters that are accessible to all audience members, such as contemplating how to juggle your passions and your loved ones as well as that never-ending process of realizing your parents are complicated human beings. The latter element is especially potent in how it's realized within The Fabelmans, with much of Mitzi's storyline focusing on how she's messy and imperfect rather than the postcard-ready image of a dutiful 1950s housewife. She's a human being. The idea that the people who raised you are in fact just ordinary people unsure of where to go or what to do is an overwhelming fact to consider when you first contemplate it. 

The Fabelmans deftly explores that complicated idea with an equally nuanced portrait of a mother/son dynamic that can have you clenching your teeth in anxiety one second and softly weeping over their quiet interactions in the very next scene. These kinds of complicated character dynamics are made all the more compelling by Spielberg's enduringly impressive visual sensibilities. This guy's sense of framing never ceases to amaze me, even in a scene as simple as Burt trying to start a fire and his kids getting distracted by Mitzi's antics in a tree. This filmmaker and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski turn this moment into an extended single-take that, just by the blocking and use of depth in the shot, is incredibly detailed and informative about who these people are and their relationships with one another. The most seemingly basic scenes deliver a fountain of memorable imagery and vivid character details in the hands of this director.

It isn't just Spielberg and Kushner that excel in The Fabelmans. Everyone's in rare form here, particularly Michelle Williams, whose tasked with portraying a pastiche of Spielberg's mom. The bones of this performance sound like a recipe for a distracting caricature, including Mitzi's very distinctive voice (which often sounds like she's on the verge of tears) and the character's tendency for splashy displays of emotions. Williams tackles it all with such finesse, lending Mitzi the same level of believability as her performances in works like Wendy and Lucy or Certain Women. Traits that could've been distracting flourishes in another actor become organic parts of a compelling portrait of tormented motherhood in the hands of Williams.

Paul Dano is playing a much more soft-spoken, less outsized character than Williams, but he still leaves an enormous impression as the father of the Fabelman family while Seth Rogen wisely plays on his genial public persona while adding extra depths to that demeanor in his work as a dear friend of Burt's. Top to bottom, the whole cast is just marvelous, even when they only have one scene to shine, like Judd Hirsch in an unforgettable performance that reminds you why this Ordinary People star is such a treasure. 

It's a very exciting indicator that you're watching a special movie when you realize you can consider its greatness from so many different angles. Visually, narratively, as an acting exercise, as something to make you cry multiple times, as the newest collection of John Williams compositions, or even in its forays into comedy (a scene with Sammy and a High School flame in the latter character's bedroom is so hysterical largely because of the very precise visual details in Spielberg's filmmaking), The Fabelmans works like gangbusters. It's a movie that's simultaneously far more than just a biography of Steven Spielberg's childhood yet it also offers so much insight into how his complicated persona as an artist was molded. I guess when you're Steven Spielberg, you actually can go home again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

She Said is a standard, but frequently impactful journalism drama


CW: Discussions of sexual assault, rape ahead

2022 has already seen the old-school 2000s romantic-comedy come back to the big screen with films like Ticket to Paradise, while Top Gun: Maverick made movie theaters around the globe seem like they'd been teleported back to 1986. Why not also bring back the journalism drama to the big screen while we're at it? The comeback for the genre that birthed everything from All the President's Men to Spotlight manifests with She Said, which chronicles the true story of how The New York Times cracked the story of Harvey Weinstein's extensive history of being accused of sexual assault, verbal abuse, and rape by countless women.

Our leads for this feature are Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), a pair of reporters who have the kind of conviction you need to chase down difficult stories like the Weinstein saga. The whole affair begins through just Kantor poking around in Weinstein's past, an exercise Twohey is initially dubious over doing given how little impact the allegations against Donald Trump impacted his rise to power. However, they both become enamored with this story as they dig deeper and deeper into Weinstein's past. He's impacted so many lives in such unspeakable ways, to the point that many of the people they contact with either can't or won't speak about it on the record. 

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's screenplay for She Said, adapted both from the New York Times investigation and a book entitled She Said penned by the real Kantor and Twohey, is tackling incredibly heavy material and weaves an appropriately morose tone for such a story. The sheer weight of everything these women have had to live with, not to mention the web of power that has kept Weinstein free from consequences, is certainly felt within the story. The most impactful parts of She Said are cognizant of how overwhelming those forces are, the way they creep into everyday life whether we like it or not.

The instance of this that really stuck in my mind is scene where Kantor's Skype call with her adolescent daughter takes a dark turn when her child asks if a story her mom is investigating involves "rape." It's a word her friends use all the time, to which Kantor tries to delicately explain to the youngster that she shouldn't use it casually. With minimal dialogue and Nicholas Britell's score dropping out, Kazan's performance and the script gracefully depict a mother realizing that her daughter is growing increasingly cognizant of all the horrors in society. She's tried to provide a barrier between her home life and all the unspeakably atrocities beyond her front door. Now, she's received a sudden reminder of how omnipresent the normalization of rape culture is. The term "rape" has even become a go-to term in the world of playground chatter. The intrusion of pushy phone calls or sudden reminders of the past in the everyday lives of people who have accused Weinstein of despicable acts convey a similar power. They too are aware of how the darkest parts of reality can creep up anywhere in your life. 

She Said's script is less effective, unfortunately, in terms of its story structure. There's little uniqueness in how Lenkiewicz executes this story to separate it from other similar journalism and the more perfunctory investigative scenes drag in pacing. Director Maria Schrader and cinematographer Natasha Braier don't help things by realizing the look of She Said in a similarly straightforward fashion. Opportunities to get further into the minds of sexual assault survivors through distinctive pieces of camerawork are eschewed in favor of very basic instances of framing and lighting that rarely fluctuates even when Kantor shifts her investigation over to the United Kingdom. The intimate and dark nature of She Said isn't an excuse for these visual shortcomings given that other movies tackling similarly chilling material, such as The Assistant, managed to excel in their camerawork. You don't need to be an expansive epic to have vibrant or thoughtful visuals.

She Said, ultimately, isn't as challenging or defiant of the status quo as either the journalism or the testimonies that inspired it. Even composer Nicholas Britell is in more reserved mode here. But there's enough emotionally raw material and commendable performances to make it a reasonably engaging watch, particularly whenever the script focuses on harrowing recountings of the experiences of sexual assault survivors. It's in their words that She Said finds its most solid footing and the moments that will last with viewers longest. Beyond that, the feature can be a bit boilerplate, but at least She Said has got actors like Zoe Kazan and Patricia Clarkson around to give it a boost of life. Plus, there's no denying how good it is to see a journalism drama back on the big screen again.


Pinocchio is an incredibly charming lark from Guillermo del Toro

 

What can you do to make Pinocchio seem new again?

It's a question director Robert Zemeckis couldn't figure out a good answer for in Disney's live-action Pinocchio remake from a few months back. Roberto Benigni's attempt to inhabit the role of Pinocchio in the early 2000s was a misguided folly. Aside from launching an amusing internet meme, modern takes on this wooden boy don't offer much. One might understandably wonder if there's no fuel left in the Pinocchio movie tank, but any old story can feel fresh and new if given the right execution. Just look at how Greta Gerwig injected so much life and vibrancy into Little Women just three years ago. Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to prove that not all 21st-century Pinocchio films are doomed with his stop-motion animated take on this material. Simply titled Pinocchio, this feature is an absolute delight that truly makes one feel like they're discovering the story of this puppet come to life for the very first time.

Many positive reviews of animated features aimed at youngsters emphasize how good it is that these films can also resonate so deeply with adults. With Pinocchio, I was struck by a sense of joy for the kids who end up watching it. How wonderful that they'll get to grow up with a movie that doesn't talk down to them and confronts elements that do play into the lives of adolescents, such as religion, war, or death. Here we have a feature that doesn't just tell kids to be themselves but to always challenge authority. Best of all, it's a telling of Pinocchio that doesn't feel beholden to the past. Pinocchio isn't obsessed with referencing pop culture entities from my childhood, it's here to tell a standalone yarn that can belong to a new generation. What a gift to the youngsters of 2022 and beyond.

Of course, Pinocchio isn't made just for kids in mind. Directors del Toro and Mark Gustafson (not to mention co-screenwriter Patrick McHale) seem to have made this movie primarily for themselves above all else. This is especially reflected in how del Toro has maintained all his primary thematic motifs even when making something that's rated PG, namely a distrustful attitude toward religion, a despisement of social conformity, children navigating an overwhelming world of devious adults, and, of course, an adoration for weird fantasy creatures. Even the use of celebrity voice-overs, a common staple of American animated family movies, reflects more of del Toro's interests than what a focus group might want. 

Many of the folks assembled here are either actors from prior del Toro works or people (like Tilda Swinton) that you can't believe haven't worked with the filmmaker before. It's a superbly-arranged voice cast, with Ewan McGregor being an especially fun choice for Sebastian J. Cricket. His pipes are perfect for providing both some fatherly advice and extremely soothing bursts of narration. It's also quite fun how some of the casting choices seem to have a subversive edge. The casting of Cate Blanchett (who previously appeared in del Toro's Nightmare Alley) as a monkey who almost exclusively communicates in basic primate noises almost feels like a joke making fun of rampant celebrity voice-casting in movies like Sing or the Ice Age sequels. Whether or not that underlying commentary is intentional, putting Blanchett in this kind of role reflects the unique creative impulses at play in this version of Pinocchio.

Of course, what really makes this animated musical sing (no pun intended) is the visuals. Stop-motion animation is always such an impressive medium, all the effort and time that goes into every frame is palpable. The warped and freaky visual sensibilities of del Toro are a great fit for this style of animation, with the instantly tactile nature of stop-motion lending incredibly believable textures and weight to every one of the freaky creatures that populate this story. It's also a nice touch that the animation isn't striving for realism, as seen by how bursts of fire are rendered on-screen, for instance. Pinocchio leans into the innate unreality of stop-motion animation and is all the stronger for it. Simply put, it all looks fantastic and wonderful. If you wanted to just mute the dialogue, you could still have an incredible experience watching Pinocchio just absorbing all the richly-detailed backgrounds and amusing character designs. 

Pinocchio is a tremendous treat and, even better, it doesn't just represent the creative sensibilities of del Toro. Patrick McHale, who co-wrote the film's songs, channels amusing ditties like "Potatoes and Molasses" from his unforgettable miniseries Under the Garden Wall in penning the intentionally simplistic but endlessly charming tunes that populate this story.  Merging that kind of wit with del Toro's empathy for outsiders and an avalanche of glorious stop-motion animation...do you need a roadmap to figure out Pinocchio is something special? A shame Netflix won't be putting this out on the big screen in a more prominent capacity (though at least they ensured this long-in-development feature existed) considering just how stunning this movie looks in a theater. Experiencing Pinocchio in such an environment really makes you appreciate its countless charms.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a moving, if crowded, return to Wakanda

 


The very first line of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, spoken by Shuri (Letitia Wright) off-screen against a black screen, makes it clear that the real-life demise of Chadwick Boseman will not be dismissed with an offhand line of dialogue or a quick easter egg in the background. It's going to be the crux of Ryan Coogler's fourth directorial effort. Not only that, but that initial line establishes the emotional urgency of what's to come. This isn't necessarily a bleak venture into Wakanda, but it isn't afraid to confront the complexities of loss and the different ways people respond to the process of grief. In other words, bring some tissues if you're like me and have any sort of emotional vulnerability.

Shuri is our primary focus of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and her story picks up a year after the loss of her brother T'Challa. She's still walking around in a fog from losing someone so close and personal to her, preferring to toil away in her lab rather than lingering on the memories of T'Challa. Her mom, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), is now in charge of Wakanda and protecting it from all kinds of threats interested in taking on this country now that it's devoid of the Black Panther. One of those challengers is Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the king of the underwater civilization Talokan. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira) are tasked with a mission that could provide some peace between Wakanda and Talokan while everyone tries to figure out what the future of Wakanda even looks like.

Screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have wisely opted to devote long stretches of Wakanda Forever to just intimate conversations, the kind that makes us understand the nuances of these superpowered people and what they want. Wakanda Forever adheres to my favorite kind of superhero storytelling, the kind where the unabashedly silly elements like Namor's winged feet or the sight of people riding orcas like horses into battle are maintained, but there's also an embrace of tangible pathos. A harrowing scene depicting a fraught exchange between Ramonda and Okoye, for instance, is incredibly powerful, particularly due to Bassett's emotionally raw performance. If she was executing this same dialogue in a grounded Broadway play, there'd be no differences from her line deliveries in this movie designed to move Disney Store merchandise. 

Those kinds of performances, and Coogler's willingness to let the low-key scenes just breathe, do wonders for Wakanda Forever's sense of poignancy. It's also a wise idea to give so many of the players in this expansive narrative the thematic connective tissue of coping with grief, particularly Namor and his fascinating backstory or the eventual reveal of where Nakia has been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the events of the first Black Panther. There isn't a single size for coping with loss and the various players of Wakanda Forever nicely reflect that while also ensuring there's thematic consistency in the various narrative detours. In other words, it feels like these characters all belong to the same movie...mostly.

The greatest shortcoming in Wakanda Forever is, unfortunately, in that same screenplay, which is ultimately too overstuffed for its own good. Certain supporting players can get lost in the shuffle, but more egregiously is an extraneous subplot involving Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and a character someone at Marvel is more in love with than general moviegoers. Their whole storyline is tedious from top-to-bottom, especially in terms of visuals (why do I care about Ross's conversations in bland government buildings when I could be in an underwater kingdom or the vibrant land of Wakanda?), and since it's entirely detached from the main action, just comes off like a distraction. Given how well the original Black Panther fared at functioning as largely a standalone story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's a shame that Wakanda Forever's pacing gets undercut by a storyline designed to remind audiences of future Marvel adventures. 

While Wakanda Forever isn't as divorced from other Marvel adventures as its predecessor, other superb elements of the original film are as sharp as ever. Ruth E. Carter's costumes still dazzle while Ludwig Göransson's once again knocks his score out of the park. Certain sections of Wakanda Forever opt to eschew dialogue entirely in favor of letting Göransson's compositions carry the day and his music is more than up to the task. Meanwhile, fan-favorite characters from the original Black Panther, especially M'Baku (Winston Duke), are just as entertaining as ever while new player Namor is bound to be an audience favorite. Tenoch Huerta Mejía's performance here has doubtlessly solidified him as a standout heartthrob in 2022 cinema, his screen presence and commanding aura are just spectacular.

But what works best in Wakanda Forever are the elements working within the shadow of the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman. His presence looms large over Wakanda Forever, particularly in an opening funeral scene that kickstarts the feature on an appropriately melancholy note. Coogler and the cast manage to nail the ensuing emotional beats without coming off as either manipulative or exploitative of a tragedy. It's especially nice that their approach evokes a line spoken by T'Challa in his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, regarding how "death is not the end, it's more of a stepping off point." Chadwick Boseman is absent from Wakanda Forever, but it's fascinating and touching to see the small ways his character's legacy reverberates throughout this motion picture.

I wish the entire film was less crowded (read: less Martin Freeman) to allow that kind of emotional exploration more room to breathe or at least make Wakanda Forever's runtime more manageable. But enough works here to make Wakanda Forever follow in the footsteps of Creed and Black Panther (albeit without matching the overall quality of either film) as a mainstream Ryan Coogler film that tackles pathos as effectively as it approaches thrills.