Friday, June 2, 2023

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is, like its predecessor, a dazzling triumph

They pulled it off. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a worthy sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an incredible feat that sounds like it would be impossible to pull off. Instead, Across the Spider-Verse makes such artistic accomplishments seem effortless. The only fatal drawback to all the artistry filling up each frame is how it now makes going back to the default norms of Western computer animation such a frustrating prospect. Pixar's penchant for stylized characters interacting with ultra-realistic backdrops or the unimaginative animal designs in your average Illumination feature seems criminally lazy after seeing what Across the Spider-Verse delivers. Animation can do anything. It's a medium with limitless potential. It's a miracle to get movies like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse that spend 144 glorious moments reminding viewers of that fact.

As this sequel begins, Brooklyn native Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) has spent 14 months being the one and only Spider-Man in his dimension. He's having trouble juggling his secret identity with family and school responsibilities, but more urgently, Morales is also feeling lonely as a super-powered being. He misses other crime fighters like Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) who understood his internal struggles. He gets his chance for a reunion with Stacy, but this, unfortunately, leads to Morales encountering new problems. A goofball baddie from his dimension, The Spot (Jason Schwartzman), is causing chaos across the multiverse. To help save existence as we know it, our hero will now have to travel to other universes (each with their own distinctive visual aesthetic) and encounter countless other versions of Spider-Man, one of which is the extremely stern Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac).

Plenty of Easter Eggs, in-jokes referencing various forms of Spider-Man media, and fast-paced action sequences ensue in this expansive adventure. Amazingly, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse lives up to previous scripts penned by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (David Callaham is also credited as a writer here) by never letting good characters and strong storytelling sensibilities get lost in the middle of all the hyperactive mayhem. This is always the story of Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy, their emotionally tangible experiences are at the constant forefront of the proceedings. That's what makes all the stylized imagery so transfixing, each frame is populated by human beings we can relate to.

In fact, something that stuck out to me about Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was its willingness to pause the plot for intimate dialogue exchanges between its characters. In Western animated cinema aimed at family audiences, such moments are often brushed aside or punctuated with endless extraneous jokes, all in an effort to make sure things never get "boring." In the process, the dramatic heft of these yarns never reaches their full potential. Here, though, the writing lets things like the complicated exchanges between Morales and his parents breathe. Emotionally fractured conversations between Stacy and her father George Stacy (Shea Whigham) are especially well-realized in this regard. Their interactions just ooze with so many emotional intricacies while the animators do incredible work incorporating the tiniest pieces of body language that make both father and daughter seem like real people.

Attention to detail in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse isn't just reserved for throwing every version of Spider-Man into the background you can think of. That quality is also apparent in the intimate, pathos-driven sequences that offer plenty of reasons for one to get dramatically invested in this movie. Of course, even with so many great character beats and poignant moments throughout the script, the real star of Across the Spider-Verse is its animation. A prologue centering on Gwen duking it out with a Renaissance-era version of The Vulture establishes incredibly audacious visual tendencies that never lets up. There's always a wonderful new surprise lurking around the corner in terms of how characters or individual worlds can be rendered on-screen. 

New character Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), realized as though he's made up of jaggedly assembled scraps from cut-up magazines and newspapers, is an especially astonishing creation unlike any other figure I've seen in a movie before. Meanwhile, the watercolor backdrops of Gwen's home world are also an incredible sight that had me wondering how on Earth they were realized in the confines of computer animation. Crisp camerawork and editing make sure the groundbreaking feats of the animation team are always perfectly visible on-screen. There's no shaky cam here to undercut the beautiful sights of Across the Spider-Verse. It's just one of the many traits here encapsulating how directors Justin K. Thompson, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Kemp Powers deftly juggle so many bold visual concepts without having the entire movie descend into chaos.

Even the celebrity voice-overs are much better than what you hear in your average American animated movie, though it helps that Across the Spider-Verse has opted for a truly eclectic bunch of dramatic performers and character actors for these roles. The cast, in other words, is not just a bunch of random A-list celebrities tossed together into a 2023 equivalent of Shark Tale. Returning leads Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld work wonders with the extra emotional depths they're asked to plunge into, with Steinfeld especially excelling with the scenes portraying Stacy's tormented dynamic with her father. As for newcomers to the cast, Jason Schwartzman's enjoyably breezy yet quietly intimidating Spot is a delight while Daniel Kaluuya adds another unforgettable turn to his stacked filmography with his lively Spider-Punk performance. There's nothing Kaluuya can't do, apparently. 

It's a good thing Kaluuya ended up in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which is also incredibly versatile artistically. One could endlessly compliment any department or specific performance in Across the Spider-Verse, but the whole feature is a miracle, there's no other word for it. How else to describe something that moves so quickly yet so innately understands the necessity of small dialogue exchanges? Or all the visual marvels (no pun intended) that its various action set pieces provide? Or the fact that composer Daniel Pemberton, whose other movie scores are often so forgettable, once again (after scoring the first film) delivers a barrage of unforgettable orchestral compositions as vividly imaginative as the animation? Every time I left a screening of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, I felt like I was on cloud nine. My soul had been rejuvenated by being reminded of all the limitless possibilities of film as a medium of storytelling. I'm happy to report that Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse left me with the exact same wondrous emotions and plenty of brand-new sensations. It's a cavalcade of stunning sights, sounds, and pathos that functions as an organic extension of its predecessor rather than just a hollow rehash of that 2018 masterpiece. The creativity on display here is what more sequels, superhero films, and American animated features should strive for.

They pulled it off. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is another dazzling cinematic accomplishment. Bring on that second part that this film's cliffhanger ending teases oh so nicely...

Monday, May 29, 2023

You Hurt My Feelings is another Nicole Holofcener winner that exemplifies the virtues of theatrical comedies

There's some real confidence underlining the marital ups and downs dominating the plot of You Hurt My Feelings. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener, much like she did with her 2013 feature Enough Said, is enough of a champion of small-scale situations and incidental forms of conflict that she never feels the need to blow up this world into contrived melodrama. There's a low-key quality to You Hurt My Feelings that doesn't dilute the intensity of the feelings these characters carry around with them. It's such a thoughtful way to convey how much social anxiety and awkwardness are peppered into everyone's ordinary existence. The world can be crashing down around you and you're also just munching away on a gigantic cookie in a furniture store.

That balance of engaging characters and a laidback atmosphere is applied to the story of Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a novelist whose working on her first fictional book. Beth has been married to therapist Don (Tobias Menzies) for years and the pair have a rock-solid relationship, even as they both grapple with all kinds of existential woes. However, their relationship gets tossed for a loop when Beth overhears Don revealing to a friend that he's actually not a fan of her newest book. Realizing her partner lied to her, Beth is overwhelmed and doesn't know what to do next. At the same time, everyone around her is navigating deeply complicated personal issues, like Beth's son Elliott (Owen Teague) grappling with relationship woes or her sister, Sarah (Michaela Watkins), fighting off fatigue with her job.

One of the best aspects of Holofcener's screenplay is how it slowly gets you obsessed with the double-meaning behind everyone's offhand comments or judgments. We're so enamored in the gravity of Beth realizing her husband didn't like her new book that suddenly, the audience has become hammers seeing everything as nails. Each line from characters like Sarah, Don, and even Beth herself (in conversations with her son Elliot namely) seems to suddenly have endless room for interpretation even if they only say a few words. I found myself succumbing to this paranoia more than once throughout You Hurt My Feelings. That's a great reflection of the feature's effectiveness at both getting us into the headspace of Beth and playing on a person's innate insecurities. I'm already paranoid about how people view me and now Holofcener is exacerbating that quality!

This is one of the most remarkable elements of the You Hurt My Feelings script, which is handled deftly by a terrific roster of actors. Julia Louis-Dreyfus reunites with Holofcener after their collaboration on the 2013 gem Enough Said and she continues to be a perfect leading lady for this style of laidback comedy. Louis-Dreyfus has always known her way around comic line deliveries, but she's also great at playing messy characters whose flaws are relatable rather than alienating. We see ourselves in Beth's shortcomings and vulnerabilities largely because Louis-Dreyfus plays her as such a nuanced human being. Meanwhile, Michaela Watkins gets some of the funniest lines of the entire feature (particularly her comments about carrying Tums in her purse) while actors like Zach Cherry deliver memorably amusing work as some of Don's patients.

In the summer of 2023, it may seem like there's no space on the big screen for a movie as stripped-down and low-key as You Hurt My Feelings. I couldn't disagree more with that sentiment. Getting to watch such a charming movie in the confines of the big screen, where nothing could distract my attention, was a delightful experience. Ditto getting to laugh out loud at various examples of relatable human awkwardness with total strangers. You Hurt My Feelings is well worth watching under any circumstances. However, it's especially a treat to go to a theater, watch it with other moviegoers, and realize how many of us can relate to imperfect dynamics with the people we love the most. Plus, the wit of Julia Louis-Dreyfus is always deserving of the biggest screen possible.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Blame it on Amy Adams OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Estrogen

Lisa Laman, in one of her many selfies

"Look at the world, so close and I'm halfway to it 
Look at it all, so big, do I even dare?" 

We can blame Amy Adams for all of this. 

The year is 2007. I was bursting with excitement to see a new musical by the name of Enchanted. I initially saw this movie because, well, I saw every movie possible my parents allowed me to see on the big screen, but also because I had been a massive fan of animated Disney musicals from the very start of my life. Very quickly, though, Enchanted went from being a new Mouse House feature to functioning as a gateway drug into something more. Seated in that theater, eyes glued to the massive screen in front of me, I gazed upon the flickering images of Amy Adams as Princess Giselle with incredible reverence. I was transfixed. I had seen entertaining performers before, but Amy Adams was something else entirely. 

Adams wasn't bound by the rules of how "normal" people behaved. She stood out like a sore thumb in New York City, but she didn't let that phase her. She was thoroughly herself. Who wouldn't be entertained by that? Back in 2007, I joined the chorus of people impressed by Amy Adams in Enchanted without considering the deeper implications of what this fascination meant. I simply thought she was my newest pop culture hero or perhaps an early movie crush. In the years to come, I realized that this fascination went much deeper than that. 

I wanted to be Amy Adams. I wanted her hair. Her confidence. The way she embraced being different rather than running from the qualities that separated her from "normal" society. Amy Adams characters like Giselle could just exist as their wonderfully offbeat and thoroughly idiosyncratic selves. If I could've snapped my fingers and woken up the next day as her doppelganger, I would've done it in a flash. In hindsight, I often felt like that about a lot of women actors I deeply admired. I didn't just think "they're funny" or "they're cool". Before the word "trans" was ever in my vocabulary, I'd immediately jump to "oh how I wish I could be them" about a slew of different women on the silver screen. In hindsight, I'm stunned by just how often my mind would yearn to just transform into the various women I admired.

I would've eventually realized I was a trans woman at one point or another in my life even if I'd never seen Enchanted or any of the other iconic roles Amy Adams has inhabited. However, I'm so grateful this performer was there to function as a lamppost lighting a darkened street as I navigated my gender identity. It's been comforting to have her performances, images, and musical numbers to turn to when I didn't have words to express who I was. Even today,  when I regularly go out decked out in vividly-colored dresses and ask people to refer to me as Lisa Laman, I'll still turn to her when I need a pick-me-up or a reminder of how far back my trans experiences go.

All of those experiences have made me who I am. My name is Lisa Laman. I love movies, karaoke, a good burger, pugs, and hanging out with my friends. I'm a trans woman who lives both on the autism spectrum and in Texas. My journey to self-acceptance began with Amy Adams in Enchanted...but it didn't end there. Today is the day I come out to the whole wide world as me, but my transness didn't start today. My identity has been put together piece by piece over the years throughout several core events, from a fateful screening of Enchanted to one seemingly ordinary day on my college campus four years ago.

"Look at me, there at last, I just have to do it
Should I? I go!"

The year is 2019. I showed up to my Women's Literature course at the University of Texas at Dallas at the exact same time and day as the preceding few weeks. What was different for this particular class, though, was how I dressed for the occasion. My default attire of shorts and a T-shirt adorned with some kind of graphic had been ditched. Now, I had on my fingerless gloves, a light blue blouse, a skirt, and, most noticeably, a wig of vibrant red hair atop my head. I had dreamed for over a decade of having hair just like Amy Adams and now, as I walked into that classroom with the wig on, I had reached that goal. Of course, this wasn't the total realization of my ideal femme appearance. But oh did it ever feel good to step into a public setting dressed like this. 

While I'd been using "she/her" pronouns with some online queer friends for a few months now, going out dressed like this was a whole other level of gender presentation. The difference between just using certain pronouns online and going out to physical locations dressed as your gender is tantamount to going from performing with your band in a garage to headlining a Madison Square Garden concert. Plus, this classroom was a space that wasn't designated exclusively for queer people and I'd never given much indication to my classmates or professor beforehand that I was trans. I didn't have any reason to believe I'd be pelted with tomatoes if I showed up presenting as trans, but I didn't have any proof disproving that outcome either.

Still, I strolled into that room dressed how I always wanted to dress and sat down in my chair. Once I got finished the trek from the bathroom where I'd changed into my clothes to my seat, I exhaled. The world didn't explode just because I dressed like this. People weren't pointing and laughing. The only problem now was that the hairs of my wig kept falling in front of my face. Thank goodness a helpful library worker would introduce me to the magic of bobby pins a few days later! On this day, taking the plunge and wearing my Amy Adams wig opened up a brand new world. I got a taste of a whole new kind of joy. Trans joy. As that class drew to a close, a thought crept into the corners of my mind...if I could do this...who knew what else was possible?

That was 2019. In retrospect, I'm so proud of myself for continuing to dress like I wanted and even taking my femme fashion senses even further in the new year (skirts got added to the equation, as did lipstick). I wasn't on Hormone Replacement Therapy yet, I still wasn't sure if I'd even want that. I just knew dressing like this and having people refer to me as "her" made me happy. 

In the years since this fateful day, I've talked to many other trans folks and their experiences with coming out and dressing as themselves. In many cases, they often got on estrogen/testosterone before they started dressing like themselves. They also often started with more subtle ways of reaffirming their identity than waltzing into a classroom with a brand-new wig. With this knowledge, I do have to chuckle at how I did things "out of order" compared to how many other people did their respective trans journeys. I dove right into the deep end of the pool!

However, there was no guidebook I could turn to in a quest for guidance on how to be trans. I was improvising. I just knew how I wanted to look and recognized that I had the privilege of accessing an environment like a college campus to engage in that kind of presentation. There is no wrong way to figure out your identity, just as there isn't an innate right way of doing it. It all depends on what makes you comfortable. There was so much joy just from exploring this part of myself and realizing how much joy I had in presenting and being seen by others as a woman. Just slipping on a skirt would send a sliver of euphoria up my spine, unlocking sensations of joy I didn't know existed before. At the time, it felt like things couldn't possibly get any better than this. Little did I know what 2020 had in store for me.

"Just smell the grass, the dirt
Just like I dreamed they'd be 
Just feel that summer breeze, the way it's calling me!" 

The year is 2020. The year isn't even three weeks old and I'm trying something new. I'm going to a group at my college called For Autism Empowerment. My own insecurities and self-loathing related to my autism had, up to this point, led to me wanting to distance myself from socializing with other autistic and neurodivergent people. I wanted to be seen as "normal," so I "stifled" my autism and turned down opportunities to interact with people like me. On its day, I planned to change that. Now that I was embracing my transness, I also wanted to embrace my autism. I walked into the room that day dressed as myself and was delighted to find that the majority of the people in this group were trans. I hadn't just found a haven for shared autistic experiences...I'd also found a place to be loved and seen as a trans person.

Much of that euphoria comes from the simplest things, like looking around a room of trans people and thinking "holy cow, there really is no one way to 'look' trans." Being in a space where everyone's encouraged to dress and present however they want makes you realize that YOU define what "being trans" looks like, not the other way around. I've spent so much of my life assuming that I couldn't be trans because of the way I looked or, later on, sending myself into spirals of anxiety over believing that the way I wanted to look (bright red hair, colorful dresses, nails decked out in vivid hues) wouldn't make look like a "normal" queer girl. But sitting in any space with more than one trans person, you realize just how much variety there is in this community. There is no "right" way to present as a trans person, a queer woman, or any other part of the LGBTQIA+ community. What's "right" is what makes you comfortable and validated. 

Speaking of insecurities melting away in these social's so much fun to laugh with other trans folks. I've sat in booths at restaurants late into the night just babbling the hours away with trans people of various genders doing the most ridiculous stuff. Whether it was people doing strained impressions of Transformers characters or lengthy ruminations on whether Grimace could beat Charles Entertainment Cheese in a fight, outlandish exchanges were a guarantee in these safe confines. There's something beautiful about being so busy laughing and chatting about the silliest things that I forget my clothes or trans-centric insecurities. The qualities that kept me up at night before are now pushed from my mind, even only temporarily, to make room for all this joy.

"For like the first time ever, I'm completely free!"

The year is 2023. I'm writing these words as I prepare to publicly come out once and for all to the world as a woman. As I put my thoughts down, I begin to realize something. I've been planning for months to have this essay divided up into sections marked by chunks of the song "When Will My Life Begin (Reprise 2)" from Tangled. After all, this tune has always guided me through such profound experiences in my life, the lyrics feel really specific to me coming out, and I love a good musical number. However, I'm just now realizing another part of that movie resonates as incredibly authentic to my trans experiences.

This element comes right after Rapunzel leaves the tower she's been trapped in. She's taking in the joys of the outside world while grappling with her sense of guilt over disobeying Mother Gothel's orders to stay inside. The camera keeps cutting back and forth between Rapunzel in various states of euphoria and Rapunzel experiencing extreme feelings of self-loathing. One moment, she's rolling down a hill in joy, the next minute she's lying face-down in a field of flowers declaring "I am a despicable human being." 

Being openly trans in certain public spaces has led to the most joyful moments of my entire life, like when I'm hanging out with my trans pals or when a Walgreens cashier called me "Missus Laman". Being openly trans in public has also led to the most traumatic moments of my entire life. I can never go into a train at night or a 7/11 at any time of day again without wincing over horrifying transphobic memories of the past. Much like Rapunzel, I too have had moments of euphoria tied to my transness get followed up almost immediately by traumatic experiences related to my transness. 

Obviously, the "lows" for trans people are much more severe than what can be communicated in a Disney musical, particularly given how rampant transphobia and transphobic violence and legislation are in American society (especially against trans individuals of color). However, this sequence does offer a starting point for understanding how complicated day-to-day trans existence is. And yet, much like Rapunzel ended up being "so glad I left my tower," so too am I always glad to be trans and occupy spaces where I can present as trans. Being trans is not easy. I'm not "completely free" as a trans woman. Being trans does not mean all of my anxieties and problems get solved. 

But the vast majority of challenges I experience as a trans woman come from external factors motivated by cis-people and late-stage capitalism (harassment, the exorbitant costs of gender-reaffirming beauty products and clothes, difficulties in accessing healthcare, etc.), not from my innate state of being trans.  Being trans allows me to be in touch with my true self and makes navigating everyday problems just a bit easier. I cannot stress enough how much joy and self-contentment I've felt doing trans-reaffirming things like beginning the process of HRT. 

I've been reminded of all these nuances and intricacies every step of the way of writing this piece. Dressing as me, embracing who I am, and being in social situations where I'm validated...these are the aspects of my life that take me to exciting new places. My fear and anxiety over the unfamiliar aren't gone (far from it), but the precedent of doing one big trans-related thing in the past inevitably inspires me to do something else that once sounded impossible. 

Pink dresses I was always looking at in wide-eyed wonder as a youngster now resides in my closet. 

The hair I saw on Amy Adams that I always yearned for now rests on a wig stand in my bedroom. 

The very idea of going to see movies in theaters, my favorite thing to do in all the world, while dressed as me...I've done that.

To quote one of my favorite musicals, "the strangest things seem suddenly routine." 

I've come a long way from the day I first saw Amy Adams up on the silver screen and she rewired my brain. Heck, I've even come a long way from just my very first For Autistic Empowerment meeting or the day I started my weekly estrogen injections. I'm sure coming out like this and being open about my transness in writing for the very first time will also be just a stepping stone in a greater and more complicated journey. The prospect of such an uncertain larger future fills me with as much dread as it does excitement, especially given the deluge of anti-trans bills making their way across various state legislatures in America. Anything's possible in this world, which is both terrifying and reassuring. However, I'm so grateful I'll be able to confront every part of that future as me, Lisa Laman. As Amy Adams taught me long ago, it's best to confront reality as yourself...and with some bright red locks on your head.

And now, much like Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, David Lynch's Lost Highway, or Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis (hey, I had to shove some film geek stuff in here somewhere!), this essay is a circular narrative. It's time to end where we began, with a song about the joys of achieving the freedom you've craved for so long...

"I could go running and racing and dancing and chasing 
And leaping and bounding
Hair flying, heart pounding 
And splashing and reeling and finally feeling 
That's when my life begins!!"

Fast X hits a multitude of creative speed bumps


Early in Fast X, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) wistfully notes to longtime buddy Han (Sung Kang) that there’s a problem with people “these days…they don’t listen.” When the Fast & Furious saga began, Toretto was the young whippersnapper who defied authority figures and bent the rules to pull off the impossible. Now he’s delivering dialogue bemoaning the state of today’s youth, with this “don’t listen” line proving so important to the modern version of Toretto that it even gets a callback in Fast X’s action-packed climax. There’s really no better distillation of how creaky and overly fixated on the past this franchise has become than that.

The beginning of a two or three-part finale to the Fast & Furious saga, Fast X is about the demons of the past coming back to haunt Toretto and his massive family. Dante (Jason Momoa), the heretofore unseen son of the villain of Fast Five, wants revenge against Toretto for killing his dad. But Dante isn’t just here to slaughter Toretto, oh no. He wants to make this man suffer, which means putting every protagonist of the Fast & Furious franchise through the wringer. Characters like Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) get framed as criminals, mercenaries are sent after anyone who so much as lifted a finger to help these car-fixated heroes, and Toretto’s son Brian is in constant jeopardy.

Dante’s nefarious plot eventually entails splitting the primary cast of these Fast & Furious movies across the globe into a wide assortment of subplots. Roman and friends spend forever wandering around London, Letty is brought to a secret prison, newbie character Tess (Brie Larson) tries her hardest to help Toretto, there’s so much going on. It eventually feels like homework trying to keep up with where everybody is and what they’re up to. The Fast & Furious saga has been weighed down by overly dense narratives before (like the overabundance of flashbacks in F9), but rarely in this franchise has it taken so much effort to stay engaged with what’s happening on-screen.

There’s just not nearly enough excitement amidst all the noise to justify the overstuffed screenwriting. It’d be one thing if these characters kept hopping to different locales to engage in unforgettable hand-to-hand skirmishes. More often than not, though, Fast X is enamored with just throwing out a bunch of random half-sketched concepts at the wall and seeing what sticks. A barrage of celebrity guest appearances (including Jason Statham and Helen Mirren reprising their roles from earlier Fast & Furious movies) try to give viewers jolts of serotonin, but they just come off as hollow retreads of the cameos in better blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame. Meanwhile, extremely strained attempts at comedy (like Han ingesting a “special” cupcake) take up way too much screentime and keep undercutting attempts to lend real dramatic stakes to Fast X’s storyline.

Despite Fast X’s insistence on throwing everything but the kitchen sink at moviegoers, it’s shocking how this installment misses two key ingredients that defined the high points of this franchise: heart and action. After all, with the Fast & Furious characters split up for so much of the runtime, the endearingly earnest camaraderie that defined the best moments of this saga are absent from Fast X. Creating gratuitous cliffhangers and cramming so many scenes with references to obscure pieces of Fast & Furious lore have replaced any trace of humanity in this series. All the globe-trotting and celebrity cameos don’t matter if none of these people are engaging to watch!

As for the action, in a post-RRR and John Wick: Chapter 4 world, the big spectacle sequences of Fast X are quite forgettable. A bomb shaped like a massive ball bouncing around Rome has its moments of preposterous excitement, but it and other major stunt-heavy scenes are undercut by poorly incorporated pieces of CGI. The few hand-to-hand skirmishes aren’t dismal in terms of choreography, but they are poorly edited, which dilutes their capacity to thrill. The lack of thrills ensures that the 148-minute runtime feels much longer than that.

If there’s any aspect of Fast X that keeps the movie from being the nadir of the franchise alongside The Fast and the Furious and Fast & Furious, though, it’s Jason Momoa’s performance as Dante. The character is eventually too overexposed to be genuinely intimidating, but Momoa’s commitment to playing Dante as such a flamboyant and campy figure is tremendously delightful. Too much of Fast X is flatly going through the motions, but Momoa’s performance has some real energy and creativity to it. How wonderful that this franchise finally delivered a villain distinctive enough in both personality and fashion sensibilities (Dante’s various costumes are a riot) to be an inevitable cosplay fixture at every convention in the near future.

If Fast X had channeled more of the endearingly silly energy of Momoa’s work as Dante, it could’ve been a perfectly pleasant distraction. However, director Louis Leterrier’s competent chops behind the camera can’t save a bloated script desperately lacking in personality and fun. Fast X delivers tons of teases for future Fast & Furious installments but refuses to take some sage advice delivered by Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and live in the here and now.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 ends a cosmic trilogy on a high note

Back in 2013, I wouldn't shut up about the Guardians of the Galaxy to my High School friends. That and Inside Llewyn Davis were the two upcoming movies I would blabber about endlessly to anyone within earshot. Of course, none of these teenagers (very understandably) knew or understood what I was talking about. After all, the general marketing campaigns for these movies hadn't kicked off yet. Rocket Raccoon and Groot were still just obscure figures from the pages of Marvel Comics. I'm sure my ceaseless ranting and raving about a tree voiced by Vin Diesel just sounded like nonsense. Flash forward a decade and the big screen Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy has come to a close with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. All those years ago I was just stoked to super unknown comic book characters leap onto the big screen. If only I'd known then what a great finale writer/director James Gunn had up his sleeve for these cosmic weirdos, then my pre-release excitement would've undoubtedly increased ten-fold.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 begins on a somber note, with a flashback to the earliest days of Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) before settling down decades later with a now-adult Rocket. He and his fellow Guardians of the Galaxy are in a bit of a despondent mood, particularly de facto leader Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who's still reeling from the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Their problems only get exacerbated when Rocket gets fatally harmed during a battle with the powerful being Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). With death lingering over the head of this Guardian, Star-Lord leads Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) on a mission to save their pal. Such a quest will lead them into conflict with The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the man responsible for the creation of Rocket and all kinds of other horrors. 

Gunn's two preceding Guardians of the Galaxy movies were marked by a welcome embrace of comic book absurdity mixed in with deeply tangible human emotions. This filmmaker has shown a gift for balancing out both silliness and humanity and that talent has been further refined for this third solo outing for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Nowhere is this deft tone more apparent than in a collection of flashback scenes showing Rocket bonding with a trio of other animals that have been experimented on. These critters have extremely stylized designs, but the script treats them with such warmth and humanity. There's a coziness to the comfort they find in each other during horrific circumstances. 

These intimate sequences are some of the best in Gunn's script, especially in its willingness to afford breathing room for raw depictions of sorrow. Rocket's always been such a compelling character because he seems like something that should be a quippy punchline, yet, dating back to the first Guardians of the Galaxy, has always expressed such fascinating displays of vulnerability and interior aching. Seeing his origins only enhances this furry hero's depth rather than taking away from his mystique. Plus, these sequences allow Iwuji to ham it up as an unabashedly evil guy with a capital E. How nice to see a modern Marvel Cinematic Universe villain unburdened by the need to be "serious" or a "misguided" good guy. Iwuji portrays a baddie you can hate with your whole body.

Beyond Rocket, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 still proves mightily entertaining, though Gunn's script is undeniably a bit crowded. Most notably, sequences involving Adam Warlock are often entirely detached from the Guardians physically (he spends much of the story searching for them), which makes him feel like a more extraneous part of the screenplay. Poulter's enjoyable performance and an eventual reveal in the third-act on how he ties into a core theme of Vol. 3 ensures the character is far from a waste of time, but his earliest solo scenes certainly feel like they could've been trimmed down or condensed. In terms of critiques beyond an overstuffed script, composer John Murphy doesn't deliver as stirring or idiosyncratic a score as the work done by previous Guardians of the Galaxy composer Tyler Bates. So many other recurring elements of this trilogy are in such fine form this go-around, it would've been great for the score to also match the quality of preceding Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

By and large, though, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 delivers a rip-roaring great time, especially on a visual level. The cosmic exploits of these superheroes are realized here with more practical sets than ever before and they look spectacular. Star-Lord and friends inhabit worlds that seem like you could step right into them and they're often peppered with such vibrant colors. The hive-like interiors of the headquarters for an evil company and The High Evolutionary's lair made out of red squares are especially memorable surroundings. While recent Marvel Studios outings like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania looked dreary and cheap, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 looks like a visual feast.

Best of all, the characters here remain as compelling as ever. Gunn's screenplay happily takes these figures into such interesting directions that subvert conventional fan theories or wishes in favor of more nuanced, mature end destinations for these characters. A subplot involving a new incarnation of Gamora is especially thoughtfully realized while Nebula continues to shine as one of the more unexpectedly complicated figures in the trilogy. There's such a love for every bizarre creation that traipses across the screen in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, from a telekinetic space pooch to a bug-lady who can control people's emotions. That affection is as infectious as ever and allows the pathos of this fond farewell to hit like a ton of bricks.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a weird blockbuster, a movie as in love with depicting animal-based torment as it is with Nathan Fillion dropping comedic one-liners. In weaker hands, it's very easy to imagine how juggling such wildly disparate elements would've resulted in something annoyingly erratic. Thankfully, writer/director James Gunn has come armed with plenty of experience in handling bizarre tones, not to mention a bunch of memorable tunes, to ensure Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 lives up to its potential. It's a film capable of tearing your heart to shreds before making it feel full. I'm sure it'll leave many people endlessly chatting up its virtues like they're me circa. 2013 describing my excitement for the then-upcoming blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy...

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Summer 2023 Box Office Predictions

Me watching all the trailers for this summer's movies

Well, here we are again.

One year later and I'm back writing a summer box office predictions piece on Land of the Nerds. A lot has happened in just the one year since I last wrote this piece but, thankfully, none of those big events have disrupted the annual event of a deluge of new movies dropping in the hottest months of the year and competing for box office glory. In fact, the summer 2023 slate is incredibly stacked, a reuslt of certain movies (namely The Flash, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and the new Mission: Impossible) all getting delayed from 2022 thanks to COVID-19-related problems. 2022 had portions of the calander where the theatrical landscape was just totally dead..that won't be a problem in 2023. Even August, where last year Bullet Train was the only new non-Dragon Ball movie to crack $15+ million on opening weekend, is packed in 2023 with major titles like The Meg 2: The Trench, Blue Beetle, and an animated Ninja Turtles film.

While there's no question on this summer's slate being packed to the gills, there is an interesting level of uncertainty surrounding some of the season's potential biggest players. Can The Flash overcome all its pre-release controversy to score a win for audiences? Will Elemental restore some luster to the box office track record of Pixar? Are people craving another Indiana Jones movie? Lots of ingredients are up in the air for the costliest tentpoles of 2023, a brand of filmmaking often, ironically, looked at by studios as foolproof. These questions are undoubtedly causing headaches for studio executives across Hollywood, but those quandaries are just the kind of thing that makes predicting the summer box office all the more exciting. Let's get right down to predicting the opening weekend and final domestic hauls of the ten biggest movies of summer 2023, starting with the movie in tenth place...

(Note: all opening weekend projections are for what a movie will make over its first three-day weekend)


10. Oppenheimer 

Oppenheimer has a tough hill to walk up this summer. Even with Christopher Nolan's name on the posters, this is still an adult drama with a $100 million budget. The relentlessly intense big-scale sequences of his last historical drama, Dunkirk, are absent here. Those Dunkirk set pieces made that war film feel like it belonged right in the middle of the crop of summertime action films, whereas Oppenheimer is a more restrained affair. Also, Cillian Murphy has only headlined one movie (A Quiet Place: Part II) that cracked $100 million domestically (he did show up in supporting roles in hits like Batman Begins and Inception). It'll also need to contend with a new Mission: Impossible movie for the attention of tentpole-fixated moviegoers.  

It's not all doom and gloom here, though. For one thing, Universal's been pushing Oppenheimer like it's a massive action blockbuster, a wise move that already gives the feature an event movie feeling. Murphy is also surrounded by a barrage of a massive names (Emily Blunt! Robert Downey Jr.! Matt Damon!) that ensure all the presure isn't just on him to attract moviegoers. Plus, if it's even half-decent and doesn't utterly collapse on opening weekend, it'll totally stick around at the box office well into Labor Day weekend. Expect this one to have a slower start, but stick around long-term at the box office for a decent domestic finish. Nolan's defied the odds before, though, so nobody be shocked if he turns out to have tapped into a public fascination with J. Robert Oppenheimer that nobody else realized existed.

Projected Opening Weekend: $36 million

Projected Domestic Total: $140 million

9. Elemental

Since Pixar Animation Studios started releasing movies in the summer of 2006 with Cars, this studio has only had one summertime movie (Ratatouille) open below $50 million. Even that one exception wasn't far off the mark with a $47 million debut. Even last years box office dud Lightyear initially opened with a $53 million bow that at least looked consistent with previous Pixar summertime titles like Cars 3 (the fact that it collapsed after that weekend is what sealed Lightyear's financial doom). All eyes are now on Elemental to see if it can continue that streak and, more importantly, reverse the downward trajectory of animated Disney films at the box office. Lightyear and Strange World were two of the biggest box office bombs of 2022 while acclaimed Pixar titles like Soul and Turning Red got unceremoniously dumped on Disney+. Once the titans of animation, Disney's animation studios need some box office rejuvination stat.

It's difficult to imagine right now that Elemental will be the mega-blockbuster that immediately silences all concerns over the box office prospects of animated Disney fare. The premise doesn't seem like it's as immediately compelling to youngsters and their families as, say, Inside Out or Coco. and the marketing so far has been muted. Elemental is also opening the same day as The Flash and just two weeks after Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, both of which will undoubtedly cut into its box office potential. Still, it's a Pixar movie in the summertime. Don't underestimate that subgenre. Plus, it won't have to compete with a new Illumination movie over 4th of July weekend (unlike many past Pixar movies), which could give it more room to stick around. Elemental will almost certainly end up one of the lower-grossing Pixar movies, but it'll also likely inch the studio closer to something resembling box office normalcy after the financial failure of Lightyear.

Projected Opening Weekend: $47 million

Projected Domestic Total: $160 million

8. Fast X

Just as the budgets for individual Fast & Furious movies goes higher and higher, these titles are also starting to stall out a tad at the box office. Granted, "stalling out" for a Fast & Furious movie is a relative concept, most other franchises would love to be churning out installments that "only" crack $700 million worldwide. Still, the ever-ballooning costs of these movies is becoming a problem as the domestic grosses fall shorter and shorter of not just the abnormally massive Furious 7 in 2015, but other installments like Fast Five in 2011.

Fast X won't be able to bring the franchise anywhere close to its glory days at the North American box office, though it may, if things really go its way, have a chance at making a bit more than its predecessor domestically at least. Exempting Tenet, F9 was the first massive tentpole to get a theatrical-exclusive release in North America since the pandemic began, which undoubtedly softened its grosses a tad. Fast X, opening in a marketplace less impacted by COVID, could build on that, but its marketing will need to get better first. So far, promotional materials have been a bit derivative and the promise of this one being the start of "the end of the road" feels more than a tad hollow given how many of these movies have hinged their marketing on "one last ride." It's a new Fast & Furious movie dropping just before Memorial Day weekend, Fast X will make some money. But it almost certainly won't make enough to be profitable on that $340 million+ budget.

Projected Opening Weekend: $70 million

Projected Domestic Total: $170 million

7. Barbie

Everybody's talking about Barbie. Every new promotional image, trailer, or on-set photo of this movie gets the internet talking like there's no tomorrow. It's also the first live-action adaptation of one of the most popular toys ever created, which really enhances the box office potential of this Greta Gerwig directorial effort. However, save for those Transformers movies, there aren't a lot of precedents for movie adaptations of toys. Whereas new superhero or video game movies have tons of previous entries to look to in terms of predicting box office trajectories, Barbie is entering less-trodden territory occupied by movies like the G.I. Joe films and Battleship.

All of this to say, it's hard to determined right now how high or how low Barbie is. One wouldn't want to go super high and then have the film seem like it "flopped" when it still does solid box office numbers. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling being famous movie stars who also haven't headlined a bunch of movies that exceeded $100+ million domestically exacerbate the unpredictability here. Still, Barbie is generating lots of buzz, everybody knows what a Barbie is, and Warner Bros. is pushing this hard as a mid-July blockbuster. This should do very well...but don't be surprised if Barbie goes even higher based on all the buzz it's currently generating.

Projected Opening Weekend: $60 million

Projected Domestic Total: $180 million

6. The Little Mermaid

Believe it or not, The Little Mermaid will be the first one of these live-action Disney remake movies to get a theatrical exclusive release since Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in October 2019. In the interm period, the likes of Mulan, Pinocchio, and Peter Pan & Wendy all went straight to Disney+ while Cruella simultaneously premieried as a PVOD release on the service. Now the Mouse House has to get audiences onboard with the idea of seeing one of these projects in theaters again, even as the general reputation of these remakes has gone down considerably in recent years. 

The ace up Disney's sleeve is that The Little Mermaid is one of the four movies that kicked off the Disney rennaisance of the 1990s. The remakes of the other three titles (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King) all grossed $360+ million domestically and two of them even exceeded $500 million in North America. That's a very encouraging financial track record to follow up, though The Little Mermaid will undoubtedly make less than those other titles. These remakes just aren't as special to the general public like they were even as late as 2017. Plus, competing June 2023 family titles like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse will undoubtedly hinder Mermaid's chances of sticking around at the box office as long as 2019's Aladdin update. Even with it being undoubtedly frontloaded, though, The Little Mermaid is bound to make a pretty penny for Disney brass.

Projected Opening Weekend: $84 million

Projected Domestic Total: $235 million

5. The Flash

For the last few months, entertainment outlets have been constantly dropping pieces about how everyone from Tom Cruise to random test screening audiences have adored The Flash. Frankly, these strange articles can't help but come off as some weird Warner Bros.-mandated PR clean-up in an attempt to bolster the image of a costly movie capsized by its lead star's endless string of controversies. Needless to say, it's been a bizarre road to get to The Flash, with that strangeness compounded by the movie's marketing campaign leaning heavily on Michael Keaton's Batman rather than the feature's titular superhero.

That promotional approach seems to have at least made The Flash a bit more in the mold of a typical legacy sequel, which should make it appealing to the broader public. Timing it to Father's Day is also a good call, since a movie owing so much to Batman/Batman Returns will appeal to dads everywhere. It does remain to be seen, though, if general audiences will be up for this movie and its time-travel shenanigans, especially as other complex multiversal superhero films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania have turned into box office duds. The DC brand has also been struggling lately, with four of the last six DC titles failing to crack $100 million partially thanks to subpar movies and also external factors like the decision to release titles like The Suicide Squad simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Still, last year's The Batman showed that DC blockbusters can still round up massive grosses. 

If The Flash can generate positive word-of-mouth, it'll likely stick around a good long while this summer thanks to those summer weekdays (every day is a Saturday) and the 4th of July holiday that arrives just after its third weekend of release. Expect a slightly diluted opening weekend (maybe something on par with other time travel superhero extravaganza X-Men: Days of Future Past), but longer legs on this one. Also expect Warner Bros. to keep bizarrely ignoring all the accusations against Ezra Miller, which is just extra baffling.

Projected Opening Weekend: $95 million
Projected Domestic Total: $275 million

4. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is going to make money. The question, though, is how much. In 2008, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brought the character back for a new adventure 19 years in the making. All the pent-up excitement of seeing a new Indy installment led to it crack $318 million domestically. In the years that followed, Crystal Skull garnered a mixed reputation among the general public and the yearning for more Indiana Jones movies simmered down. Still, 15 years away from movie theaters, there is a novelty to the franchise returning and the repeated emphasis in the marketing that this will be the final adventure for Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones does lend it an extra air of urgency for moviegoers.

If there's any problem for this new Indy film, it's that opening in between The Flash and the new Mission: Impossible could undercut some of its box office prowess. That's a lot of competition to face and if those movies end up exceeding expectations at the box office, even an enduring icon like Indiana Jones is going to feel the burn. Hitting the box office highs of Crystal Skull again feels an unlikely outcome for Dial of Destiny, but it shouldn't have any trouble still registering as one of the season's most notable success stories.

Projected Opening Weekend: $106 million

Projected Domestic Total: $280 million

3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

If there's any glaringly obvious sign that the Marvel Cinematic Universe's unchallenged box office dominance is at least slimming down a bit, look no further than the impending box office receipts for Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 3. This kick-off to the summer of 2023 will still make gobs of money (Lord knows Black Adam would've killed to have a domestic total anywhere near what Guardians 3 will bring in) but it'll undoubtedly have a much lower than usual North American gross than typical early May Marvel movies. In fact, this feature is all but certain to be the first (exempting the Sony title The Amazing Spider-Man 2) first weekend of May comic book movie to miss the $300 million mark in its domestic run since Thor in May 2011.

That wouldn't be a shock given that audience sentiment towards the Marvel Studios brand has dwindled in the last year while the lengthy wait between the second and third Guardians adventures undoubtedly impacted audience enthusiasm for this franchise. Even with all this downbeat news, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 should still be a solid performer and, for a multitude of reasons, has a good shot at scoring the best domestic opening weekend of the summer. There's still lots of goodwill towards these scrappy cosmic misfits and that'll likely be enough to keep Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 a lucrative enterprise, even if it'll fall below past Marvel Cinematic Universe enterprises at the box office.

Projected Opening Weekend: $122 million
Projected Domestic Total: $290 million

2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

In terms of pre-release hype, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is generating hype comparable to an average live-action superhero blockbuster rather than a typical animated family movie. That's no shock given that its predeccesor was so beloved by audiences across the globe and the marketing for this newest installment has been pulling out all the stops to emphasize a barrage of new Spider-Man characters (like Spider-Man 2099). The result is a movie that looks to handily outgross its predeccesor at the box office, especially over opening weekend. Into the Spider-Verse debuted to $35 million in December 2018, a month where films can open lower and then have incredible week-to-week drops. By contrast, Across the Spider-Verse is premiering in June, a month where things tend to open a lot bigger right away.

Considering this and the fact that Across the Spider-Verse is scheduled to be the first PG animated movie of summer 2023, it looks like this feature's poised for an outstanding box office. So how high does it go? Right now, it could make a run at a $100+ million domestic bow, which would make it one of only a handful of non-Disney animated titles to exceed that mark in its opening weekend in that territory. Given that this one's a sequel and opening in the more competitive summertime frame, there's no way Across the Spider-Verse is as leggy on a week-to-week basis as its predecessor. However, it still should have no trouble spinning a lucrative web at the box office.

Projected Opening Weekend: $106 million

Projected Domestic Total: $305 million

1. Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part One) 

Believe it or not, none of the Mission: Impossible movies have ever cracked $220 million domestically. Despite being such a long-running saga that’s extremely well-known to most people, there hasn’t been a single installment in this franchise that’s exceeded the North American gross of Rush Hour 2. That should change with Dead Reckoning (Part One) this summer for a multitude of reasons. For one, it’s part one of the franchise’s final chapter, which should lend some more immediacy to this installment to prospective moviegoers. For another, it’s the first Tom Cruise star vehicle after Top Gun: Maverick took over the box office last year. Before 2022, Cruise had never headlined a movie that cracked $240 million domestically. Maverick "slightly" exceeded that mark with a $710+ million North American haul. Dead Reckoning can’t and won’t hit Maverick numbers, but it’ll still prove to be a massive entry. 

However, it’s also a bit of a wild card since it’s hard to tell how high it can go. The elements working in its favor are extraordinary, but its difficult to ascertain just how much they can push this one past the previous domestic box office ceiling of this franchise. You’ve gotta take some risks in this life and especially when you’re predicting the victors of an impending summer box office season. Looking at everything Dead Reckoning has at its back, I suspect this title will see a massive 50% jump at least from the domestic haul of Mission: Impossible: Fallout. That percentage could easily climb, though, if hype for it continues to increase steadily over the next two months. In other words, we could be looking at the second consecutive summer in a row where Tom Cruise reigns above everyone else. 

Projected Opening Weekend: $85 million (around $150 million over its first five days of release) Projected Domestic Total: $340 million

Friday, April 21, 2023

Beau is Afraid is an ominously wacky mixture of Charlie Kaufman and the Zucker Brothers

As the movie's name would imply, the titular character of Beau is Afraid (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is an easily terrified sort. As the feature begins, it’s not hard to see why. Beau lives in an apartment nestled in a city that’s gone to Hell, with violence happening on every street corner. No wonder he lives and breathes anxiety, especially now that he’s planning a trip to visit his mother. His plans for this voyage keep getting messed up, though, thanks to initially small challenges (like his apartment keys getting snatched) before he ends up suffering severe injuries after getting hit by a car. The drivers of that car (a married couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) take Beau in to let him rest up. All Beau wants to do is see his mom. So begins an epic journey home for our hero, which will put an easily-scared man through the wringer with every challenge imaginable. 

Writer/director Ari Aster immediately proved his chops for making interesting scary movies with great sound design on Hereditary and Midsommar. That should make it no surprise that Beau is Afraid does a terrific job establishing an uneasy atmosphere relying heavily on every creak in the floorboards or distant shout. Everything near and far only furthers Beau’s fear of the wider world, a psychological condition that’s a perfect fit for Aster’s sensibilities. However, this section of Beau is Afraid also excels by leaning heavily on zany dark comedy. The brief bursts of humor in Aster’s previous works (like Will Poulter initially being paranoid during a drug trip in Midsommar) are here much more in the foreground. Moments like a news report on a figure known as the Birthday Boy Stab Man feel like they belong in an I Think You Should Leave sketch more than anything else.

It's all quite amusing stuff, especially since Aster is willing to go extremely heightened with cartoonish beats that wouldn't be out of place in a Zucker Brothers comedy like Airplane! Visual gags like Beau nonchalantly using his desktop even after it’s been damaged especially feel like they belong to this style of levity. There are laughs a-plenty in this stretch of Beau is Afraid, but it also works beautifully in capturing how overwhelming the word is from Beau’s point of view. Living with anxiety often means being at the mercy of worries or feelings of paranoia that doesn’t make any sense outside of your brain. The maximalist absurdist comedy of Beau is Afraid is a great way of capturing that phenomenon. Through stylized tendencies, recognizable truth is uncovered.

Once Beau ventures forth into the outside world, our hero starts to encounter an eclectic bunch of people and esoteric stretches of storytelling meant to function as larger metaphors for his psychological distress. This is when Beau is Afraid tries to channel its inner Synecdoche, New York, but can't measure up anywhere near that Charlie Kaufman masterpiece. Instead, this Ari Aster feature finds itself getting too lost in the weeds for its own good.  Aster's script just works so well as a preposterous comedy with eerie overtones. One can interpret so much larger meaning in the bumbling chaos of Beau's city life. Once it tries to poke you in the ribs with overly obvious visual metaphors and esoteric imagery (including a lengthy play sequence that leans too heavily on narration), it's just not quite as interesting. Beau is Afraid comes off as more compelling when its weightier qualities seem incidental. When the underlying meaning of its comedic madness sneaks up on you, the movie proves impactful. When everything on-screen is trying so hard to be weighty symbolism, that's when it stumbles.

Even in its most heavy-handed moments, though, Beau is Afraid still provides stirring imagery. Moments blending together a live-action Beau with an assortment of animated techniques, for instance, are gorgeously realized under the guidance of animation directors Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña (who previously helmed the haunting 2020 feature The Wolf House). Production designer Fiona Crombie also keeps conjuring up such evocative sets for Beau to traipse into. These assorted environments are all painted with memorably vibrant hues that are pleasing to the eye and show a lot of visual confidence. While countless films drain away their color scheme to come off as "meditative," Crombie makes sure that Beau is Afraid is never afraid of a dash of color. This is a film with lots on its mind that also embraces crisp colors.

Those sets house a solid ensemble cast that's largely comprised of comedic performers who are wisely giving performances evocative of their most famous pop culture personas. It's fun to see Nathan Lane, for example, play somebody so reminiscent of his quietly slimy characters from movies like Mouse Hunt but with extra subtle ominous traits lurking around the edges. Leaning heavily on these types of personalities lulls the viewer into thinking they know where these characters are going before the movie inevitably heads in more surrealist directions. As for Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, he's quite effective at portraying the various anxieties of Beau and especially proves capable of handling moments of extremely over-the-top comedy. I did wish certain aspects of his physicality and line deliveries didn't feel so evocative of his prior performances, though. Beau is Afraid often demonstrates a willingness to embrace the unexpected, but Phoenix's generally solid work can lapse into the familiar.

In the weeks leading up to Beau is Afraid's debut, Ari Aster has constantly talked about the wide variety of motion pictures that inspired the creative spirit of his latest directorial effort. Such works range from a variety of decades and different countries of origin. Ironically, though, what Beau is Afraid reminded me most of was an average short film from the FilmCow YouTube channel, the home of Charlie the Unicorn and Llamas with Hats. The combination of ultra-violence, intentionally sophomoric humor, and bursts of darkness rooted in very real psychological turmoil wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Gary and the Horse. Of course, the average FilmCow short runs under five minutes in length for a reason and Beau is Afraid's more obvious impulses in its second half will make you wish this movie had adhered a bit more to the art of brevity. But considering I'm a dum-dum who still laughs at Tricorn: Lord of Fate, it shouldn't be a surprise that I found more to enjoy than criticize within the madcap comedy world of Beau is Afraid.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is more generic than exhilaratingly fun

The 1993 feature Super Mario Bros. always inspires aggressive opinions. Perhaps you hate it, perhaps you loved it as a kid, perhaps some parts of it still stick with you. Because it's such a weird and audacious motion picture, something about it constantly resonates with people, even if it's just to inspire angry essays about the way it betrays its source material. By contrast, the 2023 motion picture, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is, like so many Illumination titles, too timid to ever try anything too exciting or unexpected. It rigidly goes through the motion of what fans will expect, always conscious of never going too weird or ambitious. Super Mario Bros. was a fascinating boondoggle that always provoked a response from people who viewed it. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is too generic to ever muster much more than the occasional chuckle.

Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are brothers who work as plumbers in Brooklyn, though the duo doesn't get any respect from anyone, not even their own family. An attempt to fix a hazardous leak in their neighborhood leads the pair to a green pipe that takes them to another world. Here, Luigi finds himself trapped in a domain ruled by the evil Bowser (Jack Black), while Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom, which is ruled over by Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Mario's only focus is on getting his brother back and he's willing to do anything to save his sibling, including figuring out how to use local mushrooms to give himself superpowers or fighting the powerful ape Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen). Meanwhile, Bowser is amassing a sprawling army to carry out plans that involve a marriage proposal to Peach and conquering every inch of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Screenwriter Matthew Fogel and directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic pepper The Super Mario Bros. Movie with lots of energy. If there's anything that'll make this movie understandable catnip for the younger set, it's being a short film (Mario runs 92 minutes long with credits) with no real lulls, there's always chaos or action unfolding on-screen. The deluge of mayhem never becomes exhausting or painful necessarily, but it does lack meaningful underlying stakes or real visual panache to give it all energy. The devotion to replicating imagery or moments from classic Mario games is temporarily nifty, but leaning almost exclusively on iconography from the game just didn't compel me, even as somebody whose playing Mario games since I could hold a Game Boy. 

Compare this to last week's Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a movie based on a property I knew nothing about. That one had fun standalone characters and jokes that could work for newbies and die-hard fans alike. By contrast, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a parade of familiarity and not just in relation to rehashing Mario lore. Its gags are often derivative of common jokes in other animated kids movies and a barrage of 1980s pop song needle drops are shockingly lacking in imagination. "Thunderstruck" and "Take On Me" have been played to death in movies, why must they show up here? Heck, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the third movie in the last four weeks (following Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Tetris) to drop "Holding Out For A Hero." I love that song to pieces, but c'mon, enough is enough (especially since Shrek 2 already provided the best possible use of that tune decades ago).

The frustrating reliance on the familiar extends to the animation, which is handsome-looking, especially in how iconic video game character designs have been translated to the confines of a feature film. However, this is yet another modern Western animated movie with cartoony characters inhabiting ultra-realistic-looking environments. Whether Mario and Luigi are in Brooklyn or the Mushroom Kingdom, their surroundings are always rendered with super-lifelike textures, which undercuts the intended sense of uniqueness this more fantastical realm should inspire. In recent years, big-screen American animation has opted for enjoyable deviations from realism, like in Turning Red or The Mitchells vs. The Machines. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, on the other hand, opts for the same visual sensibilities as other recent Illumination movies. It rarely looks bad or offensive, but like so much of the entire feature, it lacks a discernible identity.

Most disappointing of all, though, is the lack of real energy in the voice acting. Props to Jack Black and Keegan-Michael Key for showing up to actually do distinct voices as Bowser and Toad, respectively. They epitomize the creativity missing from so much of this feature’s voice cast. Seth Rogen, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, they all just sound like themselves to a distracting degree. None of them are bad, it’s just such an unimaginative route to go for these performances. Chris Pratt especially is forgettable rather than distinctively subpar as Mario, with his only real memorable trait being how his Brooklyn accent occasionally slips into sounding like it came from Minnesota. 

With so many resources at its disposal, it’s a shame that The Super Mario Bros. Movie couldn’t think of anything more to do than just regurgitate old songs, familiar visual trappings,  distractingly recognizable celebrity voice-overs, and a narrative too formulaic to be exhilarating. The core demo of kids will undoubtedly be pleased with what they get here and The Super Mario Bros. Movie is painless enough to make getting too bent out of shape over its shortcomings a bit ludicrous. Still, once it’s over, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that this was an enterprise that played it safe rather than fun or adventurous. It’s not like they needed to bring the de-evolution gun back from the 1993 Mario movie, but a little jolt of unpredictability would’ve livened up the proceedings. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is so slavishly devoted to pop culture of old that it never carves out a personality for itself.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a largely enjoyable fantasy romp

Somehow, I've never played Dungeons & Dragons. That's certainly a weird blindspot for me considering I love fantasy and have often gone under the name "NerdInTheBasement" on the internet...but it's true. All those rolling dice and role-playing opportunities have passed me by. But even though that tabletop game isn't a fixture of my life, I've always admired the way it brought people together and recognized its appeal. So universal and widespread is its prominence that it was inevitable someone would try their hand at making a movie adaptation of the property even after the 2000 boondoggle headlined by Jeremy Irons. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, hailing from Game Night writer/directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, makes for a rollicking good time and, best of all, resonated as totally accessible to this newcomer to this universe.

As Honor Among Thieves begins, Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and barbarian pal Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) are in prison. Shackles won't remain on their arms for long, though, because these eccentric thieves (each with tormented backstories) have a score to settle. Darvis wants to get back to his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), and retrieve an artifact that could bring some semblance of happiness back to his life. Unfortunately, both of those elements are being guarded over by former ally turned wealthy lord Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), whose also working with the very dangerous Sofina (Daisy Head). To pull off their epic plan, Darvis and Kilgore will need to put together a motley crew, consisting of sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) and tiefling Doric (Sophia Lillis). It's time to go on a quest with a ragtag group of fantasy archetypes.

Sometimes, filmmakers graduate from smaller-budgeted films to big-budget blockbusters and lose their distinctive personalities as artists in the process. Happily, Honor Among Thieves registers as very much a spiritual sequel to Daley and Goldstein's delightful Game Night. Just like with that earlier feature, Honor Among Thieves is consistently funny, but the laughs don't come at the expense of actual tension while sharply-realized camerawork abounds. While modern fantasy blockbusters like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword have tried way too hard to inject "gritty" sensibilities into this genre to make it accessible. The vibes of Game Night, meanwhile, are delightfully perfect for making a broadly appealing Dungeons & Dragons movie. Turns out, a feature that's fun to watch and anchored by a great cast can make the world of fantasy cinema feel fresh again.

Welcome surprises abound throughout this production, particularly in terms of the visuals used to realize this universe. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves appears to have been shot primarily on practical locations and deeply-detailed sets, which lend such texture to this universe. Even more exciting is the abundance of animatronics used to realize fantastical creatures like a big fish, a bird-man, and other enjoyably oddball inhabitants of this fantasy realm. What a wonderful way to pay homage to vintage fantasy movies like Labyrinth while creating a fresh new world you feel like you could reach out and touch. This trait is especially good at making newcomers (like me!) feel welcome in this universe. The impressiveness and immersive qualities of these practical effects can be appreciated by anybody, you don't need to have spent hours on a campaign to like cool puppets!

While the visuals are crisp in Honor Among Thieves, its narrative sensibilities fall into some familiar traps of modern blockbusters. Chiefly, this movie runs for over 130 minutes and certainly could've withstood a trim in the editing room. Meanwhile, the backstory for Darvis, particularly his yearning for a deceased wife, is a strangely generic storytelling detail in a film that's often so imaginative. This is an especially subjective grievance, but I also yearned for more of Doric! She's got such a cool powerset and Sophia Lillis is excellent in her performance of the character, but she's often put on the back burner in favor of focusing on Darvis and Simon. I presume this is because her shapeshifting powerset is so powerful (and not dependent on further training or mechanical aid like Simon's sorcerery) that focusing on her too much would inevitably lead to her solving all the problems in the narrative. Still, let's give Doric even more to do, especially in the way of wacky gags, if we get more of these, she's so compelling.

The fact that even grievances with the script of Honor Among Thieves have me yearning for these shortcomings to get addressed in further adventures, rather than inspiring me to give up on this franchise entirely, is a testament to all this title gets right in terms of serving up entertainment. The creative sensibilities of Daley and Goldstein deserve much of the credit for that feat, but so does the stellar cast assembled here. There's really not a dud in the ensemble, which is led by Chris Pine in just the kind of goofy and messy character this guy always excels in playing. Regé Jean-Page leaves a mighty big impression and reaffirms his gift for comic timing as the paladin Xenk while Hugh Grant is an absolute blast as a slimeball antagonist. I'm incredibly here for this era of Grant just showing up and playing maximalist caricatures with such swagger.

A friend of mine dubbed Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves a prime example of a "fun popcorn movie" and I'm inclined to agree. It's not a flawless blockbuster, but it delivers most of the goods you'd want out of a funny fantasy feature (even if it goes on too long for its own good). It isn't just basic competency that makes Honor Among Thieves an enjoyable time, but also an infectious level of fun in how it realizes its magical world. Even as someone who'd never rolled the dice on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game, I found myself plenty thrilled by sights like a portly dragon that rolls down massive inclines to crush its enemies or the shapeshifting skills of Doric. In other words, I was never lost or felt left out with all the excitement Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves conjured up.

Ben Affleck's Air isn't quite a slam-dunk, but still often scores


Between 2007 and 2012, Ben Affleck directed a trio of movies, including eventual Best Picture Oscar winner Argo. Since 2012, Affleck's only directed two features, the 2017 dud Live By Night and now his newest directorial effort, Air. Affleck's time away from the camera can be attributed to an array of factors, some rooted in the film industry and others deeply personal But he's back now as a filmmaker with Air, a crowdpleaser attempting to be a Jerry Maguire yarn about the Nike corporation. The feature is nothing challenging or revolutionary, but its easygoing charms feel like a good way for Affleck to segway back into the director's chair. Plus, there's enough talent going on behind the camera to remind people why Affleck garnered so much buzz for his directorial skills in the first place.

Air begins in 1984, with the Nike corporation decidedly in third place among the big shoe companies. With Adidas and Converse doing circles around Nike, this company needs something big to put it on the map. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a key member of Nike's sports division, is determined to do just that, even though his abrasive attitude makes him a nightmare for some of his co-workers. Vaccaro's got drive to spare and he's now using every ounce of his energy to get Nike to sign a sponsorship deal with a rookie player by the name of Michael Jordan. Instead of this shoe company getting endorsements from a bunch of athletes, Vaccaro wants Nike to put all its chips on Jordan. The obstacles here are enormous and include Jordan's agent, David Falk (Chris Messina) not wanting Nike anywhere near his client, while Vaccaro's boss, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), hates the entire plan. But if Vaccaro can pull this off, he's convinced that both Nike and Jordan could make history.

It's often said that the ending is the most important part of your movie since it's what the audience takes home with them when they leave the theater. That may be true, but nailing your beginning, the part where audiences determine whether or not they want to emotionally invest in your story at all is also crucial. Alex Convery's Air screenplay stumbles in this portion of its plot. These opening sequences, taking place in tiny conference rooms and showing characters like Vaccaro surrounded by dusty cubicles, certainly convey the idea that Nike doesn't have any cash to spare. A later scene with Vaccaro's friend and fellow executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), where this guy pours his heart out about needing money so he can be in his daughter's life, does a much better job of establishing some personal emotional stakes for these characters. Why didn't they lead with elements like Strasser's backstory?

Waiting so long to get to Strasser's motivation speaks to another issue regarding how the Air characters initially feel a bit cold and thinly sketched. Vaccaro, for instance, is mostly defined by just a brief visit to a casino while he's out scouting basketball players and being rude during work meetings. Trying to paint people with hundreds of thousands of dollars as "the little guy" could work if those "little guys" were transfixing, but initially, Air struggles to pull a Moneyball and make number-oriented people as compelling as athletes. However, once the Michael Jordan element comes into play at the half-hour mark, Air picks up speed and keeps on trucking for the rest of its runtime. The more nebulously-defined cash troubles of Nike have been replaced with more exciting concrete forms of conflict like Vaccaro trying to figure out how to communicate to Jordan's family or the enjoyably arch agent Falk throwing up roadblocks against Nike any chance he gets.

The introduction of the Jordan family, and especially mother Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), also brings an extra jolt of humanity to the movie. Suddenly, the contrast between the offices of Nike and working-class families is more apparent and that emphasizes the urgency of Jordan finding the right people to cooperate with in his basketball career. Convery's dialogue also becomes a lot more engaging in depicting Vaccaro trying to wine and dine potential clients like the Jordan's with his candor. A moment where he impersonates how various Converse and Adidas executives will try to win over Michael Jordan is both extremely humorous and a good way of showing how much experienced Vaccar has in this business.

As the plot gets more and more engaging in Air, Affleck's direction maintains a steady hand. Save for a few moments of showy camerawork (like a conversation between major Nike executives inexplicably told with a camera rotating around them), Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson's visual approach here rides a fine line between being unintrusive but also clearly not being on autopilot. Especially nice is the heavy emphasis on natural light at Jordan's residence, even when Deloris is taking a phone call inside there are beams of sunlight pouring in from the windows. Meanwhile, the Nike officers are intentionally captured with all interior lighting and a lot less variety in the color palette. The two locations might be on separate planets, a fact that communicates just how initially detached Nike is from the client its executives crave. That sentiment is nicely communicated in Affleck's direction without sacrificing the grounded visual aims of Air.

Air isn't a movie that rewrites the book on sports films or subverts expectations. Its deluge of 1980s needle drops especially could've used an extra jolt of imagination, as Air goes to the well of vintage tunes that have been used all the time in other period piece features. But it is a feature that eventually had me rooting for its main characters despite such a slow start while some memorable supporting performances (Viola Davis and Matthew Maher are the MVPs of the cast) offer up plenty of entertainment. Being agreeable isn't always a bad thing and that's just what Air resonated as for me, a person with zero basketball or Nike knowledge. I'm sure for dads and basketball geeks everywhere this will play like the first appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.