Friday, March 1, 2024

Thank God for Hundreds of Beavers

Modern comedy movies are in a rut. 2023 signaled a mini-creative resurgence for the genre between Bottoms, Joy Ride, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret (not to mention the absurdist genius of mega-hit Barbie). However, the last six or seven years of American comedies have mostly been disposable fodder filmed indifferently and written without much more effort. Just think back to movies like Tag, Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, Daddy's Home, and countless others. Projects with unimaginative gags and camerawork cribbed from forgotten CBS sitcoms. A.A. Dowd's A.V. Club review for the lackluster Stuber astutely noted that "this is very much a 2019 studio comedy, which means that our heroes’ misadventure doubles as a self-help seminar." That pretty much sums up how modern comedy movies operate. Even something full of dog poop and boners like Strays feels obligated to dedicate lots of screentime to the lead canine explaining his character arc to his abusive owner in didactic terms.

Classic comedy movies that snuck up on you how much you were invested in the characters (like The Muppet Movie or The Princess Bride) and yukfests that are focused just on silly laughs (like Airplane! or any classic Mel Brooks comedy) are in short supply. American comedy movies are now seemingly required to follow the "Save the Cat" approach to filmmaking to a tee and be filmed with no sense of visual panache. Thank goodness then for modern great comedies like Bottoms, Barbie...and Hundreds of Beavers. Hailing from director Mike Cheslik and the realm of Northern Wisconsin, Hundreds of Beavers is the wacky homage to vintage Looney Tunes cartoons and silent cinema you never knew you needed in your life. While modern comedy movies like Anyone but You and Strays get bogged down in too much dialogue, Hundreds of Beavers is a masterful reminder of the power of pure visual comedy.

The set-up for Hundreds of Beavers concerns Jean Kayak (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), a former Acme Applejack employee who finds himself stranded in a frozen wasteland. This being the 19th century, it's time for Kayak to hunt some animals for food and money. All the animals around Kayak (rabbits, wolves, raccoons, and, of course, beavers) are played by humans in animal suits, though our protagonist treats them like normal woodland critters. It's the classic Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny routine set in a snowy landscape, with Kayak taking on the Fudd role as he's constantly one-upped by the animals around him. A chance to earn the hand of The Furrier (Olivia Graves) in marriage spurs Kayak to step up his game as a fur trapper, especially when it comes to slaughtering the nearby beavers.

Written by Mike Cheslik and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, the script for Hundreds of Beavers is nothing short of a miracle to behold. What at first seems like a simple translation of classic Warner Bros. cartoon dynamics into live-action keeps expanding its scope and imagination in such thrilling ways. The world Kayak inhabits has a very specific geography to it and no supporting character or animal (no matter how seemingly disposable) turns out to be superfluous. Always finding new ways to keep elements like a testy woodpecker or a cave of wolves in the story ensures Hundreds of Beavers never gets episodic in structure. Best of all, this storytelling approach inspires so many great gags. It's a delight to watch elements like Kayak's snow-people companions or the various traps our protagonist employs evolve throughout the feature. Just when you think you've seen this film do everything possible with human-sized rabbits, for instance, Hundreds of Beavers comes up with another great visual joke involving those critters.

The entire feature is also a testament to what miracles can happen with stripped-down character designs. This is a virtue I was reminded of when watching the 1914 short film Gertie the Dinosaur for the first time earlier this week. The very first animated character in the history of cinema, Gertie is adorable in her sparse design, with eyes and body language that leave so much to audience interpretation. Similarly, the intentionally simplistic animal costumes (with their permanently open eyes and occasionally discernible zippers) are so charming to watch. You can project so much into the broad body language of these animals and their faces, while any variations to their default appearance (like X's over the eyes of animals when they "die") immediately register as hysterical. Like Gertie the Dinosaur, Hundreds of Beavers shows that restraint can often be a gift, not an inhibition.

All the thought that's clearly gone into making sure these costumes work as vessels for inspired jokes speaks to how much effort informs the madcap silliness of Hundreds of Beavers. It's hard work making effective ludicrous comedy cinema, otherwise, we'd get yukfest's this good every week. Cheslik's direction of the performers, for example, demonstrates a staggeringly deep understanding of the nuances of both silent cinema acting and typical behavior of pre-1960s cartoon characters. The monochromatic color scheme of the feature is realized with terrific skill, while gags leaning on jokes going on juuuuust long enough (like a close-up shot of Kayak struggling "endlessly" to pick up a coin from a wooden surface) are expertly executed. The folks behind Hundreds of Beavers have taken a cue from vintage jokes like the rake gag on The Simpsons in understanding timing well enough to understand just when an elongated joke goes from annoying to hysterical.

There are tons of intricate details nestled within the chilly wittiness of Hundreds of Beavers that speak to what a hysterical accomplishment this movie is. However, the greatest compliment I can impart to this motion picture is that it left me cackling constantly. It's easy to become disillusioned with modern comedy movies when you watch something like You People, Vacation Friends, or Fool's Paradise. Such titles leave one wondering if this genre simply can't work anymore. These movies in the 2020s are simply destined to have garbage cinematography and scripts more interested in "proper" plot structure than jokes. But much like last year's Bottoms and Barbie, Hundreds of Beavers is a reminder that great comedy cinema can still exist. Watching Mike Cheslik and a supremely talented cast & crew execute this outlandish premise with so much care, precision, and humor is a glorious thing to behold. Modern comedy movies may be in a rut, but you wouldn't know it from watching the ingeniously ludicrous triumphs of Hundreds of Beavers.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Mini-Reviews: Bob Marley: One Love, Drive-Away Dolls, Orion and the Dark

Folks, there are quite a few new wide releases out right now, so why just limit one review to one movie? Ahead, let's dive into bite-sized reviews of three February 2023 releases (Bob Marley: One Love, Drive-Away Dolls, and Orion and the Dark) and break down whether they're worth giving a watch within the crowded pop culture landscape. First up, let's look at the latest in Hollywood's endless string of music biopics...

Bob Marley: One Love

The story of Bob Marley is brought to life in Bob Marley: One Love, a very standard music biopic coming courtesy of director Reinaldo Marcus Green. Kingsley Ben-Adir inhabits Marley while Lashana Lynch plays the musician's dear partner, Rita Marley. If there's any real critical issue with Bob Marley: One Love, it's just that it lacks much energy or narrative drive. It wants to operate like a standard narrative film (this isn't meant to be a hangout title in the vein of classic Richard Linklater productions), but it also never gives immense conflict in its story enough time to breathe or weight to feel impactful. Rita Marley has a near-death experience that ends up getting resolved in side dialogue delivered in voice-over by a doctor. Record executive disagreements over the cover of Marley's Exodus album end up having few ripple effects on the plot. Even Marley getting harassed at a British bar by a white guy just fizzles out and never goes anywhere.

As a result of these choppy narrative decisions, the story of Bob Marley: One Love lacks urgency and the characters never feel truly alive. Green's generic visual impulses as a director also make the proceedings feel extra stale (it's shocking cinematographer Robert Elswit lensed this movie,, surely the cinematographer of There Will Be Blood can do better than this?!?). If there's a saving grace, it's that Ben-Adir and Lynch are very good in the lead roles while tons of excellent Marley tunes dominate the soundtrack. Still, you can see those lead actors do even better work in other projects worthy of their talents while all those Marley songs are available on a slew of music formats. There's really not much super specific to Bob Marley: One Love that makes it a must-see.

Drive-Away Dolls

Ethan Coen embarks on his first solo directorial effort with Drive-Away Dolls, which concerns two lesbians who get in over their head in a crime snafu. Whereas Joel Coen's inaugural solo directorial effort The Tragedy of Macbeth seemed designed from the ground up to be different from "a typical Coen Brothers movie," Ethan Coen has opted for a premise that seems like a mixture of Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, and Fargo (among other Coen Brother farces). Alas, Ethan on his own can't capture the comedic magic of "you've got a pantyhose on your head." Drive-Away Dolls is really hampered by a strange script and weird pacing that makes the whole thing feel truncated from a larger, superior film. It's like audiences are watching a rapid-fire montage of a comedy movie rather than an actual film.

This leaves the proceedings feeling oddly inert, while punchlines are devoid of proper set-up and lengthy set-ups lead to no really impressive gags. Throw in some distractingly bad scene transitions and and Drive-Away Dolls (much like the dismal filmmaking in Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind) suggests Ethan Coen just lacks some necessary chops as a standalone filmmaker. Still, the proceedings are made watchable by enjoyably chaotic lesbian antics as well as committed lead performance from Margaret Qualley that finally made me understand the hype behind this leading lady. While Qualley felt a bit forgettable in Stars at Night and dreadfully miscast in Sanctuary, she's having a ball as the anchor of Drive-Away Dolls. She carries the torch from George Clooney in the pantheon of Southern dim-witted Coen Brothers protaganists while making that archetype her own. She's a hoot. Now if only the film she was headlining would stop undercutting its best attributes.

Orion and the Dark

Given that it's a DreamWorks Animation movie that dropped onto Netflix at the start of February 2024 with no fanfare, you'd be more than forgiven for not knowing that Orion and the Dark even existed. This adaptation of a famous children's book concerns Orion (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with fears about everything, especially the dark. One night, the personification of Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) visits Orion and promises to help him get over the fears that are controlling his life. This adaptation is penned by Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind projects like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anamolisa, and Synecdoche, New York. He's the "ideal" guy to work with a studio that produced Trolls World Tour...though, ironically, he previously worked for the studio doing uncredited rewrites on Kung Fu Panda 2!

Kaufman actually brings more of his personality to this title than you'd think, including through a narrative structure that spans a surprising amount of time and an emphasis on lead characters growing old before our very eyes. Director Sean Charmatz (making his feature-length directorial debut) doesn't bring as much distinctiveness to the visuals of Orion and the Dark, but he executes the feature with a willingness to let the tone be a tad more complicated than expected. Some of the more kid-friendly jokes here feel more obligatory than hysterical, while the story would've also benefited from a tighter scope (expanding the narrative to include personifications of various other nighttime phenomena takes some of the focus away from Orion). Still, as far as Netflix kid's movies go, Orion and the Dark is a perfectly pleasant watch.


Saturday, February 3, 2024

Argylle Makes a Case For Straight People Never Directing Movies Again



"The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life." 

That iconic line from Female Trouble ran all throughout my mind during Argylle. The latest spy movie from Matthew Vaughn embodies many traits of cis-het culture to a tee, but especially one strange thing about straight people: they can't be sincere. After all, straight comics are the ones who pioneered the "I hate my wife!" routine of stand-up comedy. Straight folks are obsessed with musicians like Imagine Dragons who never plumb deep enough emotions that their songs couldn't play in T-Mobile commercials. Straight individuals love stuff like South Park or Ricky Gervais, which promote the idea that nothing matters. There's no reason getting invested in anything. Being detached and stuffing down your emotions is cool.

Argylle embodies this phenomenon eerily well. It wants to be a love letter to spy movies, but it's idea of "love" is just name-dropping classic spy movies. To demonstrate any greater love or complicated relationship with spy movies would require vulnerability and "that's so gay, bro." Keeping it emotions close to its chest, Argylle subsequently has none of the conviction that made those espionage-laden movies work. It's too busy frantically trying to be "stupid" or "silly" or (perish the thought) "gay", like so much straight media. Who would want to see something preposterous? Outlandish schemes to save a person's life can't transpire in Argylle without super-spy Aiden (Sam Rockwell) grinding the proceedings to a halt with dialogue like "you're telling me you [insert ridiculous plan here] after five years of not holding a gun?!?" There's an emphasis on lots and lots of convoluted in-universe lore, but good luck in uncovering any sensual tension or sense of interior life to the characters. Argylle is at least quite sincere in making sure its characters constantly reach for Apple devices or talk about "FaceTime." It is an Apple TV+ Original Film after all!

You've seen the trailers for Argylle if you've been to a theater in the last few months, you know it's about author Ellie Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovering that the spy novels she's penned line up with real-world events. This makes her a target by an evil organization led by Ritter (Bryan Cranston). What the marketing doesn't clarify is how hilariously Argylle functions as a reflection of both Fuchs and Vaughn having such a surface-level understanding of women. Conway's personality is defined by the most rudimentary understanding of interests traditionally coded as "female". She used to be an ice-skater, she loves her cat, she gets emotional easily, at one point we see her doing yoga. I'm shocked they didn't also have her obsessed with pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks or talk wistfully about watching The Saddle Club as a youngster.

Conway's adventures don't just demonstrate old-school approaches to how women behave in movies, though. Her exploits across the globe also show that screenwriter Fuchs is determined to subvert spy movie norms by sucking all the fun elements out of this genre (sex, exotic locales, cool fight scenes) and replacing them with...lore. Characters in Argylle either stand around or sit on sunny porches delivering exposition, with the film way too enamored with didactically explaining every nook and cranny of various plot twists or character revelations. There is no confidence in the audience's intelligence, we have to have our hands held through everything. "Delightfully," such exposition dumps typically occur against terribly-realized green-screen locations. It's like Arrested Development season four all over again, as a bunch of famous people "talk" to one another against digital backdrops while clearly never ever being in the same room as the other person. There is no visual splendor to compensate for Argylle's wordy screenplay.

The visual elements are especially tedious in the action sequences, a mish-mash of punching and slashing that epitomize Vaughn's recurring problems with shooting fight scenes. Here, way too many quick cuts undercut potentially fun scenes like Aiden and (in Conway's visions) Aubrey Argylle beating up baddies on a train. The worst offender, though, is a climactic scene with such a fun premise involving a lead character sliding around on oil and slicing the necks of bad guys with a knife. A great hook for a fight scene is realized through a simulated single-take "shot" with an incredibly obvious CGI double. The digital camera spins around the room without any weight to it, which instills a weightless quality to the actions of the "humans" in the scene. There's nothing tangible in this fight scene, not the background, not the violence being enacted, not even the person slipping and sliding on the oil. It all looks like a cut-scene from one of the early Shrek movies 20 years ago. It's understandable if you've come to Argylle solely for the violence. Alas, you'll leave disappointed since the biggest fight sequences are so poorly realized in camerawork and editing. 

This emphasis on lots and lots of exposition and sterile visuals totally misunderstands why people like spy movies in the first place. Similarly, the score for Argylle is a dreadful creation and a total insult to the legacy of great spy movie scores composed by the likes of John Barry and Bernard Herrmann. The thrill of spy adventures inspired those and other musicians (like Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation composer Joe Kraemer) to concoct collections of compositions brimming with zesty fun and tangible suspense. You could feel the tingle of tension soaking through the scores of movies like North by Northwest, which helped accentuate the propulsively exciting nature of those espionage features. Composer Lorne Balfe, meanwhile, just hits all the familiar instrumental and sonic beats you'd expect from a modern American blockbuster. This score doesn't have to inhabit a spy movie, it could be found on the soundtrack for any big-budget action movie made in the last five years. Rubbing further salt in the wounds, Balfe's work, much like his score for fellow spy movie Mission: Impossible - Fallout, leans too heavily on motifs cribbed from his frequent creative partner Hans Zimmer (the Inception "bwaaam" noise shows up in a key fight scene). The heteronormative urge to be "normal" permeates the lifeless score of Argylle, which never engages in the kind of musical boldness that defined the greatest spy movie scores. At least Balfe's dreadful compositions are consistent with the cinematography and writing of the piece.

Argylle is just totally soulless material, it's devoid even of the rambunctious naughtiness of Vaughn's earlier films like Kick-Ass and the first Kingsman title. Both of those features are a mixed bag (especially the disappointingly thin Kick-Ass), but they at least have a pulse and convey the idea that they were made by human beings. Their flaws and especially juvenile sense of what "subversion" looks like have more verve than Vaughn on autopilot. The only food for thought Argylle offers is how it provides a vivid demonstration of how many cis-het people digest cinema. Movies are always in communication with the medium's past, which can lead to fascinating features that pay tribute to yesteryear while evolving the art form forward. Think of how Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese took the skeleton of The Searchers and used it to inspire Taxi Driver. For many folks today, though, classic movies are just something to be name-dropped, they're "content" to reference, not art to study and evolve from. Vaughn has a character in Argylle, after he's done duking it out with spies on a train, literally name-drop "Strangers on a Train", a cringey moment that just hits you over the head with a creative influence that's already obvious. A great Hitchcock movie is only brought up in Argylle to get a "remember that?" fan-service pop out of viewers. This is how Silicon Valley tech bros and studio executives want folks to view art, as just objects to reference, not art to preserve or cherish. Argylle is an anemic, forgettable piece of "content" as a standalone movie, but it does function well as a terrifying glimpse into warped cis-het attitudes about the world. "Sick and boring," that's Argylle to a tee.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Ranking The Best Pictures Nominees at the 96th Academy Awards

Shockingly, the line-up for Best Picture at the 96th Academy Awards wasn't too shabby, especially compared to other Best Picture line-ups in the past. Granted, these nominees inevitably can't compare to Best Picture line-ups like the 48th Academy Awards nominees (Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, AND Barry Lyndon?!?). However, looking over the history of this category, the 96th Academy Awards Best Picture contenders may be among the top five (or at least top ten) best collections of Best Picture nominees in terms of average quality across all the motion pictures. Not all of the films up for this award in 2024 are the greatest movies ever made, but in the past, there's usually been at least one outright awful movie that squeezed its way into the Best Picture category (Crash, The Reader, The Blind Side, The Broadway Melody). The 96th Academy Awards Best Picture contenders, thankfully, are devoid of an all-time bad motion picture.

On the contrary, it's a pleasant surprise to see a wide variety of movies (from wacky comedies to courtroom thrillers to avant-garde explorations of how genocide is carried out by everyday people) in terms of genre and filmmaking ambitions represented across the 96th Academy Awards Best Picture nominees. Two foreign-language titles made outside of America even cracked the category while three separate nominees were helmed by women, the first time in history either of those events ever happened. There were lots of quibbles to be had with the general 96th Academy Awards nominees, but this was pretty robust Best Picture line-up. Let's dive into those nominees now and rank them from worst to best, in the opinion of this humble critic. Onward to the nominees!



10. Maestro

One biopic has to always slip into the Best Picture nominees, it's practically a requirement. At least Maestro has more interesting visual flourishes than past biopic nominees like Hacksaw Ridge or Bohemian Rhapsody. Plus, Carey Mulligan is really great in the lead role. Still, director/writer/leading man Bradley Cooper weaves a bit too stuffy of an atmosphere for his Leonard Bernstein tale to inhabit. The humanity of the central characters never feels as vibrant or tangible as it should. Sparodically impressive in terms of filmmaking, Maestro still leaves one cold.

9. American Fiction

The marketing for American Fiction puts the feature's satirical material (concerning what kind of art from Black creators is considered "commercial" in America) front and center. However, the actual movie centers a good chunk of its screentime on exploring the familial woes of Thelonious "Monk" Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), including his strained relationship with brother Clifford "Cliff" Ellison (Sterling K. Brown). Writer/director Cord Jefferson juggles a lot of material here and inevitably not all of it is equally successful (some key personal developments for Monk feel too rushed especially). However, the emotional beats and gags that land here are downright superb while Brown is a riot in his supporting performance.

8. The Zone of Interest

Jonathan Glazer paints a portrait of how the unspeakable happens in The Zone of Interest, a feature focusing on a Nazi family living in a "perfect" home right outside of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Though audiences never see the interior of that camp, billows of smoke reach for the sky in the background of individual shots, and the sound of gunfire dominates the soundtrack. The horrors are just off-screen, but they're also chillingly in the frame through the way people are so nonchalant about the extermination of human beings. 

7. The Holdovers

Don't let its lower ranking on this list fool you: The Holdovers is the real deal as far as feel-good drama/comedies go. A bittersweet tale anchored by a trio of great performances, The Holdovers concerns three damaged human beings trying to find some solace in each other's company at Christmastime. Screenwriter David Hemingson shows real chops as a writer in executing the big emotional scenes and callbacks of The Holdovers without lapsing into insufferable treacle. Conceptually, The Holdovers sounds familiar, but in execution, it's something special.

6. Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer should've been the movie where writer/director Christopher Nolan finally bit off more than he could chew. Instead, it represented a new peak for Nolan as a filmmaker. The audacious filmmaking (including seamless shifts across time in the non-linear narrative) lends a relentlessly propulsive quality to a story of scientists and playing God. This isn't a stodgy recreation of history, it's something laced with urgency. A murderer's row of great actors, meanwhile, makes even the most throwaway characters in Oppenheimer totally captivating. Nolan's ambition for Oppenheimer sounded daunting, but he pulled this extraordinary film off with incredible skill

5. Anatomy of a Fall

You've seen many courtroom drama movies, but it's doubtful many of them were quite as compelling as Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall. A murdered husband and a suspected killer of his wife spurs the plot of this French feature, which does masterful work delivering exciting new developments in the case and especially in committing to an ambiguous atmosphere. One never knows where our protagonist's loyalties lie, especially with Sandra Huller bringing this woman to life through such a riveting performance. You'll be on the edge of your seat watching both Huller's character navigate this trial and Triet deliver a courtroom drama that changes the game for this genre.

4. Killers of the Flower Moon

It's staggering to watch a movie like Killers of the Flower Moon, which is so expansive in scope, so grand in ambition, but also so devastating in its depiction of cruelty. Within the runtime of this feature, an expansive narrative is told depicting how even "friendly" white people are complicit and actively engaging in the dehumanization of the marginalized. It's a brutal motion picture whose story of genocide against indigenous people just happening with nobody stepping in to stop it is, unfortunately, all too relevant to the modern world. Killers of the Flower Moon takes place in the early 20th century, but Scorsese's searing filmmaking makes this story an essential watch for 21st-century moviegoers.

3. Barbie

It's amazing that Barbie is here as a Best Picture nominee. Academy voters seemed to think The LEGO Movie being based on a toy was enough to disqualify it from the Best Animated Feature nominees years ago...yet Barbie made it into the Best Picture category?!? What a miracle, just like how Barbie as a movie is a tender wonderful miracle unto itself. For one thing, it's just a whole lot of fun to watch, with its dazzling production design and mastery of absurdist humor. Unsurprisingly (given her brilliant use of pathos in Lady Bird and Little Women), writer/director Greta Gerwig also makes Barbie something that touches on something so profoundly human that the only response is to cry. Laughs, tears, unforgettable outfits, Barbie has everything any movie should have!

2. Poor Things

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has refined his style of oddball cinema (told with aloof yet precise camerawork and dry line deliveries) to a tee over the last two decades, but rarely has it felt as fun or subversive as it does in Poor Things. That's likely because the film's protagonist, Bella Baxter, is the rare Lanthimos protaganists who isn't detestable. In the past, Lanthimos has made narratives around characters you love to hate or you're fascinated by because you see your own shortcomings in them. Baxter, meanwhile, is somebody we root for in her quest for independence and discovering the world. This distinctive type of protagonist in the canon of Lanthimos movies results in the filmmaker taking his craft to new exciting heights of creativity, all while also expanding his skills in terms of drawing out such extraordinary performances from actors and working with captivating sets. Poor Things carries all the great traits of classic Lanthimos movies, but it's also a mesmerizing accomplishment because, in many important ways, it's unlike anything else this man has ever made.

1. Past Lives

At the end of the excellent 2023 book Burn it Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, author Maureen Ryan references Samwise Gangee's "there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo" speech from The Two Towers as an example of "the magic trick" the best movies pull off. "Why does it move?" she ponders, "I could list the reasons, but they wouldn't fully explain it." Sometimes, Ryan posits, art produces emotions in viewers that can't be properly communicated in words. It just is magical, moving, and wonderful. That's how I feel about Past Lives. It's a masterwork from head-to-toe, in terms of its acting, cinematography, score, the finest touches of writer/director Celine Song's filmmaking...it's all just a miracle to witness. The absolute best movie of 2023, Past Lives is, inevitably, also the champ of the crop of nominees in the 96th Academy Awards Best Picture field.


Saturday, January 13, 2024

Origin is an ambitious but not fully successful epic

 

Origin is not a straightforward adaptation of the 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, which proposed the idea that caste systems are to blame for global forms of inequality. It's technically the story of Wilkerson herself (portrayed by Aunjane Ellis) as she embarked on writing that text. Reeling from endless horrific personal tragedies, Wilkerson begins a globe-trotting exercise that takes her everywhere from Germany to India to a BBQ hosted by her cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) to explore how inequality festers. With this project, writer/director Ava DuVernay is looking at parallels between historical atrocities as well as making something deeply intimate...how do we keep going in the wake of turmoil? When we lose people close to us, how does that void get filled?

There's a lot of heavy material in Origin, with DuVernay's grasp sometimes exceeding her reach. Her script especially struggles to figure out when the on-screen images should do all the talking. Expository narration from Wilkerson often dominates visually striking glimpses of the past, a move done to potentially make this material more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the history of countries like India or Germany. However, many of these lines (like Wilkerson's remark that two students in 1930s Germany had "stumbled onto something momentous") aren't clarifying impenetrable details of the past.  They're just saying things that could easily be communicated through camera angles or music cues. Speaking of dialogue, there's also an odd habit in the writing of having figures like Wilkerson recite staggering horrific historical facts (like the number of deaths stemming from the slave trade), but in a "cheer-worthy" manner. The mere stating of the truth is meant to be akin to the big crowdpleaser moments from a Star Wars or Marvel movie. It's a rhythm evocative of John Oliver's "mic-drop" moments on Last Week Tonight, where he condemns some horrific atrocity and the crowd applauds approvingly. That dynamic doesn't really translate to film, particularly one as somber and grounded as Origin.

DuVernay's always had a knack for powerful images dating back to her indie works like Middle of Nowhere and that gift is clearly present throughout Origin. It's just a shame those images are often undercut by extraneous narration. DuVernay's script also would've benefited from just going all-in on being a three-hour epic (the feature already runs for 135 minutes) just to give the various personal problems in Wilkerson's life more room to breathe. The increasingly dire health struggles of Marion are especially underserved by how much material Origin is trying to juggle in just one movie. Niecy Nash-Betts is so compelling in her on-screen performance as Marion and she has fantastic believable chemistry with Aunjanue Ellis. Those feats just make it more disappointing that this character's medical problems just keep fading in and out of the runtime. A lengthier runtime could've given this and other personal aspects of Wilkerson's life a better chance to develop.

Origin does struggle as a screenwriting exercise, but it's far from a lost cause as a movie. For starters, DuVernay and cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd make this independent production look incredibly crisp by shooting the proceedings on 16mm film. There's a deeply lived-in quality to the images of Origin thanks to this choice and that classical filming detail especially helps the period-era sequences feel extra authentic. DuVernay also executes her script with some truly inspired visual flourishes, such as a scene of a distraught Wilkerson trying to get herself "presentable" that's captured without dialogue, from Wilkerson's hip, and at a tilted upward angle. Every detail of the camera's presence in this scene is rich with fascinating details, including the decision to use a low-angle shot (typically used to indicate formidable characters awash with power) on a deeply vulnerable person who can barely contain her tears. Origin's script may often stumble, but its visuals are unquestionably sublime.

Unfortunately, those sharp filmmaking sensibilities are also often in the service of images that, unfortunately, aren't as distinctive as they could be. Origin is ultimately still enamored with depictions of Black teens getting shot, Indians in lower-economic classes trudging through human defecation, and Nazi men in love with Jewish women. These events and tragedies have obviously happened throughout the history of human history, which explains why they're also very common sights in period pieces or features contemplating global depictions of prejudice. For its epic scope, Origin's greatest shortcomings are that it struggles to expand the visual language of the suffering of the marginalized on-screen while its human drama isn't given enough room to breathe. 

Still, even with these defects, there's lots to appreciate and get enamored with in Origin, including a string of compelling performances. Aunjane Ellis, for her part, is great at capturing the vulnerability and academic confidence of Wilkerson, both sides of the coin are vividly-realized in her assured hand. Supporting performers Niercy Nash-Betts and Jon Bernthal impress in their screentime, while Audra McDonald gets an unforgettable sequence depicting a woman being openly vulnerable about classism she experienced as a child. In the wake of this testimony, Wilkerson clutches this woman's hand and quietly thanks her for her vulnerability. It's a moment of tender emotional connection so nicely realized on-screen, both in terms of the performances and filmmaking, that it encapsulates why Origin is impossible to dismiss fully. Any movie that can deliver a scene this good is doing something right, even if it's a drastic step down in quality from previous DuVernay directorial efforts like Selma and When They See Us.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Creative Confidence and Emma Stone's Masterful Acting Make Poor Things a Must-See

Have you ever wanted to plunge yourself into a movie? Just grab the edges of the frame and dunk your entire body inside? That's exactly how I felt watching Poor Things, the latest movie from the delightfully sick mind of director Yorgos Lanthimos. Like his seminal film Dogtooth, Poor Things is about an isolated soul with no knowledge about the wider world. Like his 2016 motion picture The Lobster, Poor Things is about how ridiculous "normal" social routines are. In the vein of his 2018 film The Favourite, Poor Things is rife with sexual tension and brought to life through an outstanding Emma Stone performance. However, simultaneously, Poor Things feels like a whole new era of the filmmaker's career. The intentionally subdued color palette of The Lobster and realistic locales of The Killing of the Sacred Deer are eschewed for luscious vibrant imagery that feels akin to everything from the works of Powell & Pressburger to episodes of The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. It's like the earlier (already superb) works of Lanthimos were a foundation being built for the glorious house that is Poor Things.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) isn't like other girls...she's been brought back from the dead. How did that happen? Well, Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter (Willem Dafoe) found the body of a pregnant woman dead in a river after an apparent suicide. Naturally, this scientific mind decided to take this lady's corpse, put her baby's brain inside her head, and then revive the organism. The result was Bella Baxter, who now has an entirely new consciousness and, as she ages mentally, is growing more and more enamored with the outside world. Jerk supreme Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) promises to show Baxter the world and take her everywhere she wants to go, a trip that inspires Poor Things to switch from monochromatic colors to a wide array of hues utilizing every shade in the rainbow. This voyage also leads to Baxter figuring out nuances of the world and discovering just who she is as a person.

Confidence courses through every vein of Poor Things (an adaptation of the Alasdair Gray novel of the same, with the script penned by Tony McNamara). That's always been key to why Lanthimos movies work so well, they execute outlandish premises and inexplicable human behavior with nary a wink to the camera. However, Poor Things is an especially assured achievement from this filmmaker. Best of all, that conviction manifests throughout the feature in such proudly overt ways. The outstanding costumes are colorful creations full of bold flourishes and poofy sleeves, for instance. Richly detailed sets stretch out to the heavens and revel in their artificiality, they remind one of colorful versions of backdrops from vintage expressionistic films! Meanwhile, the score by Jerskin Fendrix is a masterfully brash creation that isn't afraid to get noisy. Discordant instruments (like strings on a harp getting plucked strangely or the harsh clanging of a triangle) and deep-pitched wailing sounds dominate the sonic landscape of the film. A track like "Reanimation" is full of appropriate momentousness (not to mention a blaring organ and an ominous high-pitched wail) to accompany the sight of Bella Baxter being brought to life. There's so much pomp and circumstance in these compositions and the entire film is all the better for that grandeur. Ferndrix's score functions as a great musical extension of Bella Baxter's personality (we truly feel her pain with the aid of these music cues) while these qualities also coalesce into a score unlike any I've ever heard before.

Bella Baxter doesn't hide her true feelings or ambitions...it's great that elements like Fendrix's compositions or those sets are similarly proudly prominent. Many filmmakers may be wary of coming off as "silly" or "not serious" by embracing the absurd, but Lanthimos and crew always opt for the stylized when it comes to realizing the world of Poor Things. The result is a movie overflowing with so much infectiously endearing creativity that it's impossible not to get soaked up in all the twisted mayhem. Poor Things encapsulates many of the sights and images that could only be accomplished in cinema, the sort of glorious spectacle that the big screen was made for. If you're going to make a story this bizarre, you should really lean into all of its most preposterous possibilities. Poor Things, with its endlessly creative visuals and score, does just that.

Best of all, Poor Things does one of my favorite things any story in any artistic medium can do: give us a protagonist worth caring about in the middle of confines divorced from reality. Bella Baxter may travel to real-world locations like Paris in Poor Things, but they sure don't look like any destinations you could travel to in the real world (that's a compliment!) Her surroundings are intentionally at odds with normalcy, yet Bella Baxter is a lead character who's endlessly compelling. Everything from the writing to Robbie Ryan's cinematography and especially Emma Stone's performance renders Baxter with a sense of humanity. She's an oddball, but she's not a punchline nor are we meant to gawk at her "weirdness." On the contrary, Poor Things invites us to view the world through Bella Baxter's eyes and realize just how moronic normal conventions of everyday life (particularly when it comes to gender roles) are. Mesmerizing sequences like Baxter wandering around Lisbon on her own (the first time she's ever been truly independent in her life) touch one's soul as we bear witness to just how much the outside world means to this lady. There's a beating soul to Poor Things, a movie that often casts off reality to the wind to hysterical results.

Much of that soul does come from Stone, who once again indulges in her chops for weirdo comedy by inhabiting Bella Baxter. What's immediately striking about her on-screen work is her physicality, specifically the way she portrays Baxter as someone who is still getting the hang of the finer nuances of walking. For the rest of the movie, Stone keeps masterfully contorting her body language to reflect Baxter's growing knowledge of the wider world. It's a tour de force performance just in physicality alone, the fact that she always nails such precise pieces of outlandish comedy just makes Stone's work all the more amazing. Plus, it's downright remarkable how much Emma Stone sheds her movie star image for this role. When I was watching Poor Things, I truly felt like I was watching Bella Baxter, I wasn't just watching Stone taking on a role or reminder of this leading lady's many other roles from the last 16 years. Bella Baxter is a totally idiosyncratic creation and much of that uniqueness emanates from Stone's total commitment to such an unusual role.

Stone is backed up by a totally game-supporting cast who are also unforgettable in such transfixing ways. Mark Ruffalo has been getting a lot of hype for his enjoyably despicable work as just the worst human, but I also want to throw some roses towards Hanna Schygulla and Kathryn Hunter in their key supporting roles. Neither performer sticks around on-screen for long, but they each leave an enormous impression with the screen time they do get. Schygulla makes for a great understated but confident counterpart of Stone's Baxter, while Hunter's unpredictable work as a brothel owner consistently keeps viewers on their toes. Of course, the MVP of the supporting cast has to be Willem Dafoe, who brings such interesting levels of lived-in reality and nuance to a character (the mad scientist playing God) that has existed in cinema for nearly a century. You've seen this archetype before, but you've never seen a character quite like Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter thanks to Dafoe's tremendous performance.

For both movie geeks and just folks looking for a good time at the movies, Poor Things is a scrumptious cinematic feast. You'll want to gorge on the cinematography, request seconds of all the great comedy beats in the script, roll around in the costumes, stare in awe at the performances, and send your compliments to Yorgos Lanthimos for crafting something so original and daring. When the COVID-19 pandemic first shut everything down, I truly wondered if movie theaters would even exist anymore. I didn't dare to dream that one day somebody could once again wander up to a movie theater and spend a few hours in the dark immersed in something they've truly never witnessed before. Thankfully, that day has come. Poor Things is here and it's just the kind of movie you too will want to plunge head-first into.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom isn't interesting even with a heroic octopus

You can spend all the money in the world on a movie but you can't automatically make it compelling. No matter how many dollars and cents you throw at a motion picture, it will not suddenly transform into something memorable or fun. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, like so many expensive American blockbusters, encapsulates this beautifully. Warner Bros. has tossed a king's ransom at this title in the hope of replicating the enormous box office success of the initial Aquaman. In the process, they've lost the zest that made that original feature work. Though better than fellow 2023 DC Extended Universe titles like The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom just isn't very interesting. The money is on the screen, but it might as well be burning in real-time.

Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) doesn't much like being the ruler of Atlantis, especially since he has to split time between aquatic royalty duties and taking care of his son on dry land. All of this gets thrown for a loop when the villainous Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) resurfaces and begins a nasty plot involving burning Orichalcum to raise the temperatures of the planet. This climate change scheme involves melting a lot of ice and is connected to ancient trident that's giving Black Manta a lot of power. To stop this foe, Curry will have to team up with his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) by breaking him out of prison. Now it's a buddy/cop movie where people keep saying Orichalcum (emphasis on those last three letters) a lot.

Why is the music in a blockbuster like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom so bad? This thing took years to produce, countless souls burning the midnight oil to realize this, and the best anyone could think of for needle drops were "Born to be Wild" and "Spirit in the Sky"? The latter song was already in a DC Extended Universe movie! Please, superhero movies, learn that other songs exist beyond Dad Rock from the 70s and 80s. The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is also a wash, save for some interesting electronic flourishes in a scene where Arthur and Orm entertain a crime region known as the Sunken Citadel. Otherwise, Gregson-Williams leans on generic music cues, especially when it comes to emphasizing punchlines like Orm's befuddlement at Arthur knocking down a giant statue. A veteran of Happy Madison comedies and animated children's films, the sensibilities of Rupert Gregson-Williams as a composer just never fit with Aquaman as a movie. You need a rousing old-school sensibility in the music, not somebody who treats the most outlandish plot elements with sonic indifference.

Then again, perhaps the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is just a byproduct of the ambivalence soaking Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom down to its bone. To be fair, there are some enjoyable Saturday Morning Cartoon flourishes in here (like an evil lair located in a volcano or an octopus sidekick) that at least keep the proceedings from being dreary. Some of the practical sets and costumes look neat, but these are anomalous qualities in a film that's too busy to ever commit to one thing to its fullest potential. Aquaman's fatherhood woes, for instance, vanish for nearly 2/3 of the movie. This kid seems so important in the initial half-hour of the Lost Kingdom before getting sidelined quite easily.

Worst of all are the attempts to wring buddy/cop humor out of Arthur and Orm, a dynamic that Jason Momoa is just not equipped for as an actor. The endearing performer has a great grin and a physical presence to die for, but he's just not good at witty banter. His poorly-written punchlines especially land with a thud in Momoa's hands. Worst of all, this dynamic never goes anywhere fun or interesting, it's just another disjointed piece of the wonky puzzle that is Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The first Aquaman's willingness to shift genres on a dime felt like an infectious imaginative creative team at work. Here, attempts to be An Inconvenient Truth, The Lord of the Rings, and 48 Hrs just reek of indecision over what an Aquaman follow-up should look like.

I did have to laugh, though, at how the climax of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom eventually involves Arthur and Orm staring down the ghost of an ancient underwater ruler, an entity brought to life through CGI. Yes folks, the DC Extended Universe, in its final installment, managed to squeeze in one more digital bad guy before the lights went out. In the tradition of Ares, Doomsday, Sabbac, and so many others, this undead foe concludes a pricey blockbuster with CG ripped straight out of The Mummy Returns. Some things never change, including how no amount of money can make your movie entertaining...not even if that movie briefly involves Topo the octopus (who, per Nicole Kidman's Atlanna, is quite good at musical instruments!)

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Color Purple Provides a Disjointed but Frequently Engaging Reimagining of a Familiar Tale

The 2023 movie incarnation of The Color Purple is this year’s Doctor Sleep. Both are extensions of 1980s Warner Bros. movies built on conceptually paradoxical creative aspirations. Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan aimed to adapt a Stephen King novel, be a sequel to the most famous King adaptation of all time, and address that horror author's criticisms of The Shining. Similarly, director Blitz Bazawule wants to make sure this new Color Purple film restores key elements of Alice Walker’s original book (namely the queer material involving the film's protaganists), properly adapt a stage musical, provides a big Christmastime spectacle movie for Warner Bros., and be a loving tribute to the original 1985 movie. Being pulled in so many contradictory directions ends up resulting in a disjointed feature, but the best moments of The Color Purple do capture why this particular story has endured for so many decades (beyond Warner Bros. executives wanting to capitalize on familiar brand names).

The Color Purple, for those unaware, concerns the life of Celie Harris-Johnson (played as an adult by Fantasia Barrino), who initially navigated the trials of everyday existence with her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey). The two are separated after Celie is forced to be a wife to Albert "Mister" Johnson (Colman Domingo), an abusive man with evil in his heart. As the years wear on, Celie endures endless strife but is also given glimpses of a wider, more beautiful world beyond the walls of Johnson's house Many of these peeks come from traveling singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) as well as the outspoken personality of her friend Sofia (Danielle Brooks). Through her bonds with other women, Celie clings to the truth that there is more to life than the torment she's suffered.

Bazawule's approach to filming The Color Purple is to have the performances pitched in a manner evocative of classical mid-20th-century musicals. This influence also extends to the fantasy backdrops of certain musical numbers, such as a lovestruck Celie singing about a bathing Avery on a gigantic record player or those same two characters harmonizing on a glitzy 1920s dance floor. These digressions away from reality harken back to similar sequences in Oklahoma! or Singin' in the Rain, where stylized sets and fantastical backdrops encapsulate the vivid emotions of key characters. Even scenes firmly set in "reality" often feature crowds of extras ready to go to start dancing at a moment's notice, even if all everyone is doing is nailing up advertisements. Considering modern musicals like The Little Mermaid tend to strip away all bombast in favor of "realistic" musical numbers of a guy just singing on a hill, such homages to classic musicals in The Color Purple are more than welcome.

However, the visuals of The Color Purple, unfortunately, betray those old-fashioned tendencies. Bazawule and cinematographer Dan Laustsen have opted to shoot this title with digital cameras and exceedingly bright lighting that just makes everything look too plastic and artificial. Classic mid-20th-century musicals tended to make the spectacular feel like something you could reach out and touch. This new Color Purple oddly contradicts its vintage influences with imagery that feels distractingly modern. There are lovely touches in the camerawork of The Color Purple, including one scene that clearly functions as a homage to one of the visual motifs of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. However, the sterile digital look of things does undercut the film's commitment to realizing this story in a manner evocative of vintage musicals.

Marcus Gardley's screenplay, meanwhile, also struggles to satisfactorily balance out classical and modern impulses. Whatever incarnation of The Color Purple you're watching, it's going to be a brutal story that puts its characters through endless hardship. Gardley's script preserves that but it also wants to evoke mid-20th-century musicals in its very arch depictions of human emotions (a quality carried over in Bazawule's direction of the actors). Harrowing displays of anguish are rapidly followed up by people dancing while nailing up signs and vice versa. Some of these intentional shifts in tone do work nicely in communicating ideas like how often joy in Celie's world can vanish in an instant or, in the case of Sofia's storyline, how white people can make everything worse in the blink of an eye. Still, too often Gardley's script seems to be caught between a desire to engage in emotionally raw material and the spectacle impulses innate in musical numbers. The result is a film that sometimes feels disjointed in tone rather than intriguingly nuanced.

The greatest saving grace to this version of The Color Purple, though, is quite simple: the actors are great and when it comes time to put on a show, the movie delivers. The connective tissue getting there is wonky, but performers like Fantasia and Danielle Brooks belt their hearts out whenever their big numbers come up. If there's anything that helps save a messier musical movie, it's simply delivering when it's time for people to harmonize. Plus, the best tunes in The Color Purple really lend a bullhorn to the inner voices of these characters, in the process showcasing the humanity that the world wants to erase from women like Celie. These grand sequences, then, function as an interesting new interpretation of Alice Walker's original work. This 2023 The Color Purple looks towards music to reaffirm the enduring spirit of the downtrodden, which is a sense of perseverance that's always defined this yarn. That's an interesting way to utilize the language of musical cinema to make an old story feel new, even if The Color Purple's execution of its musical impulses (particularly visually) leaves a bit to be desired. But hey, it’s unspeakably tough to make a remake/sequel built on so many contradictory artistic impulses. Just ask Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan!

Monday, December 18, 2023

Lisa Laman's Top 25 Movies of 2023

 

TFW you saw a lot of good movies in 2023.

Well, here we are once again. The end of another year. On a personal level, 2023 was both an exciting year (yay, I finally got to come out as a trans lady!) and an exhausting 12 months (living with depression will do that). Life is complicated. It's rarely one thing for long, for good and for ill. But one constant across the year was movies. There were lots and lots of new features to see this year and it was difficult to whittle a list of the standout movies from this year to just 25. Still, after much work, I've plucked 25 standout titles selected from the 219 (and counting) new releases I saw in 2023. Movies were unspeakably helpful in making this year a lot more bearable and exciting...I hope this list opens up your eyes to certain films and reminds you of the wonders this medium of storytelling can provide.

Onto the list, which, for once, I've arranged in an actual ranking instead of just alphabetical order! Let's start with...


25. Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan made the apotheosis of a Christopher Nolan movie in 2023 and it was fantastic. A devastating horror film about man’s capacity for evil, Oppenheimer had bold filmmaking to spare. Oh, and Cillian Murphy crushing it in the lead role didn’t hurt either!

24. Cannibal Mukbang

Tired of stale cinematic exploits? Chow down on this horror/comedy that isn’t always easy to watch but boy is it creative. Cannibal Mukbang wears its cinematic influences (ranging from 2000s rom-coms to the heaven scenes in The Exorcist III) on its sleeve, but it's all in service of a twisted bit of fun genre entertainment that will undoubtedly influence future generations of grindhouse cinema homages. It's all held together by a masterful lead performance of April Consalo, who channels the energy of Amy Adams and Jennifer's Body with equal levels of aplomb. Dig into this one folks, it's a feast for twisted souls like yours truly!

23. A Thousand and One 

The walls of the past are depicted with such care by writer/director A.V. Rockwell in A Thousand and One. Her deft touch as a filmmaker is a key reason this story is so richly compelling. Teyana Taylor’s unforgettable lead performance doesn’t hurt either.

22. Godland

The cinematography of Godland alone earns it a place on this list. A plethora of breathtakingly composed images set against the relentlessly undaunted landscapes of Iceland define this feature’s visual style. It’s a glorious motion picture to witness, especially since all those frames are in service of a story vividly chronicling the folly of man’s desire for control. 

21. Fallen Leaves

Some of the movies on this list stood out in the realm of 2023 cinema by being gargantuan cinematic accomplishments. Others, like Fallen Leaves, were so great because they were so streamlined, so relaxed. Sometimes, all you want out of a movie is to follow a quiet romance and two people navigating working-class woes. Small joys of everyday existence often provide such essential serotonin in reality...movies like Fallen Leaves recognize and build on this truth beautifully. 

20. Joyland

Whether we realize it or not, we're all confined by restrictive societal expectations. Director Saim Sadiq movingly captures how widespread those suffocating gender, economic, familial, and other expectations can be within Joyland, a terrifically rendered feature that makes great use of a claustrophobic aspect ratio and a terrific ensemble cast. Alina Khan especially stuns in a performance rich with personality and authority, she grabs your attention so effortlessly whenever she comes on-screen.

19. The Zone of Interest

There's not much to say about The Zone of Interest, but not because the film is lacking in substance or virtues worth clamoring about. It's just that writer/director Jonathan Glazer's harrowing depiction of normalized complicity in genocide really is just one of those movies that needs to be seen to be truly understood. One can talk about the power of its measured camerawork or its avant-garde filmmaking accentuations, but the strikingly chilling images making up The Zone of Interest say so much more than any descriptions ever could.

18. Godzilla Minus One

From the moment Godzilla just shows up out of nowhere in the prologue of Godzilla Minus One and begins tearing up everything in sight, it's clear this movie is going to deliver the goods. Godzilla is thoroughly terrifying in this sequence, a relentless creature of incalculable might. Meanwhile, the human drama surrounding this iconic beast in this scene is actually interesting!! These qualities carry over into the rest of the motion picture, which turns into a story about working-class souls recovering a passion to live in the face of immense horrors. One of the longest-running franchises in history felt brand new with Godzilla Minus One.

17. Nimona

N.D. Stevenson's graphic novel Nimona came to life this year in a vibrant computer-animated feature of the same name that touched the soul by embracing such a fascinating complicated tone. Veering between anarchic fun and intimate explorations of what it's like to exist as a societal outcast, Nimona captured how queer existence can go from laughs to tears in a matter of seconds. It also looked sharp as a tack in its imaginative animation and contained no shortage of memorable voice-over performances. A movie deemed unsuitable for release by Disney turned into one of the most heartfelt cinematic accomplishments of 2023.

16. Ear for Eye 

There are images, editing choices, and stirring pieces of writing from Ear for Eye that will never leave my brain. Writer/director debbie tucker green adapted her own play of the same name for this feature, but anyone expecting a straightforward recording of a stage show will be astonished by green's ingenuitive filmmaking. Impressionistic backgrounds, sharp cuts between shots, and vividly penned testimonies from the characters bend the mold of what a "conventional" film looks like. A blend of the claustrophobic scope of a play with the intimate visuals only a film can provide, Ear for Eye was nothing short of a stunning accomplishment.

15. Monica 

I can't stop thinking about Trace Lysette's performance in Monica...maybe I never will. The way she communicates years of internalized thoughts with her eyes. Her delicate interactions with Patricia Clarkson speak volumes about the fractured dynamic between their characters. Lysette's gift for playing unbridled joy during a scene where she's portraying a lady just getting ready for a fun night out. Trace Lysette's work on-screen is a gift...so is the rest of Monica.

14. Anatomy of a Fall

It's always a treat to watch a movie that quietly takes a sledgehammer to audience expectations of how a certain genre "should" play out. So it is with Anatomy of a Fall, which constantly zigs when you expect it to adhere to the norms of a typical courtroom drama. Its bold deviations from the likes of A Time to Kill (especially in its quiet, haunting ending) encapsulate a sense of wild creativity that made Anatomy of a Fall one of the year's most gripping titles.

13. All of Us Strangers

Even if you've heard ad nauseum about how All of Us Strangers is going to make you cry, you're not prepared for just how emotional this feature is. Quiet longing permeates every frame of the proceedings and Andrew Scott's lead performance just aches with unresolved emotional angst. The allure of the past defines writer/director Andrew Haigh's work here, with this man especially excelling in realizing such quiet yet deeply moving interactions between the lead character and his dead parents. All of Us Strangers will leave you sobbing, no question, but it will also leave you astonished at the gifts of artists like Haigh and Scott.

12. Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt movies are such wonderful quiet gems and Showing Up is no exception. In the hands of a master filmmaker like her, a wounded pigeon and an impending art exhibition are far more absorbing than the biggest stakes of this year’s largest blockbusters. It’s also a riot packed with terrific performances, including yet another outstanding turn from Michelle Williams in a Reichardt movie. The quiet triumphs of Showing Up speak louder than words! 

11. Asteroid City

Wes Anderson went to the desert with Asteroid City for one of his most challenging and boldest works yet. Shifting between two narratives and a slew of different perspectives across an expansive ensemble cast could’ve resulted in a disjointed mess. Instead, Asteroid City was one of Anderson’s best explorations yet of searching for meaning that can never be obtained. Plus, it’s jam-packed with memorable characters and performances, right down to a quirky alien that doesn’t need to say a word to capture your heart. Achingly vulnerable and so darn funny, Asteroid City was quintessential Wes Anderson and all the better for it!

10. The Battle

Writer/director Vera Egito plops viewers right into the middle of an October 1968 skirmish between a Left-Wing Student movement and fascists in the transfixing motion picture The Battle. Divided up into 21 chunks, all captured in lengthy single-takes, Egito's camera never blinks away from these lives that the Brazillian government is trying to erase. This saga is told with such magnificent camerawork that straddles that tricky line between being impressive as a filmmaking technique without distracting from the characters. Instead, the unwavering eye capturing The Battle just makes the proceedings so intense that you won't be able to exhale until long after the credits finish rolling.

9. May/December

Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch really keep audiences on their toes in May December. Scenes like Charles Melton’s character smoking weed for the first time Dan alternate between humorous to devastatingly sad in the blink of an eye, with neither emotion getting undercut by this complicated tone. On the contrary, May December’s nuanced atmosphere just made it all the more distinctive and offered even more juicy material for its two leading ladies to sink their teeth into. Was there any other movie this year that could shatter your heart and then make your sides hurt laughing at the sight of a High School boy trying to impress Natalie Portman by touching the ceiling?

8. The Teachers’ Lounge

One of my favorite things about movies is how they can get you invested in an environment, sport, occupation, or anything else you may have never given much thought to before. In the case of The Teachers' Lounge, a middle school becomes the perfect backdrop for a  tale of betrayal and the limits of being a "good apple" in a corrupt system. The claustrophobic rooms and hallways of this center for education become appropriately suffocating in this story while the performances by the main cast (especially leading lady Leonie Benesch in one of the year's best turns) are all the more compelling in such intimate confines. I never gave much thought to the backdrops of The Teachers' Lounge before this movie started...but now I'll never forget them.

7. Killers of the Flower Moon

It's easy to take for granted just how good Killers of the Flower Moon is. Of course, a new Martin Scorsese movie would be something special. Yet, much like Silence, Flower Moon is a towering epic that reaffirms how Scorsese hasn't lost his touch as a filmmaker after decades of being in the game. He's still capable of producing images that hit you right in the heart and make you question the world you inhabit. Oh, and Lily Gladstone...even with the deluge of praise she's received, we still haven't appreciated her richly detailed work here enough.

6. Barbie

How insane it is that we finally got a live-action Barbie movie and it was great? What could've been a two-hour commercial instead was another terrific Greta Gerwig directorial effort that also felt like it was crafted in a lab to make me happy. A gorgeous-looking feature that combines absurdist humor with homages to filmmakers like Jacques Tati and contemplations of how we figure out who we actually are. Barbie was a joy to watch, a melting pot of tones and bold creative swings that perfectly matched how many different meanings Barbie dolls have taken on over the years. Needless to say, this was one movie that was more than Kenough.

5. Bottoms

Bottoms accomplished a lot of feats that many modern comedy movies can't even begin to nail, including delivering cinematography that felt like it belonged on the big screen. Most importantly, though, it delivered the kind of hysterical laughs and sharp writing that you just want to quote to your friends endlessly. Writer/director Emma Seligman channeled cinema's dense past of sex comedies in crafting Bottoms and ended up creating something way funnier than any of its thematic predecessors. Of course, in the defense of those earlier films, how could they possibly compete with Bottoms given that none of them were anchored by actors as gifted as Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri? Two outstanding actors fully committing to relentless horny silliness...now that's how you make a new comedy movie classic!

4. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

They did it, somehow. Miles Morales got another outstanding adventure after Into the Spider-Verse with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The animation was bolder than ever, but what really clicked with this installment was how much humanity coursed through every vein of this feature. Voyages across a variety of multiverses were always in service of the intimate struggles of Morales and Gwen Stacy, ditto a barrage of instantly iconic action sequences. Oh, and this title also gave the world Peter Parked-car. This really was a miracle movie.

3. Trenque Lauquan

A woman has gone missing at the start of Trenque Lauquan. Why? Was she unhappy? Did she get mad at her job? This initial mystery soon gives way to a sweeping four-hour-long saga that reveals that Trenque Lauquan isn't a straightforward mystery movie so much as a meditation on how women can possibly establish their own personalities detached from society's judgemental gaze. Director Laura Citarella demonstrates such impressive control in handling this epic yarn, which earns every minute of its expansive runtime. Nothing is quite as it seems within Trenque Lauquan and 2023 cinema was all the better for those unexpected qualities.

2. Kokomo City

What does it look like to be a trans woman in cinema? The D. Smith documentary Kokomo City offers countless depictions of trans existence through its interviews with a slew of Black trans women sex workers. The scope of this project solidifies that there are endless ways to be a trans person, contrary to the norms of on-screen depictions of trans lives throughout the history of cinema. Even beyond the way it subverts toxic standards in movies, though, Kokomo City is still a tremendous accomplishment in filmmaking. Its monochromatic color palette and dream-like digressions make it a stunning visual exercise while the various interviews are rife with unforgettable anecdotes that range from emotionally raw to downright hysterical. There's no shortage of amazing people in the trans community. How fitting then, that, Kokomo City would also be jam-packed with amazing qualities.

1. Past Lives 

At the end of the excellent 2023 book Burn it Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, author Maureen Ryan references Samwise Gangee's "there some good in this world, Mr. Frodo" speech from The Two Towers as an example of "the magic trick" the best movies pull off. "Why does it move?" she ponders, "I could list the reasons, but they wouldn't fully explain it." Sometimes, Ryan posits, art produces emotions in viewers that can't be properly communicated in words. It just is magical, moving, and wonderful. That's how I feel about Past Lives. I've written so much about this feature since its June 2023 debut, yet I haven't scratched the surface of its joy nor have I come close to fully capturing what a meaningful gem writer/director Celine Song crafted here. No rambling run-on sentences I could conjure up can fully communicate why it's such a joy to see Greta Lee's character swinging her arms with excitement on a New York street as she prepares for a Skype session with a childhood friend. Nor could anything I say capture how utterly devastating that quick cut from the present to the past is in the final scene of Past Lives. This movie endlessly delivers the kinds of emotions, filmmaking, performances, and so much else that defies description. Something as good as Past Lives is, as Maureen Ryan put it, magic. 


Friday, November 17, 2023

Wish is a Walt Disney Animation Studios Fan-Film That Gets Lost in Its Lore

 “What would Walt do?” It was a phrase that gripped Walt Disney Animation Studios in the wake of the passing of Walt Disney in 1967. The response to this figure’s demise was to just make new animated features mimicking the greatest hits of past Disney classics. Though the era of The Fox and the Hound and Robin Hood is in the distant past, Wish, the latest Walt Disney Animation Studios feature, harkens back to that query. As an animated feature debuting in a year when Disney is celebrating its 100th anniversary of existence, Wish wants to be to animated Disney movies what Margot Robbie's Stereotypical Barbie was to Barbie's. "You close your eyes, think of an animated Disney movie, it's me!" Meanwhile, its animation style, which uses CG to emulate tentpoles of hand-drawn artistry, also clearly indicates that the phrase “What would the Spider-Verse movies do?” loomed large over the production. Oh, and Wish comes courtesy of the key creative team members behind the Frozen movies (including director Chris Buck and writer Jennifer Lee), so also throw in the phrase “What would Elsa do?” into the cinematic stew. 

The creative influences of Wish are apparent. Less clear once the credits begin to roll are the qualities that would make this feature so idiosyncratic that future Disney titles would want to imitate it. 

Hailing from directors Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, Wish concerns Asha (Ariana DeBose), a 17-year-old girl living in the Kingdom of Rosas. This is a seemingly idyllic paradise ruled over by the magical King Magnifico (Chris Pine), who has the power to grant wishes. Everything seems perfect in this domain until Asha discovers the wicked secrets behind Magnifico's rule. Distraught over the darkness that's been lurking in plain sight all along, Asha, in a moment of desperation, makes a wish upon a night star that gives her...an actual shooting star by the name of Star. This charmingly designed critter from the cosmos has some magical abilities of its own, including making Asha's pet goat Valentino talk with the smooth voice of Alan Tudyk. Star could be the key to taking down Magnificio...but can an ordinary girl really challenge a master of dark magic?

Between this and Frozen II, screenwriter Jennifer Lee seems to be way too fascinated with overcomplicated lore that feels clumsily improvised. Awkward key plot beats related to King Magnifico’s corrupt rule (namely that you forget about your wish after he “takes” it) are hurriedly introduced in lyrics or throwaway pieces of dialogue that are easy to miss. The mechanics of the wishes themselves seem to fluctuate in a way that doesn't feel like organic extensions of a whimsical fairy tale but rather a byproduct of sloppy writing. It’s also hard to grasp a discernibly real-world parallel to all the fantasy tomfoolery that Lee and company want audiences to be deeply invested in. This isn’t just supposed to be a classical fairy tale, like Sleeping Beauty, where everything's meant to be heightened and removed from our world. Wish wants to elicit tears from viewers and have its fantasy world remind moviegoers of their own. That’s hard to do when this entire realm feels so vaguely defined and aloof from the discernible reality. Compare that problem to the stories of Moana and Encanto, which effortlessly interwove recognizable real emotions and experiences into unabashedly fantastical stories. This balance between the preposterous and emotionally tangible can work…Lee’s script for Wish just gets too lost in lore, explanations, and obvious metaphors to get that balance right. 

The plot beats that do work in Wish are effective enough to make one wish this whole movie was better. If only the screenplay trimmed down the avalanche of comic sidekick characters (why does Asha have seven additional wacky human friends plus two “critter” companions?) in favor of fleshing out its better narrative impulses. That tug of war between impressive details and derivative elements also carries over to the animation of Wish. The backgrounds here are glorious creations, downright perfect recreations of the kind of painterly sights Eyvind Earle and the like made their bread and butter in the mid-20th century. Establishing shots in Wish devoid of any characters actually look like they could’ve been lifted from a hand-drawn movie from the 50s, it’s an astonishing merging of animations past and present. 

Unfortunately, those backgrounds and other lovely visual qualities (like the welcome emphasis on bright colors that make even nighttime scenes easily visible) are paired up with humans and animals who look no different than standard CG Disney humans from the last 15 years. This time, though, those humans have extra rubbery-looking skin (a byproduct of the unique lighting schemes of Wish) while the often stilted facial expressions seem extra lifeless compared to the old-school backgrounds. Imagine the emotions that could be conveyed if these figures were rendered in good old fashioned hand-drawn animation. The dissonance between environments from Sleeping Beauty and characters lifted from crowd shots of Big Hero 6 never coalesces into something interesting and instead just remains eternally annoying.  It’s very odd Wish showed so much ambition in its backdrops, yet opted for human designs that look so familiar. If you want to truly follow in the footsteps of modern CG animation achievements like The Mitchells vs The Machines, Nimona, and the Spider-Verse movies, you have to embrace distinctive visual impulses in every department, not just with backgrounds!

A similar mixed bag is the music of Wish. Given that this is the "ultimate" Walt Disney Animation Studios movie, it shouldn't be a surprise that Wish is also a musical, with an array of tunes written by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice. The best of these tracks are the ones that lean into being the kind of songs you could only do in a musical like Magnifico's deliciously wicked "This Is The Thanks I Get?!" or the rousing battle tune "Knowing What I Know Now." Weaker on the soundtrack are tracks like "This Wish" and "At All Costs" that are more in line with songs you'd find in a Pasek & Paul musical in that they just sound like generic pop ditties. The former track is especially disappointing since DeBose is fully committed in her vocals in this take on the "I Want" song, but the forgettable lyrics let her down. Also underwhelming is the score by Dave Metzger, a veteran of Disney's music department (he worked as an arranger and orchestrator for countless scores in the studio's past). His compositions aren't bad, but they're often lifeless and fail to demonstrate much of a personality, particularly in the instruments they employ.

More consistently successful than the visuals and music in Wish are the vocal performances. The actors assembled here do perfectly cromulent work with the writing they've been handed, with DaBose especially working overtime to inject more personality and life into Asha compared to how this figure is written in the script. A committed novice cast, undeniably cute elements (that Star character is clearly made to spawn stuffed animals, but I wanted to give him a hug all the same), and utterly stunning backgrounds can't erase the nagging feeling, though, that Wish leaves a lot of potential on the table. In trying to create a "celebration" of Disney's past, Wish just feels like a hodgepodge of the studio's greatest hits. It lacks the wit and heart that helped give an extra sense of personality to previous Mouse House homages like Enchanted or Tangled. "What would Walt do?" was clearly a question weighing heavily on the minds of Buck, Veerasunthorn, and company when it came to making this animated musical. However, just as that query drove Walt Disney Animation Studios into the ground in the 70s and 80s, so too does such adherence to the past weigh down Wish.