Sunday, August 30, 2020

Pay a Visit to The Shop Around The Corner

Recently, I’ve had a tough time committing myself to watch anything challenging. It’s strange because, usually, I like a movie that’s grim, long and audacious enough to push my boundaries. But recently, movies on my To-Watch list like Come and See keep getting pushed off into the future. Between, well, everything happening in 2020 and all the stress of me starting Graduate School two weeks back, comfort cinema and revisiting old favorites are my new go-to modes of movie-watching. I’ll get around to darker features like Come and See soon, I promise. Hey, at least I’m watching films like The Shop Around the Corner, one of the best-made feel-good movies you can find!

The shop in the title of The Shop Around the Corner refers to a leather goods shop run by Mr. Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). The most notable employee of this store is long-time worker Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), though also working here are the kindly Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), the duplicitous Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) and new employee Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). Conflict enters into the store through Klara and Alfred failing to get off on the right foot while Mr. Matuschek has abruptly developed an unusually detached attitude towards Alfred. Oh, and there’s also the fact that Alfred realizes that the anonymous lady he’s been engaging in romantic correspondence with is none other Klara.

There’s plenty to praise in The Shop Around the Corner, but boy do I especially love how well it replicates the atmosphere of working in retail. The screenplay by Samson Raphaelson perfectly captures the awkwardness of having to walk around on eggshells around frustrated co-workers or how the most inane activites can jeopardize one’s entire social life. Just redoing a window display can cost you a chance at a big date, life-and-death stakes are embedded into such a pitiful task! The exchanges between the various employees and prospective customers are similarly ripped straight out of reality and placed into this wonderful screenplay. One particular passerby inquiring “How much is that $5 cigar box in the window?” only for Alfred to helpfully reply “$5.” before the passerby exclaims “Oh! No!” had me howling at its authenticity.

It’s also a great example of the kind of sharply written dialogue exchanges that make up Raphaelson’s script. I mean, the word choices in this movie alone are amazing. Klara and Alfred constantly trying to one-up each other with newly elaborate insulting phrases is a riot in terms of both creativity and humor. It’s hard to choose a favorite line out of so many exceptional pieces of dialogue, but I’m especially fond of Pirovitch going “Well, what else can you do in a letter?” upon being told by Alfred that he’s discussed romance “strictly in cultural terms” with his anonymous lover. Raphaelson’s screenplay is also enjoyable in how it crafts such memorable personalities for each of the employees of Matuscek’s store.

Rather than everybody save for Klara and Alfred blending into the background, everyone from Pirovitch to young delivery boy Pepi Katona (William Tracy) gets to come alive as a person. This trait is reinforced in both Ernst Lubitsch’s direction and the performances of the cast, neither of which are unafraid to embrace boldly realized personalities. Of course scheming employee Vadas walks into every scene twirling a cane with a voice dripping with deceit like he’s The Riddler. Why shouldn’t he when Joseph Schildkraut imbues the performance with such delightful scenery-chewing? Plus, an oversized antagonist like this makes the perfect foil for Jimmy Stewart, whose in classical good o’l boy mode here.

I thoroughly enjoy Stewart’s later subversions of his straight-laced star image in films like Anatomy of a Murder and Rear Window. But that kind of subversion wouldn’t have worked as well if Stewart hadn’t also been effective portraying characters like Alfred. The relatable everyman quality Stewart brought to his turns in Harvey and It’s a Wonderful Life is alive and well in The Shop Around the Corner. It serves the character of Alfred beautifully. Meanwhile, Margaret Sullivan makes for the perfect romantic counterpart to Stewart. She makes it totally believable that Klara could go toe-to-toe against Alfred while she and Stewart have such engaging chemistry even when they’re bickering in the stockroom of Matuschek’s shop.

With these kinds of lead performances, The Shop Around the Corner cements itself as not just entertaining comfort cinema but an outright great film in its own right!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Paul Verhoeven Delivers Another Great Sci-Fi Action Film With Starship Troopers

Remember when Paul Verhoeven was doing sci-fi blockbusters regularly? God, what an age that was. Verhoeven took movies about cyborg police officers and Arnold Schwarzenegger getting his ass to the moon and turned them into both effective sociopolitical commentary and thrilling action films. Brains and brawn were always around when Verhoeven was tackling sci-fi. The tradition continues with Starship Troopers. Verhoeven takes a novel of the same name penned by Robert A. Heinlein that glorifies fascism and turns it into something that’s only gotten more timely in the twenty-three years since its release.

Starship Troopers is set in the 23rd-century. The world has been transformed into a society that places violence and military service as important above all else. That means the youth of this world grow up believing that the only way to have value is to grab a weapon and shoot up some bugs. Yes, bugs. An alien species referred to as Bugs is fighting back against colonizing humans. They’re the new enemy that the human race is dedicated to fighting against. John Rico (Casper Van Dien) would love nothing more than to go out and squish some of these bugs, proving his own value to society in the process.

He gets his chance when he joins the Army as a private. Here, he will travel to the front lines on the home planet of the Bugs. If he survives, he could become a hero! But surviving is easier said than done when fighting the Bugs. Screenwriter Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven instill the satirical nature of Starship Troopers into the journey of Johnny Rico. If you’ve seen one military action movie, you know what to expect from his character. He’s got disapproving parents. He’s got a girl he loves from back home. All he wants to do is fight for the just cause and make his country proud.

This archetype has been portrayed with a total straight-face in countless other movies. That’s not the case with Troopers. While the character of Rico never subverts expectations by deviating from his traditional personality, that’s not the point of the character. Rico is supposed to be the quintessential underdog protagonist whose dreams of service are in the name of an organization whose logo bears an eerie resemblance to the Nazi insignia. Rico is 110% sincere in his convictions but they’re still convictions in the name of a clearly fascist organization that has no regard for human life.

This is most humorously reflected in how Rico keeps getting promoted as the movie goes on simply because his superiors keep dying rather than as a comment on Rico’s talents. Further dark humor is wrung out of juxtaposing horrific actions with traditional “rah-rah” war movie aesthetics when everybody cheers over a captured alien simply being “scared”. The fact that Starship Troopers knows the beats of war movies so well, which makes its grim comedy undercutting those beats all the more amusing. Less successful is the gaggle of lead young actors tasked with playing our protagonists.

The likes of Van Dien and Dina Meyer are clearly trying to emulate the type of personalities and performances you’d see in traditional sci-fi fare. Still, these satirical performances could have stood to be more distinctive. Supporting turns from Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown fare much better in terms of balancing archetype parodies with acting that’s entertaining in its own right. As for the rest of Starship Troopers, well, it works like a charm. Especially impressive is how well the CGI for the bugs hold up more than two decades later while the practical effects used for the leader of the bugs is outright incredible. It may not match up to RoboCop or Total Recall, but Verhoeven is right on target with his sci-fi satire in Starship Troopers.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Lingua Franca Subverts Norms With Deeply Human Filmmaking

For the first time since 1974, a Summer moviegoing season was not populated with a barrage of big blockbusters. With no new Transformers, Marvel Studios or Harry Potter movies defining the Summer 2020 season, maybe we can all collectively agree to remember Summer 2020 as the summer of good indie cinema? Let the likes of Shirley, Miss Juneteenth and She Dies Tomorrow be the films we associated with this particular summer moviegoing session. Let’s also toss in Lingua Franca into that category of defining Summer 2020 cinema. The directorial debut of Isabel Sandoval, Lingua Franca would be well worth remembering no matter what season it was released in.

Sandoval also stars in Lingua Franca as Olivia, an undocumented trans-Filipino woman working in New York City in 2020. As you can imagine, everyday life for her isn’t great thanks to the constant looming presence of I.C.E. and her struggles to garner American citizenship. She makes her money working as a nurse for an elderly woman suffering from a deteriorating mental state named Olga (Lynn Cohen), who just got some company in the form of her grandson, Murray (Lev Gorn). Across all three of these characters is a desire to be seen as a person by other people. Olga, for example, doesn’t want to receive help when she doesn’t need it while Murray is trying to maintain a job after a number of off-screen personal troubles.

Above all, though, this is Olivia’s story. It’s one that Sandoval tells with a welcome variety of filmmaking influences. The opening and closing sequence, depicting Olivia talking to her far-away mother over footage of various parts of NYV, is reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's Notes From Home. Murray, meanwhile, enters the meat factory that he works in through a tracking shot straight out of a Martin Scorsese movie. Then there’s Olivia’s sensual dream sequence where she imagines herself and Murray making love. The otherworldly nature of the visuals, as well as the use of tight close-ups of bodies in the middle of making passionate love, simultaneously evokes the works of David Lynch as well as Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Woman in the Dunes.

The way Lingua Franca evokes classic movies while creating something distinctive is emblematic of how the whole production is aware of the past while blazing new trails. This trait is also reflected in how Lingua Franca quietly subverts storytelling tropes associated with cinematic trans narratives. It’s easy to see a version of Lingua Franca where Murray is our lead character. Perhaps he's now framed as a bigot to make the morality of the story more one-dimensional. Of course, he'll be led down a redemptive arc through taught life lessons by Olivia. In this incarnation of Lingua Franca, Olivia would be exclusively defined by Murray. She’d be a passive figure, one whose entire existence was destined to end in tragedy to motivate personal growth on the part of Murray.

The actual Lingua Franca takes a more thoughtful approach to Olivia’s story, which was also penned by Sandoval. For one thing, the vast majority of the film is filtered through her perspective. Only scenes depicting Murray at his job and at a local tavern deviate from Lingua Franca being told through Olivia’s eyes. For another, even in the face of systemic forces (like I.C.E.) that constrain her, Olivia is still an active character. She’s more than capable of making her own choices, she isn’t just at the mercy of cis-gendered characters. Since the narrative doesn’t default to Olivia always experiencing the most miserable events possible, you really don’t know where she’ll take the story next.

This means Lingua Franca has a sense of tonal variety in depicting the life of a trans character that I can’t even imagine existing in something like Dallas Buyer’s Club. That’s unbelievably good in terms of subverting harmful pop culture stereotypes. However, these deft writing touches on the part of Sandoval ensures that Lingua Franca is immensely engaging as a standalone piece of art. Take a quiet scene between Olivia and her sister reminiscing about their childhood together. The dialogue here, including the great phrase “We were dressed like altar boys when what we really wanted to be were nuns!”, is so gloriously specific. There’s a level of detail to their interaction that makes it feel ripped from reality.

Sandoval’s intimate camerawork is just the cherry on top of such a moving scene. By placing the audience so close to these two characters, as well as having this conversation take place in a nearly-empty locale, there’s a cozy visual quality to their interaction. That quality reinforces the sense that Olivia and her sister, though so often dehumanized in America, find essential comfort in one another’s company. Sandoval’s camerawork throughout the whole production carries a similar quality of being subdued but noteworthy. Especially impressive is the way she incorporates wider angles throughout Lingua Franca to convey a sense of detachment between characters, particularly in regards to Murray and his relatives.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Lingua Franca a movie of the moment. After all, bigotry against trans individuals, people of color and immigrants (which has always existed in this country) are on the forefront of the political zeitgeist right now. Just two days ago, transphobic comments from Cissie Graham at the Republican National Convention reaffirmed prejudice festers in seats of immense power. A deeply human story like Lingua Franca certainly makes for a good balm against such hatred ripped straight from the headlines. However, the best qualities of Lingua Franca are also its most timeless.

Among those qualities is the fact that, like Carol, Tangerine and Rafiki, Lingua Franca is a movie about LGBTQIA+ people living, enduring and even thriving told through the prism of remarkable filmmaking. That’s the sort of feature that ensures we’ll be talking about Lingua Franca long after Summer 2020 has come to a close.

Lingua Franca is now streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

In Laman's Terms: The Complex Twenty-Year Lifespan of The X-Men Movies

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

“Nobody had made those movies before, certainly not on the level that we were doing it,” actress Famke Janssen told Observer in a retrospective on the original X-Men movie. “The comic book adaptation hadn’t been done in this kind of grittier fashion.” Coming out in 2000, X-Men arrived at a precarious time for the comic book movie. Blade’s recent successful box office run cemented the idea that movies based on Marvel comics could work. However, there was still trepidation over the idea that audiences would come out in droves for comic book movies in the wake of Spawn, Steel and Batman & Robin.

Those three films codified comic book movies as being campy and detached from reality. The first X-Men movie, meanwhile, immediately established itself as something different by having its opening scene be a flashback set in a concentration camp in Auschwitz. Further moments of raw vulnerability (like Wolverine responding “Every time” when asked if it hurts to unfurl his adamantium claws) cemented X-Men as a different creature in the comic book movie landscape circa. 2000. That uniqueness helped to propel X-Men to a strong enough box office haul that it spawned a franchise that’s been going on for two decades.

Of course, everything must come to a close. So too must the first comic book movie franchise of the 21st-century. This Friday’s The New Mutants is not only actually finally premiering, it also brings with it the closure of the X-Men series. Now the X-Men films will move over to Marvel Studios, where they will get some kind of reboot. The future of X-Men movies is uncertain but its past, that’s fully concrete. The twenty-year legacy of the X-Men movies is an odd one. Here is a series that found its best moments when it was pinned in a corner, working under tight budget constraints and in smaller-scale stories. I’m, of course, talking about Deadpool and Logan, two of its most recent entries.

One’s personal feelings on the films may vary, but in terms of public response, Deadpool and Logan caught fire with the public in a way most of the other X-Men movies just didn’t. All the extravagant visual effects in the world couldn’t make people interested in X-Men: Apocalypse. But, much like the opening scene of X-Men, Deadpool and Logan both offered something different from traditional superhero fare. They had the courage to stick with unique creative instincts rather than just hew to what other superhero fare had done recently. We will see how New Mutants fares as a movie, but on a conceptual basis, this horror movie is also attempting to try something new in the superhero film landscape. In its spin-off’s, the X-Men movies tended to flourish.

While Logan represents the most ambitious vestige of this saga, the principal X-Men movies have aged far worse. For one thing, the later entries in the principal X-Men saga began to get more creatively stagnant as its spin-off’s began to get more bold. Whereas Logan and The New Mutants were exploring new genres for mutant stories to inhabit, X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix were content to be knock-off’s of other popular superhero movies. Apocalypse was going for the scale and heightened nature of an Avengers movie but its heart just wasn’t into it. Dark Phoenix, meanwhile, saturated the screen in dim lighting in the hopes of securing the depth of dark and gritty superhero movies like The Dark Knight. Neither film matched the creative highs of the movies they were mimicking.

Something that’s been running throughout all of the X-Men movies is a self-conscious nature. Dating back to the days of “yellow spandex” jabs, the X-Men films have always been trepidatious about embracing the wackier aspects of their source material. Now, fidelity to the comics does not equal a good movie. Just ask last years Hellboy movie, which featured a comics-accurate Lobster Johnson in one of the most slipshod movies to grace the big screen in the last few years. However, X-Men ditched fun aspects of the comics and proceeded to replace them with generic ideas.

Even if you didn’t know the X-Men donned colorful yellow outfits in the comics, you’d likely wish they’d go fight baddies in outfits that were more interesting than disposable black outfits lifted from The Matrix. Whereas Blade in 1998 was a direct precursor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s approach to embracing the fun details of the comics, the original X-Men now feels a relic. Blade was a glimpse of the future. X-Men, and its embarrassment of where it came from, was the past.

Worse, though, is how the creative decisions of the main X-Men movies undercut the idea of having the mutants work as stand-ins for marginalized populations (which, of course, originated in the comics). For starters, the primary X-Men films (and also the Deadpool movies) shove women off to the side while also totally ignoring characters of color. Storm, one of the most beloved and prominent characters of the X-Men comics, barely has anything to do across her six individual film appearances. Rogue starts out the first X-Men movie as an audience point-of-view character before becoming a damsel-in-distress in the climax and subsequently being a forgettable part of the sequels. To boot, neither Dark Phoenix adaptation could subvert the icky gender politics of Jean Grey going evil because she gets a hold of too much power. It didn’t help that both adaptations decided to filter this story through the perspective of a male protagonist.

The X-Men are supposed to represent the “little people” of the world so how come all of the angst in these stories revolve around cis-het white men? And then, of course, there’s the behind-the-scenes aspects of the X-Men movies that really taint the whole franchise. Out of the seven main X-Men movies, five of them were directed by either Bryan Singer or Brett Ratner. Both have been leveled with a barrage of sexual assault allegations. Such allegations include Ellen Page accusing Brett Ratner of sexual harassment on the set of X-Men: The Last Stand.  The X-Men films being adversely impacted by the actions of Singer and Ratner is one of the least important ripple effects of these accusations coming to light. However, it is still disappointing that a series that could have been used to champion the underdogs of society instead became another place for powerful white men to engage in alleged acts of seediness.

After twenty years on the silver screen, the X-Men movies leave behind a complicated creative legacy. Even the earliest films managed to birth a movie star in the form of Hugh Jackman and allowed the likes of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and Kelsey Grammar to deliver memorable performances. In its best installments, the X-Men spin-offs like Logan and Deadpool managed to shift perceptions of what mainstream comic book movies could be.

Unfortunately, the X-Men franchise, both on and off-screen, also serves as a microcosm of how white male perspectives get premium treatment above all others  Despite spanning two decades and twelve movies, it’s only with the upcoming New Mutants that this saga realized women could serve as lead characters in movies. Even with the era of Fox X-Men movies coming to an end, thanks to Marvel Studios, these merry mutants aren’t gonna stop showing up on the big screen anytime soon. Hopefully, future X-Men movies take cues from the boldest entries in this franchise to improve on the shortcomings of the past. Chiefly, give Storm something to do, you cowards.

Monday, August 24, 2020

An Easy Girl Is Thoughtful But Lacking In Distinctiveness

The warm summer sun glistening on the beach. The sound of waves crashing against the sand. A picnic on a hillside. These are all the wonderful staples of summer you don’t get to experience living in a Texas suburb. Then again, you don’t really get to have them if you live near the Texas coast either. Have you ever been to Galveston, Texas? The beaches there are not great, Bob. Maybe I can’t have my idyllic beach time excursion in reality. But movies like An Easy Girl can help compensate for that absence. I can live vicariously through fictious characters having the kind of warm and bubbly summer exceeding my grasp in Allen, TX.

An Easy Girl protagonist Naima (Mina Fahrid) is also feeling like she’s missing out on something in her life. She lives a studious rule-abiding life. It’s not a bad existence but she can’t help but feel like she’s missing something. When Naima’s cousin, Sofia (Zahia Dehar), arrives into town, she begins to get a taste of the life that’s so long eluded her. Sofia is the total opposite of Naima, with her regular sexual encounters, tattoos and party-all-night attitude. She’s basically Naima’s hero. Sofia loves this free-wheeling lifestyle but is it the right fit for Naima? And are the friends Sofia makes in her shenanigans the kind of friends you can really depend on?

Director Rebecca Zlotowski frames the luxurious landscapes Sofia and Naima transverse throughout An Easy Girl with the kind of picture-perfect quality you’d expect out of a postcard. The softness of the frame, the heavy presence of natural light, you just wanna hop into the frame and enjoy all the upscale antics they’re getting into. Of course, this is juxtaposed against the fact that reality intrudes upon many of their outings. A pair of dudes shout “Whores!” to Sofia and Naima after they rebuke their romantic advances at the beach. A classy dinner is home to a hostess who pokes and prods at Sofia, particularly in regards to her decision to undergo plastic surgery.

Though this world is something that Naima is enamored with, it’s also one that’s far less perfect than it would appear. By the end of An Easy Girl, even the easygoing Sofia has been revealed to be a false idol of sorts. Naima always saw Sofia as someone whose above normal human beings, as seen by Naima imagining Sofia in a mid-movie montage of shots depicting Sofia lounging on the beach make her look like a model in a beer commercial. Sofia is not like you and me. She’s something else. She takes control of her life. She’s the kind of person Naima would give anything to be.

But Sofia’s climatic insistence on just moving on from false accusations of thievery, despite Naima wanting to clear their names, annihilates Naima’s illusions of her cousin. Sofia’s sense of control only goes so far. She’d rather just plow ahead in life rather than challenge authority figures. To challenge them would inspire changes in Sofia’s life that she cannot comprehend. Better to muddle through the status quo instead. Sofia is not the larger-than-life figure in Naima’s head. She’s a person. An Easy Girl, then, is a cinematic reflection of the universal coming-of-age experience of realizing your heroes are people to.

The thoughtful exploration of this theme proves to be the most intriguing part of An Easy Girl. The rest of the movie is on the order of fine but not exactly exceptional. Little in this movie registers as bad, in fact, it’s quite well-made. But the slow pacing and muted performances ensure that An Easy Girl too often feels interchangeable with other coming-of-age dramas. A little more personality injected into Zlotowski and Teddy Lussi-Modeste’s screenplay could have taken An Easy Girl from decent to something truly special. At least it delivers a large number of glorious beaches for me to imagine myself romping through.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Martin Scorsese Delivers An Unnerving Thriller With Cape Fear

Cape Fear already got off on the right foot with me by having an opening credits sequence designed by Saul Bass. True, it’s not as good of a Scorsese/Bass collaboration as that unforgettable opening to Casino. However, Saul Bass is still Saul Bass and that means Cape Fear gets to kick itself off in a visually stylish manner. As soon becomes apparent, employing Bass isn’t the only way Cape Fear pays homage to mid-20th century filmmaking, the era in which the original Cape Fear was released. Many of the editing and camerawork techniques in the 1991 movie Cape Fear seem to have been lifted from at least thirty-year-old features.

These visual flourishes are used to tell the story of lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). He’s got a good job and a loving family consisting of wife Leigh Bowden (Jessica Lange) and teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). However, everything gets thrown into chaos by the arrival of Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a recently released felon who was a client of Bowden’s. He’s got a bone to pick with Bowden, who he blames for getting him locked up in the slammer for fourteen years. At first, Cady’s vengeance against Bowden is by being more of a nuisance than anything else. He just lingers on the public property right outside of Bowden’s house or “accidentally” runs into Bowden in a parking lot.

But soon, things escalate as Bowden’s dog mysteriously dies and Cady corners Danielle at her school. As Bowden fights back, he’s viewed by the public as the actual enemy while Cady is perceived to be a victim. Will Cady’s nightmare ever end?  More importantly, is Cape Fear all that thoughtful of a film? Not really. Scorsese has built his career upon making movies about warped people (Travis Bickle, Jordan Belfort, Frank Sheeran, Robert Pupkin, etc.) to instill deep questions in the viewer. Why do we worship the people we do? Why do we crave power? What is the cost of pursuing status over all other things? These hefty queries ensure that you’re thinking about many of Scorsese’s works long after the credits roll.

In the case of Cape Fear, there isn’t much in the way of either moral complexity or larger questions being posed. Written by Wesley Strick (whose adapting both the earlier Cape Fear film and the 1957 novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald), Cape Fear is a stripped-to-the-bone thriller. That means Cape Fear isn’t the most substantial work in Scorsese’s filmography. However, Scorsese and his regular collaborators De Niro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are all still in rare form here, so Cape Fear still registers as a well-made thriller. Strick’s script moves along at a solid pace and conjures up a number of intense set pieces for Scorsese and company to thoughtfully execute.

The best of these is an encounter between Cady and Danielle at her High School. It’s hard to properly express just how uncomfortable this extended sequence is. Cady just makes your skin crawl from the moment he starts talking to Danielle. That sensation only gets worse as his creepy verbiage makes it clear he plans to get more intimate with her. Scorsese’s direction and especially Schoonmaker’s editing make the uncomfortable ambiance of this scene appropriately suffocating. This impressive command of suspense is most prominently seen in this squirm-inducing sequence but it is not the only instance that Cape Fear chills you to the bone.

A nighttime scene involving Joe Don Baker’s investigator character watching over a homemade security system already prepares you for the worst the moment it begins. Nothing gruesome is happening on-screen but the overwhelming quiet and dim lighting combine to put a pit in your stomach. Somewhere, Cady is watching. But where? This character proves to be so unnerving in large part due to De Niro’s performance. As Cady, De Niro instills the character with a sense of totally sincere conviction. He’s not lying to himself about who’re the good guys and bad guys in his life. In his warped mind, Cady truly believes he’s the crusader for justice. De Niro makes a man who believes in himself something terrifying to behold.

Honestly, the vast majority of Cape Fear worked like a charm for me, just a darn good thriller that gave me exactly what I wanted. If I have a complaint, though, it’s that Cape Fear peaks too early in its climax. A cocky Cady lighting up his trademark cigar only to be doused in lighter fluid by Danielle and then bursting into flames is such a perfect conclusion for the character. After that brilliance, the sight of Charlie Parker playing a trumpet while riding a unicorn would be underwhelming.

Unfortunately, Cape Fear does try to follow it up. We get not one but two fake-out deaths for Cady as well as two further showdowns between Cady and the Bowden family. None of the subsequence confrontations are anywhere near interesting enough to make one wonder why they couldn’t end things with the lighter fluid bit. Aside from a clumsier finish, though, Cape Fear has a good sense of what’ll the viewer tick. The good sense to kick things off with a Saul Bass opening makes Cape Fear’s commendable creative sensibilities immediately apparent.


Friday, August 21, 2020

A Tender Gorilla Headlines The Solid Family Movie The One and Only Ivan

 

“Why do things have to be put in cages?” asks Julia (Arrian Greenblatt) during The One and Only Ivan. “Why must people get sick?” Those are pretty big questions for a child to ask. They’re also the kind of queries that symbolize the heavily emotional nature of The One and Only Ivan. This is a film more concerned with tugging at your heartstrings than making pop culture references. Nothing in Ivan gets anywhere near the introspective darkness of, say, Where the Wild Things Are, but it’s still more Born Free than Alvin and the Chipmunks. Not all of the poignancy works, but I’d be lying if I said Ivan didn’t eventually win me over.

Based on a book of the same name by K.A. Applegate, the titular Ivan is a silverback gorilla played by Sam Rockwell. He spends his days with a crew of other animals performing for patrons in a circus housed inside a shopping mall. Though he puts on a big show for audiences of being a ferocious gorilla, Ivan is much more of a Mr. Rogers than a Mr. Perfect. His softer nature comes in handy when a new baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) arrives at the circus. She could use a friend like Ivan to guide her around her new home. Of course, elephants aren’t supposed to call a circus their home. Neither are gorillas. It isn’t long before Ivan makes a promise to Ruby to get her and all the circus animals back to the wild.

It’s quite commendable how tender-hearted Mike White’s screenplay for One and Only Ivan is. Family movies so often incorporate abrasive dialogue to make their stories seem “hip”. Ivan, meanwhile, has no hesitation in depicting the various circus animals just being nice to each other. Even Ivan’s initial jealousy over no longer being the headliner act once Ruby arrives quickly evaporates once he sees Ruby being nervous about performing. Maybe I’ve grown soft in my time in quarantine, but I like kindness. This unabashedly sincere approach to the dialogue does leave certain supporting characters, like Julia or older elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), feeling like vessels to deliver self-affirmation expressions to Ivan rather than individual people.

Still, the empathetic dynamic between most of Ivan’s characters warms the heart more often than it leaves it cold. Even better in White’s script is that it isn’t afraid to just let the movie be still for a while. Rather than pack the film with noise to ensure kids never stop paying attention, Ivan and company have extended dialogue exchanges that don’t have to be accompanied by loudness or frantic activity. There’s an intimate quality to these scenes that makes the growing bonds between the characters believable. Thea Sharrock’s restrained direction nicely compliments this aspect of the script. Recurring nighttime conversations between Ivan and Ruby, for example, are captured so that our focus remains on the primate and pachyderm. Sharrock doesn’t feel the need to cut to side-gags or incorporate distracting camerawork.

More problematic than the pathos in Ivan is the comedy, which tends to feel obligatory rather than hysterical. A fart joke here, a comically inept security guard there, a toupee gag in the middle of the story, lots of celebrities (like Chaka Khan) just here to deliver comedic lines off-screen. These are all predictable sources of levity that even your average five-year-old will see coming. Meanwhile, White’s blending together of disparate traits of Ivan’s personality (chiefly his artistic abilities and his struggles to remember his childhood) with Ivan’s desire to get Ruby back home isn’t as organic as it could be. This is the rare kid's movie that could stand to be a bit longer just to allow these individual aspects of Ivan’s life more time to coalesce.

Ivan and the other animals are brought to life with well-realized CGI visual effects as well as solid voice work. It’s especially nice to see Sam Rockwell, whose so often played slimy characters in his career, getting the chance to go outside of his wheelhouse and play the primate manifestation of kindness. The One and Only Ivan is more competent than groundbreaking, but it’s got an endearingly gentle spirit that’s largely absent from modern family movies. I don’t know why things have to be put in cages or why people have to get sick. But, I do know that The One and Only Ivan works quite well as heartwarming family fare.

Kids Say The Most Satantic Things in The Omen


Successful horror movies spawn imitators. That’s true in any genre but the fact that horror can be particularly cheap to produce mean it’s especially susceptible to hordes of knock-offs. Paranormal Activity’s success resulted in a wave of found-footage horror films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake in 2003 kicked off the trend of horror movie remakes. Going back to the 1970s, The Exorcism and its massive box office haul led to an influx of religious-themed horror films such as The Omen. To my pleasant surprise, though, The Omen manages to stand on its own two Satanic feet. This is not a horror film content with simply being The Exorcism Redux.

American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) has a seemingly perfect life. A glamorous house. A job that provides plenty of income. Best of all, he’s got a dream family thanks to his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) and son Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens). As Damien gets older, though, a series of strange occurrences begin to unravel this idyllic homelife. For one thing, this old priest keeps pestering Robert on how dangerous Damien is. For another, odd events begin to happen around Damien, like a servant committing suicide or a bunch of baboons going ballistic in his presence. Soon, Robert is on a quest to get some answers, which begin to point towards Robert’s son being not just not his offspring but something far more hellish…

The best part about The Omen is how it builds up a sense of dread. In a smart move on the part of screenwriter David Seltzer, many of the scares in The Omen don’t come from the direct actions of Damien but rather from circumstances surrounding the child. This lends an eerie quality to The Omen deriving from how there’s a higher power at work here. The humans trying to fight back against Satanic circumstances are wildly outmatched by thunderbolts dropping from the sky and planes of glass slicing people’s heads off. You feel just as dwarfed by these overwhelming circumstances as Robert Thorn and company and that’s just where you want to be when watching a horror film.

My personal favorite of the various scary set pieces in The Omen is when Robert and Keith Jennings (David Warner) are attacked by a pack of rottweilers in a graveyard. There’s a great sense of build-up to this scene, as Robert and Keith’s initial digging around in the graves is filtered through wide shots that show dogs lingering on the outer edges of the frame. You’re already getting a knot in your stomach before the dogs even begin to attack the duo. Another great moment in the sequences come when Robert, just inches away from evading the dogs entirely, gets stabbed by a sharp point on a fence. As if the dogs weren’t enough of a problem!  

The Omen has plenty of those kind of thrilling scares to dish out and it executes them with panache. The presence of accomplished artists like director Richard Donner and actor Gregory Peck helps mightily in that execution. Neither Donner nor Peck are going through the motions here. They’re both turning in capable work to lend gravity to the assorted eerie moments of The Omen. The same can be said for Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which may be the absolute best part of The Omen. One of my very favorite composers reaffirms why I hold him in such high esteem with his chilling Omen compositions, which make great use of a choir chanting Latin phrases.

Though it may have been born out of an attempt to make the Exorcism lightning strike twice, The Omen is far more than just a knock-off

Tesla Is A Shockingly Unique Entry In The Biopic Genre



Writer/director Michael Almereyda and Ethan Hawke just love to merge the past and the present. This was most apparent in their 2000 version of Hamlet. This feature took Shakespeare’s iconic text and transported it to the modern day world. Here, Hawke’s Hamlet delivered the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy in the action movie section of a Blockbuster. It kind of sounds like Amlereyda/Hawke are the director/actor duo equivalent of an English teacher who tries to tell kids that Jack London was “totally lit”. However, their fascination with blurring together time periods does result in some interesting filmmaking, as seen by their newest collaboration Tesla.

The ex-wife of Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), Anne Morgan (Eve Lawson), guides viewers through the most formative years of Tesla’s life as an inventor. Though the film takes place in the late 19th-century, she’s got a handy Macbook laptop and a projector to help illustrate her points. We begin with Tesla working for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan). Tesla’s got ideas to spare, particularly when it comes to new ways of dishing out electricity. However, he and Edison bitterly part ways. After earning up money as a ditch digger, Tesla is able to shore up some investors who can help get his patents off the ground.

Of course, his troubles are far from over. They never will be for a mind like Tesla’s that’s always thinking about inventions that can change the future rather than the people around him. This guy’s unusual ambitions get an equally unorthodox biopic with Tesla. Lest one think the recurring presence of modern technology is simply around to be a goof, Almereyda utilizes these elements properly. Most notably, the modern-day world’s perceptions of figures like Tesla and Edison is established right away to instill a sense of melancholy into the whole movie.

Through Morgan’s anecdotes to the audience, we know that Tesla is not destined to be the victorious underdog he wants to be. In 2020, his life has been reduced to just the same three or four images that dominate Google Image search results for “Nikola Tesla”. All of Tesla’s ambitions, triumphs, defeats, all those things that seem so important in the moments of his lives, they’ve all been washed away. All that’s left is a handful of still photographs. Knowing this from the outset lets the viewer interpret the events of Tesla in a whole new light. Characters in the 1890s may be convinced their petty squabbles are the most important thing in the world, but we know better.

Expanding the focus of Tesla to incorporate the modern world allows the self-absorbed struggles of these characters to take on a tragic quality. Everyone in Tesla is working for their own agenda, sacrificing their own morals in the process. If only these people had known how the future would perceive them, would they have tried to be better to each other? This question runs throughout all of Tesla like a burst of electricity flowing through a wire. It’s especially apparent in fictitious flashback imagining a scenario in which Edison reaches out to Tesla and offers to work alongside him. This hope that unity can be formed between rivals is depicted as being as detached from reality as iPhones appearing in 1890.

Connections between the past and the present are further reinforced through a recurring visual motif that see’s Tesla’s characters standing in front of paintings meant to represent real-world and locations. This approach does help to depict locations like a crowded train station in a low-budget drama, sure. But it also see’s Tesla further tying representations of the past with figures actually living in the era of yesteryear. Less successful than Tesla’s merging of dissonant time periods are some other aspects of its screenplay. The subdued quality to Tesla that has its upsides, particularly in background gags like a woman casually using a modern-day vacuum cleaner.

However, it does mean the individual supporting players have such muted personalities that they don’t even up coming alive as people. Figures like Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan) and George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) are just vague shadows failing to leave much of an impression either for good or ill. Luckily, Tesla is a movie hinging itself on tone and evocative imagery rather than fleshed-out people. This means scenes like Tesla’s futile final conversation with J.P. Morgan can still pack their intended melancholy wallop.

Of course, much of that impact can be attributed to Ethan Hawke doing remarkable work in the lead role. In the likes of First Reformed and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Hawke showed he knows how to play people who keep your attention even as they keep their true intentions all bottled up inside. That gift is perfectly suited to a detached character like Tesla. Hawke also gets bonus points for selling the heck out of a climatic scene depicting Nikola Tesla singing a certain Tears for Fear song. This moment is right up there with Al Capone singing If I Were King of the Forest in Capone in terms of 2020 movie scenes that shouldn’t work yet somehow really do.


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

"There Are No More Guns In The Valley": A Review of Shane

 

In his excellent book Five Came Back, author Mark Harris chronicles the exploits of five famous filmmakers as they work shooting films in the trenches of World War II. One of these directors was George Stevens, who was most famous for his work in light-hearted comedies. It was a genre he’d never return to once he came home from the war. While abroad, Stevens encountered survivors of a concentration camp. Being exposed to the most horrific horrors human beings could create altered his mindset. Stevens no longer wanted to make frothy comedies. If he was going to make any kind of movie, he wanted to make something that reflected the very real consequences of violence.

It’s impossible to detach Stevens’ experiences in World War II with Shane, a Western that departs heavily from standard entries in this genre. Gunslinging cowboys are not figures of bad-assery while violence itself tends to create more problems than it solves. The titular lead, portrayed by Alan Ladd, is a figure wandering the land with no real purpose until he comes onto the property of Joe Starrett (Van Helfin). Starrett lives here with his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), and Joey (Brandon deWilde), though they’re in a constant battle for their land against Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer). Shane decides to stick around and help keep things tidy around the Starrett household, though the escalating cruelty of Ryker means it’s only a matter of time before a showdown is to be had.

A. B. Guthrie Jr. and Jack Sher’s screenplay doesn’t just use violence as a go-to signifier for villainy. Detachment is also utilized as an indictor that a human being has lost their way. The worst characters in Shane, like Ryker or his hired hitman Jack Wilson (Walter Jack Palance), don’t care about people. They care about land, they care about power, they care about money, but other human beings? Not so much. It’s the same sort of detachment that underlies any form of prejudice, including the anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia that drove the Nazi regime. Once you fail to see another human being as a person, you don’t have any remorse when you commit acts of cruelty against them.

Detachment is just as dangerous as a flying bullet in the Wild West of Shane. Considering this interpretation, Guthrie Jr. and Sher imbue the climax of Shane with a welcome sense of complexity. The titular character becomes about as far away from detached as you can get as he sets out to confront Ryker on his own so that the Starrett family doesn’t lose Joe. However, in doing so, he must embrace violence. It’s a conceptually noble act that still requires Shane to sacrifice some of his own humanity. To boot, the lingering consequences of this violence means that Shane cannot stick around with the Starrett family in the long-term. Even seemingly heroic deeds come at a cost in the world of Shane.

George Stevens’ direction of Shane’s final showdown and the other brawls throughout Shane emphasize that this movie is trying to take a rawer rather than grandiose approach to violence. We’re not supposed to be excited by people firing guns at each other, we’re supposed to be conscious of the human lives dangling in the balance. This is especially apparent n a fantastically executed sequence where Wilson is prowling around Frank Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.). Stevens’ restrained camerawork and the slow pace of the scene makes the tension unbearable. You can feel something ominous drawing closer and closer with each footstep  Torrey takes.

Meanwhile, Stevens’ and cinematographer Loyal Griggs lend a luscious look to the homestead of the Starrett family and the surrounding valley. Pools of deep blue water and bright green foliage litter the landscape that the Starrett family and their neighbors call home. It’s a locale so gorgeous looking that you immediately understand why these families would want to fight back against Ryker to keep it. Plus, such a vibrant-looking backdrop is totally unique for the Western genre, which tend to take place in more sparse tableaus with muted color palettes. It’s yet another instance of Shane eschewing conventions of the Western genre to create something quite engaging, particularly in the context of how it reflects George Stevens post-WWII psyche.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Witch Horror Movie Should You Watch? Definitely Not The Wretched

Did any movie get more of a boost from the lack of new movies in the pandemic than The Wretched?  Under normal circumstances, The Wretched likely would have came and went without much of a whisper in its early May 2020 release like the majority of IFC Midnight releases. But, emboldened by the lack of competition, IFC embraced drive-in movie theaters for the first time with The Wretched. Without any other new horror films in the marketplace, The Wretched has managed to crack $1.8 million at the box office on just a $66,000 budget. The dearth of new movies makes it understandable why The Wretched would become a sleeper hit. Still doesn’t make it a good movie though.

The Wretched concerns Ben (John Paul-Howard), a kid whose parents are going through a divorce. In the middle of this, he arrives to his dad’s (Jameson Jones) house for an extended stay. Ben expects his biggest concern this summer to be nuisances at his job working at the pier. However, some odd occurrences at a neighbors house lead Ben to realize that something sinister is lying in wait next door. His worries only increase once his neighbors son vanishes entirely. Now, Ben is convinced a witch has taken root next door. Nobody will believe Ben, so it’s time for this kid to take on the witch alone.

As evidenced by its prologue set in 1985, The Wretched is clearly channeling movies of the 1980s. Setting the story during the summertime with teenage protagonists only makes this further feel akin to Fright Night and Gremlins. The Wretched takes a lot of elements from those older movies but forgot to take any of the fun. The Pierce Brothers, who wrote and directed The Wretched, execute this movie with a shocking lack of creativity. This is made extra apparent during early character-driven scenes devoid of any witches or horror, especially an early sequence where Ben and love interest Mallory (Piper Curda) bond during a teen party.

The only entertainment found in this scene is the lyrics of the public-domain song that these kids are playing in the background of their rowdy party. Otherwise, the lines traded between Ben and Mallory are more grating than cute. You think this scene can’t get worse and then it throws out a groan-worthy shot where the camera ogles Mallory in her bikini. Things mildly improve once a witch shows up and starts making people vanish, but only mildly. Even here, The Pierce Brothers don’t show much in the way of skills when it comes to executing scares. This is especially apparent when the witch begins her rampage by possessing a woman named Abbie (Zarah Mahler).

This big development is handled with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, with Abbie brazenly acting like a woman whose now possessed by an evil force. Among the many problems with this decision is that it gives The Wretched nowhere to go in its depiction of the witch. This is a movie that peaks too early with a being that isn’t even all that scary at its apex. In a baffling move, the neighbor, the central focus of the first-half of The Wretched, just totally vanishes in its second-half. The Wretched has a bad habit of fixating on plot details before totally forgetting about them. Just look at Ben’s struggle with his parents divorcing, which ends up being totally superfluous to the production.

Is there really anything to recommend in The Wretched? Well, some of the practical visual effects used to realize the witch are fun. I got a good laugh out of the fact that they defeat the witch by just ramming a car into it. That actually could have worked as an intentionally unceremonious dark gag in a better movie (Sam Raimi could have worked wonders with that bit). In The Wretched, it’s just another underwhelming feature in a movie that’s mechanically going through the motions. The pandemic ensured that The Wretched was the one-eyed king of the land of the blind that was the summer 2020 theatrical landscape. But it’s such a poorly cobbled together movie that I doubt it’ll stick around in anyone’s memory in the months to come

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Don't Hesitate To Take A Trip To Paris, Texas

Texas has been in a lot of films. But I’ve rarely seen my home states vastness properly reflected in works of cinema. Texas isn’t home to just one type of back, it’s home to every backdrop! The closest I’ve seen a film properly articulating this phenomenon is this scene from Bernie breaking down how Texas can be divided into various sections. Another rare reflection of the varied nature of Texas is Wim Wenders’ 1984 feature Paris, Texas. The films screenplay, penned by L. M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard, is acutely aware that Texas is a place where sprawling deserts, run-down towns and thriving cities can all be within a stone’s throw of one another.

It’s a uniquely Texan trait that serves as the backdrop for the road trip story Paris, Texas, which begins with Travis Anderson (Henry Dean Stanton) walking around West Texas. Where’s he going? Nowhere in particular. He’s just wandering the landscape, silent and directionless. After collapsing in a tavern, a doctor inspects Anderson, who isn’t speaking, and then calls up Anderson’s brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell). It’s here we learn that Travis has been missing for four years. Once Walt and Travis are reunited, Walt reveals to his brother that he and his wife Anne (Aurora Clement) have adopted Travis’ son Hunter (Hunter Anderson).

He may no longer be alone, but Travis is still struggling, particularly in adjusting back into the life of his son. As we watch Travis work his way back into reality, it becomes clear that Paris, Texas is the story of a man and his difficult relationship with the past. The past is everywhere in the life of Travis. Whether it’s reconnecting with the son he hasn’t seen in so long, pining for his lost ex-wife or the fact that Travis bought a plot of land in Paris, Texas simply because his parents first made love there. Travis is enamored with the past, it defines him rather than any kind of ambitions for the future. Maybe that’s why Travis just wandered in the desert for so long. Why have any kind of direction when the past is blinding you?

Paris, Texas lends such an empathetic lens to Travis and his plights. A scene depicting Travis quietly breaking down into tears watching an old home video of himself, his wife and Hunter just playing together heartbreakingly makes one understand why Travis has become so fixated on his past. Even while we sympathize with Travis, there’s a bittersweet quality to the scene knowing that Travis is pining for something that can never be exactly like it once was. Everything changes. It’s a part of life. To think the world of the past is the same as the world of the present is a fool’s errand.

A similarly melancholy element is imbued into scenes of Travis struggling to connect with his son, particularly a scene depicting Hunter ignoring Travis when he wants to walk his child home from school. The combination of such a bittersweet tone with the writing of Travis as a character makes his journey one you can’t help but be captivated by. I was especially impressed by how Paris, Texas uses the compelling nature of Travis as a person to wring riveting drama out of intimate scenarios. Travis and Hunter doing a look-out at a Houston, Texas bank to find Hunter’s mom is a pretty low-key scenario in the grand scheme of the world. But Paris, Texas has put us so firmly into the mindset of these two characters and how important this is to them that it becomes thoroughly engrossing.

Any situation, big or small, can become something you can’t turn your eyes away from so long as you’ve given it good grounding on a character level. Paris, Texas does that to a tee. It’s similarly successful in using the wide variety of landscapes scattered across Texas to ensure no sense of visual repetition creeps into the road trip Travis engages on. Just on a personal note, it’s so interesting to see distinctly Texas fixtures creep into the background of the movie. Even if the characters and story of Paris, Texas weren’t interesting, seeing how this movie makes such good use of Texas as a backdrop would provide enough entertainment for me.

Of course, that’s not the only thing Paris, Texas has to offer. There’s Wim Wenders’ delivering some truly exceptional blocking. I especially love his intentionally crammed sense of spacing when he’s filming scenes set in Walt’s Los Angeles home. There’s also the way the script delivers so many emotional gut-punches throughout the movie, including in the fact that Travis begins Paris, Texas seen but not heard and ends the movie heard but not seen. Best of all in Paris, Texas, though, is its lead performance, which functions as a showcase for the gifts of Harry Dean Stanton as an actor.

Whether it’s Alien, Lucky, The Straight Story or The Avengers, Harry Dean Stanton had the ability to waltz onto the screen and immediately convey the sense that his characters had lived through everything. Stanton could speak volumes about a fictional character's life and all they’d endured just from their body language. This means the role of Travis, which is entirely dialogue-free early on, is a perfect vehicle for him. Under the direction of Wim Wenders, Stanton utilizes his best traits as a performer while also solidifying Travis as his own idiosyncratic creation. Texas has been in a lot of films, that’s for darn-tootin’ sure, but few of them could compare to the outstanding quality of Paris, Texas.


 

Project Power Goes From Hero to Zero

A drug is taking hold of the citizens of New Orleans. It’s called Power and this little yellow pill gives you quite the trip. For five minutes, you get a superpower. You don’t know what it is, it could be super-strength, it could shoot fire out of your hands, you could even just explode. Everybody wants this drug, including the three lead characters of Project Power. There’s Robin (Dominique Fishback), a High School dealer of Power who just wants enough money to take care of her Mom. Then there’s New Orleans Police Department officer Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose been given a top-secret mission to find the suppliers of Power. Finally, we have The Major (Jamie Foxx), a mysterious individual whose tracking down whoever’s in charge of the Power drug supply for his own personal reasons.

Project Power may star characters who can become invincible but its script is riddled with flaws. For starters, it’s weird how little of the actual premise takes advantage of its most unique concept, the idea of people being able to garner superpowers. The one interesting set-piece in Project Power, which concerns Shaver chasing down a bank robber with the ability to camouflage, suggests a way more imaginative production. The rest of Project Power concerns itself with shoot-outs and dock chases that could happen in any movie.

It doesn’t help that most of the superpowers, including the super-tough skin of Shaver or a bad guy who can protrude his bones, are rendered in a cheap fashion that reminded me of something you might see on a CW superhero show rather than a feature film. Then again, a villainous character who turns into a big CGI Hulk-like creation suggests that maybe it was a good idea to realize these superpowers in a grounded fashion. This character is rendered in truly garish CGI while his design kept making me think that Mr. Hyde from The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was making a guest appearance.

Whether the action in Project Power concerns superpowers or not, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman struggle in filming action scenes. This is epitomized by a bizarre decision to frame an extended one-take action sequence through a blurry glass surface that renders the whole scene impossible to look at. What we do get to see isn’t much better. Most of the fights in Project Power are what you’d expect from the worst episode of one of those Marvel/Netflix shows. People engaging in clumsy choreography in dimly-lit hallways that somebody tossed a yellow or orange tint over in post-production.

Beyond the action and use of superpowers, Project Power also has some truly baffling story decisions, including its inability to maintain a single villain for the audience to root against. Baddies just come and go without leaving much of an impact throughout Project Power, with the only one that comes close to leaving an impression is an abruptly-introduced adversary played by Amy Landecker. That one proved memorable only because I was shocked to see Amy Landecker just show up randomly in the third act of this clunky movie. Meanwhile, the choice to keep The Major’s motivations a secret for so long really puts up a barrier between him and the audience despite Jamie Foxx continuing to have charisma for days.

Foxx and the rest of the cast do what they can with the script, but there’s only so much water you can wring out of a towel that’s bone-dry. What Project Power lacks in interesting characters, though, it makes up for in ham-fisted social commentary. In case you missed that the Power pill is supposed to be a metaphor for any number of addictive pharmaceuticals, the camera lingers on pills by the bedside of Robin’s mom, Robin has a high school teacher who gives lectures on fetal alcohol syndrome and Frank Shaver says that he has to take matters into his own hands because “remember what happened the last time New Orleans waited for a bunch of guys in suits to do something?”

Project Power makes awkward gestures at real-world issues in its first act, never actually comments on them and then proceeds to abandon them entirely for the rest of the movie so it can do equally awkward action movie hijinks. It’s just one of the many reasons Project Power becomes super forgettable rather than super heroic.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Boys State Reflects The Hopes and Horrors of Modern Politics

 

Boys State is an annual event for High School Juniors that separates itself into Boy and Girl divisions. The goal of this event is to have the leaders of tomorrow form their own government, elect people into positions of power like governor and enact their own laws. Through this process, teenagers will have a better understanding of how the world of politics works. The documentary Boys State follows a 2018 Boys edition of this event held in Austin, Texas. Here, the various young men are divided into Federalist and Nationalist groups, with the two most prominently featured figures being Ben Feinstein (whose put into the Federalist party) and Steven Garza (whose put into the Nationalist party).

The contrasts between the two characters' political perspectives couldn’t be more different. Feinstein isn’t on-screen for five minutes before he starts talking about how fixations on gender and race are what’s really hurting America. Before the movies over, Feinstein embraces the idea that shady maneuvers are essential to any hopes of political victory. Meanwhile, Garza is the son of immigrants who walks into Boys Camp wearing a Beto For Senate T-shirt and talking about how Bernie Sanders inspired him to become fixated on politics. In his time running for governor, Garza hopes to break down barriers and bring unity between everybody, no matter where they lie on the political spectrum.

Garza’s quiet and self-reflective attitude is an exception among the behavior of the participants of Boys State. The vast majority of these attendees are a bunch of loud and rowdy white boys who look like they’re ten seconds away from shrieking out the lyrics to every Nickelback song they can think of. Having grown up in Texas surrounded by this kind of behavior all my life, the omnipresence of these “bro” antics had me gritting my teeth for the first-third of Boys State. The detached filmmaking style of Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine means that we’re just watching these toxic shenanigans without any extra commentary or insight. Yes, this behavior exists, do you have anything extra to add to the conversation beyond recognizing that?

In these moments, Boys State reminded me of the incel documentary TFW No GF in how its extended focus on destructive male behavior reminds one how there’s really no deeper meaning beneath these actions. It’s all just toxicity for the sake of toxicity. Thankfully, Boys State eventually focuses on more than High School boys loudly shooting and hollering. Once the actual election process of voting in a governor gets underway, there’s something for the plot to focus. This storyline actually did get me hooked, especially since Moss and McBaine have decided to film Boys State like a traditional narrative film rather than a documentary.

Boys State almost entirely eschews documentary fixtures like archival footage or voice-over narration. Even interview segments are kept to a minimum. The films visual presentation, from camerawork meant to emulate the point-of-view of characters like Garza, to the decision to frame Boy States in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, evokes the common visual style of scripted films. It’s a bold choice that does help to make the movie extra immersive in particularly suspenseful sequences. On the other hand, traditional documentary staples like narration and visual aids could have ensured that Boys State had a richer point to make about its titular event.

As it stands, Boys State doesn’t offer much fresh insight into modern politics. Armed with two teenagers that embody opposing political ideologies, Boys State just doesn’t have a whole lot to offer in terms of unpacking the modern political zeitgeist. At least its central electoral conflict gets more and more engaging as the film goes on and some of the camerawork shows real creativity. Oh, and Rene Otero, the leader of the Nationalist party, is a constant delight whenever he gets up on-stage. He’s great at delivering speeches and he manages to deliver some of the most memorable lines in all of Boys State.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Dora and the Lost City of Gold Does Just Enough Right

Why did we need a live-action Dora the Explorer movie? I suppose we don’t really need any movie, but in the case of Dora and the Lost City of Gold, what led to this preschool cartoon getting the live-action feature film treatment? Closest I can speculate is that Paramount Pictures wanted some of that money that Disney has gotten from giving animated classics like Beauty and the Beast the live-action treatment. Dora is nowhere near as beloved Aladdin, so it’s no wonder Dora’s total domestic box office haul couldn’t even compare to the opening weekend of most live-action Disney remakes. Pity since Dora and the Lost City of Gold is actually better than the vast majority of the films it’s imitating.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold starts itself off on a clever note by showing Dora and her cousin Diego romping through the forest with their talking animal friends. It’s a direct live-action recreation of the original cartoon…and then it’s revealed to all be in the imagination of the two kids. Dora may have a monkey companion named Boots, but he doesn’t talk or actually wear red boots. In reality, Dora lives with her adventurer parents (played by Michael Pena and Eva Longaria) and, after Diego moves away to the city, grows up without any interaction with other people her age. Now a teenager (and portrayed by Isabella Moner), Dora is reunited with Diego in Hollywood once her parents go off on an expedition for fabled lost city of gold.

Attending a traditional High School emphasizes how…different Dora is. She tends to look off and ask inquisitive questions to people who aren’t there. She’s got an endlessly optimistic attitude. She doesn’t have much of a filter. This puts her in direct conflict with the other kids at the school, including Diego. Whoever decided Dora should be a Buddy the Elf/Princess Giselle fish-out-of-water in a High School setting deserves an extra pay raise. It’s such an unexpected direction to take a Dora movie but it turns out to be a great way to make this character sustain a feature-length adventure. Dora’s now defined as the kind of person who clings to hope even in the middle of the most turbulent instances of teenage awkwardness.

Then Dora and the Lost City of Gold takes a gear-shifted about a third of the way into its runtime. Dora and three of her High School classmates get kidnapped and taken to Peru. Their kidnappers are evildoers who want to use Dora’s parents to find that ancient city of gold. Here, Dora and the Lost City of Gold becomes a kind of Indiana Jones Jr., which is also not a bad direction to take a Dora movie at all. Still, the second act of Dora turns out to be its weakest stretch. The plot has a tendency to get unexpectedly convoluted, complicated, like in the introduction of some ancient figures guarding the city.

Meanwhile, a little bit of the extremely wacky slapstick antics of supporting character Alejandro Gutiérrez (Eugenio Derbez) goes a long way. Still, for the most part, it all works as a serviceable adventure romp, one that benefits greatly from Isabella Moner’s endearing commitment to her chipper role. It’s also nice that bringing a kids cartoon to the big screen hasn’t inspired screenwriters Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson to embrace grating cynicism to appear “hip”. These two, along with director James Bobin, have no problem with making a sincere ode to friendship and those who feel like their outcasts.

None of it’s very original but for young kids, it’ll prove unique enough. For the adults watching Dora, there’s enough cleverness on display to make it a better-than-average kids movie, even if its most tired elements (instances of bathroom humor and a predictable plot twist involving a character being actual evil) keep it from being truly excepcional. You know what the best part of Dora and the Lost City of Gold is? Swiper! He gets the funniest moments of the movie, many of them enhanced by the fact that Benicio del Toro is lending his vocals to such a wacky creation. If the Dora franchise continues, I wouldn’t be opposed to Swiper: A Dora Story.


In Laman's Terms: How Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Changed My World



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

In the last days of July 2010, my father came up to me with an inquiry. Would I be interested in seeing a free advanced screening of a new movie? A lot has changed in the last ten years. My embracing of every possible chance to see a movie on the big screen has not. Of course I said yes. Of course, I had no idea exactly what movie we were seeing. All I knew was that it was something called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and that the poster featured some guy wailing away on a red guitar. At this young age, I had no prior exposure to either Pilgrim’s source material or any of the preceding works of Edgar Wright.

I went into Scott Pilgrim totally blind. I left seeing a whole new world of cinematic possibilities.

Now, I’ve been a fan of movies since I was a kid who mastered a VHS player before I mastered talking. That passion was taken to a new level over the course of 2009 and 2010 when I saw a slew of movies that changed my perception of what films could accomplish. In this timespan, I managed to watch both Scott Pilgrim and Gremlins 2: The New Batch over a single three-week period. Both managed to blow my mind in a similar manner by demonstrating how you could use meta-humor to humorously challenge the traditional form of a movie. Jokes in these motion pictures were not just limited to lines exchanged between the characters. They extended into elaborate gags like gremlins breaking into a projector booth.

In the case of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which turns ten years old tomorrow), this feat was accomplished by creating a world that never even tries to evoke naturalism. Scott Pilgrim is a universe where characters can reach for 1-UP’s, where a ringing telephone emits a long string of on-screen text reading “Rrrrrriiiinnnnnggg” and where a conversation between Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) and Wallace (Kieran Culkin) takes on the rhythms of a comedic exchange on a sitcom, complete with an accompanying laugh track. Perhaps my favorite example of Pilgrim’s unpredictable comedy is how one of the evil exes is taken down by the sudden presence of the Vegan Police. That old Hollywood cliché.

Much like in Gremlins 2, Scott Pilgrim creates a world where anything and everything can happen when it comes to jokes. In Gremlins 2, that means Gremlins can turn into Tony Randall impersonators. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, that means Vegan Police can show up at random to defeat adversaries. In the process of embracing this type of comedy, Scott Pilgrim creates a barrage of jokes and visuals that could only exist in this movie.

This includes the nifty feature of Scott Pilgrim characters being accompanied by on-screen text emphasizing their motions or emotions. It’s a shame Pilgrim and Into the Spider-Verse are the rare films to utilize the comedic possibilities of the kind of on-screen text comics use constantly. Meanwhile, Bill Hader’s recurring bits of faux-dramatic narration are incredibly humorous. I’m particularly partial to a scene where he divulges the awkward truth about Scott’s recent break-up. These lines play directly against Pilgrim constantly trying to downplay the harshness of the split, which makes for great comedic juxtaposition.

This style of humor is enhanced by the trademark rapid-fire editing you find in Edgar Wright movies. Thanks to editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World runs like a road-runner who just drank ten cans of Red Bull. Back when I first saw Pilgrim, this style of editing was a revelation to my brain. Films can be edited like this?!? They can move at this speed? Ten years of exposure to all kinds of editing styles later, Pilgrim’s editing still manages to impress me, especially in how it is used to accentuate the timing of several gags. Plus, this rapid-fire aesthetic conveys a sense of excitement over this fictitious world on the part of Wright and company. It’s like they’re so excited to explore the world of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that they’ve gotta move at a high level of speed to scope out every inch of it.

That excitement proves just as infectious in 2020 as it did for wide-eyed Douglas Laman in 2020. Of course, not everything in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World holds up as well as the editing ten years later, though most of the shortcomings emerge as quibbles. Most notably, the ending for Pilgrim feels wrong. Scott Pilgrim being an unlikeable protagonist is something the film is clearly aware of, hence why his “evil” doppelganger Nega Scott is actually really chill. However, after a film that’s about deconstructing Pilgrim’s worst tendencies and giving him “the power of self-respect”, he should end the film finding solace in himself and further self-growth, not in the arms of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Having the two walk off into the sunset is a cookie-cutter resolution to a film that otherwise

It’s also discouraging how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has cultivated an online fanbase that idolizes the titular character rather than recognizes him as a flawed individual. It’s like how so many Breaking Bad fans view Skyler, not Walter White, as that shows villain. In both cases, people have latched onto a white male protagonist as a straight-laced hero figure rather than as the complex person he was intended to be. It’s a reminder of how people who love a piece of pop culture can also fundamentally misunderstand it. It’s also another reminder of how, if we must tell more stories about toxic dudes, they need to be told through an exclusively female lens, like this year’s excellent The Assistant.

But long before that fanbase emerged, there was just me and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Walking out of my advanced screening, a film I had previously zero knowledge of was now all my brain could think about. A movie whose thoroughly unique sensibilities helped to reshape how I viewed film as an artform and put me on the road that would eventually lead me to even more groundbreaking cinema from around the world. Ten years after it left an unforgettable mark on me, I’m still totally in lesbians with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.