Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Is First-Rate Sci-Fi Filmmaking

It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when sci-fi movies featuring aliens and human beings crossing paths were not common in mainstream American cinema. In drive-in B-movies, the kind directed by Ed Wood, they were plentiful. But it was rare to see these type of movies get major budgets and the polish of professional filmmaking. This makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind the proto-model for an entire strain of American cinema. Everything from Independence Day to Arrival to The Avengers owes a tip of the hat to Steven Spielberg's 1977 feature. While being the originator of big-budget alien tales means Close Encounters is a simpler story (almost a fable, really) compared to the films it would inspire, it still packs a wallop when being viewed in 2020.

In the mold of fellow Spielberg movies Jurassic Park and Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays things close to the chest as it begins. The word alien isn't even uttered at first. We just know government officials, including Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), are curious about peculiar occurrences like the surprise reappearance of fighter jets from the 1940s. However, as the viewer is introduced to protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), it soon becomes apparent that something otherworldly is happening here. Aliens have come to Earth and Roy, along with a select few other human beings, are obsessed with finding out more about these extra-terrestrials.

Close Encounters is a movie that's all about intrigue. The appearance of the aliens isn't the only thing Spielberg's screenplay keeps concealed. For much of the runtime, Neary's erratic behavior (as well as the structure he's fixated on building) is kept mysterious. There isn't just an air of uncertainty around here, Close Encounters is practically drowning in the unexplained. Playing things close to the chest allows Spielberg, as a filmmaker, to have some real fun in constantly pulling the rug out from under the viewer. Just look at a magnificent early shot where a pair of headlights pull up behind Neary's car...only to then start floating up into the air, revealing that those lights belong to a spaceship.

In this scene, we see how Spielberg merges the unexplained with a sense of wonder. Even in its most intense moments, Close Encounters isn't here to scare viewers. Even a shot of unconscious farm animals lying on the ground is later revealed to be the result of animals being sprayed with temporary sleeping gas. Spielberg wants to put you on the edge of your seat, not curled up in fear. It's like the antithesis to his later film, War of the Worlds. That 2005 alien invasion movie reflected a post-9/11 world where all you could do in the face of tragedies is run. With Close Encounters, this is a post-space race movie full of hope that humanity's future lies in the stars.

This sense of hope is best exemplified in an extended climax that eschews any fireworks or explosions for simple communication between two different species. Dialogue itself is largely absent here as both the viewer and in-movie characters simply soak in the majesty of the gigantic alien spaceship. Said spaceship is brought to life through practical effects work that still dazzles in 2020. The level of detail and tangibility on the model used for the spaceship is truly impressive. In another remarkable feat of visual effects work, even the aliens themselves, in their brief screentime, still look good. On a lighter note, I had to laugh at a moment where the aliens play the Jaws theme on their spaceship. Referencing your own movies, what a flex Spielberg! 

Are the human characters in Close Encounters as interesting as the visual effects and atmosphere? Not quite, which is what keeps this one from hitting the heights of the very best Spielberg blockbusters, like Jurassic Park. But that's really not a bad thing considering none of the human characters are annoying and Close Encounters is trying to be more of an atmospheric exercise compared to most Spielberg blockbusters. The primary purpose of characters like Jillian Guller (Melinda Dillon) is to add to the sense of awe in Close Encounters and they perform that function nicely. 43 years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind premiered, movies with alien encounters are everywhere. But there's still something immensely special about this classic Spielberg movie. Close Encounters set the bar so high for future sci-fi adventure yarns and it's one few movies have been able to meet.

In Laman's Terms: Of Goosebumps and Other Horror "Gateway Drugs"

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!

I imagine this was a common experience for many who grew up in my generation. You’re browsing the kids section of your local bookstore. Whether it was a Barnes & Noble or a Half-Price Books, you were bound to eventually stumble upon a series of book covers something that stood out against the Hardy Boys and Harry Potter books. How could they not? With that oozing green font, titles straight out of an old-timey serial and those eye-catching illustrations! Oh, those illustrations, which featured everything from a masked man wielding an axe to a polaroid picture of a bunch of skeletons barbequing.

Those Goosebumps book covers always captured my eye. There really wasn’t anything else like them in the children’s book sections. What other book series had the audacity to name their entries “Say Cheese and Die!” or “Monster Blood”? To clutch a Goosebumps book as an eight-year-old was to feel like you had stumbled onto something your parents might not want you to read. After all, death, blood, all that stuff was supposed to be off-limits! Much like Dav Pilkey’s use of bathroom humor in the Captain Underpants books, R.L. Stine used hallmarks of horror storytelling as a hook to get kids to pick up a book.

Goosebumps wasn’t just good for endorsing literacy. It’s also a classic example of how great children’s horror can be as a gateway drug to the larger world of horror. We’ve all gotta start somewhere with our scary entertainment. For one generation, the works of R.L. Stine were the stepping stones into the genre. For another generation, perhaps it was those chilling Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Modern-day kids, meanwhile, have a wealth of options, including works penned by the likes of Neil Gaiman, to give them their first taste of eerie entertainment. The phenomenon of kid’s horror is not just limited to eye-catching Goosebumps book covers!

Kids entertainment has always been populated by moments meant to terrify rather than coddle children. Just look at the earliest animated Disney movies, particularly Pinocchio. That scene of Lampwick painfully turning into a donkey is as disturbing as anything in your average Tobe Hooper movie.  Heck, going back even further, the days of Grimm's Fairy Tales made sure that children heard stories that were as terrifying as they were enchanting. Death, decay, shoving witches into ovens, all par for the course for some of the earliest kids entertainment. Scary kids stuff is more of the norm, rather than an anomaly, in the world of youth-oriented entertainment.

That omnipresence doesn't just produce fun entertainment, it can even be helpful. In her piece The Importance of Scary Movies for Children for The Mary Sue, author Princess Weekes comments on the essentiality of exposing kids to scarier material:

Horror—like any genre done well, really—is one that usually teaches something about the world, and in stories made for children, those tales are meant to teach moral lessons and build resilience in young people.

It's true, exposing these kinds of stories to kids can be useful in preparing them for reality. It isn't just adult-skewing horror movies like Get Out that can reflect the real world. Family-friendly entries in the genre can do the same thing. Just look at how The Nightmare Before Christmas has been widely and wisely interpreted as a cautionary tale about the dangers of cultural appropriation. But maybe the best virtue of all in kid-friendly horror fare is something oh so simple: it exposes people at a young and impressionable age to the wonderful world of horror storytelling. 

This is a domain of storytelling rich with exciting, scary, and thought-provoking (sometimes all at once!) tales. It's so lovely to think of people getting to have a positive association with the genre from the get-go, even if they don't explicitly partake in it. From my own personal experience, I can say that, as a lifelong scaredy-cat, I was always too petrified to watch much kid-friendly horror. Even Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island put nightmares in my head, I wasn't gonna go near Gremlins or The Goonies. But that just made horror fare a kind of forbidden fruit I'd stare at when shopping at book or video stores. 

Covers to Goosebumps books or horror movie VHS covers beckoned me I was young. Just holding these items in my hands gave me a rush, like I was doing something I was forbidden to do. Maybe I didn't get to have that experience of sneaking in a viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street while my parents were asleep. But horror stuff still left a positive impression on my adolescent mind. With even more kid-friendly horror stuff being made than ever before, it's nice to think that today's youth will have their own entry-way points into this genre like Goosebumps covers were for me. Everyone likes a good scare, that's universal. But where we all start with our scares, that's so delightfully unique.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Trolls World Tour Has Creative Visuals But Banal Songs

Despite the large number of different places that the principal players of Trolls World Tour travel to, not once does this animated sequel head to Nilbog. A shame. However, Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake) still travel to a variety of newly revealed domains, each home to Trolls who follow a specific type of music. Rock, funk, techno, classical, they’ve each got their own land. However, they’re all threatened by rock Troll Barb (Rachel Bloom). She wants to pull a Thanos by gathering each realms strings and use them to turn everyone into rock Trolls.

The quest to stop Barb allows Trolls World Tour to indulge in the one major bright spot of this franchise: memorable animation. The world of Trolls was already one with cotton balls and grounds made up of fabric with visible sewing stitches. Now, a variety of new domains allow Director Walt Dohrn to take the distinct design style to fresh places. The home of classical Trolls, for example, is populated by clouds and golden coloring. Meanwhile, the Techno Trolls live in an underwater glow-in-the-Dark wonderland.

Every other scene, Trolls World Tour breaks out some new locale that provides plenty of eye candy. If the whole movie was just a silent tour of these various lands, it‘d be incredible. Unfortunately, Trolls World Tour is very much trying to be a traditional animated kids movie. That means the pretty sets are backdrops to banal jokes and a barrage of predictable story turns. For a movie that takes a brief detour into visual psychedelia, Trolls World Tour is disappointingly content to rigidly go through the motions on a storytelling level.

Worst of all, though, is the music. I’m convinced both Trolls movies would be vastly improved if their various musical numbers were original creations. Alas, Trolls World Tour, like it’s predecessor, opts for gratingly auto-tuned renditions of Top 40 hits that always get needledropped in movies. If we’re going to make this a jukebox musical, couldn’t there be some imagination in the song choices? I'm half-surprised we didn't get some Trolls belting out a cover of Fortunate Son! It’s baffling to hear the likes of Anthony Ramos and Rachel Bloom using their vocals to deliver tired covers of One More Time and Crazy Train.

The animation in Trolls World Tour evokes Yellow Submarine but its soundtrack is one step above your average Kidz Bop album. Pity the poor parents whose small children make them listen to these ditties on repeat. Meanwhile, the comedy in Trolls World Tour fares a bit better than the songs. A number of gags tend to take advantage of the absurdist nature of the whole universe and the most oddball jokes tend to be the ones that work best. 

Ditto anytime Trolls engages in some dark humor (like a sight gag involving a bunch of cows walking into an eatery to get turned into burgers), I found myself cackling. What can I say? I’m a sucker for dark stuff happening to cutesy characters. I yam what I yam! Looking over it as a whole, there’s just enough in Trolls World Tour to make it an improvement over its predecessor and relatively harmless as far as kids fare goes. However, when the inevitable Trolls 3 happens, can the same level of confidence apparent in the animation be applied to the music? My heart yearns for these Trolls movies to do actual musical numbers and not the animated equivalent to Carpool Karaoke.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Humanity of The Incarcerated Is Reaffirmed Through The Documentary Time

A large chunk of the Garrett Bradley documentary Time is comprised of old home video footage of the Richardson family. Led by mother Sibil Fox Richardson and father Rob Richardson, the Richardsons lead a happy life. Their kids are bundles of happy energy. Sibil and Rob are affectionate with one another. With two more kids on the way, the Richardson family circa. 1996 appears destined for a blissful life. However, the family is suffering from financial woes. There's seemingly no way out of their problems without drastic measures. Rob and Sibil proceed to engage in armed robbery of a credit union, for which they're both arrested. 

Sibil spends a handful of years in prison while Rob is sentenced to 60 years behind bars. Once she's out of jail, Sibil totally transforms her life. Now, her entire existence revolves around not only trying to get her husband an early release but raising awareness of America's incarceration problem. She goes around as a public speaker talking about how the American prison system is meant to keep Black men in chains rather than its supposed mission of "reforming" people. Bradley's documentary cuts back-and-forth between home video footage of the past and newly captured footage of the present. In those glimpses into the past, we see the Richardson family expressing the kind of vibrant humanity that the American prison-industrial complex erases when it claims a person like Rob. He becomes a number, not the person seen in these home video tapes.

To watch Time is watch America's past, the present and terrifying future all at once. Rob is not an anomaly in this country. Just a few weeks ago, a verdict came down in regard to the death of Breonna Taylor that punished a police officer for putting bullets into walls rather than a human being. Once again, the humanity of a Black person is erased by systems that are supposedly designed to keep people safe. Within Time, we see the toll this systemically-ingrained corruption has on everyday people. But we also get to see how the Richardson family is responding to these horrors. Time lets the individual members of the Richardson family speak for themselves on how the imprisonment of Rob has inspired them to challenge the societal status quo.

This is especially true for Sibil, who has spent well over a decade not only writing books and partaking in speaking engagements, she's also been working tirelessly for her husband's early release from prison. That particular goal informs the strongest scene in all of Time, which chronicles Sibil getting off the phone with an unhelpful figure. Finding herself at another dead, she murmurs to herself "Success is the best revenge." As she keeps repeating the phrase, she undergoes a whole array of emotions portrayed in a visceral manner. In the span of a single shot, she expresses simultaneous frustration, weariness, determination, and sorrow over this entire situation. There's such a rawness to this moment that makes Sibil's struggles so palpable.

Like all of the 1990's home video footage of the Richardson family, this moment of vulnerability from Sibil in Time radiates vigorous humanity. This quality is able to shine through so brightly, in part, due to Bradley's restrained but thoughtful approach in directing this documentary. She opts not to inundate the movie with ham-fisted narration or visual aids. Heck, even interviews with the camera (a staple of many documentaries) are kept to a minimum. Instead, Bradley keeps things simple and naturalistic. Only the choice to film everything in a monochromatic hue (so as to create consistency with the black-and-white home video footage) deviates from the real world. Otherwise, Time opts for such authenticity that, frequently, the camera is observing events and people that seem totally oblivious to the presence of a documentary crew. 

Time engages in a style of filmmaking that evokes Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA in how it makes the viewer feel like they're in the same room as these real-life people. It's not like we're watching a film, we're observing reality as it unfolds. This subdued approach to filmmaking extends to the limited amount of people we meet throughout Time. Bradley's camera only chronicles the Richardson family. Keeping the scope so limited allows us the opportunity to get so close to each of the people most impacted by Rob's incarceration. These immersive and richly human qualities of Time make it impossible not to become emotionally invested in this harrowing story. Garrett Bradley's work here lays bare the lives torn apart by the American prison system. Time is as well-crafted as it is tragically relevant.

Friday, September 25, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights Part Two Is...ALIVE!

Everyone grab some popcorn, it's horror movie time!

Just a real quick but exciting announcement here...

Last October, I did a fun series where I watched 13 iconic horror movies for the first time and then reviewed them as part of a series called 13 Days of First-Time Frights. I was hoping to do it again this year but my schedule has gotten a lot busier in just a year's time. Starting up Graduate School, plus my additional writing obligations to websites like Looper and Comic Book Resources, are all exciting prospects, but they do, naturally, take up time. Would I have room in my schedule for another edition fo 13 Days of First-Time Frights?

Turns out, yes, I should be able to squeeze these movies in! If an emergency comes up and/or my workload becomes too intense, I will give myself an out for having to drop this series or end it short of 13 entries. However, at the moment, the scariest month of the year (though in 2020, every month is terrifying) should also be home to 13 reviews of horror movies I watched for the first time!

Last year, reviews fell on the Tuesday and Thursday of each week save for the last two weeks, which also saw reviews dropping on Wednesday. This year, a similar schedule will be enacted, though with an two Wednesday reviews and also one Friday review the day before Halloween. 

Here are the days 13 Days of First-Time Frights reviews should drop:

October 1

October 6

October 8

October 13

October 14

October 15

October 20

October 21

October 22

October 27

October 28

October 29

October 30

To give myself some extra flexibility, I won't assign which movies will be covered on which dates when this far ahead. However, I do have the 13 movies I'll be watching and reviewing for this list all selected out. They are:

Blade II

Midnight Meat Train

The Innocents

The Crazies

An American Werewolf in London

The Orphanage

The Love Witch

The Blob

28 Days Later

Let Me In

Tigers Are Not Afraid


Eyes Without a Face

I'm very excited to continue this series and I hope you'll all join me in my newest descent into horror!

Oh hey, do you wanna help combat real-life horrors like people being imprisoned for protesting a broken justice system? How about contributing to the Louisville Community Bail Fund

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Unpregnant Wraps a Unique Story In Familiar Packaging

Unpregnant protagonist Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) has a problem. Well, more like a pressing issue. She's pregnant. She's already settled on having an abortion but she lives in Missouri. She can't do the procedure here without getting her parents' permission first. Her ultra-religious Mom is not gonna go for that. So, in an attempt to make sure as few people know about this as possible, Veronica turns to her former best friend, Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) for help in getting to Albuquerque, New Mexico so that she can get the abortion on her own. Bailey agrees to help and the two are off. Veronica's carefully plotted every moment of this expedition. However, given that Unpregnant is a road trip movie, a whole bunch of complications (plus unresolved issues between Veronica and Bailey) are bound to intrude on Veronica's plans.

Based on a young-adult novel by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendricks, Unpregnant has a number of hallmarks of this YA-novel movie adaptations (see also: The Fault In Our Stars, Love, Simon). Antagonists are painted in such broad strokes that nobody will have any problem guessing who the baddies are. Dialogue tends to err on the side of large pronounced statements that probably looked better in the pages of a novel than being said by human beings. Westerns have High Noon showdowns. Rom-com's have climactic reunions at airports. Marvel Cinematic Universe movies creepily erase gay people. Every genre has staples and Unpregnant doesn't escape some of the hallmarks of the YA-novel movie adaptation.

While Unpregnant is familiar in key respects, that doesn't make it a bad movie at all. In fact, it feels like a conscious choice on the part of Unpregnant's assorted screenwriters (which include director Rachel Lee Goldberg) to nestle in some bolder storytelling traits into a familiar package. After all, feature films of any kind about abortion are still scarce. The ones we do have tend to be grim dramas like Vera Drake and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Unpregnant's bubbly-tone and heavy-dose of modern pop culture references are far from groundbreaking in the domain of teen-oriented YA novel film adaptations. 

However, it is unique to see those crowdpleaser elements fused together with a compassionate take on the topic of abortion. In other words, the packaging may be familiar, but the contents inside are less so. For instance, from the get-go, Veronica knows what she wants to do in regards to her pregnancy. Time isn't wasted on her being indecisive, she knows she wants an abortion and the movie never demonizes her for it. On the contrary, the prospect of her going down this route is shown as a positive extension of Veronica finally allowing herself to be, well, herself rather than a model portrait of other people's expectations.

The writing on Veronica as a character as a whole can get erratic. In particular, early scenes framing her as a super-literal quasi-Data figure (she goes on a tear at one point about the lyrics to The Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go make no sense) feel totally at odds with her personality in the rest of the movie. However, the script's handling of Veronica's abortion-related decisions is certainly one of its strongest suits. This is where the overt style of dialogue actually comes in handy, as it allows for moments like Rachel's extended diatribe on how ridiculous medical double standards are when it comes to abortions. This type of writing allows us to get inside Veronica's head, creating some of the most thoughtful moments of Unpregnant in the process.

The role is also another chance for Haley Lu Richardson to shine as a performer. Unpregnant's pronounced nature is a far cry from the subdued atmosphere of Richardson's past films, like Columbus. However, Richardson proves more than adept in adjusting to the specific atmosphere of Unpregnant. She's also got solid chemistry with co-lead Barbie Ferrera. They don't prove to be a road trip movie duo for the ages, but they're a fine pair to watch get into antics for 100 minutes. The novelty of seeing a unique story told in a familiar manner has its virtues and drawbacks. For the most part, though, Unpregnant proves an agreeable watch. Plus, between this and An American Pickle, I appreciate that HBO Max's original movies actually look like movies! Yay for streaming-exclusive fare that actually looks cinematic! 

It's No Mystery Why Enola Holmes Is Such a Charming Feature

What the Harley Quinn TV show is to the Batman mythos, Enola Holmes is to the Sherlock Holmes mythos. Granted, Enola Holmes isn't as explicitly R-rated as Harley Quinn. However, neither projects are really spoofs of the famous universes they inhabit. Iconic characters like Superman and Sherlock Holmes both act like their traditional selves in each project. Additionally, Harley Quinn and Enola Holmes can function just fine as traditional superhero and detective yarns, respectively.  The approach for both projects is more interesting than just a "too-cool-for-school" lampooning. Both take place inside a male-dominated property and proceed to ask "What's it like from a woman's perspective here?" 

Enola Holmes gets a lot of mileage out of asking that question about the world of Sherlock Holmes. The titular character is the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes and is played by Millie Bobby Brown. While her brothers Sherlock and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) have been off in the city, Enola and her Mom Eudoria (Helena Bonham-Carter) have been living a fine life in their little countryside home. Eudoria has taught her daughter everything from science to fencing as well as the necessity of a woman establishing her own identity. When Eudoria suddenly vanishes, so too does Enola's freedom. Mycroft is insistent that Enola be sent off to an Academy to become a "proper lady".

Enola proceeds to avert that proposal, instead setting off all on her own to find her Mom. Along the way, she makes the acquaintance of Tewkesberry (Louis Partridge), a lad hailing from a rich family who is being chased down by the mysterious but violent Linthorn (Burn Gornam). While figuring out why Tewkesberry is being hunted down and what happened to her Mom, Jack Thorne's screenplay for Enola Holmes doesn't shy away from working as an actual mystery. The clues are hiding in plain sight, they pay off in a satisfying fashion, and the inevitable surprises feel earned rather than just a strained attempt to create suspense. 

It's always a treat to see something aimed at kids that isn't afraid to believe kids deserve coherent stories too. Similarly, it's nice that Enola Holmes' adventures don't ever feel like they're being diluted down for youngsters. Linthorn especially is a vicious baddie who isn't afraid to interrogate Enola by way of jamming her head into buckets of water for prolonged periods of time. These flashes of darkness make Enola's wins actually register as impactful. As Neil Gaiman once said, "In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph." In Enola Holmes, viewers get those vital moments of dread but also those equally important moments of victory.

On the downside viewers also get in Enola Holmes a laggy second-act that too often functions as just setting up pieces for the big finale rather than as entertaining storytelling on its own merits. Additionally, the bolder visual tendencies of director Harry Bradbeer's run up against recurring instances of unimaginative camerawork in the more low-key dialogue-heavy sequences. Keeping Enola Holmes engaging enough even through its most flawed patches is lead actress Millie Bobby Brown, who truly comes alive in her feature film lead role. Delightfully, Brown has opted for a part that's basically as far away from her breakthrough role of Eleven in Stranger Things as you could possibly get.

Brown's been known to most audiences as a quiet figure whose default speaking mode is through whispers. In Enola Holmes, Brown's charisma is on full display in her extended asides to the audience and her sharp handling of verbal comedy. Brown proves delightful enough portraying Enola Holmes that she's reason enough to give the whole movie a watch. The rest of Enola Holmes isn't quite as memorable as Brown's lead performance but it still proves to be a thoroughly charming watch. Most impressively is the fact that I could see Enola Holmes working just as well for Arthur Conan Doyle aficionados as it will for younger newcomers. Chalk that up to how, like that Harley Quinn TV show, Enola Holmes knows how to respect the past while finding fresh new stories to tell. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

In Laman's Terms: How Legend of the Guardians Became Zack Snyder's Best Movie

Zack Snyder...making a kids cartoon?

It sounds like the set-up for some Saturday Night Live sketch. But it really happened. Fresh off 300 and Watchmen, Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder united forces again. Like their first two efforts, they would be adapting a piece of literature into a feature. Whereas prior source material for Snyder movies had been full of fascism and blue genitals, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (which turns ten years old tomorrow) would be based on the decidedly youth-oriented Guardians of Ga'Hoole books. 

To best illustrate how much of a departure Guardians was from normal Snyder fare, let's compare needle drops. Watchmen used Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, Legend of the Guardians used an original ditty by Owl City. Can you imagine Owl City fitting into any other Snyder feature?

If you're not familiar with your Ga'Hoole lore, well, the books, and Snyder's film adaptation, told the stories lucky hero Soren (Jim Sturgess). Raised on tales of the legendary warriors of Ga'Hoole, Soren must team up with a ragtag group of other owls to seek out these mythical warriors. This isn't just a fanboy excursion for Soren, pressing matters call for the return of the Owls of Ga'Hoole. to stop a plan being carried out by evil Owls known as the Pure Ones. These abysmal avians are led by Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton) and Nyra (Helen Mirren). Numerous battle sequences of armor-clad owls just ramming into each other mid-flight ensue. 

Snyder took on the project in April 2008, just thirteen months after 300 took the world by storm. Clearly, Warner Bros. didn't want to let this filmmaker go, especially when they could pair him with behind-the-scenes talent from another recent WB hit. April 2008 was shortly after Happy Feet, an animated movie from Australian animation house Animal Logic, made oodles of money for the studio. Animal Logic's next project? The animation for Legend of the Guardians

It's doubtful any kids out there were thinking Happy Feet would be better with more slow-motion and jars of urine. However, it's easy to see a bunch of WB executives getting giddy over the prospect of fusing together the makers of 300 and Happy Feet to create a new kids movie hit.

That explains why the studio endorsed Snyder stepping way outside his wheelhouse. But why did Snyder take on the project? A March 2010 Collider interview with Zack and Deborah Snyder sheds some light on this matter. There's an offhand mention of Zack wanting to do a movie his kids could see while Zack Snyder further explains that: 

"I do love Joseph Campbell archetype stories and I felt like Soren…you have this young owl who like evil comes to his forest…to his hollow and then he and his band of friends have to go and find out whether these guardians are real and get them to fight this evil. It’s the kind of thing, I know it sounds in some ways like oh, it’s really straight forward, but those are the great, to me that’s the kind of thing I’m like oh that’s cool. I can make that awesome because I think that it’s such classic story. It’s such a mythic story in that way. So that’s what really attracted me to it to be honest"

Snyder's fixation on the Campbellian myths has been apparent throughout his career, including in leading him to tackle Legend of the Guardians. Though a departure from his other works, Snyder actually flourished in the confines of a fully computer-animated kids movie. Though more creatively restricted than his other directorial efforts, having to make something that was fit for children actually helped Snyder out immensely as a filmmaker. A number of trademark details in Snyder's work were either minimized or outright erased, including... 

Pretense of Subversion

Snyder's love of Joseph Campbell individcates he knows his classical myths. By proxy, he's aware of traditional storytelling archetypes, techniques, all the stuff we see in conventional escapist material. In many of his works, Snyder is clearly intending to subvert the norms of these stories to create something subversive. This includes his approaches to adapting Watchmen as well as DC Extended Universe titles Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, all of which intended to wrap dirty reality around the traditionally upbeat concept of superheroes. His 2011 directorial effort Sucker Punch is the apotheosis of this. Snyder's intent for Sucker Punch entails examining how men perceive & dehumanize women in genre fiction. After establishing the norms, he then wants to subvert them by giving the women of Sucker Punch their own story where they aim to secure their freedom.

Unfortunately, these lofty aspirations get totally lost in Snyder's execution of these stories for a variety of reasons. For one thing, he doesn't have much thoughtful commentary to offer on traditional archetypes beyond "What if they were gritty?" The other problem is the discernible lack of humanity in Snyder's work. The characters in his films are just tools to blow stuff up, they're never treated as humans we can engage with. This makes something like Sucker Punch a disaster. 

Rather than humanizing women, Sucker Punch opts to just objectify them. Female characters are given tired sexual assault and abuse informed backstories, names limited to "Babydoll" and ogles these individuals in scantily-clad outfits. Sucker Punch is engaging in the same kind of dehumanizing behavior it opts to subvert. It's a microcosm of how Snyder's works tend to get lost reveling in the very material they're supposed to be subverting. Similarly, Snyder's films try to aim for a sense of maturity that ends up just being a bunch of washed-out colors and regressive stereotypes. 

With Legend of the Guardians, Snyder isn't looking to rewrite the book, make Soren a commentary on Young-Adult novel protagonists or even make the film "adult". In fact, the films lead character, Soren, is someone who loves the old-fashion stories about noble owl warriors that his dad tells him. Meanwhile, his grumpy brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) thinks those stories are simply nonsense for children. Interestingly, Kludd represents the jaded approach to classical storytelling that seeps into other Snyder works. He's the kind of fellow who might tell Clark Kent "It's not 1939 anymore!" Meanwhile, Soren is a more wholesome and upbeat individual who believes in the power of traditional stories. 

Whereas Snyder's works usually favor subversion over all else, traditional storytelling is the good guy in Legend of the Guardians. Meanwhile, those like Kludd who have a more cynical approach to the same concept, they're the villains. It's a sharp reversal of who normally gets coded "good" and "bad" in Snyder's works. The supporting characters surrounding Soren and Kludd are similarly broadly-defined archetypes boiled down to "The Sage", "The Comic Relief", etc. This approach has its drawbacks, for sure, like how you can guess specific plot beats in Legend of the Guardians long before they appear. However, committing to a non-cynical approach means Guardians is a much less confusing enterprise than other Snyder works. 

Without being torn between the subversive and the commercial, Legend of the Guardians can allow viewers to soak in its gorgeous visuals. And speaking of visuals...

Snyder's Visual Style Was Made For Animation

Rather than soak Legend of the Guardians in darkness like his other films, Snyder's brought a gorgeous visual sensibility thriving on a varied color scheme. These owls fly seemingly exclusively at sunrise or sunset, allowing a cavalcade of orange and pink hues to litter the sky. In interior scenes set inside trees, beams of light pour in through cracks in the bark. It all looks so radiant and warm, particualrly the hideaway camp for the various titular Guardians of Ga'Hoole. Their domain is so inviting looking, you can understand why Soren would be so enamored with it.

Meanwhile, Snyder's grandiose style of framing and blocking works so well in a fully-digital environment. The same slow-motion and explosion heavy cues that defined Snyder's live-action set pieces are still around in Legend of the Guardians. However, no longer constrained by the rules of reality that come from working with live-action people, the sky is the limit for Snyder's imagination, which leads to an abundance of memorable images. Soren can soar through a storm while the camera slows down enough for us to observe every droplet hitting his feathers. Other times, the camera can swoop around and make one feel like they're flying alongside the owls during an intense chase scene.

Gritty realism has defined so much of Snyder's work. For Legend of the Guardians, that has been put to rest. He embraces the unique visual opportunities afforded by these airborne characters and the results create some truly thrilling action sequences. To boot, Snyder's commitment to making genuinely involving action makes Legend of the Guardians a welcome departure from other computer-animated kids movies. Your usual Illumination or Blue Sky film can't let a moment go by without some fart joke interrupting the tone of a scene. For Guardians, Snyder has the confidence to let the gorgeous visuals just speak for themselves without any comedy undercutting the mood.

Snyder's Darkness Works Better In Small Doses

It turns out that Snyder's trademark darkness works better as a garnish used in bursts throughout Legend of the Guardians. Wall-to-wall misery in a live-action 3-hour superhero blockbuster can be exhausting. But as films like The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal have demonstrated, darkness can fit right at home in family-friendly fantasy fare. Recurring doses of darkness can make these worlds feel tangibly real and that's just what Legend of the Guardians does. Metal Beak and his army actually feel like a threat while once can understand how older owl warriors like Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) got their weariness.

Best of all, the entertaining dissonance between cutesy CGI owls and the darker moments of Legend of the Guardians manages to sustain a whole movie. Watching Batman be all grim n' dark, where's the novelty in that? But watching a bunch of animals who look like they could slip into a Happy Feet spin-off encounter hypnotized child slaves, stab their foes to death or watch a villain scream in agony as he's dragged away by bats, that's a lot more entertaining and unique. Watching this kind of dark stuff slip into a kids movie has a genuinely exciting dangerous quality to it whereas the rampant darkness in Snyder's R-rated works just feels perfunctory.

Across his body of work, Zack Snyder has procured a large fanbase that clearly adores his works while establishing a distinct visual style that's proven incredibly influential on the film idnustry. By and large, his movies just aren't for me. But more power to those who enjoy them. Meanwhile, even someone like myself whose largely cold on Snyder's work can appreciate Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole as an enjoyably offbeat entry in Snyder's canon. A strong departure from not just Snyder's other films but also the norms for theatrical American animated movies, Legend of the Guardians is very much worth giving a hoot about.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Spies in Disguise is a Better than Average Blue Sky Studios Feature

Blue Sky Studios. Remember the days when they were third in the world of American animation? Back in the 2000s, when Disney Animation was in a rut and Illumination hadn't come out yet. A lack of competition and being one of the first studios producing computer-animated films served Blue Sky well. Didn't hurt that those Ice Age movies kept on making boatloads of cash. But as more animation studios have entered the playing field, Blue Sky sticking to its rigidly formulaic fare has led to it falling far behind the likes of Illumination, Sony Pictures Animation, and a revived Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Released last Christmas, Spies in Disguise did nothing to reverse the studios' box office rut. However, it does demonstrate a more confident artistic spirit than prior Blue Sky productions like Ferdinand and Epic. The story for Spies in Disguise concerns a master spy named Lance Sterling (Will Smith). He's smooth, he's cunning, he's the perfect spy. But he's been compromised in the field. A doppelganger is wandering around the world with his face and making it look like Sterling is responsible for a series of crimes. Now on the run for the very American intelligence agency he worked for, Sterling must turn to the aid of geeky technology expert Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), who previously told Sterling about his plans for an invisibility serum.

As Sterling finds out too late, that invisibility serum entails turning whoever consumes it into a pigeon. Hiding in plain sight, don't you see. Now, the pigeon verison of Sterling must team up with the awkward but creative Beckett to take down the nefarious Killian (Ben Mendelsohn). The presence of a pigeon with the voice of Will Smith might make one think Spies in Disguise will be a parody of spy movies. While it's a heavily wacky comedy, the biggest surprise of Spies in Disguise is how it's trying to be an extension rather than a lampooning of classic James Bond movies. Rather than retreading the same 007 jokes every Austin Powers knock-off has run into the ground, Spies in Disguise opts to do a traditional spy movie that happens to involve a pigeon.

Big action sequences are shot and choreographed like you'd see in any live-action blockbuster movie. Heck, the whole movie is pretty snazzy looking in terms of shot compositions and blocking. Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno are constantly making use of all the available space in the 2.35: 1 aspect ratio. Meanwhile, Killian is a baddie who could conceivably inhabit an actual James Bond movie (he's certainly a more interesting foe than Christoph Waltz's Blofeld from Spectre). Kudos to Spies in Disguise for refusing to undercut Killian with an army of Minions knock-off or any kind of comic sidekick. He's allowed to do things like actually kill people and instills a sense of genuine menace into the production.

Blue Sky productions like Epic and Ferdinand constantly felt like they were being pulled away from their more ambitious qualities by being forced into the mold of a traditional family comedy. Spies in Disguise has a bit more confidence in its action/comedy identity, though its comedy elements still carry an obligatory quality. The worse gags are the ones that feel like they were just ported over from past Blue Sky movies. A bathroom gag here, a joke at the expense of South Korean soap operas there. you could have slipped these in from an abandoned Rio 3 script, no problem. More specific jokes, like Sterling requesting the use of a Nickelback album to torture a villain, fare better, but are still more smile-inducing than riotous. 

Even more derivative than the comedy is the character designs. Female characters are comically skinny (can't have realistic body proportions ever, huh) while Walter Beckett looks like every other nerdy white boy in American computer-animated cinema. Spies in Disguise's juxtaposition of cartoony humans with realistic backgrounds is just old hat. It didn't quite work in The Good Dinosaur five years ago and it still isn't a good idea here. Spies in Disguise shows some confidence in its camerawork and tone. Why couldn't it show similar boldness in its character designs? Despite the overly familiar traits, Spies in Disguise does prove diverting more often than not. You get plenty of explosions, a lively Will Smith vocal performance, and a relatively exciting (if predictable) finale. That'll do for a Sunday morning distraction. 

If nothing else, Spies in Disguise does signal that The Peanuts Movie was no fluke, Blue Sky can do better than just mechanically-assembled Ice Age sequels. Let's hope they get even better by the time their Nimona movie comes out...

Michelangelo Antonioni Vibes to an Easygoing Groove With Blowup

Thomas (David Hemmings) is a photographer. He's not a very happy one though. Thomas yearns for something better but for now, he'll begrudgingly settle for having ladies fawn all over him. One day, while out taking a stroll, Thomas takes a photo of a woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), and her lover in a park. Jane is insistent on getting the photo back. Thomas hands her back the photo, though, unbeknownst to her, he's kept a copy of the images. While processing these pictures, Thomas notices something strange. There's a dead body there. Lying in the park. What to do now? Well, Thomas isn't the only one who doesn't really care in his world. Even in his moments of urgency, Thomas will discover how difficult it is to get detached people to care about something as massive as a corpse.

I guess Michaelangelo Antonioni isn't for me? Between L'Avventura and now Blowup, I've found plenty to admire in Antonioni's works but I haven't really been captivated by them. I want to stress that I'm not trying to declare that "Antonioni is actually bad" or anything of that sort. It's just interesting to realize that something or someone universally beloved may not be up your personal alley. Oh well. Even as someone who isn't super into his works, though, there's still plenty to commend with Blowup. Most notably, Blowup has an impressive level of commitment, particularly in its filmmaking, to a relaxed atmosphere. 

Much of Blowup, especially in its first-half, is incidental. All we're doing is following Thomas as he wanders around town looking for objects for a photoshoot and then dealing with Jane's desires to get her photo back. All the while, Thomas briefly crosses path with elements of the 1960s counter-revolution. It's like Antonioni is taking the viewer on a brief tour of a day in the life of Thomas rather than showing us a traditional narrative-driven feature. It makes for such a unique atmosphere and I love how the framing of crowded scenes rarely sees Thomas being the central focus of a shot. He's a guy who can easily get swallowed up by the vastness of the world and the framing of Blowup reflects that.

The chilled-out nature of Blowup also proves useful in making the sudden presence of a corpse quietly unnerving. Antonioni has established a world where we're accustomed to just hanging out and enjoying the sights of London. Thus, tossing a dead person into the proceedings proves as jolting for us as it does for Thomas. Additionally, Antonioni packs each scene of Blowup with enough details to make revisits a must. Most notably was my post-film realization that, when Thomas get the mimed tennis ball back in Blowup's final scene, it briefly takes on sound for the first time. What a great and appropriately subtle touch to close the film out on.

There's plenty of finer points of Blowup well worth commenting on. Why didn't all these elements add up to a more wholly satisfying movie for me personally? Honestly, I chalk that up to Thomas just not being all that engaging of a character. Blowup is a mood piece, it's not supposed to be about character arc or character likeability. Still, like many protagonists of arthouse European films of the 1960s (think works of Godard), Thomas is a repulsive male figure with particularly odious attitudes towards women. Antonioni isn't aiming to make Thomas likable, which helps make the character go down easier. But spending this much time with primarily him does begin to wear one down.

It doesn't help that the supporting characters surrounding Thomas, particularly any of the women, are thinly-sketched. A lot of great hangout moves (like the works of Richard Linklater) make even the most throwaway people memorable. Blowup, meanwhile, struggles to find people as compelling as its restraint atmosphere. As an atmospheric exercise, not to mention as a historical artifact thanks to its truly groundbreaking frank depictions of sex, Blowup fares much better. Michaelangelo Antonioni's movies may not be to my personal taste, but it's impossible to deny the craftsmanship on display in his works like Blowup.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Lorraine Hansberry's Words Shine Brightly in A Raisin in the Sun

Based on the play of the same name by Lorraine Hansberry (who also penned the screenplay adaptation of her work), A Raisin in the Sun follows the Younger family, which consists of Walter Lee (Sidney Poiter), his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee), his sister Beneatha (Diana Sands), his son Travis (Stephen Perry) and his Mom Lena (Claudia McNeil). They all live together in a small apartment. Walter Lee is always looking off to the horizon, hoping he can procure a scheme that'll ensure financial security for his family. Such security comes around in the form of a life insurance check delivered to the family in the wake of Lena's husband passing away. With $10,000 at the family's disposal, what kind of future awaits them?

A Raisin in the Sun's roots as a play is easy to discern. The fact that it all primarily takes place in the Younger living room, the emphasis on extended dialogue exchanges, all of it could be executed on a play stage quite easily. For the most part, A Raisin in the Sun actually fares well in being translated to film save for one notable issue: music. In a stage version of this show, there likely wouldn't be any musical accompaniment. When Lena gives Walter the $10,000 check, for example, all we would here is Lena's dialogue as she hands off this important gift to her son. The intimacy of the moment would be reinforced by how there's nothing to distract from her words.

In the film version, though, that particular scene gets undercut by the presence of Laurence Rosenthal's score. The music isn't inherently bad, but here it beats viewers over the head with the mood of the scene. The stirring score interrupts what should be a quiet moment between mother and son.  This problem recurs throughout the production, the music keeps overwhelming conversations between characters. It's as if director Daniel Petrie was worried viewers would get bored if there wasn't constant music playing. Hansberry's words were already stirring enough in a stage-format. Thet didn't need an occasionally ham-fisted score to ram home their underlying meaning.

Aside from that issue, though, A Raisin in the Sun makes the jump to the big screen admirably. Petrie and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.'s work behind the camera is impressively retrained. These two trust subtle filmmaking to be the perfect mechanism to capture such thoughtfully-crafted performances. That trust turns out to be wisely placed. This style of filmmaking allows us to absorb the individual characters and their complex relationships with one another. In particular. Walter Lee proves to be a fascinating contradiction of a man. He wants to be free of the societal restrictions America places on Black men, yet he so often discourages Dorothea from subverting those same restrictions in her doctoral pursuits.

This is the kind of morally complex character I get fascinated by, a person who can inspire my frustration one moment and then inspire my total sympathies the next. I wouldn't have minded more of an exploration of the inner life of Ruth, particularly in regards to how she's grappling with her unexpected pregnancy. Still, Ruby Dee manages to give the character her own distinct personality while Diana Sands and especially Claudia McNeil deliver great work in supporting roles. Hansberry's writing gives most of these performers such richly-drawn characters to play. Unsurprisingly, it's a treat to watch those figures be married to such committed performances.

What is surprising is just how emotionally affecting A Raisin in the Sun turns out to be. Isn't that a wonderful feeling? You're just watching a movie and then the big poignant finale arrives and you realize just how emotionally invested you are in everything. Previously, Wings was my go-to example of this phenomenon, but maybe A Raisin in the Sun will become another example I turn to. Watching Walter Lee quietly stand up against Mark Linder (John Fielder), and n the process reaffirm the humanity of his family, is such a touching sight to see. What really got my waterworks going, though, was Walter Lee's mention of how his sister "is going to be a doctor...and we're all so proud of her." I'm getting a little misty-eyed just thinking about it! Even before this moving climax, though, this 1961 film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun does the original Lorraine Hansberry play proud.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Director Kathryn Bigelow Delivers Thrills Galore With Point Break

Have you ever seen a famous movie remake before you saw the remake itself? It's always an odd experience, like listening to a cover version of a Beatles tune before listening to the original Beatles track itself. That was the case with Point Break. I saw the 2015 remake of this movie years before I saw the original Kathryn Bigelow movie. If you forgot that there even was a remake of Point Break, I don't blame you. It was terrible. A bunch of grim stunts coated in green color grading, it was monotonous even if you had no attachment to the original movie. My disdain for the new Point Break, particularly in regards to its oppressively somber tone, only grows now that I've actually seen the original Point Break.

Much like with her work on Near Dark, director Kathryn Bigelow has once again delivered an exciting genre movie that doesn't ease up on either the homoeroticism or the delightful moments of lunacy. The lead character of Point Break is Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), who was doing the whole "ridiculous action movie name" bit long before Cypher Raige and Cade Yeager showed up. Utah is a new recruit at the FBI, where he's been partnered up with Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) to investigate a group of bank robbers known as The Ex-Presidents. Pappas has a theory that these guys are actually surfers who use bank robberies to fund their exploits. Utah decides to explore this notion by learning how to surf and infiltrating a local surfer group.

While there, Utah becomes enamored with Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Whereas Utah is always doing what his parents and other authority figures wanted, the only rules Bodhi follows is his own and the rules of the surf. Things get complicated in their relationship when it turns out Bodhi is the ringleader of the Ex-Presidents. Here's where all the drama comes into play, though Point Break certainly isn't short on gripping conflict before that revelation hits. Every character in W. Peter Illiff's screenplay is charged from the moment they walk on-screen, everybody seems raring to go for a confrontation. This is especially true of Utah and Pappas, the two's initial interactions seem like they're moments away from just fighting each other.

That's the perfect kind of personality for actors like Reeves and Busey to inhabit. The latter performer especially excels in imbuing his trademark unhinged sensibilities to a mentor figure that seems as unruly as the kid he's training! Such oversized and edgy figures are a perfect contrast to the far more smooth Bodhi. Just as Pappas is a great fit for Busey, so too is Swayze a natural choice for Bodhi. With his golden locks and charming face, Swayze already looks like he could be an affable surfer. Swayze's performance under the direction of Bigelow makes Bodhi a book you can judge by his cover. He makes Bodhi just as charming to talk to as he is to look at.

Of course, it isn't all acting and clashing personalities in Point Break. There's also some great action sequences, particularly a masterfully-executed chase scene between Utah and a masked Bodhi. Bigelow's camera and the editing from Howard Smith make this set-piece crystal clear on a visual level. The various backyards of a Los Angeles neighborhood also turn out to be a great place to set a footchase. Despite living in the same area, no two people that Utah and Bodhi run into are exactly alike and it's great to see the various unique personalities play off of this pursuit. It's all so sharply-realized that you're able to really soak in all the excitement of Bodhi remaining just out of reach of Utah. 

That scene is my personal favorite in Point Break but God knows there's a whole bunch of other great thrilling sequences throughout the movie, many of which delight in just how over-the-top they get. Combining that with the enjoyably over-the-top dialogue and you've got yourself a movie that's brazenly eschewing reality. When you're doing action cinema this well, who needs one foot in reality? The original Point Break is so good that it makes me want to turn to the 2015 Point Break, point to its pervasive grimness and go "See all that stuff in there? That's why your Point Break never worked!"

The Devil All The Time Is Much A-Brood About Nothing

We are all born in the shadows of the past. The characters of The Devil All the Time are no different. This expansive saga, taking place primarily in and around Coal River, West Virginia, begins with U.S. Marine Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard). He's returned home to have a child with a local waitress but he's still haunted by the memories of his time serving in the war. All the carnage he experienced overseas exposed Russell to a level of human depravity he didn't think was possible. In Russell's eyes, the only way to fight that evil is with equal levels of terrifying force. Before he passes away, that's the message Russell instills in his son, Arvin Russell (Tom Holland).

Ah, but it's not just father and son coping with the past. There's also corrupt Sheriff Lee Boedecker (Sebastian Stan), who's worried about his past misdeeds coming back to haunt him come re-election time. Let's also not forget about serial killer couple Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke). Carl just lives in the moment photographing people they murder. Sandy, on the other hand, is certainly caught up thinking about how her life has gotten to be filled with blood and torment. Further unifying all of them, plus Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), is the fact that religion tends to inform their behavior. The Lord is supposed to be merciful. The actions of people who follow him, not so much.

Adapted from a novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time is a mighty sweeping narrative. In the hands of screenwriters Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos (the former of whom also directs), there's a number of admirable qualities in the movie storytelling. For one thing, Devil All the Time has no problem taking its sweet time with the kind of digressions other movies would cut from the script before they even started rolling the cameras. Devil is in no hurry to rush through its wall-to-wall misery, as reflected by its 138-minute runtime. This allows the viewer to truly live in its world, soak in all the details of these seemingly random lives, rather than just rush through it all. 

The way Devil All the Time totally commits to both bursts of non-linear storytelling and a sprawling cast is similarly remarkable. Campos is not trying to make a conventional film with The Devil All the Time and that's especially reflected in its pervasively grim tone. Call each character in this movie a 1994 Nine Inch Nails song, because they're riddled with hurt. Unfortunately, the execution of the tone is one of the many ways The Devil All the Time is more interesting in theory than it is in practice. For one thing, the way grimness manifests across the individual characters tends to get very repetitive very quickly. There's a surprising lack of specificity to the on-screen torment that doesn't make it as impactful as it could be.

In the first 40 minutes of Devil All the Time, we become privy to an avalanche of misery befalling the Russell family. There's so much traumatic stuff happening here, from discovering a crucified soldier to the death of a family pet. This family makes the twins in I Know This Much is True look like happy-go-lucky Pollyanna's. All of it should be as traumatic for the viewer as it is for the characters on-screen. But all of these events happen in such rapid succession that they didn't really leave an impact. You get numb to it after a while, especially when every other character in the movie is informed by a similar sense of woe. Everybody in this movie is Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-It Ralph, programmed with "the most tragic backstory ever". 

The generic rendering of that anguish is particularly reflected in the female characters. The Devil All the Time is filtered through a male lens, save for a handful of moments with Sandy, we only get to see the world through the male characters. This means the women are around solely to suffer pretty predictable fates (murder, sexual assault, suicide, the works) to motivate the other male characters. It's disappointing to see The Devil All the Time take such an ambitious canvas and a bold tone and then use them on such derivative material. Compounding the frustrating nature of the production is how author Donald Ray Pollock has been recruited to do omnipresent narration that proves extremely intrusive.

Campos can't just let visuals or the actors speak for themselves. Pollock's voice must come in to hand-hold the audience through pretty self-explanatory imagery or character motivations. Similarly, the third act disappointingly dovetails into a series of simplistic showdowns. None of the moral complexities of uber-grim movies like Sorcerer, the various works of Lynne Ramsey or Campos' own Christine is found in the third act of Devil All the Time. The good guys and bad guys are drawn in shockingly broad strokes. To add salt onto the wounds, it proves shockingly uninteresting to finally see these previously standalone storylines intersect. The actors are doing what they can with this material, but the writing for The Devil All the Time lets them down. All of that bleak build-up leads to a shallow fizzle.

It's not all bad in The Devil All the Time, far from it. The actors are uniformly putting in good work, particularly Tom Holland, who does a great job expressing simultaneous angst and confusion in the second half of the runtime. A scene of just him and Pattinson having an exchange in an empty Church is possibly the best sequence in all of The Devil All the Time. No distracting narration here, just two actors going mano-a-mano with a well-executed sense of growing dread in their interaction. Sometimes, that's all you need to make some compelling drama. The Devil All the Time could have used more of that kind of drama. The devil is in the details, as they say. For The Devil All the Time, its generic details betray its lofty ambitions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

In Laman's Terms: The Showgirls Must Go On!

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!

CW: Discussions of sexual assault and sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein ahead

When it debuted in 1995, Showgirls was seen as the most scandalous thing to hit the silver screen since Greta Garbo smooched a lady in Queen Christina

Still the only NC-17 rated film to play in a wide release in North America, Showgirls was the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), who comes to Las Vegas looking for a fresh start. To make ends meet, she becomes an exotic dancer working for various clubs across the Sunset Strip. In her quest to reach the very top of her profession, Nomi ends up making an adversary out of Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). Nomi and Cristal son begin a cat-and-mouse game as they try to undercut one another in pursuit of glory. 

Like most works directed by Paul Verhoeven, Showgirls has plenty to say about the real world. In this case, Showgirls is a reflection of how American society views women as objects. It's also a commentary on how also that view reinforces the idea that women must always be at war with each other. The only definition of "success" for women requires Nomi to alienate her friend Molly (Gina Rivera) while Nomi literally destroys Cristal to ensure she can have the lead role of the show Goddess. It's a brutal representation of how women are pitted against each other in American society, all while they're viewed as just objects for male pleasure. 

Also like most Verhoeven works, Showgirls is incredibly fun. Whereas prior Verhoeven works like Total Recall and RoboCop created entertainment through hard-R violence, Showgirls finds entertainment through super ribald camp. Every character in this movie is outsized to a profound degree. Subtlety has died and gone to Heaven, in its place is characters like Cristal Connors or Henrietta "Mama" Bazoom. All of it gets handled by actors like Gina Gershon and Kyle McLachlan who are masters at handling this kind of over-the-top material.

In 2020, it's apparent just how enjoyable Showgirls is. However, the movie torn apart in its initial theatrical release. "Critics of the era were merciless, and it racked up a then-record seven Razzie awards, with [director Paul] Verhoeven picking up his award for Worst Director in person," recalled The Independent in March 2020. The fact that Showgirls also flamed out at the theatrical box office just rubbed salt in its wounds. The film quickly became instant shorthand for "bad movie", a status previously bequeathed on the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

To be sure, Showgirls isn't perfect. No movie is and one this simultaneously gung-ho and bizarre certainly won't live up to perfect. Most notable among its flaw is an onscreen rape scene for the character of Molly in the third-act. Employing this sequence undermines critical aspects of Showgirls. For one thing, just having the camera leer at a woman being sexually assaulted runs counter to Showgirls' central objective wanting to highlight how women are dehumanized in the world. Molly's experiences and perspective are pushed away just to provide a breaking point for Nomi. It's an alarmingly nonchalant attitude towards sexual assault.

It's like how Hacksaw Ridge wants to be a film commemorating a non-violent soldier while reveling in some gorey warfare. You're engaging in the same material you're trying to condemn. 

Plus, it's such a predictable way to create drama. The history of cinema is dominated by male writers and directors deciding that the only way to reflect pain for women is through brutal depictions of on-screen sexual assault. Going down this road for the character of Molly shows no creativity on the part of Eszterhas' screenplay. So much of Showgirls has felt like it comes from a totally different planet and delightfully so. Here, then, is a scene that brings the viewer straight back down to Earth. In terms of additional flaws, some line readings just don't land while the handling of characters of color is...questionable, let's leave it at that.

Showgirls certainly isn't without flaws. But looking back on the response it received in its original release, it's a pity how many critics interpreted Showgirls as a straightforward drama rather than as the campy thoughtful film it actually is. Elizabeth Berkley flinging her food around in an outdoor eatery. Gina Gershon wistfully recalling her days of eating doggy chow. These are just two indicators that Showgirls is aiming for a tone drastically different than what many in 1995 wanted. While more over-the-top than what moviegoers expected, the very unique atmosphere of Showgirls proves surprisingly effective at capturing the realities of misogyny.

In a world where the sitting President of the United States brags about how he likes to "grab [women] by the pussy", is any of the off-kilter dialogue in Showgirls that detached from the real world? Berkley and MacLachlan's hotel pool sex scene is preposterous but is it anymore prespoterous than the sitting Vice-President allegedly refusing to be alone with a woman? And then there's everything surrounding Harvey Weinstein, a microcosm of how women are reduced to be sexual pleasures for men in the entertainment workplace. The minimization of women as people runs rampant throughout the world. It always has. Heck, it even, unfortunately, manifests in Showgirls with its decision to have Molly be sexually assaulted to create drama in Nomi's life. 

However, Showgirls is aiming for, and largely succeeds, at recognizing and reflecting the oversized ways misogyny manifests in the world. Much like Richard Kelly's similary initially maligned but ultimately brilliant Southland Tales, Showgirls is a movie that needed time to be fully appreciated. 25 years after it first strolled into theaters, both the entertaining camp and thoughtful sociopolitical commentary of Showgirls can be savored like that Doggy Chow that Cristal used to love so much. 

Eagle Eye Fails To Soar Like An...Airborne Creature


Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) and single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monoghan) were once total strangers. They were living such radically different lives that it's easy to imagine they would have never met under traditional circumstances. But the circumstances informing their story in Eagle Eye are anything but traditional. Jerry and Rachel are united through a mysterious female voice that commands them to do what she says. Intimidating our two leads is the fact that this voice has control over all electronics, she basically can run the world. Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Anthony Mackie and Billy Bob Thornton are also around in this 2008 thriller from I Am Number Four auteur D.J. Caruso.

Eagle Eye has a strange sense of pacing. The movie kicks off with a bang and then some, as the first big set piece starts with LaBeouf being broken out of a government building by a goddamn crane. From there, LaBeouf leaps to the ground unharmed (sure) and then hops on a train. Shortly afterwards, an extended car chase ensues that involves countless cars getting piled up and culminates in gigantic garbage yard cranes picking up cop cars. It's all so large-in-scale but it's not indicative of what's to come. Aside from a quick drone chase scene in the climax, the rest of Eagle Eye is more on the order of a political thriller than a Michael Bay movie. 

Starting the suspense thriller part of Eagle Eye off on such an intense note leaves the story with nowhere to go but down. It's a puzzling choice that doesn't really play into the themes or characters. Nor does it prove to be an engaging maneuver in terms of entertainment. Of course, going smaller-in-scale does play to D.J. Caruso's strengths as a filmmaker. Caruso just cannot do large-scale action. That car chase sequence is just dismally executed, it's all a bunch of quick cuts and close-ups that render the exciting as just nauseating. I could hardly tell who was who and what has happening. I just know some cars got smashed and that eventually, our two lead characters hopped a garbage barge. Otherwise, it's all a blur thanks to the poor directing and editing.

It's not like Eagle Eye transforms into a masterful suspense thriller after this dud car chase is done. But Caruso seems way more comfortable handling people racing down hallways to beat timers than he does handling cranes flipping over cop cars.  Meanwhile, the script for Eagle Eye is a helpful demonstration on how often American movies try to be politically relevant without ever actually taking a stand on things. Drone warfare, war in the Middle East, government surveillance, all these hot button topics of 2008 (and even 2020) get namedropped here. Rather than have anything meaningful to say about how specific countries, like America, approach those topics, though, Eagle Eye just uses them as a gateway for a generic sci-fi thriller.

By the end, it's just an A.I. system gone awry that's been behind everything in the movie. There is no larger points to be made about how America approaches surveillance technology in warfare or any other scenario. I practically burst out laughing when one of the last lines in the movie boiled down to Michael Chiklis simply saying "We must continue to do intelligence operations but we cannot allow this to happen again." I'm not sure there's a lot of political debates going on about whether or not we should allow GLADoS from Portal meets HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey to run military operations. In the end, Eagle Eye bravely takes a stand that a fictitious issue that can't happen in real life should not happen. What brave social commentary.

Clearly, Eagle Eye is not very good. This is despite starring two people (particularly Monoghan) who never really got the roles they deserved in mainstream Hollywood fare. One random observation; was Shia LaBeouf the last male movie star to not follow the same super-shredded physique all 2010's movie stars do? LaBeouf actually looks like a human in a way that Chris Hemsworth and such don't. It's interesting to contemplate LaBeouf being the last of his kind in terms of the blockbuster leading man. At least it's more interesting than most of what happens in Eagle Eye. Credit where credit is due, though, the quick pacing of the movie and its preposterous nature do make it fine DIY MST3K fodder. I bet a bunch of friends could have a ball just poking fun at all the bizarrely written dialogue. 

At least Eagle Eye mildly succeeds on some level, even if it isn't anywhere near where director D.J. Caruso and company intended.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Humanity Is Preserved Throughout I Wish I Knew

In 1972, director Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kua, Cia was released. A nearly four-hour long observation on what the filmmaker perceived to be an average day in China, the film was lambasted in its initial theatrical release in China. That negative perception is reflected in an interview one of the films crew members in I Wish I Knew. This individual stood up to Antonioni after the director insisted on only “backwards parts” of the country that lived up to negative foreign perceptions of China. As reflected in this anecdote, Antonioni’s film didn’t lend any humanity to its depiction of everyday Chinese citizens.

That is not the case for director Jia Zhangke’s documentary I Wish I Knew. The film has finally arrived in the U.S. ten years after its Cannes Film Festival premiere and general Chinese release  Zhangke’s focus in this documentary is to focus on interviews with residents of Shanghai and hear of their experiences living during the turmoil this country has gone through in the last century. We start the film hearing stories from older residents who remember the most grisly days of political upheaval in the territory. People getting shot in the street by government forces and friends randomly vanishing are a common fixture across these stories.

While the interviews don’t hold back in talking about hardship experienced in Shanghai, they’re not the sole focus of the movie. Zhangke eschews filmed recreations of these sort of horrifying experiences. It’s not important that we see bullets go through people, what’s important is seeing and hearing from people who’ve experienced these events. Zhangke’s camera lingers on the human beings, not the atrocities themselves. In the process, I Wish I Knew serves as not just a film but a reinforcement of humanity. That’s a quality of these individuals that’s so often been in danger of being snuffed out. Now, that quality has been encased in a cinematic safe where it cannot be destroyed.

The humanity wasn’t the only thing that proved compelling while watching I Wish I Knew. Not being familiar with the history of China, the interviews and on-screen text explaining crucial parts of Shangai’s history proved illuminating for me. It was especially a privilege to garner a greater level of knowledge about the 1960s Cultural Revolution in Shanghai through such richly personal interviews. Their stories make their experiences far more vivid than anything you’d find in a textbook recounting of this time period. History is made flesh in I Wish I Knew and it proves as personally enriching as it is impressive in a broad artistic sense.

I Wish I Knew doesn’t just deliver interviews centered on the past. As the film goes on, we get more and more stories from people who talk about their more modern-day struggles in Shanghai, particularly those related to upwards financial mobility. A particularly memorable example of this is an anecdote from a guy who came into possession of a briefcase full of money. He got it by totally legal means (with no bank account, he had nowhere else to put the money), but he’s inherently assumed to be a "bad guy" in an encounter with security personnel. Just the very fact that this guy has money is enough to garner suspicion from powerful forces. Meanwhile, an aspiring writer cannot put food on the table with his passion. Instead, he has to become a racecar driver to make ends meet.

One of the most poignant moments of I Wish I Knew comes when this man wistfully talks about how hopefully he’ll get to write again…someday. His tone as he says this suggests he’s well-aware that his dream is slipping through his fingers. Between these various interviews is an assortment of footage depicting Zhao Tao (star of Zhangke’s film Ash is Purest White) wandering around desolate parts of Shanghai. After spending the whole movie walking through the rubble remains of the past, she concludes the film watching the construction of a new building.  The eventual ending of I Wish I Knew depicting people just going on a subway train on their daily routine reinforces the idea of Tao’s final scene that life goes on, for better and for worse.

However, even in the face of an unstoppable future, we can’t forget about the past or the people who inhabited it. Luckily, we have well-made documentaries like I Wish I Knew to serve as cinematic time capsules of eras bygone.