Sunday, November 29, 2020

Uncanny CGI drags down The Call of the Wild rather than setting it free

Based on the 1903 novel of the same name by Jack London, The Call of the Wild follows the story of Buck, a dog who once belonged to a judge in Santa Clara, California. Here, Buck, much like Beethoven and Marmaduke before him, caused a lot of ruckus due to his big size and even bigger energy. Buck is eventually abducted and sent to the Yukon. This city dog is now being given a crash-course in the wild as he's taken in as a sled-dog by Perrault (Omar Sy). Eventually, Buck finds his way to John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man whose still reeling from the loss of his son. Thornton's only real companion these days is a bottle of whiskey. But in Buck, he may find a friend who can help take him on an adventure like no other.

The Call of the Wild is a competent production. It rarely exceeds that, but credit where credit is due, it's never grating. Among family movies, that alone is a gift. Give a parent the choice between motor-mouth Chipmunks belting out pop tunes and the silent Buck learning to embrace his wild side, it's no contest. Michael Green's screenplay has its dumb qualities, including the unnecessary inclusion of Dan Stevens as a human antagonist to hunt down Buck and Thornton in the third-act. However, at least he happily entirely avoids lazy pop culture references and bathroom humor. Plus, despite covering a lot of ground in a 100-minute runtime, the script for The Call of the Wild avoids feeling rushed. Meanwhile, Chris Sanders, the Oscar-nominated director of animated films like Lilo & Stitch, makes a decent leap into live-action filmmaking.

Best of all, Harrison Ford isn't phoning it in here, that's always a pleasant sight. Playing off a digital co-star (one performed on-set by Terry Notary) in a movie aimed at children, Ford, thankfully, never takes those qualities as an excuse to sleepwalk through the part of John Thornton. There's a sense of tangible aching in Ford's portrayal of a guy whose lived with grief for so long that it's become a part of his personality. Best of all, a man famous for his public image as a loveable curmudgeon has some real warmth in his scenes with Buck. 

Unfortunately, while Ford''s chemistry with Buck is believable, the canine himself isn't. Herein lies the biggest problem with The Call of the Wild, the choice to have Buck and all other animals be rendered with ultra-realistic CGI. Sometimes, one can grow to tolerate initially off-putting visual effects when you're watching it over the course of a film. Buck and his canine comrades never achieve that. There's always something just off about these animals. Sometimes it's the way wet fur looks. Other times it's the dissonance between Buck's realistic appearance and his movements that suggest weightlessness. Still other moments see Buck just looking more like a statue than a believable canine. 

Even I, a person who shouts "DOGGY!!" without fail whenever a dog enters a movie or TV show, was left rather cold by Buck. He just conjures up the Uncanny Valley too much to ever really warm your heart. That realistic CGI approach has also been taken for the majority of the exterior Yukon environments. Like Buck, these domains probably would look OK in a visual effects test reel but fail to conjure up any emotions within the context of a movie. Too many times it look likes Buck and his human companions are wandering around a screensaver. Compounding the puzzling visuals is how Janusz Kaminski is in charge of the cinematography. This is only his second non-Steven Spielberg film since 2010 (following The Judge) yet it's hard to see why Kaminski took the job. The hollow digital environments offer him so little to work with.

Rare flashes of more stylized animation offer a glimpse into a more interesting take on a CGI-heavy version of The Call of the Wild. A black wolf representing Buck's wild spirit and a gigantic tree where a wolf pack resides are both detached enough from reality to warrant being rendered in animation. It's easy to imagine a telling of The Call of the Wild where CGI is used to realize a version of the Yukon that uses stylized imagery to capture the dangers of this chilly land. Instead, The Call of the Wild tries and struggles to use CGI to emulate boring old reality. 

In the process, The Call of the Wild undercuts its best qualities, including Ford's lead performance, a script that admirably refuses to talk down to kids and even Sanders' gifts as a director. In his prior animated films like Lilo & Stitch, Sanders had no inhibitions about tapping into the unique qualities offered up by the medium of animation. Doing this didn't call for sacrificing moments of poignancy. On the contrary, a furry blue alien who could never exist in the real world registered as far more human than The Call of the Wild's eerily realistic CGI dog. The Call of the Wild is certainly better than your average family movie, but it's also a prime example of how all the VFX hardware in the world can't make a character real.

Friday, November 27, 2020

With unbridled joy and bold visuals, Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock well and truly (pardon the pun) rocks.

For most of his directorial career, Steve McQueen has been known as a filmmaker who handles dark material. This is no oversimplification but rather an observation on the kind of stories McQueen has explored. A hunger strike in Hunger, sex addiction in Shame, being a slave in 12 Years a Slave and a tapestry of different forms of systemic modern hardship in Widows. McQueen's proved plenty adept at unearthing harrowing tales out of these topics but he goes in a different tonal direction for the second installment of his Small Axe collection entitled Lovers Rock. Here, McQueen does utter euphoria. This is 73 minutes of joy and it's a wonder to behold.

Lovers Rock is a hangout film in the vein of any classic Richard Linklater project like Slacker or Dazed & Confused. It chronicles a house party and all the dancing, singing and joy felt at this gathering. We mostly see this event through the eyes of Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), who comes to the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) in a glistening dress and an urge to dance the night away. Her paths eventually cross with fellow partygoer Franklyn (Micheal Ward), a charismatic guy who sweeps her up off her feet. We also get to see just how involved all the party guests get into the music, culminating in a final sequence where you can practically feel the energy of the room coming off the screen.

Said sequence was apparently totally improvised on the part of the actors, which is incredible to process. It's such an intricate scene, everybody in each layer of the show is engaging in their own unique activity. It's the kind of thing you'd presume would have to be intricately choreographed but apparently come out of the actors in Lover Rock organically. That was an intriguing revelation to discover since the scene reminded me of the most chaotic scenes in Gaspar Noe's Climax, which also saw dancers improvising their movements onscreen. Whereas Climax used that trait to convey madness, Lovers Rock uses it to convey a sense of unity and charged-up enthusiasm.

Some of the most powerful moments in Lovers Rock are just like this improvised sequence, involving numerous actors on the dance floor. However, the project proves just as powerful in more intimate sequences. Take Martha's brief foray outside, where she encounters a gaggle of racist white guy. McQueen doesn't just effectively put us into Martha's headspace here. He also immediately and subtly conveys why events like the house party at the heart of Lovers Rock are needed. The outside world is one built on hatred towards the guests and culture explored in Lovers Rock. To just exist outdoors is to inspire the wrath of racist onlookers. To be so unabashedly happy and themselves, they're forced to stay indoors.

Through just this brief moment outside with Martha, McQueen conveys so much about the tragic motivation behind the joyous party. But other intimate moments in Lovers Rock are of a more touching variety. A big moment involving supporting character Cynthia (Ellis George) had me cheering and yelling "Let's go Lesbians!" The final five minutes of Lovers Rock dedicated to Martha and Franklyn enjoying an early morning bike ride together, meanwhile, totally melted my heart. There isn't an ounce of jadedness here as McQueen depicts infatuation in its purest form. Plus, St. Aubyn and Ward have such cute chemistry together that you could just watch them for hours on end.

These two actors and the rest of the cast inhabit a world where vibrant colors are around every corner. From the clothes characters (particularly Martha and Patty wear) to the bright shades of red found all across the party, Lovers Rock makes excellent use of a lively color palette. The lenses used and the soft lighting further lends a warm look to the whole production. This is a visual approach Steve McQueen hasn't used in his prior films, which have intentionally gone for more subdued color schemes. But Lovers Rock sees McQueen stepping outside of his comfort zone in many respects, albeit while keeping the rich humanity that made prior films like Widows so engaging. McQueen's willingness to experiment artistically pays off outstandingly well with Lovers Rock, a cinematic party so bursting with joy that you'll never want it to end.

The lack of sugarcoating in the documentary Collective is what makes it such essential viewing

A fire spurs the events of the documentary Collective. The audience is privy to video footage of this fire as it happened in real-time. It all happened on a seemingly ordinary night, with everyone enjoying a concert inside a Romania club known as Club Colectiv. During the performance, a fire began to break out that audience members initially thought was just a pyrotechnic effect. The video shows that panic quickly spread inside the building as the fire consumed everything in its path. The most chaotic part of the video shown in Collective sees the camera shaking to such a degree that the viewer has no idea what happening. We're as unsure of what's going on as the people inside the club that fateful night.

26 people were instantly killed in the nightclub tragedy while an additional 38 were killed in the aftermath of the event due to the severity of their injuries. A further 146 were wounded from the tragedy. The lack of proper care for the wounded, which led to the 38 additional deaths, revealed longstanding problems in Romania's healthcare system. A team of journalists at a local sports Gazette, led by Catalin Tolontan, begin to do some digging. In the process, they discover that these deaths were the result of hospital mismanagement and the use of diluted disinfectants on the wounded. Collective chronicles these journalists in their investigation, which keeps uncovering whole new layers of terrifying corruption.

Collective is like a classic investigative drama like All the President's Men playing out in real time. This is reinforced by how Collective doesn't use traditional documentary techniques like characters addressing the camera, on-screen text explaining who people are or narration. This is a much more restrained affair that evokes journalism a point. Those movies tend to feature the antagonists getting their just desserts. Collective is a documentary much more in tune with chilling reality. Director Alexander Nanau constantly emphasizes how few satisfying answers Tolontan and his team find in their diligent work. Cracking big revelations doesn't lead to bad people going to jail. It just leads to the powers-that-be cracking down and making sure no other info leaks. 

This is most clearly seen when the team pinpoints a figure behind the lack of hospital accountability by the name of Dan Condrea. This guy never even gets to stand trial for his actions. He mysteriously commits "suicide" under conditions that immediately lead to speculation that he was murdered before he could talk. It's utterly terrifying to watch these kind of developments play out in Collective. The whole movie is just one punch in the gut after another, which is extra true thanks to occasional looks at one of the survivors of the fire. This woman, now living with a prosthetic hand, emphasizes the human cost of government negligence. This is why these journalists continue in their pursuit of the truth.

Sequences dedicated to this woman keep the human element of Collective apparent while Nanau's quietly impressive filmmaking is further apparent in the aforementioned lack of explanatory devices like narration or on-screen text. These prove extra effective in ensuring there are no distractions from the grim reality Nanau's camera paints. Meanwhile, shifting to the perspective of Vlad, a newly installed minister of health, in the last third of Collective manages to pay off because of how well it shows how deep this health system corruption goes. Tolontan and his fellow journalists have been on the outside fighting for justice. But Vlad finds it no easier fighting for the same cause on the inside. Apathy has taken root in powerful figures, thus ensuring that further horrors like the Club Colectiv fire will happen again.

A documentary with wall-to-wall grimness like Collective might not sound like ideal viewing for anyone right now in a world rocked with so much hardship stemming from the coronavirus. But much like fellow  2020 documentary Time, Collective is a movie that's as hard to watch as it is essential to watch. A movie that captures the horrors of reality, and the human costs of those horrors, so well needs to be seen. This trait is especially apparent n Collective's final scene. Much like the end credits needle drop of Transit, Collective's final moments take an American song and imbue it a whole new level of chilling meaning. I'll be thinking of Collective's devastating ending and the rest of this exceptionally well-made documentary for a long time to come.

Collective is now available for rental and purchase from digital retailers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Being Thankful In 2020

"You know, I'm something of a turkey carver myself."

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!

Well, here we are, Thanksgiving 2020 in the age of coronavirus.

I've never been much of a holiday gathering person, mostly because my form of autism makes me extremely vulnerable to loud noises and crowds. Naturally, then, these events where people are crammed into small spaces for holiday celebrations haven't quite been up my alley. Still, it's hard not to notice the absence of these long-standing staples this year (or, at least, we should, nobody should be doing big gatherings this year considering spiking COVID-19 numbers). Like so many things that have come to a halt in 2020, something that once seemed permanent has now had its fragility reinforced. Nothing sticks forever. Nothing is invulnerable. Not even big Thanksgiving dinners. 

But that doesn't mean another staple of this holiday has to also go in the trash. Yes, I'm talking about the experience of expressing what we're thankful for. Isn't that the whole point of Thanksgiving, beyond just making a holiday that dilutes the horror of American colonialism? In that spirit, this week's In Laman's Terms will dig through the muck of 2020 and find some things worth celebrating. While it's been a rough year, for me personally, there were things worth celebrating. Even just on my writing career, this has been a big year for yours truly. I've been published in a variety of outlets for the very first time ranging from The Mary Sue to Offcultured to FilmDaze. Oh! And I got my own Rotten Tomatoes page! How dandy!

I'm going to always be grateful that this increase in my writing coincided directly with the pandemic. Once everybody was confined indoors, having paid writing gigs to focus on ensuring that I didn't go out of my mind with anxiety. I could concentrate on writing about frivolous matters related to cinema rather than contemplate about everything related to the ongoing pandemic. 

Speaking of things that have ensured I don't go ballistic over the course of the pandemic, I'm thankful for family and friends. Virtual meetings with loved ones have reaffirmed the importance of these individuals in my life. Heck, I've even managed to develop some true-blue friends in the course of these last eight months. In times of woe, connecting with others remains just as important as ever and I'll be holding onto that thought until long after the pandemic is over. 

Of course, it isn't just coping mechanisms for the pandemic that I'm thankful for in 2020. Essential workers, medical personnel, retail workers and other individuals who have been out there in the thick of this pandemic for everyone else, goodness knows how grateful I am for them this year. Meanwhile, I'm also grateful for some more light-hearted matters this year, like how Fiona Apple and Taylor Swift both dropped killer albums in 2020. BoJack Horseman, Schitt's Creek and Star Wars: The Clone Wars all got perfect series finales. And the movies! Even with movie theaters closed, 2020 has still delivered a killer line-up of movies that have reminded me of the importance of this medium.

And then there's you, dear reader. Whether you've been reading this site for years or just stumbled upon it now through a Google rabbit hole, thank you for reading Land of the Nerds. As this month has indicated, my commitments to Graduate School and other paid writing gigs means that Land of the Nerds writing will not be as plentiful in the future as it was in the past. But I'll be jotting down thoughts on movies on this website until the end of time and, if you'll join me on that, well, I'd be thankful for that too. 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Be safe, stay indoors, wear a mask, enjoy some good food, and even better movies. Even in a year as tough as this one, being cognizant of things to be grateful for does make getting through the next few months of this pandemic feel a touch more bearable.

Oh! I almost forgot! How could I leave off the thing I'm most thankful for in 2020?? Getting my pug, Reggie! I've wanted a pug for as long as I could remember and now this cutie is my pet!! I'm so lucky and happy!

Monday, November 23, 2020

A rickety third-act aside, Run is another suspenseful winner from the director of Searching

One disappointing part of how 2020's cinema has been impacted by COVID-19 is how it thwarted the release of movies starring people who don't normally get to headline major releases. As others have pointed out, the summer of 2020 was supposed to be a season full of movies directed by women, headlined by people of color and redefining who gets to star in what kind of movies in Hollywood. Run, originally set for a May 2020 theatrical release, was one such film, thanks to it being the rare major movie to star a physically disabled performer. Now, Run has been cast off from theaters and sent to Hulu, where it will remain lost to algorithms and trapped behind a paywall. Modern cinema is wonderful. 

Anyway, Run is the newest movie from Searching director Aneesh Chaganty. It concerns Chloe (Kiera Allen) and her mom Diane (Sarah Paulson), both of whom live in an isolated home on the outskirts of an unnamed town. Chloe has a number of chronic illnesses, including asthma, diabetes and paralysis. Confined to a wheelchair, Diane makes sure Chloe is never in harm's way by keeping her as detached from the outside world as possible. As Run opens, their life seems relatively harmonious, though Chloe, now seventeen years old, is itching to go to college and spread her wings a bit. However, things take a turn for the worse after Chloe stumbles onto a peculiar detail regarding the label on her newest prescription. Her suspicion over her mother begins to grow as Diane tries to investigate a person who controls her life.

With Searching, Chagnaty and co-writer Sev Ohanian restricted themselves by keeping all the action limited to a computer screen. With Run, they've expanded themselves considerably by having the action take place across numerous different locations, like a traditional film. However, Chagnaty and Ohanian's proclivity for challenging themselves with self-imposed restrictions does continue in a new form in Run. This time, Chloe's limitations under the parenting of her mother (Diane doesn't even allow Chloe to have a cell phone) define the tension. How will Chloe be able to find out what her new medicine is without Wi-Fi? How can she escape from her room when she finds herself locked in?

These questions inspire extremely memorable set pieces that wring a lot of tension out of restrained circumstances. Just Chloe trying to keep an eye on her mother while also attempting to call somebody, for example, put me on the edge of my seat. Run uses Chagnaty's direction and excellent editing from Nick Johnson & Will Merrick to keep one propulsively engrossed. The best of these suspenseful set-pieces is a later sequence involving an interaction between Chloe, Diane, and a mailman named Tom (Pat Healy). Without giving anything away, it's remarkable how well Run keeps each of the individual perspectives so vibrantly apparent here without suffocating the suspense. 

The way the characters of Run are always in the foreground of its thrills can be chalked up heavily to the performance of Kiera Allen. In her feature film debut, Allen makes for a compelling presence while also proving effective at selling Chloe's increasing level of terror at the circumstances around her. Through her performance, Allen constantly reminds you of the human being at the center of Run's most harrowing moments. Playing opposite of Allen is Sarah Paulson, whose performance hinging on an aura of externally helpful but internally creepy isn't anything new to the actor. However, there's a reason she always gets called up for these roles, Paulson really can crush this type of character, as she does here.

Run does lose some steam in its third act, which includes an abrupt slow-down for exposition and a climax that gets too big for itself. This larger finale frequently lacks the intimate thrills of earlier parts of the production. However, even here, Run delivers its fair share of memorable suspenseful moments and Kiera Allen's performance remains top-notch right to the final giddily morbid moment of Run's runtime. It's not the equal of Chagnaty's Searching, but that's a high bar to clear. On its own, Run is still a very well-made thriller that more than delivered when it comes to crafting unique suspense sequences. Now if only this entertaining thriller wasn't just available to Hulu subscribers...

Do not take a road trip with the dreadfully paint-by-numbers Uncle Frank

Uncle Frank begins with fourteen-year-old Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillies) wandering through her house, which is packed to the gills with family members. Among those family members is her uncle, Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany). Rather than showing us the kind of relationship the two share, Alan Ball's screenplay opts to have Beth tell the audience in voice-over surface-level character traits of Frank and that she's close with Frank. Subsequently, we see that Frank is the black sheep of the family thanks to her grandfather, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root), always treating him so cruelly. Frank just doesn't belong here.

Flashforward four years and Beth is now a college student living in New York City. She goes to the same university that Frank teaches at. While crashing a party at his apartment, Frank reveals to Beth that he's actually gay. In fact, he's been dating Walid “Wally” Nadeem (Peter Macdissi) for nearly a decade now. This revelation comes just as Beth receives news that Daddy Max has died. Though he initially wants nothing to do with the funeral, Frank is forced to drive Beth back home. Returning back to his Southern hometown, Frank struggles to cope both with his tortured past and his troubled present.

Alan Ball's screenplay for Uncle Frank confounds on numerous levels. For one thing, why is Beth the protagonist? Having a straight person be the audience point-of-view protagonist for a story about a queer person is already a tired idea on its own merits. But Ball's script can't even give the bare amount of justification for why Beth is the lead. She's already on good terms with Frank at the start of the film and quickly accepts his sexuality, so it's not like going on a road trip back home will set her down a character arc related to acceptance. Nor does she learn anything new about herself whilst going on a journey with Frank.

Amusingly, even Ball's direction in Uncle Frank seems to realize that Beth is so extraneous to the proceedings. During tense arguments between Frank and Wally, the camera will sometimes randomly cut to Beth just sitting in a chair in the back of the room. It's as if Ball wanted to remind viewers that, yes, Beth is still a part of the movie. As near as I can tell, Beth is only the lead character because she's the most prominent straight person in the story. When a character's screentime is being dictated by how hetero they are and not by how they contribute to the story, that's how you know you're watching a finely-tuned screenplay. 

Making Beth the lead character of Uncle Frank is a microcosm of the tired storytelling details that plague the whole darn movie. Among the most frustrating of these elements are the details used to signify Frank as a tormented person. Midway through the movie, Frank is abruptly revealed to have a drinking problem, because he doesn't have enough agony to deal with. Frank also keeps having flashbacks to a traumatic teenage experience throughout the story. These are doled out throughout the movie in bits and pieces. Needless to say, all the build-up over what's been haunting Frank all these years is pointless. Viewers will know where these flashbacks are going long before the big reveal.

On and on the puzzling writing choices in Uncle Frank go, which include the decision to have the first-half of Uncle Frank center on sexually ribald dialogue. Numerous references to erections and oral sex abound. Now, I'm not at all opposed to sexually frank comedy. In this context, though, it proves awkward since Uncle Frank drops that kind of dialogue immediately once the halfway mark hits. Once the third act dovetails into being a Hallmark movie, one can't help but wonder what the hell was up with all the quasi-Kevin Smith dialogue. It's just another confusing element of a production that wouldn't know its own head from its tail.

Ball's generic direction only further compounds the problems of Uncle Frank. Ball can't let any big emotional moment go by without playing things in such a gratingly broad manner. The performances must be over-the-top; the camera must be inches away from people's faces; Nathan Barr's score must drown the audience's ear in treacly music that makes it obvious that we're watching something "important". It's all fine for making clips made exclusively for Oscar nomination reels. In any other respect, though, the filmmaking for Uncle Frank only exacerbates the problems found in its screenplay.

All of these shortcomings leave a stacked cast (Judy Greer, Margo Martindale and Steve Zahn all play supporting roles) with nothing to work with. Peter Macdissi fares best out of all the actors. Though he gets some of the worst hackneyed comedy lines, Macdissi lends a believable warmth to Wally that's extremely endearing. His best moments inject Uncle Frank with a kind of humanity it's otherwise totally missing. The ham-fisted narration of Uncle Frank's opening scene turned out to be a bad omen. It foretold a movie so clumsily written that its script would saddle its titular character with a generic tragic backstory and then shove him into the background of his own story. That kind of fatal flaw is just one of the many ways Uncle Frank goes so tragically awry.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Steve McQueen kicks off the Small Axe collection superbly with Mangrove


An image from Mangrove

2020 has been such a rough year from top to bottom. A pandemic, never-ending political idiocy, murder hornets, you name a calamity, 2020 has delivered it. But at least the year can end on a high note in one regard. For five of the last six weeks of 2020, the world will be getting a new Steve McQueen movie! Yes, five features from the genius behind 12 Years a Slave and the criminally underrated Widows are arriving on a weekly basis as part of a collection called Small Axe. Debuting on Amazon Prime's streaming service, the inaugural entry in this series, Mangrove, has just arrived. If it's any indication of what's to come, McQueen is about to deliver to the world weekly doses of grade-A cinema.

Mangrove covers the true story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. It's the perfect place to get some spicy cuisine, listen to lively music, and for local Black people, who so often feel ostracized by society, to have a safe haven. Unfortunately, the establishment is constantly under attack by the police, particularly Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell). While engaging in a protest against the cops, Crichlow and eight other residents, including activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), are arrested and put on trial for so-called rioting. The odds are stacked against these nine detainees as they struggle to confront a justice system built from the ground up to dehumanize people of color.

Mangrove eventually turns into a harrowing courtroom drama, but before then, McQueen does such lovely work establish the titular location as an inviting locale. The lush colors on the wall and the delightful presence of characters like Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) make it easy to see why the Mangrove would be a hotspot for hanging out. An early scene of everyone just dancing in the street right outside the Mangrove perfectly crystallizes the safety and joy felt here in Crichlow's location. Without even intending to, he's created an oasis for people to be themselves. It's such a thoughtful reflection of how important places in society can truly come from anywhere and anyone.

McQueen and Alastair Siddons' script continues to demonstrate its thoughtfulness once Pulley and the other cops are introduced into the story. Mangrove does not waste screentime giving Pulley a tragic backstory explaining his racism or showing a non-racist cop to prove that "they're not all bad!" The focus of Mangrove is on the humanity of Crichlow and his neighbors, as it should be. Once the courtroom proceedings go underway, McQueen and Siddons deftly demonstrate how systemic racism doesn't just manifest in the police force. It's something that permeates every fabric of society and is normalized through throwaway comments from the judge commenting on how "there are racial biases on both sides".

Even more impressive than how Mangrove grapples with systemic racism is its approach to a courtroom drama. Like any genre that exists for an extended period of time, the hallmarks of the courtroom drama are well-known to even casual viewers, including the judges who will "Allow it...but watch yourself, counselor". It's a testament to just how good Mangrove is that those cliches never once walked through my mind. My eyes were totally focused on the plight of Crichlow and the other eight arrested characters rather than seeing if the production was about to lapse into familiar courtroom drama territory.

The reason for that really is simple; McQueen and Siddons never lose sight of the unique characters at the heart of the legal proceedings. Just look at a scene where Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) have an openly vulnerable conversation about what happens to their kids if they're found guilty. This is a totally unique creation that forgoes evoking courtroom dramas of the past. Instead, it charts its own path and effortlessly provokes your emotions as a result. The intimate nature of Mangrove's approach to the courtroom drama is best and most emotionally potently reflected when the eventual verdict is read. Here, the camera focuses slowly zooming-in on Crichlow's face. The case may have involved nine people but Crichlow's devastating emotional reaction to this verdict is enough to convey the larger consequences of this courtroom battle. Where else would the camera focus?

Such emotionally captivating camerawork from McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner is another one of the many ways Mangrove separates itself from traditional courtroom dramas. I was constantly impressed by the creative ways scenes were framed. A meeting between the nine accused people is filmed on the floor (we only see the bottom of their chairs wiggle around) while twirling camerawork is used to capture the importance of Darcus Howe's (Malachi Kirby) testimony regarding the size of a window used by the police to watch protestors. Mangrove is utterly riveting on an emotional level partially thanks to how its camera is just as alive and vibrant as its on-screen characters. 

Clearly, Mangrove is another excellent achievement from director Steve McQueen. If the subsequent four entries in his Small Axe collection are half as good as Mangrove, then 2020 movies at least will be able to end the year on a high note.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Admirable ambitions and a strong finish can only carry the messy The New Mutants so far

With Guardians of the Galaxy, superhero movies proved they could also be bawdy cosmic adventure movies.

With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, superhero movies proved they could be home to the unparalleled visual imagination.

And with Suicide Squad, superhero movies proved they could be home to total dumpster fires.

Considering how many Hollywood produces, it shouldn't be a shock that individual superhero movies are constantly pushing the boundaries to see what this genre can accomplish. With The New Mutants, writer/director Josh Boone is taking a group of mutants adjacent to the X-Men and applying them to a horror movie yarn. The result is an odd mess that doesn't congeal together. But the admirable ambition that drove Boone and company to even try this mixture in the first place does result in some memorable moments. 

New Mutants begins with teenager Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) undergoing a horrific experience. After getting chased by some kind of being and watching her father die, Moonstar awakens in a hospital. Now watched over by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), Moonstar is told that she's a mutant and that she needs to be watched over as she comes to terms with her superpowers. The only other people in this hospital are fellow teenage mutants Rahne (Masie Williams), Samuel (Charlie Hutton), Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Bobby (Henry Zaga). As Danielle tries to figure out what her mutant powers are, she also begins to suspect something might be up at this hospital.

As a horror movie, The New Mutants doesn't really work all that well. Little of it is all that chilling and it mostly reminded me of one of the weaker Blumhouse movies like Incarnate or The Darkness. Part of the problem is that Josh Boone and Knate Lee's screenplay tries to wring eerie ambiguity out of a situation that lacks any uncertainty. Could the hospital devoid of any other people that's also coated in minimal lighting and dark colors possibly be sinister? The New Mutants attempts to play that question for scares but it just means the audience is way ahead of all the on-screen characters. Boone's directorial skills also undercut moments of horror. His filmmaking relies too often on leaning on tired sources of horror (like a vision of a priest acting decidedly un-priestlike) rather than something more original.

On the other hand, taking The New Mutants as a superhero movie, some virtues do emerge. For one thing, committing to a limited cast is an interesting novelty in a genre that too often gets dragged down in bloat. For another, the grim elements that are pretty rote for a horror film are more unique in a superhero tale. Countless horror films feature people expressing remorse over murder, but that's not something you'd see in, say, an Ant-Man movie. Then there's the climax, which is really where New Mutants just abandons the pretense of being a horror film. Here it just becomes another superhero movie, complete with a final showdown where the protagonist fights a CGI being while dropping pop culture quips. 

However, that's also the best part of the movie. The visuals used to render the villain Demon Bear and Illyana's superpowered form are nifty. Knate and Boone do a decent job keeping track of the characters in the middle of the mayhem. Best of all, the eventual resolution between Danielle and Demon Bear is actually extremely well-done both thematically and visually. It's probably the most inspired element in the whole production, alongside the welcome presence of an explicitly queer relationship between Danielle and Rahne. Even after this fun climax, though, The New Mutants still wraps up on an awkward scene that ends the movie just as it seems to be starting. 

Yes, The New Mutants pulls an Artemis Fowl or Hellboy (2019) by delivering an ending that promises, next time around, you'll get the movie you wanted to see. What a bummer. Of course, it's not like The New Mutants was a smooth ride prior to this underwhelming ending. The New Mutants is really never bad and shows a lot more ambition than about half of the proceeding X-Men movies. But all that ambition can't paper over its noticeable cracks. Such cracks include how the arc for abrasive supporting character Bobby is just so rushed and the clumsy means used to realize Rahne's wolf form (her mutant power is that she can transform into a wolf). 

Despite carrying a $60+ million budget, The New Mutants treats her superpower like it's a network TV drama. We never see her fully transform into a wolf and awkward cut-aways are used for the transformation. If you didn't know her superpower before watching The New Mutants, it'd be understandable if you walked away confused about what Rahne's mutations even was. This botched visual element reflects Boone's difficulties behind-the-camera on The New Mutants. The low-budget restrictions of this outing see him resorting to a number of insipid visual cues, including derivative horror movie imagery.

If nothing else, it feels appropriate for such a conceptually gutsy but messy-in-execution project like The New Mutants to close out Fox's version of the X-Men franchise. This series began with an entry whose opening scene proved superhero movies could tackle grim material in a post-Batman & Robin world while also delivering a script that shortchanged its supporting characters. This series has been erratic in quality from the start, juggling noble ideals with messy execution to the very end. Like so many of the proceeding X-Men movies, the way The New Mutants swings for the fences is endearing. The execution of the actual movie, much less so.

Wolfwalkers howls with glorious animation and vibrant characters

Wolfwalkers concerns Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) who lives with her father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) in a kingdom ruled with an iron fist by The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney). Bill makes a living setting traps for wolves in the nearby forest, a task Robyn wishes to help her dad with. While secretly following Bill, Robyn stumbles upon the leader of the local wolfpack, a young girl by the name of Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker). She's a Wolfwalker, a being whose able to put her consciousness into a wolf whenever she's asleep. Mebh and Robyn develop an unlikely friendship, one that will be tested as The Lord Protector begins a plot to destroy the nearby forest.

In an age where animation is trying so hard to emulate reality, Wolfwalkers reminds us the wonderous sights only animation could create. Nothing we see here could be replicated in reality and that's a compliment of the highest order. The animators here are determined to create something as imaginative as the best fairy tales. Wolves leap through the air like dolphins jumping out of the water. Wide shots of the kingdom and surrounding valley look like something you'd find on a quilt Heck, rather than conjuring up the Uncanny Valley, the animation in Wolfwalkers frequently evokes Richard Williams' detailed artistry on his unmade Prince and the Pauper movie. 

It's all so gorgeous-looking, to the point that Wolfwalkers made me want to immediately run out and watch the other movies Toon Saloon has produced. If they're half as stunning as Wolfwalkers, I'm sure they're incredible. Accompanying this glorious animation is a sharp script by Will Collins that does one of my favorite things any kid-oriented movie  can do; not talk down to its target audience. Wolfwalkers is totally appropriate for any child to watch but it's also not dumbing down  its story. It's not afraid to reference real-world tensions between Irish settlers and English natives nor is it wary of even tackling religion through its story.

Specifcally, The Lord Protector's villainy is explicitly shown to be motivated by a toxic relationship to theology. Like slaveowners or owners of bakeries who refuse to sell cakes to gay people, The Lord Protector believes his fidelity to the Lord excuses his wretched behavior. This isn't played off as subtext but a critical on-screen element. To boot, Wolfwalkers doesn't sand the edges of how Bill and even Robyn can hurt those they love in the name of surviving under an oppressive regime. The motivations for those actions are presented with a similar level of starkness, particualrly a late scene where Bill is upfront of how "afraid" he is of losing Robyn.

By refusing to sugercoat its darker material, Wolfwalkers succeeds on numerous fronts. For one thing, it demonstrates an admirable level of conviction in the intelligence of children. For another, such moments lend a sense of distinctly human emotion to the proceedings. That's another great element of Wolfwalkers, the characters are such engaging creations. Mebh is an especially delightful character, one who immediately separates herself from the assortment of feral woodland children running around the modern animated kids movie landscape. Both the animation and voicework from Eva Whittaker lend Mebh a totally idiosyncratic personality thriving on energy and gusto. 

The balance between such engaging characters and an enjoyably over-the-top fairy tale involving wolves and protecting the forest reminded me of nothing so much as Princess Mononoke. Much like that Studio Ghibli masterpiece, Wolfwalkers is also a testament to what a wonderful medium of expression animation is. In a time when the value of animated films are judged by how lucrative their live-action remakes are, Wolfwalkers arrives with an elegant simplicity and visual imagination to spare. It's as much of a rare being as the titular mystical creature. Just like the Wolfwalkers themselves, the movie Wolfwalkers is something to be cherished and adored. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special frustratingly refuses to play with all its potential

Yes, the Star Wars Holiday Special is back, but this time, in LEGO form! Those expecting a LEGO recreation of that one Jefferson Starship performance should get their expectations in check. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special follows a whole new story, albeit one that stills involves Chewbecca celebrating the holiday Life Day with his family. The principal plot involves Rey (Helen Sadler) struggling in being a Jedi master to Finn. While searching for a way to become a proper teacher, Rey stumbles upon a crystal that can open up portals into the past. This leads Rey's to various encounters with pivotal moments throughout the Skywalker Saga and attracts the attention of Emperor Palpatine (Trevor Davall).

Though the presence of a time-traveling crystal may be new, The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special continues a LEGO Star Wars tradition of smashing together different eras of Star Wars lore for self-referential comedy. This trait was apparent in a 2010 short entitled Bombad Bounty and has continued on into half-hour specials like The Padawan Menace. This makes the comedy of LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special par for the course among LEGO Star Wars specials. However, adhering to this style of levity sucks out the opportunity for this project to stand on its own two feet. The jokes here could have come from any LEGO Star Wars project rather than one related to the holiday season. At least the gags themselves are good-nature and do go all across the saga. No matter which Star Wars movie is your personal favorite, it's bound to get a good-natured ribbing here.

The friendliness of gags doesn't amount to much, though, when originality is in short supply. Star Wars comedy is such well-trodden ground at this point that you have to really bring something new to the table to make yourself stand out. LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special struggles to do just that, even while incorporating characters and events from the recent (and thus not as heavily lampooned) Star Wars sequel trilogy. Particularly egregious in its lack of originality is an ending gag involving Palpatine having a person epiphany whilst flying down the Death Star Two shaft, which is way too reminiscent of a Robot Chicken sketch. The similarity is underscored by how much Trevor Devall's voice work for Palpatine is clearly channeling Seth Macfarlane's Palpatine performance on Robot Chicken.

Jokes related to a Life Day party on the Millenium Falcon are rarely inspired, with some, like a Huttese rendition of Jingle Bells, feel outright cringeworthy. But the better gags here wring some comedic mileage out of juxtaposing the holiday season with the Star Wars characters. These jokes also tend to involve Porg shenanigans, which automatically bumps them up a notch. Plus, it's undeniably nifty to see LEGO mini-figure versions of Chewie's family members Lumpy, Malla and Itchy (all stars of that original Star Wars Holiday Special) make an appearance. Amusingly, though, even a special aimed at children isn't about to have a character be named Lumpy, so Chewie's relatives never get referred to by their names.

No other references to the original Holiday Special appear here as near as I could tell, not even a background came of Bea Arthur's Mos Eisley Cantina bartender. Once again, it's puzzling that the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special missed these kinds of opportunities to do more unique comedy related to its titular topic. If you're going to do a holiday special, go all out with it, don't just settle for doing what all the other LEGO TV specials have done so many times over. Then again, I suppose kids will laugh more at familiar Empire Strikes Back references than ones to Harvey Korman's cooking robot.

Will kids enjoy The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special? I'd imagine the youngest of younglings will be amused, though I doubt it'll stick around as an annual favorite like Rudolph or Prep & Landing. The project is too breezy to be any worse than just forgettable, but it lacks the wit of the LEGO Star Wars video games or the best Star Wars parodies. It's certainly better as an overall project than the original Star Wars Holiday Special but it even lacks that production's gung-ho ambition. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is content to merely recycle Robot Chicken sketches. The original Holiday Special, meanwhile, had the gall to wonder what would happen if an elderly Wookiee watch an erotic virutal-reality performance from Diane Carroll! You can't help but admire that kind of moxie! 

Friday, November 13, 2020

All hail the outstanding comedy Saint Frances

Saint Frances begins by laying every woe its protagonist, Bridget (Kelly O'Sullivan), is going through. How so? Well, through a guy she's talking to at a party. This fellow is telling her about a nightmare he had where he was 34, had no job, no family and no prospects for the future. It was such a depressing existence that, in his dream, the guy committed suicide without hesitation. A nightmare for this guy is an everyday reality for Bridget. She's been struggling to find work and live up to the expectations of what a woman her age is supposed to have accomplished. At least she'll get some income working as a nanny for Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), a youngster with spunk to spare and a candid tongue. 

Movies about crotchety adults bonding with precocious youngsters are a dime-a-dozen. Often, they end up like the 2014 Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent; inoffensive but too beholden to the tropes of the genre to ever be anything memorable. Saint Frances does not have that problem. It takes the basic concept of this subgenre and then blazes its own trail from there. The characters in Kelly O'Sullivan's screenplay are so vividly and singularly defined that Saint Frances is able to contort this subgenre to her needs. Basically, this isn't a paint-by-numbers movie. On the contrary, Saint Frances is the epitome of taking a familiar outline and making it feel brand-new.

Again, so much of this comes down to the characters, particularly Bridget. What a fascinating individual she is. Early on in Saint Frances, Bridget remarks that she doesn't take birth control simply because she hasn't gotten around to it yet. I started squirming in my seat at how relatable that casual procrastination is. Saint Frances is full of moments like that where Bridget really comes to life as a messy character one can relate to. Both O'Sullivan's writing and lead performance are defined by refusing to sand off the messy edges of everyday life. In the process, she creates practically radiates authenticity. 

O'Sullivan's realistically messy writing extends to the dynamic between Bridget and Frances. The bond between these two takes time to develop. Their earliest scenes, especially, show, a level of adolescent animosity on the part of Frances that feels ripped right out of the real world. As the film goes on, O'Sullivan finds creative ways for the duo to bond. These include scenes depicting the duo rocking out to Joan Jett music and getting revenge on a loud neighborhood kid. There's anarchic rebellion in these moments, particularly in how they use carrots in their plot for vengeance. But underneath that rambunctious exterior, there is an incredibly sweet emotional connection here between Bridget and Francis that feels totally earned.

Really, one could go on and on about the smart storytelling choices O'Sullivan makes here in Saint Frances. But perhaps my absolute favorite is how she ends up having Saint Frances fixate on the importance of allowing women to be vulnerable. By the end of Saint Frances, it's clear the principal ladies of the story, including Frances' moms Maya (Charin Alvarez) and Annie (Lily Mojekwu), are struggling to live under the burden of societal expectations of how women are supposed to behave. You can't be tired. You can't be disheveled. You must hit this job goal by this age. You can't control whether you have a kid or not. How can one even breathe, let alone live a fulfilling life, with all these crushing expectations?

Saint Frances doesn't even try to solve that systemically-ingrained issue. But it wrings numerous touching moments centering its third act on women finding solace in being open about their vulnerabilities. Maya and Bridget are only able to really connect once they bond over their troubles controlling bodily fluids like urine and blood. The way O'Sullivan's screenplay eventually uses its realistically messy nature to create such unique instances of pathos is tremendously impressive. A feature that was once used to properly Bridget's social awkwardness and anxiety is now being utilized to bring the characters of Saint Frances closer together.

The outstanding writing of Saint Frances is brought to life through thoughtful direction from Alex Thompson. His hands-off nature as a filmmaker isn't the most bombastic approach as a filmmaker but it proves an effective one here. This technique allows the characters to be front-and-center at all times, Bridget and Frances are never overwhelmed by overly flashy camera movements. Plus, he conveys a grounded sensibility in his direction that matches the realism of the script. 

Above all else, though, Thompson's direction should be commended for getting such an incredible performance out of Ramona Edith Williams. She steals every scene she's in with her terrific sense of comedic timing and her dynamic with O'Sullivan is top-notch. Williams' performance as Frances is yet another unforgettable quality of Saint Frances. Movies about crotchety adults bonding with precocious youngsters are a dime-a-dozen, it's true. Movies as outstanding as Saint Frances, though, are not.

Chadwick Boseman does all that he can with the disposable thriller 21 Bridges

And here we have another movie whose target audience I can't really discern. 21 Bridges is clearly aiming to be a mid-budget action/thriller for grown-ups, something along the lines of a Tony Scott picture. That's not a bad idea, especially since Scott was a great filmmaker. But the final film is way too grim and lacking in "bad-ass" action moments to appeal to people just wanting to watch things go boom. Meanwhile, it's all too flatly-directed and thinly-written to transcend its ambitions and become something weightier. 21 Bridges is rarely outright bad but it's another one of those movies that merely keeps reminding you of superior films you could be watching instead.

Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) lost his police officer dad to three violent criminals. That loss has stuck with him all his life to the point that he's now a New York City police officer with a penchant for killing criminals rather than taking them in. One night, a cocaine robbery gone awry has led to the deaths of a number of cops. Davis is partnered up with narcotics detective Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) to take down the two people responsible for the deaths. The duo turns out to be small-time crooks Michael Trujillo (Stephan James) and Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch), who begin to believe that something bigger is going on around here. Davis also begins to suspect the same thing in an adventure that will end up challenging Davis' perceptions of the world.

If there's anything that really sinks 21 Bridges, it's the direction from filmmaker Brian Kirk. Making his feature film directorial debut, Kirk directs 21 Bridges, particularly its earliest scenes, with so little imagination or energy. Everything's so flatly shot that it's hard to generate any sense of suspense. Where's the sense of propulsion in this crime thriller? Such lacking staging is told in an array of dimly-lit sets that are trying so very hard to convey a "mature" aesthetic but just make one wanna fall asleep. All these big-name actors are on-screen but they're all surrounded by visuals that seem more fitting for a TV cop drama.

The action scenes, too, tend to be on the forgettable side. A barrage of shoot-outs and car chases are the name of the game for the set pieces in 21 Bridges. Props for going all-in on an R-rating here with some gruesome deaths that avoid CGI blood, thus maintaining the tactility of the whole project. Still, little of the action leaves much of an impact. Partially that's due to the visual sensibilities of Kirk but it's also on the screenplay by Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan. The characters tend to get lost in the mayhem of 21 Bridges, with Davis' primary character traits especially becoming an afterthought once the bullets start flying. Plus, Mervis and Carnahan telegraph the inevitable third-act twist of who's the real villain is way too far in advance, further sucking the suspense out of the production.

If there is a saving grace here, it's the casting. Rather than getting D-list action stars with no emotion to headline 21 Bridges, Chadwich Boseman and Stephan James are our leading men. A scene of them just talking while holding each other at gunpoint proves to be the one truly compelling sequence in the whole movie. Finally, convoluted exposition and generic action have taken a backseat. Now two talented performers have taken the reins of 21 Bridges and they suck you in. James especially channels his incredible If Beale Street Could Talk turn and lends such captivating desperation to Trujillo trying to convince Davis that a larger conspiracy is at work here.

If nothing else, let 21 Bridges be a sterling showcase for the talents of these two actors. Such talents are a lot more noticeable once the third act gets underway. Now the plot for 21 Bridges no longer needs to hide behind a shroud of mystery. With everything a lot more clear, the actors have more to work with and things do come a bit more alive. Still, 21 Bridges, though it has its moments, never fully coalesces into something that works. It neither successfully evokes the older movies that inspired it nor does it become its own engaging creation.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

In Laman's Terms: Five Underrated 2020 Movies You Need To Catch Up 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!

At this time of the year, I'm usually gearing up to catch up on new releases I didn't see in theaters. In 2020, those plans have changed. With no movie theaters opened and the amount of new releases severely cut down, there's just not as many movies to catch up on as there usually are. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to catch up on! For me, I've got The Photograph, Call of the Wild and Gretel & Hansel to watch in terms of 2020 wide releases. On the limited release side of things, I've got Vitalina Varela, House of Hummingbird and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, among others, to see.

If you're looking to navigate what 2020 movies you should catch up on in the final weeks of the year, I'm here to help! Below, I've compiled five standout 2020 titles that have not received nearly enough attention but that should be at the top of your watchlist! I've also made sure to emphasize where you can watch these movies so that you can access them with ease!

Crip Camp

I've been beating the Crip Camp drum for almost a whole year now and I'll gladly continue beating it for years to come. Crip Camp is a documentary chronicling a camp in the 1960s made for people with physical disabilities. The viewer gets up close and personal with the participants of this camp, who are all emboldened from finally being around other disabled people. Just a heartwarming tale of a summer camp like no other would be enough to make Crip Camp something special. But then the documentary gets taken the next level once it shows how this sense of unity inspired years upon years of activism afterward. A sequence chronicling a sit-in from disabled activists that eventually garners help from local lesbians and black panthers is something to behold. 

Crip Camp starts at its titular location but this impressive and emotionally rich documentary proves that vibrant humanity cannot be contained to just one camp.

Crip Camp is now streaming on Netflix.

Lingua Franca

It's truly impressive how many different filmmaking influences Isabel Sandoval incorporates into her directorial debut, Lingua Franca. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Chantal Akerman, and Hiroshi Teshigahara are all evoked in her striking imagery. But this is not a movie that just leans on filmmakers of the past. Lingua Franca very much works as its own creation, particularly in how it generates tension through experiences unique to a trans woman immigrant of color. While those traits related to conflict are vividly realized, they're not the only way Lingua Franca's protagonist, Olivia, is defined. Sandoval's writing, direction, and lead performance all combine to make Olivia a human being richly defined well beyond her turmoil. Olivia's experiences in Lingua Franca make for an immersive character piece I haven't been able to stop thinking about.


Driveways is a quiet movie. It's the kind of film where pivotal scenes take place in a Bingo hall and characters rarely raise their voices. It's also the kind of movie that sneaks up on you in terms of how emotionally invested you are in it. Director Andrew Ahn commands your attention with a lowkey and intimate yarn about an old man connecting with a newly-arrived mother-and-son. The bond developed between the three characters proves immensely engaging. To boot, it's also a relationship that allows Brian Dennehy to deliver one last great performance, particularly in the film's final devastating scene. Driveways is a quiet affair but when it comes to leaving an emotional impact on viewers, it speaks volumes. 

Miss Juneteenth

There have been countless movies about Texans. But none of them have been quite like Miss Juneteenth. From writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth is a mother/daughter yarn that, among its many virtues, thoughtfully preserves the unique perspectives of both people in that dynamic. Peoples' writing also deftly establishes the unique financial hurdles facing the scripts two lead characters without having them just be defined by their poverty. Her skillful writing provides a launchpad for a dynamite performance from lead actress Nicole Beharie. Her brilliant portrayal of former beauty pageant contestant Turquoise Jones clutches your heart and never lets go. So too does the movie she headlines!

Miss Juneteenth is now available to rent or purchase digitally from retailers like Amazon and iTunes. 


Ellis Haizlip may not be a household name among TV show hosts, but the documentary Mr. SOUL! makes a strong case for him being one of the most important figures to ever grace TV airwaves. A chronicling of his TV show SOUL!, Haizlip allowed the talents of Black artists from all forms of expression (poets, singers, magicians, you name it) to be shown in a platform unprecedented in its reach. Mr. SOUL! will turn even the most unfamiliar with Haizlip's work into die-hard fans of SOUL! Impeccably-chosen footage from the actual program that shows off everything from a James Baldwin interview to the poetry of The Last Poets makes it abundantly clear why SOUL! was so groundbreaking and so entertaining.

Mr. SOUL! isn't just a clip show of a great TV program, though. The documentary also helps put into context the long-term ripple effects of a show cut down in the prime of its life. Thoughtful interviews with the shows guests and crew members make SOUL!'s last positive influence apparent. This gets furthered reinforced in a closing montage that's as effective at conveying how SOUL! is part of the broader canvas of history as it is as getting one teary-eyed. Put simply, Mr. SOUL! is a must-see documentary full of such vibrant life.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Sound of Metal doesn't shy away from complexity and is all the better for it


Life was moving along quite smoothly for Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed). Four years clean from an addiction to heroin, Ruben now spends his days as a drummer touring across the country with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). The concert gigs are great but what he really loves is just shooting the breeze with Lou on their cross-country road trips. This pleasant life gets upended when Ruben wakes up one morning not being able to hear. At first wanting to just return to what he considers normalcy, Ruben is convinced to stay at a place run by Joe (Paul Raci) that serves as a home for deaf adults. Here, Ruben can learn American Sign Language and how to live with his new long as he can just be still. 

Having heard endless praise for Sound of Metal since its September 2019 premiere, I was prepared for this movie to be good. What I wasn't expecting was for how it's able to work on so many different levels. In particular, I was totally taken by surprise that this is as much a story about addiction as anything else. Ruben never relapses during the course of Sound of Metal but he has caught a new addiction to fixing everything. Ruben can't sit still thanks to his mind always being compelled to try and solve every problem. This inclination emerges in everything from Ruben trying to fix a faulty roof tile or the way he perceives his new loss of hearing. 

The way Ruben's addiction-impacted psyche intersects with the struggles of coping with his deafness proves fascinating to be one of the most fascinating parts of Abraham and Darius Marder's script (the latter individual also directs) for Sound of Metal. It's also a part of the production that ensures that this production chronicles a realistic depiction of its lead character. Ruben doesn't just go down a one-way street to personal betterment. It's a road full of zig-zags with as many steps backward as steps forwards. Authentically rendering that sort of journey makes for a difficult watch, but also one that resonates as something deeply captivating to the viewer. 

It helps, too, that Sound of Metal uses sound work to immerse the viewer in the world of Ruben Stone. The sound department here, which includes the likes of Maria Carolina Santana Caraballo-Gramcko and Jaime Baksht, does incredible work here to differentiate between when we're watching scenes from Ruben's perspective or not. The sparse sound work immediately indicates to us that we're being placed into the point-of-view of Ruben as he navigates eating dinner or writing in a journal in his new condition. The extra immersive nature of Sound of Metal's sound work is terrifically impressive and the same can be said for the performance of its leading man, Riz Ahmed.

Ahmed has been delivering impressive work in indies like Nightcrawler and The Sisters Brothers for a couple of years now. But his performance as Ruben Stone is another widely-praised part of Sound of Metal that I still wasn't prepared for in terms of how great it is. What really blew me away with Ahmed's work is how he can capture the pain of Stone with equally raw results whether he's playing it overt or subtle. When Ruben is trashing his RV early on in the film, Ahmed makes the characters fear and perceived helplessness palpable. Later, when he's sneaking a peek at his girlfriend through Joe's computer (Joe's compound doesn't allow people to hold on to cell phones), Ahmed doesn't have to speak a word to convey his sense of longing for Lou.

We're not supposed to agree with every decision Ruben makes in Sound of Metal but Ahmed's rich performance so vividly-realizes Ruben's thought process that we can always understand why he's making the choices that he does. Also standing out in the cast is Paul Raci, who lends such a compelling aura to the role of Joe. He carries himself in a way that suggests he has enough experience to last countless lifetimes. There's a wiseness to Raci's performance as Joe but also a calming presence that makes him a perfect mentor figure. Oh boy, and his final scene with Ahmed's Stone is a perfectly-executed heartbreaker of a scene. Raci is guaranteed to devastate any viewer with his beautifully understated performance here.

Actors like Ahmed and Raci inhabit a thoughtfully-rendered script that quietly lends a diverse portrait of the deaf community to Ruben's journey. Casually showing that deafness is shown to manifest in people of color and queer individuals, that alone is great. Pop culture has always had very narrow conceptions of what deafness looks like and Sound of Metal shatters those norms so effortlessly you won't even notice it. The fact that these characters are also allowed to function as their own human beings rather than as just props for Ruben's plotline, that's just icing on a wonderful cake.

That quality reinforces how Sound of Metal is such an authentic story. That level of tangible reality is absolutely perfect for the complex ballad of Ruben Stone. His life did not go the smooth route he expected, but it did, at least, result in a movie as impressive as Sound of Metal.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

For kids and adults alike, Over the Moon is a trip worth taking



Legendary animator Glen Keane was the original director of Tangled. His intent for this project, then titled Rapunzel, was to push the boundaries of computer animation. Keane was a veteran of hand-drawn animation and he wanted to bring that medium to the world of CGI. In a 2005 interview, Keane explained how Disney was creating new technology to make the world of computer-animation more malleable and evocative of hand-drawn artwork. 

Given that Keane had no involvement in the final version of Rapunzel, it's hard to say if it fulfilled his artistic dreams. As someone whose long been aware of Keane's ambitions, though, it was quite something to watch Keane's directorial debut Over the Moon and realize that this guy had finally done it. What we have here is the manifestation of all those hopes Keane had for CG animation years ago.

Over the Moon concerns Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), whose still reeling from the passing of her mother, Ma Ma (Ruthie Ann Miles), from four years prior. Though Keane has moved from Disney Animation to Netflix Animation with Over the Moon, he still can't resist Disney's penchant for killing off moms! Anyway, Fei Fei is distraught over her dad, Ba Ba (John Cho), moving on and falling in love with a new woman, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh). Doubly troublesome is that Mrs. Zhong has an eight-year-old kid named Chin (Robert G. Chui) that Fei Fei sees as super annoying. With all this change to deal with, Fei Feig gets an idea; she'll take a rocket to the moon and prove that the Moon goddess, Chang'e (Phillipa Soo), does exist.

You see, not only is Chang'e a figure that Ma Ma used to tell stories about to a young Fei Feig, but Chang'e's whole thing is that she's only in love with one man. If Fei Fei brings back proof of Chang'e's existence, it could be enough to convince Ba Ba to not abandon Ma Ma for someone new. Fei Fei and unwitting stowaway Chin blast off to the Moon in a rocket, where they find themselves in a race against time to appease Chang'e and get the proof Fei Fie desperately wants. Might there also be a lesson or two about learning to let go in there? Far be it from me to drop spoilers...

If you're gonna watch Over the Moon, it should be just for the visuals. The Earthbound scenes in the first act are more traditional-looking, sure, save for some welcome hand-drawn animation used to render Fei Fei's internal thoughts. But once the characters get to the moon, Over the Moon turns into a feast for the eyes. Bright colors dominate the screen and reality is thrown to the wind. The domain of Chang'e is not interested in replicating the real world, it merely wants to provide unique and lovely looking imagery. Plus, it all doesn't look like the same cookie-cutter computer-animation. Different characters adhere to different visual styles and different rooms of Chang'e's palace have entirely different aesthetics. 

All of that glorious animation provides a great compliment to the script by screenwriters Audrey Wells, Alice Wu and Jennifer Yee McDevitt. The trio of writers shows a lot of imagination in coming up with a whole barrage of luminous new creatures and environments for Fei Fei to encounters. How many movies set on the moon involve an army of flying frogs or motorcycle-riding poultry? This level of bravura is furthered reflected in the musical numbers of Over the Moon, which, thankfully, make no apologies for being musical numbers. The songs, penned by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park, don't contain lyrics that could belong to any run-of-the-mill pop song. 

Instead, they relate specifically to the characters and nicely convey important plot details, like the opening number Mooncakes that takes us through Fei Fei's happy home life all the way up to her Mom's passing. The most surprisingly affecting of these tunes turns out to be Wonderful. Sung by Ken Jeong as a green dog, the lyrics use elegant simplicity to cut through the complex experiences of coping with the loss of a loved one. It certainly got me all choked up and is worthy of being called, well, wonderful. 

If there is a downside to Over the Moon, it's that, as a whole, it does feel a bit more like enjoyable individual pieces rather than an enjoyable cohesive whole. This doesn't really become a problem until the ending when big emotional pay-off's don't quite hit as hard as they should because of the disparate nature of the story. In particular, Fei Fei and Chin's big emotional resolution rings hollow because the two characters have been separated for so much of the runtime. We haven't been able to watch them grow closer as characters so how can we buy that they've come to love each other? 

Even with an awkward march across the finish line, Over the Moon's visual wonders and memorable tunes make it a cut above your standard animated kids' movies. All these years later, Glen Keane's hopes of taking computer-animation to new and bold places has been realized with Over the Moon.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

On the Rocks Is a Low-Key Charming Affair

I feel like On the Rocks was badly served by opening in the same Fall. It debuted on the Autumn festival circuit alongside a barrage of dramas with heavier themes on their mind. On the Rocks, meanwhile, is the kind of breezy movie for grown-ups that gets released in the summertime like The Big Sick or Little Miss Sunshine. With the pandemic screwing up the entire release calendar, On the Rock just couldn't get an ideal release date launchpad. Oh well, movie release dates end up being immaterial in the long run. What's important is a movie's quality and On the Rocks proves an enjoyable watch.

From the outside, Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) would appear to have a great married life. Dean's doing well in the entrepreneur business, Laura's a novelist and they have two wonderful kids. However, Laura isn't doing so hot right now. She's got a case of writer's block and, worse, she's convinced her husband is cheating on her with his assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Laura turns to her dad, Felix Keane (Bill Murray), in these troubled times and that turns out to be a bad idea. Felix only fuels her suspicions and the two begin to follow Dean around in hopes of figuring out if he's cheating on Laura or not.

One of the very best traits of writer/director Sofia Coppola's script for On the Rocks is the relationship between Laura and Felix. It's a fractured father/daughter dynamic I haven't quite seen in a movie before. Felix was a father who left a negative impression on Laura's life with him cheating on her mom and all. However, that was decades ago. When On the Rocks begins, Laura and Felix are standing in the crater of Felix's actions. They've resigned themselves to the fact that their relationship will never be perfect, that a dark cloud representing the past will always linger over their interactions. But maybe they can still have some fun?

It's a complex approach to a troubled father/daughter rapport that proves quietly fascinating. Laura and Felix always feel like they're constantly switching between being enemies or time-tested allies. It's a messy relationship that feels evocative of reality and keeps your glued to the screen. Plus, such an intricate dynamic proves to be great material for the two leads of On the Rocks. Jones, for her part, is especially adept at conveying Laura as someone always wrestling with how she feels about her father. Everything about her life is in flux and her connection to Felix is no exception. Jones renders that lack of certainty with such intriguing conviction.

For his part, Bill Murray works quite well at playing a charming slimeball that somehow keeps getting you to smile wryly at his antics. It's the sort of scheming ladies man Murray's been playing for well over four decades now, though now it's coated in an extra-layer of elderly experience. Oh, and now Murray can play the role of a super cool granddad in a manner that proves surprisingly charming. Murray and Jones have good chemistry together and Coppola's script makes the good sense to keep things intimate in their excursions even when they take a detour into Mexico in the third-act. Jones and Murray are good enough that you don't need much more than them to make things engaging.

On the Rocks isn't the most substantive of Sofia Coppola's works, even among those that star Bill Murray but it doesn't really need to be. It's a low-key affair whose charms prove as satisfying as a well-stirred beverage. What a shame this movie is being released onto Apple TV+ where it will be lost behind a paywall forever, never to be seen by audiences. It's like putting together a nice painting and then hiding it away in a shed. Between its release date and Apple TV+ debut, On the Rocks really is getting a bum rap in terms of its release. Rest assured, though, the movie itself is far more enjoyable than its bungled release.

Austin Film Festival: The Eagle's Nest is Caught Between Conflicting Artistic Impulses


When we first meet Paris (Claude Scholastique Nkou Mbida), the protagonist of The Eagle’s Nest, she’s your usual rebellious teenager. She refuses to say grace before dinner and she flaunts her tongue ring and nose piercing. However, Paris soon finds her life anything but ordinary once her mom and ten-year-old sister are murdered by an unknown gunman. Now the only survivor of her family, Paris craves revenge.

She and her best friend Samantha (Felicity Asseh) are now on the hunt for clues about who could have been behind this slaying. Screenwriters Magno Assoua Adeline and Olivier Assoua (the latter of whom also directs) also incorporate flashbacks to Paris and Samantha’s time as sex workers. These recently involved a client who dropped dead in the middle of a session. That and other secrets in Paris’ life are coming to a head now as she searches for answers behind her mom and sister’s murder.

The Eagle’s Nest is a downright puzzling production. It’s a movie trapped between a variety of creative impulses but only infrequently does it satisfy any of them. On the one hand, The Eagle’s Nest is evocative of all kinds of modern action movies. Its plot feels cribbed from Taken while the use of a “BWAAM” on the soundtrack connects it to modern-day blockbusters. But if there’s any genre The Eagle’s Nest is particularly cribbing from, it’s old-school revenge movies like Blood Debts or Deadly Prey.

The Eagle’s Nest fares best imbuing the outline of these revenge thriller with unique perspective. Those perspectives related to Paris and her desire to leave her hometown. This yearning is established in an early scene of Paris fantasizing with friends about charting a boat to Italy. From there, an impulse to grow elsewhere informs everything Paris does. Whether it’s keeping secrets from her Mom or taking a bag of money, traveling somewhere far away is always the motivation for Paris.

Emphasizing this side of Paris means she gets unique pieces of motivation compared to your average Death Wish sequel. For example, threats to her passport feel as intimidating as Jigsaw threatening to cut off some dudes arm in a Saw movie. Other intimate scenes littered with specific details prove similarly successful. The best of these is a conversation between Samantha and Paris on how to “appear Black”. This sequence  thoughtfully explores the differing perspectives of the two characters while also radiating as something new for this revenge thriller genre.

Unfortunately, the screenplay too often tosses its most distinct qualities on the backburner. The focus gradually zeroes in on being a basic revenge thriller. Paris goes through the motions of hunting down suspects without showcasing her own personality or desires. The script tries to conceal its derivative nature through a non-linear storytelling approach. Yet, it’s all a narrative smokescreen. The reason The Eagle’s Nest feels so formulaic is because it ends up being so formulaic.

By the time we get to the climax, Paris, her desires or any of other sociopolitical elements of The Eagle’s Nest are immaterial. It’s just a conventional action movie finale right down to there being a tied-up hostage Paris must save. All the unique character details have washed away, like tears in the rain. What is the audience left with then?

Well, at least there’s still some strong lead performances anchoring The Eagle’s Nest. Claude Scholastique Nkou Mbida, for instance, makes for a good vengeful lead. Felicity Asseh proves to be the standout among the actors, though. Her portrayal of Samantha shimmers with charisma. Best of all, she has extremely believable lived-in chemistry in her rapport with Mbida. These actors, though, get let down by the most familiar parts of The Eagle’s Nest.

For one thing, The Eagle’s Nest doesn’t improve on its Z-grade creative inspirations as much it probably should. Surface-level approaches to sex workers and gangsters were never cool, to be clear. But they’re par for the course in a direct-to-videos action movie from the 80s. In a 2020 film that dedicates scenes to humanizing immigrant experiences, it’s strange to see such shallow visions of sex workers. Ditto using queer-coding to define who the villain is or explicit on-screen depictions of sexual assault.

If The Eagle’s Nest was going to be such a generic take on the revenge movie, it could have at least had the gall to be fun. Unfortunately, The Eagle’s Nest is still applying a grimly serious tone to what ends up being an average Taken-knock-off. If it was all going to be so glum, couldn’t the focus at least remain on the characters and not a humdrum thriller?

Much like Dead Man Down, The Eagle’s Nest starts out as a promising thriller with a brain before ending as an assembly-line action movie. At least Dead Man Down had the decency to deliver a finale that involved Collin Farrell driving a car into a house. The Eagle’s Nest, unfortunately, is too busy being caught between being a grindhouse and arthouse movie to do anything like that.