Friday, December 31, 2021

Don't hesitate to grab a slice of Licorice Pizza


The works of Paul Thomas Anderson have dealt with some heavy topics. But there's always been bursts of comedy in these productions that suggest how adept this filmmaker is tickling your funny bone. Even the often bleak There Will be Blood features that hysterical moment where a fight between Daniel Plainview and Eil Sunday ends by cutting to a dinner table where Sunday is sulking while covered in dirt and mud. Anderson's sharpness as a director has come in handy to make these moments as memorably humorous as they are. With his newest feature, Licorice Pizza, Anderson gets to make a whole movie that's just light-hearted gags and hangout vibes. It's a mold that departs from, say, Hard Eight, but it's also a mold that suits the filmmaker nicely. 

Alan Kane (Alana Haim) and 15-year-old actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) met in an innocuous enough manner. It's a picture day at Valentine's High school and Kane is a 25-year-old helping organize everything. Valentine becomes immediately smitten with her and he insists that he take her out on a date. For obvious reasons, Kane s disinterested in the proposition. From there, the duo can't stop hanging around each other, with the pair opting to work as business, rather than romantic, partners on a variety of businesses. The haywire nature of the 1970s means that there's something new around every corner, from a gas shortage to the antics of producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), to ensure that the lives of these two crazy kids will never get boring.

The concept of making a movie with kid leads where the adults are the immature one is not novel. Plenty of other features, especially ones targeted directly at youngsters, have gone down this road. But Licorice Pizza makes this approach feel fresh again simply by adding a quasi-tragic air to its execution of this concept. Watching adult figures in roles of great authority like actor Jack Holden (Sean Penn), performer Lucy Doolittle (Christine Erbersole) or even Richard Nixon (seen only through archival footage on television) act even more selfish than the 15-year-old protagonist of Licorice Pizza is a stark reminder of what it means to be a "grown-up".

Valentine and Kane are constantly pursuing avenues that they think will automatically grant them the wisdom and security that they imagine comes with adulthood, that can cure their insecurities as adolescents. But none of the grown-ups seen in Licorice Pizza seem to have everything together. If anything, they've gone mad with power, fueled by insecurities they can never wrangle. We've all seen movies centered on kids where the grown-ups are just immature buffoons. But Licorice Pizza's twist on this concept is to emphasize the consequences of all that buffoonery, to linger on how hard to is to grow up in this kind of world. The incompetence of the cops or the president, fueled by vanity specific to adulthood, can ruin your whole life in the blink of an eye.

Then again, maybe the immaturity of the adults is to just allow for more amusing comic situations for the two leads to interact in, but it's a testament to Licorice Pizza's quietly impressive screenplay that it could be interpreted in this manner. Like so many great comedies, Licorice Pizza can be appreciated as either something deep, rich with sociopolitical commentary or just as something you put on the TV as a reliable feel-good pick-me-up. Like so many films that inhabit the latter category, the success of Licorice Pizza can be measured by just how many lines of dialogue get stuck in your head afterward. Everyone be wary of me throughout January as countless comedic witticisms from this screenplay will be a regular part of my lexicon to an annoying degree.

Anderson's script isn't just chock full of funny lines of dialogue, it's also impressively committed to a hangout vibe that serves the characters and atmosphere perfectly. Rather than handicapping the lives of Valentine and Kane with traditional three-act-structure problems, their existences ebb, flow, and go on about complicated paths, just like real people. It's just wonderful how Anderson can pause things at will to allow a runaway truck or waterbeds to suddenly become the focus of things. In reality, you never know what's going to suddenly consume your life. The laidback storytelling of Licorice Pizza captures that part of daily existence beautifully.

Taking such a chilled-out approach to things also gives the central actors plenty of opportunities to shine, especially Alana Haim in the film's breakout performance. In her first-ever acting role in a feature-length production, Haim comes alive as a firecracker that isn't afraid to speak her mind in any situation. Some of the best moments of Licorice Pizza are just Haim going scorched Earth on everyone around her, especially one unforgettable scene where she lays into her sister's. Haim is a riot in Licorice Pizza, ditto for Bradley Cooper in a small but memorable role that allows him to channel Eric Andre energy as his version of Peters will say and smash anything at a moment's notice.

Though very distinct projects in terms of tone and underlying themes, Licorice Pizza most reminded me of The Master in terms of prior Paul Thomas Anderson directorial efforts. Both are period pieces that aren't afraid to eschew conventional narrative norms in favor of just following around two people and their ever-complicated relationship. In both cases, keeping things so lean and streamlined is an ingenious move and makes for cinema you can't stop thinking about. Going in a more lighthearted direction for Licorice Pizza doesn't zap the substance out of Anderson's work. It just unleashes new ways for this filmmaker to impress, including in his dynamite choices for the film's soundtrack. Hooray for a 1970s period piece choosing unorthodox needle drops instead of the same old tracks we've all heard a thousand times before! 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Steven Spielberg delivers top-rate musical entertainment with West Side Story

In case you aren't aware, West Side Story (originally a Broadway musical in the 1950s and first adapted into film through a 1961 Best Picture-winning feature) is a take-off on Romeo and Juliet set between two street gangs in 1950s New York City. On one side is the Jets, a collection of white teenagers, and on the other side is the Sharks, comprised of Puerto Rican teenagers. The two groups duke it out in the streets with fiery hatred for one another. In the middle of all this conflict, romance blossoms between former Jets leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks, Maria (Rachel Zegler). Their romance is as forbidden as the passion they feel for one another is unstoppable. This situation produces emotions that run so high they can only be communicated through songs penned by the late Stephen Sondheim. 

Remakes are often such a disappointing hollow shell of familiar classic movies that the prospect of a new take on West Side Story cant help but gear one up to be underwhelmed. Within moments of West Side Story beginning, though, I knew I was in good hands. Nearly 50 years after he helmed Duel, director Steven Spielberg still demonstrates such an impressive command of his camera, which is made apparent through an opening single-take guiding the viewer through decimated remains of an old neighborhood. What used to house families is now being destroyed to make ritzy new domiciles and push out the poor. Without speaking a word, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski quietly unfold the tragic backdrop that inspired the conflict between the Jets and Sharks. 

From there, the commanding visual language of the feature is put to even better use framing the musical numbers. Starting with Dexter Fletcher's Rocketman in 2019, American musicals got over the choppy editing and clumsy camerawork that plagued past modern entries in the genre like The Greatest Showman. Crisp visuals that captured people who could sing and dance, rather than hurriedly darting between big-name movie stars and stunt doubles, became the name of the game. This welcome departure is epitomized in West Side Story, with a cast of Broadway veterans singing and dancing their hearts out with all the emotion they can muster all while Spielberg's precise camera movements capture every detail of this splendid showmanship.

Combining these visual traits with Sondheim's wonderfully detailed lyrics ("You're a Jet with a capital G!" still makes me giggle) makes the opening number of West Side Story not only outstanding but a perfect harbinger of what's to come. Time after time, this movie delivers set pieces that are rich with emotions, mesmerizing cinematography, and incredible choreography. Neither the visuals nor the way the tunes are presented makes any apologies for this being an unabashed musical. On the contrary, Spielberg's take on West Side Story demonstrates the powerful feelings and spectacle that you could only get in this genre.

Even better, screenwriter Tony Kushner keeps finding ingenious ways to make familiar West Side Story tunes fresh again primarily through giving them new backdrops. You may know every lyric to America, but it'll feel brand new thanks to how Kushner ingeniously brings this musical number out into the street of New York City so that visual aids can be used to illustrate the pros and cons of living in the titular country. The underlying brutality of the lyrics in the seemingly comical ditty Dear Officer Krupke, meanwhile, gets reinforced wonderfully through staging this song as something members of the Jets sing to one another in isolation. Rather than rehashing what you already know, West Side Story keeps serving up imaginative interpretations of some of the best musical numbers of all time.

These songs are belted out by an impressive assortment of talented actors, many of them making their feature film debuts. Rachel Zegler, for one, immediately stands out as an instant movie star through her breathtaking singing voice and ability to capture such vivid deep emotion with just a glance. Ariana DeBose, inhabiting the part of Anita, provides similarly unforgettable work while supporting players Mike Faist and David Alvarez are just riveting in their screen presence. As for Ansel Elgort, he's...the weakest link by far in the whole movie. Elgort's got a fine singing voice, but he can't hope to compare to his Broadway vet co-stars. Every time he's paired up with Zegler or Faist, it only reinforces how he's a steep step down from the rest of the cast. 

An underwhelming male lead aside, though, West Side Story is otherwise a fantastic musical, whose greatness is reflected in how even the tiniest details of the production occupied my mind once my screening ended. The use of Spanish dialogue in the screenplay, for instance, is terrific. I love that it's used to not only reflect the interior lives of the Puerto Rican characters but also as a tool of rebellion against authority figures like a cop played by Corey Stoll. Meanwhile, the various sets and practical filming locations for West Side Story are gloriously-realized. No distracting green-screen artifice here, there's a tangibility and depth to the environments that lends instant believability to a story involving people who can't stub their toe without belting out an extended musical number. 

And the colors! West Side Story is unafraid to embrace a wide variety of bright hues in even the most mundane environments. A church date between Maria and Tony involves washing the two characters in streaks of red and blue light while the vividly-colored clothes hanging out to dry in Anita's apartment make any scene set here instantly pleasing to the eyes. Looking on all the things West Side Story does right, it's wonderful how its best parts aren't just nodding to the original (though it is wonderful to see Rita Moreno return as a new version of the character Doc). Though rooted in one of the most famous movie musicals of all time, Steven Spielberg's West Side Story is something that has no problem standing on its own and even suggesting (GASP!) that sometimes, remakes can be quality movies. Perish the thought!

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Douglas Laman's 25 Best Movies of 2021

If the second season of I Think You Should Leave counted as a movie, it would've topped this list without question.

2021 turned out to be just as turbulent as 2020 for the world of feature films. The ever-shifting ground for this medium of artistic expression led to lots of debate regarding how to best exhibit these projects, the presence of streaming in the future of cinema, what kind of films get the most presence in the pop culture landscape, and all sorts of other topics. In the middle of all this debate was, of course, the films themselves. Having seen approximately 205 new releases in 2021 (finally fulfilling my dream goal of watching 200+ new releases in a single year), I can attest that there was plenty of great filmmaking to enjoy this year. 

What made several of these features extra special was how they managed to get filmed and completed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Projects from some of the best directors working today managed to endure despite the countless complications stemming from an ongoing health crisis. Good movies, much like Christmas at the end of the original Grinch story, "came just the same" despite all the challenges facing films right now.  It's a great notion to carry into 2022, a reminder that quality entries in this artform can endure no matter what the circumstances. 

And now, let's break down the top 25 best movies of 2021. As in prior years, the list organized in alphabetical order save for one title I've deemed to be the very best of the bunch.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

American Underdog: The Kurt Warner fails to score any points as a sports drama

The most exciting part about American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story comes in one of its first scenes when the film’s titular protagonist walks into a honky-tonk bar in the early 1990s. There’s always a thrill to hearing a song you like show up in a feature film as a needle drop and I experienced that sensation once Neal McCoy’s “Wink” started playing on the soundtrack. There are lots of things I expected to happen in 2021 cinema, but hearing “Wink” in a major theatrical release was not one of them.

More emotions got stirred in my heart recognizing a familiar tune in the background than through the rest of American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Blaring a playlist of my most-listened-to songs on Spotify under the entire feature wouldn’t have made this production any more bearable though. This film is an embarrassingly bad inspirational yarn, the sort of movie that makes you want to sleep rather than cheer. There aren’t just fumbles out on the field here, American Underdog can barely take a few steps out of the locker room without tripping.

Our story begins by following Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) as a college football player. Yes, directors Andrew and Jon Erwin try to pass off Levi as a college-aged kid. John C. Reilly comically playing a middle-schooler in Walk Hard no longer seems like such a stretch! Anyway, Warner is a guy who’s spent his whole life pursuing his dreams of being a football player, it’s all he wants in this world. But challenges keep facing him every step of the way. He never gets a chance to get on the field in college, while his eventual pursuits to get into the NFL keep falling short.

At least he has single mom Brenda (Anna Paquin) and her two kids to bring joy into his life. After her ex-husband abandoned her when she was pregnant, Brenda never thought she could love again. But Kurt Warner changed all that. If he could reinject romance into her existence, who knows what’s possible? Why, even a potential gig with the St. Louis Rams could be waiting in the wings…

The real Warner had an astonishing amount of real-world sports achievements to his name, including becoming a Super Bowl MVP. It’d be interesting to see how he accomplished those feats or even how he navigated day-to-day life with the pressures of those records on his shoulders. American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story breezes past such historic in its final 10 minutes and pre-credits on-screen text dump. The screenplay, penned by the Erwin Brothers and Jon Gunn, is much more interested in the melodramatic personal life of Warner.

This sort of intimate focus wouldn’t be so bad if the writers were skilled with penning low-key scenes of human interaction. But good God, they’re not. Characters constantly talk about their dispositions and hang-ups rather than just demonstrating them to the point of unintentional comedy. When they’re not doing that, everyone around Warner seems to speak in quotes tailor-made to be shared as generic inspirational posts on your Aunt’s Facebook page. There are no human beings in American Underdog, just organisms spewing out words so tin-eared it’ll make your skin crawl.

Meanwhile, the script’s pacing is incredibly counterintuitive towards making a compelling underdog story. The primary structure of the plot is that one scene will present an obstacle for Warner while the next scene will immediately wrap up that conflict in a tidy bow. There’s never time to let problems simmer, nor is there any reason to get invested in the drama since it’ll inevitably get erased in just moments. Like the weather in Texas, the sources of conflict in American Underdog are both always changing and deeply unpleasant to experience.

There are even some weird undertones in the second act of the script when Warner is at his lowest-point financially. His football dreams seem farther away than ever as he stocks supermarket shelves. This is when American Underdog engages in a bit of poverty porn while scoring unintentional giggles in presenting Warner using food stamps as disappointing of development as an addict relapsing. Though it aims to appeal to “flyover America”, the film’s approach to economically challenged individuals is shockingly condescending.

And then there’s the odd moralizing in the story, which ends up playing at odds with its sports movie ambitions. The central moral of American Underdog is that winning doesn’t matter if you don’t have people to love by your side. That’s a fine lesson to impart, but it ends up hammering home this concept so much that the shift in the third act to get the audience invested in Warner scoring touchdowns for the St. Louis Rams feels empty. Now the Erwin Brothers want us to be solely interested in winning? Not since CHAPPiE denounced violence while beating up Hugh Jackman has a movie been so confused about its morals.

The use of Christianity in the movie is also strange. The presence of this theology is introduced through Brenda talking to Warner about how important her faith is to her. This stemmed from a childhood encounter with an older lady who said that Brenda was destined for great things by God. From there, American Underdog weirdly plays its two lead characters as Chosen One figures ordained by the Lord. Artists like Carl Theodore Dryer and Martin Scorsese use theology to explore people’s humanity and flaws. The Erwin Brothers, meanwhile, use Christianity to suggest that God is really invested in the outcome of St. Louis Rams games.

But the worst part of American Underdog is how it fails to indulge in the fun hallmarks of sports movies. Where’s the training montage? The fun scenes bonding between the football players? Miracle and Remember the Titans would eat this movie’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Those sports dramas were also considerably better-filmed than American Underdog, with the nadir of its filmmaking coming anytime live-action characters have to stand against comically obvious green-screen backdrops.

A sports movie so generic it’s shocking it didn’t get pumped out by a streaming service algorithm shouldn’t be dragging down likeable actors, but that’s just what American Underdog does. Zachary Levi is a talented guy in many ways, but this drama doesn’t give him a chance to indulge in any of his gifts. He tries his best to lend some humanity to incredibly awkward scenes, like a drawn-out marriage proposal sequence, but there’s only so much one can do. Anna Paquin, meanwhile, often seems like she’s daydreaming about being in better movies. Who could blame her?

The only one exhibiting any life in the cast in American Underdog is Dennis Quaid as coach Dick Vermeil. Coming into the production in the third, Quaid makes the bold decision to play this character with the mannerisms and facial expressions of an impish fairy boy but gives Vermeil the voice of Nick Nolte. The dissonance here is incredible. If the Erwin Brothers had just focused on Quaid’s character for the entire runtime, we wouldn’t have ended up with a good movie, but we certainly would’ve gotten something more interesting.

One of the best parts about sports dramas is how they can tell a story that captivates audiences who otherwise have no interest in things like baseball or football. By contrast, American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story is guaranteed to alienate even die-hard St. Louis Rams and Kurt Warner fans. There’s so much snooze-inducing melodrama and so little interesting football action, it’s hard to tell who this movie is meant to appeal to. Not even utilizing “Wink” can make American Underdog something worth watching. 

The Master is, among other accomplishments, an acting tour de force

We're all chasing freedom.

In one way or another, we're all running towards the prospect of having full control over our lives. Maybe we think if we earn up enough money we can finally grab hold of that status quo or perhaps it's that dream of being in the right place at the right time that gets us out of bed. But none of us are truly free. Whether you're a prince or a pauper, we all have responsibilities, nobody is devoid of answering to a higher power. It's a futile chase, but it's one we keep sprinting towards anyway. Leave it to the insightful gaze of Paul Thomas Anderson to contemplate that existential exercise with an extra profound gaze in his 2012 feature The Master.   

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has just gotten back from fighting in World War II. The conflict and his experience killing other humans, not to mention his own personal mental health issues that existed long before the war began, have left him psychologically distraught. As The Master begins, Quell is adrift. Where does his life go now? But in a seemingly directionless world, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) appears. Running a movement known as The Cause that, among other achievements, claims to be able to allow people to explore their past lives, Dodd takes in Quell. From here, a connection forms as Quell explores a potential new purpose while Dodd tries to bring The Cause to even greater prominence.

Looking back on the initial reviews that greeted The Master, I was surprised by how many critics got stuck up on the question of "what does it mean?" The Master doesn't wear its themes on its sleeves, but it seemed clear (to me at least) what ideas the film is chasing after. Not only is The Master about the elusiveness of total control over one's life, but it's also about the toxic ways we fill the holes in our hearts. Quell is a man who clearly needs serious psychiatric help, but America, in this era, doesn't have a structure in place to help returning soldiers with intense mental health disorders. He's been used for the good fight, but now that everyone wants to get back to "normal", he's being hidden under a rug. Lancaster Dodd's cult is a way for him to find meaning and an anchor in the middle of all this turmoil.

This situation also makes great use of a post-World War II backdrop. For Quell, killing and the psychological turmoil that's stemmed from it has become his norm, what else does he know? What else can he know? He may be finished with the war, but the war is not finished with him. You can't just turn off these elements like a lightbulb. Navigating what his status quo even looks like now makes it possible for him to become seduced by Dodd's cult and make the psyche of this character all the more fascinating to watch unfold. Plus, Anderson's refusal to speed the film up feels like a perfect reflection of exploring a post-World War II landscape. There is no new global conflict to rush into, the future is a terrifying blank canvas for someone like Quell and that's perfectly reflected in The Master's pacing.

Telling the story like this also allows plenty of opportunities for the central performances to breathe, with Phoenix and Hoffman, in particular, sharing a handful of tete-a-tete exchanges that work so well because Anderson refuses to barrel on through to the next scene. Each of these two delivers outstanding work in The Master even they're separated from one another, with Hoffman proving especially impressive. In his screentime, he renders a personality that could believably entice people to follow him to the ends of the Earth while providing hints of the vulnerable human being that, as the character's son puts it, "is making this up as he goes along."

Phoenix, for his part, conveys authenticity, not a melodramatic caricature, in his portrayal of Quell as someone who is psychologically tormented. This actor just kept on delivering outstanding lead performances throughout the 2010s (Her and You Were Never Really Here are his other two crown jewels from this era) and The Master is certainly part of that trend. Phoenix and the other actors are captured by Mihai Mălaimare Jr.'s unforgettable cinematography, which makes glorious use of 65mm film. Take any frame from The Master and it looks like something you could frame on a wall. The way you can take in the rich detail of any object in a shot, the gorgeous way natural light looks on-camera, those bright blue hues of the ocean, it all looks stunning.

Looking back on the initial critical reception of The Master, it's understandable to see so many reviews that were concerned exclusively with figuring out just what the movie means. Is it a Scientology parable? A queer allegory? A political commentary? Maybe it's all those things and more, but what I found so intoxicating about The Master is how it functions so well as all these things at once while also just working as an atmospheric exercise. There's an aching woe at the heart of this project captured by its two lead performances, one that understands that we are never free of greater influences on our lives. We can run, we can hide, we can drink ourselves silly, but the masters that control our lives are never erased. There is pain here in The Master along with boundless ways this central story can be interpreted. Forgive the obvious pun, but it's masterful filmmaking of the most impressive order, another Paul Thomas Anderson home run that may just be the greatest movie of 2012. 

Thankfully, The Matrix Resurrections is no ordinary legacy sequel

NOTE: This review does not feature spoilers, HOWEVER, it does discuss plot points from The Matrix Resurrections introduced in the 15 minutes of the runtime but have not been explicitly talked about in the marketing. If you want to go in cold, read no further! 

It's understandable to be trepidatious about a new Matrix movie like The Matrix Resurrections. After all, what's made the work of Lilly and Lana Wachowski over the last two decades (the latter of whom returns to direct this new installment) has been an exciting willingness to just go for the weird and unexpected. Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, these are not films cooked up in a test marketing meeting over what audiences want to see. They're distinct visions this duo wanted to make and that passion came through vividly on the screen. Can returning to familiar territory yield similarly creatively exciting results?

The Matrix Resurrections begins in the past. Or at least in a simulation of it. Bugs (Jessica Henwick) is watching from a short distance away a scene from the original Matrix where Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss) is working on a laptop when she's busted by a group of cops. A fight scene ensues, which Bugs watches with rapt attention. Right from the start, screenwriters Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon indicate just how meta this production will be. Some legacy sequels, like Ghostbusters: Afterlife, are content to coast on just delivering a straightforward remake of an original movie. This opening scene establishes that Resurrections is more interested in poking, prodding, and tweaking around with the world of the Matrix.

This is made even more apparent when we meet Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a game developer whose most famous creation is a trilogy of video games entitled The Matrix. What are movies in our universe are the hottest console creations on the planet in this universe. Only...could they be more than consoles? Could Anderson's difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction be an indicator that maybe there's some truth nestled in the games he's crafted? He's going to have to pursue such lofty questions after having an encounter with Bugs and a new version of Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), as well as constantly finding his eye drawn to a lady named Tiffany that looks an awful lot like Trinity...

The first act of The Matrix Resurrections is its strongest section, as Wachowski leans hard on commenting on modern pop culture's fixation on the past. This exploration doesn't result in surface-level jokes about "lol, remakes are bad", but rather interrogations on how the past can be co-opted to either inspire revolution or maintain the status quo. This theme also dovetails into how The Matrix Resurrections functions, to my eyes at least, as an autobiographical film about Lana Wachowski dealing with her place in the modern film industry. In the first Matrix, young Neo was just an everyday person, a youthful troublemaker in line with how new and rebellious to the film industry the Wachowski's were. 

Now, Neo is older, more established. His name is everywhere and everyone in the corporate world has opinions on art that's deeply personal to him. The weariness Neo feels at having everyone reduce his Matrix games down to just being about explosions or an opportunity to make more money through sequels, it comes through with such palpable texture since it feels like emotions Lana Wachowski's been through navigating the film industry. The eventual focus on Neo and Trinity's relationship also functions as a rebuke of modern Hollywood's obsession for turning classic films into objects that can be mined for fan service and NFT's. Through lingering on this core romance, Wachowski is putting the humanity of classic blockbusters (the very ingredient that got audiences to latch onto a film like The Matrix in the first place) front and center once again. 

Despite the extremely thoughtful and personal approach to the world of legacy sequels, The Matrix Resurrections can't help but eventually fall into some of the traps it's looking to critique. These include one too many callbacks to the original Matrix and a few story beats that would be better if they eschewed the conventions of the franchise they inhabit. Meanwhile, the second act gets bogged down in a lot of exposition and the draggy pace in this section of the story reinforces the fact that this didn't need to be a 148-minute long movie. Condensing the runtime even a tad would've made the whole thing that much more effective.

Speaking of effective, the performances, on the whole, are great, with the newcomers especially equipping themselves well to the distinct dialogue and acting style of this franchise. Jessica Henwick continues to prove that Iron Fist did her so dirty, she's great as Bugs, while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II once again demonstrates that he's got an incredible amount of charisma in his intriguing take on Morpheus. There's also lots of fun to be had with Johnathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris in key supporting roles, with the former actor even getting to duke it out in fight scenes. Who knew a lead actor from Mindhunter could go toe-to-toe with Keanu Reeves?

The Matrix Resurrections is bound to be a divisive affair given that it's a blockbuster as enamored, if not more so, with deconstructive storytelling, fascinating trans allegories, and commenting on the dangers of capitalism as it is with delivering big action sequences. For me, though, such unique sensibilities are the only reason I'd want to return to the Matrix in the first place. The downright trippy nature of several scenes in the first half had me especially impressed that Lana Wachowski had reinjected a sense of uncertainty into a familiar world. It's nowhere near the best thing either the Matrix series or a Wachowski director has delivered, but The Matrix Resurrections is a serious step up from your average legacy sequel. C'mon, it's time to wake up, go to the theater, and get hooked back into The Matrix.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Spider-Man: No Way Home is an exercise in fan service done right

Watching the marketing for Spider-Man: No Way Home promise a smorgasbord of Spider-Man villains from across the multiverse, my primary concern was that this movie would function as a lesser cousin to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Happily, the actual film is something much more akin to the 2011 movie The Muppets. Like that delightful musical, Spider-Man: No Way Home has been engineered by people with a passion for the material they're adapting, a consciousness of the rich history of the series they're entering, and a willingness to use the toys at their disposal for maximum fun. The resulting blockbuster isn't challenging or a mold-breaker, but does it need to be when it's also so ridiculously entertaining?

Picking up directly from the events of Spider-Man: Far from Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has had his superhero persona of Spider-Man revealed to the whole world. Grappling with how this development is affecting his loved ones, Parker decides to seek out the help of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). After this wizard is convinced to come to this teenager's aid, the duo embarks on pulling off a spell that will make the world forget about Parker being Spider-Man. However, something goes awry in this process and instead unleashes figures from alternate universes like Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) that have some serious grudges with the web-crawler.

While this is a spoiler-free review, a welcome development in the plot that I'll happily divulge is that Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn't forget that what made the first two Jon Watts-directed Spider-Man films so fun. Specifically, that emphasis on shenanigans specific to High School-aged youngsters. Here, anxiety over college applications gets a significant amount of screentime. Meanwhile, the youthful nature of this version of Parker makes for a great contrast to the world-weary baddies who're all too cognizant of their own mortality. Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers have a constant consciousness over the fact that this movie stars a 16-year-old and the production is all the better for it.

The writing from McKenna and Sommers also proves deft in juggling so many characters without No Way Home becoming an incoherent mess. While this movie manages to stand on its own, the smartest storytelling cue it takes from Into the Spider-Verse is centering one character above all others in the multiverse shenanigans. With Peter Parker always center-frame, the film avoids falling into the trap of feeling like a feature-length version of that Rise of Skywalker scene where Chewbacca finally gets a medal . Even better, the utilization of material from previous Spider-Man titles manages to outright redeem certain characters that didn't quite work in their original interpretations, especially Jamie Foxx's Max Dillon/Electro.

Granted, that doesn't mean the screenplay gets by without any shortcomings. The plot does have some moments where it's clear getting to a big showstopper moment took precedent above all else, including the build-up to said showstopper moment. In terms of other shortcomings, there are also issues with proper compositing of CG and live-action elements, especially CG stunt doubles with real backdrops. Plus, it might've been nice to get further closure for some of Parker's high school chums from the last two movies, like Flash Thompson (Tony Revelori) and Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), the latter of whom is only seen for one scene.

These quibbles aren't immaterial, but they do feel like small potatoes compared to the moments of pure catharsis and excitement that No Way Home regularly delivers. The big set-pieces have an infectiously exciting air to them and feel guided by the principle of doing whatever's fun rather than whatever's grounded or cost-conscious. Leaning into the variety of superpowers across the assorted villains means there's always something new that No Way Home can throw at its superhero protagonist and the audience. On his third blockbuster directing gig, Watts has gotten adept at the theatricality necessary to make these sequences click. It's wonderful that his work behind the camera is as lively as the writing, with some especially imaginative pieces of camerawork working well to accentuate Parker's internal emotions when he's in particularly intense scenarios.

Perhaps my favorite part of Spider-Man: No Way Home, though, is how much leash it gives the talented actors in its packed cast. More scenes than expected are handed off to just letting folks like Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe exchange low-key conversations. That's very much a good thing since the banter is so fun (juxtaposing casual conversation with over-the-top beings like Sandman will never not amuse me) and it gives time for characters like Foxx's Electro to finally come alive as people. Plus, it gives talented performers a chance to do significantly more to do than just reacting to CG objects added in post-production. Dafoe is especially in his element here, not missing a beat in either the menace or nuance that made his Norman Osborne such a compelling figure.

With so many balls to juggle in the air, Spider-Man: No Way Home should be a mess. But much like prior Marvel Cinematic Universe feature Captain America: Civil War, No Way Home manages to make its tidalwave of crowdpleaser moments feel earned, not manipulative. Best of all, it utilizes Spider-Man's past in interesting ways that bring new dimensions to familiar foes as well as the central characters in Jon Watts' interpretation of the character. I'd even go so far as to say the film is an exercise in how to do fan service right with its constant focus on treating its characters like people and a hopeful atmosphere. Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn't transcend the world of superhero cinema or deliver the peak of Spider-Man movies (Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man 2 are still superior, for the record). What No Way Home is, though, is the sort of well-made and fun blockbuster confection that's downright irresistible. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Don't Look Up is a messy, though occasionally interesting, plea for the truth

It's the end of the world as we know it. And writer/director Adam McKay feels...not great if his work as a writer and director on Don't Look Up is any indication. This feature uses an impending apocalyptic comet as an extended allegory for climate change, but it's also McKay offering up his perspective on a variety of hot button political subjects, including what topics get the most traction on social media, wealth inequality, white male privilege, the emptiness of daytime television, and so much more! It's a grabbag of buzz-worthy modern topics, all tied together with an apocalyptic bow. The resulting film never achieves the kind of insightfulness or comedy it wants to deliver, but some of the things Don't Look Up throws at the wall do end up sticking, however tenuously. 

Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) have just discovered something troubling. Majorly troubling. There is a comet the size of Mount Everest headed straight for planet Earth. Once it makes contact with our surface, all life on this big blue ball vanishes in the blink of an eye. Teaming up Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the trio is now determined to get the word out. But President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is just one of many Americans who doesn't really care about the comet. Mindy and Dibiasky will need to navigate the fraughtness of modern America in trying to get anyone to do something about the impending apocalypse. 

It's harder than ever to do a film that functions as a piece of ripped-from-the-headlines political commentary since the world is always changing. What's relevant today may be out of touch tomorrow. That having been said, it's still shocking that Don't Look Up feels a bit out of step with the modern political climate. The film's embodiment of the rich, for instance, is way more in line with Steve Jobs than anyone else (though he has Elon Musk's rockets and Mark Zuckerberg's social awkwardness). We've done pastiches of Job so many times before, it's shocking McKay is returning to that well. Ditto recurring jabs at reality TV, which hasn't been a huge part of the American pop culture landscape in years.

McKay's determination to a grand statement on the modern political zeitgeist has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the on-screen characters to just being like Ian Malcolm in the second-half of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park novel; vessels for the writer's own monologues that probably should've gone on a Facebook wall. In the third act, DiCaprio's character gives a big passionate speech emulating Peter Finch in Network that talks about how "divided we've all become" that's largely divorced from the context of the story he occupies. It's meant to be a commentary on how we need to all agree on the truth in the modern world, but it needed to feel more specific to the character who was speaking rather just feeling like McKay doing his equivalent to the "America is no longer the greatest country in the world" speech from The Newsroom.

Political commentary is just not Don't Look Up's strongest suit, especially since McKay spends more time shifting the blame of the modern American world onto people enamored with cute dog videos and pop star romances. Much like the weird jab at people excited for Fast & Furious movies in the mid-credits scene of Vice, McKay has a lot more fury for people who like pop culture he doesn't like than institutional forces that inspire apathy towards real-world apocalypse's. His decision to focus on such a limited range of humanity despite the ensemble cast (no queer people and only one prominent person of color in the primary cast of characters) also hinders the project from feeling like it reflects the political zeitgeist of 2021, which is comprised of so many unique voices.

Despite these shortcomings, Don't Look Up does remain at least moderately engaging throughout. It's the upside of throwing so much stuff at the wall, something's bound to stick to it. One thing that does work here is McKay subverting the hopeful escpaist norms of traditional disaster movies (namely oens from the 1990s) with a melancholy vibe stemming from humanity's worst impulses. The camera keeps cutting around to onlookers around the globe watching on their TV's the comet and potential missions to stop it, a form of motnage familiar to viewers of Armageddon and Independence Day. In Don't Look Up, though, those viewers are always greeted with disappointment, not triumphant reminders of unity. 

As the third-act begins and an ever-increasing sense of melancholy seeps into Don't Look Up, it doesn't suddenly turn into a classic ,but I did find its commitment to bleakness at least interesting. McKay doesn't have anything truly new or exciting to say about how we're handling the climate crisis. However, just letting the camera linger on empty roads or people in the background of a shot frantically grabbing items from grocery store shelves conveys the ominous consequences of ignoring dangers under our noses better than a thousand ham-fisted lines of dialogue referencing modern political events. 

By the end, I wished all the quiet despair was hinged on developed characters, but at least McKay commits to the atmosphere and, despite his background in rauchny man-children comedies, knows better than to undercut the tone with abrupt gags.

Meanwhile, the star-studded ensemble cast, presumably assembled as a homage to 1970s disaster movies like Airport, has varying degrees of success. Despite being the most prestigious awards darlings in the cast, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and Mark Rylance are on autopilot, delivering broad caricatures but not much else. As for the leads, Leonardo DiCaprio is always at his best playing comically vulnerable people, so he's good here, even if his biggest scenes reminded me too much of similar moments in films like Network and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Jennifer Lawrence is giving her on-screen work her all, but she has a shockingly thin character to play, I kept waiting for McKay's writing to give her a more concretely-defiend human to play. Best performances overall, though, are delivered by Timothee Chalamet and Rob Morgan. The latter actor awakrdly vanishes for about an hour of the runtime miway through the story and Don't Look Up is all the weaker for it.

Don't Look Up is a messy movie in desperate need of trims in the editing room, more distinctive political commentary, a greater amount of personality in its lead characters, and less distractingly artificial looking CG-effects. Surprisingly, though, McKay does turn out to be an effective filmmaker when it comes to capturing the woe of impending doom while his screenplay is tossing so many things out at the audience that it never becomes boring. The result is a movie that functions fine in the moment (it's probably better than McKay's last feature, Vice, overall) Unfortunately, it's also a movie that just ends up adding more noise to an already chaotic political landscape. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Drive My Car is a top of the line model, er, movie

Playwright Anton Chekhov once said, "Any idiot can face a crisis, it's this day-to-day living that wears you out." That sort of living is at the center of Drive My Car, a movie that makes mundane life every bit as captivating, and even more so, than movies that cram their runtimes with wall-to-wall action. The emotions director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is dealing with are so palpably realized, and his direction is confident enough to just linger on the smallest bits of human behavior, it's impossible not to become transfixed. Like Chekhov's writing from years past, Hamaguchi recognizes that confronting everyday experiences in an appropriately complicated way is more than enough to keep your eyeballs glued.

Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a theater director whose life is plagued by constant troubles. First, his doctor informs him that he's got glaucoma, which is impairing his vision enough that he can no longer drive. Worse yet is that Kafuku's wife passes away suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage. After two years pass, Kafuku is hired to direct a production of Uncle Vanya for a theater company in Hiroshima. As part of his gig, he's required to have a driver chauffeur him around. Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) is the woman for the gig and her quiet disposition makes her a perfect fit for the similarly reserved Kafuku. Over time, the wall Kafuku has put between himself and the world begins to crack, though the pain of the past is constantly lingering over his existence.

A movie as good as Drive My Car deserves the most thoughtful analysis possible. Paradoxically, a movie this excellent leaves me in a state where I just want to blabber about my favorite scenes or moments in a stream of consciousness that barely leaves room for breaths. Like a scene where Lee Yoon-a (Yoo Rim Park) and Janice Chan (Sonia Yuan) rehearse a scene for Uncle Vanya out in the crisp Autumn air. Every aspect of the scene is beautiful, the tender and subtle camerawork is the perfect window to this pivotal moment in the play's production, and the two performers share such a meaningful discernible connection in their rapport. No wonder Kafuku sees this particular rehearsal as a pivotal moment for his show! 

The measured pacing of the story of Drive My Car allows scenes like this to unfold in an organic manner. Hamaguchi is never barrelling forward to the next scene, there's a naturalism to how things play out that's utterly masterful. This approach also works great for the quietly tormented emotions that the primary characters live with. There are no speedy cuts or whip-fast pacing to allow these feelings to get lost in a flurry of activity. Instead, they simmer, they fester, they leave an impact. Going this route also gives the viewer a chance to appreciate all the tiny details in the filmmaking right down to how perfect the crunch of snow and leaves under the character's feet sound.

As a cherry on top of this delicious narrative sundae, framing Kafuku's journey as a character to run parallel with putting on a production of Uncle Vanya is a genius move. The assorted parts of the play directing process make for a great physical manifestation of his interior world and offer up several chances for the supporting characters to leave a mark. Also an ingenious idea to use dialogue from this play as a means of expressing bottled-up emotions inside Kafuku. Ditto the visual of Kafuku reciting lines from his plays against a tape in his car. What a great way of immediately telling the audience that this guy is so cut off from others that the only way he can converse with others is through engaging with pre-recorded dialogue.

There's so many distinctive touches like that scattered all throughout Drive My Car that work especially well at ensuring that the pain these characters are enduring doesn't become derivative of other movies. There's an especially singular quality to the eventual tragic backstory of Watari, whose life gets gradually revealed to the audience in a fascinating manner. The complicated emotions that Kafuku must grapple with (namely that he discovered his wife was cheating on him before her demise) also lend such specifity to Drive my Car and capture the real nuances of actual existence. Coping with grief doesn't result in tidy emotions nor are the people we mourn just simple caricatures of good and evil. 

Such richly-detailed material is perfectly handled by the cast, headlined by a haunting turn from Hidetoshi Nishijima. He portrays Kafuku as a shell of a man, one whose haunted nature is captured with just an unforgettable mournful glance. Special props among the supporting cast, though, to Yoo Rim Park, whose exudes such a captivating aura in her role. Her performance also makes use of Korean Sign Language, which is put to great use during the characters acting in Uncle Vanya. Seeing Park's hands capture such dense emotion with the flick of a finger or turn of her hands is astonishing and made me yearn to see an entire Chekhov play done in sign language!

Day-to-day living can certainly wear you out, Chekhov wasn't kidding. Drive My Car doesn't offer an instant elixir to cure those daily blues. But it does offer an unforgettable portrait of that form of anguish. Said portrait comes in the form of a beautiful contradiction as this movie brings together an assortment of people isolated from the world around them in the wake of unspeakable tragedies. Ryusuke Hamaguchi has delivered an outstanding achievement with Drive My Car, an appropriately subdued piece of cinema that still speaks volumes about carving out some kind of existence after disaster strikes. Put the pedal to the metal and check this movie out whenever it comes to a theater near you, it's just sublime filmmaking in every sense.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Being the Ricardos isn't quite worth tuning in to

It’s time to put on a show. Or at least prepare one. It’s Monday morning and the cast and crew of I Love Lucy have five days to execute a new episode of the most popular TV show on the airwaves. But there’s a problem. Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) has been accused of being a communist. Her real-life husband and sitcom co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is convinced there’s nothing to worry about. No major publications are talking about it, surely it’ll blow over. But Ball’s mind is gripped with fear over how this could topple a show she loves with all her heart. As she goes through the next few days getting every detail of this I Love Lucy episode just right, various flashbacks show the audience how Ball and Arnaz met, as well as the ways they’ve betrayed and supported each other over the years. 

Of his three directorial efforts so far, Being the Ricardos is probably the strongest thing Aaron Sorkin has helmed so far. He’s still not a great visualist, but there are more interesting visual flourishes (like the shift to black-and-white coloring for scenes where Ball’s outlining her ideas for I Love Lucy moments) here than in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Meanwhile, Sorkin’s penchant for embracing traditional crowdpleaser moments seems to have a greater purpose here. The whole plot is built on the idea that reality is intruding on this sitcom. As a parallel, deflating moments of harsh truth poke the balloons of joy that Being the Ricardos inflates during seemingly straightforward moments of triumph. 

Though better than Chicago 7 and Molly’s Game, Ricardos still isn’t good enough to challenge my perception that Sorkin is one of those screenwriters whose scripts work bests when handled by other directors. The biggest issue at work here is that the narrative device of setting the story over five days of production on I Love Lucy keeps getting undercut by repeated flashbacks to the past. The simmering tension in this workplace never feels as potent as it should since Sorkin keeps darting all over the place. Ball may be determined to stay on set, no matter how late, to get her show right, but Sorkin shows a frustrating lack of commitment to this crucial locale

The intrusive nature of these flashbacks wouldn't be so much of a problem if they were either illuminating on the interior lives of Ball and Arnaz or at least entertaining. Unfortunately, these digressions don't rise to the challenge on either front. To add insult to injury, one of these visions of the past, set by the pool during daytime, features some truly hideous green-screen work that distracts from the dialogue. These segments also don't give lead actors Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem opportunities to improve their mixed performances, another key factor of Being the Ricardos that leave something to be desired. Kidman's work never feels removed enough from Kidman's default acting persona. I didn't want her to do a straightforward Lucille Ball impersonation, I just kept yearning for her to root me in the story I was watching rather than remind me of her prior performances. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Bardem revels in being a wholly different beast compared to his prior intimidating roles in No Country for Old Men and Skyfall by playing Arnaz as someone with smiles and energy to spare. It's certainly a lively performance, but it also feels too detached from reality to work properly. Bardem's got energy to spare, but he too often lapses into caricature. For vastly different reasons, both Kidman and Bardem struggle to make their portrayals of sitcom legends work as human beings. 

It doesn't help that the duo is surrounded by a pack of character actors in supporting roles who deliver considerably superior and more believable work. J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, for example, provides welcome nuance into a cantankerous heavy drinker who also knows more than you might think, while Tony Hale gets to inject similar levels of complexities into the part of Jesse Oppenheimer, which initially seems like it'll be just another instance of Hale playing a neurotic antagonist. The best of the bunch, though, is Alia Shawkat. That subdued but confident delivery she mastered playing Maeby on Arrested Development turns out to be perfect for executing Sorkin dialogue. She's got the most memorable comic line deliveries in the whole movie, particularly a retort to the curiosity of a writer (played by Jake Lacy) regarding what Arnaz and Oppenheimer could be talking about behind closed doors. 

The strong supporting cast and a solid helping of memorable exchanges that only Sorkin could write make the best scenes in Being the Ricardos a diverting affair. Plus, it's cool that Ball gets framed as a controlling genius without also getting coded as a villain, which doesn't always happen for women with those kinds of personality traits. Ball as depicted here is the kind of character Benedict Cumberbatch can play regularly, but women rarely get to inhabit, so that's nice to see. Even with these attributes, though, the whole movie never abandons the nagging feeling that it should be better than it is. Trying to frame Ball's communist scare and relationship friction between the stars of I Love Lucy as big dramatic events just doesn't work, at least not in this context. The proceedings keep trying to tell you they're massively important without giving you a reason for the urgency. Though it's Sorkin's best directorial effort to date, Being the Ricardos is still a movie that's impossible to fully love.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Encanto works so well it's practically magic

Right after he passed away, the animators at Disney scrambled to figure out what feature-length animation from this studio should look like. To help provide some guidance, people took to asking the question "What would Walt do?" In retrospect, it's a silly question. Who knows what Walt would do? The man was always looking to new horizons in films, television, theme parks, whatever. Trying to fit that creative vision into a tidy box was a fool's errand.

Yet, watching Encanto, I couldn't help but imagine that this was a movie that was following in the footsteps of Walt's vision for feature-length animation. Not necessarily in the fact that it is mimicking the exact jokes, pacing, or narrative beats that one of Disney's cartoons from the 1930s or 1940s would've done. In fact, what's cool about Encanto is how some of its comedy and fast-paced storytelling echo modern animated films from Phil Lord & Chris Miller, a great way of making sure the story connects with modern youngsters. However, Encanto is a movie that, harkening back to the days of Pinocchio, does indeed deliver a tear for every laugh, tells a story that could only be done in animation, and makes you so invested in animated characters that they feel like flesh-and-blood people. 

Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) lives with her extended family in their magical home, the Casita, the perfect domicile for a gaggle of superpowered individuals. Yes, everyone in Mirabel's family has special gifts, like being able to hear anything no matter how quiet, shapeshifting, super-strength, you name it. But Mirabel's the only one in the family that is just a normal human being with no gifts. Her lack of any magical abilities makes Mirabel desperate to please her grandmother, Abuela Alma Madrigal (María Cecilia Botero). The outsider of the Madrigal family soon becomes conscious of Casita being plagued by cracks and some strange occurrences surrounding people's superpowers. Abuela alma Madrigal insists everything's fine, but Mirabel is determined to do whatever it takes to help out the family.

The requisite elements of an animated Disney musicals mean you might expect, from that plot summary, for Encanto to begin and its premise with a simple moral related to "being yourself" or how "we're all superpowered, you know". Interestingly, screenwriters Charise Castro Smith and Jared Bush (both of whom also direct alongside Byron Howard) opt to take things in a more complicated direction that I won't spoil here. Needless to say, though, things get more than a little thorny in Encanto and the plot does a great job exploring darker material without disrupting the lighthearted vibes of the production. 

What I can talk about is the great storytelling decision to confine the action primarily to the Casita. Individual rooms in this place are like Snoopy's Doghouse or the TARDIS, where they look small on the outside but are expansive inside, so it's not like the whole film takes place in cramped rooms like The Humans. However, keeping things restricted to just this magical house proves to be a great way to get to know the various members of the Madrigal family better. It also lets the conflict between individual relatives simmer properly and allows the focus of the story to rest on the perspectives of Mirabel and company rather than shoving in as many locations as possible. Plus, the limited amount of environments means that the deviations to more surrealistic backdrops for the musical numbers can work like gangbusters through the power of juxtaposition. 

A lot of thought and an equal amount of heart has clearly gone into Encanto. Its commitment to exploring the complicated ways family members relate and feel about each other is especially packed with nuance and poignancy. The detailed nature of the writing extends to how Mirabel is presented as a protagonist. She's such an endearing goofball of a character and perfectly brought to life through vibrant voicework from Stephanie Beatriz. After impressing for so many years as Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Beatriz leaves that character behind in her warm yet realistically imperfect vocals as Mirabel. Botero and John Leguizamo are the standouts in the supporting cast, with the latter especially impressing with the tonally complex nature of his role.

This voice work is applied to computer-animated characters who inhabit a world that's just gorgeous to look at. While many modern animated films, like the 2019 Lion King, throw color out the window in favor of chasing unobtainable "realism", Encanto drenches every frame in vibrant hues and gorgeous-looking sets you could only properly realize in the confines of animation. It all looks so beautiful and the lively camerawork lets you soak in all the details. The only drawback for me in the animation was the occasionally distracting dissonance between cartoony humans and realistic visual details. Textures in the brick floors of Casita or the grass outside look ripped from reality, but the decidedly stylized human characters do not, and putting those together can create some distracting moments. They're few and far between, but once again, I ask the animation studios at Disney to lean on more stylized backdrops (like the ones in Encanto's musical numbers!) and not go for ultra-realism all the time. 

Some quibbles in the balance between realistic and stylized design choices, as well as some predictable plot details, aside, Encanto delivers an extremely entertaining time. It's a superb crowdpleaser movie,  the kind that dazzles your eyeballs and, thanks to a bevy of new tunes written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, pleases the ears. However, it also doesn't forget about touching your heart, with the emotional beats being especially effective thanks to the filmmakers committing to such an intimate scale for this story. I could posture behind a bunch of ramblings to justify why I liked Encanto so much, but any movie that gets me crying and smiling so often has to be worth recommending. Sometimes, it's that simple.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Humans isn't an easy watch, but it's a well-crafted one


Between Shiva Baby, Spencer, and now The Humans, 2021 cinema is being defined by recognition that the scariest thing on the planet is family gatherings. Give me a visit from the Babadook or that creature from It Follows before I have to deal with awkward conversations or a relative obliviously saying something bigoted. Of course, given that The Humans is adapted from a 2015 stage play (whose writer, Stephen Karam, also writes and directs this film adaptation), it's apparent that the horrors of such social events are not exclusive to one year. Thankfully, neither are quality pieces of filmmaking like The Humans.

Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) is having her family over for Thanksgiving in the New York City apartment she's bought with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). This means Brigid's parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), are coming, along with Erik's mom, Momo (June Squibb),  and Brigid's sister Aimee (Amy Schumer). Everyone's bringing as much drama to the table as they are side dishes, much of it emerging in long-simmering side comments that spur on prolonged arguments. It may be a holiday, but nobody's getting a break from the torment that's plaguing this family.

Translating a play to a movie is a daunting task. On the one hand, if you make things too stagnant, you have the possibility if just delivering essentially a filmed performance of a play. On the other hand, going too flowery in making sure it doesn't come off as just a play can distract from the intimate qualities that made the source material so compelling. Karam does remarkable work threading a delicate needle here and manages to make The Humans work well as a piece of cinema. A key reason for his success is to filter his play through the lens of horror cinema. Staples of the genre, like windows so tainted you can't see out of them, jump scares, dominant shadows, they're all around here.

Rather than being used in the service of buckets of blood, these visual hallmarks, as well as an ominous mood straight out of a scary feature, are used to communicate the stifled anguish in the family at the heart of The Humans. Even Brigid's home is reflected as having endless nooks and crannies despite seeming small on the outside, a potential homage to the similarly expansive interior of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. That's not only a great nod to a seminal film in the genre The Humans is occupying, but it provides a great detail that couldn't be properly realized on the stage. This is just one example of how the layers of details in The Humans justify its translation to the silver screen.

Karam's camera doesn't just take cues from horror films, though. He also evokes filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu in how often his camera is placed at a great distance from the characters. I can only recall a handful of close-ups in the entire rutnime. Rather than reminding one too much of a stage production, Karam uses this distance to emphasize how trapped everybody is. The characters are framed against claustrophic hallways, pipes bursting from the ceiling, and other imperfections in their surroundings. Utilizing constant wide shots that push the characters into the background makes us aware of the fragility of their surroundings. The sense of worry and concern that plagues Erik over Brigid moving back to New York City in the wake of 9/11 is transmitted to the viewer through Karam's sense of staging and blocking.

All these impressive visual details are placed against a terrific crop of performances. Thankfully, given how much of The Humans is based on simple dialogue exchanges, there's nary a dud turn to be found here. For my money, Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell may be the very best actors here. It's thoroughly impressive how much their performances could appropriately irritate me in one moment and then elicit such enemrous sympathy from me the next. In the restrained confins of Stepehn Karam's creative vision, Jenkins and Houdyshell (the latter of whom previously portrayed her character in a Broadway version of The Humans) unearth moral complexity.

There are a handful of shortcomings to The Humans, to be certain. This includes an ending that's incredibly admirable in its dour tone and use of visuals that could only be accomplished in film, but needed some tweaking in execution. Overall, though, this is a strong drama that provides much more than just another instance of movies reflecting how holidays can tear apart families as often as they bring them together. The unique decision to filter familiar struggles through the language of horror cinema and the enormously distinct performances from the cast make it seem only natural, with the benefit of hindsight, that The Humans should make the leap from the stage to the big screen.

Wolf is a beast of a movie, but not in a good way

Watching Wolf, a drama about a teenager with species dysphoria who thinks he's a wolf (that age-old Hollywood chestnut), unfold, I had to ask myself the question "Who is this for?" The story it tells, concerning a teenage boy being sent to a camp to "correct" his behavior, is an allegory for the hardships experienced at a conversion camp. However, I doubt that anyone who willingly sees's this would need to be told that conversion camps are bad, which is where Wolf's commentary on conversion camps begins and ends. Anyone with similar interests to the protagonist will be put off by the bleak tone and extensive depiction of teenagers getting tortured. Even those who just like strange dark dramas will be bored by how Wolf strangely refuses to commit to taking its premise to more unexpected places.

What we have here is a movie made for nobody, though, more specifically, it feels like the kind of thing made by cis-gendered heterosexual people as an attempt to show how good of allies they are to queer people. Next time, they should just donate money to a charity instead.

Getting more into storytelling specifics, Wolf chronicles Jacob (George McKay), who thinks he's a wolf, and gets sent to a clinic specializing in treating adolescents with species dysphoria (a condition where you think you're an animal). A man known as The Zookeeper (Aiden Gillen) runs this facility and he uses brutal practices to reinforce to these people that they are not wild creatures. It's a horrible place, but Jacob does find some solace in a budding romance with Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp). However, as his stay goes on, Jacob struggles to maintain his urges to howl at the moon and growl at The Zookeeper. What will win here? His wild instincts or the human side that his parents want him to exclusively embrace?

Writer/director Nathalie Biancheri opts to take Wolf in the most boring route possible by playing its story as ultra-serious. In a bid to make sure this is seen as a "real" movie, Wolf is drained of humor, personality, or any sense of warmth. Jacob and the other inhabitants of this clinic are only defined by the misery they experience at the hands of callous adults. Meanwhile, the direction and cinematography opt for constant wide shots, minimal color, and an overall clinical approach. At times, Wolf feels like it's channeling the look of a Yorgos Lanthimos movie without understanding the finer nuances of why the camerawork in those features is so impactful. 

There's never an instance here where the movie wants to seem like it's embarrassing itself by being "silly" or any other lower creative instinct. Even the animals Jacob and Catgirl believe themselves to be are rudimentary. Dogs and cats, the most basic critters possible. They also exhibit the most manageable animalistic instincts in their behavior, the stranger urges are relegated to background characters. Wolf keeps trying to sand the edges of its innately peculiar storyline, but it doesn't manage to magically turn this movie into something inherently thought-provoking. It just renders the proceedings a massive slog to get through.

Even other movies set at literal conversion camps, and not just allegories for them, found time for brief bursts of joy to reflect the interior lives of the tormented protaganists. Think of how the vastly superior The Miseducation of Cameron Post carved out a portion of its narrative to depict queer teens singing the 4 Non-Blondes song "What's Up" in a kitchen. These moments indicate to the viewer that we're supposed to sympathize with the abused characters in the narrative. Wolf, meanwhile, just depicts its various people with species dysphoria as sideshow attractions to be gawked at. They don't get nuances, personalities, dreams, or anything else. They just cower, get their fingernails pulled off, or scream while being chained in cages. Freaks from back in 1932 was challenging the dehumanizing gaze that Wolf inhabits without blinking an eye.

Combining the bleak tone and derivative filmmaking with the lack of interest in humanizing the downtrodden already makes Wolf a poorly-conceived exercise. Things get even worse when Biancheri's screenplay practically punches you in the ribs with its attempts at social commentary. The most comically inept of these is when The Zookeeper explicitly refers to humans as "the superior race" compared to animals. I don't even know where to begin with the idea that this is supposed to be an allegory for racism, especially since Wolf shows no prolonged interest in the perspectives of people of color. Other awkward lines that try to hammer home how this is supposed to be an allegory for queer and trans experiences only reinforce which audiences Wolf certainly won't be appealing to.

The only redeeming part of Wolf is that George McKay does deliver a committed performance as Jacob. He doesn't just generically crawl around on all fours when he's in wolf mode, he's got the subtle ticks of wolf behavior down perfectly. It's the kind of fully-body acting that shows a lot of effort and work, but McKay's dedication is always at odds with a script that just doesn't have much to say. Meanwhile, as the villain, Aiden Gillen is initially compelling playing a clearly abusive figure who genuinely sees himself as a surrogate father figure to these teens. Unfortunately, by the end, Gillen's performance just melts into generic over-the-top mannerisms. The nuances that gave The Zookeeper flashes of being chilling have vanished, giving Gillen nothing much to do.

The most ill-conceived part of Wolf, though, is the decision to set this all in the modern-day world, as seen by how Jacob and all the other attendees are given iPads. Shockingly, a movie with this premise set in the year 2021 makes absolutely no reference to the Furry community. Do none of these kids have the internet? How does that not come up? Considering how much overlap there is between species dysphoria and this segment of the population, it feels comical to not at least acknowledge it. But referencing the existence of people with species dysphoria that are happy would've upended Wolf's parade of misery. A movie that aims to be brutally thoughtful, Wolf just ends up being miserable to watch. McKay, Gillen, and moviegoers looking for thoughtful entertainment related to conversion camp experiences deserve much better than this.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Power of the Dog is packed with extremely powerful filmmaking (SPOILERS!)




Thursday, November 25, 2021

King Richard is an imperfect but frequently moving entry in the sports movie genre

It was only a matter of time before tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams got their own inspirational sports movie. How could they not? The duo's upbringing and sports victories (not to mention being the two top tennis players on the planet at one point) sound like ideas someone would suggest for a fictional sports tale, not real-world events! That inevitability has come to pass with King Richard, a new feature from Monsters and Men director Reinaldo Marcus Green. However, Venus and Serena, while prominent characters here, are not the protagonists of King Richard. The title gives it away that the center of the proceedings is the father of the two women, Richard Williams (here portrayed by Will Smith).

Growing up in Compton, Richard Williams has worked overtime to care for his five daughters, including Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). The duo's passion for tennis has led Richard to map out an elaborate plan for their lives, which entails them becoming the biggest stars in the sport. Getting the proper tools they need, though, is tough, given that the family has constant money issues and that Richard can never seem to get a professional coach to help them. Guidance from Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) seems to be heading the youngsters on the right path, with Venus emerging as a potential titan in the ITF Junior Circuit of tennis games. But Richard's hesitation to see his children go pro, though born from the best intentions, is providing extra headaches all around, including for Venus.

If there's one problem King Richard struggles with, it's figuring out why this story is about Richard rather than Venus and Serena. The two future tennis stars are quite interesting characters as framed here, to the point that it occasionally feels frustrating that they have to be pushed to the background for many scenes. I wanted more time to explore their headspace and especially their relationship with their other three siblings. It's not that Richard Williams doesn't have an interesting story to tell. It's just that screenwriter Zach Baylin can't quite make that saga, in this context, compelling enough to quelch queries about why Venus and Serena aren't center stage in a movie ostensibly about their rise to tennis glory.

This depiction of Richard Williams also struggles to fit into the tonal confines Green and company want to create for King Richard. The ambiance of the production aims somewhere towards an early 2000s Disney sport movie, like Miracle. That's a perfectly acceptable trajectory considering that mold did yield some quality movies. However, in execution, the film struggles to fit a complicated figure like Williams into an aesthetic that's trying to be simplified enough to function as a crowdpelaser. This results in moments like a tense confrontation wth Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis), the man's wife, where she reveals troubling moments of his past, which should leave an impact. But they've been reduced to just offhand comments in an argument, rather than moments of on-screen action that would be truly meaningful. In an effort to make sure Richard Williams can fit into something more cookie-cutter, King Richard ends up suffering from a tell-don't-show problem.

While these narrative issues are puzzling, the good news is King Richard still hits a birdie over the net (hey, I know tennis lingo!) simply by functioning as a solid sports drama. It's formulaic, sure, but formula when done right can be just fine. The best parts of the story, in fact, are when King Richard aims to just do a traditional underdog sports tale, particularly in its final 40 minutes when Venus Williams begins to play in some pro games. Green knows just what beats to hit here, including in repeated instances of Venus's family supporting her no matter what and in a unique definition of what "victorious" means.

It also helps that the performances in the picture are uniformly great, including Will Smith in a transformative turn as Richard Williams. There are moments when Smith lapses into a caricature, but most of the time, it's starting just how well he sheds his traditional movie star persona for someone that's got equal measures of confidence and torment lurking in his eyes. Aunjanue Ellis may have been even more impressive to me, though. She just captivates your attention even when Smith is on screen and I appreciated how just the aura she conveys as Oracene Price makes it clear where her daughter's tenacity comes from. Standing out in the supporting cast is Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, a real-life figure whose so drastically different from Bernthal's other characters. Usually known for playing grizzly tough guys, Bernthal here is a soft-spoken fellow with a kind heart. He's wholesome rather than deadly.

King Richard doesn't rewrite the sports movie playbook and its script sometimes struggles with properly realizing its own title character. But its most stirring moments and memorable performances do help it score some pretty important points. If sports movies are your bread and butter, you'll probably get won over by King Richard. Meanwhile, even those who aren't ardent fans of the genre will find themselves impressed by the work by performers like Smith and Ellis. It was only a matter of time before Venus and Serena Williams got a sports biopic of their own. Though not as good as it could've been, King Richard is still a perfectly fine movie to become a part of the duo's towering legacy.

C'mon C'mon, you gotta see the new Mike Mills movie

The last two movies from writer/director Mike Mills were Beginners and 20th Century Women. Though telling different stories, they were both like watching memories of the past. Mills used cinema to make viewers nostalgic for a past they never even experienced. His newest feature, C'mon C'mon, is a touch different. It's more akin to watching the creation of events that will become memories. Telling the tale in a monochromatic color scheme and utilizing real people, rather than professional roles, for certain roles heightens the realism of the proceedings. This unique flourish ensures that C'mon C'mon isn't a rehash of prior Mills works while maintaining the director's enchanting empathetic gaze.

Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a documentary journalist, an occupation that keeps him busy enough that he doesn't have time to linger over how his relationship with his sister, Viv (Gabbie Hoffman), has deteriorated over the last year. Ever since their mom died, Johnny has been M.I.A. from Viv and her son Jesse (Woody Norman). When Viv is forced to help take care of Jesse's mentally ill father, though, Johnny will be called down to Los Angeles to look after a nine-year-old he barely knows. Parenting is not Johnny's strong suit and this quiet man seems like the opposite person that could get along with such a rambunctious youngster. But through spending time together, Johnny and Jesse may find more common ground than they would initially imagine.

That plot may make it sound like you know where C'mon C'mon is going, but the ingenious stroke that Mills brings to this project is by making the gradually deepening bond between Johnny and Jesse something that happens almost incidentally. Grand revelations and inspirational quotes fit for a social media post are not what bonds this duo. Instead, it's simpler acts. The simple act of listening and being there for somebody, rather than figuring out solutions to life's harshest problems, is what builds a bridge between two disparate humans. To quote 20th Century Women, "Some just can't be fixed. Just be there." That's the crux of C'mon C'mon.

Mills explores this idea and the relationship between Johnny and Jesse in an unhurried manner and with an emotionally empathetic eye. There isn't a character captured by the camera who isn't given some extra layers of nuance or sympathy. This includes Viv herself, who is a welcome rebuke to typical film depictions of single moms. Fully open to Johnny that she often doesn't know what to do with her kid, Mills frames Viv as a person who isn't solely defined by motherhood and as someone with relatable flaws. She may not have the most screentime in C'mon C'mon, but Viv is a microcosm of the deeply affecting and kindhearted vibes the production is throwing out.

The empathetic nature of the production is further reinforced by how many different perspectives are incorporated throughout C'mon C'mon. Deeply personal writings from various lady authors (including Kirsten Johnson!) are narrated by Johnny throughout the film and lend insight into the nuances of situations like growing up in a family with a bipolar loved one or the unfair expectations society puts on mothers. These writers are not featured in the story, but they simultaneously flesh out the people in this film while reinforcing how they're not alone in their struggles. Meanwhile, all through the movie, Johnny interviews kids who aren't actors. These are real people from everyday reality who get to express their perspectives on matters like the future in a big theatrical release. These youngsters get treated like the people they are, a gesture reflecting the understanding nature of C'mon C'mon.

Being cognizant of the larger world Johnny and Jesse inhabit also informs recurring cuts to random shots of bustling city life. Cars piled onto an L.A. street or sheets of snow covering packed New York walkways, these provide a discernible contrast to the intimate exchanges between the two central characters. Not only that, but they see Mills subtly reminding the viewer that, contrary to what Johnny and Jesse feel in their most emotionally vulnerable moments, they're not alone in this world. There are other people out there. All with dreams, worries, concerns. Whether it's through interview segments or just in establishing shots, C'mon C'mon reinforces this notion in an affecting manner.

Even with the repeated references to other people, though, C'mon C'mon is, first and foremost, the story of Johnny and Jesse's unexpected friendship. This dynamic allows the two lead performances of the piece to excel, with Joaquin Phoenix reaffirming his gift for playing everyday human beings with a deft touch. There's as much detail here as his more showy performances, but it never intrudes on the realism of his on-screen work. Woody Norman, meanwhile, does a phenomenal job handling such hefty material and conveying the sense that we're watching a real kid and not a precocious Hollywood approximation of a smart-alecky youngster. The best performance in the movie, though, belongs to Gabbie Hoffman. She delivers her scenes largely alone in an empty room or a car, yet she wrings so much humanity and emotion out of her screentime. It's quite an incredible turn that I haven't been able to stop thinking about.

C'mon C'mon doesn't quite reach the heights of 20th Century Women in the filmography of Mike Mills, but that's such a high bar to clear. A new Beatles album is not inherently bad just because it doesn't exceed the quality of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and so too is a new Mills feature worth seeing just because it doesn't beat out the director's greatest directorial effort. In fact, C'mon C'mon is quite a remarkable film. Here we have a quiet hangout feature that glides along on small moments of human connection and quiet empathy, all while imparting the importance of just listening to other people. I came out of this movie smiling, my heart warmed, and a few tears poking out of the corner of my eye. I imagine you'll feel the same way.