Thursday, January 28, 2021

An under-recognized legend gets rendered as a person in Be Natural: The Alice Guy-Blache Story

Sometimes, the circumstances of a movies release intertwine directly with its own themes. So it is with the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache. Directed by Pamela Green, this story of the first woman filmmaker and how she got erased from history scored strong reviews and had an easily-marketable starting premise. Alas, it has become relatively obscure. A call to champion an unsung cinematic hero has also become unsung itself. The fact that this didn’t get a wider release* and picked up by a bigger arthouse studio is a tragic reflection of how the forces that led to Alice Guy-Blache being erased from history are still alive and well today. Stories, experiences and art from women are considered as unimportant in 2021 as they were in 1921. 

That's such a brutal thought and a stinging indictment of the general arthouse distribution scene, which immediately create a perception that something like Be Natural can never resonate in the mainstream simply by refusing to give it a shot at entering the mainstream. At least the documentary itself is good enough to warrant frustrations over the lack of conversation in the general film scene. Though Be Natural, filmmaker Pamela Green gives viewers a whole bunch of different kinds of movies. On the one hand, we get a traditional linear look-back at the life of Alice Guy-Blache and what led to her become such a trailblazing filmmaker.

But we also get to see modern-day segments dedicated to Green tracking down living relatives of Guy-Blache as well as technology to preserve interviews with Guy-Blache's ancestors. There are also numerous interview segments with famous filmmakers and actors as well as a recurring storyline about a cinematographer trying to filming footage with one of Guy-Blache's cameras. That's a whole lot of food being packed into one dish, but Be Natural mostly avoids feeling overstuffed by uniting the disparate segments through an infectious passion for its central subject. 

Also helping to provide connective tissue is the idea that this structure is necessary to compensate for how much Alice Guy-Blache has been ignored. She hasn't been able to garner countless documentaries over the years about her life and work like so many other classic filmmakers. Thus, this one documentary is gonna correct that in one fell swoop. And like I said, it all works surprisingly well, giving us insight into Guy-Blache's creative process and the various forces that enragingly left her uncredited for her contributions to the art of cinema. When everything works together with this well, it's impossible to complain about a movie like Be Natural being crowded.

Also proving delightful is the wide array of interview subjects, which range from Julie Depy to Ava DuVernay to Andy Samberg (yes, that one). Through these talking heads, the viewer gets a greater appreciation not only for how widely-influential Guy-Blache's works are but also how widely-erased her works have been. When Peter Bogdanovich openly talks about how he'd never heard of Alice Guy-Blache before being interviewed for Be Natural, then you fully comprehended the gravity of Guy-Blache's erasure. It's a little puzzling why Peter Farrelly is here, though, did the director of Osmosis Jones really have valuable insight to lend on Alice Guy-Blache?

The interview segments of Be Natural expand the scope of Guy-Blache's contributions to cinema. But Green is smart in knowing just when to pull things back to a more intimate scope so that we never forget about the human being Guy-Blache was. This is especially in the poignant final five minutes, which include home video footage of Guy-Blache In the last few years of her life. Just as film opened up new doors of expression for Alice Guy-Blache in her directorial career, so too does the medium offer a glimpse into her perspective in her final days.  Films were always a defining element of Alice Guy-Blache’s life and the documentary Be Natural makes it apparent why the world is so much better for that.

* Kine Lorber distributed this domestically and they're a great arthosue studio in their own right, it's just a pity that Be Natural couldn't have been like recent documentaries like Three Identical Strangers and Won't You Be My Neighbor? and gotten distribution from a major arthouse studio.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Locked Down isn't timely, just enormously tedious

Movies have always commented on the times they were made in. The 1940s are littered with movies about World War II while the 1970s had movies that tackled the political unease the marked the decade. However, those films tackled events that had already happened. The 1942 film Mrs. Miniver, for example, chronicled events, including the lead-up to the Dunkirk Evacuation, that occurred two years prior. The 1976 movie All the President's Men, meanwhile, chronicled Watergate, which happened four years prior. Even just a handful of years of distance, these movies could have a clearer eye on recent major events and how they impacted people. It's hard to make that kind of art when you're living in the middle of major historical events.

That's what makes movies about the COVID-19 pandemic like Locked Down so strange. We're still in this ongoing health crisis, lives are still being lost by the thousands to this disease. The concept of making escapist art about the matter already feels kinda queasy. But more urgently, we're not out of the pandemic yet. There's no way for artists to really absorb this horrifying experience. How can a movie help people cope with a tragedy when it doesn't even fully grasp the tragedy at hand? Rather than illustrate how movies can effectively respond to reality, all Locked Down has to offer is a generic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? knock-off that turns into a subdued dialogue-heavy heist movie in the last half-hour.

Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are a couple whose relationship was already on the rocks long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to stay indoors together. Now, there's nothing to distract them from their problems with each other. Linda works as a CEO for a company she hates while Paxton is a former daredevil convinced the world is out to get him. Even beyond the lockdown that's keep them indoors, they both feel trapped. But there could be a way out. Linda's company is transporting a valuable diamond to a corrupt client. What if she and Paxton took the diamond for themselves? This couple that can't stand each other are gonna have to work together to pull off a COVID-era heist.

Director Doug Liman and screenwriter Steven Knight are journeymen artists who have delivered their fair share of noteworthy films over the last two decades. Locked Down is not one of them. The inherent restrictions of making a new movie during the pandemic (Locked Down was shot in London in October 2020) have not spurred extra creativity on the part of Liman and Knight. Liman, a director more experienced with explosions than emotions with prior works like Edge of Tomorrow and The Bourne Identity, is ill-suited for an intimate piece like this. In-person conversations between Linda and Paxton are stagnantly framed and moments of comedy are poorly-executed.

Knight's script, meanwhile, struggles with getting the viewer invested in these characters. It's just hard to root for two people who live in a lavish home and are only defined by their hatred for one another. Knight also struggles to figure out if Linda and Paxton should have gravely serious relationship drama or just trade tired COVID-era jokes about remembering to wear a mask. That level of indecision makes it easy for the viewer to just zone out and not care. Hathaway and Ejiofor are talented actors with enough charisma to make it a painless exercise but even they can't salvage the inert script for Locked Down.

Eventually, Locked Down decides it's done being an empty relationship drama and that it wants to now be an empty heist movie. This section of the movie, which sees the duo invading a Harrods department store to get that lucrative diamond, has moments of personality mostly from utilizing unique assets of a Harrods store, such as a large dining area. Those moments are fleeting, though, and Locked Down doesn't create the kind of tension you need to make any heist movie work. The fact that we're not invested in the characters only makes it extra tedious. Movies have an incredible power to comment on real-world events like no other medium. Unfortunately, Locked Down feels irrelevant to the COVID-19-era it's depicting as well as any era of history that has standards for entertaining filmmaking.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The competent but unremarkable Always is one of Steven Spielberg's more forgettable features

At the end of 2020, I realized that I only had four Steven Spielberg blindspots left. With so few to go, I decided to make one of my first 2021 viewing challenges filling in those gaps in my Spielberg expertise. The remaining films are Spielberg's World War II comedy 1941, the period piece Empire of the Sun, debut theatrically-released directorial effort The Sugarland Express and, the subject of this review, Always. Released in 1990, Always doesn't come up very often in discussions about Spielberg for better or for worse. It's never brought up as an underrated gem nor is it brought up as the nadir of his career. That reputation turns out to be pretty accurate to the overall quality of the actual film.

A remake of the 1957 film A Guy Named Joe, Always concerns aerial firefighter Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss), whose madly in love with fellow pilot and girlfriend Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter). However, their relationship is complicated by how Pete is a daredevil who is always taking unnecessary risks when putting out fires. Right after committing to moving away and starting up a new safer job, Sandich is killed saving the life of his best buddy Al Yackey (John Goodman). However, Sandich is sent back to Earth as a ghost to help a new young pilot, Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), master the art of flying. Along the way, Sandwich will also have to learn to let go of Durston, whose struggling to move on from Pete's death.

Always is an old-fashioned movie. Save for one scene where Yackey utters "Bullshit!" while telling Durston to get her life together, the dialogue resorts to Disney Channel-level profanity like "beeswax", characters order a Diet Pepsi when they're at a bar, the concept of sex is only implicitly referenced, if at all. Its approach to the afterlife, which consists of Audrey Hepburn appearing as an ethereal figure in a patch of bright green grass, is similarly old-timey. You could have made this thing in the Hays Code era of filmmaking without having to edit a thing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but Always doesn't use this restrained aesthetic for particularly interesting means.

The comedy, for instance, has its moments of old-school charm, like a recurring visual gag where characters get Yackey to accidentally wipe grease on his face. Other jokes, like an extended piece of physical comedy where a lady's machine goes careening into Durston's front yard, fall flatter. Screenwriter Jerry Belson's approach to romance, meanwhile, is charmingly committed to being old-fashioned, but commitment can only take one so far. When the third-act wants the viewer to clearly be emotionally invested in Sandich and Durston's romance, that's where things go wrong. These two characters have been pleasant to watch, but they've never been captivating. 

These two qualities epitomize how Always never rises to use its restrained nature for something truly interesting. It never comments on the era of filmmaking it's homaging nor does it even use it for exceptional escapist entertainment. The whole enterprise just hums along at an agreeable but hardly memorable pace, eventually coalescing into something so lightweight that you expect it to float away. The fact that Always remains mostly pleasant is down to the overqualified cast. Holly Hunter, especially, is way too good to be saying lines involving the phrase "girls clothes". God bless her, though, she still lends such emotional conviction to a story that, on paper, is pretty threadbare when it comes to pathos.

Much of Spielberg's direction is surprisingly generic, but, like Hunter's performance, he has moments where he delivers far more memorable camerawork than the proceedings call for. Spielberg mainstay John Williams is also on hand to deliver a score that won't crawl into your ears but has its share of decently romantic melodies. Looking over the whole cast & crew, Always is packed with so much talent that lifts up the movie as a whole, a trait that turns out to be a catch-22. The presence of this cast and crew in Always makes the movie better, but it also makes one inevitably wonder why they aren't all working on something more worthy of their talents. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Pete Docter and Confronting Sadness

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

I love PIXAR movies but I especially love Pete Docter's PIXAR movies.

Across the various titles in PIXAR's catalogs, it can be hard to pinpoint a singular theme or message you can attribute to a specific filmmaker. For example, it's become apparent over the years that the more personalized edges of Brave got sanded off once original director Brenda Chapman was fired from the project. Lee Unkrich's two PIXAR films (Toy Story 3 and Coco) are both terrific but there isn't much in the way of thematic overlap there. But that's not quite the case with Docter. 

After kicking off his directorial career with Monsters Inc. (which feels very much indebted to the "what's life like from their perspective?" mold early PIXAR movies were crafted in), Doctor has gone on to craft a trio of PIXAR movies, Up, Inside Out and Soul, that work as well as parables about appreciating life as they do as big-budget family movies.

How did Docter accomplish this? It's really as simple as just the fact that Docter's works aren't afraid to delve into deeper or complicated material. Up's opening montage deals with a prominent character realizing she can't have children. Inside Out's finale hinges not on explosions but on a family being united through sadness. And as for Soul, the whole movie is an existential exercise that contemplates how little difference there is between creative euphoria and destructive detachment. 

The thoughtful nature of Soul is especially well-realized in a moment that really rang true to me personally that happens after Joe Gardner gets to perform at his dream gig. In the wake of this moment, he asks the band's leader what happens next. "We come back tomorrow and do it all over again," she replies.  In this moment, Gardner realizes the dream that was supposed to transform his life has become just another routine. It's something that hit powerfully for me, someone who's always taken aback by how any big development in life doesn't automatically make my life perfect. 

When I came back from my first ever trip to New York, I returned home with a zip in my step and a song in my heart. But a few days after singing showtunes with my friends in Marie's Crisis in NYC, I was back to selling cigarettes at Walgreen's. A seemingly transformative moment in my life had come, gone and normalcy was once again reigning supreme. Just like with Gardner in Soul, I was learning that big events aren't what gives us purpose. More intimate things in everyday life, like the connections we make with others, are what gives us purpose. 

That's the sort of thought process that Docter doesn't just explore in Soul. It's also a key component of Up, whose most emotional scene (excluding that masterful opening, of course) comes when Carl Fredrickson finally flips through the back-half of the Adventure Is Out There book belonging to his wife Ellie. Here, Fredrickson discovers that the pages she had set aside as a kid for all the rousing adventures she'd eventually have aren't empty at all. They're actually filled with photos of Ellie and Carl in marital bliss. All the little moments, like holding hands while sitting in their chairs, were an adventure to Ellie. It's an incredibly moving sequence that sees Fredrickson coming to terms with the past and realizing, through reading Ellie's inscription of "Thank you for the adventure, now go have another!", that he can still have a future.

Docter's PIXAR films are full of these kinds of weighty ruminations on finding fulfillment in life. However, these three films don't just feel like retreads of each other. Each time, Docter works with a new co-director and group of screenwriters that ensure uniqueness across Up, Inside Out and Soul. For Up, co-director and screenwriter Bob Peterson brings welcome doses of unabashed cartooniness in the form of canines who can pilot planes, a yin to the yang of Up's emotionally brutal scenes. 

On Soul, meanwhile, co-director and screenwriter Kemp Powers uses his experience in the world of theatre to write such tenderly-crafted intimate scenes between the film's characters. A thoughtful confrontation between Gardner and his mother especially resonates as something that would be a common sight in a stage play, but is utterly unique for kid-friendly American animation. Powers commits to focusing just on the dialogue between these two characters, with no intrusive gags around to distract from the emotions of the sequence. It's a beautifully-rendered moment and an example of how Powers' unique skills as a writer get to shine in Soul.

Docter's works cover similar thematic territory that make them so distinctly his own. However, another trademark of his productions is the distinct presence of people like Peterson and Powers, not to mention the unique qualities brought to the table by other departments like the animation team. These films are not Docter's own, which is an extension of how universally-relatable the themes of his movies are. Just as Docter's works can resonate with audiences the world over, so too are they brought to life through people the world over. 

It sounds like a contradiction that some of PIXAR's most auteur-driven movies would also be so clearly the result of many artistic voices coalescing gracefully. But life is full of those kinds of beautiful contradictions. It's one of the many wonderful things in life we can take for granted, myself very much included. If there's one thing to take away from Pete Docter's directorial efforts, it's how wonderful those throwaway parts of life are. Thankfully, we have movies like Docter's directorial efforts Up, Inside Out and Soul to help remind us of that truth.

This is Spinal Tap is a rocking good comedy

It's staggering to consider just how influential This is Spinal Tap has ended up being on the world of filmed comedy. While it wasn't the very first instance of mockumentary, Spinal Tap popularized the format and its impact on both big-screen and small-screen comedy has been undeniable. Single-camera sitcoms like The Office and Modern Family owe a lot to Spinal Tap proving that the documentary format could be used for laughs. On the movie side of the equation, would anyone have thought Borat would be possible without This is Spinal Tap? A new era of comedy broke open with This is Spinal Tap, but even divorced from that larger context, the film itself still registers as riotously funny.

This is Spinal Tap chronicles a fictional rock band called Spinal Tap, whose principal members include David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). Their exploits in their first North American tour in years are chronicled by filmmaker Martin Di Bergi (Rob Reiner, who also directs the actual movie). As they try and perform their gigs, the band is constantly faced with major problems, like malfunctioning sets, small crowd sizes, and disagreements between members of the band. At least the music is always rocking and band manager Ian (Tony Hendra) can handle any problem...right?

Some of the most amusing moments of This is Spinal Tap come from the inherent realism of filming this in the style of a rock documentary. There isn't a sweeping score or other grandiose touches to distract from awkward pauses in conversations. Those little lulls of silence are critical to why so many moments in This is Spinal Tap are as hysterical as they are. They aid the timing of subsequent humorous lines tremendously well. Another great realistic touch that would be hard to accomplish in a traditional film is the ramshackle way people talk with each other. The members of Spinal Tap are always talking over each other while describing matters like how their previous drummers died. These moments ring with as much authenticity as it does with humor. 

Reiner takes total advantage of the unique comedic opportunities afforded by doing a mockumentary and that makes This is Spinal Tap such a comedic treat. The fact that Reiner and company clearly did their homework and captured all the tiniest details of actual rock n roll docs from the 1970s is just icing on a delectable comedic cake. When you're parodying something, you've got to show that you've actually studied what you're lampooning, otherwise, you'll end up with a Meet the Spartans. That's the sort of attention that's clearly been lavished on This is Spinal Tap

Plenty of attention has also been given to the songs that Spinal Tap performs throughout the runtime. Their songs show a wide range of musical influences, with flashbacks to the earliest Spinal Tap singles clearly evoking the earliest Beatles tracks while later songs like Sex Farm have a punk rock edge to them. No matter what musical aesthetic they're channeling, the songs, much like the works of Weird Al Yankovic or Rachel Bloom, have uproarious lyrics but are also just catchy tunes in their own right. I've been listening to the official This is Spinal Tap album constantly since watching the movie! This is Spinal Tap doesn't just offer a sharply-rendered parody of rock band documentaries. It also manages to deliver a rock band you can earnestly jam out to. Only a film as widely influential as This is Spinal Tap could have its cake and eat it too like that.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Velvet Goldmine is another outstanding achievement from Todd Haynes


Todd Haynes is one of the most underrated directors working today. Just in terms of visual versatility, alone, Haynes is a powerhouse. He's so good at using an emphasis on empty space in Safe to create an eerie atmosphere while Far from Heaven's homage to the luscious visuals of Douglas Sirk is the perfect example of a pastiche that manages to take on a life of its own. And don't even get me started on Carol, a wondrous film that slides viewers into a dream-like experience of romantic ecstasy. And that's just in terms of visuals! Haynes also excels at pacing, at directing actors, and especially at tapping into the beating heart of his pop culture obsessions.

All those qualities and more are on radiant display in his 1998 movie Velvet Goldmine which is technically a David Bowie biopic but also not. Sure, the film's lead, Brian Slade (Johnathan Rhys Meyers) is a clear stand-in for Bowie. But the film is more than just a hodgepodge of events evoking Bowie's life. Velvet Goldmine is a story about how glorious it can be to see ourselves and who we want to be in our music. It's also a melancholy ode to how the queer revolution of the 70s was snuffed out by the conservative 1980s. It's also a film whose cinematography alone evokes Citizen Kane and Picnic at Hanging Rock with equal measures of success. Like any movie Haynes directs, there's a lot going on in Velvet Goldmine.

The whole movie takes a cue from Citizen Kane and frames itself around a journalist, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), seeking answers about a famous reclusive figure, in this case, Brian Slade. Through interviewing those who knew Slade, Stuart and the audience learn about Slade's rise to the top of the music scene as well as his relationship with fellow rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). The lives of all three men, it turns out, were intersected. As a closeted gay teenager, Stuart found solace in the music of Brian Slade. Meanwhile, music icons Slade and Wild found their own solace in their deep romantic relationship. 

The concept of finding sanctuary in an unaccepting world runs deep through Velvet Goldmine. Intolerance for queer people runs rampant all over the world. Where can one go to find acceptance? Well, one can turn on the radio for starters. A scene of teenage Stuart imagining himself pointing to a televised performance of Slade and telling his parents "See? That's me! It's me!" captures beautifully how wonderful of an escape art can be. Maybe you don't see yourself in your neighbors, but you can see yourself in that person rocking out on the stage. If they can be that confident, maybe you can too. Within the chords of a song, hope is found.

The world of movies is littered with films that explored the punk rock movement of the 60s and 70s but few of them rendered this phenomenon with such a human touch as Velvet Goldmine. This isn't run-of-the-mill societal rebellion, this is a pocket of the population that's been outright erased finally speaking up and yelling for good measure! Through combining Haynes' empathetic photography with some exhilarating needle drops, the viewer becomes as enamored with this vividly freeing music scene as the characters. Velvet Goldmine makes you want to toss on all your most brightly-colored clothes and go running in the street. Many movies have touched on the punk rock movement. Few, however, have made the audience feel like they're right in the front row of a 1969 concert.

Velvet Goldmine's gift for using music as a form of unforgettable self-expression is memorably reflected in a series of stylized music videos that make use of everything from a man decked out in glitter-laden blue makeup to a chandelier to a dollhouse. The Ballad of Maxwell Demon is an especially great set piece, with all these outlandish images and creatures really standing out against a plain white background. Also leaving an impact is a Satelite of Love musical number depicting Slade and Wild falling in love. Haynes frames these two here against a blurry background with the wind whipping through their hair and only the suggestion of brightly colored lights. It's such a distinctively-realized sequence that captures how being in love can make one feel like they're in a whole other dimension.

Much like the punk rockers chronicled in Velvet Goldmine, these musical numbers don't even try to adhere to a suffocatingly heteronormative society's narrow definition of "normal" and the movie as a whole is all the better for it. Punctuating all these gloriously over-the-top exhibitions of musical creativity are the framing device sequences with Stuart interview friends of Slade. Here, Haynes uses his visual versatility to render the world in heavy shadows and moody lighting to emphasize how unaccepting the 1980s were. The societally-tolerated homophobia that was always there (as seen by Stewart being berated by his homophobic father in the 1970s) has even infiltrated the punk rock scene. What was once an oasis has now been overwhelmed by the outside world. 

It's such a quietly devastating event that Haynes frames with an appropriate sense of sorrow that reverberates off the screen as strongly as the joyous musical numbers. We get to see the freedom afforded by this artistic movement, but we also get to see the tragedy that unfolds when this movement crumbles. Not only is Haynes a versatile artist on a visual level, but this production also allows him to show off his tonal flexibility as well. His multiskilled nature as a filmmaker allows Velvet Goldmine to be as successful as it is covering so much material in one motion picture. Not so much a movie as a jolt of vibrant life, Velvet Goldmine is as unforgettable as the very best David Bowie songs.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Regina King makes an impressive directorial debut with One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami, based on the play of the same name, imagines a fictitious night in 1964 that united four legends, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius Clay A.K.A. Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree). Specifically, in the wake of Clay becoming the new heavyweight champion of the world, these four friends head down to Malcolm X's Hampton House hotel room for what they think will be a roaring party. Instead, Malcolm wants to talk about how they're all contributing to the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s. There's no beer or girls here, just incisive conversations...and also a lot of vanilla ice cream.

The screenplay by Kemp Powers (adapting his own play) strips away the stages and stadiums from these icons and reveals a quartet of human beings. I'm a sucker for artistic works that render everyday people out of mythic figures and One Night in Miami is a perfect example of why. Powers proves so thoughtful in exploring these individual characters and speculating on what makes them tick. Each of our four leads has distinctly different attitudes on what it takes to survive in this world. They're each laid out right away in individual vignettes that open One Night in Miami. Particularly powerful is Brown's encounter with a seemingly helpful neighbor (played by Beau Bridges) in his home state of Georgia. It's a scene that reminds Brown and the audience that bigotry hides even behind the biggest smiles.

Through its opening, One Night in Miami establishes that, much like Steve Jobs or Rope, it'll be a dialogue-heavy movie that never loses your attention. It also establishes how the worldviews of its protagonists have formed. With that groundwork laid, it becomes understandable why these characters would stand resolute in their beliefs during their inevitable confrontations in that Hampton Hotel room. These details make it clear Powers isn't relying on name-recognition to carry audience investment in One Night in Miami. He's made sure to these interpretations of famous 1960s figures can work on their own terms. History informs One Night in Miami's characters, but it isn't the only thing the film leans on.

The vividly-realized personalities make the dialogue-heavy proceedings totally engrossing, particularly when it comes to watching total opposites play off each other. youthful optimism of Clay, for instance, is in fascinating direct contrast to the more experienced and reserved Brown. Sometimes, these opposing dispositions generate laughs. Brown's incredulous reactions to Clay bouncing on a hotel bed had me in stitches. Other times, these differing mindsets cut deep on an emotional level. This is especially true whenever traces of vulnerability emerge in Malcolm X. To see a guy who conveys a commanding presence even when there are no cameras on him exhibit some fragility proves truly haunting.

Speaking of fragility and Malcolm X, man's death hangs like a shadow over One Night in Miami. It's one of the most brilliant ways the movie gains an extra layer of depth. Throughout the movie, Malcolm X is paranoid of people following him. Always looking over his shoulder, Malcolm knows his time on Earth will be short. This lends a sense of urgency into what Clay, Brown, and Cooke think is just another night of partying. For Malcolm X, though, there is no time to waste. Kingsley Ben-Adir's turn as Malcolm X is consistently good but it's especially impressive rendering Malcolm X's determination to cram in as much as he can in the time he has left.

Some of Regina King's best moments as a director are in visually conveying the ominous cloud that lingers over Malcolm X. Especially memorable is one of the final moments of One Night in Miami depicting Malcolm X peering out the window against a neon blue sign to look at two men following him. The glowing blue light cascading off of Malcolm X makes for such a haunting contrast to the emotions this man's going through. Just as the world keeps spinning in the face of the horrors of racial injustice, so too does this neon sign keep glowing even in the face of a man staring down his own mortality. And then there's Ben-Adir's face, which conveys such quiet sorrow. Here, King says so much about Malcolm X without ever needing to resort to dialogue. 

It's not the only instance of her filmmaking impressing here. One Night in Miami is her first feature-length directorial effort, but King's already got such a steady hand as a filmmaker. This is true whether she's executing visual gags for maximum humor or just using simple blocking to convey so much about individual characters. The inherently confined nature of this production has brought out King's creativity. Just look at how she uses the minimal amount of locations to ratchet up the tension within the four lead characters. Just like people inevitably turning sour on a long car trip, it's inevitable that everybody would start picking on each other when they're stuck in one hotel room for so long. King makes that lack of space and the vivid personalities of the four leads so impressively tangible.

I also loved how well King gives even the smallest side characters here such distinct personalities, particularly Malcolm X's various bodyguards and followers (one of whom is played by the always-excellent Lance Reddick!) It just makes the world of One Night in Miami feel so richly detailed. Much of those details stem from an all-around exquisite cast, there isn't a dud performance to be found here. My Clemency bias is showing, I know, but my personal favorite of the cast was Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown. I loved that Hodge played Brown like Toshiro Mifune in Sanjuro, this experienced guy who usually sits quietly in the corner but when he speaks, everybody listens. It's such a unique way to depict Brown and one that Hodge pulls off flawlessly.

The scenario One Night in Miami depicts may be fictional but its artistic accomplishments are all too real. Regina King's impressive film makes human beings out of legends. It also turns one hotel room into the backdrop of something you can't turn away from.

In Laman's Terms: Where did all the bonus features go?

My face when I see the state of bonus features in the modern world

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

After a rewatch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (they're even better than you remember for the record), I decided to prolong my time in Middle-Earth by checking out the wealth of bonus features offered on the original Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVDs. Traditionally, movies get very surface-level behind-the-scenes featurettes on their home video release. Not so here. Each of the Lord of the Rings movies got a wealth of mini-documentaries typically running between 20 and 40 minutes long that delve deep into each aspect of the production. 

The sets, the writing, the process of bringing Gollum to life, they're all captured here not just in reflective interviews but also in footage captured during the production! All the while, a realistic portrait of the creative process of making Lord of the Rings is painted. We hear about visual effects artists disagreeing, complaints about itchy make-up effects, or horror stories about having to get major feats in the production accomplished in short bursts of time. Rather than taking away from the magic of these movies, it makes viewers feel like they're getting a peek behind the curtain of the filmmaking process rather than a glossy short made for PR purposes. It's all so wonderful, especially the humorous stories like one yarn about Sean Astin helping to land helicopters!

It's a shame those kinds of bonus features don't exist anymore.

In the last decade, studios have been cutting down on the extras they put into mainstream home video releases. Boutique labels like The Criterion Collection and Vinegar Syndrome, thankfully, have kept the art of in-depth bonus features alive and well. But the days of major new releases getting extensive behind-the-scenes featurettes are gone. It's been a gradual process that can be traced back to the start of the 2010s when studios were really pushing Blu-Ray as the future of home video. Since Blu-Ray came with internet-based support, that was a feature studios wanted to push...even if it was at the expense of bonus features.

The best example of this was The Lion King, whose first Blu-Ray release in 2011 ported over all the insightful bonus features from its 2003 DVD release to an internet-based program called Disney's Virtual Vault. You no longer had ownership over the most insightful behind-the-scenes content and if you didn't have Wi-Fi, you were out of luck accessing it entirely. The Virtual Vault never caught on and neither did other internet-based ways of delivering behind-the-scenes content. 

Remember BD-LIVE? A whole slew of Blu-Rays circa. 2006-2011 have that feature promoted heavily on their boxes as the future of home media, the perfect way to explore the filmmaking process through ways that could only be delivered through the internet. Now, it's about as arcane as an AOL dial-up. Ditto Disney's Second Screen, a way of delivering behind-the-scenes material like storyboards through people's tablets and phones. Disney tried to turn it into a thing from 2011 to 2013, but it never caught on. The service no longer works at all, with all that behind-the-scenes content lost to the ages. Whereas those Lord of the Rings documentaries are still preserved two decades later, all of the Second Screen footage and images are no longer accessible to consumers.

As studios kept trying to make home video content more hip to the youth of today by transferring bonus features to virtual domains, the physical discs themselves became lighter and lighter on actual bonus content. Soon, the problem became even worse as bonus features got split up among retailers. This trend became apparent with the home video release of Star Trek Into Darkness, where once-staples of home media like audio commentaries and featurettes were split up as "exclusive content" for different retailers like iTunes, Target, and Best Buy. 

It's a problem that, despite a fan outcry, tragically persists to this very day. Not only that, but new problems have emerged in the age of streaming. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime do not carry bonus features for their original films*.  Save for a handful of Criterion releases for Netflix titles like The Irishman, those wanting a glimpse behind-the-scenes of original streaming movies are out of luck. With studios opting to look at streaming as the future, physical home video has languished as a result. The days of lavish multi-disc home video releases packed with bonus features are a long-dead dream. 

It's such a shame that bonus features have fallen by the wayside given that they offer so much more than just fun interview anecdotes. They also provide an accessible and informative tool to help foster a love for cinema. You didn't need to have thousands of dollars to attend a film school to appreciate the filmmaking process, these bonus features brought that to you in your own home! In his book Rebel Without a Crew, director Robert Rodriguez talks at one point about how a Martin Scorsese interview on a laserdisc for Taxi Driver proved essential for informing him about the responsibilities of a director. In a broader sense, how many people who work in the film industry were inspired to pursue their passions thanks to the bonus features on movies like Lord of the Rings

These features reminded viewers that regular human beings were responsible for silver screen magic. Maybe it would make viewers think about becoming someone responsible for future pieces of cinema wonder. Sadly, the chance to inspire that kind of passion is gone now that studios have largely abandoned bonus features and apparently have no intention of replacing them with a new form in the age of streaming. Modern technology could help lend whole new levels of insight into the filmmaking process and inspire new generations of movie buffs and filmmakers. Sadly, that's not the kind of "content" movie studios are concerned with in the year 2021. Maybe we should rename bonus features "streaming content to please only shareholders", maybe modern-day movie studios would care then...

While the future for bonus features looks grim, at least we'll always have bonus features from the golden age of physical home media, like those stories about Sean Astin helping to guide helicopters. 

* Disney+ is the one exception to this phenomenon, as they bonus features for all titles, both archival and new originals.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Bold filmmaking and edge-of-your-seat suspense go hand-in-hand in Rope

One of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous remarks came when he discussed how good suspense is informed by a tension that only the audience is aware of. To explain this, he described a scene where characters are talking over a table that has a bomb underneath it, a fact that only the audience is privy to. "In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene," Hitchcock explained. I was reminded of this talk while watching Hitchcock's 1948 movie Rope, which involves a chest containing a corpse placed into the middle of a party packed with unsuspecting partygoers. Hitchcock was right. In Rope, the most mundane of exchanges become riveting thanks to the audience knowing that there's a dead person in the vicinity.

That dead person is David Kentley, who, as Rope opens, is being strangled to death by Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) in the duo's apartment. Once Kentley is dead, they stuff the body into a chest and then prepare to host a party that will involve David's parents and his fiancée, Janet Walker (Joan Chandler). Also coming is prep-school housemaster Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), whose blase attitude towards murder, based on the concept that some people are simply superior to others, informed Shaw and Morgan's decision to engage in murder. As the party goes on, Shaw and especially Morgan become more worried about getting caught while Cadell begins to get nosy as to why Davi hasn't shown up to this party.

The first thing that's worth noting about Rope is that it's fantastic, a masterclass in why Hitchcock has become synonymous with top-shelf suspense filmmaking. The second thing that's worth noting is how this is another great example of how Hitchcock brought out the best in Stewart as an actor. Like his other collaborations with Hitchcock in Vertigo and Rear Window, Stewart eschews his usual everyman screen persona for something much darker. Here, Stewart plays a no-nonsense individual with a bleak outlook on humanity, a total contrast to George Bailey or Jefferson Smith. Also much like in his Hitchcock endeavors, though, Stewart excels in going to darker places.

Stewart's especially a lot of fun in his line deliveries, like how his responses towards characters like Mrs. Anita Atwater (Constance Collier) that just drip with barely-contained frustration at the people he has to talk to. Similarly, Stewart using a sense of assuredness while discussing his grim endorsement on murder is so effectively chilling and makes you see how the seeds of malice in Shaw and Morgan's heads got watered. Anyone whose seen enough of Stewart's work knows he's more than the one-note caricature pop culture parodies of Stewart but Rope is a great reminder of just how versatile he was as a performer.

Also impressing in the cast is Farley Granger, who appropriately puts the viewer on edge in his depiction of Morgan gradually losing his cool as the night goes on. Granger's feat of rendering a consistent personality in Morgan while also displaying the character's gradual descent into paranoia is tremendous. Granger and the other members of the engaging cast are captured through bold camerawork on the part of Hitchcock and cinematographers Joseph A. Valentine & William V. Skall. Rope is told through ten different long-takes meant to simulate that the whole movie is happening in real-time.

This kind of visual approach is always difficult to execute and Hitchcock and company manage to pull it off with aplomb. Even better, it's not just a nifty bit of camerawork trickery. It also works at accentuating the tension of this dinner party. Any minute now, somebody at this party could discover the corpse of David Kentley. Without any cuts to other shots or locations to undercut that tension, one is always on the edge of their seat. Plus, capturing Rope in this manner brings a lot of unique visual details to the table. The best of these is how the view from the apartment's gigantic windows gradually goes from being sunny to so dark that neon signs pour in bright light onto Shaw and Morgan.

Throughout his career, it's apparent Hitchcock knew what he was doing when it came to gripping thrillers. Just look at that aforementioned quote about the bomb under the table. Rope, however, is an especially great example of a filmmaker totally in control of both bold directorial choices and an irresistible sense of suspense.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

It's no lion, er, lie to say that Rogue is much better than expected

In Rogue, Megan Fox plays Samantha O'Hara, the head of a mercenary group that's been tasked with rescuing Asila (Jessica Sutton), the daughter of a wealthy governor, from human traffickers. Narrowly avoiding the clutches of these foes, O'Hara and her group, which includes Joey (Phillip Winchester) and Bo Yinn (Kenneth Fok), are now hiding out in an abandoned farm that used to kill lions. Turns out, though, they're not alone in this compound. A lioness, who was viciously scarred when hunters tried to kill her, is still here and now she's hunting down members of O'Hara's team. Worse, crime lord Zalamm (Adam Deacon), is on his way to reclaim Asila. O'Hara's gonna have to use all her wits to survive this night and I'm not lion about that.

Something I've grown to appreciate over the last year or two is movies whose charms lie in their messiness. Think Richard Kelly's Southland Tales as a prime example of this. Sometimes, cohesion does not automatically a masterpiece. It can be just as interesting to see something that's disjointed but ambitious rather than something that runs smoothly but takes no chance. So it is with Rogue, a movie that's part military drama, part Alien but there's a lion and part sincere National Geographic ode to wild animals. Many movies feature gunfights, sure, but how many of them pause their plot so one supporting character can briefly encounter a pack of wild elephants for no other purpose than to remind viewers how awesome elephants are?

Those are the kind of bold swings writer/director M.J. Bassett (who penned the screenplay with her daughter Isabel Bassett) takes in bringing Rogue to life, along with other distinct creative choices like incorporating a Backstreet Boys song as a form of male bonding. Not all of these choices work, but enough of them do to make Rogue noticeably better than your average B-movie, especially one hailing from Grindstone Entertainment. It helps too that Bassett excels as a filmmaker with the second-act that functions as a suspense thriller. With the electricity out at the compound, that hungry lioness could be hiding around every corner. That uncertainty informs a really well-done air of suspense. 

If there's a big gripe to be had with the script for Rogue, it's in our human villains, who are unfortunately much more generic than the movie they occupy. Once again, an American action movie has baddies who talk about how their actions are for Allah and wear garb associated with Middle Eastern cultures. Most weirdly enough, Rogue awkwardly tries to lampshade this problem by having Zallam make mention that his actions are motivated by not being accepted in Britain due to his skin color and religion. Being aware of real-world bigotry against Muslims or any other marginalized population, though, doesn't get you off the hook for uncomfortable stereotypes.

Otherwise, on a character level, Rogue is actually decent. We get just enough distinct character dynamics to give the action some heft and the eventual friendships that form between the lady characters functions as genuinely sweet. And then there's Megan Fox in the lead role, delivering a performance that reminds us all how it's utter poppycock that she's been stuck in actor jail for so long just because she criticized Michael Bay. Anyone whose seen Jennifer's Body knows Fox has got plenty of talent as a lead performer and through her work in Rogue, viewers get to see that she's got the chops to function as an action lead. 

Believable as a figure of authority, equally authentic in moments where her character does have to open up a little bit and she handles herself well in the fight scenes, Fox lends Rogue's protagonist a withdrawn aura that's unique among female action heroes. It's all a very nice performance that compliments an all-around enjoyable ensemble cast. The performances are another instance of Rogue not being game-changing but certainly better than expected, with Bassett's direction and Fox's lead performance serving as the best parts of the whole enterprise. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Invincible is a lesson in how to do an inspirational sports movie wrong

So ended up watching a trio of Disney sports movie from the 2000s in the first week of 2021. It wasn't something I planned to do but you know how these things can happen. Sometimes, a movie groove just emerges and you have to ride it. Anyway, the first two movies in this line-up were Miracle and Remember the Titans, both better than expected, particularly Miracle. But one drawback to watching these two is that they emphasized the ways the final film in this trio, Invincible, came up so glaringly short. Invincible isn't underwhelming because it's a corny sports movie, it's underwhelming because it's a lazily-made corny sports movie.

Invincible chronicles the true story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old bartender in Boston, Philadelphia who is as disappointed as anyone else in the recent losing streak of the football team the Philadelphia Eagles. The team's new coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), decides to shake things up by having open tryouts to join the team. Letting anyone try out for an NFL team mostly results in also-ran's but Papale, who goes to the tryouts on a whim, ends up impressing Vermeil. Now training with the Philadelphia Eagles, Papale is gonna have to face all the odds in his path and try to bring inspiration to his hometown friends.

Unlike Miracle and Remember the Titans, Invincible doesn't focus on a whole team of athletes, instead narrowing its focus on just one man. This isn't necessarily a bad approach for a sports movie, as the likes of Creed can attest, but if you do this, you better make sure your lead character is interesting. If one character in Miracle or Titans is half-baked, that's OK, there are enough characters on-screen to make up the difference. Unfortunately, Papale, as rendered here, just isn't all that interesting as a character. Since Invincible begins and ends with this guy, the movie as a whole gets dragged down by an unengaging protagonist.

Part of the problem is that screenwriter Brad Gunn has decided to give Papale a sad backstory so packed with cartoonish tragedies that it becomes unintentionally comical. Papale's wife doesn't just leave him, she leaves him and takes every single item in their house like she's the Grinch stealing from the Who's houses. Then Papale carries around a note she left behind (reading "You'll never be anything") with him everywhere in a character beat that should read as a sign of emotional turmoil but just reads an unintentional comical. Part of the problem is the casting of Mark Wahlberg, who never makes us buy that Papale is a guy going through relentless turmoil.

While Gunn's script tosses so many horrible obstacles at Papale that you half-expect him to turn into The Joker before the runtime is over, Wahlberg's performance is constantly mellow, like he's trying to channel Jimmy Stewart. The dissonance between Gunn's script and Wahlberg's performance makes Vince Papale a character that simply doesn't work. With no other interesting supporting characters to pick up the slack, Invincible becomes a painless but forgettable excursion that goes through every requisite storytelling beat a sports movie like this is supposed to hit  

Sure, every sports movie to one degree or another indulge in cliches, but the best ones make those cliches feel brand-new again. The only new concept Invincible brings to the table is in its disorienting visuals under the direction of filmmaker Ericson Core. Dick Vermeil can't give a pretty basic speech to his players without Core twirling the camera around Vermeil like he's the next Michael Bay. At the same time, editor Gerald B. Greenberg keeps cutting to new shots every half-a-second as if he's trying to capture Liam Neeson leaping over a fence in Taken 3. Just let Greg Kinnear give a speech! Stop with all the frantic camerawork and editing! Even worse is all the nauseatingly shaky camerawork in the climactic big game, which robs a potentially inspiring sequence of all its power.

Clearly, Invincible, with all its flaws, doesn't live up to its title.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Beanpole is a visually impressive, though sometimes derivative, dive into post-WWII misery

As Beanpole begins, World War II has come to an end. Though the battlefields may be barren, struggles still go on. Iya Sergueeva, A.K.A. "Beanpole" (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) knows that better than anyone as she works as a nurse in a ward where people are recovering from severe wounds that they received during the war. When she's not at the hospital, Iya is taking care of Masha's (Vasilisa Perelygina), child Pashka. Unfortunately, before Masha returns from the front line, Iya accidentally smothers Pashka to death. Masha is now determined to have another child and, unable to conceive of one herself, coerces Iya to have the kid for her.

With Beanpole, writer/director Kantemir Balagov is making a movie about two women searching for ways to endure in the face of constant death. For Masha, the prospect of having a child, that's practically a middle-finger against the inescapable specter of death. It's an intriguing concept to base a whole movie around and equally interesting is how Balagov reflects the individual personalities of the two lead characters in a society where they must always stay silent. If Iya cannot express herself verbally, then certain colors will both become associated with her and offer a glimpse into her personality.

A bright shade of green dominates the majority of the clothes Iya wears. It becomes something of a motif throughout Beanole's costume design and production design. When you spy green in the frame, that's meant to indicate the influence of Iya. This becomes an especially fascinating detail when Masha begins incorporating bits of green into her attire during the third act. It's a subtle symbol of how closely attached the two characters are becoming. Masha may not be able to say that out loud, but the green in her tops says it for her. Colors themselves stand as a rebuke against societal norms stifling individuality and self-expression.

Ksenia Sereda's cinematography makes great use of these colors in a style of camerawork heavy on exquisitely-realized shots that utilize meticulously detailed blocking. Pick a frame, any frame in Beanpole and it's bound to impress you with how well-crafted it is right down to the tiniest detail. I especially love the quiet thoughtfulness informing which characters the camera focuses on during a climactic discussion between Masha and the mother of her fiancee. The cinematography and Balagov's direction work wonders in making it feel like these two characters are the only people on the planet rather than half the participants at a family dinner.

On a visual level, Beanpole is astonishingly beautiful, its rich level of detail and slow-paced visuals reflecting a remarkable level of skill. The script is a touch more pedestrian, at times feeling like it's working down a list of Downbeat European Arthouse Movie Cliches rather than engaging in boldly unique storytelling traits. Dead kids? On-screen depictions of sexual assault? Queer women only being depicted in constant anguish? Hasn't this all been done before? The best parts of Beanpole are when it digs deeper into more specific details when dealing with tragic circumstances. The aforementioned Masha/mother-in-law tête-à-tête, for instance, is a riveting scene while Masha going from jubilation to sorrow while twirling around in a dress is guaranteed to break your heart.

Enough of Beanpole's story incorporates elements like these two scenes to make sure the film as a whole can rise above some derivative pieces. Plus, the lead performances have no trouble functioning as fully-formed idiosyncratic creations. This is particularly true of Viktoria Miroshnichenko in a lead role that sees her conveying so much devastating woe through those pupils of hers. She's one of the best assets of Beanpole, a drama that sometimes gets stuck in familiar territory but mostly registers as a powerful contemplation on how to survive the never-ending stings of war.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Sylvie's Love is a pleasant rebuke of classic Hollywood norms

Sylvie's Love really was perfectly timed in its Christmas Day release date. At the end of the year, I'm always catching up on critically-acclaimed titles from the preceding year, many of them grim & heavy affairs. 2020 was no exception in this regard. Now, those can be great movies, no question, but once you watch a bunch of them in quick succession, you begin to crave something lighter. In comes Sylvie's Love, a small-scale romantic-drama that aims to homage old-school Hollywood movies and utilize the charms of its two lead actors. The perfect counterbalance to all the recent bleak films I've been watching. 

The story of Sylvie's Love begins in New York City in 1957. Aspiring musician Robert Holloway  (Nnamdi Asomugha) begins working at a record store that already employs Sylvie Parker (Tessa Thompson). What starts out as just a job to earn extra cash in between gigs soon becomes something deeper for both of them. However, their potential relationship is complicated from the get-go by the fact that Sylvie is already engaged to marry another man. There's also the fact that Holloway soon finds himself set for a high-profile gig in Paris, France. The two of them just can't stay together. But that doesn't mean their romance won't continue to fester, including when they reunite five years later.

Writer/director Eugene Ashe has concocted an interesting challenge for Sylvie's Love, which is to make a film that could easily fit into the Golden Age of Hollywood. This means the production adheres to Hays Code restrictions, no strong language or explicit on-screen depicts of sexual activity are shown on-screen. But the best way Sylvie's Love tips its hat to the past is how, much like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, the production chooses to hew to the visual style of Douglas Sirk. There's nary a set here that doesn't pop with vibrant colors and the period-era costumes are similarly awash in bright hues. 

It all looks spectacular and makes for a perfect visual accompaniment to the lush emotional quality of Sylvie's Love. Ashe's screenplay refreshingly has no bones about just being a straightforward romance story. This means he doesn't hesitate to practically paint the whole movie in overt passion. Ashe's direction compliments his writing in how he just lets the emotions between the characters serve as a current that dictates the trajectory of everything in a given scene. The delightful chemistry between Thompson and Asomugha makes this intimate aesthetic especially entertaining. Just watching the two actors converse on a staircase proves engaging. 

Ashe's work on Sylvie's Love is admirably confident enough to not feel the need to add winking touches to its classical sensibility towards romance. However, this isn't just an empty pastiche of older movies. The unique qualities inherent to the perspectives of Black people in the middle of the 20th-century get ample amounts of time in the spotlight. Particularly interesting is Sylvie's pursuit of a job as a TV producer, an occupation that's off-limits for most women of color. Watching her rise through the ranks and reasserting her own competence in the workplace provides some of the best moments in Sylvie's Love, especially since, just by showcasing these experiences, Ashe is in fact commenting on classic Hollywood romance movies.

The subtle commentary being offered here mainly revolves around how Sylvie would be a background player in a classic melodrama from Douglas Sirk or any other prominent American filmmaker of the '50s or '60s. Despite Sylvie's Love showing how rich stories like Sylvie's are, they were always cut out of the fabric of Hollywood filmmaking. Now, Ashe is reinserting these perspectives back into the tapestry of Hollywood's history. Sylvie's Love smuggles a pretty powerful reimagining of vintage Hollywood into an easily-digestible package. Even if you don't want to consider its connections to Hollywood's past, that's OK. Sylvie's Love offers up plenty of surface-level pleasures to make it an enjoyable watch.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Sun is a richly complex feat both visually and thematically


"Seize the day, decide your path." So reads a sign at A-Wen's (Chen Yi-wen) driving school and it's an expression he holds close to his heart. But as he and his family soon learn, claiming control over one's destiny is easier to talk about than actually practice. A-Wen and his family are thrown into chaos when the family's oldest son, A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho) is involved in his friend Radish's (Liu Kuan-ting) successful plan to chop off a man's arm off. Subsequently, A-Ho is sent into prison and the ripple effects of this event reverberate throughout the whole family. Mom Qin (Samantha Ko) tries to hold onto a relationship with A-Ho while taking care of his pregnant girlfriend while A-Wen completely ignores his son.

A Sun begins on one path before diverging into many fascinating different directions. In the process, it's able to insightfully explore how one person's actions are not just their own. The impact of A-Ho's reckless behavior stretches far and wide. In a brilliant stroke, writer/director Chung Mung-hong makes sure to emphasize how even the aftereffects of A-Ho's actions don't exist in a vacuum. For instance, the father of the man who lost an arm to Radish approaches A-Wen for money. Disgusted with the whole situation, A-Wen disregards the father and his obsessive pleas. Instead, A-Wen claims his son had no responsibility in this matter.

The desperate father doesn't just vanish from the story from there. Instead, he comes back to A-Wen's work the next day and begins to spew sewage from a sewage truck all over the driving school. A-Wen's dismissiveness has come back to haunt me in a most repugnant way. Lin Sheng-xiang's score incorporates pervasive wailing saxophones to accentuate the ludicrousness of this whole scenario as A-Wen's chickens come home to roost. It's an incredibly over-the-top sequence, but it's also a bold manifestation of this father's anger. Between his son losing a hand, his financial woes, and being dismissed by A-Wen, the only way this man can truly represent his feelings of anguish is through this sewage-laden demonstration.

This is one of many examples of Chung Mong-hong making such visually evocative reflections of the interior experiences of the characters of A Sun. Sometimes these manifest in more subdued ways, such as the shots of A-Wen simply stewing on his couch as his adopted son returns home from prison. The stark silence in the room as father-and-son reunite, A-Wen's refusal to make eye contact with A-Ho, the way cinematographer Nagao Nakashima quietly makes the space between the characters in this room feel like a massive canyon. It all works in beautiful harmony to perfectly sell just how far apart these two characters have drifted from one another. The successfully detached quality in this interaction has the extra benefit of making a later intimate conversation between A-Wen and A-Ho outside of a convenience store all the more emotionally affecting.

Colors are another well-employed visual trait of A Sun. Just because he's making an expansive drama doesn't mean that Mong-hong and Nakashima hold back on bright colors. Hues of blue are a constant fixture throughout the movie, especially in A-Ho's time in prison. Throughout the runtime, gold (like in A-Ho's eventual workspace as a car washer), red and green also get put to ample use. These colors pop off the screen and make A Sun as pleasing visually as it is on a character level. Also proving memorable is a visual motif of framing these characters through windows, between hallways, or other objects. There's always the sense that these characters, even when they're not in prison, are confined by forces larger than themselves. Even in their own homes, Mong-hong makes sure to emphasize to the viewer that they cannot escape the feeling of being trapped.

A Sun is a rich text on a visual and thematic level. Just those qualities alone make its 156-minute runtime fly right by. As a cherry on top, the cast is also top-to-bottom excellent, with Chen Yi-wen proving to be the standout as A-Wen. A character as cantankerous as he is haunted, Yi-wen has to handle some hefty material that makes the viewer alternate between sympathizing with A-wen and hating his guts. It's such a dense role but Yi-wen handles it with such grace. Plus, he nails the characters' final crucial scene, which lends further layers of complexity to an already intricate figure. Within him and A Sun as a whole movie, we see how labyrinthine one's life can be and how our actions never remain just our own. Keeping that in mind makes one contemplate if it's even possible to "seize the day, decide your path."

A Sun is now streaming on Netflix.