Saturday, February 27, 2021

Tom & Jerry inflict pain on each other but especially on the viewer

There's not much to the characters of Tom & Jerry, is there? As the theme song to Itchy & Scratchy once said, "They fight, they bite, fight fight, bite bite". That's about it. That's just fine for 10-minute shorts that would air before movies in the 1940s. But it's hard to imagine the duo being able to sustain a 100-minute movie in 2021. Tim Story's Tom & Jerry doesn't make a compelling argument for the pair actually having that gift. If anything, it suggests that, like so many classic cartoon characters who get called up for live-action/CGI hybrid movies, maybe this cat and mouse duo were better off in short films.

In their first-ever live-action film (though second theatrical feature-length adventure) Tom and Jerry are pursuing their grand ambitions in New York City. Tom wants to achieve his dreams of being a big-time piano player, Jerry just wants a place to call home. At the same time, Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz) has conned her way into a job at a fancy hotel under the watchful eye of Terrance (Michael Pena). This hotel is where Jerry has taken up residence, sending the hotel staff into a panic as they prepare for the glitzy wedding of Ben (Collin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda). The typical mouse and cat shenanigans will prove especially hazardous in this environment, though it won't inspire much in the way of original gags. 

Screenwriter Kevin Costello has largely resisted the urge to update Tom & Jerry as characters, but that's part of the problem. It's nice that Tom & Jerry aren't doing dances straight out of TikTok but Costello is content to rehash gags straight from the old gags. Rather than coming up with new form of brutal slapstick for the duo to engage in, he's just giving viewers big-screen reruns to digest. Even worse, his script feels like it was put together by an A.I. inspired by other kids movies. The New York City backdrop that was used in movies like The Smurfs? It's here. Extended bouts of bathroom humor? Yep. Bizzare needle-drops of songs that don't fit the tone of the movie? Also here.

The only thing that's really unique here is that the computer-animated used to render Tom & Jerry as well las all other animals attempts to mimic classic hand-drawn animation. At times, it looks spot-on and fools one into thinking they're actually watching vintage animation. Too often, though, it's distracting in how much it comes up short. Characters that aren't either Tom or Jerry especially look off. Whether it's because of the designs or how they blend into live-action environments, these characters just look like they came from a level in Taz: Wanted. In an era where The Peanuts Movie and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse exist, there's no excuse for the shoddy erratic animation seen in Tom & Jerry.

Without much in the way of impressive animation to distract your attention, it becomes readily apparent just how empty Tom & Jerry is. It’s an obligatory branding exercise that doesn’t even have the decency to be fun while it goes through the marketing motions. The story is way too rigidly constructed to adhere to the rough and tumble anarchy that marked the best Tom & Jerry shorts. Even the youngest kids will be able to pick up the plot beats a mile away and Tim Story’s execution of that story offers up nothing fun to excuse the derivativeness. It’s boilerplate filmmaking for a boilerplate story. 

Worst of all, the whole thing wastes the time of Chloe Grace Moretz and Michael Pena, actors who could have easily spent their time better than acting off generic cartoon slapstick antics. In an age where Paddington exists, something like Tom & Jerry has no excuse being this flat. When the best thing you can say about a movie is that it's better than Yogi Bear, you've got a problem.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The latest Russo Brothers movie isn't quite a Cherry bomb but it's no hit either

What do you do after you direct the highest-grossing movie of all-time? If you're James Cameron, you go off and plan a quartet of Avatar sequels. If you're Avengers: Endgame helmers Anthony and Joe Russo, you go small. Real small. After directing a pair of movies with a combined budget of over $700 million, The Russo Brothers have taken to directing Cherry, an independently-financed movie that cost $10 million. It's also an adult movie dealing with the Iraq War, drug addiction, young romance, and all sorts of other heady topics. Clearly, this directorial duo wants to demonstrate that they can direct things that aren't just Disney blockbusters. The ambition is admirable but their execution leaves much to be desired.

Based on an autobiographical novel of the same name by Nico Walker, Cherry chronicles the experiences of a guy named Cherry. While in college in 2002, Cherry falls in love with Emily (Ciara Bravo). It's a relationship that brings them both so much joy, but the prospect of Emily leaving to go to art school in Canada leads a dejected  Cherry to enlist in the U.S. Army. While there, Cherry experiences so much brutality that he can't even function properly when he returns to general society. Haunted by PTSD, Cherry turns to OxyContin to help calm his nerves, which leads him down the path of addiction. To pay for his drugs, Cherry begins a series of bank robberies, fully cementing his turn from a doe-eyed college student to a criminal. 

The first film Cherry reminds me of is the Trey Edward Schults movie Waves in that both are indie movies trying to tackle as many hot-button sociopolitical issues as possible. Also like Waves, Cherry's reach extends its grasp. Despite running for over 140 minutes, Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg's script for Cherry never offers much in the way of substantive perspectives on issues like the Iraq War or the ongoing Opioid epidemic. This is despite Cherry throwing all kinds of wacky accentuations at the audience that range from on-screen text to Cherry talking directly to the camera to constantly shifting aspect ratios.

The best encapsulation of these showy but empty flourishes is seen in the name of the banks Cherry robs. These places are given punny titles like Capitalist One, Bank F**s America or Sh**y Bank. With these monikers, you'd think they'd be part of larger social commentary in the script directed at banking institutions. But there's nothing like that in here. Neither the story nor Cherry as a character has much to say about how banks impact people. Cherry initially turns to rob them out of a desperate need to pay back a drug dealer, not to make a statement on America's banking institutions. The bank names, then, just stick out as an anomaly, a weird attempt at sub-Mark Millar "edgy" social commentary that goes nowhere.

On and on Cherry goes, offering vague handwaves at offering commentary on the larger world but never voicing specific viewpoints or thoughts. Even elements like Cherry periodically talking to the viewer end up having no pay-off, it's just another showy but hollow detail. The films setting of Ohio ends up being also generically defined, a peculiar result given that the two directors and one of the writers grew up there. Aside from Subway being a go-to place for celebrations, though, there's nothing unique about Cherry's central locale. This story could take place anywhere. It's another aspect of Cherry that has no distinctiveness to speak of.

Unfortunately, the characters of Cherry are just as generic as the state they inhabit. This is especially true of the romance between Cherry and Emily, which is supposed to be the crux of the movie. Unfortunately, Cherry never makes time to give us those small intimate scenes that could sell these two as a believable couple worth investing in. Instead, they're rife with conflict from the get-go there's never a breathing moment where they can just exist and be in love. In adapting so much of its source material (the movie spans over two decades), small moments of humanity have gotten lost in the process. As a result, it's hard to find anything tangibly human to latch onto in this expansive saga.

At least the acting is uniformly good, even if the performers struggle to work with such thinly-defined characters. Tom Holland's already proven his dramatic chops in titles like The Impossible, so he has no trouble bringing way more depth to Cherry than what's written on the page. While the filmmaking tends to lean in too much on the supposedly "shocking" sight of seeing Spider-Man do heroin or pleasure himself, Holland just approaches the character as a complex human being. Though Ciara Bravo is stuck with a thinly-sketched love interest character and doesn't have much chemistry with Holland, she still throws herself admirably into such a bleak role. 

As for the directors these actors are working under, Joe and Anthony Russo, in the context of Cherry, show off more interesting ideas than actually impressive filmmaking. shifting around the aspect ratios and filming styles to differentiate parts of Cherry's life (the film is split across six timeframes) is a nifty notion. However, they don't end up lending enough visual variety to each individual segment while an overreliance on dim lighting to suggest a bleak tone just suggests that somebody forgot to buy enough lightbulbs. Cherry has its moments, but they aren't enough to make up for a movie that doesn't offer much despite throwing so many things at the wall.

Monday, February 22, 2021

I Care a Lot starts with a bang but ends on a derivative whimper

Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) makes it apparent through opening voice-over narration that she has a bleak view of the world. In her eyes, you're either predator or prey and Grayson certainly doesn't want to be prey. This informs why she makes a living creating sham conservatorships for elderly people. After collaborating with a doctor to make it seem like these people are ill-suited to take care of themselves, Grayson proceeds to lock these individuals up in nursing homes and then sell all their belongings. It's a scheme she's been using to make money for ages now...but her newest client, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), could be a problem. Peterson may be locked up in a nursing home but she has friends on the outside who will do anything to stop her money from being exploited.

I Care a Lot has a whopper of a starting premise, one that couldn't have asked for a better pop culture landscape to be plopped into given all the buzz surrounding the recent Britney Spears documentary focused on corrupt conservatorships. Beyond functioning as an extension of the current go-to watercooler pop culture talking point, I Care a Lot's story also lays the groundwork for unflinching dark comedy. Writer/director J Blakeson pulls no punches in its tone, there is no good person protagonist to offer as a counter to all the seediness. This is a movie drenched in selfishness right down to how it embraces depicting Grayson as a ruthless monster.

It's a nice touch, too, that Blakeson refuses to dive into any kind of backstory for Marla. There is no tragic origin story to explain why she is the way she is. Marla is simply looking out for herself and wants money, like so many actual people in the world. Such a character is a perfect fit for Rosamund Pike, a master in the art of self-aggrandizing monologues about her character's own wickedness. Pike is terrific at capturing Marla as someone who's become an expert in deviousness, she's utterly compelling to watch. Ditto for Peter Dinklage, who eventually emerges as Roman, her adversary. Though playing different personalities, both Pike and Dinklage prove transfixing even when they're doing things as simple as vaping or slurping a smoothie.

If only I Care a Lot had taken a cue from its lead performers and kept things restrained. Unfortunately, the midway point of the movie sees the proceedings turning from a dark comedy into a more generic cat-and-mouse gangster film. This wouldn't quite be a problem except Blakeson struggles far more with this gangster drama material compared to just wallowing in the depravity of Marla's actions. For example, Roman and his gangsters vary in their effectiveness as killers to a distracting degree. It's hard to generate dramatic tension with foes who aren't much of a menace and protagonists who can survive near-death experiences with barely a scratch.

The feud between Marla and Roman also proves a problem in how it mostly ignores the whole corrupt conservatorship angle the rest of the movie was built on. Jennifer Peterson and the other elderly victims have vanished. Now we're stuck with a way less interesting movie that also wants us to root for Marla to win. That doesn't happen. On top of all that, incorporating a mob hailing from a foreign country (Romania) undercuts the sociopolitical subtext of Marla's actions being a microcosm for how American wealth comes at the expense of other people. That message gets muddled when so much wickedness is laid at the feet of baddies from a foreign land. 

This concept is reinforced through an ending that tries its best to emulate the conclusions of both The King of Comedy and Uncut Gems but overexplains itself too much to even come close to those two movies. It's a shame I Care a Lot ends up petering out in an unsatisfying fashion because its performances and early commitment to omnipresent cruelty are admirable. Unfortunately, the production isn't confident enough to follow its creative convictions all the way. Innovation gives way to a derivative crime thriller. At least Rosamund Pike got to deliver her best lead performance since Gone Girl, what an extraordinary talent she is!  

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Klute is a dynamite thriller with depth to spare

The arch of progress doesn't just point to constant upward trends. Unfortunately, society tends to take as many steps backward as it does step forwards when it comes to helping marginalized communities. The American film industry is no exception. While many steps have been taken for increased positive on-screen representation of certain oppressed groups in the last fifty years, watching the 1971 movie Klute reminded me how far we've fallen back in some respects. I can't even fathom a modern-day movie from Warner Bros. releasing a movie starring a sex worker, let alone one that depicts the sex worker as a fully-fleshed-out human being.  That wouldn't fit in with WB's modern approach of making movies "for the fans" or modern Hollywood's desire to erase the existence of sex entirely.

What a shame that we've fallen so far in this respect in 50 years. Oh well, at least we'll always have Klute, which follows Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), who works as a sex worker in New York City. She becomes embroiled in an investigation into the disappearance of Tom Gruneman conducted by detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland). Turns out Daniels had repeated contact with Gruneman and could help provide clues as to what happened him. Both Daniels and Klute come from opposite sides of the tracks, with Daniels being free-spirited and Klute being all stuffed-up and proper. However, they'll have to work together to solve the mystery of Gruneman''s disappearance.

This mystery is a critical part of Klute but it's not the central focus of the entire movie. Actually, the crux of the production is exploring the character of Bree Daniels, whois at a personal crossroads in her life. Her personal turmoil is rendered explicit in a series of scenes showing Daniels at her psychiatrist where she details all the thoughts and desires. The script by Andy and Dave Lewis affords the character of Daniels plenty of screentime to be defined as a person beyond her occupation as a sex worker while her multi-dimensional quality defies the traditional Hollywood portrayal of a sex worker. Conceptually, it's already a subversive character, and luckily, the two writers give such a rich character thoughtful quandaries and dialogue to tackle.

I especially love the way she frames her internal conflict over developing feelings for Klute. Her dialogue perfectly captures a woman whose head is in a constant state of tug-of-war over what she wants. Those kinds of complex details are superbly handled by Jane Fonda, whose performance truly is remarkable. She can juggle every aspect of this character with such finesse, whether it's being a comforting presence to her clients, a vulnerable soul in her therapy sessions, or in her wry comedic rapport with Klute. Klute gives Fonda mountains of varied experiences to convey but she surmounts them all with such ease.

Fonda plays much of the movie off Donald Sutherland, an actor who has made a career out of playing composed figures representing upper-class authority in everything from Ordinary People to The Hunger Games. It's an archetype he once again inhabits successfully here, but this is no mere rehash of other Sutherland turns. Not only does Sutherland bring unique ingredients to his work as John Klute but Klute also has the unique ingredient of handing him Jane Fonda as a screen partner. Their earliest scenes together almost have a What's Up, Doc? quality to them in how this buzzy woman amusingly bounces off a stiff guy seemingly rooted to the floorboards. 

These two exceptional lead turns are executed under the direction of Alan J. Pakula, who just cranked out masterpieces of tension throughout the 1970s. His gift for suspense makes Klute a movie that always keeps you guessing but he never loses sight of the characters in the middle of all the uncertainty. Just look at how the climax hinges on an extended conversation between Olsen and the surprise villain of Klute rather than just a barrage of contrived twists. Pakula is in rare form here as are so many of the creative participants of Klute. Please Hollywood, make more modern movies like Klute, both in terms of how it handles sex workers and its overall quality!

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Settle in with the quietly powerful ambiance of Nomadland


The 2008 global recession was a tidal wave and it left countless people drowned. In the wake of that event, where do you go? What can you do? It's not like you can just pick yourself up and keep moving. After all that financial hardship, can you just keep living like you always have?  American society tells us there's only one way to live. Maybe, in the aftermath of all that hardship, it's time for something different. So ponders the protagonist of Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand), whose journey across various parts of America makes the viewer contemplate what truly defines a fulfilled life. Is it just getting by financially...or is there something more out there?

Fern used to live in Empire, Nevada. But then the US Gypsum plant where she and her late husband worked closed down. With that place gone, the town collapsed. Now Fern has nowhere to live, let alone to work. From the start, writer/director Chloé Zhao shows a smart eye in depicting Fern's situation. We start the movie with that plant having already closed and her husband having already died. Zhao doesn't linger on Fern reacting to fresh tragedy, she begins her story with Fern deciding to take her life in a new direction. Already, Zhao is departing from the cinematic norms of depicting the impoverished in America. This is not "poverty porn". This is something far deeper.

That new direction Fern has decided to go in is to become a nomad, a person who lives out of their RV and travels from place to place. It's something born mainly out of necessity, as Fern's employment opportunities (like working in an Amazon shipping center or at an RV park) are across America rather than in one spot. But by doing this, Fern becomes acquainted with a whole new culture. It turns out there's a lot of people who have turned to becoming nomads in the wake of recent events in their lives. Whether it's familiar tragedies, financial hardships, or any number of other circumstances, the traditional way of life isn't satisfying anymore. It's time to hit the open road.

For the first time in her career as a feature-length filmmaker, writer/director Chloé Zhao gets to work with professional actors in Nomadland. However, there are only two such performers in the whole cast, McDormand and David Streaithern. Otherwise, she adheres to the docudrama approach of her first two movies, Songs My Father Taught Me and The Rider. Like those films, Nomadland features real-people playing characters that are their actual selves. Real-life nomads like Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells are the most prominent figures to appear in this manner. Also like with her initial two features, Zhao's affinity for this kind of casting works exceedingly well in imbuing authenticity into Nomadland.

This is especially apparent in a sequence where various nomads share testimonies about what drove them to this lifestyle around a campfire. One woman's recollection about how her dying husband told her not to waste another day of her life especially stuck in my mind as powerful, particularly her use of the term "sailboat in the driveway" to summarize a life wasted. This is the kind of emotionally raw moment that can be found throughout Nomadland. The quiet atmosphere of the entire piece means that Zhao makes time for the little moments that truly make these characters come alive as fully-dimensional. A low-key scene of Fern, Linda May, and Swankie goofing off in a high-tech RV is a perfect example of this. It's such an exceedingly charming moment that gets so much mileage out of the affable chemistry between the three actors. 

Plus, these kinds of scenes show that Zhao has a sharp eye for what moments in life truly leave an impact on us as people. In the movie Up, Russell recalls how, when it comes to his memories with his dad, "the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most". Nomadland is never boring but it's a movie made up of the moments that we could think of as boring when we're living them. These are also the moments that American society tells us we can't pause to reflect on lest we not make more money. Talking with friends over the campfire. Goofing off in an RV with friends. Talking about tattoos over a lunch break. Square-dancing in some old Southern eatery. Even just walking down the street on a particularly beautiful night. None of these moments involve a lot of money, but whether we realize it or not, they bring us closer to others and ourselves. 

Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards capture these moments with such warmth and beauty as if they're being recalled through the rose-colored tint of our memories. The way the locations of Nomadland would appear in our wistful recollection is how they look on-screen. These stunning visuals accentuate a melancholy tone that proves perfect for the kind of internal experienced Fern is navigating. Speaking of Nomadland's lead character, Fern's story becomes so emotionally engaging that her circumstances can make small-scale problems seem like the end of the world. The fact that Zhao got me to gasp over seeing Fern's items accidentally shattered or hearing her engine sputter, I love that, I love when I get so invested that the tiny things suddenly feel momentous.

Much of that is also due to Frances McDormand's lead performance, an incredible piece of work that cements once and for all how this actor could be engaging in any circumstance. Much of Nomadland hinges on just watching McDormand do simple things like walk across a camp of nomads or waiting for her laundry at the laundromat to be done. All the while, McDormand commands your attention thanks to her performance that delicately balances a quiet demeanor with signifiers of years of hardship. Just through a facial expression, McDormand always reminds us that Fern has been through a lot but she never solely defines her performance by that torment.

After all, people are more complicated than that. So is life. We don't have a lot of time to think about that in this world that's usually propelling us from one paycheck to the next. Nomadland offers viewers a chance to contemplate those sort of weighty matters, all through the prism of outstanding filmmaking courtesy of Chloé Zhao.

All hail the well-crafted horror filmmaking in Saint Maud

When I've been wistfully reminscing about theatrical experiences since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I've usually been recalling experiences where the audience was united in enjoyment over what was happening on-screen. However, equally memorable in a theatrical space are those instances where audiences were baffled by what was going on on-screen. The VVitch, for instance, people were leaving that one so confused. I may not agree with those responses but it's always thrilling to see movies get any kind of profound response out of people. I bet Saint Maud (which is currently streaming on Epix for some reason) would have gotten those kind of pronounced reactions, drawing out equal measures of "Wow!" and "What?!?"

A former nurse named Maud (Morfyyd Clark) is now working as a caretaker after a traumatizing experience where she failed to save a patient. It isn't just her occupations that have changed in the wake of that event. Maud has also become a dedicated Roman Catholic, she lives every day, every moment, every movement, wondering how she can better live up to the Lord. This includes her time spent caring for a dying woman named Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle). Though the two seem to bond in their days together, Maud can't seem to get Amanda to convert to her faith. These theological struggles begin to send Maud off an edge that will see her embracing her faith to a startling degree.

It's a cliche at this point to say this about top-shelf horror movies, but there's no other way to put it; Saint Maud works extremely well at touching your nerves even when it's just exploring the mundane day-to-day life of Maud. In particular, the sound work does a remarkable job putting us inside the frantic mind of this protagonist. Every scrape of a glass across a table, every crunch, Maud is always on alert. The trauma she's experienced means she never lets her guard down and this takes every noise around her to the extreme. It's an incredible way of putting us inside her headspace without the viewer ever realizing it.

Similarly successful at evoking Maud's point-of-view is the camerawork. Early on, when Maud's getting along with Amanda just fine and her relationship with the Lord isn't tested, director Rose Glass and cinematographer Ben Fordesman frame the movie in a manner traditional for artsy horror fare. Lots of wide-shots, characters framed from afar, there's a sense of control to how they're capturing Maud's word. But when things get more and more out of control, the visuals begin to get more warped. Close-up's become more noticeable, the camera gets titled, Maud's world is now upside-down and Saint Maud finds creative ways of visually reflecting that.

Saint Maud is an impeccably put-together affair that scores what every horror movie should strive to achieve: memorable scares. I was just so on edge throughout this whole movie! The screenplay by Rose Glass effectively establishes Maud as someone who could just snap like a twig at any moment and Morfyyd Clark's ethereal performance conveys the same quality. She's like the human manifestation of Hitchock's adage of a bomb under a table; we all know she's going to explode, but when? This imbues a remarkable amount of tension into the whole movie, particularly one nail-biter of a sequence where an old friend by the name of Joy comes to her apartment. The tension's so thick here you could cut it with a knife!

With such a compelling lead character told through impressively-realized filmmaking, you really can't take your eyes off Saint Maud.  It's such a richly-detailed film, particularly in the challenging morality of its characters. Amanda, for example, will (appropriately) grate on your nerves one minute before conveying such a haunting sense of tragedy the next minute. That's another one of the many creative ways the film keeps you on your toes. Really, the only complaint I can lob at Saint Maud is that I wish I could have seen it in a theater, I would have loved to see a packed house of moviegoers respond to this movie. Especially that mic-drop of an ending, holy cow, what a perfect ending!

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Messenger delivers a haunting reflection on coping with grief

While searching around on Hulu for something to watch, The Messenger happened to flash across my screen. Given that this movie scored two Oscar nominations, including Woody Harrelson's second Oscar nod, I was well aware of this movie's existence. However, for some reason, I had never made it a priority to watch it. Well, that all changed and now I'm kicking myself for not getting to The Messenger sooner. It's not only a well-made movie but it's also one of my favorite types of movies; stories about jobs I'd never thought about in detail before. I love it when a film makes me think deeper about occupations I just took for granted.

So it is with The Messenger and its exploration of casualty notification officers, who are soldiers who inform families that their loved ones have died while at war. It's a job thrust upon Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a young staff sergeant who's been paired up with CPT Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). While Montgomery is totally new to this occupation, Stone knows everything backward and forwards. It's why he carries such a detached attitude, he doesn't wanna let emotions compromise his job. The Messenger soon becomes more than a tale about two people navigating a harrowing job. It's also a story about the different ways people cope with grief.

Writer/director Oren Moverman (who penned the script with Alessandro Camon) has a gifted hand for handling exceedingly raw scenes depicting people reacting to the news that they've lost a son, a daughter, a spouse, etc. These sequences are shot in a cinema verite style that accentuates the realism of these scenes, ditto the realistic homes that Montgomery and Stone embark to. These two don't just visit soundstage recreations of normal family life, they go to cramped & imperfect spaces, the kind I've been in or could even recognize as my own home. This immediately makes the people Montgomery and Stone visit register as palpably tangible and the same is doubly true of their anguish.

How do you cope with that kind of job? Moverman and Camon wring fascinating drama out of showing two disparate approaches to that kind of coping. Stone distances himself from everyone while Montgomery opts to get closer to those he's talking to, especially Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton). I love the way we can understand the psychology of these perspectives, we're never rooting for just one character in The Messenger. This is especially impressive in regards to the character of Montgomery, who can spew some repellant nonsense but also can break your heart. That's the power of Woody Harrelson right there.

The Messenger frequently captures these individual perspectives and instances of overwhelming grief in nicely-executed pronounced ways. But some of my absolute favorite moments of the film are where director Oren Moverman pauses and lets quiet moments say so much. I especially loved this small bit where an unnamed Returning Soldier (played by a young Jeremy Strong) goes on this foul racist tirade against a man he knew in his time at Iraq...only to have one moment where he realized he actually liked that guy. For a blip, Strong and Moverman's camera conveys the pain this soldier is trying to hide. This is how he deals with grief, and for one haunting moment, we get a glimpse inside the pain he's bottling up.

A later scene of Montgomery and Pitterson awkwardly navigating the idea of sleeping together inside Pitterson's kitchen also gets a lot of mileage out of moments where nobody speaks at all. There isn't passion in this sequence, the emphasis on awkward silence instead suggests the internal conflict both characters are grappling with. The Messenger is an emotionally stirring production even when people aren't howling in pain over the loss of their loved ones. I didn't wake up yesterday thinking I'd end up watching The Messenger but I'm so grateful that's where my day took me. A job I'd never given much thought about turns out to be the perfect vehicle for an exploration of the varied ways human beings grapple with overwhelming grief.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Cathy Yan hit the ground running as a confident filmmaker with Dead Pigs

It's always strange when a director's first movie isn't the one that gets officially released to the public first. Due to all sorts of weird circumstances ranging from distribution problems to personal circumstances, sometimes directorial debuts have to wait a while before seeing the light of day. One of my favorite random examples of this is Lars Klevberg, whose directorial debut Polaroid was delayed for two years thanks to all those problems with The Weinstein Company. In the meantime, he directed the Child's Play remake, which ended up coming out first. So is the case with Cathy Yan's Dead Pigs, which debuted at Sundance 2018 but is only making its way to domestic moviegoers in 2021, a whole year after Yan's second movie, Birds of Prey.

While it's taken a while to get here, Dead Pigs turns out to have been well worth the wait. All that directorial vigor Yan demonstrated on Birds of Prey is alive and well here in Dead Pigs, which follows a slew of characters across Shanghai. The most notable of these figures are Old Wang (Haoyu Yang), a pig farmer in tremendous debt, and his sister Candy Wang (Vivian Wu). The latter is housed up in her grandparents' house and refuses to sell it to wealthy landowners who need her land to start construction on a big living complex. Also around is Wang Shen (Mason Lee), the son of Old Wang who is looking to make money however he can, including faking injuries from "severe" automobile accidents.

Yan's screenplay for Dead Pigs juggles several storylines in a fashion that echoes early Paul Thomas Anderson works like Magnolia. Uniting everyone is the presence of money, everyone in this movie, except for Candy Wang, is driven by a desire for money. This is especially true of real estate developer turned model Sean Landry (David Rhysdahl), who becomes wealthy simply by standing around and spouting generic phrases. The intimate cost of all that money or bulldozing old homes doesn't cross the minds of many of these characters, they just need cash. Dead Pigs depicts an all-too-familiar world where money means everything and yet nothing at all.

It's a fascinatingly-rendered concept made all the more engaging by how Yan isn't afraid to take her plot to great extremes. This includes a finale involving Candy Wang staring down a big bulldozer that imagines what would have happened if Carl Fredrickson had stuck around and fought off the real estate developers lusting after his house. Much like I, Tonya or Showgirls, Dead Pigs realizes the only way to authentically reflect the most absurd parts of humanity is with similarly outlandish storytelling. The characters of Dead Pigs act in over-the-top ways but it always resonates as something evoking tangible reality. 

This type of storytelling also allows Yan to imbue the characters of Dead Pigs with enjoyably pronounced personalities. I especially adored Candy Wang who gets a variety of interests in Yan's script beyond just wanting to preserve her family's house. She likes painting, she does aerobics, she laughs at old Cary Grant movies, even when she's engaged in a form of prolonged protest, Wang leads a rich life. This makes her such a great counter to the rest of the film's money-fixated characters. Whereas Sean Landry has no real-life beyond his duties to a real estate company, Wang is representative of what happens when you live for something beyond monetary gain.

These characters flourish in the same kind of propulsive wit Yan would go on to lend to Birds of Prey. Even in her directorial debut, Yan already shows a remarkable level of polish behind the camera. Whether it's juggling so many different storylines with ease or her distinct sense of staging & blocking, Yan's directorial debut shows a filmmaker already in command of her craft. Her creative audacity even extends to closing the film out with the whole cast engaging in a sing-a-long, a routine that evokes a similarly bravura musical scene from Richard Kelly's Southland Tales. It's a shame Dead Pigs has taken so long to get a proper release because the film itself is an impressively-crafted ode to how ridiculous a life defined solely by money truly is.

In Laman's Terms: forget COVID-19 movies, musicals are the future of post-pandemic cinema

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!

Like Doctor Manhattan talking about the regular o'l mortal humans of Earth, I'm tired of all these COVID-19 movies.

We've already gotten Songbird and Locked Down but each day seems to bring news of a new feature film fixated around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Judd Apatow is doing a movie about actors trying to social distance during the pandemic. There's a whole slew of movies about the whole GameStop "Stonks" thing that will inevitably focus heavily on COVID-19. On and on the list goes as Hollywood is convinced that this terrifying event that's cost hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe can be turned into entertainment. Tell me, when this is over, who is going to want to go to a movie theater and pay cash to see a movie about a cataclysm they just experienced? 

The future of movies isn't movies about the COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn't mean this health crisis won't impact what kind of movies audiences will want to see. In fact, there's a genre of filmmaking that could be the perfect outlet for escapist entertainment in the wake of the pandemic.

The musical.

This is a genre of entertainment that's always proven to be useful in helping people to escape the worries of harsh reality. Just look at how much the genre flourished in the wake of the horrors of World War II. The grim noirs of the 1940s were surpassed by glitzy musicals where Judy Garland and Gene Kelly sang their way into people's hearts. While the genre went into dormancy by the time the late 1960s arrived, it managed to sporadically attract audiences with titles like Grease before staging a full-fledged comeback with Chicago in 2002. Since then, the musical has been back, but usually, as a Christmastime treat for maximum award season visibility. Aside from live-action remakes of animated Disney movies, it's rare to see musicals outside of December.

An annual treat could become something more dominant in a post-COVID-19 landscape, partially because of how studios seem to be committed to musicals. The massive box office success of original musicals La La Land and The Greatest Showman has gotten studios eager to replicate that success. In the Heights, Everybody's Talking About Jamie, Cyrano, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story are all set for 2021 releases. Beyond those titles, Little Shop of Horrors, Sunset Boulevard, Spamalot, and Wicked are all in development. Some of these are being adapted because Hollywood loves familiar names and those are all apparent in the cases of Wicked and West Side Story.

Inadvertently, though, these musicals could be perfect for a post-pandemic climate. For starters, musicals are movies that, when done right, can make lift your body up with energy and joy. How can you not wanna tap your toes to Life's a Happy Song? How can the lyrics in any song written by Howard Ashman not make you smile? Musicals can convey as many tones as there are stars in the skies but Hollywood loves upbeat musicals. Those are the kind of movies that could be the perfect antidote to the pandemic blues. I know I've turned to revisiting the musical numbers from Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig and the Angry Inch plenty of times during quarantine. The chance of seeing new vibrant set pieces on the big screen that could make my soal sing would be enough to get me to buy a ticket.

Even better, though, is how the musical is a genre that can't be done alone. I mean, just the genre of the round song requires multiple people to be properly executed! Plus, so many musicals are about people uniting and working together. Doesn't a movie about people being friends and working together while singing jaunty tunes sound just divine right now after being cooped up in our homes for a year? The same can be said for the dazzling choreography in the best musicals. Which would you rather watch, people making the same "toilet paper is gone lol!" jokes in a pandemic-themed comedy or the next The Boys Are Back?

And then there's the simple point that the best musical movies are a joy to watch with a packed house. It's not the same glorious experience as watching these things as live theater, but God, watching people get enamored with musicals is a magical experience. People applauding after individual musical numbers. Moviegoers humming their favorite tunes as they leave the theater. Best of all though is that unspoken sensation as the movies going on. Everyone's united in being totally enraptured in watching what's going on on-screen. Just as the characters in a musical are united in a common goal, so too are the audience members united in a love for what they're seeing.

That level of wall-to-wall unity will be at the forefront of the minds of movie studio executives as they try to get theatrical moviegoing to return to some level of normalcy in the coming months. Clearly, one way they're trying to accomplish this is by greenlighting a whole lot of movies that explicitly involve the pandemic. I have no problem with thoughtful auteurs like Ava DuVernay or Richard Linklater making character pieces that evoke this health crisis. But Locked Down alone makes the idea of further genre entertainment lamely covering the COVID-19 pandemic sound like a disaster.

How about instead giving me and moviegoers' everywhere vibrant musicals that remind us of the joys of unity, belting out our deepest desires and plain o'l fun? That sounds like the perfect antidote to the last nightmarish year of dealing with this health crisis. The musicals have managed to be a respite from reality in the past, it's time for the genre to do that once again!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Paul Schrader makes familiar thematic terrain feel fresh with his 1997 film Affliction


My experience with the Paul Schrader movie Affliction was a classic case of going into a film expecting one thing and experiencing something else entirely. The plot description for Affliction on the Amazon Prime streaming service frames the production as more of a mystery thriller, a yarn about a small-time cop who begins to investigate a murder in his small town. That's a piece of the puzzle for sure, but what actually occurs here is much more in the mold of a traditional Paul Schrader movie. That made this an unexpected feature, but one that nonetheless ended up winning me over. Even if it's not what I signed up for, Affliction is an appropriately haunting look at the cyclical nature of abuse.

Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is a police officer in a small town in New Hampshire. We meet him while he's trying to spend Halloween night with his daughter, an excursion that's undercut by Whitehouse's controlling tendencies. He doesn't listen to what his kid wants, he's only motivated by his own desires. Afterward, Whitehouse is stewing over the thought of not being a presence in his daughter's life when he's informed about a hunting accident that's left a man dead. Jack Hewitt (Jim True-Frost) was the only witness to the accident and Whitehouse becomes gradually convinced that Hewitt killed the man as part of a larger conspiracy involving the mob.

At the same time, Whitehouse is dealing with all sorts of personal turmoil, including the death of his mom, the prospect of marrying longtime sweetheart Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), and having to live with his abusive alcoholic father, Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn). With all these troubles piling up, Whitehouse sees solving this murder as the only way out of his current despair and a chance to prove to the world that he's something special.

As Affliction goes on and the psychology of Wade Whitehouse becomes more apparent, the film emerges as another Paul Schrader meditation on men who perceive themselves as God-like figures who are the only hope for a world gone awry. In the mold of his screenplay for Taxi Driver and his 2018 feature First Reformed, Schrader once again explores this theme with Affliction, though this time he's added the element of fatherhood into the mix. Specifically, the exploration of how Wade Whitehouse's upbringing at the hand of Glen Whitehouse and his own troubling behavior as a father has impacted his psyche. Whereas Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was largely a loner whose relatives were offscreen, Wade Whitehouse is no isolationist, he's somebody deeply entrenched into other people's lives. 

This adds a unique unnerving layer to his escalatingly irrational behavior because we know that these actions won't happen in a vaccum. They'll impact his daughter, his girlfriend, and even the citizens he's supposed to protect as a police officer. By leaning on this detail to inform the tension in Affliction, Schrader makes this a unique entry in his exploration of men suffering from delusions of grandeur. Furthering the uniqueness is how the movie commits to emphasizing that conspiracies Wade and even his father rebel against don't really exist. Whereas First Reformed wrung drama out of showing a man incorrectly responding to understandably horrific real-world atrocities, all of this behavior in Affliction is just shaking a fist at a problem that isn't there.

We eventually learn in Affliction that there was no mob conspiracy, no grander plot that Wade Whitehouse had to foil. The man just died from a hunting accident. Meanwhile, Glen Whitehouse drunkenly rants against women having more autonomy over their lives as if it's a larger plot to upend society. Both of these men have created problems in their head while avoiding the actual issues glaring at them straight in the eye. Schrader laces these conflicts with enough specific detail to make them genuinely harrowing to watch, especially his depictions of Wade becoming more and more like the very father he hates so much.

Not every aspect of Affliction works as well as its exploration of its main character's grim psychology. Handheld camerawork used in flashbacks to differentiate the scenes visually from the rest of the movie is interestingly conceived. However, they rely so much on shaky-cam that the dramatic power of these fragments of an abusive childhood is undercut. There are also a handful of scenes with extended dialogue exchanges that feel a bit too meandering in a way that doesn't add anything to the overall movie. On the whole, though, Affliction is far often more engaging than it isn't, particularly since Schrader both thoroughly commits to the grim tone of the production and skillfully directs a stacked cast (Nolte and Coburn are in especially rare form here). It may not be the movie I expected to watch, but Affliction is still a noteworthy directorial effort from Paul Schrader.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

A crime thriller gets successfully crossed with a lowkey vibe in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Something that tends to crop up in my favorite directors (Richard Linklater, Barry Jenkins, Greta Gerwig, etc.) is an ability to make every character on-screen feel lived-in. These filmmakers lend a sense of rich depth to each and every person that walks into the frame. It doesn't matter if they have zero lines, everybody in a movie has a story, they don't just exist to support the protagonist. This quality lends a sense of authenticity to the proceedings in addition to extra layers of entertainment. This same quality is around in abundance in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which crosses writer/director Jim Jarmusch's laidback observational filmmaking with a crackling gangster thriller.

 Who is Ghost Dog? While his name may make him sound like a Hanna-Barbera character, Ghost Dog is actually the alias of a man portrayed by Forest Whitaker. He's a hired killer who lives his days in New York City tending to his rooftop pigeons and learning the ways of the samurai. That's Ghost Dog's real passion, he lives and breathes every word of the spiritual guide Hagakure. His life gets complicated, though, after one of his targets turns out to be a relative to a local mobster, who wants Ghost Dog dead. Of course, Ghost Dog isn't going down without a fight and he proceeds to fight back against the men who are trying to kill him.

Throughout Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, there's an amusing visual motif where all the big-shot gangsters are shown watching classic cartoons (and also a pair of Itchy & Scratchy shorts) whenever they're watching television. It's an already amusing sight gag to see the juxtaposition between characters who walked right out of Goodfellas chuckling at Woody Woodpecker. But the content in each of these cartoons depicts a confident antagonist being outmaneuvered by their adversary. These cartoons are a microcosm of the central story in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Ghost Dog is the Road Runner and mobsters like Ray Vargo (Harry Silva) are Wile E. Coyote.

Watching that kind of dynamic proves interesting throughout, especially since Jarmusch frames all of the violence in a blunt manner that largely eschews making this stuff look "cool" (the way Ghost Dog twirls his guns around before holstering them being the one welcome exception). There's a frankness to how, for example, Vargo shoots and kills a cop. Blood doesn't go spraying across the walls, quippy one-liners are nonexistent. Not only does this reinforce the gravity of the situation Ghost Dog is trapped in but it also lends practicality rather than bombast to Ghost Dog's vengeful rampage. This practicality aligns with the thoughtfulness of the Hagakure text that guides his every action.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai isn't all violence, though. On the contrary, the lion's share of the movie's attention goes to lowkey dialogue exchanges. Here is where Jarmusch's affection for onscreen characters becomes apparent as he takes the time to slow things down and allow Ghost Dog to interact with people like French ice cream dealer Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé). Ghost Dog and Raymond's conversations are especially fun as Jarmusch shows the two (who are separated by a language barrier)  inadvertently echoing one another far more often than they realize. It's a lovely touch that makes their friendship so believable and unique. 

Anchoring both the gangster and casual comedy parts of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is Forest Whitaker's lead performance. Whitaker's always been an actor you could count on to imbue gravitas into a role, even in something as featherweight as Vantage Point. For Ghost Dog, he's in rare and versatile form. He gets to showcase a quietly daunting physical presence in the shootout sequences while conveying a believable sense of experience in his recurring voiceover work reading aloud passages from the Hagakure throughout the film. There's such dimensionality in Whitaker's performance and it's great that Jarmusch takes the time to explore those layers of his character and the rest of the cast of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

Friday, February 12, 2021

It's the big things that weight The Little Things down

Back in 1995, Denzel Washington explored the neo-noir genre with The Devil in a Blue Dress. An underrated crime movie, the film saw Washington fitting into the standard noir protagonist archetype as cozily as an old winter coat. It also benefited from director Carl Franklin's assured filmmaking and an unforgettable supporting turn from Don Cheadle. A really good movie overall and certainly better than Washington's newest foray into the neo-noir domain, The Little Things. Rather than working with Franklin again, The Little Things see's Washington being directed by The Blind Side helmer John Lee Hancock. That kind of says it all, doesn't it?

Deputy sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) has been working under the radar the last few years after his obsession with a serial killer left him a bad reputation in his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles. He returns to that city to investigate some evidence, leading him to run into detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Just as Deacon returns to town, Baxter is looking into a serial killer whose behavior matches the killer Deacon got fixated on all those years ago. Both of them are determined to track this psycho down, so Deacon and Baxter team up. In the process, they become determined that a local resident named Albert Sparma (Jared Leto) is their guy. Could they be on the trail of a killer...or are they just falling into a pit of obsession?

At first, The Little Things only frustrates visually. Hancock can't seem to ever capture the simplest movement in a single frame, he's got to cut around four or five different shots to depict Denzel Washington getting into a car. It's like he's worried about losing the audiences attention even for a second so he keeps awkwardly shifting over to new shots. If Hancock wanted to keep the viewer engaged, though, he should have come up with a way better script. The Little Things is a generic neo-noir, the cinematic equivalent to an off-brand version of  your favorite meal. It looks like something you'd previously enjoyed, but all the flavor is gone.

The biggest problem is the films morose tone. The best noirs, neo or classical, can deliver a grim tone that's captivating rather than oppressive. However, those films tend to justify their tones with either evocative filmmaking or weighty themes. The Little Things has neither. Hancock's script features a lot of dimly-lit scenes and characters talking in vague whispers about the cruelty of man. However, it never lays down anything specific that can justify why the movie is so glum. Meanwhile, Hancock's dialogue is so mechanical and devoid of personality. Characters engage in surface-level phrases like they're learning to engage in conversation for the first time. It's all so artificial and not in a way that feels intentional.

That level of vagueness sinks the whole movie, especially when it tries to get into the mind of Deacon. A scene in his hotel room where it's made apparent that he's haunted by all the girls he didn't save is incredibly derivative. It only gets worse once Washington has to spit out a line that makes the underlying intent of the sequence laughably obvious. Then there's Leto's Sparma, whose performance kept reminding me of Allesandro Nivola in Face/Off for some reason. He's played in such an over-the-top unnerving fashion that it's clear he can't be all that he's cracked up to be. Sparma embodies how The Little Things has a tone that's aiming for Se7en while featuring characters so broadly-defined they might as well be on Teletubbies.

With these kind of characters and storytelling, The Little Things has no ambiguity and it has no suspense, two elements that are critical for any good neo-noir. The film is further weighed down by the pointless decision to set this film in 1990. Aside from a murder victim having a No Doubt flier on their fridge, nothing in here screams "1990 period piece". The 1990 setting is just one of many baffling decisions here alongside a laughably obvious "twist" ending that's just make you want to watch the infinitely superior Memories of Murder. Even beyond that Bong Joon-ho masterpiece, there's plenty of superior neo-noir and crime thrillers to watch (like Devil in a Blue Dress!). Don't waste your time with The Little Things, you'll be as bored watching it as Denzel Washington is starring in it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Disney+ and the value of not being the next Netflix

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!

The streaming wars rage on!

Prior to 2020, everyone wanted to be Netflix. Disney+ debuted in November 2019 and plans were already in place to launch HBO Max and Peacock the following year. But nobody could have expected that real-world circumstances would make streaming services more appealing than ever. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping everyone indoors, suddenly, the wealth of material in your average streaming service proved extra handy. 2020 was a boon year for streaming services, which thrived on the isolated anguish of the general populace. As a result, Disney+ soared to 93 million subscribers just 13 months after launch. Within a little over a year, Disney had already gotten their Netflix knock-off to nearly half of Netflix's subscriber base.

Disney+'s success speaks to how to stand out in the current streaming wars Specifically, the recipe for success in this field isn't to just offer another Netflix.

That might sound strange given how Disney+ is totally mimicking Netflix in key ways. The very field of streaming programming was popularized by Netflix, any venture engaging in this material will live in the shadow of Netflix. But a recent comment from Netflix about how Disney+ doesn't "have any Bridgerton's on the horizon" speaks truth to Disney+'s programming decisions. It's true, Disney+ doesn't have adult-skewing shows like Bridgerton coming down the pipeline. That's the point. Disney+ isn't trying to be Netflix, they're just expanding on the stuff that's made Disney work for a couple decades.

Disney's got a stranglehold on family-friendly projects that appeal to all ages. This has sometimes come about simply due to them producing high-quality movies and other times come about because of overt attempts to snuff out competition in the cradle. Whatever the reasons, Disney has become king at the theatrical film space and that success has been translated over to Disney+. When organizing the programming for this streaming platform, Disney+ took on a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. Rather than making knock-offs of popular Netflix shows like Stranger Things, the Marvel and Star Wars stuff that worked well on the big screen are now the stars of Disney+.

This alone gives Disney+ a way to stand out in a crowded streaming market. Meanwhile, conversation over The Mandalorian and WandaVision has garnered as much attention as the shows themselves because of another difference between Netflix and Disney+ shows: weekly releases of episodes. Through this method, the shows can stick around in the public consciousness while everyone is firmly on the same page as episodes come out. Netflix shows can generate public conversation (Tiger King, Queen's Gambit, and Bridgerton all did that in the last year) but releasing their programs all at once has led to a lot of shows just vanishing into the ether. They never drum up the kind of watercooler conversation that keeps shows on people's minds. 

Where Netflix zigs, Disney+ zags. Disney+ has managed to become a formidable Netflix competitor by not just trying to recreate what Netlfix was already doing. Going that route would just be repetitive, it would have no value for customers. Of course, carving out your own niche is easy when you've got a brand name like Disney that's been established through decades of pop culture. If you told somebody "Disney is making a streaming service", whatever they imagined would probably look a lot like Disney+. 

By contrast, HBO Max has struggled in the nine months since its debut despite having a similarly well-known brand name. However, here, the familiar name might have been more of a curse than a blessing. People know what HBO means. It's the place where prestige TV shows go, the kind with violence, nudity, and weighty themes you can't see elsewhere. To suddenly swerve and try to expand that to include reality shows, kids' fare, and everything else under the sun is a bold move and one that hasn't quite worked yet. HBO Max is totally trying to be like Netflix by offering everything under the sun. As a result, it actually has a good library of content, but it's also hard to tell what separates it from the pack.

People already have a place where they can get a variety of films and TV shows, it's called Netflix. Trying to turn HBO from a place where you watch prestige programming to Netflix 2.0 is quite odd. The lack of a concrete identity wouldn't be a problem if HBO Max had killer original programming or even just one watercooler show, but unfortunately, HBO Max hasn't had their equivalent to The Mandalorian, The Boys, or The Handmaid's Tale, an original show that can put them on the map. The only major original show HBO Max has put out, though, is The Flight Attendant, which has received positive marks but hasn't become the kind of phenomenon that can make HBO Max stand out.

Through HBO Max's struggles, we see the problems in trying to break into a crowded streaming marketplace. Everyone wants to be like Netflix, but in order to succeed as a 2021 streaming platform, you need to offer more than just being a Netflix knock-off. Given time, HBO Max can still find its footing and secure a major place in the streaming wars.

Monday, February 8, 2021

The complex process of grief is delicately rendered in Beginners

When you lose someone special, your first instinct isn't to break down, at least in my experience. The woe of loss seeps into your life in a quiet but no less devastating manner. You walk around in a haze, your emotions muted, your thoughts rarely in the here-and-now. There's no telling how long these feelings will last, but whether they endure for a day or a year, it'll feel like an eternity. You want to cry over it, but the tears don't come. Even days after losing someone, the shock of their sudden absence is so strong that you can't eject tears. It's a difficult and long process to navigate and also one I haven't seen reflected in movies that often.

Beginners is a rare exception. The story is told in a non-linear fashion as Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) navigates the aftermath of the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). The non-linear part of this equation comes into play as Oliver has frequent flashbacks to the time he spent with Hal as his dad came out of the closet as a gay man. Finally embracing himself, Hal spent the last few years of his life finally being who he'd want to be. As Oliver recounts these times, he begins to spark up a new relationship with an actress named Anna Wallace (Melanie Laurent). Just as Oliver is dealing with the end of his relationship with his father, so too is he grappling with the beginning of a new relationship with Anna.

There was a moment early on in Beginners when I knew this movie was gonna work. In a throwaway moment, Oliver returns to his father's home and does something peculiar. He walks in, says "Hello, house" in his normal voice and then in a deeper voice goes "Hello, Oliver". I forgot about it after the scene moved on...until later on when Hal is sorting through his mail and says "Hello, bills" only to follow that up in a deeper statement with "Hello, Hal". Suddenly, a tiny moment in Oliver's life takes on a whole meaning. Oliver is keeping his father alive by adopting one of his quirks. It's not a detail Beginners calls attention but it's a fantastic depiction of the specific ways a person can cling onto their deceased loved ones.

The script, penned by Mike Mills (who also directs), is full of those kinds of richly-detailed moments that render Oliver's pain in quiet but no less stinging terms. Extended digressions where Oliver takes the viewer through backstories of himself, his parents, and other loved ones prove similarly insightful into this process of negotiating woe. In the throes of grief, Oliver is remembering all kinds of random stories and items associated with special people in his life, such as a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit that hung up in his father's toy shop. What seemed so incidental in the past now holds a different meaning in the eyes of Oliver. That and the existential mindset of Oliver are beautifully reflected in these recurring segments.

The worldview of Oliver is beautifully handled by Ewan McGregor, an actor who has worked wonders with overt characters in the past. Here, under the skillful direction of Mills, McGregor is in a more restrained mode that delivers some of his best work as a performer. I especially love how he lets more vibrant sides of Oliver peek through in his interactions with Anna. Doing this allows for McGregor's portrayal of Oliver to feel truly nuanced, he's as fully-realized of a person on the screen as he is in the pages of Mills' screenplay.

Playing opposite McGregor for much of the film is Christopher Plummer. It's impressive how this actor was delivering such remarkable work to the very end of his career and his turn as Hal in Beginners is very much a part of this trend. I love how jovial and open Plummer portrays Hal, it makes for such a great contrast to the personality of Oliver, which is so frequently guided by despair. Plummer's success in depicting Hal as a figure of freeing joy makes his moments of vulnerability all the more crushing. It's an impressive performance that would have been outstanding under any circumstances but given his recent passing, Plummer's work in Beginners now serves as a microcosm of the kind of talent this guy could bring to any project.

That tragic real-world event also lends a whole new layer of poignancy to an already moving portrait of coping with grief. Like so many great movies, Beginners only takes on more layers of depth as the years go by.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Lots of words are spoken in Malcolm & Marie but nothing profound gets said

It's been one heck of a night for filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington). He just came back from the premiere of his newest movie, which just killed, people loved it. As he rambles on about his accomplishments, his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), stands silently in the corner. These are our two lead characters for Malcolm & Marie and the tension in their relationship is already evident in how Marie is largely unresponsive to Malcolm's extended monologue. Malcolm is in his own world. Not even Marie can pierce his singular focus. But the duo will be forced to confront both their problems with each other and their own individual issues as a series of volatile arguments ensue. Tonight may have started in triumph but it's about to end with Malcolm and Marie holding nothing back in spewing bile at each other.

Malcolm & Marie belongs to a tradition of movies that can work incredibly well when executed properly. Said tradition concerns films that are limited to just one locale and the sight of people talking. Classics like 12 Angry Men or the works of John Cassavetes spun gold out of limited resources. Just recently, one of the highlights of Sundance 2021 was Mass, a movie that kept its gaze zeroed in on four people in a church basement. Done right, this is a stripped-down kind of film that can serve as a showcase for talented acting as well as writing that impresses with its restraint.

It's admirable for writer/director Sam Levinson to attempt this kind of movie, particularly given how different it is from his breakthrough directorial effort Assassination Nation. Whereas that film was like one giant Molotov cocktail hurling through a window, Malcolm & Marie is quieter in its brutality as it aims to be more akin to a thousand jabs to the heart. Levinson has also eschewed the bright colors of that film and his HBO show Euphoria for an entirely monochromatic color scheme, another commendable deviation from his comfort zone. Unfortunately, Levinson stretching himself hasn't resulted in something particularly engaging. Malcolm & Marie is more of a concept for a movie than a fully-realized movie.

The biggest issue is a simple one; the characters. Neither Malcolm nor Marie are all that interesting to be around for 106 minutes. If a movie is going to limit itself to just dialogue exchanges between two characters, then the character work needs to be sharp as a tack. Levinson stumbles here mightily. Malcolm especially is a poorly-realized creation. His cruel behavior towards Marie and ranting nature are clearly meant to make him an antagonistic figure, yet Levinson is too in love with listening to him prattle on for hours to investigate the character in a meaningful way. What could have been an intriguingly formidable human being is instead a bunch of rants from a Facebook comment section strewn together.

As for Marie, she's a person with such a vaguely-defined personality that Zendaya has nothing to latch onto. She and Washington are marooned in a sea of generic dialogue exchanges and even these talented performers can make lemonade out of this lemon of a screenplay. Worse yet, extended monologues where each character talks about their tragic backstories don't convey their intended effect of either chilling the viewer to the bone or lending insight into what makes these people tick. On the contrary, Levinson's penchant for going for the most extremely dark backstories possible just made me think Malcolm was eventually going to say "every morning I break my legs, every night I break my arms." 

Even more frustrating is that Levinson doesn't even fully commit to keeping his characters in a confined space. Multiple times throughout Malcolm & Marie, one of the two titular characters will just go outside and walk around in a vast open space to kickstart some contrived drama. Explicitly showing Malcolm and Marie outside of their home immediately deflates the tension of the movie. Classics like Rope or 12 Angry Men worked because they were confident enough to use constant confinement as a source of extra tension. As any parents of kids who are stuck in a long car ride can attest, people stuck cramped together for a long time will eventually begin to fight. Malcolm & Marie, on the other hand, undercuts the intensity of its arguments through its brief digressions to the outside world.

It's a flaw emblematic of how Malcolm & Marie struggles to commit enough to its lofty ambitions to create a cohesive motion picture. There have been many great movies restricted to just a small cast and some conversations. Malcolm & Marie is not one of them.