Friday, April 30, 2021

The Mitchells vs. The Machines delivers hysterical gags and creative animation


One of the many wonderful things about The Mitchells vs. the Machines is that its a kids movie that doesn't feel like it was tailor-made for my age range. Now, this is a kid-friendly feature that totally works for adult viewers. But it's not a live-action remake of an animated movie from my childhood or another similar property primarily aimed at mining my nostalgia while also being safe enough for a new crop of youngsters to see. The Mitchells vs. the Machines, meanwhile, feels like something made for today's youth. The rapid-fire pacing, the absurdist humor, the positive view of technology, it all feels a pace with adolescents in 2021. This is something that a new generation can call their own instead of being an echo of the past. Oh, and it's all so funny and well-made that anyone can drive enjoyment from it! 

Kate Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is an aspiring filmmaker and impending college student. She loves her brother, Aaron (Mike Rianda), and her mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph), but shares friction with her dad, Rick (Danny McBride). They're just such polar opposites, Rick being an outdoorsy guy who sets traps for wildlife while Kate likes to edit wacky comedies in her bedroom adorned with a poster for Taxi Driver. To help mend their fractured relationship, Rick executes an impromptu family road trip to drop Kate off at her college. This already difficult journey is made even more treacherous when virtual assistant PAL (Olivia Coleman) takes over an army of robots and begins trapping all humans. Now the Mitchell family is the only thing standing between the Earth and a robot apocalypse. Gulp.

From the beginning, The Mitchells vs. The Machines embraces an "anything goes" attitude with its animation style. Largely told through computer animation, the film regularly employs hand-drawn animated enhancements to emphasize the emotions of the characters. Meanwhile, live-action imagery and footage are juxtaposed against an overtly cartoony world for the sake of some very memorable gags. There are even some sock puppets thrown in here for good measure, which, as Captain Underpants: The Very First Movie showed, are always welcome in any animated movie. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is bursting with too much imagination to be tied down to one visual medium.

The constant visual animations result in a barrage of memorable gags that feel totally unique from most there American animated kids fare. Even visual traits that aren't necessarily around to provide laughs prove impressive. I loved how the backgrounds largely looked like hand-painted watercolors while parts of the character designs, such as Rick's stubble, also look like they were drawn on. And the colors! Who knew the end of the world could look so pretty? Shots of turquoise-colored hordes of robots darting across a darkened sky are utterly gorgeous while even the evil lair of these robots is bursting with vivid hues.  

The Mitchells vs. the Machines totally delivers as a visual experience and serves as a lovely reminder that Sony Pictures Animation won't just be restricting its bolder animation techniques to its animated Spider-Man movies.  The gags are similarly all-around successful, with the script by Jeff Rowe and Mike Rianda (the latter of whom directs) finding humor in well-timed visual gags or witty lines rather than dated pop culture references or toilet humor. Even the film's employment of Instagram, YouTube, or a familiar brand like Furby feels like organic ways to create humor rather than just grating produce placement. 

This kind of delightful comedy is a byproduct of just how sharply written the screenplay is as a whole. Sure, some lines of dialogue related to the relationship between Katie and Rick are didactic, but that's more of an exception in the writing rather than the rule. More common in Rianda and Rowe's writing is smart ways to keep track of the distinct personality traits of the individual Mitchell family members even as the robotic apocalypse grows more and more chaotic. Plus, the film's approach to technology ends up being quite nuanced rather than just two hours of Boomers ranting about how kids and their phones and their gluten-free cupcakes are ruining society. What a nice change of pace! 

Rianda and Rowe's script is brought to life through a wonderful collection of voice talent, including Danny McBride once again showing off his underappreciated range as a gruff dad with a heart of gold. You get folks like Abbi Jacobson and Olivia Coleman putting in delightful work for their respective characters plus a chunky pug named Monchi, voiced by Doug the Pug. The Mitchells vs. The Machines really does throw in everything and the kitchen sink. In less skilled hands,  that could've resulted in a movie that left you exhausted rather than thrilled. Luckily, this is a comedy with its jokes all charged up and ready to go. The result is a hysterical comedy that, like me with my phone screen, you won't be able to look away from. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Without Remorse is a movie without much excitement

One of my favorite things in movies is when a secret bad guy reveals their hidden wickedness by inadvertently revealing some piece of information they weren't supposed to know. My go-to example of this is in Minority Report when Max von Sydow's Lamar Burgess mentions that he'll look for files "on anyone who drowned" only for Tom Cruise's wife to reply "I didn't say she drowned". It's always so exciting, God, it gets me every time!

It's a testament to the incompetence of Without Remorse that it tries to do the same thing in its climax but it couldn't even get a slight smile out of me. The screenplay by Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples totally fumbles this moment, suffocating it under an avalanche of unnecessary dialogue explaining the significance of this moment. The elegant simplicity is what makes this kind of reveal work! It's not the only instance of Without Remorse screwing up something that should be a no-brainer to pull off.

Based on the novel of the same name by Tom Clancy, Without Remorse is about John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan), a soldier whose planning to get out of military life and settle down with his pregnant wife. However, one night, he's attacked in his home, which results in the death of his partner. Kelly is now determined to get answers about who tried to kill him and why by any means necessary. He eventually gets his chance to take on the people responsible for murdering his family by teaming up on a mission into Russia with Karen Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith). However, in a shocking twist for the action thriller genre, not everything is as it seems and Kelly finds himself in the middle of a much broader conspiracy than he initially realized.

Without Remorse is part of my least favorite modern-day subgenre: the feature-length prologue. Following in the footsteps of Mortal Kombat and Artemis Fowl, Without Remorse spends its entire screentime being an origin story for adventures audiences actually want to see. Come back in two years and maybe you'll get a sequel that actually stands on its own as its own movie. This is the kind of stuff 1970s TV dramas like The Incredible Hulk would glide through in a montage during the theme song. Here in Without Remorse, it's the whole movie. Must I break out Patton Oswalt declaring that "I don't care where the stuff I love comes from" again?

This dramatically inert story suffers from a whole lot of other problems beyond just being a prologue stretched onward for two hours. For one thing, Without Remorse opts to not give John Kelly a big concrete villain to fight. Instead, there's a vague threat of "Russian enemies" that killed his family and the possibility of traitors in his own inner circle. For the majority of the runtime, Kelly just fights disposable goons and threatens high-level government officials who could never actually take him on in a fight. This erases the tension in any of the fight scenes while the absence of a defined antagonist also reduces the excitement of the narrative.

The ambiguity surrounding the villains could have worked in a properly constructed mystery thriller but Sheridan and Staples simply do not deliver that movie. It's easy to guess who's actually good and whose actually bad given how broadly the supporting players are written.  The script also fails to give us any actually engaging characters to follow, a critical ingredient in any halfway decent entry in this genre. Worse, director Stefano Sollima realizes this screenplay in an abrasively unappealing way. Without Remorse has a tone as dark as its various dimly-lit locations and nothing in the story justifies all the gloominess. 

Aside from an early moment where a guy gets run over by a car in a cartoonish way that evokes the I Like Trains kid more than anything else, the gloominess doesn't even result in unintentional humor. Without Remorse is all so dry and derivative that it never approaches being camp. Extended action scenes where people shoot guns at each other in generic locations eventually blend together and inspire tedium. The only remotely memorable set piece involves a crashed plane, otherwise, Without Remorse can't even offer up compelling action, the one element it absolutely had to get right. The only redeeming part of this whole affair is the two lead actors, Jordan and Smith. Both are way too good for this material. Michael B. Jordan especially renders the pain of John Kelly in such a vivid and raw manner that's actually quite moving but feels totally out of place here. Why is Jordan delivering such a distinctly human performance in Without Remorse, a movie so incompetent it can't even properly execute a secret bad guy inadvertently telling on himself?

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar is a wacky vacation worth taking

Sometimes, you can immediately tell when you're in good hands with a movie. Such was the case with Barb & Star Go to Vista del Mar, a new comedy starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo. After a prologue scene introducing the film's villain, the opening chords of Man! I Feel Like A Woman by Shania Twain begins and we cut to...close-up shots of Barb & Star moving their hands and feet in mundane ways. The juxtaposition is immediately hilarious and deftly introduces viewers to the kind of humor the ensuing movie will be bathed in. Plus, we get to hear Man! I Feel Like A Woman, that's never a bad thing! 

Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig) are best friends who work at a furniture store and live a quiet safe life. In the wake of their individual heartbreaks, they just have no inclination to rock the boat. But the prospect of a trip to Vista del Mar in Florida inspires both of them to break out of their routines and finally have some fun. Unfortunately, this trip coincides with evil supervillain Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also Kristen Wiig) planning to unleash a swam of deadly mosquitoes on Vista del Mar as revenge against this sunny locale. Barb and Star are about to get caught in the middle of this plot, especially once they both develop a fondness for Fisherman's loyal henchman Edgar (Jamie Dornan).

It's fitting that Josh Robert Thompson makes a voice-over cameo in this movie given that Barb & Star Go to Vista del Mar does channel the anything goes wacky vibes of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Its comedy also has more than a few shades of Lonely Island, The Muppets, and Emperor's New Groove thrown in, all of which should be seen as a compliment. This is one wacky as heck comedy but the best kind of wacky comedy, the kind that understands that just because you're making something zany doesn't mean you need to sacrifice quality in the name of humor. This is well-constructed comedic preposterousness, in other words.

And boy howdy, is it ever funny. The adherence to rampant silliness means you never know what Barb & Star is going to throw at you. A crab can just start talking at any moment while Damon Wayans Jr. can similarly emerge at any given time. The best gag to come out of this spontaneity is a musical sequence entitled Edgar's Lament, in which Dornan's Edgar gets his own Bet On It number in which he dramatically expresses his romantic woes. It's so over-the-top and ridiculous complete with stupid yet brilliant lyrics ("Like a cat climbing up a palm tree!") and Dornan's 110% committed performance. Who knew he had this kind of acting in him?

At the heart of all this is Wiig and Mumolo's performance as the two titular characters. It's easy to see a version of this movie where Barb & Starr end up being Saturday Night Live characters who can't sustain a whole movie. But the obvious affection Wiig and Mumolo have for these characters ensures they can headline a longer-form story. These two characters are goofy but Barb & Starr are two people we're supposed to like and root for, we're not supposed to mock. This affectionate quality is paired up with how the two performers are just so darn funny in these roles. The natural way they sell the most absurd lines of dialogue is especially funny.

A talented cast is set against some glorious-looking production design. Director Josh Greenbaum populates this version of Vista del Mar with so many bright colors that are ultra-pleasing to the eye while the costumes are similarly fantastic. So many modern American comedies can barely muster up the energy to look better than your average CBS sitcom, so it's wonderful to see that Barb & Star Go To Vista del Mar actually looks like a movie! It's a glorious-looking affair that dazzles the eyeballs while the gags constantly tickle your funny bone. Pack your bags folks, Barb & Star Go To Vista del Mar is a vacation you do not want to miss! 

Monday, April 26, 2021

And now, a jumble of thoughts on the 93rd Academy Awards


Look, complaining about the Oscars the day after they air is as big of a cliche as anything you'd find in the most cornball movie. Jokes about the Oscars being unable to please everybody is true, this ceremony, like any piece of art, is gonna be impossible to resonate as good to everyone. But last night's 93rd Academy Awards struck me as especially strange in its shortcomings. This wasn't the usual Academy Award gripes, like the ceremony ran long or that my preferred movies didn't win the awards. The presentation and vibes of this whole ceremony were the issues here. Put simply, the 93rd Academy Awards seemed to occupy a world more fantastical than any movie that's won Best Visual Effects.

Prior to airtime, there was much talk about how the 93rd Academy Awards were going to have to make significant changes to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic. This seemed like a good move not only to help curb further spreading of that disease but also to help shake up the show creatively. Maybe the restrictions imposed by this plague could bring out some clever ideas from the show's producers.

Instead, the 93rd Academy Awards an Academy Awards ceremony. Oh sure, they weren't in the Dolby Theater (only brief segments took place there), but the show, now held in Union Station, still had a lot of celebrities in glamorous outfits sitting around a stage. None of the souls were wearing masks despite being so close together. It can't be stressed enough the strangeness of watching a packed room of people not wearing masks. Yes, the vaccine rollout is ongoing, we're starting to emerge from the pandemic in America, but we're far from out of the woods. The 93rd Academy Awards could have been a chance to reinforce the importance of watching out for each other by doing simple things like wearing masks. Instead, the show refused to eschew tradition and made the whole place look like a superspreader event.

That was a big problem with the Academy Awards, the weird refusal to acknowledge that this was a year unlike any other. Instead, the 93rd Academy Awards went on and acted like it was just another routine year. This included a refusal to allow actors to deliver speeches via Zoom, which is what resulted in one of the most awkward Oscar moments ever. I'm talking, of course, about the final Best Actor category, where Anthony Hopkins had his name called out and the Questlove spoke to the camera a moment before the credits rolled. If the Oscars had been flexible and allowed virtual speeches, this never would have happened. Adherence to tradition resulted in an unprecedented instance of embarrassment. 

Worse, the deviations from the norm were really, really bad. No musical performances? That just made the show lack a lot of pizazz and fun. Worse was the total absence of film clips save for the Best International Feature Film and Best Picture categories. You know what would have been even better than Laura Dern explaining why Daniel Kaluuya's performance was great? Actually letting us see the performances! Film is a visual medium! Why did the 93rd Academy Awards decide to ignore that? What a shame these performers couldn't have their work shown off to the millions watching.

The decision to film the ceremony like a movie, complete with film lenses (I spotted a fish-eye lens!) and a 2.40.1 aspect ratio. It was a nifty idea conceptually that started off interestingly with Regina King getting captured in a single-take while "opening credits" played. Bizarrely, after that, the 93rd Academy Awards never returned to treating the event like a "movie". Just the occasional odd camera-angle choice (like the one cameraperson having to abruptly shift to a wider angle when they realized Dern and Kaluuya were within feet of one another) reminded me that this production was filmed in an unusual way. If you're gonna say you're doing something different, actually commit to doing something different. 

As for the In Memoriam segment...everyone has already dragged this one through coals and for good reason. But God, it really was the pits. Going at an ultra-fast speed was downright insulting to these artists while the ceremony's refusal to use clips missed a number of beautiful opportunities to really accentuate the gifts performers like Max von Sydow or Chadwick Boseman gave us. Oh, and underlying the whole with a jaunty Stevie Wonder song was yet another mistake. This segment should not be told through music that makes me wanna tap my toes. Give me When She Loved Me or something similar, a tune that makes my ears immediately tear up.

The strange part of all these critiques is that the 93rd Academy Awards largely delivered a number of exceptional winners, including well-deserved victories for Chloe Zhao, Young Yuh-jung, Anthony Hopkin, and Daniel Kaluuya. It's just a shame such wonderful wins were told through a ceremony that baffled more than it dazzled. Rather than reminding one of the joys of movies, the 93rd Academy Awards were mostly an exercise in obliviousness. This show clung to tradition for dear life at the expense of properly addressing a pandemic or giving its show a proper ending. Simultaneously, deviations from tradition were done at the expense of deceased artists or actually showing clips from movies, the artform this whole thing is supposed to be paying tribute to.

What a strange paradox to witness unfold in real-time, especially once the final half-hour of the show dialed up the strangeness with an overlong segment involving Glenn Close doing "Da Butt". With these faults, the 93rd Academy Awards felt less like a tribute to "cinematic magic" and more a messy way to simulate reality. Thank God the acceptance speeches were largely great (Zhao, Yuh-jung, and Thomas Vinterburg crushed their speeches!) or else this ceremony would have been an all-time drag.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Mortal Kombat is a strangely insecure movie light on fights

It takes eighty minutes for Mortal Kombat to finally deliver the movie you wanted. Finally, a bunch of people in weird costumes fight each other with gruesome results. Blood splatters. Innards fall onto the ground. Some cheesy one-liners get dropped. Some of it's fun, some of it's predictable, but instead of getting a rush of exhilaration, you'll mostly be wondering "Why did it take so long to do this?" Simon McQuoid's Mortal Kombat is an A+ example of the kind of movie that'll leave you saying "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?"

Mortal Kombat begins with a prologue set in ancient times and also the forest from the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. It's also used to establish the prowess of our villain, Subzero (Joe Taslim). After this, a block of text appears on-screen that suddenly drops a whole bunch of new lingo on the viewer. "Earthrealm is on the very of catastrophe," it reads at the start before going into the dangers of "Outworld" invading the Earth and warning of a prophecy that foretells of heroes who can save the world. I thought opening text crawls were supposed to help the viewer understand fictional worlds? Also, doing both a prologue and a block of text is a lot of false starts for a movie about spines getting ripped out.

From there, we meet protagonist Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who has a birthmark of a dragon that, as he soon learns, means he's allowed to participate in the ancient combat ritual known as Mortal Kombat. From there, screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham engage in a drawn-out process of Young discovering other fighters who can engage in this ritual, like Jax (Mechad Brooks) and Kano (Josh Lawson). Once they all reach the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), it's learned that they all must unearth their "arcana", which are basically superpowers, to be able to truly fight in Mortal Kombat. Their adversaries in these prospective matches are residents of Outworld led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han). 

All of this should be just nonsensical enough to either be intentional fun or unintentional camp. Instead, like so many modern movies, Mortal Kombat must ground everything in a jaded post-modern snark. Heaven forbid, we be confident enough to just embrace silliness. Anytime something peculiar happens, Kano has to take a cue from every white male Marvel superhero and drop a quippy reference to a famous figure from pop culture ("Alright David Copperfield!"). The work "kombat" can't even appear on-screen for the first time without Cole Young making a joke about how "they misspelled combat!" Oh Lordy.

That fear of doing anything too ridiculous informs Mortal Kombat's strange adherence to very traditional narrative tenants, including an awkwardly abrupt part in the second act where young decides to just quit training. It doesn't make any sense for the story, but this is the part in a typical three-act structure where the protagonist has to have a low point, so it just robotically happens. You can trace this slavish devotion to generic storytelling to so many forgettable aspects of Mortal Kombat, including Young's disposable family and the fact that Young himself isn't so much a character as a vessel to which exposition can be delivered. Benjamin Wallfisch's score is similarly forgettable, a hodgepodge of hallmarks from modern-day blockbuster movie scores complete with lots of chanting and drums.

Worse yet is the fact that so many of these characters, namely Kano and cyborg Kabal, are all brought to life with dialogue that sounds like a middle-schooler trying to write an "edgy" Deadpool comic. You'll yearn for the restraints of a PG-13 rating after hearing this kind of foul-mouthed "wittiness".Why not let the story and characters be as outrageous as the costumes these characters are wearing? Why drag everything down with so much detached jadedness? If Mortal Kombat can't be bothered to have much investment in its universe,e why should I? Most importantly, if you were gonna make all these bone-headed decisions, couldn't you at least fill it with more blood and violence? 

There are a handful of memorably gnarly kills to be found here but I'd imagine most moviegoers will be left wanting more. It's one thing to make a script that's underwhelming. It's another to make an underwhelming script that doesn't deliver what audiences come for. Maybe the final thirty minutes will be enough for some. I myself found myself sporadically smiling but mostly checking the time. It was too late for me at that point. Mortal Kombat may have finally become the movie I expected but, in spite of some rock-solid costume work, it was still stifled by a strange sense of detachment. McQuoid's execution of so many of these fights reeks of obligation, not excitement. No flawless victories to be found here, just a dissapointingly insecure movie. 

Z is as much of a movie of today as it is a film from 1969

The 1960s weren't just a time of political upheaval in America. As the 1969 Costa-Gavras film Z demonstrates, countries all around the world were seeing citizens stand up to tyranny only to be brutally beaten down by governments in power. To reflect this, Z uses the real-life assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis as a source of inspiration for its tale. Only thinly-detached from reality, Z is a movie that today still stirs the soul and tragically resonates as something urgently relevant. Nothing can make the horrors of the 1960s (like the assassination of figures advocating for peace like Fred Hampton or Lambrakis) manageable but art like Z can help process these tumultuous times.

Screenwriters Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprún begin the film with cheeky on-screen text stating that "any resemblance between this films characters and real-life figures is not a coincidence". Nary a few minutes into its runtime and Z is already courting danger. From there, we see that the stand-in for Lambrakis (known only as The Deputy) being assassinated after giving a speech regarding nuclear disarmament. His cohorts are also brutally beaten during this event. Afterwards, government officials attempt to spread the narrative that The Deputy was merely killed by a drunk driver, this was no coordinated killing.

However, the autopsy of The Deputy runs counter to these claims, which leads to The Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) conducting an investigation into what really happened here. Part of the genius in Z lies in how it refuses to give its principal characters names. Though deeply rooted in 1960s Greek politics and especially rage at the Regime of the Colonels that controlled Greece, Z is aware that the saga of Lambrakis is not the only instance of governments stifling dissenting speech. Through eschewing names, Z is conveying the idea that the horrors perpetrated here can happen to anyone and not just one specific historical figure or fictional character. 

The thoughtful writing is accompanied by equally detailed filmmaking, which perfectly captures the kind of intense atmosphere these socialist activists had to endure in this era of history. Around every corner there could be an assassin willing to do anything, including plow you down with their car, to wipe your voice out of the public sphere. The direction from Costa-Gavras and the editing from Françoise Bonnot perfectly capture this aesthetic by making the viewer feel as trapped as the characters in the movie! The depiction of violence against the central figures is also carefully and brilliantly realized. There isn't even a trace of grandeur in how this carnage is presented, a reflection of how Costa-Garvas doesn't want characters like The Deputy to become mythic martyrs. 

As an extension of how Z aims to portray these characters as distinctly human beings, the depiction of violence against those characters is similarly grounded. It's brutal, it's fleeting, you can feel the confusion the characters must be feeling alongside their injures. Bonnot's editing once again proves crucial as her precisely-timed cuts here convey the sense of bewilderment felt by everyone in the crowd without lapsing into visual incoherence. Also, while I'm praising Bonnot's works, the scene where The Deputy's widow is meeting with a man who touches her check and then we cut to The Deputy doing that same gesture at an earlier time...what a masterful piece of editing. It says so much about this character without any dialogue. This is what top-of-the-line editing is capable of!

Z is really firing on all cylinders in every department, including in its second half that turns into a mystery. Smartly, Z doesn't play the idea of the government being corrupt as the shocking reveal, rather, it derives its mystery from seeing just how widespread this conspiracy is as well as the suspense over whether pivotal witnesses will live long enough to speak their truth. It's all so exquisitely-crafted and it only gets better in the movies final scene. Much like Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, Z offers up a seemingly hopeful ending before snatching it away. The message here is clear: the story here is not over. It's never over. That's just as true today as it was in 1969. The injustices chronicled in Z are as timely as ever while its incredible filmmaking is eternally impressive. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Over a decade later, Catfish is still a catch


Catfish was filmed in 2008, the dawn of Facebook. Back then, this was just a nifty new way to use the internet, the most polished version of what a social media service could be. Everything that would come after, including Facebook being complicit in American election treachery, was just a glimmer in the eye of the filmmakers behind Catfish. Though its approach to the internet is night-and-day compared to what the interweb is like in 2021, Catfish remains a solid thriller. Despite being rooted in technology, it's also a story that's oddly timeless in how it strings the viewers along with suspenseful sequences.

The whole plot of Catfish concerns Yaniv Schulman, who has just struck up a relationship with a woman on the internet named Megan. His brother, Ariel Schulman, alongside Henry Joost, is filming this unique relationship, which is entirely through the internet. Yaniv has never seen Megan in person and the same goes for Megan's extended family. After Megan sends Yaniv a song she "composed" on her own, the trio discovers that the tune is actually lifted from the internet. This leads the group to dig deeper into the lives that Megan and her family have presented. Turns out, there are a lot more holes in this story than anyone could have initially imagined.

Initially, Catfish seems like it's going in the direction of a quasi-horror movie as the three lead characters keep discovering new levels of treachery in Megan's life. This is especially apparent in a scene where they decide to make a nighttime trip to the farm Megan supposedly lives on. Just watching them drive up to this empty place in the pitch-black night is enough to send shivers up your spine. The fact that two of them get out of the car to see if there's anyone in a nearby shed only heightens your sense that something is about to go very, very wrong. On the whole, it's a very well-constructed sequence chock full of nail-biting suspense.

However, Catfish isn't going in the direction of being a horror film. In fact, it's going somewhere a little more complicated. Eventually, they meet Megan's mom, Angela, and the life they've been sold about this family isn't at all the truth. Angela leads a quiet life with her husband, Vince, and their three children, two of whom have severe mental disabilities. The idyllic life Angela put into Megan's Facebook profile and several other fake profiles (you have to sell the idea that Megan knows people, after all) was the life she wanted to have. This wasn't necessarily a way to scam or be cruel to Yaniv, it was merely an elaborate way to find an escape.

Though there's initial tension as our three leads try to grab ahold of the truth in Angela's circumstances, Catfish eventually gets into a more empathetic mode. As one of the two directors says openly, Catfish isn't aiming to be a screed against Angela, they just want to get to know what's going on with her. The last 35 or so minutes are dedicated to fleshing out Angela and actually exploring her mindset rather than just straight-up demonizing her. It's a thoughtful detour that not only subverts expectations but also makes for an intriguing subversion of what social media has come to stand for.

Facebook and other social media platforms are now widely associated with being dehumanizing places that should unite people but only help to foster antagonism. While Facebook's platform irons out people's humanity, Catfish is about empathy. This is a film that goes out of its way to emphasize Angela's challenges and why she'd find solace in engaging in a masquerade on social media. As Facebook's role in the world has come into focus since Catfish's release, it's also apparent that this feature is a humanistic rebuke to the very core of Facebook. Not too shabby for a movie that probably seemed initially like it would age about as well as milk on a countertop!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Aaron Eckhart and a predictable script leave Wander aimless


Wander is about 80 movies at once yet it doesn't really nail any of them. Let's get to it right away: this movie deals with Arthur Bretnik (Aaron Eckhart), a former private investigator who hasn't been the same since car crash killed his daughter and left his wife in a largely disabled state. Now, he's a conspiracy theorist nut living in a trailer with fellow conspiracy theorist and podcaster Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). He's called up by a woman to investigate the murder of a woman's daughter that takes him to the small town of Wander. The murder bears resemblance to the death of the guy responsible for the car crash that wrecked Bretnik's life, so he's interested in this matter.

Once he gets to Wander, the town is quite apparently creepy from the start and he has a hunch something bigger is going down. As it turns out, the citizens of Wander are all immigrants who've been implanted with tracking chips that go off and kill them if they try to leave the town. That's how that lady's daughter died. Bretnik isn't just investigating a murder, he's investigating one of his conspiracies come to life! Or maybe it's all a hallucination brought on by his meds.

My opening sentence isn't lying, Wander really is trying to be so much at once. It especially wants to be a thriller that keeps the audience guessing on what is and isn't real. Unfortunately, screenwriter Tim Doiron's way of keeping things "mysterious" is to just incorporate a lot of non-linear storytelling to mask how little is actually going on. There's a purpose to how Pulp Fiction or the 2019 take on Little Women play around with time. In Wander, telling things out of order simply means it takes longer for the movie to confirm it's going down predictable narrative paths. It's the cinematic equivalent of someone using a lot of big words to conceal the fact that they don't have anything to say.

The predictability of Doiron's script is what really kills it, especially in the second half where it really leans on ambiguity regarding what is and isn't real. Wander just doesn't have the depth to pull off that kind of grim drama. If you're gonna write a story involving immigrants who've been implanted with killer microchips, why not go full trash with it? At least then it could have moments of fun instead of being a predictable slog that aims to be a mixture of Memento and Wind River.

Neither of those two movies was dragged down by a miscast Aaron Eckhart. In a microcosm of his miscalculated performance, Eckhart constantly laying down grim narration where he tries to evoke classic film noir narrators. Instead, he merely sounds like he's doing a bad LEGO Batman impression. In terms of his physicality, Eckhart's approach to reflecting the most desperate parts of Bretnik's like are by bugging his eyes out and going super hammy. Some actors can make these kinds of oversized performances work, Eckhart just can't. Whenever he goes big, it feels strained rather than something that the likes of Al Pacino or Michaele Shannon can make as natural as a duck swimming.

Eckhart inhabits a story that, among its many other derivative qualities, also is way too in love with depicting people of color suffering gruesome murders on-screen. These individuals never get much in the way of names or personalities, they're just corpses meant to motivate Bretnik's investigation. Wander opens with on-screen text that calls for greater awareness of American systems that target BIPOC citizens and immigrants, which is noble. However, given how dehumanizing the ensuing film is to these communities, it feels out of place in Wander as that climactic text in The Miami Connection calling for the eradication of violence. 

April Mullen's direction turns out to be the biggest saving grace of Wander. Her execution of dream sequences depicting Bretnik stumbling through his tormented past has an appropriately disorienting quality to it. There's also a smattering of evocative imagery throughout the movie and I can't help but admire her attempt to take the individual pieces of Wander and tie them together into a cohesive feature. Unfortunately, the end result of her efforts isn't as admirable as her ambition. Wander is a derivative thriller that's predictable when it wants to be ambiguous, baffling when it wants to be shocking, and whose incompetent screenplay directly undermines its intent to humanize the plights of immigrants. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sam Raimi makes an incredible creative detour with A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan doesn't automatically feel like a Sam Raimi movie. There's no Bruce Campbell or Ted Raimi appearances (that I could spot) for one thing. There are also no instances of the camera taking on the point-of-view of a menacing creature. It's also more of a grounded drama compared to the horror/comedy exercises Raimi is most famous. Something A Simple Plan does have in common with many other Raimi films, though, is the fact that, simply put, it's just really good. This is a gripping thriller that could have been a simple cautionary tale but leaves you with a lot more to chew on, particularly in regards to its lead performances.

Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) and his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) weren't planning anything special when they went out that snowy morning with Jacob's buddy Lou Chambers (Brent Briscoe). But while chasing a fox into the woods, they stumble upon something extraordinary: a bag full of cash money a crashed plane. There are millions of dollars in that bag and the trio opt to take the money and, once the heat has died down, use all that moolah to improve their lives. Keeping this whole thing under wraps becomes exceedingly more difficult than expected, with just the tensions between the three men being enough to sabotage this whole excursion. 

The premise for A Simple Plan, based on a book by Scott B. Smith (who also wrote the screenplay), is a classic "be careful what you wish for" storyline. I could easily see this having been the plot of a Twilight Zone episode. The traditional nature of the story could be seen as a potential problem if executed poorly. How can this thriller be gripping if we know exactly how it goes? A Simple Plan sidesteps this issue entirely simply by relying upon engaging performances and letting us get to know the people who've opted to steal this money. The devil's in the details, as they say, and the details here turn what could have been a rehash into one of Raimi's best movies.

Raimi's intentional desire to just let these down-to-Earth ingredients take center stage is a stroke of genius. The characters in A Simple Plan are those great fictional creations that at once inspire our contempt but also our empathy. There's an underlying complicatedness to A Simple Plan that elevates the proceedings mightily. Also standing out are a number of exquisitely executed big suspense sequences that totally had me on the edge of my chair. A big scene involving the three main men and an attempt to get Lou to commit to a murder he didn't have any part in is the best of these sequences. Every new line in this segment had me totally engrossed, I just found myself waiting with bated breath over where these interactions would go next.

Such a scene makes great use of Thornton's performance as Jacob. When he first walks into the movie, I was so nervous this character would end up being a broad caricature. The haircut, the glasses held together with tape, his speaking style, it had me worried, I won't lie. But that initial trepidation turned into adoration as the movie went on. Jacob leaves behind any sense of being a stereotype behinds thanks to Thornton's acting. This actor's portrayal of Jacob being self-conscious about his status in life ("I've never even kissed a girl") informs the most heartbreaking parts of A Simple Plan. And his final scene! God, I can't stop thinking about it, Thornton just rips your heart out with his understated but deeply tragic work here.

Bill Paxton also excels in one his very best lead performances as Hank Mitchell. Paxton had more than enough range to fill out a variety of characters in his career. In the case of A Simple Plan, he's tasked with portraying an everyman who slowly reveals himself to be somebody who will do anything to keep this money under wraps. Through Paxton, you both fear and also see yourself in Mitchell, sometimes in the same scene. It's such a thoughtfully written character and Paxton portrays it beautifully. Raimi hasn't made many movies like A Simple Plan that are so stripped-down that they become largely dependent on the acting. But take away the buckets of blood and wall-crawling superheroes and it's apparent that Raimi can still deliver a movie as incredible as A Simple Plan.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Quo Vadis, Aida? is not an easy watch but it is an essential one


The characters in Quo Vadis, Aida? are standing on the precipice of the most horrific kind of history...they just don't know it yet.

This feature film from writer/director Jasmila Žbanić takes place just before the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995. These horrors are proceeded by the Serbian army invading and taking over the small town of Srebrenica. The residents of this town are now coming in by the thousands to try and get shelter in a United Nations camp. Here, Srebrenica resident and English translator Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Đuričić) tries to help cover the language barrier between the U.N. officials and the displaced locals of Srebrenica. At the same time, she's also trying to keep her husband and her two sons safe. That task will become more difficult as the Serbian army gets closer and closer to the U.N. camp while Selmanagić's pleases for the guaranteed safety of her loved ones falls on the deaf ears of U.N. officials.

From the start of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Žbanić and cinematographer Christine A. Maier make great use of crowds to accentuate the intensity of the scenario our lead characters are navigating. Wide shots of both the residents of the U.N. camp and the displaced citizens waiting outside the gates of this camp capture the enormity of this situation. Looking at these images, Žbanić conveys how devastating the invasion of Srebrenica has been without ever putting a corpse on-screen. The way Selmanagić's partner and children can easily get lost in the sea of people is a subtle but great touch that emphasizes how misery is not just confined to the Selmanagić family. They are just one of the countless stories of heartache occurring in these horrible times, why should the blocking emphasize them above all others?

Žbanić subtly but successfully establishes the world of Quo Vadis, Aida? as one of cramped crowds,. This makes the introduction of one secluded office area that Selmanagić's kids can hide in feel, appropriately, like something from another planet. All this space! So much leg room! Without resorting to a character spelling it out through dialogue, the visual language of Quo Vadis, Aida masterfully uses the presence, or lack thereof, of masses of people to suggest intensity. Even more impressively, the undercurrent associated with a lack of crowds effortlessly shifts from suggesting sanctuary to conveying imminent danger by the time the third act rolls around.

This is achieved by having the general camps, where previously there were people practically spilling out of the rafters, be suddenly empty as the Serbian army loads these people onto buses. The viewer has spent the majority of the runtime seeing this location exclusively in this kind of condition so to see it suddenly empty is eerie. The external influence that the main characters racing against the clock to find some kind of transportation that can take them all as a family only heightens the sense of despair accompanying the sudden discomforting presence of these crowds. Even as somebody who wasn't familiar with the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995 prior to watching Quo Vadis, Aida?, it becomes apparent, through the suddenly far emptier surroundings, that the movie is moving towards something tragic. 

I truly can't compliment this visual detail in Quo Vadis, Aida? enough. The use of crowds and empty space accomplishes so many things (conveying the anguish of the displaced and establishing varying tones chiefly) without ever lapsing into being distractingly showy. Žbanić's command of the frame is at the service of emphasizing the horrors of real-world atrocities above all else. The same can be said for the film's lead performance courtesy of Jasna Đuričić. It's heartbreaking to watch Đuričić realize Aida Selmanagić's growing sense of despair that she might not be able to save the ones she loves from inevitable doom.

In the hands of Đuričić, the pain of major historical events is carefully distilled into the agony of one human being. Such agony takes on many forms, including subdued but no less haunting woe in the film's epilogue. That sequence is one of several ways Žbanić's screenplay takes a complicated look at how the lingering aftereffects of atrocities and how they're perpetrated. The latter phenomenon is reflected through quiet depictions of U.N. officials dismissing the concerns of Aida Selmanagić. Standing by in the face of atrocities is a key way the world ends up on the precipice of the most horrific kind of history. With Quo Vadis, Aida?, writer/director Jasmila Žbanić brings viewers to that precipice to view a tale as harrowing as it is outstandingly-realized on a filmmaking level.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Father is a devastating and thoughtful work


How many times have you seen characters with Alzheimer's, Dementia, or similar conditions in movies? Pretty often. How many times have you seen such characters at the center of the narrative? Probably far less often. Usually, these individuals are relegated to the background to generate turmoil for a significantly younger protagonist. There are thoughtful supporting portrayals of individuals struggling with mental declines. However, the worst of these types of characters reduce to people suffering from very real diseases to just melodramatic props. Writer/director Florian Zeller subverts this norm with The Father, which places a man suffering from dementia at the forefront of the story.

We're introduced to Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), a man in his 80s, having a conversation with his daughter Anne (Olivia Coleman), shortly after Anthony has run off another caregiver. Anne is insistent Anthony needs help. Her father is even more adamant that he needs no assistance navigating his flat. As the story goes on, Anthony's perception of reality begins to shift around. People keep coming and going. The various figures he encounters keep telling him that this isn't his flat. He keeps misplacing his watch. Things aren't right in Anthony's mind and audiences are given a front-row seat to what his psyche is like during The Father.

One of Zeller's most impressive feats as a director here is how he keeps so effectively pulling the rug out from under the viewer. The Father frequently delivers surprises regarding (among other matters) who Anthony is talking to or even if the story is happening in a linear fashion. Rather than just being a repetitive series of "gotcha's!", Zeller always gives these revelations weight. These aren't hollow twists for the sake of having twists, far from it. This gets accomplished because all these unexpected moments are in the service of reflecting what a loose grasp Anthony has on reality. Eventually, the viewer becomes as uncertain of what is and isn't real as Anthony.

This impressive feat is aided by how Zeller doesn't play the movie like something has grand secrets waiting in the wings. The Father is largely a chamber piece relying on just a handful of room and a small set of characters. In these intimate confines, one gets so wrapped up in the conversations these characters are sharing that your mind is concentrated on what they're saying rather than thinking of what bombshell Zeller will deliver next. Zeller makes the proceedings gripping enough that you become comfortable with the reality The Father is presenting...then, all of a sudden, something, like a tiny change in the production design or a new person inhabiting Anthony's home, jolts you out of your seat. 

It's engrossing to watch The Father play out its sleight of hand on challenging the viewer's perception of what is and isn't real. It's made all the more captivating by the fact that the film smartly leans heavily on a lead performance from Anthony Hopkins. At the age of 83, Hopkins shows up here and reminds everyone why he's been an acclaimed performer for decades now. Like the film he inhabits, Hopkins refuses to paint Anthony as just a one-note stereotype defined by his dementia. He's capable of being spry (like in his impromptu tap-dancing session), of being charming, of being cruel, and every emotion in between. This is not a passive figure and Hopkins leans into that to marvelous results. 

With Anthony's condition, you never know what emotion he'll unleash next, which lends a layer of fascinating unpredictability to Hopkins' richly-detailed performance. Even in a career spanning nearly 55 years, the work from Hopkin in The Father stands as one of his greatest achievements as an actor.  Olivia Coleman also proves to be great in her own right in the role of Anne, especially with regards to how she manages to hold her own in the numerous scenes where it's just her and Hopkins. The Father is anchored by these two great performances as well as challenging directorial work, and poignant scenes that cut straight to your heart. Movies have often given elderly individuals with dementia and similar conditions the short-thrift, but that's certainly not the case here with The Father.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Bamboozled is one of Spike Lee's most challenging and exceptional features

Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a writer for the television station CSN who feels unfulfilled in his job. In order to get out of the contract keeping him glued to this gig, Delacroix comes up with an idea for a show that will surely get him kicked out of CSN. This program will be a new variety show where two Black performers will dress up in Blackface and do old-timey Minstrel routines. Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson) are hired to star in this show, which, on paper, sounds like an easy cancellation and, by proxy, an easy way for Delacroix to pursue a better job. But then something funny happens. This new shows a hit. America loves it. Really loves it.

Spike Lee has never been one to hide his true feelings when he's making a movie, but in Bamboozled, Lee has one into "scorched-Earth" mode as he delivers an evisceration of America's media landscape. It's a domain that, as a closing montage of classic depictions of Blackface shows, is built upon the dehumanization of Black people. Reducing Black people to a mask white people can take on and off has defined the modern entertainment landscape and Lee is tackling this topic with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. After all, if the bigotry he's confronting is so overt, why shouldn't Lee's rebuke to it be similarly pronounced?

The funny thing is, Bamboozled is, to quote Hobbes in a Calvin & Hobbes comic, "not far-fetched enough really". The same year this movie came out in theaters, Jimmy Fallon was still donning Blackface on Saturday Night Live to portray Chris Rock. Over a decade after this film's release, Billy Crystal would don Blackface to portray Sammy Davis Jr. at the Oscars. While many critics at the time of Bamboozled's release thought Lee was rehashing a phenomenon that was no longer an issue, Lee knew the truth. American media still has a massive problem with how it portrays Black people, a toxic issue that manifests in uses of Blackface and countless other forms.

Exploring a tragically relevant issue, even in 2021, results in one Lee's most challenging and fascinating movies. With his works, Lee channels Robert Altman or Claire Denis in not just giving you a cinematic snack to chew on but a whole hearty meal. Some few this quality as emblematic of Lee's movies being messy. Me? All the Lee movies I've seen (save for Oldboy) have left me satisfied with his expansive scope. The way his works cover so much terrain is a feature, not a bug representing messiness. That's especially true of Bamboozled, which goes down so many different avenues to craft an appropriately dense referendum on how American media depicts Black individuals.

The scope of Lee's script also allows for a number of low-key scenes that would have been cut by another filmmaker only interested in making sure a film flies under the two-hour mark. Lee understands how important scenes like Delecroix visiting his stand-up comic father are to injecting layers into the lead characters. There's depth to be found in the seemingly throwaway scenes of Lee's works and Bamboozled is no exception to this phenomenon. Plus, giving the viewer so many storylines to juggle makes it fascinating to watch all the individual threads collide in an inevitably tragic conclusion that leaves no principal character unscathed.

It's a conclusion that's more brutal than tidy, more challenging than something that provides answers. After all, what answers can Lee provide? The problems surrounding the use of Blackface in American media weren't resolved in 2000, they're still not resolved in 2021. Lee doesn't offer a solution because getting rid of this kind of evil isn't so simple. It's one of the many parts of Bamboozled that reflect an incredible level of thoughtfulness. The same can be said for the cinematography by Ellen Kuras, which oscillates between appropriately vivid colors for scenes depicting the televised minstrel show and a more realistic washed-out look for scenes set in the everyday lives of the lead characters. The visuals in Bamboozled alone leave one with so much to think on. That's even more true considering these visual details are paired with one of Lee's most insightful scripts.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Read all about the ways News of the World works so well

I wouldn't call Paul Greengrass a filmmaker preoccupied with the past. His movies tend to be rooted in the here-and-now. His Bourne sequels tapped into post-9/11 paranoia about who we could trust, he made one of the first movies about the United 93 flight in 2006 and Green Zone was trying to be a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller about the Iraq War. Yet, for his newest film News of the World, Greengrass has gone back in time to right after the Civil War to create a Western that's more John Ford than Jason Bourne. Surprisingly, the shift in aesthetic works nicely for him and creates an unexpectedly moving motion picture.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) makes a living reading news to the public. He travels from one Texas town to the next and will read aloud from newspapers about what's happening across this nation. While he espouses the importance of looking outward to others, Kidd himself is outrunning a tormented past and living his life only looking forward. His whole style of living is upended when he came upon Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zegel). Recently orphaned, there's nobody that can take her to only living relatives. Nobody, that is, except, Kidd. Now, this unlikely duo are traveling across Texas and challenging each other's perceptions of the greater world.

News of the World is like if Greengrass and co-screenwriter Luke Davies set out to make a Hays Code-era Western but one with more naturalistic acting and a touch of political relevance. Executing this concept with total sincerity serves the entire production seriously. Rather than wrap the story in a jaded postmodern aesthetic in an attempt to appeal to modern audiences, News of the World wears its heart on its sleeve in terms of its belief that people can come together in even the most tumultuous of times. An old-fashion notion? Perhaps. But when it's done with this level of polish and heart, you really can't complain.

A scene of Kidd slowly winning over an isolated Texas town with the story of Pennsylvanian coal miners who survived a collapsing mine shaft, for instance, totally captures your affection. It's all executed so nicely, from the performance of Hanks to the slow-burn way Greengrass presents the townsfolk coming around to this story. Even the lighting of this nighttime sequence by way of torches shows thoughtfulness. This lighting device initially suggests danger before taking on a quasi-cozy quality as Kidd's yarn engrossed the crowd. On paper, it may sound cornball, but when executed with this level of skill, News of the World makes you believe in the power of stories.

It helps that Davies and Greengrass don't eschew looking at the darker sides of post-Civil War Texas. This is particularly evident in a third-act scene involving Kidd returning to a familiar location under tragic circumstances. This visit just guts you with how understated everyone, including Hanks and James Newton Howard's score, plays things. It's a quiet but effective element that reflects how turmoil is so widespread here that it's become normalized. Tragedy now inspires one's shell to further harden, not extreme expressions of emotions. With these darker qualities cemented, News of the World can make its scenes of refreshingly old-fashion hope feel all the more vital and welcome.

Not all the old-fashion approaches in News of the World work as well as they should, with indigenous characters especially getting disappointingly treated as "others". An old-school tone isn't a bad idea but did we have to inherit these problematic stereotypes? On the other hand, this kind of aesthetic does prove to be a boon for the two lead performances. Hanks has become a modern-day master of what's been affectionately coined "grandpa movies", but when he's this good in them, I say bring on the "grandpa movies"! Here in News of the World, I love how Hanks uses his genial public persona so well in the segments where Kidd reads aloud from newspapers. 

Additionally, Hanks reaches into his own range as a performer to lend equal levels of believability to the intimate scenes where his character tries to navigate a world fraught with peril. It's a complex turn that reaffirms how Hanks really is as good as his reputation suggests. Playing opposite Hanks for much of the movie is Helena Zegler. The few of us who saw System Crasher last year know how good Zegler is as a performer and her fearless qualities as an actor serve this part well. In the hands of Zegler, Joanna feels like an authentic rendering of a youngster, not a cutesy prop to help guide down Kidd a character arc. She and Hanks both lend to their respective roles the kind of humanity that marked the best of Paul Greengrass's modern-day dramas. Paul Greengrass deviates from his standard style of storytelling for News of the World and the result is something that can't help but capture your heart.

P.S. One shot in a pivotal third-act emotional scene of News of the World uses a sudden zoom-in from a handheld camera, a visual motif in earlier Paul Greengrass movies. Here, though, I found myself amused by the out-of-nowhere presence of this Greengrass staple. Did Greengrass realize at the last minute he hadn't incorporated this shot anywhere in the runtime and decided to find a spot, any spot, for it?

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Where does the domestic box office go after Godzilla vs. Kong?


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!

Much like the Backstreet Boys, the domestic box office, over the last weekend, came back.

Godzilla vs. Kong opened to an exceptional $48.5 million over its first five days of domestic release. It can't be stressed enough just how impressive that performance is. Over just five days, this blockbuster exceeded the lifetime domestic grosses of all but two movies that have opened since the pandemic started. It's guaranteed to cross $100 million domestically, the first time a domestic release will cross that mark since Sonic the Hedgehog in February 2020. It was surreal to see, an opening that could have come straight out of pre-pandemic times, and that was with Godzilla vs. Kong playing in over 1,000 fewer theaters than the average pre-pandemic blockbuster! 

So what happens now?

It's an understandable question. The domestic box office was never built on just one title, it's always needed multiple titles to thrive. So it is with the 2021 domestic box office. The good news is that more major titles are on the way to movie theaters. Mortal Kombat arrives in two weeks while a new Guy Ritchie film, starring post-The Meg/Hobbs & Shaw Jason Statham debuts two weeks after that. Memorial Day weekend currently appears to be the frame where things really heat up at the box office. Both Cruella and A Quiet Place: Part II are not just set to open there, they've both already kicked off their renewed marketing campaigns. Right after that, a barrage of new releases will hit theaters as studios finally get to release their summer 2020 wares.

It's an exciting prospect to see unfold as someone who would gladly admit they prefer the theatrical experience to all other forms of consuming films. Streaming isn't inherently "lesser than", viewers who can only consume media at home due to medical, personal, or any other kind of reason are just as valid as any other viewer and there are certainly problems with the theatrical experience related to access to the disabled community. But on a personal level, I just love the movie theater for all films. Getting a chance to be cut off from the world for two hours and let a massive canvas for storytelling wash over me, it's like nothing else on the planet. 

Well over a year of not being able to go to a theater regularly has only enhanced my intense desire to go back to a theater rather than diminish it. I've been able to catch up on a lot of great filmmaking thanks to streaming during the pandemic, don't get me wrong. But months of having to deal with clumsy Wi-Fi, buffering issues, the lack of pre-1990s cinema on the majority of streaming services, all of that has reminded me that a novel way to appreciate films at home is not a replacement for the idiosyncratic theatrical experience. Judging by those Godzilla vs. Kong numbers, it appears I'm not alone in that feeling. 

Of course, the domestic box office isn't out of the woods yet even with one successful opening, though, the good news is, it's definitely gotten over one major hurdle. After all, if Godzilla vs. Kong is a hit, imagine what the new Fast & Furious or Marvel movies will do in a couple month's time. However, there's totally the possibility of Godzilla vs. Kong being a fluke while there's also the issue of studios like Disney refusing to fully commit to the theatrical experience. It's bad enough Disney insisted on cruel terms to theaters for showing their movies before the pandemic but now they're just randomly dumping PIXAR movies like Luca onto Disney+? What a knife to the heart.

(For the record, I'm actually not opposed to Disney offering Cruella and Black Widow as PVOD titles on Disney+. We're still in a pandemic, not everyone around the world has access to vaccines or feels safe about to going a theater. Giving viewers the option to watch those films either at home or in a theater makes sense. But just shoving Luca to Disney+ only? That doesn't help anyone. Not theatrical exhibition employees who need new films, not customers who are deprived of options, and not the hundreds of artists who worked on Luca for 4-5 years and deserve to have their work seen on the big screen.)

While many movie studios are more concerned with filling out the pockets of their richest employees than helping the theatrical exhibition industry, the success of Godzilla vs. Kong, as well as several foreign-language titles like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train, shows that the theatrical experience is alive and well. It's a phenomenon that's existed for over a century and it's no surprise that, so far, it doesn't look like a pandemic has wiped out this form of communally watching art. I'm hopeful for the future as well as for the idea that Godzilla vs. Kong's box office is no fluke but rather a harbinger of even better days to come.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Godzilla vs. Kong delivers a fun Monster Mash

"Godzilla is out there hurting people and we don't know why!"

With that line from Kyle Chandler, the stakes at the start of Godzilla vs. Kong are established. After this big lizard attacks Florida, human beings everywhere are terrified. What could possibly stop this beast? If you're thinking the mighty Kong...not exactly. Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), who must always put on heavy jackets and vests to conceal the fact that he the physique of Alexander Skarsgard, has a version of the Hollow Earth theory that proposes that extremely valuable substances are in the core of the planet. If the company Apex Cybernetics can retrieve that material, they can use it to fight Godzilla. The only one who can help human beings get to the center of the Earth, though, is Kong. Using this primate as a tour guide will be difficult, though, since he and Godzilla are in constant war with one another.

Godzilla vs. Kong is made in the mold of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Aquaman in terms of seemingly being crafted by a bunch of eight-year-olds smashing toys together after ingesting several Pixie Sticks. That feels like the right approach for this project, which keeps things lean and mean at under two hours. You want the monkey and the lizard to fight? Here you go. You also want an inexplicable remake of The Core? We'll do that too! Do you also want a mostly generic band of humans? No? Well, the MonsterVerse still insists there be way too many humans around, so you're gonna get them as an add-on.

Basically, I got what I came for here and while Godzilla vs. Kong doesn't supersede its trashy roots to become something special like Pacific Rim, it does manage to work well in its own parameters. Much of this due to director Adam Wingard's welcome ability to embrace both silliness and visual splendor. The guy who made such gnarly use of a blender in You're Next turns out to have a lot of endearing imagination when you hand him a couple of Kaiju. I especially appreciate how everything dealing with Hollow Earth ends up taking visual cues from everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the flying cars from Blade Runner to landscapes straight out of 1970s hair metal album covers.

Whenever the titular beasts fight, Wingard also shows a welcome tendency to let these fights play out in big wide shots with cogent editing and, best of all, with no visual intrusions obscuring the showdowns. Instead of taking a cue from Godzilla: King of the Monsters and covering everything in a barrage of rain, snow, and soot, Godzilla and Kong duke it out in broad daylight. You can see every inch of their scrapes and that makes it a lot more fun to watch. Even better, Wingard comes up with fun backdrops for the two to have their scuffles in. Rather than just having them fight it out in generic CG screensavers, the ocean and Hong Kong provide interesting challenges and advantages to each of the Titans.

Though Godzilla vs. Kong is outright lunacy in some parts (including how exactly Godzilla reunites with Kong in the third act), I did appreciate how screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein took the time for some surprisingly affecting quiet moments between Kong and a young deaf girl by the name of Jia (Kaylee Hottle). Their largely quiet interactions provide a welcome contrast to the bang-bang-boom aesthetic of the rest of the movie. Plus, the friendship between Jia and Kong is the first time the human/monster dynamics in these MonsterVerse movies actually feel earned and interesting. Humans actually engaging with the beasts instead of being generic spectators? What a concept!

The rest of the humans are rudimentary at best, but at least they're in the mold of Kong: Skull Island's humans in being inoffensive broad archetypes rather than the grating quip machines of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I will say, though, that I found it ironic that this movie features so many live-action humans yet 99% of them still aren't as compelling as the entirely CG Kong. I also wondered if Nathan Lind and fellow failed author in a disaster movie Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) ever swap unsold copies of their respective books? I'm also glad Rebecca Hall got to have a prominent role in a major American movie and didn't have to be a love interest, even if I couldn't describe her character's personality if you put a gun to my head. 

Oh! Hey! Millie Bobby Brown is back! She's back from King of the Monsters as Madison Russell. Her whole storyline concerns her and classmate Josh (Julian Dennison) teaming up with podcast conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) to investigate shady activity from Apex Cybernetics. This subplot is pretty much superfluous given how detached it is from the monster action and how it's hard to create a suspenseful conspiracy storyline when the villains are so obvious from the get-go. At least Henry remains a compelling person to watch. Plus, they don't take up too much of the screentime. 

Godzilla vs. Kong knows where its bread is buttered and it's certainly not with human beings like Madison Russell and company. Godzilla vs. Kong is, to paraphrase Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds, "in the monster fighting business, and cousin, business is a-boomin'!" What the film aims to do (provide monster mashes that will delight your inner and not-so-inner eight-year-old), it does with aplomb. I smiled, I had fun, I even clapped with glee at some of the more ludicrous bits of action. Much like Kong: Skull Island and Rampage, Godzilla vs. Kong realizes that a lot can be forgiven in a movie when you've got an endearing ape punching things. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Run All Night is one of Liam Neeson's best post-Taken action/thrillers


Having done seemingly dozens of these action movies since Taken took off like a shot in 2009, Liam Neeson's action filmography actually has a better track record than you'd expect. All three Taken movies are trash, but The A-Team, The Commuter, Non-Stop, I enjoyed all of those movies to varying degrees. It's also worth noting that The Grey and Cold Pursuit both received good marks from critics. Part of this above-average track record is through Neeson working with talented filmmakers like director Jaume Collet-Serra. One of their three collaborations is the surprisingly solid 2015 thriller Run All Night.

Former mob enforcer Jimmy "The Gravedigger" Conlon (Liam Neeson) is filled with regret over his past. His biggest lament lies in how his son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), won't even acknowledge he exists anymore, let alone speak to him. Nowadays, Jimmy takes to drinking away his sorrows while getting help from his buddy and gangster Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). However, one night, Mike inadvertently sees Maguire's son kill somebody. Just as Mike's about to be shot, Jimmy shoots and kills Maguire's son. Now, Mike and Jimmy both have a bounty on their head from a vengeful Maguire. Embroiled in a world of crooks he never wanted to be a part of., Mike will have to keep moving and listen to his dad if he wants a chance to survive.

Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby spends a welcome amount of time in Run All Night establishing the imperfect worlds each of our characters inhabits. In particular, the film lingers on how Conlon is not the kind of wish-fulfillment figure for 60+ year old dudes that Neeson normally plays in these movies. Conlon is a drunken mess who harasses women and makes off-the-cuff racist remarks. He's simultaneously haunted by his past but too frozen to do anything to make his future better. That complicated form of regret is an emotion Neeson handles quite well. The layers of believability he imbues into this side of Conlon immediately help give the project some decent gravitas.

It's also nice that both Ingelsby's script and the chemistry between Neeson & Harris help to sell the idea that there's a long-term friendship between Conlon and Maguire. These aren't two characters who seem destined to be adversaries the moment they start interacting. Instead, there seems to be a genuine affection here that gets steamrolled once Maguire's quiet but no less passionate desire for vengeance enters the picture. Once his quest for revenge begins, Run All Night begins to deliver all the action Taken fans came to this movie for in the first place. The violence-filled set pieces include a big car chase, a hotel shoot-out in the dark, and a fantastic finale in the wilderness.

An early chase scene that's hampered by terrible janky editing had me worried the rest of Run All Night was about to deliver set pieces as visually coherent as that infamous fence-jumping scene in Taken 3. Luckily, the editing calms down once the story kicks it into high gear and the viewer can appreciate the more imaginative flourishes helping to make Run All Night a memorable acting outing. I especially loved the bombastic touches in the big climax that feel totally earned. You emit gasps and cheers in just the right moments because you've organically become invested in these characters and not through cheap manipulation.

Run All Night is definitely far from a perfect movie. In addition to strange editing choices in the first choice, there's also the clumsy recurring motif of the camera traveling across New York City through what appears to be Google Earth. This is meant to make traveling from one character's story to another more organic, but in execution, it doesn't work at all. Overall, though, Run All Night surprised me in how well it works. It delivers the action you want, the characters are more complex than you'd expect, a talented cast gets to work with actually interesting material. Out of all the action/thrillers Liam Neeson starred in post-Taken, Run All Night might be one of his very best.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The United States v. Billie Holiday fails to carry a tune

There comes a moment in every bad movie when you realize you're watching a bad movie. When it comes to The United States vs. Billie Holiday, that epiphany came in its opening minutes. Suzan-Lori Parks kicks off her screenplay on a genuinely provocative touch, as on-screen text informs the viewer of how anti-lynching legislation failed to gain traction in the U.S. government. This plays over an image of the aftermath of a lynching. It's the cinematic equivalent of a gauntlet being thrown down and director Lee Daniels executes it nicely. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't begin from there. Instead, we get two more false starts before Billie Holiday decides to finally kick things into gear.

Following up an effectively stirring opening with a succession of two further opening sequences set the tone for the messy narrative to follow. Brace yourselves folks. The United States vs. Billie Holiday is not good. At least it's the kind of bad movie that's interesting to unpack and tries stuff, though, compared to a limp nothing of a feature like Hillbilly Elegy.

For the handful of you unaware, Billie Holiday (here portrayed by Andra Day) is one of the most famous jazz singers of the 20th-century. Many of her songs touched a nerve with the general public, but one in particular, Strange Fruit, a tune about lynching, drew the worst kind of attention. The FBI, and particularly Harry J. Aslinger (Garret Hedlund), want Holiday and her provocative music shut down. From there, the FBI becomes a regular presence in Holiday's life, hammering her hard and exploiting her struggles with addiction to try and tear her down. An undercover agent by the name of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) becomes an especially prominent figure in her life as both an adversary and a lover.

Noble Prize-winning writer Suzan-Lori Parks has penned many acclaimed and fascinating pieces in her career. Unfortunately, the script for The United States vs. Billie Holiday is one of her weakest works. Tragically, the writing falls prey to a classic biopic flaw: trying to pack too many historical events into one movie. This feature flies right by years of Holiday's life and we never get to fully appreciate how this singer evolves over time. Parks' writing is in such a hurry to get to the next big event that it never finds the time to breathe or to establish Holiday as a human being. Despite a 128-minute runtime, I walked away from this movie having garnered little in the way of insight into what made Holiday tick.

The script also has a terrible habit of holding the audience's hand to an irritating degree. For instance, dialogue that practically pounds you in the ribs in alerting you what a character's thinking abound. As if the shallow characterizations weren't enough to render this movie's characters hollow, that kind of dialogue will do the trick. Meanwhile, the emphasis Parks places on lingering almost exclusively on the suffering of Billie Holiday allows director Lee Daniels to indulge in an avalanche of melodrama. The right filmmaker (think Douglas Sirk) can make melodrama compelling. Unfortunately, in the context of The United States v. Billie Holiday, Daniels doesn't have the touch to make this kind of material work.

A big issue is that the flat visual sensibilities of Daniels' direction undercut the big emotions he wants to depict on-screen. The script is calling for characters to unleash floods of passionate feelings, but Daniels keeps staging and executing things in incredibly stilted terms. An early scene where Holiday strips naked in response to a police team invading her house could be a memorable dramatic moment if Daniels didn't choose to capture it at an awkward camera-angle. As a result of decisions like this, the already flawed script gets further undercut while the visuals on-screen inspire tedium. Basically, the writing and the bland direction in The United States v. Billie Holiday are at war with each other. The ultimate loser in that conflict is the viewer. 

Daniels also has a bad habit of incorporating period-era visual details briefly but never doing anything with them, like a late scene of Holiday getting arrested that's presented in a higher frame rate. Credit to Daniels for trying something different, but the execution of this and other similar elements (like brief transition sequences between time periods that employ black-and-white coloring and a different aspect ratio) are incredibly flawed and, worst of all, simply don't add much. 

On a better note regarding the productions visual qualities, costume designer Paolo Nieddu delivers a number of lovely-looking outfits with memorable designs for Holiday to adorn while performing her tunes. Similarly doing their best under these circumstances is Andra Day in the lead role of Holiday. The best moments of her performance suggest a more insightful take on Billie Holiday than this movie can handle. Day, some nice costumes and the incredible smile of Trevante Rhodes aren't enough to salvage a movie. My early intuition was right. The United States v. Billie Holiday is indeed a bad movie.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Hillbilly Elegy is dead-on-arrival

The fact that Netflix movies tend to vanish as quickly as they premiere on the streaming service is a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, it means great indie features like The Forty-Year Old Version don't get the attention they deserve, they just get sucked up into an algorithm-driven vortex. On the other hand, it does mean the crummy Netflix movies also vanish without a trace. The Prom, for instance, never got the chance to become the next Greatest Showman, it barely made a blip on the radar. It's what happens when you put out a new movie weekly. You never get the chance to leave an impression.

So is the fate of Hillbilly Elegy, a new directorial effort from Ron Howard that dropped at Thanksgiving in 2020 before fading from the public consciousness before getting some inexplicable Oscar nominations. Based on J.D. Vance's memory of the same name, Elegy chronicles Vance (Gabriel Busso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a child), whose a Yale Student as an adult. Before that, though, he grew up in an impoverished town in Ohio with his mother, Beverly (Amy Adams), and grandmother, Bonnie (Glenn Close). The story takes a non-linear approach to explore how Beverly's struggles with drug addiction impacted her family as well as how Vance learned valuable life lessons from his grandmother.

Hillbilly Elegy is the cinematic equivalent of spinning your wheels. It's an empty exercise praying that the recognizable title and some famous faces in the cast will be enough to make it passable. The hollow proceedings makes Ron Howard's standard over-the-top direction tedious to sit through. That approach has worked well in other films, but here, it's totally misplaced. Howard keeps leaning on big performances, bombshell storytelling developments, a sweeping score from Hans Zimmer. All of it is in service of characters we don't care about and a totally uninvolving story. No matter how much noise Hillbilly Elegy makes, it never acquires even an inch of thematic depth.

It also doesn't help that the movies just really badly put together, especially when it comes to Vanessa Taylor's script. For starters, the non-linear structure adds nothing to the film. It's another way Hillbilly Elegy is always on the move to distract you from how little it offers. There's also the fatally bad habit of how it leans on narration instead of showing crucial information. For instance, we're told through voice-over that Beverly had a close relationship with her father ("He was the only one who 'got' her") just as she's grieving his death. They have never even hinted at that kind of relationship before now. If they had, maybe the death of the grandfather would have meant something, anything at all.

Hillbilly Elegy is bad on numerous levels, but it's especially egregious on a character level. I never got a sense for why I should care about Vance as a character and I got even less of a sense of Beverly and Bonnie as human beings separate from creating drama in Vance's life. Worse, the town Vance lives in and his neighbors never get developed as fleshed-out figures. All Hillbilly Elegy cares about is lingering and gawking at these cash-strapped townspeople as a cautionary tale for where Vance could have ended up. This is a movie that doesn't treat Appalachian residents as people, they're barely even props in this narrative.

The only amusing note in the whole project, apart from a flashback scene where Bonnie sets her husband on fire, is how Hillbilly Elegy glosses over how exactly Vance got to a Yale college. Despite closing narration about how "we all choose" where our lives end up (systemic financial inequality and addiction as a sickness do not exist in this universe apparently), Vance's education situation was also in the hands of others, as he got there through a scholarship. It's another strange narrative note in a movie that has a dehumanizing approach to the poor. Amazingly, that's not even the worst part of Hillbilly Elegy. That honor goes to watching Amy Adams in this, what a criminal waste of her talent.