Monday, May 31, 2021

John Krasinski rings in a quality sequel with A Quiet Place Part II

How did we get to this place where John Krasinski is directing horror movies? Usually, when a filmmaker leaps from indie films to genre fare, there are traces of their earlier works found in their bigger-budgeted forays. But Krasinski started his career with the David Foster Wallace adaptation Brief Interviews With Hideous Men before segwaying into The Hollars, an indie movie from 2007 somehow released in the year 2016. Nothing in his nascent filmmaking career suggested an interest in horror, neither did his pursuits as an actor. But he not only made a strong foray into the genre with A Quiet Place, but he's also even pulled off the welcome hat trick of executing a quality horror sequel.

After a prologue that takes viewers back to the first day of the invasion of those deadly monsters with extra-good hearing, A Quiet Place Part II picks up just seconds after the ending of the first movie. Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) is on the move with her three kids, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a newborn baby. While evading a monster, they run into Emmett (Cillian Murphy). Broken down after the loss of his wife and kid, Emmett discourages the quartet from seeking out any hope or refuge. However, the possibility of stopping these monsters for goods inspires a plan inside the mind of Regan, which could require the help of the withdrawn Emmett. 

A Quiet Place Part II neither reinvents the wheel nor makes enough noise to be declared a masterpiece of a sequel. Plus, goodness knows the world needed another horror sequel like I need a bump on the head. But if we have to get horror sequels, I'd appreciate them being as enjoyable as A Quiet Place Part II. Simply put, the film does deliver on the scares you want and Krasinski continues to be a capable hand at executing suspenseful sequences for maximum thrills. Again, no clue where this talent suddenly blossomed from, but honestly, I'm glad it did. Nicely, this follow-up maintains that quality filmmaking from the original but throws in its own flourishes to make sure it's not just a carbon copy of the past.

For one thing, this particular entry shifts many of the scares so that they take place in the bright sun. Between this and Midsommar, I'm all for the resurgence of daytime horror! The dissonance between the vivid colors of an afternoon placed against monsters just throwing people against buildings is a properly eerie sight. Plus, the presence of all this sunlight does lull you into a false sense of security no matter how many times big beasts leap from out of nowhere. Krasinski is cleverly playing on how we're all conditioned to trust daytime, it's during nighttime that things that go bump in the night can get you. By recognizing this universal perception, A Quiet Place Part II is able to regularly and successfully jolt viewers out of their seats with its scares.

Also separating this from the last installment is the presence of Cillian Murphy as Emmett, who brings a world-weary persona to this franchise. Murphy's always been good at playing someone who's just a little out of touch with the people around him, it's why he worked so well as a guy suddenly thrust into a zombie apocalypse in 28 Days Later. Here, his haunted eyes and shortness of words echo his shell-shocked soldier from Dunkirk in terms of effectively conveying a husk of a man. Smartly, Krasinski keeps this character's backstory off-screen, a smattering of dialogue and especially Murphy's evocative performance are all that's needed to capture the hell this guy has been through.

Murphy is a prominent part of A Quiet Place Part II and it wouldn't be surprising if many audiences walk away thinking he's the standout element of the feature. However, if this story belongs to anyone, it's the kid characters. A Quiet Place Part II opts to begin framing this entire saga around the idea that hope in a post-apocalyptic wasteland can be found in the adults of tomorrow. It's a good thing this central theme has a lead actress as good as Millicent Simmonds to hang this idea on, as Simmons conveys a sense of conviction that makes you think the future could be in capable hands. Supporting performer Noah Jupe continues his recent streak of memorable turns with his on-screen work here, particularly in depicting his character's most harrowing moments of despair.

A Quiet Place Part II, like 99% of follow-ups out there, isn't quite a perfect sequel. Most notably, Krasinki's script stumbles in certain spots by just having characters act in an abrupt manner to move the plot forward while a belatedly introduced supporting actor gets too little screentime. Largely, though, this is a sequel that succeeds in what it aims to do. Some sequels would have just mechanically handed viewers what they've seen before but Krasinski balances welcome familiar details (like the small-scale and lack of dialogue in the original) with newer ingredients that keep this from being a retread. Still don't have a clue how Krasinski got to this point as a filmmaker, but with a movie as entertaining as A Quiet Place Part II, I won't question it!

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Cruella provides more wicked fun than expected

An origin movie for Disney villain Cruella DeVil does not sound like an intriguing prospect. We don't need to know the backstory of every villain. Exploring the past of Darth Vader or The Wicked Witch of the West didn't yield extraordinary results. It merely resulted in turning villains that thrive on their mystique into a bunch of tidy trivia facts, as if these origin movies were patterned off of Fred Astaire explaining why Santa goes down chimneys and wears a red suit in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Sometimes, the past is left there, in the past.

Surprisingly, though, Cruella ends up being the rare villain origin story movie that actually works. Director Craig Gillespie and company have managed to avoid falling into the pitfalls of lackluster examples of prequels simply by making sure this story can work on its merits. Cruella doesn't feel like a bunch of 101 Dalmations fan-service masquerading as a movie, it's just something fun anyone can watch.

Cruella begins by exploring the tragic childhood of its titular lead, who was named Estella as a kid. Because this is a mainstream American movie trying to convey a sense of "edginess", this childhood is accompanied by fourth-wall-breaking narration from the adult version of Cruella (portrayed by Emma Stone). Since she was a kid, Estella harbored dreams of being a fashion designer, but she also had an extreme streak that her mother kept trying to simmer down. Once her mom abruptly exits the picture, Estella moves to London and lives with two pickpockets, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). The trio is an unlikely gaggle of companions but they do end up establishing a makeshift family.

Eventually, Estella gets her chance to work for the most in-demand fashion designer in all of London, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). She's casually cruel, aloof, doesn't care about anyone else, and is also a genius when it comes to designing clothes. Estella simply must work for her. But as she works herself to the bone as Hellman's faithful assistant, Estella soon gets an inkling to work outside of Hellman's shadow. Thus, Estella unleashes that cruel side of herself she's kept harbored up for so long, dubbed Cruella, as a new fashion icon who can take London by storm. 

If anyone's watched the original 101 Dalmations cartoon or read the original Dodie Smith novel, it may be amusing just how far Cruella deviates from anything resembling previously established lore related to the character of Cruella DeVil. However, that's one of the best parts of the screenplay credited to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara. Instead of being beholden to an earlier Disney film, Cruella has the freedom to go wherever it pleases. Setting the film against the 1970s punk rock movement, for example, isn't an extension of the original cartoon's story or even a nod to when it was released (1961, for the record). 

It's a unique stroke from Cruella's imagination that's done to allow for unique touches in the costume and production designs rather than to rigidly recreate the past. Plus, reimagining Cruella as a person torn by her obligations to different people (Hellman, her deceased mother, her friends, etc.) as she navigates her identity is a great way to reimagine a Disney villain whose prior defining trait was "loves to murder puppies." Plus, it's fun that the script always allows Cruella to be weird in a very specific way, like grabbing business cards with her teeth or slurping up slices of bananas that have fallen atop her cheek.

In another pleasant surprise, McNamara and Fox's writing largely eschews action sequences, save for brief bursts of slapstick at two big fancy parties. Unlike many modern Disney tentpoles, Cruella is all about witty barbs, heists, and grandiose displays of fashion. Committing to this throughout the whole movie rather than dovetailing into generic action beats in the third act is laudable. It's even more enjoyable since the film puts the more intimate gaze to good use. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson both flourish over getting to actually act against other human beings rather than a tennis ball standing in for a CGI character. 

Stone lends tangible humanity to the various stages of Cruella's self-exploration, particularly in an extended single-take sequence late in the film where Stone shines at conveying complicated feelings without overplaying her facial expressions. Meanwhile, Thompson's deliciously self-assured wickedness made me long for more straight-up baddies in Disney fare. No more of these villains who suddenly become heroes in the third act or secret baddies nonsense! Gimme more Disney villains like Hellman that are just enjoyably despicable all the way through! Especially when they're played with such vigor by someone like Thompson! 

Of course, Cruella has its fair share of drawbacks. For one thing, though the film is much more original than your average live-action remake of a Disney cartoon, it does have several derivative qualities. Chiefly, the wall-to-wall presence of 1970s pop songs on the soundtrack inevitably uses a lot of familiar needle drops, including a closing tune that made me chuckle in its obviousness. The feature as a whole also runs too long and has a handful of predictable story beats that feel out of place in a film that thrives on cheekily working against your expectations.

Still, on the whole, Cruella is quite an enjoyable experience and will make for a great introduction to 1970s punk rock for youngsters. Jenny Beavan's costumes are glorious, the cast (including yet another superb supporting turn from Paul Walter Hauser) is extremely fun, and it's all even shot distinctly like a movie! Gillespie captures things with plenty of wide shots and crisp editing, a far cry from the disorientingly-realized filmmaking in, say, Beauty and the Beast. An origin movie for Cruella DeVil sounded like a terrible idea, but in execution, Cruella leaves most other villain origin story movies in the dust.  

Monday, May 24, 2021

Army of the Dead has its moments but never comes alive like it should

After nearly two decades, director Zack Snyder has returned to the zombie movie genre with Army of the Dead. This filmmaker made his feature-length directorial debut with the 2004 project Dawn of the Dead but has spent the years since making big-budget blockbusters and superhero movies. But now, the prodigal son returns, and this time he's bringing his experience with his costly productions to make a zombie heist movie. That tantalizing premise doesn't get executed as well as it could, unfortunately, mostly due to shortcomings that have been found in other Snyder movies and Netflix blockbusters. But it does have its charms, especially when it comes to its undead foes.

Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is working at a burger joint when he's approached by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) about leading a dangerous mission for him. You see, Ward previously was part of a special-ops team that got the U.S. Secretary of Defense out of zombie-infested Las Vegas, though this mission cost the life of Ward's wife. Now, Ward's got the experience Tanaka needs to retrieve $96 million from a vault in Vegas, which is scheduled to be blown up by a nuclear warhead in just a few hour's time. Strapped for cash, Ward proceeds to assemble a group of individuals, including safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) and close friend Vanderhoe (Omari Hardwick), to pull off a seemingly impossible heist with one hell of a ticking clock.

Netflix movies famously don't get as many notes as films from traditional studios. This can be a good thing if you're Martin Scorsese or Tamara Jenkins, filmmakers who're making thoughtful dramas with a singular vision that could be compromised if they get constant studio notes. However, many of the streamer's movies meant to appeal to mass audiences have suffered because of this hands-off approach. There's nobody around to tell movies like Project Power or Bright that your pacing is off or that a plot point doesn't make sense. It's one thing to be shaggy or messy when you're reaching for lofty themes. It's another to be a movie designed solely designed to deliver shoot-em-ups that clearly needed more oversight.

Army of the Dead isn't the worst example of this trend but it is a pretty bad offender nonetheless, particularly when it comes to pacing. A dialogue-free opening credits sequence only reinforced this problem by being such a zippy efficient piece of storytelling. Like he did on Watchmen, Snyder compresses so much personality, history, and characterization into a short span of time, all without the aid of spoken words from the character. Distinctive imagery abounds and there isn't an ounce of fat on the sequence. Even the lettering for the opening credits, all bright pink and arranged in a wonky manner on the screen, suggests admirable creativity.

Once the lead characters return to the zombie-infested Vegas, though, all the enjoyable pacing goes out of the window. Screenwriters Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold are way too in love with characters explaining the mechanics of how this zombie world operates. Snyder's a strong visualist, as shown by his gift for dialogue-free sequences as well his acclaimed work in commercials. He could communicate all this info nicely without beating us over the head with it. Unfortunately, Army of the Dead drags down its pacing with lots of exposition and digressions that'll please the writers of this movie's Wiki but few others.

The second act is really where the film as a whole suffers as things grind to a halt so Dieter can try and crack open a safe, Scott's estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) goes off on a side-mission and the other characters trade dialogue lending insight into their respective pasts. It's all just setting up chess pieces for later parts of the movie told through flat direction and unmemorable performances. Trim down this section almost entirely and Army of the Dead would flow a lot better, especially since most of the backstory elements revealed here don't play into the movie at all. They also don't get us closer to the characters themselves, who all largely remain generic cannon fodder save for Tig Nataro being a blast as a detached pilot.

Character-based stuff is not where this movie's strengths lie. Those strengths are instead found in creative reinterpretations of zombies, with Army of the Dead's approach to the undead being that these Vegas brain-eaters are divided into two classes. There are the traditional slow-moving zombies but there are also smarter, faster, and deadlier zombies called  Alphas. Snyder finds subtle and neat visual elements, like the Alpha leader wearing a metal helmet, to reflect their intellect. When it comes time for humans to face off against these Alpha's and other zombies, Snyder shows off the kind of memorable visuals that have made him a distinctive filmmaker for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, his return to the zombie movie genre is less than the sum of its parts. Despite a criminally long runtime, there's just not much to chew on with Army of the Dead

Thursday, May 20, 2021

That's lots to see and think about in the documentary All Light Everywhere

As the documentary All Light Everywhere begins, we're informed that the human eye has a natural blind spot. This aspect of human vision is represented throughout the movie by narration from Keaver Brenai. From here, this aspect of sight is used as a leaping-off point for a larger examination of how we see things through objects like cameras. Much of the focus is centered on body cameras, and how these items, meant to provide an "objective" view of interactions between cops and citizens, actually can provide a warped depiction of things thanks to details like a skewed wide-angle lens. Various accounts are also referenced about how a person's seemingly "objective" perspective through cameras or observation has been skewed throughout history.

There's something quite chilling about the starting concept of All Light Everywhere, which is made all the more unnerving by how calm the production is. This isn't a movie looking to start a panic through blaring noises and an overabundance of visual stimulation. It just plainly lays out shortcomings about modern forms of observation, such as God's-eye-view perspectives from drones, and how those feed into larger biases. All of this is cemented through Brenai's narration, which has this monotone quality that can be eerie. Paradoxically, though, it can also be strangely calm since it provides a rare sense of constant reliability throughout the runtime. 

Director Theo Anthony captures these ruminations on human viewpoints with a dream-like quality in certain segments, particularly in any of the digressions to historical examples. At times, it feels as if we're being led to a higher plane of consciousness, one that simultaneously enchants the mind but also confounds it. All the while, Anthony's filmmaking style challenges us to comprehend what we're witnessing on-screen, an appropriate goal for a film that's all about making us think twice about what our perspective entails. This style of directing won't be to everyone's tastes but the boldness here should be universally admired.

Parred-down realism is incorporated into sequences that are just about capturing people talk about modern forms of "seeing" like body cameras. These include a bunch of rookie cops being told how to uses the devices as well as a meeting with a largely Black group of Baltimore, Maryland residents who are being asked for feedback on 24/7 aerial surveillance of the area. In the latter segment, the most pressing details about "perspectives" are made apparent, namely how warped biases in how we view things can help contribute to systemic racism against people of color. In these extended discussions, the human cost in detached endeavors like aerial surveillance is made apparent.

Whereas there's a dreamlike quality in the explorations of the past, segments set firmly in the present in All Light Everywhere emphasize realism. On-camera subjects talk for prolonged periods of time, there are very natural moments of people arguing back-and-forth, at times it feels like we're in the same room as these individuals. While the most lucid parts of All Light Everywhere remind the viewer they're watching a film, these grounded sequences trick the mind into thinking they're immersed in reality itself. The fluidity in styles of filmmaking nicely reflects the variety of images that can pass our eyes on a given day. 

Dan Deacon's constantly humming and frequently unsettling score compliments both the ominous tone and thoughtfulness that permeates all of All Light Everywhere. As this feature bridges the gap between avant-garde and more realistic documentaries, the viewer is left with plenty of food for thought to chew over. What unique elements influence our own viewpoints? Is there such a thing as an "objective" perspective? How do modern forms of "sight" adversely impact marginalized groups? These are all heavy topics packaged up in the complicated but thought-provoking filmmaker of All Light Everywhere

Those Who Wish Me Dead will do for a quick thriller fix

Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie) is coming to terms with a recent tragedy. She's a smokejumper who, on a recent mission, had to watch the deaths of three kids and a fellow smokejumper. Losing those people to the fire keeps her up at night and, in response to this recent event, she's been assigned to oversee a remote fire lookout tower. It is here that she crosses paths with Connor Casserly (Finn Little). This kid is on the run from a pair of henchmen (Aiden Gillan and Nicholas Hoult) who want to murder Casserly after his now-deceased father gave him valuable information that could lead to the incrimination of some high-profile people. Faber may be gripped with fear over the past but she's going to need to muster up all her courage to help save this kid in the present.

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, Those Who Wish Me Dead is the latest in this auteur's streak of modern Western thrillers. His previous writing forays into this field include Hell or High Water and Sicario while his previous major directorial effort was Wind River. Those Who Wish Me Dead isn't on par with Sheridan very best efforts, but it's a fine production all the same. It does what it says on the tin, you get Jolie, you get her helping a kid and there's also a wildfire. It never does enough to really elevate itself to something truly exceptional but I found myself being reasonably content with what I was getting anyway.

Sheridan's lack of a desire to take this story into extremely unusual places has its drawbacks but there is an elegant simplicity to certain aspects of the movie. Gillan and Hoult's henchman, especially, are efficiently realized as just sources of intimidation. Reducing the conflict to just these two guys keeps things nice and lean while also giving the audience a chance to real grow accustomed to their presence. Without a dozen other baddies clogging up the screen, both performers can leave an impression much easier. Simple, streamlined, it gets the job done. I can get behind that, especially since Gillan and Hoult have an intriguingly nonchalant rapport as they carry out such ruthless work.

The whole production also allows Angelina Jolie a chance to grab her first non-Maleficent star turn in over a decade. Occasionally Jolie seems either miscast or misdirected, but once it comes time for her to be convincing in suspenseful scenarios, she's proving that she's got her mettle. The best member of the cast turns out to be child actor Finn Little, particularly in how well he sells big emotions without lapsing into a distractingly over-the-top performance. There's a constant sense of realism with Little's turn and it makes him one of the standout members of the cast.

The other standout element of the production is whenever the two principal female characters of the story get their own unique weapons to fight baddies with. Faber gets to spend the climax wielding an axe that ends up coming in very handy. Meanwhile, the pregnant survival expert Allison Sawyer (Medina Senghore) gets the coolest action beat of the whole movie involving some pepper spray and a roaring fire. It's a delightfully grisly moment that, like Faber's obsession with her axe, smartly uses distinct weaponry to both reflect the unique attributes of individual characters and to create memorable fight scenes.

Unfortuntely, the whole production is captured through some really lackluster directing from Sheridan. Because so many scenes are set with human beings standing against a roaring wildfire, Sheridan has to employ extensive green-screen for the first time in his career. Unfortunately, the compositing of these elements leaves a lot to be desired and his visual style isn't much better in the low-key sequences. There's also numerous instances of choppy editing that take you right of the movie. The visual elements are really where Those Who Wish Me Dead comes up short. That's a shame since the rest of the movie is a perfectly acceptable affair that won't leave a sizeable impact but gets the job done while it's playing.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Gunda grips viewer with its quiet portrait of everyday farm life

Gunda is simple. This is a black-and-white documentary about farm animals. We start by watching a newborn litter of pigs struggling to suckle from their mother. From there, we watch the pigs slightly grow up as they traipse around their small pen and nearby farmland. We also get brief digressions involving a one-legged rooster and also a whole bunch of cows.  But for the most part, director Victor Kossakovsky keeps the focus exclusively on the pigs. All the while, everything is presented with no music, no narration, and it's also all in black-and-white. If I didn't know any better, I'd say Gunda was meant to be a parody of avant-garde documentaries! 

But this is certainly a project that's meant to be taken seriously. Surprisingly, this does end up working, mostly because of how easy it is for humans to anthropomorphize things. While making the movie WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton commented on this phenomenon and how people will inevitably interpret whatever they want onto babies, pets, and other similar creatures. It's just in our DNA to imprint distinctly human emotions onto entities that can't quite speak for themselves, especially when they find other ways to be so expressive. Thus, the lack of narration or a concrete plot becomes no hurdle in watching Gunda.

On the contrary, Kossakovsky's commitment to keeping everything so devoid of larger-scale conflict or traditional documentary trappings allows one to immerse themselves in and begin to interpret human emotions into the lives of these farm animals. Two squabbling piglets can't help but remind the viewer of a typical instance of human siblings arguing. A memorable early scene of a momma pig digging through the hay with her snout to rescue a stuck piglet will inevitably inspire moviegoers to go "awww" while chuckling about the monotonous ways moms have to help their youngsters. Even while stripping down this movie to the bone, Kossaovsky manages to have Gunda be a great example of seeing human behavior in animals we take for granted.

This also extends to other animals we see briefly glimpse at in the runtime, particularly that one-legged rooster. Every time he opened his mouth in what looked like a shocked expression, my heart melted. He's in such wonder of the world around him! All those expressions are captured through camerawork that impresses the more I ruminate on it. How did Kossakovsky and his team exhibit the kind of patience necessary to capture the everyday behavior of farm animals through skilled camerawork and editing? It's easy to imagine a movie that's just jaggedly cobbled together fragments of footage because of how unruly animals can be. But there's a constant visual clarity that never interrupts the inherent naturalism of the piece. 

Gunda does such exquisite work of getting the viewer to just lay back and chill with the barn animals that it just makes his final emotionally devastating rug pull all the more powerful. An extended single-take that closes out the movie doesn't suddenly immerse the viewer in graphic imagery but the mere suggestion of obvious turmoil comes across as such a harrowing blow to the established norms of this movie. It may just be one of the most heart-breaking sequences to ever emerge in a G-rated movie. Gunda and its extremely languid tendencies aren't going to be for everyone, it'll surely frustrate as many viewers as it captivates. But the emotional impact of that ending solidified for me that Gunda had worked magic in using a totally unique filmmaking style to unearth the humanity in barn animals.

Monday, May 17, 2021

I'm Not There is another outstanding music biopic from director Todd Haynes

It's interesting how the two big music biopics from director Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There, use newly-created characters as stand-ins for iconic musicians. It's clear who these fictitious individual are supposed to represent, but Haynes commits to examining mythical musical figures through a lens that allows him an extra dose of creative freedom. In the case of I'm Not There, a film about Bob Dylan and yet also never featuring Bob Dylan, it allows for Haynes to treat Dylan like Duck Amuck treated Daffy Duck. If you changed everything about Dylan, his gender, his race, his age, his backstory...would you still be able to recognize him? Would the unique spirit of Dylan's music still come through? 

What a fascinating thought experiment that immediately gives I'm Not There more of a substantive edge than your run-of-the-mill biopic. Even better, the actual execution of that concept is just as compelling as thinking about it. Despite being just the kind of storyline a filmmaker could get lost trying to bring to life, Haynes executes I'm Not There with a compelling sense of chaos befitting of its central subject.

The musician Bob Dylan is represented in I'm Not There by six different people. 19-year-old Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), runaway child Woody Gutherie (Marcus Carl Franklin), rock n' roll star Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), young movie star Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), folk singer Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), and elderly recluse Billy McCarty (Richard Gere). Flashes of similar behavior reverberate across these various individuals, such as the relentless tapping of the foot to indicate internal nervousness, but otherwise, the stories themselves intentionally occupy different realms. Haynes, who wrote the script with Oren Moverman, cuts across these individual storylines to give a greater perspective on who Dylan was.

If there is one recurring theme across these various incarnations of Dylan, it's the concept of looking out for others. In Gutherie's storyline, which sees this kid setting out on the road due to his family being incredibly poor, we see how someone could organically develop the attitude of looking out for oneself. Homes are temporary for Gutherie, friends are just people who could turn on you in an instant. Why not grow detached from the broader world? On the opposite end of that spectrum, the exploits of the older McCarty show the dangers of becoming too disconnected from other people. A highway is coming to destroy the town McCarty and other small-town folk calls home. When he inquires why he didn't know about this development sooner, McCarty is simply told "You don't get out much."

I'm Not There may be about Bob Dylan but this facet of the production is relevant to all moviegoers. It can be easy to want to duck out of the world and sometimes it's even necessary to maintain a sliver of your mental health. But in general, it's important to take a stand, to actually care about the broader world and the people who live in it. As seen in various parts of I'm Not There, particularly any scenes involving Quinn, that kind of worldview only leads to emptiness and alienating others. In exploring the importance of staying in touch with the world around you, I'm Not There unearths something universal in the story of a singular musician.

That theme provides a fantastic backbone for the entire story while framing the essence of Bob Dylan across seven different people in I'm Not There makes for a great reflection of how complicated the real-life man is. How can you boil down an artist of such enormous influence to a single person in a two-hour movie? I'm Not There simply chooses not to. It's one of many wonderful stylized choices evident throughout the movie. Haynes uses the inherently fantastical storytelling structure as an excuse to incorporate all kinds of memorably unorthodox imagery, such as a gigantic whale factoring into Gutherie's tale or a wacky entrance for a Beatles cameo.

The heightened nature of the story also gives Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman free rein to utilize unique filmmaking styles for each of the movie's different stories. The Jack Rollins scenes are filmed like a documentary, the Robbie Clark sequences use pronounced color grading in a way that evokes the colorful imagery of Jacques Demy while the McCarty scenes are told like a whimsical Southern fairy tale. I'm Not There is that rare film that's as stimulating for the eyes as it is for the heart. Dylan isn't the only artist whose versatility is showcased in I'm Not There. Haynes also gets to demonstrate that he's adept at so many different types of filmmaking through the various segments.

I've mentioned numerous times in the past how I love biopics that render famous figures as everyday people. I'm Not There doesn't just fit neatly into that subgenre but it also helped me realize why I love these types of movies so much. There's something comforting about these kinds of stories, I can hear myself in lines like McCarty saying "I'm one person when I wake up and a completely different person when I go to bed."  In refusing to render famous faces as deities, artists like Todd Haynes are able to tap into something vulnerable that registers as deeply relatable to the viewer. Capturing that idea is one of many incredible feats I'm Not There pulls off as effortlessly as a leaf shaking around while blowin' in the wind. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Mr. Turner paints a beautiful complicated portrait of an artistic icon

With his 2014 film Mr. Turner, writer/director Mike Leigh operates in a slightly different mode compared to many of his prior works. Whereas the majority of his movies have focused on everyday Londoners, Mr. Turner is centered on a very well-known historical figure, painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall). This is Leigh having a go at a biopic, but he doesn't sacrifice his usual emphasis on low-key interactions for the cradle-to-grave storytelling of most conventional biopics. Mr. Turner may see Leigh focusing on a different type of person than he routinely zeroes in on, but make no mistake, his brilliant gift for capturing everyday humanity is well-intact.

Mr. Turner starts off with J.M.W. Turner as a middle-aged man, one who focuses on his paintings with great care but does tend to isolate some of his loved ones, like his ex-wife. The audience follows Turner over the last 25 years of his life as he, among other occurrences, develops a relationship with a landlady by the name of Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) as well as simultaneously frustrate and astound other painters in his field. By focusing on these pieces of mundane interactions, Leigh is subtly conveying to the viewer that what's really important about Turner isn't necessarily the paintings that made him famous. It's his connections to other people. 

Those connections are rendered in a complex manner that grounds Mr. Turner in unmistakable reality. Anyone expecting J.M.W. Turner to be rendered as a lofty figure free of criticism clearly has not seen any prior Leigh features. This famous artist is depicted as a person whose as abrasive as he is brilliant, as capable of committing social faux pas as he is putting paint on a canvas. Turner is capable of being an outright brute, of using people, like his housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), for sexual favors without thinking of them as human beings. He isn't perfect. Even Leigh's framing of Turner eschews grandiose tendencies. Rather than capturing him as some sort of mythical figure, Turner is always captured in a manner reminiscent of the people around him. He's just another face in the crowd and Leigh communicates that fact with quiet grace. 

The fact that Turner is indeed just a mortal man weighs heavily on Mr. Turner's protagonist, particularly as he nears the end of his life. It is in these later sequences that the film reveals itself to be about a man convinced he and his paintings will be rendered a “non-entity” by countless forces outside of his control. As his final years flicker by, new technology like trains and cameras arrive, seemingly just to emphasize the looming obsolescence of J.M.W. Turner. While the man himself would never fully realize what his last legacy would be, the audience does get to witness just that in the final moments of Mr. Turner.

Here, we see Mrs. Booth and Hannah's differing reactions to Turner's demise. Booth is framed in sunlight, hanging clothes on a wire with a small smile on her face. The good times she shared with this painter linger in the mind like the last bit of snow enduring in the face of the hot sun. By contrast, Hannah is left alone in Turner's dimly lit home. It's clear she's in emotional distress over how Turner carried on a secret life with Mrs. Booth behind her back. This expression of quiet anguish is captured a great deal of distance away from the camera to suggest how far apart she and Turner were while he was still alive. 

These two moments demonstrate that the titular lead of Mr. Turner did leave an impact on others that resonates after his death. One moment shows this impact in a positive way, the other demonstrates his lasting impact can manifest in a sorrowful way. The lingering legacies we leave behind are never as simple as “good” or “bad”, that’s not how human beings are, why should our legacies be so streamlined? Though this legacy may be messy, Leigh does allow these final glimpses to prove that this painter did not become a “non-entity” after he perished. It's a powerful way to end this movie and one that caps things off in an appropriately emotionally complicated manner.

That kind of thoughtful writing and filmmaking runs deep throughout all of Mr. Turner alongside Dick Pope's tremendously realized cinematography and an unforgettable lead performance from Timothy Spall. I can truly say there's no biopic quite like Mr. Turner. In shifting gears a bit for Mr. Turner, writer/director Mike Leigh has cemented his long-standing status as a true cinematic genius.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Mauritanian has a strong lead performance but a messy script

Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) was just at a wedding when he was arrested by local police in Jordan. Afterward, he was transferred over to Guantanamo Bay, where he was kept imprisoned for years but never actually charged with a crime. Years into his detainment, lawyers Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) are hired to defend Ould Slahi. Unfortunately, that's a difficult procedure because the U.S. government is refusing to hand over any kind of evidence that would indicate Ould Slahi is actually guilty of a crime. The prosecuting lawyer in the case, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), is having similar struggles as he tries to grab a hold of any evidence that could ensure Ould Slahi ends up behind bars.

This problem is exacerbated by how Ould Slahi refuses to talk about his experiences in captivity due to paranoia over the personnel at Guantanamo Bay retaliating against him if he does. The Mauritanian, then, is about a trio of Americans peeling back layers and layers of conspiracy to discover how the U.S. military tortured suspects in acts of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. However, above all else, it's about the experiences of Ould Slahi as he fights for freedom and learns that his own voice can be the most powerful tool in facing injustice. 

If there's a critical flaw to The Mauritanian, it's that it's just too overstuffed for its own good. We've got three major plotlines going on and then there are also lengthy flashbacks involving Ould Slahi first coming to Guantanamo. These sometimes dovetail to flashbacks-within-flashbacks to earlier days of Ould Slahi's life. Director Kevin Macdonald incorporates distinct aspect ratios and camera lenses to help differentiate between the time periods but this still a lot of ground for one movie to cover. Inevitably, stuff gets lost in the shuffle and The Mauritanian ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

The biggest victim of this turns out to be Nancy Hollander, who starts out as a detached lawyer who always plays things by evidence, not emotion. You can guess where her character arc is supposed to go and that kind of routine growth could have worked well under the right circumstances. But once screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani get to the inevitable third-act scene where Hollander is supposed to warm up to Ould Slahi, it doesn't feel earned. We haven't had enough scenes showing us why Hollander would have this change of heart against Ould Slahi. The Mauritanian knows where it wants to go narratively but it doesn't quite have the tools to get there properly.

It also has to be said that the simplified morality of the story feels ill-suited to this kind of story. If you're handling something as horrifying as the way the U.S. tortured civilians, you have to be in tune with what kind of people did. It wasn't just people who twirl their mustaches in villainy, it was also everyday kids and people who thought they were just doing their job. That's what was extra terrifying about this (in addition to the inherently horrific presence of torture, of course), that this kind of barbaric treatment against other people is so normalized that anyone can do it. Sadly, The Mauritanian opts for a more simplified worldview. People who seem shady are bad. American characters coded as good always do the right thing. Of course there's one nice prison guard at Guantanamo Bay who is rendered as "a good guy" despite exhibiting the barest amount of manners. 

It's all a very morally simplified approach to a topic that seems to be done to put mainstream moviegoers at ease rather than challenge them with a bleak but realistic view of the world. While The Mauritanian struggles with preserving realism in this case, it does make for a reasonably engaging political thriller, at least while it's still going. Much of this is due to the performances, which are uniformly strong. Benedict Cumberbatch even gets to deviate from his usual mold of asshole genius with a heart of gold in his role here. He does rock-solid work on a physical level even if he's saddled with a clumsy Southern accent.

The best performance here is easily the biggest reason to see The Mauritanian, Tahar Rahim. In one of his few English-language performances to date (interestingly, one of his earlier English-language turns was done under the direction of Mcdonald in The Eagle), Rahim enters the movie with a warm smile that immediately makes him latch onto your heart. Wisely, Rahim does not play Ould Slahi as a perfect soul or a deified figure. Instead, he opts to render this man as who he is, a human being complete with charm, instances of vulnerability and so much more. In a movie that frequently struggles to grasp the gravity of the material it's handling, Rahim's constant nuance is like a drop of water in a desert. The Mauritanian as a whole isn't particularly exceptional but Tahar Rahim's performance is downright outstanding. A pity the film surrounding him is watchable but exceedingly flawed.

Difficulties in adjusting to a new reality are vividly-realized in The Killing of Two Lovers

The Killing of Two Lovers stars a protagonist, David (Clayne Crawford), who's a quintessential portrait of classic Southern masculinity. The first time we see him, he's using a gun to solve his problems. As if that weren't enough, David also drives a red 4x4 pick-up truck, got married to his High School weather when he was just 18, and has a speaking voice that sounds like Josh Turner. His life is like a Billy Currington song, but those tunes merely do a surface-level glamorization of that person. In The Killing of Two Lovers, we get a more complicated exploration of this kind of figure. This is not a film that's out to demonize David but the inherently messy nature of two people growing apart offers plenty of opportunities to challenge David by shaking up his status quo.

As The Killing of Two Lovers opens, David is growing accustomed to a new living arrangement with his partner, Nikki (Sedipeh Moafi). The two have four kids but have opted to live apart, with David moving back in with his dad. They've also agreed to see other people during this period of separation. It's all so thorny, it's not the kind of tidy romance David once thought he and Nikki could share. The film takes place over approximately two days in the lives of these characters and we get to see, among other events, how this new living arrangement is impacting the kids, David and Nikki attempting to go out on a date night, and a conflict-ridden attempt at father/children bonding at a park.

Writer/director Robert Machoian imbues The Killing of Two Lovers with the restraint of a Mike Leigh movie but the ambiance of a Cormac McCarthy slow-burn Southern thriller. The latter detail is most evidently seen in the character of David himself. From frame one, we know his difficulties with handling his new status quo is causing him to lash out at others. Watching that internalized frustration slowly bubble and boil is quite compelling, especially in the handful of scenes where David is totally alone. His exchanges with other characters are largely devoid of music to accentuate the realism of these conversations as well as to make sure the audience is focused entirely on the dialogue. However, when David is the only person in the frame, the soundtrack tends to incorporate this ominous music paired up with these grinding sound effects. It's an evocative auditory manifestation of the interior turmoil David feels over his current life. 

Meanwhile, Machoian subtly establishes a sense of history in the world David inhabits. The way he knows the names of every person he runs into at the local feed store, the warm rapport between David and his father, even just the lived-in chemistry between David and Nikki. They all quietly but effectively suggest how the world of The Killing of Two Lovers has been turning long before the audience dropped by and will continue to spin long after the credits finish rolling. Not only does this make the whole production feel more firmly rooted in reality but it also captures the sensation of David being dwarfed by the world around him.

All of these qualities are captured through Machoian's filmmaking, which, on paper, sounds like an amalgamation of all the visual quirks of 2021 indie cinema. Stripped-down handheld camerawork defined late 2000s indie films. Tarantino knock-off's defined so much of 1990s indie cinema. Visual traits like the 4:3 aspect ratio and static wide shots become common in the modern indie landscape and Killing of Two Lovers utilizes them both. Thankfully, Machoian uses the qualities successfully enough to make sure the movie doesn't lapse into becoming a pastiche of other recent indie endeavors. The aspect ratio is a thoughtful way to convey how David and the other characters feel trapped. Meanwhile, the use of prolonged wide shots turns out to be an ingenious way to capture the volatile mood felt by members of this family.

Machoian uses uninterrupted shots to realistically capture how the strain of families changing can lead to people turning from joy to anger to sadness all on a dime. This is best seen in a scene involving David's daughter Jess (Avery Pizzuto), where elation over a rocket quickly turns into frustration and then into raging at the heavens over the uncertainty hovering over her family. Captured in an unbroken take, Machoian lends tangible reality to the sudden shifts in mood. That sense of realism even extends to how David comes across as a realistic representation of a Southern man in crisis rather than a redneck caricature. This comes through even during the multiple moments where Machoia conveys the idea that David staunchly adhering to old-school thoughts on masculinity is not the best coping mechanism for his problems. Watching this man steer his way through that process results in plenty of bumps, no easy answers, and some exceptional filmmaking.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Micro-Review of Recent Watches (Serpico, Hard Eight, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and more!)

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!

In the last two weeks, I've been swamped with all kinds of responsibilities. They've all been the most exciting kind of duties that range from working on pieces for websites like Collider to finishing up assignments for my second semester of Graduate School. Doing all these exciting things has still left me enough time to watch movies but not enough time to write full-fledged reviews of them. For this week's In Laman's Terms, I thought I'd do something I've never done in the seven-year history (wow that's weird to type) of this website. I'll do small one-paragraph reviews of some films I've seen recently. These are bite-sized takes that aren't super organized but just give you a general impression of the films I've watched in the last two weeks. 

With school done, I'll try to make time for traditional reviews of movies I've watched lately like Mr. Turner and The Mauritanian. Until then, let's begin with the mini-reviews...


Paul Thomas Anderson exploded right onto the filmmaking scene with this directorial debut that shows all the confidence and vigor of a longtime auteur. Despite limiting its focus to just four characters and a handful of locations, I couldn't turn my eyes from the screen in Hard Eight. It's as magnetic to watch as a great poker game. Much of the props here must go to Phillip Baker Hall in a transfixing lead performance as a guy you can never seem to get a read on. Hall works wonders in keeping a consistent affect but always challenging your perceptions of who his character is and what he's capable of. Oh, and what a great one-scene appearance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman!


Here's another great film from a foreign country that's available to watch on Netflix right now but has never received any sort of promotion. Don't let the lack of advertising fool you, Rocks is already one of 2021's highlights. The titular lead character is a teenage girl struggling to hold onto her brother when their mother is suddenly absent from their lives. Director Sarah Gavron always captures the plight of Rocks in a manner that reads empathetic, not exploitative. Plus, the scenes where Rocks is just hanging out with her friends just radiates with authentic joy. Gavron imbues complexity into these proceedings by refusing to corner Rocks and her brother as just characters defined by their poverty. They're multi-faceted beings more than capable of headlining well-made motion pictures like Rocks.


Looking back on the initial reception to Exit Through the Gift Shop, I'm shocked by how much of it focused on whether or not the film is "real." Personally, I would be more shocked if such a ludicrous story was falsified, reality is so often stranger than fiction, ya know. But it's also just weird that the validity of the story was the primary focus rather than the filmmaking. That's extra tragic since Exit Through the Gift Shop is such a well-crafted documentary. Even if you're like me and a total novice when it comes to street art, the whole story is easy to follow. Rooting things in the story of an avid filmer-turned-street artist helps lend a sense of universality to the proceedings. The escalating absurdity of things as the primary focus of the film begins to put on his own ramshackle art show is impossible to look away from. Exit Through the Gift Shop starts out as a look at seedy nighttime rebellion before becoming a tragic farce about how easily the means of subversion can be co-opted for monetary gain. There's so much to unpack here, why wasn't that the central focus of Exit Through the Gift Shop's initial response?


Writer/director Raman Bahrani is a rare modern American filmmaker unafraid to tackle the thorny subject of class. He explored this matter to great effect in the underappreciated 2015 gem 99 Homes and he dives into the subject again with his 2008 feature Chop Shop. This is the story of youngster Alejandro "Ale" (Alejandro Polanco), who works odd jobs to earn money to buy a food truck he's convinced will bring financial stability to the lives of himself and his sister. Bahrani opting to tell this tale with unknown actors adds an extra sense of realism to the proceedings. It's like we're getting a glimpse into reality itself rather than movie stars emulating a Xerox copy of reality. Similarly impressive is how Bahrani conveys the quiet tragedy of Ale's life. He has no time to be a kid, American society has put so many financial expectations on a person who isn't even a teenager. The grimness of this situation infuses Chop Shop with a somber atmosphere chillingly in touch with reality.


The worst part about Sidney Lumet's Serpico is how relevant it is 50 years after its release. The story of a cop (Al Pacino) looking to weed out corruption in the cops at his New York precinct, Serpico is less of a movie about one guy charging against injustice. It's more the story of a man trying to get grains of sand from not falling through his fingers tips. Endless difficulties face Pacino's protagonist as he tries to do the bare minimum of good behavior as a cop. Serpico uses the grim aesthetic permeating New Hollywood movies of the early 1970s to convey how corruption is everywhere, the debauchery in the police force doesn't end there. Like I said, horrifyingly relevant to the modern world. On a happier note, also carrying enduring qualities in Serpico is Lumet's tremendous filmmaking, which adds a lot to the paranoia-drenched atmosphere, and Pacino's magnificent lead performance. Movies as good as Serpico are hard to coe by

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Human Factor is a straightforward but informative documentary

The new documentary The Human Factor from director Dror Moreh is an examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically during the 1990s through the Bill Clinton U.S. presidential administration. Told through interviews with American negotiators tasked with guiding interactions between world interviews, these individuals recount how the American government tried to guide peace talks between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the leaders of Israel and Palestine. Initial hope for cooperation in these interactions becomes more frayed once Rabin is assassinated. This begins a string of setbacks that the negotiators look back on with a confluence of emotions, but above all, disappointment over how this went awry.

Choosing to tell this portion of the history of this long-standing conflict through the eyes of negotiators is an interesting move on the part of Moreh. For someone like myself that doesn't have much in the way of knowledge on this issue in the 1990s, let alone its long-term history, these third-party points-of-view do make for an easy audience entry point. Plus, the decades of removal from the events chronicled lead to a welcome sense of honesty. This is not a documentary that's all about back pats, it's about men like Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross looking in the rearview at what went wrong here. There's also a touch of intriguing regret over the hubris of America thinking it could automatically solve all this long-standing tension.

At one point in the film's runtime, one of the interview subjects expresses sympathy for Arafat, who, in the late 1990s, began to feel that America and Israel were looking to sabotage him. The narrator for this anecdote notes that he feels sorry for Arafat since the lack of Palestinian negotiators in the proceedings likely fueled this perception. It's a considerate thought but it did make me suddenly aware of how the film itself lacked a specifically Palestinian perspective. While the focus on just interviewing American negotiators involved in this affair means Human Factor can't interview Palestinian individuals, surely some archival footage or other means could have been used to inject this point-of-view into the proceedings.

What people we do get to hear from provide insightful gazes into these negotiations while also providing historical context in a concise manner. These stories are told through a form that's quite straightforward for a political documentary. Talking heads get intercut with historical footage, a handful of original visual aids, the only thing missing is a famous celebrity providing narration. The straightforward execution of this material is thoroughly competent and it's easy to see how providing extreme variations on documentary norms could''ve provided extra distractions, rather than enhancements, to a movie handling such gravely serious subject matter.

Still, making things so uniformly adherent to convention on a filmmaking level does render Human Factor informational but not quite captivating. The most engaging moments are where the interview subjects express overt displays of emotion, particularly in regards to their somber recollections of where they were when they heard that Rabin was assassinated. There's a constant emphasis in their remarks about the importance of maintaining a third-party perspective in the act of negotiating, it's imperative when handling discussions between world powers. This makes this very specific display of sorrow especially impactful.

Also proving memorable are the comments made by Dennis Ross, the frankest fellow in a gaggle of negotiators who aren't known for mincing their words. His candor takes on a fascinating self-reflective quality as The Human Factor heads into its final twenty minutes, as he gets frank about the failures of both America and himself during the last attempts at broaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Clinton administration. "What could have been?" is a question that weighs heavily on the mind of Ross and it also informs the melancholy tone of The Human Factor. Though not as expansive in scope or innovative in filmmaking as it could have been, this documentary still functions fine at a groundbreaking historical event that never was.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Predicting the ten biggest movies of Summer 2021!

An image from Peter Rabbit 2, a movie that isn't on this list. 

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!

Boy, it feels good to do this again.

Yes, with Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man opening in wide theatrical release on Friday, the Summer 2021 moviegoing season is actually going to happen! The first big tentpole releases will only come three weeks later than usual (A Quiet Place: Part II and Cruella are dropping over Memorial Day rather than the first weekend of May), but otherwise, we've got a slew of theatrical features on the way! Yay!

With that in mind, it's time do something I love to do but wasn't able to do last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic; a column predicting the biggest movies at the summer domestic box office! As I've done in year's past, I'll be predicting the ten biggest movies of the season. Unlike in year's past, I'm not gonna predict opening weekend and domestic grosses. We still have so little data what theatrical moviegoing will look like, it doesn't seem to fair to try to attach specific figures to these titles. Predicting what films will end up being the biggest of the summer, though, that feels totally fair! 

So why don't we begin with the predictions by looking at my projections for the tenth-biggest movie of the season?

Easy A (2010)

10) Cruella

Here's a movie that probably would have done significantly better in pre-COVID-19 times. Live-action Disney remakes have been largely successful (save for the occasional Dumbo) and combining Oscar-winner Emma Stone with an iconic figure like Cruella DeVill probably would have been enough to print money. The fact that it was set to open over the Memorial Day holiday weekend where Aladdin worked like gangbusters in 2019 once looked like an extra dash of gravy on a juicy pile of mashed potatoes. 

However, the pandemic has changed everything and that includes Cruella's box office prospects. Now, the film looks a little riskier. Will audiences turn out for this when A Quiet Place: Part II is an option? Horror movies and family movies usually don't compete with one another but given that both Quiet and Cruella are PG-13, it looks like they may overlap more moviegoers than expected. The marketing for Cruella has also been more subdued compared to past live-action Disney remakes and it's even unclear how many movie theaters will even play the picture. It's easy to imagine Cruella doing strong numbers under many circumstances, but right now, this looks poised to be one of the lower-grossing Disney remakes. 

Remember when we were getting a Jungle Cruise movie starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen?

9) Jungle Cruise

I'm not sure there's really much demand for Jungle Cruise, a movie that looks like a hodgepodge of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and The Mummy with some African Queen tossed in. However, this is just the kind of movie audiences do like seeing Dwayne Johnson in, family-friendly titles heavy on laughs and explosions. Having Emily Blunt as his co-lead straight after her turns in A Quiet Place and previous Disney title Mary Poppins Returns also sweetens the pot. 

It also doesn't hurt that its late July release means it'll be the last family-friendly movie of the summer (except for the Paw Patrol movie) and that it'll be Disney's first movie since Onward in March 2020 to debut exclusively in theaters. I'm still not sure there's enough uniqueness in either the marketing for this movie or room in the summer 2021 family movie marketplace for Jungle Cruise to become the next Pirates of the Caribbean. Still, it does have some strong ingredients in place to suggest it can reach enough audiences to become a decent performer for the Mouse House.

8) In the Heights

If there's any movie that looks poised to be a big sleeper hit, it's In the Heights. A film adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical, In the Heights already looked to poised for box office glory last year thanks to the increased pop culture presence of its writer, Lin Manuel-Miranda. But now, in summer 2021, it feels like the quintessential movie people will wanna see on the big screen. A peppy tone? Check. Lots of spectacle? Also check. A hopeful aesthetic? Triple-check. The fact that early word-of-mouth from those who've seen In the Heights is that the movie delivers the good could give it killer advanced buzz too.

Even the mid-June 2021 date feels absolutely perfect for the title, since it'll give it two weeks of space between both A Quiet Place: Part II and F9. And, yes, having post-Hamilton Manuel-Miranda around as a prominent part of the marketing should only be extra helpful to this movie standing out in the marketplace. The stage is set for In the Heights to dance its way to a triumphant box office run. Basically, expect this one to sell far more than 96,000 tickets in its domestic run. 

7) Hotel Tranylsvania: Transformmania

The newest (apparently last?) Hotel Transylvania movie, Hotel Transylvania: Transformmania, is about to be a very big fish in a very small pond. With PIXAR and Illumination moving their Summer 2021 titles out of the season, that leaves this new Sony Pictures Animation title as, by default, the biggest fully-animated kids movie of the season. Given that the Hotel Transylvania movies have been remarkably consistent in their domestic box office performance up to this point, there was always little chance this one suddenly took the series to Ice Age: Collision Course levels of disastrous domestic box office.

Still, with no other fully animated titles to compete with, this new film can be assured to maintain the majority of its predecessor's domestic gross even with COVID-19 still impacting the theatrical landscape. The marketing on this one hasn't started yet, so it's hard to tell if it'll have as distinct of a hook as its predecessor's cruise line storyline.  At the moment, though, the Drac Pack look poised to be one of the biggest movies of the summer and fill an animated kids movies void in the Summer 2021 marketplace. 

6) A Quiet Place: Part II

Keep that noise down! A Quiet Place: Part II is almost here! The first Quiet Place was already a gigantic smash hit in its 2018 box office run. Just before the pandemic shut everything down, A Quiet Place: Part II looked poised to do the same thanks to impressive box office tracking figures. 14 months later, it looks like A Quiet Place: Part II is still set to be a hit, even if nobody's expecting it to live up to either the first movie or that initial box office tracking from March 2020.

Even prior to the health crisis, the ads for this sequel smartly made sure to emphasize fresh story details like the presence of Cillian Murphy's new character and flashbacks to when the monster-informed apocalypse first began. Those ingredients plus goodwill from the first movie made A Quiet Place: Part II pretty much a financial slamdunk from the get-go. Now, though, the film could be extra appealing to audiences not only as a long-awaited feature but also as something you have to see in the theater. The original Quiet Place was a lot of fun to see with a crowd on the big screen. A Quiet Place: Part II could get a lot of mileage out of those fond memories in its domestic box office run.

5) Space Jam: A New Legacy

Everybody get up now, it's time to predict how Space Jam: A New Legacy will do at the box office. Really, though, if there's any slam-dunk (no pun intended) at this summer's box office, it's Space Jam: A New Legacy. LeBron James is a beloved sports stars. Space Jam is a seminal movie for a certain generation. Plus, the trailers for the sequel haven't just promoted a new Space Jam movie, they've also taken a cue from Ready Player One in simultaneously promoting a whole slew of other familiar pieces of WB IP.

All these qualities, plus the fact that 2021 Warner Bros. movies are overperforming like crazy, all point to Space Jam: A New Legacy being a massive hit. Could it crack $200 million domestically? Under normal circumstances, I'd say heck yeah. The first one, adjusted for inflation, made $162 million domestically and that one didn't have 25 years' worth of hype behind it. Crossing that threshold is more of a question mark in a theatrical landscape rocked by COVID-19. If any movie could do it, though, it'd be a Space Jam sequel. Moviegoers are ready to slam and jam, it seems, and that desire will result in one of the biggest movies of the season.

4) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Up to this point, the biggest movies of all-time that have opened over the Labor Day weekend frame are Halloween and Final Destination movies. That all changes this year as a big-budget superhero movie calls the holiday weekend home for the first time. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will debut on September 3 and there's no question it'll help redefine what a successful Labor Day weekend release looks like. True, no Labor Day movie has ever crossed $100 million domestically before but none of those previous releases were massive Marvel Studios blockbusters.

The first trailer for Shang-Chi already generated lots of hype and it feels like a guarantee that, even by early September, the glow of returning to theaters will have enough pull to lend an extra layer of specialness to Shang-Chi. The lack of direct connections to Avengers sequels like Black Panther and Captain Marvel had will keep it hitting from the box office highs of those two inaugural solo Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Even a domestic total closer to Doctor Strange than Guardians of the Galaxy, though, would make Shang-Chi one of the biggest movies of summer 2021. Take THAT, Rob Zombie's Halloween

A shark! 

3) The Suicide Squad

Nobody liked the 2016 Suicide Squad but it still made over $320 million domestically. That made it a big hit but that negative reception meant an inevitable sequel would have to do more than just say "the Suicide Squad are back!" So far, the marketing for The Suicide Squad has dedicated itself to doing just that by emphasizing the presence of new director James Gunn, a radically different tone, and a slew of new characters, including King Shark. So far, responses to the trailer have been widely positive, the red-band trailer broke viewership records, and IMDB users have declared the feature their most anticipated movie for 2021.

There is the fact that, unlike its predecessor, The Suicide Squad is simultaneously debuting on HBO Max, but that doesn't seem to be impacting the box office of Godzilla vs. Kong and Mortal Kombat, why should it hinder a DC Comics juggernaut? Lingering COVID-19 concerns and negative associates with that first movie make it likely this one opens below the first Suicide Squad but don't be surprised if this legs it out to a slightly higher overall domestic gross. Those Nathan Fillion fans are gonna come out in droves, that's gonna make all the difference at the box office.

An image from a crossover between The Nanny Diaries and Midsommar

2) Black Widow

The Marvel Cinematic Universe returns to the big screen for the first time in two whole years in July, the longest gap of time between installments of this franchise since the MCU began. The film that kicks things back off is one audiences have been demanding for years, a Black Widow solo movie. Being the lone female Avenger for so long made Black Widow a highly-recognizable figure and that only got even more true in the wake of her memorable sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame. Now, this highly-publicized feature is offering moviegoers a chance to explore the origins of this character.

Prequels tend to make less than sequels that just continue a story on in a linear fashion, but the MCU's always breaking box office norms, so don't expect that to be too much of an issue here. More pressing, though, is whether or not releasing Black Widow on Disney+ as a PVOD title will hurt its domestic box office run. Those simultaneous HBO Max launches haven't hurt Warner Bros. titles in 2021, but again, we're in uncharted territory. Who knows how this will shake up. Still, never bet against Marvel, whose incredibly successful Disney+ programs like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have proven that audiences haven't forgotten the franchise in its big-screen absence. The consistent box office track record of MCU films plus the long-awaited nature of Black Widow means it'll probably beat out all other summer 2021 titles...except for one!

1) F9

The first big-budget blockbuster to exclusively hit domestic theaters in nearly a year and one of the rare Summer 2021 titles to not have a simultaneous streaming run? F9 is already much like Stacy's Mom in how it has got it going on. However, Universal isn't just resting on the laurels of a post-COVID-19 theatrical landscape to carry this newest Fast & Furious adventure. The presence of John Cena as the new villain is already a great new gimmick as are memorable set pieces involving magnets and rockets. There's also the fact that this is the movie where fan-favorite character Han (Sung Kang) returns from the dead and the final trailer indicates that Dominic Toretto's family is finally headed to space.

All of these qualities mean that F9 has a lot more going for it in its marketing than the previous series installment, The Fate of the Furious, ever had. Still, will that all be enough to get it the top spot at the summer 2021 box office domestically? I think it could, especially since, again it'll have more exclusivity playing in theaters, and its release date times it to the 4th of July holiday. All those extra days of being the only blockbuster in town when people are off work should give it an extra boost to its box office engine. Watch out for F9, this one could end up surpassing Furious 7 to become the highest-grossing entry in the franchise domestically. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Secrets & Lies is a restrained triumph

I stumbled onto Secrets & Lies on HBO Max purely by accident. I recognized Mike Leigh's name on it, of course, having already seen Happy-Go-Lucky and Vera Drake, so that caught my eye. Then I saw that everyone I knew absolutely loved this movie. So I decided to spend a Friday night, as one in their mid-20s would do, watching Secrets & Lies for the first time. Even with my prior experience and adoration of Leigh's work, I was still so blown away by Secrets & Lies. The restraint Leigh imbues into all his works is especially exquisite in its execution here. Down-to-Earth humanity becomes outright captivating in Secrets & Lies

In the wake of her adopted mother's funeral, Hortense Cumberbatch (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) has decided to go searching for answers as to who her biological mother actually is. Upon going down that rabbit hole, she discovers that her mom is Cynthia Rose Purley (Brenda Blythen), a woman in her 40s living in a small home whose life is far from ideal. This is especially true when compared to the comparatively more lavish life her brother, photographer Maurice Purley (Timothy Spall), leads. Her life is about to get a whole lot more complicated when Hortense rings her up and asks to meet her. Cynthia's past is now coming back in ways she could never have expected and will, inevitably, change her world forever. 

Leigh takes his time with Secrets & Lies, refusing to rush in on anything. Instead, much of the first half of the movie is dedicated to exploring the everyday lives of our principal characters. We see a couple of montages of customer Maurice works with at his job. We watch Hortense talking with a friend over what it's like to want to know her biological mom. We witness the troubles at home Maurice has in connecting with his wife, Monica (Phyllis Logan), as well as similar domestic turmoil between Cynthia and her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). It's all so subdued but it's always dramatically compelling.

Giving us plenty of time to know these people in their day-to-day lives establishes a firm sense of normalcy that the return of Hortense into the life of Cynthia can then disrupt.  Plus, it helps that these low-key sequences are anchored by such richly detailed performers. The likes of Spall or Marianne-Baptiste are transfixing under any circumstances. Of course they're able to grab your attention here in Secrets & Lies with the most casual of conversations. Keeping these ingredients at the forefront of Secrets & Lies makes the whole affair so engrossing and that only becomes more true as the secrets begin to increase in size as the story goes on.

Many of the restrained conversations in Secrets & Lies are captured through equally measured camerawork. Leigh will often keep the camera rolling on a shot for a prolonged period of time as we watch two or more people bounce off one another in real-time. Without any edits to disrupt the flow or tone of these exchanges, scenes like Cynthia and Hortense meeting face-to-face for the first time can play out with their maximum emotional power. Best of all, one even forgets about Leigh capturing these scenes in a single take as they're happening. The dialogue and performances are so gripping that the unique visual attributes work in service of them rather than distract.

Especially impressive among these types of scenes is a late shot depicting all the principal and supporting characters sitting down for a barbeque. In a wider shot, we see everyone walking back and forth from the grill to the table, people handing food to other people, and all kinds of other normal behavior for this kind of outdoor event. It's all so naturalistic with equally authentic blocking that must have taken forever to arrange. The realism that fuels both the drama and the captivating nature of Secrets & Lies is especially apparent here. Leigh's commitment to unique visual and acting traits is incredible, particularly in how both elements convey such achingly human qualities you can't look away from. 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Nobody is (narrowly) more hit than miss

You know Bob Odenkirk from many different places. Any fan of 1990s comedies knows about his and David Cross's Mr. Show sketch comedy program.  He's also lent his distinctive comic sensibility to the original run of Conan O'Brien as an NBC late-night talk show as a writer. Then, of course, there's his work on Breaking Bad as Saul Goodman, which has brought him a whole new level of notoriety as a performer. Now, with Nobody, Odenkirk transitions into the position of action hero. The results aren't perfect but they're fun enough to remind us all that Odenkirk is a versatile performer very much worth keeping an eye on.

In Nobody, Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a suburban dad who works a 9-to-5 job at a local construction plan. His relationship with his wife, Becca (Conne Nielsen), is frayed, his teenage son doesn't respect him, and a break-in into his house has left him even more rattled. What he's kept a secret is that he's actually an ex-killer for the U.S. government. Mansell is actually a dude who can hold himself in a fight, no problem. A frustrated Mansell decides to prove this to a group of hooligans on a bus, which results in a lot of carnage. One of those hooligans is the brother of Russian gangster Yulian (Aleksei Serebryakov). Mansell has long been content to be a nobody in suburbia. But now his old skills will be required if he wants to survive the violence Yulian is sending to him and his family.

Considering its premise of a seemingly mellow dude with a violent past and that they even share a screenwriter (Derek Kolstad), it's easy to see Nobody as John Wick 2.0, particularly when they have a scene where the villain expresses frustration over having crossed a guy with a genuinely imposing history. John Wick didn't invent the secret bad-ass subgenre, so it's easy to see Nobody being capable of establishing its own identity. Unfortunately, the film can't quite escape the shadow of the movies it's cribbing from. The edges of this fictional universe are left just too vaguely defined for it to hop over the line into an action movie classic. 

It's also worth mentioning that Nobody's central character arc is kind of a mess. Setting this in a distinctly more realistic universe than, say, John Wick means that Mansell finding solace in violence hits different here than it would under stylized circumstances. Is this movie poking fun at dudes who think of steady suburban existence as a suffocating hell or is it genuinely trying to be a fantasy for those same dudes? It's a strange juggling act that Nobody can't quite nail, even if Bob Odenkirk lends the protagonist a consistently engaging quality in his screen presence. The good thing, though, is that it does hit a bullseye on one of its most important qualities: the action sequences. 

Though the film's one-shot gimmick wore off very quickly, irector Ilya Naishuller still showed off memorable action movie chops with his work on the 2016 film Hardcore Henry. Now armed with a more versatile style of camerawork, Naishuller really comes alive as an action filmmaker. He delivers an assortment of brutal showdowns that make fun use of the unique aspects of the environments they're set in. Who knew a bus had so many items you could use to fight off bad guys? All of it's captured in crisp editing that rarely undercuts the action beats while Naishuller's embracing of over-the-top moments ensures there's plenty of memorable fun moments of carnage here. 

This is especially true of the film's final half-hour, which is where Nobody really hits its stride. The underlying implications of Mansell's actions aren't automatically rectified, nor is some distracting instances of clunky dialogue. But I had a stupid grin on my face for this entire stretch of Nobody as Mansell takes out bankers, engages in a car chase before having an exhilarating showdown with an army of Russian mobsters in a factory. This is what we all came to see and Nobody delivers just the kind of cheer-worthy action beats you want. It's not the next John Wick, but by the time the third act is in full gear, Nobody packs a wickedly fun punch.