Thursday, July 29, 2021

Ailey has a tendency to trip on its own feet


Alvin Ailey was one of the great dancers and choreographers of the 20th-century. He took the artform of dance and used it to convey experiences specific to Black people that could resonate with audiences across the globe. Stories, pieces of culture, and lives that had previously been banished from this domain were given a chance to shine in the spotlight thanks to Ailey's work. The documentary Ailey, from director Jamila Wignot, explores the life of Alvin Ailey as well as his legacy in the form of dances performed by students at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This legend may be gone but his work continues to live on.

The inherently secretive nature of Alvin Ailey was always going to make this documentary a challenging prospect. As noted by several interview subjects, Ailey kept himself at a distance from many people. This included his late diagnosis his passing from an AIDS-related disease in 1989, which was kept hidden from the world. This is an extremely understandable decision given that, as one person in Ailey notes, the broad perception at the time was that AIDS was something "you deserved". Being a black queer man in the 20th century, Ailey had to keep his guard up, he had to put some barriers between himself and others.

It wouldn't be impossible to explore such a figure covered in mystique in a documentary, but Wignot's feature opts for a more traditional style of filmmaking that feels slightly ill-suited to its central subject. Providing a chronological look at Ailey's life complete with talking heads doing their best to interpret what was going on inside this genius's mind provides some interesting insight and story, such as how Ailey and his dance troop resonated powerfully in countries like Australia. But it also keeps the project feeling surface-level, there's only so much these individuals can tell us. The fact that we don't get to see a ton of videos of Ailey engaging in his craft (because who was filming dance performances in the 1950s?) creates further distance between the viewer and Ailey.

A more avant-garde approach to this project could've made the secretive nature of Ailey immaterial and allowed us other unique ways of gaining insight into this man. Instead, Ailey opts for a more familiar mold that does a disservice to the trailblazing figure it chronicles. A decision to frequently cut back to modern-day dancers at Ailey's dance theater also proves oddly superfluous to the project. There are certainly some interesting moves on display here and the commentary provided by instructors shows the level of thought that went into Ailey's works. However, these segments end up being too detached from the rest of the movie, the intent of rendering these as visual signifiers of Ailey's legacy doesn't come through as powerfully as it should.

While these are all major drawbacks to Ailey, there's still plenty of engaging material in here. Not surprisingly, much of this comes from archival interviews from Alvin Ailey himself provided in voice-over form. If they'd just had provided this audio over a blank screen for two hours, I honestly would've been riveted. Ailey was famous for his physicality but he's also a great storyteller. It's especially impressive how he can turn moments of abuse into humorous anecdotes, like him recalling how a High School gym coach rhetorically asking him "Are you a sissy son??" made Ailey want to shout "Yes I am!" The way he can transform pain into something personally reaffirming and even humorous, that speaks to the perseverance that guided Ailey's mold-shattering career.

Wignot's refusal to eschew the more complicated parts of who Alvin Ailey was is also a highlight of the production. Stories from former co-workers and friends don't hesitate to mention that Ailey could be difficult and even seem like a totally different person in some circumstances. It's a choice that consciously paints him as a multi-faceted human, there is a nuanced figure behind all the legendary choreography. On top of all that, moviegoers are also treated to a series of dance performances that are truly impressive. Even if the structure of Ailey feels ill-suited to its subject, the best sequences in here capture the bold creative spirit of Alvin Ailey.

In Laman's Terms: Predicting the Oscar chances of Netflix's 2021 award season slate

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!

Look, I get it, Oscar predictions stuff is usually nonsense, it's still July, we're a long way away from next year's Academy Awards. However, with the slates for the various fall film festivals firming up, as well as the news that Andrew Dominik's Blonde will not be debuting in 2021, I was curious to look up and see what movies Netflix was planning to debut for this year's award season. Unsurprisingly, just like in the last three years, the streamer has a ton of projects on the horizon as they continue to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks in pursuit of finally scoring a Best Picture winner.

Below, I've broken down the titles that appear to be Netflix's biggest pushes in the Oscars this year and broken down, from a distance, what could be the advantages and disadvantages for each title. This is not me making a judgement call on the quality or lack thereof for any individual title, it's merely me examining whether these individual films have qualities that could be attractive to the Academy Awards. 

Don't Look Up

This is the big one for Netflix's award season chances in 2021. It's a movie from director Adam McKay, whose last two movies (The Big Short and Vice) both scored not only Best Picture nods but Best Director nominations for McKay. Then you throw in the cast, headlined by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, plus supporting turns from the likes of Timothee Chalamet and Meryl Streep (to name just a few), and this looks like it'll be catnip for Oscar voters. True, the confluence of star power here does make one wonder if this will turn out to be something like Live By Night or J. Edgar, movies packed with Oscar-friendly talent that ended up having zero impact on the ceremony. Right now, though, it looks like Don't Look Up will be the top dog that Netflix pushes at award season.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines/Vivo/Other Animated Films

The Academy Awards really don't like to reward animated movies outside of the Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song categories. This means it'd be unwise to expect any of the numerous original animated features released by Netflix in 2021 to score nods outside of those two categories. However, the studio could see two Best Animated Feature nods between The Mitchells vs. The Machines and Vivo. The former also appears to be the current frontrunner in the category by a considerable margin, though NEON's Flee could make a run for the award as well. A win here in Best Animated Feature would actually be a significant feat, since it would make Netflix only the second non-Disney studio (following Sony/Columbia for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) to win in this category since 2011


My gut tells me Bruised is going to end up getting pushed more as a crowdpleaser sports drama rather than a big award season movie. The decent but not amazing word-of-mouth out of its Toronto International Film Festival seems like a good indicator of that but there's also the fact that director Halle Berry isn't the type of filmmaker Netlfix has excelled best at propping up for award season in the past. Netflix usually works best with directors like Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, or Martin Scorsese, people with a lengthy track record of scoring Oscar glory. So far, they've shown a gift for building on reputations, not creating new Best Picture nominees (save for Noah Baumbach finally breaking into the Oscars with Marriage Story). Perhaps Berry will be the first directorial newbie they push to the Academy Awards (the fact that the film wasn't technically finished at its premiere could be a sign it gets more buzz down the road) but right now I foresee a different destiny for this one.

Tick, Tick...Boom!

Lin Manuel-Miranda graduates to director of feature-length movies with Tick, Tick...Boom!, an adaptation of the musical of the same name. Musicals can be a popular attraction to the Academy Awards, but right now, it looks like West Side Story is gonna be the musical the Oscars will gravitate to most. It's also unclear at this juncture if Miranda's countless other movies that could factor into the Oscars (In the Heights, Vivo, Encanto, etc.) could provide a rising tide that lifts up Tick, Tick...Boom! or if they overwhelm this title. Keep an eye on this one for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it gets overwhelmed by other award season titles. 

Untitled Nora Fingscheidt movie

The first foray into feature-length English-language cinema from Nora Fingscheidt, the biggest reason to watch out for this in award season is because of its two stars: Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis. Between 2009 and 2013, three of Bullock's four star vehicles scored Best Picture nods. Davis, meanwhile, has gathered up four Oscar nods, two of them in just the last five years. If Davis has a sizeable role in a major drama that isn't called Widows, she's bound to get Oscar recognition. Who knows how the movie will fare in other categories, but don't be surprised if this one takes a cue from prior Netflix award season hopeful The Two Popes and scores two acting nods even if it misses a Best Picture nomination.


Picked up after a buzzy Sundance Film Festival premiere, Passing feels like a movie that would have a lot better award season chances at a traditional theatrical studio. An A24 or Fox Searchlight, with fewer films to look over come award season, could curate a specific theatrical release plan and an awards campaign that could grab the attention of Oscar voters who may be turned off by a movie that's more slowly-paced. But with Netlfix having so many movies to juggle, it's likely the more low-key Passing gets lost in the shuffle. It's the problem with having a streamer that prioritizes established talent over newer filmmakers like Passing helmer Rebecca Hall. An acting nod for either Tessa Thompson or Ruth Negga (especially the latter since she's already an Oscar-nominee) wouldn't be impossible to comprehend but thanks to the kind of titles Netflix is juggling this award season, it' s doubtful Passing gets much farther than that.

The Starling

There are a couple of warning signs lingering on the margins for The Starling. For starters, it's a script from the Black List, a collection of unproduced screenplay, and it feels like, more often than not, those screenplays didn't get produced for a reason. There's also the fact that this new Theodore Melfi film finished filming two years ago and was even acquired by Netflix nearly 18 months ago. The fact that it's taken so long to get out could be a warning sign or, to be fair, just a reflection of how much COVID-19 has upended the film industry. However, this is a new movie from the director of Hidden Figures, which received three Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) five years ago and star Melissa McCarthy has garnered two acting Oscar nods in the last decade. Those facts alone means it's best to keep an eye on this one when it comes to award season.

The Hand of God

The Hand of God is the newest movie from Paolo Sorrentino, who scored some Oscar love in the form of a Best Foreign Language win for The Great Beauty. That track record alone makes The Hand of God a likely candidate to be Netflix's big play for some kind of Best Foreign Language win. Italy's track record regularly getting nominations in this category makes it extra probable we'll be seeing this one as a fixture throughout this year's award season. Whether or not The Hand of God can expand into other categories will be dependent on its reviews on the fall festival circuit. 

The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion is back, alright! The first woman to receive a Best Director nomination for an English-language film has returned and she seems poised to become the next long-established filmmaker (in the vein of Fincher or Scorsese) that Netflix could propel to a slew of Oscar nominations. We'll have to see wait and see how the response for this film is on the festival circuit before getting more specific on how this one will fare at the Oscars, but the potential is certainly there. I'll even be so bold as to say that it's likely this film could score Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst both their first acting Oscar nods. The two have been on the peripheral of the Oscars for a while now, regularly showing up in projects favored by the Academy. This could be the perfect chance to give them each a nomination...if the film gets good marks,

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Old is always entertaining, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally


Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca Cappa (Vicky Krieps) are so excited about this tropical vacation. As Old begins, the two set off with their kids, Trent and Maddox, to a resort that Prisca stumbled onto totally by chance. While there, the head of this peaceful domicile encourages the family to travel to a secluded beach like no other. Up for an adventure, this family packs up and heads to this location. While there, things initially seem to be just fine until a dead body washes ashore. After this revelation, it turns out that this isn't just a run-of-the-mill beach. This is that beach that turns you old from the movie Old! Trapped, the Cappa family and an assortment of other characters are now figuring out how to escape while dealing with the horrors of aging.

I've seen a lot of people describe Old as the best and worst of M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker and I'm inclined to agree with them. On the worst side of the equation, Shymalan's proclivity towards dialogue that's about as subtle as four sledgehammers hitting your head at once is here in spades. It's especially apparent in the first act as Shyamalan blazes through introducing our central characters. Folks like Jarin (Ken Leung) will just spout awkward expository phrases that no human being would ever utter, all with extra odd line deliveries as a cherry on top. An argument between Guy and Prisca is another great example of this flaw, as the duo practically turn to the camera and spout their problems with the other person.

Trent, meanwhile, is one of those precocious movie kids who talk like a grown-up as he prattles on about "mortgages" and other entities no five-year-old would have any interest in. It's a groan-worthy stereotype used here only to blatantly set up Chekhov's Guns that Shyamalan can pay off later. All of this ham-fisted dialogue would be a problem in any context but it's especially peculiar in sequences attempting to establish a sense of everyday normalcy the rest of the movie can undercut. That having been said, much of this bad dialogue is totally hilarious and echoes the kind of lines you'd find in an Ed Wood movie. So clumsily-written and spelling out everything for the viewer, yet delivered without a trace of irony.

This makes the clumsy dialogue unintentionally humorous and it frequently remains that way for the rest of the runtime. To Shyamalan's credit, though, this style of writing actually fits better once the characters in Old realize what kind of beach they're on. There's still plenty of overly obvious lines to go around but the abject nature of some of these exchanges actually feels appropriate for the unnerving scenario the Cappa family and everyone else has found themselves trapped in. It's an unorthodox style of speaking for an unorthodox situation. It doesn't always click like that but the instances where it does, like a suddenly twenty-something girl wistfully mourning how she'll never see her prom or graduation, are surprisingly effective.

Plus, once all the aging shenanigans get into motion, the focus on Old goes from tin-eared expository dialogue to M. Night Shyamalan gleefully exploring the macabre extreme outcomes of hypothetical scenarios involving sudden aging. Say whatever you want about Shyamalan's worst works, but he's still got the goods in terms of executing scenarios full of eerie uncertainty. He gets plenty of chances to utilize that skill thanks to several scenes hinging on how these characters have a tragic sense of ignorance over everything that's happening around them. A sudden pregnancy and especially a cave-set encounter with a woman with a Calcium deficiency had me glued to the screen thanks to how well Old conveys its characters being so in over their head.

Such scenes also get a lot of mileage out of Shyamalan's creative gusto and how effectively the filmmaker captures these critical sequences. Speaking of which, the directorial skills of Shyamalan are actually sharper than ever here. Armed with 35mm film (yay for him returning to shooting on film!) and only one location to use for the majority of the story, there's always such careful consideration in terms of camera placement. This visual precision does a great job of both subtly getting us into the mindset of these characters and reaffirming that Shyamalan is just as strong of a visualist as ever.

The third act of Old epitomizes the film's strengths and weaknesses. Here, Shyamalan is able to jump from what's basically a monster encounter to surprisingly effective pathos in an intimate scene between the members of the main family. It's a tonal jump that works surprisingly well without undercut either element. This is all followed up by a series of epilogues that refuse to end Old on an ambiguous note and instead spell out everything in the story to a comical degree. Shyamalan's writing just can't resist hand-holding the viewer, a fatal shortcoming. However, the weakest parts of Shyamalan's filmography are also accompanied in Old by some very creative set pieces that demonstrate his gifts for suspenseful filmmaking. It's a mixed bag of a movie for sure, but Old always kept my attention and intrigued me. For that, I tip my hat to this production. Plus, any movie that features a character named Mid-Sized Sedan has got to be worth something.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

An attempt to rejigger the G.I. Joe series comes up disappointingly short with Snake Eyes

Almost a decade after the last G.I. Joe movie, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is here to try and reboot the franchise in a new direction. The result is a feature that'll inspire you to go "that was ok" for its first two-thirds before inspiring chuckles at its incompetence in its third act. Throughout the entire runtime, though, Snake Eyes is at least consistent in making one wonder why a movie based on Hasbro action figures is so dour and lifeless. Where's the fun? Where's the excitement? All of those qualities have been largely cast aside in favor of a movie that hails to all the usual hallmarks of one of these superfluous origin stories. It's the backstory nobody wanted or cared about unless you're a Paramount Pictures executive.

Snakes Eyes follows its titular lead character (played by Henry Golding) as a kid watching his father getting murdered before we skip forward to him working as a fighter in cage matches. Then, it's a hop-and-a-skip to him being hired by Kenta (Takehiro Hira) to work him in his criminal enterprise. This is the first real narrative hiccup in the screenplay by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse, which takes way too long to get going. One prologue is fine but there's way too much backstory to get through before we get to the most important part of the story, the friendship between Snake Eyes and Tommy (Andrew Koji).

After Snake Eyes saves his life, Tommy takes this orphaned vengeful fight back home to Clan Arashikage in Japan. To gain a permanent home in Clan Arashikage, Snake Eyes must complete a trio of challenges to prove his worthiness as a warrior. This training will include Snake Eyes having to do tasks under the direction of an instructor played by an underutilized Iko Uwais and navigating the dubiousness of Akiko (Haruka Abe). Oh, and COBRA forces, led by The Baroness (Úrsula Corberó) are also around on the margins and wants some valuable crystal guarded by Clan Arashikage,

The greatest strength of Snake Eyes is its cast, which proves quite effective in injecting humanity to a movie that often lacks that ingredient. Henry Golding's protagonist is too brooding for his own good but Golding's charisma couldn't be muzzled if he tried. Meanwhile, I dug the hell out of Takehiro Hira and the way he portrays Kenta with this constant grin on his face as if he's always relishing the chance to cause mayhem. The real standout is Andrew Koji, though, who is incredibly compelling and lends real gravitas to the character's commitment to both his clan and Snake Eyes. Put this guy in more movies immediately, he's totally got movie star potential. 

Initially, Snake Eyes is content to just go through the motions of a traditional training story, which isn't all that creative but it's passable. At least the actors are solid and the movie largely makes use of practically realized sets that make the nooks and crannies controlled by Clan Arashikage feel convincing as actual environments. Even here, though, director Robert Schwentke lets down the better parts of the movie. The action sequences get treated the worst by this flaw, they're all filmed and edited without much clarity. There's also a stunning lack of utilizing all the tools at the movie's disposal. Chiefly, how come Iko Uwais doesn't get a big fight scene all to himself? 

Schwentke's problems as a visualist sink Snake Eyes' chances of working as an action movie, the one area where this film should've delivered above all others. This shortcomings also trips up even the most basic visual gags. A joke involving Uwais' character and Blind Master (Peter Mensah) and whether or not they're "staring" at Snake Eyes gets totally bungled by Schwentke's inability to properly convey space between two beings in the same environment. 

Things take a turn for the worse by the time the third act arrives and it's time for Snake Eyes to choose between vengeance and helping others. It's here that I realized, during a rendezvous between Snake Eyes and Kenta, how much of this movie takes place at largely empty docks or interiors devoid of much decoration. Often, Snake Eyes just feels cheap and Schwentke does not have enough visual flair as a filmmaker to make lemonade out of budgetary lemons. Schwentke's direction really gets amateurish once the scale of the action heats up in the finale, at which points he makes more extensive use of distractingly obvious ADR work than he does actually compelling action beats.

Admittedly, even this section of the film has its fun moments, like the lead of Clan Arashikage (Eri Ishida) getting to beat up some henchman and a final showdown between Snake Eyes and Kenta is at least thematically competent. More often than not, though, Snake Eyes resorts to just smashing together random elements for its climactic fireworks show, with none of it being either fun or dramatically engaging enough to compensate for the messiness. An eye-roll-worthy ending caps the proceedings off with a promise that next time the producers of Snake Eyes will deliver the movie you'd actually want to watch. If there is a next time (and the box office results for Snake Eyes make that a near impossibility), le'ts hope they remember the fun next time and to actually let Iko Uwais fight htings. 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Micro-Reviews of Recent Watches Strikes Again!

I simply don't have the time anymore to deliver regular 1000-ish word reviews for every movie I see like I did as late as a year ago. But a few weeks back I did a piece where I delivered bite-size versions of my usual movie reviews for some titles I recently watched. That was fun to do and since I have some free time on this Sunday morning, I thought I'd give that another go for some films I watched for the first time in the last two weeks. Starting this edition off is one of 2021's very best movies yet, comedy or otherwise.

Shiva Baby

If anyone ever asks me "What's it like to go to a big social gathering when you're on the autism spectrum?", I'll point them in the direction of Shiva Baby, that'll vividly answer that question. Writer/director Emma Seligman's filmmaking, which emphasizes droning noises in mundane conversation and close-ups that instantly instill claustrophobia, perfectly captures what it's like to be overwhelmed in overstimulating social scenarios. Even beyond me relating deeply to Shiva Baby, this is still a great comedy that packs a lot of personality, humor, and depth into just 78 minutes of screentime. Seligman isn't afraid to embrace the messy and that makes the characters in Shiva Baby feels so richly alive. The whole cast is great but props to the always reliable Fred Melamed for delivering yet another memorable supporting turn as the protaganists father. 

Auto Focus

Writer/director Paul Schrader has a fixation on sex, which is nothing new for an American filmmaker. But what I'm intrigued by in regards to Schrader is his fascination not just with sex, but how taboo quality of sex simultaneously is soul-crushing but also part of its fun. Bob Crane, the real-life figure chronicled in Auto Focus, doesn't feel shame about his sexual exploits but there's also the sense that doing it in secret, that's what's part of the excitement, the titillation for him. It's why he kept those old nudie magazines around in his garage for so long, the thrill of possibly getting caught is as much a part of the experience as anything else. 

In his best works, there's a thoughtful quality to how Schrader explores sexual desires and that's certainly the case with Auto Focus. It's a compelling work that gets a lot of mileage out of how Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast as Crane. Kinnear has always done good work in blending a whole exterior with a smarmy interior and he puts that to great use in portraying Crane. Willem Dafoe also delivers exceptional work as a guy who wants to be seen as the fellow with all the answers but really just wants somebody to be his friend. The underlying tragedy of the proceedings gets more and more apparent until Schrader ends Auto Focus the only way it can conclude: bleakly. 

The Game

I love to watch bad things happen to rich people so David Fincher's The Game was basically like porn for me. In all seriousness, this is an extremely enjoyable production that does what any good thriller should: keep you guessing. I genuinely had no idea just what could be going on, who Michael Douglas's protagonist could trust, how much money he did or didn't have. Fincher keeps us guessing constantly and the creatively over-the-top scenarios The Game keeps placing its lead character in (I love just the look of his mansion all spray-painted) kept me riveted. Just a great thriller and another sign of how Fincher is one of those sublime dramatic filmmakers who also knows just how to make crowdpleaser genre fare.


Before Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen, there was Manhunter. The first feature-length adaptation of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter character, this one draws from the novel Red Dragon. It's fascinating to watch this in 2021 and see how this clearly came before Lector turned into a household name. Brian Cox's take on the cannibal really isn't a huge part of the story, he's just another part of the cast. The real star here is Brian de Palma's bold visual choices, which show such thought and care. One could pore over the color choices here alone and never get bored. The fact that there's actually a compelling mystery at the heart of Manhunter too ensures that this movie is so much more than just a precursor to later pop culture adaptations of the Lecter character.

Waltz with Bashir

Director Ali Folman uses the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir to come to terms with his past. Folman has gaps in his memory regarding his time as a 19-year-old soldier for the IDF in the Lebanon War. He then proceeds to interview friends and other people who fought in the conflict, all of who begin to chisel away at Folman's personal recollections of these events. Waltz with Bashir masterfully uses the art form of animation to take Forman and viewers closer to the truth, with this accomplishment rendering a closing cut from hand-drawn visuals to real-life footage all the more powerful. It's hard to even know what to say about a film this impeccably made and harrowing beyond the fact that it's fascinating on a psychological level to watch people like Folman come to terms with a past they'd tucked away so deep in their brains. 

Black Dynamite

Weird to think how Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg basically destroyed the spoof movie and then slated the ground of this genre between 2006 and 2010, I mean, they just annihilated the concept of this subgenre being taken seriously. In the same time period, though, Walk Hard and Black Dynamite reinforced the validity of the spoof movie and even suggested how it could be infused with vibrant new life. What a shame Seltzer and Friedberg works like Disaster Movie had to ruin all the fun. At least we'll always have Black Dynamite, an absolutely hysterical pastiche of Blaxploitation films. There are too many good gags in here to count, but Michael Jai White's dialogue deliveries are especially superb. He handles the most absurd dialogue with self-seriousness (like any of his lines about orphans) that just can't help but tickle your funny bone. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Stillwater has ambition to spare but doesn't quite realize its potential

It's always nice to see ambition in a movie but it's also nice to see that ambition executed well. Tom McCarthy's Stillwater is a good example of what happens when a movie has admirable goals to reach but still exceeds its grasp. It's proficient enough on a technical level but its storytelling structure tries to do too much in one movie. Worse is that the ambition is in service of emulating other superior films, so Stillwater can never quite ascend to the level of being a messy but endearingly bravura work of art. This is a movie where the artists are clearly willing, but the screenwriting is weak.

The title of Stillwater refers to the Oklahoma city Bill Baker (Matt Damon) calls home. He'll have to leave that domicile to travel to Marseilles, where his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), has been imprisoned for five years for the murder of her girlfriend. Allison continues to maintain that she's innocent, which leads to Bill going on his own quest to pursue the actual murderer. Because he doesn't speak French, Bill requires the help of Virginie (Camille Cottin), a single mother and an actress. In the name of helping his daughter, Bill begins to cause trouble that threatens to only exacerbate Allison's plight rather than save it.

Stillwater is basically a trio of films shoved into one. For its first act, Stillwater operates as basically what would happen if Taken existed in real life. Instead of being a bad-ass and blowing up buildings, Bill Baker just keeps digging his hole deeper. He's even willing to work with a racist shop owner to find another culprit to take the fall for the crimes his daughter's been accused of. Once Virginie accuses of him sounding "very American right now" after this development, it's not meant as a compliment. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (who penned the screenplay alongside Steve Golin, Jonathan King, and Liza Chasin) clearly want the audience to recognize Bill as a reflection of Americans seeing foreign countries and people as just objects to be shuffled around for their own needs.

The second act delves into a mold that's much more like a traditional McCarthy movie, a low-key exploration of drastically different people just getting along and living life. These sequences entail Bill dropping his vigilante routine in favor of connecting with Virginie and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). There are some touching laidback moments here, but this is where Stillwater starts to fall apart. Characters like Bill meant to represent toxic ideals are not the kind of people you just wanna hang out and spend casual time with. Bill Baker works fine as an indictment as a subversion of Taken-esque protaganists, but not as the centerpiece of storytelling fixated on tranquil domestic life.

Past McCarthy movies like The Visitor or Win Win kept one's interest during the most low-key moments because the characters were engaging. There's just no one here in Stillwater that's interesting enough to make the hangout vibe of its middle section work. It also doesn't help that this is the part of the feature where some really heavy-handed dialogue gets dropped that makes it readily apparent where this story is going. Your crime drama lacks a lot of suspense when you can see the ending coming a mile away. 

Dialogue is actually a big problem for this script, which constantly resorts to beating viewers over the head with what individual figures are contemplating or feeling. The story fares a bit better in imbuing specific details into the everyday life of Bill Baker, including the subtle note that he's always resorting to eating American fast food in Marseilles. Subway and Quick Trip are his comforting reminders of home in a land unfamiliar. Matt Damon nicely handles those flashes of distinctiveness even if his performance as a whole is too rigid and subdued to be extremely memorable as a whole.

I was especially yearning for more textures from Damon's performance in the third act, which sees Stillwater shifting gears yet again into a Prisoners knock-off. There's just not much difference between Damon's performance in these sequences and how he enters the movie. You could wring some fascinating and terrifying implications through that lack of evolution but Stillwater never quite goes that dark or insightful. It's got some interesting details and thoughts to offer on the topic of how Americans treat foreign countries, but its surface-level execution (especially in the dialogue) means it regularly trips over itself. Maybe if it trimmed down the runtime and tried to focus on one tone, Stillwater could've better realized its ambitious nature.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Pig goes ham on being a meditation on coping with grief

Grief doesn't hit you all at once. It's like a ripple constantly reverberating outwards. This is especially true when it comes to grief revolving around the loss of loved ones. When I lost my grandmother at the end of 2016, my sadness over her passing came on in waves that continue to this day. Same for losing my Uncle Doug or my Uncle Tommy. Processing the loss of human beings that have always been in your life, that's something you always struggle with. It's hard to convey the weight of that struggle, but boy does Pig capture those emotions beautifully. The path of coping with missing people near and dear to your heart takes you down many unexpected paths, including a hunt for a truffle pig. 

Robin "Rob" Feld (Nicolas Cage) lives alone in the wilderness of Oregon. Well, not technically alone, he has a truffle pig to keep him company. A former chef still reeling from the death of his wife, he lives out his days with this critter scouting out truffles and then selling them to Amir (Alex Wolff). One random night, Rob gets attacked and his pig gets kidnapped. Having lost the one being he still loved, Rob plans to get this pig back. Recruiting the help of Amir, Rob is now returning to the world of Portland, Oregon a ghost of his former self. He may not be the man he once was but Rob is determined to get his pig back. No matter what.

The soft-spoken nature of Pig is one of its best assets. Writer/director Michael Sarnoski (making an incredible leap into feature-length filmmaking) doesn't crowd the screen with chaos and noise, allowing for the tiniest details of this film to leave an impact. Making time for a subdued scene where Rob returns to his home, for example, is such a wise move. Another writer might have tossed this sequence out for being "superfluous". But Sarnoski recognizes the value in having the viewer watch Rob walk through shadows of his past. He doesn't handhold the audience with intrusive flashbacks, but rather conveys the importance of the past through Rob's face and the melancholy atmosphere of the frame.

It's impressive how much bittersweet emotion gets wrung out of such restrained means and that feat is reflected throughout the rest of the movie. The beautifully slow-paced quality of this production works allows it to function so well as a meditation on how anguish over the past can creep into every part of our daily lives. Nowhere is this concept better embodied in Pig than in the lead performance from Nicolas Cage.

An actor too often relegated to a punchline, Cage’s work in Pig reminds us all why he’s still such a commanding actor. This guy can do maximalist acting so very well (like his bathroom breakdown in Mandy) but he's also capable of delivering remarkable turns that are much quieter, as Pig reinforces. Predominately working in a restrained mode, Cage conveys years of weariness just through his posture and his sparse dialogue makes every word he delivers something you can’t turn away from. There’s a captivating rawness here that Cage makes tangible without undercutting Pig’s understated aesthetic. It’s a remarkable feat that ensures Cage’s work in Pig stands out as one of his very best lead performances. 

I also love how the script is constantly peeling back new layers of not just Rod but co-lead Amir. This guy starts as just an amusing wealthy detached chatterbox in sharp contrast to Rod’s demeanor, but he gradually picks up more and more nuance as the story goes along. Each new piece of his personality is doled out in organic doses, we don’t just get a sudden barrage of backstory on Amir. By refusing to hold the audience's hand or play things so overtly with this character, Pig crafts a fantastic representation of its empathetic spirit. Amir starts out this movie a caricature, he ends it as richly detailed as Rod himself. 

Amir isn’t the only supporting figure here to garner extra dimensions. Each little side character throughout Pig carries the air having their own little world to inhabit. The supporting character Dennis is an especially great example of this. In the span of a single scene, Dennis (who waltzes into the movie carrying big Andy Daly energy) gets to go from being a chef with an artificial smile to a tragic figure emblematic of how the demands of capitalism stamp out individuality. The cutting dialogue from Rod is so well-written (“these people don’t even see you”) and it’s transfixing to watch the actual desires of Dennis peeking through the cheerful unquestioning persona he’s concocted. This sequence also embodies how Pig proves so effective because it’s essentially a movie about how important it is to see other people as, well, people. 

Channeling the works of Jim Jarmusch, intimate conversations are the key to Rod making progress in his journey. This guy may be a hermit, but he and the movie he headlines are also cognizant of how just a bit of empathy goes a long way. Not only does this fit in with Pig’s aesthetic, but it also lends a sense of distinctiveness to this movie about rescuing a beloved pet. Such empathy appears in subdued but poignant forms, especially in an unforgettable reunion scene between Rod and a baker. This quality even extends to the original score by Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein, which emphasizes sparse string-based instruments to convey a contemplative nature. There’s a beating heart in Pig that recognizes how we can never fully avoid the pain of losing people we love. But one way to navigate that turmoil of the past is to connect with people (or swine) in the here and now. When it comes to exploring such a concept in restrained but captivating terms, Pig truly brings home the bacon.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

If you wanna slam, look elsewhere than the boring Space Jam: A New Legacy


My youngest brother heads off to college in Oklahoma in just a few weeks. It's a development I truly can't wrap my brain around. Right at the same time as I begin my final year of Graduate School, my sibling will be starting a great journey into independent adulthood. His impending departure makes any opportunity to spend time with him an essential one. Whether it's just talking about goofy stuff or doing a puzzle together, it's imperative to cherish every chance to spend time with him before he starts the next stop in the road of life. 

What did he want to do last night? Why, watch Space Jam: A New Legacy. Oh boy. 

Space Jam: A New Legacy concerns LeBron James (playing himself) struggling to connect with his son Dominic (Cedric Joe), who just wants to be a video game developer while his dad wants him to be the next great basketball legend. New conflict in their relationship emerges during a tour of Warner Bros. studios, which sees James and his offspring sucked into the Serververse, a digital domain home to all Warner Bros. movies. Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) rules this land and challenges James to a basketball game that will determine whether or not he gets his son back. To compete in the game, this famous athlete must recruit the most iconic Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

How ironic that an algorithm would serve as the villain of Space Jam: A New Legacy when it feels like a movie assembled by a lifeless computer program. This is made disappointingly apparent early on in overlong sequences charting the domestic strife in the James household. Captured in overlit glossy exteriors, depictions of everyday existence for James and his kids look like they belong to a Nickelodeon sitcom, complete with a tired "dabbing" gag. Why Space Jam: A New Legacy is spending so much time on these details is beyond me. That 115 runtime is already way too long, couldn't we streamline these tedious scenes that kids and adults alike will be wishing could go by faster?

Then again, maybe moviegoers wouldn't be in such a hurry if they knew what awaits them once everyone goes to the Serververse. LeBron James and his kid are soon transported to a completely digital domain where live-action humans never quite look at home in the green-screen environments they inhabit. This is where Don Cheadle's Al-G Rhythm lives. This also means that the Serververse is home to the one notable live-action performance in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Don Cheadle is never given enough substantive comedy to really knock your socks off but he's at least energetic and trying his darndest. Give the man an A for effort in portraying the quintessential kid's movie villain, someone who makes your average Air Bud villain look subdued. 

From here, Space Jam: A New Legacy trots out a barrage of references to nostalgic properties ranging from iconic Looney Tunes moments to various Warner Bros. movies and TV shows. It's all so hollow, one never gets a sense of love for the classic pop culture being drudged up. It's just checking off everything from The Mask to The Devils off a list. Who is supposed to enjoy this? The gags (like Granny name-dropping Twitter) aren't anywhere near funny enough for adults and they won't work on a secondary level for kids. Classic Looney Tunes cartoons always referenced then-recent movie stars, sure, but a gag like a Peter Lorre fish had the additional comic beat of a fish suddenly pulling out a gu and shooting himself. That was a joke anyone could get, ditto the humorous design of Lorre's face plopped onto a fish. The gag didn't start and stop with just splicing in footage of Lorre from The Maltese Falcon!

Space Jam: A New Legacy keeps plopping down these kinds of references as well as really tired gags (like a Porky Pig rap number) throughout its runtime. They all feel so mechanical, lacking either the unpredictable anarchy that defined the greatest works from Termite Terrace or their own unique comic spirit. A sudden detour in the final 30 minutes to try and provoke the audience's emotions through the relationship between LeBron and his son evokes more comedy than any of the intentionally humorous elements. The script (credited to six writers!) totally forgot about this plot detail for basically an hour and now they want to bring it back to generate a PIXAR-esque tearjerker climax? That and an attempt to act like a famous cartoon character is dead (no points for guessing who) will only inspire eyerolls.

I also kind of outright hate the CG animation here? The Looney Tunes don't look great in their hand-drawn animated form (they look a little too rigid and cheaply-produced despite this thing over $150 million) but they look way worse when they get "upgraded" to CG. Mixing their flexible designs with realistic textures does absolutely nothing to their comedy or characters. If anything, they look off, as if these figures from the 1930s were never meant to be rendered as three-dimensional organisms. The villainous basketball players also suffer from overly realistic textures and all the visuals related to Al-G Rhythm looks derivative of other movies, including his Minion-esque sidekick Paul.

Are there elements worth complimenting? Well, props to director Malcolm D. Lee for having the guts to take on such a massive production in an unorthodox way, he apparently joined this project a month into principal photography. His 2017 comedy Girls Trip is one of the stronger American studio comedies of the last few years, hopefully, he can use this Space Jam clout to get more original comedies like that made. I liked when Bugs and LeBron went to recruit Lola Bunny on the island of Themysciria and it was visualized like a comic book, that's the one genuinely inventive animation detail here. It's cool to see a big-budget family movie where all the live-action humans are played by Black actors, we don't see that nearly enough. This movie also cemented that I'll always smile when I see Marvin the Martian! I just like the way he walks! 

Otherwise, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a film so uninspired that, when combined with its extremely overlong runtime, it's hard to even get mad at it. You just stare at it as it winds down its runtime, the ultimate reaction you want to inspire from your audience when it comes to uber-expensive crowdpleaser blockbusters. Go check out the vastly superior classic Looney Tunes cartoons instead or even the delightfully madcap Joe Dante film Looney Tunes: Back in Action. It was nice to spend time with my brother before he heads off to college but I just wish we got to spend that time watching something even marginally better than Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Roadrunner: The Anthony Bourdain Story is a solid documentary that gets tripped up by its own controversial elements


At the top of Roadrunner: The Anthony Bourdain Story, the film's interview subjects begin grappling with a question that's at the forefront of everyone's viewer's mind; how do you make this movie? The sudden loss of Anthony Bourdain, who committed suicide in June 2018, makes it difficult to imagine how you can make a project covering his life that doesn't feel sensationalized. But as director Morgan Neville mentions off-camera, Roadrunner will try to surmount this challenge by simply trying to probe who Bourdain was and what informed his passion for exploring various world cultures.

With that, we're off on a chronological look at Bourdain's career, starting when his book, Kitchen Confidential, rocketed him to a whole new level of notoriety. Right away, the guy's media persona was cemented. Bourdain didn't sugarcoat anything, he had candor to spare. But he also had a clear passion for the world of cooking and that level of passion led to him getting an offer to host his own travel show. As he explored the culinary delights of foreign countries, both Bourdain's show and personality began to evolve. Soon, Bourdain's program wasn't even about the food, it was about watching a man engage with a larger world beyond his front door.

The depiction of the evolution of Bourdain's television exploits is one of the most fascinating parts of Roadrunner. Initially, Bourdain's show, which hinged on stunts like this chef eating a cobra heart. Here, Bourdain's show evokes early 2000s entities like Fear Factor, which were all about gross-out stunts and little else. But Roadrunner shows how experiences in countries like Beirut molded Bourdain into a whole new person who began to use his significant media presence for greater purposes. One of the producers Bourdain worked with notes that his show got better once he went from being a travel guide to being simply an everyday guy open in his inexperience. Roadrunner charts that evolution quite intriguingly. 

There's a bittersweet quality to the depiction of these gradual changes, a reminder that we never truly know where we're going to end up. Part of that evolution also includes Bourdain eventually becoming a father, another unexpected twist tying into how Roadrunner makes time to explore who this man was when the cameras were turned off. A small conversation where Bourdain notes that being "a TV dad," doing simple things like grilling or playing with his daughter, are his happiest moments, that really hits home emotionally. It's a seemingly throwaway comment, but it's also one that lends insight into the price of fame. 

Helping to further unpeel the layers are interviews with the people who were closest to Bourdain. The best of these scenes belong to conversations with David Choe, whose frankness helps get to the heart of another constant part of Bourdain's life, his addiction. Through listening to Choe, one garners a greater understanding for possibly why Bourdain threw himself so fully into so many different passions, whether that be a television host or even just practicing jiu jitsu. It's also interesting how the interview subjects all seem to have a different relationship with Bourdain. Some are work colleagues, others are just friends, still others bonded with him over shared experiences with addiction. There's a quiet versatility here that helps to reflect the complexities of Bourdain as a human.

Overall, Roadrunner: The Anthony Bourdain Story is a solidly constructed documentary (though certainly not as good as Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor), but a review written now cannot ignore the elephant in the room. Director Morgan Neville used an artificial intelligence machine to provide voicework as Bourdain for sequences in Roadrunner. It's a deeply uncomfortable scenario all around, especially since key figures in his life apparently did not consent to this. Even just limiting the perspective to how it's utilized in the film, going this route was a poor move. The A.I. Bourdain voiceover is obvious even if you're unaware of the controversy and it distracts from what should be an intimate scene of Choe reflecting on an important email from Bourdain. Meanwhile, Neville's refusal to interview Bourdain's girlfriend Asia Argento exacerbates problematic sequences from Roadrunner that, in the most charitable reading, uncomfortably suggest relationship problems with Argento could have influenced Bourdain's demise. 

Sometimes it's easy to separate the art from the artist, but here, it's much more difficult to do that. Roadrunner is still a moving ode to a man who lived a life of empathy and complexities. If only the movie's own nuances didn't emerge from qualities like that A.I. voiceover.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Five Biggest Takeaways from Black Widow's Box Office

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!

This past weekend, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in two years opened in theaters around the world. Black Widow finally hit the big screen and the film managed to generate solid box office results. But as with everything happening in the world of COVID-19, this debut now begs the question of what its larger significance is for the world of theatrical exhibition as a whole? Well, there are plenty of significant things one can examine from this opening, including how it reflects the world of domestic cinema as well as what Disney's investment in the future of theatrical-exclusive releases could be.

Theatrical cinema still packs a wallop

Watching opening weekend grosses constantly go up over the last seven weeks has been quite impressive. Before May 2021, no domestic title released after the pandemic began opened to over $35 million. Then, A Quiet Place: Part II debuted to $48 million, F9 zoomed to $70 million, and now Black Widow has opened to $80.4 million. Those last two numbers are particularly impressive since they're on par with pre-pandemic opening weekend numbers for summer blockbusters. The significant increases across these bows, along with the fact that all combined titles grossed over $100 million this past weekend, demonstrate that theatrical cinema is still valuable and packs a mighty financial wallop.

Even better, it looks like this ongoing recovery won't be just limited to the last seven weeks. The near future slate of releases is full of further blockbusters from a variety of genres that could totally attract moviegoers. The big screen has always had a significant presence in the entertainment landscape and the strong opening weekend numbers from titles like Black Widow showcase that this is just as true as ever. 

We're still in recovery mode and that's ok

Black Widow's opening was behind the debuts of all other Marvel Cinematic Universe features since July 2015 save for Ant-Man and the Wasp. That would normally be a DEFCON-5 level problem, but under the circumstances, it doesn't look like there's anything to worry about. None of those other MCU titles from the last six years had to deal with a simultaneous premium-video-on-demand release or the lingering effects of COVID-19 or the majority of movie theaters being closed in Canada. With all these factors at play, it's apparent that Black Widow's debut is totally fine. 

It's also an indicator that the domestic box office is in an ongoing recovery mode. Luckily, this is still allowing films like F9 and Black Widow to open to over $70 million, but it does mean we'll have to wait two or three months for domestic titles to crack $100 million. Once more films engage in theatrical-only releases, like A Quiet Place: Part II and F9, and audiences become re-engaged with the idea of new theatrical titles debuting on a weekly basis, something resemble normalcy at the domestic box office will re-emerge. Until then, we're in recovery mode basically until the end of August (Candyman will kick off the norm then of major tentpoles largely getting theatrical-exclusive titles).

Reliable franchises are emerging unscathed...but what about the smaller films?

Fast & Furious and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are emerging from this pandemic largely on par with their pre-pandemic box office performances. That's cool to see given how much of a boost both of their most recent entries have given to the worldwide box office. However, everyone largely assumed beloved big-screen franchises would emerge from the pandemic largely unchanged. After all, those are the kind of films Hollywood and general moviegoers alike have been shifting more and more of their focus to in recent years. That's a welcome but certainly expected turn of events.

Where the uncertainty comes in is in how smaller titles will fare on the big screen. So far, no major indie titles released in the last three months have managed to take off. However, that's partially because these films have gone way too wide right away and have also covered more niche material (like the band Sparks) rather than more mainstream storytelling material that's been the backdrop of the biggest pre-pandemic indie hits. Plus, certain movies have left an impact financially without a Marvel Studios logo, such as the solid numbers drummed up by the documentary Summer of Soul or the enduring appeal of The Truffle Hunters, which will soon crack $500,000 domestically despite never playing in more than 105 locations.

PVOD makes films extra frontloaded

The individual Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have been remarkably consistent in terms of how well they play from day to day, with the most frontloaded non-Avengers title (in terms of how much Thursday night box office plays into overall weekend grosses) previously being Ant-Man and the Wasp. That title has now gone to Black Widow, which made nearly half of its opening weekend from just its opening day. Given that metrics from moviegoers don't indicate any drastically different word-of-mouth than your typical entry in the franchise, what gives?

Partially, this is likely due to many general moviegoers still being hesitant to venture out into a movie theater, leaving die-hard MCU fans and those comfortable with that environment as the primary audience for Black Widow. That's a sizeable demographic, clearly, but it also explains why Black Widow opened to $80 million instead of the $90-92 million debut its opening day would've suggested had it played like a normal MCU movie. An even greater culprit, though, is probably that premium video-on-demand debut on Disney+. People who wanted to see Black Widow in theaters saw it right away while a chunk of general moviegoers who would've seen it on Saturday and Sunday watched it at home.

The good news is that Black Widow still scored a sizeable, even by pre-pandemic standards debut, so this is basically splitting hairs. Unless you cost over $300 million like Justice League, a $70+ million bow under any circumstances is great. But if Hollywood wants to go even higher in the next few months, it'll have to commit to theatrical exclusivity. As a sidenote, this would also explain why only one Warner Bros. 2021 release has cracked $30 million on opening weekend. Poor In the Heights got boondoggled in its theatrical run by its distributor refusing to commit to a big-screen experience.

20th Century Fox may prevent Premier Access from catching on

Let's not beat around the bush: Disney announced, for the first time ever, exact revenue from one of their Disney+ Premier Access titles. Black Widow made $60 million for Disney through PVOD sales on Disney+. With the norm established of Disney blockbusters getting simultaneous theatrical and streaming debuts, the question hovering around the entertainment industry the last two days is whether or not this becomes the new normal for Disney. The company has not announced further updates on the matter in the days since Black Widow's box office got reported. Meanwhile, advertising for Disney's next two blockbusters, Free Guy and Shang-Chi, have utilized "only in theaters" in their respective marketing materials.

The former title might be part of a detail that keeps Disney sticking to theatrical-only titles, at least for now. Free Guy, like all 20th Century Studios titles until the end of 2022, has a pay-TV deal with HBO. They cannot be put on Disney+ or Hulu, if Disney forgoes a theatrical release, the revenue will go to HBO instead. Thus, Disney's sort of forced to give these movies a theatrical-exclusive release for the time being. It's why Disney hasn't given any 20th Century Studios titles* theatrical releases in 2021. Disney projects like Cruella and Jungle Cruise can make up for any lost theatrical revenue through PVOD releases. 20th Century Studios films like The King's Man cannot.

With this studio being forced to stay theatrical-only due to contractual issues, it's likely Disney will be keeping its other major theatrical features exclusive to the big screen for the time being too. It's not impossible to imagine Disney just making Premier Access the norm for non-20th Century Studios titles (the studios lack of commitment to theatrical releases in the first pieces of marketing for Encanto and Turning Red is certainly worrisome). But it's also hard to imagine Disney executives explaining to Kevin Feige that Death on the Nile is more fitting for a theatrical exclusive release than Eternals. At the moment, it looks like 20th Century Studios could get Disney to return to theaters, but the success of Black Widow on PVOD means that it's unlikely the studio will permanently abandon this method of release.

* A pair of movies (Nomadland and Summer of Soul) have gotten 2021 theatrical runs from the companies sister studio, Searchlight Pictures.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Visitor exemplifies the best qualities of director Tom McCarthy and lead actor Richard Jenkins

Tom McCarthy has always had an empathetic streak in his works. It's an ingredient that proved essential when he was one of the screenwriters crafting the journey of cantankerous Carl Fredrickson in Up and it added extra layers of distinctive emotional heft to his underdog sports story Win Win. Even his Best Picture winner Spotlight, with its appropriately bleak tone, extended humanity to its principal characters and to survivors of sexual assault. McCarthy's always found a knack for emphasizing the humanity in everyday people without sacrificing the brutal harshness of the reality said people inhabit.

This gift is on full display in The Visitor, which centers on Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins). A college professor, Vale is living life in a state of displacement. McCarthy gradually reveals that Vale is still reeling from the passing of his wife, with this tragedy leading him to become withdrawn from others and his job. While being sent to present an essay at a conference in New York City, Vale's life gets turned upside down when he gets to his NYC apartment and finds two people, romantic couple Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira).

From here, The Visitor becomes about the simple interactions between Vale and these unexpected guests that give birth to a quietly important friendship. McCarthy recognizes the importance of those small throwaway moments in everyday life that cement a meaningful bond. It's also nice that the story eschews the easy path of orienting Vale's growth as a character on overcoming racial prejudice. Rather than reducing Tarek and Zainab to being props to foster personal growth on the part of Vale, they're all equal players in the story as Vale navigates the prospect of finding human connection in the wake of tragedy.

The story takes on a darker turn midway through the runtime when Tarek gets arrested by police and, being an illegal immigrant, is detained in a detention center. This is where McCarthy's proclivity for depicting reality without the edges sanded off comes in handy. Wisely eschewing showing Tarek being brutalized, the focus remains on Tarek's conversations with Vale as he talks about the cruel injustice of his life being wiped out in the blink of an eye. Having the detention center walls be lined with cutesy posters espousing the virtues of immigrants is a fantastic quiet detail that intentionally gets your blood boiling. 

By the end, there's even an appropriate simmering rage and frustration at how modern America treats these members of the population. A fantastically realized climactic scene demonstrates the disparity between how Vale and Tarek's mom (played by Hiam Abass) react to this reality.  For Vale, seeing how America dismisses the humanity of immigrants inspires shock and horror. He's heard about this hardship, but being confronted with it for the first time physically, it's shaken his whole world. For Tarek's mother, though, there's a resigned but no less devastating nature to her response. She's always been aware of this being the reality. "It's just like Syria," she murmured earlier, a sentiment echoed here in this tragic sequence. 

It's a subdued but powerful moment in a film full of such quietly detailed sequences. The friendships between the characters in The Visitor are just as vividly realized as the moments of tragedy reflected deep flaws in America. All these tonal up's and down's are handled gracefully by the cast, particularly Jenkins. Throughout his career in projects like The Shape of Water and Olive Kitteridge, this actor has demonstrated a gift for handling men who have all this pent-up emotional turmoil just stewing inside. That trait is perfectly applied to the character of Vale, especially in earlier scenes where Jenkins hauntingly but subtly conveys this character as a shell of his former self. Jenkins is perfectly cast in The Visitor, a movie that makes great use of writer/director Tom McCarthy's gift for empathy.

Friday, July 9, 2021

The Forever Purge does feel like it goes on forever

Amusingly, The Forever Purge begins by immediately discounting the events of The Purge: Election Year. That film's presidential candidate protagonist, who won her election on a platform to end The Purge, apparently is gone. The political group The New Founding Fathers have been put back in charge and have reinstated The Purge. The Purge: Election Year is now like the Armin Tamzarian thing on The Simpsons, it's like it never even happened! 

Anyway, The Forever Purge is set in Texas as a new Purge gets underway. with Juan (Tenoch Huerta) working on a ranch for kindly rancher Caleb (Will Patton) and his far less kindly son Dylan (Josh Lucas). Juan is getting adjusted to living in America with the help of his wife, Adela (Ana de la Reguera), a task made difficult by all the rampant white supremacism in America exacerbated by the Purge. The morning after this year's Purge event is over, Juan and Adela return to their respective jobs only to learn that some people have decided the Purge doesn't have to end. They've kicked off The Forever Purge (hey, that's the name of the show!) and are killing anyone they see as failing to fit their profile of "proper Americans." It's a rush for survival, with former revivals like Juan and Dylan needing to work together to survive the mayhem. 

Let's get it out of the way first and foremost: it's utterly ridiculous that writer James DeMonaco has opted to make half of the six lead characters in The Forever Purge rich white people. These Purge movies finally got good with The First Purge by solely focusing on the marginalized groups most impacted by the titular event. DeMonaco's screenwriting takes a step back in the effectiveness of its sociopolitical impact by focusing The Forever Purge on tedious characters like Dylan. Such figures go through run-of-the-mill character arcs related to learning that prejudice is actually bad, a process Juan and Adela handhold these characters through. As a result, Juan and Adela rarely get to stand out as their own individual characters, they're just only around to help white people get out of danger. And that's not even getting into the movie's weird obsession with lingering on Latinx characters in pain or dying.

It also must be said that DeMonaco's depiction of bigotry in The Forever Purge feels out of touch with reality circa. 2021. Terrifying racist people aren't cartoonish burly men with Nazi swastika face tattoos. They're men in polished suits who hold high political power and try to argue that trans people are inherently predators or that critical race theory is the work of Satan. By concentrating bigotry in such caricatured figures, The Forever Purge lets its most privileged viewers off the hook. The feature is practically cradling the cheek of white viewers and reassuring them that, as long as you don't have a swastika tattoo on your face, you couldn't possibly contribute to institutionalized racism.

As a sociopolitical text, The Forever Purge is a total mess, which is a problem you inevitably run into when you keep highlighting white perspectives above all others or refuse to even hint at capitalism as a factor in the problem of financial inequality. How is it as a horror or action movie? On both fronts, The Forever Purge is lacking. The only time it even attempts to be a horror film is through dumb fakeout jump scares, a cliche we need to hide away in a locked box. Otherwise, The Forever Purge isn't scary, even the mask designs are pretty forgettable this go-around. Nobody's gonna be dressing up as these Purge foes at the next comic convention, I'll tell you that right now.

As an action movie, though, it fares a bit worse, mostly because director Everardo Valerio Gout just can't film any of the action sequences properly. All the hand-to-hand tussles are edited to pieces, it's hard to make out what's going on most of the time, and even the kills are pretty lazy, a waste of the grisly opportunities afforded by the R-rating. Failing to engage the brain, quicken your pulse, or just deliver some mindlessly fun action beats, The Forever Purge doesn't have much to offer besides Huerta and de la Reguera being worthy of headlining way better features than this. I guess The First Purge was just a fluke in this largely lackluster franchise since The Forever Purge takes things almost back down the quality levels of that disposable original Purge film.

Thanks to Florence Pugh and vulnerability, Black Widow packs an enjoyable punch

It's not revelatory to say but this should have happened a long time ago.

A Black Widow solo movie not happening back in Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a microcosm of misogyny in the film industry. A standout member of The Avengers who keeps stealing scenes in Captain America sequels, how do you not give her a movie? Instead, it took Marvel Studios 11 years to figure out women could headline films as capably as raccoons and beefcakes named Chris. Finally, after all this time, Black Widow makes it to the screen, through a solo movie directed by Cate Shortland. The sensation that we should've seen this a long time ago is impossible to shake, but at least the movie we've got now is a pretty fun spy movie. 

After a brief detour into 1995, Black Widow picks up right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) on the run from the U.S. government. With her Avengers found family disbanded, she just needs a place to lie low. That plan gets derailed once it turns out Dreykov (Ray Winston), the man who trained Romanoff to be an assassin in The Red Room, is alive. Not only that, but he has sent out master assassin Taskmaster to hunt down a collection of vials that would prove fatal to Dreykov's operation. To stop him, Romanoff will have to unite with her former adopted sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), as well as other figures from her old life like Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz).

A welcome surprise regarding Black Widow is that it actually feels like a thematic successor to Shortland's 2012 movie Lore. Both features are about human beings navigating what it means to exist and what their worldview is in the aftermath of their status quo's collapsing. Lore went in a bleak direction in exploring what a teenage girl does when Hitler's regime falls. Meanwhile, Black Widow, being a movie aimed at 10-year-olds released by Disney, is slightly more optimistic in exploring this theme. Here, the concept manifests in how Romanoff and the other three principal characters respond to being involved in an organization that kidnaps and trains young girls to be killers. The concept of women working together is depicted as a critical tool to help create a better tomorrow and evolve from the past.

Shortland's experience with this theme means it gets rendered with welcome nuance here, with this notion providing a solid thematic foundation for Black Widow, particularly in the great dynamic between Natasha and Yelena. Of course, that rapport is also helped by the performer in charge of playing the latter character. As shocking as Governor Greg Abbott being racist, Florence Pugh is terrific in an on-screen performance. In a movie full of master superspy's, she lends a distinctly human point-of-view to everything, including in her observational gags (like her line about Natasha's "posing") or in her extremely well-realized moments of vulnerability. 

Come to think of it, vulnerability is actually something Black Widow does quite well as a whole movie. Dating back to the days of Iron Man, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to lean on conversation-heavy sequences because they didn't have the budget for wall-to-wall spectacle, these movies have often found time for surprisingly affecting moments of human connection. Black Widow nicely continues that tradition with various low-key conversational sequences that get to the heart of the lingering pain these characters carry and the messy ways they're coping with that turmoil. There's usually a joke or a punch waiting around the corner to make sure things don't get oppressively bleak, but scenes like Yelena and Alexei's father/daughter "chat" have enough insight to make these characters feel like people.

Of course, this is a summer blockbuster, so it isn't all laidback conversations. There is also a bunch of action sequences to lure people into movie theaters. On that front, Black Widow is quite fun, Shortland and the second unit directorial team come up with a bunch of exciting fights that nicely vary in geography and backdrops. An early kitchen scuffle between Natasha and Yelena is especially fun, love the way they kept creating weapons out of household objects just lying around. CG elements can be distractingly incorporated into the proceedings, including in some green-screen work in the climax. On the other hand, the practical sets utilized in sequences like a snowy prison break help to reinforce a tactile quality to the various fistfights. Most of our lead characters are just normal people, after all, and it's nifty that Black Widow's exciting chases and fights find ways to reinforce that.

As a nice cherry on top of Black Widow, Lorne Balfe also delivers an exceptional score. I'll freely admit his prior compositions have rarely stood out to me (including his recent work on The Tomorrow War), and the idea of Balfe replace someone like Alexandre Desplat late in the film's post-production set me up to expect a rushed collection of orchestral tunes. But much like Hans Zimmer on Blade Runner 2049, Balfe's Black Widow work is good enough to make you believe he was always the first composer choice. I especially love his theme music for Taskmaster, with a grand baritone choir. It's so committed to sounding stereotypically Russian that it comes back around from being goofy to actually intimidating.

Black Widow isn't groundbreaking, to be sure. We've certainly seen more subversive takes on the spy movie genre and Eric Pearson's screenplay has its share of flaws (like early scenes too heavy on exposition). Thankfully, the movies entertaining enough to ensure that these are not a major problem. In particular, I found myself quite moved by how the finale of Black Widow isn't about blowing up cities or hunting down space rocks but rather emphasizing the importance of women working together. What a shame it took such an excessively long time to get here since the Black Widow movie turned out to be an extremely enjoyable popcorn film. 

Random Thoughts:

* I want a whole Disney+ series about Rachel Weisz and her hogs. 

* David Harbour is a whole lot of fun as Alexei. Between this and No Sudden Move, Harbour is cornering the market on middle-aged guys who just can't do anything right.

* Ray Winstone looks distractingly like Nathan Lane here.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Internet-based deceit gets a vivid cinematic vessel in the exceptional Zola

In doing a reflective review of the sketch comedy show I Think You Should Leave, Wired writer Peter Rubin noted that the appeal of this show, beyond it just being hysterical, was how its humor revolved around the concept of insincerity. To Rubin's eyes, You Should Leave "isn't just a distillation of our personal insecurities, it's a condemnation of facade. It's an antidote, in other words, to the internet itself." I was thinking of that while watching Zola, a film adapted from a Twitter thread chronicling a couple of unbelievable days in the life of one woman. False identities run rampant all over the interwebs. Zola is about the inevitable horrors that unfold when all that deceit goes unchecked.

Aziah "Zola" King (Taylour Paige) works part-time as a waitress and a stripper, with the former job being the place where she meets Stefani (Riley Keough). The two immediately hit it off and have a great time hanging out that evening. The next day, Stefani offers up Zola a chance to make some money doing some dancing in Florida. Not one to pass up the chance for some cash, Zola decides to join the adventure. This is where the trouble starts to come in. From the start, nothing is as it seems, with more people, like the controlling X (Colman Domingo), coming along for the ride. Then there's the fact that Stefani expects Zola to do more than just dance in their time in Florida.

What follows is a barrage of twists and turns that understandably informed a great Twitter thread and have now informed a standout movie. Zola screenwriters Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo (the latter of whom also directs) brilliantly use the fact that this whole story went viral on Twitter as an excuse to add little flourishes throughout the movie that lean on modern technology. The "ding" of an iPhone text tone is used to signal time shifts in the story while a volume bar is used to signify when Zola is tuning out surrounding conversations. Rather than tut-tut over the modern ubiquity of phones, Zola embraces them as ways to reflect the unique world of its protagonist.

Even beyond references to iPhones and social media, Bravo revels in a stylized sensibility that's perfect for the story at hand. The strumming of harp strings humorously accompanies moments of bonding between Zola and Stefani. Meanwhile, a fantastically realized fantasy scene where Zola contemplates who she'll be on-stage uses a quartet of reflections and rapid costume changes to vividly convey her interior desires. Much like Paul Verhoeven with Showgirls, Bravo realizes she's handling material so unbelievable that you need a heightened aesthetic to make it digestible. Her filmmaking is so unique, a fantastic blend of style and substance.

On the topic of substance, Zola is centered on exploring the ways women of color are treated as objects by society at large and especially by white people. This is exemplified by Stefani, who braids her hair in dreadlocks and peppers her conversations with pieces of Black slang. She sees the culture of Black women as something she can pick and choose from as she pleases while seeing actual Black women like Zola as just objects she can manipulate to her own needs. In Zola, racism isn't depicted necessarily as someone who has a hate symbol tattooed on their body but is thoughtfully (and accurately) rendered as white people who see Black people and culture as something to be exploited. 

This theme is most vividly conveyed in a meta-sequence where Stefani gets to tell her own version of the film's events, apparently based on the real Stefani's recounting from a Reddit post. In the eyes of Stefani, she's now painted as a perfect savior while Zola is depicted in a variety of stereotypical outfits and poses reminiscent of how so many feature films consciously choose to depict Black women. The massive gulf in accuracy between this account and what Zola depicts as the truth is subtly but impactfully conveyed. In this scene, Bravo pointedly uses cinematic language used to demean Black women to show how out of touch with reality such stereotypes, as well as people like Stefani, are.

Stefani's warped retelling is a standout sequence in a movie chock full of memorable moments, with other unforgettable traits including a cast packed with terrific performances. Taylour Paige is especially impressive in her first lead role as Zola and she proves especially great at subtly conveying her bewilderment at everything happening around her. As for Riley Keough, she's unrecognizable from her prior performances in her gusto turn as Stefani. In her multi-layered and unpredictable turn, Keough embodies the sort of treachery that defines so much of the internet and informs the thematic crux of the impressively unique Zola.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Steven Soderbergh delivers another fun and thoughtful crime movie No Sudden Move


Steven Soderbergh's back with another ensemble crime movie that folds in entertaining double-crosses and twists with potent fury at how big corporations trample over the little guy. If that sounds like a complaint, it's not. Soderbergh's the master of these kinds of films and I hope he makes countless more. Plus, it helps that he makes plenty of other features like Unsane that deviate from this mold. The newest entry in his favorite domain is No Sudden Move. It's not the next Logan Lucky, but it's still an extremely enjoyable outing that proves how much a good cast and Soderbergh's attention to detail can add to a single feature.

Taking place in 1950s Detroit, No Sudden Move follows Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), who has been hired for a job. It's a simple job. Just help two other criminals hold a family hostage as the dad, Matt Wertz (David Harbour), hands them critical information only he has access to. Tasked alongside Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin), Goynes proceeds to go out and do this job for a hefty financial reward. Of course, things do not go as planned. Wertz doesn't have the materials the criminals need and trying to track down these papers leads Goynes to a much bigger conspiracy. What was just an in-and-out hostage scene is turning into something much more elaborate connected to how big car companies are adversely affecting largely minority populations. 

Some films made for streaming platforms seem to take the lack of theatrical exhibition as an excuse to slack on their visuals. Not so with Soderbergh. Employing a constant fisheye lens on the camera, Soderbergh (acting as director and cinematographer, the latter duty he undertakes with a pseudonym) never wavers in his thoughtful blocking. Cramped spaces can be a great place to thoughtfully arrange the characters. Meanwhile, the warped appearance of characters on the edge of the frame functions as an effective reflection of how none of these characters really know each other. When they're on the outskirts of the image, they appear to us as murky as they do to their crime compatriots. 

The screen is also rich with tiny amusing details, like Russo holding onto a beverage-filled glass from another hostage situation during a subsequent car ride. These are the kind of small elements that speak to how thoughtfully realized the acting and direction are. What a shame something like The Boss Baby: Family Business is occupying movie theater screens while No Sudden Move is relegated to streaming. Absorbing all the finer visual intricacies of this latest Soderbergh film is something that would be best accomplished if the film were projected on a gigantic screen. No matter, the craftsmanship on display is still apparent on a TV.

Ed Solomon's screenplay, meanwhile, is a jam-packed creation, one that sometimes loses itself in the weeds, but that also feels like the point. The viewer, like Goynes, is in over his head, the connections between separate antagonistic parties come across as intentionally hard to parse out. The occasionally murky story threads are also forgivable since the central themes of the film register as easy to understand. Chiefly, this is a film about how powerful institutions, from companies to gangsters to cops, only view people of color as objects to be wiped away at a moment's notice. Solomon's script makes a perfect match for Soderbergh's recurring rage as a filmmaker at everything you can get away with when you're wealthy. 

The story and tone also make a superb fit for the ensemble cast assembled for No Sudden Move, which doesn't have a dud performance in the bunch. Don Cheadle makes for a compelling anchor to follow throughout the story, Benicio del Toro can play this kind of slimeball criminal in his sleep, and how can you not cheer seeing Brendan Fraser in a major 2021 movie? Best of this gaggle of actors, though, is David Harbour, who sheds all of his prior roles to channel big Phillip Seymour Hoffman energy as pretty much the opposite of the classical "Father Knows Best" archetype of 1950s dads. Watching him scramble and screw up at every opportunity is just a riot and Harbour plays all that befuddlement beautifully. You get a lot of thoughtfulness with No Sudden Move that will linger in your brain for a while after it finishes but performances like Harbour ensure there are also tons of entertaining qualities to enjoy in the moment.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Punisher: War Zone charges into B-movie carnage guns-a-blazing


I'm not sure The Punisher can work as the lead of a movie. I will never say something is impossible to translate to the screen but he seems like a character, like The Hulk, that works better in an ensemble or as an adversarial force rather than as a straightforward protagonist. The concrete never-wavering personality of The Punisher can just get old if you're stuck with him for two consecutive hours. It's more interesting to see people respond to his bleak and violent worldview rather than just immersing wholesale in that glibe perspective. But if you're going to do Punisher solo outings, Lexi Alexander's 2008 movie Punisher: War Zone is as close to an ideal version of that as you can get.

Most superheroes have a code of honor preventing them from killing. The whole deal with Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) and his alter-ego The Punisher is that all he does is kill. Living in New York City, he targets all kinds of vicious gangsters, the same kind of criminals who shot down his wife and kids. While slaughtering a gaggle of high-end crooks, Castle makes a relentless new enemy in Billy Russoti (Dominic West), who gets his face mangled beyond recognition while fighting The Punisher. Now going by the name Jigsaw, Russoti swears vengeance on Castle just as this vigilante, after accidentally killing an FBI informant, believes he's no longer a useful weapon against evil.

Just because Punisher: War Zone is a better iteration of what a Punisher movie could be doesn't make it perfect. For one thing, the characters of Julie Benz as Angela Donatelli (Julia Benz) and Grace Donatelli (Stephanie Janusauskas) feel out of place. Like everyone else in the cast, they're broad caricatures, in this case of a grieving widow and a cutesy kid. Neither of them are all that interesting in their personalities and their generic nature makes them seem as if they slipped in from another movie. The same can be said for some cop characters who could could have waltzed out of any procedural drama on TV.

Meanwhile, a plot thread about Castle feeling guilt over killing that FBI informant also comes in and out of the movie sparodically, as if a remenant from an earlier version of War Zone that wanted to be more like a traditional superhero movie. On the other hand, where the movie really succeeds is in being a grimy throwback to 1980s grindhouse fare. Castle lives in a bleak vision of the underbelly of New York City that has never really existed but certainly looks distinctive enough. Every building has bright neon lights that crackle, night seems to last for days on end, Russoti just struts down the street with his torn up mug with nobody batting an eye. It's a vision of the Big Apple residing somewhere between Taxi Driver and a Dick Tracy movie. I can groove to that.

Such a vision of this city aligns with the stylized tendencies of the violence, which also fit squarely with the movies Alexander is homaging. People don't just die by Castle's hand, they explode while doing parkour. Heads get squelshed, blood splatters, it's all so ridiculous and violent. If this kind of action isn't your cup of tea, Punisher: War Zone will be relentlessly unpleasant. I was able to get on its wavelength, though, and found the film to be consistently fun. It helps that there's no fat on the bones here, no dumb convoluted B-plots to drag out the runtime. Punisher: War Zone knows what it wants to do and it does all that in a concise fashion.

Plus, executing all the violence at this cartoony midnight movie level makes the character more digestable. That stylized quality is especially apparent in the acting, everyone in this movie is acting with maximum over-the-top silliness. Doug Hutchison's Looney Bin Jim, for example is loaded with puns tie to the graphic violence he dishes out. These include one enjoyably bizarre fun fact about Swedish cooking that he dishes out just before devouring a man's innards. Just as strange as all that is the unabashedly overt Italian accents donned by the majority fo the gangsters, including Jigsaw. Stevenson's square-jawed take on The Punisher stands out as even more restrained compared to all these wacky foes.

I'm still not convinced The Punisher is prime leading man material when it comes to comic book movies. But credit where credit is due, Punisher: War Zone makes an impressive case for the character being able to sustain an enjoyable and gnarly B-movie, one whose willingness to get ridiculous is incredibly admirable.