Sunday, August 29, 2021

An eerie dreamlike quality makes Candyman a largely satisfying horror sequel

To quote Staind, "it's been a while" since Candyman last graced movie theater screens. After debuting in 1992 with the original feature of the same name, the character appeared in two sequels, only one of which even made it to movie theaters. Decades after last being seen in a theatrical environment, Candyman has been brought back to life thanks to director Nia DaCosta, who also wrote the script alongside Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele. The result is a production with its messy qualities, particularly when it gets into its home stretch. But the good news is that the overall movie is still a chilling horror title that justifies returning to the world of Candyman.

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a visual artist in need of a new source of artistic inspiration. While his girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), is ascending in the world of art, McCoy seems to be stuck in the past. But hope emerges once he learns about the myth of Candyman, which was popularized in the nearby Cabrini-Green projects, where the original Candyman largely took place. Informed of tales from the past by William Burke (Colman Domingo), which concern Black men who've been given the name "Candyman", McCoy begins to get inspired. But new art isn't the only thing his newfound fascination has created. The supernatural being Candyman is also unleashed once again and while he's stacking up a body count, McCoy grows more and more enamored with this mythic figure. 

Many classic horror movies, dating back to the days of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, work best when viewed through the lens of dreamlike logic. So it is with Candyman, a film that proves quite effective in how often it feels detached from reality. A scene of McCoy, gripped with fear, just wandering through a subway station while the camera captures him head-on or the same character seeing his reflection as a former incarnation of the Candyman both, like any dream, straddle the line between reality and fantasy. There's a chilling sense of uncertainty informing these moments as the unusual imagery happening on-screen feels as detached from our own control as the worst of our nightmares.

It's a fitting extension of one of Candyman's core themes, which explores the way myths and reality fuse together. The stories of Candyman sound like yarns told around a campfire, but the reality component comes in how they're inspired by chilling instances of unarmed Black people being murdered by white people. Events ripped from the headline tether the stylized moments of eerie ambiguity to the real world. This storytelling approach informs Nia DaCosta's superb eye for visuals. Candyman is just packed with imagery as ornately staged as they are eerie thanks to how DaCosta realizes that a thoughtful piece of camerawork can be just as unsettling as rivers of blood.

A recurring visual motif leaning on the camera zooming in and out, all while emphasizing the larger unforgiving world the characters of Candyman inhabit, proves quietly unnerving and is one of many visual flourishes that ensure that Candyman doesn't just look like a rehash of the original 1992 movie. This sense of control in the camerawork continues in the scenes of carnage, in which DaCosta finds creative ways of keeping certain instances of violence mostly off-screen...mostly. Even more laidback scenes don't eschew thoughtful instances of cinematography, as seen by a conversation between Cartwright and a potential employer that uses a slow zoom in on Cartwright to highlight how trapped she feels by her past.

Unfortunately, Candyman's considerate nature stumbles for its big climax. An awkward flashback, a thematically messy handling of the figure of Candyman, and a constant sense that we're just repeating the beats of the first Candyman's ending are the biggest, but not the only, flaws here. This finale isn't a total disaster, thanks to committed performances from the main cast and DaCosta's consistently impressive direction. However, Candyman's script eschews offering satisfying conclusions to the various main characters in favor of a big set-piece aiming to feel timely but it all just feels shoehorned in. The fact that the last shot is of some welcome but clumsily executed fan service just exacerbates the underwhelming nature of this finale.

Still, the shortcomings in this ending as well as other flaws throughout the rest of the movie, like didactic pieces of dialogue, can't overwhelm the good parts of Candyman. Like a scary dream you can't shake once you wake up, the most successful parts of Candyman prove so effective because of a commitment to reality and good old fashioned creepiness. It took a few decades, but Candyman finally got a worthy sequel.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Mike Leigh is in superb form with his 1999 film Topsy Turvy

Mike Leigh movies, much like the works of Yasujiro Ozu or Jim Jarmusch, have an incredibly insightful yet casual quality in their observations of everyday life. So it's interesting that much like with his 2014 work Mr. Turner, Leigh departs from his norm of chronicling exclusively run-of-the-mill souls for his 1999 feature Topsy-Turvy. This particular film explores the lives of artistic duo Gilbert & Sullivan, a far cry from the ordinary individuals who were in the spotlight of other Leigh endeavors like Happy-Go-Lucky or Another Year. As ever, though, Leigh maintains his gift for capturing naturalistic behavior as well as the engaging nature of his other projects.

Picking up in January 1884, Topsy-Turvy begins with W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) at a crossroads. The sickly Sullivan is more aware than ever of how finite his time as a human being is and he doesn't want to spend any more of it writing what he dubs to be disposable operas. Gilbert is appalled by this and refuses to compromise on lending what Sullivan perceives as depth to his newest creation. However, a trip to an exhibition of Japanese culture provides Gilbert with the spark of inspiration that leads him to develop a script for a show Sullivan is passionate about working on. It's a little program called The Mikado.

Though Gilbert and Sullivan are our lead characters for Topsy-Turvy, Leigh's script bounces around to explore the perspectives of other people closely tied to their artistic endeavors. Actor Richard Temple (Timothy Spall) or single mother & performer Leonora Braham (Shirley Henderson) are just two of the many figures Topsy-Turvy gives ample time to fleshing out. Through their eyes, we can see the importance of Gilbert and Sullivan's shows, both as a means of putting a roof over one's head and especially of understanding how artistically fulfilling these endeavors can be. The innately intimate gaze of Leigh's work really gets to the heart of why staged theatre can be so important.

That's not the only area where Leigh's style of filmmaking benefits this particular story. His gradual pacing is put to great use in Topsy-Turvy as a way to allow the audience to get a realistic view of how a play comes together. It isn't barrelled through in a montage, it slowly but surely comes together like a challenging jigsaw puzzle. This means Leigh lingers on realistically realized scenes like Gilbert overseeing a rehearsal of three actors that has to keep stopping and starting due to the slightest line flubs. As someone who's been in plays, I was giggling at just how accurate this segment was, ditto the rest of Topsy-Turvy's depiction of all the tasks needed to bring one of these projects into the world.

These glimpses into the behind-the-scenes process are captured through camerawork from Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope that occasionally take on a voyeuristic quality as if they're replicating the sensation that we're in the same room as these people, listening in on their conversations. A great example of this is a small scene where Temple is talking to another actor, an exchange captured through a single-take framed through a doorway. With no other camera movements and the shot framed to suggest it's at the eye-level of a person, Topsy-Turvy quietly immerses the viewer in its thoughtful depiction of period-era theatrics. 

This kind of detailed camerawork extends throughout the rest of the film, as does a gaggle of talented performances from a stacked ensemble cast. Spall is, per usual, exemplary, and watching him in so many different Leigh movies over the last few months has really opened my eyes to how versatile he is as an actor. Henderson also impresses with her supporting work but it was Allan Corduner who most fascinated me. Lending Sullivan a constant thirst for the artistic wonders of the world yet also conveying his similarly persistent awareness of his own mortality, Corduner pulls off an impressing balancing act with this performance. His quiet but no less powerful depiction of Sullivan's emotions after the first performance of The Mikado is especially exemplary.

In my experience, any movie directed by Mike Leigh is bound to be worth something, but Topsy-Turvy is an especially impressive effort from this filmmaker. Expanding his horizons a bit (in terms of chronicling famous figures from history), Leigh still delivers something that exemplifies his very best traits as an artist.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Don't celebrate Sean Penn's Flag Day


I’m not sure what director Sean Penn wanted to accomplish with Flag Day, but I sure know what movies he wanted to emulate. Flag Day has the relentless obvious needle drops of a Robert Zemeckis movie, the gratuitous slow-motion of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and instance of such abrasive shaky-cam that Paul Greengrass would tell him to tone things down. Flag Day won’t fail to remind you of other movies and filmmakers but it does come up short in crafting any sense of identity for its own characters. 

Flag Day begins with flashbacks to the childhood of Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn), who conveys in voiceover how her father was like Peter Pan in how he could make “the most ill-advised decision seems like the result of careful planning.” It’s just the beginning of the film leaning heavily on narration and didactic dialogue when it could just let imagery do the talking. Then again, Penn’s filmmaking in these scenes of wistful adolescence rarely rises above feeling like a Terrence Malick knock-off, so maybe it's not the best idea to rely just on visuals. 

Anyway, Jennifer’s life is full of hardship, with her mom being an alcoholic and her dad, John (Sean Penn), being a schemer. He puts on airs of being attentive but is always in over his head in criminal activities. Once Jennifer grows up into a teenager, she returns to her dad and tries to rehabilitate him just as she’s trying to get her life off the ground. But her dad keeps falling back into old habits, which eventually involve robbing a bank, which only creates more distance between himself and Jennifer. 

Outlining Flag Day’s story like that, it occurs to me that I don’t really know what the point of this movie is. What are we supposed to take away from watching Jennifer’s life? My biggest takeaway was that this poor woman had been through so much abuse, which the movie never properly grapples with. It’s hard to pinpoint much of a broader purpose to the narrative, beyond it serving as a two hour explanation for why Jennifer’s lie-filled upbringing influenced her decision to become a career pursuing the truth as an investigative journalist.

Movies don’t need to inherently have a reason for existing but Flag Day offers so little to chew on that I found myself wondering what the point of the exercise was. Small flourishes, such as lingering on a speech given by Bill Clinton on TV, suggest the thematic intent is to explore how men erase the agencies or perspectives of women, but that doesn't get explored anywhere near enough to serve as the project's thesis. The individual characters, meanwhile, are so thinly-sketched that the script (adapted from the true story of the actual Jennifer Vogel) never functions on its own terms as just a standalone character piece.

If Flag Day is even just meant to be a reflection on the complexities of generally troubled father/daughter relationships, the production comes up mighty short on the front. Jennifer’s father rarely registers as a complicated human being, he mostly just seems like a self-serving conman (and also he’s apparently a racist per Dale Dickey’s cameo?) He’s a byproduct of a screenplay that never finds room for ambiguity or subtlety. Conflict only emerges in Flag Day through oversized shouting matches that are straining to be used as clips for potential Oscar nominations.

Conflict only emerges in Flag Day through oversized shouting matches that are straining to be used as clips for potential Oscar nominations. All this shallow noise makes for an extra frustrating movie since there are hints of a better movie in here. Occasionally, Penn tells what’s on-screen through the eyes of Jennifer, such as her lying awake in her bed as a kid overhearing her mom talk about her dad. Going this route for the entire story could’ve been interesting and lent actual uncertainty to the story. When her dad tries to convince her he didn’t actually rob a bank, we could be as conflicted as Jennifer and better understanding her complicated feelings towards her dad.

At least Flag Day reminded me of just how good Fun Home by Alison Bechdel was. That autobiographical graphic novel explores  the complicated dynamic between Bechdel and her own father, a closeted gay man. The finer nuances of their relationship, reflected in moments like Bechdel trying to initiate a conversaiton about queerness after she comes out of the closet, capture the up's, the down's, and everything in between of loving someone but also being so frustrated with them. It isn't easy to break down how we feel towards family members...but you wouldn't know it from watching Flag Day. Its title may refer to a holiday all about the American flag, but the movie Flag Day is actually about waving a white flag in the face of saying someting complicated or real about father/daughter relationships. 

Free Guy is a harmless but frustratingly unambitious video game romp

The pandemic may have permanently upended the movie business, but leave it to Free Guy to show that there are still some reliable elements of this industry. Specifically, once again, director Shawn Levy has helmed a movie that just resonates with people. Night at the Museum, Date Night, Real Steel, Cheaper by the Dozen, his box office track record is pretty stellar at this point. Also returning from his prior movies is that Free Guy is harmless to watch but easy to forget. Nearly two decades since his directorial debut Big Fat Liar, Levy just hasn't grown that much as a filmmaker. That lack of ambition is what keeps Free Guy firmly in the decent but disposable camp.

Free Guy chronicles Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a non-playable character in a video game. Guy is unaware that he's in a game, though, he's just happy to live his life in Free City. Here, he always gets the same coffee while the streets are always running with avatars inhabited by real-world gamers causing endless carnage. However, once Guy gets immediately smitten by a player known as Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), he begins to bend the rules a bit. This is helped by him procuring a pair of glasses that let him see Free City as a game, one where he can accomplish tasks to "level up" and get skilled enough that he can hang out with Molotov Girl.

In the real world, Molotov Girl is Millie Rusk, who previously developed an open-world game with her former creative partner Walter (Joe Keery). The game got bought out by wealthy video game developer Antwan (Taika Waititi) and was then shelved, shattering their dreams. But as Guy begins to take on more and more of a life of his own, well, it seems anything is possible. Including Millie and Walter striking back at Antwan and maybe, just maybe, Guy becoming the hero.

I've seen lots of comparisons online about Free Guy being similar to The Truman Show but what it really reminded me of was Pleasantville. How could it not with this story of an everyday fellow living in a morally black-and-white world whose whole world begins to open up as he pushes against the norms of the medium he inhabits? There's even a resident of Free City who serves beverages to everyone who eventually discovers the joys of making whatever they want!  There's nothing wrong with evoking other movies, but Free Guy's biggest problem is that screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn are just too reliant on familiar elements.

This problem extends to predictable plot turns, including a strangely superfluous second-act detour that takes way too many cues from the conclusion of WALL-E, and familiar needle drops (Miley Cyrus's Wrecking Ball especially gets employed in a bafflingly obvious moment). Worst of all, Free Guy can never outrun the ominous shadow that this is a Disney movie that tries to paint stereotypical protaganists as somehow being "subversive". A big corporation repackaging white people who look, in body type and sexual proclivities, like 99% of other Hollywood leads as somehow being emblematic of standing up against norms of society never stops being peculiar. Free Guy is about following your own spirit, but in many ways, the movie just feels familiar.

Thankfully, Free Guy isn't just predictable needle drops and unintentionally creepy subtext. It's also got its good qualities, including its welcome lack of pretense towards being "hip." This is a movie that wears its emotions right on its sleeve, right down to one of the final scenes being a rainy reunion between two prospective lovers. This adherence to classical traits explains why so much of Free Guy feels familiar, but it does make the proceedings easy to watch. The movie isn't interested in seeming too cool for school. Its best moments are instead all about conveying a genuine affection for just helping other people without a self-referential quip to undercut that hospitality.

Plus, Levy and company keep the proceedings running under two hours in runtime and always moving. I have my gripes with Free Guy, but its pacing isn't one of them, there's always some piece of comedy or cogently realized action scene to keep your attention. I wish Free Guy's obvious desire to just please audiences went in more unexpected directions, but at least that desire results in a movie that kept me engaged more often than it didn't. As for the laughs, my favorite gags are either the subtle details in the background (like one guy just getting caught in a glitch when running up a wall) or dark gags, such as an extended bit involving an NPC whose on fire.

Nobody in Free Guy is reinventing the wheel, including Ryan Reynolds himself who has a bad habit of lapsing into Deadpool-lite at several intervals in the story. That lack of total innovation wouldn't be a problem except Levy's latest directorial effort too often feels paint-by-numbers rather than exciting rehashing familiar narratives. Given both the box office success and extremely positive reception from the people at my screening, Free Guy is clearly working for people and there's enough here that does go right (including a winning turn from Jodie Comer) to suggest why this is another Shawn Levy box office hit. For me, I just wish this was one game that was more willing to level up to unexpected places, or at least repackage the familiar in more enticing packaging. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

In Laman's Terms: How Nine Days became an accidental, but poignant, tale about living through the COVID-19 pandemic

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!


Nine Days premiered at the 2020 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. The fact that it was able to premiere exclusively in a theatrical capacity, with the idea of a virtual premiere a laughable notion, is an indicator that it took place in some of the final weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forever altered the American movie landscape. Like any of us, none of the artists behind Nine Days could’ve predicted what was about to come and how everyone’s lives would be upended.

However, the film feels all the more relevant when viewed through the lens of how COVID-19 has affected everyday life. It’s a testament to how much authentic emotion and human experiences Nine Days channels that it could accomplish a feat it could’ve never imagined. A parable about the virtues of existence that would’ve been emotionally resonant under any circumstances has only garnered extra layers of depth and relevancy.

Nine Days focuses on Will (Winston Duke), a figure who helps figure out which prospective souls go on to actually inhabit planet Earth. Having previously been a living person himself, his only exposure to what’s going on among everyday humans is through videotapes told through the eyes of people growing up. These glimpses into existence have given him a bleak view of humanity as he refers to the very act of living as being akin to going to war.

When Will isn’t watching these videos, he spends his time toiling away in the isolated house that he never leaves. Sometimes he’s making small experiences for souls that don’t get to Earth, other times he’s fixating on the sudden death of a woman named Amanda. Whatever the case, Will keeps his distance from the people around him both physically and emotionally.

Will’s detached nature was never meant to evoke the experiences of living during the COVID-19 pandemic. Writer/director Edson Oda‘a primary intent with these withdrawn qualities of Will was to provide a contrast to characters like Kyo (Benedict Wong) and Emma (Zazie Beetz), who carry more optimistic perspectives on the world of the living.

However, in the process of portraying Will like this, Edo also crafted a perfect stand-in for an average spectator in the COVID-19 pandemic. An isolated human being whose keenly aware of the fragile mortality of other people and whose only way of connecting with “real life” is through what he see’s once screens? How can one not get flashbacks to being stuck in lockdown during the pandemic? Edo’s depiction of Will is as prophetic as it is thoughtful.

Something else Edo perfectly captures in Will’s disposition is the inevitable cynicism about humanity that can emerge during this ongoing health crisis. How can one not look at a crowd of people protesting any measures taken to curb the pandemic or politicians instituting bans on mask and not develop a glib outlook? So many times during this pandemic, it feels like humans haven’t squandered opportunities to rise to the occasion so much as they’ve lit them on fire.

The disparity between this kind of outlook and more glass-half-full visions of humanity are constantly being pitted against one another in Edo’s screenplay. Taking a cue from the sparse dialogue-driven works of Samuel Beckett among others, Edo both challenges and deeply understands the kind of bleak mindset that can emerge in the wake of a tragedy akin to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the most thoughtful demonstrations of these conflicting mindsets clashing comes during a dinner where Kane (Bill Skarsgard) remarks that the most disgusting thing he’s seen in his time viewing humanity is a pedophile who murdered two little girls. He remarks that this is the norm for behavior on Earth, which Emma rebukes with her contrary perception of humanity that’s much more hopeful.

“Why are you focusing on this” Emma inquires to Kane, to which he responds “How’re you not?”

Nine Days understands how bleak perceptions of humanity can manifest, hence why it doesn’t demonize either Kane or Will. It understands how easy and logical it can seem to see only the worst parts of the human race as a condemnation of the entire planet. How can one turn on the news in the pandemic to discover the latest anti-vaccine nonsense and not feel some frustration with the wider world?

But Nine Days also takes the time to show the quiet wonderful things of existence, the sort of details that we all may have taken for granted before the pandemic. These are initially represented solely by Kyo, who lingers on the video screens in Will’s living room that show humorous or romantically touching sights rather than the ones that feature horrific sights. Soon, though, this perception is manifested by Emma, particularly in a closing scene where she reveals to Will that she’s left writing across his house of all the happy memories she’s had in this domicile.

Her notes, sketched on the floor, walls, and fenceposts, don’t refer to anything huge. Small things, like walking barefoot or sharing laughs with Kyo, are what she’s scribbled down and are at the forefront of her memory. These are the kind of throwaway aspects of existence that one grows to appreciate after spending so much time indoors. Who needs to have exorbitant riches, wings, or anything fantastical? After a few months in lockdown, all I wanted was to share a meal with my friends or feel the breeze against my face while walking to a class at my college.

These are the things Will and all of us pre-pandemic either never really appreciated or even outright avoided. After all, appreciating those intimate qualities of other people can put us in places of extreme vulnerability. As Will learns while grappling with the sudden departure of Amanda, that kind of connection can hurt just as much as it fills up the soul. It can be easy for Will, and those us just trying to make it through another day in the pandemic, to decide the right course of action is to remain distant from the world.

But a character like Emma doesn’t just point Will towards the glorious things hiding in plain sight, she also chips away at the pandemic-induced cynicism of the viewer. Connecting with others or appreciating those minute qualities can lead to heartbreak, but they can also lead to unspeakable amounts of joy. The thought of a worldwide pandemic shutting everything down and reorienting everyone’s worldview was never even close to being on the mind of Nine Days and its creators. And yet, thanks to the intimate storytelling approach and the richly human performances, the film itself is a perfect reminder of the joys of everyday life and bonding with other people.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Insider is about a normal soul facing abnormal corruption


The end of Terrence Malick's 2019 classic A Hidden Life features on-screen text reciting a George Eliot quote about how "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts." The people who aren't household names are typically the ones responsible for ensuring that some sense of morality endures in a warped world. In The Insider, we meet one of those people. Sure, he's not as concealed from the public as the protagonist of A Hidden Life or the figures Eliot is referring to. However, whistleblower Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is very much a person whose name may not be on the tip of your tongue but whose very refusal to stand down in the face of oppression helped foster the  "growing good of the world."

Wigand didn't use to be a societal pariah. In fact, he was previously an executive at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. However, his recent firing, stemming from Wigand refusing to go along with dangerous practices, has totally reoriented this man's world. He can't be silent anymore, even if his company has made Wigand sign an NDA. 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) sees a story here and urges Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) to interview Wigand so that the actions of companies like Brown & Williamson can be exposed. However, every step of the way, there are new challenges, as Wigand's life crumbles around him while CBS executives intervene to prevent Wigand's interview from ever being seen by the public.

Early on in The Insider, Bergman asks Wigand why he even went to work for a tobacco company in the first place. This film takes place in the mid-1990s, the concept of cigarettes being dangerous for human health isn't a fresh notion. Wigand realizes that and acknowledges that he's also complicit in this matter. The Insider is all about people like that, individuals just going about their everyday lives until they realize the system they nonchalantly defend doesn't actually care for them. Hell, Wigand notes in an early confrontation with CEO Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) that he wasn't planning to violate his NDA until the Brown & Williamson people began pushing on him.

Sometimes it takes those extreme pushes to make people realize institutional forces won't give you an inch no matter how much you compromise them. Another great instance of this comes later in the film when Wallace, after kowtowing to orders to drop the Wigand segment, brags to Bergman about how he conducted an interview for a CBS news program where he really stuck it to those stuffy executives. Upon actually seeing the interview aired, Wallace is aghast to discover his chastizing has been reduced to a solitary "No." By compromising on his principles and throwing Wigand to the sharks, he hasn't opened the door for CBS to allow him to express his mind. On the contrary, Wallace has been reminded that he's only given powerful forces even more of an excuse to run over him.

Emphasizing the cold detached nature of institutional forces like this, as well as the complexities of everyday people responding to their presence, makes The Insider such a fascinating and gripping thriller. In many ways, it feels like a compelling spiritual successor to fellow Pacino movie Serpico. Both deliver such great work showing one everyman refusing to back down from calling out powerful corruption while rendering all the obstacles he faces with such chilling authenticity. Another common thread between the two titles? They remain disappointingly relevant decades after their release. In the face of union-hating companies like Amazon or anti-vaxxer networks like Fox News, we need people willing to stick to the truth and challenge intimidating corporations like Wigand more than ever! 

Michael Mann is the perfect choice to direct a movie like The Insider. He's got such extensive experience with crime dramas, why wouldn't his skills translate so smoothly to a depiction of high-level criminal activity among CEOs? Even better, his work on films like Manhunter shows that he's got a gift for incorporating thoughtful visual flourishes into the most grounded conversation-based sequences. That skillset is put to great use here, with even nonchalant phone chats between characters getting executed through thoughtful camerawork as well as a quiet but unnerving sense of unseen danger.  Mann is just the, well, man to handle a project like this one! 

Similarly, well-suited for the proceedings is the cast, particularly Al Pacino. Yes, the actor turned into a bit of a caricature in some of his roles in the 1990s, like his villain turn in Dick Tracy. But a movie like The Insider proves Pacino never lost his touch. He's always compelling when he's on-screen and Pacino's flair for pronounced line deliveries is perfectly suited for a character always 110% confident at his anger at the corruption happening around him. Russell Crowe, in his last role before Gladiator would totally upend his career, also proves to be terrific here. I especially liked his little touches when his portraying Wigand as an attentive father like him calmly explaining to his daughter why she's having trouble breathing during an asthma attack. It's just something that feels so true to how a dad would behave and also suggests the person Wigand is when he isn't a whistleblower.

Dr. Jeffrey Wigand isn't a superhuman nor is he a perfect person. The Insider makes no pretenses towards either idea and that's why the movie works as well as it does. Michael Mann's 1999 feature is a fantastically crafted ode to the ordinary souls who stand up against what's wrong. 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Life before life gets poignantly rendered in Nine Days


Will (Winston Duke) exists before existence. He's a figure in charge of determining which unborn souls get to go and have a life on Earth. His newest crop of souls includes Kane (Bill Skarsgard), Alexander (Tony Hale), and the always inquisitive Emma (Zazie Beets), among others. There's a lot of responsibility riding on Will's shoulders. He's well aware of that given how his living room is packed with TVs showing the lives of various souls on Earth. Through these screens, Will and the unborn souls get glimpses at various types of life on this planet. As Will proceeds to whittle down candidates to go live a life on Earth, the weight of his decision bears down on his being, particularly given his fixation on a tragedy that's befallen a human on Earth named Amanda.

Early on in Nine Days, I wasn't quite sure if this movie was going to be on my wavelength. The initial introductions to Will's life, lingering on those old-fashioned TVs playing out human lives through VHS tapes and his use of a polaroid camera to take pictures of potential, seemed to be too fixated on quirky retro details. The intentionally detached nature of Will, as well as the nebulous personalities of the unborn souls, also made it seem initially like there might be a lack of discernible humanity to root the high-concept premise in. I wasn't immediately turned off by Nine Days, but I was skeptical, there's no way around it. 

It wasn't long, though, before the movie won me over considerably. Details that initially seemed like shortcomings that created a barrier between the viewer and the story turned into far more powerful concepts in the context of the full movie. Will, for instance, quickly becomes a fascinatingly complicated creation. He puts on a detached air when interacting with the people around him, including Kyo (Benedict Wong), the closest thing he has to a friend. But writer/director Edson Oda quickly finds ways to inject nuance into him, such as his dedication to figuring out what's going on with Amanda or flashes of Emma uncovering flickers of a warm human within Will.

By the end of the story, Will didn't strike me as a stuffy person too aloof to be dramatically engaging. He was a person experiencing a relatable fear of what humanity is capable of. Oda allows this side of the character, as well as the distinct personalities of Kyo and Emma, to clash together so wonderfully through the restrained quality of the screenplay. Given how one of the lead characters ends up being connected to the world of the stage, it's no surprise that Nine Days ended up evoking one of the great playwrights. The sparseness of the dialogue-driven piece, the fact that the story is so often devoid of any sense of time or place, as well as the emphasis on the fragility of mortality, all of these details echo the works of Samuel Beckett. 

Thankfully, Oda's writing is strong enough to not just linger in the shadow of the greats, he's able to incorporate plenty of specific details that make sure Nine Days becomes something idiosyncratic. For example, the ramshackle nature of Will's home and the items within proves fascinating. Initially seemingly incorporated to justify retro technology that can inspire a nostalgia-informed boost of serotonin in the viewer, it's eventually utilized to quietly show Will's limits as a being. He's not a mystical deity who can conjure up anything out of his hand, he's just got to work with disposed of items from years past. A nearby junkyard (smartly never given an explanation) provides an aching visual symbol of the past and the source of all of Will's melancholy-laced possessions.

These trinkets also prove handy in showing how Will actually does care for the unborn souls he's tasked with managing. When one of these souls doesn't get chosen to go on to live on Earth, Will promises to recreate a special moment they want to relive for their last moment of existence. To recreate a day at the beach or bicycling around a European city, Will (usually with the aid of Kyo) uses tools that any of us could find in our attics to bring joy to somebody in their last moments. There's such visual creativity in these sequences, but there's also such potent emotion that helps to add layers to Will as a character. 

As a cherry on top, this protagonist also affords Winston Duke another chance to show his impressive range as a performer. After fully transforming between his roles in Black Panther and Us, Duke once again subverts expectations with his richly detailed turn as Will. Playing off him for much of the film is Benedict Wong in a sublime performance as Kyo. Duke and Wong have great chemistry together, informed by their vastly contrasting views of humanity, and the work delivered by both actors heavily informs some of the most poignant moments of Nine Days. Their work on-screen, among many other qualities, helped turn Nine Days from a movie I was initially adverse to into one I won't be able to stop thinking about for a while.

The complexities of grief make for a great emotional bedrock for Three Colours: Blue


Not everyone deals with tragedy the same way.

Perhaps your first response is to sob uncontrollably. Maybe another's is to just stare blankly off into space, the emotions too weighty to fully process. For still another, they may devote themselves entirely to working, to keep their mind distracted from fully processing their new reality. All of these are valid coping mechanisms with processing unspeakable tragedy and show the varied nature of coping with unspeakable turmoil. One strain of managing these kinds of feelings is seen in the Three Colours: Blue, the first installment of director Krzysztof Kieślowski's widely acclaimed trilogy. If the subsequent entries are as good as Blue, it'll be easy to see why these movies are so revered.

Blue begins with Julie (Juliette Binoche) going off on a seemingly normal day as she, her composer husband, and her daughter head off for a day at the beach. Tranquility turns to tragedy when the trio is involved in a car accident that leaves Julie as the only survivor. Now, this woman has to pick up the pieces of her life and figure out where to go next. For Julie, coping with the past means cutting herself off from it completely. She doesn't exhibit pronounced emotions around others, she burns a score her husband was working on, and she moves into a new apartment where she keeps her real identity concealed. 

Her feelings are kept so close to the chest that, at one point, Juliet encounters a supporting character sobbing intensely because she wants to cry all the tears that Julie is not shedding. But just because she doesn't pour out her feelings at every moment doesn't mean Blue keeps Julie's feelings at bay. An early scene depicts the character in her hospital bed watching a recording of the funeral for her spouse and her child. As the camera lingers on the tiny coffin housing the corpse of her daughter, one of Julie's fingers press against the screen. Just with this tiny gesture, Binoche conveys not just all the loss Julie is feeling but why she would find these emotions so overwhelming that she'd want to keep them at bay.

Of course, Julie can't keep the past at arm's length forever and Kieślowski's screenplay finds many thoughtful ways to have the ripple effects of the past reverberate through this character's modern life. These include someone uncovering and continuing the work of her husband's unfinished score as well as the discovery that her husband was carrying on an affair with a woman named Sandrine. The latter scenario plays out in a most unexpected fashion that didn't just keep me glued to the edge of my seat, it also captivated me as an example of how much empathy Kieślowski extends to his characters. Sandrine isn't a one-dimensional antagonist, a punching bag for Julie to unload her woes on. In one scene, she's depicted as a complicated person whose story could serve as the crux of her own film.

This empathy goes hand-in-hand with the discernibly realistic qualities of these characters, who all do come across as naturalistic humans. "I'm like any other woman," Julie observes at one point. "I sweat. I cough. I've cavities." Those kinds of shortcomings are what make Julie's equally nuanced struggles with grief so interesting to watch. We're not witnessing a polished vision of what grief looks like, one that's distinctly detached from the complication of reality. There's something so fascinatingly authentic in what Kieślowski taps into, especially as someone who has dealt with a lot of loss in the past few years. 

The reminders of loved ones now gone don't just manifest in other human beings, Kieślowski also works those reflections of the past into the production design through rampant use of the color blue. The title is not just referring to a state of emotions, Three Colours: Blue is drenched in this particular hue as the color. There's a compelling quality to how the cinematography and production design utilize the shades of blue and it's also impressive how such a distinct visual choice is utilized without upending the naturalistic flow of the movie. Breaking down the use of color in Three Colours: Blue is as fascinating of an exercise as breaking down the differing relationships certain characters have with the past (such as Julie consciously tucking away her past while her Alzheimer's stricken mother struggles to hold onto hers). Just like with the feelings that come with loss, there's so much to unpack in Three Colours: Blue and all that unpacking will constantly keep your mind and soul occupied.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

What If…? is a poorly animated mixed bag with flashes of intriguing potential

 Kicking off in February 1977, What If has been a recurring comic book series for Marvel Comics that explores alternate scenarios of well-known events from Marvel mythology. These range from slight tweaks (what if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?) to flights of absurdist fancy (what if the original Marvel Comics writing team was the Fantastic Four?). Now, to ensure that Disney+ has nearly weekly doses of Marvel-themed TV programming, that concept has been adapted into the animated TV show What If…?

Guided by the hand of the cosmic being The Watcher (Jeffrey Wright), What If…? offers up alternate universes depicting what various eras and corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would look like if the tiniest changes had been made. For example, the first episode depicts a universe where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) got the super-soldier serum instead. Our second episode features T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) getting abducted into space as a kid and becoming Star-Lord while the third and final episode made available for critics depicts Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tackling a murder mystery that threatens The Avengers.

It’s always impossible to get a comprehensive feel from a TV show just by watching three episodes. But from this trio of installments, it’s already clear where What If…?’s strengths lie. The further these episodes get from just being rehashes of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, the better. The series premiere is the worst example of what happens when What If…? goes in the opposite direction. It’s all just a reheated version of Captain America: The First Avenger, with the possibilities of a new timeline failing to offer up new visions of characters like Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) or Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).

The most inspired bit in the whole episode comes in a dialogue-free action sequence where Peggy takes to the skies to fight HYDRA soldiers accompanied by Steve Rogers in a proto-Iron Man armor. A final action beat where she leaps onto her robotic ally has shades of Big Hero 6 and feels like something that could be only accomplished in animation. The rest is more stagnant and just mechanically checks off recreating big events from The First Avenger. Even a unique climax involving the Tesseract is merely just a rehash of the finale to the 2004 Hellboy movie.

Luckily, things pick up substantially once the second episode begins. Rather than just do a Guardians of the Galaxy movie but with T’Challa headlining the piece instead of Peter Quill, the writers opt to create a fresh new heist movie scenario. This comes complete with fun new visions of familiar Marvel Cinematic Universe staples. These include Nebula (Karen Gillan) taking on the enjoyable role of femme fatale, The Collector (Benicio del Toro) getting to be extra gregarious in his screentime, and one of the more notable baddies of the whole franchise getting reinvented as just a helpful lackey.

None of it’s revolutionary, but it does function as the best example of all the promises in What If…? Rather than retreading familiar ground with just a handful of twists, this episode uses a new face behind the Star-Lord mask as an excuse to go all-in on an entirely new storyline. It helps that the cosmic environments of this story are the most stylized backdrops in all three episodes and thus lend themselves best to being told through animation. The vastness of The Collector’s lair especially feels well-realized in this medium of storytelling.

The final of the three episodes lands somewhere in between its predecessors in terms of quality. Strangely, the biggest flaw of this murder mystery is how it doesn’t function all that well as, well, a murder mystery. The eventual resolution behind who the murderer is comes about abruptly with no real prior set-up. Without delving into spoilers, it involves a radically different occupation and fate for a Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero, neither of which have either been hinted at in any prior projects or get any sort of set-up here. The best mysteries hide clues in plain sight, this episode just conjures up a resolution out of thin air.

But there’s still a bit of fun to be had in this installment, especially with how the writers utilize the novelties of taking place in an alternate universe to commit to killing off notable superheroes. It’s also amusing to see events and locations from The Incredible Hulk get dragged back up after all these years while Lake Bell as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow is an inspired choice to take over the role from Scarlett Johansson. Major kudos to Bell for pulling off the hat trick of sounding like Johansson while injecting her distinct sense of wry humor into this version of Romanoff.

Throughout all three episodes, one significant drawback is the animation. What If…? employs computer animation meant to mimic hand-drawn animation while also retaining the physical appearances of the franchise’s live-action actors. The result is a visual style that’s too busy trying to channel a bunch of competing influences to ever look all that interesting. Trying to hew so closely to reality frequently robs the visuals of opportunities to embrace character designs that could only exist in animation.

Going the route of adhering to reality means that the characters themselves are extremely rigid-looking and frequently lack expressiveness in their faces. Everything is so buttoned-up in the designs and movements, why even do an animated show if you’re going to make it look this lifeless? What If…? doesn’t look so much like a costly premium-television show as it does a slightly more advanced version of the animation seen in Spider-Man: The New Animated Adventures two decades ago.

Perhaps all the money on the show went to the star-studded voice cast rather than the animation. What If…? see’s most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s actors return in voice-over form. Some of them are quite enjoyable, with Chadwick Boseman not missing a beat in translating his character’s personality through just vocals. Others, though, deliver lines in a manner that’s oddly detached from what’s happening on-screen. Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston are the most guilty of this, with the latter actor sounding like he’s recording his lines in a cave.

So far, What If…? is more subpar than super, especially when it comes to its visuals as well as several distractingly lackluster voice-over performances. But the promise of its second episode, as well as the best aspects of that murder mystery installment, suggest the better places What If…? could go. Once it embraces original storylines, as well as significantly better animation, then What If…? could really unlock the possibilities of the multiverse or even just diverting television storytelling.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Vivo will work just fine as toe-tapping cinema for youngsters


Remember four years ago when Sony Pictures Animation unleashed The Emoji Movie on the unsuspecting public? That felt like a nadir moment for the studio, an indication that they'd given up doing anything remotely interesting as a creator of Western animation. Then Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse happened followed closely by The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Suddenly, The Emoji Movie was a distant memory and replaced with a new creative direction that suggested genuinely bold animation. Vivo isn't up to par with Spider-Verse and Mitchells, but it's another sign that Sony Pictures Animation is certainly more ambitious than it used to be. Thank God, I couldn't have survived The Emoji Movie becoming a franchise.

The title of Vivo refers to a kinkajou (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda), whose plenty content singing and dancing in Cuba with his owner Andres (Juan de Marcos González). However, their lives get switched around when Andres gets a letter from his old crush, Marta Sandoval (Gloria Estefan). She wants this elderly musician to come to his final show. The prospect of leaving his cozy surroundings makes Vivo anxious, but he knows he has to help Andres. This is especially true when it falls on his shoulders to get a song Andres wrote for Marta to this singer all the way in Miami, Florida. To accomplish this trek, Vivo will have to team up with precocious youngster Gabriela (Ynairaly Simo).

Believe it or not, a project starring Lin-Manuel Miranda makes time for plenty of elaborate musical numbers. The screenplay by director Kirk DeMicco as well as Quiara Alegría Hudes (the latter of whom previously worked with Miranda by writing the book for In the Heights) has plenty of vibrant tunes, which also offer a chance for the most memorable pieces of animation in the whole production. Several of these ditties inspire characters to be accompanied by hand-drawn animation or stylized CG imagery that provide a pleasing departure from Vivo's definition of visual normalcy. Hooray for musicals that aren't afraid to get over the top!

If there's a problem with the writing, though, it's whenever it gets bogged down in familiar territory for animated kids' movies. The first act is pretty sturdy in both pacing and delivering unique character dynamics, not to mention delivering actual emotional beats that aren't afraid to just be sad without any jokes undercutting the mood. But then Vivo gets to Florida and this is where the plot gets wobblier. The introduction of a trio of antagonistic Girl Scouts around the 40-minute mark begins to take Vivo into more derivative terrain. How many times have we seen these kinds of characters before as well as a big loud chase scene set through suburbia? 

Once Gabi and Vivo get lost in a swamp, the proceedings take on an episodic quality as Vivo encounters a handful of other critters, like lovestruck spoonbills and a villainous snake, that seem to be around just to ensure there are more characters that marketers can make toys out of. Worst of all, the songs are less present here and what tunes we do get don't make use of stylized animation. Vivo isn't bad in its middle-stretch but it's a lot less creative and fails to utilize the melodies it can really croon to. Luckily, things pick back up for a third-act mad rush to Marta Sandoval that's formulaic but at least fits the tone of the earliest scenes and deliver some catchy ditties to tap your toes to.

While Vivo will be a touch too predictable to be the next Soul or Wolfwalkers for grown-ups, it's easy to see that this will at least strike a chord with youngsters, who will probably turn Gabi's self-confident musical number My Own Drum into their new go-to power anthem. Plus, the whole thing looks pretty to the eyes and the voice cast is uniformly solid, with Ynairaly Simo and Zoe Saldana being the standouts as Gabi and Gabi's mother Rosa. The entirety of Vivo could've risen to the quality of Miranda's best musicals if director Kirk DeMicco had been bold enough to follow its own melody more often. But at its best, Vivo does deliver some enjoyable musical entertainment, and at its worst, well, at least Vivo remains painless even then. It's certainly a step up from The Emoji Movie!

Friday, August 6, 2021

James Gunn delivers a delightfully gruesome yet heartfelt blockbuster with The Suicide Squad


There were a lot of things I expected from The Suicide Squad, but I never thought it would be spliced up into titled segments like a Wes Anderson movie!

That's one of many surprises nestled within the newest movie from James Gunn, which is quintessentially ripped from the filmmaker's ID and prior works. Otherworldly visitors that can control human beings? Check. Something shady going down in a South American location that exploits how much or how little human beings care about one another? Check. A gaggle of comic book characters forced to work together to stop some great evil? Also check. No cartoon cats that want to make out with Josh Duhamel, though. Sorry folks.

Rather than rendering The Suicide Squad a Greatest Hits compilation of Gunn's prior works, though, the presence of these elements is a testament to how much this director has put his own personality into the proceedings. Plus, if you've seen the best of Gunn's preceding directorial efforts, then you know he can inject so much fun into his cinema. That's just what he's brought to The Suicide Squad, which is a rollicking good time soaked with both blood and affection for its costumed weirdos. 

The Suicide Squad picks up with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) using an assortment of incarcerated supervillains to infiltrate the fictional South American country of Corto Maltese. Among these evildoers are Bloodspot (Idris Elba), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), the violent patriotic Peacemaker (John Cena), the quietly tormented Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior). Given a bomb in their neck that will go off if they don't follow all of Waller's orders, this motley crew must eliminate some world-threatening scientific endeavor known as Project Starfish. Of course, given that this crew includes a giant shark who wants to eat anything in sight, that could be a little tricky.

The Suicide Squad continues Gunn's streak of loading up a story with all kinds of grimy dark humor and bleakness but counterbalancing all of that with genuine moments of sweetness. This is especially apparent in Ratcatcher 2, who early on states that she'd rather die from trusting others than living a detached life. That's the thing I enjoy most about Gunn's works. Even going back to the days of Slither, the guy regularly puts on the airs in his movies of being too cool for schmaltz before revealing a softer side that does, in fact, pride the idea of people working together or sacrificing themselves. That always makes for a fun combination, especially in a project like The Suicide Squad.

This particular production also sees Gunn returning to R-rated territory for the first time since Super in April 2011. Comic book movies with R-ratings are no longer unprecedented thanks to the Deadpool movies, Birds of Prey, and Logan. However, there is a uniqueness to how Gunn utilizes all the wacky possibilities of R-rated carnage. He unleashes a flurry of gory mayhem more akin to an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon than something aiming to use the more adult-friendly rating for more "realistic" means. It's mighty entertaining to watch the various ways limbs go flying across the screen, particularly in an opening sequence that establishes just how vividly violent the proceedings will be.

Similarly, it's also cool how Gunn uses the loopy psychological headspace of Harley Quinn as an excuse to dabble in more stylized visuals for The Suicide Squad's most memorable hand-to-hand fight scene. As Quinn lays waste to too many goons to count, brightly-colored hand-drawn flowers and birds accompany her carnage. The vivid color palette makes for a giddily madcap contrast to all the bloodshed she unleashes as well as an effective way to contrast her big fight scene to all the other action sequences in the proceedings. It's also a great showcase for just how superbly Margot Robbie has come into this role, she's on par with Christopher Reeve as Superman in terms of perfect comic book movie casting.

The whole cast of The Suicide Squad delivers sublime work that helps the film click as a whole. Gunn leans hard on the rapport between the individual players and that pays off in dividends thanks to richly detailed turns from people like Daniela Melchior. Also great to see Idris Elba finally get a substantive role in a big-budget production that utilizes his gifts as an actor, what a concept! The standout of the main ensemble, however, is David Dastmalchian, whose quietly tormented depiction of Polka Dot Man is such a thoughtfully realized creation. Every time he walks on-screen, you just wanna give him a hug. In the hands of this actor, a DC Comics punchline becomes someone far more fascinating.

The Suicide Squad isn't a perfect film, because those don't exist. A handful of the needle drops and jokes don't quite work as well as they could. Plus, though it's very cool to see a big comic book movie explicitly tackle a political issue like imperialism (and coming down decidedly against it), I'd be curious to hear from South American writers how the film's portrayal of Corto Maltese (a fictitious country) aligns with long-established American cinema stereotypes about individuals from South America.

What needs to work in The Suicide Squad, though, works like gangbusters and it's just so fun to watch, especially since Gunn keeps delivering a bunch of effective pathos to accompany all the moments where King Shark graphically devours human beings. Suffice it to say, The Suicide Squad is slightly better than its predecessor, even without "my bodyguard Katana...who can cut you down like she's mowing the lawn."

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The flawed but interesting Annette has ambition to spare (SPOILERS)


Annette begins by letting you know exactly what kind of movie it is. Ron Mael and Russell Mael of the band Sparks begin singing the tune So May We Start, a self-referential ditty that foretells what's to come in its bonkers plot with lyrics like "A tale of songs and fury/with no tabboo/we'll sing and die for you/all in minor key." Initially beginning with just Sparks and some backup singers, the main cast members (Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg) gradually join in as the singing moves outside. All told in an extended single-take, it's a visually evocative set piece peppered with lyrics both amusing ("So ladies and gents/shut up and sit") and toe-tapping. Through this bravura opening, Annette prepares you for something unusual and fascinating.

From there, we get to meet some of the people who just sang for us. Driver is playing Henry McHenry, a stand-up comic with the glib stage persona of Steven Wright mixed in with some Bo Burnham. McHenry is in love with Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer who's now carrying the duo's child. Everything seems great in the lives of these two celebrities, but darkness is bubbling under the surface from McHenry. After the birth of their daughter Annette, all of that barely-concealed torment begins to bubble to the surface just as it turns out their offspring has an incredible musical gift. This discovery will trigger McHenry's desire to treat the people around him like objects and upend his life forever.

If you've seen the documentary The Sparks Brothers or been exposed to any of director Leos Carax's prior movies, you know that Annette is going to be an unabashedly strange creation. Indeed, decision to present the character Annette as a wooden puppet who looks like Chucky crossed with a Gelfling as realized by Rankin-Bass lives up to those expectations. And yet, I, surprisingly, wanted it to get a little weirder. Some of the plot developments, namely the sudden demise of Ann, felt too familiar for a movie leaning so hard on its own eccentricities to carry the day. The spirit is willing to get weird in Annette, but its derivative narrative hiccups are weak. 

Taking the film into a more abstract direction could've also helped mitigate the problem of Henry McHenry being a bit too much as a character we have to spend 144 minutes with. Driver's great in the role and the film is decidedly not painting him as sympathetic. However, there are already so many toxic dudes in the real world leveraging their show business cred to hurt women. You really have to deliver an outstanding narrative to justify centering a whole 2.5-hour long film around this kind of figure and Annette can't quite get there. There was never quite enough depth or even just memorably odd imagery to distract my mind from wondering why this plot wasn't centered on the perspectives of either Annette or Ann.

But while Annette does have its struggles keeping its story going for its elongated runtime, it's also got moments that truly shine. A scene where The Conductor (Simon Helberg) sings to the viewer about his own suspicions over Ann's demise while conducting an orchestra, all captured in a spinning 360-degree shot, is just terrific. Helberg's performance conveys such raw emotion, the didactic lyrics feel appropriate for his psychological headspace, and the camerawork enhances the ambiance in this scene rather than feeling like surface-level visual trickery. Really, most of the music in Annette is splendid, and Carax's commitment to depicting characters crooning while doing mundane things (like sitting on the toilet or having sex) is one of the film's highlights.

This approach to the singing certainly makes Annette an unorthodox musical and this level of recurring bravura had me yearning that the movie as a whole clicked more for me. But the good parts of Annette will stick around in my mind for a good long while to come, particularly Helberg's performance, which shockingly rises to the top of a cast that includes Adam Driver. Way to go Howard! Plus, Annette reminded me how cool it is that a band as distinctive as Sparks is getting a late-career renaissance and, if nothing else, this movie delivered that memorable So May We Start musical number. Many musicals can't even deliver one notable tune, let alone one as good as that, that's certainly a major point in favor of the flawed but interesting Annette.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

David Lowery delivers stunning visuals and melancholy contemplation with The Green Knight

If you've seen a medieval fantasy film in the last decade, you know what exactly you're getting into. Projects like Game of Thrones have established a default visual aesthetic that few of these projects want to deviate from. Minimal color, lots of grime everywhere,  an emphasis on gritty reality. Those qualities can be interesting in the proper feature, but it's time for something new. Enter writer/director David Lowery with The Green Knight. Adapting the 14th-century text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery has developed a fantasy film with an aesthetic so distinct it feels like the kind of movie that will soon spawn imitators clamoring to match its power. Good luck to such productions, as The Green Knight sets a high bar to clear.

Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris). He is not the most storied figure to be involving in Arthur's life. In fact, Gawain has no legends to his name and wishes for a chance to establish his sense of honor. This opportunity comes knocking (literally) once The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) barges in to Arthur's chambers on Christmas Day and challenges any of the men present to land a blow on him. Gawain embraces the challenge and slices off The Green Knight's head. After doing so, this wooden warrior reminds Gawain that, in a year's time, their game will be completed. This is when Gawain will come to The Green Church and allow The Green Knight to land a blow against him.

Flash forward a year and Gawain is petrified over the thought of confronting The Green Knight. But the time has come. Gawain must make a six-day journey to meet this figure and cement his "honor". Along the way, Gawain has a series of encounters that challenge his preconcieved notions of what it means to be a "hero" and live an "honorable" life.

Though hewking closely to its ancient source material, The Green Knight still manages to cover similar thematic territory to prior Lowery movies. An existential aura contemplating the purpose of living was previously seen in Lowery's A Ghost Story while an exploration of a deeply vulnerable human underneath a legendary reputation was the crux of his 2018 film The Old Man and the Gun. Excitingly, what The Green Knight reminded me of more than anything else was 1960s animated fare like Fantastic Planet or The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Like with those films, The Green Knight's imagery is seemingly limited only by the imagination of its director. 

Anything is possible here in terms of imagery and the limitless nature of those visuals result in a film that's just stunning to behold. I especially love how Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo lather Gawain's journey with such evocative use of bright colors. Rather than using a toned-down color palette to convey a sense that this a fantasy movie for "grown-ups", The Green Knight employs, among other hues, a bright red aura for Gawain's nighttime dip into a lake while a yellow coating covers the screen as our protagonist gets closer and closer to the Green Knight's lair. The use of colors alone spark the imagination and dazzle the eyes.

Even better, Lowery tells The Green Knight in a way that allow the visuals to tell the story. This is a methodical tale that takes its time, it's more about vibes than hurried plotting. That suits me just fine, especially since it allowed me to appreciate the finer details in the camerawork like the detail put into those 360 degree shots! The atmosphere and the visuals are just as much the stars of The Green Knight as Dev Patel and those two elements justify their heavy presence and then some! The production design and costume work also come through spectacularly, with the latter facet also making great use of all those vivid colors to create outfits I've never seen before in a fantasy movie.

The visuals are luscious here in The Green Knight, particularly in the incredible practical visual effects work (such as the outstanding makeup work to realize the titular creature) used to bring this world to life. Simialrly top-notch are the performances, with Dev Patel especially shining in a richly-detailed turn as Gawain. He may inhabit a world full of giants and tree beings, but Patel's portrayal of Gawain struggling to figure out how he can leave a mark in a world full of legendary beings feels all too authentic. As with the best characters in fantasy storytelling, Patel excels in conveying the deeply human in fantastical surroundings. 

Patel makes for a great vessel for Lowery to explore not just wondrous imagery but also to contemplate how we define an "honorable" life. The various figures Gawain encounters on his quest reflect the complexities of this mental exercise, particularly since some, like an unnamed scavenger (Barry Kheogan) who lose his siblings in a war, have been horrendously affected by powerful individuals who see their actions as "honorable". Can your life really be honorable if it means sowing the blood of others? On a more personal level for Gawain, is ignoring a woman (played by Alicia Vikander in one of her two roles) who loves you "honorable" just because she doesn't have what society considers a "proper" profession? Is causing pain and suffering the only way conventional society define "honor"? Is that something worth pursuing?

The Green Knight stews over these ideas as well other weighty concepts (such as paganism vs. traditional Christianity) with enough quiet heft to leave any moviegoer ruminating over these notions long after they leave the theater. Lowery goes about this contemplation without flinching at bleak answers, but not at the expense of delivering an unabashedly old-school fantasy adventure. As much a feast for the eyes as it is for the brain, The Green Knight is not like any fantasy film you've ever seen. It's about what you'd expect from a fantasy movie directed by the filmmaker behind A Ghost Story and I mean that as the highest possible compliment! 

In Laman's Terms: A look back at the August 2011 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!

You don't realize just how much the film business has changed in ten years until you look back on the box office landscape of August 2011.

Think about this: in August 2011, the thought of movies debuting on streaming services was a fairy tale. Netflix was still two years away from dropping its first original TV series. Disney had never distributed a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Hell, Disney hadn't bought Star Wars yet! It was a whole different world of cinema. With so much distance between then and the present, now is an opportune time to look at August 2011, what worked and what didn't in this month, as well as how this slate of movies compared to what's on the slate for theatrical release in August 2021.

In August 2011, only two new releases managed to crack $100 million. This is actually one thing that hasn't shifted much in the last decade as only two movies crossed that threshold in August 2018. The biggest movie of the month was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which grossed $176.7 million, a sum that narrowly eclipsed the costlier July 2011 blockbusters Captain America: The First Avenger and Cowboys & Aliens. The runner-up for the month was sleeper smash The Help, which grossed $169.7 million domestically. Though (correctly) recognized as a white savior movie today by even its own cast members, The Help was a phenomenon on the big screen a decade ago. Some culture shifts inspire dread. The fact that The Help wouldn't get such a pass a decade later is actually a tad encouraging.  

Amusingly, no other new releases this month cracked $50 million domestically. There's over $125 million between the second and third-biggest movies of August 2011, with the latter title going to the $42.5 million haul of Final Destination 5. Though today widely recognized as the best entry in the series (even initial critical marks were solid), Final Destination 5 sunk the series to a new domestic box office low. After a decade of dormancy,  a sixth entry is reportedly in development. If any upcoming Warner Bros./New Line Cinema project seems primed for an HBO Max launch, it's this one.

Fourth for the month is the ill-fated Spy Kids 4-D: All the Time in the World, with just $38.5 million. One of many instances of The Weinstein Company trying and failing to launch a family movie success, this one was mainly held back by poor timing. Nobody was demanding more Spy Kids circa. 2011, but in the modern pop culture landscape, when kids who saw the original Spy Kids in theaters are now grown-ups with disposable income, another installment could be a nostalgia-fueled hit.

Fifth and sixth place for the month are The Change-Up and 30 Minutes or Less, a pair of R-rated comedy box office nonstarters. It was odd that August 2011 saw such financial struggles for yukfests given that the preceding summertime months had been crammed with R-rated comedy hits. For every Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses, there must be a 30 Minutes or Less. There's not much to say about the rest of the top ten biggest movies of the month beyond, hey, Our Idiot Brother existed. 

The only other wide release of note in the month is Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, the lowest-grossing wide release of August 2011. With just $11.8 million, this was a clear sign that the bloom was off the rose for the Glee franchise. Meanwhile, my assessment that 2008-2012 were a dark age for American indie cinema (due to the closure of major indie movie studios like Paramount Vantage) seems to bear out with how little impact any limited release titles had in this month. 

True, August is usually an awkward period for arthouse fare, given that this is just before all the big fall festivals arrive. But even August 2019 saw movies like Brittany Runs a Marathon, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Luce all crack $2 million in their domestic runs. The closest August 2011 had to an indie crossover hit was the documentary Senna, which grossed $1.6 million despite never playing in more than 47 theaters. The Rachel Weisz film The Whistleblower did manage to crack $1.1 million despite also having a restrictive heater count of just 70 locations. Both titles show there was an audience for arthouse fare, it's just that there weren't A24's, NEON's, or Miramax's at that moment to satisfy those desires.

Having now run down the films of August 2011 on their own merits, how does this slate compare to the collection of films released theatrically in August 2019 and 2021? Well, there's good and bad news here. In both 2011 and 2019 (the last August we have full box office data on), a big-budget blockbuster released in the first weekend of the month dominated all titles. The more things change, and all that. There's also nothing even reminiscent of The Help (a mid-budget adult drama) in the August 2019 line-up, though August 2021 at least has the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect to provide more grounded drama fare for those who don't want to see Free Guy.

On the other hand, 2011 was already when several key changes had occurred in Hollywood (in response to the 2008 economic recession) that resulted in the consolidation of studios and certain mid-budget genres getting eschewed entirely (notice how there aren't any romantic-comedies in that top ten). Thus, there isn't a drastic difference in some respects in what was popular in August 2011 and what's on the deck for theatrical release in August 2021, the biggest departure there being the total lack of R-rated comedies in August 2021. 

Interestingly, one thankful improvement is that the indie scene has expanded a bit since August 2011. The start of the 2010s was part of a dark age for American indie cinema and that, thankfully, improved a smidge with the introduction of Amazon Studios, A24, and NEON into the scene in the last few years before the COVID-19 pandemic. August 2021 looks light on major arthouse fare (only Annette looks like it could make a major impact and who knows how many theaters Amazon is putting it in), but, thankfully, September and the rest of the months after that genuinely do look like business as usual for arthouse fare in terms of what's scheduled for theatrical release.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There are some stark contrasts to the current moviegoing landscape when looking back on August 2011, some for the better, some for the worse. In addition to those changes, there are also constants, like audiences turning out for documentaries in theaters as well as people really liking to see widely-marketed blockbusters on the big screen. Diving into the past makes one realize the complicated relationship between the past and the present. It also makes one wonder why on Earth anyone at Sony/Columbia thought 30 Minutes or Less was gonna work as a comedy premise. Dark comedies have been made in the past, sure, but one's that revolve around a guy with a bomb on his chest? That alone feels like it should be the movie's hook but then you throw in the forced bank robbery on top of that? I know director Ruben Fleischer was high off the success of Zombieland but that still feels like a bit of an overstuffed premise to spend $28 million on.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

A look at the domestic box office of July 2021

It appears that the domestic box office amassed $582.1 million in July 2021.  That's a tremendous 45% increase from the haul of June 2021 and almost triple the $209.2 million that May 2021 brought in. It is, however, a steep fall from past July's, exempting 2020, you'd have to go all the way back to July 1992 to find a worse-performing July. However, none of those prior July's were coming off a pandemic and had to deal with movies getting simultaneous releases on premium-video-on-demand services.

There actually was quite a bit of good news to go around this month, including the fact that Black Widow's opening weekend, at least, was in line with pre-pandemic grossers. Meanwhile, a trio of different movies cracked $30 million on opening weekend while titles like Roadrunner: The Anthony Bourdain Story, Pig and The Green Knight confirmed that non-blockbusters were still viable on the big screen. Even better is that it doesn't seem unreasonable to suspect that the month-to-month increases that have been happening for the last four months will occur again between July and August. Normally, August makes significantly less than July, but more major titles are opening exclusively in theaters next month, which could give it a leg up over July.

Of course, there were also shortcomings to the month, though they have to be approached delicately given the highly unusual circumstances of the current marketplace. For starters, most movies just don't have legs right now. Most titles, even theatrical-exclusive ones like Snake Eyes had 60+% second-weekend drops. That doesn't mean big-screen movies will never exhibit long-term staying power again, but right now, it's extremely difficult to develop them. It seems like people most comfortable with going to the theater are the ones going to the cinemas on opening weekend. Those that would go in subsequent weekends, they're the ones still on the fence about going to the multiplex.

It's also hard to parse out if the Delta variant of the COVID-19 pandemic is having a substantial impact on the theatrical industry. The July 23-25 frame, in which Old topped the box office, initially was perceived as an indicator of this variant taking a toll on the marketplace. However, the following weekend, overperforming debuts from Jungle Cruise and The Green Knight seemed to indicate that things were a bit more stable in the world of theatrical exhibition. The weeks ahead will be where it gets more apparent what kind of influence this variant is having on the marketplace. 

Additionally, it's currently unclear how wide release projects that aren't PG-13 blockbusters or horror movies will fare theatrically. I personally believe that any movie that looks appealing to moviegoers can thrive financially no matter the genre but that's impossible to quantify in data. You need examples of romantic comedies, thrillers, dramas, music biopics, etc. making money on the big screen in North America. So far, we haven't had any of those, with Hollywood opting to lean on two genres that have been the most reliably successful in the years directly preceding the pandemic. We won't get a ton of attempts to provide those kinds of examples in August but at least Respect and Resminscence could offer some clarity on what kind of movies audiences want to see theatrically.  

The domestic box office is in a state of ongoing recovery, the miraculous sudden return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy is not happening and it was likely foolish to ever expect it to happen. But people are still showing up to the movie theater, as seen by how three of the five weekends in July saw a new release debut to over $30 million. Things are constantly evolving in this marketplace and the next phase of that evolution will be seeing what the box office looks like when the majority of movies are theatrical exclusives. 

While Warner Bros. is sticking to simultaneous HBO Max debuts for its titles through the end of the year, they'll soon be the exception and not the rule. Starting with Free Guy, Walt Disney Pictures titles will be theatrical exclusives. Meanwhile, notable studios like STX Entertainment and MGM will release their first movies in months in the next six weeks, both of which will be theatrical exclusives. There's a lot of commitment to the big screen experience arriving in the near future and it'll be intriguing to see what the box office looks like when these titles bow. If the last few months, including July 2021, are any indication, the results won't be on par with the pre-pandemic box office. However, it will still show reassuring growth reasserting the value of this way of experiencing cinema. Onto August 2021!

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Jungle Cruise is a way bumpier ride than it should be

There's a sense of artificiality to the entirety of Jungle Cruise that I found impossible to look past. Jungle Cruise stars two actors trying their best to emulate golden age movie stars while trading wry sarcastic quips and inhabiting overly-apparent digital domains trying mightily to capture what the Amazon looks like. There isn't much naturality here, Jungle Cruise is trying so hard to transport audiences to a land of wonder but the screenplay is direly lacking in transportive qualities. The only places the screenplay by Michael Green and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa takes us are avenues reminding the audience of older superior movies.

Based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name, Jungle Cruise starts in 1916 as Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a determined botanist who is hunting down the Tree of Life, whose petals can cure all diseases. Armed with her timid brother MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall), the duo trek down to South America where they recruit the help of boat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to get to their mystical destination. The reluctant Wolff agrees to the mission with plenty of groanworthy puns and his own scheme in mind. Meanwhile, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is hunting down Houghton after she stole an artifact that could lead him to the Tree of Life. He'll do anything to get his hands on this item...including raising some undead conquistadors (led by Édgar Ramírez). 

The best thing about Jungle Cruise is at least it isn't a grim and gritty affair. This is something aiming for the aesthetic of your average Disney World ride, it's not looking to ground things in reality. The unabashedly lighthearted vibes are welcome and make the people-pleaser qualities of the production easier to stomach. At least director Jaume Collet-Serra and company clearly just want to deliver a good time to families rather than making something that isn't your Daddy's Jungle Cruise. In its better moments, like the unapologetically cutesy moments involving an endearing but ferocious CGI jaguar, there's charm to be had here.

Unfortunately, the Jungle Cruise ride isn't the only piece of Disney theme park pop culture this feature is emulating. Collet-Serra's Jungle Cruise also takes the worst kind of cues from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. The runtime is too long, there are too many villains (there's even a collection of undead adversaries), some of the comedy feels too forced. The excessive length is especially trying, particularly since it's easy to see what could be cut. A mid-movie exposition dump involving a tragic backstory for the lead of the conquistadors and even the nearby harbor town Wolff calls home are both totally unnecessary. 

Some of the banter between Blunt and Johnson could have also been cut since the two don't have that much in the way of chemistry. Tragically, the latter actor is actually the ingredient here that keeps dragging Jungle Cruise down. Johnson can be a lot of fun on-screen, especially when he's in movies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Rampage where he's delivering the most absurd lines with excessive confidence. Self-deprecating Dad jokes aren't quite his area of expertise, though, and neither is trying to do his own version of The African Queen with Blunt. Wolff either needed to be rewritten to fit better with Johnson's talents or another actor needed to be found for this part, Jungle Cruise leans too heavily on its performers to excuse Johnson's severe miscasting.

The best part of the cast, on the other hand, is Jesse Plemons portraying our main villain. Chewing the scenery and then coming back for seconds, Plemons evokes Hank Azaria in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in delivering an unabashedly gonzo kids movie villain performance. Armed with the voice of Werner Herzog and the short-temper of Donald Duck, Plemons has a blast here doing everything from mispronouncing the word jungle to yelling at a bumblebee. He's a hoot. Also fun is Paul Giamatti is an all-too small role as a harbormaster. Every movie should have Giamatti show up briefly to be over-the-top and speak in an accent that's entertainingly hard to pinpoint (I think he's supposed to be Italian?)

Many of these actors inhabit a gigantic practically-realized set that's apparently one of the largest ever constructed for a movie. That's cool! Unfortunately, the majority of the environments in Jungle Cruise are entirely digital and it's distractingly apparent. A big climax set in a CG cave with the heroes duking it out with entirely CG baddies often looks like a cutscene from a video game from twenty years ago. Maybe some of the money used for that one big set could've been spread out and used to find an actual cave to film in? Or even just on polishing up the screenplay so it didn't rely so heavily on surface-level references to classic movies like The African Queen, Romancing the Stone, and The Mummy? Reminding one of great movies is not the same thing as actually being a great movie. 

It's weird to see a $200+ million-budgeted movie look this slipshod and it's even more puzzling when you consider how the film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. When he was making taut thrillers like The Shallows and Run All Night on smaller budgets, Collet-Serra showed real creativity and visual panache. Give him all the expensive toys Disney can muster, though, and he delivers something that's too often hollow when it should be exhilarating. There are fun parts to Jungle Cruise; Emily Blunt's commitment to physical comedy is commendable, for example, and James Newton Howard's thrilling score is perfect for a retro-adventure film. But Jungle Cruise is a step down from Collet-Serra's prior works as well as an example of a movie that needed to chase its own artistic ambitions rather than just emulating the past.