Friday, October 29, 2021

The French Dispatch serves up humorous and melancholy European tales


"I can no longer imagine being a grown-up in my parents world."

The French Dispatch begins with death. Specifically, the demise of Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), the founder and editor of the newspaper The French Dispatch. With him now being deceased, this iconic publication will also soon cease to exist. The issue containing his obituary will also be the final gasp for The French Dispatch. The film that follows, the 10th directorial effort from Wes Anderson, brings to life the segments within that concluding issue, with much of the focus going into three extended stories.

The first of these tales concerns a prisoner, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), who's also a brilliant artist and finding his works to be in high demand from rich collectors. The next story focuses on a rebellion from college-aged youngsters (their slogan is "the youth are grumpy") against the French government. This gets reported on by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who finds herself constantly trying to maintain objectivity but always getting lured into this student protest. Finally, there's the ballad of Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), whose endeavor to report on police cooking ends up getting him ensnared in a much larger kidnapping plot!

Across these assorted tales are the constant concepts of death and loneliness. Throughout The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson is conveying the idea that what unites us all is that we're all going to die and we're all prone to feeling alone. It's a melancholy anchor for a story that's jam-packed with whimsical and fanciful touches, the kind that Anderson has made his bread-and-butter. But Anderson's works don't just get by on their eccentricities. They get you to care about unorthodox hotel managers, stop-motion animated foxes, and precocious High Schoolers who organize stage play adaptations of Serpico. The French Dispatch, with its irresistible balance of the farcical and poignancy, is an exquisite depiction of Anderson's tonal complexities.  

What informs the power of the emotions this go-around is the emphasis on everyday people and objects. Journalism, like most art forms, is meant to make us look at the world around us in a different manner. A good piece of writing should make us gaze upon buildings, people, countries, or anything else with a more observant eye. The French Dispatch is an ode not to figures of legends, but folks who can slip through the cracks of history. Prisoners. Rebel leaders. A chef with an iron stomach. Immigrants. Combining these stories with the emphasis on mortality lends a bittersweet quality to the proceedings, but also an emotionally stirring aura as well. None of us will be here forever, but we've all still got a story to tell.

The care with which Anderson handles these concepts is matched by the apparent craftsmanship on display in the visuals. Shocking nobody at this point in his career, The French Dispatch is absolutely gorgeous in eye candy. Even the murkiest alleyway is covered in purple paint, a hive of rats next to train tracks can burst with bright hues, while a student rebellion is often depicted as a stage play, complete with parts of the set getting shuffled off of the screen. The ornately blocked and staged sets reflect the core theme of The French Dispatch, as all environments, no matter how seemingly disposable, get rendered with such affection. Bonus points too for employing brief bursts of color during black-and-white segments that echoed Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor, never a bad thing to remind me of Samuel Fuller! 

Along with his superb visual style, Anderson has also maintained his affinity for sprawling ensemble casts from his last two movies, with a bunch of Anderson regulars (Owen Wilson, Murray, Tilda Swinton, etc.) cropping up here alongside newcomers like Timothee Chalamet and Benicio del Toro. The singularity of Anderson's style as a filmmaker is wonderfully manifested by this collection of performers. It's hard to pick just one performance that's the absolute best in this project. Adrien Brody maybe got the biggest laugh from me with his confusion over how parole hearings are conducted while I could listen to Jeffrey Wright read a telephone book, I'll just say that.

Something else worth mentioning is the variety of art forms reflected here. Though a love letter to journalists and French cinema, The French Dispatch is also a big warm hug to all forms of art that people use to express themselves and, maybe, just maybe, make the world a bit more manageable. Anderson's camera shows such a fondness for all types of artistic expression, from painting to cooking to stage plays. This expansive approach to art is a boon to the film in several ways, including making sure the individual segments don't just feel like rehashes of one another. But they also help reflect the universality of the central concepts The French Dispatch is grappling with. The passions may vary from one artistic field to another, but we're all prone to death, loneliness, heartache, and other emotional sensations, as seen in a third-act scene between Wright and Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park).

Judging from its title and Anderson's love for paying tribute to other films, I wasn't surprised that The French Dispatch was packed with tributes to French cinema. I caught nods to Tout Va Bien and Le Bonheur, among many others. But one French film I didn't expect The French Dispatch to evoke was BPM (Beats per Minute), specifically in a tear-inducing conclusion that brings together the leads of the individual stories to touchingly suggest how death isn't necessarily the end of our lives. The way we touch others, whether it's through our actions or writing, or any other means, leaves ripple effects that linger long after our souls have departed this mortal coil.

The French Dispatch takes place against a world that's full of sorrow and problems, like violent altar boys drunk off communion wine or art dealers who only see the value of painting through dollars and cents. Being so cognizant of that makes this one of Anderson's most melancholy works. But being similarly aware, like in the conclusion to BPM (Beats per Minute) also ensures there's more than a kernel of hope in there. A work as varied in tone as it is in visuals, The French Dispatch is absolutely wonderful, a microcosm of the complexities and joy that make Wes Anderson such an incredible filmmaker.

Appendix: The French Dispatch has maybe the best use of the phrase "silly goose" ever in a movie?

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Rescue doesn't need any help being compelling documentary filmmaking


"They're both bad decisions...but one is more horrible than the other."

So goes a line from one of the interview subjects of The Rescue, a documentary chronicling the true story of how deep-sea divers pulled off a rescue mission of 13 kids trapped in a cave in Thailand. The comment refers to a discussion with the countries leader, whose struggling to figure out the best way to handle this tricky and time-senstivie operation. There were nothing but nail-biter scenarios in this endeavor, as everyone navigated situations that would be deemed implausible if they happened in a fictional film. Told through footage captured during the impossible task, The Rescue makes the struggles, improbablity, and courage of this entire event totally palpable.

In June 2018, 12 kids and the assistant coach of their soccer team became trapped in the Tham Luang cave. Initally, it seemed impossible to get these youngsters out, but an unlikely group would soon provide a sense of hope. John Volanthen and Richard Stanton were a couple of British divers who dove deep into dark trenches and holes for weekend fun. They weren't thinking they were cultivating skills to save lives. But they were soon called upon to lead a team of divers that could get these kids out of the cave and back to the surface. Nothing in this operation was easy, and more often than not, solutions to tricky problems (like how to get the kids to remain still while they're taken underwater from the cave) sound incedulous rather than feasible.

Taking a chronological approach to capturing this event, The Rescue directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin never let go of the enormous gravity of this situation. Everything that can go wrong in this scenario does, including Volanthen and Stanton briefly planning trips home when it looks like the kids might have died in the caves. This is a documentary functioning as a recreation of the intense ambiance that gripped everyone involved in this rescue mission. It proves enormously successful in that front, especially since there's an open vulnerability to the interview subjects that constantly reminds the viewer that everyday human beings are in charge of pulling off this Herculean task.

This is especially true of anything dealing with Volanthen, Stanton, and the other divers from Europe that come to trek through the perilous caves. Rather than serve as a hagiographic ode to their actions, The Rescue see's these guys openly talking about how they were often in over their heads or disagreeing on what the right course of action was. It's also interesting how the documentary gracefully interweaves aspects of their personal lives into this story without it feeling like a distraction. Most successfully of these is a poignant anecdote about how one of the diver's lost his father just as a moment of triumph occurred in this rescue operation.

Sometimes, you don't need an elaborate equation or a dense review to explain why a movies good. The Rescue's got such a compelling real-life story that it would've taken especially clumsy hands to fumble bringing this documentary to life. Luckily, Vasarhelyi and Chin are anything but clumsy in making a film that focuses on the humanity behind a story that dominated news headlines. Making great use of richly vulnerable interviews and visceral footage captured during this event, The Rescue is a quality documentary, pure and simple. 

Last Night in Soho scares best when it leans on visuals


Initially, the prospect of director Edgar Wright helming a horror movie may seem like a drastic change of course for the director behind comedies containing lines like "Freeze! Vegan police!" But horror has always played a part in Wright's most famous works. Shaun of the Dead is a zombie movie pastiche, while the other two entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Hot Fuzz and The World's End) also utilized the visual language of this genre. Considering all that, Wright's Last Night in Soho is less of an overhaul of Wright's style as it is a lateral move for the filmmaker. Previous Wright movies were comedies with moments of horror, this is a horror movie with moments of comedy.

Last Night in Soho follows country girl Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who has dreams of being a fashion designer in London. However, she's constantly haunted by visions of her deceased mom and, more pressingly, has an obsession with the past, specifically, the 1960s. When she arrives at a prestigious fashion academy in London, Eloise finds herself so isolated by her classmates and dorm roommate that she ends up packing her things and settling in a small room elsewhere. Here, Eloise begins to have nighttime fantasies where she inhabits the body of Sandy (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young woman coming to London in the 1960s with dreams of being a music superstar.

Initially, it all feels like a dream come true, as Eloise gets whisked away in her slumber to a past that seems more welcoming than a present defined by trauma and social anxiety. But soon, it becomes clear things aren't all peachy-keen in the past. Eloise is going to have to confront the darkness lurking in her trips to the 1960s, especially once the past begins seeping into her daytime life.

Edgar Wright's gift for visuals has been apparent throughout his career. His comedies have lively editing, Baby Driver's chase scenes practically sprinted off the screen with such kinetic camerawork. No surprise, then, that Wright proves adept at making a horror movie that works so well at just being a hub for vibes. And not just eerie vibes too. As Eloise first makes her way into a nightclub from decades past, the director (who penned the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) wisely largely eschews dialogue and just lets the richly detailed flourishes of this backdrop wash over the viewer. We're as awestruck by everything as Eloise! Leaning on a sense of wonder with no glibness to undercut the atmosphere works not just for this scene, but in providing contrast for later eerie sequences.

The best spooky moments, meanwhile, tend to be the ones that lean heavily on the visual motifs of Giallo cinema and eschew realism (often simultaneously). Eloise's apartment is coated in red from a neon sign outside, which proves subtly unsettling, while a scene of Sandy making her way through a backstage area and confronting the dark underbelly of the entertainment world is lathered in a quietly disorienting green tint. In both cases, Wright uses bright colors to chillingly suggest how far Eloise and Sandy have strayed from typical reality. Such instances of hue-based frights are exquisitely handled by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, the whole film looks great through his camerawork. 

Meanwhile, the most unnerving scene in all of Last Night in Soho concerns Eloise having a breakdown as the past proves overwhelmingly inescapable in the present. The power of this sequence comes from a willingness to just let the strange blending of two time periods play out without pausing the proceedings to explain to the viewer how or why this is happening. The best parts of the film are the ones where there's enough confidence in this story to just let it unfurl without obsessing over exposition. This also includes memorable visual flourishes that just linger in the background, like the various ways Eloise appears as a reflection of Sandy in flashback scenes. 

I'm also intrigued by how Last Night in Soho's principal characters can be seen as a reflection of the horror genre itself, with Eloise representing moviegoers living vicariously through on-screen horror movie characters as represented by Sandy. It's a tantalizing lens to view the story through that suggests how Wright is doing more than just a bog-standard horror feature.

Meanwhile, shocking no one, the two lead actors of Last Night in Soho deliver strong work in their respective roles. That's no surprise given that Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy have both been on unstoppable hot streaks since they each leaped onto the radar of moviegoers in the last five years. McKenzie injects distinctive flairs into her character's socially morose demeanor while Taylor-Joy is just really good at portraying people in period pieces. Something about her aura, she just immediately conveys that she's got moxie from another era entirely. That screen presence is fun to watch on its own, but it also works at making it immediately clear why McKenzie's Eloise would be so captivated by Sandy.

Last Night in Soho does a lot right, but there are undeniably flaws here and, overall, it's probably Edgar Wright's weakest directorial effort. One key shortcoming is the third act, which decides to have Eloise play Scooby-Doo in figuring out Sandy's past. A film that's gotten a lot of mileage out of ambiance and vibes proves less engaging once characters try to uncover the meaning behind those qualities. Meanwhile, the big finale, without getting into spoilers, is messy and ends up in that frustrating place of trying to do a whole lot but failing to accomplish all that much. Then there are the darker aspects informing Sandy's experiences breaking into showbiz, which is meant as a commentary on how men treat women as objects. 

This part of the story has lofty ambitions at critiquing both blind nostalgia and normalized mistreatment of women. However, the handling of those ambitions could have used some fine-tuning since it comes off derivative of other films and ends up reducing background women to just their anguish in execution. Generic instances of fake-out jump scares and a strangely-written supporting character named John (Michael Ajao) also prove to be noticeable shortcomings Last Night in Soho. It works better visually and in subtext, than it does with surface-level storytelling details, but Last Night in Soho is an Edgar Wright movie, so it's still a polished exercise worth seeing. Just don't expect any visits from the Vegan Police in this one...

Monday, October 25, 2021

Antlers struggles with its allegorical scares

 Antlers begins with assorted shots of an Oregon city slowly crumbling. Buildings in disrepair, abandoned train stations, walls coated in chipped paint. In the middle of it all is Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), whose looking for a place to play. Immediately, it's clear that he's a young child dwarfed by the larger run-down world he’s just trying to survive in. In these opening minutes, director Scott Cooper establishes the realism in the backdrop of Antlers as well as the tormented kid we’ll be following for the entire movie. There's a quiet ominousness just from the juxtaposition of an ordinary kid playing around in an environment where everything looks like a safety hazard. It's a level of creepiness the rest of the film will struggle to match.

Lucas is a Middle School student whose partially taught by Julia Meadows (Keri Russell). Herself a survivor of childhood abuse, Meadows begins to suspect something is wrong with Lucas given his withdrawn nature and the disturbing doodles he's been drawing. Though her brother, Sherrif Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), warns her to stay away, Julia keeps trying to figure out what's going on with this kid. Turns out, though, that Lucas isn't in just any abusive home. His father has been possessed by the spirit of a Wendigo, a monster that craves human flesh. As Lucas's dad gets more and more beastly, Julia keeps trying to save Lucas form the kind of traumatic home life that scarred her.

Cooper and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister have certainly assembled a handsome-looking movie with Antlers. Precise camerawork chronicles Lucas shuffling across forests and run down buildings, always quietly emphasizing how this kid is dwarfed by bigger forces even outside of his abusive home. Imperfect textures of surfaces also reinforce the realistically shambling nature of the backdrops in Antlers. Visually, Antlers is solid and it's commendable how much the movie does commit to really graphic and disturbing imagery. Bodies aren't just nibbled on here, they're torn to shreds and resemble slightly less artistic versions of the sort of corpses left behind on Hannibal.

Unfortunately, some pretty and memorably unhinged imagery in Antlers can’t dilute the fact that the film is a messy one. Not content to just be a creature feature for gorehounds, Antlers also wants to be a treatise on surviving abusive households. There’s also some larger sociopolitical commentary in here, as evidenced by a comically ham-fisted stretch of early scenes where a series of background radio and TV broadcasts reference boosting the coal industry, white supremacy, and environmentalism. Antlers doesn’t opt to incorporate these entities into its plot, they’re just acknowledging they exist. Such is the surface-level nature of so much of the storytelling in Antlers.

The biggest narrative issue in Antlers, thoughcomes down to its attempt to use the Wendigo monster as symbolism for the monstrous behavior of abusive adults. That's not a terrible idea on paper, but in execution, it gets quite messy. This is especially true once the finale gets going and Antlers largely just wants to engage in generic monster mayhem that largely forgets the real-world scenarios this beast is supposed to represent. Adhering to the tropes of mainstream horror fare, complete with a cliffhanger ending that makes no sense thematically, doesn't suit Antlers at all. They needed to either commit to following the Wendigo as a representation of abusive parents or just do a fun creature feature. Clearly, doing both does Antlers no favors.

Antlers also gets undercut by a startling lack of frights, including from the Wendigo itself. Realized largely through CGI, this creature just isn't very creepy in how he's shot and the artificiality of the entity proves distracting. Meanwhile, the clumsy dialogue hinders a foreboding atmosphere to develop in low-key scenes reliant on conversations between the human characters. Without much to offer in either frights or allegorical storytelling, Antlers ends up being a pretty-looking but hollow tale. Lucas deserves a better home life to grow up in and he especially deserves a better-realized horror movie than Antlers to headline.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Last Duel provides a thoughtful and appropriately grim historical epic


CW: Discussions of sexual assault, rape ahead

As The Last Duel begins, the titular event is underway. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are suiting up in their armor, preparing for a duel that will end up being the last legal duel in the history of France. All of this is over an accusation from Carrouges wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), that Le Gris raped her. With Le Gris maintaining his innocence by proclaiming their intercourse was consensual, Jean de Carrouges has opted for a physical way of resolving this conflict. The victor of this skirmish is uncertain, but the fight has already been lost. With Marguerite de Carrouges voice put to the sidelines, it's obvious there can be no proper outcome in this duel.

After establishing the existence of this fight, The Last Duel backtracks several decades to kick off its unique narrative structure. In a homage to Rashamon and the Garfield and Friends episode Twice Told Tale, The Last Duel splits its story across three perspectives, each with their own story to tell. The first of these is Sir Jean de Carrouges, which conveys how this man see's himself as a constant victim of forces more powerful than himself. Then there's Jacques Le Gris, a figure who see's himself as a considerate soul and, when it comes to Marguerite de Carrouges, a romantic. And then there's Marguerite de Carrouges, the person whose perspective depicted as being the truth itself. She deals with actual struggles while her husband and Le Gris grapple with issues and conspiracies largely confined just to their mind.

The best part of the ambitious screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon is how it manages to juggle a trio of disparate perspectives on one major event without turning The Last Duel into a repetitive slog. Only one critical scene is replayed in all three stories and only a handful of other scenes are repeated in just two of the stories. Otherwise, The Last Duel is content to use this style of storytelling to peel back the curtain and reveal wholly new moments rather than just rehashing what we've already seen. It's a small but important detail that, among its other virtues, slyly suggests what the two male protaganists keep out of their recollections of the past. 

Surprisingly smart small aspects like that abound in The Last Duel, including in how director Ridley Scott subtly differentiates the different perspectives through visual flourishes. Jacques Le Gris, for example, thinks of himself as a heroic figure of legend, so of course his "truth" depicts him on the battlefield slicing open people in slow-motion like he's in a Zack Snyder movie. Meanwhile, Sir Jean de Carrouges, a man with a frank demenaor, is depicted just brutalizing his opponents in the mud, with camerawork that's matter-of-fact in how it captures this grisliness. Meanwhile, Scott employs tight close-up's when filming Marguerite de Carrouges to linger on the figure these two men largely ignore in their conversations.

The handling of the heavy topic of sexual assault also benefits from the considerate nature of The Last Duel. In particularly, the story smartly doesn't ignore how insutitonal forces help normalize this behavior and ensure consequences for it are minimal. In one of the most haunting moments of the entire film, Le Gris is once told that he should go to a clergy for forgiveness since they have extensive experience with sexual assault and making it just go away. It's an eerie moment that, of course, cna't help but resonate in the modern world. Props to The Last Duel for making something that's clearly responding to an increased 21st-century awareness of the experiences sexual assault survivors without disrupting the serious period-era aesthetic it's striving for.

The assured direction and detailed writing are accompanied by a strong collection of performances, with Jodie Comer being the standout with her gift for conveying so much raw power even when she's just lurking in the background. It's also interesting to see Matt Damon subvert his typical movie star persona by playing a character whose default facial expression makes him look like a pouty five-year-old while Adam Driver is extremely effective capturing how the most dangerous people can also be the ones who put on the most external seemingly harmless charms. Bonus points for Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d'Alençon in a performance that's surprisingly humorous ("Take your pants off!" is an amusing greeting his character gives Le Gris at one point) while also carrying an eerie quality in how this immature man-child has so much political power.

The Last Duel has its share of drawbacks, namely a runtime that could've been trimmed, an overdose of blue color grading, and an epilogue that's too tidy. For the most part, though, it works shockingly well as a historical epic that places an emphasis on the absurdity and tragedy of the past (which reverberates into the present) rather than its grandeur. Ridley Scott has certainly delivered some duds in the 21st-century, anyone whose seen Exodus: Gods and Kings could tell you that firsthand. The Last Duel, on the other hand, is one of his stronger modern efforts as well as a signal that Holofcener doesn't lose her gifts as a writer when she works outside of grounded drama/comedies set in the modern world. I never would have thought of pairing these two artists up, but they turn out to be a great match for this weighty material.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Halloween Kills fails to slay


It took only a few minutes for me to realize that Halloween Kills was in trouble.

Starting in media res, with Cameron Elam (Dylan Arnold) walking home after a falling-out with his girlfriend, Allyson Nelson (Andi Matichak), at a school dance, Halloween Kills begins with Boyce discovering the wounded body of Deputy Frank Hawkins (Will Patton). After having his throat slit by a treacherous doctor who aided Michael Myers in the last Halloween movie, Hawkins is in need of serious medical attention. Then...we move back to 1978, the night Michael Myers first went on a rampage. Here, we get a prolonged backstory for Hawkins revealing that he has unresolved guilt over not killing Myers that fateful night.

Jumping back across two time periods so quickly, Halloween Kills screenplay, penned by Scott Teems, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green, then moves to a bar where Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall), is talking about he was being babysat by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) the night Michael Myers went on his killing spree. Speaking of Strode, where is she? Halloween Kills will get to her soon, it just first has to establish the return of blink-and-you'll-miss-them characters from the 1978 Halloween film. This opening 15 minutes sets up the rest of the movie in an ominous manner; the emphasis here will be on callbacks and lore, not characters or even just entertaining scares.

The general plot from here concerns how Myers managed to survive the fire set by Strode, her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter Allyson. Now, Myers is out slaughtering people again. This time, though, the residents of Haddonfield, Illinois have had enough. Doyle begins leading a chant of "evil dies tonight!" that encourages all the townsfolk to take matters into their own hands when it comes to taking down Michael Myers. From there, the story primarily focuses on Hawkins and Strode (the latter of whom is unconscious for the first 55 minutes of Halloween Kills) having chats in their respective hospital beds while Myers kills generic townsfolk we never get to know very well.

The focus of Halloween in 2018 was on Strode and her trauma stemming from her experiences with Myers. Halloween Kills attempts to expand the focus on the entire town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, hence why the script keeps jumping from a whole slew of different perspectives rather than just focusing on one protagonist. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of half-formed characters does not end up equaling one compelling protagonist. There just isn't enough details in the random murder victims or even in Haddonfield itself to justify why they're the focus of the story. Plus, the screenplay can't properly handle such an expansive scope, it's all so messily assembled.

Worse, Halloween Kills opts to just be non-stop brutal kills from the get-go, now slow-burn scares like in the 1978 or 2018 Halloween movie. The latter Halloween title already struggled with properly juggling gruesome kills with an emphasis on long-term trauma, it's just so hard to be both Lynne Ramsay and Eli Roth. Halloween Kills "solves" this problem by just opting to be Eli Roth. There's relentless gore and killings in here, but only a handful of the murders are distinctive enough to be memorable. The most distinctive thing about these kills is how they're often so dimly lit that it's hard to tell what's going on.

If a Halloween movie is going to be this slapdash in its story structure and characters, the least it could do was be scary. Unfortunately, Halloween Kills struggles greatly in that department. Even worse, it fares little better when it tries to revert back to being a thoughtful drama. Without any new characters that are compelling and Strode stuck in a snooze for over half the runtime, there's nobody interesting to lend a grounded point-of-view for all the slayings. The screenplay also has a bad habit of having characters spell out underlying themes in didactic terms ("Now we're all becoming the monster," a cop gloomily says after a tragic death spurred on by a mob's desire to take down Michael Myers) that inspire chuckles rather than contemplation. 

At least Jamie Lee Curtis got a presumably solid paycheck for not having to do much, she mostly just stands around in a hospital room. Feels truly crummy that Curtis's Strode proved so interesting in the last Halloween and then she gets largely jettisoned for a crop of primarily male new characters to take the spotlight. Even John Carpenter's score (composed with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies) isn't especially memorable, the ultimate kiss of death. If even Carpenter is phoning in his music, then you know a movie has gone wrong. Halloween Kills isn't the ultimate nadir of the Halloween franchise (at least Busta Rhymes isn't around...yet) but it's a disappointing example of what happens when you place lore and scale as a priority over characters or scares.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The sometimes flawed Dune is largely a dazzling cosmic affair

The time has come for the spice to flow. Yes, director Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 take on Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (the first of a supposed two-part film adaptation) has finally arrived in theaters. Dune arrives onto the silver screen with a bevy of expectations to deliver as both an adaptation of its source material and as something different in the sci-fi blockbuster landscape. All of that ambition remains consistently impressive, but some aspects of that execution, unfortunately, leave something to be desired. This isn’t a result of overblown expectations specific to this one feature. On the contrary, Dune’s faults will be mighty familiar to anyone who has encountered other projects attempting to adapt one book over multiple films.

Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is the Duke of House Atreides, a powerful empire put in charge of controlling the planet Arrakis and its crucial supply of Spice. That element is seen as a hallucinogenic by the denizens of Arrakis, but for decades, powerful planets have exploited the Spice for financial gain. Though Paul’s dad (Oscar Isaac) hopes to create a more peaceful relationship between all the parties who want the Spice, evil forces have alternative plans. The Baron (Stellan Skarsgard) used to be the one who reaped the financial benefits of the Spice and he wants revenge on Atreides for taking away his cash cow. 

Paul and his loved ones are now the primary targets of a massive revenge scheme. At the same time, Paul is seeing visions that involve the denizens of Arakkis, and in particular, some girl named Chani (Zendaya). This and other aspects of his character are leading some to murmur that he may be some kind of Messiah figure. Can this Duke live up to those ideals…or even just survive the vicious plot for vengeance that seeks to slit the throats of everyone in the House Atreides?

The greatest attribute of Dune is how it opts to embrace its source material without a trace of winking postmodernism. Not only does this mean weirder parts of Dune lore come fully intact to the screen, but also means Villeneuve is confident enough to implement intentional anachronisms into this world. Futuristic heralds still read important information from scrolls like it’s the days of King Arthur, an important character murmurs about the dangers of lying to a witch, and the minimal lighting in a nighttime conversation between Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Rampling’s character evokes the ambiance of a period drama. Though set in a distant galaxy far into the future, it’s fun to see Dune echoes Earth’s past without feeling the need to undercut the disparity with a forced gag. 

That quality goes hand-in-hand with how Dune is also unabashedly a spectacle film, one that totally delivers on the glorious production design and sound work. Who needs D-Box seats or any equivalent when Dune's soundtrack constantly makes your seat rumble all on its own? You feel like you're on Arrakis with the characters while the tactile nature of the sets and costumes make otherworldly items feel like something you could reach out and grab. Hans Zimmer's score accentuates the grandeur of the proceedings with a collection of compositions heavy on choral chants and deep rumbling bass drums. There's almost a spiritual quality to his music as if evoking the divine to accentuate the importance of Dune.

The weighty nature of the score combined with the seriousness of Villeneuve's direction, though, do run up against some of the more ridiculous aspects of Dune and not quite in a fun way. For instance, no matter how many times an actor of Oscar Isaac's caliber says it, the phrase "desert power" never stops sounding like a catchphrase from a Captain Planet knock-off. More troubling is that this momentous aesthetic makes the narrative hiccups, such as characters seemingly existing only to set up details for a sequel, harder to swallow. That same approach similarly makes the wrinkles in its sociopolitical commentary (like some shortcomings in the depiction of Arakkis's natives, known as the Fremen) more difficult to sand over. 

Even if its weightier underpinnings don't quite hit a bullseye, Dune remained entertaining for me simply through the combination of glorious eye candy and everyone involved committing so fiercely to science-fiction mayhem. Rather than coming off as people reacting to tennis balls and green screen on set, the stacked cast of actors in Dune are so invested in this strange world that it made a total Dune novice like myself raring to go to explore more of Arrakis. Speaking of the cast, special shout-outs to Jason Momoa for nailing Fun Uncle vibes as Duncan Idaho while Sharon Duncan-Brewster is a compelling performer as Dr. Liet-Kynes, plus, she gets the best cheer-worthy moment of the entire film.

Throughout the first two acts of Dune, there was always some performance, a new gorgeous vista, or nifty costume to make me go "oooo, shiny!" Those visual details especially pop right off the screen. As anyone whose seen Villeneuve's other works, especially his sci-fi films Arrival and Blade Runner, can attest, the man knows his way around compelling visuals, and that trait is put to great use here. Villeneuve's theatrical sense of timing can make even the most seemingly ludicrous set piece, like a tiny spaceship stalking Paul, something that puts you on the edge of your seat. The characters in Dune aren't especially nuanced or deep people, but that's not a problem when there's so much splendor and spectacle unfolding on the screen. I can totally get lost in the production design and not the humans inhabiting it.

Unfortunately, when the third act strips down the scope to be just about two of our lead characters stranded in the desert, that's when the problems with the characters become not fatal but more apparent. With more sparse visual surroundings and characterization taking center stage, Dune finds itself stumbling. It doesn't help that this section of the story and the entire film gets capped off with an awkward cliffhanger destined to frustrate general moviegoers. Like so many adaptations of one book carried out over multiple movies, this first half of Dune can't quite strike the perfect balance between being a satisfying standalone experience and a piece of a larger story. If the Lord of the Rings movies could pull that off, surely Dune could too!

I wish Dune could've made what was on the page as compelling as the elements that dominate the screen, but thankfully, there's an avalanche of eye candy here to make Dune well worth a trip to your local IMAX, XD, or whatever larger screen you have near you. It isn't a perfect film or adaptation of its source material, but Dune is just the kind of bold swing you can't help but be enthralled by. Oh, and it also has gigantic sand worms, more movies should feature those.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Lamb will leave you saying "What the flock?"

First, there was First Cow. Then, there was Pig. Let’s also not forget Gunda, a sparse documentary chronicling the everyday lives of farm animals. Barnyard critters are hot right now folks. They’re the cinematic trend of this modern era, presumably due to a generation of filmmakers growing up influenced by Barnyard: The Original Party Animals. Continuing this trend is Lamb, a new horror/comedy that has the most inexplicable premise for a genre film this Fall not named Titane

An Icelandic couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), are tending to their sheep in their isolated farm, content with just living a quiet life. However, on a seemingly normal day, they discover something odd; one of the sheep has given birth to a human/lamb hybrid. A human child with the head and right arm of a sheep, the couple decide to raise the critter as their own daughter named Ada. Given that they don’t interact with anyone else, they have no trouble settling into a new routine with their new surrogate child…until uncle Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up and challenges everything he’s seeing, including Maria's seeming faithfulness to her husband.

Lamb is an odd beast. Watching it, I had to go “You’re crazy for this one, A24!” The VVitch started a trend of A24 taking strange indie horror films and trying to unleash them as mainstream theatrical releases, but other titles like Hereditary were both in English and had more scares in their runtime. Lamb isn’t so much a horror film as it is a tranquil observational look at two people processing some kind of trauma with a strange sheep/child combo in the mixture. It’s the kind of film destined to get smacked with an F CinemaScore and scores of befuddled user reviews on Amazon asking what the point of this exercise even was. 

What’ll frustrate mainstream moviegoers turned out to be my favorite parts of Lamb. Watching the dissonance of this weird lamb/child hybrid waddling around a film shot, edited, and lit like a subdued indie drama proves surprisingly enduring in its entertainment appeal. Ada nonchalantly putting her boots on in the background of a shot or just handing her “father” his breakfast plate; juxtaposing ordinary life with something out of the ordinary is quite amusing. This level of dissonance is enhanced by the assured camerawork from director Valdimar Jóhannsson and cinematographer Eli Arenson works well in conveying a sense of “normalcy” for the titular character to clash against.

This sense of control and the apparent restraint gives Lamb a subdued but eerie vibe, one punctuated by moments of dark comedy that make a for an enjoyably complicated tone. However, I did find myself yearning sometimes for an extra level of oomph in Jóhannsson and Sjón's screenplay. The refual to pump the plot full of extra melodrama is admirable, but it sometimes feels like extra depth is being left on the table. Brief suggestions of extra allegorical meanings of Ada don't get fully fulfilled and the structure of the story ends up feeling like a lot of set-up without a ton of pay-off. The destination is very much the journey here, but the road to get there sometimes feels a touch on the empty side, even by the standards of a movie that's intentionally accentuating a world built on mundane uneventfulness.

Even if Lamb occasionally wants for extra layers of depth, the lead performances certainly commit to giving this oddball story tangible humanity. Noomi Rapace, in particular, does great work conveying the underlying sorrow informing every move Maria makes while still existing within the subdued confines of the story she inhabits. Practically a star unto themselves here (as corny as that sounds) are the vast Icelandic landscapes that surround our main characters. Their vastness and varying degrees of fogginess visually reflect how quietly lost Maria and Ingvar are. Lamb isn't as good as it could've been, but I could never call a movie with such pretty backdrops ba-a-a-a-a-d.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Julia Ducournau puts the pedal to the metal with Tiane

Given all the hype over its most outlandish and sexual elements, it may not seem like Titane is a movie that'll be relatable. And yet writer/director Julia Ducournau has grounded this provocative piece in incredibly grounded scenarios like the terror one can feel over their body and especially the struggles of emotionally bonding with others in the wake of traumatic scenarios. Neither of those is an easy situation to face yet all of us have had to confront one way or another in our lives. Titane is utterly singular in the kind of disturbing imagery Ducournau unleashes onto the silver screen, but it's got a beating heart that roars like the most revved-up car engine.

Alexia (played as an adult by Agathe Rousselle) had her entire world rocked when she was a kid thanks to a car accident that left her with a metal plate in her head. After this event, she found herself giving her parents the cold shoulder while embracing the family automobile. Now all grown up, Alexia's fondness for cars has turned sexual while her ability to develop connections with other people is, well, nonexistence. She's also a serial killer, a side-hobby that eventually catches up with her and places her on the lam. Once she becomes a fugitive, her life becomes intertwined with Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who's reeling from his own traumatic event from the past, in this case, his young son going missing.

There's so much about Titane that I adore, but I especially love Ducournau's confidence as a filmmaker (and on only her second directorial effort to boot!) that informs her decision to just let the outlandish happen without hand-holding the audience through explanations. Sometimes, characters just do inexplicable or strange things and that's OK. Human beings don't always act in totally rational ways when they're grappling with extreme sorrow, let alone when they're inhabiting a movie where the protagonist has sex with cars. The embrace of the peculiar works so well at capturing Alexia and Vincent's struggles with going into the future and also delivering imagery that's idiosyncratic...and creepy.

Ducournau has been open about how growing up with doctor parents, and their frankness with handling distortions of the human form has influenced her filmmaking and specifically how she depicts flesh on-screen. This trait is put to great use in Titane, which depicts some truly horrifying developments with a nonchalant visual sensibility. This proves incredibly effective on multiple levels, including how it doesn't reduce the characters on-screen to having their physical misery exploited and it makes certain shots extra eerie. A movie that kept zooming in on or rubbing the audiences face in the creepiness of oil secreting from places it shouldn't, would get tiring. Having that and other body-based disturbances appear in the background, meanwhile, proves quietly ominous as well as a perfect extension of Ducournau's filmmaking style.

The casualness with which Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens chronicle human bodies also subtly breaks down visual language norms of cinema, horror or otherwise. The humans in Titane look like humans, they have tattoos, piercing, body fat, boils, they look like you or me. These elements are a part of the frame, but it never feels like Ducournau is lingering on these traits to define these details as inherently abnormal or even to elicit shock that our lady protagonist has (GASP!) armpit hair, as has been the norm in filmmaking. Instead, her naturally nonchalant depiction of flesh incidentally normalizes the appearance of all kinds of bodies, including the nude forms of Titane's two protaganists. This visual facet quietly ground a story that's so outlandish in something discernibly real. 

Titane's glorious dance between the absurd and the grounded makes it a wonder to behold, especially since Ducournau refuses to go down any predictable narrative paths and, perhaps most importantly, she keeps filling the screen with unnerving imagery. There are lots of metaphors and subtle filmmaking flourishes that make Titane the thing dissertation papers are based on. However, it's also proudly bizarre horror cinema, the kind of scary movie that'll make you want to simultaneously cover your eyes and keep them glued to the screen. The terrific lead performances from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon contribute mightily to the captivating nature of Titane's most disturbing moments. Each of them consistently maintains their character's complicated interior world no matter how preposterous Titane gets.

Also putting me on edge was the score by Jim Williams and the sound work, both of which can make scenes depicting something as simple as Alexia walking into an airport unnerving. The motifs of William's compositions, including the clanging of a big drum with no other instrumental accompaniment and the uses of long stretches of silence, perfectly convey a haunting atmosphere as well as the isolation of Titane's protaganists. Sometimes, Titane reminded me of the greatest silent movies in how it doesn't need dialogue to stir up emotions in the viewers. That excellently uneasy score goes a long way to explaining why Titane often works so well even without anyone speaking.

After seeing Julia Ducournau's memorable directorial debut Raw, I was super intrigued by what she would come up with next. If I sat and pondered for ten years what she'd deliver as a follow-up to Raw, I never could have imagined everything Titane turned out to be. Ducournau delivers everything and the kitchen sink in here, including tender moments of poignancy, subversive approaches to depicting the human body on-screen, and sex scenes that would make Lightning McQueen blush. Like any piece of cinema this provocative, Titane won't be for everyone. However, if it's even halfway up your alley, you're going to get something unforgettable when you experience Titane. Film fans, start your engines, this one's something special.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Many Saints of Newark won't please either Sopranos fans or crime movie junkies

One of the many virtues of the original Sopranos TV show is that it felt like it occupied a world you could walk into. That lent a sense of immediate tangibility to the stores, the homes, the streets, all while making the mobster characters extra terrifying. If you could reach out to touch one of the lampposts, surely Tony Soprano could reach out and wring your neck! It's one of the best qualities of The Sopranos and it's, unfortunately, missing from The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel feature film to the original TV show. Hailing from director Alan Taylor, this production feels more like a rushed trip down vaguely familiar neighborhoods than stopping by lived-in environments.

 The Many Saints of Newark travels back in time to 1967, where Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) is one of several New Jersey gangsters working overtime to keep a criminal empire moving smoothly. Among his associates is Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) while Moltisanti also serves as a surrogate father figure to Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini). Simultaneously, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) decides he's done just doing odd jobs for gangsters like Moltisanti, he wants to make something for himself. Also running as a subplot is the plight of Giuseppina Moltisanti (Michela de Rossi) and, in addition to becoming Moltisanti's lover, also wants to open up her own beauty salon.

If you know the TV show The Sopranos, you know none of these storylines will end in happiness. If you know that program, you'll also be super conscious of all the eye-rolling attempts at "fan-service" that The Many Saints of Newark throws your way. This includes the baffling decision to have actors like John Magaro and Billy Magnussen waltz around as younger versions of characters like Silvio Dante and Paulie Walnuts. These actors pucker their lips, flutter their arms, and adjust their gait, all in the name of mimicking performances from a TV show from twenty years ago. In the process of aiming for accurate mimicry, the world of Newark doesn't feel real. It just feels like we're watching footage from a Sopranos-themed cosplay convention.

The original show was all about uncovering everyday vulnerabilities in figures who could've just been caricatures. The Many Saints of Newark, meanwhile, just brings on the caricatures in an effort to remind you of what you know.

Another problem is David Chase and Lawrence Konner's messy screenplay, which spans so many storylines and over four years worth of events, but doesn't say much of anything. Take the 1967 Newark riots, a major historical event, but it just happens early on in the plot out of a sense of obligation rather than anything else. Meanwhile, the expansive scope keeps leaving seemingly critical details in the lurch. Giuseppina vanishes for such a long stretch of the runtime that I thought she and Dickie got a divorce. Worst of all, the script does such a poor job of accentuating the relationship Tony has to Dickie that it has to resort to characters dropping didactic lines like "You two sure are close, huh?" 

Part of the issue is that Dickie just isn't that interesting of a character despite being portrayed by talented performer Alessandro Nivola. If you held a gun to my head, I couldn't describe his personality and it seems like he's the lead character mostly because his son was a principal character on The Sopranos. The screenplay never justifies why he's the most prominent figure in this narrative. Then again, maybe Dickie would've proven more interesting if the filmmaking was more up to par. Director Alan Taylor captures The Many Saints of Newark with a shocking level of flatness, it's almost insulting how little imagination there is to the blocking and staging. 

A distracting sense of artificiality permeates key scenes, like a beachside conversation between Dickie and Giuseppina, that just further removes you from what's happening on-screen. Taylor's lack of thoughtfulness extends to a soundtrack full of predictable needle drops for any movie set in the 1960s and 1970s. We should all thank our lucky stars they just didn't find a spot for Fortunate Son to blare on the soundtrack! 

Not all of The Many Saints of Newark is a waste. The cast has its bright spots, including Michael Gandolfini doing nicely understated work as a young Tony Soprano. The more restrained of Ray Liotta's two roles is also a highlight of the film, Liotta does commendable work conveying a greater sense of consciousness than anyone else in the cast of just how inescapably empty this mob life is. Committing to that level of bleakness is admirable, but The Many Saints of Newark rarely does anything truly interesting with that element. It's either functioning as a generic crime movie or, as seen in its unintentional comical ending, middle-of-the-road Sopranos fan-fiction. 

Instead of waking up this morning and getting yourself a gun, how about just getting a movie more competently made than The Many Saints of Newark?