Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Humans isn't an easy watch, but it's a well-crafted one

 

Between Shiva Baby, Spencer, and now The Humans, 2021 cinema is being defined by recognition that the scariest thing on the planet is family gatherings. Give me a visit from the Babadook or that creature from It Follows before I have to deal with awkward conversations or a relative obliviously saying something bigoted. Of course, given that The Humans is adapted from a 2015 stage play (whose writer, Stephen Karam, also writes and directs this film adaptation), it's apparent that the horrors of such social events are not exclusive to one year. Thankfully, neither are quality pieces of filmmaking like The Humans.

Brigid Blake (Beanie Feldstein) is having her family over for Thanksgiving in the New York City apartment she's bought with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). This means Brigid's parents, Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), are coming, along with Erik's mom, Momo (June Squibb),  and Brigid's sister Aimee (Amy Schumer). Everyone's bringing as much drama to the table as they are side dishes, much of it emerging in long-simmering side comments that spur on prolonged arguments. It may be a holiday, but nobody's getting a break from the torment that's plaguing this family.

Translating a play to a movie is a daunting task. On the one hand, if you make things too stagnant, you have the possibility if just delivering essentially a filmed performance of a play. On the other hand, going too flowery in making sure it doesn't come off as just a play can distract from the intimate qualities that made the source material so compelling. Karam does remarkable work threading a delicate needle here and manages to make The Humans work well as a piece of cinema. A key reason for his success is to filter his play through the lens of horror cinema. Staples of the genre, like windows so tainted you can't see out of them, jump scares, dominant shadows, they're all around here.

Rather than being used in the service of buckets of blood, these visual hallmarks, as well as an ominous mood straight out of a scary feature, are used to communicate the stifled anguish in the family at the heart of The Humans. Even Brigid's home is reflected as having endless nooks and crannies despite seeming small on the outside, a potential homage to the similarly expansive interior of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. That's not only a great nod to a seminal film in the genre The Humans is occupying, but it provides a great detail that couldn't be properly realized on the stage. This is just one example of how the layers of details in The Humans justify its translation to the silver screen.

Karam's camera doesn't just take cues from horror films, though. He also evokes filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu in how often his camera is placed at a great distance from the characters. I can only recall a handful of close-ups in the entire rutnime. Rather than reminding one too much of a stage production, Karam uses this distance to emphasize how trapped everybody is. The characters are framed against claustrophic hallways, pipes bursting from the ceiling, and other imperfections in their surroundings. Utilizing constant wide shots that push the characters into the background makes us aware of the fragility of their surroundings. The sense of worry and concern that plagues Erik over Brigid moving back to New York City in the wake of 9/11 is transmitted to the viewer through Karam's sense of staging and blocking.

All these impressive visual details are placed against a terrific crop of performances. Thankfully, given how much of The Humans is based on simple dialogue exchanges, there's nary a dud turn to be found here. For my money, Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell may be the very best actors here. It's thoroughly impressive how much their performances could appropriately irritate me in one moment and then elicit such enemrous sympathy from me the next. In the restrained confins of Stepehn Karam's creative vision, Jenkins and Houdyshell (the latter of whom previously portrayed her character in a Broadway version of The Humans) unearth moral complexity.

There are a handful of shortcomings to The Humans, to be certain. This includes an ending that's incredibly admirable in its dour tone and use of visuals that could only be accomplished in film, but needed some tweaking in execution. Overall, though, this is a strong drama that provides much more than just another instance of movies reflecting how holidays can tear apart families as often as they bring them together. The unique decision to filter familiar struggles through the language of horror cinema and the enormously distinct performances from the cast make it seem only natural, with the benefit of hindsight, that The Humans should make the leap from the stage to the big screen.

Wolf is a beast of a movie, but not in a good way

Watching Wolf, a drama about a teenager with species dysphoria who thinks he's a wolf (that age-old Hollywood chestnut), unfold, I had to ask myself the question "Who is this for?" The story it tells, concerning a teenage boy being sent to a camp to "correct" his behavior, is an allegory for the hardships experienced at a conversion camp. However, I doubt that anyone who willingly sees's this would need to be told that conversion camps are bad, which is where Wolf's commentary on conversion camps begins and ends. Anyone with similar interests to the protagonist will be put off by the bleak tone and extensive depiction of teenagers getting tortured. Even those who just like strange dark dramas will be bored by how Wolf strangely refuses to commit to taking its premise to more unexpected places.

What we have here is a movie made for nobody, though, more specifically, it feels like the kind of thing made by cis-gendered heterosexual people as an attempt to show how good of allies they are to queer people. Next time, they should just donate money to a charity instead.

Getting more into storytelling specifics, Wolf chronicles Jacob (George McKay), who thinks he's a wolf, and gets sent to a clinic specializing in treating adolescents with species dysphoria (a condition where you think you're an animal). A man known as The Zookeeper (Aiden Gillen) runs this facility and he uses brutal practices to reinforce to these people that they are not wild creatures. It's a horrible place, but Jacob does find some solace in a budding romance with Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp). However, as his stay goes on, Jacob struggles to maintain his urges to howl at the moon and growl at The Zookeeper. What will win here? His wild instincts or the human side that his parents want him to exclusively embrace?

Writer/director Nathalie Biancheri opts to take Wolf in the most boring route possible by playing its story as ultra-serious. In a bid to make sure this is seen as a "real" movie, Wolf is drained of humor, personality, or any sense of warmth. Jacob and the other inhabitants of this clinic are only defined by the misery they experience at the hands of callous adults. Meanwhile, the direction and cinematography opt for constant wide shots, minimal color, and an overall clinical approach. At times, Wolf feels like it's channeling the look of a Yorgos Lanthimos movie without understanding the finer nuances of why the camerawork in those features is so impactful. 

There's never an instance here where the movie wants to seem like it's embarrassing itself by being "silly" or any other lower creative instinct. Even the animals Jacob and Catgirl believe themselves to be are rudimentary. Dogs and cats, the most basic critters possible. They also exhibit the most manageable animalistic instincts in their behavior, the stranger urges are relegated to background characters. Wolf keeps trying to sand the edges of its innately peculiar storyline, but it doesn't manage to magically turn this movie into something inherently thought-provoking. It just renders the proceedings a massive slog to get through.

Even other movies set at literal conversion camps, and not just allegories for them, found time for brief bursts of joy to reflect the interior lives of the tormented protaganists. Think of how the vastly superior The Miseducation of Cameron Post carved out a portion of its narrative to depict queer teens singing the 4 Non-Blondes song "What's Up" in a kitchen. These moments indicate to the viewer that we're supposed to sympathize with the abused characters in the narrative. Wolf, meanwhile, just depicts its various people with species dysphoria as sideshow attractions to be gawked at. They don't get nuances, personalities, dreams, or anything else. They just cower, get their fingernails pulled off, or scream while being chained in cages. Freaks from back in 1932 was challenging the dehumanizing gaze that Wolf inhabits without blinking an eye.

Combining the bleak tone and derivative filmmaking with the lack of interest in humanizing the downtrodden already makes Wolf a poorly-conceived exercise. Things get even worse when Biancheri's screenplay practically punches you in the ribs with its attempts at social commentary. The most comically inept of these is when The Zookeeper explicitly refers to humans as "the superior race" compared to animals. I don't even know where to begin with the idea that this is supposed to be an allegory for racism, especially since Wolf shows no prolonged interest in the perspectives of people of color. Other awkward lines that try to hammer home how this is supposed to be an allegory for queer and trans experiences only reinforce which audiences Wolf certainly won't be appealing to.

The only redeeming part of Wolf is that George McKay does deliver a committed performance as Jacob. He doesn't just generically crawl around on all fours when he's in wolf mode, he's got the subtle ticks of wolf behavior down perfectly. It's the kind of fully-body acting that shows a lot of effort and work, but McKay's dedication is always at odds with a script that just doesn't have much to say. Meanwhile, as the villain, Aiden Gillen is initially compelling playing a clearly abusive figure who genuinely sees himself as a surrogate father figure to these teens. Unfortunately, by the end, Gillen's performance just melts into generic over-the-top mannerisms. The nuances that gave The Zookeeper flashes of being chilling have vanished, giving Gillen nothing much to do.

The most ill-conceived part of Wolf, though, is the decision to set this all in the modern-day world, as seen by how Jacob and all the other attendees are given iPads. Shockingly, a movie with this premise set in the year 2021 makes absolutely no reference to the Furry community. Do none of these kids have the internet? How does that not come up? Considering how much overlap there is between species dysphoria and this segment of the population, it feels comical to not at least acknowledge it. But referencing the existence of people with species dysphoria that are happy would've upended Wolf's parade of misery. A movie that aims to be brutally thoughtful, Wolf just ends up being miserable to watch. McKay, Gillen, and moviegoers looking for thoughtful entertainment related to conversion camp experiences deserve much better than this.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Power of the Dog is packed with extremely powerful filmmaking (SPOILERS!)

SPOILERS FOR THE POWER OF THE DOG AHEAD

THE MOVIE'S GREAT, GO WATCH IT IN THEATERS (OR ON NETFLIX ON DECEMBER 1), BUT I JUST FEEL LIKE I CAN'T TALK ABOUT THE MOVIE PROPERLY WITHOUT DELVING INTO BIG REVELATIONS. 

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Thursday, November 25, 2021

King Richard is an imperfect but frequently moving entry in the sports movie genre

It was only a matter of time before tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams got their own inspirational sports movie. How could they not? The duo's upbringing and sports victories (not to mention being the two top tennis players on the planet at one point) sound like ideas someone would suggest for a fictional sports tale, not real-world events! That inevitability has come to pass with King Richard, a new feature from Monsters and Men director Reinaldo Marcus Green. However, Venus and Serena, while prominent characters here, are not the protagonists of King Richard. The title gives it away that the center of the proceedings is the father of the two women, Richard Williams (here portrayed by Will Smith).

Growing up in Compton, Richard Williams has worked overtime to care for his five daughters, including Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). The duo's passion for tennis has led Richard to map out an elaborate plan for their lives, which entails them becoming the biggest stars in the sport. Getting the proper tools they need, though, is tough, given that the family has constant money issues and that Richard can never seem to get a professional coach to help them. Guidance from Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) seems to be heading the youngsters on the right path, with Venus emerging as a potential titan in the ITF Junior Circuit of tennis games. But Richard's hesitation to see his children go pro, though born from the best intentions, is providing extra headaches all around, including for Venus.

If there's one problem King Richard struggles with, it's figuring out why this story is about Richard rather than Venus and Serena. The two future tennis stars are quite interesting characters as framed here, to the point that it occasionally feels frustrating that they have to be pushed to the background for many scenes. I wanted more time to explore their headspace and especially their relationship with their other three siblings. It's not that Richard Williams doesn't have an interesting story to tell. It's just that screenwriter Zach Baylin can't quite make that saga, in this context, compelling enough to quelch queries about why Venus and Serena aren't center stage in a movie ostensibly about their rise to tennis glory.

This depiction of Richard Williams also struggles to fit into the tonal confines Green and company want to create for King Richard. The ambiance of the production aims somewhere towards an early 2000s Disney sport movie, like Miracle. That's a perfectly acceptable trajectory considering that mold did yield some quality movies. However, in execution, the film struggles to fit a complicated figure like Williams into an aesthetic that's trying to be simplified enough to function as a crowdpelaser. This results in moments like a tense confrontation wth Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis), the man's wife, where she reveals troubling moments of his past, which should leave an impact. But they've been reduced to just offhand comments in an argument, rather than moments of on-screen action that would be truly meaningful. In an effort to make sure Richard Williams can fit into something more cookie-cutter, King Richard ends up suffering from a tell-don't-show problem.

While these narrative issues are puzzling, the good news is King Richard still hits a birdie over the net (hey, I know tennis lingo!) simply by functioning as a solid sports drama. It's formulaic, sure, but formula when done right can be just fine. The best parts of the story, in fact, are when King Richard aims to just do a traditional underdog sports tale, particularly in its final 40 minutes when Venus Williams begins to play in some pro games. Green knows just what beats to hit here, including in repeated instances of Venus's family supporting her no matter what and in a unique definition of what "victorious" means.

It also helps that the performances in the picture are uniformly great, including Will Smith in a transformative turn as Richard Williams. There are moments when Smith lapses into a caricature, but most of the time, it's starting just how well he sheds his traditional movie star persona for someone that's got equal measures of confidence and torment lurking in his eyes. Aunjanue Ellis may have been even more impressive to me, though. She just captivates your attention even when Smith is on screen and I appreciated how just the aura she conveys as Oracene Price makes it clear where her daughter's tenacity comes from. Standing out in the supporting cast is Jon Bernthal as Rick Macci, a real-life figure whose so drastically different from Bernthal's other characters. Usually known for playing grizzly tough guys, Bernthal here is a soft-spoken fellow with a kind heart. He's wholesome rather than deadly.

King Richard doesn't rewrite the sports movie playbook and its script sometimes struggles with properly realizing its own title character. But its most stirring moments and memorable performances do help it score some pretty important points. If sports movies are your bread and butter, you'll probably get won over by King Richard. Meanwhile, even those who aren't ardent fans of the genre will find themselves impressed by the work by performers like Smith and Ellis. It was only a matter of time before Venus and Serena Williams got a sports biopic of their own. Though not as good as it could've been, King Richard is still a perfectly fine movie to become a part of the duo's towering legacy.

C'mon C'mon, you gotta see the new Mike Mills movie

The last two movies from writer/director Mike Mills were Beginners and 20th Century Women. Though telling different stories, they were both like watching memories of the past. Mills used cinema to make viewers nostalgic for a past they never even experienced. His newest feature, C'mon C'mon, is a touch different. It's more akin to watching the creation of events that will become memories. Telling the tale in a monochromatic color scheme and utilizing real people, rather than professional roles, for certain roles heightens the realism of the proceedings. This unique flourish ensures that C'mon C'mon isn't a rehash of prior Mills works while maintaining the director's enchanting empathetic gaze.

Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a documentary journalist, an occupation that keeps him busy enough that he doesn't have time to linger over how his relationship with his sister, Viv (Gabbie Hoffman), has deteriorated over the last year. Ever since their mom died, Johnny has been M.I.A. from Viv and her son Jesse (Woody Norman). When Viv is forced to help take care of Jesse's mentally ill father, though, Johnny will be called down to Los Angeles to look after a nine-year-old he barely knows. Parenting is not Johnny's strong suit and this quiet man seems like the opposite person that could get along with such a rambunctious youngster. But through spending time together, Johnny and Jesse may find more common ground than they would initially imagine.

That plot may make it sound like you know where C'mon C'mon is going, but the ingenious stroke that Mills brings to this project is by making the gradually deepening bond between Johnny and Jesse something that happens almost incidentally. Grand revelations and inspirational quotes fit for a social media post are not what bonds this duo. Instead, it's simpler acts. The simple act of listening and being there for somebody, rather than figuring out solutions to life's harshest problems, is what builds a bridge between two disparate humans. To quote 20th Century Women, "Some just can't be fixed. Just be there." That's the crux of C'mon C'mon.

Mills explores this idea and the relationship between Johnny and Jesse in an unhurried manner and with an emotionally empathetic eye. There isn't a character captured by the camera who isn't given some extra layers of nuance or sympathy. This includes Viv herself, who is a welcome rebuke to typical film depictions of single moms. Fully open to Johnny that she often doesn't know what to do with her kid, Mills frames Viv as a person who isn't solely defined by motherhood and as someone with relatable flaws. She may not have the most screentime in C'mon C'mon, but Viv is a microcosm of the deeply affecting and kindhearted vibes the production is throwing out.

The empathetic nature of the production is further reinforced by how many different perspectives are incorporated throughout C'mon C'mon. Deeply personal writings from various lady authors (including Kirsten Johnson!) are narrated by Johnny throughout the film and lend insight into the nuances of situations like growing up in a family with a bipolar loved one or the unfair expectations society puts on mothers. These writers are not featured in the story, but they simultaneously flesh out the people in this film while reinforcing how they're not alone in their struggles. Meanwhile, all through the movie, Johnny interviews kids who aren't actors. These are real people from everyday reality who get to express their perspectives on matters like the future in a big theatrical release. These youngsters get treated like the people they are, a gesture reflecting the understanding nature of C'mon C'mon.

Being cognizant of the larger world Johnny and Jesse inhabit also informs recurring cuts to random shots of bustling city life. Cars piled onto an L.A. street or sheets of snow covering packed New York walkways, these provide a discernible contrast to the intimate exchanges between the two central characters. Not only that, but they see Mills subtly reminding the viewer that, contrary to what Johnny and Jesse feel in their most emotionally vulnerable moments, they're not alone in this world. There are other people out there. All with dreams, worries, concerns. Whether it's through interview segments or just in establishing shots, C'mon C'mon reinforces this notion in an affecting manner.

Even with the repeated references to other people, though, C'mon C'mon is, first and foremost, the story of Johnny and Jesse's unexpected friendship. This dynamic allows the two lead performances of the piece to excel, with Joaquin Phoenix reaffirming his gift for playing everyday human beings with a deft touch. There's as much detail here as his more showy performances, but it never intrudes on the realism of his on-screen work. Woody Norman, meanwhile, does a phenomenal job handling such hefty material and conveying the sense that we're watching a real kid and not a precocious Hollywood approximation of a smart-alecky youngster. The best performance in the movie, though, belongs to Gabbie Hoffman. She delivers her scenes largely alone in an empty room or a car, yet she wrings so much humanity and emotion out of her screentime. It's quite an incredible turn that I haven't been able to stop thinking about.

C'mon C'mon doesn't quite reach the heights of 20th Century Women in the filmography of Mike Mills, but that's such a high bar to clear. A new Beatles album is not inherently bad just because it doesn't exceed the quality of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and so too is a new Mills feature worth seeing just because it doesn't beat out the director's greatest directorial effort. In fact, C'mon C'mon is quite a remarkable film. Here we have a quiet hangout feature that glides along on small moments of human connection and quiet empathy, all while imparting the importance of just listening to other people. I came out of this movie smiling, my heart warmed, and a few tears poking out of the corner of my eye. I imagine you'll feel the same way.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Ridley Scott's House of Gucci is a delightfully over-the-top enterprise

 

Ridley Scott is not the first name that comes to my mind when I think of filmmakers who indulge in campy material. After all, what in films like Body of Lies or Exodus: Gods and Kings suggested goofy fun? But then I remember scenes like the infamous Cameron Diaz windshield scene in The Counselor or the playful sexual undercurrent of the "I'll do the fingering" scene from Alien: Covenant. Scott won't inject these elements into every movie he does, but when a film calls for it, he's still capable of reveling in the ludicrous. That's a talent put to very good use on the crime drama House of Gucci, which is full of accents as grandiose as the real-life story they inhabit.

Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) was living a simple life working for her father's construction company when one party led to her crossing paths with Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver). He belongs to the Gucci family, who run a fashion empire of the same name. Here was an aspiring lawyer who wanted nothing to do with the Gucci's or their power. The duo quickly fell in love and their early scenes together establish how screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna will be taking a maximalist approach in telling this tale. How do men express playful fondness for each other? By dousing each other in water from a hose while an Italian cover of I'm a Believer plays. Meanwhile, the first big sex scene between Reggiani and Gucci is played as big as the fiery passion that exists in each of their hearts.

As Reggiani and Gucci tie the knot, Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino), the head of the Gucci corporation, begins to take a great interest in his newly-wedded nephew. This is where the conspiracies and betrayals begin to come into play, as Aldo has his reasons for strengthening the bond between himself and Maurizio. Meanwhile, as they get more and more influential within the Gucci organization, Patrizia and Maurizio have their agendas at play, ditto outcast Gucci relative Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto). What started as a simple romance will turn into a reflection on how greed corrupts all that can only end in bloodshed. 

House of Gucci is another recent Ridley Scott film (following The Counselor and All the Money in the World) about all the things that money doesn't buy. All those dollar bills and pretty houses look nice on postcards, but Scott keeps returning to the idea that all those objects can end up leaving one with an empty life. This theme gets explored to an especially interesting effect in House of Gucci as an assortment of characters keeps working overtime to backstab each other only to end up going backward in life. It's not the first movie to touch on this idea, but the concept of corrupt rich people erroneously thinking they're exempt from the traitorous behavior they've inflicted on others, that's always entertaining to watch when executed properly. 

Luckily, House of Gucci is very much executed properly, especially since Scott wisely hands over much of the film to the actors. This is a movie fit for people who love to chew scenery, where the characters are as oversized as the unbelievable act of betrayal they exact on others. A terrific cast has been assembled to live up to those stylized means, including Lady Gaga in the lead role. She starts her performance at a 10 in terms of energy and spunk and she just keeps going up, up, up from there. She's a riot to watch, but it's a credit to Gaga that her work rarely comes off like a simple caricature, There's thought going into this performance, while the way she manifests Reggiani's moments of pain or heartbreak does register as distinctly human.

The biggest surprise of the movie, for me at least, was Jared Leto, an actor who I've been open about not liking in the past. His insistence on big "transformations" and "method acting", not to mention his penchant for obliviously goofy schtick, feels like a distraction in other movies. But here, he's found the perfect vehicle for his eccentricities as a performer. House of Gucci calls for performances like Leto's, he fits the aesthetic of the production rather than distracting from it! Even better, he's actually funny in his frantic delivery of lines like "You lying sack of potatoes!" Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons turn in reliably effective turns in the supporting cast. As for Adam Driver, he's handling the most subdued character in the story, yet he manages to not get drowned out by his co-stars. Instead, Driver finds clever subtle ways to reinforce Maurizio's personality, in the process making sure his role stands out in its own way.

House of Gucci is a performance-driven movie, first and foremost. That's primarily a treat given how everyone delivers the sort of maximalist turns you'd want from a project like this. The one drawback to that emphasis is that Scott's direction does sometimes feel too detached for its own good. At his best, Scott knows when to get out of the way of people like Lady GaGa and not let the camerawork distract from their performances. However, there are certain scenes that could've used more lively choices in terms of direction and choices. There are a few too many conversations leaning just on medium-shot/reverse-medium shots in here. Surely a balance could've been struck with more creative visual choices in these scenes that didn't disrupt the performances.

Its cinematography and direction aren't as distinct as its performances, but House of Gucci delivers where it counts in terms of providing a consistently entertaining crime thriller. Ridley Scott and this cast choose to embrace the unabashedly hammy doesn't just create lines that will be widely-spread memes before the years over. It also perfectly captures the inherent ludicrousness of the wealthy. The underlying significance of the choice to play things so over-the-top is felt whenever House of Gucci hauntingly leans into the inherent emptiness that lies in pursuing only money or power. It isn't any fun to live a life of treachery and internalized anguish, but it is certainly fun to watch a movie like House of Gucci.

Andrew Garfield and poignancy shine brightly in Tick, Tick...Boom!

Reality.

The Stage.

Past.

Present.

Pain.

Epiphany.

They're all one and the same in Lin Manuel-Miranda's feature film directorial debut Tick, Tick...Boom! Adapted from a stage show that initially debuted as a 1990 Off-Broadway production before becoming a 2001 musical, this production covers the life of Jonathan Larson. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright was responsible for the transformative show Rent and also died from a sudden medical emergency the night before that musical's first performance. Larson has long cast a wide shadow over the history of musical theater ever since his passing. In Tick, Tick...Boom!, Larson is depicted as a man, one whose story is told through means as unorthodox as they are emotionally devastating.

The structure of Tick, Tick...Boom! begins with Larson (Andrew Garfield) speaking behind a piano with only a handful of singers accompanying him. As he begins to deliver tunes commenting on his passions and past, we flashback to Larson at the age of 29, just days away from turning 30. He's got his first-ever workshop presentation of one of his original works...and it still needs a critical song. Plus, he's struggling to figure out what his future is with his girlfriend, Susan Wilson (Alexandra Shipp). Don't forget his youth will vanish the moment he turns 30 years old. The seconds of life are ticking away and Larson just wants to fill up every minute with accomplishing...something!

The layout of Tick, Tick...Boom! is dense on paper, oscillating between a stage performance, reality, and examples of heightened reality for big splashy musical numbers. In execution, though, it all runs as smoothly as a long-running train schedule. Part of what helps is that screenwriter Steven Levenson doesn't hold the audience's hand in the shifts between different points of time. The focus remains on how the variations reflect Larson as a person, not on beating the audience over the head with exposition. Trusting the viewer's intellect pays off in dividends and, among other positives, allows us to get inside the mind of Larson.

Levenson and Miranda find such creative ways to translate Larson's original musical into a feature film. My initial concerns over how Miranda, particularly, would translate to directing something in the medium of cinema quickly vanished. The heart of Larson's original words remain, but they've now been filtered through a lens that could only be achieved through film. An argument between Larson and Wilson that darts back-and-forth between raw dialogue and a restrained musical number, for instance, would be much harder to pull off on stage, especially the dissonance between the backdrops in the disparate locations. Ditto a recurring visual motif where visions of the distant past are rendered through camcorder footage, which initially proves amusing before getting used for emotionally devastating results. 

Speaking of which, the poignancy in Tick, Tick...Boom! may be the movies greatest asset. Both the character-focused nature of Larson's original story and Miranda's willingness to embrace overt depictions of vulnerability means that the inherent melancholy of the story just breaks your heart. From the get-go, the viewer is informed that Larson won't live to see the first performance of Rent while the story also kicks off fully cognizant of the ongoing AIDS crisis at the dawn of the 1990s. With these elements established, a consciousness of mortality is ingrained directly into the vein of this story. No wonder Larson is worried about there being no tomorrow.

The finite nature of existence is put to especially great use in Why, a musical number that leans on just camcorder footage from years gone by and Larson singing at a piano about his friendship with Michael (Robin de Jesus). The restraint in the instrumental accompaniment and even in the visuals seen on-screen leave the focus on the emotionally raw lyrics and the equally powerful vocals of Garfield. It's such an ingeniously written song, particularly in how the rhyming parallels in each verse convey how there's always this connection between Larson and Michael no matter what chapter of their life they're in. Whether they're performing at the local YMCA as kids or being adults in New York City, the deep bond between the two is communicated in terms of emotionally stirring you can't help but sob.

Garfield shines in this scene and all throughout Tick, Tick...Boom! Initially, I had my hesitation about his performance, with my concern being that his penchant for over-the-top acting tics (remember his Huckleberry Hound impression in Hacksaw Ridge?) would make this version of Larson impossible to be around. Those thoughts of uncertainty quickly vanished thanks to how well Garfield uses the maximalist nature of Larson to conceal a wounded soul. He knows when to play things subtle, and when he does, it's downright impressive. Also standing out in the cast is Robin de Jesus's magnetic turn as Michael while it's wonderful to see that Alexandra Shipp can sing.

Of course, Tick, Tick...Boom! has moments where, as a whole movie, it flubs its lines or misses it cues. Some ham-fisted dialogue about how "there's only one Jonathan Larson" feel too on the nose and hagiographic for a movie that gets so much emotional power out of rendering this late artist as a complex human being. Meanwhile, Miranda's weakest parts as a filmmaker come in his use of green-screen backdrops for two big musical numbers Sunday and Come to Your Senses. The live-action actors just don't look right against these environments and it proves distracting from the exceptional vocals. It's also puzzling why digital backdrops had to be used for these set pieces since neither of them occupies spaces that couldn't be created through practical sets. And, of course, there are moments where centering heavily involving the AIDS crisis on a cis-het man can't help but feel strange, though these are fleeting.

These quibbles aside, Tick, Tick...Boom! is an impressive musical, particularly as a feature film directorial debut from Miranda. This telling of the story of Jonathan Larson will make theater kids everywhere weep for joy, particularly with some of its most star-studded cameos. However, the proceedings are so well-crafted and it's all so deeply moving that Tick, Tick...Boom! will work even for those who have no idea who Larson is going in. We only get so much time on this Earth, but you should totally spend two hours of that finite existence watching a feature as good as Tick, Tick...Boom!

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is lacking a lively spirit

Hollywood has always rehashed familiar brands. Ben-Hur was already adapted twice before the Best Picture-winning 1959 movie hit the silver screen, and The Wizard of Oz also had a pair of adaptations before Judy Garland's Dorothy began skipping down the yellow brick road. Granted, this doesn't justify constant remakes or sequels, especially on the scale Hollywood outfits like Disney engage with them now. But it isn't new for major film productions to retell familiar stories for a new generation. I suppose that means Ghostbusters: Afterlife is keeping in step with Hollywood norms. But did it have to do that in such a frustrating manner?

Phoebe (McKenna Grace), her older brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and single mom Callie (Carrie Coon) have all been evicted from their home and forced to live in a ramshackle old house in Oklahoma that used to be owned by their mysterious absentee grandfather. This guy was such a recluse that the locals took to calling him "the Dirt Farmer". Now it's time for these kids to carve out a new life with that reputation dangling over their heads. Phoebe isn't the best in social situations and Trevor couldn't talk to a girl properly if his life depended on it. 

While snooping around her new domicile one day, Phoebe finds some contraptions, including a ghost-catcher, that seemed to belong to her grandfather. It isn't just familial secrets that this kid is digging up, though. With the help of a Ghostbusters-obsessed teacher Chad Grooberson (Paul Rudd) and a classmate named Podcast (Logan Kim), Phoebe begins to uncover something evil that could be lurking underneath her small town. As more and more of the undead begin to emerge, it's time to call the next generation up to save the day.

The best parts of Ghostbusters: Afterlife are the ones that register as trying something new. This includes shifting the backdrop from New York City to a small Oklahoma town. While the setting becomes superfluous once the third act gets up and running, initially, it is interesting to see a paranormal adventure story set against backdrops that could be used in a Sean Baker movie. A scene where Phoebe and Podcast try out a proton pack on some glass bottles in front of an abandoned factory especially gets some subtle mileage out of this locale. Juxtaposing overgrown foliage and run-down buildings with supernatural forces is an interesting mixture visually.

Meanwhile, structuring the story as a quasi-mystery, where pieces of recognizable Ghostbusters iconography get teased around the margins, doesn't totally work in execution. However, the best parts do inject a sense of historic importance into details from a goofy comedy franchise and it does work at providing a different storytelling template from the prior three Ghostbusters installments. A big mid-movie set piece where Phoebe, Trevor, and Podcast (plus a little BB-8-esque mobile version of a Ghost Trap) chase after newbie ghost Muncher will probably be a hit with the kids, and why wouldn't it be? It's decently filmed, the design of Muncher is cool (I love how many legs he has!), and features youngsters like them chasing after a ghost. It delivers just what a new Ghostbusters movie should for a new generation of moviegoers.

Unfortunately, Ghostbusters: Afterlife transitions in its final half-hour from a passable Amblin knock-off to being just a rehash of the first Ghostbusters movie. If you've seen the climax of that movie, you've seen the finale of this one, only this time the Terror Dogs are rendered through underwhelming CGI. The promise of anything new has faded away, even the Oklahoma setting could now be swapped out for any other location on the planet. There's no rhyme or reason for why things begin to happen, it's just a barrage of disparate pieces of CGI and fan-service searching for a movie to inhabit. None of it is fun or exciting enough to excuse both the disjointed and derivative nature of everything. 

Movies like Creed expertly doled out references to the past to show how far their new characters had come, to provide a satisfying blend of the past and the present. Ghostbusters: Afterlife, meanwhile, is just sad in how it surrenders its brief bursts of original creative instincts in favor of delivering images that seem tailor-made to be nothing more than people's social media profile backgrounds. Even the delivery of Ray Parker Jr.'s original Ghostbusters theme over the credits exemplifies an over-reliance on the past. Heaven forbid we do a new cover of the song featuring modern artists that kids are attached to. Long live the old flesh! 

Of course, even before Ghostbusters: Afterlife becomes an extended example of why it's not always a good idea to just give the fans what they want, it's still got serious problems. For one thing, Reitman and Kenan's script kept jolting me out of the movie by reminding me of other pieces of pop culture, including one emotional beat lifted straight from a season six episode of The Simpsons. Even before the climax arrives, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is too often a hodgepodge of other movies. This is also seen in everyone is always talking in wry quips. It's nice that this film is actually a comedy contrary to its somber marketing, but did so many of the gags just have to be sarcastic retorts? 

Meanwhile, Afterlife doesn't look great in terms of camerawork. Reitman previously used 35mm film to great effect on modern projects like Young Adult. If they were going full nostalgia, why didn't they film Afterlife in the same 35mm format as its predecessors? At least the proceedings could've looked crisper than they do in the final cut. Certain scenes, like a Carrie Coon/Paul Rudd rendezvous in the desert or a run-in with ghosts at a Wal-Mart (wow does this stores aesthetic look so ugly on the big screen), end up looking like segments from a fan film thanks to the combination of digital photography and ultra-bright lighting.  

If the hoots and hollers at my press screening are any indications, Ghostbusters: Afterlife will probably end up pleasing people and that's totally fine! Certainly, it's not a painful movie to watch, I'd imagine it'll work fine for people just looking for some gags and ghosts after stuffing themselves full on Thanksgiving. But the fleeting moments of originality in Ghostbusters: Afterlife just made me wish Reitman and company could've followed those creative instincts more often. By the end, Afterlife approaches levels of obvious fan service that haven't been seen on movie theater screens since Chewbacca got a medal at the end of The Rise of Skywalker. This isn't so much a passing of the torch as it is a bunch of people trying desperately to keep a flame of the past lit.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Souvenir: Part II is the best kind of sequel

The Souvenir: Part II opens on a sunny day, but also a day marked by death. It's a reflection of how much Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is recovering from the death of her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke), a heroin addict who perished from an overdose. Even when the sun is shining, the loss of Anthony is impacting her mind. Navigating where to go next, Julie, a film school student, decides to throw herself into her graduate project. This feature is an autobiographical film about the relationship between herself and Anthony. Coping with the loss of a loved one is never an easy experience. Neither is making a film. Writer/director Joanna Hogg embraces all the messiness of both processes to capture the emotional turmoil Julie is going through.

The Souvenir: Part II is many things, but one of the most striking aspects of it is how it serves as a 106-minute treatise on how to do a sequel right. The world of the original Souvenir gets deeper here, not necessarily bigger. Meanwhile, Hogg trades the calm Yasujiro Ozu-inspired long static takes of the original for more varied visual means here. These include constantly shifting aspect ratios between "reality" and in-universe interviews and movie footage. Hogg isn't just rehashing what already worked in the original film. She's using new emotional circumstances for the character of Julie to try out new things. A sequel is an opportunity for bold experimentation, not just echoes of the past.

One particularly interesting new theme brought to the Souvenir table this go-around is the relationship between a person and the art they create. Julie's film is so ripped from her own life that she brings her own bed, the one she and Anthony used to lie in, to the set as a prop. Therefore, it's inevitable that The Souvenir: Part II would have to comment on the dynamic between a creator and their creations. This commentary manifests in interesting ways throughout the film, including how I sometimes wasn't sure if scenes in Julie's apartment were taking place in her home or on a film set replicating her house. For Julie, there are only the thinnest lines dividing this student film and her experiences, and Hogg conveys this to the audience in a compelling manner.

Meanwhile, a remnant of the original Souvenir is Hogg's affinity for restrained emotions. There are only two instances of louder arguments in the entire runtime of The Souvenir: Part II. Otherwise, this is a buttoned-up movie to its very core. I sometimes found that a tad alienating in the original Souvenir, but here in The Souvenir: Part II, it works so well lat capturing the quiet woe Julie is living with on a day-to-day basis. As we begin the story, enough time has already passed since the death of Anthony that it's not something that immediately reduces Julie to tears. It's an experience that's left a hardened shell felt in her murmurs or lulls between sentences. Hogg's subdued approach to emotions works so devastatingly well here at capturing the experience of someone who has had to live with a tremendous loss just being a part of their everyday psyche.

The thoughtfulness with which The Souvenir: Part II approaches Julie's pain is also felt in the parallels between the struggles of coping with loss and with making a student film. Hogg avoids too on the nose cutesy connections between the two (thus fulfilling one supporting character's insistence to Julie to "avoid being obvious" when it comes to her filmmaking), instead, finding quiet ways for these experiences to mirror each other. Julie's indecisive nature on the set, especially, is rendered quite well as a physical manifestation of the character being unsure of where to take her life next in the wake of Anthony's passing. Tragedy hasn't inspired Julie to become a perfect artistic prodigy. It's just reinforced the fact that she's a human being, like everyone else. 

This underlying exploration of navigating the unending winding road of coping with a massive loss lends quiet layers of poignancy to even the most throwaway conversations in The Souvenir: Part II. Speaking of conversations, boy did I love every exchange between Julie and her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton). It's rare to see a mother/daughter dynamic like this one, not wrought with endless conflict, nor filtered through rose-colored glasses of perfection. There's just a warmth and a realism (both qualities helped by the characters being portrayed by a real-life mother/daughter duo) in their rapport that's so elegantly simple, yet compelling. Years of experience emanate off their conversations and make the world of The Souvenir: Part II all the more lived-in.

Just through exploring these kinds of chats and subtle ways of grappling with loss in everyday life, The Souvenir: Part II already had me hooked. Then Joanna Hogg delivers a bravura closing sequence that travels through all kinds of filmmaking styles (from Ingmar Bergman to Pressburger & Powell!) that had my jaw on the floor. It's such a vividly-realized set-piece on so many levels and a perfect encapsulation of how reality and cinema bleed together throughout The Souvenir: Part II. There's no way to teach an artist's personal life from the work they produce. That can be a daunting truth, but it's also one that serves projects like The Souvenir: Part II incredibly well.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Belfast isn't quite as a personal as it should be

 

The career of Kenneth Branagh is a strange one. For his first 20 years as a director of feature-length films, he primarily concentrated on directing big-screen adaptations of stage plays (largely the works of William Shakespeare), with only occasional digressions from this mold with films like Dead Again. Then along came the 2011 film Thor, and suddenly, Branagh had found a new career path. He was a journeyman director for big-budget American movie adaptations, projects like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Murder on the Orient Express, or Artemis Fowl. After a career largely built on following the stories of others, Branagh has crafted an original film inspired by his own childhood with his latest directorial effort, Belfast.

Taking place in Branagh's home country of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Belfast follows the exploits of Buddy (Jude Hill), a kid who is roughly the same age as Branagh was in the fateful year of 1969. While Americans were going to the Moon, Buddy and his family, led by his unnamed mother (CaitrĂ­ona Balfe) and father (Jamie Dornan), are just struggling to get by. Their neighborhood is being rocked by The Troubles, a real-world event that most prominently impacts Buddy and his neighbors through angry Protestants rioting over the nearby existence of Catholics. Meanwhile, exorbitant rent and tax problems keep the family weighed down by financial problems. Plus, Buddy's got his own seemingly world-shattering issues to deal with, like a crush he's formed on a lady classmate or his difficulty getting a good grip on those pesky division problems.

Branagh's screenplay is juggling a lot, as made apparent by an opening scene depicting Buddy's tranquil home life that gets abruptly upended by the sudden presence of rioters, who turn a happy-go-lucky street into a war zone. The sudden tonal shift here sets the stage for what's to come in Belfast, as plenty of other scenes oscillate quickly from being cutesy to tragic to scary in an instant. Despite how often Branagh wants to engage in veering from one mood to another, the best scenes of Belfast are the ones that remain slow and steady. Unsurprisingly, Branagh, who has extensive experience directing dialogue-heavy movies, excels in capturing mundane conversations between Buddy and his relatives.

Jude Hill engages in a realistic rapport with his loved ones, particularly his grandma and grandpa, played by Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds respectively. Any scenes involving the elderly members of Buddy's family imparting stories or wisdom to this youngster are the highlight of Belfast. Hinds and Dench convey years of experience but also engaging warmth in their screen presence. The duo also captures a touching sense of melancholy over knowing their time on this Earth is finite. Being unable to speak this truth aloud around a small child does this poignant part of Belfast a lot of good. Restraint just makes the underlying temporary nature of these characters feel all the more potent.

Unfortunately, Branagh is less consistently adept whenever Belfast expands its scope beyond the breakfast table at Buddy's house. Scenes depicting rioting or tanks marching into Buddy's neighborhood are captured with choppy camerawork and editing that, unfortunately, suggest Branagh hasn't made much progress with capturing frantic human behavior since his disappointing work on the action scenes in Thor. Even a tender song-and-dance moment between Buddy's parents in the climax of Belfast gets undercut by how Branagh just can't keep the camera still if the characters are engaging in actions more active than sitting still. 

Meanwhile, over-the-top visual flourishes like slow-motion also stick out as strange artifacts that don't fit the tone of Belfast at all. It's impossible to know if this was the intention or not, but the distracting quick cuts and use of slo-mo give off the impression of Branagh getting worried that audiences would get restless in a slow-paced personal piece built on conversations and not explosions. Speaking of distractions, the use of pop culture rooted in the world of 1969 has varying degrees of effectiveness. The worst of these, like a ham-fisted High Noon tribute, takes one right out of the world Belfast is trying to build up. The most compelling moments in the film tell the horrors of The Troubles directly through the eyes of a child. Scenes like the High Noon pastiche, meanwhile, undercut the personal nature of that perspective. 

Though the direction of Belfast on a visual level isn't quite top-shelf, Branagh does remain strong when it comes to handling actors. To be sure, Hinds and Dench are the highlights of the film, but Jude Hill does some of the best work in Belfast in terms of channeling reality. His messy response to the potential prospect of moving, for instance, effectively evokes how real children behave, while Hill has this great deers-in-a-headlight expression that tugs at your heartstrings whenever Buddy gets in trouble. I wish Buddy's parents had more personality in the screenplay, but Balfe and Dornan still turn in commendable work in these roles. Hopefully, Belfast and Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar both indicate that all movies Dornan appears in from now on will involve the dude singing.

Belfast doesn't quite work like it should. The thinly-sketched nature of certain characters (including Buddy's parents) and relying too much on pop culture references are just two ways this personal passion project isn't, well, personal enough. Branagh may be drawing on his own childhood for this story, but his execution of that story echoes too many other movies without carving out its own personality. But the intimate scenes here do carry the kind of specifically-defined spirit this story calls for. The most poignant moments and all-around great acting in Belfast make this an improvement over most of Branagh's works in the last decade. It's not his best film or as good as it could've been, but going for a smaller film like Belfast has certainly led Branagh in more interesting creative directions than (shudders) Artemis Fowl.

It isn't hard to see what drags down the watchable but forgettable The Harder They Fall

 

Short film director Jeymes Samuel makes his feature-length directorial debut on the new Western film The Harder They Fall, which stars Jonathan Majors as Nat Love. A real-life figure, Love here is shown to be a man haunted by the murdering of his parents by notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Love spends his days being a gun-slinging outlaw and tracking down the folks responsible for the death of his mom and dad. One person who hasn't earned a bullet from his gun, though, is Buck. That man's been put in prison...until today, when Buck's loyal followers, including Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), break Buck out of a prison cell on a train. Turns out the government has given Buck a pardon and now this man is free to go back out into the free world.

Once he steps off that train, Buck and his assistants take over the town of Redwood. Now that he's no longer a wanted man, officers of the law can't go after this criminal mastermind. But someone who exists outside of the law, like Love or companion Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), they could have a chance to take Buck down. It's time for some wild wild revenge in the wild wild west.

I kept waiting on the edge of my seat in The Harder They Fall for this movie to fulfill its potential and be something special. As it stands, it's a perfectly serviceable but not altogether engrossing Western, but gosh, the ingredients are here for something far more than that. The cast alone (featuring Delroy Lindo and Danielle Deadwyler in memorable support turns) is great and both the production and costume design are packed with vibrant colors that set this apart from so many other grimy modern Westerns. A street will have storefronts covered in colors more associated with a bag of M&M's than an old monochromatic John Wayne vehicle, it's so lovely to watch.

Plus, it's cool that the film is a take on the Western that doesn't feel like it's just mining nostalgia for past entires in the genre. The whole movie comes off as an attempt to give the current young generation an original Western to call their own. Characters trade back-and-forth banter that feels more at home with how modern quippy film characters speak rather than a 19th-century vernacular. Meanwhile, the zippy use of upbeat modern songs during big fight scenes will feel natural for a generation that's grown up on Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy. Other modern visual touches, like the use of split screens during a tense negotiation on a train or the employment of a trunk shot in a time where there were no automobiles, also come off as welcome ways of making the Western feel new for younger viewers.

These unique visual touches are, unfortunately, let down by a screenplay that has some familiar faults. Though it's a distinctive entry in the world of Westerns, The Harder They Fall suffers from shortcomings that plague a lot of Netflix original movies. PIXAR movies have buddy road trip movies, Tim Burton loves outsiders, and Netflix genre fare loves running way too long. Whether it's Bright, Project Power, or Sandy Wexler, popcorn entertainment from this streamer just stretches on for an eternity. The Harder They Fall is, unfortunately, no exception. Running about twenty (at least) minutes too long, the simplicity of this Western's story would be a welcome departure from convoluted narrative norms if its runtime was more succinct. 

Without enough plot to fill the runtime, The Harder They Fall ends up feeling like it's spinning its wheels, and not in a fun way. Also proving frustrating is that, despite the elongated length, the characters in this film rarely end up getting much in the way of dimensions. Majors has movie star charisma to spare, but he oddly vanishes for the second act of The Harder They Fall, a missed opportunity to give him more time to develop Love or even just charm the viewers. It's also disappointing that Beetz's Stagecoach Mary ends up a captive for so much of the story. Beetz has a compelling aura in her screentime, I kept yearning for her to have more to do than being stuck in a jail cell.

Still, even with these narrative faults, The Harder They Fall never becomes painful to watch. A cast packed with engaging faces, some great tunes on the soundtrack, and a steady supply of shootouts ensure there's usually something on the screen that's interesting. However, with all the ingredients in place to bake a one-of-a-kind cake, it's disappointing that The Harder They Fall ends up delivering a pastry that I felt like I'd tasted before. Though certainly better than other attempts at modernizing the Western like (shudders) The Lone Ranger, The Harder They Fall does prove to be a frustratingly average endeavor. 

Eternals SPOILER THOUGHTS



MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD

Alright, let's talk spoilers.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Eternals is a flawed but interesting entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The fact that Eternals features both Merle Haggard's Mama Tried and Foreigner's Feels Like The First Time on its soundtrack should give you an idea of just how expansive this project is. Eternals takes viewers all over Earth and then ventures out into the deepest reaches of space. It features a cast as large as its runtime and attempts to merge Jack Kirby's unabashed cosmic weirdness from the original comics with Chloe Zhao's melancholy intimacy. The result is a jagged creation weighed down by adhering to certain superhero movie conventions and key character beats getting lost in the tidal wave of ideas. However, it also evokes Ang Lee's Hulk in registering as an oftentimes compelling fusion of a blockbuster and something much more personal and offbeat. 

7,000 years ago, the Eternals, a race of immortal superpowered beings, were sent to Earth by the God-like entities Celestials to defeat the nefarious monsters known as the Deviants. The Eternals consist of superpowered folks like Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), among others. After spending centuries fighting Deviants and watching over humanity, the Eternals go their separate ways and proceed to fade into the rest of human society. 

Flash forward to the modern world, where everyone's taken on everyday jobs to conceal their identities, Sersi works as a teacher, Kingo is a Bollywood movie star, the distant Druig (Barry Kheogan) leads a colony of humans under his mind control, just to name a few. All of these existences get upended once the Deviants suddenly resurface. Causing mayhem across the planet again, the Eternals will need to re-assemble if they want to save this planet. However, a new powerful member of the Deviants is causing unprecedented trouble for the Eternals and even these immortal beings will find themselves with their backs against the wall.

Within the first few minutes of Eternals, which begin with a long wall of text explaining the backstory of these characters and rigid lines of "affection" between Sersi and Ikaris, it's clear Eternals will be more of a serious cosmic adventure rather than the comedic outer space romps of Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok. This isn't a bad approach, since it fits right into Zhao's wheelhouse and allows Eternals to linger on the horrors these ancient superheroes have witnessed in their time on this planet. Druig explicitly references genocide, while a memorably powerful scene depicts inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) weeping at the carnage wrought by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Best of all, Zhao and fellow screenwriters Patrick Burleigh and Ryan and Kaz Firpo do a remarkable job making each of the titular heroes distinct from one another. Eternals has ten superheroes to juggle, but a mid-movie chat in a building in the Amazon made me realize how well the film had rendered each of the Eternals introduced up to that point. Their posture, dialogue, placement in the room, all displayed unique perspectives that ensured the team wasn't just one superhero repeated ten times over. The uniqueness of the individual players makes eventual discussions over whether it is better to be loyal or personally fulfilled all the more intriguing to watch unfold.

Unfortunately, the dense script can easily lose track of its more interesting character details. Eternals has a bad habit of starting and ending its characters in interesting ways but forgetting the crucial connective tissue between those two points. Certain plot threads, like a personal issue related to Thena, also distractingly vanish once the third act arrives. Speaking of that section of the story, the finale of Eternals has some creative flourishes, but too much of it is random cosmic noise that doesn't gel with the serious tone of the preceding film. Up to this point, there's been such an emphasis on a melancholy tone and character details, and those interesting qualities get lost once everyone has to focus on punching. 

Meanwhile, the primary foes of Eternals, The Deviants, are a disappointing lot, a bunch of CG monsters without much personality. That's true even of the one Deviant who can speak and gets a name (albeit only in the credits), Kro. His first monologue is riddled with hysterically didactic dialogue while his presence in the finale feels like an afterthought. Much like those digital Hulk Poodles from The Hulk, Kro and The Deviants feel out of place in a comic book movie that's at its best being introspective and quiet. These characters need to have more depth and concrete personas beyond just being snarling beasts. At least the scenes where the Eternals fight these gigantic monsters are exciting on a surface level. Zhao does a good job finding creative ways for the varying superpowers of the Eternals to bounce off one another when they're in combat while these skirmishes are filmed crisply.

As a whole, Eternals looks stunning visually, with the screen constantly peppered with bright colors that dazzle the eye. Even subdued locations like Sersi's apartments or that room in the Amazon are coated in light green and yellow hues, respectively, while the castles of Babylon are drenched in pleasing shades of blue. When they're all suited up, the Eternals themselves get glorious costumes decked out in similarly bright tints. The emphasis on real-world locations and richly-detailed sets also turns out to be a wise choice. Combining all that natural light with the over-the-top costumes provides a consistently interesting visual dissonance and subtly reinforces the emotional tangibility of the internal crises these Eternals are navigating. The only drawback to utilizing practical backdrops like these is that the instances of green-screen work do stand out like a sore thumb.

The storytelling shortcomings of Eternals, including an awkward ending that leaves things on a frustrating cliffhanger, reflect a movie whose ambition sometimes exceeds its grasp. But when it grabs ahold of that mixture of intimacy and cosmic spectacle, Eternals does manage to channel an aesthetic totally unique to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are individual scenes in here that are already lingering in my mind longer than the best scenes in overall more cohesive efforts from Marvel Studios. Plus, even in the moments where the contemplative nature of Eternals gets drowned out by action, Zhao lends a capable hand behind the camera that had me consistently engaged. One of the messiest movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals, like Ang Lee's Hulk all those years ago, proves that a jaggedly assembled superhero movie can still be a mighty interesting thing.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Finch is familiar, but highly affecting post-apocalyptic cinema

Finch continues a long tradition of movies focused on A-list stars spending most of their screentime alone. Think The Martian, I Am Legend, or even Cast Away, a previous iconic movie from Finch leading Tom Hanks. Those films center on a single human doing everything they can do to survive, getting through another day is the ultimate goal. Finch, meanwhile, deviates from this norm by centering its plot on a man preparing to die. This isn't a guy who's given up and needs to be taught to live again, death is a certainty for him. The end is coming and that inevitability provides a moving crux to build Finch around.

We meet Finch (Tom Hanks) scrounging for supplies and dog food in a post-apocalyptic vision of St. Louis. Once he returns to his underground domicile, we learn that Finch's only companion is a canine and a little rover that behaves like a dog. It's also made apparent that Finch is slowly dying from prolonged exposure to radiation. With his demise on the horizon, Finch is cooking up a new companion that can take care of his doggie in the form of a bipedal robot that comes to be known as Jeff (Caleb Landy Jones). Once he's booted up, this cross between WALL-E and CHAPPiE has all kinds of knowledge stored up in his brain, but he's clueless about things like walking or what trust is. Jeff is going to need to learn quickly, as a brutal sandstorm forces Finch and company to hightail it to San Francisco just as this man's sickness grows worse.

Screenwriters Craig Luck and Ivor Powell don't rewrite the book with Finch, which results in undeniably predictable moments in the story. The inevitable hopeless moment at the end of act two arrives right on time and it's also easy to pick out which lines of dialogue will end up being reused as emotionally resonant callbacks in the final half-hour. Gustavo Santaolalla's score is also a familiar piece of work that often feels too much like it's channeling the works of John Williams. This comes at the expense of the composer crafting his own vision for what music a post-apocalyptic road trip should be set to.

However, the familiar details don't register as too much of a hindrance since Finch does prove to be a poignant affair. Luck and Powell may lean on some familiar details, but they also prove smart in committing to an intimate scope that never expands beyond a man, his dog, and his robot. There aren't forced antagonists or hamfisted flashbacks that spell out what life was like before the apocalypse. Keeping things so confined allows the focus to remain on the touching parallel journies of Finch growing weaker and Jeff becoming more humanlike. Poignant details like these provide the kind of sizzling culinary skills necessary to make familiar ingredients tasty again.

It's also cool to see a movie with a CG character (brought to life through motion capture) that utilizes a digital figure for purposes other than punching or spurring explosions. The focus of Finch is on Jeff learning how to drive or getting told stories by a weary Finch. These are the sort of intimate scenarios many films with CG protagonists forego entirely. Even if his initial voice sounded a little too Borat-like, Jeff eventually won me over by Finch director Miguel Sapochnik's dedication to using this mechanical figure for character-centric means. Combine this storytelling approach with remarkable work from the animators tasked with bringing Jeff to life, and you get a movie robot you won't soon forget.

Playing opposite this mechanical being is Tom Hanks as Finch. Getting to be the one human on-screen affords Hanks plenty of opportunities to deliver lengthy monologues that, of course, he executes with such authority that never undercuts his everyman aura. It's also amusing, endearingly so, that Finch is a post-apocalyptic figure in the mold of Tom Hanks. Rather than fending off zombies or wearing skulls around his neck, Finch has figured out how to make popcorn through the increased heat of the sun and just wants to protect his dog. Finch is also a bitter soul that had trust issues even before the apocalypse happened, so it's not like he's a Pollyanna figure, but it's still fun to see a protagonist in this strain of storytelling that's on the same wavelength as Hanks real-world persona.

Strong work from Hanks helps cement Finch as a movie good enough to make me wish it had been able to play in theaters instead of getting sent to Apple TV+, where it won't have a chance of garnering an audience. Hopefully, it can develop a positive reputation over time since Sapochnik's quiet yet affecting take on an end of the world story is the kind of tearjerker that'll work for general moviegoers and jaded cinema fans alike. Finch is totally following in the footsteps of past post-apocalyptic movies, but it has the good sense to know when to blaze its own trail.

Princess Diana gets a royal dose of empathy in the exceptional film Spencer

 

Lingering over a kitchen where cooks hurry to prepare food for the Royal Family is a sign reading "No noise, they can hear you!" It's meant to be a warning to keep all the clattering of pots and pans down as not to disrupt anyone, but it carries larger significance than that. The thought of ears always being up and catching every little thing runs deep throughout Spencer. There's always somebody waiting around the corner or behind a nearby door hearing every word that spills out of Princess Diana's (Kristen Stewart) mouth. It's a suffocating way to live that's captured with brutality but also deft care under the direction of filmmaker Pablo Larrain. 

A self-proclaimed "fable based on true events", Spencer chronicles three days (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day) in the life of Diana Spencer in December 1991. Spencer is grappling with a series of mental health issues, including bulemia and hallucinations, that are giving her a lot of anxiety. Exacerbatng this stress is the actions of the royal family, who make their frustrations towards Spencer apparent by ordering servants to keep a close eye on her. All Spencer wants is some freedom in her life. However, she has to deal with the constant presence of people like Equerry Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall) firmly insisting she do things like put on certain dresses or close her curtains. The stated reason for all these actions is because of the presence of largely unseen "press" figures snapping photographs. It's clear, though, that the actual reason is to stifle Spencer's personality. 

Spencer's story unfolds with a pervasive sense of claustrophia, as societal expectations keep crushing Spencer no matter where she turns. In one of several smart moves by screenwriter Steven Knight, the people upholding those expectations make no attempt to disguise their motivations. Spencer's husband, Charles, Prince of Wales (Jack Farthing), has a conversation in a pool room with his significant other plainly explaining to her that she has to do things she hates, her needs aren't important. Meanwhile, the lone conversation Queen Elizabeth II (Stella Gonet) has with her daughter-in-law see's this regal figure explaining to Spencer that she and the other members of the Royal Family are nothing more than currency for the general public.

Going down this track makes the plot of Spencer akin to watching someone stuck in quicksand and struggling to escape. In this case, the quicksand Spencer wants to evade is the standards of the Royal Family, where everyone has resigned themselves to living for an abstract vision of perfection. They've all gotten with the program, even the servants, particularly Gregory, adhere to this idea. Why can't Spencer? Though she may have visions of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson) walking alongside her down long hallways, Spencer is more thetered to reality than any of the people that are supposed to be her blood relatives. Through her eyes, Spencer reveals the grave cost of putting tradition over the livelihood of human beings. 

This narrative foundation is a compelling way of exploring Princess Diana on film, eschewing a grave-to-craddle biopic structure in favor of something more concise, insightful, and unique. Of course, one would expect something distinct from Spencer director Pablo Larrain. He even manages to make this production unique even compared to his last movie about a notable 20th century female political figure, Jackie. Among the unique traits he brings to the table is taking a cue from fellow excellent 2021 movie The Father and translating the visual language of horror movies as a way to convey mental health issues. Rather than use such elements to be exploitative about Spencer's real issues, Larrain uses them to bring us closer into the mind of this individual and effectively depict how she slips in and out of reality.

The influence of horror cinema is also felt in bits and pieces of Jonny Greenwood's score, which occasionally uses discordant piano keys and piercing string instruments to magnify the anxiety in Spencer's head. Primarily, though, Greenwood's composition capture the internal world of Spencer's protagonist through an ingenious use of jazz music motifs. Jazz is the last genre one would normally associate with a movie about a member of the Royal Family. However, those wailing trumpets, the low-pitch of those double brass strings getting plucked, the crackling of the ride cymbal, they all make for perfect extensions of the emotions Spencer can barely contain. This creative musical manifestation of Princess Diana is one of the most ingenious parts of Spencer.

Also impressing here is, of course, Kristen Stewart, whose turn as the titular lead of Spencer has already garnered headline for months now. Prepare for even more hype over her work in the weeks to come since she does deliver a startlingly good lead turn here. Equal parts fiery and vulnerable, she tackles the most psychologically tormented moments of her character with grace. However, I was especially impressed with how much warmth she lends moments Spencer can just be a person, full of glee over being at the beach, playing a game with her two kids, or seeing an old scarecrow. Perhaps even better than Stewart, though, is Sally Hawkins as Spencer's one confidante in the household. All movies are better with Sally Hawkins, it's a scientific fact, and Spencer is proof why. She can command your attention with a whisper and she immediately conveys years of friendship with Spencer after being onscreen for mere moments.

Emphasizing these moments of levity and human connection in Spencer's life ensures that Spencer doesn't feel like an exploitative movie. If anything, it feels akin to how Once Upon a Time in Hollywood approached Sharon Tate, in how it chronicles everyday life to restore a sense of complexity and humanity to a woman long defined exclusively by her tragic passing. This empathetic approach towards the central subject of Spencer extends all throughout the production, including Claire Mathon's outstanding cinematography. Like the cooks that concot her meals, Princess Diana Spencer is always told to be quiet because everyone, both in the Royal Family and in the world, is listening. Spencer, though, vividly makes a case for why she should be as loud and proud as she wants.