Friday, May 20, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick manages to soar

In 2007, country music icon Gary Allan released a song entitled "Watching Airplanes" in which he harmonizes about a man whose girlfriend just left him. This lady is taking off on an airplane to go somewhere far away, to start a new life. Now, this man is just peering up at the sky, vessels soaring across the blue canvas hovering above us all, wondering about "which one you might be on...and why you don't love me anymore." Yes, he is indeed "Watching Airplanes." Moviegoers around the globe are bound to do something similar once Top Gun: Maverick hits theaters, though given how much fun this long-awaited sequel is, they're bound to be much happier with their experience of witnessing aerial vehicles "take off. and fly."

It's been decades since viewers last saw Maverick (Tom Cruise), but he's still just a captain and as reckless as ever. He's also maintained his skills at flying any aircraft to its maximum potential, to the point that, despite the fact that he can't follow the rules to save his life, he's been recruited to teach a new group of young cadets fresh out of the Academy. Specifically, he's supposed to teach them out how to pull off an impossible task of taking out a facility overseas housing dangerous nuclear weaponry. It'll already be a challenge to fulfill the role of a teacher, but Maverick's got an extra hurdle here. One of the people he's teaching is Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of his deceased co-pilot Goose. Maverick being alive while Rooster's dad is lying in the ground is only the tip of the iceberg in their fractured relationship, which will play into every facet of this critical operation.

Top Gun: Maverick isn’t so much a revelation of a blockbuster as it is an especially good preparing of dishes you know and love. It won’t win points for originality, but it’s hard to complain when everything’s so tasty. Part of that tastiness comes down to the screenwriters (which include Ehren Kruger and Christopher McQuarrie) showing a fondness for the original Top Gun, right down to basically recreating that films opening credits scene. Thankfully, though this is not the equivalent of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King to the first Top Gun. Maverick has something new to offer primarily in the form of a wistful melancholy tied into getting older.

This ambiance is established in an opening scene of Maverick subverting orders to push a jet to 10 G's, all in the name of preserving all the jobs of his co-workers on the base. In the first Top Gun, the characters recklessness was informed brash youthfulness. Now, it's defined by an unspoken sense that Maverick wants to do some good as the elder statesman around these parts. This persists throughout the rest of the movie, in which the passage of time and wistfulness are always hovering on the margins of the frame. These thematic motifs echo other legacy sequels like Creed and The Muppets. Granted, Top Gun: Maverick isn’t as good as those two movies, but channeling the vibes of such features is never a bad thing in my book. 

You get all that thoughtfulness plus lots of jets going super fast across the sky! Which is almost certainly what any reasonable person buying a ticket to Top Gun: Maverick is really coming here for. If the screenplay is a mixture of the old and the new, then director Joseph Kosinski embraces primarily the latter element with how he renders the airborne sequences of Top Gun: Maverick. That’s a solid decision since nobody can replicate the unique fast-paced rhythms of the late great filmmaker Tony Scott. Instead of making a pastiche of Scott’s work, Kosinski embraces the visual traits that have defined his own films. 

Lots of wide shots, crisp editing rather than Paul Greengrass-style frantic cuts, and his affinity for daytime shooting as established in his works from Oblivion onward. It’s cool to see Kosinski confident enough to bring his own style to an established franchise. It’s even better to see that distinct aesthetic realized in such an often stunning fashion. The jet-centric set pieces are framed in a coherent manner that allows you to appreciate the practicality of how they pulled all these incredible stunts and flight patterns off. The screenplay offers up plenty of cogent and smartly stripped-down set pieces for Kosinski to put these visual sensibilities to good use.

While the filmmaking and melancholy are strong in Maverick, not every element in the film soars as gracefully as a jet zooming across the sky. A subplot revolving around a new love interest for Maverick played by Jennifer Connelly has its sweet moments. However, Maverick fails to fully overcome the awkwardness of trying to give this character a new romantic partner while never referencing Kelly McGillis's Charlie from the first Top Gun, despite leaning so heavily on that film in nearly every other way. The 146 minute runtime is also a touch excessive while initially prominent young pilots like Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) and Bob (Lewis Pullman) end up disappointingly vanishing from the main plot.

Primarily, though, Top Gun: Maverick works like a charm and just wait until it gets crackling in its final 40 minutes. While some blockbusters get swallowed up by spectacle in their respective finales, the climax is where Maverick metamorphizes from a largely enjoyable blockbuster to become an especially captivating one. This stretch of the story serve as the apotheosis of how Maverick can whip up familiar beats to make them feel fresh as a newly-plucked daisy. I'm not even a super fan of the original Top Gun (I prefer Crimson Tide and Unstoppable among Tony Scott joints) and I still found Maverick to be a lot of fun. Die-hard fans of that initial film, then, are bound to be over the moon "watching airplanes" in a sequel that turned out to be worth the wait. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Make time to watch a movie as emotionally rich as Petite Maman

 

It can be hard to remember, but our parents didn't start their lives as our parents. Just because we've only known them as Mom, Dad, or any other term doesn't mean that's all they are. They were also once kids, teenagers, twenty-somethings, people with lives beyond just the youngsters they raised. Eight-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) gets a vivid reminder of this truth in the newest film from Celine Sciamma, Petite Maman. Those expecting another beautifully-filmed and quietly touching film in the mold of past Sciamma classics like Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Girlhood will be most pleased with everything Petite Maman has to offer.

Nelly begins Petite Maman grappling with the loss of her grandmother, who struggled for years with a harrowing disease. Her mother (Nina Meurisse) then takes Nelly to clean out her grandmother's house, the same place this mom had grown up in years prior. While playing in the nearby woods, Nelly encounters a young girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and the two hit off as fast friends right away. However, Nelly quickly realizes that Marion isn't just a new pal, but her own mom at eight years old. Somehow, Nelly is now able to wander in and out of the past, including encountering her grandmother and her house from decades prior.

Sciamma correctly never explains how or why Nelly can suddenly wander across time. There's no need to overcomplicate the plot with a deluge of expository dialogue explaining the mechanics of moving through time. The importance here is not on how Nelly is going into the past, but rather the friendship she develops when stumbling into the 1990s. This wise storytelling move shows how Sciamma understands completely what the priorities of Petite Maman. Such priorities mean that the lion's share of the runtime is dedicated to several endlessly delightful sequences consisting solely of Nelly and Marion bonding, playing, and being goofy. Just try and not crack a smile at these kids doing a rendition of a dramatic detective movie!

These are the moments of Petite Maman that warm your heart because of what you're seeing. But the movie proves equally adept at being moving when it comes to what you don't hear. In Nelly's first trip to Marion's house, she encounters the girl's mother, A.K.A. her own grandmother. This lady is, of course, decades younger, but still walking with a cane, an indicator of the disease she'd perish from. Nelly says nothing as this parental figure makes her way across the kitchen to attend to the two children. The absence of noise or dialogue speaks volumes about all the emotions Nelly is working through right now, as she's confronted with the family member she feels she never got to properly say goodbye to.

Quiet moments of poignancy like that are littered throughout Petite Maman, which finds ingenious ways to get so much emotional power out of figures from disparate points in time colliding. Such moving segments don't come at the expense of these kids acting like authentic children. These are not cutesy caricatures of kids nor tiny organisms full of sitcom-level quips. Nelly and Marion are very realistic portraits of eight-year-olds and their behavior. This is even seen in moments where they utter wise or impactful phrases. These pieces of dialogue are weighty, but they feel appropriately incidental, like Nelly or Marion have no clue of the power of what they're saying. Sciamma's screenplay is a contemplative exercise about the past and present, but not at the expense of its adolescent protagonists.

Their interactions take place against a backdrop of natural environments covered in orange and yellow colors coming from all the fallen leaves. Yes, Petite Maman is set in Autumn and what a beautiful landscape to tell such a sweet but melancholy yarn. Much like with Fantastic Mr. FoxPetite Maman reminds one of all the incredible visual opportunities afforded by setting movies in the final months of the year. Framed by cinematographer Claire Mathon (reuniting with Sciamma after their unforgettable work on Portrait), the exterior colors as well as the hues of the house, like the deep blue tiling in the bathroom, convey such a warm and inviting aura. I could practically feel the crackling of leaves beneath my feet or feel the texture of wallpaper on the house. What an appropriately transportive quality for a story about moving across passages of time.

The visuals are in service of a story that, among its countless other virtues, shows appropriate restraint in scope. There's only five characters with notable amounts of dialogue in here and 90% of the story is set either in one house or the surrounding woods. Turns out, that's all you need for a movie like this. the intimate nature to the scope and cast means that we have a chance to not only understand the characters more, but also the environments they inhabit. This house Marion was raised in is so important to both of the leads for different reasons. Shifting across a wide variety of sets could've meant losing sight of this location in the process. Instead, Sciamma keeps viewers firmly rooted here, in the process wringing maximum pathos out of minimum locales.

Time is a daunting force throughout Petite Maman. Nelly is dying to know more about the childhood of her parents, Nelly's mother, as an adult, is so overwhelmed with the present that she vanishes from her daughter's life for a few days. Adolescent Marion, meanwhile, is concerned with the future as an important surgery is on the horizon and she's petrified of dying. Time can often be cruel, especially in how its inevitable march takes away loved ones before we even have the chance to say goodbye. With Petite Maman, Celine Sciamma creates a movie cognizant of the horrors of time. But she also posits a fantastical scenario where fiddling around with the past and presents allows one mother and daughter to bond. The result is a movie that's beautiful in its cinematography, quietly powerful in its performances, and deeply moving in every way.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Firestarter burns up the screen with incompetence

 

Thank you Firestarter.

Thank you for providing a great night.

Let me back up a little bit.

I graduate from graduate school on Tuesday. In just two days. I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around it. I've been so busy this semester that the inevitable process of graduating has always felt nebulous, like the sun or the clouds, something I could see but never touch. But here it is. 48 hours from now, I'll get to walk across a stage and receive my Master's, my first time going through this process in my college experience (
I didn't accept my Associate's in a ceremony in 2018 and COVID bungled a ceremony for my Bachelor's). Finally being cognizant of that impending event has got me feeling more than a touch wistful, including over recollections on how I started this darn Land of the Nerds website eight years ago when I graduated High School. Time flies.

With the end near, I'm already feeling wistful and missing staples of Graduate School, including the multitude of friends I made there. A handful of my chums from my Graduate School film classes are whom I saw Firestarter with. To talk about the multitude of shortcomings of Firestarter (and good Lord is this a bad movie, just an embarrassment) afterwards with these people was a testament to the communal joys of cinema. So, yes, thank you Firestarter for giving me an opportunity to further bond and make memories with people I care about. That's more than other bad Blumhouse movies like The Gallows could say they accomplished.

So, enough with the personal ramblings, what is Firestarter? Both an adaptation of a Stephen King novel and a remake of 1984 Drew Barrymore movie, both also named Firestarter, this horror film concerns a young girl named Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). She has the superpower to make fire randomly appear, which is more than a touch hazardous. Her parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon), both of whom have their own abnormal abilities, try to keep their offspring off the grid. They want to evade the attention of the evil folks at an organization that want to use Charlie as a weapon. However, an accident at Charlie's school has these nefarious forces sending John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes) to retrieve the young girl. Charlie will now have to learn to fight back and embrace her powers if she wants to survive everything that's coming.

Why is everything so dim in Firestarter? Director Keith Thomas and cinematographer Karim Hussain inexplicably render every interior environment in this film as if they exist in a world devoid of lightbulbs. Whether it's a public school gymnasium in the middle of the day, a tucked-away spot where a sickly spouse is being kept, or a kitchen, every room in Firestarter is drenched in darkness. Optimistically, this might've been an attempt to give the film an "atmospheric" look, but there's no artistry to the use of darkness or external light. Firestarter just looks bad and murky. All it does is make one wanna reach through the screen and flip a light switch.

The lackluster visual sensibilities of the rest of the movie also make it hard to cut any slack on Firestarter's bizarre lack of proper lighting. The best example of how badly this movie stumbles even the simplest of shocking imagery comes early on when Charlie inquires about the welfare of a loved one. This is followed up by the corpse of that loved one just abruptly plopping out of a closet in the background. We then cut to an awkward close-up of the arms of this deceased individual, It's all framed, especially in the shot of a dead body slumping into the frame, like a dark background joke on The Eric Andre Show, not something that's meant to be taken seriously. A pivotal emotional moment has been bungled beyond repair. 

Firestarter has a bad habit of lapsing into comical self-parody thanks to its visual ineptitude. Just look at a flashback scene where the depiction of a cop "forgetting how to breathe", thanks to Zac Efron's telepathic superpower, will leave one in titters, not screaming in fear. The two depictions of CG charred corpses from Charlie using her powers are similarly flat and laughable. These bodies look too gooey and unrealistic to function as appropriately ominous! The dialogue inhabiting these badly-staged sequences is often just as bad. Every line in a section of the runtime where our heroes stay at a farmhouse owned by Irv (John Beasley) is especially disastrous, with none of these people sounding like, well, people. 

Firestarter's lack of visual imagination, excitement, or scares reach their apex of obviousness once the climax arrives. Here, Charlie wanders down scarcely-populated hallways of a box factory, er, an evil government organization. Flashes of orange or green lighting aren't enough to compensate for how these environments are laughably empty while the series of kills Charlie engages in have little in the way of oomph. As a cherry on top, Charlie isn't acting all that different from the start of the movie when she accidentally set her mom's arms on fire. Despite a feeble attempt at a Rocky-style training montage, there's been no indication of growth or change here. Is Firestarter gaslighting me into believing its story had any momentum whatsoever?

Firestarter is a bad movie. Just a truly abysmal piece of cinema, one where not even an occasionally interesting score from John Carpenter (that inexplicably features tracks reminiscent of Michael Myers' theme music?!?) can make the experience all that bearable. But talking about and dissecting all these shortcomings with friends, that made for a fantastic night out with friends. At least Firestarter made me appreciate the joys and connections I've made at college. That's nowhere near enough to make this disaster a good movie, but I'll always appreciate it for spurring some laughs and fun conversation. So, yes, thank you Firestarter...for doing at least one thing right.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a lot, for good and for ill

 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness begins in media res with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) running across a purple cosmic landscape from a roaring monster covered in runes. As she and her mentor converse while fighting off this bellowing beast, the audience is given no narration, no on-screen text to provide context for what's happening. We're thrust right into the, well, madness of the multiverse. I had to chuckle at this, remembering a time not so long ago when comic book movies were so nervous maintaining the strangeness of their source material that Galactus had to be reconstituted into a cloud. Now look at how far they've come. Truly a deep character arc.

That level of ambition can't mitigate the fact that Multiverse of Madness has one of the weaker screenplays for a Marvel Cinematic Universe title. Much like Avengers: Infinity War, Multiverse of Madness is a barrage of events and mayhem that needed more moments to breathe and poignancy to ground the nuttiness. However, it's also a haunted hayride of a movie that really commits to being a horror film, and one heavily utilizing director Sam Raimi's visual motifs to boot. It's messy, yes, but also regularly entertaining, which counts for quite a bit in my book.

Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, WandaVision, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Multiverse of Madness begins with Doctor Strange contemplating just how happy he is being a superhero. Did he give up too much, like a chance at happiness with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), in his magical pursuits? This sorcerer's already bizarre existence gets thrown another curveball when Chavez enters the picture, with this teenager carrying the ability to open up portals to other dimensions. However, she's being pursued by adversaries across the multiverse who're so powerful that Strange will need to call on the aid of fellow Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to ensure Chavez's safety. 

What follows is a descent into various realities where nobody can be trusted, Strange will be constantly tested, and saying any more will have people complaining that this review gives away too much.

The weakest parts of Multiverse of Madness are the instances where the plot practically bends over backward to get the viewer to certain character beats or action set-pieces. Screenwriter Michael Waldron, previously responsible for being the head writer on Loki, has a bad habit of just lurching these characters around, with the abruptness undercutting our investment in what's happening. Granted, this becomes less of a problem once the horror elements come to the forefront, and Multiverse of Madness can justify some of this storytelling in the name of generating scares. However, it's still a strange issue with the screenplay and one that especially undercuts attempts at wringing pathos out of Strange's storyline.

Many of the instances where the audience is supposed to tear up over Strange's internal plight just don't work well despite a committed performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. This is partially because they're built on the character's relationship with Palmer. That dynamic was awkwardly-defined in the first Doctor Strange, a flaw that comes back to haunt Multiverse of Madness now that it wants to really lean on their past for maximum poignancy. The jam-packed nature of the story means there isn't much time to flesh out their past so that we can be as moved as Multiverse of Madness wants us to be. More laidback hangout scenes like the ones that were so fun and even touching in Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: No Way Home would've worked wonders here.

But even if it can't work super successfully as either a character or dramatic exercise, Multiverse of Madness does have an ace up its sleeve: director Sam Raimi. Returning to the world of superhero movies that he upended with his Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi is in rare form here as he gets to bring out all his visual motifs and his extensive experience with horror cinema. Both of those qualities make the various scary scenes of Multiverse of Madness a pleasure to watch, especially since Raimi's old-school approach to genre cinema means he isn't afraid to do ridiculous things just for the sake of doing them. One character randomly starts contorting their body like Gabriel from Malignant and never does it again, while another figure in the story gravely intones about "the souls of the damned" without a trace of postmodern irony. 

Similarly, it's fun how Raimi's visual interpretation of Strange's powers is more cartoony than prior depictions of the character. This wizard does more than fire off blasts of energy, he now makes big purple hands or immense chainsaws to help him fight off enemies. It's such a fun way to realize those abilities and reflects the uninhibited nature of the filmmaker's creativity. It's such a delight to watch Raimi play around with such an expansive toolbox and mold the toys inside closer to his own sensibilities. There are even some surprisingly gruesome deaths, always a welcome presence in any PG-13 movie. Under Raimi's watch, the assembled cast does solid work, with Benedict Cumberbatch proving especially compelling in this iteration of Doctor Strange. It's been fun to see Cumberbatch ebb and flow across his various Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances, with the various directors he's worked under and the assorted superheroes his characters interacted with inspiring such fun slight variations in his performance. Multiverse of Madness is no different, with the actor getting to shine playing Strange as a powerful individual whose still often overwhelmed by what the multiverse can offer.

The rare Marvel Cinematic Universe movie more compelling visually than it is narratively (those scene transitions!), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is best crystallized by the score provided by Danny Elfman. It doesn't always work and sometimes just becomes a blur of noise that gets lost beneath all the action. But it's also often swinging for the fences, with Elman's ambition coming from how often he adheres to different musical influences. A skirmish between Strange and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) inexplicably carries some 1990s rock vibes, other parts of the score evoke mid-20th century whimsy, while a standout sequence of the entire movie sees Elfman reconstituting classic pieces of orchestral music. It sometimes doesn't fit together, but so much of it proves fun and entertaining that you can't help but admire the ambition. Similarly, Multiverse of Madness as a film is a messy but energized and creative creation, and, best of all, one that's decidedly the brainchild of Sam Raimi.

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is too generic for its own good

 

I'm glad we've all come around on Nicolas Cage in recent years. Not that an Oscar-winning performer with untold millions stashed away in his bank account needs defending, but for a while there, it seemed like Cage was a punchline just because he starred in some goofy subpar movies. Thankfully, modern-day works like Mandy and Pig have reinforced the man's talents and ensured that Cage is no longer just a source of meme-based mockery. His ascent in the eyes of the public is reflected in the mere existence of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a new comedy predicated on the idea that casual moviegoers would love to see a meta mostly fictional take on Cage's life and career. It's an excitingly bold concept, even if the execution is never as daring as its leading man.

Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage) has had better moments in his career. In the throes of middle-age, Cage is struggling to secure consistent exciting work while his relationship with teenage daughter, Addy (Lily Sheen), is crumbling. In the middle of all these problems comes an offer to appear at a party hosted by Nicolas Cage super-fan Javi (Pedro Pascal) for $1 million. Needing the dough, Cage agrees to go and finds himself immediately clicking with Javi. But this friendship gets immediately tested when C.I.A. agents (played by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) inform Cage that his new pal is actually the head of a massive criminal organization.

Nicolas Cage movies are known for being enjoyably wacky, for featuring lines like "How in the name of Zeus's butthole" or moments where Cage snorts cocaine off a chainsaw. If they're not, they tend to pack a deep emotional wallop with bold storytelling, like last years Pig. Considering the daring artistry of his filmography, it feels downright insulting to plop Cage into a comedy built on the generic absent dad melodrama that fueled so many 1990s kids movies. Writer/director Tom Gormican (who penned script with Kevin Etten) has constructed a homage to Cage that knows the lines of his famous films. However, he fails to capture the creativity or energy of his best works, or even create a new fun aesthetic as a substitute.

That's not say The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a bad or painful watch, of course. It's got its fair share of amusing moments, many of them coming from whenever Cage and Pascal are just chilling. A sequence of them getting paranoid while tripping out on LSD had me cackling, especially since both actors play the ludicrous scenario totally straight. A similarly enjoyable moment where they bond over Paddington 2 also proves amusing. Cage, for his part, is also constantly engaging and he deserves credit for playing a version of himself that's mostly an oblivious buffoon with other people. As Keanu Reeves proved in Always Be My Maybe, it can be a lot of fun to see actors portraying warped versions of their star personas and that proves fitfully true here in Massive Talent.

Scenes where Cage plays opposite a digitally-augmented younger version of himself are also an enjoyable use of the man's talents and prove to be an enjoyable departure from reality. Unfortunately, too much of Massive Talent is anchored to Earth and specifically to a crime drama that just isn't very fun or interesting. Generic arms dealer foes take up the majority of the screentime in the third act, while it proves bizarre how straightforward this storyline is played. Sizeable stretches of the story go by where there aren't even attempts at jokes while the character-based drama is nowhere near strong enough to pick up the slack. Worse, Gormican can't stage a car chase to save his life, so clumsy filmmaking abounds whenever the action gets heavy.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is yet another modern-day comedy that would be a lot funnier and more enjoyable if it just simmered down the action elements and let the characters breathe. As it is, it' an admirably wacky meta-comedy in concept that proves frustratingly uninvolving in execution. Getting to see Nicolas Cage on the big-screen is rarely a total waste of time, but he deserved a better comedy to commit his talents to, ditto for Pedro Pascal. In a face-off for your time and attention between The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and other superior Nicolas Cage star vehicles, there's no doubt who would win.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Bad Guys isn't too shabby as a family comedy

 


DreamWorks Animation has now produced 42 feature-length movies. For me at least, it's easy to forget that considering how many sequels the studio has produced over the year that tend to blur together. But over the course of 24 years, the outfit founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg has managed to produce a lot of different films, all of varying degrees of quality. Unsurprisingly, when you make this many features, you're inevitably going to produce a Shrek the Third for every How to Train Your Dragon. The Bad Guys is one of the more pleasant entries in the DreamWorks canon. Kids are bound to love it, parents will find themselves nodding along and having a fun time. It doesn't transcend its limitations, but it's a lot more spry and confident than the worst DreamWorks fare.

Based on a series of children's books by Aaron Blabey, The Bad Guys is named after a group of animal criminals led by Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell). He and accomplices Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), and Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) gleefully pull of an assortment of bank robberies and other ne'er-do-well deeds. They break the rules because, hey, the world always see's them as scary animals with pointy teeth, why not live large and rebellious? When a heist goes wrong, though, the group decides to follow a training plan to go "good" as part of an elaborate plot concocted by Mr. Wolf. However, the group's ringleader may be starting to get attached to the idea of helping people rather than just stealing from them...

The Bad Guys rarely surprises, but it also rarely offends or bores you. There's a welcome zip to the proceedings that keeps the story from dragging, while the animation especially comes in handy in making things entertaining more often than not. The extremely stylized character designs and movements simultaneously evoke Lupin the Third and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, both to enjoyable degrees. Rendering bursts of smoke, water, or other similar materials in hand-drawn animation is a fun touch. The assorted action sequences are also well-realized, with speedy camerawork and coherent editing giving the various skirmishes and car chases plenty of pep without devolving into shaky-cam nonsense.

Narratively, The Bad Guys is a lot wobblier, though it's still relatively solid. The idea here is to utilize the tone of a heist movie while Etan Cohen's screenplay also employs dialogue clearly channeling the verbiage of a Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie film. The moments where it commits to being dialogue-driven, like in a fun opening scene captured in an extended single-take, have a unique laidback energy compared to most other American animated movies aimed at youngsters. Meanwhile, the more absurdist gags, like Mr. Shark's inexplicably convincing slipshod disguises, had me cackling. Such jokes are good for the voice actors, who have fun with their rebellious roles. Marc Maron turns out to be the highlight as Mr. Snake, with this veteran podcaster wisely playing the role in the exact same manner as if he was playing a live-action human in a feature aimed exclusively at grown-ups. Juxtaposing that with a cartoony snake has a lot of mileage in terms of humor.

With all these charming elements bouncing around, it may be puzzling to think that The Bad Guys isn't some kind of DreamWorks classic like Kung Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon. Unfortunately, it's kept from that stature by some critical shortcomings, namely a third act that gets too big for its own good. The fun heist movie elements get swapped out for a much more conventional big-scale blowout involving science-fiction elements that never feel at home in the story. Meanwhile, making Mr. Wolf and Mr. Snake's friendship the core crux of the story often leaves the other three members of the titular group out in the cold. The Bad Guys also suffers from a common modern kids movie problem of thinking that characters speaking schmaltzy didactic dialogue about their sad past or lessons they've learned will automatically generate pathos on par with the opening scene of Up. It didn't work for The LEGO Ninjago Movie and it doesn't work here.

More predictable sources of humor, like running gags about how a meteorite is shaped like a butt or Mr. Piranha's tendency to pass gas when he's nervous, also provide more eyerolls than giggles. The Bad Guys can't help itself in indulging in some bad habits of modern animated kids fare. Thankfully, there's enough in here that does go right to ensure it doesn't sink on the basis of those flaws. The Bad Guys will almost certainly work wonders for youngsters, but adults may be surprised to score more imaginative animation and entertaining homages to classic heist movies than expected. It won't be topping any rankings of the DreamWorks Animation canon anytime soon, but there's cheeky fun to be had with The Bad Guys.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Downton Abbey: A New Era is what you'd expect, for better and for worse

Grab your monocles and teapots, the Downton Abbey gang is back! The 2019 film Downton Abbey proved to be a lucrative enough enterprise to ensure that a sequel was inevitable. Now the whole gang's back, from the servants to the countess's and everyone in between. A review of this sequel can be summed up aptly by saying that if you liked the first movie, this one's bound to tickle your fancy. If the original Downton Abbey wasn't your cup of tea, well, this sequel won't change your mind. This is not a follow-up looking to convert the uninitiated or use the goodwill of its predecessor to try out some bold new ideas. Downton Abbey: A New Era is all too content to go down a familiar path, which will probably suit Downton Abbey devotees just fine.

Downton Abbey: A New Era, like its predecessor and the TV show that spawned both projects, concerns the residents of the titular estate, which consist of rich aristocrats and their servants. In this adventure, the residents of Downton Abbey are in a bit of a bind. For one thing, it's been revealed that the family has been bestowed a villa in the South of France from an ex-lover of Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). For another, the dire state of the estate's roof has led to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) opting to accept a proposal from movie director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) to film a motion picture at Downton Abbey. These developments send the plot off in two directions; Robert Crawler (Hugh Bonneville) leads one group to Franca to explore the villa while most of the servants and Lady Mary get into shenanigans with the cast and crew of a movie.

The easy critique of any movie adapted from a TV show is to say that it just feels like an extended version of a regular episode. Sometimes, though, easy critiques cannot be avoided and Downton Abbey: A New Era certainly suffers from an episodic feel. Having the individual subplots be worlds away, both physically and thematically, just makes this movie feel like two separate Downton Abbey installments mushed together. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the resulting concoction was especially entertaining, but unfortunately, A New Era has serious pacing issues. There are just so many subplots to juggle in here that characters keep getting lost in the shuffle. It's hard to get invested in anybody when they keep vanishing for long stretches of the runtime.

It's also a big mistake on the part of screenwriter Julian Fellowes to relegate Violet Crawley to a bed for most of the movie. Her cutting remarks, delivered with detached cynicism by Smith, are always a hoot, but A New Era doesn't take advantage of this reliable source of entertainment. Of course, that's not to say everything's a wash here. For one thing, a subplot involving a potential romantic dynamic between butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and movie star Guy Dexter (Dominic West) proves a highlight, with the duo having cheeky fun with conveying their internal feelings with a wry smile or an eyebrow wiggle. Similarly, there is some enjoyable tension in scenes where Mary and Barber grow closer and closer, benefited by the appealing chemistry shared by Dancy and Dockery.

For the most part, the antics at the Downton Abbey estate involving movie stars and the looming presence of sound cinema (remember, this takes place at the dawn of the 1930s) prove more interesting than the storylines at the French villa. There's just not much meat on the bones of the latter subplots, where the greatest antagonists are a mildly disapproving old French lady and the dark-colored clothes of butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter). By contrast, there's all kinds of romantic intrigue and cute nods to 1920s cinema back home at Downton Abbey. There's also the amusing sight of the movie lifting a subplot from Singin' in the Rain about a blonde-haired silent movie actress with a big voice struggling to adapt to the world of talkies. They even have her complain about a bush when she's first working  with a microphone!

The overabundance of subplots are overseen by director Simon Curtis, an auteur in the world of inoffensive but overly stiff movies aimed at older audiences after his work on titles like The Woman in Gold. It's a pity that neither Curtis or cinematographer Andrew Dunn, both newbies to this franchise, are able to bring much visual panache to the Downton Abbey universe that couldn't be accomplished on a TV budget. Most of the film looks perfectly competent, but conversations are staged in the same rudimentary fashion no matter what the unique tone of a given scene is. Even the introduction of lavish French backdrops don't inspire much in the way of striking imagery. Downton Abbey: A New Era is set on an extravagant estate, but visually, the whole thing settles for being boilerplate. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era doesn't have much in the way of camerawork, narrative detours, or performances that will sway those that weren't already committed to this saga. Then again, if you haven't been won over by the charms of this rich family since they premiered on the small screen in 2010, I doubt you'll seek out the second entry in the Downton Abbey film series. For its target demo, Downton Abbey: A New Era will probably deliver enough of the goods even with a shortage of Maggie Smith. For the rest of us, it's a painless exercise that goes on too long and could've used a "less is more" approach when it comes to juggling so many characters. Hopefully they can correct those flaws when they get around to Downton Abbey and the Last Crusade

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Summer 2022 Box Office Predictions

 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is not on this list, but how could I not make this lil' guy the header image?!?

Boy, it feels weird to be doing this again.

For the first time in three years, I can do a proper Summer Box Office Predictions column. Knock on wood, we’re going to have a traditional summertime box office season that starts the first weekend of May and ends over Labor Day weekend. What a concept. The COVID-19 pandemic erased summer 2020 entirely and ensured that summer 2021 (save for A Quiet Place: Part II and Cruella) didn’t start until F9 arrived at the end of June 2021. Even then, a deluge of movies that offered up new theatrical titles simultaneously on big streaming services made things feel off-kilter.

So far, though, only Firestarter and Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul among this summer’s wide theatrical releases have announced simultaneous launches on the small screen. The rest of this summer’s titles are all theatrical exclusives. Granted, it’s not a totally normal summer still. For one thing, there’s a dearth of comedies. Even compared to the summer of 2019, which had Good Boys, Stuber, and Long Shot (among others) all premiering theatrically, there really aren’t any major comedies dropping in the summer of 2022. August 2022 is also looking shockingly barren now that The Man from Toronto has hightailed it out of the month. August is usually where R-rated comedies or sleeper hit horror movies can thrive, but Hollywood’s continued emphasis on tentpoles means that we won’t have any potential surprise hits in that month this year.

Still, the slate for summer 2022 does look promising overall and the resurgence of family and adult women moviegoers throughout spring 2022 (not to mention the extraordinary sleeper success of Everything Everywhere All at Once) confirms that it isn’t just superhero movies that can thrive on the big screen provided that Hollywood, y’know, provides those titles. It’s doubtful (thanks to that empty August) that summer 2022 can match the biggest summer box office hauls of all-time, but it should still do fine for itself.

With that, let’s look ahead at my predictions for the 10 biggest movies at the domestic box office this summer. As in years past, I’m delivering projections for opening weekend and final gross sums as well as accompanying analysis on why I think these titles will perform the way they do.

10. Elvis

The biggest advantage Elvis has going for it is that its distributor, Warner Bros., has no other movies dropping in the first two months of Summer 2022. The studio can solely concentrate on getting this title to a sizeable box office gross rather than splits its attention across multiple titles. The music biopic has a shaky track record to be sure (for every Bohemian Rhapsody, there’s a Respect), but Elvis Presley feels like a famous enough figure to attract moviegoers of all ages. Having Tom Hanks around in a showy supporting role should further sweeten the pot for general audiences.

Back in the summer of 2019, Rocketman opened to $24 million before legging it out to $97 million. I’d imagine Elvis can at least do a touch better than that since Presley is so ubiquitous and it’ll have the full might of the Warner Bros. marketing machine behind it. Let’s say this one narrowly cracks $30 million on opening weekend and then sticks around for a while. It won’t be the biggest Baz Luhrmann film ever in North America, but it’ll be a solid performer and just the kind of adult-skewing film that can take off once the middle of the summer arrives. That’s the point in the season where moviegoers begin to crave something that isn’t big and full of explosions. Elvis could fill that niche nicely.

Projected Opening Weekend: $30 million

Project Domestic Total: $115 million

9. Bullet Train

Since he burst onto people’s radars in May 1991 in Thelma & Louise, Brad Pitt has managed to appear in nine live-action movies that cracked $100 million domestically (not counting his brief cameo appearance in Deadpool 2). That’s not an expansive club of movies that cracked nine-digits in North America, but it’s wide enough to suggest it’s not impossible for a new blockbuster starring Pitt to crack $100 million in this territory. This is where the new Pitt movie Bullet Train comes into the equation, which seems poised to be a successful sleeper hit for Sony/Columbia.

Some movies are really complex in terms of the elements that suggest they’ll be hits. For Bullet Train, it’s quite simple. The early marketing, including an appealing trailer that debuted on The Batman, has been eye-catching, and this is the kind of movie people like to see Pitt in. Plus, it’s debuting the last weekend of July, which means it can play as the most recent action movie game in town during a surprisingly sparse August for new theatrical releases. As long as the film isn’t historically terrible (which could totally happen, of course), Bullet Train seems like it’s locked and loaded to be a hit despite not being based on source material that’s already a household name. Who knew appealing concepts and movie stars could get butts into movie theaters? Those factors should all combine to make Bullet Train the tenth live-action Brad Pitt film to exceed $100 million domestically.

Projected Opening Weekend: $39 million

Projected Domestic Total: $120 million

8. DC League of Super-Pets

Warner Bros. has a shockingly poor box office track record for animated movies considering it’s the studio behind Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The LEGO Movie and Happy Feet were unquestionably hits, but then there’s The Ant Bully, Storks, Smallfoot, and the last two LEGO Movies. That erratic box office track record means that their newest family-friendly cartoons enter the marketplace with more skepticism in terms of box office prospects than, say, the newest Illumination feature. But if anything could manage to be a solid performer for the studio, it’d be DC’s League of Super-Pets.

Based in the world of DC Comics and even using characters like Superman and Batman in prominent supporting roles, Super-Pets focuses on a gaggle of misfit pets who get superpowers. A premise that probably got some Warner Bros. executive salivating at the thought of a cross between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and The Secret Life of Pets, this one also comes packed with the combined weight of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in the lead roles. The popularity of DC properties, Johnson and Hart’s reliability in family-friendly fare, and a late summer release date where it won’t have to face much competition should give this one a solid boost and make it a welcome animated movie hit for Warner Bros.

Projected Opening Weekend: $34 million

Projected Domestic Total: $130 million

7. Nope

Jordan Peele’s first two directorial efforts each managed to exceed $160 million domestically, both incredible feats for original R-rated horror movies. Look for that streak to continue with Nope, a mysterious new horror film that’s already getting buzz thanks to a swam of eye-catching teasers and posters. We have a few horror films lined up for this summer, but none are even close to Nope in terms of how high-profile they are or the filmmaking pedigree they come saddled with.

Intriguingly, Nope was filmed with IMAX cameras and its marketing is emphasizing an even greater sense of scale than Us, which could make this even more of a must-see event for moviegoers. Unlike the last two Peele movies too, Nope will take advantage of summer weekdays to further juice its box office haul. If reviews turn out divisive or negative, a film like this without a big brand name to stand on could end up flaming out real quickly at the box office.  But if Nope resonates with people anywhere near at the level of Peele’s previous movies, then this auteur can expect his third consecutive box office hit, with there being a lot of potential here for Nope to go even higher.

Projected Opening Weekend: $75 million

Projected Domestic Total: $180 million


6. Minions: The Rise of Gru

Back in 2017, the Despicable Me franchise demonstrated its first instance of box office vulnerability with Despicable Me 3. That sounds weird to say for a movie that grossed $1 billion worldwide on an $80 million budget, but domestically, the films $264 million haul was a sharp 41% decline from the North American gross of Despicable Me 2. It was also down 28% from the domestic gross of Minions just two years earlier. This franchise appears to have peaked domestically in 2013, and even when The Rise of Gru was set to drop in July 2020, it was bound to experience further decline.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the film an additional two years, meaning it’ll now arrive a whopping five years since the last Despicable Me outing and seven years since the original Minions. The general public has doubtlessly cooled on these characters in that timespan and intense competition from other family movies like Lightyear and League of Super-Pets won’t help. The enduring appeal of those Minions will probably keep this one above the domestic gross of The Secret Life of Pets 2 and it may be able to just squeak past $200 million if Universal can deliver one of its no-holds-barred marketing campaigns. Minions: The Rise of Gru will be far from an unprofitable venture but it will be another sign that the Despicable Me saga is now what it was a decade ago.

Projected Opening Weekend: $65 million
Projected Domestic Total: $205 million


5. Top Gun: Maverick

Did you know Tom Cruise has never starred in a movie that made over $235 million domestically? It’s true. The 2005 blockbuster War of the Worlds is still the man’s highest-grossing feature with $234 million while none of the Mission: Impossible titles have exceeded $220 million in North America. This means there’s a ceiling in terms of how high Tom Cruise features can go. That having been said, there’s more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic, at least at this juncture, about the box office prospects of Top Gun: Maverick, the latest Cruise vehicle.

For starters, it’s a legacy sequel, an incredibly popular mold of the blockbuster right now. For another, it see’s Cruise returning to one of his most iconic roles. Top Gun isn’t Star Wars, but it’s still a popular movie, and the nostalgia associated with this feature should give it some solid rocket fuel. The lack of big blockbusters beyond Jurassic World in June should also allow it hold better than your average Memorial Day blockbuster. Plus, Paramount Pictures has been on a hot streak this year successfully launching everything from Scream to The Lost City to Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Maverick seems poised to keep the good times rolling. It won’t dethrone War of the Worlds to become the biggest Cruise movie ever domestically but expect this long-awaited Top Gun follow-up to still be a sizeable box office winner.

Projected Opening Weekend: $79 million

Projected Domestic Total: $225 million

4. Lightyear

Believe it or not, it’s been three years since a PIXAR movie had a conventional theatrical release uninterrupted by the pandemic. Onward got its theatrical run cut abruptly short by the pandemic, while Soul, Luca, and Turning Red all went straight to Disney+. But now PIXAR has a sequel starring a white guy on its slate, so I guess it can’t be dumped to streaming. Lightyear comes courtesy of the Toy Story franchise, which has achieved the remarkable feat of constantly improving on its predecessor in terms of domestic and worldwide grosses. Each Toy Story has been bigger than the last, though Lightyear will probably put an end to that. That’s less because Lightyear is guaranteed to be a cataclysmically “bad” movie and more that it’s a spin-off, those tend to always do weaker box office than their predecessors.

Carrying over only one character from the Toy Story franchise, not to mention feeling less like an organic extension of the story of Buzz and Woody, will keep Lightyear a bit grounded in terms of box office. However, otherwise, the movie appears good to go in terms of box office prowess. 8 of the last 10 PIXAR movie to open in the summer ended up grossing over $235 million domestically, with the only two exceptions being Cars sequels. Something connected to the Toy Story saga that also serves as the first big-animated kids movie of summer 2022 is bound to keep that box office hot streak alive. This won’t be the next Toy Story 4 at the box office, but Lightyear should have no problem being another summertime hit for PIXAR.

Projected Opening Weekend: $95 million

Projected Domestic Total: $325 million

3. Thor: Love and Thunder

Moviegoers have finally gotten their first glimpse at Thor: Love and Thunder and it looks like a lot of fun. It also looks like just the kind of teaser that’s bound to draw the attention of moviegoers. The visuals look stunning and there’s a good balance between the old and the new here. Thor, Valkyrie, and Korg are all back, but there’s also lots of new locations to explore while the Guardians of the Galaxy are showing up for the first time in a solo Thor film. Then there’s the big final moment of the teaser depicting Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster returning with a hammer as the new version of Thor.

This teaser is all people have to go on regarding Thor: Love and Thunder right now, but it’s easy to see why Disney/Marvel marketers think that’ll be enough to get people into the theater. By far the biggest title set to launch in July 2022, Thor: Love and Thunder looks poised to have a strong box office run, especially given the positive reception to Thor: Ragnarok and Thor’s increased exposure after being a lead character in the last two Avengers movies. The latter appearances will doubtlessly help this score an even bigger box office haul than Ragnarok, though how high it goes will depend on the rest of its marketing campaign and its eventual critical reception. For now, though, it looks pretty easy to determine that Thor: Love and Thunder will be another big box office hit for the God of Thunder.

Projected Opening Weekend: $165 million

Projected Domestic Total: $465 million

2. Jurassic World: Dominion

Though it didn’t inspire a massive impact on pop culture, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom proved to be a remarkably powerful beast at the box office. A dropoff from the box office of 2015’s Jurassic World was inevitable, which meant Fallen Kingdom fell 36% from its predecessors North American box office haul. However, a $417 million domestic total was still nothing to sneeze at and made it the second-biggest title ever for Universal in this territory. Expect Jurassic World: Dominion to improve on the domestic box office performance, if only narrowly, primarily thanks to the presence of key Jurassic Park cast members and the promise of this being a “finale” to the Jurassic World saga.

The importance of the presence of actors like Sam Neill and Laura Dern in leading roles to Dominion’s box office prowess can’t be underestimated. That defines the film in the eyes of moviegoers as being right in line with lucrative legacy sequels like The Force Awakens. Plus, a mid-June date worked out like gangbusters for the last two Jurassic World movies. Much like with those other two installment, opening here allows Dominion to exploit Father’s Day weekend and function as the only big blockbuster for a whole month. Expect that craft piece of scheduling to help Dominion score one of the biggest box office hauls of the year, though it’s doubtful it comes close to the domestic box office heights of Jurassic World from 2015.

Projected Opening Weekend: $160 million 

Projected Domestic Total: $450 million

1. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

First of all, can you believe Disney has only released one new theatrical release (Death on The Nile) in the first four months of 2022? Right now, A24 has put out more wide releases in this year than Disney. That’s bonkers. The COVID-19 cinematic landscape is full of unexpected wonders.

Anyway, Disney’s getting back into the blockbuster game with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which is only the fourth theatrical-exclusive title (exempting the Fox movies) to be released by the Mouse House since the pandemic began. Multiverse of Madness already looks poised to be a triumphant box office performer thanks to strong advanced ticket sales and a rampant marketing campaign that’s put the movie on the forefront of the pop culture landscape. The only question now is how high it goes.

Hitting the $260 million debut of Spider-Man: No Way Home will be impossible since that film was a unique Avengers sized crossover event. Seeing Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch work together is not at the same level of the prospect of watching Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock duke it out with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. However, the sky is otherwise the limit here. The last few summer kickoff Marvel Studios movies all opened above $150 million save for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (and that barely missed it with a $147 million debut), so that’s the basement here. Getting above the $179 million debut if Captain America: Civil War looks likely at this juncture, and even the $191 million bow of Avengers: Age of Ultron looks like it could get toppled.

Here’s the question I’ll wonder aloud here; could Multiverse of Madness score the biggest May opening weekend ever? That record still belongs to the $207 million bow of The Avengers from 2012 (it’s currently the oldest movie to hold a monthly opening weekend record). It’s not hard to imagine Multiverse of Madness going higher than that, but it doesn’t need to hit such extraordinary numbers to be a hit. Let’s for now say it’ll open in the same range as Age of Ultron and, per usual for an early May Marvel Studios project, a domestic total that’s about 2.35-2.5 times its opening weekend. That would be one heck of a way to kick off the summer 2022 box office, no question.

Projected Opening Weekend: $190 million

Projected Domestic Total: $465 million

Friday, April 22, 2022

The challenging Memoria has impressively detailed filmmaking to spare

Whether we realize it or not, we're all connected. "Our lives are not our own," as Susan Sarandon in Cloud Atlas astutely put it out. Individual existences are always overlapping, reverberating into one another even when we're not consciously aware of it. Memoria, the latest film from arthouse director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, cleverly realizes this in visual terms early on in a dialogue-free sequence depicting a parking lot devoid of humans but stuffed with automobiles. One car alarm goes off in the dead of night and sets of a symphony of other alarms, the noises coating the night with thick auditory chaos. Much like with these cars, humans have the power to substantially impact the world around us without meaning to. The thematic crux of this sequence, as well as the minimalist camerawork and restrained aesthetic, will seep into the entirety of Memoria.

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is residing in Bogotá, Colombia, where she already has enough going on between taking care of her sickly sister and running a flower shop. One night, though, an unavoidable new wrinkle in her life emerges when she hears this loud thumping noise. It's gone as abruptly as it arrived. Where did it come from? What produced that noise? Why does she keep suddenly hearing it in the most random of situations? These are the questions that Jessica cannot get out of her head. As she searches across Bogotá for answers, she also encounters other people, including fisherman Hernan (Elkin Díaz), who being to force her and the audience to reflect on how memories shape our lives in the smallest of ways. 

Given that Weerasethakul's earlier works like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives were avant-garde visual-oriented pieces, it's intriguing to unpack Memoria and realize how its an auditory-first experience. That's not to say there isn't craft going into the imagery that fills up the screen, it's just that what we hear, or even what we don't, is taking centerstage in this plot. The result is a movie that makes excellent use of detailed sound work, especially when noises begin to overlap on one another. Delivering this kind of craft that makes you conscious of every instance of rushing water or crackling branches is a subtly brilliant way to place us into the headspace of Jessica, whose also on high alert regarding every noise that enters her eardrum.

The extremely slow pacing of the film allows one to absorb all those meticulous details in the sound work. And I do mean slow, Memoria makes the works of Yasujiro Ozu look as fast-paced as one of the Crank movies. This is exacerbated by the minimalist camerawork. Only for one scene set in a warehouse does the camera in Memoria come alive with movement. Otherwise, the default framing of Memoria is still wide shots that linger on-screen for prolonged periods of time. Humans like Jessica are positioned far away from the camera and often off to the side, a suggestion of how they're just a single part, rather than the center, of a much larger world.

The glacial pacing here will doubtlessly and understandably turn off some viewers, a cinematic exercise this controlled and idiosyncratic can't be for everyone. However, I found myself entranced by the hypnotically quiet Memoria not in spite of but rather because it challenged me. The way Weerasethakul had me frequently wondering "what's going on?' or stirred by the lengthy nature of certain shots had me realizing that I was being impacted by what was happening on-screen. I wasn't zoning out or getting bored, rather, I was getting engaged with this material. Even scenes that felt a bit more plodding than revelatory or impressive aesthetically still had me admiring the dedication to realize such a unique creation.

The various Columbian landscapes captured throughout Memoria make for beautiful vistas to set such a quiet tale against. Without even calling attention to it, I love how Weerasethakul and his go-to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom emphasize the natural variety of locations in this country. A typical American movie would merely resort to depicting Columbia through a caricaturized lens in the hopes of presenting it as an "other". However, Memoria (which, it should be noted, is directed by a filmmaker hailing from Thailand) depicts Bogotá as, like any city, having so much to offer, from farms to crowded cities and everything in between. There's an entrancing naturalism to its depiction here that functions well in not only subverting colonial filmmaking stereotypes, but in also making that recurring noise stand out as all the more aberrant.

Memoria will leave you with so much to process, including in Tilda Swinton's remarkably understated lead performance. Thank goodness it's being presented exclusively in movie theaters, where people can process it in darkened rooms full of speakers that can surround and envelop the viewer. At home, where distractions are more accessible, it'd be easy to lose yourself from this movies spell. I can't say I found Memoria "perfect", but I did find it to be something more important; it was a film I couldn't shake from my mind as well as a totally idiosyncratic experience on the big screen. If you have the chance to see this, do so, if only so that you can process what emotions and thoughts such a singular movie leaves you with.

Ambulance is a better than average (though overlong) Michael Bay film

The orange-tinged light of a new sunrise comes pouring in through every window. Shiny brightly-colored automobiles linger in the center of a frame. Cars don't just careen off the road, they violently shake and roll until they explode at the bottom of a slope. The telltale signs are all there. You're in a Michael Bay film now. His works have rarely been my cup of tea, but you have to admire the man for sticking to his auteur sensibilities for over 30 years now. Bay knows what he likes and how he prefers to film his proclivities.  A strong entry in his filmography like Ambulance doesn't eschew all the shortcomings of his works, but this particular title see's him indulging in some welcome creative flourishes. Who knew the way to a better Bay movie was by having channel Tony Scott?

Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) needs money. Fast. He's a veteran who can't get the healthcare he needs just as his wife (and the mother of his child) desperately requires an experimental surgery. This is when Will turns to his brother, Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal), a criminal that Will has become distant with. Will never wanted to get back into the game of robberies and crime, but with his bank account running so low, he has no choice. He joins up with Danny to rob a bank in Los Angeles, which should be an easy job. Unfortunately, things go south quickly and the duo end up hijacking an ambulance with EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzales) and a mortally wounded cop onboard. Now this unlikely quartet is trapped in an ambulance speeding down every road in Los Angeles pursued by an army of cops. There's no easy way out here, if there is even a possibility of exiting.

The script is credited to Chris Fedak (and based on an earlier French movie of the same name), but Ambulance has on key flaw that often drags down Bay's work: excess. We all know the recurring gripes that there are too many explosions, scantily-clad women, or quick cuts in his movies. Less remarked on is how often Bay's movies needlessly convolute simple premises with tons of extraneous characters. Robots fighting or missions to stop an asteroid get bogged down lots and lots of "wacky" side characters. This problem resurfaces in Ambulance to a frustratingly prominent degree. Do we need a lengthy backstory for a hostage negotiator? Why are there so many gags about one police officer's gigantic dog ripped straight out of a Marmaduke comic?

The main characters of Ambulance may be often going in just one direction to escape the cops, but the movies screenplay keeps going on weird side tangents that undercut the tension of this story. This plot is one screaming out for a lean-and-mean 80 minute treatment, not one where every character with two lines of dialogue gets lengthy scenes showing their home life of reheating Lean Cuisines or watching TV. This overabundance of supporting players means that the Sharp brothers and Thompson end up getting lost in the shuffle for extended periods of time. In its worst moments, Ambulance conveys an ADD-riddled mind struggling to focus on one thing rather than an endearingly all-over-the-map crime drama.

This flaw gets to be more and more troublesome as the excessive 137-minute runtime keeps going on (how is this longer than Memoria?) However, by the same token, restricting Bay's trademark directing and editing style to just one city rather than countless global landmarks does help inform the very best intense set pieces. At its best, Ambulance has a propulsive claustrophobic quality to it that suggests what would happen if Alfred Hitchcock's Rope went and chugged twelve Red Bulls. Imaginatively absurd sequences like having Thompson attempt to perform surgery while the titular vehicle is swerving all over the road work great at keeping you on the edge of your seat. Confined to one space and a handful of characters, Bay's visual motifs succeed at accentuating rather undercutting the tension in these specific sequences.

Ambulance is also aided by a pair of great central performances courtesy of two actors who can lend an appropriate sense of gravitas to the barrage of ludicrousness that this story provides. Abdul-Mateen II provides great tormented work in his character, just his facial expressions convey so much internal conflict that leave you guessing where Will Sharp will go next. Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, is in full-tilt Mr. Music mode here with his bulging eyes, veins popping off his neck, and loud line deliveries. Not every one of his jokey comments lands, but he's persistently compelling and the commitment on display from Gyllenhaal is remarkable. He may have become an award season darling for his restrained turns in movies like Brokeback Mountain, but Ambulance joins the likes of Okja in proving that this man works best when he's in total weirdo mode. 

In its best scenes, Ambulance uses the acting from these two plus some thrillingly creative set pieces to make something channeling the speed and thrills of Unstoppable. Unfortunately, less creative decisions, like Lorne Balfe's generically booming score or the eventual baddies that the Sharp brothers find themselves at odds with (yay, more evil cartel foes in American action movies) undercut Ambulance's wild energy. This movie desperately needed a trim in the editing room, but more often than not, I was entertained when watching Ambulance and fans of prior Bay films will probably be happier than a clam with his latest effort. Kudos to this director for stepping outside his wheelhouse a bit and for giving Gyllenhaal a playground to go nuts in.

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Northman is a rousing tragic Viking yarn

The Northman doesn’t so much immerse viewers into the world of Vikings as it does plunge you into this domain. There is no narration nor is there outsider character to serve as an audience point of view figure. Director Robert Eggers hits the ground running with a movie that embodies all the carnage, grime, and brutality you associate with Vikings and never lets up. The result of this commitment is a film that isn’t quite  as good as last Eggers efforts like The Lighthouse and The VVItch. Of course, few movies rise to the quality of those two features and The Northman proves plenty hearty in its own right. 

When Amleth was a boy, he was a happy child set to inherit the throne of King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke). His life would be upended when his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) killed Aurvandill and dispatched his man to kill his child. Amleth managed to escape and since then has grown into Alexander Skarsgard and a remorseless Viking. When he finally spots a chance to take revenge on Fjölnir, he disguises himself as a slave and hitches a ride of a slave vessel. Also aboard this ship? Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress who may be key in helping Amleth secure the revenge that his entire existence is based on.

Switching from the confines of low-budget A24 movies to a more expansive canvas with The Northman has, thankfully, not stifled the creative inclinations of Robert Eggers. An early scene of father/son bonding where Aurvandill and Amleth, without warning, begin romping around an underground ceremonial chamber like dogs should ease concerns that a greater budget will mean less unorthodox storytelling from Eggers (who wrote the screenplay alongside Sjón). This is still very much a movie from the guy who made The Lighthouse, he's just not filming this particular story in the Academy aspect ratio or with a largely monochromatic color palette.

With a quest for vengeance evocative of similar pursuits of revenge enacted by mythological figures like Charles Bronson and Liam Neeson, The Northman has a solid storytelling foundation for all kinds of compelling spectacle. Several grisly sequences of Viking mayhem are captured in impressively-realized one-take shots. In the highest compliment possible to these scenes, it took me a moment into watching these set pieces before I recognized the lack of cuts. Eggers and editor Louise Ford prove that effective in their execution of all the axe-throwing and muddy mayhem that only Vikings could exact on unsuspecting villages.

Though there's tons of gnarly bone-crunching carnage in here, The Northman is not a source of hollow violence.  Much like the William Shakespeare play that the original Scandinavian mythological figure Amleth would inspire, this new Robert Eggers directorial vehicle is very much a cautionary tale of the various ways self-serving violence eats at your soul and never goes according to plan. This isn't even limited to Amleth, as it's revealed early on that even Fjölnir's assassination attempt to secure the throne was eventually riddled with unforeseen issues. The characters of The Northman are so dead-set on selfish endeavors that inevitably blow up in their faces it might as well be an entire season of Succession sans Cousin Greg. 

Emphasizing this quality lends an aura of vicissitude to the entire production, one seeped in the notion of lives physically and spiritually lost to all-consuming lust for vengeance. This concept is often at the forefront of the gorgeous visuals in The Northman, as is a fittingly unsettling air. Speaking of remarkable imagery, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke lends a majestic quality to the images, an element largely informed by the great environments across Ireland that this feature was shot against. Blaschke makes especially great use of contrasting colors in the nighttime and daytime scenes. The former sequences lean heavily on greys and muted colors, appropriate since this is when Amleth tends to pursue his revenge. When the sun is out, though, bright greens and blues dominate the frame. How great that The Northman doesn't see a grim tone and vivid hues as mutually exclusive entities. 

As for the actors inhabiting all those pretty visuals, they're a talented bunch who work quite well within the unique confines of a Robert Eggers movie. Alexander Skarsgard certainly looks the part of a brutish Viking driven by vengeance, but he also proves effective enough at non-verbal acting to make this one of his best performances in his filmography. Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicole Kidman, thankfully, get quite a bit to do in a movie that could've easily left women behind. Most surprising, in a good way, is Claes Bang as Fjölnir. Both Bang and the screenplay opt to portray Fjölnir as a cunning evil man, but also not a caricature. We get to see him as just being a quiet father, working alongside his slaves, expressing genuine remorse for people he's lost. There's nuances to the character that nicely reflect how the world's a lot more complicated than Amleth's one-track mind might realize. Such intricacies are well-handled in the hands of Bang.

The Northman has its share of shortcomings, to be sure, including some oddly didactic dialogue, a handful of weird pieces of wonky green-screen work, and a disappointing lack of dongs. But it's otherwise another strong effort from Robert Eggers that manages to explore the fascinating recurring themes of his work (class disparity and the primal nature of man, chiefly) while exploring a wider canvas than ever before. The Northman looks just outstanding on the big screen and makes 137 minutes fly right by. Even if you don't necessarily pick up on its deeper thematic or subtle filmmaking touches, The Northman will still work excellently at plunging you into a relentlessly brutal world.