Monday, February 28, 2022
With eight different live-action movies starring Batman (and that's not even counting the two projects headlined by Ben Affleck's version of the character) already in existence, it's understandable to wonder what exactly The Batman is bringing to the equation. What is it doing to justify its existence beyond giving Warner Bros. a new opportunity to sell more Batman action figures and lunchboxes? Director Matt Reeves, who also penned the screenplay alongside Peter Craig, has opted to go in interesting directions with this project, and not just by making it the second time in pop culture history that Batman and the hymn "Ava Maria" have been put together.
No, the biggest point of distinction here is by making The Batman a mystery thriller first and foremost. The World's Greatest Detective finally gets a movie based largely on those skills, to the point that big-scale action sequences are limited to just two large set pieces. The result isn't something that can entirely shake off the past or live up to all of its ambitions but is more entertaining than expected given how familiar the Batman series has become.
The Batman begins with Bruce Wayne/Batman (Robert Pattinson) being two years into his tenure as Gotham City's vigilante. He doesn't just strike terror into the hearts of thieves, even everyday Gotham citizens are as terrified of Batman as they are of potential muggers. As Wayne pours everything into his Batman exploits, a killing spree of high-level Gotham City personnel begins. The culprit behind these slayings? A mysterious masked figure known only as The Riddler (Paul Dano), a Zodiac Killer pastiche who coughs more than a chain-smoking version of General Grievous. Wayne will need to be at his sharpest to dig up the clues and find out what's fueling The Riddler's rampage. Intersecting in this mystery is Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), who has her own agenda in tackling the criminal underbelly of Gotham City.
Each Batman movie approaches the dichotomy between the Bruce Wayne and Batman personas in different ways. For The Batman, the latter identity is the one we're introduced to first, with Wayne eventually revealed not as a guy putting on the act of a billionaire playboy, but as a ghost. This guy saunters around his domicile in oversized hoodies, pain in his eyes, remorse fueling his behavior. A figure who strikes terror at night is just a broken shell of a person in the daytime. The heavy contrasts between the two sides of The Batman's protagonist are immediately interesting, especially since Pattinson does great work differentiating the two in terms of physicality.
Taking a cue from Rick Altman’s essay "The American Film Musical as Dual-Focus Narrative," which suggests that musicals are defined by parallels between musical numbers, The Batman creates intriguing visual parallels between Batman and Bruce Wayne. They'll inhabit the same environments, but with starkly different body language or lighting to suggest their differing outlooks. An especially fascinating example of this dichotomy comes during a sequence where Wayne runs into people like Commissioner Gordon who’re strangers to this billionaire playboy, but familiar allies to Batman. The haunting loneliness of his life comes to the surface here, as he and the audience realize how even his "friends" don't really know him. Emphasizing the disparity between the two halves of this superhero lends The Batman some of its most quietly thoughtful moments.
Duality manifests in interesting fashions throughout the piece, including pieces of camerawork meant to intentionally confuse the audience on whether we're seeing things through the eyes of Batman or The Riddler. These shots, as well as how certain moments are framed through windows or from far-away positions, convey a sense of voyeurism, as if The Batman is transporting the viewer into the observational gaze of its hero and villain. This and other similar visual touches being well-realized through the direction of Matt Reeves and cinematographer Greg Fraser. Even when duality is put on the backburner, both of these men do commendable work throughout The Batman in making this look like a handsome production. Particular kudos the team behind this film for realizing the handful of fight scenes in a visually cohesive way. These skirmishes all take place at night, but Reeves and Fraser make sure you always understand what's going on on-screen and why.
Amusingly, most of the cast feels like they’re each inhabiting different movies, which weirdly fits for how Gotham is supposed to be a jagged disjointed community where nobody trusts each other. Jeffrey Wright’s take on James Gordon feels like he got lifted from a 1990s crime thriller, Zoe Kravitz is doing a femme fatale straight out of Laura, while, most amusingly, Collin Farrell plays Oswald Cobblepot like a 1950s gangster. This comes complete with the character saying “hoid” instead of heard. Alas, Farrell's Penguin does not ever say "five chubby digits," so The Batman automatically gets demoted a star. Thankfully, The Batman offers up plenty of opportunities for Robert Pattinson to utilize his enormous talents as an actor. He's great as the titular superhero and he does fine subtle work in making sure that he's not retreading ground from prior incarnations of the character.
Pattinson and the other cast members are inhabiting an aesthetic that's grim, but not necessarily realistic, which is a compliment. The aim here seems to have been mimicking the tactility of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but combining it with the expressionistic visual touches of Tim Burton’s tenure in the franchise. For instance, Bruce Wayne doesn’t just live in a mansion anymore, the interior of his home is like a gothic castle straight out of Crimson Peak. Fraser's cinematography frames these and other environments with bold camerawork emphasizing wide shots, rather than more intimate framing evocative of cinema verite. Not all of its visual touches are 100% original, but as executed here, they lend a nice stylized air that ensures the production doesn’t get weighed down with anchoring everything in realism. Happily, the lavish visual touches are complemented by a great lively score by Michael Giacchino.
Despite being a well-crafted endeavor that offers lots to chew on, The Batman does have its share of frustrating shortcomings. It's hard to dive into them getting into spoiler territory, but for one thing, it's disappointing that this is yet another major Hollywood blockbuster that tiptoes around relevant sociopolitical issues but refuses to get into more uncomfortable topics like systemic racism (save for one line form Kyle gesturing at white privilege). Similarly discouraging is that The Batman's homages to film noirs mean maintaining the limited roles for women from classic entries in this genre since there are only two prominent ladies in the whole script. Heck, some noirs, like Pickup on South Street, even had better and more varied roles for women 70+ years ago! The works of Matt Reeves have often struggled to deliver weighty parts for ladies, but it's a shame that didn't get improved on here.
There are also some smaller, but no less important, gripes to be had with details like Batman's opening narration sounds too much like Rorschach's inner monologue or a section of the second act involving Wayne interacting with Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) that feels too much like an unnecessary digression. For the most part, though, The Batman delivers nicely as an enjoyably atmospheric grim crime thriller that keeps you guessing and engaged (yay for earning that prolonged runtime!) Even better, it also isn't afraid to embrace fun comic book-y details of Batman's lore like Catwoman throwing a whip around or all the excitement that can be had with the Batmobile.
The Batman aims high to deliver both a grounded mystery thriller and something that fits snugly into the Batman mythos. Impressively, Reeves manages to pull that combo off with finesse. It's not a game-changing entry in the franchise and it's easy its pervasively dour tone being something some people won't want to sit through three hours for. But if you've liked Batman movies before this, The Batman will be up your alley while even those left cold by past installments will be won over by the unique touches and commitment to thoughtful storytelling.
Still not as good as The LEGO Batman Movie, though.
Friday, February 25, 2022
over Netflix movies looking cheap or why Netflix's mandate for all films to be shot with Ultra High-Definition cameras ends up making its original features look off-putting. However, conceptually, projects from Netflix and other streamers typically want to evoke the kind of projects you'd normally have to drive to a Cinemark to see. The new Hulu title No Exit, then, is a departure from these norms as its scale and storytelling would've been right at home as a CBS original TV movie in years past.
No matter whether it aired on the big or small screen, though, nothing can disguise the fact that No Exit doesn't work as a thriller.
Adapted from a short story of the same name by Taylor Adams, No Exit begins with Darby Thorne (Havana Rose Liu) receiving the news that her mother has been taken to the hospital in critical condition. The problem, however, is that Thorne is in court-mandated rehab, she can't leave to visit her mom. It isn't long before Thorne makes a quick escape and steals a car in order to get to her mom. However, a blizzard derails her plan and she's soon forced to wait out the storm in a nearby rec center with four other people. While wandering around outside in the parking lot, Thorne discovers a girl tied up in somebody's truck. One of the four people inside is not who they seem and the revelations are only getting started.
Limiting your movie to one location and a small cast has inspired gripping filmmaker from other directors. In the case of director Damien Power and screenwriters Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari, the stripped-down setup of No Exit has only inspired monotony. Part of the problem is that the plot loses track of Thorne's central struggle of dealing with addiction. Once she gets to the rec center, her sickness as well as her quest to get to her mom become secondary to the little girl she's stumbled on. Barrer and Ferrari fail to capsize on several intriguing opportunities to intertwine this predicament with Thorne's interior life. As a result, there's no central character to get invested, no personalities that can distinguish this from other similar thrillers.
It's also puzzling how quickly the central mystery of whose kidnapped the girl taken care of. What should be a driving engine of suspense instead sputters out without much fun or excitement. This issue goes hand-in-hand with the similarly fatal flaw that you can guess who can be trusted and who can't from the get-go. No Exit doesn't even have the good sense to get weird and gonzo with its twists and turns. This is a movie too deeply on autopilot to liven up enough to deliver trashy fun or enjoyably over-the-top performances. A movie this self-conscious about being seen as ridiculous gets old awful quickly.
The closest thing to an inspired narrative detail in the whole thing is the genuine affection one of our villains has for another one of the adversaries. There's no financial reward or duplicity here, this evil guy actually cares about another human soul. Evoking the George/Lenny dynamic from Of Mice and Me or even the Robert Pattinson's character in Good Time, this rapport is the one part of No Exit that surprises, along with the hysterically miscalculated way Thorne's addiction returns to the movie. Otherwise, there's little in the way that's noteworthy. No Exit is so disposable that even its shortcomings are instantly forgettable.
The same sentiments can be expressed for the lackluster visuals of No Exit. Power's filmmaking is subpar all around, but it's especially disappointing how he fails to convey any sense of claustrophobia in Thorne's scenes where she navigates being trapped in a small scape with a potential kidnapper. Cinematographer Simon Raby lathers on the darkness in his camerawork, an attempt to convey moodiness that ends up just making it hard to parse what's going on-screen. Worst of all, talented character actors Dale Dickey and Dennis Haysbert are stuck with nothing roles, with the latter performer getting some of the absolute worst dialogue of the whole feature. They deserved more and so do viewers interested in entertaining thrillers. No matter whether it debuted at Cannes or on Hulu, No Exit would've always registered as an especially drab and unengaging movie.
Wednesday, February 23, 2022
Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) is a bartender in Boston, Massachusetts who has a lot of knowledge about ancient history and quick hands that allow him to be a gifted thief. He also harbors a lot of grief over his missing older brother, Sam, whom he hasn't seen in over a decade. A former colleague of Sam's, Sully (Mark Wahlberg), appears out of the blue to ask Drake to help him steal a cross that could lead to a massive undiscovered treasure. Drake agrees to come along for the ride, putting him right in the crosshairs of fellow treasure hunters Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) and Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle).
The best word to describe Uncharted is perfunctory. It delivers what you want out of a basic treasure hunting movie, including people walking around catacombs with torches, exotic foreign locales, and clues hiding in plain sight. Director Ruben Fleischer seems much more comfortable executing a straightforward entry in this genre than he did in overseeing either a gangster movie or whatever Venom was trying to be. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung makes things look perfectly fine visually, with a big skydiving action sequence especially doing good work blending live-action humans with digital backdrops.
Unfortunately, competency will only get you so far. What Uncharted really lacks is a personality or wit. Some of this comes from the fact that the film tries to be primarily a two-hander buddy picture between a pair of mismatched performers. On the one hand, Tom Holland reaffirms why he's a good blockbuster leading man with his turn as Nathan Drake. He's engaging, he delivers the characters vulnerable moments with empathy, and I like how agile he is in the scuffles. Dude's jumping all around, swooping under tables, he has a spry physicality that's nifty to watch. Mark Wahlberg, meanwhile, is miscast as Sully, a character the film wants to be Jack Sparrow meets Long John Silver from Treasure Island. Wahlberg doesn't create much difference between Sully being shifty and Sully being playfully fun, which makes the character's moral ambiguity muddled.
Wahlberg being a poor fit for one of the two lead roles isn't the only problem here. It's also strange that Uncharted eventually breaks away from specific real locations to a generic locale somewhere in the Philippines. There's a lack of specific identity to the third-act backdrops of Uncharted while the nebulous setting and mythology informing this section of the treasure hunt doesn't make any use of Drake's gift for knowing so much about the past. It's hard to bring up historical trivia when your movie is just making up history as it goes along. Without any big character beats to lean on (even a potential romance for Drake gets jettisoned), this critical part of Uncharted becomes hard to get invested in. Plus, the movies heavy homages to Indiana Jones and National Treasure only remind you all the more how fun it was to see familiar landmarks and mythological elements repurposed for treasure hunt antics in those earlier movies.
At least this finale has the good sense to feature a battle between pirate ships in the air, even if I did have to emit a chuckle over imagining Paul W.S. Anderson watching this set piece and thinking "They stole my finale from The Three Musketeers!" As for the rest of the film, it has the good sense not to stretch out its runtime for long (it runs under two hours with credits) and both Banderas and Gabrielle make for entertaining baddie. Unfortunately, they, like the other positive parts of Uncharted, end up reinforcing how uninspired key aspect of the rest of the production are. Ramin Djawadi's forgettable score, for example, or the strained attempts at witty banter between Drake and Sully, they're all evoking other superior movies you could just stay at home and watch instead.
It's doubtful anyone will be walking out of Uncharted shaking their fists and demanding a refund. However, if you're like me, you won't be able to shake the feeling that this should've been much more fun and imaginative.
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Taking place in Oslo, Norway, The Worst Person in the World follows Julie (Renate Reinsve). As the story starts, she's decided to pursue a career in psychology. After going to college and then scoring a relationship with one of her professors, she adjusts career paths to photography. This takes her through a handful of lovers until she gets into a committed relationship with comics writer Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). From here, Julie navigates what she wants out of life now that she's turned 30 years old. Who does she love? What passions does she have for her career? Does she even want kids? Life is messy and so is Julie as she tries to figure out what she even wants her life to look like.
The simplest charms draw you into the world of The Worst Person in the World while the deeper contemplations of the screenplay by Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier (the latter of whom also directs) keep you glued to the screen. The former elements come about as a byproduct of Julie steering herself through the quagmire that is adult social situations. Reinsve's performance is remarkable in conveying subtle comedy just through facial expressions or the way she delivers dialogue. These gifts become apparent as her character experiences situations like loud children at a big gathering or when she pretends to be a hotshot doctor to guests at a wedding she crashes. No matter what Julie gets into, Reinsve is there to lend a sense of skillful comic timing and especially authenticity.
Her initial scenes with Herbert Nordrum as Elvind, a man in a committed relationship she runs into at a party, are especially delightful from both a performance and writing standpoint. Vogt and Trier's writing finds such amusing and creative ways to depict these two flirting with one another while trying to exhibit a determination to not cheat on their respective partners. Their writing works so well that they're able to make a fart work simultaneously as a humorous gag and an instance of emotional bonding! Reinsve and Nordrum have such good chemistry here, all of it built on unspoken feelings and sexual attraction, that just the sight of them chilling on a bed together fully clothed grabs your eyeballs. This section of The Worst Person in the World is emblematic of the kind of performances and attention to detail the whole movie provides.
From here, Trier's directing keeps coming up with unforgettable ways to visually realize the indecisiveness that grips Julie's mind. A sequence depicting the character running around a version of Oslo where everyone else is frozen in place is full of terrific moments while deftly combining the atmospheres of melancholy and romantic yearning. A later drug trip scene blends hand-drawn animation with live-action players against an unsettling primarily darkened backdrop. Combining such distinctive details creates an eerie and evocative largely exploration of Julie's psychological vulnerabilities, one rendered largely without dialogue. Who needs words when the imaginative imagery on-screen can say so much?
This particular set-piece is a great example of how well the unflinchingly messy nature of Julie is realized on both a screenwriting and performance level. Sometimes, it can feel like movies (especially ones written and directed by men) believe the very act of a woman having messy hair or being uncouth is enough. This can reduce the depiction of flawed women as a novelty, something that exists only to "disturb" rather than as a way to examine women as multi-faceted people. That's not the case here, though, with Vogt and Trier using Julie's flaws as a way to explore this woman on a deeper level rather than just leaning on the "shock value" of a woman eagerly gulping down magic mushrooms.
The deeper nature of The Worst Person in the World isn't just reflected here, but also in later sections of the story (the movie is split into 12 segments, plus a prologue and an epilogue). This is where a greater level of tragedy seeps into the story, with a key supporting character taking on whole new dimensions a a result. It's a story turn that, in the wrong hands, could've felt like a contrived melodramatic detour, an undermining of the hangout vibes that had defined so many of the best preceding sequences. But by keeping everybody's reactions to the devastating events subdued, this narrative development feels so natural, especially in its contemplations on mortality.
This is where the movie's ruminations on what defines a fulfilling life come to a head and it's no spoiler to say that The Worst Person in the World does not offer a solid answer to that question. Much like "that voice...that tells you you're worthless and stupid and ugly", insecurities over whether or not we're doing enough with our lives never fully vanish, no matter what age we reach. Instead of attempting to provide a treacly solution to these woes, The Worst Person in the World wraps viewers up in a soft hug and tenderly whispers that they're not alone. Maybe that's enough to make life seem a bit more manageable, at least for now. It's certainly more than enough to make for a great movie.
Monday, February 14, 2022
Shortly after his directorial debut, The Rental, came out, Dave Franco revealed that his next project as a filmmaker would be a romantic-comedy. But not just any entry in the genre, oh no, this would be an "elevated romantic-comedy". Using the same "elevated" term used to describe many modern horror movies, this comment bugged me. The romantic-comedy doesn't need to be "elevated", just make an entry in this genre! Don't be ashamed of it! There's such a self-conciousness in approaching romantic-comedies in this manner, though that quality is totally absent from the new motion picture Marry Me, which is about as traditional of an entry as you can get. That's no complaint, though, and the best moments of this movie suggest why it'd be best for the romantic-comedy to be unapologetically old-school.
Kat Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) is a massively successful singer preparing to get married during a concert to her boyfriend Bastian (Maluma). Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson), meanwhile, is a cynical math teacher reeling from divorce whose just concerned with helping his students and daughter. The duo would've likely never crossed pathes, let alone gotten involved in a whirlwind romance, if not for the fateful night Gilbert accompanied a friend to Valdez's big marriage concert. There, Valdez discovered Bastian was cheating on her and then made the impulsive decision to marry a random stranger from the audience. That stranger turned out to be Gilbert, whose now stuck navigating stardom and a possibly blossoming marriage he never could have imagined.
The predictable nature of Marry Me is interwoven into the fabric of the story. You come to a musical for singing and dancing, you come to a superhero movie for the spectacle, and you come to a romantic-comedy for certain story beats. Marry Me is all too happy to provide on that front and that's just fine. A bit more of a problem is an exposition-heavy first act that works a bit too hard to try to justify the outlandish premise. Some of the gags here also fall flat, namelt broad attempts at mimicking jokes from older movies, like yet another instance of someone in a film forgetting to put the cap on a blender. It's an odd problem for a film belonging to a genre that's often as much about the jokes as it is the passionate love affairs.
Marry Me isn't so much a laugh riot as it is deeply pleasant to watch, which is it's secret weapon. Director Kat Cairo's traditional approach to this movie goes hand-in-hand with a decision to eschew snark or random outbursts of cruelty to see seem savvy to modern-day cynicism. Does it result in hokey moments? Of course, ditto for the inevitable side-effect of too many characters talking in profound kernels of wisdom destined to be shared as generic inspirational quotes on Facebook. But making Marry Me unabashedly content to just be upbeat escapism proves endearing enough to carry the movie.
It helps that the feature is capable of delivering entertaining sequences that justify the chipper tone, including a grin-inducing rendenvous in a classroom where dance moves help Mathalon students recite their numbers. The constantly kindhearted energy of the movie also makes the lowkey bonding scenes between Lopez and Wilson's protaganists nice. Their dialogue is about getting to know one another rather than dropping snarky remarks or gratingly coy meta-jokes about romantic-comedy tropes. Even the inevitable second-act downturn in the duo's relationship is smartly built more on quiet detoriation rather than a big explosive argument.
It's hard to dispute such an agreeable atmosphere that allows actors like Lopez and Wilson plenty of opportunities to shine. Plus, you get a bunch of original tunes from the former performer that aren't all-time great songs, but do work just right as enjoyable pop ditties. I always appreciate when fictional pop stars in movies produce music that's actually solid, makes it easier to buy their in-universe success. Even if it runs too long and the gags can feel more obligatory than hysterical, Marry Me proves a charming and enjoyable watch. Committing to the feel-good version of a familiar genre is so much more fun than being so self-concious about whether you've "elevated" the romantic-comedy enough.
Sunday, February 13, 2022
Thursday, February 10, 2022
|The 1000th issue of Entertainment Weekly and one of the first issues I ever devoured of the publication|
In Laman's Terms is an editorial editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas. Sometimes, it's all about serious subjects, other times it's just some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know Doug's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!
For a 12-year-old growing up in the suburban landscape of Allen, Texas, far from the glitzy lights of Hollywood or New York City, it was hard to feel connected to the world of pop culture. Movies provided me so much escape, but what about the world that produced or commented on those films? That all felt so far away. But then I’d go to my uncle’s house and see a stack of Entertainment Weekly magazines, usually featuring a recognizable movie star or TV show on the front cover. Flipping through the pages of these issues, suddenly, everything that once seemed out of my gasp was between my fingers.
My obsession with this publication grew so fervent that it wasn’t long before my uncle bestowed me with an annual subscription to Entertainment Weekly. So begin a love affair that stretched on for more than a decade. My love for pop culture an especially cinema was bolstered by this outlet, with so many fond memories getting attached to individual issues that I refused to throw them out! Clearly, Dotdash Meredith, the company that owns Entertainment Weekly doesn’t quite have the same connection to this publication. This past Wednesday, Dotdash Meredith announced that the magazine iteration of Entertainment Weekly would cease publication. The brand name will live on for the foreseeable future as a website.
While a magazine dedicated to pop culture news people can access on Twitter may seem anachronistic in the modern era, those of us with a fondness for Entertainment Weekly will know why it’s hard to say goodbye to this magazine.
For starters, Entertainment Weekly was shockingly eclectic in the topics they covered. Sure, they loved putting Twilight characters or superheroes on their covers. But look within the issues themselves and one will find a pleasantly surprising assortment of different types of pop culture. Everything from books to music to video games to even stage productions were covered by the dutiful writers of this outlet. Even within the individual media sections of a single issue, a wide variety of projects would get covered. The movie review section, for example, is where I first got exposed to the existence of movies like Synecdoche, New York or filmmakers like Guy Maddin.
This comprehensive approach to different mediums of artistic expression made for enjoyable reading and served as a weekly reminder of just how much art is out there to experience and appreciate. Sure, the internet allows you to access movie reviews at the click of a button, but it doesn’t feel the same. The modern age of Twitter can let you access more information than a single Entertainment Weekly, but algorithms for major social media sites box you in and only regurgitate what you already like or things similar to what you’ve previously enjoyed. By contrast, issues of Entertainment Weekly wasn’t cultivated on a user-by-user basis. They gave readers a comprehensive look at all forms of popular media, in the process exposing them to new things they may have never even known about otherwise.
Just as influential was how Entertainment Weekly made the behind-the-scenes process of Hollywood moviemaking digestible. The language used in pieces from this magazine was designed to appeal to a broad range of readers and not just people who were already knowledgeable about every part of the filmmaking experience. For teenage me, these magazines were a reliable way to understand how the films I liked or disliked came to be. It wasn’t even like I was the only person to be impacted by Entertainment Weekly in this manner. In an interview for the magazine for his 2008 movie Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller commented that Entertainment Weekly made enough people conscious of the behind-the-scenes world of Hollywood that a movie like Tropic Thunder could resonate with mainstream audiences.
Something else Entertainment Weekly exposed me to? Writers. Lots of great writers. I’m not even just talking about the immensely talented collection of regular reviewers for the outlet, like Lisa Schwarzbaum. When I was growing up, Entertainment Weekly had an editorial in each issue penned by a famous face, with these writers ranging from Stephen King to Diablo Cody. This was my first exposure to King’s writing, not through a horror novel but his declaration that Junior Mints eaten with toothpicks were the quintessential movie theater snack. Getting to digest so many types of writing styles from such distinctive writers opened my eyes to a whole new style of writing.
The benefits of Entertainment Weekly magazines aren’t just limited to what was within the pages of individual issues. One of the greatest parts of this publication was the human being I associated with them. My Uncle Doug turned me onto Entertainment Weekly, a publication that ended up playing a pivotal part in me pursuing a career as a film critic. Even more importantly, receiving these magazines has been a great way to be reminded of his presence even after he passed away in July 2017. Hard to believe he’s been gone for almost five years. Even harder to believe that yet another way of me connecting with him is gone.
But the memories I have of bonding with him over articles, covers, reviews, and everything else in Entertainment Weekly, those aren’t going anywhere.
In talking about the demise of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris, a former writer for the publication, wisely said he’d learned long ago “not to be sentimental about businesses, brands, titles.” It’s a good lesson and one that’s guided me in processing my sadness over the Entertainment Weekly magazine being no more. What I’ll really miss here isn’t so much the brand name or even physical magazine of Entertainment Weekly, but the voices of talented writers, the artists these issues exposed me to, the career field this magazine pushed me towards pursuing, and especially the people this magazine brought me even closer to. Like the fond memories I have with my uncle, those positive aftereffects of the Entertainment Weekly magazine won't be vanishing anytime soon.
After a prologue detailing Poirot's time in World War I, Death on the Nile picks up in 1937, with this detective on an overdue holiday in Egypt. A chance encounter with old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) at the pyramids of Giza leads to Poirot get invited to a sizzling wedding between Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle (Gal Gadot). It's all a big party full of extravagant gestures, including taking all the guests on a boat on the Nile. Glitz turns to gruesome, though, when a murder occurs on this boat. With each of the people onboard harboring some kin of grudge for the deceased, Poirot must spring into action. It's time to solve another murder before this killer can strike again.
An unexpected benefit of Death on the Nile is how it makes one appreciate a tiny but significant detail about Knives Out. I never truly absorbed it before, but that Rian Johnson movie ingeniously kicks off with the inciting murder. That's a perfect beginning for a murder mystery. The corpse has been established, now we can get to the fun stuff where a detective parses out all the motives behind the assorted suspects. Johnson wastes no time in his script, with the only drawback to this clever structural touch being that it makes the pacing issues in something like Death on the Nile more apparent.
Screenwriter Michael Green dedicates this movies first half to table-setting, which wouldn't be bad except the individual here function much better as murder suspects than people in a hangout movie. Very arch character dynamics are rehashed over and over again while everyone, including the sleuth himself, talks in ham-fisted dialogue about the internal angst Poirot deals with on a daily basis. Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos also shoot these early sequences in a tepid fashion. Despite featuring some lavish costumes and potentially glamorous locales, simple dialogue exchanges are framed with little imagination while the poor green-screen work proves distracting.
Once the murder happens, though, Death on the Nile does finally get some life. It doesn't turn out to be the second coming of Knives Out, but Branagh is much more comfortable doing a melodramatic mystery than he is with the more restrained conversations that have dominated the film up to this point. Striking uses of shadows and darker lighting populate the scenes where Poirot grills potential murder suspects. Meanwhile, unique spaces on the boat, namely a meat freezer to store the corpse, provide appropriately claustrophobic backdrops for these interactions. Green's script sn't impossible to crack in terms of what's going on, but he does keep things well-paced and isn't afraid to lean into enjoyably showy executions of big twists and turns.
The high drama of this section of the story is also a boon for several of the actors, who excel with much jucier flamboyant material. Sophie Okonedo is my pick for the movies MVP as blues singer Salome Otterbourne, she's a lot of fun with her "I do declare!" accent and a strong sense of conviction. Really, Death on the Nile is at its best whenever it decides to let its freak flag fly, particualrly in a bunch of sexually aggressive dancing in the film's opening scene. So often Death on the Nile opts to play things in a monotone manner that these instances of sudden sexuality or flowery acting stand out in an entertaining fashion.
Death on the Nile isn't good enough to suggest that Branagh's take on Poirot should run for countless installments. However, once it gets to being a murder mystery, it's a reasonably competent entry in the genre that'll deliver what audiences want. Maybe next time, though, take a cue from Knives Out and just start things off with a murderous bang.
Monday, February 7, 2022
Onto the nominees!
Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog)
Kenneth Branagh (Belfast)
Denis Villeneuve (Dune)
Steven Spielberg (West Side Story)
Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog)
Andrew Garfield (Tick, Tick…Boom!)
Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Don’t Look Up)
Will Smith (King Richard)
(Oh please for the love of God, let Nicolas Cage in Pig get in over DiCaprio in Don't Look Up)
Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos)
Olivia Coleman (The Lost Daughter)
Penelope Cruz (Parallel Mothers)
Lady Gaga (House of Gucci)
Kristen Stewart (Spencer)
Best Supporting Actor:
Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Power of the Dog)
Ciaran Hinds (Belfast)
Troy Kotsur (CODA)
Bradley Cooper (Licorice Pizza)
Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog)
Best Supporting Actress:
Caitríona Balfe (Belfast)
Aunjanue Ellis (King Richard)
Arianna DeBose (West Side Story)
Ruth Negga (Passing)
Kirsten Dunst (The Power of the Dog)
Best Original Screenplay:
Being the Ricardos
Don’t Look Up
Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Power of the Dog
The Lost Daughter
West Side Story
Drive My Car
The Power of the Dog
The Tragedy of Macbeth
The Green Knight
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
Summer of Soul
Best Animated Feature:
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon
Best Original Score:
The Power of the Dog
Don’t Look Up
Best Original Song:
No Time to Die
Don’t Look Up
Best Visual Effects:
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Godzilla vs. Kong
No Time to Die
Best Documentary Feature:
Summer of Soul
Best International Feature:
Drive My Car
The Worst Person in the World
Compartment No. 6
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
West Side Story
House of Gucci
Best Costume Design
West Side Story
House of Gucci
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story
No Time to Die
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Best Production Design:
West Side Story
The French Dispatch
Best Visual Effects:
No Time to Die
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Godzilla vs. Kong
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Best Animated Short Film
The Windshield Wiper
Best Documentary Short Film
Lynching Posts: "Tales of a Great Day"
Day of Rage
Three Songs for Benazir
Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker
The Queen of Basketball
Best Live-Action Short Film
When The Sun Sets
Sunday, February 6, 2022
In 1902, director George Meleis delivered a breakthrough motion picture titled A Trip to the Moon. Though quaint by today's standards, this was the birth of science-fiction cinema told through visual effects techniques that still register as impressive today. In 2022, the art form of filmmaking returned to the moon through Roland Emmerich's Moonfall. No rockets plunge into anyone's eyes here and the visual effects are often of noticeably worse quality than they were in 1902. Another key difference? That earlier Meleis movie was merely interested in exploring the moon. This new feature from director Roland Emmerich is all about the moon plunging towards Earth...among other things.
Former astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) had a devastating experience while fixing a satellite ten years ago. This event, which consisted of an encounter with some indescribable mechanical being seemingly descended from those Big Hero 6 nanobots, cost the life of a fellow astronaut and Harper's reputation. Now disgraced in the modern world, Harper is soon called back into action by conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley). Everyone called this guy a loon for thinking that the moon was a megastructure housing larger organisms or machines. Turns out, he was right and now the moon is headed straight for our planet.
Partnering up with former co-worker Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), Harper is now determined to save the planet and outwith the malevolent being living inside the moon. Oh, and Donald Sutherland shows up for one exposition dump scene, presumably reprising his role from Max Dugan Returns.
On the spectrum of disaster movies, Moonfall is better than the cluttered Geostorm, though both show the dangers of splitting these disaster movie stories across Earth's surface and the cosmos. It's not as good as the relentlessly cheesy 2012, which practically browbeat viewers into submission with an avalanche of nonsense, or Armageddon and its erotic animal crackers. Moonfall is probably on par with San Andreas among modern disaster movie contemporaries. They're competent in dishing out big things going boom and not being too grim, but both struggle with humans lacking in likable personality and their visual effects.
When it comes to flaws specific to Moonfall, the big problem here is that Emmerich isn't in top form dishing out sequences showing big cities devastated by big disasters. For example, when a wave of water begins to crush Los Angeles, it's depicted in a detached wide shot with little pomp and circumstance. Even the score by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser can't be bothered to ramp up the excitement. A third-act segment depicting New York getting crumbled by moon debris is similarly flatly-realized in every respect. We don't know any Moonfall characters residing in New York, so there's no emotional investment in its destruction, while the camerawork and imagery in the scene are lacking in imagination.
On the plus side, the sequences that actually do lean into fun imagery at least register as especially exciting. When you haven't drank anything for a while, any water will be tasty! A scene where a gigantic wave, with portions of the wave reaching for the sky like tiny cyclones, attacking a rocket launch is a fun idea executed with visual panache. The camera isn't afraid to get up close and personal with the watery threat, we actually know the people at risk, and the juxtaposition of Apollo 11 with a wave straight out of The Perfect Storm is an entertaining image. Emmerich seems to get more of a pulse once he's up in the stars and our three leads navigate what's going on with the moon.
The distinctive production design (apparently the interior of the moon looks like a set from Tron: Legacy by way of the Apple store) and the screenwriters just throwing out a ton of over-the-top twists and turns makes the moon-set scenes of Moonfall the best part of the movie. The preceding sequences, heavy on character interactions, aren't torturous, but they do feel like hollow echoes of past Emmerich features. Yet another antagonistic stepdad, yet another chase scene set against an apocalyptic backdrop, more divorced parents just trying to work together as the world ends. Nobody's expecting human drama on par with Drive My Car in a movie called Moonfall, but I did find myself wishing Emmerich would find new archetypes or family dynamics to explore.
One departure from earlier Emmerich works is that it looks downright awful in the Earthbound scenes. Nearly every exterior scene set on our planet is inexplicably filmed in front of an obvious green screen. Just do the rear projection technique if your green-screen work is going to look this bad. Meanwhile, the interior sets are usually draped in obnoxiously dim lighting. Possibly an attempt to visually reflect the uncertain atmosphere created by NASA keeping secrets about the moon (yes, that's a plot point), it just makes Moonfall look murky. The humor here is also a step down from other Emmerich movies. Big gag lines went over like a lead balloon at my screening, probably because nobody in the cast has the comic chops as Will Smith in Independence Day or Woody Harrelson in 2012.
Though this barrage of critiques may make it sound like I had no fun with Moonfall, that's actually not true. As a disaster movie devotee, I was only intermittently bored. Emmerich's smart enough to keep delivering destruction at regular intervals throughout the runtime and several dramatic lines that miss the mark do deliver chuckles. Plus, the bursts of originality and cynicism-free execution of big grand gestures on the part of humanity in the third act are fun to watch. The problems that drag down Moonfall from being the next Independence Day aren't its lack of scientific accuracy or hokey performances. Rather, the issues here are Emmerich leaning too heavily on familiar narrative elements and especially the sometimes downright atrocious visual scheme of the affair. Too messy to live up to its fullest potential, Moonfall will probably make some disaster movie connoisseurs happy while proving painless, though instantly forgettable, for everyone else. The jury is still out on what George Meleis would've thought of it.
Friday, February 4, 2022
The anecdotes Nawabi presents are bursting with raw emotion, with Rasmussen wisely preserving any imperfections in Nawabi's voice as he tells these stories. A slight pause, lingering on one word for a moment too long, those emotion-driven instances of vulnerability lend humanity to this narration. They're a reminder of the vividly-detailed person who experienced what's filling up the frame. Flee's willingness to also shine a light on the imperfect moments in Nawabi's life coming from disagreements with his husband further effectively humanize the film's central subject. There's almost something comforting about bearing witness to these interactions, as, even after all the horrors Nawabi has experienced, he's capable of having relationship problems like anyone else.
These and nearly every other part of Flee (save for brief bursts of live-action archival news footage) are told through animation. It took me a moment to get used to the animation, which skips frames to create intentionally jerky movements for the human characters. This eventually works well as a visual reflection of how the mind can forget things even in important circumstances. Just as the animation forgets certain movements in between a character's hand gestures, so too can we forget integral details of the past. Plus, it isn't long before your eyes adjust to the unique qualities in this style of hand-drawn animation. The jerkiness becomes just another part of the visual tapestry that Flee is weaving.
Even more remarkable in the animation is when Flee opts to deviate from its default style. These usually come in intense moments to accentuate danger and manifest through a monochromatic color scheme dominating the frame while all the characters are suddenly realized through figures so sparsely detailed that they can even lack eyeballs. The stripped-down quality of these segments conveys a haunting aura appropriate for some of the most devastating moments of Nawabi's anecdotes. Their uniqueness in the context of Flee's visuals also allows these parts to stand out in the minds of viewers, a sensation evocative of how they're used to tell stories that Nawabi similarly can't forget about it.
Animation is a medium with limitless possibilities but is usually only used for crass purposes designed to make corporations more money. Flee is a reminder of the glorious capabilities of this method of storytelling. Animation allows Nawabi's past, which wasn't captured through camcorder footage or old family photos, to finally be seen. It also offers Nawabi something at least emulating a home, with the confines of Flee affording him the chance to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and open about his experiences. While far from the first animated documentary (Waltz with Bashir is another great example of this subgenre), Flee is an especially great example of the richly human filmmaking that can emerge when animation is used for loftier purposes.