Monday, March 28, 2022

In Laman's Terms: Why was the 94th Academy Awards such a calamity?


We're not talking about "that slap" here.

Yes, it's all anyone's talking about, but that's why I'm not bringing it up yet again here. What would be the point? Plus, as a white person, I have no business dropping a "hot take" on a public altercation between two Black people.

As for the rest of the ceremony, though? Oh boy.

The 94th Academy Awards seem to have been cursed from the get-go. The decision to shuffle off eight categories to before the proper live ceremony already put a bad taste in people's mouths. But oh, if only we knew what the actual ceremony would deliver. For starters, lots of bad jokes mocking movies. If there's ever a place for that, it's the Academy Awards, a ceremony, in an ideal world, dedicated to loving this artform. Nobody's saying some good ribbing should be off-limits, but Amy Schumer making an unoriginal gag about how "The Power of the Dog is so loooong" (ironically, that Jane Campion meditation on how cycles of toxic masculinity are perpetuated has the exact same runtime as Schumer's Trainwreck) or nobody seeing The Last Duel just rang hollow and mean-spirited.

Why can't the Oscars show affection for movies? Why are they so self-conscious? Justin Chang just wrote a great Los Angeles Times piece about how baffling it is to see Academy Award voters recognizing an eclectic group of motion pictures that include Drive My Car yet producers of the same show keep doing everything to undercut recognizing those same films. That sentiment ran through my head all throughout the night. Ryusuke Hamaguchi got rudely hurried off-stage during his acceptance speech for Best International Film, but don't worry, there was still time for BTS to show up and shill for Disney movies.

But the inexplicable parts of the night were what really proved to be the unforgettably miscalculated aspects of the whole ceremony. Pushing all those technical awards to before the show, much to the derision of everyone in Hollywood, was supposed to guarantee this event wouldn't run long. However, the 94th Academy Awards still ran well over 30 minutes over its three-hour runtime. Meanwhile, the video montages to both James Bond and The Godfather may have had their hearts in the right places, but they ended up coming up short, especially the latter presentation. The Godfather was a subversion of consequence-free fantasies of gangster life, not an indulgence of it like this montage suggested! 

Then there was the fact that only half the Encanto cast could come out to perform "We Don't Talk About Bruno"? Much love to Megan Thee Stallion, but I was excited to see what the performers of the shape-shifting and super-hearing Madrigal family members looked like! Worst of all, though, was an initially promising decision to have a big choir come out and performer a tune for the In Memoriam segment. What started as a welcome departure from the norm because a baffling exercise once the tunes got upbeat and jovial. Plus, singling out a handful of deceased celebrities to get special tributes sounded nice on paper, but just seemed to elevate individuals like Betty White and Sidney Poiter as "important" against everyone else. 

Are the Academy producers so desperate to cram entertainment into every second of this show that even the In Memoriam segment isn't off-limits? Miscalculation seemed to be the name of the game here for the 94th Academy Awards as one comedic segment after another kept misfiring. It all seems to stem from one issue: the Academy Awards want to be loved. Really really loved. In the process, they're just alienating everyone. Bilge Ebiri wrote a great Vulture piece last month talking about how "self-loathing will kill the Oscars" and he's right, including on how the supposed "ratings woes" of the ceremony are not that bad. 

All live TV shows are down in ratings, this is just the name of the game in 2022. We're never going back to 2008 and that's OK. Stop sabotaging the show to make it 2008 again. It's not working for anyone. Viewers who previously never had an interest in the Oscars aren't tuning in by the droves to check out this clustercuss and movie lovers (who were supposed to be united by this event) are rightfully treating this ceremony as the mess it was. When we can't even count on competent camerawork for an Academy Awards ceremony, what're we even doing here?

There's value in the Academy Awards. They can help shed a light on little-seen movies, such as Drive My Car, which more than doubled its domestic box office haul once it scored a quartet of Oscar nods. A montage from the 90th Academy Awards ceremony is something I return to every month or so to feel good and cry over the magic of this medium. Plus, having spent the last two Oscars watching them with a bunch of other people, it's wonderful to watch the spectacle with a bunch of other passionate people. The Oscars, like movies themselves, have the ability to bond people. If only they were confident in that gift instead of constantly scrambling to be "entertaining" or "appealing" or promoting Disney properties. 

This years Academy Awards was a calamity. The producers of this show have been open for some time about the need to tweak this ceremony, and that's true, just not in the way they think. Rather than kick categories to the curb or eat up time with pointless comic sketches, it's time for the Oscars to look inward and start prioritizing movies and the artists that make them. 

And also maybe don't let Kevin Costner drone on for three hours.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Douglas Laman's 94th Academy Awards Predictions

Here we are again, another Academy Awards ceremony. And even with everything being super busy in my life, I couldn't resist the chance to ramble about my predictions for who will win in each of the 23 categories tomorrow night. Below, I've listed out each category and predicted who will win among the nominees, a runner-up, as well as who, among the five nominated films I wish would win. For a full list of the nominees, please click here.

On with the show!

Monday, March 21, 2022

X is hot for empathetic slasher movie storytelling

Thanks to the sleeper hit The VVitch, A24 has turned to horror movies as a go-to vehicle for commercial cinema that can crossover into mainstream success. Many of these films have not only been good, but they've also been slow-burn titles with minimal dialogue and storylines that run on ambiguity. Ti West's new horror film X also hails from this studio and it's certainly got bold filmmaking and heftier ideas running through its veins. However, by its very nature of adhering to the mold of a 1970s/1980s slasher movie, it's also a more in tune with crowdpleaser elements. There's plenty of nudity, comical lines, and near-death experiences to keep people satisfied until the blood starts flowing. If your main complain with prior A24 horror movies was that they didn't have enough going on, well, X should keep you satisfied. 

Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) is traveling through Houston, Texas with boyfriend Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) and four other people, including other actors and a pair of technicians, to shoot a porno that they're all convinced will send them to the stars. Minx is especially enamored with the idea of achieving stardom, a status she feels she's destined for. To shoot this lewd picture, Gilroy has secured the a farmhouse belonging to an elderly couple, Pearl (Mia Goth in a second role) and Howard (Stephen Ure), who're initially unaware of the naughty action taking place just behind their back. As shooting commences, peculiar happenings begin to stack up around Minx and company. Their elderly hosts may be dealing with something extra that could have gruesome consequences for this film crew.

The most welcome surprise of X is that it likes its characters. I've never disliked slasher films per se, but they've always felt like a strange genre to me, one where humans can often end up being just bowling pins that a masked killer knocks down like a bowling ball. It can be fun, but since the characters aren't treat as much beyond walking corpses, they can be hard to engage with. X, meanwhile, gives you some enjoyable and larger-than-life personalities to chew on. We're all aware most, if not all, of these people will end up dead long before the credits roll, but West isn't treating that as an excuse to churn out run-of-the-mill fictional people. Varying perspectives, demeanors, and even approaches to cinema manifest across the primary cast, making them much more than just the bowling pins that populate other slasher fare.

Even the antagonistic elderly couple that are initially mocked by the younger characters for looking exceedingly ugly are presented with more than a touch of empathy. Pearl, in particular, gets a lot of screentime to have her perspective fleshed out, with a yearning for intimacy and affection becoming key in her sequences. Even once people start getting knives jabbed into throats and shotguns are blasting all over the place, West makes time for quiet moments of interaction between the older duo that've helped set the plot into motion. Having the screenplay be as fascinated with quiet conversations as it is with bloody carnage is a great move all around.

If there's a chief complaint to be had with X, it's also something that proves charming about the feature: this is very much a classic slasher movie. Ti West has not set out to make something that deviates from the norms of this genre, he's just made a more polished and thoughtful version of what you'd expect. That has its own pleasures, but the gestures at weightier themes did make me wish that some parts of the film strayed a bit farther from slasher movie norms. It also has to be said that this adherence to the familiar does make X less scary than it could be. We're not here for terrifying uncertainty, but rather here for West to deliver a tasty version of a dish we've gobbled up before.

That quibble isn't fatal, though, and X proves a fun watch more often than not. A gaggle of committed performances from the assembled actors help quite a bit with that, especially Martin Henderson's swaggering Southern producers. This dude's just diving in headfirst into being just Matthew McConaughey if he became a porn producer and I'm here for it. The use of unorthodox editing to cut between disparate locations, serving as an extension of one character referencing the editing techniques of the French New Wave, also proves a both an enjoyable visual motif and a creative way to differentiate X from other slasher films. 

X may not be a game-changer for slasher fare, but when an entry in this genre is told with this much flair and is this fun, it's hard to complain. Plus, great use of the "Don't Fear the Reaper" song, that counts for a lot in my book.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a great balance of the sprawling, the intimate, and the bizarre

If you saw Swiss Army Man, the last movie from the directorial duo Daniels (comprised of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), then you know what to expect from their work. They do things weird. Not just weird as defined by mainstream corporations, oh no. They're the kind of weird that gazes upon Daniel Radcliffe and see's a farting corpse whose erections can function as a compass. Their weirdness is also laced with sincere melancholy, they're anarchic pranksters who also want to touch your heart. Their strangeness and unexpected sweetness are more apparent than ever in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is guaranteed to either confuse or, if you're like me, dazzle. 

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a busy person. She's got to run her laundromat perfectly while dealing with demands from the IRS that could endanger her livelihood. All the while, her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is grappling with falling out of love with his partner, to the point he's preparing to serve Evelyn divorce papers. Evelyn's relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is even more strained than that. This is already a lot to juggle for one person, but a trip inside an elevator leads Evelyn to discover the existence of a multiverse. There are countless alternate dimensions out there and a seemingly ordinary woman is being called upon to stop an evil force that could destroy everything in existence.

What follows is something that has the subversive streak of The Matrix Resurrections, the high-concept melancholy of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the unpredictability of Xavier: Renegade Angel. The result is a strange brew that proves shockingly effective at managing to have heart and chaotic energy. Sometimes, such a potent mixture can be chalked up to something deep and academic. There’s real detail to how Daniels is executing this madness, but the reason Everything Everywhere All at Once can swerve from buttplug gags to poignancy without coming as disjointed simply comes from the character of Evelyn. Her plight and mindset are always front and center in the madness. She’s like the lighthouse, providing a constant sense of light that the viewer can turn to in the middle of an onslaught of strange imagery. 

Even more critical to making the absurd concoction work so well is how Daniels embrace every possible visual opportunity that the multiverse provides. Evelyn and the viewer travel everywhere from classic kung fu movies to a prison movie to a hand-drawn realm that looks like it was scribbled by a kindergartener. Who needs airtight logic or constant coherency when there are many nifty interpretations of reality to explore? The creativity on display is incredible, especially the little details (like the lenses used and the aspect ratios) to differentiate the various universes. Rather than just tinting the frame a slightly skewed shade of blue and calling that a unique dimension, a vast array of costumes and color schemes are employed to suggest the infinite possibilities out there for multiverse mayhem.

 It’s doubly impressive that Everything Everywhere keeps this rambunctious ambiance up for its entire routine without either running on fumes or wearing out the viewer. Just when I thought I had this movie figured out, a new ace up its sleeve would get revealed. Especially fun is how seemingly throwaway gags tend to keep coming back for not only humorous extensions but also reinterpretations that make the ludicrous emotionally potent. In what turns out to be an apt parallel to the characters themselves, the silliest parts of this motion picture have a lot more depth to them than you’d ever expect. 

All those layers upon layers of details are handled with mastery by the principal actors. Each of these performers seems to be relishing the chance to play not just one character but a whole slew of people wrapped up into fleshy humans. Michelle Yeoh, for instance, is already a hoot as an everyday human being who quickly finds herself out of her depth. However, once the multiverse absurdity begins to get unleashed, she reaffirms both her long apparent gift for hand-to-hand skirmishes and moments of intimate poignancy. Ke Huy Quan especially excels at lending authenticity to each side of his character, playing personalities that echo John Wick and Jimmy Stewart with consistent believability. Stephanie Hsu gets both the most tender moments and greatest costumes in her performance, while the always delightful James Hong adds another unforgettable acting credit to his endless resume.

Watching something as bursting with imagination as Everything Everywhere All at Once for the first is an incredible experience, especially when viewed on a gigantic screen that consumes your entire gaze and with an appreciative crowd. Even with an avalanche of modern pop culture items about the movies out there, Everything Everywhere All at Once stands out from the crowd. Impressively, it accomplishes this by delivering gags and action beats that couldn't exist outside of the multiverse concept...and also by using this multiverse notion as merely a springboard for larger ideas and emotions. Prepare for something special when you sit down to watch Everything Everywhere All at Once and also to never be able to look at either paper clips or raccoons the same way ever again.

Everything Everywhere All At Once plays in limited release on March 25 and expands into theaters everywhere on April 8.

Deep Water is too shallow for its own good

Cue up the Staind music, cause "it's been a while" since we had a major erotic thriller in American cinema. A staple of 1980s and 1990s mainstream moviegoing, the erotic thriller fizzled out thanks to box office and critical duds like Striptease. Since then, the death of the mid-budget American movie and a lack of emphasis in this country's cinema on sex has led to the further erasure of the erotic thriller. Director Adrian Lyne, director formidable entries in the genre like Fatal Attraction, returns for his first directorial effort in two decades to helm Deep Water, an attempt at reviving the erotic thriller  for the modern era. The resulting film has some admirable qualities, but can't quite stick the landing.

Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda Van Allen (Ana de Armas) are a married couple with a far from perfect marriage. Even the smallest of discussions between the two are riddled with animosity and Melinda has a passion for engaging in physical intimacy with other younger men. Initially, it seems like the conflict here will be restricted to just barbs between spouses, but it turns out, Melinda's flings keep winding up dead. Neighbors and other residents around town begin to whisper about Vic maybe being responsible for these slayings. With tension only growing between the Van Allen's and the body count rising, secrets are about to come bubbling to the surface.

The most fatal flaw with the screenplay for Deep Water by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson is how it tries to be both a steamy thriller and a contemplative domestic drama about a marriage slowly falling apart. It's perfectly reasonable to imagine a movie that combines the aura of Basic Instinct with a married couple straight out of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Unfortunately, this is not that movie. The two disparate pieces don't quite work right together, mainly because Helm and Levinson make the critical error of believing that downplaying everything will automatically give it depth. Gloomy faces do not equal substance, though, and that lack of depth renders Deep Water scenes relying on the tense dynamic between Vic and Melinda inert.

Too much of the runtime in Deep Water is just spent spinning its wheels rather than finding its way to channeling its intended vibes of Paul Verhoeven and Douglas Sirk. However, there are still worthy elements here. Ana de Armas, for one, is having a ball in her lead performance, especially in the first act of Deep Water where her character's at her most chaotic. She purrs, she screams, she drunkenly sings, she slinks around on a staircase, I half-expected her to also reveal that she can fly in a twist ending. She's got the sort of gung-ho vibes and over-the-top sensibilities that more of Deep Water could've taken a cue from.

Lyne, cinematographer Eigil Bryld, and editors Tim Squyres & Andrew Mondshein also incorporate a handful of fun visual details into Deep Water that deserve praise, even if their choice to coat most of the movie in a hideous light blue tinge is abhorrent enough to make me want to give the whole movies imagery an F. Immersive camerawork used to realize a car bouncing along a woodland path is quite an exciting touch, as are the cuts used to Melinda's extramarital affairs whenever Vic is out biking. Props also to Tracy Letts, for absolutely crushing his line deliveries in the last thirty minutes of Deep Water, his way of declaring one character is going to jail is especially outstanding.

Deep Water has its share of standout elements, but unfortunately, they're not enough the norm within the film's two-hour runtime. Deep Water is rarely terrible, but it's also so trapped between weighty and steamy aspirations that it's doubtful it'll satisfy most who tune in. The erotic thriller's absence from mainstream American cinema has been a significant detriment to the world of film, we desperately need to see more motion pictures with the scope and ambitions of Deep Water. However, future attempts to revive this genre would be well-advised to opt for more cohesion or even just fun than this particular Adrian Lyne movie.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Make way for masterfully melancholy filmmaking with Make Way for Tomorrow

Movies fall through the cracks of history for different reasons. Some wind up obscure because of mixed reception from audiences and critics. Other falls by the wayside due to bad marketing. In the case of 1937 feature Make Way for Tomorrow, I'd propose it's because director Leo McCarey was too good of a filmmaker that yea. That's no hollow praise masquerading as analysis. McCarey won the Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth that same year, with that same film becoming a box office hit and helping to launch Cary Grant to stardom. There were a lot of positive ripple effects from The Awful Truth, but it did overshadow Make Way for Tomorrow, which carried a tone so grim that it was going to need all the help it could get to not be dismissed by the public at large.

Such a somber aesthetic is used for the story of Barkley "Bark" (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi), who have just lost their home. The duo are now in need of somewhere to rest their bodies and their adult children offer to take them in. However, none of them have enough room for two extra people, so Lucy goes to live with George (Thomas Mitchell) and his family while Bark hunkers down with Cora (Elisabeth Risdon). The living situations at both establishments becomes hostile quite quickly, with Lucy often being perceived as "intrusive" on the household while Bark catches a cold that requires a lot of attention.

From there, things only go from bad to worse. Viña Delmar's screenplay, adapted from a Josephine Lawrence novel as well as a play, holds back no punches in examining the domestic strife that occurs once these elderly parents are forced to become a part of their kids lives again. While we always have sympathy for protagonists Bark and Lucy, it is easy to see the points-of-view of the frustrated folks thanks to the nuanced screenwriting of Delmar. Anita (Fay Bainter), George's wife, for instance, doesn't get fed up with Lucy because she's innately wicked. Instead, her grievances come about when Lucy begins to interfere with the work she does from home as well as when she perceives her teenage daughters to be in danger.

Even with this level of intricacy woven into most of the characters, the focus here remains on the elderly Cooper couple, with tragedy seeping into every frame chronicling their current condition. Society often views the elderly as something to be dismissed, shoved under the rug, a norm reflected throughout Make Way for Tomorrow right down to its title. That makes the various scenes just showing Bark and Lucy as everyday human beings, such as quiet interactions between the former character and local shop owner Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch), all the more emotionally potent. This is a feature-length exercise in reaffirming the humanity of people often seen as no longer having any.

This becomes especially noticeable in the final half-hour of the film, which oscillates beautifully between wistful melancholy and then quiet despair. The former tone gets reflected in Bark and Lucy popping into a hotel they stayed at on their honeymoon decades earlier. It's a rare moment of unbridled joy for these two in Make Way for Tomorrow as they stroll down memory lane, sip fancy drinks, and process how the decades have slipped through their fingers. After all this time, there's still such endearing affection between these two that's lovingly represented by Moore and Bondi's great performances. Just look at the authentic depiction of Bark giggling over Lucy getting tipsy. The acting between these two aches with years of experience right down to the tiniest details.

Once we're away from the hotel, it's time for Bark to board a train to California while Lucy stays behind. The distance between these two will now be greater than ever before and the financial uncertainty lingering over this whole story (which was told during the Great Depression) makes it impossible to ignore the notion that they may never see each other again. All the quiet characters moment and realistic behavior in Make Way for Tomorrow has built up to this moment beautifully. The bittersweet good-bye here is a massive departure in tone from typical American movies of this era, there's nary a happy ending in sight. But that's just the perfect way to cap off this story, with this masterful conclusion along making the perfect case that Make Way for Tomorrow should be much more widely talked about.

Friday, March 18, 2022

The Outfit is perfectly acceptable crime fare

In a recent episode of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast, there was a comment about Springtime indie movies. The hosts of this podcast reflected that such movies aren’t massive in scale, they don’t dominate the zeitgeist. Think of such titles like Eye in the Sky, Gloria Bell, or Gifted, to name a few from the last decade. They lack in innovation, but they’re often pleasant and deliver just what you want out of a movie for that time of the year. That’s where The Outfit comes into play. It too follows in the footsteps of your average Bleecker Street or Focus Features release from this time of the year by being not a masterpiece, not quite a hidden gem, but a solid piece of moviegoing that’ll deliver on what its target demo wants.

Leonard (Mark Rylance) works as a cutter (not a tailor!) designing suits in a shop in Chicago. Here, his regular customers include local mobsters, most notably Richie (Dylan O'Brien), who use a mailbox in the back to drop correspondence to an organization known as The Outfit. Typically, Leonard keeps his distance from these boys. They don't bother him, he doesn't bother them. One night, though, things change drastically when Richie shows up at Leonard's shop bleeding profusely. Whether he likes it or not, Leonard is now stuck with these mobsters, who are all extra paranoid over there being a rat in their crew. It's gonna be a long night.  

Opting to confine The Outfit to one location could’ve been a kiss of death for the entire feature, especially since it’s being guided by first time director Graham Moore. But The Outfit has a not so secret ace up its sleeve: Mark Rylance. Confining viewers with Carrot Top or Adam DeVine in one place for two hours would be torture. Rylance, though? That’s a much different story. Not only is this Oscar-winning performer an enormously gifted talent (save for his miscalculated Don’t Look Up performance), but his extensive experience in stage productions means that he knows how to get a lot out of little resources. Rylance doesn’t need expansive landscapes or an endless series of props to keep your attention. He can capture your attention with subtlest details, especially in his facial expressions. Rylance has such an expressive face, especially in a grin that lights up your soul. 

The Outfit turning into the Mark Rylance show is an A-OK development by my book, especially since the playful script by Jonathan McClaine and Graham Moore (the latter of whom also directs) has lots of fun with Rylance being more scheming than he appears. There’s a surprising amount of mileage to be had with the sight of Rylance talking like a kindly fragile old man while delivering dialogue clearly meant to make these paranoid gangsters get suspicious of one another. If your movies going to be this restrained, it’s best when it had these kinds of entertaining ingredients at its beck and call.

On the other hand, the straightforward presentation of this material does lend a lack of unpredictability in some of the big plot turns, which undermines some of the entertainment. Meanwhile, some of the supporting actors inhabit classical outsized gangster archetypes better than others. Visually, Graham Moore doesn’t lend as much visual panache in his filmmaking as a more experienced director might’ve. There's also a final extension to the third act feels like an unnecessary detour. There’s a one really fun action beat in this section of The Outfit, but it’s not enough to erase the feeling that the movie should’ve wrapped up five minutes ago. 

These are the most critical shortcomings that keep The Outfit from going above and beyond being perfunctory. Still, it delivers decently on what it should, especially with some lovely looking costumes sprinkled throughout the cast. This is a throwback feature, one whose primary objective is to harken back to simple mid-20th century crime capers. Such creative influences result in a movie that doesn't exceed expectations, but it'll probably meet them if you like either Rylance or gangster movies. but its commitment to simplicity and its best elements make it a fine watch. In other words, The Outfit is a quintessential example of the Springtime indie movie. 

Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Adam Project is insulting in its lack of creativity


Adam Reed (Walker Scobell) is having a tough time. He's a 12-year-old grappling with the death of his father, Louis (Mark Ruffalo), from a year earlier, not to mention that he's developed a strained relationship with his mom, Ellie (Jennifer Garner). But this humdrum everyday existence gets thrown for a loop when a mysterious adult man crash lands in Reed's backyard. Turns out, this guy (played by Ryan Reynolds) is a version of Adam from the year 2050. Older Adam has a renegade but important mission rooted in the past that has made him the number one target of ruthless businesswoman Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener) and her goons.

It's already a tough job trying to jump across time while evading Discount Stormtroopers, but now Adam has to come face-to-face with the adolescent version of himself that he's tried to forget about for so long. Ask Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis, it's no picnic when older and younger versions of one person collide. But maybe this mismatched duo can save the world and confront the past that haunts them both.

The Adam Project's greatest fault is how relentlessly lazy it is. Despite having an interesting starting point for its premise, director Shawn Levy and a quartet of screenwriters proceed to take this story in creatively stagnant directions. This includes the personality of 12-year-old Adam. One would think the point of a time travel movie involving older and younger versions of one person would be to emphasize how different one is at various points in their life. Think of the moment in Back to the Future where Marty McFly encounters a drastically unexpected teenage version of his father, George. That wouldn't be nearly as funny if George was just a teenage replica of his middle-aged self.

Unfortunately, 12-year-old Adam is just a miniature Ryan Reynolds, complete with Walker Scobell doing an impression of the actor's non-stop sarcastic quips. This schtick can get old when Reynolds is doing it, so you can imagine how tiresome this routine gets in the hands of a youngster. It's a lazy choice that's also stunningly miscalculated, the rapport between the two Adam's immediately came across like a single person just talking to themselves. Meanwhile, this also eschews the chance to have some variety between the two lead characters of the story. All it does is remind people of movies they've already seen before, a problem that gets exacerbated to groan-worthy degrees when young Adam recreates a joke from Deadpool, complete with a reaction shot from his older self. Rather than use the time travel gimmick to create fun new scenarios, The Adam Project is content to just rehash the past.

Meanwhile, the script's generally gloomy disposition is an incredible drag. The Adam Project desperately wants to tug on your heartstrings, to the point that every other scene turns into characters channeling their inner Vin Diesel by going into extended monologues on the value of family. This falls apart for a multitude of reasons. For starters, when everything is trying to be poignant, nothing ends up poignant. Put it this way: Toy Story 3's ending wouldn't be nearly as effective if every preceding scene had involved Andy giving his toys away. Even worse, so much of it is built on stuff we're told but not shown. This is especially true of older Adam's resentment towards his absent father. Since Louis is dead once the story starts, we don't get to see the childhood events that would've molded all this bottled-up angst. 

It's no surprise that the most successful instance of poignancy in The Adam Project comes in a tavern chat between Ellie and adult Adam since at least that's built on the strained mother/son dynamic that the audience has been privy to. Otherwise, The Adam Project's attempts to tug on the heartstrings mostly just result in didactic dialogue. The constant emphasis on schmaltz lends a weirdly downbeat vibe to the whole affair and makes it hard to get invested in characters that this production wants you to cry over. Other features, like The Muppet Movie, deliver a steady stream of gags and entertainment and then sneak up on you with the reveal that you've become emotionally invested in the on-screen characters. The Adam Project, by contrast, is all sentimentality, but no fun. Who wants that in a time travel movie starring Deadpool?

The attempts at faux-PIXAR pathos are complimented by a swarm of generic sci-fi action sequences, complete with futuristic soldiers and vehicles that eschew bright primary colors in favor of subdued steel and grey hues. Even the sound effects for the weapons and ships from the year 2050 end up evoking other movies by sounding alternately like the live-action robots from Transformers transforming or modes of transportation from Star Wars. The obligatory fight scenes are often set to 1970s and 1980s tune with the word time in the title, like Led Zeppelin's "Good Time/Bad Time." I know Guardians of the Galaxy popularized these kinds of needle drops in blockbusters, but they don't make much sense here. Neither version of Adam has a connection to 1970s and 1980s pop culture or even existed in that era, nor is this music a key part of Louis's background. Meanwhile, none of the tracks are incorporated into their respective sequences interestingly enough to justify their presence. You can blame the latter problem partially on Levy's sloppy and unimaginative framing of the various skirmishes. 

Tragically, good songs from bands like Boston are here used simply because The Adam Project isn't capable of coming up with its own cool ideas. Levy and company are content to just remind people of other superior motion pictures and hope that's enough to carry the day. This is even felt in Rob Simonsen's score, which strains so hard to evoke the sound of compositions by John Williams that it's embarrassing. Among the scarce distinctive elements here is Catherine Keener getting saddled with both a terrible wig and equally atrocious CG de-aging. Please, someone in Washington D.C. outlaw digitally de-aging actors outside of The Irishman. On a happier note, a rare piece of original entertainment here can be found in Alex Mallari Jr.'s performance as evil henchman Christos. He's got an unabashedly silly and over-the-top demeanor that the rest of The Adam Project sorely lacks. Everyone else is so dour and yet here comes Mallari Jr. yelling to a supporting character to get their "bitch-ass husband outside now!" 

It's fun to watch the works of Rian Johnson and see how he conveys such passion for certain genres (murder mysteries, noirs, time-travel tales, etc.) while taking them in unexpected but fun directions. The Adam Project is the inverse of that. While trying to evoke so many beloved blockbusters of the past (and also the climactic location of the dismal Terminator: Genisys, for some reason), The Adam Project ends up most resembling the Pokemon Ditto in how it's only capable of surface-level mimicry. Rather than being a fan of older pop culture, The Adam Project is more conscious of how popular Amblin features, Guardians of the Galaxy, and poignant family movies are and wants some of that action. Not once does it consider why those films were so good to begin with. I guess nobody involved in this woe begotten blockbuster had any time to think of that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

You need to catch a ride at Central Station


It's so much fun to finish a movie and then immediately know "Oh, that's gonna become one of my favorites."

That doesn't happen very often, but it's just what I experienced with Central Station just last week.

Central Station begins with Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) making her living writing down letters that people dictate to her at a local train station. She's instantly hostile for the people she writes for and even refuses to mail some of the letters she pens. Her life gets upended when Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira) enters the picture. After his mom is abruptly killed by a speeding bus, this youngster has nowhere to go. After initially ditching him with strangers for cash, Dora proceeds to take the kid on a road trip to reunite him with his father. With minimal cash to their name and no consistent ride by their side, it's going to be a miracle if they ever get to their destination.

We've all seen movies with crotchety adults getting mixed up with precocious youngsters and, wouldn't you know it, both parties learning some valuable lessons through their interactions. Central Station is technically part of this subgenre, but it's up there with Paper Moon as an example of this strain of cinema at its apex. Rather than constantly remind you of other movies, Central Station makes warm and fuzzy cinema feel fresh out of the box again. It's clear now that the likes of St. Vincent were chasing this movies coattails, hoping to capture a fraction of Central Station's intellect or filmmaking ingenuity. 

Part of what makes the screenplay by João Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein work so well is its commitment to rendering its two leads as real people. For Dora, this means allowing her to be an especially messy person, with no concern over whether she's "likeable" or not. She's supposed to capture relatable angst over everyday existence, not be a model citizen. She also doesn't have a ham-fisted origin story always dictating her actions, we only get brief glimpses (like her recalling a story of when she ran into her absent father as a teen) into the events of yesteryear that molded her into who she is. For his part, Josué also behaves in a manner that's rooted in reality, with all the imperfections of an actual child rather than the tidy precociousness of a 1990s sitcom kid.

Plus, it's all captured with such impeccable visuals courtesy of director Walter Salles and cinematographer Walter Carvalho. An early piece of camerawork where Dora's conversation with another adult man at her work station, captured through a low-angle shot in a peephole to simulate Josué's point-of-view, sets the standard for the kind of thoughtful camerawork that works its way into the entire feature. I especially love the way Salles and Carvalho use empty space once the main duo of Central Station gets into more rural territory. A shot of the two characters sitting in front of this mountain-like object while a sprawling sky hovers above them is such a striking image that immediately communicates how outmatched Dora and Josué are in their quest to find the latter character's dad.

Combining such tenderly thoughtful visuals with a whip-smart script makes Central Station one of the very best road trip movies as well as something that accomplishes one of my favorite things in any piece of art. Specifically, Central Station is able to sneak up on you with how much you've got invested in these characters. The seemingly throwaway interactions Dora and Josué have shared throughout the film gradually add up to Dora coming out of her shell, a development that hit way harder than I expected when I started watching this movie. By the time she's writing letters again, but this time being more conscious of the humanity of the people she's putting pencil to paper for, I was astonished with how well Central Station had set up and pulled off Dora's totally organic character arc!

It's only fitting that a movie like Central Station that can pull off character beats like those would wrap up its runtime on a note that opts for realistic imperfections rather than a tidy resolution promising happy endings for all. In the end, Dora and Josué go their separate ways. The latter character will wait with his older siblings for their dad to maybe return, and Dora will go back to her old life. Uncertainty hangs over both of these characters, but thanks to the time they spent with one another, they're a little more capable of tackling whatever comes next. Neither they nor the audience needs to know what happens next. They just need to hold on to memories of everything that just happened.

This bittersweet but utterly perfect conclusion reminded me of the works of Mike Mills, specifically C'mon C'mon and 20th Century Women in terms of its complicated depiction of who helps shape our adolescent selves. The fact that a random lady like Dora could have such a profound impact on Josué even reminded me of this quote from 20th Century Women:

"I don't know if we ever figure our lives out. And the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted. They might just be the people who show up."

Thank God for the people who show up and thank God for movies like Central Station.