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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

It's no secret why Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore isn't very good


Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore follows in the footsteps of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Thor: Ragnarok, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as apology blockbusters. These are all mega-expensive features following up on box office hits that also proved divisive critically. So now it's time to confront the flaws of their predecessors cut out extraneous characters, and give the people what they want. Sometimes you get a Star Trek Beyond out of this approach, other times, you get Attack of the Clones.

It's clear The Secrets of Dumbledore wants to do this exact thing with regards to its predecessor, The Crimes of Grindelwald. The oppressively dark tone of that movie has been traded out for a zippier aesthetic, right down to how the nighttime Paris finale of Grindelwald is swapped here in Dumbledore for a brightly-lit sunrise climax in Bhutan. The last film was about dark betrayals and tragic backstories, this one's about hope and love. Even the titular Fantastic Beasts are more directly integrated into the plot while Dumbledore (Jude Law) is often more of the protagonist than previous Fantastic Beasts lead Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). A lot of effort has been made in The Secrets of Dumbledore to correct Grindelwald's shortcomings...but unfortunately the resulting film is still a lackluster overlong slog.

As The Secrets of Dumbledore begins, the nefarious wizard Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen) is on the rise. Not only is he brewing new evil plans to wipe out the Muggle world, but he's also gaining prominence among the general populace and is planning to run as a political candidate in the wizarding world. It's time for someone to step in and intervene. This is when Dumbledore tasks Scamander with leading a gaggle of wizards, like his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and Professor Hicks (Jessica Williams), and a solitary Muggle, Jacob (Dan Fogler), to thwart Grindelwald's globe-trotting plots.

 Meanwhile, Credence (Ezra Miller), who's working under Grindelwald, is coming to terms with the revelation that he's Albus Dumbledore's brother. Dumbledore himself also grapples with how actively he can fight in this war, given that his prior romantic relationship with Grindelwald involved a charm that makes it impossible for the two to fight each other.

Despite opting for a lighter tone and bringing back Harry Potter screenwriter Steven Kloves for the  first time in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, The Secrets of Dumbledore still succumbs to a key flaw of The Crimes of Grindelwald: too many characters. This is a classic case of throwing so many darts at the wall yet nothing leaving a mark. Figures like Hicks or Yusuf  Kama (William Nadylam), sit on the sidelines without anything of note to do. This leaves actors like Mikkelsen or Williams, the latter of whom shows up with a Katharine Hepburn style accent, clearly raring to go to do something fun, but never getting the chance to leave a substantial impact. 

Much like in the last two Fantastic Beasts movies, the real weak link in terms of characters turn out to be Newt himself. This magical zoologist continues to be a baffling choice as a protagonist for this series. He's so flat, uninteresting, and strangely detached from Grindelwald and his evil plots. It's befuddling why we're following him around. Even opportunities to inject personality into Newt slip through the fingers of screenwriters Kloves and J.K. Rowling. A set piece where the character must rescue his brother from a dangerous prison could be a great way to make Newt come alive during a critical situation. Frustratingly, though, there's no compelling rapport between Newt and Theseus, they're both just milquetoast guys devoid of any flashy traits. Thus, a mad dash to save a sibling has all the urgency of taking out the trash. A chance to reinforce why we should like Newt instead shines a bright light on how much this character doesn't work as a blockbuster lead.

The disappointingly thin characters are a massive issue given that The Secrets of Dumbledore is largely predicated on these figures and their internal drama. Supposedly sweeping emotional moments land with a thud, especially anything involving Credence. Thus guy's just too hollow of a person to get invested in. The plot itself, which ends up revolving around the political importance of a magical fawn/catfish hybrid, just isn't all that memorable either. Unfortunately, the visuals don't compensate for the lack of adequate characters. The costumes and interior sets look perfectly alright, and it's nice that more of this takes place in bright daylight compared to the nighttime backdrops of the last two Fantastic Beasts.

However, several exterior locations look too obviously like they were brought to life through green-screen, while the heavy reliance on locales lifted from the Harry Potter movies (Hogsmeade becomes a home base for Newt and pals in between their mission) robs The Secrets of Dumbledore a chance to establish its own unique locations. Meanwhile, the magical fight scenes aren't especially interesting in terms of either choreography or editing. One person who does bring their A-game here (besides the always reliable Dan Fogler) is composer James Newton Howard. Returning from the last two Fantastic Beasts movies, his music continues to have spritely energy and emotional oomph. These Fantastic Beasts features as a whole could take a cue from how Howard incorporates classic Harry Potter music cues with freshly-crafted leitmotifs and compositions. That's how you balance the old and the new!

As someone who spent countless nights as a ten year old under the covers reading and re-reading the Harry Potter books from front to back, it pains me to say that Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is not very good. The Secrets of Dumbledore isn't underwhelming because it fails to be like the Harry Potter stuff I grew up on. It's the kind of uninvolving blockbuster cinema that would register as subpar even without other Wizarding World movies to compare it to. In attempting to course correct this saga, The Secrets of Dumbledore has only created new problems while reinforcing the irreconcilable issues with the Fantastic Beasts series. When the best part of your movie is a little CGI mole critter who likes gold, you've got a problem. And boy, does The Secrets of Dumbledore have some serious problems.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Morbius makes Howard the Duck look like Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse

At one point in Morbius, the audience is treated to the sight of a cargo ship named after famed director F.W. Murnau, the man responsible for, among other works, the original Nosferatu. Referencing a cinematic legend like that, complete with Jared Leto vocalizing the name of the ship a little while later, had me wanting to blurt out in the theater "Keep his name out of your mouth!"  Observing the existence of this silent cinema master is the closest Morbius gets to something resembling good filmmaking. Murnau got more power out of a dude chasing a piglet than Morbius does with a $75 million budget and modern visual effects tools at its disposal.

Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) was born with a life-threatening condition that has, among other symptoms, impaired his ability to walk. Desperate for a cure, he goes to the extreme measure of experimenting on bats. During this unpredictable process, he spurs the creation of a serum that manages to cure his ailment, but at a cost. This procedure also turns Morbius into…something inhuman. Something that fascinates his life-long wealthy and sickly buddy Milo (Matt Smith). And something that needs to consume blood to survive. He’s a vampire folks, that's what I'm trying to say. Everyone better hang on tight (spider monkey), we're about to get the most tedious hetero vampires this side of Transylmania.

Towards the end of Morbius, the titular character shares dinner with his love interest, Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona). This interaction that results in him revealing that he can go out into sunlight without suffering any harm. “I’m not that kind of vampire,” he remarks. Of course he’s not. That’s a classic fun vampire. Morbius doesn’t really act like a vampire. He doesn’t live in a castle, sleep in a coffin, transform into a bat, or any of the entertaining things you’d want to see a vampire do. Heck, this world's version of vampire's can even see their own reflection! It’s like doing a werewolf movie where the werewolf just scampers across the backyard. 

It isn’t just on delivering vampire mayhem that Morbius comes off as lazy. The film resembles an old-school B-movie more than anything else with a plot that takes place across a handful of sparely-decorated sets and an equally minuscule amount of cast members. Countless scenes, like a chase sequence where Morbius is first on the run from the cops, just grind to a random halt. There’s no rhyme or reason for why they end like they do. It’s like the writers couldn’t figure out a proper ending for these moments or just got really bored. Some movies flourish under financial restrictions. In Morbius, it seems a smaller budget for a superhero movie just exacerbated the stagnant creativity baked into the writing and directing. 

Even worse, the whole production is anchored by one of the worst performances of Jared Leto’s career. Morbius is portrayed by an actor more famous for making headlines than genuinely good performances. However, some titles, like House of Gucci, have served as an undeniable good vehicle for his wacky talents. Put him in something silly and Leto's maximalist tendencies can reap something enjoyable. Strangely, playing a vampire superhero has informed one of Leto’s most muted performances. The guy portrays Dr. Michael Morbius like he’s just been awakened from a midday slumber even after he gains superhuman strength and agility. Whoever he’s interacting with, Leto fails to drum up even a flicker of chemistry. Leto’s been bad in other films, but rarely has he been this forgettable. He seems so bored with everything and the feeling becomes contagious.

Way too much of Morbius focuses on this sleep-inducing performance. Action scenes are few and far between, with what skirmishes that do emerge getting realized through frantic camerawork and unconvincing CGI stunt doubles. These duels are also set drab backdrops like the grey interior of a cargo ship and a pitch-black underground section of the Big Apple. Subplots, including one about two cops (played by Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal) tracking down someone whose sucking the blood of people in New York City, are similarly devoid of personality. The only thing worse is the attempts at comedy. All of the laugh lines were met with total silence by the crowd I saw Morbius with. The giddy audience excitement that usually greets comic book movies was absent here. You could hear a pin drop in my IMAX auditorium. 

Rather than walking out of the theater quoting your favorite funny lines or excitedly recounting cool action beats, you'll exit Morbius in a quiet daze, the sheer creativity emptiness of this enterprise leaving nothing to talk about. It's all hollow, this isn't even a fun disaster to pick apart, it's just lifeless. The only thing running through your mind afterwards will be understandable questions about certain shortcomings. Why is Jared Harris here for a disposable supporting role that spans three scenes, tops? How come director Daniel Espinosa is committed to capturing everything with so little excitement or flair? Why in God's name does Morbius have such a perverse fascination with watching women of color scream and suffer? Also, does this film possibly deliver the worst comic book movie credit scenes of all-time? At least the second one of those elicited an unintentional cackle from me, the first time Morbius inspired any kind of emotion from my body.

What you've heard from other critics is true. Morbius does share several hallmarks with comic book movies circa. 2005. But even that feels like an insult to those earliest entries in this subgenre. Morbius would never have the confidence or fun of setting a training scene to an Evanescence song. The liveliest parts of Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider performance do circles around Jared Leto’s lifeless Morbius performance. Even those dreadful Fantastic Four movies didn’t feature such an embarrassment of embracing fun parts of vampire lore. You could do better than Morbius for superhero movie fare in 2006. In 2021, with a wealth of quality cinema starring spandex-clad characters at your fingertips, there’s no excuse to give the disastrous Morbius a watch.