Sunday, May 29, 2022

Fire Island is a comedic vacation you can't miss

One of the many reasons that the HBO Max program Our Flag Means Death caught on like wildfire earlier this year was because it was just the kind of pop culture property queer viewers had spent years pining for. Here was a production where basically everyone was queer, with their sexuality and genders not being solely defined by bigoted cis-het people. There was variety in their personalities while queer perspectives were the dominant ones in the frame at all times. Fire Island, a new comedy from director Andrew Ahn, is not the exact same thing as Our Flag Means Death (queer media can be varied in town and style, shocker shocker) but it does continue the welcome trend of making queer stories involving lots of varied queer perspectives in stories that aren't about coming out or dealing with intolerant relatives. Oh, and also like Our Flag Means Death, it's also very funny.

The titular location of Fire Island is a real destination just South of Long Island, New York. A go-to place for queer people just looking to get away and have fun, it's the location that best friends Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the script) and Howie (Bowen Yang) go to every year with a larger gaggle of buddies. This year, Noah is so determined to get the forlorn and romantically yearning Howie laid that he's abstaining from any sex until his pal gets some bedroom action. However, given that Fire Island is based on Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, you better believe there's a lot of drama incoming, particularly regarding Noah's snap judgments of other people on the island. 

Part of what makes Fire Island so great is how inviting its visuals are. Set during a hot summer weekend in New York, Ahn and cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey lean into natural lighting and soft cool colors to make Fire Island look appropriately glorious. Even better, it all feels very lived-in and natural, Fire Island, unlike many modern comedies, doesn't look like it was filmed against green screen or captured exclusively in tight claustrophobic close-up shots. Instead, there's an authenticity to the imagery that ensures that you can practically feel the sweat forming on your forehead or smell the aroma of sunscreen simmering on your arms. Opting for wider shots opens up the door to some great visual gags, but it also has the benefit of letting us see the central friend group being casual and having fun together. 

The latter visual detail really cements the warm and fuzzy bond these people share in their little found family. That element of the script may be the most profoundly welcome and poignant aspect of Booster's screenplay. While we have multiple movies about Gerard Butler saving things that have fallen, American cinema is woefully short on entertaining features explicitly about gay found families. It's so nice to see something like Fire Island so often center itself around the perfectly imperfect bonds formed between queer people, especially since there's a welcome lack of cynicism in its approach to this topic. Fire Island doesn't feel the need to make snarky meta-remarks to justify getting schmaltzy about this concept, it instead has the confidence to just show affection towards queer friendships.

Best of all, though, Fire Island is a really funny feature and one that benefits mightily from Booster's screenplay. This script gives wildly different personalities for each of the central characters and watching these disparate and distinct demeanors ram into one another over the course of the drama-heavy weekend is exceptionally humorous. Especially entertaining in this regard is Conrad Ricamora as Will, whose tight-lipped guy speaks with the voice of Ty Burrell and has the serious-minded aura of John Malkovich. Watching his strikingly-defined performance collide with the snarky and boisterous Noah is a hoot, especially once the two begin hanging out more and Noah begins to discover even more sides to Will.

There's no such thing as an absolutely perfect vacation spot, and the same is totally true of Fire Island, which has its own downsides, including some gratingly didactic dialogue spelling out the character defects of Noah. But the quibbles are largely outweighed by the fun and entertainment here thanks to Fire Island pelting viewers with rays upon rays of sizzling laughs and irresistible queer camaraderie. The only fatal downside here is that Fire Island shouldn't be debuting exclusively on Hulu. A film this well-shot and hysterical should be seen on a massive screen with a bunch of your pals. Oh well, even in the confines of streaming, Fire Island emerges as one of the stronger comedy movies of 2022 so far.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Men is a flawed horror film but not without its virtues

Men is a movie that's more interesting in terms of what it's showing than what it's saying. In terms of offering social commentary on gender roles, the experiences of women at the hands of abusive men, and the widespread nature of patriarchial society, it's not bringing anything tremendously new to the table. As a cinematic encapsulation of wandering through a nightmare that grows increasingly inexplicable, though, it proves much better and more compelling. It's a pity that Men couldn't reach its intended goals of saying something truly profound, but it's impossible for me to dismiss a movie that left my jaw this agape and nerves often rattled.

Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) is walking around in a daze. Ever since her abusive partner recently and inadvertently killed himself, she's felt haunted, she just can't seem to leave that horrifying day behind. No better place to go for isolation than a small woodland cottage, one overseen by Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear). Surrounded by bright green foliage and inviting tunnels, Harper soon finds herself being stalked by some...thing. This figure, like Geoffrey and every other man in the nearby vicinity, all share the same face. Harper will be seeing a lot of that terrifying mug as she grapples with now having a physical force as relentlessly intrusive on her life as the psychological trauma she's dealing with.

The best trait writer/director Alex Garland brings over from his 2018 classic Annihilation into Men is a recognition for how beautifully things can be terrifying. Men takes place not in a dystopian wasteland, but in a lush forest that seems tailormade to be plastered on a postcard. It is here that stalking humanoids or creepy children wearing masks can stick out like a sore thumb, they feel like a extra egregious intrusions on a harmonious status quo. Men eventually delivers on a more traditional nighttime climax chock full of blood and guts, but Garland primarily, and thankfully, doesn't forget how potent daytime brightness can be for horrifying storytelling.

Garland also happily opts for the inexplicable in his visuals, like the nighttime sky suddenly transforming into a much star-heavier canvas that swallows up surrounding trees and clouds at one point in the finale.  All the imagery involving the various men with Kinnear's face in this home stretch of the movie becomes similarly unnerving and bizarre. These details exacerbate the sensation that we've wandered into a nightmare, one where memories of the concrete past and heightened manifestations of internal woes are folding onto one another. The dreamlike quality of the features visuals even help to create excuses for some shortcomings in the narrative. 

Harper, for instance, is indeed quite passive as a protaganist for a traitional narrative film. However, I've certainly experienced nightmares where I was more spectator than instigator of all the chaos happening around me. Filtering her role through the lens that we're watching something mimicking the aesthetic of a dream makes Harper's being primarily a reactive characters a much more understandable outcome. It helps too that Jessie Buckley is really good at outspoken displays of powerful emotion. She isn't anywhere Florence Pugh in Midsommar levels of powerful display of vulnerable emotions in horror movies, but she can still let out a scream that makes your heart shiver.

Buckley and Kinnear's strong work in the lead roles (the latter actor excelling at injecting unique little details in each of the characters he's playing), commitment to truly strange imagery, and an ominous aesthetic are enough to make Men a fine watch, especially since it runs just under 100 minutes before the credits start. Unfortunately, the film is frustrating in its multiple instances of overly obvious imagery and dialogue. The term "stupid bitch" as a recurring insult to Harper, for instance, is fitting for what people write online towards women expressing an opinion about...anything, but I wish the film had gone even deeper in exporing how misogyny manifests in society. Give me a cinematic reflection of that inequality that I can't just find in a random internet comment section.

Whenever Men is all about mood and atmosphere, it's an agreeably unnerving exercise. Whenever it tries to offer something "profound," Garland just doesn't offer much that's new or insightful. Unfortunately, there's enough instances of Men tripping up on its grander thematic ambitions to keep the film from fulling its weightiest aspirations. Men ends up registering as less than the sum of its parts, but at least some of those parts provided the sort of chills and visuals I can't help but admire.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Montana Story is a decent rural drama that could've been great


The people you're most related to can also become the ones you're most distant from. Family members can become strangers just as strangers can become found family. The two siblings at the heart of Montana Story, a new indie film helmed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, know this truth better than most. The past doesn't just haunt them, it's divided them into sharply diverging paths in life. Their turmoil is the emotional bedrock of Montana Story and does inspire some sharply-realized scenes. Unfortunately, some key stumbling blocks both narratively and visually can leave the audience feeling as distant from what's happening on-screen as the relationship between the two lead characters.

Cal (Owen Teague) is trapped in the presence of death. His father, thanks to a car accident, is now on life support in his family's living room. The ranch his old man oversaw is now going up for sale just so he can make the medical bills. Everything around him is withering away. Then, sauntering in like a cold gust of wind from the East is his sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson). Having moved away to New York City years earlier, she's come back into town upon hearing of her father's imminent passing. Erin has no regard for this man for understandable reasons, but she proceeds to stick around so that she can help save an old horse, Mr. T. Now that she's lingering longer than expected, it's only a matter of time before these siblings confront a past that hangs over their existence.

Initially, scenes like Cal talking to a shady banker or plot details about having to sell everything in his families house makes it appear that Montana Story will be telling a story about the financial struggles of rural people in 21st-century America, an ode to the plight of the country everyman in the vein of the works of John Steinbeck. We don't go down that route. Instead, the story primarily focuses on a fractured sibling dynamic, one that McGehee and Siegel tell with occasionally instances of oomph, but unfortunately, not a ton of insight. The duo have a bad habit of telling, not showing, when it comes to this relationship and the characters inhabiting it.

A scene where Cal pours his heart out to his father's caretaker, Ace (Gilbert Owuor), about the tragic events that separated him and his sister should be the apex of Montana Story's emotional power. Unfortunately, the didactic nature of the lines and the lack of human imperfections in Teague's delivery of these recollections makes this scene feel expository, not emotionally vulnerable. The fact that the story is almost exclusively told through Cal's perspective, meanwhile, also hinders the movie. Even the way the camera frames, Erin, whether she's getting money from an ATM or petting Mr. T, is framed through the eyes of Cal. These visual details eventually add up and make her feel less like a standalone character and more like an intruder on Cal's existence.

A story structure that can't quite make the disparate sources of conflict in Montana Story feel like they belong in the same (the subplot about getting Mr. T to New York is especially disparate) further hinders the movies potential. These shortcomings are a shame, because there's quite a bit to like in here. The Motnana landscapes are beautiful to look at. Wide shots of just expansive vistas shivering in the wind is more than enough to please the eyes. Moments of restraint also manage to land an impact. A scene where we see Erin kill a chicken, told with her back to the viewer, is especially interesting thanks to how much it leaves to the imagination. There's a lack of handholding from the camerawork here that gets one wondering what's going on inside Erin's head.

Speaking of Erin, when she first walks onto the screen complaining about how she can't get a phone signal, attempting to hail a Lyft, and name-dropping Venmo twice in mere minutes, I was worried she'd be a caricature of a "city girl" that the good o'l country boys would have to retrain to be "proper." Thankfully, that conventional narrative path is avoided and Haley Lu Richardson takes her down more intriguing trails in her performance. Though the screenplay and camerawork sometimes let the character down, Richardson often injects far more depth into Erin's gestures and facial expressions than what's on the page. Owuor does solid work in a supporting role that could've used more in the way of specific details and Teague delivers a similarly fine performance as Cal, even if the depth of this character sometimes exceeds his grasp.

Montana Story is one of those perfectly watchable movies that kept teasing me with hints of becoming something even better. Its visuals and performances are often enough to grab the eye, but your heart and brain yearn for those ingredients to be put to use on more substantive purposes. A compelling fractured sibling dynamic isn't quite enough to make sure that Montana Story can live up to its potential despite the film having its fair share of solid details.  

Monday, May 23, 2022

Happening is a harrowing but impressive watch


There's no getting around how Happening, a new French drama from Audrey Diwan, is tragically relevant in America thanks to the impending likely overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. Then again, Happening, thanks to it taking place in France in the 1960s, is a reflection that the struggles for autonomy over reproductive rights and the bodies of those with uteri are eternal. They aren't limited to one country or era, they are a disturbing fixture of any patriarchal society. Regardless, even if there weren't real-world events reminding one of the constant attacks on these rights, Happening would still register as an especially well-made movie. 

Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is studying to become a teacher at school and is working around the clock to make every exam and essay. Her whole existence gets thrown up into the air when she finds out she's pregnant. Immediately, Anne wants to get an abortion, an impossibility due to the practice being illegal in the 1960s in Franca. Now Anne has to conceal her body as she tries to procure one secretly. Laws concerned with preserving the rights of the "unborn" are subsequently shown in Diwan's screenplay to take an enormous psychological toll on Anne, as are societal expectations for what makes a "proper" lady.

Watching Happening, I was reminded of a simple truth of movies: scope is irrelevant if you don't have characters to invest in. London got destroyed by a gigantic sandstorm in Alex Kurtzman's The Mummy and I didn't give two cents. I didn't know anybody affected by this event, why should it matter? Similarly, a gigantic smoke being threatening to swallow up Paris, France in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was about as exciting as watching paint dry. But intimate scenes set in a doctor's office or at a family's dinner table within Happening are captivating because I was so immersed in the life and turmoil of Anne. All the pixels in the world are worthless if you don't have a beating human heart to drive what's happening on-screen.

Much of this comes down to the direction and cinematography of Diwan and Laurent Tangy, respectively. Told in a 1.37: 1 aspect ratio (I'm such a sucker for that aspect ratio), Happening is inherently told through an intentionally cramped style of framing, one that immediately conveys the idea that Anne is being crushed by suffocating forces far beyond her control. The camera is also positioned just over her right shoulder, a great way to put the viewer directly at her eye level. There's an intimacy to this and other superbly refined visual details in Happening, all of which combine to make it impossible to turn away from Anne's plight.

The performance from Vartolomei is equally instrumental in making Happening such an absorbing exercise. Tasked with playing a character who can't speak her true intentions or desires out of fear of being thrown in prison, Vartolomei has to convey a lot through subtle means. It's a daunting challenge, but one she handles with impressive skill. The way she communicates so much about the internal world of Anne when the character is standing rigidly still or burrowing her feelings down, usually in response to a new challenge or rift between loved ones, is especially impressive. You can practically hear the tears or screams of anguish that Anne is bottling up thanks to the tiny details embedded in the restrained performance of Vartolomei.

This lead performance is in service of a story told with impressive narrative precision by Diwan. She crafts the experiences of a woman pursuing abortion in this country in this era with appropriately constant instances of immense turmoil. However, Anne does not get solely defined by her misery, which allows Happening to render this character as she is: a human being. Anne, like any person seeking an abortion, is complicated, multi-faceted, and rich with nuance. Diwan's screenwriting and filmmaking preserve all those intricacies, in the process delivering a film whose high quality can register in any era.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick manages to soar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 16, 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Firestarter burns up the screen with incompetence


Thank you Firestarter.

Thank you for providing a great night.

Let me back up a little bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 2, 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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