Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Marcel the Shell with Shoes on is a quietly moving piece of stop-motion wizardry

A sentiment I've often heard from artists and filmmakers working on animated features is that they want their work to be so good that it makes the audience forget they're even watching something animated. It's an understandable inclination given how many preconceived notions about this medium that the general public carries. People tend to think animated storytelling is, among other shortsighted notions, exclusively the domain of either kid's entertainment or adult animation told with an excessively repulsive art style. To make something that's so engaging you forget it stars animated organisms, would be a fantastic way to melt down such ill-advised conceptions of animation. In the process, you can remind people that this is simply just another way to tell engaging stories. 

I was reminded of this oft-repeated ambition whilst watching Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a new film from director Dean Fleischer-Camp that expands on a 2010 short film of the same name. Midway through this feature, I realized I had totally forgotten Marcel (Jenny Slate) and his grandmother, Nanna Connie (Isabella Rossellini) were animated characters. I was just so wrapped up in them doing simple things like talking that it had failed to cross my mind that I was watching masterful stop-motion animation at work. That's the power of animation right there, making the unbelievable physically and emotionally tangible.

In Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Dean Fleischer-Camp (played by himself) stumbles onto Marcel and Nanna Connie while staying in an Airbnb. These two little shells used to be part of a large collection of shells that called this place home. Unfortunately, when the old owners of the domicile separated, Marcel and Connie were left behind. Now surviving on their own, Fleisher-Camp gets to discover what a unique day-to-day life the duo lead. In fact, he finds it so compelling that begins to film everything involving these people, hence the mockumentary format of this motion picture. Once Marcel's exploits begin to take off online, this tiny shell begins to wonder if it'd be possible to go on a journey to recover his lost family.

"Incidentally insightful" is the best phrase to describe the overall atmosphere of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. This is a movie whose entire aesthetic follows the vibe of Marcel's speaking style; quiet, not drawing attention to itself, but often with something thoughtful to offer. This is a story about the necessity of change, no matter how scary it may seem. This heavy concept is communicated in a quiet, touching manner as Marcel clings to everything he's still got after losing his family. With this concept grounding the proceedings, the screenplay by Fleischer-Camp, Slate, and Nick Paley ensures that a YouTube video can be translated into a proper feature-length movie. This exploration is told with a gentle hand, one that makes watching Marcel the Shell with Shoes On akin to getting a big warm hug that you never want to leave.

Through this approach, the writers are able to unearth moments of insight in quiet, seemingly throwaway moments of Marcel and Connie's existence, which feel all the more intimate and powerful when captured through camerawork mimicking documentary filmmaking. Going for restraint is a boon for the pathos of Marcel, but it's also a great tactic for this production in terms of comedy. The wall-to-wall subdued filmmaking becomes a great way to wring extra chuckles out of innately funny imagery like a tennis ball being used by Marcel as a way to get around the house or dialogue about how Connie immigrated "from the garage". Marcel's understated line deliveries especially thrive in these confines. His nonchalantly matter-of-fact proclamations of misconstrued interpretations of how aspects of the world, like maps, work are constantly amusing thanks to Slate's downplayed vocals. Speaking of which, Slate's track record of great voiceover roles in the last decade culminates in her tremendous performance here in Marcel. At times, she's the lynchpin holding things together but she never sacrifices Marcel's childhood naivete even with so much on her shoulders.

Back to the restrained nature of the entire project, by not poking the audience in the ribs on what's supposed to be funny, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is downright hysterical in some spots. The laidback nature of the piece also affords the melancholy crux of the whole movie an opportunity to be as fleshed out as possible. At its heart, Marcel is a film dealing with a heavy topic: a child grappling with feeling alone. With its emphasis on intimacy and quietness, Marcel's script offers up plenty of moments where the audience can feel the pent-up sorrows of the titular lead. This being a PG-rated film aimed at children, Marcel, thankfully, doesn't lapse into just being an avalanche of misery. However, it also believes youngsters deserve stories that don't shy away from depicting emotions its target audience will go through, like heartache or feeling isolated.

The faux-documentary style of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a big reason why such emotions and character details feel as vividly realized as they do. The innate structure of this project affords an opportunity for characters like Marcel and Connie to speak aloud their internal thought processes without these moments coming off as didactic. Plus, the intentionally ramshackle nature of the camerawork and even the 1.55:1 aspect ratio create an intimate quality to the on-screen imagery that makes one feel extra closer to Marcel and company. With these details embedded into Bianca Cline's outstanding cinematography, small scenes like Marcel sending off a paper balloon into the night sky become incredibly poignant.

Speaking of visuals, the efforts of Marcel's animation team, led by animation director Kirsten Lepore, also exacerbate the authentic pathos of the entire feature. Stop-motion is the perfect mold to realize Marcel and Connie, especially since this medium affords the characters such instantly tangible textures. Similarly impressive is their designs, which are so elegantly simple and make no effort at channeling "realism." These two organisms have clearly been designed from the ground up to evoke what the artists thought would look charming, not what would best emulate reality. Ironically, pairing such pleasing-looking figures with a script that can make your heart ache makes Marcel far more of a believably real being than any CG creation that ends up falling into the Uncanny Valley.

Combining such terrific character designs with a slew of great visual details (like how neighboring bugs are also realized through stop-motion) ensures that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On carries on the tradition of great stop-motion masters like Ray Harryhausen or Nick Park in making you transfixed by the unbelievable. The animation of this film will dazzle your eyeballs, while its touching script ruminating on how frightening change can be will doubtlessly touch your soul. No wonder I found myself forgetting that Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was animated while watching it. While an accomplishment as a feat of stop-motion wizardry, the visuals are so engaging that they just become another part of a moving yarn. Leave it to a little shell to remind us all of the enormous possibilities of animated storytelling.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Elvis warbles some notes, but is mostly a catchy cinematic tune


Returning from a nine-year hiatus from feature film directing (largely spent shepherding the short-lived Netflix show The Get Down), director Baz Luhrmann has returned to the big screen with Elvis, a movie that's almost defiant in how much of a classic Luhrmann movie it is. The filmmaker behind Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby has once again set his sights on a period piece told with thoroughly modern music choices, lots of colorful extravagances, and zippy camerawork. If you didn't like any of Luhrmann's prior films, Elvis, which opts to tell the story of Elvis Presley, probably won't make you a devotee to his style. But if you were on the fence about his earlier efforts, and especially if you would ride or die for Romeo + Juliet, then the sincerity behind Elvis is primed to win you over.

Elvis immediately establishes its offbeat affectations by beginning with the final days of Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the former manager of the great Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). Now a withered old man, Parker recounts to viewers how he first came to know Presley back in the 1950s. Here was a kid that seemed like a joke to everybody when he initially waltzed onto the music scene. "I cannot emphasize," Parker recollects during Presley's first stage performance, "how strange he looked." Wearing a pink suit, makeup largely associated with women, and then belting out such aggressively sexual gyrations with his tunes. Presley was a paradox that seemed to be throwing up a middle finger to America's love for conformity in the 1950s. 

Being a veteran carny, Parker prides himself on knowing how to tempt people with "feelings they don't think they should be having." Seeing how the ladies react to Presley's on-stage behavior, not to mention hearing his voice, Parker sees an opportunity for fame and fortune. So begins the duo's dynamic, which stretches on for decades. The screenplay for Elvis, penned by Luhrmann as well as Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner, proceeds to take us through the life of the king of rock n' roll until his tragic end. All along the way, Presley and Parker are an inseparable duo, but not always for the best of reasons, with this scheming manager primarily acting like an abusive spouse more than a thoughtful mentor.

Luhrmann's works have varied from being original concepts to adaptations of famous texts. No matter their origins, they're all bonded together by the dissonance between grand personal ambitions and the brutalities of reality that nobody escapes. The love at the center of Romeo + Juliet, for instance, can never be real, while The Great Gatsby is all about being consumed by a past that will never become a present-day reality. His characters exist in worlds full of "BOING!" sound effects and peppy Jay-Z tunes, but they're also odes to how our world can trample idealism and classical romanticism. This core theme of Luhrmann's films informs the most insightful thoughts that Elvis imparts about its central subject. 

This story is about how capitalism-informed greed wrings everything out of a man, even a "king" can become a pauper when he can be financially exploited. All those hopes and dreams Presley started his career with are suffocated by endless merchandising and an inescapable Las Vegas performance gig. Plus, unlike in past Luhrmann films like The Great Gatsby or Moulin Rouge!, the tragic qualities aren't cemented by a sudden death in the third act. Elvis's third-act chronicles this singer trapped in a slow death, we're watching him implode piece by piece. The gradual depiction of his decline allows this biopic to emphasize the tangible human being trapped behind the grand oversized pop culture image of Elvis Presley.

Elvis's parallels to prior Luhrmann works is apparent on a thematic level. However, the recurring facet of his career that people will walk away talking about when it comes to Elvis is his visual tendencies. This is a movie slathered in cartoonish maximalism, nary a scene transition goes by without the camera twirling around or one object transforming into another. This approach is best-realized during the scenes where Presley belts out his tunes. Here, Luhrmann ramps up the spectacle, noise, and camerawork to create the same sense of energy on-screen that listeners felt when they first heard "Hound Dog" or "Heartbreak Hotel." It's excessive, but it's a sense of excess that both feels appropriate and is a lot of fun to watch, especially Luhrmann's amusing lingering on how one man's pelvis can make the world quiver. 

While Luhrmann injects Elvis with plenty of enjoyable distinctive qualities, even he can't outrun the sense of familiarity that permeates all music biopics. While Presley's stage performances brim with life, depictions of his troubled domestic life do tend to play like serious renditions of select Walk Hard scenes. Similarly, much like with other music biopics about male legends, there's not much room for women in this production. Dutiful partner Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge) is around to say all the normal dialogue wives say in this kind of movie (namely, "I love you" and "I'm taking the kids") with little variation. Speaking of underwhelming aspects, Luhrmann disappointingly maintains the sporadically distracting editing from The Great Gatsby. Some unimaginative and clunky cuts undercut what should be pivotal intimate moments for the characters, like an early conversation between Presley and his mama that keeps cutting around to a distracting degree.

Most troubling of all, even with Luhrmann finding emotionally affecting ways to apply his fascination with reality trampling dreams to the life of Elvis Presley, I did find myself wondering if Elvis truly had something Earth-shattering or new to observe about its titular lead. Was this all just glossy energetic mayhem rehashing the famous life events of a man we've seen chronicled in cinema so many times before? Thankfully, the third act manages to lend enough downbeat heft to the proceedings to stave off some of these concerns. Plus, Austin Butler turns out to be so good in the lead role that he keeps you from wondering if Elvis could've dug deeper into this music legend.

If there's any reason to see Elvis, it's to witness Butler deliver a performance that's still going to be impressive even after the inevitable onslaught of praise the internet bestows upon him. Butler manages the impressive hat trick of perfectly channeling an image of Presley we all know and love, especially in his Southern twang, but he transports those qualities into a discernible human being. Butler doesn't feel like a caricatured impression of Presley, he just feels like an everyday guy who happens to be a music legend. Plus, he's got magnetic charisma to spare and throws himself into the physicality of the assorted stage performances. More so than anything else, Butler is the heart and soul of Elvis.

Tom Hanks is less consistently successful as Tom Parker, but he's not necessarily bad. Hanks leans into chewing the scenery as the character, particularly through his unreliable narration, and that leads to fun line deliveries. But the application of a fatsuit, prosthetics, and an erratic accent makes it a bit harder to buy this version of Parker as a believable human being, especially when he shares so much screentime with Butler's effortlessly real vision of Elvis Presley. Hanks as Parker is emblematic of the big admirable swings Elvis is constantly taking as a whole movie, with some working out much better than others. This is a music biopic that registers as ambitious, flawed, moving, unwieldy, conventional, and rebellious, all sometimes in the same scene. Most importantly, though, I was moved and entertained by what I witnessed in Elvis, and that counts for a lot. Baz Luhrmann has returned from a hiatus with Elvis, a movie that's far from perfect (it's no Rocketman, that's for sure), but delivers the kind of imaginative gusto that makes him a filmmaker worth watching. Even in his off-notes, you can't help nodding your head to the tune he's playing.

Micro Reviews Are Not Dead They're Surely Alive!


I'll admit, part of my reviving Micro Reviews is basically because I need something to focus on before my flight to New York City leaves tonight! But I've also watched some interesting films recently that I do wanna talk about, but, since I'm going on vacation for a week, I don't wanna go through the pitching/revising/etc. process for Looper/Collider/SlashFilm, etc. So you all get to read my ramblings here! Yay for you! Below are abbreviated reviews for six movies I've watched in the last week, all from different years and an assortment of genres. 

Miami Vice

Oh what I wouldn't give to see the faces of the Universal Pictures executives the moment the lights came on from the first screening of the final cut of Michael Mann's Miami Vice. Everyone who financed this thing was probably salivating at another big-screen adaptation of a famous TV show chock full of fan service and conventional thrills. Instead, Mann delivered something totally unorthodox. This is a feature that inhabits a world of unyielding despair straight out of Robert Bresson and is packed with experiential touches from the get-go, as seen by how the movie starts in media res. Mann's vision for Miami Vice is relentlessly dour, from the constant presence of thunder to central romance between Colin Farrell and Gong Li that's so innately doomed even the characters themselves comment on how it can't last forever. The cinema verite style of shooting only enhances the tangibility of the proceedings, and by proxy, the palpable tragedy that permeates the entire production.

These kinds of film adaptations usually leave you walking away talking about callbacks to the past, not an evocative sense of dread rooted in the here and now. Granted, not everything in Miami Vice hits a bullseye like that tone or its cinematography. For one thing, women characters, despite committed performances from Li and Naomie Harris, do end up fulfilling ultra-familiar archetypes, a frustrating development for a crime thriller that so often throws convention to the wind. Largely, though, this is a compelling piece of cinema that works especially well in terms of atmosphere and imagery that's practically shackled to the hardships of reality. Even better, this is a $135 million movie that was supposed to function as a summer blockbuster. Who doesn't love seeing something that was meant to just exploit a brand name get twisted into something more idiosyncratic and daring?

His Motorbike, Her Island

Though His Motorbike, Her Island is drastically different from director Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 film House in tone and genre, both share an instantly endearing affinity for subverting viewer expectations visually. Here in Her Island, that manifests through constant shifts from a monochromatic color scheme to vibrantly colored shots and even alterations in what aspect ratios images are viewed through. The visual fluidity often reminded me of walking through a dream, where there are no rules and seemingly concrete rules of reality can change on a whim. These details work magnificently in making viewers of His Motorbike, Her Island feel like they're wandering inside actual memories of yesteryear, a sensation enhanced by the tender melancholy of the entire film. A visual feat, His Motorbike, Her Island is also a sterling accomplishment in capturing romantic longing. Once the credits start rolling, you'll be pining for more movies this good as much as His Motorbike, Her Island's protagonist longs for the girl of his dreams.

The Phantom of the Open

The true story of Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a middle-aged man who tried to play in the British Open despite being terrible at golf, is the centerpiece of The Phantom of the Open. Director Craig Roberts and screenwriter Simon Farnaby realize this yarn with wall-to-wall feel-good vibes occasionally punctuated by some dark humor (like Flitcroft's stepson getting called nasty names at school...but by his teachers). Farnaby's script, which spans well over a decade, can't help but be overstuffed, with some emotional beats and characters, namely the dynamic between Filcroft and his stepson, getting lost in the shuffle. Luckily, there's a lot of effective instances of heartwarming storytelling in here, particularly in the irresistible relationship between our hero and his wife, Jean (Sally Hawkins). Nothing in The Phantom of the Open is life-changing, but it's charming more often than not. Sometimes, it's enough to watch talented actors deliver pleasant material.


Sinister is a good movie that I could easily see being great. Among the virtues that exist in the film as it stands are plenty of memorable visual touches, like the controlled camerawork or constant use of largely darkened backgrounds by director Scott Derrickson and cinematographer Christopher Norr. Plus, Ethan Hawke's lead performance is nicely measured to fit right into a grounded drama rather than a conventional mainstream scary movie. I just wish Sinister had the commitment to not handhold the audience so much in what are supposed to be its most spine-tingling sections. Specifically, any sequence involving old home video footage of families being brutally murdered would work so much better devoid of any music or sound beyond the flickering of a projector. Christopher Young's score often just hammers home the obvious terror of these sequences. More restraint would've made the scares in Sinister as potent as possible. As it stands, it's a perfectly acceptable horror feature with some real highlights, though it's easy to see how Sinister could've been something truly special if it trusted its audience more.

The Daytrippers

I had no clue The Daytrippers existed before I stumbled on it on The Criterion Channel last week. Don't know how this one slipped through the cracks for me, especially given that I'm a big fan of Adventureland, a 2009 film from Daytrippers director Greg Mottola. Even if it took me a while to discover this feature, though, I'm so glad I finally caught up with The Daytrippers. The story of a large family traveling out to New York to try and catch the family's daughter's husband being a cheater, Daytrippers primarily functions as a way for a bunch of actors to show their chops in handling subdued comedy and turning potentially broad characters into discernible human beings. Liev Schrieber and Parker Posey especially excel at these tasks, with both constantly finding new ways to surprise the viewer. It's all perfectly low-key but engaging and gets capped off with my favorite kind of bittersweet movie ending, one built on the concept that the world is a rough place but also a bearable one provided you're experiencing it with the right person (see also: Tangerine). Even if it took me decades to even hear about it, The Daytrippers already feels like it's been with me forever.


Adam Sandler's still doing dramas, yes! Please let Hustle be a sign that he's doing these regularly now because, once again, the man behind You Don't Mess with the Zohan has proved his superb talents for dramatic fare. An inspirational basketball story, Sandler stars as a down-on-his-luck coach who ends up championing an unknown basketball player from Spain as a potential new NBA champion. You've seen this story before in plenty of other feel-good sports titles, but who says familiar ingredients still can't make up a tasty dish? Really leaning into Sandler's character's middle-aged ennui ("Guys my age don't have dreams," he remarks. "They have nightmares and eczema.") lends a distinct personality to Hustle's rendition of enjoyably recognizable sports movie hallmarks. Plus, the heartfelt rapport between coach and player is heavily endearing while director Jeremiah Zagar imbues the basketball-heavy sequences with extremely distinctive camerawork. It's always good to see Sandler stretching himself with dramatic performances, but it's especially nifty to see that when it involves movies as good as Hustle.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

You won't need any luck to enjoy Good Luck To You, Leo Grande


Sex. Even in the modern world, it’s a word that send shivers up the spines of so many people. Largely informed by religion standards for “proper” behavior, the demonization of human sexuality adversely affects so many. These include the broad perception of sex workers and women, who are never supposed to think of sex as something freeing, exciting, or a way to reflect their own agency. It’s doubtful Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, a new indie movie debuting on Hulu, will shatter all these harmful notions in mainstream society. What solitary feature could? But it’s lovely to see a piece of cinema fighting against those norms and also being so fun to watch at the same time.

Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) just lost her husband. His passing was sad, but it also led Stokes to realize how little she’d lived during their decades of marriage. Specifically, she’s never been sexually pleased once in her life. That’s about to change now that she’s hired Leo Grande (Dylan McCormack), a sex worker, for a session of passion in a hotel room. But more than just physical intimacy occurs in this space, as Stokes discovers somebody she can talk to about matters she never thought she could open up about. One session leads to another, with a friendship beginning to blossom between the duo. Sex is a wonderful thing. So is getting to know and care for somebody.

Screenwriter Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde realize Good Luck To You, Leo Grande as an intimate enterprise. This is a movie almost exclusively confined to two people in one hotel room. This choice must’ve made this an extra easy movie to film during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are more rewards to this scope than just making principal photography easier. It also helps make the central backdrop of the movie function as a kind of oasis from a harsher judgmental world. Our two leads talk about the difficulties they face out there in mainstream society, it’s not like the outside world is ignored. But restricting this screenplay to a singular location detached from that realm allows the focus to remain on these individuals and their experiences.

Such focus is also felt in the quietly detailed camerawork. Often, Nancy is captured in wider shots meant to emphasize that she’s overwhelmed by the wider world she inhabits. This visual motif means that whenever Hyde opts for a close-up, it lands with an intimate impact. We’re suddenly up close and personal with a woman who's been told to never let anyone into her own personal world. Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is not a flashy project, but it shouldn’t be considering the material it’s covering. Plus, there are still thoughtful instances of direction and cinematography throughout the feature that ensure that, just because the movies low-key, doesn’t mean it’s being assembled in a lazy manner.

Even more impressive than these visual flourishes is the writing from Brand. Thankfully, this movie's dialogue does what any movie this restrained should do: entertain. The pronounced contrasting personalities between our two leads turn out to be plenty of an interesting bedrock to build a cinematic house upon. Even better, Brand keeps injecting small cheeky details into the banter between Stokes and Grande, namely little comments that reaffirm how Stokes is an older white lady. Her intentionally abrupt diatribe that the men in Grande’s generation need a war to make themselves tougher is an especially good example of this. Committing to that kind of verbiage just makes these people seem so extra real, not to mention opening up further enjoyable opportunities for comedy. 

Much like the dialogue, the acting is going to be under extra scrutiny in a movie as small-scale as Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Luckily, this feature doesn’t have to worry about that with Emma Thompson around. Shocking nobody, a woman who was able to unearth genuine human emotion in Men in Black 3 is a riot in a grounded tale like this one. Flawed, relatable vulnerable, and armed with a wit that’s quick but not so sharp it upends your perception that Stokes is a real person, Thompson is a marvel here. More than holding his own in this two-hander is Dylan McCormack, who proves especially engaging in peeling back further complicated layers to Leo Grande as the movie goes on. 

All these delightful qualities combine to make Good Luck to You, Leo Grande a grand example of a film that sneaks up on you in terms of how much you enjoy it. The story may not go down the most unexpected pathes but it's difficult to complain considering how entertaining the central rapport is and how well-earned the moments of poignancy are. Best of all, the frank attitude about sex, especially regarding the sexual agency of older women and the perspective of a sex worker, is an utter delight to see. A feel-good movie that doesn't trade depth for easy crowdpleaser moments, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is an utterly remarkable title. We should all be open more open to talking about sex, just as we should also all be open to talk about movies as good as this one.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Lightyear doesn't quite go to infinity and beyond, still proves mostly entertaining


Lightyear, the new feature from PIXAR Animation Studios, is meant to be the movie that inspired the Buzz Lightyear action figure in the Toy Story universe. Rarely has a pit more immediately formed in my stomach than in the opening minutes of Lightyear where they're really hammering home the connections to earlier Toy Story films. This version of Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) prattles off several lines said by Buzz in the first Toy Story (including "You're mocking me, aren't you?") and director Angus Maclane seems to be telling audiences to strap in for a bunch of fan-service. As someone who considers the final "falling with style" scene from the initial Toy Story one of the great cheer-worthy movie moments, the prospect of getting lines of dialogue from my childhood regurgitated back at me sounded deeply unpleasant.

Thankfully, Lightyear manages to reorient itself and set a much better creative path from here. Never quite good enough to justify why we needed a solo Buzz Lightyear film, the feature does manage to craft its own identity beyond reminding people of some of PIXAR's greatest motion pictures.

Lightyear begins with Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear and his commander, Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba), trying to escape from a distant alien planet with a spaceship containing thousands of human beings. Lightyear takes it on himself to get everyone to safety, which only results in everybody getting marooned. The work-focused Lightyear is now more determined than ever to complete this mission and get people back to their old lives. To do this, he'll need to test new potential sources of hyperspeed. The wrinkle here is that each test inspires time discrepancy. Buzz will age mere minutes while everyone back on the alien planet ages years. 

Eventually, Buzz's tests endure for so long that he winds up confronting a version of the planet cornered by the evil Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). Here, Lightyear will have no choice but to work with a ragtag group of wannabe Space Rangers, including Hawthorne's granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), to save the day. Buzz already has trouble playing with others when they're experienced warriors, so you can imagine there's some difficulty in having this guy place nice with people like elderly convict Darby (Dale Soules) or the clumsy goofball Mo (Taika Waititi).

PIXAR movies are pretty well-known at this point for their ability to make even the most hardened grown-up viewers a blubbery mess of tears. Lightyear is a departure, then, for the studio in how it works better as zippy entertainment than poignancy. There are plenty of attempts at pathos here, and some tug at the heartstrings. However, they're not quite as impactful as they could be, possibly because several of them are oriented around broadly-defined supporting characters who usually function solely as comic relief. There's a reason Rex or Hamm didn't get solo tearjerker scenes in the Toy Story saga. Meanwhile, without getting into spoiler territory, centering the Lightyear plot on a job-oriented guy who sometimes forgets about the people around him can't help but inspire comparisons to Soul, with that familiarity further diluting the attempts at poignancy.

But while Lightyear won't make you wipe away tears, it does function quite well as a zippy sci-fi adventure. The best parts of the entire feature are where the focus shifts away from Toy Story references or pathos and just onto whatever new cosmic concept crept across the imaginations of screenwriters Jason Headley and Angus MacLane. Sequences built on entities like "Capture Cones" or TV dinners that cook if you shake 'em around aren't just fun, they're also details that could only exist in a sci-fi narrative. There's no desire to apologize for occupying this genre nor drag it down to gritty realism. Lightyear has no apologies about being silly and fun, which goes a long way to making its runtime enjoyable. 

It also helps that the action sequences are a hoot. Much like fellow 2022 animated family movie The Bad Guys, Lightyear features extremely crisp editing and thoughtful camerawork whenever it's time for a chase scene or hand-to-hand skirmish. Free from the shackles that weigh down live-action sci-fi blockbusters like accounting for compositing live-action people against digital backdrops or even just the weight of cameras themselves, MacLane's filmmaking has an infectious sense of fun and zest to it. Plus, the planet Buzz and company are trapped on manages to have a whole slew of different environments to set exciting set-pieces against ranging from a darkened cave to lava fields to a massive spaceship. The variety of backdrops further helps in making the spectacle-driven scenes entertaining.

If there is a quibble to be had with the visuals, it's that setting a film in the furthest reaches of outer space still didn't inspire PIXAR to abandon its go-to visual aesthetic of cartoony characters set against ultra-realistic backgrounds. Lightyear is a gorgeous-looking feature, especially in its lighting choices, but slightly more stylized tendencies in the environments would've been welcome. On the plus side, there is some fun character animation here, especially with the comic relief character Sox the Cat (Peter Sohn). The animators find clever ways to convey tiny bursts of personality within Sox while still maintaining his appearance as a rigid robotic helper. A slight twitch of an eyebrow or a tilt of the head conveys a vivid personality within this mechanical feline without undercutting that he's supposed to just be a piece of hardware. 

Sox is also graced with one of the best voice-over performances of Lightyear courtesy of Peter Sohn. In just his latest comedic supporting turn in a PIXAR movie, Sohn makes sure to leave behind his past roles and concoct an enjoyable persona for this feline. The infectious gusto of Keke Palmer as Izzie is also a joy while Dales Soules steals the show with her hysterical line deliveries as Darby. Unfortunately, Chris Evans can never quite fully leave behind images of Captain America in his voice work as Buzz Lightyear. He's not bad in the role and his lack of cynicism or snark in his performance is fitting for the overall tone of Lightyear. However, someone a little less famous, or at least Evans being directed to not sound so reminiscent of Steve Rogers (he's much more than that role, after all), would've helped to give this iteration of the character a more distinct personality. 

Evans frequently calling to mind Captain America is emblematic of how Lightyear sometimes can't escape the gravitational pull of the movies that came before it. Most notably, it can get too bogged down in Toy Story fan service, while its adherence to both the default animation style and pathos-heavy narratives of past PIXAR movies is an issue. Luckily, Lightyear does largely deliver as an enjoyable action romp, one with enough robots, laserblasts, and lively characters to keep you plenty entertained for 100 minutes. It's not a modern PIXAR classic on par with Soul or Turning Red, but contrary to what its reference-heavy opening scene would indicate, there's some real fun and standalone charms to be had with Lightyear

Friday, June 10, 2022

Dinosaur action can't begin to save the lifeless slog Jurassic World: Dominion

Something's off in Jurassic World Dominion. Way off. 

It's not like the Jurassic World movies have been all that good or in touch with human emotions up to this point. But even by the standards of the last two entries in the franchise, Dominion is discernibly unbalanced. Something in the human performances especially is off-kilter, everybody seems to be acting off each other like they've never interacted with another person before. Maybe as a result of filming during the COVID-19 pandemic, actors are often restricted to tight close-ups or being confined to isolated environments. Everything feels unintentionally claustrophobic and exacerbates the detached aura surrounding all the human characters. There's a strange aura permeating every scene of a movie that's gonna about as haywire as the original Jurassic Park theme park. 

Taking place shortly after the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Jurassic World Dominion begins with dinosaurs unleashed on the world. Everywhere from big cities to forests has been inundated with prehistoric critters. Meanwhile, little clone girl Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) has been living off the grid with Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). Trying to protect her from the outside world, both Lockwood and baby raptor Beta, the latter the offspring of the raptor Blue, are kidnapped by mysterious poachers.

Simultaneously, Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) discovers that a flock of locusts is causing chaos in the American food chain. To get to the bottom of what's happening here, she recruits the help of old colleague Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill). The duo decides to take on an invitation to the isolated labs of BioSyn, a company run by Dr. Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott) that might have a hand in these locusts. Believe it or not, these plotlines will eventually collide, since BioSyn has its own dinosaur sanctuary. Oh, and Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is also working for BioSyn now.

Jurassic World Dominion is a perfect example of a blockbuster that throws so much at the wall yet never impacts the viewer. Its plot spans multiple continents (we hop across so many different locations just in the opening 20 minutes alone) and shifts between several different characters, but all the leapfrogging around never feels like it's adding up to a substantial whole. None of the individual storylines stick around long enough to make an impact while supporting characters just come and go in the blink of an eye. The screenplay by Collin Trevorrow and Emily Carmichael (the former also directing) mostly just feels like a sweaty stand-up comic prattling off all the vulgarities they can think of to keep you distracted from how empty their act truly is. 

Part of the issue here is that the non-dino characters are just so boring. Grady as a stereotypical macho action man was always tedious, but he's even worse trying to play attentive father to a teenage girl. It's nifty to see Laura Dern and Sam Neill in prominent roles in a big-budget movie. However, they don't have characters to play, they're just reacting to dinosaur mayhem and making occasional nods to their behavior from the first Jurassic Park. The lack of interest here on the part of Trevorrow to give them substantive parts to handle makes one further appreciate the juicy roles they got to play in recent indies like Marriage Story or Hunt for the Winderpeople. Jeff Goldblum, for his part, is mostly around to make jokes rather than play a person. Even his dry wit gets old fast.

Without any humans to get invested in, Jurassic World Dominion gets real boring real fast, especially since the story is just one dinosaur chase scene after another. Like a Universal dark ride that goes on for 147 minutes, Dominion is often just a barrage of dinosaurs roaring and humans running away. It's all mayhem, all the time. Since such peril involves almost exclusively our main characters, nobody dies or even suffers major injuries, which really detracts from the sense of danger these dinos can exude. They might as well be pop-up ghosts on a haunted house ride. Worse, when everything is chaotic chase scenes, the tension gets diluted. There are no quiet or harmonious sequences to balance out the intensity. 

Maybe that's for the best, though, since the scant few dialogue-based scenes with the humans are so awkwardly staged and executed that it's downright embarrassing. An extended comedic bit of Malcolm trying to convey information to Satler with a noisy barista nearby is staggering in its incompetence, right down to the subpar sound mixing that undercuts the intended humor of this bit. Howard and Pratt, meanwhile, continue to have zero chemistry, they're never believable as human beings in love. Strangest of all, though, is the incredibly awkward way characters enter scenes. Trevorrow has no sense of bombast or style in how he introduces individuals into a given scene. Our main baddie Dodgson just suddenly appears on-screen with no extra flourish, no special camerawork to signify his importance. Another secondary baddie wanders onto the screen moments before getting arrested like she just woke up from a nap, I'm convinced the performer had no idea she was on camera. 

Where's the bombast? Where's the fun? Where's the sense that we're watching something exciting? Jurassic World Dominion's flat camerawork at least functions as an appropriate parallel for how often its screenplay gets bogged down in dealing exclusively with exposition. Perfectly lifeless visuals for a lifeless story. If there's anything here to commend, it's the strong work from the visual effects team in charge of making the animatronic dinos. They look quite impressive and lend tactility to a handful of urgent moments. These do pose the problem of making the rubbery CG dinosaurs all the more apparent, but you do get some nifty practical effects in here. These backdrops aren't captured on-screen in an interesting way, but props too for filming in practical locations while Michael Giacchino's score is decent, even if it's not one of his more distinctive collections of tunes.

Jurassic World Dominion is not a bad movie because it's not like the original Jurassic Park. If anything, Dominion is too beholden to that film and other installments of the series, right down to setting the second half of its runtime in another isolated laboratory location where dinosaurs could never possibly get out and cause a ruckus. Even more than its slavish devotion to its predecessors, though, is how Jurassic World Dominion is a film with its priorities way out of wack. Placing clone girl conspiracies and locusts as being of greater importance than dinosaurs is a staggering miscalculation that this movie never comes back from. Intended as a soaring swan song for the Jurassic Park saga, Jurassic World Dominion instead warbles off-key notes that are bound to disappoint moviegoers. 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Messy yet intriguing, Crimes of the Future will satisfy Cronenberg fans

"Hell is other people", so the saying goes, but writer/director David Cronenberg knows better than anyone that Hell can be our own bodies. Considering how unpredictable and fragile everything associated with our bodies is, it's a wonder our days aren't spent staring at our fleshy vessels in a gigantic mirror contemplating how these things don't just crumble after a few minutes of use. Throughout his captivating career, Cronenberg has found various ways to explore the horrors of our bodies, ditto the various ways human beings transform both physically and psychologically. His newest film, Crimes of the Future, his first directorial effort in nearly a decade, isn't the best thing he's ever made, but boy does it feel good to see Cronenberg delving into his favorite themes and style of weirdness again.

As the title implies, Crimes of the Future takes place at an unspecified point in the future. Here, surgery has become so commonplace that people can just do it on their lunch breaks. The ubiquity of this process has allowed performance artists like Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) to perform extraordinary acts of surgery for captive audiences. They're so infamous that members of the National Organ Registry, particularly Timlin (Kristen Stewart), keep an eye on these performers and the disease (Accelerated Evolution Syndrome) that allows Saul to undergo so many surgeries. While this is all going on, our lead characters begin to plan a new shocking act. This proposed show will take Saul and Caprice right into the heart of another faction of society that's also challenging the status quo. 

Cronenberg's vision of the society of tomorrow is not a utopian paradise nor an evocative depiction of a neon-covered dystopia, like Blade Runner. Instead, the world of Crimes of the Future is one that seems to be dying around all the characters. Walls are chipped, wallpaper is peeling, and everything seems to be crumbling. There are no lavish locales here, the rich and the poor appear to all inhabit the same dingy backdrops. There's an interesting contrast in how these environments are succumbing to the kind of vulnerability and aches of time that the main characters of Crimes of the Future work overtime to avoid. While the humans in this story scramble to erase the presence of pain, their homes and workspaces remind them of the ever-present existence of time's ceaseless march.

The dissonance there lends an innately compelling quality to Crimes of the Future's exploration of mortality and the dangers of trying to control so much in our lives. Such thoughtful notions help guide viewers along the bumpier parts of Crimes of the Future, of which there are several. For one thing, Cronenberg's screenplay often resembles a collection of short stories jaggedly sewn together to create a singular feature film. This type of structure has its interesting moments, but it can also make it hard to keep the momentum of tension going for certain subplots, such as Saul's recurring rendezvous with an investigator. I also wanted even more disturbing body horror stuff! A dude with a bunch of ears stitched across his body is a cool visual (no wonder it's been all over the posters), but there isn't a ton of stuff like that. More disturbing body horror please! Certain visual elements, including both CG enhancements and the execution of certain prosthetics, also leave something to be desired in how they're filmed and lit. 

While these are the parts of Crimes of the Future that are messy, there are also several elements of the production that are so ambitious it makes you want to stand up and cheer for the return of a distinctive auteur like Cronenberg. For one thing, this is that wonderful kind of film that drops terribly silly dialogue with full-stop seriousness. Discussions about cannibals and children eating plastic wastebasket are delivered with nary a trace of irony by the actors on-screen. It's so much fun to watch ludicrous material be handled like that. The actors are also all swinging for the fences and then some, with Kristen Stewart especially impressing in her supporting role. It's hard to even describe her perpetually horny yet timid character, but her line deliveries and body language are fantastically idiosyncratic and convey such a unique personality beautifully.

Best of all, some of the best aspects of Crimes of the Future perfectly capture human beings and their bizarre relationship to their bodies. A chair meant to help Saul chew and eat his food is the perfect microcosm of this. How on Earth anyone would think this chair, which looks like it was designed by Guillermo del Toro and made out of bones, would be something you'd want in your house is beyond me. But of course, people would buy such an item if it made their lives easier, just as people would start ripping organs out of their bodies if they saw it as a gateway to fame and recognition. The things people will do to their bodies for personal gain and to stave off mortality are remarkable, there's really no other way to convey such preposterousness except for a skeleton eating chair. Even if it's messier than his best works, Crimes of the Future is a welcome sight just to have Cronenberg delivering such thoughtful and visually arresting insights.