Friday, July 29, 2022

Thirteen Lives is tedious rather than inspirational


When making a movie based on a real-life event, it's important to ask what you hope to accomplish in this project. You don't have to change filmmaking forever with your efforts. However, it's important to ask what you'll accomplish that people couldn't get from a documentary or a book on your subject. This can even be something as simple as being an entertaining standalone watch, that's a perfectly reasonable reason to make a film. Many movies based on historical events, like Selma, Lincoln, or The Insider, manage to offer something unique in exploring the past. Thirteen Lives, a new Ron Howard directorial effort chronicling the 2018 Thai cave rescue mission, is, unfortunately, unable to do anything especially compelling with the harrowing material it's covering.

At the end of June 2018, 13 young boys and their football coach got trapped in the Tham Luang cave. With a monsoon arriving to flood the cave, any rescue mission to save the youngsters would be an incredibly dangerous exercise. Retrieving them will require the skills of some of the greatest deep sea cave divers in the world. This is where Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) come into play. Hired by the governor to retrieve the adolescent captives, the impossible mission gets more and more preposterous every day. It's only in recruiting the aid of diver/anesthetist Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) that a new, insane plan begins to emerge, one that may just have a shot at saving these kids.

When I say this plan is insane, that's no understatement. The eventual mission to get the kids out is to put them to sleep with anesthesia and then, to help keep them alive while underwater, jab them with tiny doses of ketamine on their journey to the entrance of the cave. On paper, it sounds ludicrous, the kind of plan that would never pass the second draft of a fictional film. Its preposterousness makes the constantly buttoned-up nature of Thirteen Lives infinitely more perplexing. Nobody is saying a narrative film recreation of the Thai cave rescue mission should have the maximalist wackiness of a Daniels movie. However, surely there was a way to juggle respect for the severity of the operation with some kind of pulse?

Whereas the vastly superior 2021 documentary The Rescue (which covered this same topic but with interviews with the actual participants of the rescue mission) eaned into the propulsive unpredictability of this entire scenario, Thirteen Lives is dead set on being as super serious as possible. This isn't so much channeling the vibes of Tony Scott or even the most intense scenes of Howard's Rush than it is a John Lee Hancock movie. William Nicholson's screenplay is here to just recite the basic facts of the rescue mission and offers little extra insight into the proceedings that could make familiar events feel fresh again. Even worse, his screenplay's penchant for ham-fisted dialogue undercuts the supposed serious tone of the movie. A somber atmosphere could've rendered this a potentially contemplative exercise, a muted examination of an event drenched in sensationalist news coverage 

Unfortunately, Nicholson leaves little to the imagination in the clumsy dialogue, especially when it comes to the character of Stanton. His unintentionally comical "I don't even like kids" line in his first few minutes of screentime sets the tone for the kind of words he delivers throughout the film. There are many ways you could make a compelling movie about the Thai cave rescue, but I'm not sure reimagining one of the divers as Dr. Alan Grant from the first Jurassic Park is one of them. Nicholson's writing also struggles at juggling a large cast, with so many people just fading into the background. Potentially interesting figures and plotlines, like the detail that some of the trapped people not native citizens of this region of Thailand, gather dust in the corner. In aquatic terms, the script for Thirteen Lives is vast in its size on the surface but is only a few inches deep.

Thirteen Lives also fails to make a case for its existence on a visual level too. Scenes of our divers making their way from one cave avoid some visual effects pitfalls (they don't immediately look like they're shot on a green screen, thank goodness), but unfortunately, the underwater segments just aren't visually striking. Once you've seen one murky underwater cavern, you've seen them all, but Thirteen Lives lingers on every step of the divers and their journey, making the repetitive nature of the imagery extra apparent. Here and throughout Thirteen Lives, director Ron Howard and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom struggle to convey any sense of urgency or tangible humanity in the imagery flickering on-screen. I was especially struck by how any scenes that depicted profound emotions of the parents of the captive kids, whether it be crying or cheering, had a sense of detachment to them. The camera is awkwardly kept at a distance here as if there were concerns that getting too close to such pronounced emotions would rob the production of its pathos.

Recurring visual problems underscore the creative struggles of Thirteen Lives. The feature isn't devoid of merits, with Farrell and Edgerton doing especially well in their respective performances. But the word "tedious" should not be coming to my mind so often when I'm watching something that's supposed to be propulsive and ultimately cheer-worthy. Worse, by the end of the film, it becomes apparent that Thirteen Lives has nothing to say about this incredible rescue mission beyond acknowledging that it happened and the two people who perished because of it. Even if the superior documentary The Rescue didn't cover this subject already, Thirteen Lives would still be a humdrum example of how to turn a historical event into a narrative feature.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

DC League of Super-Pets isn't super, but it is frequently amusing

The big screen adaptations of DC Comics properties have garnered a reputation for being too serious, sometimes for good reason. But in the last few years, the DC films have pushed back against that perception not only with lighter live-action fare (like Shazam! or The Suicide Squad) but also through animated kid's movies. These youth-skewing features, such as The LEGO Batman Movie or Teen Titans Go! To The Movies, haven't been afraid to be either silly or explore the most obscure corners of the DC mythology. DC League of Super-Pets is the latest reinterpretation of the world of Superman and Batman for the kids these days. The gimmick this time is that the story is told through the eyes of a bunch of super-powered pets, many of whom have been around in the comics for decades.

Everyone needs a cuddly pet, even Superman (John Krasinski), who has canine Krypto (Dwayne Johnson) as his loyal pal. In fact, he may be too loyal. Krypto can't imagine being anything but the only person that matters in Superman's life, even as this superhero prepares to pop the question to Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde). This dog's life is already ruff, er, rough, grappling with this change in his domestic life, not to mention his inability to socially interact with other pooches. 

Things get even more precarious once an evil plan by Lex Luthor (Marc Maron) ends up endowing superpowers on the vengeful guinea pig Lulu (Kate McKinnon). She proceeds to defeat and imprison the Justice League, leaving the fate of humanity in the hands of Krypto. To quote the poster for Justice League, though, "you can't save the world alone." Krypto will need to rely on the help of a gaggle of shelter pets who've just been given superpowers, including the Boxer Ace (Kevin Hart), pig PB (Vanessa Bayer), red squirrel Chip (Diego Luna), and elderly turtle Merton (Natasha Lyonne).

Though they couldn't be farther apart in terms of the audiences they're aiming at, DC League of Super-Pets happily reminded me of the excellent new Harley Quinn TV show in terms of its style of humor. Much like that (undeniably vastly superior) small-screen program, Super-Pets is here to deliver a comical vision of the DC universe, but also one infused with an apparent love for the material it's skewering. Just look at an exciting early set piece of the Justice League working together to foil Luthor, which radiates with infectious enthusiasm rather than contempt for the characters on-screen. One gets the sense that screenwriters Jared Stern and John Whittington (the former artist also directs) had been waiting years for somebody to deliver a movie where Green Lantern and Wonder Woman fought side-by-side and are now relishing the opportunity to deliver such imagery. 

Stern and Whittington's writing isn't just good for delivering the kind of Justice League action two separate live-action movies couldn't quite conjure up. Their sense of humor also proves entertaining more often than not since, thanks to them leaning into the inherent preposterousness of the DC universe, it tends to skew towards the ridiculous. Cats can hack up hairballs that are actually functioning grenades, while Krypto daydreams about tossing Lane into the farthest reaches of the ocean. The best of these gags is anything revolving around the elderly and absurd Merton. Lyonne opts to voice the critter like the turtle version of Abraham Simpson (all the character's missing is an onion on her belt). Her non-sequiturs and various asides are often hysterical, especially a running gag where Merton is flirting with a series of hard hats. 

Of course, just as Superman has Kryptonite and Green Lantern has the color yellow, the fatal weakness of DC League of Super-Pets is being derivative of other animated kid's movies. The worst offender of the film leaning onto other features come in the third act when a key character's backstory gets revolved in a flashback sequence that may as well have the words "WHEN SHE LOVED ME" flashing in bright red letters on-screen. Meanwhile, a key part of Krypto's character arc feels entirely lifted from The LEGO Batman Movie, the personal struggles of each of the shelter pets have been seen in countless other movies, pets while the presence of an army of superpowered destructive guinea pigs echoes this year's The Bad Guys. DC League of Super-Pets is an amusing diversion, but it could've been as hysterical and memorable as Teen Titans Go! To The Movies if it had been willing to be less familiar.

It also wouldn't have hurt if the feature's computer animation was better. DC League of Super-Pets was animated by Animal Logic, an animation house that Warner Bros. has regularly utilized for nearly two decades. Their past fully-animated projects have included Happy Feet, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, and the LEGO movies, all of which involve either realistic-looking characters or textures. They're way less experienced with stylized material, and it, unfortunately, shows in Super-Pets. Human characters like Batman and Superman, with their wonky designs, never look quite right, while textures like water and fire register as feeling off. Measures taken to cut costs on the animation, namely making the streets of Metropolis often downright deserted, also prove distracting. While many of the animal characters look fine, they deserved an animation style worthy of being dubbed "super". 

If the folks behind DC League of Super-Pets had shown a willingness to deliver bolder animation or be less derivative of other animated movies, it still wouldn't have been as good as The LEGO Batman Movie. Still, it could've lived up to more of its potential. The final product struggles to carve out its own identity in many respects, including with a lead vocal turn from Dwayne Johnson that just sounds like Dwayne Johnson speaking into a microphone. 

Luckily, there are enough humorous gags, lively supporting performances, and infectious affection for DC Comics lore in League of Super-Pets to keep most adult audience members pleased. As Adam West showed decades ago, the world of DC superheroes is ripe for comedic reinterpretations and the best moments of this film reaffirm that potential. Plus, kids will doubtlessly go gaga for a movie that dares to combine The Secret Life of Pets with The Avengers. No doubt this will hit the sweet spot for enough of its target demo to spawn a sequel or two. I could imagine worse animated movies to inspire follow-ups. Certainly, none of the Sing installments, for instance, have as fun of a character as Merton. Maybe next time around Supergirl's horse Comet can join in on the fun.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Nope Spoiler Discussion Review


The Gray Man is more forgettable than anything else


If there's anything positive to say about The Gray Man, it's that directors Anthony and Joe Russo feel much more comfortable here as filmmakers than they did in their last directorial effort, Cherry. With a quartet of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies under their belt, The Russo Brothers are understandably a lot more at home handling a global action film like The Gray Man, an adaptation of Mark Greaney's novel of the same name, than whatever the hell Cherry was trying to be. But the same familiarity that seems to make the Russo's at ease as directors also makes it hard to get invested in The Gray Man as a movie. The whole thing struggles to emerge from the shadows of superior blockbusters it keeps evoking.

Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling) was once resigned to live out his lengthy prison sentence when CIA agent Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) came to him with a proposition. Gentry could become a mercenary for the CIA named Sierra Six, a job that would allow this prisoner to put his experience with violence to good use. Cut to two decades later and Gentry has become one of the best and most efficient assets in the CIA. During a seemingly routine mission, Gentry realizes other members of the Sierra program are getting killed off and that he can't trust his superiors. Armed with an important flash drive, Gentry is now a man on the run. The sociopathic Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) is sent to kill Sierra Six in a chase that will span the globe and eventually involve Fitzroy's granddaughter, Claire (Julia Butters).

Throughout The Gray Man, I was just as rarely bored with what I was watching as I was engaged. There's little to repel you in this feature, but there's also little that'll sink its claws into you and never let go. I kept waiting for an extra flourish, a really ludicrous plot twist or a distinctive trait in the performances, to take things from simulating the idea of entertainment to being entertaining. No such luck. There are certainly worse movies out there and there's no denying that The Gray Man is largely competent on a technical level. But there's not much of a soul here. Instead, the crux of The Gray Man is borrowed from a barrage of other movies, whether it's having a bad-ass assassin lead character with a soft spot for a child or a bunch of generic CIA goons ripped straight out of a Bourne installment.

The whole movie would've been better off with just a dash more fun or steaminess. The Gray Man operates in a harsh world, one where the enjoyably ludicrous parts of the spy genre, not to mention any semblance of romance, have been stripped away. Everybody's brooding, including the audience! The result is a movie that's got gunfire to spare, but little humanity or zest. It can't even commit fully to its darker qualities thanks to a PG-13 rating that ensures, among other shortcomings, audiences can't get the kind of exciting death scenes that automatically made movies like Dead Calm or Deep Blue Sea enjoyable rides. It's baffling to imagine why a streaming movie isn't just rated R, anyway. You don't have to worry about alienating teen moviegoers on Netflix, anyone can watch it, and they won't get carded by movie theater employees. Just go for the more brutal rating so The Gray Man could occasionally get spiced up with some gnarly deaths.

But even a couple of head explosions wouldn't have helped the awkward narrative structure of The Gray Man, which is especially confounding in its saggy second act where a pair of abrupt flashback sequences derail any plot momentum. Even worse than all of that, though, is how The Gray Man utterly wastes leading man Ryan Gosling. Gosling is an actor with a wide sense of range who can do goofy physical comedy in The Nice Guys one minute before doing a restrained portrait of torment in First Man. Unfortunately, The Gray Man doesn't give him much of anything to work with. Gentry's a blank slate of a character and Gosling is never given any opportunities to fill in the blank spaces with a vibrant personality. The character's recurring quips even feel like a poor use of Gosling's skills as a comedic performer.

Most of the cast members of The Gray Man are on this kind of autopilot, though Dhanush does deliver a charismatic supporting turn while main baddie actor Chris Evans seems to be having a ball channeling John Lithgow in Cliffhanger in portraying a dastardly foe to the core (though he sometimes feels like he's in the wrong movie). Mostly, though, these forgettable performances encapsulate the similarly disposable nature of The Gray Man. Henry Jackman's generic score and a collection of mostly forgettable foreign locales similarly ensure that this expansive blockbuster won't linger in your mind for long. There are enough explosions and instances of decent fight choreography (the latter detail undercut by some terrible editing) to likely make some action fans pleased in the moment while watching The Gray Man, but even they'll be wishing the movie had tried for something more compelling by the time the credits begin rolling.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Go ahead and say "yep" to Jordan Peele's newest winner, Nope

There will come a day when writer/director Jordan Peele helms a dud. It's bound to happen. Every filmmaker has a movie that just doesn't work. Steven Spielberg has Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. David Fincher has The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Gore Verbinski's got The Lone Ranger. Direct enough movies, one' s bound to not click. The director of Get Out and Us will doubtlessly helm such a production in the future. Thankfully, his third directorial effort, Nope, is not that feature. Instead, it's another affirmation of Peele's gifts as a filmmaker and a signal that he can expand his scope as a storyteller without sacrificing substance for scale.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) runs a ranch for horses, which are used in various entertainment properties (ranging from commercials to The Scorpion King). This domicile has belonged to his family for years, but after the sudden death of his father, who supposedly died after getting hit with debris from an airplane, getting reminded of the past feels more like a burden than a gift to OJ. Feeling adrift, some direction comes into his life when, whilst tending to his horses one night, OJ spies...something moving in the sky. His sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), happily jumps into OJ's plan to film whatever's out there. This could be it, a chance to solve their money problems and maybe get some answers about what thing killed their father.

By Monday morning, I'm sure there'll be dozens of essays floating around about the various underlying meanings of Nope. I'm probably a few tools shy of a full toolbox to get everything Peele's going for here, but one notable theme of the movie that did stick out to me was the kind of entertainment figures it focuses on. The famous movie stars or filmmakers of many features about Hollywood are largely absent here. Our characters are largely below-the-line workers, like cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), or figures on the fringe of notoriety, like child-star-turned-theme-park-owner Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun). 

These are more relatable grunts just trying to earn a day's living, much like the majority of the people who're going to see this movie (or even yours truly!). This makes them the perfect underdog figures to contrast with something much larger-than-life hovering in the clouds. Their references to and engagement with pop culture are also fun and reflect how they're a bit more at the bottom wrung of the entertainment industry totem pole. Rather than name-dropping the biggest movies of 2019 and 2020, characters bemoan "a pilot for The CW" while a poster on Park's wall is a homage to Holes. These clever details reinforce the lack of mega-star wattage that the characters of Nope engage with and they also give a specific identity to the movie's relationship to the broader world of entertainment. Where else this year will you find a blockbuster that has a character waxing poetic on the virtues of Chris Kattan?

The fact that you can unpack that much simply from the kinds of movies and TV shows Nope name-drops is a testament to how layered this motion picture is. There's a similar level of profound detail in the visuals, which are brought to life through cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema. It shouldn't be a shock that a film combining the might of Peele and van Hoytema with IMAX cameras is going to look great, but it's still tremendous to watch the beauty of Nope's images unfold. There's a fun sense of theatricality to the film's depiction of a possible UFO lurking in the shadows that harken back to how the dinosaurs were portrayed in Jurassic Park or the depiction of the shark in Jaws. You see a little bit of it here, a little bit of it over there, all building up suspense and making you question what you did see. 

It's an exquisite mixture of thoughtful filmmaking and pure unfiltered fun. There's an outright cheeky quality to some of the visuals that wring as many whispers of "no no no" from viewers as possible. That's the kind of controlled camerawork that informs so much of the entertainment in the delightfully squirm-inducing suspense sequences of Nope, the best of which will ensure you won't go into a barn or look at a cloud the same way ever again. Come to think of it, the underlying rascally tone of such moments is a key reason why Nope can alternate between horror and comedy so gracefully. The two genres have often been unexpected but welcome bedfellows throughout cinema history and they make a fine pairing here. The jokes in Peele's script are quite funny, but they also feel like an organic companion to the vibes of certain scary scenes. Turns out, you can have your cake and eat it too, or in this case, have jokes and also be intense enough to make audiences member dig their nails into the armrests of their seats.

Nope's assorted performances are just as well-realized as its sublime tone, with Daniel Kaluuya delivering especially terrific work as OJ. Here's to hoping Kaluuya becomes the Toshiro Mifune to Peele's Akira Kurosawa, as the duo just seem to bring out the best in one another. In the other lead role, Keke Palmer is endlessly compelling as Emerald, she just exudes such effortless confidence from the moment she walks on-screen, while we should all be hailing the welcome return of character actor Michael Wincott in his first credited acting role in seven years. Just listening to him talk in that wonderfully gravelly voice is great, but his physical presence is also fantastic. Steven Yeun, though, especially stands out in his supporting role as Park. Yeun's natural charisma works as such an interesting contrast with this man's internal life and helps inform one of Nope's most fascinating players. 

There's lots to love about Nope, which thoroughly delivers both brains and entertainment. But what draws me to it is how much it defies traditional Hollywood logic. They say IMAX cameras are merely for movies that cost $250 million and span multiple continents, yet here they are effectively used on something with a much more intimate storytelling scale. They say combining Westerns and science-fiction is a fool's errand, but here Peele mixes the two genres to incredible effect. A movie that critiques spectacle shouldn't also dazzle the eyeballs, but Nope does just that. One could even say the storytelling structure, which often bounces between perspectives and briefly shifts across time, should be convoluted, yet it's pulled off here with grace. Like so many other enjoyable movies, Nope looks at what logically shouldn't work and runs in that direction. So long as he keeps following those sorts of creative instincts, maybe Peele won't be delivering that directorial effort dud anytime soon.

Click here for Douglas Laman's spoiler discussion of Nope.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is an agreeably pleasant trip


Based on the novel of the same name by Paul Gallico, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is such a gentle movie that it makes something like Downton Abbey look like a Takashi Miike movie. That's not a bad thing (certainly Paris is better overall than both of the Abbey films), but it's good to know what you're getting into with this movie. It's a soothing feature designed from the ground up to not offend grandparents, right down to it garnering a PG rating. Again, this is not a criticism, since Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, despite being too fluffy for its own good, is an agreeable enterprise that gets a lot of mileage out of its lead performer. 

Mrs. Harris (Lesley Manville) has spent decades working as a cleaning lady in London. She's saved every pound and shilling, all without ever clinging to any dream bigger than hoping that maybe her husband, who went missing fighting in World War II, may still come home. After an encounter with a Christian Dior dress at one of her client's houses, though, Mrs. Harris has a new ambition. She's going to Paris, France to get the snazziest dress imaginable. The wall-to-wall elegance of the Christian, Dior headquarters is initially anything but welcoming to Mrs. Harris, particularly powerful employee Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). But this spunky and encouraging soul is not one to give up easily on anything, least of all her dreams.

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris kept reminding me of Paddington. How could it not? They're both sweet yarns about British-accented people with hearts of gold struggling to fit in while exploring a new culture. Paris can't even hope to hit the heights of quality reached by the two Paddington features, but there are worse movies to evoke. The constant kindness present in Mrs. Harris's spirit proves to be an endearing enough quality to hang her French escapades on, especially since the screenplay (credited to director Anthony Fabian as well as Carroll Cartwright, Keith Thompson, and Olivia Hetreed) makes it clear there is no ulterior motive fueling all these acts of emotional generosity. Harris behaves like this because that's just who Harris is.

Such a personality is brought to life through Lesley Manville, who's really the reason to see Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. A fixture of Mike Leigh movies and having earned an Oscar nomination for going toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, Manville adds another superb film acting credit to her resume here. Much like with Denzel Washington in The Preacher's Wife, Manville injects substantive pathos into a script that could've lapsed into an avalanche of treacly sentiment. Mrs. Harris isn't a caricature in this woman's hands. Instead, she conveys realistic flourishes in her body language and dialogue deliveries. The result is a compelling performance that ensures Mrs. Harris feels about as real as somebody sitting next to you in the theater.

Other aspects of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, though, never quite reach the heights of Manville's central performance. Fabian's direction, for one thing, isn't terribly imaginative. The closest thing to super memorable camerawork here is the use of double dolly shots whenever Mrs. Harris is getting especially enamored with a dress. Aside from that, the streets of Paris, France in the 1950s have somehow failed to inspire much visual bombast in this filmmaker's eyes. The script could've also stood to inject extra doses of personality into key supporting characters like noble but bland numbers guy Andre Fauvel (Lucas Bravo). The moving moments of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris work more often than they don't. However, these moments would be extra poignant if the people Mrs, Harris encountered in Paris were as detailed and believable as the film's lead character. 

Throughout Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Mrs. Harris, as well as protesting garbagemen in a recurring subplot, challenges societal norms and expectations over where a cleaning lady from London belongs. The film she anchors, though, is less accustomed to subversion. There aren't many surprises in here to elevate the feature, but maybe that'll be just fine with the target audience for this motion picture. You still get to see lots of pretty dresses, experience your heartstrings getting tugged, and another killer Lesley Manville performance. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris had the potential to be exceptional rather than just pleasant, but as Mrs. Harris herself is always proving, there's nothing wrong with a little bit of niceness.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Thor: Love and Thunder doesn't pack as mighty a wallop as Thor: Ragnarok


Sometimes, you just can't escape the shadow of your predecessors. Such is the problem facing Thor: Love and Thunder, which serves as writer/director Taika Waititi's much-anticipated follow-up to his 2017 film Thor: Ragnarok (this go-around, he wrote the script with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson). Ragnarok was so much fun, so tightly written, and so good at balancing the silly with more introspective material, it would always be difficult to follow that film up. Even if Love and Thunder weren't constantly reminding you of that superior movie, it would still have some noticeable shortcomings. Ironically, an issue of weightlessness keeps bringing this project down to Earth like an anchor. Thankfully, some of Waititi's greatest assets as a filmmaker are still here to make the proceedings largely enjoyable.

Picking up shortly after Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is struggling to find himself and specifically what his purpose should be now. At the same time, Thor's ex-lover Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has come into possession of that mystical hammer Mjolnir. Wielding this weapon, she's now become The Mighty Thor, a formidable superhero in her own right. The two Thor's are gonna have to work together to stop Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale). He's using a fancy sword known as the Necromancer to slaughter every single God in existence. Grab your gear and the fierce warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), because it's time for another Thor adventure. 

Waititi thankfully maintains Ragnarok's love for unabashedly silly cosmic mayhem, with nary a desire in sight to ground things in reality or handwave away something as just being futuristic science. Shadow beasts hunt down children in the night, a big bug can wear clothes, and a big city that's home to many Gods (including Russell Crowe's Zeus) can have a bunch of peculiar-looking weirdoes that the camera treats as totally normal. The status quo in Love and Thunder is absurdism and it often conjures up memories of 1980s Jim Henson movies like The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth in its love for ridiculous fantasy storytelling. 

Much like The Dark Crystal, though, Love and Thunder is often more fun in pieces than as a whole. Part of this comes down to the characters not being as concretely-defined as they could be. Major pieces of information in the backstories of Thor and Jane are breezed past in flashbacks and montages suffocated in narration by Korg (Taika Waititi). That's especially problematic since Thor's starting issue (he has trouble letting other people in) doesn't align with what we've seen of him in prior Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. He's always been a gregarious soul, so it's weird that we're starting out with the premise of him being somebody who keeps people at arm's length. We're also only just now getting to know anything about Foster and information about her personal life would've made more of an impact if it could've had room to breathe. Thor: Love and Thunder knows what emotional and character beats it wants to hit, but its comedic impulses keep intruding on those ambitions. 

Waititi's script's love for the inexplicable is better suited to random comedic asides than in the more dramatic sequences. In the latter scenarios, it can often feel like the screenplay is just coming up with random new MacGuffin's or aspects of Marvel Comics cosmic lore to keep things moving rather than finding new entertaining places to take these characters. Just playing with the toys Love and Thunder establishes from the get-go rather than trying to find new shiny objects at every turn would've help the dramatic beats feel more organic. 

On the positive side, Waititi's exploration of the weightier concepts do land some emotionally potent moments, particularly anything that has to do with Christian Bale's ruthless Gorr. Despite Love and Thunder suffering from a sense of weightlessness, some of the introspective details related to figuring out what defines a good worthy life do hit the mark. Waititi's balance between the silly and the poignant isn't as strong as it was on Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but his willingness to let the Gorr-centric sequences of this film have a gravitas that isn't interrupted by gags ensures that there's still some emotional heft here.

Much of that heft comes from the performance of Bale, who lends a palpably fervent aura to Gorr's quest for slaughter. There's a cracked quality to Gorr, he just seems like someone whose very gait suggests he's somebody missing a critical part of his emotional capacity. A sequence that limits the scope just to Gorr antagonizing our three lead heroes is a highlight of the entire film while the practical makeup work used to realize this villain is spectacular-looking. Put simply, Bale's great here. Not being beholden to replicating the behaviors of someone from real life (like his Dick Cheney in Vice) allows Bale to remind viewers that he's just as good at conjuring up original performances wholesale as he is at mimicry. 

Save for the clumsy incorporation of CG sets and creatures (the Marvel Cinematic Universe visual effects pipeline strikes again), Thor: Love and Thunder largely looks as good as Gorr's makeup. The practical sets are a lot of fun, especially ones used to realize the lavish land Zeus and other Gods call home. Not only does Gorr get the best performance and tone of the whole movie, but he's also the center of the best-looking sequences of the entire feature, particularly a duel in his monochromatic world. Even with this standout black-and-white sequence, color is, thankfully, still in high supply for Waititi's vision of the cosmos and informs lots of the fun eye candy in Love and Thunder. 

Even if the gags are never quite as fresh as they are in Thor: Ragnarok (the jokes building off fan-favorite moments from Ragnarok especially feel lacking), Thor: Love and Thunder delivers plenty of jokes that still made me cackle. Chris Hemsworth is such fun playing a himbo, it's such a shame that it took so many movies for them to figure out that this is the best mold for the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Thor to inhabit. With Hemsworth still a hoot, Thor: Love and Thunder manages to be quite funny, features an enjoyable villain, and it all looks like a million bucks. Unfortunately, it's also a disjointed venture, sometimes heavily so, that offers up too many callbacks to a superior predecessor and is too weightless to hit its lofty thematic ambitions. The shadow of Ragnarok looms large over Love and Thunder and this new installment is never strong enough as a standalone outing to escape it.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song shines in its most introspective moments


No piece of art solely belongs to the people who make it. When we look at and experience a painting, film, statue, or any other form of artistic expression, it also becomes a part of us in some way. This is especially true of music, which is devoid of a visual form and often features abstract lyrics or orchestral accompaniment that invites the listener to make their own interpretation of what they're digesting. It's why songs so often become more than just tunes on the radio. They become the soundtrack to a first date, a coping mechanism during a breakup, an anthem during a karaoke session you'll never forget. Even a chart-topping hit can feel like something that was designed for you and your circumstances.

Part of the focus of the documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is on how the titular tune, "Hallelujah," has managed to resonate so deeply with so many different people. But that's not the only focus here, as directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine use this film as an opportunity to explore a chronological look at Cohen's life. This portrait of this musician's existence allows for the greater context of "Hallelujah's" very existence to come to light, particularly how it was initially never given a proper release in the U.S. by Columbia Records. While we get to dive into the finer points of this man's career, the second half of Hallelujah then splinters into exploring the various covers of that famous song and how they extended the lifespan of what once looked like a piece of music headed for the trashbin of history.

The latter scenes of the film provide some of the most insightful parts of Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song. That's not a slam on the archival interview segments we hear from Cohen or his backstory. It's just compelling to hear how musicians read into "Hallelujah" concepts or ideas that Cohen himself could never have imagined being a part of this tune. Brandi Carlile, for instance, observes in an interview how the song helped her come to terms with her queerness while the tragic passing of Jeff Buckley, who sang a famous cover of "Hallelujah," injected further unexpected layers of poignancy into a piece already rich with subtext.

Through these anecdotes and perspectives, we can see the full impact of "Hallelujah" as well as how even the most deeply personal works of art can end up resonating with other humans. There is a bit of tragedy too in the film's depiction of its ubiquity. Shrek director Vickey Jensen mentions in an interview that, so it could be featured in an animated title aimed at kids, she edited together a new version removing lyrics dealing with sexual material. That's not a bad idea when you want to use this song in a PG-film, but Jensen goes on to note that that's the default version that's been performed by other people since then. Shrek gave "Hallelujah" a gargantuan amount of notoriety, but it also came at the cost of removing some of its most challenging and vulnerable passages. With this development, everybody knows Cohen's song, but they don't know the most revealing parts of Cohen's lyrics.

Exploring the benefits and drawbacks of "Halleluljah" becoming such an iconic track is where Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song really thrives. The talking head interview segments and sequences dedicated to chronicling the backstory of Cohen are serviceable, but boilerplate for a music documentary like this. Cohen was always pushing the boundaries in his work with that gravelly but also the weighty voice of his. This makes it a shame that a movie dedicated to his work isn't quite as groundbreaking in its form and presentation as its central subject. Geller and Goldfine still execute these parts of the production with competency and do include a wide range of interview subjects, including the bewildering presence of country music superstar Eric Church.

Most thoughtful of all in their filmmaking is the smart decision to not linger on the death of Cohen. The films end with on-screen text referencing his passing in 2016, but Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song isn't built around the climactic reveal that he's died. This is a film largely about how songs and the musicians who write them can live on and on forever. As long as people are performing "Hallelujah" on TV singing competition shows, Cohen, in some small way, won't really be gone. Even more importantly, the impact this song had on people, made evident all throughout this documentary, ensures that the legacy of Cohen will be an eternal one. No piece of art solely belongs to the person who makes it and "Hallelujah" owes every shred of its popularity to that truth.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Black Phone calls up some solid entertainment


Adapted from a short story by Joe Hill, The Black Phone spends much of its first act establishing a bleak world for adolescent sibling protaganists Finney (Mason Thomas) and Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) to inhabit. This is made especially apparent in one of the most quietly tragic scenes of the whole movie, where Finney joins his sister in watching TV right after Gwen has been beaten by their father. What's flickering on the Idiot Box? An episode of Davy & Goliath. This stop-motion Christian show spoonfeeds Finney, Gwen, and countless other kids hamfisted easy morals that don't apply in a world where parents can abuse their kids without consequence or where violent bullies lurk around every corner. 

The Black Phone is emphasizing that these youngsters are growing up in a world of abuse that doesn't even offer them tools to normalize their experiences. Just TV shows that instill in them the message of complying with authority, that present a warped sanitized vision of reality.

It's a bleak start for what ends up being a relatively tame (by R-rated horror standards) scary feature, but it does provide a fine groundwork for what's to come. The ensuing story sees Finney getting kidnapped by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke), a notorious local figure who has been kidnapping kids for a long time. Waking up in this man's basement, Finney is terrified about his impending demise. But a seemingly busted black phone on the wall could have the answers Finney's looking for. The spirits of The Grabber's previous victims are now calling Finney up and giving him guidance on how to fight back against this wicked man. Meanwhile, Gwen is a young girl who has dreams that serve as supernatural visions, including of those who've previously died at The Grabber's hands. She could prove helpful in figuring out where Finney is...and figuring out a way to save him before it's too late.

The Black Phone is the latest film by director Scott Derrickson, a man who's been working in horror cinema for over two decades now. In that timespan, Derrickson has shown a skill for crafting eerie images and some clever scares rooted in reality. Unfortunately, projects like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister were held back by his screenwriting and filmmaking choices that lacked subtlety. Going the obvious or over-the-top route isn't bad, but Derrickson's horror films have tended to fall prey to the wrong kind of pronounced story or character details. Plots or scares that require a bit more subtlety tend to get weighed down by intrusive scores or didactic dialogue.

Derrickson sometimes succumbs to those shortcomings again here, including indulging in too many flashback sequences and some clumsy depictions of suburban cruelty that are caricatured when they should be hauntingly raw. Luckily, the inherently restrained nature of The Black Phone's premise, which largely confines one kid to a man's basement, does keep some of these issues at bay. Any sequence depicting Finney in The Grabber's clutches also allows for Derrickson to deliver some of his most interesting visuals as a filmmaker yet. Any instance of the bodies of dead kids just wandering around an oblivious Finney (who can hear, but not see these souls) is especially chilling and memorable in terms of blocking and framing.

Those moments are made all the more engaging by the choice to have the dialogue of the kids tweaked so that it sounds drenched in static like you're hearing it from an old telephone. It's a detail that subtly reminds you you're hearing voices of the past, people who have no life left to live but do have wisdom to impart. Plus, the inherent situation Finney's trapped in is stripped-down enough, not to mention populated with reasonable obstacles (like a potential escape door jammed shut or a piece of wood breaking at an inopportune time), to feel like something grounded enough that it could really happen. Even with the supernatural presence of dead kids coaching Finney, much of what we're witnessing feels tangible enough to get you invested in wanting to see Finney get the hell out of there.

Succeeding on that front was enough to make The Black Phone a solid, though flawed, watch in my book. Ethan Hawke being around to deliver a great villain performance is just a cherry on top. Even with his face either entirely or partially covered in a mask for the entire runtime, Hawke still conveys an eerie aura that puts you on edge. It's a testament to his gifts as a physical actor that he can still convey genuine menace even with key parts of his body all covered up. As for the adolescent performers, Madeleine McGraw is easily the standout. It's a testament to her range that she gets the most emotionally devastating moment of The Black Phone (captured in a single take to boot) and then, later on, delivers the best comedic line of the film in one of her conversations with Jesus Christ.

It's easy to imagine The Black Phone living up to its full potential as a horror movie if its scope were narrowed (limiting the film to just The Grabber's basement would've been fascinating) and if recurring tendencies towards super conspicuous details had been eschewed. The Black Phone isn't the next horror classic, but it functions just fine as an enjoyable watch that mostly delivers the goods as a survival drama and as a showcase for Ethan Hawke's talents as an actor. I also must give this motion picture props for being a straightforward serious horror movie that features a villain called The Grabber. That's commitment right there.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Minions: The Rise of Gru is a largely amusing, albeit disposable, kid-friendly comedy

Writing a review for Minions: The Rise of Gru feels like a somewhat pointless exercise. Maybe that's why I've waited four days since I saw the film to write this up. What else can be said about the Despicable Me saga at this point? It's highly popular, but not especially deep. Like most Illumination films, your mileage with these Minions or Despicable Me installments will vary based on how much you like just watching a succession of gags. That doesn't offer much to analyze or break down, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to look at here. In the case of The Rise of Gru, the jokes have a little more oomph to them compared to every other Despicable Me follow-up and it's nice to see the franchise getting in touch with its naughty side again.

The biggest issue the Despicable Me franchise has faced in trying to sustain the exploits of Gru (Steve Carell) across multiple films is that he peaked as a character in the first film, where he was nonchalant about the idea of a young girl getting impaled to death. Since then, he's been a more conventional suburban dad whose default behavior is foiling baddies, not being bad. Much like Shrek, Gru is a lot more fun breaking the rules than adhering to them.

The Rise of Gru, then, is already getting off on the right foot by setting its story in 1976, when an adolescent Gru is aspiring to become a supervillain. This guy is in kid-friendly mischief mode as he tries to land a spot on the supervillain team The Vicious Six, led by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson). While auditioning for the group, Gru, after being told he's too young to be a supervillain, steals a precious medallion that The Vicious Six need for world domination. Once this heist results in Gru getting kidnapped, it's up to a plucky trio of Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (the lead characters of the first Minions movie) to save their boss.

For better and for worse, The Rise of Gru is built primarily on individual gags and character designs that director Kyle Balda and company found amusing. More often than not, that's enough to make the movie an amusing enough distraction, especially since the design team went all-out to give the supervillains over-the-top costumes. Nunchuck, a Nun who wields nunchucks and has a penchant for violence, is an especially great creation who spawns some of the best visual gags in the whole movie. All the colorful foes show a lot of imagination and are a big reason why The Rise of Gru proves to be a bit better than expected. This isn't a movie about diluting villainy to be a suburban dad, it's about embracing kid-friendly chaos.

The Minions themselves still can't quite sustain a whole movie, but there's no denying that they can still land some amusing gags, like the hysterical sight of them all swaying to and fro sadly while a somber Carpenters song plays. Plus, give them the right character to bounce off of, and they become especially humorous. Michelle Yeoh specifically makes for a great straight man to their antics in her supporting role as Master Chow, an acupuncturist who teaches the three main Minions the art of Kung Fu. The quiet gag that nobody in this universe is ever that unnerved or surprised by the existence of these sentient corn pops has surprising value as a running joke.

Minions: The Rise of Gru made me chuckle more often than not and it never bored me in a runtime that thankfully doesn't exceed 80 minutes. Unfortunately, it's weighed down by some heavy problems, including a groan-inducing reliance on fan service. Like so many prequels, The Rise of Gru is here to answer questions you never asked about your favorite characters. By the time the film ends with dialogue meant to provide a backstory for why Gru would want to steal the Moon in the first Despicable Me, my eyes were rolling so hard they were practically rolling out of their sockets. Like a lot of Illumination titles, this feature also suffers from having way too many plotlines that can't quite congeal properly in the third act. This animation studio has a real problem with trying to do episodic storytelling and then swerving back into a conventional narrative for the third act. That hat trick can be accomplished, but I don't think the writers of the Minions movies are up to the task.

Again, reviewing Minions: The Rise of Gru is a bit of an odd task. Judging by the hordes of people who've seen it (and in suits no less), you've probably already decided whether or not the fifth entry in the Despicable Me saga is for you. The film itself is all surface-level pleasures, without ever offering the truly surreal zaniness of classic Looney Tunes or SpongeBob SquarePants shorts to take its wacky comedy to the next level. I'm still not sure the world of Despicable Me could ever sustain more than one movie, but The Rise of Gru is a more consistently amusing than usual expansion of that universe, though one still bogged down by many familiar flaws in this franchise.