Saturday, December 31, 2022

A Man Called Otto isn't essential, but it is moving more often than not

CW: Discussion of suicide ahead

While it's always good to see Tom Hanks in anything, A Man Called Otto can't help but feel, on the surface, like a strange and even downright unwelcome visitor. A remake of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, itself an adaptation of the famous novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Otto belongs to that treacherous subgenre of English-language remakes of foreign-language movies. For every The Departed, a proper way of translating an international film to a quality standalone motion picture, we get a dozen or so of these kinds of remakes that add nothing to the films they're adapting. They merely feel like ways to cash in on familiar brand names, regurgitate stories told better elsewhere, and quietly reinforce the idea that the only movies worth watching are the ones told in English.

A Man Called Otto's worst elements do echo the infamous shortcomings of many English-language remakes of foreign-language movies, namely in being less subtle and daring than the film that inspired it. But shockingly, writer David Magee and director Marc Forster have concocted a touching drama with A Man Called Otto that isn't breaking any new ground in its form but does prove affecting more often than not.

Otto (Tom Hanks) is a cantankerous old man who begins A Man Called Otto ready to kill himself. Just as he's ready to put a noose around his neck, though, he sees that new neighbors Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) are making a mess in trying to park their moving van. A stickler for the rules, Otto leaves his suicide attempt behind and begrudgingly helps the duo properly park their automobile. From here, Otto continues to engage in various suicide attempts, all of them stemming from the anguish and hopelessness he feels over the recent loss of his wife. However, Marisol, Tommy, and other members of his neighborhood, including a homeless cat, keep inserting themselves into Otto's life and giving him reasons to stick around just a little while longer.

Director Marc Forster has shifted gears across many genres over the years (including blockbusters with World War Z and Quantum of Solace) but A Man Called Otto sees him returning to a mold he's often occupied: tearjerker dramas. Even his foray into a live-action adaptation of animated Disney characters, Christopher Robin, adhered to the melancholy and poignant nature of many of Forster's forays into this field, such as Finding Neverland or The Kite Runner. A Man Called Otto nicely fits into this well-trodden mold. Much like with Christopher Robin, Forster isn't blazing new trails with Otto but still makes an effective weepie.

What proves especially moving here is one of the most unique visual facets of A Man Called Otto compared to the original Swedish film. This time, the flashbacks to Otto's past that occur whenever this character attempts suicide are now more directly tied to the present-day world. Occasionally, the camera will cut back to Otto murmuring portions of words he said in the past while the older and younger versions of Otto will sometimes find themselves inhabiting the other one's world. Time is a flat circle for Otto, tragedy has made everything seem like it's happening at the same time. These visual details poignantly suggest how consumed by the past Otto has become while adding a distinct visual flourish to the proceedings.

Those flashback sequences give A Man Called Otto its pathos while much of the entertainment value of feature comes from its performances. Having "America's Dad" Tom Hanks play a cranky old man may seem like obvious stunt casting, but the reliably strong Hanks proves so good in the role that it's impossible to complain about his presence in the role of Otto. Shockingly, outshining even Hanks in terms of the performances here is Mariana Treviño. An incredibly compelling performer with a sharp sense of comic timing, she proves incredibly gifted at holding her own and then some in sequences where her bubbly character has to go toe-to-toe with A Man Called Otto's disillusioned protagonist. Just watching Hanks and Treviño spar is enough to justify A Man Called Otto existing beyond being a way for someone to wring more money out of the A Man Called Ove book.

While A Man Called Otto rises above expectations in some key respects, it also, unfortunately, succumbs to several problems that plague many major American movies meant to function as a tearjerker. For one thing, subtlety isn't the strongest suit of either Magee or Forster and that problem comes to a head in the biggest emotional moments of Otto. Conceptually devastating sequences depicting Otto's most tumultuous moments from the past are undercut by needle drops that use ham-fisted lyrics to beat you over the head with the scene's purpose. Surely Thomas Newman's score could've carried these scenes. Similarly, the third act is weighed down by several clumsy instances of characters, namely Otto, practically turning to the camera when they flatly explain their major character defects before saying how they're improving as a person. That kind of overly obvious dialogue makes it hard to invest in these character arcs.

The home stretch of A Man Called Otto could've used more of the finer subtle details that make the excellently-realized flashback sequences so moving. But even when it lives up to the reputation of major American melodramas being all tell and no show, A Man Called Otto still gets a boost from some great performances and its low-key depictions of people bonding with one another. Sometimes my heart gets won over by simple things like Otto gradually bonding with endearing neighbors like peppy jogger Jimmy (Cameron Britton) or cyclist Malcolm (Mack Bayda). I'm still not sure if we needed an English-language remake of A Man Called Ove, but if we had to get one, then A Man Called Otto is a solid take on the material.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Babylon is excess to the extreme and that's one of its many commendable qualities

 "You don't get to hate it unless you love it." So goes one of the most memorable lines in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It's also a piece of dialogue that feels appropriate for Babylon, writer/director Damien Chazelle's new movie that takes audiences back to 1920s Hollywood. Here, Chazelle explores stunning excess in the form of lavish parties and the dark nature of the American film industry. The way this filmmaker holds up a microscope to the brutal and even downright dehumanizing aspects of this industry could only come from someone who loves this era, its artists, and the art they produced. You can be conscious of something's flaws and still adore it. Babylon is a reminder of that. Its onscreen debauchery and darkest moments remind us all of the horrors of the film industry while its strengths as a piece of art serve as a fiery reminder of the power of movies. It's all such an entertaining and thoughtful whirlwind of a movie that you too will come to share the "love" that drove Chazelle's creative vision.

Babylon begins in 1927, with much of the story being told through the eyes of Manny Torres (Diego Galva). He starts out the movie as just an assistant at big Hollywood parties, helping to transport elephants and get drugs for any of the partygoers. At one of these events, Torres meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a wannabe starlet who harbors dreams as big as her weak spot for cocaine and gambling. From here, Babylon charts Torres, LaRoy, and a handful of other characters, like a silent movie legend named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), navigating the wild world of filmmaking in this era. This is already a turbulent industry full of unpredictability before the introduction of sound cinema comes into play and begins to phase out every aspect of silent movies, including the actors who flourished in this dialogue-free domain.

The turmoil caused for actors in the transition from silent movies to sound has always been a source of fascination for period piece features, as seen in Singin' in the Rain and The Artist. Babylon attempts to differentiate itself from the pack in several key ways, including reveling in all the debauchery it can imagine depicting the ribald excesses of the 1920s. Within the first ten minutes, elephant defecation and human urine are shown up on-screen, while drugs and nudity pepper every inch of the frame. In weaker hands, this could've been a try-hard attempt at being "edgy," but Chazelle finds a foolproof way of making all this ribald material work: make it entertaining.

The opening party scene of Babylon is incredibly riveting filmmaking, full stop. It's hard to think about any other period-era movies set in the 1920s that also wallowed in filth when you're trying to absorb every detail Babylon is throwing at you in this whiz-bang opening. This kick-off to the story see's Chazelle's camera in an incredibly confident mode as it soars through crowds of people, all covered in such richly-realized colorful costumes. Justin Hurwitz's score injects so much vibrant energy into the frame, particularly a track called "Voodoo Mama" on the soundtrack that combines an energetic and sometimes screeching trumpet and equally lively clapping. All these elements combine to make it feel like you're on the ground floor of all this glorious excess. It's tremendously impressive material peppered with great subtle sight gags, like a clearly pregnant woman partying her heart out, and punctuated with effective reminders of stark mortality that no amount of partying can fully escape. What a blast of a way to kick off a movie! 

This tour de force opening establishes the scope, debauchery, and complicated tone of Babylon that follows and it turns out to be a great place to spend three hours. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a movie with a sweeping enough scale to blow your socks off before its title card fills up the screen. All that mesmerizing mayhem is paired up with an increasingly discernible melancholy tone, with the latter bordering on apocalyptic towards the end of Babylon. It also helps that Chazelle's talent for realizing precisely-edited slices of intense cinema (see: Whiplash and First Man) is as alive as ever here (he's working with his go-to editor here, Tom Cross). Even better, this filmmaker gets to demonstrate a great talent for handling comedy. The same keen sense of timing he and Cross brought to sequences of J.K. Simmons berating Miles Teller on the drums is here exquisitely applied to memorable demonstrations of dark comedy. An early sequence depicting that cuts between the various troubles of filming a massive period-era battle sequence is an especially great demonstration of this.

Inevitably, in reaching for the stars, Chazelle's screenplay does stumble in certain respects, especially in the second half of the movie which jumps around a lot more in time. Certain character dynamics, like a friendship between Torres and Palmer, could've been fleshed out more and there are traces of ham-fisted dialogue (like Torres blatantly telling somebody over the phone "everything is about to change!" in obvious ADR after his character watches moviegoers go gaga for The Jazz Singer) peppered throughout the screenplay. I suspect the latter is the inevitable result of making a feature for a major American movie studio that costs more than $10 million (studios don't want pricey investments to be too incoherent for mainstream moviegoers), but those lines could've been more organically-realized within those confines.

But what really sticks out in my mind roughly 24 hours after watching Babylon isn't those flaws but the sights, the sounds, the laughs, and the ominous air coursing through the whole movie. That ominousness extends to Babylon's fascinatingly complicated attitude toward movies as an artform. Chazelle and company clearly have a lot of love for films, what they can do, and even the wackadoodle dedication it takes to make any of these features a reality. But he's also cognizant of the American film industry being a nightmarish place rather than something from a clean-cut magazine. The characters in Babylon never get ahead in this industry unless it comes at the expense of somebody else or even their own souls. Even the film's decadent opening sequences, which characters like Conrad eventually look back on fondly, feature frequent reminders of pitch-black reality.

Much like how the parties in Boogie Nights were laced with instances of disturbing behavior, even the "good times" for the characters of Babylon have a selfishness and darkness to them. Being cognizant of these nuances is one of Babylon's greatest strengths and lends a lasting sense of impact to the feature beyond being a sweeping visual and auditory exercise. Film itself is a beautiful medium full of rich power that can't be replicated in any other medium. It's also a tool that (in America) is built on the legacy of D.W. Griffith and has often been used to suppress voices while it's supposedly inspiring people. Similarly, one can love sound films while mourning all the lost opportunities for artists that specialized in silent film. It's with this attitude that Babylon crafts a compelling ode to films that also mourns an industry that treated its artists like cogs in a machine and not people (good thing entertainment companies don't do that anymore!)

All these rich themes and a willingness to depict the various film artists of the 1920s as people offer a great canvas for the actors of Babylon to work with. Margot Robbie especially excels in these confines, delivering a performance that carries a captivating aura (you can never take your eyes off her) emanating from how naturally she conveys aching pain creeping in through the margins of a confident exterior. She's just as game for moments where Babylon wants to contemplate mortality as she is when the film wants to engage in a lengthy vomit gag. Juggling those disparate pieces with entertaining and insightful success also makes Babylon as an entire movie an incredibly stirring watch. Come for all the raunchy spectacle and incredible score, stay for Chazelle and company demonstrating a burning passion for an era they love enough to critique. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Douglas Laman's 25 Best Movies of 2022


Me after each of the movies on this list ended

2022 was a strange year, though, then again, aren't all years, to some extent, strange? But 2022 was especially peculiar as we all tried to navigate what the new normal of reality was in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no going back to the status quo of pre-2020, but then, what does this new world look like? It was one of many questions that dominated people's minds in such an oddball year. Throughout the uncertainty of 2022 was a tidal wave of new movies. As with any other era of uncertainty in the history of the world, movies, like any medium of artistic expression, can be a great way to escape the confines of reality, come to terms with everyday hardships, or even do both of those things at the same time. Such is the magic of cinema.

Having seen well over 210 movies released into theaters and streamers throughout 2022, this year certainly offered a little bit of something for everyone. Much like last year's features, I was constantly impressed with how many artists still had the energy, creativity, and determination to realize new movies in the face of the countless hardships facing the everyday world.  Movies haven't gotten lost in the wave of headline-grabbing calamities that have shaken humanity in 2022. On the contrary, they've helped us all make sense of the world we inhabit and inspire us to understand our neighbors a little better.

Movies can be anything and 2022's best features proved that's just as true today as it was in 1922. Whether it was cannibal love stories, a multiverse adventure romp with an intimate emotional scope, or a Norwegian lady who was just the worst in the best possible way, the cinema of 2022 went all over the map and was all the better for it. It was hard to whittle down this list to just 25 entries (even extending things to include an honorable mentions section wasn't enough to ensure there weren't some heartbreaking exclusions from this list), but that's just a testament to the burning passion for creativity that informed the filmmaking scene of 2022. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Women Talking is as emotionally devastating as it is deeply human


Women Talking is a movie about characters who contemplate breaking the norms of the society they call home, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Sarah Polley's latest directorial effort subtly shatters some standards of "good" filmmaking. There's this perception among people, and I've sometimes contributed to it, that narration itself is bad, it's something that goes against the whole "show don't tell" mold that defines "good" filmmaking. To be sure, bad narration can be clumsy, but it's not innately a bad tool. For Women Talking, narration illuminating the points of view of these lead characters feels important and true to the crux of this story. These are people who, as said in an early piece of narration, don't have the language to comprehend their grief. The words in the narration aren't here to spoon-feed every onscreen detail to the audience, but rather reflect people coming to terms with the horrors that have become their everyday reality.

Women Talking, among its countless other accomplishments, quietly subverts these kinds of filmmaking norms, with its decision to focus a movie on survivors of sexual assaults and rape being equally compelling and distinct. Such bold choices are used to produce a story that clutches your eyes and burrows into your soul.

Based on the Miriam Toews book of the same name, Women Talking chronicles a collection of women living in a Mennonite colony who have a choice to make. They've uncovered the truth that the men in their colony have been raping them, an act the elders of their community are eager to dismiss altogether. These women are now grappling with what to do next. Do they just continue their existence, stay and fight, or leave for an unknown future? Much of Polley's script focuses on eight women, including the haunted Salome (Claire Foy), the dubious Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and the hopeful Ona (Rooney Mara), debating their varying perspectives and hopes for their future. They've been silenced for so long. Now, they have a chance to speak.

A friend of mine compared Women Talking in its scope and atmosphere to 12 Angry Men and that's a pretty apt comparison. Much like that 1957 Sidney Lumet film, Women Talking is proof you don't need a multitude of locations or an expansive scope to grip people's attention. Confining much of Women Talking to the top floor of a barn turns out to be a wise decision for the intimate story Polley is telling. We as viewers need to feel how few options these characters have, their world is so limited that they're unaware of the names of places lying far beyond their community. The limited scope of Women Talking's story quietly reinforces how trapped these characters are well, while the tight backdrop also affords more opportunities for the varying personalities in the script to smash into one another.

Such compelling drama unfolds when Women Talking just focuses on these dialogue exchanges, which are often punctuated by appropriately startling and abrupt images of the past (such as teeth falling out of a woman's mouth or another character waking up in the middle of the night and screaming in pain). This editing technique brings us into the minds of these women as they offer up their testimonies and, internally, re-experience their trauma all over again. We get to hear the words they choose to finally express themselves while also getting a glimpse into the horrifying realities they're reeling from. It's such a great piece of editing and directing that lends further insight into the minds of these characters without proving disruptive to the immersive world Polley is creating.

Much of that immersiveness comes from the fully-realized performances within the ensemble cast. Though they're playing women who inhabit a colony where individuality is strictly forbidden, there are still such welcome idiosyncrasies in each of their performances. Claire Foy, for instance, lends such vibrant and compelling (not to mention justifiable) passion in her line deliveries, while Rooney Mara lends believability to the poetic observations of Ona. This is a character who could have easily lapsed into being a parody of herself, but Mara just makes Ona's lines feel true, not trite or straining for profoundness. Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw, as August, a man tasked with penning the minutes of these meetings between women, is outstanding in portraying such a complicated soft-spoken fellow. It's a role that makes great use of Whishaw's gift for quiet yet impactful performances and this actor's talents in that area delivers some of the most striking emotional moments of Women Talking.

The unforgettable qualities of Women Talking even extend to its fascinating handling of religious entities. Specifically, in several moments of emotional distress, these women will turn to singing familiar religious hymns to one another to help their spirits rise again. It's such a delicate yet complex detail, as these women are, on the surface, employing songs not only heralded by their oppressors but that also promote a religion that informed their suppression. The use of these tunes isn't to minimize the horrors these women have experienced at the hands of a religious institution, but rather to show these survivors of abuse reclaiming tools once used to silence the voices. Words and passages previously utilized for the purpose of suppressing dissent are now being repurposed to encourage women to open up about their experiences. 

What an incredible element to incorporate into the narrative and one that speaks to just how detailed the psychology of these varied characters is. Such psychologies are explored without ever pushing the abusive men themselves into the forefront of either the narrative or the frame (we only see such figures in the background and often heavily obscured). We see the psychological and physical aftermath that these oppressive forces are having on the women of Women Talking, but Polley's camera is always lingering on survivors of sexual assault rather than those who perpetrate it. It's an approach that evokes, among many other movies, Kitty Green's The Assistant and speaks to the commendably subversive narrative priorities of Women Talking. The figures in this story are meant to be seen as human beings with wildly varying responses to trauma, not just figures to be exclusively used for endless and repetitive scenes of on-screen sexual misery like in In the Land of Blood and Honey.

These and other critical parts of Polley's understated yet moving filmmaking speak to how well Women Talking handles harrowing material. But what's also impressive are the handful of moments where levity breaks into the story. A well-timed joke involving an elderly character thinking she's gone blind only to then realize her glass have merely fogged up, for instance, may have seem like a weird tonal digression in a lesser movie. But here, these and other superbly-placed moments of humor accentuate the complexity of these characters who are capable of experiencing every emotion under the sun. By seeing them laugh together, we are reminded of the joy they are largely deprived of in the community they inhabit. These unique tonal moments highlight how, in this barn with just other women (plus August), Saloma, Ona, Mariche, and every other lady can finally be their complicated varied selves.

As a filmmaker, Sarah Polley has never shied away from brutal material. Her directorial debut, Away from Her, was about an elderly couple fragmented by Alzheimer's, she basically jumped into the deep end as a filmmaker right away. Meanwhile, her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell was an unflinching look at both her family's history and her own identity. That streak continues on with Women Talking, with Polley's gift for handling heavy concepts flourishing inside this feature's rule-breaking spirit. Traditional rules of movies say that you can't center narratives about sexual assault on people who've experienced it (even the recent She Said followed this rule), yet Women Talking focuses its runtime on several people who've survived rape. The history of cinema, meanwhile, is littered with the erasure of trans characters and performers, yet Women Talking makes room for trans experiences with the character of Melvin (August Winter). On and on the list goes as Women Talking constantly redefines "normal" in cinematic language, often without viewers even realizing the norms have been shattered.

Both Polley being in rare form as a director and the rule-breaking standards of this production have the incredible domino effect of also bringing out the best in all the other artists working on Women Talking, including the various members of the movie's stacked ensemble cast. A work as richly human as it is subversive of cinema norms, Women Talking is nothing short of outstanding.