Friday, September 22, 2023

Dumb Money Is A Meek Call For Revolution

Dumb Money tries so hard to be anarchic and subversive, a cinematic middle finger to the financially powerful. On paper, it sounds like a fine atmosphere to evoke for a movie chronicling that early 2021 phenomenon where a bunch of folks on Reddit turned GameStop stock into a hot commodity, throwing the American stock market into chaos in the process. So why does director Craig Gillespie's execution of this film feel so hollow and rigid? The real-world events he brings to the screen were so unpredictable, yet the images comprising Dumb Money are incredibly lacking in verve. It's impossible to properly channel an unruly aura when your filmmaking tendencies are so beholden to cinematic norms. Any of the liveliness Gillespie brought to I, Tonya or even the campy Cruella is absent here. This is a paint-by-numbers execution of a scenario that was anything but routine.

Written by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (whose script adapts the book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich), Dumb Money begins with Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a financial analyst who spends his downtime running a YouTube channel. Going by the name Roaring Kitty online, Gill is known for his oddball pieces of stock predictions and advice, like urging people to invest in GameStop stock. This advice comes in July 2020, when the COVID pandemic is keeping everyone indoors and GameStop seems poised to shut its doors for good. Yet everyday folks like Jennifer Campbell (America Ferrera) and Marcus (Anthony Ramos) listen to Gill and act accordingly. By the start of 2021, these folks and other working-class investors have managed to "hold" their GameStop shares to send the company skyrocketing. This doesn't make hedge fund managers like Kenneth C. Griffin (Nick Offerman) and Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) happy. The status quo is getting shaken up...and Gill is in the center of all that mayhem.

If there's anything Dumb Money should solidify, it's that focusing on rich characters for a prolonged period of time won't suddenly make them as interesting as the Roy family members on Succession. Too much screentime in Blum and Angelo's script is dedicated to the everyday life of Plotkin and his phone calls with other wealthy people like Steve Cohen (Vincent D'Onofrio). Save for one amusing sight gag of Cohen letting a massive pig run around his mansion, there's just not much entertainment, let alone actual insight, to be gleaned by spending time with these uber-wealthy people. It's not shocking to learn that someone like Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan), the founder of the stock market app Robinhood, is weasely. The excesses of these well-off people are rarely depicted interestingly, as epitomized by a groan-inducing scene of Tenev and his business partner sauntering to their Tesla automobiles as Kendrick Lamar's "HUMBLE." blares on the soundtrack. If Dumb Money insists on spending so much time with hedge fund managers and other modern monsters, at least make their time on-screen absorbing in some fashion. Worse, good actors like Rogen and Offerman are never given enough substantive material in the script to turn these figures into interesting human beings.

Dumb Money's inclination to be as "comprehensive" as possible means it also wants to examine the powerful people upended by the GameStop stock snafu. In the process, the movie just wastes screentime that could be spent further developing the primary working-class characters. In a movie that begins to roll its credits before it reaches, the 100-minute mark, few of these scrappy figures emerge as fully-formed distinct personalities. Worse, neither the script nor the filmmaking is very good at alternating between wacky profane humor and more grounded emotional beats. This is especially apparent when it becomes clear that the audience is supposed to be invested in the strained dynamic between Gill and his younger brother Kevin (Pete Davidson). The duo's rapport is so surface-level that it's hard to care about their relationship. Plus, their dynamic is so removed from the GameStop stock stuff that it feels like Dumb Money has to grind itself to a halt to deal with these fractured siblings.

While this kind of writing lets down the performers of Dumb Money, these actors are also hindered by the film's rampantly realistic filmmaking style. This is a movie about Redditors who use ape memes to convey contempt for authority and revel in misspelling words. Bizarrely, Dumb Money opts to frame these souls in lighting and color grading that evokes a much lesser version of the grim aesthetic of Steve McQueen's Shame of all movies. This approach makes it utterly baffling whenever characters like Jennifer spout phrases like "diamond hands" in the real world. The internet-savvy dialogue and filmmaking style of Dumb Money are at war with one another and not in a way that benefits the movie as a whole. Embracing a filmmaking style rooted in grounded reality works when framing the world of a sex addict in Shame. It's less successful when you're telling a story about dudes in cat masks being oversized YouTube personalities.

All that flat realism in the visual style established by Gillespie and cinematographer Nikolas Karakatsanis alone ensures that Dumb Money is a rudimentary cinematic exercise. The bog-standard screenwriting only compounds this problem as does a score by Will Bates. This composer is clearly channeling beloved films for The Social Network and Steve Jobs. Those features had scores that beautifully mixed traditional orchestral compositions with electronic flourishes to create the perfect auditory companion to stories about technology. Bates aims for the same thing here, but his compositions just come off as half-hearted retreads of what Network and Jobs did so well. Worse, the score often intrudes on, rather than enhancing, key emotional moments between the characters. It's already so hard to get invested in what's happening in Dumb Money without a Will Bates composition beating you over the head with how you're supposed to feel.

It's a good thing deeply talented actors like Paul Dano and America Ferrera are around in Dumb Money since they keep the proceedings from being totally disposable. Ferrera especially does great work communicating working-class anguish that makes it believable why Jennifer would put all her chips on the stock advice of an oddball YouTuber. Surely, though, fans of these actors can find better Dano, Ferrera, or Ramos movies to watch. Dumb Money isn't necessarily awful, it's just incredibly hollow. It's a routine recreation of modern history that fails to say anything meaningful or challenging about its subject matter. Worst of all, it doesn't even communicate a sense of simmering infectious rage against the financial status quo that could've easily salvaged a familiar script or unimaginative filmmaking. Instead, it's just a total flat-line too afraid to ever critique the larger systemic problems (like, say, capitalism) at play in its story. In other words, Dumb Money shows little of the often baffling but memorable gusto of the people it's chronicling. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

A Haunting in Venice Takes Hercule Poirot to An Uninspired Horror Movie


Once the credits begin to roll on A Haunting in Venice, the newest Kenneth Branagh-directed adaptation of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels, one might feel they need to summon up a detective to discern why they feel so underwhelmed. There's no noticeable aspect of A Haunting in Venice that's especially "bad" or "incompetent". Most of it's handsomely made and the actors are generally solid. So why does the whole thing feel so inconsequential? Why is something that's so determined to frighten the viewer barely leave a mark? Ultimately, A Haunting in Venice is just too stiff to ever get in touch with its freaky and scary side. Michael Green's screenplay wants to appeal to both the Downton Abbey and Insidious crowd here, but he can't quite nail the balance. 

Heavily expanding on a 1969 Christie novel entitled Hallowe'en Party, Poirot is now living out his days in Venice, Italy refusing to take on new mysteries. He's content to just spend his time a loner tending to his garden, but then old pal Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) shows out of the blue. This murder mystery author invites her detective comrade out to a seance occuring on Halloween night at the estate of opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Once all the local orphans are done with a Halloween party, Poirot, Oliver, and a gaggle of wildly varying personalities gather around Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who can apparently communicate with the dead. The goal of this exercise was to contact Drake's deceased daughter. However, a new unexpected murder leads Poirot to reconnect with his detective side to figure out who among the few souls in this palace is a killer. This is complicated by Poirot, who is dubious of anything supernatural, beginning to see strange things centered around dead kids and vengeful spirits.

One strange element of Branagh's version of Poirot is the desire to give this detective lots of tragic backstories. This character not only has a dead wife named Katherine looming over his exploits, but the 2022 film Death on the Nile opened with an explanation set in World War I for the origins of the character's famous facial hair. These attempts to make Poirot "more realistic" or "believable" are always a little baffling, especially since they run counter to the innately and entertainingly heightened nature of murder mystery stories. Once again in A Haunting in Venice, Branagh and Green are too enamored with explanations for Poirot's behavior for their own good. None of the personal drama for the character in this installment is very original or interesting, intimate struggles are just not what the character of Poirot works best with.

More egregious in terms of flaws for A Haunting in Venice, though, is simply the lack of imagination when it comes to scares. There's a heavy reliance on jump scares and discombobulating editing here to bring home the frights, any of which could have been shipped in from separate movies. The best examples of eerie uncertainty come from some wonky camera angles embraced by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. He also has fun tilting the camera or altering the lighting just enough to make Rowena Drake's lavish decor unnerving once the bodies start dropping. Otherwise, though, A Haunting in Venice isn't very interesting as a horror movie. The mind reels at all the fun or unhinged places a haunted house murder mystery could go to, but Venice is too preoccupied with coming off as "a real movie" to indulge in ridiculous entertainment. 

Green's writing also has issues disguising dead giveaways to the real murderer as just ordinary dialogue. Awkward run-on sentences escape the lips of characters with neon signs announcing "remember this later" practically draped over every word. With minimal scares and no real unpredictable mysteries on hand, A Haunting in Venice proves watchable mostly based on its sharp production design and collection of decent actors. The rapport between Jude Hill as an uber-smart kid and Jamie Dornan as this youngster's shell-shocked veteran father is especially interesting. Branagh makes smart use of Hill and Dornan's familiarity with one another after collaborating on Belfast to make a parent/child dynamic that feels deeply lived-in.

Hildur Guðnadóttir's score is also another jewel in this composer's crown, with her various compositions often demonstrating more of a chilling quality and degree of thoughtfulness than anything else in the movie. Even with these commendable qualities, though, A Haunting in Venice registers as largely an average and disposable experience. Too much of the script and direction opts for the obvious rather than the unexpected, resulting in a murder mystery that rarely pulls you to the edge of your seat. There are a lot of pop culture properties out there right now about idiosyncratic sleuths solving crimes. It's a level of ubiquity that would've made Agatha Christie happy. It's best to just catch up on Poker Face or revisit a Benoit Blanc adventure than catch up on the handsomely produced but frustratingly banal A Haunting in Venice.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Bottoms Carries On The Best Qualities of Queer Cinema and Comedy Movies

Gay cinema is weird. Why wouldn't it be? Being queer in most societies is a peculiar existence that can flip from being joyful one minute to full of sorrow the next. Tasks or events that are mundane for cis-het people are a matter of life and death for many of us in the LGBTQIA+ community. So many aspects of existing as a queer person are so conceptually absurd that it's no wonder cinematic reflections of this community would also be unorthodox. The likes of John Waters, Jamie Babit, Gregg Araki, Angela Robinson, and so many more have wrung incredibly entertaining cinema out of stories that alternate between wacky, depraved, and just plain weird. Their works perfectly capture the nuance and strangeness of queer existence while also delightfully eschewing the "model citizen" approach many cis-het people believe queer folks need to inhabit to secure "respect" and "acceptance".

Following in this grand tradition is Bottoms, a new sex comedy from Emma Seligman. It's an absurd farce of a movie that revels in the stylized world of High School movies and delivers some amazing horny chaotic lesbian representation. 

PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are a pair of High Schoolers who would like to get laid this century. However, the pair keep striking out with any lady that catches their fancy, with Josie being especially enamored with Isabel (Havana Rose Liu). After accidentally hurting star quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), these long-time best friends conjure up a lie that they're overseeing a "self-defense club" at their High School. PJ is convinced that this scheme is a great way to get closer to hot ladies and finally get some action. The result of this madcap concept is that a lot of ladies begin punching each other regularly (to trait for actual attackers), Isabel and Josie keep finding chances to spend time alone together, and the deranged football players at this school begin getting worried that they're no longer the center of attention.

A few days before seeing Bottoms, I caught up with Strays, that new R-rated comedy about dogs who saw potty words. The most disappointing part of that movie was how rigidly it adhered to sentimentality and standard storytelling conventions. I should not be able to predict every single moment of a movie focused on a dog out for some genital-based revenge. Strays tries to pass itself off as "adult" and "edgy", but it's way too enamored with didactic dialogue about character defects to ever embrace its strange side. That's a problem with too many modern R-rated comedies, which often are too timid to ever get truly weird. That's, thankfully, not a problem with Bottoms, which crams a lot of oddball gags into its concise 88-minute runtime. There's no attempt here to offer up lengthy explanations for why PJ is the way she is nor does every character feel the need to laboriously explain every inexplicable thing that happens on-screen. Writers Seligman and Sennott understand that the bizarre and unexplained is the recipe for great comedy.

Bottoms is hilarious, full stop, and many of its best jokes come from Seligman and cinematographer Maria Rusche executing seriously funny visual gags. Tired of modern comedy movies pushing all their jokes to the foreground and overdosing every scene in bright lighting to adhere to the visual standards of Netflix cinema? Bottoms is the remedy for that, as nearly every scene delights with humorous background gags that encourage viewers to poke around in the corner of the frame. An assortment of darkly humorous posters scattered around the hallways and cafeteria will especially satisfy eagle-eyed comedy fans. There's a larger world going on at this school beyond PJ and Josie, which just makes this feature all the more delightful to watch.

It helps too that the actors assembled here know just how to tap into the unique unhinged vibe of Bottoms, particularly leading ladies Sennot and Edebiri. Having worked together before on multiple occasions, the duo share a familiar rapport that makes the eternal friendship of PJ and Josie incredibly easy to buy. In their standalone performances, Edebiri does remarkable work imbuing such authentic humanity into such a wacky character while Sennott puts the likes of Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler to shame in her rendering of a selfish horndog in over their head. That's a standard protagonist archetype for the American comedy movie but rarely has that type of person been realized with such precisely funny line deliveries and perfect body language as Sennott's work in Bottoms.

Of course, the MVP of the cast has to be Marshawn Lynch in a supporting role as Mr. G. Not only are all his lines so sharply written, but Lynch is just a riot playing a guy who says the most incredulous things with total confidence. Mr. G is often in his own little world and Lynch makes that detachment a riot to watch. The incredibly enjoyable nature of Lynch's performance and everyone else in the cast makes it shockingly easy to get invested in all the madcap mayhem of Bottoms. A sequence involving some revenge on Jeff set to a perfect 1980s needle drop is genuinely exhilarating. Meanwhile, a football field finale proves more exciting than many straightforward climaxes from this summer's costlier blockbusters. Best of all, some of the intimate scenes between Isabel and Josie are so tender and sweet. Much like how the "Beautiful Ride" scene in the wacky Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is more moving than anything in any other standard music biopic, so too does Bottoms excel compared to other movies less reliant on lunacy.

On top of all that, Bottoms even becomes the rare modern comedy movie to deliver a memorable score courtesy of Charlie XCX and Leo Birenberg. Their compositions are brash creations that delightfully complement the pronounced nature of the entire production. Though its score, cinematography, and overall direction show a lot more care than usual for a modern American comedy, the trait of Bottoms that truly makes it a must-see is that it's flat-out hysterical. The unabashed weirdness that defines so much of queer cinema serves the creative comedy of Bottoms incredibly well.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Gran Turismo Is PlayStation Marketing Poorly Masquerading As An Actual Movie

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

At the end of the 2006 motion picture Cars, Lightning McQueen observes that the Piston Cup trophy he’s been obsessed with for so long “is just an empty cup.” It's a moment that's meant to signify that this brash racecar has come a long way and realized what's truly important in life. This particular line of dialogue, though, could have also been referring to the new film Gran Turismo. Much like a Piston Cup trophy, Gran Turismo is also hollow and meaningless. Director Neil Blomkamp, after previously delivering original pieces of sci-fi storytelling, has now helmed a late capitalism nightmare that proudly boasts about being a commercial for massive corporations. This newest example of how subpar video game movies can be wields as much genuine compassion for the working class as a 2023 country song that debuts atop the Billboard Hot 100 charts and contains as much fun as your average trip to the dentist. 

Based on the video game series Gran Turismo and based on the true story of racer Jann Mardenborough, Gran Turismo begins with an explanation of the history of its titular video game that feels indistinguishable from a commercial. It's a very promising start. From there, Jason Hall and Zach Baylin's screenplay takes viewers into the world of Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a video game-obsessed twenty-something with seemingly unobtainable dreams of engaging in the world of racing. For this working-class guy, the closest he'll ever get is his treasured Gran Turismo video games. However, a new competition spearheaded by marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) could give Mardenborough the chance he's been waiting for. Moore's concocted a scheme to have veteran racer Jack Salter (David Harbour) train a bunch of gamers to become professional racecar drivers. Satler is skeptical about the whole concept but the conviction and know-how of Mardenborough makes him believe that maybe this plan can go somewhere.

If there's anything audiences should take away from Gran Turismo above all else, it's that hinging so much of a movies drama on whether or not "sim-racers" (video game players experienced in "simulated" races) will be accepted by the racing world is a terrible idea. No matter how many times people say the phrase "sim-racers", it never stops sounding stupid. Any potential investment in the proceedings gets thrown out with the bathwater once those two words drop out of somebody's lips. It doesn't help that the underlying stakes of that acceptance never feel tangible or interesting. The intent behind this drama is that, if "sim-racers" are accepted into "snooty" races, maybe more working-class folks will be allowed into this sporting arena. With the surface-level execution of this script, though, Gran Turismo's plot seems to hinge solely on whether or not Mardenborough will be able to prove that more PlayStation promotion can exist at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

These are the kinds of thoughts that race through one's mind as Gran Turismo rolls through a cycle of familiar plot points with all the speed of a busted jaloppy. Something else that proves hard to dismiss? The pervasively ugly color scheme and visual aesthetic of the whole movie. Gray seeps into so much of the film and the big races always tend to take place in days dominated by overcast. Once he's entered the world of professional racing, Mardenborough walks from one sparsely decorated sleek space to another, with little in the way of bright hues or distinctive details in the various sets to exude a sense of personality to the character's various backdrops. It's all so drab looking and makes the racing world Mardenborough has always dreamed of entering seem so repellant. Who wants to spend their days working to the bone in places so sterile? Any of the tactility Blomkamp brought to his earliest directorial efforts is nowhere to be found throughout Gran Turismo.

Even the big racing scenes in Gran Turismo, surely the one saving grace of this subpar blockbuster, aren't anything to write home about. Blomkamp and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret really love using footage captured by drones for these sequences, which sometimes have a fun sweeping quality to them. However, generally, lengthy scenes where fast cars go zoom aren't realized in an especially exhilarating fashion. Even visual flourishes that translate details from the Gran Turismo video game onto the actual tracks Mardenborough is racing on aren't especially imaginative. Awkward cuts between actual automobiles and CG doubles for those vehicles as well as clumsy pieces of editing further undercut the potential excitement of these sequences. The latter element of the production, handled by Colby Parker, Jr. and Austyn Daines, is especially distracting whenever the camera is just capturing people talking to one another. Why does an early speech from Satler to the prospecting gamer racers have so many awkward cuts to random objects and people? Who knows.

There's little to capture the heart or captivate the senses in Gran Turismo, not even in terms of delivering thrills that temporarily exhilarating in the moment. It's so mechanically realized from top to bottom that its inspirational sports movie narrative beats never feel human enough while any stabs at human drama feel like a robot trying to mimic what "romance" or "male bonding" looks like. The aloof nature of the whole project only becomes briefly interestingly bad when Gran Turismo kicks off its third act with a miscalculated dark turn that brings grave mortality into the world of Mardenborough. A lengthy advertisement for PlayStation suddenly trying to grapple with an actual human being's death (and reducing this person to just being an unnamed plot point) goes about as well as you'd expect. It's staggeringly mishandled, but it's also a distinctively memorable poor choice, at least. The rest of the feature, save for Djimon Hounsou putting in a terrific supporting turn, is just a tedious slog that feels six times as long as Jeanne Dielman. If you love lengthy unskippable ads on YouTube, you’re gonna get your motor running over Gran Turismo.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Blue Beetle is rock-solid superhero fare leaning into low-key pleasures

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

There's been lots of internet chatter over how the new DC Comics feature Blue Beetle will impact future DC blockbusters. What I find more fascinating is how Blue Beetle relates to the last three DC motion pictures, Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and The Flash. Each of these blockbusters was bloated messes that traded out any trace of humanity or fun for scale and a deluge of CG baddies. All three features wanted to have the scope of a David Lean epic and the wit of a James Gunn comic book adaptation, but none of them had the creativity necessary to live up to their aspirations. After so much excess, the low-key nature of Blue Beetle is as welcoming as a drop of water in the desert. A movie willing to just focus on just a handful of characters and being an enjoyable standalone excursion is a prime way to wash out the nasty taste of The Flash from one's mouth.

Blue Beetle begins with Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) returning from college to his hometown of Palmera City. Reuniting with family like younger sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo), dad Alberto (Damián Alcázar), and grandma Nana (Adriana Barraza), Reyes discovers that his loved ones are going through tough times. Their house is being foreclosed on and money is scarce. Desperate to help, Jaime Reyes tries to score a job at Kord Industries through the aid of Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine). However, instead of scoring a cushy job, Reyes gets a scarab that attaches itself to his body. This mystical entity gives Jaime Reyes a superpowered exoskeleton known as the Blue Beetle. Now an ordinary twenty-something is dealing with all kinds of incredible abilities while also contending with the villainous Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon) and her bodyguard Conrad Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), both of whom want the scarab for nefarious purposes.

Originally intended as an HBO Max exclusive title
 (its release strategy was changed months before filming began), Blue Beetle's origins as a thriftier superhero tale are noticeable on-screen but not at all in a bad way. On the contrary, having less than half the budget of Black Adam at their disposal has inspired writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer and director Ángel Manuel Soto to make sure the character beats of Blue Beetle truly click. After all, there is no CG skybeam in the third act to distract audiences from unengaging on-screen personalities. Luckily, Jaime Reyes and his family turn out to be an enjoyable collection of characters to spend two hours with, especially Dunnet-Alcocer wisely pumps the brakes on the story occasionally to depict low-key interactions between these loved ones.

For instance, a moment where Jaime Reyes and Alberto sit in front of their house, talking about the future while looking at plants the latter character put into the ground years earlier proves mighty touching. Meanwhile, the action-heavy third act nicely avoids the problem many superhero movies struggle with. Titles like The Wolverine tend to deliver finales that feel divorced from the character-centric sequences that preceded them. Suddenly, all the pathos is jettisoned so that the protagonist can duke it out with a CG monster. Wisely, Blue Beetle keeps the family of Jamie Reyes front and center for the entire narrative, including the climax. Never losing sight of this superhero's relationship with his loved ones gives Blue Beetle a sense of narrative consistency even when superpowered beings are punching each other. 

Those brawls between Reyes and Carapax (the latter of whom initially has a suit of armor that makes him look like one of the Jaegers from Pacific Rim) are more perfunctory than the character beats of Blue Beetle. The decision to shoot the biggest action sequences at night robs these set pieces of a chance to engage in bright colors reminiscent of vintage comic books while the choreography and sound mixing in these Reyes/Carapax showdowns often feel too derivative of similar skirmishes in superhero fare like Iron Man. Anytime these fights lean into the silliness of Reyes conjuring up any weapon from his Blue Beetle suit (like axes, swords, blasters, etc.), the action scenes certainly get taken up a notch in excitement. Meanwhile, the initial tension between Reyes and Khaji-Da (Becky G), the entity inside the scarab, informs some of the most enjoyable action beats as these characters struggle to reconcile their opposing views on how to take out bad guys. Speaking of the suit, it looks great on-screen. The decision to realize it as a practical on-set outfit rather than something added in through CGI later pays off nicely, those blue hues just pop right off the screen.

Speaking of pleasant surprises, composer Bobby Krilic (a prolific musician and songwriter whose only prior film scores were limited to Triple 9 and the last two Ari Aster features) delivers a fantastic score for Blue Beetle that reinforces the distinctive personality of the overall feature. In an inspired move, Krilic has opted for an electronic sound in the score. This quality immediately differentiates the sonic landscape of Blue Beetle from other superhero movies, which often feature scores trying too hard to emulate the compositions of John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Save for occasionally distracting uses of that Inception "bwaaammm" noise, Krilic's score here is an idiosyncratic creation that could be enjoyed even divorced from the context of Blue Beetle. These tracks lend propulsive energy that proves fitting for a movie that's generally and enjoyably on the move, save for a second act that gets too bogged down in Blue Beetle lore and antics involving supporting character Rudy Reyes (George Lopez).

Sometimes, it's best to keep things low-key. Blue Beetle is a great example of this. Even just confining one's gaze to the realm of superhero movies, Angel Manuel Soto's feature isn't an all-time classic. It's too statically filmed and a tad too eager to embrace familiar superhero film hallmarks (like an action scene set to an 80s rock song, in this case, a Mötley Crüe ditty) to be the next The Batman or Spider-Man 2. However, that doesn't discount the fact that this is still a mighty enjoyable slice of blockbuster filmmaking that finds its best moments leaning into earnest humanity and comic book tomfoolery. What a welcome reprieve that is after The Flash and Black Adam beat viewers over the head with endless spectacle in place of any soul. Oh, it also must be said that it was delightful to sit in a packed house of moviegoers and witness people getting excited at references to pop culture properties like El Chapulín Colorado or watching Blue Beetle's equivalent to cheer-worthy superhero movie lines like "I'm always angry" getting delivered in Spanish. Those details reflect how Blue Beetle doesn't reinvent the wheel but provides enough unique flourishes to register as a fun time. Certainly, it's way better than Shazam! Fury of the Gods...

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Lisa Laman's Summer 2023 Arthouse Cinema Catch-Up

A scene from Before, Now & Then

For this week's review, Lisa Laman will be breaking the mold...a little bit. With major new wide releases being scarce in the middle of August 2023,  this review will instead provide mini-reviews of a handful of new indie movies that have dropped in the past few weeks. Though the reviews are more concise than usual, perhaps this will put some films on people's radar that they weren't previously aware of. Make sure to support independent theaters and artists!

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.


Afire chronicles Leon (Thomas Schubert), who is sharing a cabin with best pal Felix (Langston Uibel) and unexpected guest Nadja (Paula Beer). Surrounding these characters is a forest that's catching fire, but that seems like an afterthought considering how overwhelmingly irritable Leon is to everyone around him. Helmed by Christian Petzold, the filmmaker behind Phoenix and Transit, Afire manages several deft feats in terms of storytelling, including making Leon a reasonably compelling protagonist despite his relentless rudeness. Also impressive? The way the project weaves an absorbing world out of just a handful of people in the German countryside. The intimate scope of the proceedings works wonders in making the tension between the lead characters feel extremely palpable while the ever-increasing wildfires function as a great subtle ticking clock. There's lots to admire in Afire in terms of its narrative intricacies, but it's also just a gripping character-based drama while you're watching it unfold. 

Tori and Lokita

In the tradition of French movies about tortured youths from the likes of Robert Bresson and François Truffaut, Tori and Lokita captures the miserable lives of two kids, Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Mbundu Joely). Immigrants from Africa, the pair are on their own somewhere in Belgium, trying to make money by working alongside some shady characters. All the while, all they want to do is help their mom back home and stick together. It's incredibly impressive how well Schils and Joely both handle the weighty material of the screenplay by directors Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. A pair of great lead performances and some sharp directing, though, can't infuse Tori and Lokita with enough of a discernible personality to differentiate it from other similar dramas about adolescent characters navigating the horrors of the world. A film so conceptually harrowing shouldn't also register as so often too familiar for its own good.

Before, Now & Then

By the time Before, Now & Then begins, major historical events have already faded into the past. A series of uprisings and events in Indonesia in the middle of the 20th century have already transpired, with Before, Now & Then following Nana (Happy Salma) as she navigates her existence in the wake of all that drastic change. Now in a new marriage, Nana is tormented by memories of her first partner, who was brutally killed, while finding salvation in a friendship with Ino (Lara Basuki), a lady her newest lover is carrying on an affair with. The Ino and Nana dynamic in Before, Now & Then is one of the greatest strengths of this project. Not only is it a conceptually interesting pairing that subverts viewer expectations over how Nana would respond to meeting a mistress, but the two actors have such compelling chemistry with one another. Quiet scenes of them talking about their respective internal woes and existential queries are incredibly fascinating. Writer/director Kamila Andini is wise to focus so heavily on this duo and she shows equally strong chops in how she visually depicts the past bleeding into Nana's modern life. 


The very first scene of the latest Ira Sachs movie, Passages, begins with Tomas (Franz Rogowski) working as a director and being extremely picky over how one performer should depict walking into a club. It's a terrific distillation of how controlling Tomas is, a trait that oozes over into his personal life with his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) and new lover Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The ensuing twisty-turny depiction of Tomas bouncing between two loves proves a most transfixing portrait of just how messy relationships can be, especially when a member of those dynamics is as toxic as Tomas. Sachs demonstrates a subtly keen visual eye for how to capture all that romantic turmoil and his decision to opt for lengthy single-takes when filming graphic sex scenes (including an extremely memorable one between Martin and Tomas) shows remarkable control. Even more so than the gripping script and camerawork, though, the true star of Passages has to be Ben Whishaw, who once again demonstrates his mastery of quiet but impactful characters with his work as Martin. The guy's haunted eyes and quietest line deliveries spark with more personality than most forceful monologues delivered by "method actors".


Shortcomings protagonist Ben (Justin H. Min) is insufferable. That's the point of Randall Park's directorial debut (adapted from Adrian Tomine's graphic novel of the same name, with Tomin also writing the screenplay adaptation), which doesn't hold back in depicting Ben being short-tempered and cynical to everyone he encounters, including his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki). The film's commitment to just how deeply unpleasant Ben is, Justin H. Min's engaging lead performance, and the fact that many of his personality traits seem designed to critique the sort of Letterboxd/Film Twitter heads who might her-worship Ben ends up making this character (at least for me) more interesting than repellant. However, Tomine and Park end up doing their job a little too well, as Ben's toxic traits are so well-defined that, by the time the third act arrives, one yearns for a darker conclusion rather than a rushed tidy wrap-up. Don't give us happily ever after, offer up something more challenging and morally ambiguous! Still, Shortcomings, even with an underwhelming finale, proves to be just the kind of breezy, well-acted indie that goes down easy in the summertime. Best of all, it's a great showcase for the talents of Joy Ride breakout star Sherry Cola, whose so much fun here in Shortcomings as Ben's best pal Alice.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Oppenheimer is a harrowing achievement from Christopher Nolan

In an early scene of Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) expresses skepticism for J. Robert Oppenheimer's (Cillian Murphy) ambitions for how just how widely-praised his plans for creating an atomic bomb could be. "You really think they'll give you a Nobel Prize for inventing a bomb?" Groves inquires. Oppenheimer then unleashes a wry smile and remarks "Alfred Nobel invented the stick of dynamite."

It's an amusing bit of dialogue illuminating the heavily opposing personalities of these two characters. However, it's also a moment that illustrates the dark undercurrent of Oppenheimer. This is a movie about how we, as humans love to destroy. We champion scientific invention or concepts like "Manifest Destiny" in the name of destroying others. The more blood that gets spilled on the ground, the greater the roaring cheers from the crowd. Even the Nobel Prize is derived from a man who gave humanity the tools to blow any object it sets its eyes on. Oppenheimer is a film about the creation of atomic bombs, but it is not a celebration of those tools. Writer/director Christopher Nolan's latest epic is a cautionary tale about the grisly legacies we leave behind and the horrific ways one human being can become "the most important man who ever lived."

Oppenheimer tells its story in a non-linear fashion, with the tale darting back and forth between various periods of Oppenheimer's life. The primary focus is on both the creation of the atomic bombs themselves and the 1954 Oppenheimer security hearings, though we also see even earlier events like Oppenheimer's time at school and his initial romantic interactions with Katherine Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt) and Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). There's a comprehensiveness to Nolan's storytelling approach here, but Oppenheimer does not get bogged down in trying to cram too much into one movie. On the contrary, there's a verve to the proceedings, an electric energy initially built on the "ticking clock" of needing to build an atomic bomb before the Germans do. Gradually (and, in some ways, right from the start), though, the propulsive tension of Oppenheimer emanates from more complicated places. Events like the surrendering of Germany in World War II or the malicious behavior of American politicians toward domestic Communists were to tilt the origin of Oppenheimer's eerie atmosphere inward. In trying to stop monsters, J. Robert Oppenheimer gradually begins to realize he's participating in something monstrous.

Among the many virtues of Oppenheimer's non-linear storytelling is how many of these morally complicated elements are there from the get-go. Rather than being treated as a total "surprise" in the third act, the darker underbelly of American society is apparent from the get-go in elements like the struggles of California college scientists to unionize or the aggressive behavior of interrogator Roger Robb (Jason Clarke). Meanwhile, Oppenheimer's tendency to defer to consensus ("many scientists are saying...") rather than taking a concrete stand in the face of hard questions is also clear as a bell in these flashback sequences. This avoidance of specific political labels or intense confrontations is a peculiar trait in his everyday social interactions, but it eventually becomes a grave shortcoming when Oppenheimer has to grapple with the consequences of his atomic bombs. Within Oppenheimer, the past and present are fascinatingly intertwined. Darting between various points in time allows the viewer to appreciate how the tiniest bits of throwaway human behavior can end up having such profound consequences long-term.

Thematically, Oppenheimer grapples with plenty of weighty ideas, while the presentation of the titular physician's life (complete with impressionistic cutaways depicting particles and atoms reacting to one another) presents those concepts in an appropriately distinctive manner. As grand as the film's intellectual ambitions, though, are its visuals. The grave momentousness of the creation of atomic weaponry is matched in scale by staggering imagery captured by Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte von Hoytema. I was especially taken by the subtly evocative color palette of the feature, with the monochromatic segments making such an impact because they're divorced from the discernible yet grounded colors (like the brown sandy deserts of Los Alamos, New Mexico) that dominate other parts of Oppenheimer. The innately woeful tone of those hearings sequences is exacerbated by draining out all the color present in scenes where Oppenheimer believes he's making fruitful history. Meanwhile, the 70mm IMAX version of Oppenheimer especially allows one to appreciate the endless intricacies behind this project's camerawork. You haven't seen Cillian Murphy until you've seen him five stories tall!

Nolan has made tons of movies that are expansive in scope before. It's his reputation at this point, the last man standing who dares to use $100+ million budgets on original concepts with spectacle to spare. What's fascinating about Oppenheimer, though, is how its visuals, much like the overall atmosphere of the production, feel at once consistent with Nolan's prior creative efforts and excitingly detached from them. This filmmaker has worked with IMAX cameras and massive ensemble casts before, but rarely has he juggled so many starkly different visual qualities (like shifting from black-and-white to color) or dabbled in so much heightened imagery. The latter quality is especially potent in late scenes depicting the horrors of nuclear warfare intruding on the mind of Oppenheimer. He imagines himself stepping into corpses or running across sobbing families while he attempts to give a supposedly "triumphant" speech. It's a harrowing sequence technically divorced from reality (it's set in Oppenheimer's mind) yet reinforcing the inescapable horrors of this man's actions.

Meanwhile, the way sound just cuts off completely in the most intense moments of Oppenheimer (a way of emphasizing the haunting atmosphere of the feature) is also a bold new measure in Nolan's filmmaking techniques used to incredibly interesting effect. Even the director's embrace of explicit on-screen sexuality is intriguingly realized, with eroticism drained out of these depictions of physical intimacy to capture how often Oppenheimer seems divorced from other human beings. You've never seen a Christopher Nolan movie quite like Oppenheimer, even as it clutches his best qualities as a director and takes them to new heights. It's a remarkable project brought to life through daring filmmaking and a terrific ensemble cast, the latter detail anchored by an unforgettable turn from Cillian Murphy. You won't be able to take your eyes off his rendering of this physician who forever changed the world...but not necessarily for the better.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem Has Fun To Spare

There's always a mad rush to translate comic book and TV cartoon characters into live-action movies. It's not like adaptations of these properties using flesh-and-blood people are cursed, far from it. However, there's a stigma towards animation as a medium in this belief that a "proper" theatrical movie translating beloved pop culture icons can only be a street that leads from animation or drawings to the "real world". Why not just translate them into a new art style when bringing these figures into the world of animated cinema? After all, many characters belong in animation for a very good reason! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a great example of this, providing so much energy and life to the titular superheroes by keeping them in the world of animation, Reality would be too much of an anchor for these young heroes, as seen by the 2014 and 2016 Ninja Turtles movies. They need the limitless possibilities of animation to thrive.

Mutant Mayhem begins with those beloved turtles Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Donatello (Micah Abbey), and Michaelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) living underground with their adopted rat dad Splinter (Jackie Chan) in fear of humans. After all, they're different from "normal" society and Splinter is convinced humans will only want to kill and milk the Turtles. However, being rambunctious teenagers, the turtles are eager to disobey their father and interact with the larger world. Thanks to new human pal April O'Neil (Ayo Edebiri), the quartet gets a crazy idea: they can stop the dastardly New York criminal Superfly (Ice Cube) and garner the love of humanity that way. Once people see the turtles are heroes, not monsters, they'll have to accept these teenagers! This problem gets a touch complicated, though, when Superfly is revealed to be a mutant animal like the turtles. Where will the loyalties of these critters eventually lie?

I feel sorry for the directors of some of this year's biggest live-action blockbusters like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Flash, or Fast X. It must be so frustrating to spend the GDP of the Marshall Islands on a movie and then the action sequences just come out looking like garbage. Worse, the action scenes in costly titles like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny are being put to shame by the action-heavy set pieces in modern animated features ostensibly aimed at children. The likes of The Bad Guys, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and now Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem are doing circles around these PG-13 tentpoles. Unbound by the burden of "realistic" CG or choppy editing, Mutant Mayhem delivers all the wacky chaos you'd want out of a Ninja Turtles movie.

When these reptiles get to fighting, Mutant Mayhem director Jeff Rowe proves adept at keeping things zippy and energetic but not devolving into incoherent chaos. A lengthy sequence where the siblings confront a bevy of mob bosses around New York City, much of it captured in a single take, is especially impressive. These characters engage in fight scenes that take advantage of the stylized opportunities of animation, yet also find time to inject tangible touches of reality into the proceedings (like Splinter reaching for any nearby objects on the floor to use in a skirmish) that keeps things dramatically involving. Speaking of fun set pieces, a big appropriately goofy finale takes the ridiculousness of this franchise's "mutant ooze" element to dizzying new heights. Impressively, the scope of Mutant Mayhem gets expanded greatly here without sacrificing the emotionally involving elements. Best of all, it's just a flat-out ridiculous way to end a movie and that feels right for these characters. We're a long way from the self-consciousness of the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which felt it needed to ground everything about these characters in gritty reality. Anything about turtles who use ninja skills to fight bad guys should have the silliness dialed all the way up, like Mutant Mayhem's best fight scenes.

If there is any critical shortcoming in a screenplay attributed to Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, Jeff Rowe, and Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit, it's that Mutant Mayhem can find itself relying too heavily on didactic expository dialogue. An opening scene with Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) flat-out turning to the camera to discuss the incoming feature's core themes of "family" establishes a precedent for the rest of the film to dip its toes into overly obvious lines.  Lots of elements in this Ninja Turtles movie exude confidence out of the wazoo. This kind of dialogue does not and feels outright at odds with the visual-oriented impulses of the productions. While the images of Mutant Mayhem are often so vivid, its characters still feel the need to hammer home fairly obvious character beats, backstory details, or thematic parallels.

There are also certain background characters in Mutant Mayhem, namely this film's incarnation of Bebop & Rocksteady, that totally could've just been played by professional voice actors rather than recognizable comedians/actors. Thankfully, most of the cast does great work with the roles they've been assigned, particularly all four of the leads playing the turtles. Even in voice-over form, they have great chemistry with one another and clearly communicate discernible personalities for each reptile. Ayo Edibiri also makes for an incredibly entertaining iteration of April O'Neil while Ice Cube emerges as the voice-over MVP with his bravura work as Superfly. Cube is just bursting with personality as this unabashedly wicked baddie and he lends lots of energy to this particular character. 

All of those vocals are filtered through an animation style that emphasizes a raggedy, scraggly quality to the world of the Ninja Turtles. Obvious scribble lines are plastered on everything from puffs of smoke to the moon, towering skyscrapers in New York City are crooked rather than straight, while the world evokes a more hand-drawn animation aesthetic than the perfectionism of typical CGI. Granted, it does take a while to get used to the fact that most of the human beings (April O'Neil excepted) are ugly as sin, but once you adjust to that quality, the animation style of Mutant Mayhem is truly impressive. Rather than being derivative of other modern CG features rooted in older animation styles like The Mitchells vs. The Machines or the Spider-Verse titles (the former of which was co-directed by Rowe), Mutant Mayhem uses those projects as launchpads for a wholly new aesthetic.

It's now been well over three decades since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first made their way to the big screen in 1990. The characters have been a staple of both pop culture and multiplexes ever since, but they've never felt as alive and vibrant as they do within Mutant Mayhem. Even after seeing them in so many other features before, the best parts of this new computer-animated title make it feel like viewers are meeting the Turtles for the very first time. Rarely has their adolescent angst felt so real or their world been so visually compelling. Also, no other Turtles movie has previously featured the chillaxed Mondo Gecko (Paul Rudd) before! Though it has some cracks in its shell, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a lot of fun and a great encapsulation of why certain animated characters should remain in animation.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Barbie is, much like its titular lead character, everything

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

I never played with Barbie dolls as a kid. I had a Dora the Explorer house set that kind of functioned like a Barbie Dream House, but that was the closest I got. When I was young, I was incredibly self-conscious about doing anything that would make me seem "femme" or "juvenile." Though aspects of the Barbie dolls, namely their glittery colors and the fact that they could inhabit any occupation, tantalized some part of my mind, I bottled those emotions up. I had to be normal. I had to conform. I was growing up in an age of Call of Duty, Zack Snyder movies, and aggressive YouTube bros who made violence against women a go-to punchline. If I wanted to be a "normal guy", I couldn't even look at the glittery or the pink. 

And yet, even with all these social pressures, in my last year of High School, I did something a little bold. I was walking behind my school's auditorium and I saw a gigantic pink box mimicking the packaging of a typical Barbie doll. I asked my friend to take a snapshot of me in the box. I did an extravagant femme pose and, for a moment, got to channel those emotions and desires I'd always put a cork in. I may not have memories of playing with Barbie dolls as a youngster, but the allure of the maximalist feminine sensibilities of Barbie was always there for me. They proved intriguing enough to inspire me to take a risk scoring a "silly" photograph of me being a Barbie girl in High School. Writer/director Greta Gerwig's live-action feature Barbie (which she penned with Noah Baumbach) taps into the innate appeal of Barbie, but also all the complicated intricacies that define so many people's relationship with this pop culture icon.

Anyone understandably worried that Gerwig making the transition to big-budget filmmaking would lose the charms of her earlier works like Lady Bird and Little Women need not worry. This lady is a master at her craft and she has no problem making something as profound as it is delightfully loopy.

Barbie (Margot Robbie), who refers to herself as Stereotypical Barbie, lives in Barbieland. It's a realm decked out in pink and plastic, where all the Barbies occupy fulfilling jobs and the Kens are there to be their best pals. Especially dedicated to connecting to Barbie is a Ken portrayed by Ryan Gosling, who works at the beach and is determined to win Barbie's love. One day, Barbie finds her world going a little loopy. Her feet are firmly on the ground, she has a cold shower, and thoughts of death keep rattling around her brain. She quickly learns that she has to travel to the real world to help solve her issues, a quest that Ken eagerly insists he join. Traveling to Los Angeles, both Barbie and Ken find themselves in a much more complicated world than either of them could've ever imagined.

From here, Barbie takes some fascinating roads that provide lots of social commentary on modern gender norms and the very concept of Barbie herself. As pointed out by my good pal Kat Hess, the innately campy nature of Barbie as a movie makes potentially didactic explorations of patriarchal issues extremely entertaining. After all, everything else in this feature is so over-the-top and colorful when it comes to the costumes and sets, a perfect reflection of the visual aesthetic of the Barbie dolls. Why shouldn't its examination of gender roles also be super pronounced? Campy cinema has never been about subtlety, especially when such films attempt to comment on societal woes that are already aggressive and intrusive in the real world. Barbie is just keeping the aesthetic of socially concious camp classics like But I'm a Cheerleader or Jennifer's Body alive and well with its overt way of grappling with gender-based issues.

Barbie is rooted in all kinds of great cinema from years past, from sets that echo the colorful realities of Powell & Pressburger movies to a collection of Mattel cubicles that evoke a location from a Jacques Tati's Playtime to an extravagant Ken musical number that would make Troy Bolton's "Bet On It" proud. However, Gerwig and company are not just leaning on classic movie references and nods to various classic Barbie dolls to carry the day (though goodness knows there's plenty of both!). It's also got tons of standalone joys that make it such an exceptionally fun and zippy experience. Most notably, Gerwig's gift for comedy as a filmmaker is able to flourish in such extravagant confines.

While revisiting Lady Bird a few weeks ago, I was surprised to discover a hysterical gag where the film's titular character arrives at a party where some guy in a bucket hat is just standing in front of an open fridge. This guy never gets a name and nobody ever references his oddball behavior, but the lack of attention drawn to this inexplicable figure makes this figure all the more amusing. Gerwig brings back that kind of commitment to weird little background details and inexplicable elements for the world of Barbie. Ken expresses disdain for another Ken through frustrated dance moves while Barbie proudly talks about the genitals she doesn't have. Much like Showgirls combined commentary on patriarchal power structures while featuring Gina Gershon waxing poetic on her days of eating dog food, so too does Barbie masterfully combine absurdist gags with more meaningful interrogations of identity and what it means to be a woman. 

Boy howdy, do those moments of pathos ever work like gangbusters. Lady Bird and Little Women already reduced me to tears so it's no surprise Gerwig found a way to make me blubber with tears once again. Few modern filmmakers are as gifted as she is with capturing wistful nostalgia on-screen. Scenes of youthful romance in Lady Bird are realized with such a moving reflective quality, while the bright colors dominating the flashback sequences of Little Women make it clear why the past can be such a comforting place to retreat for Jo March. Here in Barbie, visions Barbie has of people in the "real world" just vividly communicate the ceaseless march of time. There's a soft quality to the images that makes them initially so warm and cozy before tugging on the heartstrings as inviting visual qualities are undercut by the inevitable complexities of growing up. The small choices Gerwig and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto employ to render the past on-screen make for deeply moving moments within Barbie and continue this director's gift for underscoring how personally important memories of the past can be.

The wildly disparate tonal elements are handled with grace by Gerwig and Baumbach's screenplay, while the ensemble cast assembled for Barbie also proves to have the chops to handle such wild material. Margot Robbie turns in her third great performance (following her unforgettable work in Asteroid City and Babylon) in the past seven months in inhabiting the role of Barbie. She's funny, she excels in emotional moments, and she exudes the kind of believability that Will Ferrell brought to Buddy the Elf two decades ago. Robbie isn't playing a heightened caricature of Barbie, she's immersed herself in becoming Barbie. Meanwhile, America Ferrera and Kate McKinnon are both delightful in supporting roles while Ryan Gosling steals the show with his himbo interpretation of Ken. Gosling's always had great comedic chops (just watch The Nice Guys!) and every inch of his Ken performance is a masterclass in why he should only be playing beefy goofballs, he's just so much fun.

In many ways, Barbie feels like it was made for me, and not just because of its tender exploration of what it means to be a woman. Its wackiest absurdist gags (like Ken rushing out to surf a wave on a body of water that doesn't actually exist) could've come from any of the vintage Simpsons episodes that helped mold my shape of humor. Meanwhile, an extended dance digression is clearly a homage to a similar sequence in Singin' in the Rain, a musical movie that broke open my brain to the possibilities of cinema as an artform when I first watched it as a young teenager. Even the bubbly soundtrack featuring songs that pair peppy orchestral accompaniments and vocal deliveries with unexpectedly darker lyrics (like Lizzo's "Pink") are successors to quietly grim show tunes I adored as a kid, like "The Nicest Kids in Town" or "Popular."

Even as it registered with many long-standing things I love about cinema and art, Barbie also resonated with me in ways I couldn't have expected. While I think about Singin' in the Rain and great wacky Simpsons gags all the time, I hadn't considered my adolescent relationship to classically "feminine" toys in years, if ever. Barbie reminded me of that and so much more heavy material I just don't have the space to think about on a day-to-day basis. Sitting in my seat, giggling at certain witty lines, a lump in my throat never quite vanished as Stereotypical Barbie navigated the harsh realities of what it means to be human. Barbie had me reaching into the Rolodex of my mind, not because of fan service, but the wistful emotions it inspired. 

I never played with Barbie dolls as a kid. But I was aware of them. I was fascinated by them. I even got that Dora the Explorer house playset as a way to simulate the idea of owning a Barbie dreamhouse. Greta Gerwig's Barbie reminded me of the qualities of Barbie that always proved so compelling while also making a film that takes this character and her world to such wildly unexpected places. It's a movie whose most tender and hysterical moments are impossible to jostle from my mind. It's also a project that's just as unabashedly funny, sad, weird, and glorious as the average everyday existence of a woman. Who knows if Barbie's magic will work on others as it did on me. All I know is that watching this movie was a magical experience that left me with a massive smile, plenty of tears in my eyes, and an even greater respect for the comedic gifts of Ryan Gosling. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) is surely alive with lots of thrills

This review was written during the 2023 Writer's Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes. This motion picture wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of unionized artists who deserve fair liveable wages.

It may be the seventh entry in the Mission: Impossible series, but Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the last month of summer blockbusters. Placed next to the rudimentary Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, the unbearable The Flash, and the stunningly inert Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the most basic elements of Dead Reckoning seem like revelations. Even its way of referencing other earlier installments in this saga is masterful compared to other 2023 blockbusters. Dial of Destiny just delivered an adolescent rehash of Short Round and The Flash paused its plot for CG cameos from older DC superheroes. By contrast, Dead Reckoning harkens back to the very first Mission: Impossible simply by mimicking how that feature cut to brief bursts of often silent flashbacks. If you understand the visual symmetry at play, you'll get a nifty reference. If not, the flashbacks still work on their own terms. That's how you do it.

What is Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) up to this time? Well, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) catches up with our hero contending with a new enemy rooted in the modern world. An A.I. system known as The Entity is growing more and more powerful. Rather than destroy this omnipresent entity, the world's governments, including the United States of America, merely want to control The Entity. Hunt must go rogue with allies Benji (Simon Pegg), Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), and Luther (Ving Rhames) to stop The Entity and its most devoted followers, like the malicious Gabriel (Esai Morales). A wild card in all this mayhem is pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell), who ends up being stuck at Hunt's side as she gets roped into all this world-threatening chaos.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns for his third Mission: Impossible assignment on Dead Reckoning (Part One), partially because he did such a good job helming the last two installments in this series and also because Tom Cruise apparently can no longer take on an acting gig unless McQuarrie is involved in the production in some capacity. This particular entry isn't quite up to par with McQuarrie's earlier directorial efforts in the franchise, though luckily the shortcomings are more small foibles rather than fatal flaws. It would've been nice for supporting players like Ilsa to get more screentime while the script is a bit too concerned with expository dialogue for its own good. As the title indicates, Dead Reckoning (Part One) ends on a cliffhanger that avoids feeling as abrupt as the open-ended conclusion of Fast X, but it's still a bit of a weak way to send audiences out of the theater.

Otherwise, though, Dead Reckoning (Part One) is terrific popcorn entertainment that makes 163 minutes fly by like a breeze. One of the greatest assets of the recent Mission: Impossible movies have been their willingness to eschew increasing scope in favor of just coming up with nifty backdrops for set pieces. Rather than be guided by the idea that they have to blow up an even bigger location than the environments in the preceding movie, installments like Ghost Protocol and Fallout just find fun new places to test Ethan Hunt's resolve. There's an infectious creativity to McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen's screenplays that's very much alive here in this latest motion picture. Everywhere from the backrooms of an airport to a tight alleyway to a bunch of train cars can become the perfect locale for edge-of-your-seat thrills in Dead Reckoning (Part One).

Even better, the reliable staples of this franchise feel welcome and earned rather than cheap and predictable. Every time they do a big reveal that somebody's wearing a mask or that trick where they change out actors as the camera spins around a character putting on a mask, I get a little giddy. Meanwhile, Luther's bombastic early line about how he, Hunt, and their friends will "have to go rogue before the mission even begins!" also had me clapping with joy.  What a great way to wryly acknowledge how often Ethan Hunt is just abandoning the IMF to save the world. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) is super savvy in recognizing what hallmarks of these features it must deliver while concocting enough new excitement to ensure it's not all callbacks and references. Among the new elements here, Hayley Atwell makes for a fantastic addition to the franchise in her charming performance as Grace, Pom Klementieff is an utter delight as an adversary with a remarkable fashion sense, while Esai Morales is instantly one of the most compelling (not to mention attractive!) villains this franchise has ever seen. 

Meanwhile, an extended Rome, Italy car chase sequence is a total delight and feels totally fresh within the saga in how it deftly balances comedic struggles with tangible peril. Similarly, an opening prologue is an eerie and claustrophobic nail-biter of a sequence that gets Dead Reckoning (Part One) off to a start unlike any other in the series. You'll get exactly what you want out of this newest Mission: Impossible feature (lots of Tom Cruise running, look at him go!), but the creativity and excitement that's underlined nearly every entry in this saga ensures there's also some unforgettably distinctive elements at play here. In a summer of lackluster live-action blockbusters, allow Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (Part One) to remind you just how well-crafted and delightful these kinds of movies can be.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

It's impossible to resist the captivating yearning of Past Lives

One of the most evocative lines from Gonzo's Muppet Movie song "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday" is "There's not a word yet/for old friends who've just met." I was reminded of those words while watching Past Lives for the first time and absorbing the deeply moving imagery writer/director Celine Song has put on the screen. I'd never seen this movie or any other directorial effort from Song for that matter before (this is Song's first time behind the camera on a film after all). Yet the images and emotions in front of me felt so familiar. There was such an immersive melancholy and wistful attitude communicated through the filmmaking and performances. I felt like I knew these human beings and emotions already. Watching Past Lives was like coming home to memories and emotional sensations I'd never actually experienced. In other words, Celine Song has made a movie that is much like "an old friend" you've "just met."

I'm often fascinated by contemplating what I could've done differently in the past. Awkward social moments from 8th grade failed attempts at scoring dates, moments where I accidentally alienated friends...they all rattle in my brain alongside constant hypotheticals on how I could've made things better. It's a phenomenon that can make me feel lonely, even though, ironically, it's something we're all prone to. The universality of that experience is reflected in the protagonists of Past Lives, Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Childhood sweethearts in South Korea, the pair are separated when Na Young's family moves out of the country. 

Decades later, Na Young now goes by the name Nora and has a thriving life as a playwright in New York City with her husband Arthur (John Magaro). Meanwhile, in South Korea, Hae Sung is planning a trip to the big apple, which will involve him seeing Nora for the first time in person in 24 years. It's a momentous moment for both Nora and Hae Sung. Neither one of them will just be a memory in the other one's head for much longer. They will once again be flesh-and-blood people to each other. Their individual lives have become so much bigger than they could've ever imagined back when they were 12 years old...what happens when their existences collide once more?

Life tends to flicker by in the blink of an eye. Song and editor Keith Fraase recreate that phenomenon with the gentle pacing of Past Lives. This is a feature that's laidback in its depiction of realistic ordinary conversations, which just makes the time jumps in its narrative all the more impactful. Small incidents with devastating internal impact are what drive the plot here, with seemingly key events like a move to New York City or a marriage ceremony happening off-screen. This keeps the focus on the incidental parts of existence, like talking to your partner in the bathroom as you both get ready for bed or Hae Sung's initial rain-soaked arrival to New York City. Life isn't defined by its grandest, most explosive moments. It tends to be molded by interactions we may, at the moment, view as disposable. The quiet pacing and narrative focus of Past Lives reflects this aspect of reality beautifully.

The intimacy of Past Lives is enhanced by Song's incredibly assured filmmaking. Despite never helming any type of movie before (not even a short film!), Celine Song comes off like a veteran pro in her work behind the camera. Among the many impressive feats here are seemingly simple details, like how Song always had my eye drawn to key characters like Nora and Hae Sung even in crowded environments. They're not necessarily lingering in the middle of the frame, yet Song and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner always make them discernible to the viewer. This is accomplished without sacrificing the visibility of passersby. On the contrary, Song and Kirchner find inspired ways to block and arrange random tourists and other background players throughout the story, like peppering the backdrop of one of Nora and Hae Sung's first in-person conversations in decades with various lovers holding each other close.

There's also so much to unpack in just the varying amounts of distance between the Past Lives characters and the camera capturing them. When Hae Sung hears over a Skype call that Nora wants to cut off their conversations for now, Song and Kirchner capture his quietly devastated reaction in an intimate fashion. It's a close-up accentuating the little facial tics suggesting his pain, but also one with just enough distance to suggest Hae Sung will be bottling up these emotions. Meanwhile, when Hae Sung first comes to New York during a big thunderstorm, the camera is pulled back from him and often observes him through hotel windows. The suggestion here is that the viewer is as distanced from Hae Sung as he is from the person he's come to America to see.

The visuals of Past Lives are emblematic of how much careful consideration has gone into every aspect of the production. That makes it a remarkable feature to unpack in great detail, but the various artistic intricacies here also make Past Lives an emotionally sweeping motion picture to experience at the moment. Various flourishes in the camerawork, tiny details in the sound design, an outstanding score by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, and ingenious touches in the script, all just blur together to create a story that's impossible not to get wrapped up in. Above all else, what's important in Past Lives is how beautifully it captures the process of encountering the past in the present. That's an incredibly messy operation yet one Past Lives captures so effectively. The pathos on display here is towering and left me sobbing on multiple occasions.

It really can't be understated how much the performances of Past Lives contribute to its emotionally devastating accomplishments. Greta Lee, taking a much more dramatic turn compared to her comedic work in projects like Russian Doll, proves transfixing in the lead role. From the opening scene of the movie, which focuses on a wider shot that eventually zeroes in on her face, she proves more than capable of handling all the weighty material Past Lives hands her with impeccable subtlety and humanity. Playing opposite her for much of the runtime is Teo Yoo, whose on-screen work masterfully combines restrained physicality with palpable yearning. Then there's John Magaro in a deeply vulnerable and moving supporting turn that makes good on his skills for playing aching soulful humans (hi First Cow!)

There isn't a word yet, as Gonzo once observed, for old friends who've just met. Maybe there never can be one. Some emotions and connections are too complicated and momentous to be boiled down to just one word. Past Lives encapsulates that truth and so much more. It's also a movie with such deeply moving and lived-in images that it feels like a long-treasured cinematic memento even as you're digesting it for the first time. Writer/director Celine Song has crafted something truly special with Past Lives that, like fond memories of ancient but important human connections, deserves to be remembered for years and years to come.

Monday, June 26, 2023

It's well worth taking a trip to Asteroid City

If you're not already hooked on Wes Anderson, I can't imagine Asteroid City will suddenly convert you into a believer. That's not a comment on the film's quality, but merely a reflection of its style. Asteroid City is a metatextual work with deeply intricate storytelling approach that also ramps up both the melancholy and dry humor of Anderson's preceding works to eleven. It's bound to leave some baffled, especially those who've never been able to get on this filmmaker's wavelength. That's not me, though. I'm the person who owes Fantastic Mr. Fox a great deal of debt as one of the movies that got me so enamored with cinema. As somebody who always clicked with this director's specific style, Asteroid City was like an all-you-can-eat cinematic buffet so scrumptious that it left me licking my plate.

Asteroid City begins by explaining how Asteroid City is the name of a fictional play being performed in 1956. Scenes set firmly in the "real world" are framed in black-and-white and the Academy aspect ratio. Sequences meant to be embellishments of the "performance" are rendered in expansive widescreen, a vivid color palette, and very real-looking locales (the characters are not confined to a limited stage). Within the play, a bevy of colorful characters converges on the mostly empty destination of Asteroid City for a science fair, among them being grieving dad Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Here, the deepest questions related to the cosmos begin to factor into the lives of these lonely souls, though weighty queries related to the possibility of alien life are nothing compared to just trying to connect with other human beings.

The Atomic Age of the 1950s casts an enormous shadow on Asteroid City and informs much of its dark humor. The specter of death lingers over many of these characters, which makes it extra amusing when characters like a motel manager (Steve Carell) become enamored with trivial matters like what juice patrons would prefer when they wake up in the morning. Human beings really are good at getting caught up in superficial details even when world-altering events are happening around them. Anderson's always shown a gift for dark comedy dating back to this directorial debut Bottle Rocket. It's no shock then that, decades into his filmmaker career, he's refined that talent to a tee within the best jokes in Asteroid City. 

Anderson's writing also makes fascinating use of parallel storylines that oscillate between the world within the Asteroid City play and "reality." The latter area is often defined by an intentionally awkward sparseness that accentuates the subdued imperfections of these artistic souls. A moment between director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and recent ex-wife Polly (Hong Chau) is a perfect example of this. The duo doesn't get into a screaming match to reflect their current relationship status. It's as if the two have become so familiar with the idea of no longer being lovers that there's no point in great displays of animosity. Combining this reminder of love lost with narration about Green's work ethic and the sparseness of Asteroid City's "reality" paints a quietly tragic portrait of this director. 

Trying to juggle all this storytelling material and comprehend the relationship between fiction and non-fiction while Asteroid City sometimes made my brain hurt, but that's a testament to just how much exciting material Anderson's filmmaking is offering up to viewers. Plus, there are plenty of surface-level pleasures here to ensure that you don't need to write up a doctoral thesis to enjoy the proceedings. Who isn't going to get a kick out of Jeffrey Wright's bombastic and comically overwrought speech kicking off a youth-oriented science fair or an inexplicable honkey-tonk tune about aliens? There's plenty of pathos here, but also tons of amusing gags and sequences to keep you glued to the screen.

Asteroid City also delivers a treasure trove of finely-tuned performances that leave an impact even if they're only on-screen for a short period of time. Tom Hanks, in his first-ever Wes Anderson performance, is especially fun as a grouchy grandfather. It's neat that he's treated as just one member of a massive ensemble rather than having the story reorient itself entirely around giving America's Dad as much screentime as possible. Having Hanks around in this manner offers up plenty of screentime for newer faces like Maya Hawke, Jake Ryan, and Grace Edwards to shine as some of the younger characters. Wes Anderson veterans like Schwartzman, Swinton, and Brody all deliver superb work while Bryan Cranston is a riot as the film's narrator. That wonderful voice of his is something you love to listen to for long periods of time while the actor's lengthy experience with comedy means he nails his character's one big humorous moment.

On top of providing so many great performances and flashes of dark comedy, Asteroid City is just beautiful to look at thanks to Robert Yeoman's cinematography. The colorized sequences set in the domain of Asteroid City are some of the most immediately striking, especially with the recurring use of light blue in the sets and costumes. However, the monochromatic "reality" scenes provide some of the most memorable imagery of Asteroid City for my money. Especially unforgettable is an extended wide shot in one of the movie's final scenes that just exudes so much potent wistfulness thanks to the use of black-and-white coloring. Wherever Asteroid City goes, it exudes so much creativity and wit. It's a microcosm of the complicated tones, beautiful images, and unforgettable performances that make Wes Anderson movies such unique cinematic delights.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Flash is an unimaginative and tedious disaster that wastes all its potential...and poor Kiersey Clemons (MASSIVE SPOILERS)

This review contains massive spoilers. Also, this is gonna be structured a little more loosely than other "reviews" of mine on my blog, I just wanna vent more about my problems with The Flash than adhere to a standard "intro/plot synopsis/breakdown of feature" structure.

I feel bad for Kiersey Clemons.

First breaking out as a memorable actor in Dope, Clemons has amassed a steady filmography full of indie gems like Hearts Beat Loud and the cult classic Sweetheart. Hollywood has never given her the major lead roles she deserves, but she's still done perfectly well for herself. If you ever wanted a microcosm of how little interest mainstream cinema has in giving women of color substantial roles, gaze upon the minimal screentime Clemons has in The Flash. In this superhero movie, Clemons plays Iris West, the primary love interest of the titular superhero in the comics. In an ideal world, this part could've been a charming equal to the male lead, a way for Clemons to demonstrate her affable screen presence. Instead, Clemons is confined to a trio of brief scenes, including being a "prize" Barry Allen wins in the last scene of the film.

It's unimaginative. It's stupid. Worst of all, it's a waste of Kiersey Clemons. All the compelling qualities she brought to Dope and Hearts Beat Loud are never utilized here, while Iris West never comes close to being viewed as a character. But then again, what else do you expect from The Flash? This is a movie that views deceased artists as Funko Pop! figures to be rearranged at the demands of studio executives. This is also a motion picture that features Kara Zor-El/Supergirl (Sasha Calle) yet never thinks to give her something fun to do. This is also also a film where hideous CGI recreations of live-action performers dominate many scenes and the future nightmares of moviegoers. The Flash is not a good movie. Poor Kiersey Clemons is just one of the many ways it stumbles the ball.

Unfortunately, most of the flaws of The Flash seem to rest at the feet of director Andy Muschietti, a horror filmmaker who did decent work on the 2013 scary film Mama. However, in 2019, he helmed It: Chapter 2, a movie that suffered from bad CGI, difficulty embracing all the zaniest elements of its source material, and especially awkward handling of broad comedy. Those flaws and others return for Muschietti's work on The Flash, which often features filmmaking as inexplicable and haphazard as the "Angel of the Morning" needledrop from It: Chapter 2. Worse, Muschietti's lack of experience on blockbusters hasn't inspired him to follow his own creative impulses but rather lean heavily on the aesthetics of other tentpole filmmakers.

Most egregiously, a scene where a pair of Barry Allen's first encounter Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne is set to Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4", a clear instance of aping the needle drops that populated the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The wacky time travel antics clearly owe a great deal to Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future titles, while the old-school superhero missions in Gotham City in the first act ape the classical blockbuster vibes of the Richard Donnor Superman movies. Muschietti keeps echoing other superhero and blockbuster movies but rarely brings his own personality to the proceedings. Without any bold attempts to establish an idiosyncratic identity, The Flash's stabs at pathos and big time-travel spectacle are utterly hollow. The latter element is especially poorly-realized, with the film's third act just devolving into a mess of CG and copies of Ezra Miller shouting time travel jargon at each other. I love comic book nonsense but even I just wanted to get off this ride by the end.

It's all so tedious, which is just the worst sin of The Flash. Michael Keaton and Sasha Calle try to inject whatever personality they can, but the convoluted narrative in Christina Hodson's screenplay is just impossible to connect with. This is a movie about lore, not characters, which becomes egregiously apparent in the finale when a bunch of CG renderings of Christopher Reeve, Nicolas Cage, and Adam West just stand around lifeless watching the finale of The Flash unfold. This movie has a multiverse of live-action DC titles at its disposal and this is the most it can come up with?!? Insulting the memory of Christopher Reeve and sucking all the life out of Nicolas Cage? If we're going to collide all the DC stuff together, let's get weird! Have the two live-action Constantine's kiss! Have Joaquin Phoenix's Joker start a band with the WB TV show version of Birds of Prey!  There would seem to be endless possibilities for actually fun and unhinged exploitations of a multiverse...but The Flash staunchly refuses to explore any of them.

Instead, the climax turns into two Ezra Miller's just fighting a bunch of CGI goons, poor Supergirl getting repeatedly brutally murdered (one of many weird misogynistic flourishes scattered throughout The Flash), and the umpteenth grey-colored CGI monster villain in the DC Extended Universe. Even the score by Benjamin Wallfisch is utterly lifeless and sometimes feels distractingly incongruous with the on-screen footage. Why does the score feature such propulsive intense music during an opening scene involving old-school superhero antics like saving falling babies? Shouldn't the orchestral tunes have a lighter, zippier touch? Much like Muschietti is just rigidly mimicking the filmmaking of James Gunn and Joss Whedon, Wallfisch too seems content to follow the lead of most other superhero movie scores.

The Flash is not good. It's not totally devoid of any merits (a handful of emotional beats are well-conceived conceptually, Keaton and Calle's super-suits look solid), but its flaws are dizzyingly staggering. Super broad gags like an extended vomiting joke just land with a thud and all the action sequences have too much subpar CG and not enough visual panache. Worst of all, it's a movie that offers no real surprises or imagination. Classic comics dazzled readers because of their seemingly boundless imagination and willingness to go to truly outlandish places. The Flash, meanwhile, just wants to remind people of what they've seen before. It's a film on autopilot that also manages to be incredibly abrasive in its wildly-miscalculated stabs at fan service. I feel bad for Kiersey Clemons, just one of the many talented artists who struggle to convey an ounce of humanity within this dreary slog.  Then again, this is a motion picture that still thinks "haha that woman is fat and has cats" is at all a novel joke in 2023...I shouldn't be surprised that it never unlocked all the creative potential of its premise and titular superhero.