Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Keanu Reeves and company remain as violently fun as ever in John Wick: Chapter 4

 


More movies should begin with as dramatic of a bang as John Wick: Chapter 4. No expository narration or inexplicable poorly-edited chase scene here. Instead, the camera cuts back and forth between a fist loudly punching a plank of wood and Laurence Fishburne’s The Bowery King walking through smoke-filled green-tinted tunnels. As he makes his way to his destination, The Bowery King bellows phrases from a passage of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, which includes that immortal phrase “abandon all hope Ye who enter here.” It’s true that there is little hope for those who wander into the land of violent vengeance. But John Wick's newest trek into that terrain still provides some undeniably entertaining action movie cinema within John Wick: Chapter 4.

After that bombastic prologue, John Wick: Chapter 4 picks up shortly after the events of its predecessor, which ended with Wick (Keanu Reeves) hankering for some revenge against The High Table, an organization ruling over this world of assassins. As Wick begins to get revenge on the powerful people who've made his life a living nightmare, the Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård) grows nervous that this vengeful man could do some real damage. This is when he sends master assassin Caine (Donnie Yen), an old colleague of Wick's, after this loose cannon. If he wants to get out of all of this alive, and maybe even find some shred of closure in the process, Wick won't just need to fight off armies of henchmen. He's also planning to engage in a staple of the oldest of High Table rules and traditions: a mano-a-mano duel.

Four entries in, director Chad Stahleski knows what works in these John Wick movies. This particular production is bigger in scope than prior John Wick installments, but Chapter 4 still delivers all the bullets, lavish get-ups, and violence you’d want out of these movies. The formula and hallmarks of this franchise don’t get subverted here, they’re just expanded in scale. For some franchises, sticking to the hits would be a sign of creative stagnation. In the case of a fourth John Wick film, though that suited me just fine and I'd imagine it'll work like gangbusters for other fans of this franchise. Stahleski still gets so much mileage out of crisply-filmed action sequences draped in brightly-colored neon lighting, who can complain about getting more of a delectable dish? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say. 

It helps too that John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers plenty of fun set pieces that don’t just blur together with fistfights and shootouts from earlier movies. A deluge of constant skirmishes in Paris, France during the third act is especially commendable in how they dish up relentless violence without becoming hollow echoes of one another. Leaning into the unique attributes of the backdrops of these fights, even if it’s something as seemingly simple as lots of stairs, helps a bunch in this regard. It’d be one thing if John Wick was fighting people in the same grey hallway for two hours. Instead, Wick gets to dish out violence everywhere from an extravagant hotel to crowded streets to a dance floor and everywhere in between. The imagination in these fight sequences is impressive but also implemented so carefully that you may not even notice that impressive quality while watching John Wick: Chapter 4

A decade into this franchise and it’s still as fun as ever watching Keanu Reeves slicing throats or refusing to go down no matter how many times he gets stabbed. The commanding presence of Reeves undoubtedly plays a role in why these films remain so enjoyable, but Chapter 4's thrills are also aided by the welcome presence of Donnie Yen. This action movie legend has demonstrated his gifts for physicality and stuntwork plenty of times before, but John Wick: Chapter 4 offers him a chance to flex his comedic and acting muscles too. Some action stars are impressive in throwing a punch but struggle a bit in just acting like ordinary humans, but not Donnie Yen. He's just as compelling dropping well-timed one-liners or exhibiting vulnerability as he is beating the heck out of people. In a cast crammed with enjoyably theatrical performances, Donnie Yen handily stands out as the MVP.

John Wick: Chapter 4's extensive runtime of 169 minutes offer audiences plenty of chances to appreciate the skills of Yen and the other artists putting in so much effort to realize all this action-packed mayhem. The second act runs a little too long for sure, but more often than not, the expansive scope of Chapter 4 is much more of a blessing than a curse. We've come so far from the original John Wick all the way back in 2014, which seemed, conceptually, like something meant to mimic a typical low-budget Liam Neeson or Jason Statham vehicle. Nearly a decade later and John Wick: Chapter 4 is more reminiscent of the most recent Mission: Impossible movies than anything else. Thankfully, going big hasn't erased the charms and craft that put this franchise on the map in the first place. In other words, do not "abandon all hope" ye who choose to see John Wick: Chapter 4.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Inside has an interesting starting premise, but lackluster execution

Nemo (Willem Dafoe) is stuck. The protagonist of the thriller Inside, Nemo was just trying to snag a couple of high-value paintings from a ritzy New York apartment when things went haywire. He stayed just a few seconds too long and suddenly the door to the place closed in on him. Now he's trapped here in an apartment, which has barely any supplies inside it and whose owner isn't coming back for a long time. There are many survival movies about one person having to brave isolation and extreme conditions. Most take place in the harsh wilderness. Inside is about a single man braving the inside of an apartment that very quickly becomes a suffocating cage.

Armed with a peculiar premise and a restrained scope perfect for filming in the age of COVID-19, director Vasilis Katsoupis and writer Ben Hopkins frustratingly opt for a shockingly straightforward execution on Inside. There's little ambiguity to be found in the plot or visuals, the story follows a decidedly linear path, and the filmmaking is often quite standard in framing Nemo's plight. Other filmmakers like Chantal Akerman let their bold side flourish when utilizing a minimal number of sets, but Inside's imagery stays firmly in the lane of "competent but predictable." Individual shots rarely last too long, which undercuts the claustrophobia of this central premiere, while the hung paintings that surround Nemo are just a bunch of heavy-handed metaphors (we see a painted bird on the wall, representing the "animal" Nemo is becoming in captivity). The only real notable creative flourish is having Nemo be trapped with a refrigerator that plays "Macarena" whenever he opens it. Otherwise, you get what you expect here.

Not every movie needs to reinvent the wheel, but it's frustrating that Inside never utilizes its innately sparse aesthetic for something more. You've got Willem Dafoe, a large apartment, and a conceptually intriguing starting premise, shouldn't there be more meat on the bones of this movie? The primary issue is a simple one. Inside is torn between two impulses. It wants to work as a conventional survival thriller that thrives on only suspense, but it's too slow-paced to make your pulse race. Various forms of conflict our protagonist encounters here, even in the injuries Nemo sustains in his attempts to escape, aren't really that interesting or idiosyncratic. On the other hand, it also has ambitions of being a loftier meditation on art and the nature of free will. Committing to either of these aesthetics would make for a grand o'l time. There are plenty of filmmakers who could've even made Inside work on both levels. Since Inside never flashes much brains or thrills, though, it becomes a chore to get through.

Even the score by Frederik van de Moortel isn't especially interesting, a strange feat given that a movie largely devoid of dialogue like Inside would seem to offer a composer an opportunity for a really interesting score. Alas, van de Moortel mostly just delivers rote compositions that go in one ear and out the other. It's yet another way Inside squanders its potential. By the third act, Inside has got so little going on it resorts to channeling director Pier Paolo Pasolini (though falling far short of that classic filmmaker) in resorting to shock value imagery. By the end of this feature's runtime, you will see Nemo eating dog food and a pile of his feces, each of which got a brief cry of "ewwww!" from the audience I saw Inside with. However, there's no perverse fun or weighty themes being explored in these depictions of severe desperation. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe and sometimes a pile of feces is just a reflection of a movie grasping at straws to keep its viewers from looking at their phones.

At least we have Willem Dafoe around as our lead character. The always reliable Dafoe, who could lend genuine humanity and heft even to movies like Motherless Brooklyn or Death Note, hits some solid moments in what's basically a one-man show for his talents. The unimaginative approach to realizing the experiences of a man confined to a lavish apartment, however, does leave Dafoe hitting the same note repeatedly. Even he can't salvage something this frustratingly hollow. Given his experience with truly bizarre filmmakers like Lars von Trier or Abel Ferrara, it's puzzling that the creative team behind Inside couldn't think of more engaging and unexpected material to hand Dafoe.

Inside is bound to be the rare movie that unites both arthouse cinema devotees and general moviegoers in their frustration over a film. The former group will find Inside too shallow, while the latter collection of individuals will undoubtedly walk out of the movie after finding it "boring." Neither camp will be necessarily wrong. While being trapped with just Willem Dafoe in one location for 100 minutes sounds like it could be a blast, it turns out even the zestiest garnish cannot save a dish that's been so badly burned. Skip Inside, just stay home and revisit Bo Burnham: Inside instead. Now there's a visually compelling and entertaining project that's confined to just one location!

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Champions is too derivative and outdated to get you cheering

 

In this remake of the 2018 Spain film Campeones, Champions chronicles basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson), who always had difficulty connecting with other human beings. His penchant for aggression and only caring about basketball has cost him so many jobs and now he's more unemployable than ever thanks to getting arrested for a DUI. His sentencing for this crime is 90 days of community service as the coach of The Friends, a basketball team in Des Moines, Iowa comprised of players with intellectual disabilities. Initially, Marcus is just counting down the days until his community service is finished and crossing his fingers that he can get some kind of new job in the NBA. Eventually, though, he begins to find kinship with the players he's tasked with coaching.

Some of the flaws of Champions are common for subpar hokey inspirational sports movies, but one unexpected shortcoming is how dated it feels. Not necessarily in the language it uses to talk about disabled people, but the whole thing feels like it got shipped in from 2010. The barrage of needle drops all seem to be at least ten or so years past their prime, while an early depiction of a "meme" seems to be straight out of 2013, if not earlier. Most baffling of all, there's a "[Blank] for Dummies" book cover sight gag here. Those jokes were so common in the early 2000s and then just died away after being run into the ground! Why are they now being brought back? What did we do to deserve this resurgence?

It's not a good sign that my primary takeaway from Champions was how it often feels like a 2009 movie you ran into on cable rather than a hot-new theatrical release in 2023. This new directorial effort from Bobby Farrelly just doesn't offer much for one to chew on, why wouldn't your mind race immediately to an inexplicable "[Blank] for Dummies" book cover? It's a project that tragically feels like a TV movie and never lets any of its actors truly embrace their greatest talents. The incredibly funny Kaitlin Olson, especially, is underutilized here as a love interest character that often only functions to bring ham-fisted conflict and exposition into the screenplay. It's truly bizarre to watch Olson go from mastering the anarchic comedy of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia to engaging in the formulaic writing of Champions.

Most damning of all for Champions is that the sports movie it reminded me of primarily of was not Remember the Titans or Rocky, but rather Million Dollar Arm. That long-forgotten 2014 feature was about a trio of cricket players from India who are brought to America to play as baseball pitchers. Despite those three characters having such an interesting story, the film was focused primarily on their agent, played by Jon Hamm. It was hard to get invested in a sports movie that totally miscalculated who its most interesting characters were. Champions carries on the "proud" tradition of Million Dollar Arm by once again sidelining far more compelling athlete characters in favor of a middle-aged dude and his sex life. No wonder Champions struggles to maintain your interest when it keeps benching its best assets.

It doesn't help that screenwriter Mark Rizzo tells this story with shockingly little life. Sports movies are always going to have familiar elements in them, they're a strain of crowd-pleaser cinema that's all about execution. Within Champions, Rizzo executes stale narrative beats with no panache or passion. If the movie can't get invested in these underdog struggles, why should we? Part of the problem is the character of Marcus, a guy who begins to warm up with The Friends from the first time he talks to the team yet abruptly reverts to his selfish ways throughout the movie to keep drama going. There's no consistency to the guy or any real reason to get invested in him. Champions centers so much of its narrative around this guy that, despite having a talented actor like Harrelson occupying the role, Marcus becomes an anchor weighing down everything.

The only time Champions comes alive is in scenes focusing on the individual Friends team members in their lives. Depicting these athletes as fleshed-out humans and exploring their interior desires has some real substance to it. A scene of player Benny (James Day Keith) rehearsing into a mirror how he'll stand up to an overbearing boss, for instance, is great while anytime the camera focuses on the incredibly-determined player Constentino (Madison Tevlin), things improve dramatically. A sequence where she cuts right to the truth with a frustrated Friends player in a locker room is the highlight of Champions and one that suggests a much more interesting movie focused almost exclusively on these athletes. Unfortunately, Champions is much more interested in sidelining those characters and channeling the spirit of Million Dollar Arm, which leaves this movie feeling like a rerun before its opening logos are even done.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Aubrey Plaza and Hugh Grant can only do so much to liven up Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre

Orson Fortune (Jason Statham) is a master spy. He's also the lead character of the new Guy Ritchie movie Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, highly-skilled in combat, and sharing a name with a pig from the U.S. Acres comic strip. Fortune has been hired by Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) to lead a mission to retrieve an unknown yet decidedly cataclysmic item that has fallen into dangerous hands. Working alongside hacker Sarah Fidel (Aubrey Plaza) and expert sniper J.J. Davies (Bugzy Malone), Fortune is off to save the world, a task that leads him to go head-to-head against eccentric billionaire Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant). Getting close to this guy will require exploiting his infatuation with celebrities. Time to throw in movie star Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett) onto Fortune's time. Two thing's are for certain here: this is going to be an unusual mission and Orson Fortune will be beating people up within an inch of their lives if given half a chance.

Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre (Jesus, what a clumsy title) is director Guy Ritchie's second foray into espionage following his 2015 film The Man from U.N.C.L.E. That's not the only familiar element of Ritchie's filmography to reappear here, as Statham, Hartnett, Grant, and Eddie Marson are all returning from his earlier works. Ritchie is working on familiar ground with familiar faces here, which might explain why the script (penned by the director alongside Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies) feels so rudimentary. The film is rarely incompetent, but it's also lacking in surprises, especially compared to Ritchie's detour into much darker territory with his 2021 film Wrath of Man.

Whereas that film suggested Ritchie was expanding his cinematic palette to include grimmer ruminations on the costs of vengeance, Operation Fortune delivers what you'd expect but without much pizazz or excitement. It's a half-hearted cover song of better movies. Part of the issue is that the production gets less glamorous as it goes on. When we first meet Orson Fortune, he's lounging about in a luxurious hotel decked out in blue walls. This indicates that the production design of the whole feature will be taking more cues from Jacques Demy than Paul Greengrass. Alas, by the time third-act arrives, Operation Fortune has devolved to just having Statham beat people up in a silver-colored elevator while a final shootout takes place in a generic office.

There's also not much in the way of cheeky surprises or unexpected flourishes in either the writing or fight choreography. Despite occupying the spy genre, which is famous for its unexpected twists and morally grey allegiances, Operation Fortune goes down all the familiar roads. People who are antagonists in scene one end the story as antagonists, it's all quite predictable. The bog-standard elements are executed with shockingly little vibrancy in either the camerawork or editing. It all just feels way too paint-by-numbers for a movie that wants to be riotous. All of this is compounded by the dreadful lack of tension in the screenplay. Even in the Mission: Impossible movies, Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt tends to trip, get hit by a car, or run out of oxygen during big action sequences. Here, Orson Fortune always pulls off everything without a hitch it never feels like he's in danger. Why should we be on the edge of our seats if we already know the exact outcome?

Nobody's expecting Jason Statham to get offed in the middle of a Jason Statham movie, but a little bit more vulnerability would've made the plot seem less weightless. That's a key issue here, the lack of real long-term problems. Even Danny Francesco manages to get over his initial fear of being a super-spy in the span of one scene. Other Guy Ritchie movies are brimming with ticking clocks and claustrophic conflict, but Operation Fortune is breezy to a fault. These subpar details mean the production only really comes alive when two of its performers get to chew up the screen. Aubrey Plaza and Hugh Grant are unquestionably having the time of their lives showing up in this film. Plaza's deadpan style of grim humor feels like a unique element in the world of spy cinema (do you remember anyone like her showing up in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?) while Grant is just a ball as an unabashedly sleazy guy who loves to brag about all the wicked people he's helped over the years.

Whenever Plaza and Grant get to take center stage, Operation Fortune finds a pulse and functions just fine as easygoing entertainment. Throw in some lovely European locales for this attractive cast to walk around in and there's no denying this is at least better than some other entries in Guy Ritchie's filmography, like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Elements like Plaza and Grant's performance, though, deserved a better movie to inhabit. Painless to sit through, Operation Fortune is still an inert movie that needed an extra jolt of creativity and energy. Oh, and also another first name for Orson Fortune, I should not be reminded of U.S. Acres during a spy movie.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Cocaine Bear gets grisly in all the right ways

Drugs can make you do wild, unpredictable things. But even the wildest party animals in the 1980s could never imagine the kind of drug-fueled spree the titular critter of Cocaine Bear goes on. After a drug smuggler dumps bags of cocaine in a forest in Georgia, an American black bear ingests some of that coke and begins to go on a rampage in the area. As this happens, a slew of wildly different people  converge on the forest. Nurse Sari (Keri Russell) is heading to the forest to look for her daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince). Drug kingpin Syd Dentwood (Ray Liotta), who has a vested interest in seeing the cocaine retrieved, sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and loyal cohort Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) to get the drugs back. These are just a few of the lives that are about crash right into the cocaine bear, who has an increased hankering for human flesh now that all the powder is in her system.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, Cocaine Bear delivered just what I wanted out of it. Running a nice 95 minutes with credits (what a relief to see that after Violent Night stretched its even thinner premise to 112 minutes), Cocaine Bear quickly gives viewers the grizzly carnage they want and keeps a steady supply of bear mayhem coming throughout the runtime. All the chaos is filled with just the sort of bloody deaths and dismembered limbs you'd crave from a film with this wackadoodle premise. Watching Itchy & Scratchy cartoons and reading Wikipedia plot summaries for Saw sequels and Meet the Feebles (which allowed me to imagine the movies being as vicious as I wanted them to be, MPAA restraints be damned!) as a child set up really high expectations for how violent "adult" movies could be. Cocaine Bear doesn't quite reach those lofty adolescent aspirations, but part of why I enjoyed it so much is it gets entertainingly close. 

A key reason the enterprise is so entertaining is that Warden's screenplay and the direction from Banks both keep the tone of Cocaine Bear nicely nuanced. Chunks of the movie are light and zippy and what a joy it is to see a modern comedy not rely on hackneyed improvisation to carry the day! Scripted gags relying on silly puns, well-timed pieces of body language, or visual juxtaposition are the name of the game here rather than the belabored off-the-cuff jokes of You People or The House. Not every gag lands, granted (some are undercut by some weird editing), but boy is it nice to have this kind of comedy back on the big screen again after so many years of yukfests helmed by Judd Apatow wannabes. The presence of actually funny gags and lines also has the added benefit of making the human-centric storylines more tolerable than, say, the human-focused segments of Pacific Rim: Uprising or Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Once the bear starts attacking, Cocaine Bear doesn't abandon all pretense of fun. All the chase scenes or maulings often have an element of dark comedy to them. But Banks ensures there's real weight to this critter's presence. When the bear stalks people trapped in a wildlife lodge, for instance, the sound of her booming footsteps actually inspires intimidation. The titular ursine isn't a cuddly creature who just escaped from Build-a-Bear Workshop, but rather something whose sheer might is apparent from the prologue of Cocaine Bear. This feature manages to make this creature a credible obstacle without making the humorous moments from the human characters feel like they're undercutting the tension. There's an undercurrent of darkness to all aspects of Cocaine Bear that keeps the project feeling cohesive. 

Of course, Cocaine Bear can't help but succumb to some key flaws that plague many creature features. Namely, our human protagonist just isn't as interesting as the main vicious animal. It's always good to see Keri Russell in something and the pink outfit she wears the whole movie is already a more distinctive character flourish than anything about, say, Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla. Suri's storyline, though, still isn't quite as interesting as watching a bear tear up bad people. There's also some awkwardly-incorporated ADR while the final half-hour struggles to juggle the many members of the ensemble cast. An abruptly-introduced supporting character's demise and the awkward exit of a separate antagonistic figure are the two clearest instances of the latter problem. Cocaine Bear knows how to handle drug-fueled wildlife, but it stumbles on the human element of its story.

Thankfully, the assortment of humans is portrayed by a murderer's row of talented comedians and character actors who lend some believable humanity to an utterly preposterous story. It's fun to see the likes of Ray Liotta and Margo Martindale, veterans of schlocky genre cinema (Martindale got her start as an actor in The Rocketeer, after all!) navigate this material with ease. Fresher faces like O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich also prove a hoot in performances hinging on their character's functioning as ordinary everymen who can't believe their lives are turning into a deranged Coen Brothers movie. Ehrenreich especially fares well as a lovelorn sad-sack who isn't much for brutal criminal actions, just the kind of contrast you need to play off a bear that'll rip you to shreds.

Cocaine Bear doesn't take as many risks visually or narratively as you might expect from a movie with such an audacious title. Most notably, audiences everywhere will be "shocked" that the human lead of a movie about a destructive CGI creature is a single parent who just wants to reconnect with their imperiled kid. Even with its shortcomings, the movie provides plenty of laughs and bear mayhem, it's just the kind of thing you'd want to watch with friends in a crowded theater. Perhaps I'm biased because this feature started with a lively needle drop that has to be a homage to one of the earliest acting credits from Elizabeth Banks, Wet Hot American Summer. But even beyond that delightful tip of the hat to the past, Cocaine Bear has enough violent charms to make it well worth sniffing out.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania wants to soar but never feels comfortable in its own skin

In the book Nobody Does it Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, there's an interesting anecdote from a creative figure involved in classic James Bond movies on what kinds of people you need to make those big-budget films. Specifically, this person noted that it was fine to pair an inexperienced leading man with a blockbuster veteran director or a famous leading man with a filmmaker whose never tackled a blockbuster before. But if both the leading man and director are novices, that's where problems occur.

It's not a steadfast rule, but it was one that was on my brain as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania drew to a close. This movie aspires to take the Ant-Man characters into a grand sci-fi epic in the vein of Star Wars. Unfortunately, it's helmed by director Peyton Reed, a veteran of low-key comedies (and enjoyable ones too, like Down with Love), and written by Jeff Loveness, a Rick & Morty veteran and Marvel comics writer who never penned a movie screenplay before. Quantumania desperately needed a more assured hand guiding this ship in some capacity. None of the primary creative voices get to play to their strengths, resulting in a movie that feels like a Xerox of superior sci-fi fare.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) hung up his superhero outfit in favor of selling and promoting his autobiography. As Quantumania begins, he's shifting gears to be a dad to growing daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton). Turns out, though, his child has managed to create a device that can communicate with the Quantum Realm, the domain Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfieffer) was previously trapped in for decades. A malfunction with the machine sends Scott, Cassie, Janet, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Hope van Dyne/The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) into the deepest corners of the Quantum Realm. Here, weirdo creatures lurk behind every corner while the nefarious Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) rules the land with an iron fist.

Once we get to the Quantum realm, Quantumania initially gets some fun out of depicting our Earthbound heroes contending with an unpredictable domain dominated by strange beasts and a variety of biomes. Eventually, though, the Quantum Realm slips into being more generic-looking while Loveness's screenplay struggles mightily with making the exploits in this universe absurd yet also something audiences can emotionally get invested in. In an average Rick & Morty episode, you can just do all kinds of violent madness and not have to worry about viewers losing their emotional investment in the titular leads, that's not the point of that program. Here, Quantumania wants to provide moments of firm emotional catharsis while standing on top of a world that's nebulously defined. A story shouldn't be suffocated by logic, but Quantumania keeps reaching for narrative and emotional beats that require a shred of logic to function properly.

Paradoxically, the script suffers from this issue even while tossing off avalanches of expository dialogue at the viewer. So many words get spoken, yet I'll be darned if I still understand what Kang's motivation was or why key moments in the climax happened. Speaking of that evildoer, Jonathan Majors gives a gripping performance as Kang, but unfortunately, this figure can only lean on a talented actor so much. Kang is otherwise a shockingly disposable villain who lacks the kind of discernible worldview or engaging human elements that defined past great Marvel baddies like Zemo, Thanos, or Kilmonger. Keeping so much of him shrouded in mystery for further Avengers movies to explore may help future Marvel Cinematic Universe installments, but it doesn't help Quantumania at the moment.

Meanwhile, the action and spectacle in Quantumania aren't bad, but they're undercut by a lack of grandeur in the movie. Subpar editing from Adam Gerstel and Laura Jennings constantly undercuts moments that should be inspiring awe or terror while rampantly dim lighting makes the most potentially exciting sequences hard to decipher. These larger-scale sequences would almost certainly get a greater jolt of personality if the Quantumania score wasn't so forgettable. Great blockbuster movie scenes often get so much of their power from the orchestral music accompanying them, but alas, composer Christophe Beck appears to be as lost as Reed and Loveness here. A veteran of comedies with minimal blockbuster experience (he did do the score for Edge of Tomorrow, but that had long stretches of Looney Tunes-style comedy), Beck's undeniable talents as a composer never get utilized here. His tracks lack the musical creativity or excitement that this kind of adventure desperately needs.

Even with all these flaws, Quantumania is never painful to sit through. When you throw enough darts on the board, something is bound to stick, and Loveness's script does deliver smatterings of amusing sci-fi weirdness. I especially liked Veb (David Dastmalchian), a soft-spoken blob who sounds a little bit like Richard Kind, while Quantumania's interpretation of M.O.D.O.K. is such a preposterous creation that I have to admire the audacity of trying to bring this vision to life (even if the visual effects used to realize M.O.D.O.K. are simply not good). Talented performers like Paul Rudd and Michelle Pfieffer remain charismatic and provide a pulse to scenes where Quantumania's story gets lost in the weeds. Plus, Reed and Loveness being veterans of comedy help the moments where Quantumania can indulge in jokes rather than franchise set-up., though the editing does undercut several potentially amusing gags. 

I laughed quite a bit in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and found myself reasonably diverted by all the action mayhem on-screen. While far from a Moribus disaster in the realm of comic book movies, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania sinks to the level of Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe pantheon. It's just hard to get involved in a movie that seems so half-hearted and derivative. The "zanier" aspects of Quantumania have been done better elsewhere while its key villain gets undercut by obligations to future Avengers installments. Being so bound to other movies means that Quantumania is bound to disappear from the minds of even die-hard Marvel fans, save for the fact that I think it's the first Disney movie to ever feature a character say the word "socialism". Unless I missed some alternate cut of Million Dollar Duck...

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Of an Age is a bittersweet ode to the little moments that last a lifetime

 

Of an Age begins with 17-year-old Kol (Elias Anton) in 1999 racing around his house looking for everything he'll need for his costume and dance performance. This is an incredibly important performance and Kol is desperate to make sure everything is perfect. The rapid-fire pacing of these sequences and cramped camerawork accentuates the urgency of Kol's tasks, it's like the tone of Uncut Gems but applied to High School dance competitions. Just as Kol needs everything to go just right for one morning, he gets a call from his dance party Ebony (Hattie Hook) that she needs to be picked up. She's a little over an hour away in a phone booth and is insistent that only Kol can get her out of her jam. Needing a set of wheels, Kol turns to Ebony's brother, Adam (Thom Green), for help.

Once these two set out on the road, Of an Age simmers down. Director Goran Stolevski and cinematographer Matthew Chuang maintain their affection for extreme close-ups. Still, now the atmosphere is more relaxed as the two guys bond over a long car trip. Adam gets to introduce Kol to the soundtrack to Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together, they talk about their favorite books, and Adam nonchalantly mentions that his ex-lover is a man. This revelation stirs up emotions of longing within Kol that he can't ignore. Over the next 24 hours, he's unable to get Adam out of his head. As a flash-forward to 2010 at the midway point of Of an Age demonstrates, Kol won't be able to fully shake Adam even long after this momentous day passes into memory.

Above all else, Of an Age is a welcome reminder of how we don't need digital trickery to capture characters at different stages of their life (unless you're Martin Scorsese doing The Irishman). Talented actors are more than up to the task of portraying a single human being at various stages of their lives. Elias Anton and Thom Green do excellent work in this regard, particularly in the subtle details of their physicality. Once we shift into 2010, Anton quietly changes aspects of Kol's gait and the way he composes his body when standing still, all without distracting from the dialogue or story. These subdued elements prove incredibly effective at making one believe we're watching a person at vastly different points in time. This gift for actors just relying on raw talent to convey a character aging was once a simple aspect of cinematic storytelling we took for granted before the age of digital Tarkin's running around in Rogue One.

The subtle things are where Of an Age thrives as a low-key but engaging coming-of-age drama. Stolevski's writing leans heavily on forcing the viewer to read between the lines for indicators on matters like Adam's queerness or the kind of difficulties Thom is experiencing in his home life. There's a lot of dialogue exchanged throughout Of an Age, especially when Kol and Adam are stuck in a car together, but Stolevski deftly emphasizes the importance of what's not being said. Within nonchalant conversations there are important glimpses into the psyches of our lead characters. It's a thoughtfully-realized approach, not to mention one that deeply evokes reality, to exploring these two men at two radically different points in their lives. 

Stolevski's screenwriting does struggle more once the action shifts to 2010, but not necessarily because all of the virtues in his Of an Age script vanish. The older versions of these characters just aren't as instantly compelling as their teenage selves. While the initial scenes with teenage Kol evoked the works of Josh and Benny Safdie, the initial sequences of Kol and Adam talking again are more generically staged, they lack an extra oomph in personality. A bit more cumbersome is that an attempt to wring some drama out of a newly reunited Kol and Adam feels contrived. A great appropriately abrupt ending and the film's trademark style of thoughtful camerawork keep Of an Age running smoothly, but there's certainly a drop in quality once the time shift hits.

Of an Age functions best as an acting exercise (its two leading men are certainly talented faces worth keeping an eye on) and as a melancholy rumination on the kind of small moments that can pack a mighty impact. By their very nature of being so throwaway, we never realize while they're happening that certain events or interactions will leave such a profound impact. Afterward, though, it's impossible to forget about certain moments in life that might sound totally disposable to another human being. Of an Age is a testament to the bonds, however brief, that can feel like they last a lifetime. 

Monday, February 13, 2023

Knock at the Cabin is worth a visit for M. Night Shyamalan and Dave Bautista devotees

Knock at the Cabin begins with grasshoppers. Youngster Wen (Kirsten Cui) is catching them in a jar while on vacation in a cabin with her dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). She's never mean to these bugs and always promises to release them later, but these insects are objectively at the mercy of a larger being they cannot hope to control. Wen and her parents soon find themselves in similar circumstances once a quartet of armed human beings, led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), invade their cabin and hold the family hostage. Leonard then divulges to their trio of captives that he and his "work friends" have come with a mission: this family will need to sacrifice one of its members to prevent the apocalypse. A brutal choice will need to be made or else hundreds of millions will perish.

While two of Shyamalan's earliest directorial efforts (Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense) were told through the eyes of children, Knock at the Cabin represents another modern-era effort from this filmmaker (following Old) that's all about families grappling with mortality. He's gone from telling stories about characters at the start of their lives to spinning yarns about people who are all too aware that death could be coming any minute. Cabin opts to use this recognition for grim suspenseful sequences rather than an overabundance of trashy thrills like Old, but the thematic fascination remains the same. Given how this concept fascinates him, it's no wonder Shyamalan was drawn to adapting Paul G. Tremblay's novel The Cabin at the End of the World.

Beyond providing an intriguing demonstration of where Shyamalan's thematic fascinations are currently, Knock at the Cabin proves sufficient in providing some gripping thrills and not insulting your intelligence along the way. The screenplay by Shyamalan as well as Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman shows remarkable constraint in keeping the action contained to only the titular cabin, which works wonders in accentuating a claustrophobic aura that can lend grand significance to the tiniest gestures. Even the flashback scenes to earlier moments in Eric and Andrew's life sprinkled throughout the runtime manage to reinforce the intentionally cramped nature of the story by framing these characters in interior environments, often having to suppress parts of themselves. 

The stripped-down aesthetic also offers a chance for a talented cast of actors to deliver a bunch of solid performances. Splattered all over the posters and other marketing materials, Dave Bautista is the big-name draw here and he's fun playing against type as a soft-spoken man capable of exacting violence for a "righteous" cause. It's not a totally original juxtaposition, but Bautista's earnestness in delivering lines about how a children's show "must teach empathy and tolerance...I like that" gives it a jolt of uniqueness. For my money, the best performer in the movie, though, is Abby Quinn as Adriane, one of the four people convinced the apocalypse is nigh. Quinn's got some of the clumsiest dialogue in Knock at the Cabin, but she proves quite capable of nailing intentionally funny moments and providing moments of moving vulnerability. It's a complicated performance that Quinn is commendable in.

The suspense-driven sequence and performances in Knock at the Cabin are stellar, but the feature does, unfortunately, succumb to certain recurring faults in Shyamalan's directorial efforts. For one thing, like Old, Knock at the Cabin's final 20 minutes features some clumsy expository dialogue that just spells out the motivation and underlying thematic motivation for every bad thing we just saw. Ambiguity is your friend when it comes to making scary movies, but Cabin struggles to embrace that quality. The character of Andrew, meanwhile, is strangely written, possibly because he's the character whose outside life keeps getting referenced the most out of all the people trapped in this cabin. Awkward mentions of his job or abrupt reveals about how much time he's spent in therapy just feel out of place in a movie that works best when we don't know what's going on. Again, restraint and ambiguity, they're your friend.

Also, M. Night Shyamalan, I don't know what happened between you and James Newton Howard (who composed all his works from The Sixth Sense through After Earth) but y'all need to patch things up. Some of Howard's best works as a composer came through his collaborations with Shyamalan, with this artist excelling in delivering such big and memorable orchestral accompaniments in movies like Signs. Starting with Split, though, Shyamalan has embraced a series of lesser-known composers that don't deliver bad work per see, just stuff that's never good enough to make you stop wondering "what could James Newton Howard have done with this material?" Knock at the Cabin composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir, alas, falls prey to this problem, his compositions just never being super remarkable even if one didn't have a bevy of Howard/Shyamalan collaborations to compare them to. Let's get the Howard/Shyamalan and back together again soon! The world needs it!

Knock at the Cabin suffers from some of the issues that dragged down earlier M. Night Shyamalan misfires like The Village or Lady in the Water, but being firmly back in the world of small-scale thrillers (after a detour into blockbusters with The Last Airbender and After Earth) continues to suit this filmmaker well. Constrained to minimal characters and one primary location brings out some imaginative thrills and nicely-executed bursts of grim darkness in Shyamalan's directing. Granted, even more restraint would've helped this movie live up to the likes of Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense. But if you just want to appreciate some suspenseful set pieces and the talents of actors like Dave Bautista, Knock at the Cabin is, as a Simpsons character would say, a perfectly cromulent experience.

Monday, January 30, 2023

80 for Brady is an agreeable, though not especially memorable, star-studded comedy

 


The trailer and other marketing materials for 80 for Brady offer a fairly accurate picture of what to expect from this comedy. This is a featherweight movie that's been built from the ground up to be light and breezy, with many of the gags emanating from seeing esteemed performers like Jane Fonda and Sally Field engaging in wacky shenanigans like accidentally ingesting drugs or dancing. There aren't really any surprises in here, which does ensure that you won't be quoting or referencing 80 for Brady long after you watch it. But while it's flickering on the screen, it's a pleasant distraction that matches expectations. It's always better when a film surprises you, but it's not a crime to be perfectly cromulent.

Inspired by a true story (though I presume it has as much to do with its inspiration as Tag did with its own real-life source material), 80 for Brady follows a quartet of New England Patriots fans, Lou (Lily Tomlin), Trish (Jane Fonda), Maura (Rita Moreno), and Betty (Sally Field) who would rather die than miss a game or a play from Tom Brady. Spurred on by the passion of Lou, this gaggle of pals decides to make a trek to Houston, Texas to watch Super Bowl LI, a game where Brady and the Patriots will be playing. Traveling to the lone star state was easy, but keeping track of their tickets and staying out of trouble before the big game, those will be the real challenges for these die-hard fans.

If nothing else, 80 for Brady is a welcome demonstration that its primary actors won't sleepwalk even through material that's often beneath them. Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern have delivered a script that often alternates between being a formulaic comedy and a lengthy NFL commercial, but our primary leads are as awake and alert as ever. Even the supporting cast is putting in more effort than they probably should. Glynn Turman, especially, delivers a dramatic monologue in such a touching and subtly moving fashion, complete with the gradual introduction of real tears into the sequence, all in service of a very predictable gag involving Moreno's character. These kinds of performances don't make 80 for Brady a new comic gem, but they do give it a little more pep in its step than you'd expect. 

Most of the movie is pretty serviceable but deeply predictable fare, complete with celebrity references and nods to "youth culture" (are you ready to see Lily Tomlin dab?) that are probably five years out of date, at least. If the sight of older women dancing sounds hilarious to you, then buckle up, you're in for a good time. The script also has some very awkward beats, namely a subplot with Betty and her quietly pestering husband (played by Bob Balaban) that awkwardly peters out with no resolution. At least Haskins and Halpern wisely avoid giving this gaggle of friends any kind of traditional dramatic break-up at the end of the second act. There's conflict between these four chums, but they're never in danger of falling apart. After all, they've been friends for decades, will some Super Bowl-related problem really devastate their dynamic? It's a nice subtle touch in a movie that often defaults to the broad and familiar.

Their script also gets a second wind of life in the third act when it seems like all the major problems for our lead characters are solved. Without getting into spoiler territory, 80 for Brady eventually decides to make the saga of its lead character's a kind of Rogue One to Super Bowl LI's Star Wars: A New Hope. In other words, it becomes a behind-the-scenes saga involving ordinary people that reveals the circumstances that made a more famous story possible. It's a ludicrous flight of fancy, but it's a lot more inventive than the more generic shenanigans that populate the preceding story. We've all seen gags hinging on older ladies dancing before. Lily Tomlin anchoring NFL fan-fiction, now that's more novel.

Beyond this detour into historical revisionism, director Kyle Marvin's approach for 80 for Brady is keeping things easygoing, but not surprising. This very straightforward approach means the proceedings are never quite good enough to either be worthy of its four lead performers or make you forget that you're watching a 98-minute commercial for the NFL. Still, if this movie seems like it'll be your cup of tea from the promos, you'll likely have a good time. 80 for Brady is here to deliver on expectations and isn't interested in rocking the boat any more than that. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

95th Academy Awards nominations predictions

An image from Moonfall, one of the most likely movies to prominently factor into the 95th Academy Awards nominations.

Well, it's time again. Award season has been going on for a few months now and the nominations for this year's edition of the Academy Awards are around the corner. This year's 95th Academy Awards are bound to be chaotic (though aren't they every year in some respect?) in terms of projected nominees. Questions like "how many sequels will there be?" or "will there be any women-directed movies?" linger over the Best Picture category alone. Meanwhile, there have been all kinds of reports that actors from major movies like The Fabelmans could end up nominated in different categories than the ones they were campaigned for.

When the nominations get announced Tuesday morning, we're bound to have lots to talk about and tons of controversy to unpack. For now, though, let's keep things simmered down by looking at my predictions for who will get nominated in every single category at the 95th Academy Awards. I've got some bold predictions in here, with my Best Picture picks alone featuring multiple foreign language nominees (if that happened, it'd be the first time in history that this category featured more than one title told in a language that isn't English) and no signs of the Na'vi. Let's march onward, folks, and see who I'm currently predicting to have some kind of role to play in the impending 95th Academy Awards.

One note before going forward: the movies and names in my Best Picture and Best Director predictions, respectively, are listed in alphabetical order, the rest of the movies in every other category are just randomly assorted.

Best Picture:

All Quiet on the Western Front

The Banshees of Inisherin

Elvis

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

RRR

TAR

Top Gun: Maverick

The Whale

Women Talking

Best Director:

Daniels (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Todd Field (TAR)

Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick)

Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin)

S.S. Rajamouli (RRR)

Best Actress:

Cate Blanchett (TAR)

Viola Davis (The Woman King)

Ana de Armas (Blonde)

Danielle Deadwyler (Till)

Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Best Actor:

Austin Butler (Elvis)

Bill Nighy (Living)

Brendan Fraser (The Whale)

Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin)

Paul Mascal (Aftersun)

Best Supporting Actress:

Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans)

Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever)

Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Dolly De Leon (Triangle of Sadness)

Best Supporting Actor:

Paul Dano (The Fabelmans)

Brendan Gleeson (The Banshees of Inisherin

Ke Huy Quan (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Judd Hirsch (The Fabelmans)

Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin)

Best Original Screenplay:

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

TAR

The Banshees of Inisherin

Aftersun

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Women Talking

Glass Onion

Living

The Whale

Top Gun: Maverick

Best Animated Feature:

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Turning Red

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Wendell & Wild

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Best Documentary Feature:

Bad Axe

All That Breathes

Navalny

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Fire of Love

Best International Film:

EO

All Quiet on the Western Front

Decision to Leave

Joyland

Close

Best Cinematography:

Top Gun: Maverick

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans 

Babylon

Elvis

Best Costume Design:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Elvis 

The Fabelmans

The Woman King

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Film Editing:

Top Gun: Maverick

Elvis

The Fabelmans 

Everything Everywhere All at Once 

Babylon

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Crimes of the Future

The Whale

Babylon

Elvis

The Batman

Best Production Design:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Glass Onion

The Fabelmans

Babylon

Best Original Score:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Women Talking

Babylon

The Fabelmans

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Song:

"Tell It Like a Woman" from Applause

"Hold My Hand" from Top Gun: Maverick

"Lift Me Up" from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

"This Is a Life" from Everything Everywhere All at Once

"Naatu Naatu" from RRR

Best Sound:

Top Gun: Maverick

Avatar: The Way of Water

Babylon

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Elvis

Best Visual Effects:

Nope

Thirteen Lives

Avatar: The Way of Water

Top Gun: Maverick

The Batman

Best Animated Short:

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

My Year of Dicks

Save Ralph

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake, and I Think I Believe It 

Ice Merchants

Best Live-Action Short:

La Pupille

The Red Suitcase

The Lone Wolf

Warsha

An Irish Goodbye

Best Documentary Short:

The Martha Mitchelle Effect 

Nuisance Bear

The Elephant Whisperers

The Flagmakers

How Do You Measure a Year?


Let's see how my predictions fare come this Tuesday!


Some decent chuckles can't erase the major writing problems in You People

Kenya Barris has carved out a TV empire for himself thanks to being the creator of Black-ish and two of its spin-offs as well as an executive producer on a slew of Netflix TV programs. Barris has also had a recurring presence in film as a screenwriter but save for being one of the writers on the 2017 comedy Girls Trip, his writing credits have been for a wave of reboots/sequels from major studios like The Witches, Shaft, and that Disney+ Cheaper by the Dozen remake. Considering that he was one of several writers on all these films, not to mention that these were franchise pictures designed to please audience expectations rather than challenge them, it's fair to say Barris's voice hasn't been especially discernible in feature-length narratives up to this point.

With the Netflix comedy You People, Barris, who directs this movie and wrote the script with Jonah Hill, gets a chance to show off his chops at crafting a film without also having to worry about what audiences and studio executives want out of a project like Coming 2 America. The resulting feature shows a welcome willingness on Barris's part to engage in lofty ideas and put his actors in unique roles. Unfortunately, his skills at merging broad comedy with tearjerker moments (at least in the world of film) are so lacking that You People as a whole ends up floundering.

After an awkward mishap involving an Uber ride, podcaster/broker Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and Amira Mohammed (Lauren London) have hit it off and become a couple. They love doing even the most frivolous things together, like brushing their teeth or watching ridiculous TV shows. What they don't love is how their respective families respond to their relationship, with these tensions flaring up as the duo prepares to get married. For Ezra, his mom, Shelley (Julia Lous-Dreyfus) is a perfect portrait of a clueless Liberal white lady. She's the sort of person who speaks about loving Black people but also sees them as just trophies she can use to prove how progressive she is. Meanwhile, Amira's dad, Akbar Mohammed (Eddie Murphy) has a very specific idea of who his daughter should marry and it isn't Ezra. He hates this guy from the get-go and Akbar is looking for any chance to prove to his daughter that Ezra would make a bad husband.

Shortly before my screening of You People started, I realized how long it'd been since I saw a Jonah Hill comedy on the big screen. "I can't wait to see this kind of yukfest theatrically again!" I thought to myself as the lights dimmed. Unfortunately, by the time You People reached its second instance of Hill stretching out an awkward conversation with heavily-improvised dialogue, I realized that I hadn't missed this Judd Apatow-style of comedy as much as I thought I had. Hill is an incredibly talented actor, and he gets to show off his skills in various other parts of You People. Unfortunately, relying on lengthy improvised lines has just never been his strong suit and it's a shame this movie immediately leans so hard on that trait.

From there, You People picks up a bit once Ezra and Amira begin dating and hitting it off. Hill and Barris nicely eschew any post-modernism winks to the camera as these two lovebirds tenderly play footsies on their first date or laugh together in a separate restaurant. The script has enough confidence to realize that committing to romantic sweetness is enough to get the audience on your side. You don't have to earn the trust of moviegoers by poking everybody in the ribs on how common these kinds of montages are. By playing straight-faced, You People immerses us in its central relationship and allows both Hill and London to flourish as actors by depicting the characters navigating the exciting early days of a budding romance.

Just as you need rain to go with the sunshine, so too does You People's script eventually pair this cutesy romance with extended bits of cringe comedy surrounding Ezra's parents socially interacting with Amira. Some of these gags work, especially when they involve David Duchovny playing against type as Ezra's dad who has a deep affection for Xzibit that he'll talk about at the drop of a hat. Still, there's a level of preciseness in timing needed to pull these kinds of sequences off. TV shows like The Rehearsal or The Eric Andre Show are masters at knowing how long cringe-inducing laughs should go on. Cut this type of comedy too short, it never reaches it full potential, but let it go on too long, and you just end up running your gags into the ground. You People, like so many Netflix original movies, unfortunately, has some major pacing issues that undercut the impact of its multiple stabs at cringe comedy. A sequence at a strip club in the third act involving supporting characters talking about Ezra's past, for instance, goes on forever and ever. I think it's still playing as I type up this review!

As You People goes on, it, unfortunately, gets worse, especially in its third act. The last 30-ish minutes of this movie boils down to a series of characters delivering lengthy monologues about their personal feelings. It's a didactic way of communicating information that's never interesting enough in its dialogue to justify why Ezra, Amira, and everyone else in the movie is suddenly turning to the camera to explain the lessons they want audiences to take away from the feature. The largely unimaginative filmmaking from Barris and cinematographer Mark Doering-Powell is especially apparent in these sequences. If these monologues are going to exist, they should feel momentous, but they're so flatly shot and lit. There's no difference between how Ezra and Amira are filmed pouring their hearts out compared to how they're shot just eating dinner together.

The emphasis on ham-fisted pathos in the third act underscores how few of the characters inhabiting You People really come off as, well, people. Amira is especially underserved by the script, with Barris and Hill's screenplay being shockingly uninterested in this character's life beyond her dynamic with Ezra and his family. We only see brief glimpses of her job and even briefer examinations of who her friends are. Eschewing these details leaves poor Lauren London often with nothing to do. Amira is emblematic of You People's greatest problem from a screenwriting perspective. The characters are so generically-defined and arch that attempts to wring poignancy out of them fall flat. Unfortunately, this feels like a more severe case of a similar problem with Hill's last feature film screenwriting credit, Mid90s, which also struggled to lend enough dimension to its respective characters to make pathos-heavy scenes feel earned.

That's all a shame since the actors in You People are not sleepwalking through this project. Eddie Murphy especially seems to be enjoying himself in a more restrained than usual part while Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a veteran of uncomfortable comedy thanks to Seinfeld, scores some glib chuckles in personifying White lady cluelessness. Solid performances and brief glimmers of more interesting examinations of weighty ideas keep You People from flaming out entirely. Alas, while it's nice to see Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy headlining a feature-length comedy in 2023, You People comes up short more often than it proves amusing, especially in its poorly conceived third act. At least it's better than an earlier film penned by Barris, The Witches.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Disastrous high frame rate aside, Avatar: The Way of Water is another remarkable James Cameron epic

In 2010, Brad Paisley released a cheeky country song called "Water." A simple title for an exceedingly simple song designed from the ground up to be played during summertime-themed Bud Light ads. In it, Paisley takes a chronological look at all the times water has played an influential part in his life, from playing in an inflatable pool as a kid to romping around in a river bank with friends as a teenager to a lake serving as a backdrop for a romantic rendezvous with a loved one. Even by the standards of Brad Paisley tunes released between 2000 and 2013, it's nothing outstanding (though it's better than "I'm Still a Guy", at least), but its very existence does suggest the kind of personal connections we all have to water. Somehow or another, water plays a major role in our lives without us even realizing it. "The way of water connects all things," a character in Avatar: The Way of Water intones in a line that could've hailed from a cut verse in Paisley's "Water." Moviegoers everywhere will no doubt agree even before they sit down to watch the latest Na'vi adventure.

Realizing the sheer power of water and the way it can intertwine with our personal lives is one of the many ways this latest James Cameron movie succeeds. Returning to the world of Pandora all these years later should just result in a bunch of stale leftovers. Instead, Avatar: The Way of Water is a dynamic and moving enterprise, with Cameron opting to use staggering visual effects technology on some incredibly quiet sequences.

The incredibly classical storytelling sensibilities of these Avatar movies are established immediately in The Way of Water's screenplay (penned by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver in addition to Cameron) through returning protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) narrating audiences through various events that have happened since the first Avatar. I've always said that the initial feature felt like a fable you'd tell around a campfire. Having Sully speak in hushed tones about the family he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have cultivated (with no in-universe explanation for where the narration is coming from, unlike its predecessor's narration) reinforces that vibe tremendously. 

Sully and Neytiri now have a whole gaggle of children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a daughter derived from the DNA of Dr. Grace Augustine, and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), the troubled younger son of the family. Their life is tremendously fulfilling, but things get thrown for a loop when humans from Earth return to the glorious world of Pandora. Decimating the forest the Sully's and other Na'vi call home, the humans are also putting together a collection of Avatar specimens that utilize the consciousness of evil dead soldiers, such as the first Avatar's main baddie General Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Now super tall and blue, Quaritch has a grudge against Sully that he'll pursue no matter what. With such violence on their tails, Sully and Neytiri pack up their family and look for a new home. Their travels eventually take them to a tribe of Na'vi that live in the Ocean.

There's a lot to digest in Avatar: The Way of Water as it journeys across multiple biomes and straddles so many characters at once. That 191-minute runtime isn't just for show! Shockingly, it's able to juggle most of its character-based elements quite nicely. Inevitably, some figures get stuck on the sidelines in the sprawling ensemble cast (I especially wanted more for Neytiri and Kate Winslet's Ronal) but the character beats that do get put into the foreground work nicely. Kiri is an especially wonderful creation and hands down the best character to emerge from the entire Avatar franchise. The idea of Sigourney Weaver playing a teenager should be a farce, but Weaver does great work making Kiri somebody evocative of Augustine but also discernibly her own character. Her awkwardness and sense of isolation as a "freak" no matter where she goes is also handled very well. I'm always a sucker for larger-than-life characters (in this case, a blue kitty cat alien teenager) grappling with everyday vulnerabilities and Kiri is a great example of why. It's just so emotionally fulfilling to get wrapped up in the humanity of something that doesn't initially look human.

It's also nifty that Cameron's creative trajectory has now shifted onto teenage characters, a great choice to immediately differentiate this Avatar installment from its predecessor. Not only that, but there's something so quietly tragic (though not deafeningly bleak as executed here) about watching these teens existing in a world that can turn into a warzone at the drop of a hat. When you're just watching these adolescent Na'vi chilling and talking under a palm tree together or talking to a space whale about how "I met a boy", you realize these are still kids. They should be concerned with petty squabbles and teenage nonsense, not threats of extermination from greedy humans that function as a physical embodiment of capitalism. These characters are forced to focus on survival, not personal fulfillment. Cameron doesn't rub the noses of viewers in this dark element of The Way of Water's narrative. However, the innate choice to center a plot that often becomes a war movie on teenagers can't help but lend the proceedings an extra bit of tragedy and depth.

The characters are fun, but of course, what anyone going into Avatar: The Way of Water craves is the visuals. Even with the high bar of its predecessor, The Way of Water delivers stunning images that'll make you want to run to the nearest beach. All that crystal blue water is just so gorgeous to watch consume a gigantic movie theater screen while the vidid lighting allows viewers to appreciate all the finer details hiding out on the margins of the frame. It's also interesting how the biggest sign of how far visual effects have come since the first Avatar is how much more of The Way of Water is focused on having CGI characters and live-action figures extensively interact. What served as primarily the emotional crescendo of the original Avatar (for the big emotional scene where Neytiri finally see's Sully's human form) is the norm for many scenes in The Way of Water, especially anything involving human child Spider (Jake Champion). It's staggering to watch this movie and realize how naturally the artificial and discernible human blend together, the Na'vi really do look like they're right there on a ship's deck or in a laboratory. 

Of course, all those visual feats would be even easier to appreciate if it weren't for the fatal flaw of Avatar: The Way of Water: high frame rate projection. As presented in my XD 3D showing (which is basically the equivalent to IMAX 3D at Cinemark movie theaters), large swathes of The Way of Water are shown in 48 frames per second, while the rest of the movie is shown in the traditional 24 frames per second. This choice is a tragedy on several fronts, including how it's just so distracting. Key moments of characters soaring through the sky or epic confrontations between good and evil just look like they're being fast-forwarded. Just as bad is how many sequences in this feature alternate between the two frame rates. Going from characters talking in 24 frames per second before they continue their conversation in 48 frames per second is disorienting and just highlights how much better the former format is. High-frame rate camerawork has its place in documentaries and for specific sequences in movies. But it's been clear long before The Way of Water that it doesn't work for the entirety or majority of narrative features. Pandora deserved better than looking like a football game on a display TV at Best Buy.

Other shortcomings in The Way of Water are of the more rudimentary variety. I'm not going to drag Jake Champion's performance as Spider since I feel like everybody's been doing that already (the downside of getting to a movie three weeks late cuz of COVID, I miss out on being a trailblazer in the discourse!), but his work is unquestionably weak. Champion had a difficult role to play here, the one teen who plays things passively in contrast to the other youngsters in the cast who get to rebel, not to mention he's separated from the cool water stuff audiences quickly latch onto. Even considering that, his line deliveries are often terrible and the performance leaves much to be desired. A third-act battle scene, meanwhile, starts off perfectly but does get bogged down in some weird repetition by the end as characters keep going back and forth to and from one location too often.

Those shortcomings and the grating presence of high frame rate weigh The Way of Water down in some respects, but by and large, this is, much like the first Avatar, another rip-roaring classical adventure full of robots, space dragons, and a bunch of cosmic critters you'll wish you could reach out and pet. All of its told with such earnestness that entire sequences of a teenage Na'vi and a whale bonding go by with nary a self-deprecating line in sight. That sincerity, a bunch of enjoyable teen protaganists, and tons of groundbreaking visual effects techniques (I know, a James Cameron movie that pushed the VFX envelope) make this just the kind of sweeping feature that makes for such a great time at the movies. Though it may be difficult for some to believe, Avatar: The Way of Water is a better artistic endeavor involving water than Brad Paisley's 2010 single "Water."