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.