Friday, April 21, 2023

Beau is Afraid is an ominously wacky mixture of Charlie Kaufman and the Zucker Brothers

As the movie's name would imply, the titular character of Beau is Afraid (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is an easily terrified sort. As the feature begins, it’s not hard to see why. Beau lives in an apartment nestled in a city that’s gone to Hell, with violence happening on every street corner. No wonder he lives and breathes anxiety, especially now that he’s planning a trip to visit his mother. His plans for this voyage keep getting messed up, though, thanks to initially small challenges (like his apartment keys getting snatched) before he ends up suffering severe injuries after getting hit by a car. The drivers of that car (a married couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane) take Beau in to let him rest up. All Beau wants to do is see his mom. So begins an epic journey home for our hero, which will put an easily-scared man through the wringer with every challenge imaginable. 

Writer/director Ari Aster immediately proved his chops for making interesting scary movies with great sound design on Hereditary and Midsommar. That should make it no surprise that Beau is Afraid does a terrific job establishing an uneasy atmosphere relying heavily on every creak in the floorboards or distant shout. Everything near and far only furthers Beau’s fear of the wider world, a psychological condition that’s a perfect fit for Aster’s sensibilities. However, this section of Beau is Afraid also excels by leaning heavily on zany dark comedy. The brief bursts of humor in Aster’s previous works (like Will Poulter initially being paranoid during a drug trip in Midsommar) are here much more in the foreground. Moments like a news report on a figure known as the Birthday Boy Stab Man feel like they belong in an I Think You Should Leave sketch more than anything else.

It's all quite amusing stuff, especially since Aster is willing to go extremely heightened with cartoonish beats that wouldn't be out of place in a Zucker Brothers comedy like Airplane! Visual gags like Beau nonchalantly using his desktop even after it’s been damaged especially feel like they belong to this style of levity. There are laughs a-plenty in this stretch of Beau is Afraid, but it also works beautifully in capturing how overwhelming the word is from Beau’s point of view. Living with anxiety often means being at the mercy of worries or feelings of paranoia that doesn’t make any sense outside of your brain. The maximalist absurdist comedy of Beau is Afraid is a great way of capturing that phenomenon. Through stylized tendencies, recognizable truth is uncovered.

Once Beau ventures forth into the outside world, our hero starts to encounter an eclectic bunch of people and esoteric stretches of storytelling meant to function as larger metaphors for his psychological distress. This is when Beau is Afraid tries to channel its inner Synecdoche, New York, but can't measure up anywhere near that Charlie Kaufman masterpiece. Instead, this Ari Aster feature finds itself getting too lost in the weeds for its own good.  Aster's script just works so well as a preposterous comedy with eerie overtones. One can interpret so much larger meaning in the bumbling chaos of Beau's city life. Once it tries to poke you in the ribs with overly obvious visual metaphors and esoteric imagery (including a lengthy play sequence that leans too heavily on narration), it's just not quite as interesting. Beau is Afraid comes off as more compelling when its weightier qualities seem incidental. When the underlying meaning of its comedic madness sneaks up on you, the movie proves impactful. When everything on-screen is trying so hard to be weighty symbolism, that's when it stumbles.

Even in its most heavy-handed moments, though, Beau is Afraid still provides stirring imagery. Moments blending together a live-action Beau with an assortment of animated techniques, for instance, are gorgeously realized under the guidance of animation directors Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña (who previously helmed the haunting 2020 feature The Wolf House). Production designer Fiona Crombie also keeps conjuring up such evocative sets for Beau to traipse into. These assorted environments are all painted with memorably vibrant hues that are pleasing to the eye and show a lot of visual confidence. While countless films drain away their color scheme to come off as "meditative," Crombie makes sure that Beau is Afraid is never afraid of a dash of color. This is a film with lots on its mind that also embraces crisp colors.

Those sets house a solid ensemble cast that's largely comprised of comedic performers who are wisely giving performances evocative of their most famous pop culture personas. It's fun to see Nathan Lane, for example, play somebody so reminiscent of his quietly slimy characters from movies like Mouse Hunt but with extra subtle ominous traits lurking around the edges. Leaning heavily on these types of personalities lulls the viewer into thinking they know where these characters are going before the movie inevitably heads in more surrealist directions. As for Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, he's quite effective at portraying the various anxieties of Beau and especially proves capable of handling moments of extremely over-the-top comedy. I did wish certain aspects of his physicality and line deliveries didn't feel so evocative of his prior performances, though. Beau is Afraid often demonstrates a willingness to embrace the unexpected, but Phoenix's generally solid work can lapse into the familiar.

In the weeks leading up to Beau is Afraid's debut, Ari Aster has constantly talked about the wide variety of motion pictures that inspired the creative spirit of his latest directorial effort. Such works range from a variety of decades and different countries of origin. Ironically, though, what Beau is Afraid reminded me most of was an average short film from the FilmCow YouTube channel, the home of Charlie the Unicorn and Llamas with Hats. The combination of ultra-violence, intentionally sophomoric humor, and bursts of darkness rooted in very real psychological turmoil wouldn't be out of place in an episode of Gary and the Horse. Of course, the average FilmCow short runs under five minutes in length for a reason and Beau is Afraid's more obvious impulses in its second half will make you wish this movie had adhered a bit more to the art of brevity. But considering I'm a dum-dum who still laughs at Tricorn: Lord of Fate, it shouldn't be a surprise that I found more to enjoy than criticize within the madcap comedy world of Beau is Afraid.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is more generic than exhilaratingly fun

The 1993 feature Super Mario Bros. always inspires aggressive opinions. Perhaps you hate it, perhaps you loved it as a kid, perhaps some parts of it still stick with you. Because it's such a weird and audacious motion picture, something about it constantly resonates with people, even if it's just to inspire angry essays about the way it betrays its source material. By contrast, the 2023 motion picture, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is, like so many Illumination titles, too timid to ever try anything too exciting or unexpected. It rigidly goes through the motion of what fans will expect, always conscious of never going too weird or ambitious. Super Mario Bros. was a fascinating boondoggle that always provoked a response from people who viewed it. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is too generic to ever muster much more than the occasional chuckle.

Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are brothers who work as plumbers in Brooklyn, though the duo doesn't get any respect from anyone, not even their own family. An attempt to fix a hazardous leak in their neighborhood leads the pair to a green pipe that takes them to another world. Here, Luigi finds himself trapped in a domain ruled by the evil Bowser (Jack Black), while Mario ends up in the Mushroom Kingdom, which is ruled over by Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Mario's only focus is on getting his brother back and he's willing to do anything to save his sibling, including figuring out how to use local mushrooms to give himself superpowers or fighting the powerful ape Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen). Meanwhile, Bowser is amassing a sprawling army to carry out plans that involve a marriage proposal to Peach and conquering every inch of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Screenwriter Matthew Fogel and directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic pepper The Super Mario Bros. Movie with lots of energy. If there's anything that'll make this movie understandable catnip for the younger set, it's being a short film (Mario runs 92 minutes long with credits) with no real lulls, there's always chaos or action unfolding on-screen. The deluge of mayhem never becomes exhausting or painful necessarily, but it does lack meaningful underlying stakes or real visual panache to give it all energy. The devotion to replicating imagery or moments from classic Mario games is temporarily nifty, but leaning almost exclusively on iconography from the game just didn't compel me, even as somebody whose playing Mario games since I could hold a Game Boy. 

Compare this to last week's Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a movie based on a property I knew nothing about. That one had fun standalone characters and jokes that could work for newbies and die-hard fans alike. By contrast, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a parade of familiarity and not just in relation to rehashing Mario lore. Its gags are often derivative of common jokes in other animated kids movies and a barrage of 1980s pop song needle drops are shockingly lacking in imagination. "Thunderstruck" and "Take On Me" have been played to death in movies, why must they show up here? Heck, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is the third movie in the last four weeks (following Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Tetris) to drop "Holding Out For A Hero." I love that song to pieces, but c'mon, enough is enough (especially since Shrek 2 already provided the best possible use of that tune decades ago).

The frustrating reliance on the familiar extends to the animation, which is handsome-looking, especially in how iconic video game character designs have been translated to the confines of a feature film. However, this is yet another modern Western animated movie with cartoony characters inhabiting ultra-realistic-looking environments. Whether Mario and Luigi are in Brooklyn or the Mushroom Kingdom, their surroundings are always rendered with super-lifelike textures, which undercuts the intended sense of uniqueness this more fantastical realm should inspire. In recent years, big-screen American animation has opted for enjoyable deviations from realism, like in Turning Red or The Mitchells vs. The Machines. The Super Mario Bros. Movie, on the other hand, opts for the same visual sensibilities as other recent Illumination movies. It rarely looks bad or offensive, but like so much of the entire feature, it lacks a discernible identity.

Most disappointing of all, though, is the lack of real energy in the voice acting. Props to Jack Black and Keegan-Michael Key for showing up to actually do distinct voices as Bowser and Toad, respectively. They epitomize the creativity missing from so much of this feature’s voice cast. Seth Rogen, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Day, they all just sound like themselves to a distracting degree. None of them are bad, it’s just such an unimaginative route to go for these performances. Chris Pratt especially is forgettable rather than distinctively subpar as Mario, with his only real memorable trait being how his Brooklyn accent occasionally slips into sounding like it came from Minnesota. 

With so many resources at its disposal, it’s a shame that The Super Mario Bros. Movie couldn’t think of anything more to do than just regurgitate old songs, familiar visual trappings,  distractingly recognizable celebrity voice-overs, and a narrative too formulaic to be exhilarating. The core demo of kids will undoubtedly be pleased with what they get here and The Super Mario Bros. Movie is painless enough to make getting too bent out of shape over its shortcomings a bit ludicrous. Still, once it’s over, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that this was an enterprise that played it safe rather than fun or adventurous. It’s not like they needed to bring the de-evolution gun back from the 1993 Mario movie, but a little jolt of unpredictability would’ve livened up the proceedings. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is so slavishly devoted to pop culture of old that it never carves out a personality for itself.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a largely enjoyable fantasy romp

Somehow, I've never played Dungeons & Dragons. That's certainly a weird blindspot for me considering I love fantasy and have often gone under the name "NerdInTheBasement" on the internet...but it's true. All those rolling dice and role-playing opportunities have passed me by. But even though that tabletop game isn't a fixture of my life, I've always admired the way it brought people together and recognized its appeal. So universal and widespread is its prominence that it was inevitable someone would try their hand at making a movie adaptation of the property even after the 2000 boondoggle headlined by Jeremy Irons. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, hailing from Game Night writer/directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, makes for a rollicking good time and, best of all, resonated as totally accessible to this newcomer to this universe.

As Honor Among Thieves begins, Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and barbarian pal Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) are in prison. Shackles won't remain on their arms for long, though, because these eccentric thieves (each with tormented backstories) have a score to settle. Darvis wants to get back to his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), and retrieve an artifact that could bring some semblance of happiness back to his life. Unfortunately, both of those elements are being guarded over by former ally turned wealthy lord Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), whose also working with the very dangerous Sofina (Daisy Head). To pull off their epic plan, Darvis and Kilgore will need to put together a motley crew, consisting of sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) and tiefling Doric (Sophia Lillis). It's time to go on a quest with a ragtag group of fantasy archetypes.

Sometimes, filmmakers graduate from smaller-budgeted films to big-budget blockbusters and lose their distinctive personalities as artists in the process. Happily, Honor Among Thieves registers as very much a spiritual sequel to Daley and Goldstein's delightful Game Night. Just like with that earlier feature, Honor Among Thieves is consistently funny, but the laughs don't come at the expense of actual tension while sharply-realized camerawork abounds. While modern fantasy blockbusters like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword have tried way too hard to inject "gritty" sensibilities into this genre to make it accessible. The vibes of Game Night, meanwhile, are delightfully perfect for making a broadly appealing Dungeons & Dragons movie. Turns out, a feature that's fun to watch and anchored by a great cast can make the world of fantasy cinema feel fresh again.

Welcome surprises abound throughout this production, particularly in terms of the visuals used to realize this universe. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves appears to have been shot primarily on practical locations and deeply-detailed sets, which lend such texture to this universe. Even more exciting is the abundance of animatronics used to realize fantastical creatures like a big fish, a bird-man, and other enjoyably oddball inhabitants of this fantasy realm. What a wonderful way to pay homage to vintage fantasy movies like Labyrinth while creating a fresh new world you feel like you could reach out and touch. This trait is especially good at making newcomers (like me!) feel welcome in this universe. The impressiveness and immersive qualities of these practical effects can be appreciated by anybody, you don't need to have spent hours on a campaign to like cool puppets!

While the visuals are crisp in Honor Among Thieves, its narrative sensibilities fall into some familiar traps of modern blockbusters. Chiefly, this movie runs for over 130 minutes and certainly could've withstood a trim in the editing room. Meanwhile, the backstory for Darvis, particularly his yearning for a deceased wife, is a strangely generic storytelling detail in a film that's often so imaginative. This is an especially subjective grievance, but I also yearned for more of Doric! She's got such a cool powerset and Sophia Lillis is excellent in her performance of the character, but she's often put on the back burner in favor of focusing on Darvis and Simon. I presume this is because her shapeshifting powerset is so powerful (and not dependent on further training or mechanical aid like Simon's sorcerery) that focusing on her too much would inevitably lead to her solving all the problems in the narrative. Still, let's give Doric even more to do, especially in the way of wacky gags, if we get more of these, she's so compelling.

The fact that even grievances with the script of Honor Among Thieves have me yearning for these shortcomings to get addressed in further adventures, rather than inspiring me to give up on this franchise entirely, is a testament to all this title gets right in terms of serving up entertainment. The creative sensibilities of Daley and Goldstein deserve much of the credit for that feat, but so does the stellar cast assembled here. There's really not a dud in the ensemble, which is led by Chris Pine in just the kind of goofy and messy character this guy always excels in playing. Regé Jean-Page leaves a mighty big impression and reaffirms his gift for comic timing as the paladin Xenk while Hugh Grant is an absolute blast as a slimeball antagonist. I'm incredibly here for this era of Grant just showing up and playing maximalist caricatures with such swagger.

A friend of mine dubbed Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves a prime example of a "fun popcorn movie" and I'm inclined to agree. It's not a flawless blockbuster, but it delivers most of the goods you'd want out of a funny fantasy feature (even if it goes on too long for its own good). It isn't just basic competency that makes Honor Among Thieves an enjoyable time, but also an infectious level of fun in how it realizes its magical world. Even as someone who'd never rolled the dice on the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game, I found myself plenty thrilled by sights like a portly dragon that rolls down massive inclines to crush its enemies or the shapeshifting skills of Doric. In other words, I was never lost or felt left out with all the excitement Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves conjured up.

Ben Affleck's Air isn't quite a slam-dunk, but still often scores


Between 2007 and 2012, Ben Affleck directed a trio of movies, including eventual Best Picture Oscar winner Argo. Since 2012, Affleck's only directed two features, the 2017 dud Live By Night and now his newest directorial effort, Air. Affleck's time away from the camera can be attributed to an array of factors, some rooted in the film industry and others deeply personal But he's back now as a filmmaker with Air, a crowdpleaser attempting to be a Jerry Maguire yarn about the Nike corporation. The feature is nothing challenging or revolutionary, but its easygoing charms feel like a good way for Affleck to segway back into the director's chair. Plus, there's enough talent going on behind the camera to remind people why Affleck garnered so much buzz for his directorial skills in the first place.

Air begins in 1984, with the Nike corporation decidedly in third place among the big shoe companies. With Adidas and Converse doing circles around Nike, this company needs something big to put it on the map. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a key member of Nike's sports division, is determined to do just that, even though his abrasive attitude makes him a nightmare for some of his co-workers. Vaccaro's got drive to spare and he's now using every ounce of his energy to get Nike to sign a sponsorship deal with a rookie player by the name of Michael Jordan. Instead of this shoe company getting endorsements from a bunch of athletes, Vaccaro wants Nike to put all its chips on Jordan. The obstacles here are enormous and include Jordan's agent, David Falk (Chris Messina) not wanting Nike anywhere near his client, while Vaccaro's boss, Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), hates the entire plan. But if Vaccaro can pull this off, he's convinced that both Nike and Jordan could make history.

It's often said that the ending is the most important part of your movie since it's what the audience takes home with them when they leave the theater. That may be true, but nailing your beginning, the part where audiences determine whether or not they want to emotionally invest in your story at all is also crucial. Alex Convery's Air screenplay stumbles in this portion of its plot. These opening sequences, taking place in tiny conference rooms and showing characters like Vaccaro surrounded by dusty cubicles, certainly convey the idea that Nike doesn't have any cash to spare. A later scene with Vaccaro's friend and fellow executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), where this guy pours his heart out about needing money so he can be in his daughter's life, does a much better job of establishing some personal emotional stakes for these characters. Why didn't they lead with elements like Strasser's backstory?

Waiting so long to get to Strasser's motivation speaks to another issue regarding how the Air characters initially feel a bit cold and thinly sketched. Vaccaro, for instance, is mostly defined by just a brief visit to a casino while he's out scouting basketball players and being rude during work meetings. Trying to paint people with hundreds of thousands of dollars as "the little guy" could work if those "little guys" were transfixing, but initially, Air struggles to pull a Moneyball and make number-oriented people as compelling as athletes. However, once the Michael Jordan element comes into play at the half-hour mark, Air picks up speed and keeps on trucking for the rest of its runtime. The more nebulously-defined cash troubles of Nike have been replaced with more exciting concrete forms of conflict like Vaccaro trying to figure out how to communicate to Jordan's family or the enjoyably arch agent Falk throwing up roadblocks against Nike any chance he gets.

The introduction of the Jordan family, and especially mother Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), also brings an extra jolt of humanity to the movie. Suddenly, the contrast between the offices of Nike and working-class families is more apparent and that emphasizes the urgency of Jordan finding the right people to cooperate with in his basketball career. Convery's dialogue also becomes a lot more engaging in depicting Vaccaro trying to wine and dine potential clients like the Jordan's with his candor. A moment where he impersonates how various Converse and Adidas executives will try to win over Michael Jordan is both extremely humorous and a good way of showing how much experienced Vaccar has in this business.

As the plot gets more and more engaging in Air, Affleck's direction maintains a steady hand. Save for a few moments of showy camerawork (like a conversation between major Nike executives inexplicably told with a camera rotating around them), Affleck and cinematographer Robert Richardson's visual approach here rides a fine line between being unintrusive but also clearly not being on autopilot. Especially nice is the heavy emphasis on natural light at Jordan's residence, even when Deloris is taking a phone call inside there are beams of sunlight pouring in from the windows. Meanwhile, the Nike officers are intentionally captured with all interior lighting and a lot less variety in the color palette. The two locations might be on separate planets, a fact that communicates just how initially detached Nike is from the client its executives crave. That sentiment is nicely communicated in Affleck's direction without sacrificing the grounded visual aims of Air.

Air isn't a movie that rewrites the book on sports films or subverts expectations. Its deluge of 1980s needle drops especially could've used an extra jolt of imagination, as Air goes to the well of vintage tunes that have been used all the time in other period piece features. But it is a feature that eventually had me rooting for its main characters despite such a slow start while some memorable supporting performances (Viola Davis and Matthew Maher are the MVPs of the cast) offer up plenty of entertainment. Being agreeable isn't always a bad thing and that's just what Air resonated as for me, a person with zero basketball or Nike knowledge. I'm sure for dads and basketball geeks everywhere this will play like the first appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.