Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Creator Crafts A Compelling Sci-Fi Yarn

The Creator immediately endears itself to audiences simply by hitting the ground running. This is not a Transformers scenario where viewers will have to sit through a lot of disposable human drama before a robot shows up half an hour into the runtime. Instead, The Creator's opening montage quickly introduces the feature's versions of automatons to the audience before quickly delivering instantly memorable imagery like robotic soldiers emerging from the ocean. Writer/director Gareth Edwards is here to deliver the goods and doesn't beat around the bush when depicting the most tantalizing possibilities of this fictional world. With such an enjoyable kick-off, The Creator charges out of the gate on the right foot. Happily, the rest of the movie lives up to the promise of those inaugural scenes to deliver a robot-centric motion picture that's incredibly human.

In those opening scenes, viewers meet Joshua (John David Washington), a soldier in the war between humans and artificially intelligent robots. This battle has waged on for years now and Joshua, after suffering a deep personal loss, is just not in the mood to do any more fighting. However, he's brought back into the front lines for a special mission: to eliminate some new weapon that could turn the tide of this entire conflict. As he breaks into enemy terrain, Joshua discovers that this weapon is a robot child later named Alfie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). His superiors, like the robot-hating Howell (Allison Janney), want Alfie immediately terminated. But Joshua can't do that. Unable to pull the trigger on this mechanical youngster, Joshua is now on the run with Alfie. Joshua is consumed with a desire to reconnect with somebody from his past all while walking alongside a child who could be the future incarnate.

The screenplay for The Creator, penned by Edwards and Chris Weitz isn't reinventing the wheel. Certain character beats and plot points won't register as grand surprises to experienced viewers. Later on, the more traditional climax contains features some strained set-ups for emotional moments that take the viewer out of the moment. You can see screenwriters trying to get a specific pathos-oriented end goal rather than the characters acting organically. It's easier to swallow some familiar storytelling material, though, when The Creator delivers so well on its visual ambitions. It's been a long year of blockbusters exclusively filmed in basements in Atlanta, Georgia covered in green screen. To see a new sci-fi movie that actually feels like it inhabits the world we know and makes unbelievable automatons so believable is a balm for the soul for sci-fi fans.

A bevy of gorgeous locales in countries ranging from Vietnam to Thailand provide stunning environments for this heightened story to operate in. Cinematographers Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer serve these backdrops well with their default epic scope to framing the world of The Creator. This is a grand film told through expansive wide shots that deftly communicate how Joshua inhabits a world far bigger than himself. Plus, the lenses and cameras they utilize really make the textures of this movie seem extra tangible. This is a virtue that's especially helpful in two of my favorite scenes in The Creator; a pair of montages where voice-over dialogue is set to random shots from across this film's world. There's a quasi-Terrence Malick quality to listening to John David Washington comment on the connectivity between organisms or answer existential questions from Alfie as we see robots cuddle with cats, monkeys scurry across bridges, and other throwaway moments of everyday existence. There's a larger world out there that the character of Joshua has closed himself off from. In these poignant and visually rich montages, we begin to see the elements of the wider world that are creeping back into his existence.

Those introspective moments are thoroughly enhanced by Fraser and Soffer's style of palpable camerawork relying heavily on natural light. These two montages are also the sort of contemplative detours that many other blockbusters wouldn't dare execute. Such scenes would be considered "too boring" or "slow" for lesser big-budget fare. Thankfully, Edwards recognizes the value of stopping to slow down and appreciate the world Joshua and other characters are navigating. Perhaps that's why some of the overly familiar narrative and story arc elements feel more digestible in these confines. The Creator sometimes treads recognizable ground, but at least it does so with some moving pathos and lots of gorgeous imagery. Those two elements go a long way to making Joshua and Alfie's rapport something you can get involved in.

The more intimate qualities of The Creator also allow John David Washington to flex his chops as an actor, especially in how much emotion he can pack into subdued line deliveries. His scenes with Madeleine Yuna Voyles' Alfie are also extremely well done, especially their earliest scenes together where Washington amusingly depicts Joshua straining to be both some kind of paternal figure and an on-the-lam criminal. Washington and Voyles anchors a rock-solid cast that turns in some mighty fine work, with Allison Janney especially being a welcome presence as a tough-as-nails military veteran with a hatred for robots. It'd be nice if Gemma Chan, the highest-billed lady in the cast, had a more substantial part to play with the character of Maya, but what she is given benefits from her greatest strengths as a performer. Certainly the innate magnetism of Chan means you can never take your eyes off Maya whenever she's on-screen.

Blockbuster movies are known for juggling lots of moving parts. Yet it's often the simplest things that separate the Mad Max: Fury Road's from the King Arthur: Legend of the Sword'sThe Creator is nowhere near up to the standards of the greatest blockbusters of all time thanks to a reliance on some overly familiar narrative elements. However, it's got lots of low-key and subtle details, especially in its visuals, that make it a rewarding experience, especially when viewed on a big IMAX screen. Sci-fan cinema fans especially will likely greet this one with cheers after so many underwhelming 2023 entries in the genre like 65 and Landscape with Invisible Hand. Never fear fellow sci-fi nerds, Gareth Edwards has delivered the goods on The Creator to wipe the taste of Quantumania out of your mouths.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Dumb Money Is A Meek Call For Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2023

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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