Friday, May 17, 2024

Evil Does Not Exist is Further Evidence Ryusuke Hamaguchi is One of Our Best Modern Filmmakers

I immensely respect the amount of craft and effort director Sam Hargrave and company put into the extended one-take action sequences of both Extraction movies. However, to be perfectly blunt, I think both sequences are a perfect distillation of "style over substance". That phrase has often become cursed in modern cinematic discourse since it's typically reserved for only features that "dare" to suggest motion pictures should be motivated by visuals or emotions rather than standard narratives. In the case of those Extraction set pieces, though, such a descriptor feels apt. Lots of time and sweat got poured into making very important fight sequences involving protagonist Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) look like they were happening in real-time. But they're just not involving or exciting as they unfold.

Filtering things through a one-take doesn't open up new possibilities for fight choreography. The drab color palette of those movies becomes relentlessly grating as these extended shots drag on and on. One also becomes extremely conscious of how little they care about any of the people on-screen as Extraction keeps the camera unblinking. Evoking the visual language of that iconic Goodfellas sequence and utilizing the dedication of so many stunt performers can't mask how hollow these Extraction one-take scenes are. Sometimes, all the confetti in the world isn't enough to disguise how tedious a party is.

I'm probably the only person in history to invoke Extraction when talking about a Ryusuke Hamaguchi movie, but I think it's important to understand just how extraordinary one of the most striking shots of the director's 2024 movie Evil Does Not Exist is. Said shot concerns two representatives of a glamorous camping (or "glamping") company approaching protagonist Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) to help them out on their project, which will intrude on the local land Takumi and others call home. In this shot, Takumi's young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) is in the distance just behind the two "glamping" advocates. To the right of Takumi is his neighbor, who has been deeply untrustworthy of these two outsiders hoping to bring staples of city life to this rural community.

If you showed this image to somebody devoid of any context, they could still tell you the individual personalities of these characters and their interpersonal dynamics. That's a testament to how striking the blocking of these characters is. Hana is physically removed from everyone, pushed to the back, to signify how she's not necessarily involved in these proceedings. Takumi is quietly placed in the center of the frame to suggest how all eyes are now upon him. His neighbor is shifted to the far side of the scene. This placement suggests his animosity towards the newcomers approaching Takumi. The quietly detailed physicality of the actors in this shot also reinforces the interior worlds of these critical figures in Evil Does Not Exist.

Yes, the big action one-takes in the Extraction movies and this marvelous image from Evil Does Not Exist are setting out to accomplish drastically different tasks. However, I think it's worth pointing out the wildly disparate end results of these visuals. Extraction throws so much razzle-dazzle at the screen only to create murky imagery that neither thrills nor makes one further invested in Tyler Rake. Meanwhile, Hamaguchi and cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa just focus on six people standing around in a parking lot for a shot that lasts little more than 90 seconds and it packs an emotional wallop. There's so much to unpack in just this single image. That's the power of Hamaguchi cinema right there.

The director of the 2021 masterpiece Drive My Car is back with this visually rich exercise, which concerns the inhabitants of a village called Mizubiki. Like several other 2024 cinema protaganists (see also: Problemista and Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World), Takumi and other Mizubiki denizens are grappling with the encroaching specter of capitalism creeping into their lives. A proposed "glamping" site would adversely affect the environment and there doesn't appear to be much these individuals can do to stop these devastating plans. Evil Does Not Exist uses this conflict to explore the interior lives of characters like company representatives Takahashi (Ryuji Kosak) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani).

The former character gets one of the most fascinatingly vulnerable moments in Hamaguchi's script in a car ride over to Takumi's home. Here, Takahashi bemoans where his life has gone, the people he deals with every day, the terrible bosses he serves. "How the heck did I end up like this?" he ends up yelling in the car, much to the shock of Mayuzumi (who is in the passenger seat). That outburst is one of the few loud moments in Evil Does Not Exist, which finds power in quiet depictions of simmering anguish. Practically everyone in this movie is caught inside a larger system they cannot escape. We are all at the mercy of something bigger. It's a theme not only reflected in the quiet conversations these people. share. It also manifests in Hamaguchi giving foliage in Misubiki's forest so much emphasis in Evil Does Not Exist's visual scheme. From an opening extended shot looking upwards at looming trees onward, this entire movie is conscious of the wider wilderness that humanity is only a guest in.

Nuance isn't just afforded to the characters of Evil Does Not Exist. Eiko Ishibashi's score is as complicated and intricate as any human being on-screen. Initially, her compositions relying on wind chimes and noises resembling the "drip-drip-drip" sound of water droplets falling simultaneously evoke an atonal yet soothing quality. Later, her creations segue into a more classical aura that captures the grand emotions within Takumi and his companions as both potential connectivity and tragedy befall these souls. Ishibashi's score truly offers everything, but Hamaguchi wisely lets certain key scenes play out without those compositions. Sometimes, just a shot of a lake or branches trapped in the snowy ground is enough to capture our eye, we don't need an accompanying music cue. Extraction movies, take note. Evil Does Not Exist is a masterclass in wringing extraordinary imagery out of ordinary locales.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Apes Continue to Be Solid Big Screen Fare in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

The jury is still out on whether or not Mark Wahlberg could've stopped 9/11. However, it's abundantly clear that he's the centerpiece of the one truly dreadful Planet of the Apes movie. Thankfully, when the leading man of Father Stu isn't around in this saga, those damn dirty apes have an impressive creative track record. The assorted Planet of the Apes titles are a deeply enjoyable collection of blockbusters. Whether they're concerned with ape shopping montages, eclectic scores from master composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Michael Giacchino, or the empathetic behavior of orungtan Maurice, these features have proved creatively resilient over nearly 60 years. That solid track record even extends to the modern-day world. The 2010s Planet of the Apes movies were almost certainly conceived as a cynical attempt to make the Batman Begins of the Apes saga. In execution, this trio of features proved downright incredible. 

The newest entry in this saga, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, can't hope to live up to the greatest of its predecessors. However, director Wes Ball's stab at expanding Apes mythology reaffirms that there really are few more reliably enjoy big screen sights than watching apes be apes. Also, Mark Wahlberg is nowhere to be seen, thank Dr. Zaius.

Picking up 300 years after the events of War for the Planet of the Apes, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes begins with a trio of figures the last three Apes titles didn't concern themselves heavily with: teenagers. These particular apes may scare the livin' shit out of some viewers, but they have more on their minds than making someone bleed. Young ape Noa (Owen Teague) and his two best pals are on the hunt for eggs as part of a coming-of-age ritual in his village. The pressure is on for Noa to do everything right in this ceremony given that he's the son of an important master of hawks in this clan. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes before this event can occur. Noa's village is attacked by a gaggle of powerful apes. 

Seeking the kidnapped members of his clan, Noa ventures into a "valley beyond" that he's previously been forbidden to journey into. Here, Noa discovers that he's lived in a much more sheltered world than he could've ever imagined. For one thing, the nefarious bonobo Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand) is concocting an evil plan for ape supremacy.  There's also the deeply knowledgeable orangutan Raka (Peter Macon), a figure well-versed in information about Earth's ancient past. Then there's human Nova (Freya Allen), a lady Noa encounters in his clan. She's an important figure who may just unite all these disparate apes...and further change Noa's perception of how this planet of apes operates.

If there's a key issue with Josh Friedman's screenplay for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, it's how much it packs into one movie. Kingdom's story often tries to simultaneously be Rise of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, which leads to certain elements feeling undercooked. I especially yearned for a little more breathing room in the initial sequences depicting Noa's everyday life in the village. Our protagonist only gets to share a single scene with various members of his clan, like his dad, an intimidating warrior ape, and so on. One wants to marinate in these sequences longer so that the sudden change to Noa's status quo feels truly impactful. 

War doesn't feel as impactful if you don't spend time developing the apes like Rise did. A chopped-down opening like Kingdom's undercuts some of the dramatic tension in the ensuing movie. Plus, the youthful rapport Noa had with best pals Anaya (Travis Jeffery) and Soona (Lydia Peckham) in the lengthy opening sequence was mighty fun. Suddenly sending Noa out alone into the wider world with those pals deprives Kingdom of a fresh new character dynamic for the franchise.

Other aspects of Friedman's script, though, are deeply commendable, including Kingdom's relationship to the last three Apes movies. This Wes Ball directorial effort doesn't take the expected route of following Caesar's direct descendent, nor is the name of that Andy Serkis character on everyone's lips. Centuries after War, Caesar has left behind a complicated legacy he never could've imagined. Going this route doesn't just subvert audience expectations, but it gives room for Noa and the other new characters to establish themselves as distinct personalities. Noa, for instance, isn't worried about living up to the ideals of Caesar. He's just nervous about elements exclusive to himself, like pleasing his father and saving his clan. Even newbie baddie Proximus Caesar has a delicious swagger to him reminiscent of a cocky and manipulative Roman emperor than the feral Koba that menaced moviegoers in past Apes installments. 

Most importantly, though, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes continues the franchise's dazzling visual effects wizardry. Ball and cinematographer Gyula Pados consistently commit to framing these motion-capture critters in vividly bright sunlight, a bold decision that functions as the inverse of Roland Emmerich drowning his CG Godzilla in rain-soaked nighttime backdrops. It's a bold gambit that pays off, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes pops off the screen and the animated characters hold up to scrutiny in the vivid sunlight. One also gets the vibe that Ball and company are having a blast coming up with imagery and set pieces oriented around the idea that this is a world where apes can go anywhere. Buildings have been overtaken by foliage. Gigantic trees have sprung up where buildings once stood. In the wreckage of humanity, opportunities for thrilling ape-centered visuals emerge. 

The slightly more stylized primate designs compared to the last three Apes movies are another choice informing Kingdom's own identity. Two complaints on that front, though. The first is that I desperately wish Noa had a more idiosyncratic look to him. The other apes in his clan have very distinctive appearances and his father appears to be some variation of a baboon. However, Noa himself just looks like a slightly more youthful version of Ceasar. Giving him some unique physical attributes would've made him feel extra special as a character. The other quibble? That one concerns Raka. He has a very circular mouth that descends outward. It's a physical trait many real orangutans have. However, it looks a little odd whenever Raka's speaking. More than once, I was reminded of this master golfer from Monster Factory when I should've been paying attention to his dialogue!

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes gives you just what you'd want from a Planet of the Apes movie, even if it's undeniably a step down from the last three installments in this saga. By the end of its overlong 145-minute runtime, no characters quite as compelling as Zira, Koba, or Maurice have emerged and certain themes are left oddly unexplored. However, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes still delivers tons of gorgeously rendered simian spectacle and a welcome willingness to experiment with what a modern Planet of the Apes movie can look like. In a pleasant surprise, composer John Paesano (a veteran of direct-to-video and streaming movies as well as previous Wes Ball directorial efforts)  steps up to the plate with a solid score. Though he's never composed a score for a movie this big before, Paesano comes up with some creative compositions that nicely further the rich sonic legacy of the Apes saga. Beyond those nuances regarding Kingdom's narrative and score, the feature benefits from one truth we've constantly seen over the last nearly 60 years: "apes together strong" is an enduringly enjoyable sight on the big screen. Only die-hard Mark Wahlberg stans will leave infuriated with what Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes offers up. 

Monday, May 6, 2024

The Fall Guy Has Unforgettable Action Stunts And Dialogue You'll Wish You Could Forget

The Fall Guy is a love letter to the stunt community. It's no exaggeration to say that this is the feature that stuntman-turned-director David Leitch has been working towards his whole career. True, he dabbled in showbiz satire and self-aware cinema about action stars with Confessions of an Action Star in 2005 film, a feature he starred in and wrote, but didn't direct. But with The Fall Guy (based on the 1980s TV show of the same name), Leitch, building off Drew Pearce's screenplay, uses a massive canvas to pay homage to his stuntpeople siblings. Plus, it's an opportunity to navigate the franchise-dominated film industry Leitch grew famous in. This filmmaker has a lot of personal investment in this project. Unfortunately, The Fall Guy is best when Letich tries to channel classic Buster Keaton movies with its elaborate bursts of physicality. The proceedings become a lot more monotonous when this summer blockbuster switches into a His Girl Friday pastiche as envisioned by the screenwriters of Deadpool.

Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling) loves being a stunt performer, a job that allows him to be the go-to double for massive movie star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). He adores this gig almost as much as he's enamored with camera operator Jody Moreno (Emily Blint). Naturally, when life is going this right, something's got to go haywire. A stunt gone wrong leads to Seaver suffering a severe injury, prompting his abrupt exit from the film industry. 18 months later, Weaver is plucked out of obscurity by producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham). She needs his help with Ryder on the set of a new blockbuster being shot in Australia and directed by none other than Moreno. Given that this stuntman just went AWOL on Moreno after his injury, this filmmaker has a lot of resentment toward Seavers. Soon, though, that becomes the least of our hero's problems. While trying to pick up the temporarily missing Ryder, Seavers gets trapped in a web of trouble that's ensnared this movie star. If he wants to get out of this situation alive and win the girl, the double needs to become a hero. Fast.

Quick digression on a larger film industry trend: what is with modern comedies being so self-conscious? Contrary to what out of touch rich white people think, the problem with comedies today isn't "wokeness". Rather, it's that these films are too confined to "Save the Cat" narrative conventions. Seemingly wacky comedies like Stuber and Strays pause their respective plots repeatedly so main characters can monologue about their character deficiencies and story arc. A title like The Lovebirds practically beats you over the head when it's establishing a Chekhov's Gun. Even seemingly mean-spirited comedies like The Wrong Missy and The Boss devolve into treacle in the third act. Modern comedies seem obsessed over not being perceived as "real movies." Thus, these titles suffocate their gags with excessive runtimes, overcomplicated plots, and ham-fisted adherences to "traditional" narrative structures. In the process, they just dilute the laughs that do crop up. 

Occasional modern comedy gems like the outstanding Bottoms, the masterpiece Barbie, the witty Booksmart, or the visually sumptuous Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar show that it's possible to make superb modern yukfests. You just have to have the confidence to embrace absurd gags over forced pathos and shorter runtimes. Oh, also doesn't hurt to remember that women, enby's, and other marginalized genders are funnier than men! The Fall Guy is far from the worst culprit of the worst traits of modern comedies. However, I was unfortunately reminded of those flaws as Drew Pearce's screenplay unfolded. Specifically, it's so strange that The Fall Guy's plot bends itself into knots trying to establish a big secretive "conspiracy" plot surrounding Ryder's disappearance. It's no spoiler to say that the "secret" bad guys are evident from the get-go. All the endless expository dialogue trying to make sense of The Fall Guy's various narrative detours will just have you yearning for the action sequences to resume.

Convoluting up the plot may have seemed like a good idea in the writer's room to make a modern feature adaptation of a 1980s TV show something "resembling a real movie." In execution, though, The Fall Guy is just poorly paced fodder that leaves one wishing the proceedings could've been severely trimmed down.  Similarly underwhelming are the various comedic romantic exchanges between Seaver and Moreno. These conversations get a major boost from Gosling and Blunt sharing good chemistry, but good Lord. These characters only speak in smarmy sarcastic quips that get old fast. Once I heard one of their back-and-forths, I'd heard them all. The Fall Guy is deeply admirable in hinging a modern blockbuster around romance rather than hunts for sequel teases. If only the romantic banter had been better than a torturously long meta-commentary on split screens that made me just go "oh, I could be revisitng Down with Love right now".

Despite all those major complaints, there are elements to enjoy in The Fall Guy. Chiefly, the action sequences are dynamite. Leitch and Pearce come up with many creative scenarios to put Seaver in that nicely find opportunities for John Wick-style skirmishes in ordinary surroundings. A garbage truck is the centerpiece of a lengthy chase scene through the streets of Sydney, Australia. A hotel duel between Seaver and Iggy Starr (Teresa Palmer) creatively exploits various trinkets in Ryder's pad. The extended finale, meanwhile, is a giddy creation chock full of the cathartic cheer-worthy moments we go to summer blockbusters for. Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela, unfortunately, don't frame the various fight scenes in an especially distinctive manner. Their visual approach to capturing spectacle isn't bad. Just rudimentary. Thankfully, Gosling and the other performers (including the stunt folks!) fully throw themselves into these sequences and prove key to making them the highlight of The Fall Guy.

This feature also provides another joy of summertime cinema: watching talented and pretty people having a blast on-screen. Ryan Gosling just oozes charisma to no end no matter what he does. Unsurprisingly, he's a riot as Cole Seaver. Whether he's engaging in pronounced displays of fight choreography or executing tiny bits of comedic physicality, he's outstanding. Blunt has a good rapport with Gosling and clearly relishes her character's lighter moments. The standout of the cast, without question, is the endlessly charismatic Winston Duke. Give this man his own action movie, he could anchor his own Fall Guy-sized tentpole with ease. Shoutout also to Everything Everywhere All at Once/The SpongeBob SquarePants Musical scene-stealer Stephanie Hsu showing up in The Fall Guy for one extended sequence. Always good to see an icon on the big screen even if it's just for a scene.

The greatest joys of The Fall Guy are delightfully straightforward. It's really fun to watch people do impressive fight choreography. Attractive folks being charming is an endlessly entertaining sight. Sincere romance is an easy but effective way to tug at the heartstrings. Even the sight of working-class folks (with no superpowers in sight) stepping up to be the heroes of The Fall Guy is a conceptually simple but enjoyable detail of the feature. What a shame this production messed things up with a bloated runtime and too much snarky meta-dialogue. Like too many modern comedies, The Fall Guy is too creatively insecure to trust its greatest simplest elements. No amount of sincere lived-in love for the stunt community can mitigate a flaw that fatal.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Chronicles of a First-Time Attendee of the Dallas International Film Festival!

CW: Discussion of suicide, sexual assault, rape ahead

Despite living in the Dallas/Fort Worth area my entire life, it wasn't until this past week that I finally attended the Dallas International Film Festival for the first time. First established in 2006, DIFF has been going on for nearly two decades now, which makes my eschewing of the event all the more inexplicable. Thankfully, I finally got the privilege of attending this event over the course of April 26-May 2. Though work and other commitments prevented me from going to this festival every day like I would've loved to, I still went to three of the seven days the 2024 incarnation of DIFF was operating.

Attending this festival, I was reminded of just how wonderful these theatrical film festivals are. It's just so much fun to dedicate days to watching movies. Your field of vision and priorities are just concentrated on the screen in front of you rather than the hundreds of disparate demands that make up a normal day. It's also a hoot to talk to people between screenings or while waiting in line for movies. If you're at DIFF, you're bound to be a film fan and that gives you immediate common ground to connect with folks. I got to meet and chat with quite a few people over the three days I attended DIFF and that's what I really cherish from this festival. The communal setting of theatrical moviegoing can be so beneficial for bringing people together. My DIFF experiences truly highlighted that.

I caught six movies at my first ever DIFF trip and I've decided to drop capsule reviews for each of these titles as well as rank them from "worst" to best. Read on for my takeaways of the six motion pictures I reviewed at what shall not be my last DIFF voyage!

6. Losing Grace Finding Hope

In November 2016, 16-year-old Grace Loncar took her own life. Losing Grace Finding Hope is a reflection on this tragedy containing several pieces of testimony from Loncar’s family and friends that are deeply moving to watch. Despite those moments and a conceptually noble task of removing the stigma around mental health, this documentary is simply not well made. The score keeps hammering home the tone of individual scenes instead of just letting the words in the interview segments. The awkward cuts during archival footage are unnecessary and (when things awkwardly zoom in) render grainy home video footage nearly incomprehensible. Also, what’s going on with all the lens flares anytime we cut to an old photograph? Director Marcia Carroll overwhelms the proceedings with too many "flourishes" that never let the audience just set with the testimony of these emotionally devastated souls.

Worst of all in Losing Grace Finding Hope, though, is the aloof treatment towards the psychological struggles of Grace's siblings. In the final ten minutes of this documentary, it's nonchalantly revealed that two of these siblings struggled with addiction. Mother Sue Loncar off-handled mentions in an early piece of narration that one of Grace's older sisters also has intense mental health struggles. Why was this greater context almost entirely removed from the proceedings? Keeping these elements of the Loncar family so removed from the viewer makes it hard to discern the individual personalities of the interview subjects. Whether intentionally or not, it also makes the proceedings feel "sanitized," as if darker explorations of mental health and addiction have been removed to make Losing Grace Finding Hope “more family friendly” for faith based audiences. 

Let's be clear, this documentary doesn't need to become trauma porn nor involve Loncar family members delving into aspects of their personal lives they're not comfortable divulging on-camera. However, the fleeting mentions of these greater struggles for Grace's siblings just reinforced to me how little I knew about any of these people by the time the movie is done. There's a vagueness to Losing Grace Finding Hope that does it no favor. The lack of substantiveness leaves a middle section concerning the Grace Loncar Foundation feeling like it's just a lengthy commercial for this entity. Noble intentions permeate this documentary, but they're not enough to overcome a lot of underwhelming filmmaking and an unwillingness to delve deeper into the central story at hand. The life of Grace Loncar and the heavy topics touched on in Losing Grace Finding Hope deserved a better motion picture.

5. Desire Lines

Director Jules Rosskam is juggling a lot of elements concerning the trans man community in the documentary Desire Lines. There's a framing device concerning a gaggle of trans men, circa. early 2020, navigating an archive seemingly located in the same work building from Severance. The feature is also concerned with the history of stigmatization surrounding gay men sexual experiences as well as interviewing trans men about their most vivid sexual memories. That's a lot to balance in one documentary and it's no wonder Desire Lines as a whole lands a bit on the disjointed side of things. However, it's generally an engaging piece of cinema that especially works in some of the original evocative imagery it conjures up. Rosskam creates intriguing visual parallels between two go-to environments in Desire Lines (a bathhouse and an office building), with their winding hallways and wandering souls often looking for something they can't even describe. A closing sequence depicting a cavalcade of trans men sexual fantasies and bodies (all set to gorgeous blue lighting) is a particularly striking accomplishment in terms of imagery. 

4. I Saw the TV Glow

I won't write too much about this one because I've got a full review already up and running for this exploration of suburban angst. Needless to say, though, it's quite good and full of evocative imagery making good use of bright lights clashing against dark tableaus. Even for someone like me that was a tad more mixed about We're All Going to the World's Fair, director Jane Schoenbrun work on I Saw the TV Glow dazzles.

3. An Army of Women

The road to justice is not an easy nor short one. It's not even a road that necessarily promises the tidiest form of catharsis. Such is the reality faced by the multitude of women explored in An Army of Women, a documentary chronicling a cluster of rape and sexual assault survivors living in Austin, Texas. These women experienced unspeakable horrors and afterward received no aid from local politicians or police. Their perpetrators got away scot-free because of Austin's default dismissal of sexual assault cases. An Army of Women follows these people and a pair of lawyers challenging that status quo. Needless to say, that undertaking proves enormously difficult. 

Director Julie Lunde Lillesæter doesn't shy away from capturing how gut-wrenching it is to have to stand up for your basic rights day in and day out. In the middle of all that turmoil, though, An Army of Women makes time to flesh out these women beyond their trauma as well as depict them bonding through their legal process. Scenes of these survivors growing closer to one another reminded me of similarly impactful sequences from I'll Be Gone in the Dark chronicling survivors of a serial killer developing friendships with one another. In the face of overwhelming trauma, human bonds endure. These women are not alone. Focusing on that concept and the complex road to suing an attorney general and police department allows An Army of Women to truly register as transfixing.

2. Ghostlight

In its first act, Ghostlight (helmed by Kelly O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson, the creative team behind the excellent 2020 indie Saint Frances) had me worried. This story of a family, father Dan (Keith Kupferer), mother Sharon (Tara Mallen), and troubled daughter Daisy (Katherine May Kupferer), recovering from an initially unknown tragedy begins in media res. It also kicks off with a tone that starts off on a wobbly note. O'Sullivan and Thompson struggle with balancing broader moments like an extended fart gag or Daisy's most outsized outbursts with heavier material related to coping with immense sorrow. However, O'Sullivan and Thompson also consistently reaffirm their keen eye for depicting subtly lived-in human behavior and nuanced sense of morality from Saint Frances

Those retained elements from their earlier film keep one latched into Ghostlight until it finds its stride. Once bottled up Dan finds himself cast in a local production of Romeo & Juliet, Ghostlight discovers its voice as an exploration of coping with grief. The cramped darkened room where rehearsals are held is a a great realistic backdrop for Dan's navigation of the trauma he's kept inside. The assorted actors in the play (including Dolly de Leon as the forceful and endlessly charming Rita) are endearing personalities to be around. I love how they each feel like such distinctively different souls even when they only deliver a single line in a scene. Meanwhile, the quiet depictions of Dan bonding with these other actors demonstrate an impressive level of restraint on the part of O'Sullivan and Thompson. They're willing to eschew lengthy pieces of dialogue and Quinn Tsan's original score in favor of just letting hugs, short phrases, or physical gestures take center stage. The sparse execution of these moving moments lets the underlying emotions really flourish.

By the time the third act of Ghostlight rolled around, the messier first 20-25-ish minutes had largely vanished from my mind. When a movie gets me this emotionally invested, it's doing enough right to mitigate its weakest spots. The greatest microcosm of how Ghostlight evolves into something special across its runtime has to be the performance delivered by Katherine May Kupferer. In her first bursts of screentime, I was so worried about the character of Daisy. Was this going to turn into another instance of Sadie Sink's role in The Whale, where an adult drama has a cringe-inducing portrait of teenage girls? As the movie goes on, though, May Kupferer is given some downright fascinating dimensions to handle with Daisy and she executes them with such finesse. The mixture of rebellion and yearning for connection within this teenager is vividly rendered in the hands of this impressive performer. Like Ghostlight as an entire movie, Katherine May Kupferer's performance initially left me worried before thoroughly impressing me.

1. Sing Sing

John "Divine G" Whitfield (Colman Domingo) resides in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State. One of the many fantastic touches in Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar's Sing Sing screenplay (the latter of whom also directs) is how the story begins decades into Whitfield's prison stint. The idea of living in captivity is still confining to him, but it's not a new sensation. There's a lived-in quality to how he and his fellow inmates navigate day-to-day life here. They have their routines. They have their spots they go to for comfort. There's a real naturalism to this depiction that eschews clumsy expository dialogue in favor of observational sequences of characters like Whitfield and Mike Mike (Sean San Jose) sitting under a tree. The point here isn't to bend this world so that it's constantly holding the hands of moviegoers. Sing Sing is a film about humanizing the people on-screen through intimate and nonchalant means. That's the focus and one it accomplishes with remarkable success.

Such humanization largely comes from the exploits of Whitfield and his fellow prisoners in Sing Sing's theater program. I'm always a sucker for a "let's put on a show!" movie and Sing Sing is a great manifestation of that endearing narrative mold. Just watching Whitfield interact with his fellow actors (many of whom are former Sing Sing inmates and veterans of this theater program playing themselves) is incredibly transfixing. The standard exercises stage actors do to get comfortable with each other prove richly rewarding for these inmates. Divulging their dream destinations or getting outside of their default personality forces them to be vulnerable with others. The walls they've built are slowly crumbling. Kwedar's writing and direction depicts those alterations in a terrifically realistic gradual fashion.

Sing Sing is chock full of small moments that profoundly touched me. Supporting player Sean "Dino" Johnson going over his lines while playing basketball or eating in the cafeteria, for instance, is such an instantly moving sight. The dedication he's exhibiting to his craft is so readily apparent and I love that we get to see that quality while getting glimpses into his life outside of the stage. The rapport between Whitfield and newcomer to the troupe Clarence "Divine Eye" Maclin is similarly richly detailed. Their dynamic goes down a flurry of different avenues, with those nuanced interactions accentuating the sense of realism permeating all of Sing Sing. Kwedar and cinematographer Pat Scola heighten the authenticity of this feature by capturing everything on 35mm film. The textures and bursts of natural lighting feel extra alive through embracing traditional filmmaking techniques.

None of us can exist on our own. We need community and vulnerability to properly function. Sing Sing is a stirring testament to these truths. The proceedings are made all the more engrossing thanks to the presence of leading man Coleman Domingo nailing the lead role of Whitfield. He alone is enough to make Sing Sing a must-see. Luckily, there's so much more to this movie than even one outstanding performance.

I Saw The TV Glow Finds Fascinating and Ominous Bursts of Light in the Darkness

American suburbia is a weird bubble. To get here, your family must have some stability. Yet you’re shielded off from so much of the world. Having grown up in Allen, Texas, the suburbs exist in their pocket dimension. You see lots of big houses but not a lot of options for careers, how to dress, or even what life can look like. In all that conformity, it’s no wonder folks turn to escapism. The leads of I Saw The TV Glow are no different. They turn to a Saturday night TV show called The Pink Opaque as a source of joy. This provides relief during gnawing emptiness they can’t really describe or pin down an origin for. 

Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s latest cinematic depiction of young people getting lost in their screens (following 2022’s We’re All Going ti the World’s Fair) concerns teenager Owen (Justice Smith) and senior Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine). They have an odd friendship that’s far from sentimental. However, they share a passion for The Pink Opaque and experiences with dysfunctional households. Eventually, though, this bond comes to a close when Maddy finally makes a good on her promises to leave this one-horse town. Once she vanished, Owen’s obsession with The Pink Opaque continues and Maddy’s influence on him keeps reverberating throughout his life. 

I Saw the TV Glow’s most striking visual motif is bright bursts of light existing against darkness. A TV set left on in a dim living room. A bright ice cream truck billowing vivid smoke in the dead of night. An aquarium radiating green hues in a darkened basement. All these fixtures of suburbia often fade into the background in real life. Here, the camera lingers on these objects decked out in vibrant hues. These items provide some color and brightness to the dreary lives of Owen and Maddy. Their personal importance to these two youngsters in beautifully realized through Schoenbrun’s filmmaking. The imagery of I Saw the TV Glow is already enough to make the feature well worth a watch. This is especially true when it comes to the glimpses of The Pink Opaque viewers are privy to.

 Schoenbrun perfectly captures the look, feel, and dialogue of a late 90s WB/UPN show combined with the ominous ambiguity of Twin Peaks. You could take these Pink Opaque segments, burn them to a VHS tape, and totally fool people that this was some oddball genre show from years past. Beyond just being authentic, there's a goofy yet oddly charming aesthetic to the pieces we see of this show that make Owen and Maddy's obsession somewhat understandable. You can easily process why somebody would get immersed in this navigating a turbulent life. The cozy familiarity of these digressions into a fictional TV show makes the dreamlike imagery set in I Saw the TV Glow’s “real world” all the more transfixing. “Fiction” has a more consistent visual scheme than reality in this realm.

Part of this concept includes a script that embraces strange a style of dialogue between its primary characters. Owen, Maddy, and everyone else speak in short phrases full of pauses and intentionally didactic wording. It took me a minute to adjust to the rhythm of this verbiage. However, much like Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz or the best Shyamalan films, there's a method to these odd exchanges. These are individuals ground down by capitalism, societal demands, and so many other woes. They're not chatty people, nor are they good at "conventional" social norms. No wonder they find solace in a flickering screen that talks to them yet doesn't expect a response back. Even Maddy and Owen, who've bonded over The Pink Opaque show, don't speak of it in gushing terms to one another. There's a rigidness to their conversations about this pop culture property. It's as if The Pink Opaque is so sacrosanct that to speak of it casually would be blasphemous. 

There's so much to unpack just in the way characters talk to one another in I Saw The TV Glow. Get on the wavelength of Shoenbrun's writing and you'll be rewarded mightily. That outcome becomes especially apparent in a lengthy monologue given by Maddy during I Saw The TV Glow that's nothing short of magnificent. It's a tour de force in writing and the very precise line deliveries by Brigette Lundy-Paine. More importantly, though, I Saw The TV Glow functions magnificently in creating visuals channeling the impactful imagery one stumbles onto on TV as a teenager. In that moment, these images unlock something primal in our brains. They could belong to a rerun of an old movie, an obscure TV show, a music video, or anything else. What's important is they help us discover parts of ourselves we couldn't have uncovered anywhere else. They offer a window into corners of our lives that every other aspect of suburbia suppresses. Those flickering images become grandly important, even if they just look like mush to somebody else. I Saw The TV Glow's eerie, neon-colored vision of suburban angst vividly harkens back to those formative memories. Come. Pull up a seat. Let the bright light of the boob tube consume you.

Friday, May 3, 2024

The Garfield Movie Is Best When it Leans On Subversiveness And Anti-Capitalism Sentiments


“You are all going to fucking die.” Those are the first words uttered by Garfield in The Garfield Movie. To make the impact of that evocative phrase all the more profound, his proclamation is delivered against a black screen. This all-consuming void gradually shifts to a blue color as Garfield’s voice over continues to ponder the nature of mortality. “We’re all destined to die,” Garfield continues as the blue hues grow more vivid, “and capitalism only accelerates this inevitability.” In an obvious homage to Derek Jarman’s Blue (a film fellow animated kids movie Sing 2 also homaged recently), these words are delivered against a vacant screen dominated by only one color. There is nothing to distract us from Garfield’s disdain for existence and the status quo. From the get-go, The Garfield Movie uses the titular feline’s famously surly attitude to inform bold visual choices.

Eventually, director Mark Dindal cuts away from this vacant screen and allows viewers entrance into two portions of Garfield's life. These various points of his existence are explored in a non-linear fashion in the screenplay by Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove, and David Reynolds. The first of these sections explores Garfield (Chris Pratt) in 1978 as an idyllic younger feline with hopes of changing the system. The second concerns Garfield in 2024, his cynicism baked in even deeper. Jon Arbuckle has died due to an opioid overdose. Odie has become a right-wing commentary hero thanks to his incel views. Pooky enlisted in the U.S. military right after 9/11 and perished overseas. All the cross-cutting across time reinforces the reality that Garfield is alone and how much he's lost over the intervening decades. His passion in 1978 especially resonates as tragic as the 2024 version of this cat grapples with compromising his beliefs in the name of a quick paycheck from the U.S. government. Specifically, the FBI wants intel on protestors that Garfield is inadvertently close to. 

Will Garfield's original class consciousness carry the day? Or will he get to buy all the lasagna he can dream of thanks to selling his soul?

The best sections of The Garfield Movie thrive on an avant-garde nature that echoes the subversiveness of Garfield in his 1978 days. The soundtrack, for example, only plays songs by the bands Korn, Thousand Foot Krutch, and Toad the Wet Sprocket, often in a distorted fashion. Contorting the tunes in this fashion lends them an alienating quality that jars fascinatingly with their underlying familiarity. We recognize the lyrics...but why is the overall sound so disorientingly unusual? It's a sonic parallel to the feature's unique vision of Garfield, which translates the cantankerous nature of the critter created by Jim Davis into something much darker and more rooted in reality. Meanwhile, the digressions into abstract imagery contain countless striking visuals that really send home how divorced from reality Garfield is. He randomly succumbs to these visions that somehow have more comfort than the terrifying reality he's entrenched in.

It's also fascinating to see how Dindal and company reimagine classic Garfield characters in a context that will resonate with modern family viewers. Most notably, Arlene makes an appearance here after being defined as just "Garfield's pink girlfriend" in the comics for decades. Here, Arlene is radically overhauled into a cocaine-snorting lesbian communist played with vocal gusto by Rachel Sennott. This interpretation of Arlene is already a winner for how much it subverts expectations and plays to Sennott's strengths as an actor. However, it's also an ingenious maneuver since Arlene now functions as such a vivid contrast to Garfield. Whereas this orange tubby is slow-paced and snarky, Arlene has all the energy of a hummingbird and has sincerity oozing out of every orifice. An evil version of Odie, a morally ambiguous vision of Nermal, and a shell-shocked incarnation of Lyman also upend viewer conjectures of what a Garfield movie "should" look like.

These departures from the source material are a welcome treat in The Garfield Movie. Similarly impressive is a filmmaking style relying on quiet lengthy single-take shots that echo similar images in the works of Chantal Akerman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. These prolonged visuals may irritate some viewer, but I appreciated how they let the viewer marinate in sights like Garfield scarfing down lasagna or Arlene passed out on the kitchen floor after a coke bender while a Toad the Wet Sprocket ditty gently plays in the distance. Rendering these moments in static shots that last for ages really gives us a window into the tormented lives of these animals and humans. Garfield may hate Mondays, but moviegoers are bound to love this artsy style of cinematography.

Unfortunately, The Garfield Movie, like so many summer tentpoles, eventually succumbs to traditional impulses of mainstream entertainment. After juggling its non-linear avant-garde impulses so well for so long, the third act focuses on Garfield beating up adversary Nermal. True, Garfield comic fans will undoubtedly find some emotional catharsis in seeing Garfield brutally slam Nermal into the pavement for ten consecutive minutes (accompanied by disturbingly realistic sound effects). However, such easy emotions feel underwhelming compared to the atmospherically ambiguous proceedings that previously dominated The Garfield Movie. You're supposed to feel good watching Garfield proclaim "I am a God, kiss my furry feet you cucks". However, Dindal's filmmaking thrives best when it leaves you unsure of what you're supposed to be emotionally experiencing. These concessions to standard filmmaking norms betray the transgressive mold-breaking artistry that defined the original Garfield comics penned by Jim Davis. This cat didn't just become famous because of ubiquitous merchandise. He became so enduringly well-known thanks to his ability to speak to the proletariat and shatter the mold of how comic strips operate.

Unfortunately, the choice to have Chris Pratt play Garfield is a microcosm of how The Garfield Movie struggles to properly straddle the line between its artsier impulses and it's adherence to mainstream sensibilities. Credit where credit is due, Pratt throws himself into the role and channels Kelsey Grammer's big Republican-skewering speech in "Sideshow Bob Roberts" by lampooning his own right-wing impulses in some of Garfield's line deliveries. An offhand quip from Garfield about how "maybe gays should just not be so in your face!" or "I heard Jordan Peterson say vaccines cause autism" show that Pratt has a sense of humor about how the public perceives him. Unfortunately, such meta-lines gradually build up over time to ensure that Garfield can't stand on his own two feet as a character. He's an extension of Chris Pratt, a movie star that The Garfield Movie seems to have cast just for a bunch of guaranteed publicity. It's nifty to see Pratt poking fun at his own image by thrusting himself into lines like "it sure would be nice if somebody would demolish historical Los Angeles buildings for selfish purposes!" However, that very same quality undercuts the standalone qualities of a performance that's supposed to anchor The Garfield Movie. Stunt casting, alas, lets this version of Garfield down.

When The Garfield Movie channels its arthouse influences just right, it harkens back to those formative days of the character. Not only that, but the greatest sequences carve out a new creative vision for this pop culture staple. Thanks to the most impressive artistic accomplishments of Dindal and the other artists, the very idea of what Garfield "can be" has expanded to an exciting degree. Still, a final scene of Garfield making out with Richard Nixon in Heaven reinforces how much The Garfield Movie eventually loses its way. Quiet contemplations of how hope can curdle into cynicism eventually give way to extreme examples of "shocking" the viewer. Sure, it's a little shocking to see Odie shooting people with a gun in a mainstream movie or hearing Nermal recite an entire monologue from Elmer Rice's Dream Girl before driving his Cybertruck into a brick wall. But these moments seem to be trying too hard to be transgressive. The Garfield Movie gets so much power in that opening sequence with just a blank screen and its main character's narration. 

When the feature leans on that kind of restraint, it really makes Jim Davis proud. When The Garfield Movie gets too convinced of its transgressiveness, though, it's best to just send this feature back to U.S. Acres.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Summer 2024 Box Office Predictions

An image from Ryusuke Hamaguchi's new movie Evil Does Not Exist, which hits U.S. theaters on May 3. It did not make my list of projected top ten biggest Summer 2024 movies, but I just wanted to put it on people's radars because I've heard great things and Hamaguchi is a filmmaking champ.

Well folks, it's time again, For the tenth time in the history of Land of the Nerds (Jesus, time goes fast), it's time for a summer box office predictions column. Which movies will be at the top of summer 2024? Which movies could struggle? We'll get to the bottom of some of those questions here as I explore my projections for the top 10 biggest movies of summer 2024. It's still up in the air what movies will be go the distance as the most lucrative titles of the season, but what is clear is that summer 2024 is bound to be a very odd and muted summer. As I wrote on Collider a while back, major studios are killing this industry. They sent titles like Apartment 7A and Turtles All The Way Down to Paramount+ and Max, respectively, instead of putting them in theaters. They refuse to pay artists liveable wages, thus causing a work stoppage that Hollywood is still reeling from. 

Then there are all the big studios just combining and reducing competition in the marketplace. In 2016, 20th Century Fox provided six movies to theaters during the summer. In 2015, they provided five features during the same season, ditto for summer 2014. This summer, they'll only be providing two theatrical releases, while in the summer of 2024 they only had one title (The Boogeyman) hitting theaters. Thanks Disney for gobbling up that studio and costing thousands of working-class people their jobs! With major studios actively hurting the theatrical film industry through all these means (and tons of other practices), the theatrical marketplace can never hope to get to pre-COVID levels. People want to go to the movies. Major studios are failing them, as seen by the sparse summer 2024 slate.

Anyway! Leftist rant out of the way, let's look at what titles could be the ten biggest movies of summer 2024! Unfortunately, not a ton of original blockbusters or even pre-existing IP getting adapted for the big screen for the first time, so not a ton of chances for sleeper hits this year. Onward with my projections for the ten biggest movies of the summer! Remember, all opening weekend predictions are for three-day openings unless noted otherwise!

10. The Fall Guy

The Hollywood Reporter divulged a few days ago that The Fall Guy is headed for a $35 million opening weekend as the kick-off movie for summer 2024. That sounds about right to me. Sure, Fall Guy leads Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt are hot off their respective roles in the 2023 Barbenheimer craze that brought them to new box office heights as performers. However, one summer's hit does not automatically mean you'll mimic that success the next time the temperatures start to rise. Just as Tom Cruise, who couldn't make the Top Gun: Maverick lightning of 2022 strike twice for Dead Reckoning in 2023. Aside from their summer 2023 hits, a $35-ish million bow for The Fall Guy would be right in the typical box office range for Gosling and Blunt movies. That would make Fall Guy the biggest non-Barbie domestic opening ever for Gosling and the biggest non-Oppenheimer/Quiet Place domestic opening ever for Blunt. Plus, it'd be in the same neighborhood as the $30 million bow for director David Leitch's last movie, Bullet Train. Maybe something slightly north of $35 million sounds about right for this one, which will hope to have the legs of a romantic-comedy rather than a typical first weekend of May tentpole.

Projected Opening Weekend: $37 million

Projected Domestic Total: $110 million


The coin toss of the summer. On the one hand, nobody needed a Twister sequel. The original isn't that well-known or driving up a massive fanbase these days. Also, it's opening one week before Deadpool & Wolverine. That having been said, Glen Powell appears to be on a hot streak right now and this being a PG-13 disaster movie might give it enough unique qualities to separate it from R-rated superhero movie Deadpool & WolverineWorld War Z and San Andreas also demonstrated that underestimating disaster movies can be a big mistake. I doubt this breaks out big time (and that inexplicable $200 million budget looms large over the proceedings) but Twisters will probably gust up enough enthusiasm to exceed lower expectations. 

Projected Opening Weekend: $44 million

Projected Domestic Total: $135 million

8. Furiosa

This and Twisters are the two movies of the summer that could go anywhere. Mad Max: Fury Road was a solid box office performer in May 2015 (it was way leggier than usual for an R-rated summer blockbuster sequel), but its gross in the neighborhood of $155 million domestically wasn't massive (it's debatable if the feature turned any kind of profit in its worldwide run). In the years since, Fury Road became an Oscar juggernaut and one of the most beloved action films in history. However, is all that hubbub just confined to internet geeks? Nine years later, will a prequel abandoning Charlize Theron going to lure in all the Fury Road fans? Also, franchise newcomer Chris Hemsworth is kind of cursed as a non-Marvel leading man. Outside of the MCU (exempting Star Trek, which he only cameoed in), he's only appeared in one movie that cleared $150 million domestically. I'll err on the side of caution and say this will narrowly become his second title ever to clear that mark. That would also mean this becomes Anya Taylor-Joy first-ever non-Shyamalan live-action movie to exceed $41.2 million domestically. Two lead performers who aren't huge outside of Mario and Thor movies does have me wondering if this Furiosa will have a ceiling in how big it gets...but then again, perhaps all the Fury Road goodwill is much more potent than one expects.

Projected Opening Weekend: $56 million

Projected Domestic Total: $155 million

7. Bad Boys: Ride or Die 

The biggest problem Bad Boys: Ride or Die has to face is that it's another Bad Boys movie. Bad Boys For Life in 2020 got a box office boost by being the first installment in the franchise in 17 years. Ride or Die, meanwhile, is a lot less special. It's promoting itself as more of what you'd like. It's hard to imagine this making as much money domestically as the last Bad Boys, but offering more of the same does mean this entry will pull in a lot of longtime fans of this franchise. No records will get shattered here, but Ride or Die will do fine this summer and handily exceed the domestic hauls of the first two Bad Boys.

Projected Opening Weekend: $55 million

Projected Domestic Total: $150 million

6. IF

If the first box office tracking for IF is any indication, we've got a sleeper hit on our hands here. The lone potential original blockbuster of the summer, IF is currently on track for a $38-42 million debut with a good chance of actually opening higher. Considering the current drought of family movies in the marketplace, I'd wager this Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends pastiche has a solid shot at exceeding those initial numbers. An opening in the mid-40 millions would set IF up for a nice leggy haul, especially since its second weekend coincides with Memorial Day weekend. I'm no Ryan Reynolds fan personally (he's great in Adventureland though!), but this movie does seem poised to continue his box office hot streak.

Projected Opening Weekend: $44 million

Projected Domestic Total: $155 million

5. A Quiet Place: Day One 

Nothing suggests just what a weird summer it's going to be like how, currently, it doesn't look like we'll have more than three movies crack $200 million domestically. A Quiet Place: Day One, though, may come closest. Before the pandemic shut everything down, A Quiet Place Part II was tracking to debut to roughly $72 million. A year later, it ended up grossing $48.3 million, slightly below its predecessor's bow thanks to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on theatrical exhibition. Let's be clear, that sequel still did outstanding business under those circumstances. If this prequel spin-off can openly anywhere near $60 million (and I think it can), it'll likely ride the 4th of July holiday week and summer weekdays to a final haul close to the original A Quiet Place. Maybe Day One, in other words, can get that major box office boost Part II simply couldn't because of external factors.

Projected Opening Weekend: $61 million

Projected Domestic Total: $175 million

4. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

Those damn dirty apes have been pretty consistent in terms of domestic opening weekends in the 21st century. Across all four of the Apes movies launched since 2000, they've all landed in the $54-72 million range in their North American launches. Early box office tracking has Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes debuting to $56 million, which sounds about right. Losing Andy Serkis and Caesar puts this one at a bit of a disadvantage. However, the trailers and posters have promised moviegoers plenty of new elements compared to the last three entires thanks to a 300-year long time jump. That and the emphasis on IMAX showings should help make this one a big-screen event for general moviegoers. Best of all, Planet of the Apes movies aren't like Marvel Cinematic Universe or Twilight films where everyone goes out and sees them exclusively on opening days. If word-of-mouth on Kingdom is good, it should play for a nice while in the summer marketplace. Expect those Apes to keep on chugging in movie theaters, hopefully next time with a big musical number in tow.

Projected Opening Weekend: $63 million

Projected Domestic Total: $178 million

3. Inside Out 2

Inside Out 2 feels assured to secure the spot as the third-biggest movie of summer 2024 domestically. The question now, though, is how much it actually makes. I'm just not feeling like there's the extreme hype here that greeted the pre-release marketing cycles of Toy Story 3 and Incredibles 2. Maybe people are just a tad burnt out on Disney sequels? There's enough residual love for the first movie to get this one to a decent opening weekend, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it openly slightly lower than the original Inside Out before having weaker legs. That would still result in a hefty box office haul heads and shoulders above all other animated Disney films released after 2020. Maybe that'll be enough for the Mouse House this go around?

Projected Opening Weekend: $84 million

Projected Domestic Total: $240 million

2. Despicable Me 4

I'm pretty sure every box office geek has the same two movies predicted for the top two slots of summer 2024. That supposed assuredness makes me wonder if something is gonna come up out of nowhere and suddenly push these two out of the top spots...nobody thought Top Gun: Maverick and Barbie would dominate the last two summers, after all. Still, for now, I'll go the safe route and say Despicable Me 4 will have no trouble becoming the second-biggest movie of the summer domestically. Despicable Me 3 making less than Minions domestically does make me wonder if the main entries in this series are now slightly less popular than installments focusing just on the sentient cornpops. Plus, Minions: The Rise of Gru struck it big two summers back after so much pent-up anticipation for its release. That phenomenon doesn't exist here for Despicable Me 4. Otherwise, though, this one's a box office slam-dunk. Gru will continue his box office hot streak, without question.

Projected Opening Weekend: $70 million ($120 million five day)

Projected Domestic Total: $320 million

1. Deadpool and Wolverine

Unless something goes seriously wrong with Deadpool and Wolverine (and things could go haywire...did anyone predict The Marvels making under $90 million before it opened?), The Passion of the Christ will no longer be the biggest R-rated movie in history domestically come Labor Day weekend. That 20-year-long record is likely getting shattered here, especially since the first Deadpool in 2016 was only $20 million away from dethroning it. Eight years of ticket price inflation, a greater emphasis on costly IMAX tickets, emphasizing Hugh Jackman's Wolverine in the marketing, Deadpool & Wolverine should reach that. An R-rating and the simple fact that a bunch of 20th Century Fox Marvel characters meeting up isn't as enticing as the return of Alfred Molina's Doc Ock will keep this one from hitting Spider-Man: No Way Home numbers. However, it should at least get to Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness numbers domestically and could do a pinch better if the sparser summer 2024 slate leaves audiences hungry for big spectacle by the end of July.

Projected Opening Weekend: $175 million

Projected Domestic Total: $420 million (this is not a pun)

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The People's Joker Clowns Around To Create Unforgettably Anarchic Cinema

Inevitably, The People's Joker profoundly touched me in many scenes in how well it crystallized aspects of growing up and existing as a trans woman. Several experiences of mine that I'd never been able to put into words or feel comfortable talking about were right there on the silver screen, as if writer/director/star Vera Drew had plucked them directly from my brain. What also impressed me, though, was how The People's Joker resonated with me in terms of capturing the era I grew up in. This is a movie that won't be for everyone, that's baked into its DNA. But it's totally been hard-wired to strike a chord with folks like myself who grew up in a pop culture landscape dominated by superheroes, government molded by surveillance state legislation, and inescapable corporations, and found escapism through Adult Swim/FilmCow surrealism. In other words, this is for all the lonely neurodivergent folks who turned to endless revisits of Too Many Cooks or The Walrus Song for a respite from capitalism dystopia. 

Tapping so precisely into that relevant vein reinforces the endless specificity defining the bedrock of The People's JokerThis is a movie for folks in the here and now as well as a motion picture befuddled at what constitutes the "status quo" of modern existence. Much like fellow standout 2024 motion picture Do Not Expect Too Much From The End of the Worldcontains so much rage at the messed up status of our world. That movie used heavy traffic and cum-stained dresses to express its dissatisfaction with existing in modern capitalism. The People's Joker uses an anarchic clown and jokes at the expense of stand-up comedians to convey the same irritation. Different tools, same end result. Life is both a tragedy and a comedy. The People's Joker is here to make you feel a little less alone navigating that existential quagmire.

Every comic book movie protagonist has some sort of "origin story." The one for Vera/Joker the Harlequin (Vera Drew) sees her growing up as a deeply closeted trans woman in Smallville. Once she reaches adulthood, she moves to Gotham City to pursue a dream of becoming a stand-up comedy. Disillusioned with the minimal opportunities for fulfilling comedy in this domain, Joker and pal The Penguin (Nathan Faustynstart their own underground comedy club. Here, Joker refines her persona and wardrobe while starting up a romance with Mr. J (Kane Distler), a clown who looks a little "damaged". Far be it from me to spoil all the anarchic bedlam that follows from there!

There is no one "proper" way to visually adapt the mythology of Batman. The characters Bill Finger and Bob Kane created back in the late 1930s have been interpreted by artists as varied as Zack Snyder, Joel Schumacher, Paul Dini, and so many others. The People's Joker ingeniously reflects this through its endlessly varied visual style. Everything from hand-drawn animation to action figures to puppets to recreations of the aesthetic of 90s PC games like Doom is used to realize realms and characters from DC Comics mythology. It's all so bursting with imagination and makes for the ultimate cinematic testament to how expansive the world of Batman adaptations is. Who says you can't harken back to the Adam West and Frank Miller interpretations of this character in the same movie? Plus, this endless cavalcade of flourishes makes the proceedings incredibly fun to watch. You just never know what striking imagery or filmmaking techniques will burst onto the screen next. Navigating everyday life is often a deeply unpredictable experience. The People's Joker's visual malleability captures that nicely.  

That's the other key thing about The People's Joker: it's riotously entertaining. Queer misbehavior has always made for the best rebellious cinema. Thank goodness The People's Joker (like fellow 2024 new queer cinema classic Love Lies Bleeding) keeps that tradition alive. This is a motion picture that isn't interested in making trans people "palatable" or "digestible" to cis-het folks. This is a feature where a key moment of Joker's gender discovery is set to a rowdy Mimi Zama song that proclaims on the soundtrack "walk like a bitch/but I talk like a faggot/I don't give a fuck if I'm ladylike." Finally, all my angsty nights of listening to loud Lauren Sanderson tunes while prancing around my apartment in flowery dresses have been reflected on-screen! Representation matters folks!

In all seriousness, that scene rippling with attitude and defiance encapsulates the intoxicating subversiveness of The People's Joker. This motion picture is all about brutally dark jokes, violence, and endless mayhem. Random concussions are the name of the game here, not adhering to a traditional three-act narrative structure or other impulses of mainstream cinema. It's the stuff of studio executive nightmares. One can only imagine Target or Warner Bros. executives asking Vera Drew to tone it down so they could still Joker-themed merchandise to transphobic bigots. Being the kind of material that would make David Zaslav white as a ghost also underscore why The People's Joker is so irresistibly fun. Once you dip your toes into a movie radiating this much confidence, it's hard not to immerse yourself in the whirlpool of cinematic chaos.

Best of all, though, The People's Joker does something that I truly love in cinema: alternate between silliness and something emotionally tangible and make both elements work. Some R-rated comedies (especially modern ones) get too caught up in didactic character arcs or overly convoluted plot mechanics to force sentimentality on you. There are better ways of making you realize you care about the silly characters on-screen. Just look at The Muppet Movie, which caps off a movie of "myth" puns, and Mel Brooks cameos with this emotionally stirring speech from Kermit about how "I've got a dream too...and it gets better the more people you share it with." Suddenly, you realize how much you care about these felt beings. Even those Adult Swim and FilmCow videos I mentioned earlier often wouldn't work if there wasn't a grain of relatable human behavior in there that keeps you invested in the escalating mayhem. The short film "OMG BISCOFF SPREAD", for example, uses surreal imagery to represent the experience of being exposed to some delicious new food for the first time. Sometimes, the only proper response to a fresh yummy sensation is to wander off to a beach and softly whisper "it's made out of fucking cookies."

The comedic absurdity of Muppets, Eric Andre Show sketches, or Llamas with Hats shorts is so oddly soothing because, finally, here's some chaos with purpose to it. Here's mayhem and absurdity that isn't out to make the planet uninhabitable, but instead makes you titter. Many FilmCow videos feature outlandish figures engaging in normal chit-chat amidst horrifying circumstances. That weasel and sentient coat are just like me and my friends trying to exist as trans folks in the political Hellscape of Texas! In the case of Kermit and friends, all the lunacy might even cap off with you getting a little choked up. We cannot escape the terrifying unpredictability of life, but pop culture thriving on absurdist humor can give us a mechanism to cope with it. 

That's the artistic legacy The People's Joker evokes. In the middle of all the anarchy and jokes about "incels" or problematic celebrities, you get hooked on this universe. Whenever Vera Drew gets openly raw about her life, trauma, identity, it hits with a thousand times more emotional impact than all straightforward dramas from cis-filmmakers about trans folks combined. Something emotionally tangible has been uncovered even in a universe of ridiculous sets and props intentionally designed to eschew reality. Jim Henson and FilmCow would be proud.

Watching The People's Joker, I couldn't believe this movie existed. Not just because of the endless legal issues it faced leading up to its release, but rather that this movie is so unabashedly trans. Delightfully so! I couldn't have imagined this motion picture existing when I was a superhero movie fanatic in my early 20s constantly imagining scenarios where a trans actor would show up in a Marvel film (how did I think I was cis-gendered for so much of my life?!?) Perhaps Laverne Cox would be in Ant-Man! The Tangerine leads could show up in Avengers: Infinity War for a cameo! None of that came true, though. The People's Joker is more than I could have ever hoped for in comic book movie trans rep, not least of all because it's such a deviously entertaining feature. Modeled in the shadow of the 2019 Joker film, The People's Joker harkens back to many classic movies but it's no hollow knock-off. This is an idiosyncratic motion picture so overflowing with bold decisions and wit that it'll put a smile on the face of any moviegoer. In other words, if you thought you'd seen everything a comic book movie could offer, well, "wait'll you get a load of The People's Joker!"

Friday, April 26, 2024

Challengers Rules the Court With Lots of Steamy Thrills

"Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power." So said Oscar Wilde in a statement Challengers takes to heart. This motion picture about a tormented love triangle between a trio of tennis players see's sex seeping into the corner of every frame. Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) cannot eat churros together or unwrap racquets on the court without evoking phallic undercurrents. Meanwhile, every move of Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) oozes confidence and planning. She knows these two men are obsessed with her. How can she use that to her advantage? The prospect of sex and the attraction between sweating human bodies is palpable throughout Challengers. No wonder it's so much darn fun to watch.

Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter Jason Kuritzkes take a non-linear approach to chronicling the relationship between Duncan, Donaldson, and Zweig. After we start this story in 2019, we immediately flash back to 2006 when Donaldson and Zweig were still long-time buddies. They love tennis almost as much as they care for each other. Then they get a chance to meet with Tashi Duncan, a tennis superstar. They're both immediately smitten. After the three share a magical night together, their lives are forever intertwined. Their individual dynamics especially get put into a tailspin when a severe knee injury puts Duncan's career on ice. Her time on the court may be finished...but her time on the court isn't through. She eventually moves on to coaching Donaldson while warding off the lingering advances of cash-strapped Zweig.

Challengers is so damn extra. Guadagnino already demonstrated his love for maximalist cinema with the gloriously unhinged mayhem of Suspiria and the juxtaposition of intimate romance with grisly cannibalism in Bones and All. Challengers is more grounded in terms of its plotline, but it's also a flowery production in execution. After an opening sequence intentionally framing a tennis match with aloof camerawork reminiscent of how these games are shown on TV, Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom quickly throw themselves into the lively camerawork that populates the rest of the movie. Challengers finds so many unique angles to frame these physically exhausting duels through while also incorporating great touches (like beams of sweat dripping onto the camera) that make the proceedings extra immersive. The camera doesn't have to be moving for viewers to feel like they're on the court! 

We live in an age of movies and TV shows informing all their blocking around looking good in TikTok's or Facebook Reel videos. The precise wider shots and vivid camerawork of Challengers is a welcome reprieve from those stifling norms. Even a conceptually simple scene like Duncan and Zweig's tense bedroom conversation is framed through memorable camerawork. Here, we see these two exchange brutal words in an extended single take and a camera bouncing back and forth between these participants (almost like it's a tennis match!). Even the non-linear storytelling helps inform some wonderful imagery. Cutting between Zweig and Donaldson practically naked in a sauna and a flashback to an encounter between fully-clothed Zweig and Duncan in a hotel lobby...ingenious. The juxtaposition between these environments (one all "proper" and sleek, the other full of exposed muscles and wooden walls) alone is striking to the eye. The ambiguity over which of these scenes most"exposes" these tennis players makes for a tantalizing thematic bedrock to this stretch of the story. Challengers is a delight for the eyeballs even beyond the endlessly attractive souls inhabiting the screen.

Something else that's welcome about this movie? Despite all the maximalist touches, it feels like it inhabits the real world more than many modern mainstream American movies. People are horny all the time and opt to take cigarette breaks. Throwaway characters (like a rambunctious older couple encountering Zweig at a motel lobby) have vivid interior lives. The proceedings all take place in "largely" normal American confines, like an Applebee's parking lot, hotel rooms, or a college cafeteria. Even the big tennis match that serves as framing device for Challengers doesn't take place at Wimbeldon. It's set at a country club with a limited number of attendees.  Challengers occupies something that's consciously reality in its backdrops while its characters navigate messy sensual emotions. Plus, much like in his underrated classic Bones and All, Guadagnino demonstrates a great eye for framing these everyday domiciles. These elements of the director's latest movie are not superb just because of external trends in American cinema. However, recent shifts in this country's cinema do make it extra exciting to see Challengers commit to on-screen depictions of boners and working-class environments.

Understandably, most folks showing up to Challengers aren't here for the Mukdeeprom cinematography or to engage in discussions of phallic undertones in the on-screen imagery. They're here for Zendaya in her biggest movie role to date. Needless to say, she's an absolute force on the screen. Her depiction of Toshi Duncan is absolutely alive with endlessly planning and calculating. It's not even like she's playing chess while the two male leads are playing checkers. Zendaya depicts this former tennis superstar as playing some game we can't even comprehend while the other characters struggle to make sense of Tic-Tac-Toe. Just a big scene where Zendaya captures Duncan berating Zweig for all the failures in his life (which has big "I'm your mother" Hereditary monologue energy) alone cements her Challengers performance as something for the ages. Impressively, Faist and O'Connor don't get swallowed up by the film's lead lady and still leave a mark in their respective performances. I especially liked how O'Connor's turn as Zweig seems to have been defined by picturing what would happen if Dennis from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia became a bulked-up tennis star. 

Just as memorable as the three stars in Challengers is a rollicking score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It's been a little over a decade since this duo began regularly creating film scores with The Social Network. They've been largely crushing it with their unforgettable works since then. Even with that track record, though, they still astonish with their propulsive electronic compositions for Challengers. One's seat practically vibrates with all the energy their tracks create. The passionate internal lives of these tennis veterans are perfectly rendered in a sonic form through tracks that exude so much verve. Sexual dynamics and yearning inevitably permeate Reznor and Ross's works because, after all, "everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power." Needless to say, Challengers has quite a lot of artistic power at its disposal.

Friday, April 12, 2024

In Laman's Terms: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Was Just Mid At CinemaCon 2024?

I wasn't at CinemaCon 2024. My fellow Outside Scoop hosts Ryan Scott and Jeremy Fuster did attend the annual Las Vegas event (in which movie studios show off their upcoming features to movie theater owners)! I'm sure the next episode of The Outside Scoop will be chock full of amazing insights from the duo into what upcoming movies look especially choice. For now, though, I thought I'd divulge my thoughts on which studios brought the most buzz to CinemaCon. We're in a transitional period for theatrical cinema. Multiple major studios that have existed for decades are now on the selling block. The public personas executives and studio heads put on at CinemaCon (not to mention the kind of projects they announce) speak volumes about what the near future of cinema looks like. 

Let's dive into that future by exploring what studios brought the goods, which ones stumbled, and which ones just registered as "meh" with their CinemaCon 2024 announcements.

Paramount Pictures Came Out Guns A-Blazing

Ten years ago, the 2014 Paramount Pictures CinemaCon panel focused almost exclusively on three movies: Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), and Hercules. It was a reflection of how few options the studio had in the mid-2010s with its DreamWorks Animation and Marvel Studios distribution deals firmly in the past. Cut to yesterday, though, and Paramount Pictures came out to theater owners with a slew of wildly varying movies headed to theaters. This included a new Damien Chazelle movie (Babylon stans rise up, we won!), a new Scary Movie sequel, an Edgar Wright Running Man remake, and the long-gestating musical comedy from Kendrick Lamar and the South Park guys. Oh, and there were also new Transformers and Ninja Turtles movies announced, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Paramount's explosive 2022 and scoring two major sleeper hits at the start of 2024 seems to have emboldened the studio to finally get a well-rounded slate of theatrical movies together. Heck, the studio even seems to have finally figured out its animated movie problem. For years, Paramount struggled to get a steady stream of new animated movies released. At CinemaCon 2024, though Paramount showed off six different theatrical animated movies destined for theaters over the next 30 months. Little strange Paramount didn't finally announce when Rosemary's Baby prequel Apartment 7A is finally coming out, but otherwise, strong presentation from Paramount. 

Disney And Amazon MGM Studios Kinda Jogged In Place

Disney is in the middle of a transition period for its movie studios. David Greenbaum is only a little over a month into taking over as the head of the studio's movie divisions. Inevitably, the future is a little murky for the Mouse House, so not much was announced at CinemaCon 2024. Still, it was amusing that the studio didn't bring much new to the event. The Mouse House mostly just showed off lengthy pieces of footage from summer 2024 tentpoles like Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes and Inside Out 2. No mention of Searchlight Pictures releases, as near as I could tell. A forgettable panel with no big announcements.

Amazon MGM Studios did a closed-door showcase to exhibitors on its ramped up theatrical slate and revealed that new Bart Layton and Luca Guadagnino movies were headed to theaters in 2025. That's all well and good, but I was stuck by Deadline noting that Amazon MGM Studios was planning to send only 11 movies to theaters through 2026. The studio said it planned to do more than 11, but c'mon, those numbers are still meager. Movie theaters need product. Amazon has more money than God. It can afford to send out digital prints and market new movies. A deluge of new Amazon Studios releases (like Holland, Michigan, You're Cordially Invited, The Accountant 2, and Unstoppable, to name a few) are in various stages of production for inevitable streaming premieres. 

Amazon MGM Studios should be sending as many movies inhabiting as many genres as possible to the big screen. Not just action films and award-season contenders. Movie theater exhibitors and moviegoers shouldn't be thankful to corporations for crumbs when it comes to sending titles to theaters. I had a similar thought reading updates on the Warner Bros. CinemaCon panel this year. Some of its upcoming titles sound fun, but it's hard to ignore the Coyote vs. Acme in the room the whole time. How many of these forthcoming features will actually make it to the big screen? Will Zaslav chuck them in a wastebin to get himself a few extra pennies? 

Amazon, WarnerDiscovery, and other companies jeopardized the big screen experience by shoveling everything to streaming. Now they want to come to CinemaCon as "heroes" because they'll send a Dwayne Johnson/Chris Evans Christmas movie to multiplexes? Forget that! You don't get to be the arsonist and the fireman. When Amazon MGM Studios announces a commitment to making 21 new theatrical movies a year like Warner Bros. did back in 2011 or the 17-18 new theatrical movies 20th Century Fox supplied up until 2018, then we'll talk. Currently, Amazon MGM Studios only has seven theatrical releases scheulded for 2023 (I'm being generous and counting the one-week IMAX release The Blue Angels). That's the same number MGM released in 2021 without Amazon money at its back. 2021 was also when movie theaters were largely closed for the first three months of the year. Congratulations for maintaining the status quo and calling it something new Amazon! That's the Silicon Valley way! We should be demanding more from the few companies that have (almost certainly illegally) assumed so much control over the film industry. Otherwise, you end up with the Warner Bros. Pictures and Amazon MGM Studios CinemaCon presentations, which treated baseline competency as some kind of miracle worth applauding. 

What's Going On, Lionsgate?

Now that we've got that leftist anti-corporation ramble out of the way, let's look over at Lionsgate. The indie studio that's too big to be a Relativity Media but never large or steady enough to be one of Big Five, Lionsgate showed up to CinemaCon with promises of big franchises...kind of. More footage from the studios The Crow reboot was dropped along with a new release date of August 23rd. How ironic that this and Kraven the Hunter are now opening back to back to close out summer 2023. Lionsgate also announced a big partnership with Blumhouse Productions to remake a slew of Lionsgate horror movies starting with The Blair Witch Project. That sounds like a shady prospect and not just because the folks behind the original movie have allegedly failed to get properly compensated for their work on that feature. How many "classic" Lionsgate horror movies are there? Is Blumhouse about to reboot The Cabin in the Woods? Are we due for a Cabin Fever legacy sequel? A Bigger Midnight Meat Train? This whole enterprise sounds like a boondoggle in the making.

Nosferatu Sounds Awesome!!

The most exciting presentation at CinemaCon, as a distant spectator bimbo in Dallas, Texas, was easily the first footage from the new Robert Eggers movie, Nosferatu. This production (the latest remake of the classic F.W. Murnau movie) sounds like it could be something special, not to mention as visually evocative as the other features Eggers has helmed. I'll be counting down the minutes until I can bear witness to this Willem Dafoe/Eggers collaboration! This footage came out during the Universal Pictures/Focus Features presentation, which, of course, hinged heavily on more Wicked: Part One material. To say I'm dubious of this feature sustaining two full-length movies is an understatement. However, it keeps sounding like Universal has a massive hit in the making here. 

Have You Seen These Movies?

Finally, let's look at what wasn't shown at CinemaCon: a bevy of movies shot between 2020 and 2022 that major studios have acquired and/or financed, yet still don't have release dates. It seems like the big studios were stockpiling these titles to help fill in the gaps left in the release schedule by the two big 2023 strikes. However, it's getting bizarre how little information is out there for some of these titles that have been sitting on shelves for years now. For instance, the Legendary Pictures release The Toxic Avenger premiered last September to solid reviews. One might think either Columbia Pictures or Warner Bros. (the two go-to studios for Legendary) would pick it up. Still no word on when this one will see the light of day beyond Fantastic Fest. The Anthony Ramos astronaut movie Distant, meanwhile, was shot back at the end of 2020 for Universal. Still no word on where it is.

The list goes on and on. The Sony/Blumhouse horror film They Listen (starring Katerine Waterston and John Cho) started filming in the final weeks of 2022. It hasn't received a new date after it got pushed from its Labor Day 2024 slot nine months ago. Sony/Screen Gems also has The Haunting in Wicker Park on a shelf somewhere, though amusingly that project now sounds like a Late Night With the Devil knock-off. Should've gotten it out sooner! Lionsgate still hasn't divulged its plans for either The Home or Freaky Tales. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. hasn't confirmed whether or not Max Original Movies The Parenting and Am I OK? (the latter of which they acquired back at Sundance 2022) are still going to streaming. On and on the list goes, including the Legendary Pictures release Brothers (shot in 2021), the aforementioned Apartment 7A, and the Dylan O'Brien/Eliza Scanlen thriller Caddo Lake (for Warner Bros./New Line Cinema). So many major titles from the big studios are just hanging in seemingly permanent limbo. Without any new info on their release status emerging from CinemaCon, it's hard to get too excited about the future of these outfits while all the gaps in the 2024 release schedule get even more irritating. They have the movies theaters need, they're just choosing not to release them.