Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Mini-Reviews: Bob Marley: One Love, Drive-Away Dolls, Orion and the Dark

Folks, there are quite a few new wide releases out right now, so why just limit one review to one movie? Ahead, let's dive into bite-sized reviews of three February 2023 releases (Bob Marley: One Love, Drive-Away Dolls, and Orion and the Dark) and break down whether they're worth giving a watch within the crowded pop culture landscape. First up, let's look at the latest in Hollywood's endless string of music biopics...

Bob Marley: One Love

The story of Bob Marley is brought to life in Bob Marley: One Love, a very standard music biopic coming courtesy of director Reinaldo Marcus Green. Kingsley Ben-Adir inhabits Marley while Lashana Lynch plays the musician's dear partner, Rita Marley. If there's any real critical issue with Bob Marley: One Love, it's just that it lacks much energy or narrative drive. It wants to operate like a standard narrative film (this isn't meant to be a hangout title in the vein of classic Richard Linklater productions), but it also never gives immense conflict in its story enough time to breathe or weight to feel impactful. Rita Marley has a near-death experience that ends up getting resolved in side dialogue delivered in voice-over by a doctor. Record executive disagreements over the cover of Marley's Exodus album end up having few ripple effects on the plot. Even Marley getting harassed at a British bar by a white guy just fizzles out and never goes anywhere.

As a result of these choppy narrative decisions, the story of Bob Marley: One Love lacks urgency and the characters never feel truly alive. Green's generic visual impulses as a director also make the proceedings feel extra stale (it's shocking cinematographer Robert Elswit lensed this movie,, surely the cinematographer of There Will Be Blood can do better than this?!?). If there's a saving grace, it's that Ben-Adir and Lynch are very good in the lead roles while tons of excellent Marley tunes dominate the soundtrack. Still, you can see those lead actors do even better work in other projects worthy of their talents while all those Marley songs are available on a slew of music formats. There's really not much super specific to Bob Marley: One Love that makes it a must-see.

Drive-Away Dolls

Ethan Coen embarks on his first solo directorial effort with Drive-Away Dolls, which concerns two lesbians who get in over their head in a crime snafu. Whereas Joel Coen's inaugural solo directorial effort The Tragedy of Macbeth seemed designed from the ground up to be different from "a typical Coen Brothers movie," Ethan Coen has opted for a premise that seems like a mixture of Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, and Fargo (among other Coen Brother farces). Alas, Ethan on his own can't capture the comedic magic of "you've got a pantyhose on your head." Drive-Away Dolls is really hampered by a strange script and weird pacing that makes the whole thing feel truncated from a larger, superior film. It's like audiences are watching a rapid-fire montage of a comedy movie rather than an actual film.

This leaves the proceedings feeling oddly inert, while punchlines are devoid of proper set-up and lengthy set-ups lead to no really impressive gags. Throw in some distractingly bad scene transitions and and Drive-Away Dolls (much like the dismal filmmaking in Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind) suggests Ethan Coen just lacks some necessary chops as a standalone filmmaker. Still, the proceedings are made watchable by enjoyably chaotic lesbian antics as well as committed lead performance from Margaret Qualley that finally made me understand the hype behind this leading lady. While Qualley felt a bit forgettable in Stars at Night and dreadfully miscast in Sanctuary, she's having a ball as the anchor of Drive-Away Dolls. She carries the torch from George Clooney in the pantheon of Southern dim-witted Coen Brothers protaganists while making that archetype her own. She's a hoot. Now if only the film she was headlining would stop undercutting its best attributes.

Orion and the Dark

Given that it's a DreamWorks Animation movie that dropped onto Netflix at the start of February 2024 with no fanfare, you'd be more than forgiven for not knowing that Orion and the Dark even existed. This adaptation of a famous children's book concerns Orion (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with fears about everything, especially the dark. One night, the personification of Dark (Paul Walter Hauser) visits Orion and promises to help him get over the fears that are controlling his life. This adaptation is penned by Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind projects like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anamolisa, and Synecdoche, New York. He's the "ideal" guy to work with a studio that produced Trolls World Tour...though, ironically, he previously worked for the studio doing uncredited rewrites on Kung Fu Panda 2!

Kaufman actually brings more of his personality to this title than you'd think, including through a narrative structure that spans a surprising amount of time and an emphasis on lead characters growing old before our very eyes. Director Sean Charmatz (making his feature-length directorial debut) doesn't bring as much distinctiveness to the visuals of Orion and the Dark, but he executes the feature with a willingness to let the tone be a tad more complicated than expected. Some of the more kid-friendly jokes here feel more obligatory than hysterical, while the story would've also benefited from a tighter scope (expanding the narrative to include personifications of various other nighttime phenomena takes some of the focus away from Orion). Still, as far as Netflix kid's movies go, Orion and the Dark is a perfectly pleasant watch.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Argylle Makes a Case For Straight People Never Directing Movies Again

"The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life." 

That iconic line from Female Trouble ran all throughout my mind during Argylle. The latest spy movie from Matthew Vaughn embodies many traits of cis-het culture to a tee, but especially one strange thing about straight people: they can't be sincere. After all, straight comics are the ones who pioneered the "I hate my wife!" routine of stand-up comedy. Straight folks are obsessed with musicians like Imagine Dragons who never plumb deep enough emotions that their songs couldn't play in T-Mobile commercials. Straight individuals love stuff like South Park or Ricky Gervais, which promote the idea that nothing matters. There's no reason getting invested in anything. Being detached and stuffing down your emotions is cool.

Argylle embodies this phenomenon eerily well. It wants to be a love letter to spy movies, but it's idea of "love" is just name-dropping classic spy movies. To demonstrate any greater love or complicated relationship with spy movies would require vulnerability and "that's so gay, bro." Keeping it emotions close to its chest, Argylle subsequently has none of the conviction that made those espionage-laden movies work. It's too busy frantically trying to be "stupid" or "silly" or (perish the thought) "gay", like so much straight media. Who would want to see something preposterous? Outlandish schemes to save a person's life can't transpire in Argylle without super-spy Aiden (Sam Rockwell) grinding the proceedings to a halt with dialogue like "you're telling me you [insert ridiculous plan here] after five years of not holding a gun?!?" There's an emphasis on lots and lots of convoluted in-universe lore, but good luck in uncovering any sensual tension or sense of interior life to the characters. Argylle is at least quite sincere in making sure its characters constantly reach for Apple devices or talk about "FaceTime." It is an Apple TV+ Original Film after all!

You've seen the trailers for Argylle if you've been to a theater in the last few months, you know it's about author Ellie Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovering that the spy novels she's penned line up with real-world events. This makes her a target by an evil organization led by Ritter (Bryan Cranston). What the marketing doesn't clarify is how hilariously Argylle functions as a reflection of both Fuchs and Vaughn having such a surface-level understanding of women. Conway's personality is defined by the most rudimentary understanding of interests traditionally coded as "female". She used to be an ice-skater, she loves her cat, she gets emotional easily, at one point we see her doing yoga. I'm shocked they didn't also have her obsessed with pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks or talk wistfully about watching The Saddle Club as a youngster.

Conway's adventures don't just demonstrate old-school approaches to how women behave in movies, though. Her exploits across the globe also show that screenwriter Fuchs is determined to subvert spy movie norms by sucking all the fun elements out of this genre (sex, exotic locales, cool fight scenes) and replacing them with...lore. Characters in Argylle either stand around or sit on sunny porches delivering exposition, with the film way too enamored with didactically explaining every nook and cranny of various plot twists or character revelations. There is no confidence in the audience's intelligence, we have to have our hands held through everything. "Delightfully," such exposition dumps typically occur against terribly-realized green-screen locations. It's like Arrested Development season four all over again, as a bunch of famous people "talk" to one another against digital backdrops while clearly never ever being in the same room as the other person. There is no visual splendor to compensate for Argylle's wordy screenplay.

The visual elements are especially tedious in the action sequences, a mish-mash of punching and slashing that epitomize Vaughn's recurring problems with shooting fight scenes. Here, way too many quick cuts undercut potentially fun scenes like Aiden and (in Conway's visions) Aubrey Argylle beating up baddies on a train. The worst offender, though, is a climactic scene with such a fun premise involving a lead character sliding around on oil and slicing the necks of bad guys with a knife. A great hook for a fight scene is realized through a simulated single-take "shot" with an incredibly obvious CGI double. The digital camera spins around the room without any weight to it, which instills a weightless quality to the actions of the "humans" in the scene. There's nothing tangible in this fight scene, not the background, not the violence being enacted, not even the person slipping and sliding on the oil. It all looks like a cut-scene from one of the early Shrek movies 20 years ago. It's understandable if you've come to Argylle solely for the violence. Alas, you'll leave disappointed since the biggest fight sequences are so poorly realized in camerawork and editing. 

This emphasis on lots and lots of exposition and sterile visuals totally misunderstands why people like spy movies in the first place. Similarly, the score for Argylle is a dreadful creation and a total insult to the legacy of great spy movie scores composed by the likes of John Barry and Bernard Herrmann. The thrill of spy adventures inspired those and other musicians (like Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation composer Joe Kraemer) to concoct collections of compositions brimming with zesty fun and tangible suspense. You could feel the tingle of tension soaking through the scores of movies like North by Northwest, which helped accentuate the propulsively exciting nature of those espionage features. Composer Lorne Balfe, meanwhile, just hits all the familiar instrumental and sonic beats you'd expect from a modern American blockbuster. This score doesn't have to inhabit a spy movie, it could be found on the soundtrack for any big-budget action movie made in the last five years. Rubbing further salt in the wounds, Balfe's work, much like his score for fellow spy movie Mission: Impossible - Fallout, leans too heavily on motifs cribbed from his frequent creative partner Hans Zimmer (the Inception "bwaaam" noise shows up in a key fight scene). The heteronormative urge to be "normal" permeates the lifeless score of Argylle, which never engages in the kind of musical boldness that defined the greatest spy movie scores. At least Balfe's dreadful compositions are consistent with the cinematography and writing of the piece.

Argylle is just totally soulless material, it's devoid even of the rambunctious naughtiness of Vaughn's earlier films like Kick-Ass and the first Kingsman title. Both of those features are a mixed bag (especially the disappointingly thin Kick-Ass), but they at least have a pulse and convey the idea that they were made by human beings. Their flaws and especially juvenile sense of what "subversion" looks like have more verve than Vaughn on autopilot. The only food for thought Argylle offers is how it provides a vivid demonstration of how many cis-het people digest cinema. Movies are always in communication with the medium's past, which can lead to fascinating features that pay tribute to yesteryear while evolving the art form forward. Think of how Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese took the skeleton of The Searchers and used it to inspire Taxi Driver. For many folks today, though, classic movies are just something to be name-dropped, they're "content" to reference, not art to study and evolve from. Vaughn has a character in Argylle, after he's done duking it out with spies on a train, literally name-drop "Strangers on a Train", a cringey moment that just hits you over the head with a creative influence that's already obvious. A great Hitchcock movie is only brought up in Argylle to get a "remember that?" fan-service pop out of viewers. This is how Silicon Valley tech bros and studio executives want folks to view art, as just objects to reference, not art to preserve or cherish. Argylle is an anemic, forgettable piece of "content" as a standalone movie, but it does function well as a terrifying glimpse into warped cis-het attitudes about the world. "Sick and boring," that's Argylle to a tee.