Saturday, March 30, 2024

At least Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is better than Argylle

In some ways, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire fares best when comparing it to other movies. It’s certainly a good deal better than the 2019 MonsterVerse installment Godzilla: King of the Monsters, for instance. That Michael Dougherty directorial effort had human characters who were outright irritating, the flesh-and-blood humans of The New Empire are more bland than anything else. Meanwhile, The New Empire also stands tall compared to fellow 2024 blockbusters Argylle and Madame Web. Those titles failed to deliver the basic indulgences would want from spy and superhero movies, respectively. Director Adam Wingard at least gives audiences plenty of Kaiju shenanigans for the price of one ticket.

Of course, this cuts both ways. For instance, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire pales in comparison to the 2014 Godzilla title. That attempt to create a modern ominous Godzilla feature is now a distant speck in the distance of this franchise’s rearview mirror. More pressingly Godzilla Minus One just dropped four months ago. That modern classic (among its many accomplishments) proved you can have a Godzilla feature with compelling human characters! Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire stands tall when compared to some blockbuster movies. Unfortunately, its gravest flaws become unavoidable when placing it side-by-side superior big-budget fare. Being better than Godzilla: King of the Monsters doesn't turn your monster movie homage into Pacific Rim.

What's the plot of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire? Simultaneously a whole lot and not much. Kong is lonely in his Hollow Earth domicile. However, he quickly discovers that he's not the only gigantic ape in this territory. Meanwhile, on the surface level of Earth, Godzilla is protecting humanity from big beasts. Screenwriters Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett, and Jeremy Slater struggle to come up with compelling material for Godzilla, so this character spends much of The New Empire just going on sidequests to prepare for the finale. There are also humans! Humans are also here. MONARCH scientist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is struggling to connect with her teenage daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who previously lived with Kong in Hollow Earth. These two, along with master veterinarian Trapper (Dan Stevens) and conspiracy theorist Berni Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), head to the middle of the planet to help Kong. There, they discover a new threat in the form of knife-wielding red ape Skar King that could put all of creation into jeopardy.

Ten years into the MonsterVerse, we're still being forced to hang out with human characters that nobody has much of a vested-interest in. If you can't come up with the compelling intimate drama of Godzilla Minus One, ditch the human beings! It's especially funny here since the humans don't have any real purpose beyond just being a mouthpiece for kaiju lore. There are no attempts at character arcs, blossoming romances, or any other interpersonal material for these figures. The lack of effort is palpable. This flaw is especially odd on two levels. For one thing, Jia has a potentially interesting story related to her struggles to feel like she belongs on the surface world. She's also the only one of the primary humans to have a direct connection with our beastly protaganists (she used to be best pals with Kong). 

However, the movie keeps her at a distance and frames her story through the eyes of Andrews. What a waste of potential. Also odd is that the primary four humans are totally disconnected physically from Godzilla and Kong for much of the runtime. That means we have to keep cutting back-and-forth from Kong's odyssey across Hollow Earth to humans navigating an ancient temple. It's a peculiar story structure, especially since it keeps distracting from the best parts of the proceedings. Quiet dialogue-free sequences concerning Kong and new character Mini-Kong (an adolescent orange ape) are very enjoyable. It's fun to see how they communicate the interior thoughts of these primates through just body language. Alas, these scenes can't last too long. 

By the end, the humans take a backseat to a lengthy burst of monster mayhem that is quite fun to watch. Scar King's fighting style being molded after what can be best described as "pirate brawler" especially makes him a fun figure to watch tangle with Kong and Godzilla (who opt for more primal bursts of aggressive physicality). With this lengthy set piece, audiences will certainly get what they came for with Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Given how totally incompetent these American blockbusters can be, that counts for something. Then again, hitting the bare minimum isn't a massive triumph. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire provides fleeting bursts of fun, but being superior to Madame Web doesn't make it a towering accomplishment.


Tom Holkenborg A.K.A. Junkie XL provided the score for Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. Holkenborg exploded in popularity as a film composer after his iconic work on Mad Max: Fury Road. Unfortunately, since then, his work as a composer has been thoroughly generic. Alas, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire does not reverse this trend. I initially liked that he was aiming for an 80s-synth noise with his compositions, that's not quite a sound we've heard before in the MonsterVerse. He and fellow composer Antonio Di Iorio, though, fail to lend dimensions to that sound. There aren't crests and waves to his compositions, no modulations that suggest variety in the tone or atmosphere of The New Empire. It's just the same homophonic blurbs repeated. The electronic influences also vanish once the final fight starts, which means Holkenborg and Di Iorio's compositions just start sounding like a generic Hans Zimmer blockbuster movie score. Compare these tracks to Bobby Krlic's electronic score for Blue Beetle (which did have exciting variations) and it's just no contest. Here's to hoping Holkenborg strikes back as a composer with Furiosa in May.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

In Laman's Terms: Why Did The MonsterVerse Evolve From Serious to Silly?

The general public got its first good look at the MonsterVerse through the inaugural domestic trailer for the 2014 Gareth Edwards movie Godzilla. Utilizing portions of György Ligeti's “Requiem” in a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the grim Godzilla teaser kept that gigantic lizard largely off-screen. Viewers saw glimpses of this beast, but nothing concrete. It was all meant to suggest what actual people would witness if Godzilla really attacked our world. This beast would be so massive that you’d only theoretically be able to witness pieces of his massive frame. This visual approach and tone carried over to the final film, which featured a little more silly monster-on-monster action but largely kept things grounded and serious.

A decade later, the tone of the Godzilla marketing campaign is now a distant memory. The full trailer for Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is jam-packed full of jokes while all the destruction that these beasts engage in is meant to inspire cheers from the viewer, not leave them in terrified awe. Even the music accompanying this trailer was more frenetic and energetic compared to the somber majesty of using Ligeti compositions for the original Godzilla teaser. The MonsterVerse has pretty much gone to a different tonal planet compared to its earliest days in pop culture…but how did this transformation? And why did the MonsterVerse leave behind what initially seemed like an unshakeable somber tone seeped in realism?

Let's pause and go back to the year of "Don't Cha:" 2005. That's the year Batman Begins opened in theaters and forever changed how Hollywood approached revamping pre-existing brand names. Now every major media franchise was angling to reboot itself with a grim and gritty reboot rooted in the real world. Many of these sagas had previously experienced their own ultra-silly Batman & Robin that left audiences disappointed and indicated that it was time for something different. Thus, the James Bond saga left cars riding tidal waves behind in favor of the grounded exploits of Casino Royale. Terminator: Salvation, meanwhile, abandoned things like Terminator 3’s “talk to the hand” quips to create a realistic war movie where the enemies happen to be robots. Then there was the 2014 American remake of Godzilla, which was aiming to leave behind the style of the 1998 Godzilla title.

This installment marked the last time domestic filmmakers got their hands on this kaiju icon. It turned out to be a box office disappointment while its focus on archly drawn human characters instead of preposterous monster mayhem left fans disgruntled. With the Gareth Edwards Godzilla feature, it was clear audiences shouldn’t expect a retread of the Roland Emmerich take on the character. Instead, this 2014 movie went in the opposite direction of the 1998 Godzilla. Out went silly jokes and in came lots of scenes of humans being far too small to do anything in the face of massive monsters. To make the 2014 Godzilla seem like a must-see movie rather than a retread, there was no choice but to embrace a dark tone.

Ironically, though, the 2014 Godzilla inspired fan reactions that demanded another course correction in tone. While I'm personally a defender of that 2014 film, many had more complicated emotions about the final quality of that Gareth Edwards directorial effort. Specifically, folks largely criticized the lack of screentime for Godzilla and the dour tone. Subsequent follow-ups in the MonsterVerse would no longer occupy the "real world" and then bring some monsters into that space. Instead, Kong: Skull Island sent a bunch of humans to an island packed with beasties. In 2019, Godzilla: King of the Monsters would deliver a follow-up to the 2014 Godzilla that focused heavily on classic Toho monster movie fixtures like Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghiddorah. 

Embracing more stylized critters meant the MonsterVerse films were bound to get lighter in tone to some degree. However, changing tastes in blockbuster cinema hastened the MonsterVerse's shift to lighter exploits. Projects like The Avengers had become the new de facto model for Hollywood blockbusters to imitate. Comedy and self-referential jabs were in. The MonsterVerse responded accordingly. By the time 2019 rolled around, King of the Monsters had Bradley Whitford playing an alternate-universe version of Rick Sanchez while commercials for the feature were set to LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out". 

Ironically, this attempt to placate the tastes of modern moviegoers meant that the MonsterVerse had a similar (albeit faster) tonal shift to the classic Showa era of Godzilla movies. After all, that big lizard was introduced in a dark drama that didn't even hint at the idea of other monsters existing. Eventually, Godzilla anchored movies like Destroy All Monsters, which were full of bright colors, zippy tones, and tons of wacky narrative elements. If you stick around long enough in pop culture, the frightening becomes cozy to moviegoers. Even the raptors in Jurassic Park or Darth Vader are now friendly plush toys nostalgic adults cling to. Whether it's in the 1960s or the 2010s, Godzilla became less and less ominous the longer he stuck around on-screen in serialized storytelling (one-off movies like Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One have proven far more effective at retaining his initial horrifying nature). In both eras of the character's history, the movies Godzilla anchors tend to get sillier the deeper into his filmography you get.

In the case of the MonsterVerse, the evolving tone was somewhat inevitable even if there wasn't both the influence of other blockbusters and historical precedence breathing down the neck of this cinematic universe. The MonsterVerse has rarely restored to hiring the same directors twice. Adam Wingard (helmer of Godzilla vs. Kong) is the first artist to direct two movies in the MonsterVerse. Across the first decade of this saga, Gareth Edwards, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Michael Dougherty, and Wingard have all taken turns reinterpreting these massive beasts. In the process, there's been inevitable changes in the tones of individual films. The 2014 Godzilla from Edwards emphasized grand scale and a somber tone, two hallmarks of this auteur's output. By contrast, Vorg-Robert brought more dark humor and grandiose flourishes to Skull Island while Wingard had an unabashedly kid-friendly silliness imbued in his Godzilla vs. Kong outing.

The rotating door of filmmakers in the MonsterVerse made it inevitable that the tone of these movies would evolve greatly from what was present in that Godzilla teaser all those years ago. The MonsterVerse has never quite found a tonal groove that really clicks (just like it's failed to figure out what larger themes its monsters stand for). Godzilla: King of the Monsters was an especially egregious example of a movie seemingly torn between its impulses towards classical epic storytelling and ham-fisted comedy (why every human character in that movie was comic relief, I'll never understand). Still, it's been undeniably interesting seeing this franchise constantly modulating its tone to the whims of the public's blockbuster movie tastes and the ambitions of individual filmmakers. If there's any fictional character that can withstand so many different tonal swings, it's certainly Godzilla!

Monday, March 25, 2024

Late Night with the Devil/Exhuma/Road House Reviews

There are lots of new releases out there that are getting everyone talking. Instead of just covering one of them...why not explore all three? Ahead, we'll take a look at Late Night with the Devil, Exhuma, and Road House, three of the most buzzed-about new releases of March 2024.

Late Night with the Devil

Sometimes, a horror movie is just a lot of fun to watch. So it is with Late Night with the Devil, which ponders the question of what would happen if a 1970s talk show and The Exorcist collided. Here, the talk show host is Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), the host of Night Owls with Jack Delroy. The movie chronicles him on Halloween night 1977 trying to boost his ratings by featuring a pair of special guests: Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon) and her patient, supposedly possessed child Lilly (Ingrid Torelli). Writer/directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes opt to frame this story primarily as if it's found footage of this episode when it was "recorded live." Heavy swear words get censored with bleeps. All the "live footage" is framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio by cinematographer Matthew Temple (brief monochromatic cutaways to Delroy off the set are filmed in more standard framing). The costumes look perfectly 1970s.

Late Night with the Devil is a riot just in terms of how well it evokes a specific era of television history. Brief glimpses of Hee Haw style sketches, the banter between Delroy and sidekick Gus (Rhys Auteri) cribbed from every late night talk show, even the wide array of guests hosted on this show evokes the groundbreaking talk show Soul! These influences coalesce to create a deeply lived-in world for the Late Night with the Devil characters to inhabit. They're not just existing in a pastiche of 1970s television...they are in 1970s television! That immersion into the past just makes it all the more exciting to watch the spooky slowly but surely creep into Night Owls with Jack Delroy.

Writer/directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes demonstrate a great sense of pacing in how they balance realistic 1970s television with heightened paranormal frights. They've also made a great call in getting David Dastmalchian to anchor the movie as Delroy. For years, Dastmalchian's been a reliably excellent character actor. Inhabiting a lead role is something he pulls off with similarly superb results. He's just so good at playing a believable showman, Delroy comes off as somebody who totally could've been a staple of 1970s television. At the same time, Dastmalchian proves highly skilled at subtly offering up glimpses of something more vulnerable, calculating, and human within Delroy. This man can be downright despicable, but he also makes sure you see the tangible psychology behind his actors. It's a terrific lead performance that only gets more entrancing in the exceptionally disorienting climax to Late Night with the Devil. This is a remarkably entertaining horror film with a dynamite lead performance...what a shame it had to go and use A.I. art for some on-air bumpers.


One of the biggest global box office successes of 2024 so far is Exhuma, the new horror film from director Jang Jae-hyun. Hailing from Korea, the production concerns shaman Hwa-rim (Kim Go-eun) being hired to help rid a baby of a generational curse What should be a simple assignment turns into something much deadlier and more sinister once the excavation of an important grave is conducted. During this process, an ancient evil is unleashed into the world! Hwa-rim now must work alongside the likes of feng shui expert Kim Sang-deok (Choi Min-sik) to ward off a paranormal entity as bloodthirsty as he is malicious! 

The biggest problem with Exhuma is that its visuals are somewhat rote. Some of the best horror movies thrive on very precise images that demonstrate as much craft for staging and blocking as they do for conjuring up frights. Unfortunately, Jae-hyun and cinematographer Lee Mo-gae opt to realize Exhuma in very standard ways. If you've seen an Insidious or Conjuring movie, then you know how Exhuma will frame ghosts that suddenly show up in previously vacant backdrops! At the same time, Jae-hyun does keep the plot moving across its 130-minute runtime. That's no small feat for a horror film, a genre usually best served by sub-90 minute runtimes. Plus, his screenplay eventually finds a very interesting historical grounding for the terrifying ghost. Best of all, a rock-solid cast commits to this material in an engaging fashion. Even when the dialogue or plot points are generic, Kim Go-eun and Choi Min-sik lend weight to the proceedings. Exhuma isn't anything tremendously special, but it's elevated above certain other supernatural horror films simply by the presence of such notable performers.

Road House

I can handle a lot of flaws in a movie. Generic needle drops. Clumsy dialogue. Ham-fisted narrative turns. What I cannot stand are egregious visual flaws that make a feature downright unpleasant to look at. It's one thing to make an artsy film with intentionally abrasive imagery...but why must an escapist action movie make me recoil at shots of characters walking to their car? So it is with the remake of Road House from director Doug Liman. For some reason, this modern take on the saga of Dalton (Jake Gyllenhaal) opts to douse nighttime exterior shots surrounding the titular location in urine-yellow color grading. No matter the mood or activity outside, scenes set around the Road House are doused in this repulsive color. A slightly more bearable but no less intrusive blue tint dominates interior shots of this locale.

Liman's overuse of bad color grading already drags down Road House. The fact that he executes fight scenes with terrible camerawork just cements the movie as a visual nightmare. God only knows why every skirmish had to be captured with a digital camera that won't stop moving, disorienting editing, and even the occasional inexplicable fish-eye lens. Were these techniques just used to mask when a stunt performer stepped in for actors like Gyllenhaal and Post Malone? Who knows, but these methods render the fights in Road House a chore to sit through. Similarly bad is how screenwriters Anthony Bagarozzi and Charles Mondry overload this remake with too much backstory for everyone. Props to the duo for conjuring up a story that isn't just a beat-for-beat retread of the original movie at least. But did this new Road House have to be such a slog that's toxically obsessed with lore? On top of all that, audiences also have to sit through Conor McGregor (playing one of the big baddies here) trying to pretend he's an actor. I'd rather get punched by McGregor than see another minute of him attempting to mimic the energy of a wacky John Wick baddie.

I suppose "pain don't hurt", but watching this new Road House is a painful experience. Let's all join hands and pray Jake Gyllenhaal someday wants to be in real movies again.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

In Laman's Terms: What's Going On With The IFC Films Resurgence?

Back when theaters first shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most studios delayed their films far off into the future. Not IFC Films. This studio proceeded to release a slew of titles to drive-in theaters, including genre movies through the IFC Midnight label. This included the horror title The Wretched, which turned into a tidy little hit for the studio. Its $1.8 million domestic total was above the North American grosses of all but one of IFC's 2019 theatrical releases. At the time, this looked like an amusing little box office quirk. IFC Films titles rarely made much noise at the box office, which wasn't a reflection on the studio being a "failure." It was merely emblematic of the studio handling smaller challenging titles that often didn't make much theatrical noise domestically. With this kind of history, it was mildly diverting for box office geeks with no life (hey, that's me!) to see IFC Films become the Disney of 2020 COVID cinema.

Cut to 2023, though, and those 2020 victories are starting to look like a harbinger of the future. In 2023, IFC Films released Blackberry, which made $2.4 million domestically. That made Blackberry only the second IFC Films release (following The Death of Stalin) to crack $2 million in North America since The Man Who Knew Infinity in 2016. Meanwhile, the first three months of 2023 have been kind to IFC Films. The Taste of Things, even with zero Oscar nominations to its name, has made a fantastic $2.5 million domestically. 

Most impressively, though, Late Night with the Devil, a low-budget horror title acquired by IFC, opened to $2.8 million domestically. It's the first time in history an IFC Films release has cracked $1+ million on opening weekend. As a cherry on top, after just three days, it's also already the 17th-biggest movie ever for IFC Films. Unless it falls off a cliff after its debut weekend, it'll almost certainly crack the top five biggest IFC Films ever domestically. Since 2014, only one movie (The Death of Stalin) has been entered into that elite club, making this potential box achievement all the more fascinating.

What's going on here? Even before the pandemic, IFC Films had years like 2017 where it never released a movie that grossed over $1.305 million. What's behind this box office resurgence? 

The clearest culprit behind the IFC Films box office renaissance appears to be consolidation. Specifically, the IFC Midnight label seems to have been discontinued. Launched in 2010, IFC Midnight was meant to provide a separate shingle for indie horror films that IFC acquired. It was meant to be the Dimension Films to IFC's Miramax. This approach suggests how drastically the American arthouse scene has changed in just 14 years. Today, A24 releases The Zone of Interest and Bodies Bodies Bodies under the same label without an issue. In 2010, though, IFC brass wanted a dividing line between The Human Centipede (First Sequence) and White Material.

Most IFC Midnight titles were simultaneously dropped onto PVOD alongside their theatrical runs, which limited the box office draw of these titles save for the occasional The Babadook. By the mid-2010s, though, the indie horror box office boom was irresistible. Plus, IFC had sibling company Shudder (both owned by AMC Networks), which could provide the indie studio with arthouse titles to release. Shudder provided lots of projects for IFC Midnight, including the early 2023 hit Skinamrink. However, it appears that the IFC Midnight label is now defunct. In the last 14 months, IFC Films has dropped titles like Birth/Rebirth, The Origin of Evil, and Stopmotion alongside its usual band of arthouse projects. This shift alone explains the IFC box office rebound. English-language movies tend to make more money in North America than documentaries or foreign-language titles. Unsurprisingly, Late Night with the Devil has proven more lucrative for the studio than The Nest or R.M.N.

However, it's not just genre movies that are bolstering the box office profile of IFC Films. The Taste of Things making an impressive $2.5 million domestically is proof that the studio can also wring hefty grosses out of "old-school" arthouse titles. How come The Taste of Things managed to do so well? Part of it was that IFC put it into a hefty theater count. This French release played in over 500 locations at its peak. Something acclaimed like Wildlife from 2018 would've made more cash if IFC had expanded it to more than 105 locations! However, it also has to be said that The Taste of Things is also significantly better than many movies IFC Films has tried to launch in the last few years.

IFC Films distributed plenty of acclaimed films in the late 2010s and early 2020s (where are my fellow Happening, Swallow, Monica, and Farewell Amor fans at?). However, their biggest non-horror releases were not widely-acclaimed film festival favorites like The Taste of Things. Instead, IFC Films tried to lean a little more "mainstream" with things like The Catcher Was a Spy, Paint, Red Joan, and The Lost King. These titles didn't leave much of an impression critically or financially. Worse, they diverted the limited resources and attention away from personnel at the studio. IFC Films could've nurtured more acclaimed foreign titles and tried to turn them into domestic sleeper hits. Instead, IFC brass tried like heck to turn The Lost King into the next Eye in the Sky/Hello, My Name is Doris. We now live in an age where A24 can get something like Lamb to $2.6 million domestically. IFC Films, like many indie studios, needs to focus on delivering idiosyncratic movies rather than trying to fit into the "mainstream." 

Luckily, this box office turnaround indicates the studio may have turned a corner. This transition has occurred at an opportune time, as the early months of 2024 have been shockingly kind to indie studios. As of this writing, 16 studios have cracked $10+ million in 2023. . Neon has scored its first ever $5+ million opening weekend (its biggest ever) with Immaculate. GKIDS has ridden the buz on The Boy and the Heron to another $11.5 million. Even beleaguered Bleecker Street has narrowly cracked $11 million for 2024 thus far. That puts Bleecker Street's 2024 box office already well above its entire yearly grosses in 2021 and 2022! Heck, shockingly, IFC Films has narrowly exceeded the 2024 gross of Walt Disney Pictures so far (thanks to that studio delaying all its spring 2024 tentpoles to 2025). 

It's very good to see outfits like IFC Films, Bleecker Street, and Neon doing not only well at the box office, but thriving on multiple kinds of titles. We've always needed as many studios in the marketplace as possible for a healthy theatrical cinema landscape. However, these indie studios are more important than ever now. Forgive me for sounding "hysterical" or "hyperbolic", but I would say that the current Big Five studios (Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Sony/Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictres) are all killing the theatrical film industry in ways big and small. They gobble up healthy movie studios (looking at you Disney), thus removing entities that produce theatrical releases. Studios like Warner Bros. are reportedly deleting finished movies rather than bringing them to theaters. All these studios  (save for Sony and even they were guilty of this to a degree) put all their eggs in the streaming/PVOD basket a few weeks into the pandemic instead of putting their confidence into theaters. 

Something else all these studios did? They refused to pay actors and writers liveable wages last year. The studios, plain and simple, are why there is a continued drought of new theatrical releases. Any and challenges for movie theaters in 2024 can be laid at their feet. Rich executives like David Zaslav, Bog Iger, Tony Vinciquerra, and others have created a dystopic cinematic landscape where only a few companies reign supreme. Those reigning companies are also indifferent to any concept other than lining their pockets with more money.

The American cinema scene has always been dominated by monopolies and big corporations. That's why the Paramount Decree of the 1940s came into being.  However, the pain of this system is especially apparent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We need studios that are excited and passionate about putting movies into theaters, not corporations referring to movies as "content" and viewing artists as expendable. That's why it's important that studios like IFC Films are turning a corner in their box office prowess. The name on the studio is irrelevant, it's just good to see studios not owned by Disney or Amazon leaving any kind of footprint on the theatrical marketplace. The biggest studios have clearly abandoned the idea of functioning like movie studios, as seen by Warner Bros. shelving so many finished movies. That makes the surging box office power of entities like IFC Films all the more crucial if the theatrical experience is going to continue. 

Friday, March 22, 2024

In Laman's Terms: What Makes A Good Movie Studio Logo?

Movie studio logos are easy to take for granted. After all, they're the very first thing we see in a movie. By design, they're supposed to be something you hurry past on your way to the main attraction: your feature presentation. Yet, they've become incredibly famous and (hopefully) not just out of bootlicking fidelity to massive corporations. The most iconic logos garner a reputation because of their designs, their music, and the movies audiences associate them with. Personally, one logo I fondly remember a lot as a kid was the DreamWorks SKG logo. There was something quite soothing just about the noise that little bob made at it hit the water. That little "plink-plink" sound instantly put you in a good headspace for the rest of the logo. Then, of course, there was the theme music composed by John Williams. The mastermind behind the most famous movie scores in history crafted a harmonious melody that was at once soothing yet soaring. It suggested that you were about to watch a MOVIE, something so transportive from reality it would be worthy of that stirring logo music.

I've got more than a dab of nostalgia informing my fondness for that DreamWorks SKG logo, sure. But the level of craft put into it by artists also speaks to how remarkable movie studio logos can be. This is especially true when looking at vintage movie studio logos from the pre-CG days. This is not meant as a swipe at hard-working digital artists, who still do great work on modern movie studio logos. There's just something extra impressive about the craftsmanship that went into making logos entirely by hand.Just look at the marvelous painted work on the Columbia Pictures logo circa. 1967. Everything about this logo registers as nothing short of divine. Just look at the clouds in the background and their suggested enormity! What a glorious backdrop alone! There's such grandeur in this sweeping artwork that comes from it being painted by hand.

Also delightful in this logo? The chunky font used for the word "Columbia"! It really gives weight and power to this movie studios moniker. Even the slightly tilted angle of the entire image is a great way to suggest the scope of this logo. With this angle, one is a little more conscious of the side steps on the pedestal that the Torch Lady is standing on. To my eyes, those steps look like they belong in some ladder from a Looney Tunes cartoon that stretches all the way up to Heaven. It's a subtle detail, but it reminds you this woman is really standing high up in the sky. The epic scale of this logo is quietly reinforced through this tiny facet of the artwork. All of these qualities are given extra tangibility and beauty by being brought to life through paints and other practical means.

Clearly, bombast is important when making a movie studio logo. After all, motion pictures are gigantic creative undertakings to make while going out to see them in a movie theater is often part of a grand night out on the town. Why shouldn't logos that precede films lean into the spectacle of cinema? Of course, great movie studio logos can also be impressively subtle creations. Take the Janus Films logo, an incredibly simple creation (visual design on the left, studio name on the right) with no accompanying theme music. However, this approach is perfect for the kinds of features Janus Films distributes. Many of the titles Janus Films releases are darker, more challenging foreign-language releases. A specific theme music or flashy intro would undercut the intended tone of the subsequent movie. By opting for a minimalist execution, the Janus Films logo gives the floor to the ensuing movie to instill a certain mood in a viewer.

Not to be too much of a grouchy Gretchen over here, but too many modern-day film studio logos fail to find that balance between either towering spectacle or commendable minimalism. Just look at the Apple Original Films logo, which is basically the bane of my existence. This entire logo is a boondoggle from top-to-bottom, including in its repellent design oriented around a silhouette of that Apple logo. The mouthy studio name ("APPLE ORIGINAL FILMS") lacks the succinctness of that chunky "COLUMBIA" moniker from earlier. The new Amazon MGM Studios logo, meanwhile, totally fails to realize what a joke it is to have a logo that features on-screen text that says "Art for art's sake" and "An Amazon Company". Vintage logos were meant to reinforce brand identities and corporate politics, let's not forget that. However, the worst modern movie studio logos tend to put the brand identity of terrifying conglomerates before all else. There's no room for artistry when these logos exist solely to remind you that monopolies like Amazon and Apple exist.

You know what other movie studio logo makes one appreciate the good logos from throughout history? The new updated Warner Bros. Pictures logos. Starting with Tenet, the Warner Bros. logo that existed since 1993 was ditched in favor of a new twist on the familiar logo. New logos aren't a bad thing! Some of my favorite variations on the Columbia Pictures or Paramount Pictures logos were tweaks on original designs! This 2020 WB logo wasn't bad because it was new, it just didn't look good. The tall WB letters with a skinnier case didn't register well with the eye. Meanwhile, the lack of the wraparound with the words "Warner Bros. Pictures" on it made the logo look too bare. The rampant blue all over the logo also was a strange choice that failed to be pleasant to look at. Amusingly, this logo has gone through two more transformations since 2020 thanks to the WarnerDiscovery merger. The first switched things back to the old Warner Bros. logo colors and slightly shrunk down the logo. By the end of the year on Wonka, that wraparound with the words "Warner Bros. Pictures" in front of the shield had been reinstated. Unfortunately, the font used for that text was so repellant to the eyeballs that it was hard to cheer on this return of the king.

If you're still here after all that info dumping on the Warner Bros. logo, let's return to happier waters when it comes to movie studio logos, shall we? The weaker modern movie studio logos demonstrate the dangers of letting companies that aren't well-versed in creativity (like Apple and AT&T) mold even seemingly throwaway pieces of art like movie studio logos. Thankfully, those boondoggles also make one appreciate the best movie studio logos all the more. I'm especially fond of the "A production of the Archers" logo that preceded the works of Powell & Pressburger. The vivid and surprisingly varied colors in this logo set the stage for the kind of colors viewers could expect from the director's movies, like The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life & Death.

I also love the practical effects work on that classic "An RKO Radio Picture" logo, which deftly combines what appears to be a stop-motion Earth and radio tower with simulations of clouds. Nearly a century after that logo premiered, one can't help but stare at freeze-frame grabs of the RKO logo and wonder "how did they do that?!?" Movie studio logos can simply function as way of reinforcing the brands of companies that are already world-famous. They can also function as ways to appreciate the incredible craftsmanship of visual effects artists, painters, composers, and so many other kinds of artists. Just because they arrive at the start of a motion picture doesn't mean there isn't any artistry to appreciate in a good movie studio logo.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

It's Best To Give Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire The Cold Shoulder

"It takes a lot to make a stew," as the theme song for the 2014 short film Too Many Cook exclaims. The lyrics to that catchy ditty later proclaim that "The saying goes it'll spoil the broth/Honey, I think that's not true/Well, maybe too many cooks will spoil the broth/but they'll fill our hearts with so much, so much love." That might work just fine for that warped family sitcom, but excess doesn't work for everything. Just ask Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. Crowding this fourth entry in the Ghostbusters saga (fifth if one counts the 2016 reboot) so full of characters doesn't make the "hearts" of moviegoers swell with affection. It just leaves one walking out of the theater with an empty sensation in their stomach. A movie can say so much, yet manage to leave such a minimal impression.

Set two years after Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the descendants of Egon Spengler have moved from Oklahoma to New York City. Mother Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two kids Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), along with Callie's boyfriend Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), are now trying their best to take over the Ghostbusters mantle. Legal issues lead to the film's protagonist, Phoebe, being forced off the Ghostbusters team. Sidelined and rejected, Phoebe feels like nobody understands her. At the same time, Dr. Raymond "Ray" Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) has come into possession of an ancient orb containing some kind of evil chilly spirit. Once owned by Nadeem Razmaadi (Kumail Nanjiani), this object could eventually threaten the world. Who ya gonna call when an apocalyptic threat is on the horizon? Given that the cast of Frozen Empire also includes Afterlife characters like Podcast (Logan Kim) and veteran Ghostbuster figures like Dr. Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), there are clearly lots of options on the table.

Credit where credit is due, Frozen Empire is an improvement on Afterlife simply because it fits its respective director's talents better. On the last Ghostbusters installment, drama movie veteran Jason Reitman was struggling to shift gears from helming Up in the Air to an often somber Amblin pastiche. Reitman is still credited with the screenplay for Frozen Empire, but now he's been replaced in the director's chair by co-writer Gil Kenan. Previously known for helming kid-friendly horror movies like Monster House, Kenan is no stranger to VFX-heavy projects and helming Goosebumps-esque projects. He lends a slightly more assured hand to the proceedings compared to Reitman's derivative filmmaking on Afterlife. A prologue depicting a bunch of firefighters circa. 1904 encountering the aftermath of a chilly ghost attack especially shows that Kenan knows his stuff on pacing scenes built on tension.

Unfortunately, Kenan isn't enough of a pro to elevate the lackluster script he and Reitman have concocted. The biggest issue at play is that this duo can't let go of the past. There's a reason Creed III, Scream 6, and even Blade Runner 2049 opted to largely ditch the cast members of old in favor of new characters. You've got to let fresh players have their day in the sun. Alas, Frozen Empire refuses to release its firm grasp on the original Ghostbusters. Familiar faces like Zeddemore and Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) keep wandering in and out of Ghostbusters headquarters indiscriminately with no real plot or comedic purpose to serve. Talented actors (and also alleged monsters like Bill Murray) crowd this script for no other purpose than to remind older audience members that they existed. The fidelity to nostalgia leaves Frozen Empire unable to spread its creative wings.

With so many characters to service, potentially interesting plot threads get the short shrift. This is especially tragic when it comes to the most compelling element in all of Frozen Empire, Phoebe's friendship with human ghost Melody (Emily Alyn Lind). Having this teenager develop a bond with a figure from the afterlife raises so many intriguing challenges to traditional Ghostbusters lore. Are all ghosts evil? Is the very job of Ghostbusting morally acceptable? Lind and Grace's committed performances seem ready to dig into the deeper philosophical questions posed by this character dynamic. Alas, Frozen Empire's overstuffed screenplay never delves as deeply into this rapport as it should. A human befriending a ghost doesn't test the norms of this franchise at all.

Other plotlines are way more generic conceptually. For instance, too much screen time is dedicated to a derivative subplot concerning Grooberson struggling to be a dad to the angsty Phoebe. Why is there so much surrogate father/daughter schmaltz in this movie? At least the greater presence of ghosts and comedy in Reitman and Kenan's script will likely leave younger viewers satisfied. I, for one, really dug Possessor, an abstract red cloud ghost that can possess anything. What a scamp he is, turning everything from lion statues to trash bags into adversaries for our heroes. Too bad so many of those supernatural entities are around to function as set dressing for sequences of lengthy exposition. Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire believes what audiences want is explanations for how ghosts work. What they really crave is to just watch weirdo spirits be chaotic.

I've been alive for 28 years on this Earth. For nearly all of them, I've watched Sony/Columbia Pictures executives flail around trying to figure out how to make new Ghostbusters installments. All those efforts have resulted in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, a painless but needlessly crowded blockbuster that one will forget the moment it's over. The fan service it delivers has been done better elsewhere. Its actors have been better served in other projects. All those years of toiling away to figure out how the Ghostbusters "brand" can endure and it's just resulted in another legacy sequel that inspires a shrug. I guess "too many cooks" did spoil this broth.

Monday, March 18, 2024

In Laman's Terms: What Have Been The Biggest Neon Movies At The Box Office?

Everyone knows about A24 in the modern cinema landscape. That label's become the de facto champ of modern arthouse studios. Heck, when I was at a Problemista press screening a few weeks back, I overheard the guy next to me recounting how he'd previously explained Problemista to a friend of his by saying "it's the new A24 movie." But also out there pumping new oddball movies into movie theaters (like this weekend's latest evil nuns horror movie Immaculate) is Neon. Technically founded in September 2015 (though it didn't have a name when it first began acquiring movies), Neon hit the ground running in April 2017 with the criminally underrated Colossal. Since then, the studios released the Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite and a bevy of other acclaimed movies, including superb 2023 movies like Anatomy of a Fall and The Royal Hotel.

As the seventh anniversary of Neon approaches in April, it's worth asking...what does Neon's box office track record look like? What are the biggest Neon films in history? Let's take a look at those questions! To me, my box office geeks! Let's get down to some nerdy analyzing! 

Because Box Office Mojo has been reduced to a shell of its former self, The-Numbers is the only accessible place to get concrete box office data on Neon's box office track record. The numbers we'll be looking at today come from this website and only concern the North American box office hauls of these movies. Here's a helpful screengrab of the 25 highest-grossing Neon films domestically:

Unsurprisingly, the two biggest Neon movies are also two of its biggest Oscar contenders. It's also worth mentioning that only two Neon features have ever cracked $20 million domestically. Only four have exceeded $10 million in North America. Breaking things down more intricately, it's fascinating how instrumental documentaries were to the early days of Neon. I just recently wrote for Collider how A24 has a poor track record with properly handling documentaries. The studio rarely produced or distributed such titles before November 2019. Even as their documentary output has ramped up, A24 has taken to dumping these titles onto streaming with no fanfare. Meanwhile, Neon's earliest hits were documentaries like The Biggest Little Farm, Amazing Grace, Three Identical Strangers, and Apollo 11

Five of the 14 biggest Neon titles domestically are documentaries, a statistic that encapsulates how integral such titles have been to this studio's box office track record. In 2018 and 2019, Neon bolstered its credibility by filling a void in the theatrical marketplace. Other arthouse studios (Fox Searchlight, A24, Annapurna, etc.) weren't releasing many documentaries period. Neon delivered these titles to theaters with solid marketing campaigns, catchy hooks that grabbed the attention of audiences, and slow-burn theatrical release rollouts that allowed word-of-mouth to develop. It's a shame Neon has largely abandoned documentaries since 2022 (though the studio has documentaries like Seeking Mavis Beacon and Orwell on the horizon). They gave these titles a major boost in their theatrical presence while documentaries gave Neon some of its biggest box office success stories.

A similar phenomenon is at play with Neon's solid track record with releasing foreign-language titles. Even beyond the obvious massive success of Parasite, 20% of Neon's top 20 films are foreign-language titles. Two of the studio's ten biggest films ever in North America aren't in the English language! Again, Neon found a domain other studios weren't dabbling in (pre-2022, A24 had minimal forays into foreign-language titles, save for the occasional Menasche, Minari, and Climax). In the process, they filled a void other studios were ignoring. Heck, the studio even got a bizarre foreign-language masterpiece like Titane to a $1.44 million domestic haul, a sum that outshines more accessible English-language titles from the Neon library like Eileen and Vox Lux. Anatomy of a Fall edging out Infinity Pool for the title of highest-grossing Neon film from 2023 (despite the former title never entering wide release) should be a sign: foreign-language films need to be Neon's bread-and-butter.

The highs have been high for Neon in its first seven years of what've been the lows? Mostly just stabs at trying more mainstream fare. Initially, Neon struggled to gain any kind of momentum for movies it opened immediately in wide release. Titles like Assassination Nation and The Beach Bum just wiped out immediately on opening weekend. The studio has also demonstrated some truly baffling release decisions for titles that could've been slamdunk crowdpleaser. The 2019 charmer Wild Rose, for instance, should've been that summer's Begin Again. Instead, Neon refused to expand it beyond 195 theaters, thus ensuring its box office run would be limited. This same studio also kept excellent titles like Clemency and Little Woods in bizarrely few theaters.

Even for English-language narrative titles it's giving a greater theatrical push to, Neon stumbles. Last year's How to Blow Up a Pipeline, for instance, was advertised as being "in theaters everywhere" April 14, 2023. On that day, it only expanded into 142 locations. It ended up going into 530 nationwide theaters the following weekend. Not only was that not accurate to its marketing campaign, but that placed Pipeline directly against the wide-release expansion of Beau is Afraid. No wonder Pipeline couldn't make more than $725,655 domestically! So far, the studio's foray into wide release horror movies (like It Lives Inside and Infinity Pool) has not yielded much in the way of big box office grosses nor widespread critical acclaim. Immaculate has been advertised heavily (Sydney Sweeney even mentioned it in her SNL monologue from a few weeks back) and is anchored by a very recognizable leading lady. Maybe it'll break Neon's streak of struggles to break into a marketplace A24 has cornered for modern moviegoers.

To its credit, though, the team at Neon has done well with launching certain English-language narrative titles. Colossal did a decent $3.19 million in April 2017, while Pig was one of the first arthouse hits in the wake of theaters shutting down in March 2020 thanks to its $3.18 million gross in July 2021. Luce did solid numbers back in August 2019 with a $2.01 million haul despite never playing in more than 235 locations. Most surprisingly, Spencer did a tad better than I remembered with a $7.08 million haul in November 2021, back when the arthouse sector was still getting its sea legs back. It's one of only eight Neon titles to clear $5 million domestically, which makes that gross extra solid.

Neon's box office history is unexpectedly reassuring in terms of what moviegoers will show up for. Neon made more money from Perfect Days, The Worst Person in the World, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire than its more mainstream-skewing genre titles like In the Earth and Assassination Nation. Moviegoers will show up for new challenging things. You just have to put them into theaters! Neon's biggest box office hits come from delivering titles that no other arthouse outfit (not even A24) would touch. When it comes to launching something like Ferrari or Infinity Pool (both of which could've come from any studio), things get a little thornier financially for the studio. If there is a major bright side for the company, it's that its recent slate of titles has been among its most lucrative movies ever. 

Perfect Days is set to narrowly exceed the $3.19 million domestic haul of Colossal in its North American run. That means six of the 17 biggest Neon movies ever have been released over the last 14 months (from January 2023 to March 2024). This also means the arthouse studio has delivered six $3+ million grossers over that same period of time. For comparison's sake, Neon only had three movies in all of 2022 scoring $3+ million domestic hauls. Even in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, Neon only had four $3+ million grossing movies. It's 100% true that this increase is largely because Neon is now doing more costly immediate wide releases for its movies. Neon is trying to become a bigger mainstream studio, hence why it ponied up cash to release the costly Ferrari domestically. Heck, pre-release tracking suggests a $4-5 million domestic bow for Immaculate, which would (after just three days of release) make it one of the most lucrative Neon titles ever. 

However, Neon's box office boost isn't just due to an increase in mainstream wide releases in the studio's output. Slow-burn performing arthouse titles like Perfect Days, Origin, and Anatomy of A Fall all scoring $3+ million domestic hauls between October 2023 and March 2024 suggest this studio is ramping up its box office prowess. Who knows, maybe Neon will score enough box office hits that I'll eventually overhear people at screenings saying "oh, I told my friends this is the new Neon movie"...

Sunday, March 17, 2024

In Laman's Terms: I Can't Stop Thinking About The Dancing Scene in 35 Shots of Rum

Dancing is one of the most beautiful sights in cinema. There's a reason some of the earliest movies captured ballet dancers or two people doing simple dance movies. Dancing is such a cathartic exercise. It's how we express emotions, passion, or jubilation that words cannot convey. It's also just deeply evocative to watch on-screen, especially when it concerns two people becoming physically intimate in the acting of dancing. Iconic director Claire Denis is no stranger to the power of cinematic depictions of dancing thanks to the unforgettable ending of her 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail. No offense to that stirring conclusion (which really is a masterwork of filmmaking), but for my money, the greatest Denis dance sequence comes in one of her slightly later movies. That title would be 35 Shots of Rum, a 2009 Denis directorial effort that contains a dancing sequence I cannot remove from my brain.

Some context: 35 Shots of Rum is a quiet character study chronicling the lives of father Lionel (Alex Descas) and adult daughter Josephine (Mati Diop). The duo live together in an apartment building and have carved out a life where they rely heavily on each other. Lionel is a widower and Josephine is a woman who never knew her mother. A sense of loneliness permeates these two leaving them dependent on each other. As 35 Shots of Rum goes on, the script by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau depicts Josephine beginning to develop a life beyond just her relationship with her father. Both she and Lionel start to realize there may be more to existence than their rapport.

This realization is especially apparent once Lionel and Josephine seek shelter from the rain inside a bar. Joining the pair is Noé (Grégoire Colin), a neighbor in their apartment building with feelings for Josephine. As everyone settles down in the bar, Lionel and Josephine initially dance together to the tune of "Siboney", a Ralph Thamar tune. Then, the songs change. The Commodore's ditty "Night Shift" begins to play. This is when Noé enters the frame and, without saying a word, indicates he wants a dance with Josephine. Lionel retreats from the shot, leaving these two people as the only folks in the shot. 

Denis and Agnès Godard do not have the camera blink away as Lionel and Josephine start to dance together. Nor are more intimate shots employed to fit the standards of typical romantic movie sequences. Instead, the camera is kept away from the characters and their initial physicality is framed in a cold unbroken shot. There isn't immediate rapturous love between these two. There is a bit of awkwardness as they try to publicly dance together. The precise placement of the camera and the refusal to cut away accentuates that self-consciousness beautifully. When the camera finally does cut away, it's to a close-up shot of Lionel looking on in intense distress. He's bottling up his emotions, but Alex Descas still vividly conveys how conflicted this character feels. Lionel is witnessing first-hand how his daughter has a life beyond him.

Returning to Josephine and Noé, 35 Shots of Rum gets a lot of power from how exceptional Diop and Colin are at dialogue-free acting. In the hands of these performers, one feels a rollercoaster of emotions watching Josephine and Noé navigate the ritual of dancing. For a moment, there seems to be a sensual sweetness to their interactions, especially the way their fingers interlock. Then Noé will become a little too enamored with clutching Josephine's hair. A sense of unease suddenly fills every inch of the viewer. With the camera not cutting away, the viewer observes Josephine and Noé exploring whether or not they work well together in real time. Eventually, the dancing fizzles out, with the duo sitting down at nearby chairs. Both look distraught with what just happened. I love Colin's body language for Noé in this moment, his right arm stretched towards Josephine (but not touching her) while his head is tilted at the ground. 

Colin's physicality here communicates vividly how Noé is torn between his feelings for Josephine and a desire to live independently (Noé is always threatening to leave the apartment complex and move far away). Meanwhile, Diop curls Josephine's two hands together, eyes staring off into space as she fully absorbs what it was like to dance with Noé. Neither Colin nor Diop need dialogue to convey these complicated interior worlds. Their slightest actions say so much about Noé and Josephine. Meanwhile, Denis and Varda have kept the camera so intensely focused on Noé and Josephine on the dance floor. Once these two characters sit down, it becomes mildly disorienting (in a good way) to suddenly see them in the background of a shot. As  Noé and Josephine recover, the camera cuts away from these two to a server at the bar preparing a dish. We follow this woman as she brings the dish to its intended customer. As she does so, the camera only captures Noé and Josephine as background figures to the larger bustling eatery. As this pair of figures ruminates on their dynamic, they become disassociated from the dance floor and even the other people around them. The camerawork mirrors their relationship to the wider world by forcing them into the background. It's a mesmerizingly detailed bit of camera work reflecting how the multi-faced visuals of 35 Shots of Rum mirror the incredibly nuanced characters on-screen.

After watching his daughter dance with Noé, Lionel proceeds to get on the dance floor himself with the kindly woman who let him and his group into this bar. This moment and the entire dance sequence thrive on a transfixing sense of ambiguity. Is Lionel doing this to "spite" his daughter? To show her that he too is capable of existing without her? Perhaps his reasons are more innocent. Perhaps he's trying to stave off the loneliness that's clearly consuming his recently retired friend Rene. Maybe he even feels genuinely attracted to this lady. All the ambiguity in this sequence excitingly reminds one of the opening sequence of Past Lives. There, a pair of off-screen figures try to decipher the dynamic between the three lead characters of Past Lives. They don't know these people, they never will. Yet they're trying to decode these mysterious lives from the small physical clues they can gleam from across the bar.

The dancing sequence in 35 Shots of Rum leaves viewers and even this film's in-universe character in a similar situation. Without any dialogue or ham-fisted visual cues to hammer home character motivations, there's a thrilling sense of realistic ambiguity to the actions of everyone on-screen. Meanwhile, folks like Josephine and Lionel aren't talking to one another in this scene. They can only watch from across the room, trying to interpret what's going on in the other person's mind. With so little direct communication, they and the viewer are left to stew over the meaning behind every tiny movement. There's love, hate, contempt, affection, pain, and everything in between swirling around on that tavern dance floor. All those paradoxical emotions require deeply intricate performances. The actors inhabiting this unforgettable 35 Shots of Rum sequence are more than up to that challenge.

 Meanwhile, the very precise visual language of this entire scene is just as remarkable as the work delivered by individuals like Descas and Diop. It's especially great how Denis and Varda subvert the wider shots of Josephine and Noé dancing with later claustrophobic images of Lionel swaying the night away with a lady. Capturing his time dancing in cramped confines suggests how trapped this man feels. He is torn between the realization that his daughter is growing up into an independent person and his burning desire for the status quo to remain. He cannot escape his sense of entrapment even whilst dancing "romantically", hence the tight close-up shots.

Even the needle drop choice here is a perfect pick that ingeniously compliments the complicated tone of this 35 Shots of Rum scene."Night Shift" by Commodores totally sounds like a great dancing song with its irresistible groove, pounding drums, and vocals that ooze with desire. However, there's also something bittersweet to the tune. Perhaps it's the wistful nature ingrained into the tune by way of it being a tribute to Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Maybe it's the way the chorus vocals seem to echo endlessly as if they're being sung into a void rather than a dance floor packed with sweat and sexual energy. "Night Shift" is equally effective at being both a toe-tapper and a wistful melody. Those nuanced qualities make it the perfect backdrop to this 35 Shots of Rum sequence, which transverses as many different emotions as the song. "Night Shift" can communicate the potential burgeoning between Josephine and Noé. Its lyrics also beautifully crystallize the mindset of a man a bit too trapped by the past. 

Every little detail of this dancing sequence in 35 Shots of Rum absolutely transfixed me. It's a scene that just aches with realistic depictions of yearning, longing, and quiet despair. It's also a sequence that reminds us all just how glorious dancing is in the world of cinema. Whether it's an intricately choreographed display of Gene Kelly's masterful dancing or the more realistically messy dancing seen in 35 Shots of Rum, this physical act is a perfect fit for the world of movies...especially when it's being brought to life by a director like Claire Denis!

Saturday, March 16, 2024

In Laman's Terms: The Oscars Don't Have a Viewership Problem

Back in February 2022, Bilge Ebiri wrote an excellent essay for Vulture breaking down how the Academy Awards trying to be self-hating will never solve the show's perceived "problems." It was a fantastic rebuke against the deluge of jokes in the ceremony at the expense of the long runtimes of Best Picture nominees and other gags seemingly directed at folks who'd never tune into the Academy Awards in 2024. Ebiri astutely pointed out that many of these problems stemmed from the Oscars constantly trying to be "broader" to correct supposed issues with the show's viewership. However, this writer flat-out called out this perception for what it was: false. Ebiri pointed out how the Oscars still dwarf all other non-sports television programming in terms of viewership (more on that shortly). Yet, ABC and the Academy continue to fret over the Oscars no longer being viewed by as many people in 2024 as they were in 1998.

The folks behind this award show need to heed the words of Ebiri. The Oscars don't have a viewership problem and it's bizarre that this conceit persists year after year.

Thanks to a helpful chart compiled by Ratings Ryan (based on first-hand sources like Variety news articles from when the ceremonies first aired or Nielsen ratings reports), one gets a helpful glimpse into how many viewers and (in the case of pre-1974 shows) households this show has regularly dragged up. Looking at the history of these numbers, one can see that the Oscars don't have a viewership problem as defined by the Academy and ABC. For the purposes of this piece, let's just look at the shows from the 1974 awards onward, which counted viewers (the same metric used to measure Oscar viewership today).

For most years before the year 2000, the Oscars regularly garnered 40+ million viewers, though the show could sink to sub-40 million viewers on several ceremonies when the Best Picture nominees weren't universally seen. Unsurprisingly, the ceremony where Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture scored more eyeballs than the ceremony where Out of Africa was up for the same award! The least-viewed of these pre-2000 occasions was the 59th Academy Awards ceremony, with 37.19 million viewers tuning in to watch Platoon score Best Picture. These ceremonies existed in an era without streaming programming competition, DVRs, and the highest-profile HBO shows you could watch were Maximum Security and Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.

In March 2003, CBS News ran a piece proclaiming "TV Ratings For Oscars Plunge" in response to the 74th Academy Awards scoring 33.1 million viewers, the lowest viewership of the Oscars at that point. The outlet pointed out that the then-recent finale of Joe Millionaire outpaced the Oscars in viewership, a reflection of just how hot reality programming was in this era. Whispers about troubling Academy Awards viewership had abounded before, but now there were constant eyeballs on the numbers this show generated. In the age of the internet, people had more accessibility to the historical records of Nielsen viewership for Oscar ceremonies. Meanwhile, news outlets had a fresh virtual landscape they could make money off of by delivering pieces with eye-catching headlines like "the Oscars in viewership turmoil."

As the 2000s continued on, Oscar viewership hit another low in February 2008 with 32 million viewers, which The Hollywood Reporter dubbed "a ratings flop" for the kind of numbers a FOX executive would kill for in 2024. Despite being a "ratings flop," Nielsen still reported at the end of the year that the Academy Awards were the most-watched TV program of the year that didn't pertain to sports or the Olympics. More people were still tuning into the Oscars than to watch that season's final two contestants of American Idol rub shoulders with the star of The Love Guru. As the years went on, the Oscars continued to score as the biggest non-sports telecast of a typical year, such as in 2013 or in 2015. Even with these accomplishments, outlets like Time Magazine were still running headlines about how "TV Viewers Deserted the Oscars This Year".

Interestingly, the Academy Awards ceremonies fended off sinking below the nadir viewership of the 80th Academy Awards until the 90th Academy Awards, which became the first-ever Oscars to secure below 30 million viewers with 26.54 million viewers. Since then, the Oscars have never returned to the 30+ million viewership domain. The last three shows scored in the 16.675-19.5 million viewership range, with the 93rd Academy Awards in 2021 securing an all-time low viewership of 10.540 million viewers. Chalk that one up to the first year of COVID-19 leaving both everyone unable to watch the new movies and the Best Picture nominees from scoring much of a pop culture footprint.

There's no question the Oscars have slipped in viewership, with the 96th Academy Awards being down by roughly 47% from the 37.30 million viewers who tuned into the 87th Academy Awards nine years ago. However, that's more emblematic of how live TV viewership trends have shifted than anything else. Unless you're the Super Bowl, people are tuning into live TV less and less in an age of YouTube and streaming. For comparisions sake, let's look at the average viewership of NCIS, one of the biggest scripted shows on TV. This program averaged 16.61 million viewers for the 2015-2016 season. For the 2022-23 season, it plunged down to 9.86 million viewers on average. Across both of those seasons, NCIS was the third-most watched scripted program on television. It's just that the numbers needed to reach that spot have changed drastically in just a handful of years.

The same phenomenon is happening to the Oscars, which (save for that 2021 ceremony) still ranked as the most-watched non-sports telecast of 2022 and of 2023. Now, all these numbers and analysis shouldn't be perceived as bootlicking for ABC and the Academy, but rather a call to action to those entities. There's clearly no real problem going on with Oscars viewership that's exclusive to this awards show. Dwindling live numbers to this program are a result of shifts in how people consume television, not folks inherently abandoning the Oscars. However, this means that the folks behind this awards show need to focus less on "improving the ratings" and concentrate on matters that would actually benefit this event. Instead of straining to conjure up "viral moments" meant to boost viewership, let's get those Oscar categories for stunt performers and voice actors finally implemented into the show! Let's make gender-neutral acting categories! Let's ban anyone from the Oscar who (in the future) introduces the Best Animated Feature category with some snide remark about "did you let your kids fill out the voting form for this one?" There are plenty of ways the Oscars need to improve. Clearly, as Bilge Ebiri pointed out two years ago, viewership woes are not one of them.

Friday, March 15, 2024

In Laman's Terms: The Simpsons And Its Era of Lengthy Couch Gags

Even if you've never seen an episode of The Simpsons, chances are you know the lengthy opening sequence that precedes most installments of the show. The show starts in the clouds before having the camera zoom through Springfield and resting on Bart writing up a phrase on the chalkboard. The opening sequence then follows each member of the Simpsons family before concluding with everyone meeting up at the house. As they arrive in the domicile, a "couch gag" occurs. Such a gag involves the five members of the Simpsons family trying to sit down on their couch but something goes wrong. It's a lengthy kick-off to an average Simpsons episode, but this set-up has proven to be one of the most iconic elements of the program.

Believe it or not, though, for a while there, these opening sequences were even longer! For nearly a decade of the program's history, there were extremely long couch gags that ate up airtime and attempted to give the show some "viral" moments. This is...The Era of Lengthy Couch Gags!

For nearly the entire first 20 years of The Simpsons, the show rigidly adhered to its opening sequence format. Shorter versions of this opening (which included just the chalkboard and couch gags or even just the latter element) would be implemented for many installments, but there was always something preceding the proper episode. The demands of cramming all the narrative demands of a traditional Simpsons episode meant that every second counted on this program. This necessitated that couch gags be short and to the point. Occasionally, slightly longer couch gags (like one involving the family doing a chorus line dance that transitions into a big Vegas-style production) would be implemented. However, these gags (largely limited to installments from seasons 3 and 4) were done out of necessity to boost up an episode that ran short. They weren't prepared as a showcase for unique artists or as homages to other programs. Plus, there was a cap on how long they ran. The thought of these gags going on for more than 60 seconds would've been incomprehensible in the era of 1990s television.

However, in March 2007, the episode "Homerazzi" broke viewer expectations by delivering a couch gag that wasn't confined to just the house of The Simpsons. This gag followed a single-cell organism version of Homer Simpson navigating the entire process of evolution. Various Springfieldianites were rendered as dinosaurs, possums, fish, and other critters. The entire sequence culminated with Homer arriving on the couch with the rest of his family, causing Marge to inquire "what took you so long?" Running 70 seconds, the couch gag redefined the visual and length possibilities of this staple of The Simpsons. There's never been official word on why the crew behind the show suddenly decided to go in this expansive direction with the couch gag after so many years. 

One possibility, though, is The Simpsons Movie. "Homerazzi" debuted just four months before that theatrical release. Perhaps the artists and writers behind The Simpsons were getting so jazzed with the creative possibilities of making a movie that they looked to bring some of that audacity to the small screen. Whatever the reason, a new world of possibilities opened up just in time for a new decade of the show's history. The Simpsons was about to enter its 20s, not to mention the world of high-def animation. With these events on the horizon, lengthier variations on the couch gag were about to become a lot more common. The first HD episode of The Simpsons ("Take My Life, Please) featured a 47-second long couch gag that saw the titular family chasing their couch all across the world and even into outer space. The second-ever HD episode, "How the Test Was Won," would contain a similarly lengthy couch gag depicting the Simpsons family strolling through a series of iconic sitcom backdrops.

Initially, these longer-form couch gags had their uniqueness defined by their expansive scope. The Simpsons no longer just encountered strange events in their living room. Their couch gag exploits could take them to any TV show or country. However, the era of the lengthy couch gag would soon be defined by two key elements: participation by outside artists and attempts to go "viral". Both of these elements could be seen in the entire opening sequence of the 2010 episode "To Surveil With Love," which saw the denizens of Springfield lip-syncing to the Ke$ha tune "Tik Tok." Combining an incredibly popular song/person with The Simpsons was clearly a move on the part of the producers to get some extra eyeballs on the show. This was the age of "going viral" on YouTube, after all. Programs like Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Kimmel Live were already having great success in the late 2000s with standalone shorts and segments that took on another life online. The pre-episode segments of The Simpsons were ample territory for this show to create its own equivalent to "Dick in a Box" or "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck."

Having broken the seal of using the opening sequence of this show as a way to cross-promote with other artists, the couch gags began to take on a whole new lengthy life of their own. In October 2010, the episode "MoneyBART" took these possibilities to dark places by having Banksy (then at the height of his fame) draw up an opening sequence depicting sweatshop workers making Simpsons episodes, merchandise, and DVDS in deplorable conditions. Where are these workers located? Within the 20th Century Fox logo, of course! It was a really subversive piece of material that smuggled biting commentary on the conditions that produce escapist American entertainment within a mainstream sitcom episode. 

Later lengthy couch gags would bring in other guest artists to give the Simpsons world a unique visual spin, with folks ranging from Bill Plympton to Eric Goldberg to Don Hertzfeldt all delivering couch gags that could only have come from their brains. Meanwhile, in April 2013, an additional new precedent for lengthy couch gags was set when the episode "What Animated Women Want" featured a quasi-crossover with Breaking Bad. This segment opened the door for later couch gags like a 2015 segment that saw Rick and Morty (literally) crash-landing onto the Simpsons family. A pair of later couch gags would also make use of the world and animation style of Robot Chicken. Let's also not forget the season 28 premiere that featured a couch gag based on the opening to Adventure Time, complete with vocals from that show's creator, Pendelton Ward. 

These lengthy couch gags allowed The Simpsons to inhabit new visual styles and even mediums of animation (like stop-motion). These attributes lent some exciting artistic virtues to such segments. Meanwhile, FOX and the producers had to be happy with the hefty YouTube viewcounts for couch gags that attracted the Rick & Morty, Ke$ha, or Breaking Bad fanbases. Bizarrely, they were attached to episodes that were often downright forgettable. After experiencing a brief creative resurgence in the initial years after the show switched over to high-definition, The Simpsons went into a creative rut in the mid-2010s (save for episodes that were executive-produced by Matt Selman). Installments like "A Test Before Trying", "YOLO," or "Luca$" felt like the creations of writers keeping a show alive out of obligation, not creative fervor. While the couch gags suggested The Simpsons could be anything, the episodes themselves were largely lifeless.

By the end of the 2010s, the lengthier couch gags began to whittle down in presence. Occasionally more ambitious segments (like a parody of the opening of Succession or the Simpsons family members portraying Queen performing their 1985 Live Aid concert) would emerge, but the couch gags were becoming briefer again. The age of "going viral" had changed significantly in just a decade, with TikTok now being the main platform to go viral on rather than YouTube. The lengthy couch gags actually clashed with the short-form videos most popular on TikTok. This diminished their importance on a financial or exposure level. Meanwhile, it was more difficult than ever, even just in the span of a few years, to come up with concepts for eye-catching crossovers with other shows. The age of "Peak TV" meant there was more programming out there than ever before. It was hard to figure out a pop culture-defining program (like Breaking Bad, for instance) that the Simpsons family could rub shoulders with in a couch gag that would immediately make the internet go crazy. Would an Ozark-themed couch gag really set the world on fire?

There's also the simple fact that the current version of The Simpsons has bigger fish to fry. In a 2023 Vulture interview about the creative resurgence of this sitcom, showrunner Matt Selman observed that an average Simpsons episode now has as much effort put into it as the typical "Treehouse of Horror" installment. With modern Simpsons outings engaging in more unconventional narrative structures and plotlines, all the creative juice isn't just going into the couch gags. Heck, for season 34, seven episodes (to date) have eschewed the entire Simpsons opening sequence, including the couch gag! We're now living in a radically different era of Simpsons storytelling, which means the era of lengthy couch gags has been put into storage (or wherever you put old couches...a nice farm upstate?)

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Love Lies Bleeding is a Grimy Treat for Chaotic Gays and Crime Movie Buffs Alike

We stare at our flesh every day. We obsess over every bump, bruise, curve, and anything else on our bodies ceaselessly. Meanwhile, we fixate over the bodies of others we’re attracted to. Their noses, their lips, their arms, they fill our lovesick imaginations with yearning. Whether it's our own fleshy vessels or somebody else's, the human body is always on one's mind in very exaggerated terms. We tend to see our own bodies as hideous while lionizing the bodies of others as aspirational or romantically desirable. Like David Cronenberg and Julia Ducournau before her, writer/director Rose Glass understands this fascination to a tee and that’s why the filmmaking of Love Lies Bleeding is so exceptional. This universal fascination, not to mention the heightened ways we all examine bodies, is filtered in creative musclebound terms throughout this deeply transfixing feature.

Taking place in New Mexico in the 1990s, Lou (Kristen Stewart) is a gym manager who finds herself deeply attracted to bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O'Brian). As we see the two lock eyes for the first time, Glass and cinematographer Ben Fordesman establish the visual motifs of Love Lies Bleeding. Close-up shots of bulging muscles fill the screen as other gym inhabitants jump rope, do lifts with their dumbbells, and push their bodies to the limits. Jackie, it turns out, wants to win a bodybuilding competition more than anything else in the world. Before we even learn this trait about the character, Glass and Fordesman plunge us into her point of view by covering the silver screen in intimate shots of muscular folks pumping iron. Pain and sweat looms large over Jackie's mind. No wonder those elements deeply inform the focus of Love Lies Bleeding's camera in its earliest scenes.

Those striking shots establish the visual norms of a rollicking dark ride of a movie that creates such incredible imagery out of a fascination with the human body. Many of those images come from Lou and Jackie's most physically intimate scenes together. The duo's initial sexual encounters are covered in bright red lighting that perfectly communicates the sense of passion they feel exploring each other's bodies. Better yet, their actions together are deeply idiosyncratic rather than derivative of other cinematic depictions of two women boning. I love the very specific examples of physical passion (like Lou nibbling on Jackie's toes) that emerge when they're lounging together. These small moments of human behavior lend such specificity to Jackie and Lou's relationship.

Of course, Love Lies Bleeding isn't just about dykes boning each other in cramped bedrooms (though that would be a fine movie too!) The script by Glass and Weronika Tofilska radiates plenty of dark tension from the get-go. Lou is running from a traumatic past stemming from her father, Lou Sr. (Ed Harris), while Jackie's determination to be the best bodybuilder around (aided by her increasing dependence on steroids) brings out some of her most violent tendencies. The level of torment these two have to deal with never seems to end, though for the sake of spoilers, let's leave things vague as to how that torment escalates. Put simply, Love Lies Bleeding is just a fantastically entertaining crime thriller. It does exactly what an entry into this genre should: keep you on the edge of your seat and leave viewers recoiling at the nastiness on the screen.

Fordesman's cinematography perfectly leans into the visual norms of noirs with memorable shots of darkened roads or people in black voids illuminated only by bright red lighting (a previously sensual color in Love Lies Bleeding warped into something ominous). Imagine the vibes and imagery of Blood, Simply mixed in with chaotic bursts of dark humor. The images of Love Lies Bleeding are incredibly striking and they're made all the more remarkable thanks to the assured directing of Rose Glass. She realizes the complicated tone of the proceedings with so much confidence. Love Lies Bleeding can go from genuinely sweet to erotic to unnerving to darkly comical with all the assuredness of a musclebound bodybuilder benching 200 pounds of iron. On paper, the unpredictable tone should render the feature an erratic mess. Instead, adhering to so many cinematic flavors just gives one more bang for their ticket money.

Anchoring the feature is Katy O'Brian as Jackie, who delivers the first major star-making turn in the pantheon of 2024 cinema. O'Brian subverts cinematic norms for how beefy women are "supposed" to behave by portraying Jackie with such endearing genuine affection for Lou. The way she portrays Jackie adorably asking Lou if she's coming to her bodybuilder competitions is just so darn sweet. O'Brian handles the romantic side of Jackie so well that it makes her adeptness at capturing this character's darker shades all the more impactful. Playing opposite O'Brian is Kristen Stewart, who proves especially great here with exquisitely executed comic line deliveries. Two especially hysterical moments in the third act hinge on Stewart delivering conceptually "normal" phrases (one of which consists of a solitary word) in the most bizarre scenarios. Her timing in these two line deliveries is utter perfection and demonstrates how precise Stewart is as a performer.

We're obsessed with our bodies. Chances are, if you like movies with striking visuals and unhinged lesbians like I do, you'll also be obsessed with Love Lies Bleeding. Go forth, reader, and experience what the big screen was made for: messy queer women being gay and doing crime.

Addendum: Composer Clint Mansell (a man most famous for his frequent collaborations with director Darren Aronofsky) has been a bit on autopilot in his film score assignments in recent years. I can't remember any distinctive qualities of his scores for Sharper, Mute, and In the Earth, while his orchestral work on Peacemaker (which he did with fellow composer Kevin Kiner) failed to really stand out against that show's hair metal soundtrack. However, Mansell delivers possibly his strongest work ever as a film composer with his magnificent Love Lies Bleeding score, which just oozes personality and ominous vibes. The most intense scenes of this movie are given further jolts of life thanks to Mansell's compositions, which ride a nice balance between evoking a 1980s setting without letting those influences totally define the personality of his tracks. 

Second Addendum: In Love Lies Bleeding, Anna Baryshnikov plays the lovesick and manipulative queer lady Daisy. At one point, Baryshnikov portrays a giddy Daisy sitting in a diner booth and just rapidly tapping her nails on the table. It's a burst of distinctive human behavior I'll never be able to forget, she's so good in this role.