Friday, May 17, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 6, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 5, 2024

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

CW: Discussion of suicide, sexual assault, rape ahead

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

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

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

6. Losing Grace Finding Hope

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

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

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

5. Desire Lines

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

4. I Saw the TV Glow

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

3. An Army of Women

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

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

2. Ghostlight

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

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

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

1. Sing Sing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 3, 2024

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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