Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Color Out of Space

Spoiler-free!

This is a weird one, and that makes me happy. Modernizing the horror short story by the master of cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft, Color Out of Space tells of a mysterious event that takes place on an alpaca farm, where a meteorite lands and begins to alter the life around it.

Directed by Richard Stanley.

The event is witnessed by Ward (Elliot Knight) who stumbles across the farm as he does a survey of water tables in the secluded woods of Arkham County. The farm residents are the Gardner's, father Nathan (Nicholas Cage) mother Theresa (Joely Richardson) daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and two sons, Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard). After the meteorite crashes in their front yard they begin to experience an exponential growth of strange and disturbing happenings, that we know will lead nowhere good.

We don't get many straight-up H.P. Lovecraft movies, so I knew I was going to watch this no matter how bad it was, but I am genuinely impressed at how good an adaptation this is. It's set modern-day and there are a handful of other detail changes done, but with Lovecraft, the appeal isn't in exactly what happens, but the feel evoked -- and this felt every bit like the Lovecraftian menagerie of epic unknown terror that it should. The horror has that insane edge to it, and it creeps up slowly, focusing on the way the mystery effects the characters' mental states.

I loved this wobbly effect visible in the background.

It also withholds, but not so much that you feel cheated. You imagine, and then you get to see for yourself. And the effects are pretty darn fantastic. Sometimes in the vein of John Carpenter with practicals, sometimes with almost experimental digital -- rendering madness, and the indescribable. And it is cool. Violent and cosmic cool -- both in the concept and the way it is pulled off. As someone who doesn't like to be actively scared during a film, it was ideal for me. When you see how terrifying it must be for the characters, but are amazed, amused, and entertained yourself.

Despite having a fairly low budget, the movie doesn't lack anything, due to the original story dictating a remote location and tiny cast of characters. The woods and farm in the area are beautiful, and are made up in small ways to have an otherworldly vibe even before the changes begin. A lot of thought was put into the layout and details of the sets -- they stick in your mind with clear and unique imagery. And besides Nicholas Cage, no one is a big name, but they all sell the weird and the horror plus some. My favorites were Lavinia and Ward. Cage is like the cherry on top that brings out the crazy. Like he was born to play Lovecraft characters.

I would love to see more adaptations in this vein.

This film goes for it. The changes made are only to modernize, and to make the happenings film-able. Though Lovecraft's stories are not very cinematic, the solution, this film knew, isn't to try and "fix" the story. It fleshes out the characters and has to make up narrative scenes, but they are all in service to doing justice to the tone and nature of the story -- which is what's important. I was in awe by the end. It was wild and beautiful, disturbing and gleeful, and epic, and mad -- a true Lovecraftian film.

Monday, March 9, 2020

On the Hallmarkies Podcast!

Today my Twitter friend Rachel (@rachel_reviews) invited me onto her podcast to talk about the new Emma film (read my review here!) and how it compares with the four other versions that already exist! It was a fun conversation (talking Jane Austen, so how could it not be???) so if that sounds like a good listen to you, give it a listen below!


Sunday, March 8, 2020

Emma (2020)

It is my firm belief that Jane Austen's books should see a new adaptation every ten years or so, and so far, filmmakers have been very dutiful in humoring me with this work in particular. Emma is the most broadly appealing of the Austen works, playing out as a sharp and lively rom-com in regency-era settings. It has been adapted to film five times by my count, and this fifth one, with Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, is keen to not feel repetitive.

And so, it's directed with style, by Autumn de Wilde.

It is a faithful adaptation. And honestly that's all it needs to be to earn my seal of approval. But it goes beyond that, too. In its eagerness to make itself stand out from the pack, it puts much effort into its visual style, and also focuses down on a few key emotional and thematic elements to make the story stick; which as a side-effect means that elements that don't involve those key parts can be left wanting. Attention is mostly given to the character of Emma; to see how far into her flaws you can delve before she loses her appeal and charm. In that case Anya Taylor-Joy was the perfect choice to play her -- at least for me, since I am already biased to like her. The movie is upfront about her flaws, but successfully allows us to also see the good heart underneath too, as she works tirelessly, yet misguidedly, to improve the lives of those around her.

And yet, little of the film's focus is on acting. Casting was done, it seems, with stress on appearance, and the result is mixed; characters who look right on surface might occasionally feel out-of-sync with the characterization. I wasn't enraptured by any of the performances but think positively of them all. The characters that were explored deeper sometimes seemed squished to fit a mold that the direction laid out, but worked beautifully when the natural charm of the actors would shine through. Especially with Mia Goth as Harriett. Taylor-Joy is a commanding and charming lead, but some of the emotions Emma expresses are intentionally simplistic. The only way I can account for this is in the assumption that the film cared more about being different from other adaptations than it cared to be natural or instinctive about the character's thoughts and reactions.

It didn't want to copy anything -- but that's a hard task when so much has been done already.

And then some characters were only explored on surface level. This isn't any fault of the actors, but the result of a script that simply doesn't have time for them all. That's the eternal problem with Austen adaptations: you can't reasonably expect any theatrically released romantic comedy to be over two hours, but unedited, Emma's plot is too complex to fit into less. So, adaptations rise and fall on what they choose to leave out. This one leaves out a few things I would have wished to see -- like more of the truth behind Frank, or a more groan-inducing look at the detestable characters such as the Elton's -- but it also includes at least one part that none other adaptations have as I recall, and some small, original moments that serve to build the film's emotional core in the desired direction.

If it lacks one thing for sure, it is cheerfulness. While often funny, the humor is more cynical than light and gleeful, and moments of negative emotion are handled with more care. Again, intentionally directed focus. It's more interested in seeing the error of these people's ways than basking in the humorous ridiculousness of human folly. I love that Jane Austen was able to take things lightly, and I missed that sense of unadulterated enjoyment here. Small quibbles involve some bizarre choices made: the men's collars coming too high on their faces, an unexplained moment where someone's nose bleeds for no reason, and one or two off-putting moments of undress. I will always find that kind of thing unnecessary in Austen films -- but will likely never escape them.

I wasn't wowed by the style, but didn't need to be. Style or no style, it hits the right notes when it should.

The camera placement is hard and bold; sometimes to the detriment of the scene, when it cannot find a reason for its actions. Too often the style was done for the sake of style itself and contributes little to the overall quality -- as nice as uniquely pretty costumes and bright green fields are to see. It doesn't integrate itself into the story. Lines are often ripped from the pages which I love, but then occasionally there were silences between those lines, meant to be charged with emotion and context, that came up dry. And Austen's dialogue, ready-made and sparking with wit, was sometimes delivered almost as a side salad to the high-brow slapstick comedy the film invents for itself. A bizarre disconnect.

The scenes that do meld, and do connect -- which make up the majority -- are wonderful and innate. I wish the film could have found that stride throughout its run time, but I think it opposed itself too often and tripped itself up from time to time. It is funny, it does have moments of great charm, thoughtful sincerity, and smile-inducing romance -- but most importantly, it's a solid adaptation of Jane Austen's winning story. Not quite perfect, but no matter: we can't all be as perfect as Emma.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Upcoming Movie Roundup - March

I did go to the theater in February... to see 1917 again. I may or may not have a problem. But I didn't go for anything else only because Emma doesn't have a wide release until next weekend. So I'll definitely see a 2020 movie this month, and very much looking forward to it!

I also caught up with Parasite just before it took Best Picture at the Oscars. A fascinating film, if not one I feel in love with on a personal level. You can read my review of it here!

I think I might be sliding into 2020 mode now. So let's got to those March movies! What are you planning to see this month?



Onward
In theaters March 6th; PG
Between the releases Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4, I've been interested in exactly one Pixar film: Incredibles 2. So I'm surprised that they have my attention again with the original Onward. I hear tell it's not as "great" as Pixar is known for, but I've been disenfranchised with the franchise for roughly 10 years. So either this is even worse, or maybe everyone else not falling for it is a sign that I will. Because I really love fantasy. And adventures. And this has both in spades -- and flaunts it. I don't think the plot will need to be fantastic for me to enjoy it, which is all I want. I also like the cast of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt in the leads. Maybe it won't be Great Pixar, but it at least looks like Pixar that's successfully catered to me.




The Way Back
Normally I'd write this kind of film off instantly; sport plots rarely appeal to me. Sport dramas even less. And if it must be sport dramas, basketball is not recommended. I've had enough of that in my lifetime. And I do not care for Ben Affleck. But. The director is Gavin O'Connor, who made Warrior, a sport drama that broke the mold for me, so despite all the marks against this one, I'll keep an eye on it because of that.




Bloodshot
In theaters March 13th; PG-13
I will watch anything with Toby Kebbell in it, and that's as complex as this needs to get. If the plot, action, and Vin Diesel are good that'll be nice, but it doesn't really matter to me. But... I kinda wonder how this premise could be any good without a R-for-violence rating. And for some reason I thought it was a Netflix film, and so I'm disappointed that I'll have to wait to see it streaming. And Toby Kebbell doesn't even appear to be the main villain. But like I said, those things are irrelevant to whether or not I'll see it.





A Quiet Place Part II
In theaters March 20th; NR
Do I wish they'd have just stopped, left great enough alone and not made more at the risk of ruining everything? Of course I do. I will I see this sequel anyway? Yes. Yes, I will. And what's more I will be relatively excited for it -- because John Krasinski must have heard about my reservations and decided to distract me from them by adding Cillian Murphy to the cast. A cheap trick, that is working beautifully. I'll probably see it in theaters. But gosh I hope it's a worthy sequel. Those things are a rarity these days.




Mulan
In theaters March 27th; PG-13
Until the remake Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Treasure Planet, I will not be excited for a Live Action Disney Remake. But this has potential to be the best one since Cinderella -- simply because it doesn't appear to be a paint-by-numbers copy of the animation. It still looks like a Disney movie, but also like it'll maybe try to be a good film, too. So hey... maybe it will be. I won't get my hopes up. But it has a better chance than most, I think.



Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Parasite

Spoiler-free!

This Oscar-nominated South Korean dark comedy tells the story of the Kim family. It all begins when the son, Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-Sik) is approached by his friend who's hoping he'll take over tutoring a rich girl he likes. He trusts Ki-Woo not to steal her out from under him, and doesn't care that he technically isn't qualified to tutor. Ki-Woo's sister Ki-Jung (Park So-Dam) forges university papers for him and he's off. But the rich mother also has a son who she considers a budding artistic genius. Ki-Woo sees an opportunity for his sister to get in on the enterprise too, and soon she has become a "prodigious art teacher." The next steps are to get their also unemployed father (Song Kang-Ho) and mother (Chang Hyae-Jin) into the household, but that may take more than some white lies and the slope keeps getting slipperier...

The Kim family! Pleasant, charming, devious, criminal.

The big appeal of this story is how unique it is. A poor family that literally lives halfway underground in a cramped and stink-bug infested home, slowly and steadily infiltrating a rich home that sits high up on a picturesque hill. While they're on top of the world, the Kims talk of living in the house as theirs -- and in a way they do. And when they're low, they're literally existing in the gutter with sewage surrounding them. It's fascinating to watch their plans and schemes unfold, especially because plans never go the way they're planned to. The plot is like watching a slow-spiraling plane crash and a beautiful rocket launch at the same time.

Bong Joon-Ho of Snowpiercer fame is the writer/director, and his craftsmanship is tight and full of unique style. He excels at creating unprecedented situations and placing characters into them that are interesting and different so as the navigate the situations in an entertaining and unique way. Here I especially liked the family dynamic, where they all just kind of accept the criminality of the scheme from the get-go, and work together like gears in a clock to get it all done. Bong creates instances of darkness and comedy that exist together perfectly. There's moments of joy, tragedy, horror, and thoughtful fascination. The look of it is rich and sticks with you. It's all-around a beautifully crafted piece.

But a well-crafted film doesn't equal a universally great film on its own. 

And yet, despite all this, I didn't love the movie. I was entertained, amused, horrified, and fascinated by it, but I could never cross the threshold into love. I've thought about why, and have concluded that I couldn't care about the story and characters in the way I need to in order to love a story. And it's not because the characters are bad people, per se -- that makes investment harder but isn't a deal-breaker for me. This movie asks its audience to sympathize with the Kim family, and I could. Especially Ki-Woo, who participates the least in the wrongdoing and who the story somewhat centers around. He has a naive hopefulness to him that invites pity more than blame. And you do feel for the situation the family begins in. They are poor, but talented, and have grand aspirations. What's not to sympathize with?

However, in their pursuit of riches and comfort, they bulldoze anyone in their way -- not only their elite targets. It's also worth mentioning that the rich Park family are not bad people. They're aloof and careless in how they deal with people, but never "cross the line," as it were, into law-breaking. And the Kim family are equally as careless of anyone not a part of their clan. So I found it hard to root for them, as their redeeming qualities dwindle over time. I don't think the film needed me to root for them, but without the investment that caring for characters brings, the impact of the film's later events is severely lessened. They're merely interesting, which the movie always was. There's no switch in which I became engaged on a personal level -- something vital for me to care about a film, if not to appreciate or admire it.

We all feel inferior from time to time. We all get that sense that people can smell that which we want to hide. Most of us already know that it's no excuse.

It frustrates me the more I think of it, because with the right tweaks I could have easily invested -- but I'm beginning to doubt that's what the film wanted at all. Ki-Woo is who we understand best, but once Ki-Jung enters the house, she overshadows him completely. She's that kind of person -- fascinating, and captivating to watch, but fake. We never know her. We know the father, Ki-Taek, and once he comes along he overshadows both the kids, but his motivations never sat well with me. I wanted to understand the kids better, but we never get a real chance, and by the end I didn't know any of them well enough to care what happened to them. Being hard up is not a character trait. It's a circumstance; and one that isn't automatically deep enough to forge a connection that would inspire me to look past certain behaviors.

So in the end, interesting is all it could ever be for me. For other people it was more, and I can see why. I want to mention that, because perhaps you reading this may be one of those people. Or maybe you're the sort of person why doesn't need to care about a film's characters in order to love the film itself. Either way, if you love dark comedy that is both rich with seriousness and light with wit, and if you like to see a unique plot unfold that you've never seen before, Parasite may be well worth your time, and your riches -- such as they are.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Upcoming Movie Roundup - February

No big surprise that I didn't get out to see any of the new January releases. Instead I did my catching up plan! I saw 1917 which did me proud and rocketed up to my #1 spot on my best of 2019 list. It was everything I wanted and so much more, and I'm still not over it. Stunning on a technical level but the focus remains where it should; on story, character, and beautifully empathetic emotion. I can't recommend it enough, but I try in my review here.

Then I went with my sister to Little Women and we were both greatly impressed by it. It has charm coming out its ears and tells the wonderful story in a passionate and meaningful way, with endless fantastic performances. Read my review here!

Then I went to see 1917 again.

And if I get my way I'll go see it at least one more time before it's out of theaters, and the release line-up for February leaves plenty of open space for me to do that. There may be a good number here that will be worth watching at some point, and maybe I'll get some surprises out of them, but there's only one that I'm planning a theater trip for. The rest seem more stream-worthy, IMO. What looks good you y'all this month??



Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn)
In theaters February 7th; R
I'll watch it when it's free on Amazon Prime and I can plug it into VidAngel to get rid of the sexual content. And I won't expect to enjoy it very much, but it really could go any number of ways -- worse than Suicide Squad? Not writing that off. One of DC's better flicks? Unlikely, but I'm open to the possibility. That's what I like about DC over Marvel. You never know what to expect. Will mostly be watching for Ewan McGregor. I love Margot Robbie, but her Harley Quinn is already feeling abrasive.




The Lodge
Limited release February 7th; R
I may or may not have talked about this one already but I think might actually be coming for real this time. I won't bother to see it in theaters and may not ever bother to see it at home either -- depends on if I ever am brave enough and if anyone will watch it with me. So it has to be scary enough to get my brother on board but no so scary that I'll want to stay away. It's a tightrope. I do like Riley Keough though, and Jaeden Martell and Richard Armitage. Could be... cool. Ha.




Sonic the Hedgehog
In theaters February 14th; PG
Ugh, The curiosity is going to be too much for me, isn't it? I know I won't be able to resist... the moment I can stream it from my couch and feel free to laugh at and talk over it. I'm only wondering now -- is it possible that it'll be GOOD? In the vein of Monster Trucks, perhaps? Too much to hope for, I'm sure...?




Emma
Limited release February 21st; NR
Emma is one of few Jane Austen adaptations that, in my opinion, don't yet have a definitive adaptation. I love the Gwyneth Paltrow version, but it doesn't have the kind of perfection that makes further versions unnecessary. So I'm eager to see this new version with Anya Taylor-Joy, even if it also isn't definitive or perfect. Emma can be adapted once every two years for the rest of my life and I'd be happy to watch them all! This one also stars Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse, Mia Goth as Harriet, Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightly, and Callum Turner as Frank Churchill. High hopes and theater plans for this one!




Call of the Wild
In theaters February 21st: PG
I don't even want to talk about this, why am I including it? THE CGI DOG PLEASE MAKE IT STOP. How can Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, AND Bradley Whitford be in a movie so pathetic that it can't even be bothered to work with a live action dog?? What's wrong with real dogs??? I like real dogs, not CGI ones! Who thought I would want to see this crap? Does ANYONE want to see this? If you're genuinely exited to watch a CGI dog in this movie please leave a comment. I promise I won't laugh... much.




The Invisible Man
In theaters February 28th: R
I dunno. Good premise, Leigh Whannell directing, looks kinda upbeat and fun. But also, not a fan of Elizabeth Moss, and watching the trailer is like watching the while movie which isn't a great sign. Maybe a decent Halloween watch come October?



Wendy
Limited release February 28th; PG-13
This could be interesting and seems worth keeping an eye on. Fox Searchlight generally has good taste. This is a kind of loose adaptation of Peter Pan that seems to be more realistic and thoughtful than the fairytale. Starring Wendy, with no Peter in sight, but that can be got over if the story is any good. One of those kids looks like baby Tom Holland. Just a random observation I had. Yeah, it doesn't seem especially promising, but I'd consider giving it a fair chance.






Monday, January 20, 2020

Little Women

This review contains Spoilers.

What's that you say? Another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about four sisters and their lives, loves, and trials living in Massachusetts during the Civil War? Does the world really need another of these, you ask? Perhaps not need. But with writer/director Greta Gerwig infusing her cheerful passion into the tale, filling it to bursting with on-screen talent, and pulling its timeless appeal out into the wide open again, the world is better off for this new version's existence, and that's more than reason enough for me.

Some stories are good enough to bear repeating.

But I'm not here to convince myself its worth existing and worth watching. I've already been convinced. So, what are the appeals of this adaptation that make it stand out? Most obviously, the way it's structured, which creates a different light from which familiar viewers may see the story. It runs two plot threads simultaneously: One starting at the beginning of the story, and the other starting while Jo (Saoirse Ronan) lives as a writer and teacher in New York. The past and future interweaves together and is often match-cut together to draw parallels between moments that we might not noticed in a straightforward narrative.

While it might make the story harder to follow for unfamiliar viewers, this structure was for me, one of the film's greatest strengths because of how it allowed us to view the characters. For instance, we are told almost immediately that Jo turns down the March Family's neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) when he proposes. This takes away romantic tension from their early friendship but builds tension in other, new places, like if they can still be friends at all, or allows us to focus on Laurie's relationship with Amy (Florence Pugh) instead. We see Amy grown and refined side-by-side with her younger, wilder, brattier version, and it make me connect with the character in a way I never have before.

I always thought of Amy as the lesser March sister. Here she's second only to Jo. 

Before, I hated Amy for burning Jo's book, and it takes so long for her to mature that I'm unable to forgive her even once she does. Here we see her sensible, matured self first, and then go back to see how she grew to that place. Suddenly I engaged completely with her. It's not that the character is different, but the film is intentional about how we see her. Same goes for Meg (Emma Watson), who we see declare to Jo on her wedding day that she wants to work and struggle in love with Mr. Brooke (James Norton) -- and we feel the impact of that declaration because we have already seen what she will go through. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) doesn't exit the story at her death, but still has her most endearing moments to come. And Jo...

Obviously Jo is the main character, and the movie wants to serve her with its structure most, but at the same time I have the least to say about her arc specifically. Not that I didn't connect with it or her -- I did, in strong and personal ways -- but more because she and her journey is so much wrapped up in the journey of the film as a whole; I'm having a hard time separating the two. For me, the whole film was about the balance between love for family, pursuit of success, and desire for deeper companionship. Love, love. And through the film Jo slowly learns that she doesn't need to sacrifice the former two in order to have the latter.

The dynamic between Jo and Laurie was done perfectly. You sense the deep care between them, but also recognize the lack of romantic love.

Frustrated and beat down, Jo rants about how she is sick of being told that love is all a woman is good for, and she ends her impassioned speech with a brutally honest admission: despite her great ambition, she is lonely. Enter Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who's probably my favorite thing the restructuring influenced. Because of his early presence he never feels like an afterthought or last resort over being a spinster. We don't get hung up on Jo with Laurie, because Friedrich is there "before" Laurie, constantly waiting with patience and hope. So when the movie ends, it is equally as satisfying on romantic grounds as it is in the more material triumph of its leading lady.

We know as soon as Bhaer is honest in his criticism of Jo's writing that he is the perfect match for her, and are allowed to revel in the development that leads her to the same conclusion. That also frees up the romantic melodrama tendency so that the film can hone in on Jo's writing and devotion to her family with equal fervor, and it all comes together into a perfectly balanced portrait of happiness. The joy of loving and being near your family, the immense satisfaction of realized ambition, and the thrilling sense of completion that comes from loving someone who loves you. Yes, women are fit for more than love: but man or woman, love is a great thing.

The greatest thing of all, you might say.

That's the particular reason I loved this adaptation. Beyond that, it's wonderfully assembled all-around. The acting was remarkably good, and the characterization endearing, even beyond the core cast. Florence Pugh was a standout for me, but Saoirse Ronan's work is always exceptional. The costumes, sets, and all the period aspects are delightful, and Greta Gerwig inserts her sharp charm into the writing and tone. There's a playful, casual, and familiar sense to it all that is rich and welcoming. Little Women is a great story, retold here with passion, love, and dedication, to entertaining, moving, and meaningful results. I can think of no better reason for a film to exist.