Sunday, December 27, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984


This film is divisive, so I'll go ahead and open with my opinion that I don't think it's nearly as good as Wonder Woman, but I also didn't find it atrociously bad, either. I will try and translate my mild disappointment into some strong opinions for your entertainment. 

Diana (Gal Gadot) has spent the last 70-ish years alone and fighting crime. It's a walk in the park for her now. Or a spin around the mall. But then she unknowingly touches a magical wish-granting stone while wishing that her lost love Steve (Chris Pine) was back with her again, and—boom, he's back! But the stone is dangerous, especially in the wrong hands such as Max (Pedro Pascal), and maybe Diana's new work friend Barbara (Kristen Wiig). Things must be put right. So off we go!

Don't tell anyone, but I don't think my opinion is the only opinion people are allowed to have. 

Frankly, this movie had zero chance of being good in the same way the first one was. It's impossible to recreate that specific magic, because of the fundamental changes in Diana's character. She can't be naïve anymore, or out-of-touch with her comparative strength to humans and the ways she can help or influence them. She's now familiar with loss and loneliness, too. None of these things are bad or good in themselves; what matters is how the film treats them. And I think that's the fundamental problem with this movie. It understands that Diana has changed, but doesn't change to suit her. It tries to be more of the same, but instead everything feels out of joint and loose. Like ideas were being thrown at a wall to see what stuck, but nothing stuck—so they just filmed all the ideas laying on the floor.

There are still moments that have impact. Even though the message was spelled out, I was swept up by the opening sequence. And one thing that didn't and shouldn't change about Diana is the sense of wonder she conveys. (Obviously.) It didn't come across as strongly, but was still there, and I enjoyed the moments of wonder even if they were cheesy, like flying through fireworks in the invisible jet or smiling at the world just because it's beautiful. Plot-wise things had a solid foundation. I liked the concept and the bad guys, and I liked the idea of Steve being back. But it ultimately wasn't as satisfying as it should have been, and that's because of the movie's fundamental problem again.

It's not that the movie's actively bad... it just lacks anything to make it good.

This time, it's Steve who's the fish-out-of-water, having appeared in 1984 straight from WWI. So they try to reverse that "seeing the world for the first time" bit that was so cute about Wonder Woman—but it doesn't work the same. Steve is already too worldly and open to the future, while Diana is more jaded, but still aloof from the world herself, so she can't show it to him in a personal way. So why try to recreate what the last movie did? Skipping over that bit and getting to something new may have yielded better results, developing their characters further together, instead of retreading old ground in reversed positions. 

Retreading old ground is the most common misstep a sequel can take. The point of a sequel should be to further the story with more story, but filmmakers get distracted by the idea of doing more and forget that more of the same should be avoided wherever possible. Maybe Patty Jenkins had too much of a confidence boost from Wonder Woman's success. Maybe the studio encouraged this direction. Maybe all anyone could see were dollar signs. But the result is that the movie isn't refined, and that creates an avalanche of noticeable issues. Plot holes, pacing problems, underdeveloped characters, bland tone. The script isn't sharpened. There aren't any side characters. And no 80's era music. No surprises in the plot in the form of twists and turns. And it's long and indulgent—which would be fine if it weren't indulging in lazy simplicity. 

Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal feel like the best parts of the movie because at least they're new.

It's like Wonder Woman was a nice, yummy, chocolate cake, so Wonder Woman 1984 mistakenly thought that in order to be yummy, it needed to be a chocolate cake, too. But there was only enough chocolate for one cake, so it used carob instead. And now the cake tastes bad. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are still there, as are the positive themes of love, wonder, and heroism, so a flavor change surrounding those things isn't such a big deal. If Wonder Woman 1984 had been a vanilla cake, or a strawberry cake, it would still have been a cake, just with a unique flavor instead of a cheapened imitation of the last success.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Love and Monsters


Seven years after the earth is accidentally turned into an apocalyptic wilderness inhabited by giant, mutated insects and reptiles, survivor Joel (Dylan O'Brien) finally reestablishes contact with his long-lost girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). He's useless as far as monster-killing goes, and her underground colony is 80 miles away from his, but he's determined to be with her again, and rekindle what they had. So off he goes, braving the monsters for love.

Don't settle for an unfulfilled life. Even if it's the apocalypse!

I'll put it simply: it's a refreshing adventure, and a blast of entertainment. Joel meets a friendly dog who joins him, then joins in with an old man (Michael Rooker) and his unofficially adopted daughter (Ariana Greenblatt). He meets and runs from many gleefully-rendered scifi monsters, eventually learning how to survive them. It has everything I could think to ask for in an action/adventure film. It's brightly colored. Fun to watch. With engaging action sequences that don't exist just to fill a quota. And moments of wonder, which every adventure film needs to be complete. It doesn't forget the heart, and has sweet genuineness to hold it all together. It's not breaking new ground on its genres; it's just filling the established mold with high quality material.

I don't even have a "but" to add to that. It's not gonna be my new favorite movie or anything, I just don't have any complaints. There was one thing I was expecting the film to do that it didn't and felt like a loose end, but I think it was mostly me projecting that made it a thread at all. The characters are archetypal, but that's not a problem when they're done with enough dedication. And by my calculations, dedication is Dylan O'Brien's greatest feature as an actor. If a script gives him something solid, he seems incapable of squandering it. He always plays a variation of himself, but who cares—he's clearly gunning to be the next Tom Cruise, and I think he's got the job in the bag.

Not everyone can channel entertainment so effectively.

Movies like this ride on charm and how high the entertainment quality can go. And O'Brien isn't lacking on leading man skills but to that end he still gets charm backup in the form of an unrelentingly adorable dog actor. They worked so well together that it makes me wonder why more movies don't include talented doggies. It's not like he was vital to the plot or anything. He simply made the movie better by making it more entertaining. The CGI wasn't anything to write to your long-distance girlfriend about, but it wasn't bad either and far from bland visually, which makes it actively good in my book; adding to the entertainment. As does the creature designs. And the good-natured comedy. And the way it steps into serious, dark drama, but doesn't wallow in it.

Ah, entertainment. Sometimes you need an escape, and this movie is eager to give it to you. Unexpectedly, it has more to give on top of that. Everyone knows you can't make a film these days without a nice, fluffy message to make it feel complete. Some universal truth to reiterate in a positive way, so we can walk away from our entertaining escape feeling reinvigorated toward real life. Accidentally, this little flick hits the nail on the head with a universal message that it couldn't have known, at the time of writing and filming, would be so relevant to the state of humanity circa 2020.

This movie knows what's up more than it realized it knew.

Love and Monsters doesn't shy away from the fact that there's danger in the world. It openly acknowledges it, and shows how painful it can be. Then, it wisely points out that being afraid of said danger is only a hinderance. It says there are things out there worth braving the danger for—personal, and communal. It shows us that the world isn't as bad as rumors and built-up fear sometimes makes it seem; and that hiding doesn't exclude you from danger. It values freedom over safety, and suggests that freedom leads to true safety, rather than a false illusion of it. Then it literally says, "There is a great big, beautiful, inspiring world out there. Go. Live your life. It won't be easy but it'll be worth it."

Leave it to some unassuming little adventure flick about giant bug monsters to remind us to have a little courage in this real world. No matter how scary or dangerous life gets to be, there's no excuse for not living it to its fullest—let alone not living it at all.

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel is well-off, then bad-off, then well-off, then bad-off, and then well-off again in this brisk and charmingly color-blind adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel.

I wonder if they thought, "Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield" and then decided to ignore race in the casting, or if they decided to ignore race, and then realized Dev Patel would make a great David Copperfield.

Two hours of screen time is not long enough for an 800-page novel. I've yet to read it, but I don't need to know what was shortened or cut out to know that it was done. Severely, I expect. And that's why I'm glad I saw this before reading it. Because I enjoyed it immensely, and though I know I'm missing something, I haven't a clue as to what. Well—I do in a general sense. But more on that later. At first brush, David's journey of growing up and becoming a writer, surrounded by a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and an even more wild ride in the forms of eternally kooky supporting characters, feels like Dickens 100%. If you get a Dickens itch, this will scratch it.

It speeds along through the plot at sometimes too great speeds, although it never gets exhausting and has good pacing. The only thing I waited for was for young David to grow into Dev Patel—and once he did the film came alive and found its lively and comfortable groove. I don't know what David's personality is supposed to be like, but Patel seems to me a Dickens hero through and through. Easy-going, energetic, funny and sincere with occasional outbursts of anger and naïve stupidity. Ideal. Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Rosalind Eleazar, Benedict Wong, Aneurin Barnard, Morfydd Clark, and Ben Whishaw all added to it, but it was Patel who made the movie sing.

There are some first-rate scene transitions in this thing.

The problem comes in when the movie reaches the dramatic parts that are meant to have stakes, and you realize that they were skimmed over so quickly that it's tough to figure out what bad had happened, let alone care about it. This movie hits the colorful, charming, and fun notes remarkably well; but in order to be fully satisfying, a story needs the audience investment that serious drama brings. And while it's not lacking in it completely, it was frustrating when the movie ended, and I realized the film had only included us in half of David's experiences. We get a full sense of his happiness, but the trials are cut short and brushed aside. I grasped that Ben Whishaw was the movie's main villain in the same scene in which he's defeated. I had no time to care. Without the downs of a story, how can an audience fully appreciate the ups?

So it left me fully charmed, but only partially invested. And that's too bad, because while I like being charmed, it's getting into the nitty gritty of caring about the characters that ultimately most important to my falling in love with a story. Still, you can hardly blame The Personal History of David Copperfield for focusing in on what it did. It may have left me a little empty, but it clearly wanted to focus on the brighter side of everything and have fun, and that's what it did. All in all, its shortcomings left me wanting to read the book—and that's a compliment in itself. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

A Rainy Day in New York


Timothée Chalamet plays the Woody Allen archetype and Elle Fanning plays the most annoyingly hyper and ditzy girl imaginable in this laid-back amble through NYC—and they do pretty good job at it. 

It's kinda like if an AI copied Woody Allen. And that's kinda part of the charm.

They go to New York from their upstate college; Elle for business (she landed an interview with a semi-popular artsy filmmaker) and Timothée for pleasure (he loves New York, naturally). They part ways, planning to meet up later. Typical Woody Allen hijinks ensue. Quirky, ponderous monologues are made. The two characters meander from place to place, finding and losing other odd characters played by other famous actors as they get into and out of niche situations. Liev Schreiber, Jude Law, Selena Gomez, Diego Luna, Cherry Jones... It rains. Then an ending place is reached and the credits roll.

It's par for the course on Woody Allen movies. If you always like his style, your mind is made up. If you always dislike his style, likewise. I'm in the middle somewhere. Watching this thing breeze by, it felt meandering and pointless, though not unpleasant. The cast was nice. Even Elle being annoying was intentional and had amusingness in it. Timothée was a little more relaxed into his role than he sometimes is. (It's not a try-hard acting part.) He comes across a little pretentious at first then warms as we follow him through the day. I was lukewarm on it overall. But then the ending shone a different light on preceding events.

This movie is all about the journey, but my taste in entertainment relies (perhaps too much) on destination.

I guess that's the thing about Woody Allen. You know to expect the meandering, the monologues, the old music. What you don't know is whether the plot is going to work for you or not. With a plot as meandering and distracted as this one felt, it seemed capable of going anywhere—until it got to where it was always going. And I have to say, I liked the destination. I liked it so much that my lukewarm feelings have turned into something more substantial. Something more distinctly positive. Something I wouldn't mind wandering through again someday.

I think that's all this minor jaunt was intended to be; I won't bother it for anything more.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The New Mutants

This review contains some mild spoilers.

The New Mutants is exactly what you'd expect a big superhero studio to dole out for the upcoming generation. A politically correct, agenda-pushing cast of characters set against a backdrop of plot that is appealing in trailer form, but once seen up-close is too flimsy to hold up to repeat viewings. A cutting-edge technique to sell theater tickets... by 2017's standards.

I heard somewhere they released the original cut. But where were the faces in the wall from the original trailer?

I doubt it would have gone over well on it's original, April 2018 release date either, but I admit, there was a certain disappointment for me in realizing it really was just another half-baked entry into the superhero base. I was misled, perhaps by my own wishful thinking, or naiveté, or that Pink Floyd song they played in the trailer. "Disappointed but not surprised" will be my mantra for this review. Why, after all, put effort into the whole movie when you can just throw some big names together in a fun premise, and then cut corners until it's releasable? 

The premise really is a winner. The kids are in this old mental hospital and treated like rehab patients as they learn how to control their powers and stop being a danger to themselves and society. After that, it falls apart. The lead is Dani (Blu Hunt), an American Indian who accidentally wiped out her reservation in her sleep by manifesting a giant bear composed of fear. (She doesn't know it was her until later but it's no surprise to anyone who's seen an X-Men movie.) Charlie Heaton is dirty southern boy who accidentally killed his dad when he panicked in the coal mines. Maisie Williams is a devout catholic who accidentally mauled her priest to death when he tried to burn her for shapeshifting. Henry Zaga is a rich kid who accidentally burned his girlfriend alive...

Noticing a pattern? WELL.

...and Anya Taylor Joy is a cold-hearted Russian girl who created an alternate plane of existence in her mind that she can disappear into at will, which she used it to hide from creepy faceless smilers who'd come to abuse here until she got fed up with hiding and methodically murdered them all with her magical sword, invulnerable armored arm, glowing eyes, and tiny pet dragon. Yeah. There's a clear pattern until we come to her. Honestly, I'm baffled as to why the movie wasn't about her. There's a lot of implication mental questions that go into her story that would've been more interesting to unravel than a literal fear bear.

But anyway, the kids are in mutant rehab, and they fight, and bond, and tell each other their backstories one by one; but of course there's something else more sinister going on. It takes too long to get to the sinister things though, since there isn't much of it to fill the runtime. And the build-up is dry and empty. It wants to be a gothic horror—creepy, slow, and subtle—but it also wants to be a teenage drama—relatable, deep, and moral. The two don't mesh. I love the gothic horror idea but neither make it past the foundational stage, which leads me to bemoan the lack of realized potential. A typical reaction for me, I know, but it's a typical problem for a movie like this to have. 

I'll just revert to what I imagined it'd be like now...

If only if only if only. I knew I'd be disappointed; after three years of waiting and imagining what I wanted, I could hardly be otherwise. But that doesn't mean I would've liked it sans those pent-up expectations. Without the excitement and straight-up DETERMINATION I had to see this movie, I barely would've noticed it. I wouldn't have seen it yet, and probably wouldn't bother for a long time, if ever. Then I would've forgotten it instantly and moved on to the next thing—which is what I did. Except I got to enjoy anticipating. There's worthy joy to be had in anticipation. It's just too bad when—after all that effort and delay—that's all the film could conjure.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Life Isn't Fair: Why The Princess Bride's Framing Device Matters

Today's post is over at my friend Tyler's site,! And it case the title didn't clue you in, it's an opinion piece on two of my favorite topics: The Princess Bride, and storytelling.

Click through to read!

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

I'm Thinking of Ending Things


While she contemplates breaking up with him, a girl goes on a car trip with her boyfriend to have dinner with his parents. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and based on a book by Iain Reid, this film is nothing if not weird. It doesn't seem to take place in a solid reality but rather in time; in the mind; in a life. It's disjointed and sporadic. Focused on details in some ways, and broadly vague in others. To me, it feels like a memory.

As someone who's usually frustrated by weird cinema, I'm thrilled to give this an unreserved recommendation.

It's a movie that's open for interpretation—but unlike most arthouse fare these days, that doesn't mean that its makers didn't put intent behind it. As I thought my way through it, some of my explanations didn't fit, so I had to abandon them for other ideas. In what I like to call art-fart movies (because their artistry is nothing but hot air and it stinks to watch them) you can tack on whatever interpretation you fancy and it fits as well as any other. Now, everyone won't come to the exact same conclusions here of course, but at least they can grade their own work. The movie is made in such a way to guide you toward the answers rather than lord its intellect over you. In that way its engaging and inviting—your brain will be churning away on the content before you're aware you've begun!

The cast drew me in. I thought it was likely to be nothing but a waste of two hours based on the genre descriptions of "cerebral" and "arthouse." However, I recently fell in love with the acting of Jessie Buckley who leads—and shoulders—this movie. She brings weight and depth to an every-girl type of role, and turns the deceptively complex character with graceful subtlety. In the few places she wasn't on screen, I missed her. I couldn't get enough. She got me in the door, with support from Jesse Plemons, who's also great, with an enigmatic performance that's balanced perfectly to work for the story. Plus there's the undeniable pro weight of Toni Collette and David Thewlis. When these four gather 'round a dinner table with a sharp script and mind-bending concept, everything turns into magic. 

I love a good dinner scene. This was my favorite in a long time!

Watching was a delight. The cerebral, unreal quality might've kept it from grounding in a physical sense, but it didn't hinder my connecting with it—which is a kind of grounding in itself. A better sign of good storytelling you cannot find than personal connection. But, I admit, I'm struggling to understand exactly how it succeeded so well—especially with me, and my wary approach. It's an oxymoron. Nothing seems to occur within a physical narrative reality, yet it's about reality, like it exists in a metaphysical plane of thought, mind, and personality. It explores truths about existence, relationships, time, and life, and it captures in the most deeply real sense I've ever experienced from film, how it FEELS to be... well, a person.

As to narrative, it is there. I could tell you about what physically happens, step by step, and leave you totally clueless to the actual content of the movie, a fact that I find fascinating. Its true narrative—the meat and reason the story exists—only exists through implication. Implication of physical action, character dialogue, and a masterful use of filmmaking technicalities such as editing. Without great editing, the story would fall apart. Direction and attention to detail is also vital. The details must be noticeable, but the audience shouldn't feel coddled. There's great skill in the balance struck. The steady decline into the Weird is smooth and disarming. And the implication rendered is so strong—that's what stands out to me now, though none of it took place explicitly on screen.

Guy Boyd as the Janitor is also worth mentioning. Not much screen time, but extremely impactful.

What's more appropriate than that a disembodied story should leave a disembodied impression? Nor could many things be more difficult to accomplish in the medium of film. I always knew that weird, interpretable films could be among the squalor of cinema—lazy platitudes of vapid boredom are all too common. Now I know they can also be the exact opposite, if, like with all quality films, the construction is up to the challenge of the design. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is one such edifice; a thoroughly involving effort of filmmaking, brimming with fascination and substance; crafted with sincerity and the talent of a unique mind. And yeah, it's super-duper weird, too!

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Raid: Redemption


This energetic and brutal Indonesian action flick centers around Rama (Iko Uwais) who's a newbie member of a SWAT team tasked with infiltrating a 30-story apartment building that's run by a ruthless drug lord.

Written and directed by Gareth Evans.

The plot is simple so you can get to the action fast. But it doesn't jump straight into it either. It takes the first act to set up things. Like stakes. Rama has a wife and unborn child at home, so you don't want him to die—bam. He also has a secret secondary motive for going into the building. Bam. And, the movie wants us to see exactly how dangerous this mission is before it lets loose—resulting in some slower moments earlier on of dramatic tension-building. Bam! None of it is as deep as it might be were the film longer, or a straight-up drama; it's there to support the action. Knowing, I suppose, the tendency of people like me to tune out when there's a fight scene going on in which I don't actively like AND worry for the characters involved.

Once you care about Rama and the stakes are built properly, it's basically wall-to-wall action from there to the end—punctuated by a few breathers and moments to mount up more tension. And this is the meat of the film; the reason it exists. And I know; there are so many action movies that exist on their action and are terrible. For a recent example, The Old Guard. I cannot stand movies that rely on their middling action to be entertaining. I hate them. I do not hate this movie. The action here is phenomenal. Firstly, filmed in an accessible manner because we have to be able to properly appreciate the talent put into these fights. Then performed by actual trained fighters. I'm not sure what the style is, but it's a brutal and entertaining martial art.

You've probably seen Iko in a movie before even if you don't know it. He was wasted in a bit part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Iko Uwais is also one of the film's choreographers, and basically everyone in the film is a highly-trained stunt man playing an acting role. Because the choreography is fast, difficult, done in-camera, and impossible to fake. The speed at which these guys can punch—or pretend stab each other—is stunning. Dizzying. Mystifying. Perfect glee-inducement for any action fan. At one point a guy is slammed into a table and the table doesn't break. If you're not as tired of rote American action tropes as I am you might not even notice things like that. A table behaving the way a table would in real life? Novel! And I suppose this flick has its own share of clichés—Indonesian-brand ones—in there somewhere. The shake-up is refreshing, that's all. And you'll never find an American action flick that's this kinetic and full of hand-to-hand combat talent.

American films can be good at faking it, or maybe building around one skilled performer; this is clearly the real deal—and that's what pushes this film into must-see territory. Without the outstanding choreography and remarkable implementation of the same, The Raid could be any number of decent stabs at action filmmaking. It's got the basic but solid plot, self-contained to one main location to streamline the story and help the budget; and it has a decently fleshed-out main character to keep things grounded. But then. BUT THEN. It uses that simplistic set up, and it absolutely KILLS. Pure action is often a hard-sell for me, but I recommend this one unreservedly.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Adam Bloom


In this coming of age drama that works beautifully to make the most of a shoestring budget, an aspiring street photographer moves in with his grandma in NYC so he can intern with an aging photographer and hone his craft.

You know how indie movies will have their characters be interested in a learnable skill (usually some form of writing) and if you the viewer have any experience in that field you can spot the fake from a mile away? Well, this movie actually understands photography. That's to do with the director, Noah David Smith who also co-wrote the script and worked as his own cinematographer. A cinematographer first, he clearly understands that there is a difference between having an eye for framing and lighting, and being able to insert that almost indefinable, magical quality into your photos which gives them life and meaning.

I used to be a photographer. And I like that this movie made me more comfortable in saying that than less. It doesn't posture about art. 

And this is what Adam sets out to learn over the course of the laid-back, and wonderfully shot little story. How to be a person: how to express himself, and make his work live. It's a simple narrative task in concept, and takes barely 80 minutes to accomplish it. It's deceptively strong and intricate work. Though the film has that indie, real-life quality to it that makes many films meandering, this one doesn't fall into that trap, and creates a clear rise and fall with its drama. I could feel the shifts and turning points in the plot without having to pay attention for them, and felt myself easily drawn into the world of unique and well-framed characters.

The reason I found and had a desire to check this out was because of how much I enjoyed watching Jake Horowitz's screen presence and naturalistic performance in this year's The Vast of Night. Here, the character is more subtle, but my hopes of seeing more of the same talent were not let down. He brings that same powerful stillness and nuance of expression that creates easygoing magnetism on screen. I sincerely hope he catches his big break soon -- one because I'd love to see more of his work, and also because he deserves it. The rest of the actors here give flawless performances too. It's not overwrought, Oscar-level material, it simply rings consistently true, which is what's important.

I really enjoyed the piano score, too. Simple but effective.

Adam's grandma Rosalia (Abigail G. Smith) especially, and also Harris Sutton (David Margulies), the old photographer he works for, are out-of-the-box characters without ruffling the feathers of realism or becoming caricatures. They speak wisdom, sometimes stating outright the ideas that hold the story together. You hardly know it though, since they are so well defined and personal. This is a credit to the script -- I already said that the story structure is excellent and the shape of the drama robust -- but even the dialogue itself and what the movie chooses to say is fascinating. I think at heart, it is searching for a way to describe the way it feels to be able to create art out of images, and it came closer than I've ever been able to articulate.

The script also has set up and pay off that you don't see coming. And in places where some films might leave your questions hanging, this one doesn't want to leave you behind. It wants you to wonder, and then it wants to answer your questions. Some of the things it makes you wonder about would seem like trivial quirks if presented without that sense of mystery. But with the natural progression of curiosity they're presented with, they instead add to the characters in memorable and engaging ways. I have to say, I wasn't expecting to see this much concentrated dedication to quality when I first sat down with this film. I suppose the makers knew that nothing less could do the subject matter justice.

There's also themes of old age vs. old soul, and the hard beauty of a slowly decaying life. The more I think about it the more I find that there's a lot to pick apart here.

After all, it's a film about a young man learning to express himself in his art; to capture what he truly sees, as Harris tells him, not just images of pretty or interesting things. The film explores the relationship that art has with emotion and strife, and it packs a strong yet tender punch on that score. It understands the need of art to express, and then it does not fail to be that itself. A sweet and charming work of -- and about -- art.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Old Guard


A group of immortals, (Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) whose bodies heal themselves from any injury, go around the world and get themselves in dangerous situations in the two-fold hope that they'll do some good in the world... and that maybe someday they'll die.

If that sounds like an interesting, exciting flick to you, then I'm sorry to report: that isn't what actually happens in the movie. That is the premise of the characters' existence, only. The plot of the movie is that a new immortal (KiKi Layne) becomes known to them in a vision directly after they mess up on one of those said missions and get some bad guys on their tail. (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling) They have to find and recruit her to their ranks before facing down the baddies who want to study them for a cure for death.

My one hope was that it'd be better than Bloodshot. No dice.

Even that sounds more exciting than the movie winds up being. It's Deadpool without the comedy, and half the action. It's a long series of droning conversations about things that are more ambiguous than deep, inter-cut occasionally with quota-filling fight scenes that do nothing to drive the plot forward. Sometimes action happens off screen, then when the character who witnessed it relates the event to the others, the movie flashes back so we can see it, too. It's desperate to put in as much action as possible, but it can't keep itself from those meaningless conversations in which people who are hundreds of years old act like whiny children, cynical of their own existence.

There really aren't any positive sides to it for me, but if you tend to enjoy action -- fight scenes with hands, guns, and swords kind of stuff, complete with improbable choreography -- then this movie does have that going for it. Shaky cam has finally, and thankfully, died, so you can see what's going on in the film, and none of the set pieces are too extravagant to need an excess of CGI. A good thing, because the CGI isn't great. (when is it ever?) Still, the fights aren't particularly exciting, filmed typically, and without stakes in the narrative to back it up.

They spend the whole movie telling us why we should care, and never give us a reason to.

The film opens on the group complaining, and arguing over whether they should take another "case", which made me instantly not care about them. There's only four yet they're developed so shallowly. Charlize is the whiny leader, Matthias is handsome, and the other two are gay. (And Marwan was Jafar in that awful live action Aladdin!) That's it. The new girl isn't better developed, but she starts off on a good, likable foot. She's a marine who's killed in action, and once she wakes up, the confused reaction and mistrust from her unit is the most compelling slice of story the film has to offer. I wish they'd focused the story down to her.

Instead they fight nonthreatening or uncommitted bad guys (or their red-shirt henchmen with laughably bad training) until the plot is resolved because enough people have been killed to render it inert. And the new group goes off again, to do their thing of exotic locations and extreme, daring, dangerous missions for the good of mankind. Wouldn't that have been nice to see. Clearly a sequel is desired. But now we've been disappointed and bored out of wanting one.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Palm Springs


It's the wedding day of her little sister, and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) isn't feeling it. She's saved from a maid of honor speech she didn't know was required of her by a strange guy in swim trunks and a Hawaiian shirt who gives a speech that she feels like is directed at her. Then he dances through a crowd as if he knew every move each person would make. Weird, but funny. He's Nyles (Andy Samberg) and the day only gets weirder from there, once they go out in the desert together and a man with a camo-painted face starts hunting Nyles with a compound bow. Sarah follows Nyles into a cave where there's a weird orange light -- and then wakes up on her sister's wedding day. Again.

Now available on Hulu!

Yep! It's a time-loop movie. With the slight twist that people can share the loop. Nyles has been there a long time, and so has bow-hunting man (J.K. Simmons), and naturally, Sarah's mad that she got stuck too, even though Nyles definitely told her not to go in the cave. How to escape the loop? And what to do to fill the days until they figure it out? Well, the movie has a fun answer for the first question. It's answer for the second is a mixed bag.

Since the death of the 90's rom-com, every rom-com now must have an explanation for when there's a slightly fantastic element needed to create the situation. Bill Murray's time-loop had no explanation, nor did it need one. But this movie does. I find that unspoken requirement worryingly limiting, but this flick takes good advantage. It's scifi streak is one of the better things it has going for it. The movie is strongest when the streak is more prominent. It's mostly at the beginning and the end, when you feel the weight of the weird, impossible circumstance, and the characters have a clear goal in front of them -- of escape.

Without a goal the movie begins to sprawl distractedly.

In the middle, particularly the earlier middle, it's more about having fun with the loop and doing all the things you'd do if you knew what will happen every day. This is where mediocrity creeps in. Perhaps slightly because both our main characters are aware and make different choices every day, so the looping doesn't feel as present. But they're also put away from the wedding party too often, which gives their days unwanted variety. The repeated moments are limited to one or two lines, never entire scenes or even conversations. Instead they get to know each other through the days. Almost like a normal rom-com. But the film does insert some character mysteries for the audience to pick up on during that time, too.

These "mysteries" were my favorite thing because of the slight way they were introduced, and then handled to bring some genuine depth to the characters. The film still leans heavily to the comedy side, but a little drama and a tad of darkness rounds out the tone. Even more rounding would have been welcome if handled well. But Andy Samberg is far more suited to comedy anyway. He ranges from charming to cynical, but it's all for humor. Cristin Milioti isn't as effortlessly funny, but also digs in deeper for the dramatic moments. Their chemistry was bubbly and warm, which sets a pleasant, light-hearted feel for the film. Even when the movie went too far for me, it was hard to be irked for too long.

I didn't fall in love, but I was charmed enough to not care.

Palm Springs doesn't waste its time trying to stand out from the pack of movies that took inspiration from Groundhog Day. Instead, it embraces the comical situation, feeds the expected romantic side without too much cynicism, and doesn't neglect pondering a little on the deeper side of life, with a lightly life-affirming message. It throws a few new elements at us to keep us on our toes, but at its core, it's classically done. And though the execution isn't without missteps or unnecessary rabbit trails, it clearly understands the appeal of this niche and always fun premise. Like a familiar and cozy place that you can visit again and again.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Upcoming Movie Roundup - July

Well I'm 10 days late with this post, but hey -- better late than never, right? I think I need these posts to stay sane, even though I'm scraping the bottom of the (nearly empty) movie barrel.

Last month I was convinced to not pay $20 to rent The King of Staten Island, so now I'm waiting for the rental fee to cheapen. I did see Eurovision: The story of Fire Saga! And it was better than I expected! A bit too much unfunny slapstick style comedy for my taste but it wasn't unbearable, and in between there was genuine charm and good music. At this point I probably won't review it, even though I should. Eh. Oh well.

I did catch up a bit with The Invisible Man -- it was cool, though not as great as I was promised. (review)

I'm currently in the middle of Dark on Netflix, and it is as expected so far. The same show in all the particulars, but not on the same level as that stunning first season.

July has... not much going for it, surprise surprise. I was really hoping to be gearing up for TENET at this point. But here's what I'll be settling for instead:

The Old guard
On Netflix July 10
I'm not holding onto hope that this will be very high on the quality scale, but it looks high enough on the fun scale to give it a go! Based on a graphic novel... fantasy and "real world"... immortality... sounds better than Bloodshot already! Starring Charlize Theron, with Matthias Schoenaerts, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the baddie, it seems.

Palm Springs
On Hulu July 10th
This one was on my to-watch list even before COVID happened. I was on board based on premise alone, that it was a com-rom with some kind of scifi twist, starring Andy Samberg who I think is pretty funny. But I actually watched the trailer just now and now and even more on board because wow do I like a good Groundhog Day concept! And the idea of two characters experiencing the repeating days together is a new, fun twist to add.

On Amazon Prime July 11th
Interesting concept low-fi scifi movie where a couple looking for a house to buy stumbles into the wrong neighborhood -- which they literally cannot find their way out of. Starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. The style is very Stepford with a modern arthouse edge, and the premise has my curiosity piqued.

TV series on Netflix July 17th
Ehh, I was interesting at the idea of a medieval fantasy series on Netflix, but watching the trailer makes it look like there isn't much meat to dig into. I dunno, I might give it a chance.

The Kissing Booth 2
On Netflix July 24th
All but guaranteed to be worse than the already spectacularly bad original -- but what it Netflix for if not to watch awful teen rom-coms while the world stands still in the middle of summer? A waste of time? Absolutely. But what else am I going to do with the surplus? Lol, I hate that I know I'm going to hate this and am still planning to watch it.

The Umbrella Academy - Season 2
TV series on Netflix July 31st
The first season was good. I will continue watching it until it isn't good anymore. Basically these adopted siblings with quirky superpowers stop the apocalypse from happening in various different ways every season. It's a hoot!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Invisible Man


Cecilia (Elizabeth Moss) escapes from her abusive rich scientist boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and holes up with her friends (Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid) in their house in abject terror. She's sure he'll find her; he said she could never leave him. Finally, her sister (Harriet Dyer) brings the news that Adrian has killed himself, and everything's okay now. Tentatively, she starts to feel more comfortable. But why does she still feel like she's being watched? Slowly she discovers the truth; Adrian isn't dead, he's just invisible. Either that, or she's crazy!

This modern re-imagining comes from Leigh Whannell, the writer/director of Upgrade.

I loved Upgrade and was hoping The Invisible Man would be a similar, self-contained and lean thriller. It's not, but it doesn't totally fail to produce a palpable style of its own either. That being said, cleaner plotting could have only been an improvement. There are several threads that I waited to get answers on that were simply ignored--as if I wasn't supposed to expect explanations at all. I was out of sync with the movie's direction. And that came through with Cecilia's decisions sometimes, too. The movie is good to not expound on her every inner thought, but she often did things where her reasoning was foreign to me. It took the movie in unexpected directions, but also left me playing catch-up more than once.

The good comes directly from the premise. A stalking ex with bad intentions that the heroine literally cannot see. The best scenes are the ones where you know he's there--somewhere!--but cannot tell where. These scenes play like horror movie that have slow rising tension that leads to a chilling moment, and one step closer to breaking for the protagonist. And seeing that from what's technically a science fiction thriller is a pleasantly unique experience. I wish more of the film had been like that, because when the movie is less restrained, it leaps over into ridiculous territory for a frustrating decline of smarts and quality. 

We're told that Adrian is a genius, but the way he turns Cecilia's sister and friends against her is so mind-bogglingly simple that it belongs in A Cinderella Story 7: A Disney Channel Original, not movies with rational adults as characters. This movie sacrifices reason and the semblance of reality to heighten the stakes and tension, but for me, it deflated my investment in the story. What I wound up enjoying instead was the technical aspects of the film. Style, the building of tension, acting, and the unique appeal of the scenes where evidence the invisible man is present. Even that decays; but ultimately the final act sets everything back on track and closes the film out in a concise way, in line with the best of the film.

I liked when the camera would show you all this extra space like this and ask that you look for what's not there. 

It ended so well that I almost forgot about all the threads I wanted answers for but wound up being skimmed-over plot holes. I wouldn't mind so much, but several of the unanswered questions are asked by the movie itself. Whether it was meant to be tidy or not, the messiness was a distraction to me, and a detriment to the film. Yet Cecilia is a good character and Moss plays her engagingly, on the line between sure and insane. The insanity seeps over to the audience with strong visual design, and several well-crafted moments. In short, the movie delivers what it promises--just not 100% of the time. And you'd think a film that has cracked the code to invisibility would be more adept at hiding its flaws. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

Upcoming Movie Roundup - June

I didn't do one of these posts for April or May, and that makes me sad. Nor did I see the movies I was most interested in for March because of cancellations. I watched Onward on demand, and was glad I did, because I liked it enough to watch it twice. In fact I rather loved it. (Review here!) And I just rented Bloodshot the other day. If I don't completely regret that $6, it certainly is close. It was not a good movie. (Review here!

I didn't pay attention at all to the VOD releases in May, and one worthy film, The Vast of Night -- a stylish and impressive sci-fi flick with absolutely wonderful characters (review here!) -- nearly slipped past my radar because I wasn't paying attention. So I decided to get back to it, even if the pickings are slim and theaters are still closed. There's at least two things in June that I'm eager to see at home.

Hope you're all doing well amid the chaos that is 2020! What have you been watching lately, and what are you looking forward to seeing in the future?

The King of Staten Island
on VOD June 12th
This movie is the main reason I decided I had to get back into this post series. This was meant for theaters, but is instead going to "Theater at Home" VOD. Now, I've never seen a Judd Apatow movie. Or seen Pete Davidson do... anything. But as soon as this trailer started playing as a YouTube ad I knew it was something I'd be interested to see. I love the vibe it gives. Kinda like The Way Way Back, coming-of-age-dramedy, but more mature. I didn't realize all the true-to-life aspects of it, and that makes it even more appealing. That it's parallel to Pete's real-life experiences. I really expect it to be good and would even consider paying $20 to rent it. (Idk if it'll be that high, but some Theater at Home releases have been.) Either way, I'm determined to see it eventually, and wouldn't be surprised if it cracks my top 5 of the year. High expectations. We'll see how it goes. (Trailer contains language.)

Artemis Fowl 
on Disney+ June 12th
I wanted to see this, but don't have (and will not get) a Disney+ subscription, so that's too bad. I wonder if it'll be available to rent elsewhere... I don't have much hope it'll be good, but I enjoy sci-fi (and goofy spy capers) in all shapes and sizes. And ages. And yes, this is decidedly a kids movie, in the way that give me little reason to think that adults could enjoy it very much. So I'll probably be disappointed, but for some reason that knowledge doesn't dissuade my curiosity. 

on VOD June 19th
This looks pretty interesting -- an Australian, family-centered drama starring Beth from last year's Little Women (Eliza Scanlen). I tend to enjoy Australian dramas, so I'll keep an eye on this, even if it does have that "sick teen" element that isn't quite so appealing. It looks well-acted if nothing else. Ben Mendelsohn is always a plus!

Lost Bullet
on Netflix June 19th
This is a French action flick, I believe, that's coming to Netflix. Netflix is overloaded with non-English-speaking films lately. Before, you could count on the foreign films they included to be good, because there was a demand for them to be there even with audiences that are notoriously hesitant to watch something that requires subtitles. Now, I'm not so sure. But this teaser trailer looks good and stylish enough to grab my interest, and even if it's not great it could make for a nice Sunday afternoon watch anyway.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga 
on Netflix June 26th
I have no clue what this movie is actually about, but this "trailer" is Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams singing a weird song with over-the-top dramatic cheese, so let's just say that they have my full and complete attention. 

Dark Season 3 
on Netflix June 27th
And this is my must-watch of the month. If you know me you know I adore this beautiful, moody scifi show, and peddle it wherever I can, because it's the best thing in Netflix, and criminally under-watched. Season 2 wasn't as shockingly spectacular as season 1, but doesn't ruin it by far. It's is still one of my favorites and I can't wait to see what cool twists and turns come next -- and last, since this season apparently will wrap things up. I haven't watched the below teaser and do not plan to. (Or any subsequent trailers.) I don't want to get my preconceptions going, and am already as guaranteed to watch it as is humanly possible!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Vast of Night


What if... a 50's era scifi B-movie... but artistically?

That's the question that serves as pitch and premise for The Vast of Night. It introduces itself like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Then the camera moves into the TV world and we meet Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick). It's the night of the big basketball game in small-town New Mexico, and everyone's going but them. Everett is the local radio station DJ, and Fay is manning the telephone switchboard. The two are friends because of a mutual fascination with sound, and the technology that allows them to record and broadcast it. When Fay hears a strange sound interrupt Everett's show, and then come through the phone lines, they team up to find out what it is, where it comes from, and what it means.

An Amazon Original, available on Prime.

And the movie delivers exactly what it promises -- an artistically built scifi tale that feels like it jumped straight out of the 1950's. The first thing you'll notice is that there is constant dialogue, particularly in the opening and set-up, as important information is fed through casual conversations. Packed full of 50's jargon, and delivered at speed. Second thing you'll notice is that the camera is very particular. It follows its characters as is it were an invisible entity stalking them, with many long takes and tracking shots, often keeping its distance. And the third thing, is that the lighting is dark. Really dark. The movie seems interested to highlight the audio element -- and why not considering its premise -- and to that end, it cuts to a black screen at least twice so that we have no choice but to exclusively listen to what's being said.

The dark, and the stalking camera are for me, both admirable and frustrating. For one, I love when the frame is allowed to open up and isn't always right on the characters faces. I like to see where they are (in the world and in relation to each other) and be able to observe body language. I also like when characters feel slightly obscured so that I'm naturally compelled to pay closer attention to see and understand them. If it's possible to go too far with that, this movie may have found the line. There was no moment that didn't feel obscured. Both leads wear thick-rimmed glasses that seem intended to hide their eyes, even in closeups. But the camera knows what it's doing. There's always a glint; a flash; and just enough light to show you what you need to see.

And as an admirer of details I appreciate that careful dedication.

This method would fall flat if the acting weren't up to snuff. Good thing it is. And not just passable; the performances, characterization, and casting -- though it's a smaller movie and the leads are unknowns -- are all quite frankly fantastic. The thing that impressed me the most. It took about ten minutes for me to fall in love with Everett and Fay. Their developed personalities, the way they're written, the way the bounce off each other, and the easy-going, full-bodied performances the actors give all adds up to what won me over about this tale. Even though I kept searching for more, the movie never failed to convey what it wanted, and without ever going overboard. No slamming ideas on your head. No blatant exposition. No overacting. The craft is undeniable.

The movie is as perfect as it set out to be. It achieved what it intended, and I applaud it for that. For me though, there was something wanting. Something that's hard to pinpoint. I watched the movie over again to think it through, and liked it even better, but it was still there. Or, not there. What it lacked for me, was a moment of truth. A thematic conclusion; a reason for the story to have been told. And I think the movie did intend there to be one. It's spoilers so I won't say, but like the rest of the movie, it was subtle, and implied, but clear. Still, I felt a lack. I wanted more. Because the movie holds your attention so well and because the characters are so lovable, that lack doesn't destroy the film. Still it frustrates me to think of what might have been.

If it had been made more for my sensibilities, this could've been a new favorite. But in a way, it still is. 

2020 is an oddball year to put it lightly, and this is the first new film in a full two months that I'm certain to remember by the end of the year. Personal lack or not, this movie gave me joy and is extremely welcome. There are some technical aspects to it that I'd like to see how it was done. The tone is both familiar and old-fashioned. It builds smoothly to a visceral climax, always with a frantic undercurrent that keeps you engaged. And though I still want more out of the conclusion, I can't deny that it fits with the rest of the film and the goals it set for itself. So -- what if a 50's era scifi B-movie, artistically? That sounds like a sound worth hearing!

Thursday, May 28, 2020



Based on the Valiant comic books, Bloodshot has a heavy concept of tech-enhanced humans who at one time were seriously wounded, but then become superhuman. KT (Eiza González) lost her lungs. Now a machine breathes for her and does it twice as well. Jimmy (Sam Heughan) had his legs blown off. Tibbs (Alex Hernandez) lost his eyes. Now they have super legs and super sight. (But no, they're not superheroes, that'd be silly.) And Ray (Vin Diesel)? Well. He died.

So Guy Pearce bought his body and replaced his blood with self-healing nanites. Now he's virtually unstoppable. And he only has one thing he needs to do: Kill the man (Toby Kebbell) who killed him and his wife (Talulah Riley). Cue the epic lighting and the slow motion -- it's time for an action scene!

Yep, that's about as gross as this PG-13 flick can get.

Or two. Or twenty. Or somewhere in between. After the concept and set up is explained (which takes a while) there's only really one action scene that stands out. After that, the film begins to fall apart -- like Ray's face reintegrating itself after being blown off, but in reverse. See, they kind of paint themselves in a corner that doesn't allow for much use of the main cool concept of the lead's regeneration abilities. It's shown off a few times and is important once or twice at most, but this movie sold itself completely on that concept. With the plot they have on hand (and perhaps the PG-13 rating was restrictive too) it's a bit of a let-down that we don't see much, or learn anything more about it than we do in the trailer.

The movie gets slowly muddier and muddier, until the action and quips and regurgitated drama all blends into a dull roar and I found myself zoning out by the time the end battle was raging. It happens a lot with films of this caliber. You usually know what you're getting into just by looking at the poster. And if you know, and still go for it, then you know you won't mind too much -- or even enjoy yourself. But it is disappointing to see a movie try to go for Upgrade levels of epic violent action, and then give up after only one sequence.

There's also a larger percentage of static conversations than should exist.

Vin Diesel is a good, safe bet to carry a flick like this, and he does a fine job. For him, I think even going through the motions produces a perfectly acceptable result. You know he's been better, and that he can be better... but there's nothing wanting either. Guy Pearce phones in, but you don't really notice that either. And the rest (with one exception) are fine -- the sort of actors that need a good script to play well. And, well, they don't here. The lines that the British tech nerd character had to say were horrendous. Like an American wrote them, looking up jargon as they went. (Wait.)

The exception is Toby Kebbell. He never gets much to do when he pops up in movies like this, but darned if he doesn't give it his all anyway. And full disclosure: I'm a fan. I'm biased. But the only real moments this movie possessed were conveyed by him. But him being outstanding was only a comparative feat. Also, I did not understand what kind of accent he was going for at all.

The action was underwhelming on the whole. As I said, parts were interesting, but that was mainly due to effectively distracting focus on setting and visuals. Choreography had a moment or two but wasn't near what it should have been -- and was liberally augmented with slow-motion and, of course, the CGI. It's necessary for Ray's ability, and that didn't bother me, but it was still overused to create cheap action set pieces and often to replace stunts. And those things make it less impressive to watch.

This movie is called Bloodshot, but those are vodka.

This was a film made for theaters, yet it felt like nothing more than another passable, forgettable Straight-to-Netflix offering. Something for you to be placated by before grabbing a snack and starting the next thing on your queue. There's a demand for fun action flicks that don't require a ten-year investment for fans. I know that. But that doesn't mean filmmakers get a pass to throw all quality standards and effort out the window. If that's too much of me to ask... I don't care. I will continue to ask it. Bloodshot scrapes by and fulfills its purpose. And it's also a bad film.