Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Avatar: The Way of Water


It's been years since the original Avatar, and same goes for Jake Sully, who's formed a family and a comfortable way of life with the Na'vi. But the sky people return (surprise surprise) and a few of them are out for revenge (dun dun duun). The Avatar sequels were announced once the novelty of the original had worn off, when it was cool to trash James Cameron's space fantasy world. But this "unasked for" sequel has value which only its creator could have dreamed up—which is why it's good that he's the one telling this story and not your average cynical nitpicking filmgoer... like me.

There's nothing quite like a filmmaker who's excited about his own work.

The word that first comes to mind as I think about The Way of Water as a whole is "romantic." That might give the wrong idea, but it's the only word I have. James Cameron jumps back into the world of his own making, gushing—like a kid with a crush—hurrying to catch us up of the Sully family's life so he can bring them into a new sandbox to explore. He dutifully exposits about the status quo and sets up new characters, but despite the movie's 3-hour runtime, we get into the plot fast. He doesn't want to tell us any more than necessary, he wants to show us. To dig into the clay and sculpt and create. He has a storyteller's sensibilities and gleeful care for his story, and that excitement rubs off into every inch of the work.

That's why it's the first half of the second act that shines so well. This is the part we're all here for—the exploring of the world and culture of Pandora. It's especially fun because it focuses on the Sully kids character-wise. We get to know the second oldest, Lo'ak, as he befriends an outcast whale-like creature, and the older girl, Kiri, who's the adopted offspring of Sigourney Weaver's Avatar from the first movie. They don't explain exactly what happened there, leaving a little mystery to reveal in later sequels. She's a young teen, played by Sigourney Weaver, sulky insecure childishness and all. It must have been great fun for her. The magic of motion capture. The other new character standout for me was Spider—one of few exclusively human characters in the movie. He's a kid who "went native" and is always interacting with mo-cap characters—who are designed to be bigger than him. Another logistical and performance challenge. 

I don't care, I'll always enjoy the "making friends with animals" trope.

Despite the technology, the most impressive part for me is the worldbuilding. It reminds me of the little worlds I'd construct in my head as a child in a very specific way that I can't quite articulate. Contributing to the sense of romance? At any rate, the worldbuilding works so well because it's part of the story, not just the place in which the story takes place. Underwater exploration is accompanied with the Sully kids dipping their toes into the social hierarchy of their new peers and discovering their unique strengths. And Lo'ak's whale friend is not only vital to the plot, but serves as a character foil for him, and is introduced through a thrilling underwater attack sequence from what must be Pandora's only non-pacifist creature. At every turn, Cameron rewards our patience in sitting through 3 hours of his imagination brought to life, by using that imagination, and his skills as a filmmaker, to entertain us in return.

Even when the stakes rise and the third act rolls around, the imagination doesn't quell, and the inevitable sea battle had all the built-up character, stakes, and creative set-pieces in play to keep me from checking out as I so often do when a film's final battle starts up. Then things quiet and culminate in a more emotional, dramatic climax, which serves the theme over the movie's gleeful penchant for CGI explosions. I might say I'm surprised—that the movie won me over fast and never lost me to the end—but it's more that I'm relieved. More than relief even, it's rewarding my hope. I knew James Cameron was a filmmaker of the classic breed, but so many of his ilk have traded in their creative passion for an agenda. But no. He made a movie, and told a story. And he hits the beats of his medium with care and craftsmanship, not as a checklist around which to structure a pandering sermon.

This movie is proof then, that storytelling and movies aren't dead.

As time passes, the refreshed novelty may fade again, and I may come to see more of the flaws—which do exist here. Some was too melodramatically silly even for me to take seriously. But for me, Avatar has never been about being flawless, or high art. That's not what's valuable about it. Take away the motion-capture, the CGI, the blue people on an alien planet, and you have a simple story. The first one was about a broken man finding his place in the world. This one's about a father trying to keep his family together. Jake's world shrinks, but becomes more personal, and so feels huge. This sequel is rare in that way—it doesn't retread old ground. It adds to what came before. Not ignoring it. Not retconning it. Genuinely building onto it. Complementing it, and growing deeper. The original Avatar increases in value because of it, rather than being thrown aside to make way for the new. And room for further expansion sits out there, waiting.

I don't know where on Pandora James Cameron will go and explore next, but as long as he's in love with his world, I will be too. I can't help it. His reliable craftmanship, high imagination, and creative romance sweeps me up into the fantasy every time.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

It's always nice to see a good lead role come around for a talented character actor to take, but it's more than Lesley Manville's winning turn as the larger-than-life title character that makes this twee Paris adventure worth the admiration.

Adapted from the book by Paul Gallico.

Mrs. Harris is a war widow and cleaning lady. She has a slightly sad and woefully average existence, and sentimental, hopeful side that's too big for her circumstances. She decides she wants to go to Paris and buy a Christian Dior dress. She thinks it's meant to be. And maybe it is—her faith is rewarded with some good financial luck, and off she goes. Of course, it's not going to be so easy as to plop down some cash and grab a dress—but neither is it going to be so hard as to not be a fun and airy ride. 

The balance between difficulties that arise and their sometimes magical solutions is what made this movie work as a whole for me. I'm not the biggest fan of twee entertainment simply because there never seems to be real stakes and all the conflict is simple misunderstandings. Pack on top of that characters who only exist to live out the wish fulfillment plot, and the affair turns boring fast. Mrs. Harris skips over that. First of all, she herself is an interesting and three-dimensional character. The people she meets are also more complex than "good guy" or "bad guy" and the movie takes turns in developing them, too. And while some conflict is resolved through luck or "magic" here, that does have a thematic reason, not just resolving things because they need to be resolved. 

Great romantic subplot. But I'll get to that later...

I suppose it is very twee to say that things work out for Mrs. Harris because she's a kind and giving person who reaps as she sows. There is truth in that, but in real life perhaps not quite so overt. At any rate it satisfied both my taste for cozy entertainment, and my critical eye against lazy plotting. Lesley Manville shines in the role, big, warm, and delightful, and could have held my attention alone. She is joined, though, by a large and fleshed-out supporting cast. From her best friend, and her clients at home, to the Marquis in Paris who befriends her, to the dressmakers and models, right down to the politely nervous Air Force officer who brings her one of her bits of luck.

Every cozy adventure needs romance. And no, Mrs. Harris isn't too old for it herself, but a young couple in a movie like this will never be a waste, and in this case, they were my favorite aspect of all. Natasha, model, enormously pretty and face of Dior, who doesn't want the limelight or the job of entertaining top clients. And André, Dior's mild-mannered accountant. It is very much a side plot, but hits every note of the romantic arc with perfect ease simply by setting up the characters the right way. It is brief, and familiar, but full of strong moments that pushed all the right romantic buttons. And I rarely mention something like this, but it's vastly important here, and the best aspect along with Lesley Manville and the two adorable French lovebirds. Costumes. 

I feel like such a girl, but it's true. The costumes were practically a character themselves.

It's a movie about buying a Dior dress, after all. The scene that shows the collection is pivotal, and for more reason than that Mrs. Harris picks out the dress she wants. We get to see it all, as if we're invited to pick our favorites as well. As a girl, it worked on me. Even as a girl who likes story and character more than pretty costumes. The pretty costumes got to me. They were great. Vital. And extended beyond the Dior collection, too. Everyone is dressed with expert attention all the time, fitting and enhancing their character. It's the focus of the movie, which I might raise an eyebrow at in other circumstances, but here it bolsters the production quality, and doesn't get in the way of character or story either. An ideal balance.

So maybe it's not my typical kind of movie in theory—but it turns out that any story can be well-made, hit satisfying beats with well-developed characters, and make itself worth its existence as more than eye candy. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is an all-around treat. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Black Phone


After dodging the bullet that was Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, writer/director Scott Derrickson returned to doing his own thing his own way, and that's what The Black Phone is. A horror movie; with dark lighting and his signature uncomfortable tone. It plays out like a writing exercise for practicing setup and payoff, and I fully approve.

Adapted by Derrickson and Robert Cargill from a short story by Joe Hill.

The plot is set in the 70's, in an anywhere town with anybody families, where a pedophile serial killer is on the loose—Ethan Hawke, taking his usual charm and twisting it to creepy effect. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) see the missing posters, hear the news, and see empty seats appear in the school classrooms, but no one really knows what to do about it. Gwen has dreams where she can see the kidnapped kids, and she thinks they may be clues sent to her from Jesus, but their dad (Jeremy Davies, a great role for him, though not heavily featured) doesn't want her turning out like their mom who thought she was psychic but was really just crazy. He forbids her from talking about the dreams.

But then, Finney gets taken. In the basement of the Grabber's house is a phone with the cord cut. Sometimes it still rings, though. And when Finney answers it, the disembodied spirits of the Grabber's victims give him advice on how to survive; and how to escape. Each time he tries a plan and it fails, another kid calls with another plan. On the outside, Gwen dreams clues as to his whereabouts, and a detective, believing in her abilities, helps her search. You can see where this is going. It builds, and builds, and builds, and we wait for the inevitable showdown. It's simple; basic, even. And I suppose that might be a criticism in some eyes, but not to me. 

I think the best, most thrilling horror movies are the simple ones. Simple can be hard to pull off.

It impresses me when a movie shows me what it's doing and yet I'm still anxiously hoping I haven't been tricked when those last twists and turns come down the pike. We're made to think we are in the know about everything, but we aren't really—and once we're wrong once, then comes the thrill of worry that we're wrong about everything. Derrickson isn't making high art here, but he has respect for his craft and knows what's winning about his genre. So he packs his work full of horror thrills. Extreme situations, menacing villains, dread, suspense; the dark, twisted implications left just unsaid, weak protagonists who find strength, and even casual musings on spiritual elements.

The only thing that's "missing" is gore, or reveling in violence, and that makes me like it even more. It may not be high art but it's tasteful. And thoughtful. You get the sense that it spurs from the uncomfortable fears and nightmares of its creators, rather than a lazy penchant for jump-scares and splashing blood. The supernatural brings a handful of frightening moments, but unlike most supernatural horror, the supernatural here is a force for good. Gwen's down-to-earth faith in Jesus is mixed in and at home with the more typical supernatural horror elements of ghosts and psychicism. 

If you like to mull over on movies, this one isn't lacking there either, though it doesn't demand it

What underlying beliefs or fears inspired the plot can be interesting, but the main appeal lies, simply, in the plot itself. It's sharp structure, classic themes, efficient pacing, and ever-patient planning. Plus characters to root for, be sad for, see change, or just plain despise—all packed together in a premise and tone that unnerves, unsettles, and thrills. The performances are roundly good, and the production quality high, but the strength of writing is what brings the winning concept home. The Black Phone is a simple, focused effort of pure entertainment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Thirteen Lives

Ron Howard and true-life stories are a match made in heaven. Instead of reshaping the true and the real into fiction while adapting it to the innately fictional medium of film, Howard takes stories like this one—where a soccer team from Thailand gets trapped miles inside a cave when an unexpected rainstorm causes it to flood—and showcases what is already astonishing about the true story. 

As a rule, I don't care for movie based on true stories. Ron Howard overcomes that rule.

He changes as little as he can. He doesn't push fake emotions. He doesn't add drama to the situation. He finds the subtle drama in the true moments and points a camera at it—highlighting the right moments in the right order to bring out the natural story arc and themes that are already there. And he hires actors who can show that nuance in a casual and honest way—like Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, playing two British rescue divers who fly in to lend a hand. Later they recruit Joel Edgerton, and Tom Bateman, and together they make an unfathomable plan to swim the boys out before monsoon season floods the entire cave.

My memory of when this happened in real life is brief. I heard they were trapped, and that people were working to get them out. Then a few weeks later I heard they'd been rescued, and I wondered why it took so long. Now, to see exactly how impossible the situation really was, and how great a feat it was that they all survived, how hard everyone worked, even the entire concept of how they were rescued—it completely blew my mind. I was still reeling from the fact that each day of swimming to the boys and back was a 12-hour dive when they threw out the rescue plan as the only and best option, and I still can't quite wrap my mind around everything it entailed.

There were many instances that made me protest aloud because of how crazy it all sounded.

People who are capable and willing to do difficult things astonish me. And I guess that's a universal thing. We have stories with heroes in fiction who do the impossible for a noble cause all the time. Superheroes, though, have superpowers. The men who swam hours and hours through muddy water in narrow tunnels just to have a chance at saving a few people they never knew—they were normal human beings. They simply had the drive, the skills, and the will to put themselves at risk for a good result. They did a job, and they looked at it as a job. And the movie understands that. It doesn't make them out as superheroes. It shows their weakness, and the mundane aspects of their humanity, and then it shows them do heroic things—impossible things—and then (and this is what I loved most about the movie) it shows how their experience affects them. 

The part that hit me the hardest was the first day they bring some of the boys out. The volunteers rush in and haul each kid away, leaving the diver alone and watching them go. Each actor they show do this has an incredible look on their face that tells of the physical and emotional gauntlet they had just come through, though they remained professional and stoic during the task. It absolutely broke my heart, and I love it because it wasn't shoved at me. Or slammed over my head. I just saw it. I know it was intentional, but the reservation of those moments is remarkable. Shown at a distance; not lingered on too long; or punctuated by overwrought music. You could almost think you're seeing something you're not meant to see. 

What must it be like, to volunteer your skills, your time, and your very person to become the difference between life and death for another human?

Any director can have style and flair, but it takes a master to create art that leaves no fingerprints. Howard's hand is invisible in this film, yet we still see what he's pointing to. Through his deft and discreet craftmanship, and cast full of equally dedicated performances, we get a beautifully nuanced glimpse of real-life heroes, and from the comfort of our homes, experience the mountain of hardships they willingly faced down for the chance to achieve something good. I'm grateful for men like that, and for the artists who, through their invisibility, make them visible.

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Cursed

Not your grandad's werewolf story. Actually, it's more like your great-great grandad's werewolf story, and that's exactly what makes it stand out. Watching it, I could almost believe that it was adapted from some gothic horror story written in the late 1800's, when the story is set.

Sean Ellis wrote, directed, and did his own cinematography work. 

Originally titled Eight for Silver, referencing the old nursery rhyme, because silver naturally plays an important role. But changed to the more mundane The Cursed because the plot also heavily features a curse set on an old English estate by a band of gypsies who are murdered when they try to stake a claim on the land. The movie takes its time in getting started, establishing the Laurent family and showing the ill-advised murders in grisly detail, as well as the set of silver wolf's teeth a gypsy witch fashions for the curse. It's not until the children dig up the teeth and one of them gets bitten, subsequently disappearing, that the story's hero comes on scene—McBride, a pathologist, who has experience in these strange circumstances.

From there McBride drives the story, the setup so thorough and detailed that the plot glides along effortlessly on its strength. We know many beats of the story already; people will be attacked, the survivors changing too, until McBride closes in on the beast and discovers how to stop it. A classic in many ways. There's appeal in a classic story told well for me, but there's also a fresh appeal in this one's approach. Details of the creature design, origin and behavior which bring out the eerie and bleak style of horror. The character of the family involved. And most of all for me, the period setting, and location. The house, the village and the surrounding woods all make for a memorable, creepy, and gorgeous visual for the story to live in—a crucial element for gothic tales.

The imagery of the silver teeth was a great touch. There are many good details like that.

I have a soft spot for the sort of low-tech horror that happens here. Someone taking the time to load their muzzleloader rifle before firing an important shot brings the same sort of suspense as a modern-day scene wishes it could when it makes characters suddenly clumsy in their panic to load something that should take two seconds. The army takes days to arrive unlike modern cops, so there is no need to fabricate a reason why outside help doesn't come. Suddenly a single threat becomes so monstrous that you wonder how it will ever be dealt with. A great example of how less is more. Without having to overblow the horror element to get attention, the film has plenty of spare time to spend on character and lore development. 

While it's not my new favorite movie or anything, I'm at a loss for any significant flaw here. The one thing that comes to mind is that Boyd Holbrook isn't British, and that is apparent when he speaks next to his British castmates. He errs on the subtle side mostly which is smart, but sometimes he'll say something that just plain sounds wrong. I enjoy watching Holbrook far too much to care though. And as far as performance goes, everyone hits the spot. Besides the spotty accent, Holbrook feels every bit the gothic horror hero, balancing that simple and able determination of old-fashioned leads with the undercurrent of past wounds that keeps audiences engaged. Kelly Reilly's soft strength is perfect for the mother, as is complex coldness Alistair Petrie brings to the father. The children are excellent, and the supporting cast a vital and winning addition.

The daughter's old timey accent was flawless.

The slow, depressed gothic approach to the horror element won't be for people looking for a more intense, action-heavy, or scream-inducing horror experience, but it gets the tone exactly right for my tastes. It's the sort of movie you can dig into—and one that digs into you right back. The ending seals it all into a neat and emotionally resonate package, leading me to the observation that this is a story of singular vision; written, directed, and even shot by the same man. And with minimal interference, his vision comes through with deft skill and purposeful heart. I would praise it for that even if I didn't find much personal worth in the story itself. The Cursed or Eight for Silver, whatever it is called, this monster movie of old-fashioned sensibilities is worth seeking out.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

The Outfit


The Outfit is a movie set in the 1950's, inside a single tailor shop, where the bad guys are mobsters, and no one can be trusted, and it stars Mark Rylance, Johnny Flynn, Zoey Deutch, and Dylan O'Brien, which reads to me more like a fantasy football lineup for movie stars than a cast list that would ever actually happen. And yet—somehow—it misses the mark on feeling like a film that was made just for me. 

I can't say that makes it a bad film at all though. Far from it. It has a concise and thought-out structure to it that gives it a very intentional feel. Much like the suit that Mark Rylance's character cuts and sews throughout the story. It treats filmmaking as a structured craft more than a freeform art, and the tone that sets goes well with a plot set inside a tailor's shop. It has strong bookends, gently interwoven themes, and conversations that are deliciously subtextual and often subtly intense. And despite its neat structure, it does many things that you won't expect, that turn the plot into new and interesting directions. The overall picture is as neat and trim as a new suit. 

And yet... when you look closer, things begin to, shall we say, unravel. Some of the twists and turns may feel so completely unexpected because they couldn't reasonably happen in reality. In small things, only ever little details, the writing skirts by, making important plot changes happen on the flimsiest of foundations. Sometimes characters will tell lies that make no sense at all, yet the characters being lied to buy it without question. We the audience might notice at first but then be lulled back into the story by the character's belief, or another lie or another twist that makes us forget the last one. On and on it goes until it neatly wraps up the ending and hopes you won't remember the skimping that happened in the middle.

And as much as I enjoyed the conversation-heavy thriller aspect, and as much as I generally go for single-location stories, those things here often felt to be a waste of the cast's talent. They do a lot—particularly Mark Rylance in the lead—but never reach a point where the roles seem to be a challenge. The learning and dedication required for Rylance to become a convincing "cutter" (as he calls himself) seems like a normal Tuesday for him. Same for Johnny Flynn's underperformed and cool villainy. Same for Zoey Deutch's sweet, but tough, but sweet, but tough receptionist. Same for Dylan O'Brien's tendency to lean into the physicality of his roles. I'm a fan of all four, particularly Rylance and O'Brien, so seeing a film that exists to highlight performance keep them to this "comfort zone" was a little disappointing. But maybe that's not fair of me.

I think at the bottom of this mystery, the disconnect I feel with it is in the plot itself. Perhaps a little in the skimping of plot turns, but mostly in the turns themselves, that took the story further and further from where I wanted it to go. Maybe it's not fair to claim this as a complaint either, or maybe the story really would have served itself better by taking more predictable but more manageable turns. Regardless, the craft is undeniable, often fascinating, and worth a look.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick


The phenomenon of Top Gun: Maverick isn't that it's an exceptionally good high quality summer blockbuster—it's simply that high quality summer blockbusters haven't existed for about five years. (And even then they were a dying breed.) Likewise, the magic of Top Gun: Maverick isn't that it's the greatest gap-sequel ever made—it's more that no other sequel made so many years later has ever been able to boast of having a worthy reason to exist.

And yet here we are, our socks knocked off by another one of Tom Cruise's filmmaking efforts. He may be the last person making movies who actually cares whether his products are entertaining or not. Here, he returns as his original character, Pete Mitchell, callsign Maverick, assigned back to Top Gun to train an elite batch of aviators for a specific, daring, and possibly deadly mission. One candidate, callsign Rooster (Miles Teller) is the son of Maverick's old co-pilot who died in the first movie, and tension rises between them as Maverick struggles between his job of picking the best team to risk their lives on the mission, and his own personal mission of protecting his friend's son.

It's a pretty sweet set up, ripe for drama, but not so complex as to take away time from the entertainment of training exercises, which range from aerial dogfights to playing football on the beach. For a side plot, Maverick takes up a romance with a former flame, Jennifer Connelly, and before you know it, I was wishing Tom Cruise wasn't in the movie so much—because the one thing left unfulfilled is the dynamics between the candidates. The loose definition of their unique personalities made me wish for more. And then Hangman, the Iceman equivalent, and his antagonistic relationship with Rooster is rendered pointless by Rooster's more convincing antagonistic relationship to Maverick—but even that is put on hold for too long. When it comes due is when the movie starts to really shine.

I would have liked the movie to split time between Maverick's antics and what the candidates are up to when he's not around, but at the same time I get it. It's the Tom Cruise show because the film wouldn't exist without him. You can't begrudge him taking the spotlight, or deny that everything he does is entertaining. I just can't help but wonder if it would have been better had it been more balanced. Just a tad. In that light, it was the third act that sold the film for me. When everything comes to a head, and it starts to feel like an equal character match-up between Maverick and Rooster. This section also has most of the thrilling flying action (on which a Tom Cruise movie will never, ever skimp) and the most real stakes and tension as they take on the deadly mission.

The whole movie builds to this point, and it doesn't disappoint in any aspect. It has the realness that Cruise is known for to make you feel it—the thrill that can only come when there's also a notable lack of CGI. I got a big kick out of seeing the actors react while inside actual, actually flying fighter jets. And because everything was set up previously, the whole act is a neat series of payoff after payoff after payoff, each one more satisfying and rewarding than the last. Character drama and fun action mix together to splendid results, and an old-fashioned magic of storytelling comes to life. It's all so simple and won me over so easily that I wonder how the art was ever lost in the first place.

So, if Top Gun: Maverick is great and a phenomenon just because every other modern film is bad and worthless, that doesn't change the fact. It has the magic, and it is a phenomenon. It's dastardly entertaining in ways I thought films had forgotten to be. Not exceptional in the big picture, but certainly exceptional for its time. My hope is this: that this rare blockbuster isn't a throwback to good and entertaining movies at all—but the instigator of a resurgence.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The King's Daughter

Some spoilers. 

I swear there's a good movie in here somewhere. The question is, does the lack of it even matter? 

It's about a French girl (Kaya Scodelario) in the 1600's who's taken from her monastery home to live in King Louis XIV's palace, unaware that she's his daughter. She loves music so when she hears a strange song at night, she follows it to an underground pool where a mermaid is being held captive, waiting on an eclipse so she can be sacrificed to give the King eternal life. The girl befriends the mermaid, as well as the handsome sailor (Benjamin Walker) who caught her, and a predictable series of romantic adventure ensues.

It certainly is... special.

Except the movie is quite a mess, and those appealing ideas of fairytale romance and adventure get a little buried in the jumble. The movie spends more time with the plotting King (Pierce Brosnan) his Priest (William Hurt) and the "scientist" who's going to kill the mermaid for him. They spend a lot of time bickering about God and science, or rambling about nothing much at all. Then there's the drama between the King and the girl as he doesn't tell her she's his daughter but hires her to play music for him outside his window every morning, and then once he tells her he immediately tries to merry her off to some simpering duke, which doesn't go over well of course but doesn't really go anywhere plot-wise either except to make her realize he's not so great a dad. 

It's like the movie understood what kind of tropes would be appealing, but had no idea how to actually use them. I loved the idea of her being engaged to a bad guy while falling in love with the sailor, but we never get to see the tension and conflict that situation should raise. I don't think she even sees the duke while knowing their marriage is arranged. And the sailor only finds out about it a minute before it's not an issue anymore. The movie touches on so many tropes that I enjoy that I wasn't disappointed, but it seems to have cinematic ADHD, hoping to and fro whatever topic pops into its head in real time. Scenes end abruptly, or cut in and out without apparent reason, and don't have the stamina to find the compelling content they're obviously searching for.

Fun fact, these two are married irl, and they met filming this movie, in... *checks notes* 2014?? It was released this year, so that's 8 years on the shelf. Wild.

If I were the actors involved, I'd probably wish it had stayed on the shelf. It's a bit embarrassing. But as a movie fan, I'm glad it was released, even with all the weirdness. Brosnan and Hurt phone in their stuff, but I'm not mad about it. There's nothing in the script that's worth getting worked up for and they're entertaining without trying. Scodelario tries, bless her, but her efforts only made me laugh when paired with the clunky lines she's trying to convey. Benjamin Walker's character is very much a K-Mart brand Will Turner but still somehow manages to be halfway dashing. The cheesy romance was probably the best aspect simply because cheesy romance increases in value the cheesier it gets. Still, I can't help but think there was a path here for something a step above—more real character development over empty platitudes to give the cheese a foundation on which to thrive.

The tropey appeal cannot overcome the mess. It's badly written, badly cobbled together with bad performances, laughably modern costumes, cheap CGI, and a smattering of sweeping wonder. I enjoyed it all, but only because swashbuckling fairytales like this barely exist at all—let alone in any better realm of quality.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022



The master of cinematic destruction is back with another epic world-in-peril film, and it may be my favorite of them all! 

Though no one would accuse Roland Emmerich of making high art, what he does do is put a lot of effort and money into making big, entertaining blockbusters in his specific style. And that's what I love about this movie. It doesn't do anything by half measure. The Earth is under attack again—this time by the moon itself! Once its orbit begins to degrade it's only a matter of weeks before collision. Most of the world goes into panic mode, leaving it up to disgraced astronaut Patrick Wilson, his estranged work partner Halle Berry, and a crazy internet conspiracy theorist John Bradley (who turns out to be not-so-crazy, of course) to figure out how to save the day. 

The Moon gets really close to the Earth and it looks cool. What more could you ask for???

Meanwhile they have family issues to keep the characters grounded in a sort of relatable reality, so the stakes aren't too big for us to bother to care about. Wilson has his delinquent son (Charlie Plummer), ex-wife, and her new husband (Michael Peña!), and Berry has her ex-husband and their daughter—all left behind on earth to witness the catastrophe as the leads go into space to confront the alien problem. We've seen it all before, but I've never seen it work better than under Emmerich's direction. He shows us what we want to see. Or, at least, me. The thing that tickled me the most was how he used real and strange facts about the Moon to build his plot around. Like how it "rang like a bell" when Apollo 12 launched their descent module into it. Though the movie finds fantastic and unlikely reasons for these things, there's a genuine sense of mystery and wonder there.

Visually it was good enough that I now wish I'd bothered to see it on a big screen. The Moon being so close to the Earth of course provides a stunning visual. Elsewhere green screens are incredibly obvious. But elsewhere again, the alien design and space scenes have an obvious budget and effort put in. The family drama is fairly scant and cliché, but that's not to say bad, and one or two scenes and some dedicated line delivery from solid actors is all it needs to stick. Patrick Wilson was great casting and really sells the whole story. Then there's the general destruction. My least favorite part of disaster movies, funnily enough. There are a few interesting situations for the characters to navigate, plus plenty of floods, crumbling buildings, and those scenes where someone's using a white board to illustrate what horrors will occur next. It's really classic stuff.

I'm trying and failing to think of a way this movie could have been more enjoyable for me. 

And I guess that's why I got such a big kick out of it. It's classic. Not highbrow, but doesn't talk down to its audience either. It doesn't even bother to preach on woke topics, it just gleefully focuses on all it's cool ideas, with a sweet if small family-oriented center, and in that vein, does its own thing, and does it well. I know a lot of people are down on it, but I for one am not ready for the fun to be sapped out of all our movies. Completely uncynical, involving space, and family, and sacrificial love, cool in concept and awesome to look at—MOONFALL hits the spot and checks all the boxes for what I've been craving. Maybe it was made for me alone, but either way I can't help but give it an enthusiastic recommendation!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (2022)


It may be hidden away on Britbox, unlikely to ever be seen by many potential fans, but Hugh Laurie's take on this Agatha Christie standalone mystery may also be my favorite Christie adaptation ever, so I must tell you about it.

It stars Will Poulter as Bobby Jones and Lucy Boynton as Lady Frances Derwent—and right there you have half the reason why it's so much fun. While out caddying one day, Bobby stumbles upon a man who's fallen over a cliff. Before the man dies, he asks a single question: "Why didn't they ask Evans?" Bobby soon reconnects with his childhood friend, Lady "Frankie" who has a penchant for sticking her nose into situations with the kind of charm and grace that makes it forgivable, and together they are pulled into a thrilling mystery plot as they try and work out who Evan is, and who didn't ask them what.

 Frankie does most of the pulling, and Bobby most of the getting pulled. They make a great team.

Agatha Christie is known for weaving impressive and un-guessable mysteries, but the more I read and watch of her stories, the more I think it's her characters that are the most vital. Why Didn't They Ask Evans? isn't her most memorable work as far as mystery goes, but it still stands out, and is one of my favorites, even before this version came around. The simple intrigue of the central question and the duo of Frankie and Bobby are what make this story shine. Hugh Laurie understood that (he wrote and directed this, plus takes a small but key role), and he puts most of his focus on the two leads. Each of their scenes, even the ones that are just deducing and theorizing, are packed to the brim with wit and banter, great chemistry (thanks to the casting), and a grand sense of fun. 

Laurie's adapting should have poor Kenneth Branagh turning green. For one, Laurie gets three hours to tell the story instead of a movie length, so he gets to indulge in the parts of the story that are the most fun. Mostly characters as previously mentioned, but also the cozy mystery tone. There's a beautiful balance of foreboding and building suspense mixed with light, airy, distinctly British wit and comedy. Every other scene has a line to laugh at, and there's obvious thought put into clever scene construction. The lost art of set-up and pay-off. Laurie also expands some parts of the book into more cinematic sequences that won me over easily despite my tendency to prefer direct adaptation. Laurie's writing and directing sensibilities complement Christie's work rather than conflict with it, and the result is, I daresay, enhancing.

I wish Christie had written more Bobby/Frankie stories so we could get more of Poulter and Boynton together. Totally adorable. 

The only hang-up here is that so much time is spent in fun, cozy sleuthing with the two adorable bantering leads that time runs out and the mystery plot seems rushed once it comes around to the dramatic ending. The dramatic ending doesn't culminate into a grand reveal like when Poirot gathers his suspects and explains everything succinctly. It's more given to us in bite-sized pieces that don't flow like the rest of the story does. Part of that is due to Christie's structure in the book, which isn't her best, but this adaptation deviates most toward the end and loses a little of the explanation she provided. A thread or two is left hanging, and the wrap up happens so fast I was left wishing for five more minutes to revel in the success. 

I get the distinct feeling that the three-hour time limit came due, and Laurie had to choose between wrap up and explanation scenes, and some of those gloriously witty character scenes in the beginning and middle. He chose the character scenes. And as far as I'm concerned, he chose wisely. I'm completely in love with Will Poulter, Lucy Boynton, and this charming little mystery. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Batman


Director Matt Reeves promised us a detective Batman in a 90's grunge style noir setting, and cast the master of brooding and angst, Robert Pattinson, as his caped crusader. Well. I'm happy to report that he delivered on his promises. Nary a sliver of sunlight is seen in this movie. Gotham is looming all around, grimy and shining in the rain and harsh night lights. And the movie begins with Pattinson's early years Bruce Wayne delivering a cynical and brooding narration as he chooses which of many, many crimes he should spend his efforts on one Halloween night. The sequence caps off with the pent-up drone of Nirvana, and by then I was hooked and ready for anything.

If I have to turn off the lights in my den to see anything once I'm watching at home, it'll be worth it. This movie is dark and beautiful.

Two years into his crimefighting, this Bruce is still working out his place as a vigilante. He revels in the fact that even the idea or suggestion of his presence will repel even the pettiest of criminals. "They think I am hiding in the shadows," he says in his noir narration. "But I am the shadows." But a sense of futility is creeping in. No matter how much crime he stops, more evil is around the corner. Then—it's The Riddler's turn, played by Paul Dano with eager gusto. Appropriately, Riddler's goals are parallel with Bruce's. He begins to bring to light the corruption and scandal of wealthy and influential Gotham residents, but with the one significant difference from Batman, in that he kills them first. 

He leaves letters and clues for "The Batman" at his crime scenes, which Bruce dutifully follows with help from Gordon, (played with quiet intensity by Jeffery Wright) and Selina Kyle, (Zoe Kravitz, and the film's character highlight.) I loved the sequence where Selina and Bruce team up and infiltrate the club for information—a perfect amalgamation of noir and Batman sensibilities. But elsewhere, scenes that seem to want to mimic the disturbing factor that The Dark Knight did so eerily well played on my nerves here. The writing of Riddler's plan, motivations, and even characterization felt uninspired, as if the acting alone could carry this villain. They spend too much time on him, and the veneer begins to fall.

Besides Kravitz and Dano, (and the actor who claims to be Colin Farrell, which I'm still suspicious of) a general increase of facial emoting wouldn't have gone amiss. People feel things in noir stories, too.

Pattinson is the ideal choice for this iteration, but his performance feels restrained. Stoic Batman is fine, but I hope Bruce Wayne isn't left as a blank slate. They have a good start here. Grungy emo Bruce is different and fun in a dark way that fits the aesthetic, and I know Pattinson can dig into that—if the script and direction allows. Here, the writing keeps him one step behind the Riddler. Even when Riddler allows himself to be arrested, and even when his final plan is implemented, Batman seems there only to react, powerless to stop it. And that bothered me. I wanted Bruce's detective skills to matter to the plot. Or a satisfying moment of revelation where he "solves the case." But there isn't really, and for better or worse, it is done intentionally. 

Through his inability to stop Riddler, Bruce is forced to confront this mirror villain and consider what the difference between them is. Why doesn't Batman kill, if he's the same as Riddler in every other way? So Bruce's moment of revelation turns introspective as he realizes that the point of stopping crime isn't only about the crime itself, but to protect those against whom is the crime is being committed. At the beginning, when Batman beats up the gang of thugs with skeleton paint on their faces, their victim is every bit as afraid of Batman as they are, and Batman does nothing to dissuade his fear. But once he fails to stop Riddler's plan, he realizes it's not over, because there are still innocent people he can help. So he does. And that's what's important, and what makes him the hero rather than the villain.

The style, with bookends of narration and grunge music made me happy, but it still all comes down to character.

So even though I was hoping for a more satisfying mystery plot, and even though I tend to tune out emotionally when superhero movies resort to a city-level event for their final act, I do greatly appreciate this character arc which is beautifully minute. No massive, life-altering realization—just Bruce shifting his focus a little and seeing a ray of hope in the bleak and endless line of evil that's standing before him. I don't think this movie is perfect, but that's why I think I love it.

Monday, March 7, 2022

West Side Story (2021)


Film adaptations of stage musicals always seem to be lesser. There's something about live performance that dazzles and sweeps you along in ways film simply cannot. But even in that light, Steven Spielberg's re-adaptation of West Side Story is still lesser, and can't manage to improve on the one put to screen 50 years ago.

Despite all that money. Money, it turns out, is cold and inanimate and cannot emote to entertain an audience.

It's worth noting that if you're a fan of West Side Story there no reason why you won't get enjoyment out of this one. I know when I love something, I can see any number of adaptations or versions and be happy even if they're mostly not the greatest thing ever, just because I love the story that's being told and love to see the different casts and approaches. I feel that way, in fact, about Romeo and Juliet, and from that perspective, I did have fun watching this version as it was the first time I saw West Side Story since reading Romeo and Juliet. I never realized before exactly how closely this story follows the Shakespeare. But I'm not particularly a fan of West Side Story in itself. Nothing against it, and I've never not enjoyed it, but I never felt any personal attachment. 

And that's why I needed this version to be actively good in order to impress me. Which is why I am far from impressed. Spielberg give it a good ol' Oscar-grab revamping, by spending lots of money and doing nothing creative. He casts stage veterans in bit parts (Brian D'Arcy James is there but doesn't sing???) and tones down the dancing so his Hollywood stars can keep up. Ariana DeBose as Anita was the only main casting that was actively good. She could dance, sing, and act with equal fervor, and stole the show as far as I'm concerned. Rachel Zegler had a nice voice and a good look for Maria, but her characterization felt too restrained to me. Chalk it up to inexperience behind a camera. I have no complaints about the rest—except one. 

Ho hum, here we go...

Ansel Elgort's Tony is every bit as bad as I feared it would be. And I don't dislike Elgort. He just needs the right role to work—and this isn't it. He doesn't have the look. He exudes dopiness rather than romance, and while that can be charming in the right setting (hello Baby Driver) it's a stretch here. I don't get why he was cast. His acting is nothing special either and while he can move well, Tony doesn't need to be a dancer. His singing voice sounded fine, except that there was never any power behind it. He doesn't belt or croon, he's just kind of... there. And the movie seems aware of all this, and attempts to prop him up by giving him more to do via songs that don't belong to him. Yes, they gave him Cool, the best piece in the show, and butchered it so he could have more screen time.

They also wrote in a change where Tony is freshly out of prison where he went after almost beating another kid to death in a rumble. I can see the good intention behind this addition, that it's trying to deepen Tony's character, but instead it undermines a few aspects of the story. It takes his agency, first, because he now no longer left the Jets by his own choice. Then it makes him seem too much a bad guy later—they have him fight Bernardo and beat him, but stop because he is afraid he may kill him... but then of course he does kill him a minute later and it comes across weirdly in this new light. Suddenly the focus is on Tony and his apparent personal disposition for violence rather than a general tragic look at how the gangs' cycle of violence and revenge destroys innocent lives. 

The dancing did have its moments, and I loved the costuming.

Spielberg's visual hand is where the movie finds most of its positives. It's nice to look at, expensive and often pleasantly gritty. Too much lens flare though. (J.J is supposed to copy you, Steve, not the other way round!) Some of it has that shiny CGI look to it—especially the atrocious Cool scene—but elsewhere there are real, and fun sets. I liked the balcony set up quite a lot. And there's one great shot when the gang's meet to rumble. The performance aspect of the dancing doesn't translate as well. The choreography is toned down and location hopping undercuts the songs' energy and momentum... which are usually dulled already due to the "La La Land Syndrome" where the singing is more "realistic" read: not powerful or dynamic at all. It's Broadway style music telling a Shakespearian tragedy; it needs to be larger than life, not toned down.

If there's one thing that sums up this movie's shortcoming, it's that. It sorely lacks dynamics. Both in the musical sense of fluctuating volume, and in the sense of the energy, tension, and passion that a well-assembled and performed piece can bestow on an audience. West Side Story demands dynamic storytelling, but Spielberg sacrificed the energy that a musical can bring through song and dance—cut it up and whittled it down—for the sake of realism. But so what if it's more historically accurate, if it can't make you feel? 

As I sat watching I kept thinking about the high school stage production I saw, and how that show made me feel more than this hundred-million-dollar project. Granted it was a very good high school production, but that should be a low bar for one of the most celebrated film directors ever. Instead, he cranked out yet another expensive, nice-looking, unnecessary bore, and either forgot, or didn't bother to infuse it with passion or life.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Spider-Man: No Way Home

This review has SPOILERS concerning what characters appear in this movie. Plot-wise, it's spoiler-free. 

When the whole world is told that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, that doesn't turn out so well for Peter. But it's not until his best friend Ned and girlfriend MJ are tainted by association—rejected by MIT for reasons of "controversy"—that he decides to act. What he does, with help from Dr. Strange, doesn't turn out so well either. They open a rift in the multiverse, and people start filtering in who know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Strange, villainous people who Peter doesn't know. (But we do!)

Time for Peter to make some choices and mistakes of his own.

I've long been on the outs with the MCU. But I have maintained a hope (a faint and fading hope, as Gandalf would say) that Tom Holland could make a great Spider-Man under the right circumstances. So even though I'm not interested in the interconnected Marvel universe anymore, I wanted to continue giving Spider-Man a chance—and I'm glad I did. My favorite aspect of Homecoming was that director Jon Watts seemed to be working hard to keep Peter grounded, even through the over-sized stakes and "bigger is better" and "connect everything" worldview that the MCU brings. In this third installment, Watts connects things, makes it bigger, and ups the stakes like he's supposed to, but he also has reason to. He uses the required method to give me what I want—a Spider-Man that isn't under the thumb of the MCU.

At least, not as much. This story asks the question, "what does it REALLY mean, to be Spider-Man?" and then it answers it, by using past Sony Spider-Man's (Spider-Men?) Spider-Men as the standard to be measured by. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield make real appearances, not just cameos, and they're treated with reverence and respect. Holland's Peter makes well-intentioned mistakes and tries his best and then learns from the Spider-Men that his good intentions and trying his best is the Spider-Man way. He learns that bad things happen despite his efforts but is encouraged by them to keep going, because "with great power comes great responsibility." And his efforts cease to be a joke or some fun side-gig where he gets his suits made by Iron-Man, his missions from Nick Fury, and team-mates from the famous Avengers roster. He grows into a full-fledged Spider-Man, and it's a little bit glorious. 

Holland has always been the best thing about this iteration. This movie aspires to be worthy of him.

The path taken to get him there... is a little bit messy. One by one the past hang-ups are put to rest. No more Stark glasses. No more voices inside suits. No more adults making decisions for Peter. No more villains whose real beefs are with Iron Man. No more double life. And with every step taken, the movie feels more and more like a classic Spidey film, and less like a Marvel drone. The jokes are funny sometimes. The characters are like real people, not awkward or unfunny on purpose. There are dramatic moments that aren't undercut by humor. There are humorous moments that have underlying pathos. There is an end goal throughout besides "make money with CGI." Gosh, even the more blatant fanservice moments didn't make me angry, because they were calling back to the old classics with genuine glee. 

It feels messy because the movie is about cleaning up a mess—in the storyline, and in real life! The process is not streamlined. There are moments when it's a chore, but the end result is satisfying in the same way all things are when they're clean and used to be messy. And as the mess dwindles, we get a look at how Holland's Spidey works unencumbered. And he's fantastic. Peter uses his fast thinking in creative ways during the fights, and Holland's physicality plus the magic of modern effects and choreography make the action land in real and entertaining ways. And the character dynamics between him and his friends and family take on a more serious edge as he weighs the consequences of his actions and relationships. 

One of few MCU films that actually needs most of its 2 & 1/2 hour runtime. It's a big mess to clean.

The returning villains weren't my favorite thing ever, but I appreciate that they were not turned into jokes (which was what my cynicism expected) and instead added real value to the story. Especially Alfred Molina's Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe's Goblin. Spider-Men Maguire and Garfield steal the show, so I'm glad they aren't in the whole thing. Most of the movie's best, most engaging emotion comes from them—maybe because of nostalgia, maybe not. All I know is they leave the current Spidey in a place I'd like to see more of. It feels like a set-up for a fresh start. One that already has a good cast in place, and has proved it understands the Spider-Man mantle better than past endeavors indicated, and is ready to take the character in some more conventional, classic, SPIDER-MAN directions. 

No Way Home is a messy, sprawling, fun, and ambitious film with a determined goal, real stakes, real consequences, and a real end result. It stops trying to reinvent the character and embraces what's always been this version's strengths, while bringing back some of the classic strengths of Spider-Man, as well. It has brought our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man back to his friendly neighborhood life.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Top 10 movies of 2021 Podcast!


A couple days ago my twitter friend Tyler (twitter, website) hosted me and our mutual friends Trevor (twitter, website) and Lindsey (twitter, website) to talk about our favorite movies of 2021—check it out below!

With how strange a year for movies 2021 was, we ended up having very different favorite lists, which I thought was awesome. It was a fun conversation, and a great way to send off the year!