0

The Final Level

image0002

There’s some kind of consensus going around that producer Berry Gordy’s 1985 Motown martial arts vehicle The Last Dragon is a movie that’s only possibly enjoyable in an ironic sense. Its status as a cult classic is uncontested, yet it maintains a low critical score on Rotten Tomatoes at 44% (audience score is significantly higher at 86%) and is considered by critics as respected as Leonard Maltin as “strictly kid-stuff”.

And I’m just here to say that’s straight up fucking bullshit.

There are to be fair more than a few flaws and faults of The Last Dragon as a motion picture, but I think it’s massively outweighed by just how much entertainment value it has overall and the different ways it functions as such – as cheesy martial arts inspirational movie, as relentless and genuine 80s time capsule (especially pre-Giuliani New York City), as African-American representation. And it doesn’t function as those things individually in a perfect way, but altogether it’s a singular object of grin-forcing fun.

8f232a555839af10df93a9b400f28ccd-dragon-dojo

And it gets that way because Gordy and director Michael Schultz approached the film’s production and style no differently than that of a music video. Apparently they did not wanting a single frame to be empty of something to show off and resulting in a film always energized with lights and motion, arguably at the cost of consistent narrative or thematic depth but that’s not rare in 1980s cinema to begin with and it don’t bother me none. The very beginning of the film is shot like an Olympic commercial, focusing on the shape and power of young martial artist Taimak. It’s all slow-motion backlit swift and controlled karate moves, the kind you want to linger on when you intend for the subject to be a remembered star — punctuated by Taimak’s real-life chopping of an arrow in mid-flight. An action force to be reckoned with is introduced to us and then we see how he is housed in the body of the boyish naive Leroy Green under the guidance of a master (Thomas Ikeda) who insists that Leroy is finally ready to move on beyond his training in achievement of the Final Level, at which point Leroy will receive The Glow. That last part is kind of hard to parse out to be honest, but it seems to be an achievement akin to Super Saiyan status.

In any case, he sends Leroy on his way to explore the concrete jungle of New York City in which they reside on his own and the first thing the now lost Leroy decides to do is his favorite pastime of catching Bruce Lee movies at the local 42nd street theater. Which is one of the ways The Last Dragon incorporates reflexivity unknowingly, the way that Leroy looks up to Lee and watches the O’Hara fight in Enter the Dragon with rapt attention and wonder at Lee’s abilities without the slightest distraction from the characteristically New York-ian raucous crowd surrounding him – it’s the most effective way to tell us how much the character wants to be Lee in a film where we hear him referred to directly as “Bruce Leroy” and respected because of his adherence to the discipline of the martial arts, enough to operate his own dojo in Harlem. That The Last Dragon also has some Orientalist bent in the third act including twists that are extremely ungenerous and feel mean-spirited, given how much that culture inspires and animates its very hero. Not to mention, it’s always a kindred joy to have a movie hero that loves movies just as passionately as the viewer.

last-dragon-4

There’s another sort of style that animates the film and that’s simply the music. Almost given as much screentime as Leroy’s Chinese inspirations is the apparent MTV-esque video music show 7th Heaven hosted by gorgeous VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) and Gordy and Schultz use that as the perfect opportunity to shove in a few music videos from the Motown label including Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night”, which is the biggest nostalgia kick for me. 7th Heaven as a set alone is glimmering and flashy and shiny in such a loud 80s nightclub type of way, filled with dizzying mirrors sets and lasers, that it feels just at home for the impromptu pop setpieces that Vanity performs as an interlude to all the combat. And of course that’s to say nothing of the hilarious “Dirty Books”, a deliberately awful attempt at the vapidest New Wave knock-off you could find, performed by the lovable Faith Prince and with a gaudy bedroom set and even gaudier costumes for Prince to wear, basically literal trash attempting very transparently to pass off as fashion but completely betraying that it’s a traffic sign sewn over her butt and hazard lights over her breasts.

Between all of this, it’s no surprise that Def Jam Recordings later recruited Schultz for their own classic Hip Hop Artists musical vehicle Krush Groove (released later in the same year). Schultz also happened to direct Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is the closest predecessor in his career to a movie this music-based and so I’m mortified by the possibility that that atrocity could have inspired Gordy to hire Schultz for this movie but hey… we got The Last Dragon out of it and hot damn does it pay off in extravagance, musical number-wise and action setpiece-wise (I’m not really surprising when I say the Glow does make an appearance and it’s literally exactly what it sounds like and it is chintzy and awesome to see in action).

last-dragon-6

“Dirty Books” is more or less the element that ignites the closest thing The Last Dragon could call a plot as Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), the gangster girlfriend to Prince’s character Angela, attempts continuously to blackmail and threaten Laura into playing the video on 7th Heaven only to be thwarted again and again by Leroy’s happening at the right place at the right time (and each time Laura’s infatuation with him grows to the anxiety of the clearly inexperienced Leroy). Eventually, it gets to a point where Arkadian decides to escalate his battle with Leroy to using the big gun and… well, by that point, we’ve already met the big gun but I held off until the very end to give one of my favorite characters of all time a proper introduction.

Arkadian, despite being more rooted in the plot, is not the main antagonist. No, our main antagonist is introduced in that same 42nd street theater we see Leroy watch Enter the Dragon in and immediately starts ripping the scenery apart with his angry jaws. He’s loud and bombastic, maintaining a tall stance and a twisted snarl on his face that telegraphs how clearly antagonistic the character is without making him any less fun to watch. He spits an exhaustive amount of quotable lines like “Kiss my converse!” and “You just get that sucker to the designated place at the designated time, and I will gladly designate his ass for dismemberment!” with dedicated oversold menace barely hiding how much joy he gets quipping like that. And every moment he’s on-screen is a highlight of The Last Dragon. For all it banks on personalities – especially given how easily Vanity plays celebrity seductress in a surprisingly clean way, I think she kind of needs more credit for that performance – the late, great Julius Carry gifts us with a personality that adopts the aggressive belligerence of 80s New York City to the unapologetic hamminess of movie villany from his wild hair to his loose black-and-red (the colors of EVIL!) gi. If there’s any one reason you need to watch The Last Dragon right this second (and there are many), it is this character.

Is he the meanest? Is he the prettiest? Is he the baddest mofo low down around this town? Well who is he? Who is he? He can’t hear you…

SHO’NUFF.

The Shogun of Harlem.

shonuff

Advertisements
0

Cured of My Will to Live

dkh6kxcwsaes0qj

So, here’s a thing: it’s already hard enough to get your ass up out to the theater to watch a movie you honestly don’t want to watch. Who wants to waste their time and money like that, right? It’s even more difficult when you’re in my previous position with Maze Runner: The Death Cure where I kept having to re-schedule the opportunities around my work and opportunities to see that movie do not come easily because it is 2 AND A MOTHERFUCKING HALF HOURS LONG, got damn. And yet, here I am having finally seen it and so very eager to get this franchise wrapped up that I started typing the moment I got home from the theater.

And I do have some words of praise to afford the filmmakers: first off, to actually seeing the franchise all the way to the end right at the cusp of when young adult dystopia material was reaching at its end, particularly in the wake of the Divergent series’ decision to give up. Several young adult franchises involved splitting the final book in their respective literary source series into two movies unnecessarily as has been the fad since Harry Potter‘s films and this is something Maze Runner did not choose to do, to my significant esteem. I suppose this decision may have been less spurred by narrative integrity than by the fact that as of the time Maze Runner: The Death Cure has been released, it has been a little under 2 years since The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed and a little over 2 years after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 underperformed, a death knell to the type of material The Maze Runner operates in. But that circumstance is also why the tenacity of the filmmakers impresses me almost as much as the fact that they have been financially rewarded for their faith. And particularly since it’s no big secret that gap of time was prolonged by the unfortunate injury of lead actor Dylan O’Brien during filming, at which point the studio decided to hold off until he could recuperate properly because nobody needs to die while making a movie.

maze_runner_last_city

OK, and now with all that young adult adaptation background that I am very ashamed to have at my disposal, I can actually praise Maze Runner: The Death Cure for something actually within the text of the film itself: not only is it better than its predecessors – a low bar to clear – it might possibly be a decent watchable movie. That claim requires many caveats: to begin with, you have to have watched the first two movies because there is no hand-holding flashback or recap opening the film and – welcome in the wake of the exposition vomit that made up the scripts of Maze Runner and Scorch Trials – most of the movie is spent in actual narrative momentum with a clear objective in mind. That objective being, after the final moments of Scorch Trials where the evil corporation WCKD who accidentally invented desert zombies (zombies that don’t really appear as much in Death Cure except within the bookends) kidnaps several friends of our hero Thomas (O’Brien), he and his team arranges to break into WCKD’s walled metropolitan safe haven to specifically save Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Specifically Minho. I mean, sure there’s other folks that they mean to rescue but they only wanna mention Minho.

OK, I’m going to admit at this point while I’m getting snarky that while I’m sure The Death Cure pays off significantly to those who have been invested in the struggles of Thomas, his right hand man Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). As I’m sure anybody who followed the last two movies could figure out, I was not at all and while I concede that the movie does very well to collect all of the threads of the story and tie them into a neat conclusion, it ain’t my jam. For one thing, the kids’ acting got worse with the way they try to escalate and intensify their responses to each situation with puppy dog attempts at gruff exclamations of “shit!” and this is shoved in our faces when Brodie-Sangster has an arbitrary development to his character that feels nothing more than mean-spirited. He does little else with it than bark at other characters often and hyperventilate because Newt – like pretty much every other ally – doesn’t really have a personality beyond “is loyal to Thomas”.

drl133hwaaenos_

It’s also shoved in our faces when the group’s mission is made complicated on the sudden romantic implication between Thomas and fellow Glader Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) that seems hella outta nowhere, especially considering how sex-less the first Maze Runner pointedly was about a girl living enclosed amongst boys and how little time they spent together in The Scorch Trials before Teresa was revealed to be a turncoat for WCKD. That the heroic group is apprehensive about Thomas’ desire to find some good in her again despite accepting the mid-film reveal of an easily guessable previously-thought-dead* murderous villain who apparently changed between movies from a violent psycho into a brusque senior rebel to look up to with few objections is just one of many inconsistencies that I rolled with because I wanted this movie to wrap up.

These threads are also the subject of an ending that really wants to sell you on the gravitas of the situation by suddenly taking stakes at the last minute that were barely on the ground before (though it ends on a much more hopeful note than that sounds) and add that to uncompelling performances from actors who are empty presences at worst and at best given little to do except Aidan Gillen’s evil militaristic Janson (which is essentially Gillen playing the same slimy contemptible piece of shit he built his career out of playing) and I’m just not here for the story, y’all. Power to those who are.

a99fb8770f04dd86a7baa356b1e95fb0

But if you’re watching Maze Runner: The Death Cure for the visuals of director Wes Ball and the cinematography of Gyula Pados, well… it’s actually a pretty good-looking movie. We’re not talking Deakins here, but the setting of the majority of the film in an area of urban ruins and sleek cold reflective surfaces as in the central Last City where WCKD centers itself gives Ball and Pados a lot of room to play with light and shadow to give Death Cure a more mature chilliness than any scene of young looking late 20-year-olds with guns could possibly have. In general, the design of The Last City feels like the modern response to the city from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a desperately authoritarian and insincere industrialization of survivalism all proven by how tall and closed-off the towers are. It’s not revelatory at all since we already had a feeling the makers were getting better within the sweltering desert heat of The Scorch Trials, but it’s impressive set-building and it does tell us what was the answer to The Maze Runner‘s visuals all along: keep Ball and Pados the fuck away from trees and grass.

A much more enjoyable benefit to yours truly: the action setpieces are all not only coherent and impactful, they’re also unhinged in a manner akin to the Fast and Furious movies. The central “break in and break out” heist of The Death Cure involves several “are you crazy?” type of stunts and actions on the parts of the characters that clearly would have killed any person in real-life physics – including a crane swinging a bus full of children by its front grill over a wall – and it’s the most joyous and alive the franchise has ever felt to me. And this isn’t something The Death Cure takes its sweet-ass time getting to: it opens on a kinetic grounded train heist that makes for great enough popcorn spectacle in the early months of the year.

So… is this enough to say I like Maze Runner: The Death Cure? Not really. Given how much I unexpectedly gave T.S. Nowlin’s final screenplay for the franchise, I’m starting to feel I spoke too soon in claiming it’s a decent movie. But it does recognize the job it has in closing out a franchise and establishing a brand new environment to blow to smithereens in its climax. And it sets its mind on completing that job no matter how messy it gets and for the franchise’s perseverance, I do admit admiration growing in seeing it finally reach the end of its own maze.

*I am aware that the character in question was revealed to be alive in the third book that this movie is based on, but I am not sure that his “apparent death” was as ludicrously severe as this character’s was.

maze-runner-the-death-cure-1

0

Scorched Earth

tst_01810

In an effort for makeup work on writing a movie about nothing (and not in the fun Seinfeld variety), The Maze Runner‘s screenplay piled on a whole bunch of plot twists revealing the state of the world of the franchise and why the kids were trapped in giant circle for a long time, ending on its two most horrifying reveals.

The first is that Patricia Clarkson is forced to appear in this movie with a lifeless monologue to deliver, something she deserves so much better than. This is followed up by the more horrifying reveal that her character, Dr. Ava Paige, did not commit suicide as we were led to believe and is so Clarkson was shackled to appear in this franchise as its apparent long-term antagonist. I can’t imagine this has any impact on a viewer not familiar with Clarkson as an actor, since our knowledge of the character’s existence up until the movie tells us she died is less than 2 minutes and less than a minute passes after that to tell us she’s alive and the bad guy.

Anyway, now Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials came about to bring along a cast of regretful and overqualified veterans to stifle her loneliness. Giancarlo Esposito’s on autopilot, Alan Tudyk’s playing a gay stereotype, Lili Taylor is just dying inside, and Barry Pepper’s the only one that’s giving a performance could call “committed”. But before any of them pop up, we are introduced shortly to Aidan Gillen’s apparent guardian Janson kicking off the overqualified adult actors after Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the franchise’s hero, has an inscrutable flashback before waking up in the helicopter we saw him and his friends get scooped up in at the end of the previous film. Janson offers them quarter in his industrial facility with the total amount of trustworthiness that a character played by Aiden Gillen can provide, which is like… nothing so it’s not a shock when we quickly discover he’s actually working for the evil corporation of WCKD (something pronounced “wicked” but I totally feel like pronouncing as “wrecked” because I don’t wanna do a damn thing this movie asks). Thomas and his crew wisely escape upon this discovery into the real world.

the-maze-runner-scorch-trials-movie

By the way, included in Clarkson’s final lines of the last film was an observation that more kids survived the events of The Maze Runner than expected and clearly The Scorch Trials thought this as well because the group Thomas escapes Janson’s facility with is smaller than the group Thomas entered that facility with, I swear to God. And they get split up anyway halfway through the movie in search of a resistance group against WCKD called The Right Arm, so there’s little interest in any character that’s not Thomas and being interested in Thomas feels just, like, a bad move.

But there is a good thing about this new quest they go through is that they’re not stuck behind walls and that means WORLD-BUILDING in what we now see (and Clarkson again told us in the final minutes of The Maze Runner) is a ravaged post-apocalyptic world since a virus known as the Flare destroyed most of the world. It happens to be a virus that Thomas’ clan is immune, the point of being trapped in that hole in a maze. Yeah, it still sounds stupid to me too, but when I’m about to praise the world-building of Scorch Trials, I’m not talking about the verbose and exhaustive attempt at mythology screenwriter T.S. Nowlin (now working alone, still based on James Dashner’s novel) tries to stretch out the concept. Nor am I talking about the totally unmoving addition of zombies called Cranks into the terrain replacing the CGI monstrosities in the original (and being no more convincing).

I’m talking about the set design frankly, a place where director Wes Ball gets to use his background as a graphic artist and visually shape a world that feels completely abandoned by anything but heat and smoke. Most of the travels of Thomas and company take place in a giant desert filled with fallen edifices and drown metropolitan structures called The Scorch, which Ball and cinematographer Pados Gyula do a lot to make the landscape feel endlessly barren and dry. Which sounds like the same as the boring ol’ hole-in-a-maze of the first movie except without plants and with better color timing, but it’s not. There’s character in the Ozymandias structures these kids* run through and climb, the implication of our world past in some cases recognizable. In several cases to geographically confusing degree with the buildings we catch, but I’m trying to cease being mean to Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials for like two seconds.

scorch-trials-movie-screencaps-com-9533

And well before we even enter that desert, Jansen’s “sanctuary” to the kids is already so cold and character-less in a deliberate manner that it’s not surprising to find one’s self not entirely at ease when he leads the protagonists there with open arms (Good golly, could actually be visual directing of tone from Ball? Or was I just already on this movie’s bad side that my distrust extended to the textual context of its characters? Probably both.). Meanwhile, the little “guarded” hideout where we meet allies Jorge (Esposito) and Brenda is scrappy and desperate enough in its makeshift fashion that it’s kind of clear it’s the characters have some at-the-ropes alignment against WCKD and we can trust them. Tudyk’s corner is all unglamorous decadence in a bazaar-esque fashion, costumes and nightclub/opium den lair (with some drugged-up editing and lensing which seems… quite weird for a kids film, but aight).

Pepper and Taylor are living in a Western (Pepper’s performance especially reminds me of the one he gave in True Grit). It’s not a great Western but it’s a Western set with the same sort of texture and low-key design as the rest of Scorch Trials.

Basically, it’s not inventing the wheel in design and certain setpieces (The Scorch, Jansen’s lair) are a lot less interesting than otherwise (Pepper and Taylor’s home area), but it’s the closest Maze Runner: Scorch Trials has to feeling like it’s moving somewhere (it certainly has more momentum than its predecessor). And it doesn’t stop the story from feeling like a bunch of aimless wandering goose chases to find the legendary Right Arm until the movie decides to have WCKD show up to perform one “Very Evil Moment” yet again (but probably a godsend to one of the actors) and deliver another labored and contrived twist with one great big “is the movie over?” cut to black before returning for another scene to taunt me, but it’s something. Ball can use set design well enough once he’s out the gates and Lord let that keep me holding on when I dive into that one final Maze Runner movie and then forget this franchise ever existed.

*I have to note how weird it feels to regard these characters as “kids” when most of the actors are legit older than I am, but that says something about how I feel about Young Adult in general.

scorch-trials-movie-screencaps-com-9650

0

Like Rats in a Maze

tmr-movie-screencaps-17-fi

So, like… I haven’t been in the target audience of Young Adult fiction for a little under a decade now and when I was part of it, I was already looking for the door, so I might not be entirely in the know about these works. To my memory, the only major series I’ve read were Harry PotterTwilight, and The Hunger Games. But, like, there’s usually some kind of social observation in the heart of it, no? Like hamfisted, absolutely undiluted social observation that you would have to be not paying attention to the unsubtle dialogue to miss. The Hunger Games had classism and the exploitative nature of the media, Harry Potter had a wizard version of the Ku Klux Klan that got more and more time as the main antagonists, Twilight for all that it ranks at the bottom barrel of things I’ve read and watched even has some muddled attempt at determinism (and Mormon looking views on romance).

So, we get The Maze Runner – one of these young adult works that I hadn’t even heard of until we suddenly had a film adaptation come out in 2014 and make enough money to have another aim at being the next Hunger Games-level box office franchise – and I just don’t get what the fuck it’s trying to be about.

mr1

I mean, I get what it’s trying to taking inspiration from – Terrence Malick’s landscape photography in consideration of how the majority of the movie takes place in an entrapped area of forestation (and I don’t mean to insult Malick but comparing him to a movie as terrible-looking as The Maze Runner), Lord of the Flies in how it revolves around a bunch of kids isolated from society trying to create their own community – but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about any of that. Which is not only shocking, it just kind of makes me feel like I wasted my damn time worse than I already dreaded before spending two hours watching the thing. Like there was nothing to gain and it was philosophically and thematically empty from a genre that proudly wants to proclaim its themes and philosophies, adolescent as they may be, in a very urgent way.

Maybe the original novel by James Dashner, which I frankly have no intention of reading, does a better job of dicing up a message out of it. Maybe more likely is how the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (yes, the president of NBC News, that same guy. No sarcasm.), Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is so distracted by the necessity of stacking exposition dump upon exposition dump to slowly seep out some summary of what is happening to actually concern itself with depth and theme. I don’t think that excuses itgiven that Divergent – another flipping Young Adult novel adaptation that’s desperately tried (and hilariously failed) to be the next Hunger Games – was also a movie packed to the brim with world-building exposition dump and you’d still be able to takeaway that story’s appeal to the importance of individualism, even if you had watched it blindfolded or with earmuffs or upside down (not at the same time, though. Be serious.) Still it’s just plausible that such was the case with The Maze Runner.

Those exposition dumps happen to be showing us how a young man we learn later to be named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is thrown into a large plain of grass called the Glade inhabited by several other boys mostly devoid of personality beyond their pragmatic status and none of these statuses seem remotely interesting except that of a Runner, the boys who are selected to run everyday into the walls that surround their little plain and try to find a way out of the maze within, running back to the community before the doors to the wall close every night and trap them in the maze lest they be attacked by a bunch of giant CGI monsters called Grievers. This is like… the premise of a movie, not a full on plot and yet it takes The Maze Runner more than 2/3 of its runtime to lay that all out. It’s not even world-building because everything they’re explaining and elaborating on is confined to the Glade and the Maze, nothing else.

18

And some of these things are of course delivered in some manner that has to do with the element of cutting and framing in cinema, like the sort of impressively trapped and uncomfortable flurry of opening shots where Thomas is practically launched into the Glade in unstoppable motion and quickly shifted from surrounding him from dark walls behind a steel cage into surrounding him from blinding light and laughter and boyish eyes no less confusing before he faceplants from fear. But that’s like it. That’s the only worthwhile moment conceived out of Wes Ball’s direction in the whole movie. The rest of that exposition through cutting is in the case of randomly clunked up flashbacks of Thomas’ time before the Glade, spurred on by Teresa’s (Kaya Scodelario) arrival into the Glade. Kind of glad there’s no “sexual tension” amongst these apparent teens played by guys in their 20s and 30s, but like… there’s practically no reaction to her arrival.

None except from the central antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), who brings the closest thing this movie could ever have to tangible conflict given how much of it is still just developing itself. Like all the other boys, Gally supplies more exposition but this time with a permanent scowl (without much effort, Poulter is best in show given how his face – particularly his eyebrows – compliments angry looks and he has an imposing build) and a tone of “I don’t trust these new folk” towards Thomas and Teresa (even though the implication is that THEY all were slowly sent into the Glade progressively so, like, aren’t they all new folk?).

Anyway, I think the film eventually figures out it’s running out of time and tries to have the reveals expand more in scope in a more accelerated fashion as it reaches its end and tries to actually make good on suggesting the state of a world beyond the maze, but it all felt like ambling and idling until the last three minutes when the literal plot police (I mean, fucking literal!) show up and tell them what’s going on with the franchise beyond before scooping them up and taking them out of the movie.

I mean, I get that maybe the premise of The Maze Runner isn’t my thing. But it’s not my thing because it seems like a concept that, unless under a skilled writer and director, can only be hamstrung be its self-imposed limitations. And I don’t think high enough of Young Adult works to think they usually house skilled writers and directors. And Ball and company have to work sooooo fucking hard to make a movie feel as unrewarding a waiting game as this. So why put myself through this? You assholes saw Maze Runner: The Death Cure enough to have it top the weekend box office and forced my fucking hand and now I’m covering it. I hate you all.

themazerunner_screencap-0

0

The Future Is Now

song-to-song

I highly think we haven’t been fair to 2010’s Terrence Malick in some ways. Since his Palme d’Or winning masterpiece The Tree of Life, he’s wasted no time suddenly changing his method of filmmaking and focusing more on essayistic than narratively-driven pictures. Given how Malick’s films have been famously “made in the editing room” (infamously in some facets such as Adrien Brody’s involvement with The Thin Red Line), it’s less a surprise that he got to this point in his filmmaking than it is that it took him this long in a nearly 50-year career to reach that point. And it must be stated that the subject matter of this moment in this particular span of his career is nowhere near as interesting as the material he worked with back in the first half of his career. He’s gone from philosophically dense landscape explorations about man’s relation with nature, inner or environmental, to naval-gazing self-reflections about his status in life where he casts Ben Affleck or Christian Bale as himself (I’m not sure who qualifies for his surrogate in the subject of this review). He’s also made Voyage of Time in the middle of this phase, which is essentially just an outtake out of The Tree of Life so I’m not sure I’d call it as invested as the rest of his feature works.

BUT. He’s challenging cinematic norms in positively every other way. Aesthetical decisions helped out by having his usual suspects of brilliant veterans in the visual department: Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki aka the best cinematographer alive, production designer Jack Fisk (one would argue that there isn’t much to “design” in this film and that’s not untrue, but there’s still a necessity to spy the sort of environments – urban and natural – based on the demands of the scene and Fisk’s awareness of how they will be presented with Malick and Chivo’s lens), and as usual a revolving door of editors all of which have worked with Malick and have some idea of what he wants them to focus on. Those editors being Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin, and Keith Fraase. Altogether, these films are formalist catnip.

michael_fassbender_natalie_portman_song_to_song_asti-0

And to be honest, as much as I enjoyed it, Song to Song – our subject here – is not as visually or structurally interesting as its predecessor Knight of CupsKnight of Cups had a clear step-by-step focus and its decisions on sweeping through concrete terrains in GoPro cameras feels much more revelatory than the still-impressively gorgeous but all too familiar concert footage and leisure tour that is in Song to Song. But Song to Song also a clearer throughway in plot – it’s still abstract but so much less abstract than Knight of Cups (if anything, I’d probably show StS to friends before I showed KoC) – where the chronology doesn’t take effort to parse out and we can recognize an emotional and philosophical arc within our main four subjects.

Those subjects being musicians BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara), record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), and waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), all based in the city of Austin, Texas. Song to Song dances around these characters and how their relationships between each other tangle: The artistically driven BV is dating the more underground Faye and working for the sociopathic hedonistic Cook, but Faye is also having a secret affair with Cook in the middle of her internal identity crisis, and sometime into that Cook gets involved with the smitten Rhonda to the point of marriage and traps her into the shallow domesticity while not showing any signs of slowing down his debauchery in spite of her awareness. These strands begin to snap and expand in a naturalistic way probably based on something Malick does here that I can’t recall him ever doing elsewhere: he lets his actors sort of write the movie.

tumblr_olmyo2fdx81up42jgo3_540

I mean, he’s still the credited writer and obviously shaped more of the narrative in post than in filming – loose as the editing might feel – and actors were obviously cut (including, to my disappointment, Trevante Rhodes) but the real soul of Song to Song is in how the actors are allowed to inhabit these characters, fill them up with their own internal developments, and Malick and the camera just observe. Not just observe, but Malick seems to augment the idea through his editing that this is a character-inspired emotional journey rather than try to reframe it as a visually driven tale until the final few minutes. I’d honestly say Mara’s performance as Faye, possibly my favorite of her whole career, is strengthened by the decisions the editors take in sharply navigating through her emotional states than otherwise. And while it might sound like an insult, I absolutely do not mean for it to be so when the main cast could feel like they’ve been playing the same personality they’re providing their whole career: Gosling’s quiet fear of loneliness, Fassbender’s second-nature shitheel, Cate Blanchett’s bored entrapment in an unfulfilling relationship, and so on. And in turn, Malick gets to take those and arrange them into distanced looks into disconnection from society and how these characters deal with it, without losing sight of the fact that they’re humans inhabiting this film. Malick’s just not handling that, he knows his cast has got it.

And of course this praise isn’t precisely restricted to just the lead actors, but the revolving door of musicians who make appearances and simply espouse their philosophy on life without the slightest amount of restraint: Johnny Rotten acting like an overgrown teenager talking about doing whatever the fuck he wants to, Big Freedia’s (who this movie introduced me to) bouncy hangout manner, or most heartbreakingly Patti Smith reciting to Faye her short-lived time with the love of her life, the late Fred Smith (unnamed but very obviously the subject of her monologue if you know Patti or the MC5s well). There’s still plenty of voiceover work by several of the leads, but none of them reach the sort of pained potency as Patti’s.

songtosong-1487360030-compressed

Malick is close to cinema verité in his encouragement of these performers to just exist in the Austin neighborhoods and cityscape. Something that in turn leads to easing the audience, if you’re willing to meet it halfway, into sinking into the experience of swimming around these relationships and how they collide, separate, and collide again. But then it’s still a stylized Malick film. I didn’t say it wasn’t, y’all, I said it was just a bit measured about it. Malick still wants to give Austin the same treatment he gave L.A. in Knight of Cups, with Chivo framing the interiors of Cook’s glass and chrome house like an inhuman prison, the clubs Cook brings BV to as a lurid Hades, or the sort of house he buys Rhonda’s mother as an empty shell. And the concert scenes are full of excitement and wild frenzy that frontloading them seems a smart choice to prime me enough for the length of the movie to follow (it is not a movie that outstays its welcome by me, but it gets pretty close).

Anyway, Song to Song is another of Malick’s interesting experiments – potentially the last one – but this time the experiment is more focused on how can one cohere a story with the sort of free reign to actors, rather than how can one cohere a philosophical treatise like with Knight of Cups. And I don’t think it’s entirely a success for in the end Song to Song seems entirely like its title suggests – a series of isolated moments moving into moments that happen to map well enough to give drive to the film, but not a story. It’s been almost a year since I first saw it and still I have much to chew on within the film, but it is nevertheless the sort of challenge I love diving in and that makes cinema more and more full of surprises everyday.

rooneymara_songtosong

0

I Love Vinnie

228483936-2

So, there is a grand ol’ two-prong consensus about the Polish animated Vincent Van Gogh crypto-biography Loving Vincent by this point that’s beaten me down since my initial enthusiasm after seeing it well back in October and it is this: On the first part, the movie is wonderfully gorgeous, absolutely miraculous to see on the big screen (and I pity those who will only have the opportunity to see it on a laptop or something at this point in their life). It has to be. For a long while it was anticipated by some (including yours truly) as a… not-revolutionary (despite the marketing’s insistence on Loving Vincent being the first of its kind) but highly unique animated experience on the basis of its craft.

Let me get the unpleasantness element out of the way first though, because the second part of that consensus deals with the content of the film and it’s an unfortunate blunt one: the script is bad. In this world of a narrative-focused cinematic experience, when you keep hearing that the script of a movie is bad, that’s a dealbreaker regardless of how brilliantly the craft is. My attitude of the script by Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman & Jacek Dehnel (Kobiela & Welchman perform double duty as co-directors, Welchman TRIPLE as co-producer) is not nearly as damning, but it’s certainly not enthusiastic.

2-s

The concept of a Rashomon-esque attempt at individuals attempting to deal with the aftermath of a suicide and trying to rationalize why somebody so gifted would be brought to the point of killing himself, spurred on by the young Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) being tasked by his postman father (Chris O’Dowd) to deliver the painter’s (Robert Gulaczyk) last letter to the art dealer brother Theo van Gogh (Cezary Lukaszewicz), only to discover Theo himself had passed away suddenly in the wake of his brother. And in his waiting game, Armand begins to take an interest in the circumstances of Vincent’s last years in suspicion of the how he died.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel beaten down by the continuous pointing out that the script quickly de-evolves, despite its attempt at structual exercise, into a cyclical series of talking heads all coming to the same dead end in how the late 1800s had no understanding of clinical depression and how because of that repetition, every inch of the movie’s 95 minutes is felt. And I understand that but the one piece of the script that really irks me (other than its overbearing coda and garbage ending credits song very labored) is how it attempts to give a finite answer to the source of van Gogh’s desperate depression and is weirdly satisfied about that answer. Given the subject matter, it feels icky to me.

So there’s that. That’s the script. If you’re a content-over-form type of person, you will more likely than not hate Loving Vincent and I’m sorry that you would. I am not at all that type of person and I found myself totally wowed and affected by the execution of the film’s core style.

61f0ea9424a7ae404a646b102da41969

Directors Kobiela (a painter herself) & Welchmann overlooked 125 painters working on 65,000 frames intended to imitate the style of the legendary Dutch painter’s impressionistic oil works for its modern day, including pencil sketches for flashback sequences. A portion of these paintings are rotoscoped, but enough of them are from scratch to seriously impress upon anyone even slightly interested in the matter of fine art or even just the works of van Gogh (I can’t imagine how the two interests aren’t correlated though. Are there art hipsters?)

And maybe that might seem like a gimmick to some, but for someone like me who has never had the opportunity to witness any of Van Gogh’s works in person (but one dreams), seeing it on the big screen as opposed to a trailer on my computer makes me more aware of the physical element of the art short of actually reaching out and touching the thing (it’s something that makes me kind of wonder how the film would look in 3D, possibly akin to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams). It’s impossible to ignore the inadvertent contours of the art, the gloopy swirls and strokes that maps all around the frames. Kobiela & Welchmann did very well with photographer Tristan Oliver to translate that beyond the flatness of the screen, they want you to feel the depth of the lines, like the landscapes extend beyond the frame, like the portraits betray the wear of the individual’s face.

loving-vincent-main

And then there’s the fact that you’re witnessing this in motion. Very little of the shots are stilled in place, you are literally watching art’s textures move little by little. This is obvious in sequences where water is on-screen and most especially obvious in sequences with rain pattering on its steps. And because this isn’t really frames so much as flat-out paintings being presented as frames, you feel the shifts in colors (and idiosyncratic colors doesn’t seem to cut describing van Gogh’s works – he seems to have a dark earthy sensibility to the colors of the world and a lack of scrutiny in using different shades and the film captures that beautifully) and contours being presented more as a visual progression than standard animation’s necessity to turn movement fluid and seamless. It’s fascinating work and while I was just dismissing the marketing’s claims of it being the first of its kind, I can still happily claim that the movie is unlike anything I personally have ever experienced in a cinema.

So therein is a choice to be presented to the prospective viewer of Loving Vincent, one that certainly lives inside an audience member since they began watching movies: Are you looking for content or are you looking for form?* I mean, the answer is pretty obvious to me, given I had just recently defended Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, so it’s no surprise I pretty much loved Loving Vincent. Because if you’re there to see some out of the box storytelling and intelligent storytelling, Loving Vincent is incapable of making most people very happy on that end and I am sorry to say that you might be happier selecting another movie. But if you’re sitting in that theater seat** because you’re an animation or fine art enthusiast or scholar and you’re looking for something to change the way you look at the works of one of the most influential painters in history (excusing my admittedly limited knowledge of the art form), you’ve made the right choice.

636105398337205406-1549221672_loving-vincent-film

*Ignoring the understanding that in a medium as aesthetically based as film and especially animation, content IS form sometimes.
**Assuming it will have a second-run thanks to its Oscar nominations pls
0

Nomination Predictions for the 90th Academy Awards – REDUXED WITH RESPONSE

Film Title: Get Out

What’s good? This coming Tuesday, 23 January, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is going to announce their nominees for the Oscars in March and so like last time I’m back on that fun guessing game about what movies are getting nominated based on how the air felt this past year, soon to be followed by my trying to desperately catch up with these nominations by supplying any missing reviews. Here’s my guesses with minimal commentary.

Well, enough of that… let’s see how wrong I was and what a surprise the nominees were! Blue is what I guessed and red is what I guessed wrong (dashes mean they were not nominated, clear means I didn’t guess them)

BEST PICTURE
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Non-binding Prediction: The Shape of Water
My Pick: Phantom Thread

I only think there’s a chance in hell for these seven and NOTHING ELSE. Every one of them has snatched their own precursor awards except for the timely Spielberg Post and, well, Hollywood loves a political statement. Also, some dude challenged me to bet money that The Disaster Artist wasn’t gonna get a Best Picture nomination and then chickened out. Boy would it have been satisfying for him to take that bet he tried to propose.

Nine fucking nominees! I would have sooner guessed SIX nominees than nine, I didn’t think enthusiasm for 2017’s films was that high. And I especially would not have guessed Phantom Thread would suddenly swoop in to steal a slot. Ah, it feels good to have a movie on my top ten show up in the slate (and from one of my former nemeses of cinema). Still would have liked Mudbound to show up but hey!

BEST DIRECTOR
Paul Thomas Anderson – Phantom Thread
Guillermo Del Toro – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig –
Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Jordan Peele – Get Out

Prediction: Guillermo Del Toro
My Pick: Paul Thomas Anderson

DGA seems to get it right, although I could see Gerwig being ousted for somebody else (either Paul Thomas Anderson or Steven Spielberg).

Well, there we are again. McDonagh is pushed out by Phantom Thread sudden clout and it feels soooooooo good to have that happen. I’m not entirely with the nominations of Del Toro or Gerwig, but at least we have people of color and women in the slate. I’m just saying… could have been Dee Rees if Oscars didn’t suck.

In any case, this is still a fine slate and I think with McDonagh’s shove, The Shape of Water is clear to take the gold away (though I would not say that Three Billboards is completely out for the count if we consider Argo‘s past win without Director nomination).

BEST ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird

Meryl Streep – The Post

Prediction: Frances McDormand
My Pick: Frances McDormand

Pretty straightforward. Only possibly spoiler is Judi Dench taking over for Streep, but AMPAS is like… the biggest Streep fanclub in the world and The Post is her first great performance in a while.

Cool, I got all of them in a row.

27-three-billboards-review-nocrop-w710-h2147483647

BEST ACTOR
Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington – Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Prediction: Gary Oldman
My Pick: Daniel Day-Lewis (I have not seen Roman J. Israel, Esq. yet)

A month ago, I’d have called my hopes for Kaluuya’s nomination to be nothing but a pipe dream. Now with all of these accolades on his back, I’m excited. Head and shoulders above every nominee that’s not DDL.

Also, remember when I said some guy tried to bet me that The Disaster Artist would get a Best Picture nomination? That money would have come in handy now that I’m gonna owe a Mr. J.B. money after betting him that the movie would get NO nominations. And man, that performance is not a good ‘un.

Nah nah nahhhhh nah. Nah nah nahhhhhh nah. Hey heyyyyyyy, goodbye.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Hong Chau – Downsizing
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip

Allison Janney – I, Tonya
Lesley Manville – Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

Prediction: Allison Janney
My Pick: Lesley Manville

I call to mind Melissa McCarthy’s sudden Oscar nomination for breaking out in Bridesmaids way back and see all the awards for Haddish and think to myself “Well, Hunter hasn’t been talked about in a long while unfortunately”.

I think any Mudbound nomination is on shaky ground, but if it can’t grab this, that’ll be the killing blow to any Netflix film’s Oscar chances until they change up their release plan.

Mudbound is running strong. Not strong enough to make me happy, but this nomination was the litmus test on whether or not Netflix finally broke through to the Academy and it’s not like there was a dearth of contenders here.

Anyway, Octavia Spencer deserves so much better and another pop up Phantom Thread nomination. Sorry, Holly, you should be here instead of Janney.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer – All the Money in the World

Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name

Prediction: Sam Rockwell
My Pick: Christopher Plummer

Frankly slim pickings, though Stuhlbarg has his “Big Awards Clip” moment and he excels at it (honestly any of his three appearances in a Best Picture contender have great moments… ok, maybe not The Post). There was also a bit of a kerfuffle in wondering which would get the coveted double nomination here – Harrelson/Rockwell, Stuhlbarg/Hammer, or with less likelihood Jenkins/Shannon. I think Billboards‘ continuous snatching of awards secures it here.

Call Me by Your Name got shut the fuck out, hot damn. Not a single nomination in this category. Plummer is an absolute fascination in his performance (one of only two reasons to watch All the Money in the World beyond morbid curiosity) and it’s a pleasant surprise to see him here, even at the cost of well deserving performances. The Three Billboards could have gone down and we know it.

the-shape-of-water1

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Liz Hannah & Josh Singer – The Post
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Kumail Nanjiani & Emily V. Gordon – The Big Sick
Jordan Peele – Get Out

Prediction: Greta Gerwig
My Pick: Jordan Peele

Yeeesh. Lemme tell you, if I’m right then anybody winning other than Peele is gonna make me fucking mad.

I love The Big Sick a lot and do think its screenplay is better than, like, most of these nominees. But like this was not an impressive slate to begin with and I don’t think its script would be half as good without its cast.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Steve Conrad & Jack Thorne – Wonder
Scott Frank, James Mangold, & Michael Green – Logan
Matt Greenhaigh – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist
Dee Rees & Virgil Williams – Mudbound

Aaron Sorkin – Molly’s Game

Prediction: James Ivory
My Pick: Dee Rees & Virgil Williams

“Not today, Satan!” -me about any potential nominations for The Disaster Artist (though truth be told, I think it’s a safer prediction than Mudbound – which frightens me – but hope springs eternal).

And then Satan responded “yes, today!” and laughed. And I was sooooooo close to winning my bet with J.B.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour
Hoyte van Hoytema – Dunkirk
Janusz Kaminski – The Post
Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water
Rachel Morrison – Mudbound

Prediction: Dan Laustsen
My Pick: Bruno Delbonnel

Over/under on Deakins finally winning this year? I’d honestly claim he’s second-best here behind Delbonnel, but he did make the (barely) better movie.

I think Deakins might have a shot but I’m still scared right now. Meanwhile, it’s great to see the Oscars reward Mudbound some more, even if the cinematography was not really a reason why I think it’s great. Yo, first woman nominee!

mv5bmjq5odm5ogutnzzmni00mwvllwfkotctyzljyzyxy2qwyzu3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntazmty4mda-_v1_

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Paul Austerberry – The Shape of Water
Rick Carter – The Post

Dennis Crowley – Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner – Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood – Beauty and the Beast
Sarah Greenwood – Darkest Hour

Prediction: Paul Austerberry
My Pick: Dennis Gassner

Oh my god, I’m not prepared to fucking call Beauty and the Beast an Academy Award nominee and it looks like it will be, somebody halp pls!

Sarah Greenwood snatching nominees like hellfire. The one time I’m on Blade Runner 2049‘s side. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, let’s do it.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Cosolata Boyle – Victoria & Abdul
Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran – Beauty and the Beast
Jacqueline Durran – Darkest Hour
Luis Sequiera – The Shape of Water

Ellen Mirojnick – The Greatest Showman
Ann Roth – The Post

Prediction: Mark Bridges
My Pick: Mark Bridges

If the Oscars could ignore the hell out of the Halloween costumes in Beauty and the Beast (sorry Durran, I still love ya) and give it to I, Tonya where the costumes are LITERALLY PLOT POINTS, I’d be ever so grateful.

Jacqueline Durran also catching nominations like Pokémon. But nah, I ain’t celebrating them cause Beauty and the Beast and Darkest Hour is bad (Darkest Hour kind of looks good, though so maybe). All I will say is, it will be really stupid of a decision if the movie literally about clothes doesn’t win.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Carter Burwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water
Johnny Greenwood – Phantom Thread
Dario Marianelli –
Darkest Hour
John Williams – The
Post
John Williams – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049
Hans Zimmer – Dunkirk

Prediction: Alexandre Desplat
My Pick: Alexandre Desplat

Round up the usual suspects.

Y’know… I just like to think best of my fellow man. So What. The. Fuck. are the worst of the two scores apiece that Carter Burwell, John Williams, and Hans Zimmer doing on this slate?! WHY?! Fucking hell, if Dunkirk or The Last Jedi win… oof.

I mean, The Post and Blade Runner 2049 weren’t really good scores, but what the hell?

dunkirk-imax-screencaps-8

BEST FILM EDITING
Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss – Baby Driver
Jon Gregory – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Michael Kahn – The Post
Gregory Plotkin – Get Out
Tatiana S. Riegel – I, Tonya
Lee Smith – Dunkirk
Sidney Wolinsky – The Shape of Water

PREDICTION: Lee Smith
MY PICK: Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss

The most editing out of my expected Best Pictures, plus Baby Driver because if Baby Driver doesn’t get nominated a lot of people are gonna have hissy fits.

I wanted to pull the trigger on Wolinsky’s possible win in a streak for The Shape of Water, but I can’t bring myself to do it with a Best Picture that has the kind of show-offy editing as Dunkirk. I mean, this category loves its war films, doesn’t it? Meanwhile… I, Tonya is nominated here. Was it the badly superimposed skating shots that did it? (I like I, Tonya, I swear)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Coco
Despicable Me 3
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent

Prediction: Coco
My Pick: The Boss Baby

Yep, that’s a pretty good lineu– WHAT THE FUCK IS DESPICABLE ME DOING THERE?!

I’m not quite sure that I would not have preferred Despicable Me 3 back on this slate.

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
Foxtrot (Israel)
In the Fade
(Germany)

The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

PREDICTION: A Fantastic Woman
MY PICK: I’ve only seen literally one movie but it’s The Square and I sure hope it doesn’t win.

Only the loudest ones since I’ve heard nary a peep about the rest of the shortlist (which is a shame, Félicité is wonderful.

Well, I’m kind of surprised to see Foxtrot and In the Fade get booted (and I can think of somebody I know disappointed at Foxtrot‘s lack of nomination).

i-tonya-movie-1510096918

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Icarus
Jane
Last Man in Alleppo

Strong Island

Prediction: Last Man in Alleppo
My Pick: I’ve only seen one but a movie would have to be real damn good for me to love it more than Faces Places.

Well, if they made appearances on the awards road, I put them down.

Excuse me as I pick up my jaw from the fact that Jane got knocked the fuck out.

BEST MAKEUP & HAIR
Bright
Darkest Hour
Victoria & Abdul
Wonder

Prediction: Darkest Hour
Pick: Darkest Hour

Who’s ready for Mudbound to get nothing and Bright to take its place as Netflix’s awards contender of 2017?

Swapped one shitty movie for another shitty movie and at least the previous shitty movie actually had interesting makeup. More than Suicide Squad, I’d say.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Mighty River” – Mudbound
“Mystery of Love” – Call Me by Your Name
“Remember Me” – Coco
“Stand Up for Something” – Marshall
“The Star” – The Star
“This Is Me” – The Greatest Showman

Prediction: “Remember Me”
Pick: “Remember Me” (I have not heard “Stand Up for Something”)

Globes, yo.

I’m damned if I can remember most of these songs anyway. I’m trying REALLY hard to remember “Mystery of Love”, but I just like “Visions of Gideon” more.

screen-shot-2017-11-22-at-10-53-47-am-850x577

BEST SOUND MIXING
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Wonder Woman

Prediction: Dunkirk
My Pick: Baby Driver

Yo, war movies are clear for this, right? Besides which Dunkirk had great sound mixing as long as you don’t like dialogue.

BEST SOUND EDITING
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Prediction: Dunkirk
Pick: Dunkirk

Playing it by ear, just picking Baby Driver for both.

I hate dialogue.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Kong: Skull Island

The Shape of Water

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
War for the Planet of the Apes

Prediction: War for the Planet of the Apes
Pick: War for the Planet of the Apes

Ya always gotta have a Star Wars on the slate, even when that Star Wars has the poopiest effects in the franchise. Ya always gotta have a Planet of the Apes on your slate or imma cri mane (and I’m definitely ready to cry when it doesn’t win, probably to Dunkirk). Blade Runner 2049 is called out for being pretty af and two Best Picture nominees are extremely safe bets though I would not be blindsided by a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 nomination in place of Water.

I swear to God, the Oscars ain’t shit if they don’t finally award War for the Planet of the Apes here. And it’s kind of a nuisance to recognize that the nominations Star Wars: The Last Jedi are receiving is for the exact things that make me really disappointed with it (I mean, other than the script).

cmbyn2

I’m going to be very transparent about my shorts predications being essentially the same as Nathaniel’s on the Film Experience because I’m too winded by my grief at World of Tomorrow Episode 2‘s knockout of the shortlist to bother putting thought into it.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Cradle
Dear Basketball
Garden Party
In a Heartbeat
Life Smartphone
Lou

Negative Space
Revolting Rhymes

Prediction: Dear Basketball
Pick: I have only seen Lou and Dear Basketball

Academy Award nominee Kobe Bryant, ladies and gentlemen.

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT
Dekalb Elementary
The Eleven O’Clock
Lost Face
My Nephew Emmett
Rise of a Star
The Silent Child
Watu Wote/All of Us

Prediction: I dunno.
Pick: I ain’t seent them.

I’m so bad at this!

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Edith + Eddie
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Heroin(e)
Kayayo – The Living Shopping Baskets
Knife Skills
Ram Dass, Going Home
Ten Meter Tower
Traffic Stop

Prediction: I don’t know.
Pick: I have seen none of these.

Whelp, Ten Meter Tower is great.

The best joke of the morning was Tiffany Haddish’s response to these nomination titles.

tfp-cover

Well, cool cool cool, let’s see what happens.

0

You Think This Is a Game?

jumanji-3-1024x429

I didn’t get to review Central Intelligence from 2016 before and that’s a hell of a shame. Because it was, not shitting you, my most-watched movie of 2016 by a lot. And this isn’t some “Oh my god, I can’t escape it” or “man, this movie won’t stop being on tv all the time” (although most of my watches of that movie were impromptu on HBO). No, Central Intelligence was a movie I fucking loved, warts and all. I left it with an unhidden appreciation for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who I already was in love with since I was a kid) and Kevin Hart (who I always suspected since Think Like a Man had a knack of comedy as a straight man foil, but never had much area to impress me until Central Intelligence). Central Intelligence was hella casual comfort food for me during a mostly blegh and uncertain year so I might be biased on that front, but it also helped me recognize a dynamic sort of friendly chemistry between the two actors I would not have expected and got me ready to appreciate whatever was next for their careers.

If my unapologetic love for Central Intelligence is the decision that causes anybody who reads this blog to decide I don’t know shit about movies, so be it. I promise I didn’t open with this to weed out my enemies about this film. Instead, I wanted to just establish that if there’s any such audience for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – the 2017 sleeper hit sequel to the 1995 original, once again co-starring The Rock and Hart – I’m it. I sat my ass right down on this seat because I was looking forward to another screwball go ’round between those two actors. What a pleasant surprise to me when it turns out that they are outstaged by Jack Black and Karen Gillan in the movie, but to explain that, I may as well outline the plot first from Chris McKenna’s script.

screen-shot-2017-06-29-at-11-06-53-am

Like the last film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens with salvaging itself from cries of blasphemy in having the famed decrepit board game be retconned into a video game… it actually transformed into one. After a teenager named Alex (Mason Guccione – and while I don’t think who plays him as an adult is eventful to be a surprise, it certainly surprised me. All I will note is that I love how Alex’s visual admiration for Metallica was a cue for our identification of the character and, lest you forget what is the namesake of this blog to begin with, it got a lot of points by me) in the late 1990s declares board games to be no longer cool and the sentient game thereby turns itself into something to accommodate Alex’s tastes and lure him into a disappearance.

20 years later in 2016, four stereotypical teenagers straight out of a low-effort high school picture all find themselves in detention for cheating in the case of the bookish nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff, man those Naked Brothers are sticking around, aren’t they?) and his former friend and now uncertain jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), mouthing off to her gym teacher in outsider Martha’s case (Morgan Turner), or just taking a phone conversation in the middle of her class in superficial popular girl Bethany’s (Madison Iseman). And lo and behold, the very Jumanji game is located in the school basement which their detention takes place and they unwisely turn it on, ending up sucked into the game like Alan Parish in the last film, but this time we actually see the world of the game. And as a new twist, they have been embodied by their avatars. And my interest in the movie is in the reverse order.

jumanji-10-1024x429

For, you see, The Rock, Hart, Black, and Gillan are those avatars – Spencer has become the brawny explorer Professor Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge his meek zoologist valet Dr. Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart), Martha has turned into the gorgeous combat-ready Ruby Roudhouse (Gillan), and Bethany into the obese cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Black). And in addition to all of the actors having something of a blast in their respective Republic Adventure Serial role, all of them are able to embody some form of their younger counterpart’s personalities so as to be recognizable to us: Johnson’s boyish anxiety at his predicament and wonder at the things he’s capable of doing in Bravestone’s body, Hart’s grasping at confidence even despite the good height advantage Johnson has over him, Gillan’s adolescent surliness (as well as a hilarious montage in which she has to practice the most ridiculous sexy strut to show how ridiculous she feels trying to fit into a gender role), and Black’s, like, everything. Black is ridiculously brilliant at playing femininity frequently and turning that into self-deprecating horror at the middle-aged man Bethany has become and the uninhibited infatuation she has with Bravestone or later the already-taken fifth avatar of Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonagh (Nick Jonas – so we have TWO alumni from young boy bands in the 2000s and yet nobody thought to put him in the same scene as Wolff). Guess who that one is?

Anyway, while those five are indeed the most enjoyable and entertaining of the bunch, the cast of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is still filled with the sort of pop-up appearances that would only amuse me in something this frothy like Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, or William Tokarsky popping in as extremely novel Non-Playable Characters (Darby especially is phenomenal at the rigidity and looped enthusiasm that makes his character feel like a program rather than a person, Tokarsky is just right at home with other exotic or dangerous looking mugs in a bazaar).

Of course, that’s the cast and they’re doing heavy lifting to provide a movie more fun than the rest of it allows. All my apologies to the usually extremely talented director Jake Kasdan, but the adventure movie he’s intent on crafting all around these performances doesn’t feel nearly as propulsive or engaging as one would hope. This is especially going to be the case when your cards are against you in structure (once again, the high school drama framing the video game narrative is kind of unfortunate, though at least it’s not as overstuffed as its predecessor film) and visual effects (which the previous film beats this sequel at and you will remember that I used those special effects AGAINST Johnson’s film). There’s obviously a possible argument that the effects are supposed to be unconvincing and cartoonish and not grounded and that just doesn’t stop these hippos and elephants and bugs from making my eyes water (the bugs though – at the control of Cannavale’s updated hunter villain Van Pelt – get to feel crawly enough to be effective).

So, fuck the adventure. Don’t come for the adventure, it’s episodic and you can feel each story beat thud in how it’s put together and the characters’ development in their personalities is shoehorned in. Come to hang out with four extremely funny personalities bounce off of each other while meeting with the demand of having to play young again and having a joy doing it. And I know I’ll be back the next time any of these four decide to collaborate once again. Maybe the Rock can bring them all back in his inevitable Fast and Furious spin-off.

hsaq26mtyqyslgy2udef

0

In the Jungle, the Miny Jungle

jumani-movie-screencaps-com-5967

It’s been a little over 3 years now, but I don’t think we as a film culture have ever healed from the shock of Robin Williams’ suicide and I don’t think we ever will frankly. And the reasons why are as clear as the nose on our face. Not only was it upsetting to discover how Williams was suffering in such a sudden fashion, but it was the suffering of a man whose constant animated mugging and heavy warmth moved an entire generation of young filmgoers in a sentimental manner away from a similarly manic but not nearly as heartfelt a contemporary as Jim Carrey. And I am sorry to say that, despite growing up right in the middle of that generation (Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire having come out around my first year on Earth and being inescapable), I am not one of those people as an adult. As a child, it was probably easier for me to enjoy but as an adult, I just don’t think the mugging and tenderness mix very well, though I think Williams pulled it off wayyyyyyy better than somebody like Roberto Benigni.

Let this often be a lesson in how heartless and muted from nostalgia I am as a human being.

Joe Johnston’s 1995 adventure children’s book adaptation Jumanji has more than enough mediocre elements in it that I don’t really have to talk about Williams any more once I get started than to say that while there are moments where he is definitely selling the manchild aspect of his character of Alan Parrish (most particularly his anxious body language in a scene where he avoids kissing Bonnie Hunt’s love interest Sarah), this is a frustratingly sedate performance that doesn’t nearly make good on the promise of a wild man emerging out of the jungle biome of the titular cursed board game, Jumanji, an admittedly interesting piece of lived-in production design that feels carved and otherworldly. At the center of that board game is a supernatural looking orb that feels like it’s just full of darkness.

jumani-movie-screencaps-com-1619

How Parrish ends up trapped in that board game to begin with is of the interest of the first scene set in 1969 as the adolescent Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) deal with Alan’s troubles with his wealthy and overbearing father (Jonathan Hyde), bullying from Sarah’s boyfriend, and guilt from costing one of his only friends Carl (David Alan Grier) his job by playing Jumanji and ending up with Sarah traumatized by watching Alan get sucked in and then getting run out by a bunch of bats.

Fast forward 26 years and now the board game has fallen into the hands of newly orphaned siblings Judy and Peter Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce, respectively), who begin playing it after moving into the Parrish home and finding themselves in peril as the board game unleashes a jungle into the house and with it eventually an adult Alan (Williams). Finding out soon enough that they cannot undo all this damage to the house until they complete the game AND that they cannot progress in the game without the now adult Sarah (played now by Hunt), they begin tunneling their way through warning rhymes of a new beast prowling amongst them that they must dodge or incapacitate as vines and trees and rain and other environmental elements begin covering up the Parrish home.

jumanji-movie-screencaps-com-3412

Now, essentially this is just a platform for setpiece after setpiece of our characters versus Giant Venus Flytraps and Crocodiles and Lions and all until the in-game hunter Van Pelt (Also played by Hyde, probably to represent Alan’s unwillingness to grow up in a very shallow way, but Hyde’s clearly having fun with it) breaks out and the mayhem spills into suburbia. And the unfortunate thing is that these are… bad setpieces. Forgettable and flat, with terrible CGI (though I doubt this bothered me in the 1990s, but the monkeys especially look bad. The best looking monkey is a makeup job.) and a lack of urgency in the way they’re cut at all.

Joe Johnston is mostly hit or miss with me as a filmmaker, but I get the feeling that Johnston is so much stronger when he gets to work in period pieces like the previous Rocketeer and the later Captain America: The First Avenger. And Jumanji is not not that, given that the “young Alan in the 60s” scenes take up a frustrating amount of runtime but they’re shot in the most default Rockwellian aesthetic that would have been the laziest thing I’ve ever seen Johnston do if it wasn’t for the carwreck that’s The Wolfman. And that’s the closest to inspired he ever feels, for when it gets to the modern world… everything’s so bland and uninteresting to look at, especially in a very central chase through a department store where any energy comes from a clamorously percussive score by James Horner and a completely uncertain sense of cutting by Robert Dalva. Neither of these things give the movie a manic chaotic sense of fun, it’s just tiring in a nauseating way. The jungle scenes in the mansion at least want to have some sense of atmosphere but they’re so clearly colored in a funereal manner that dampens any sense of fun and lit like an amusement park’s promotional material. It’s unable to match up to Jumanji‘s goal of being an answer to the earlier Jurassic Park – a family oriented hit about a dysfunctionally put-together “family” trying to survive the savagest elements of nature.

Even when the movie finally gets everything wrapped up neat and tidy in the 90s storyline, there is still no less than 15 minutes left to go as it tries to solve all of Alan’s childhood dilemmas in one swing and even when it’s nowhere near as long, it’s reminiscent to me of the feeling I had with the multiple endings of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I had a desire for things to just stop and fade eventually for I did learn or gain anything from watching Jumanji and could feel the time slipping out from under me like Alan’s fingers slipping into the board game.

jumanji-movie-screencaps-com-1296

0

Stop Making That Big Face!

screenshot_2_42427

Faces Places sounds weirdly like exactly the sort of documentary that I would normally be averse to. On the surface of it is just a couple of artists trying to document their artistic project. Which is hardly a terrible concept (though still sounding self-congratulatory), especially when you see how it affects the witness to that art (which is obviously also documented) and they’re all emotional and receiving the nice and warm fuzzies from way in which they are artistically immortalized: the artists in question take photos of their face, print them into blowouts, and paste them against large flat surfaces that usually mean a lot to the person whose face it is showing up in (not entirely immortalized, one of the artists mentions that the pastings have a finite lifespan and there is a scene where one of their works ends up not lasting until the next morning). But it’s something that I’d much rather experience or witness on my own, like most fine art. You can’t really get the full power of the work from watching a movie about it, frankly.

The way Faces Places gets to circumvent around this for me is the fact that it is the latest film by French New Wave legend Agnés Varda, one of the brains behind this artistic project, the other one being photographer and graffiti artist JR, who Varda shares credit with. This sharing of credit is not for anything: JR and Varda remark early on about how it took them so long to meet each other (after a hilarious and disarming montage of “what if?” scenarios behind their fateful meeting – the one that brings the biggest smile to my face is the quaint little comedy about JR wanting to buy chocolate éclairs and losing them to Varda), having long had admiration for each others work, and they have a wonderful chemistry together as dear friends and as collaborators. They are of similar spirit and soul – socially conscious, approachable, curious, extremely stylish and photogenic in an unassuming way. Indeed, the charm behind Varda’s presence was definitely the first reason this movie was on my radar. I would not have expected Faces Places would have the lovely opportunity to introduce me to another personality that would make for a charismatic screen companion to her and I’m totally following JR for the rest of his career.

screenshot_12_42434

If Varda gets to take over on the cinematic front, JR is the specialist in the form of flyposting murals as art (both are photographers) and he seems so much more confident in performing the labor and verbalizing the project and ideas to any subjects that would like to be photographed. Varda herself however proves to be just as creative in ideas for this new medium for her as she did in cinema back in the 50s and 60s, especially since many of the areas they visit and work in have some memorial attachment to Varda. There is at one point where they discuss Varda’s past relationship with the late photographer Guy Bourdin (who modeled for Varda) and it becomes the basis of an attempted tribute to his memory. This particular flypost is also the one that seems most collaborative at heart for Varda and JR, both of whom have a particular history with the area of the Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer beach of Normandy. JR is particular is the one who discovers the fallen German bunker where they perform the tribute.

There is another thing that makes Faces Places‘ status as an Agnés Varda project much more attractive to me is how, like Varda’s most notable works of the 21st Century The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnés, it functions as autobiography and reflection of her current age. Constantly throughout the film, Varda can not help but remark and sometimes interpret otherwise harmless statements by JR as commentary on the fact that she is 88 years old and losing her sight. Which is probably what makes her so eager to immortalize several people by this project, her coming knowledge that nobody in this world will last and that it’s important to leave a big imprint.

And certainly the director of La Pointe-Courte would know better than anybody else how everyone has their story in the world and they’re equally as important as the latest Star Wars picture. With each stop, we are privy to the lives and history of the area we watching transform before us – a row of abandoned houses left to decay before being brought to life by the neighboring community in a festive celebration. An industrial plant given a mural within a trench illuminating the hard teamwork and collaboration of two different shifts that otherwise don’t really interact. Three women working the docks of Le Havre being able to tower over the men in their field by stacks of shipping containers, before eventually sitting in the spot that their own hearts would inhabit. We meet these faces and learn what are the interior lives behind these faces are. The visual results of Varda and JR’s work are wonderfully modern and moving art by the way, looking like a splash on a usually dull concrete surface despite only being in newspaper blacks and whites and greys.

lead_960

In any case, that project is once again only what Faces Places appears to be in the surface and we watch JR’s wonderful SLR-camera-looking van drive down the road to affable music by Matthieu “M” Chedid, the more obvious it peels back to look at Agnés awareness that she can’t see or move the way she once did and what does that mean for her artwork. Which is why it’s extremely touching to see her interact with JR, who tries to respond to her bubbly statements and imaginations with his own bouncy and spontaneous postures and movements without seeming like a cartoon (during a late-in-the-film tribute to one of my favorite movie moments JR suddenly jumps up mid-run into a crazy perpendicular legs-up-in-the-air pose and it makes JR a lot cooler in my eyes than it should).

JR may be the actual young one in the duo, but Varda’s still a child at heart and the real conflict seems to be how Varda knows her body isn’t going to be able to follow her soul. It’s the source of some amount of tension: particularly in the metaphorical usage of her eyesight and JR’s trademarked sunglasses that he’s never seen without and which Varda attempts to pester him into removing, while also reminding her friend and the only other living French New Wave titan Jean-Luc Godard. And all three of these things – her eyesight, his sunglasses, and Godard himself end up orbiting the content of the final third of Faces Places, combining together for an ending to their voyage that feels at first cruel and cold until JR decides to help Varda re-author it through his generosity into a moment of serenity between two good friends.

JR and Varda will certainly not last together as a pairing for longer than the end of this decade. It feels blunt but fair to recognize that Varda will probably not live much longer than the next 3 years. And yet the most powerful thing I can’t help leaving Faces Places with is the inability to picture one of them without the other – and I’ve been a long time fan of Varda’s without even knowing who the hell JR is – and the knowledge that even while I consider that maybe more than a few of their “storyline” in this documentary is “staged” (I’m just that distrustful of documentaries, especially documentaries by narrative filmmakers centering on themselves), few relationships in this world are probably as pure, artistically charged, and loving without being romantic as Varda and JR.

tumblr_p0wlp7ux6y1qaihw2o1_500