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Isn’t It Romantic

Posted March 16, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

*heavy sigh* So, how have you all been doing?

Me, I’ve been hard at work remounting my writing/producing magnum opus, “From the Ruby Lounge”, for a full three-weekend run this August, following an oversold workshop run in February 2018 and a sold-out fundraising party/dance pole rehearsal last March 9th. (You can read all about it at the crowdfunding campaign here, and if you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation, I would take that as a personal favor.) Meanwhile, my other show just opened up to a sold-out house and we’re gearing up for a second weekend as I type this.

I have been a very busy guy. So it’s just as well that the multiplexes have been more or less barren lately. Between the Oscar ceremony and Captain Marvel, this has been an excellent month for sweeping mediocrities and misfires under the rug. It’s gotten genuinely hard to find anything worth reviewing that Captain Marvel hasn’t pushed into some godawful time slot.

…Wait, what’s that? Isn’t It Romantic got a 70 percent Tomatometer? Plus, it’s only 90 minutes long and the writing team is exclusively female? Well, what the hell, let’s give that a shot.

Rebel Wilson plays… oh, as if the character’s name even matters. Wilson stars as a woman who’s been raised her whole life with crippling self-esteem issues. She’s a deep-seated cynic who hates romantic comedies with a fiery passion because of how unrealistic and dated and misogynist they are. Then she hits her head (it’s a long story) and suddenly her entire life is a romantic comedy.

This is my least favorite kind of movie to review because it leaves me with basically nothing to talk about. Hell, at 90 minutes long, it barely even qualifies as a feature-length movie. On top of that, it’s a movie with a one-joke premise, and that one joke wears really thin, REALLY fast. It certainly doesn’t help that the one joke is that this movie is a parody of romantic comedies — a genre that became a parody of itself ages ago.

While the actors look like they’re having a blast, they’re all playing one-note characters we’ve seen a million times before. They’re all going through a rote and cliched plot we know by heart, telling jokes that stopped being funny years ago. It’s alternately annoying and boring, not helped by the fact that these filmmakers clearly know better.

Of course, it’s not all bad. A couple of jokes are legitimately funny, the big Whitney Houston number was great fun, and the closing number (though it came right out of nowhere) was adorable. But what really stuck with me were those few moments when the filmmakers put sincere effort into analyzing romantic comedies and our fascination with them.

Yes, romantic comedies are a fantasy in which everything is bright and colorful and impossibly happy. But it’s also a world with no swearing or sex, and who wants that? And for that matter, who really wants to live without the flaws and quirks that make people into friends and a place into a home? That’s not even getting started on the overly simplistic morality at play, leading directly to stereotypes that are outdated and frankly cruel.

With all of that said, there is definitely a place for predictable, colorful, and upbeat entertainment in a world that’s so often uncertain and bleak. More importantly, romcoms at their best can be a reminder that even in this bleak and uncertain world, there is still romance. Sure, romance in the real world may not look like it does in the movies, but soul mates do find each other and people do fall in love. Even if that doesn’t happen every day and it may not always last, it’s still one of the happiest and most beautiful things we can hope for in this soul-crushing world, and it should be celebrated. Not all of us look like Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find love or happiness and it sure as hell doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to.

Even if we don’t look like Leading Actor material and we don’t live perfect lives, we can still be the hero of our own story. We can power through all the heartbreaks and betrayals if it means we get even a brief time with that Hollywood storybook romance. And even if we never do, just being open and optimistic enough to search for it beats the alternative.

While I had a very hard time sitting through Isn’t It Romantic, I can certainly understand the appeal. The twenty minutes’ worth of genuinely heartfelt, funny, and uplifting material was almost — ALMOST — worth sitting through the hour of unfunny and uninspired dreck. It’s a one-joke movie that will assuredly land harder with romcom enthusiasts and Rebel Wilson fans. And really, why would anyone pay full ticket price for a movie that barely passes for feature-length anyway?

This one gets a rock-solid home video recommendation.

Captain Marvel

Posted March 11, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Marvel set themselves up for this.

When half of all life got snapped out of existence and Fury made that distress call, it sent the unmistakable message that Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) would somehow be the key to beating Thanos and saving the universe. Thus she would play a pivotal role in the movie that this whole damn superfranchise had been leading up to, and may therefore be a crucial factor in deciding where the MCU goes next. Moreover, this was Marvel’s first female-led picture in a time when profitable, iconic, critically successful, and… well, good female-driven superhero films are all the rage.

The message was clear: Captain Marvel would be the savior of the MCU. The character and her namesake movie would be the future of Marvel, lighting the way to the future of the studio, the MCU, and superhero cinema as a whole. Looking back, I think we all should’ve known what that meant we’d be getting. After a solid decade of watching and dissecting these movies every which way, you’d think we’d know the playbook by now.

To be clear, Captain Marvel — the movie and the character — are not bad by any means. Carol Danvers (or Vers, as she’s initially known) is quickly established as a stubborn smartassed hotshot whose first solution to everything is to charge in solo and blow something up. Trouble is, she’s an amnesiac fighting for the Kree side in the interplanetary Kree-Skrull War against an alien species of shapeshifters. Obviously, the shapeshifters are a deceptive bunch, but our heroine learns over the course of the plot that maybe her memories are unreliable and she may not have reason to trust the Kree either.

Carol is a soldier who always takes the simplest and most direct solution to any problem, learning how to sort through the moral ambiguities of war; even as she’s rebuilding her identity, sorting truth from lies, and deciding how much of her true history she wants to integrate into who she is moving forward. I’ve seen Larson earn an Oscar when she had less to work with. Also, the amnesia angle is a neat new spin on the threadbare “origin story” framework, and the filmmakers did a solid job of devising a new origin that’s faithful to the source material without looking like a Green Lantern ripoff.

(Side note: Hal Jordan made his debut as the Green Lantern in 1959. Carol Danvers’ origin story as Ms. Marvel was first published in 1968. So yes, it is entirely possible that the brain trust at Marvel ripped off the iconic Green Lantern origin story for this air force pilot who crashed her plane and got powers from an alien.)

What’s even better is how Carol has been weighed down by the system without even knowing it. Everyone from Carol’s commanding officer (Yon-Rogg, played by Jude Law) to the Kree Supreme Intelligence (it’s a long story) tells her that all she needs to do is keep her emotions in check and she’ll succeed. The Kree are working to mold her identity and keep her full potential in check, a nicely coded feminist allegory for any woman who ever had to act more masculine to fit in. The subtle execution of that is brilliant, dovetailing beautifully with Captain Marvel’s choices and actions and breakthroughs over the course of the plot.

That said, there’s a significant drawback: We already know that this character is destined to be a force great enough to take on goddamn Thanos. The guy who already beat all the Avengers put together, plus Wakanda, and the entire Asgardian race, and the Xandarians, and God knows who else. And then he wiped out half of all life on the universe.

The movie has to show us and prove to us that Captain Marvel really is powerful enough to plausibly defeat such a cosmic-level threat. And it succeeds beautifully. The drawback is that once she shows that level of power, the movie’s basically over. That’s it. There is nothing this movie could possibly throw at her that has even a remote chance at taking her down. Takes a lot of wind out of the climax, is all I’m saying.

Larson does well enough with the material, and she’s surrounded on all sides by capable performers. Ben Mendelsohn turns his typical villain schtick on its ear, and with fascinating results. Jude Law has more than enough charm and authority to make his character work. And we’ve also got Annette Bening, who… um… well, she got a paycheck, I guess. Good for her.

Elsewhere, we have Maria Rambeau and her daughter (respectively played by Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar) bringing the picture some much-needed heart as the best friends who help Carol rediscover her humanity. For comic relief, we have Goose, known as Chewie in the comics. And if you know anything about this character from the source material… well, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, we’ll put it that way. I have no idea where Goose came from or how he got here, but I think we’re all glad that he’s here.

Samuel L. Jackson is apparently having the time of his life, playing young Nick Fury as Captain Marvel’s new sidekick (also, his introduction to the Kree-Skrull war was ingeniously handled). Clark Gregg is sadly underutilized as a young Phil Coulson, but it’s still a nice throwback to when the character was an unflappable cipher. We’ve also got Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace reprising their one-dimensional roles from Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re still one-dimensional in this movie, to be clear, but at least we get to see them as overzealous pawns in a vicious and bloody war, providing some welcome context to explain why these characters are so one-dimensional.

Oh, and by the way, that CGI de-aging process is officially perfected. Gregg and Jackson both went through an entire movie as their younger selves and they looked flawless from start to finish. I wish I could say the same for Goose and Captain Marvel — they both got CGI doubles that looked pretty sketchy at times.

To recap: We’ve got a beautifully uplifting and empowering origin story for a strong female protagonist. We’ve got solid ties to the existing MCU. We’ve got a premise that opens up the MCU in a big way, significantly fleshing out two alien species and the long, bloody war between them. We’ve got a cast full of proven and solid talents.

All the ingredients are here, and they’re all good. And yet somehow, they don’t quite mesh together.

My first instinct was to blame the writing/directing team of husband/wife duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both previously known for smaller and more personal fare like It’s Kind of a Funny Story. While unorthodox directing hires can and have worked in the past, it’s patently obvious from the outset that these two were in way over their heads here. The fight scenes look like they were edited with a food processor, which is proof enough that these two had no business directing any kind of blockbuster action movie.

But that brings me to the next big problem: What genre are we dealing with here? One of Marvel’s biggest innovations has been its successful blend of superhero cinema with other genres, giving us a spy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), a heist thriller (the first Ant-Man movie), a screwball comedy (the second Ant-Man movie), high school dramedies (Spider-Man: Homecoming and its sequel), etc. Alternatively, we have movies like Doctor Strange (with its trippy and psychedelic visuals), Black Panther (with its strong and powerful Wakandan aesthetic), Guardians of the Galaxy (irreverent misfit underdogs kicking ass and cracking wise to a classic rock soundtrack), and so on.

By contrast, Captain Marvel has so many plot threads going on at once, switching between them with such frequency, I honestly couldn’t tell you what genre it is. Moreover, neither of the alien species is prominent enough for their aesthetic to define the film, and the ’90s setting on Earth — aside from a couple of sight gags and soundtrack choices — contributes nothing. There’s also the fact that Brie Larson — for all her talent and effort — is simply not a towering force of personality on the level of RDJ’s Stark or any of the Guardians. She’s good, but not good enough to define an entire movie with her presence alone.

Yes, this is a movie with a strong female lead, but this superfranchise has already given us Black Widow, Maria Hill, Gamora, Hope Van Dyne, and Agent Peggy Motherfucking Carter. A female lead getting front and center in her own namesake movie is good and all, but that’s still not enough to make it truly unique. Without a powerhouse main character, a clearly identifiable genre, a new and consistent aesthetic, or even a memorable main theme, there’s nothing to give this movie any sense of identity or personality.

And as a reminder, this is a movie in which the villains are shapeshifting aliens, whatever we think we know by way of the protagonist’s amnesia could be disproven at any time, and allegiances can switch without warning. By its very nature, this movie needed a solid director with a consistent vision to keep the plot from getting too squirrelly, and the absence of such a director is keenly felt.

With all of that said, this movie does a fantastic job of setting up Captain Marvel, the Kree, the Skrulls, and potentially other elements that could be useful in other movies and under more competent direction. And therein lies the rub.

As a movie on its own merit, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. As a checklist of things to introduce and establish for future movies and the greater MCU, it makes a lot of sense. This is a housekeeping movie, the kind that Marvel occasionally makes to open up the MCU and lay the groundwork for future installments.

Iron Man 2 is probably the most infamous example, but Captain America: Civil War also comes to mind. That said, Iron Man 2 had a distinct advantage in that it was a sequel, with a cast and crew that already had the experience of making one movie and a property that the audience was already familiar with. Civil War had even more established history to pull from, plus the genuinely compelling question of where each hero came down on the dilemma of freedom versus security.

Captain Marvel didn’t have any of those advantages, yet it still managed to be more entertaining and fulfilling than Iron Man 2. Of course, it doesn’t have anything so entertaining or instantly iconic as the airport battle royale in Civil War, but that was never in the cards for this movie.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the late Stan Lee. He does indeed get a cameo appearance here, playing himself in a neat little throwback to his many cameo appearances outside Marvel. And of course there’s the pre-credits tribute that Marvel put together — I’m sure somebody had a lot of fun putting that together when they weren’t crying their eyes out.)

I’ll gladly admit that I had fun with Captain Marvel, but it works far more effectively as a part of the greater MCU, rather than a movie on its own. There are so many disparate elements in here (Captain Marvel herself, the Kree, the Skrulls, etc.) that are good, and I look forward to seeing them better developed in future movies, but they’re not great enough to make a compelling or memorable film here and now. I want to say that the movie needed a better director — and to be clear, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were the wrong choices to make this picture — but I honestly don’t know who could’ve taken this same checklist and made a better picture out of it. Maybe the Russo Brothers, if they weren’t so busy elsewhere.

I saw this movie in 2D IMAX, and I strongly advise you to not waste your money on the premiums. By all means, go see the movie and have a good time, but keep your expectations in check.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted February 22, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Let’s start with this: Everything that was awesome about the previous two movies is still great in the third movie.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World still features gob-smackingly beautiful animation and phenomenal visuals (most likely thanks to assistance from grandmaster Roger Deakins). The dragons themselves still look amazing, with a wide variety of detailed and innovative designs all brought to vivid life. The scale is still extraordinarily huge, from the mind-blowingly huge battles to the intricate details tucked away in every corner of Berk. The score from John Powell still kicks all kinds of ass.

Jay Baruchel and his grating voice continue to grow improbably well alongside Hiccup himself. America Ferrara still voices a capable female lead and her character is still a powerhouse. Cate Blanchett and her character are still awesome, and they’ve eased very nicely into a supporting mentor role. Even Gerard Butler makes a welcome return for some exposition-loaded flashback scenes.

In fact, all of the prominent human characters get at least one moment to shine. Which would be great, if most of the supporting characters weren’t still so aggressively godawful. I couldn’t have hated Justin Rupple’s character any more if he was still being voiced by TJ Miller. I’ve never wanted Kristen Wiig to shut up so badly. I would’ve cheered to see Jonah Hill getting drawn and quartered onscreen. At least Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character was merely wasted and useless. No, I don’t care if these characters were supposed to be funny because they’re annoying — that doesn’t make them funny, it just makes them ANNOYING. AS. FUCK.

But then we have Toothless, who is still every bit as endearing and expressive as he ever was. What makes it even better is that (stepping away from a major flaw of the previous film), his big problems this time can’t be solved by his inherent special-ness as a Night Fury. As the new alpha, Toothless has to figure out how to be a wise and worthy king to all the dragons, just as Hiccup has to learn how to be a competent leader to the people of Berk. That’s not exactly something that can be solved through some new magic power pulled out of thin air like a deus ex machina.

Moreover, the both of them have romance arcs to deal with. Hiccup is under immense social pressure (mostly expressed through Rupple’s character) to finally quit dragging his feet and marry Astrid already. It’s a step neither one of them are eager to take, though maybe they’re both more ready than they want to admit. Moreover, if it’s better for the both of them personally and for the village as a whole, maybe it’s time for the both of them to finally take this decisive and irreversible step toward growing up.

This theme is further manifested in a brilliant way through the village of Berk itself. After two movies and so many years, the village has become an ostensible paradise in which dragons and humans live together… on an island too small to house them all. Plus, by herding all of the dragons into one place, they’ve made an enticing target for any poachers strong enough or cunning enough to launch a raid. The village of Berk has outgrown its home, and so they have to change or die. Thus they set out to find some larger place off the map where humans and dragons can live peacefully and in secret, and the only place that will suffice is the eponymous Hidden World, which is only rumored to exist. And even if they find it, there’s no guarantee that the Hidden World will be so hospitable toward humans.

Getting back to Toothless and his romance arc, the trailers and promos have already gone to great lengths in telling us that Toothless now has a love interest in the Light Fury. There is a bit of “love triangle” drama going on, as the new girl threatens to drive a wedge between Toothless and Hiccup. But mercifully, it’s not really a “bros before hos” kind of situation — Toothless and Hiccup love each other from start to finish, and Hiccup very clearly wants Toothless to be happy with his new crush. No, this is the kind of division that raises the question of how much longer Toothless and Hiccup would be better off together, implicitly raising the question in turn of how much longer humans and dragons can keep on coexisting.

Of course, watching Toothless try and impress a girl, striking out miserably until he finally gains traction, brings something out in Toothless that we’ve never had the chance to see before. And after so many years of connecting with this character, it’s that much more sympathetic to see him trying so hard and eventually succeeding at something he so dearly wants. What makes all of this even better is the knowledge that these two may be the last male and female of their species, and so the stakes of this particular romance are exceedingly high. Hell, she may be the first of his own kind that Toothless has ever seen since he was a hatchling, if that.

And last but not least, the Light Fury is a trap. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s told to us right up front, before she even meets Toothless. She’s been used as bait in countless Night Fury hunts, and that’s how the villains intend to use her now. You can see how that adds another layer of suspense to this particular romance plot.

This brings us to our main villain, voiced by F. Murray Abraham. I’ll admit that I was hesitant about bringing in another human villain, but Grimmel is a huge step up from the previous antagonist in a lot of crucial ways. To start with, he’s not a creature of brute force the way Drago was. Grimmel is the cold and calculating sort, someone who knows how to predict our heroes’ every move, able to manipulate them with sinister ease. Of course, a lot of that comes from how Hiccup and Toothless love each other and their people, raising the classic question of “Is love weakness?” in a way that’s skillfully nuanced. Especially when it’s dovetailed so beautifully with the question of how competent Hiccup could possibly be as a leader, if he’s so predictable and easily tricked.

Additionally, Grimmel isn’t in the practice of capturing dragons. Though he does keep a fleet of especially terrifying dragons that were trained and bred for the specific purpose of killing other dragons. In fact, it turns out that Grimmel is the reason why Night Furies are an endangered species, after singlehandedly hunting down and killing almost all of them.

In a brief scene, Grimmel espouses rhetoric that sounds an awful lot like crap about racial purity, which might have worked a lot better if dragons and humans weren’t totally different species. That said, Grimmel’s philosophy works far more effectively as a callback to the first movie. He’s a potentially fatal reminder of the days when the vikings of Berk hunted down dragons and saw them as an existential threat to humanity. He shows how far Berk has come, while also showing how little progress the rest of the world has made.

It feeds into the idea that maybe this whole human/dragon shared utopia was a beautiful experiment doomed to failure, and maybe dragons will never be safe so long as humans remain so greedy and paranoid. It’s an angle that might have been far more effective if the filmmakers had done a better job of selling it as a problem bigger than Grimmel. The whole thing is undercut by the team of warlords who hire Grimmel to bring all the world’s dragons under their command by capturing the alpha (read: Toothless), every one of whom is an incompetent blithering idiot. Then again, every one of these blithering idiots — along with Grimmel and Drago themselves — had a massive army at their command, so maybe it really is that big of a problem.

To sum up, I had a blast watching How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. It’s a perfectly worthy capstone to a remarkably solid trilogy, with thrills and heartbreak aplenty. While a couple of themes could have been stronger, they don’t even register next to the multi-layered themes so beautifully explored and interwoven in the plot.

Yes, the human supporting characters were insufferably annoying, but the central Hiccup/Toothless relationship provided more than enough genuine laughs to compensate. What’s probably even more impressive, both of our male leads got their own love interests, and both romance arcs only strengthened the central friendship without ever once detracting from it. Last but not least, this movie called back to the previous films in ways that made the whole trilogy feel like a single unified whole, without ever taking away from the movie’s ability to stand on its own.

This one gets a solid recommendation. If the upcoming Universal/Dreamworks partnership turns out to be a crippling disappointment (and looking at their upcoming animation slate, I wouldn’t hold my breath), at least the previous era ended on one spectacular high note.

Happy Death Day 2U

Posted February 21, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I was deeply disappointed with Happy Death Day. I so badly wanted to like this creative slasher flick with a brilliant premise, featuring a score from one of my favorite composers. Alas, I simply couldn’t get past the paper-thin and hopelessly stereotypical characters. How could such a lazy and brain-dead script result from such a creatively batshit premise?

That said, I was still on board with Happy Death Day 2U from the moment I heard it was coming. For one thing, a sequel meant that Tree (played once again by Jessica Rothe) would start out as the sympathetic and battle-hardened protagonist she was at the end of the previous film, and we could skip over the whole development arc in which we had to wait for her to stop being a garbage-fire bitch. But more than that, the trailer promised a sequel that played into the first movie’s greatest strength, building on the premise to go into wilder, freakier territory.

And for once, the sequel didn’t disappoint.

The movie opens with Ryan (Phi Vu), a minor character from the first film. As it turns out, he and some classmates are responsible for building the quantum mechanical plot device that caused all the strange power blackouts and time loops in the previous movie. And of course nobody (least of all the students themselves) is entirely clear why a bunch of misfit college students were somehow able to actually succeed in breaking the space-time continuum.

The first act is pretty much more of the same, except that it’s Ryan stuck in the time loop and our baby-masked killer is now after him for some strange reason. Then some weird shenanigans happen (For a long list of reasons, I won’t even try to recap them here.) and our plot device jettisons Tree back into her birthday time loop. And here’s the kicker: Now she’s in a parallel universe. Sure, the day still plays out more or less the same, but with a few small yet crucial differences. The old characters have new personalities, the relationships between them are totally different, some characters that were dead are now alive and vice versa, etc.

As a direct result, Tree now has a totally different killer on the loose. So now she has to solve this new permutation of the old established murder mystery, save the victims she knows are going to die, help to reconfigure the plot device so the time loop closes, and get back to her home universe.

On top of all that, Tree has to decide if she even wants to go back to her home universe. Without getting into details and spoilers, there are a lot of trade-offs to consider with regard to who is still alive and where Tree is in the new and old timelines. Which is the better timeline, where would Tree be happier, what is she willing to give up, and where would she do the most good?

This is a frankly genius way of using the premise to explore death, love, grief, renewal, forgiveness, the passage of time, and other themes that lend themselves superbly to the premise. Moreover, it helps to advance Tree’s development into a genuinely compelling protagonist, expanding on her previous arc in an elegant way. All of this leads to moments that are genuinely moving in a way that was never done (or maybe even possible) in the previous film.

That said, while Tree and her love interest aren’t nearly as boring or flat as they were last time, we still have a shit-ton of cartoonishly lazy stereotypes in the supporting cast. But even that is more acceptable here because the whole premise is so much more heightened, and advancing/explaining it takes up so much more of the screen time away from these annoying support characters. Somehow, the film’s unique blend of slasher horror and sci-fi comedy meshes with the thin characterization in a way that it didn’t in the previous film.

This brings us to the horror element, which manifests in some peculiar ways in this go-round. The movie is considerably less interested in the identity and motivations of our new Babyface (I don’t know if that’s the official sanctioned name for this franchise’s slasher, but it’s the one I’m going with), probably because he’s not the main threat our protagonist is struggling against. Instead, Babyface is treated as something awful that may or may not happen to Tree’s friends and loved ones in this new timeline. As such, it’s an open question as to whether she’s willing or able to stop Babyface before he kills again, and whether she’s truly capable of saving everyone she cares about.

This leads me to the other huge factor in terms of stakes: There’s still an unknown limit as to how many times Tree can die and come back. The first movie established that Tree gets noticeably weaker every time she comes back, with some lingering pain and damage from every death. And by the time the climax rolls around, Tree will have endured two movies’ worth of repeated deaths. Thus the stakes are much higher and more immediate than they ever were in the first movie — even without the potentially cosmic stakes of fucking around with space and time, or the personal stakes of maybe never going home again.

Happy Death Day 2U is everything I had hoped this franchise would be from the outset. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s endlessly creative, and the ingenious premise is explored in diabolically clever ways. It’s really quite fascinating how the filmmakers balance moments of genuine pathos with moments of over-the-top stereotypically lazy goofiness.

The only downside is that there’s no way this movie could possibly stand on its own. Yes, we do get a brief recap at the start, but that’s nowhere near good enough. While I really do believe that this sequel makes the previous movie retroactively better (and I mean that as astronomical praise), I also don’t believe that the promise of “it gets better later on” is a legitimate reason to continue a subpar series. If you didn’t like the first movie (and I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t), I can’t guarantee that the second movie will be good enough for your liking, even if it was to mine.

The best I can do is something I never would’ve thought of doing a year and a half ago: Recommend that you give the first movie a watch if you haven’t already, then gauge your appetite and see if you’re ready for seconds.

Alita: Battle Angel

Posted February 17, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Let’s talk for a moment about Tilly Lockey. As an infant, Lockey lost both her arms to a bad case of meningitis. Now thirteen years old, she’s toured as an ambassador for amputees of all ages, an activist for meningitis patients, an inspirational speaker, a spokesperson for Open Bionics, and a model. And it turns out that one James Cameron is a big fan.

The filmmakers of Alita: Battle Angel gifted Lockey with a brand-new pair of state-of-the-art bionic hands, before welcoming her to the red carpet premiere of the movie. Cameron and his colleagues helped introduce a whole new audience to this remarkable young lady, sending out her message that amputees and the differently abled are just as valued and loved and capable as anyone else.

For my part, I’d like to keep the signal boost going. And so, with all humility and respect, this review is dedicated to Ms. Lockey and the wonderful causes she’s worked so hard for.

Alita: Battle Angel is one of those passion projects that’s been in development for so long, it seemed like the movie itself would never get released. Then again, James Cameron isn’t exactly known for cranking out a new movie every other year. Both Alita and Avatar gained traction at roughly the same time, but Avatar came together first and Cameron apparently devoted himself to producing Avatar movies for the rest of his life (and maybe longer).

Thus Cameron handed the reins to Robert Rodriguez, a respectable auteur in his own right. And it’s clear that Rodriguez was piggybacking off the previous development work to make the film that Cameron wanted to — Rodriguez might have gotten the director credit, but James Cameron’s fingerprints are all over this one.

Let’s take it from the top. Our stage is set in the distant future, about 300 years after an interplanetary war between Mars and Earth. This war is called “The Fall”, presumably because Earthlings lived on giant floating cities that all came crashing down in the war. The only one left is the city of Zalem, a wealthy utopia that floats above the industrial wasteland of Iron City.

(Side note: In the manga this was based on, Iron City was supposedly located somewhere in the former United States. So culturally appropriate casting in this Japan-to-Hollywood film adaptation isn’t an issue for once!)

Our story begins with Dr. Dyson Ido (Cristoph Waltz), a surgeon/mechanic who specializes in attaching and maintaining cybernetic prostheses. He’s in the scrapyard one day, presumably foraging for new parts that got tossed down with the trash from Zalem. And in the trash, he finds a cybernetic head and torso with a fully-intact human brain and a heart running on powerful tech that’s been lost for centuries.

Dyson attaches the mysterious head to a cybernetic body he had lying around (I won’t go into details here). When our cyber-girl (played in mocap by Rosa Salazar) wakes up with no memory of who or what she is, Dyson takes her in and names her “Alita”. Naturally, she takes a strong interest in learning about the world around her (amnesiacs are great for exposition) and learning more about who she is. And naturally, there are some people up in Zalem wondering why this girl is upright and walking when they tossed her in the trash, and they’re eager to rectify that.

To start with, I’m glad to have seen this one in 3D IMAX because… well, that’s how James Cameron makes movies. Nothing less than the full premium viewing will be enough to take in every last detail on the screen, and this movie is immaculately detailed. The world-building here is astounding in scope, with painstaking attention given to every last corner of the production. The CGI and practical effects are seamless, the motion capture glistens with polish, the sound design and score are phenomenal, and the 3D looks fantastic.

And of course all of that extends to the fight sequences as well. From the bar fight battle royale to the high-speed Motorball death race (think roller derby by way of Nascar with 26th-century bionic tech), every single action scene blew me through the back of my seat. Beautifully shot, with clever use of speed-ramping and ingenious uses of the cyberpunk setting. The choreography and editing kept everything moving at a lightning pace, but never fast enough to lose track of what was happening. Beautifully done.

Then we have the cast. Rosa Salazar is a revelation as Alita, bringing a ton of heart and badass attitude to this adolescent weapon with an identity crisis. I was also impressed with Keean Johnson, who makes something memorable and sympathetic out of what could have been a thankless love interest role.

But the real star here is Cristoph Waltz. I’m sorry to be limited by how much I can say without spoilers, but suffice to say that he serves perfectly well as the true heart of the film. As Alita’s father figure in loco parentis, and in his dilemmas with regard to Alita’s preternatural fighting abilities, there’s a strong character-motivated reason why everything he does is far more complicated than it seems.

This is a surprisingly deep and conflicted character motivated by painful emotional scars, determined to make sure that Alita grows into something greater than he is. This is a fantastic character, elegantly played by Waltz at the top of his game, and he’s a great enough scene partner to make Salazar’s performance that much better.

Naturally, this is a movie about identity and growing up, as Alita has to figure out who she was even as she weighs that against figuring out who she wants to be. And of course there’s an element of sociopolitical conflict, given the floating city at the center of the setting. But I was honestly far more interested in the comparison between cyborgs and humans, in that when you get right down to it, we’re all just a collection of parts. It’s a theme expressed in subtle ways that I found quite fascinating in execution.

So are there any problems? Whoo boy.

Mahershala Ali has already caught a lot of heat for his portrayal of an Iron City crime lord. Critics say that he gives a bad performance, and I don’t agree. He’s a talented actor and he’s clearly doing everything he can to put in a decent performance. The problem is, he’s got nothing to work with.

Zalem floats in the sky, taking in all the food and tech created by Iron City, and we never learn what Zalem gives in return except for cast-off scrap. We don’t know the first thing about what’s going on up there, why everyone wants to go up there, or why nobody’s allowed up there. Zalem commands our antagonists, but we never learn what the city is trying to accomplish or why. Even with regard to The Fall, we never learn what Earth and Mars were fighting over or why any of it could still be relevant over 300 years later.

So many characters are motivated by either getting to Zalem or by serving Zalem, and it’s all for naught because we never learn the first thing about Zalem. I get that the filmmakers are trying to be mysterious and leave loose ends for sequels to pick up. (Also, manga stories are so notoriously long that of course there’s too much exposition from the source material to fit into two hours.) But when such a central element of the story and the characters’ motivation is so defiantly vague, you’re left with a story and characters that feel incomplete.

Jennifer Connelly fares better than most, as an emotionally conflicted scientist who was exiled from Zalem and is looking for a way to get back. That, at least, is an understandable motivation. We’ve also got Ed Skrein and Jackie Earle Haley on hand as a couple of cartoonish hate sinks so thinly defined that they don’t even need any motivation beyond money and ego.

The bottom line is that Alita: Battle Angel has a cast of superbly developed lead characters against a nebulous antagonist with no defined motivation or agenda. This leads to a lopsided central conflict we have no reason to invest in, which in turn leads to a fundamentally broken plot. It’s clear that the filmmakers put all their money and effort into the exquisite world-building, the dazzling visuals, and the breathtaking action scenes, rather than applying that same level of ambition and creativity into a compelling script. Which is pretty standard for a James Cameron flick nowadays.

This was absolutely worth a big screen viewing with all the premiums, don’t get me wrong, but be sure to set your expectations accordingly.

The Lego Movie 2

Posted February 16, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

The Lego Movie kicked ass. That’s a settled and established statement of fact at this point. It should never have worked, and yet against all odds, filmmakers delivered a funny and endlessly creative romp that beautifully dovetailed the Lego toys with heartfelt themes about creativity and conformity. Not since Disneyland has such a brazenly and nakedly commercial enterprise inspired such childlike joy that only the most jaded and black-hearted codger would call foul and refuse to suspend disbelief.

Many have tried to replicate the same critical and box office success (The Emoji Movie, anyone?), but none succeeded. And I’m including the other Lego movies themselves in that assessment. Sure, The Lego Batman Movie was pretty good, but nowhere near as good as the movie that spawned it. Then The Lego Ninjago Movie happened, and nobody cared.

Then again, maybe there’s a perceived lack of inertia because of how long it takes to produce these movies. Can you believe the first Lego Movie was five freaking years ago?

With all of that in mind, I was skeptical about The Lego Movie 2. Especially since Phil Lord and Chris Miller — while staying on as writers and exec- producers — would be yielding the director’s chair to Mike Mitchell of Trolls, admittedly the movie that’s probably come closest to replicating the first Lego Movie’s success. But with so many years of baggage and so many failed attempts at tapping the same well, could the sequel possibly be any good?

Well… yeah. I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely good.

The sequel starts more or less right where the first movie left off, as Finn (the boy whose imagination fueled the events of the previous film, now played by Jadon Sand) is forced to share his toys with his younger sister (Bianca, played by Brooklynn Prince). Thus the newly-rescued city of Bricksburg is menaced by the Duplo creations of a preschool girl. As the prologue unfolds, we learn that these Duplo creatures are invading aliens from the Sis-Tar system who promptly cannibalize anything bright and colorful.

Five years later, the city has collapsed into Apocalypseburg, a brown and gritty edgelord dystopia — imagine a Mad Max film written as a Frank Miller parody and you’d be getting close. Everyone is laughably serious about their brooding, made even more funny in contrast against the relentlessly chipper Emmett (Chris Pratt once again). Meanwhile, the invading Sis-Tar forces attack with glittery lasers, weaponized stickers, bright pink hearts that smile before they blow up, sugary brain-melting synth-pop songs, and so on.

(Side note: What we’ve got here is bright and colorful imagery, twisted into sinister weapons. I kept expecting Batman [once again a major player voiced by Will Arnett] to comment on this — it’s the Joker’s whole schtick!)

Obviously, this is a representation of the conflict between the big brother and the little sister, but there’s a lot more going on here. For one thing, the brother’s side is represented by the kind of tough and gritty, totally humorless, egocentric and uber-masculine machismo bullshit that could only seem grown-up to a hormonal preteen boy with no idea of what being a grown-up is really like. Then we have the sister’s side, aggressively bright and childlike, loaded with bright colors and glitter in a way that’s hopelessly naive and stereotypically “girly”.

Both are misguided and juvenile in their own way, and the whole movie is about learning to find a balance between the two. In turn, this means that the older brother and his younger sister have to learn how to play together — no easy lesson, as anyone who’s ever been that age can attest.

Moreover, it bears constant reminding that the previous film only had one primary world-builder while this movie has two. Throughout the entire running time, we’re watching the main characters flip-flop back and forth between the settings and sensibilities of these two siblings. Sure, it wreaks havoc with a few development arcs, but it’s unpredictable in a way that heightens the stakes and keeps us guessing as to what’s really going on.

The first movie succeeded in large part because it told two different stories — one about the Lego toys and one about the humans controlling them — while also exploring so many sincere and heartfelt themes, bringing them all together into a perfectly cohesive whole with a single major twist. I honestly didn’t think the filmmakers could do that a second time, but they did it. Even knowing what I did going in, the filmmakers crammed in some devilishly clever misdirections, with setups and payoffs that were masterfully crafted.

Of course it helps that the movie is funny as hell. As before, the movie is loaded with too many sight gags and voiceover cameos to count. The jokes fly by so quickly that any duds are here and gone in a flash. The filmmakers even found a way (finally!) to make a joke about stepping barefoot onto Lego bricks left on the floor.

Then we have the characters. Liam Neeson didn’t come back, though his character from the previous film is obligingly given a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. President Business is quite pointedly absent through pretty much all of the movie, though Will Ferrell recorded enough voice-over lines to be a kind of offscreen presence. I won’t even bother listing all the cameo players here, except to say that a great many of them are returning guests from the previous film and I got a kick out of hearing Jason Momoa reprise Aquaman.

As for the prominent returning players; I’m happy to report that Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Will Arnett, and Nick Offerman are all in peak comedic form. Chris Pratt seems to be having an especially great time, playing two characters that openly parody his “The Office” tenure and his post-“Office” Hollywood career. Elizabeth Banks very nicely gets to expand the character of Wyldstyle, with acknowledgment given to her awkward status as the hero who does all the work while Emmett is given all the credit.

On the Sis-Tar side, Tiffany Haddish turns in a delightful performance as the shapeshifting Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, and Stephanie Beatriz is none too shabby as the loyal General Mayhem. We’ve also got Richard Ayoade, always a welcome comedic presence, here playing the dour major domo to the queen.

So, the movie is funny and colorful, superbly acted, moving and creative and gut-punching in a way that made the previous film so successful. So are there any nitpicks? You better believe it!

First off, there’s Maya Rudolph. I don’t dare say too much about her for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that I was disappointed with her performance here. I don’t know if it was the script, her brief running time, or her lack of worthy screen partners, but Rudolph is so clearly putting in a ton of effort for something that isn’t landing quite so well as it should.

Likewise, while Tiffany Haddish is a fantastic performer and she’s doing her best to sell the musical numbers, the fact remains that all of these songs are terribly mediocre. The filmmakers are obviously trying to recapture the magic of “Everything is AWESOME!!!” and it’s simply not happening. The song and the catchphrase have overstayed their welcome, and none of the new songs are anywhere near as effective. (One song is literally called “The Song That Will Get Stuck Inside Your Head”, for fuck’s sake.)

Plus, they brought back The Lonely Island for the end credits song, and I’ve given up all hope of ever liking a song by The Lonely Island. They’re just not for me. I’m much more fond of Tegan and Sara, who (so far as I can tell) had nothing to do with the soundtrack for this movie. The filmmakers were so desperate to recapture that Oscar-nominated lightning in a bottle that they brought back The Lonely Island, but not Tegan and Sara?! The mind reels.

Batman’s development arc was better in theory than in execution. There’s a time travel element that probably could’ve been cut. The plot occasionally gets so convoluted that one character has to literally pull a deus ex machina out of his pocket — not once, but twice! — to make sure everything is explained and resolved within the brief runtime. But these are just minor nitpicks.

By far the bigger problem here is that this movie was always destined to fall short of the prequel. I know that’s a common (some might say universal) problem with sequels, but it’s especially prominent for a franchise that’s made creativity such a central cornerstone. No matter how great this movie is, it never could’ve been as surprising, successful, or innovative as the brilliant film that took the world by storm with a title and premise so transparently stupid as The Lego Movie.

Then again, I did start this review by speculating on the remote possibility of this second movie being anywhere near as good as the first after so many years, so there’s that.

Overall, I had a blast with The Lego Movie 2. It’s funny, creative, moving, intelligent, well-acted, beautifully animated, and the plot twists are wickedly clever. Basically, everything great about the first movie is still great here. Assuming you can stomach another two hours of “Everything is AWESOME!!!” after five years of listening to it.

Definitely give this one a try.

Cold Pursuit

Posted February 10, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Cold Pursuit follows Nelson Coxman (Liam Neeson), a snowplow driver and occasional hunter living in the town of Kehoe, Colorado, three hours out from Denver. He’s honored with the town’s “Citizen of the Year” award, just before his son dies of a heroin overdose. The kicker: Kyle Coxman (Micheal Richardson) wasn’t a druggie. And we can see for ourselves that Kyle was kidnapped in a terribly botched attempt at staging a drug OD.

Long story short, Nels goes on a killing spree, looking for answers in the local criminal underworld. In the process, he inadvertently starts a turf war between the local drug rings and bodies pile up very high, very quickly.

Right off the bat, when you’re talking about a crime thriller with elements of dark comedy — with a cold and snowy rural setting — the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind is Fargo. And to be sure, there’s more than a little of the Coen Brothers in this movie’s DNA. But when I look at this misanthropic movie with its defiant lack of sympathetic characters mocking each other and killing each other over the course of a multilayered plot, I see a lot more influence from Martin McDonagh.

Not that I have a problem with filmmakers taking influence from other filmmakers — we all have to learn from someone, and a storyteller could do a hell of a lot worse than learning from grandmasters like McDonagh or the Coens. The problem is that these filmmakers lift from those other great auteurs without adding much of anything new. There’s nothing in here that I couldn’t get from watching those other movies that have better comedic timing, more inventive plots, wittier dialogue, and more incisive themes.

To be clear, it’s not that the dialogue or the characters are awful — even a watered-down imitation of the Coens can still be good on its own merit. And if the plot isn’t as intricate or convoluted as a McDonagh script… well, there’s something to be said for a crime thriller with a plot that’s easier to follow. The plot to this movie was twisty enough to keep me guessing without ever leaving me confused, I’ll give it that. I must also give kudos for some of the action scenes, most especially that exquisitely bloody climax.

Alas, the filmmakers show a disappointing lack of aptitude with regard to comedic timing. So many gags and scenes — especially at the beginning — fall flat because they’re drawn-out and tedious when the filmmakers were clearly going for laughs. While a couple of jokes are indeed funny, the movie as a whole still lands in an awkward place where it isn’t quite a drama and it’s not quite a black comedy.

Moreover, I’m disappointed by the lack of any quotable lines or memorable characters. Liam Neeson’s character is more or less another rerun of Taken, but ten years older. Tom Bateman makes for an effective hate sink, but nothing to write home about. William Forsythe and Laura Dern are both gone from the movie before they can do anything interesting. Emmy Rossum is putting in a noble try, but she’s got pretty much nothing to work with. Dominick Lombardozzi is always a welcome presence, but all he’s got are a couple of character reveals that go nowhere. Still, at least Tom Jackson is suitably imposing, and Julia Jones makes a fantastic sounding board against Bateman.

Ultimately, what saves this movie is its attitude toward death. There’s a kind of running gag in which every death is immediately followed by the name, nickname, and religion of the dead character. Even in the end credits, the actors are credited “By Order of Disappearance.”

Thus the film takes on a kind of absurd quality, reducing all our actions and ethics to nothing because we’ll all be dead anyway. Though the movie does put a great deal of weight on the theme of parents and sons, which could be interpreted as a reflection on what we leave behind. To be clear, this is all very subtle — just enough to hint at something deeper without getting in the way of those who simply want to see bad guys killing each other.

Kudos are also due for the more subtle thematic touches. My personal favorite was the twenty-dollar bill that gets shot by a Native American gangster. There’s so much to unpack in that sequence of events, and the setup to that payoff was masterfully done.

So is Cold Pursuit a bad movie? No. It works perfectly well as a crime thriller, with enough twists and turns and shootouts to keep an audience interested, and the film’s morbid sense of humor provides a keen yet subtle edge. The problem is that there’s very little here that hasn’t already been done and done better in so many other movies. There’s no reason to see this when you could be watching anything from the Coen Brothers or Martin McDonagh instead.

Even in these lean February weekends, I can’t find the heart to recommend this for more than a home video viewing.

The Kid Who Would Be King

Posted January 27, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Well, folks, this is it. In all probability, this could be the very last year in which we see a movie open with the iconic searchlights and trumpet fanfare of the 20th Century Fox logo. Raise a glass for the end of an era.

A couple years back, Warner Bros. hired Guy Ritchie to direct an adaptation of King Arthur and they tried to spin it into a franchise. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword turned out to be an embarrassing mess by any standard, among the worst commercial flops and most infamous critical failures of the year. But while the movie was quickly banished to obscurity, remembered only as a terrible mistake never to be thought or spoken of again, it’s not like the movie itself was a bad idea. The tale of King Arthur is a perennial legend for a reason, and we could certainly use a fresh retelling right now.

Why? Well, The Kid Who Would Be King makes a compelling argument from pretty much the word go.

Here we have a modern reworking of the King Arthur myth, set against the backdrop of the modern day. At a time when Britain is tearing itself apart, falling into confusion and turmoil over Brexit. To say nothing of political divisions, rampant bigotry, and fearmongering tyrants taking power all over the world. What better time for a hero to rise among us, turn enemies into allies, unite us all, and lead us forward?

Thus we have this new retelling in which Alexander Elliot (played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) learns to take his place as the unlikely heir to Excalibur and successor of King Arthur. Unlikely because he’s twelve years old, you see. It’s a strong thematic point that our main characters are kids, because they’ll be the ones who inherit our world, and they’ll be responsible for fixing the messes their parents and grandparents have made. So why the hell are we teaching our kids to be just as callous, greedy, and dishonest as we are?!

Repeatedly, Alexander and his friends are told that the world is cruel and tough and unfair, like that’s the way things have always been and there’s no point in trying to change it. The filmmakers issue a full-throated rejection of that notion. The world needs those with courage — who will always fight for truth and do the right thing — because they’re not just capable of building a better world, they’re also the only ones who can!

This is truly an empowering and uplifting movie, especially for kids, precisely because the filmmakers are so damn passionate about fighting to build a better world. Moreover, the movie makes absolutely no apology or excuse about being a movie in which modern-day kids wield actual swords and armor against demons and magic. The filmmakers are so committed to the premise, leaning so hard into this fantasy/comedy/adventure that the silliness goes right back around to being awesome.

Of course, our cast and characters are a huge factor. Alexander is your preteen everyman, struggling for a reason to believe — against his better judgment — that all of this is real and he truly is capable of more than everyone says he is. We’ve also got Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), a cowardly bully target who learns how to grow a spine. Then there’s Lance (Tom Taylor), an unrepentant bully dead-set on looking out for number one until he learns to set his ego aside and fight for something greater. Last but not least is Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), Lance’s partner in bullying until she finally learns that she doesn’t have to be as cruel as she was told the world is.

(Side note: Guinevere never gets so much as a single mention. I wonder if Kaye might have been Guinevere in an earlier draft, with a kind of love triangle going on between Alex and Lance. Thinking through the implications of two kids knowing that they’re fated to be together because of similarities with the established myth, it’s probably for the best that she was omitted altogether.)

Yes, these arcs are all predictable and cliched. Even so, they’re written, performed, and paced so beautifully that every single arc works. It really was a joy to watch these kids grow into characters worth cheering for. And again, it works because the cast and crew are fully and totally committed to every last story beat.

Another fine example is Rebecca Ferguson as Morgana, our chief antagonist. She plays a dark sorceress trapped under the earth until she can take over the world with her undead soldiers and her skill at exploiting the weaknesses and insecurities of others. If Ferguson had tried to underplay a role like that, it would’ve been disastrous. So instead, she swings for the fences and goes full-on camp, resulting in a genuinely imposing villain who’s a lot of fun to hate. Then again, it bears mentioning that Ferguson was pretty much entirely absent through the action scenes, replaced by a CGI monstrosity that Morgana transforms into. Waste of a perfectly good Mission: Impossible star, if you ask me.

Likewise, I was disappointed to see that Sir Patrick Stewart shares the role of Merlin with a teenager named Angus Imrie. Not that Imrie is awful or anything — indeed, he’s perfectly fine as a centuries-old wizard in the body of a teenaged boy, and that’s no mean feat. Even so… come on. This is Sir Patrick Stewart playing Merlin. Do I even need to explain why we need a whole movie of that?

(Side note: I’m amused upon the recollection that Stewart had a small role in Excalibur before playing the big mentor role here. That’s kind of like when Bryan Cranston got to play Zordon in 2017.)

Speaking of which, I was rather fond of Merlin’s magic. Basically, he weaves spells through lots of complicated hand gestures, waving, and finger-snapping. It looks really cool in action. Even so, I didn’t like how the rules of this particular universe were so arbitrary. Merlin is a teenager, except when he changes back for whatever reason. Merlin can’t show himself at night, for whatever reason. Only Alex and his knights can fight Morgana, for whatever reason. There are other examples. Still, while the rules may be arbitrary, they are at least consistent, so this isn’t really a dealbreaker so much as it’s a persistent annoyance.

Then we have the action scenes. I’m glad that the filmmakers found some neat variety in the fight scenes, and some genuinely clever moments in places. The “training montage” against mobile trees was a particular favorite. It also helps that while our fiery undead soldiers are imposing and great in numbers, they’re still made of centuries-old dessicated bones and are appropriately brittle. Thus our disposable foot soldiers are badass enough to make tangible threats, yet fragile enough that teenagers could plausibly defeat them, and they explode real nice when they’re defeated. I approve.

On a final miscellaneous note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Denise Gough as Alex’s mother. She provides a grounded and sensible counterpoint to all the madness going on, while also serving as a kind and loving mother to Alex. It’s a sweet performance of a nice character, helping to give the movie heart without subtracting from the high fantasy madness.

All told, I had a wonderful time with The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s a straightforward fantasy romp that pays loving tribute to the legends of old, while also stressing the importance of why legends need to be updated and told anew. It’s an exciting, creative, uplifting movie with a strong beating heart. It’s great to see a movie so unapologetically silly and fun, both engaging and inspirational. Definitely check this one out.

Cold War

Posted January 26, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve been trying, folks. I really have. But I’m having a hard time getting any kind of optimism for this year’s Oscars.

The ceremony couldn’t find a decent host. The Academy wasted another Best Actress nomination on a half-assed Glenn Close performance. If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, even though Vice, Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born all did. The Academy decided that goddamn Vice was better directed than Mary Queen of Scots, On the Basis of Sex, Leave No Trace, Destroyer, or Private Life, and so not a single female director got nominated. Sure, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther both got Best Picture noms, but the only acting nomination given to either movie went to freaking Adam Driver.

Oh, and while this was admittedly a fantastic year for documentaries, am I seriously supposed to believe that Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t even rank in the top five?! Fuck outta here!

So now we have Cold War, which predictably picked up a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. And surprisingly, it also got nods for Best Director and Best Cinematography. While I knew virtually nothing about this movie going in (the trailer, predictably, was no help at all), I was expecting something truly fantastic.

When the credits started rolling, I was pushing everyone out of the way on my desperate run for the exits.

To be clear, there’s a lot to like at first. I’ll freely admit that (while the camerawork in If Beale Street Could Talk was far superior) the Best Cinematography nod was well-deserved. The movie looks fantastic from start to finish, and the dance sequences are especially gorgeous. Which is important, as music and dance are central to the plot.

The movie begins in Poland, circa 1949. Now that the war is over and the Germans have left, the Polish have to clean up the mess. More specifically, they have to pick up the pieces of whatever culture they had before Hitler barged in and destroyed everything.

The solution: 1) Record folk songs and dances from everywhere in Poland, 2) Hold nationwide searches and auditions for the finest performers in the nation, 3) Put them all in an academy where they can hone their skills on traditional Polish folk routines, and 4) Tour them all over Europe and Russia to make the definitive global statement that this is who and what Poland is.

It’s a good plan, and one that invites all sorts of possibilities for personal drama between the students, instructors, and administrators involved. There’s also a great deal of dramatic potential in the struggle to define and protect a national identity in the wake of something so huge as WWII. Especially when Stalin comes to power and tries to make every facet of culture into propaganda, much as Hitler did before him. This is all fascinating stuff and it could have made for a compelling movie if the filmmakers had stuck with it.

But then we meet our main characters.

Tomasz Kot plays Wiktor Warski, the academy’s chief musical conductor, who strikes up an illicit affair with one of his students. The student in question is Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (played by Joanna Kulig), who tries to cheat her way into the academy and allegedly murdered her father. So one of them is an unethical womanizer and the other one is a femme fatale (no joke, one character literally calls her a femme fatale in the movie), which makes her inherently untrustworthy.

To be clear, I understand that these two were loosely based on the actual parents of director/co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski. Even so, this romance is DOA. Sure, the chemistry between the two actors may be solid, but it’s all for naught when I have zero reason to care about either of them or their ill-advised romance. And when the romance takes center stage — shuffling the initial premise out of sight and out of mind about halfway through — I completely checked out.

What makes it even worse is that this movie is trying to compress fifteen years of story into 90 minutes of film. As a direct result, the movie is pockmarked with time jumps, skipping several years’ worth of story, and not enough effort is made to cover everything we need to know about the intervening time. It’s not like working around this was impossible — biopics cover two decades or more in 90-120 minutes all the time. But it might have gone a lot more smoothly if the filmmakers didn’t put in so many long brooding shots that do a great job of establishing a mood while doing fuck-all to convey any necessary exposition! It’s not often I see an 89-minute movie that feels three hours long, but here we are.

Cold War has gorgeous visuals, wonderful music breaks, solid acting, and an intriguing central premise that gets thrown aside in favor of a plodding romance between two unsympathetic leads. After our two leads’ botched attempt at escaping the Soviets, I couldn’t figure out what was going on and I had no motivation to try. While I’m certainly open to the possibility that maybe this is a Capital-A Arthouse movie that’s going over my head, there’s no way I can sign off on this.

If you want a heartfelt, moving, black-and-white, foreign-language movie made in 2018 by a cinematic grandmaster in tribute to his parents, stick with Roma. Unless you’re an awards completionist or a more seasoned cinephile than I, don’t bother with this one.

On the Basis of Sex

Posted January 20, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

From her recent documentary to all the headlines about her health, it seems like there isn’t a lot more to say about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court. Which seems to make it simultaneously the best time and the worst time to release a biopic about her.

On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones in a transformative performance as Ginsburg, back when she was juggling law school with parenting a toddler and nursing her cancer-stricken husband. And she’s only one of a handful of women in a class of a hundred, to boot. However, Ginsburg’s time as a law student is confined to the first act. After that, we jump ahead to 1970, and the rest of the movie focuses on the landmark case of Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Thus Ginsburg is able to make headway in her pet cause of gender equality under law, with a case in which sex discrimination directly hurts an unmarried male.

To start with the positives, Felicity Jones is swinging for the fences here, and she turns in a tour-de-force starring performance. Kudos are also due to Armie Hammer, here playing Martin Ginsburg in yet another stellar supporting turn, and the chemistry between them is solid. I was also rather fond of Cailee Spaeny as the teenage Jane Ginsburg. Yes, she acts quite often as a whiny and tempestuous teenaged girl, but she’s still the center of some powerful moments.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Notorious RBG herself, who shows up for a brief cameo appearance at the end.)

Unfortunately, Jones’ wonderful performance runs entirely counter to the subject herself. By all accounts — it was clearly brought up in the documentary and even mentioned in the film itself! — Ginsburg refused to waste any time or energy in getting angry. She was a wallflower who patiently listened until she had all the information she needed to make a powerful argument and shut down all opposition. By contrast, Jones’ portrayal of RBG seems to get easily flustered, breaking down into righteous all-consuming anger at the drop of a hat. I honestly wish that Jones had been given the chance to try a more subtle performance, portraying Ginsburg as a calm and unflappable badass with an intelligent glint in her eye.

But of course that wouldn’t have made for a good Oscar clip. And that’s what this comes down to.

This movie is OSCAR BAIT. This is a prime slice of hardcore, unfiltered, cut-and-dried Oscar bait. I could see it in Kathy Bates showing up just long enough for the film to claim an Oscar winner in its cast. I could see it in the visuals, which are just good enough without crossing over into anything truly exceptional or innovative. I could hear it in the score of white noise.

But what really marks this movie as the most blatant of Oscar bait is in its treatment of feminist themes. Yes, the movie talks a great deal about systemic prejudice against women, sexual inequality, life under the patriarchy, and so on. The problem is that it consistently talks about these issues in the past tense. The filmmakers talk a great deal about all the ways women were legally inferior up until the 1970s, but they stop just short of talking about why these issues are still relevant today. Basically, the movie goes “There were all these hundreds of laws that discriminated on the basis of sex, but then Ruth Bader Ginsburg won a court case and all those laws were never a problem again.”

The filmmakers try to have it both ways, making a socially relevant statement in a way that doesn’t inspire any actual change or challenge anyone’s viewpoints. We get to feel good about the victories won on our behalf decades ago, without having to worry about the ongoing struggles we’re directly responsible for caring about and acting on within our lifetimes. It’s lazy, it’s irresponsible, and why the hell does Hollywood keep making these nearly fifteen goddamn years after Crash?!

To be entirely fair, I’m sure the filmmakers were perfectly well-intentioned in their message of feminism, and this is absolutely a story that deserves to be told. But the message is expressed in obnoxiously blunt terms. Seriously, the antagonists (played by Stephen Root and Sam Waterston) are such puffed-up misogynists that they don’t even closely resemble actual people. Moreover, it removes all sense of dramatic tension, as the filmmakers leave zero room for doubt regarding who’s in the right and who will come out on top. And in a biopic — with a conclusion that’s common knowledge — giving up even a scrap of dramatic tension is a huge misstep.

On a miscellaneous note, I suppose I should talk about Justin Theroux’s supporting turn. I couldn’t get a handle on this guy’s character, and it took me the whole movie to figure out why: He’s not really playing a character. His motivations whiplash from one extreme to the other, depending on the needs of the plot. He’s a plot device, meant to either hold Ginsburg back or allow her to move forward, depending on whatever the plot needs in the moment.

On the Basis of Sex was clearly never built to last longer than this Oscar season, and I’m sure it will be replaced by one or two better feminist movies by this time next year. While a decent awards vehicle for Felicity Jones, the plot is formulaic and the script is deliberately void of anything new or interesting to say. There’s no way I can recommend this to anyone but the most hardcore of feminists and award completionists.

Stick with the documentary.