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Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Posted August 18, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

On the surface, I’m probably the last critic to be reviewing a movie based on “Dora the Explorer”. My sister and I had aged well past the target demographic by the time the show premiered in 2000, and anything I know about it comes from Wikipedia and pop culture osmosis. That said, my interest in this one was keenly piqued by one Isabela Moner.

For those who don’t recall Instant Family, it was a sleeper hit from 2018 that made my year-end list. While hardly perfect, it was a legitimately funny and deeply heartfelt little flick. It was easily my favorite family film of the year, due in no small part to the dynamic, scene-stealing, star-making performance from Moner. So whatever she made next, I knew I’d be there for it.

Then the trailers for Dora came out, and it became perfectly clear that this was being made and marketed as an all-ages Indiana Jones, with a teenaged Latina girl as the lead. Derivative? Maybe. But since the Tomb Raider reboot flopped and Indiana Jones himself has overstayed his welcome, there is absolutely room in that lane. And if it leads to greater diversity in film, with greater attention (albeit sensationalized) toward ancient Mexican cultures that don’t typically get a lot of portrayal in film, I’m cool with that.

The film opens with Madelyn Miranda as a six-year-old Dora, going on wild imaginary adventures with her cousin (Diego, played in the prologue by Malachi Barton), her pet monkey (Boots, played by Danny Trejo, of all people), and her friendly talking inanimate objects. Basically, the movie parodies the original show by establishing that it was all just the daydream fantasies of this girl and her cousin. That was clever, and really kinda gutsy.

Anyway, Dora and Diego really are living in the jungle, Boots is really a pet monkey, and Dora’s parents are explorers looking for the lost city of Parapata. Basically, Dora and her parents have spent their lives searching for a lost Inca civilization said to possess more gold than the rest of the world combined.

They’re still at it ten years later, and we quickly find out that Dora (now played by Moner) never really outgrew her imaginary grade-school TV mindset. Only now, she’s maintaining a hyper-cheery kid-friendly persona while being chased by real-life animals, and the contrast is hilarious. On a similar note, Dora’s act hasn’t really changed in spite of how much she’s learned and grown, and that’s another really funny contrast. (“Can you say ‘neurotoxicity’?”) Yes, Dora is still breaking the fourth wall, primarily to address the audience of her vlog.

All of this goes nowhere. The vlog never comes up again. While a bit of a waste, this intro helps to establish Dora as an impossibly sunny girl, maintaining her bright demeanor almost in spite of everything going on around her. She’s more than a little naive, but she’s more than capable of looking after herself. Though of course it helps to have Boots and her parents nearby when her reach inevitably exceeds her grasp.

The first act starts in earnest when Dora’s parents (played by Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) finally figure out where Parapata is. But of course the journey is too dangerous for a headstrong girl who doesn’t even realize how much she doesn’t know. Thus — for the very first time — Dora is sent to a big city (Los Angeles, specifically) to attend a high school and meet kids her age. All the while, she’s under the grudging watch of Diego (now played by Jeff Wahlberg), who’s spent the past ten years growing up in the city.

So what we have here is a case of someone growing up in the actual jungle, thrust into the city (read: “concrete jungle”), thus comparing and contrasting the two. This is of course nothing new. (see also: Crocodile Dundee, Jungle 2 Jungle, the 1997 George of the Jungle adaptation, etc.) At the same time, we’ve got a character whose incessant optimism serves as a refreshing counterpoint against the apathy and bitterness of modern life. (see also: Paddington and its sequel.)

While these individual parts are nothing new, what ties them together effectively is Dora’s relationship with her cousin. Dora doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about her, we the audience have no reason to hope that such a sympathetic character will ever completely change her ways, and this whole high school thing is just a temporary situation anyway, so it wouldn’t make one bit of difference how badly Dora makes an ass of herself. Yet everything she does reflects on Diego, and for better or worse, he’ll have to live with the fallout long after Dora’s gone back home. And of course Dora loves Diego very much and wants to do right by him, even if he’s very clearly no longer the boy she played with as kids.

All of this ties back to the central theme of the movie: When it’s better to be alone, and when it’s better to have friends. It would be so easy for the movie to go all-in on the “friendship is magic” theme and say that it’s always better to be with company, but the film is thankfully more nuanced than that. Granted, it does lean more toward the “stronger together” side of things, but we still see plenty of times when certain characters need to be alone. I applaud the movie for taking that more balanced stance.

Alas, there’s one major problem with this whole “Dora in the city” angle: It’s gone by the end of the first act. This easily could’ve been a movie in itself, but it’s completely forgotten as soon as Dora and her friends (we’ll get to them in a minute) get kidnapped and dragged to Peru in search of Parapata and Dora’s missing parents. Thus the “fish out of water” subplot is reduced to an inconsequential plot detour because all the real action is going on back in Peru. The plot just needed to get Dora out of the way while her parents were getting lost, and that’s ultimately all that matters about this particular subplot.

Well, that and introducing the supporting cast. Let’s talk about them.

First up, Diego. His rapport with Dora is solid on paper, and it really is sweet how the two characters push each other to grow. It also helps that while Diego’s wilderness survival skills are rusty, they’re certainly not gone, and he makes himself useful on quite a few occasions.

That said, I was irked about how often Diego got lumped in with the other supporting characters. As if Diego was some random kid that Dora just met and not her freaking blood relative. Then again, precisely because Jeff Wahlberg has all the range and charisma of a wooden plank, I guess it makes sense that he’d be so forgettable and yet effective as a sounding board for Dora. Moner may be destined for the A-list, but I don’t see Wahlberg getting there anytime soon.

Next up is Randy, played by Nicholas Coombe. I hated this kid. A wretchedly unfunny comic relief and an outdated geek stereotype to boot. He’s whiny, he’s shallow, he’s shrill, his attempts at pop culture humor weren’t the least bit funny, and every line out of his mouth made me wish for a roll of duct tape.

But then there’s Sammy. Whoo boy.

Played by Madeleine Madden, Sammy is quickly established as an uber-competitive overachiever with a monumental chip on her shoulder. The kind of teenager for whom community service is done solely to boost her college application, with little if any regard for making an actual difference. The kind of honor roll psychopath who ruthlessly bullies anyone who might be smarter than her. The kind of radical feminist who’s really only interested in using gender equality as a club to beat down her male classmates.

Where the film is concerned, Sammy is yet another case study in how it’s sometimes better to be alone and sometimes it’s better to have friends. Where I’m concerned, Sammy is a case study in how it’s possible to be 100 percent right and still be an insufferable asshole.

On the one hand, Madden is probably the strongest member of the supporting cast, with regards to making the most out of weak material. Second only to Moner (and that’s a distant, distant second) she’s got more charisma and range than any of the other teens in the cast. Plus, while it takes Sammy more than half the film to really warm up, her development arc is sweetly played when it finally gets rolling.

On the other hand, Sammy has a romance arc with Diego that’s entirely useless and not the least bit credible. Though again, it doesn’t help that Wahlberg has no screen presence and thus no chemistry with Madden. But what really sinks Sammy for me is that she contributes nothing to the plot. Not a single thing. Of course Dora and Diego are perfectly capable of making their way through the jungle, and even Randy gets to contribute his knowledge of astronomy (plus his contrived-as-all-fuck ability to hold his breath for a long time).

But Sammy? The film spends so much time building her up as this know-it-all who aces every class and wins every competition, and precisely none of that is in any way useful out in the jungle. She contributes absolutely nothing that nobody else can say or do. So instead she just whines incessantly and takes up space until she finally learns her lesson. FAIL.

On the subject of the supporting cast, I suppose I should mention Alejandro, played by exec producer Eugenio Derbez. To put this as briefly as I can, Alejandro is a colleague of Dora’s parents, basically serving as a kind of guide to help the kids get away from danger and on the track to finding Dora’s parents. Though he comes off as kind of a bumbling dolt, it’s actually kind of endearing and comical to see an adult who’s no more mature or capable than the kids surrounding him. Alejandro also serves as a solid demonstration of Dora’s naivete, as he dropped in out of nowhere and she trusts him blindly.

If it sounds like I’m telegraphing a plot point there, I assure you that the film itself telegraphs it WAAAY louder.

But of all the nits I’ve been picking so far, none of them are anywhere near as consequential as our villains. The only one that’s even remotely memorable is the one played by Temuera Morrison. I don’t know the character’s name, and I honestly don’t care. If it wasn’t for Morrison’s smoldering screen presence, this character would be a nameless thug with barely any screen time or impact on the plot.

Yet even he comes out looking better than Swiper.

I don’t want to say that Swiper’s inclusion here doesn’t “make sense”, since he’s a part of the source material and the bar for disbelief has been set pretty fucking high in this globetrotting historical fantasy adventure. But that’s just it: This is a movie very clearly made in the vein of Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, The Adventures of Tintin, the ’90s Mummy remake, The Goonies, and so on. Of course the movie is going to feature elaborate puzzles and implausible deathtraps. Magic of some kind would be feasible, provided it’s compatible with the mythology. Even an animal sidekick of Boots’ intelligence would be at home within the genre. (see also: Abu from Aladdin, Tintin’s dog Snowy, Barbossa’s monkey Jack, and so on.)

This, on the other hand, is an anthropomorphic kleptomaniac fox inexplicably voiced by Benicio Del Toro. He’s clearly shown to be working with the villainous mercenaries for no apparent reason whatsoever. As one character points out, Swiper even wears a totally useless mask, if only to complete the picture of a stereotype cartoon thief. There is not a single solitary goddamn thing about this character that even remotely fits with the rest of the film.

The good news is that otherwise, director James Bobin (and his recurring collaborator, writer/producer Nicholas Stoller) very clearly knows exactly what movie he’s making. For all my gripes about the comic relief, the filmmakers never lose sight of what we really came here to see, and all the extraneous bullshit (of which there is admittedly a metric ton) is never allowed to fully conceal it. Thus the central themes of friendship and family are developed in clever and sincerely heartfelt ways, while the adventure genre thrills are nicely satisfying for all ages.

Most importantly of all, in case I haven’t already made it clear, Isabela Moner is on fire here. “Charisma” doesn’t even begin to describe it, she’s positively magnetic from start to finish. In the character’s unyielding optimism, her rock-solid backbone, and her naive vulnerability, Moner makes absolutely every moment shine.

…With some exceptions.

You see, Dora sings. Because of course she does, it’s another holdover from the source material. Thus Dora responds to pretty much everything with a song. If she’s happy, if she’s sad, if she’s scared, if she’s having trouble remembering something, her first solution is always “Let’s sing a song about it!” While it’s consistently lampshaded by the other characters, that doesn’t make it any less annoying. I could point to any number of examples, but the indisputable nadir comes when Dora sings about digging a cathole. Seriously, Dora literally sings a happy upbeat song about poop. That happens.

On the other hand, the jokes typically work more often than they don’t. It certainly helps that through pretty much the entire film, our characters are surrounded by an extremely dangerous rainforest filled with plants and insects that don’t want them there. Thus the humor contrasts quite nicely against the terrible circumstances of the plot. Probably my favorite example is the constant stream of fart jokes made while our characters are stepping through quicksand. Major bonus points for making a series of fart jokes legitimately clever and funny — you don’t see that very often.

Another great case in point is in Dora’s parents. Yes, Michael Pena’s cringeworthy a capella rave music should’ve been kept to the trailer without ever getting stretched out to feature length. On the other hand, this kind of “dad humor” has been so thoroughly established as Pena’s forte that even when his jokes bomb, it still comes off as endearing. (Same for Moner, come to think of it.) As for Eva Longoria, what do I really have to say? All she has to do is show up and she perfectly nails the role of Dora’s mom.

While Dora and the Lost City of Gold has many glaring flaws, I still had a great time with it. The whole movie is random without feeling careless, and self-referential without ever condescending. The humor, adventure fantasy, and heart of the film are all nicely satisfying in a way that will appeal to all ages. And even if the supporting cast is less than stellar, Isabela Moner’s lead performance is more than strong enough to keep everything watchable.

Definitely give this one a look.

The Farewell

Posted August 8, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

The Farewell is the sophomore feature of writer/producer/director Lulu Wang, based loosely on events in her own life. While the film is primarily in Mandarin, the dialogue weaves between English and Mandarin in a highly unusual fashion. This is also a starring vehicle for Awkwafina, primarily known to filmgoers as the scene-stealing comic relief of Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians.

Put it all together and what do we get? A sweet and darkly comical family dramedy.

Our stage is primarily set in Changchun, China. The plot is centered around a wedding between Hao Hao (Chen Han) and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who’ve been going out for all of three months. The both of them come off as hapless dolts, perhaps because Hao Hao was raised in Japan and barely speaks any Chinese, and his betrothed speaks no language other than Japanese.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the married couple because they’re not the main characters. It would be more accurate to call them the comic relief. In point of fact, this whole rushed marriage is literally a distraction.

See, Nai Nai (that’s Chinese for “paternal grandmother”, played by Zhao Shuzhen) has just been diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer. Thus the marriage is arranged as a convenient excuse for a family reunion so everyone can get a few last happy memories with Nai Nai. And the grandmother herself is none the wiser.

To clarify: This woman is dying and her own family has collectively decided not to tell her. Hilarity ensues.

To start with, this is a famously thorny issue in real-world bioethics. If a patient is absolutely certain to have some chronic disease that’s completely incurable and eventually fatal, does it do any good to inform the patient? Even if the patient doesn’t want to know? After all, what’s the point in worrying about something that can’t be prevented? And if some miracle happens and the illness goes away for whatever reason, all that time and worry was for nothing.

Of course, the obvious counterpoint is that if the patient doesn’t know about it, they can’t do anything to prepare for it. They can’t settle their affairs or say their goodbyes or cross any last items off the bucket list. Moreover, how can the patient agree to any kind of treatment when informed consent isn’t an option?

Here in America, at least, that conundrum has been resolved: Patients have every right to their own medical history, in full and without any alterations or omissions. Period. It appears, however, that Chinese culture has a very different take, more focused on community and family. Basically, everyone bottles up their emotions and keeps the truth to themselves so Nai Nai can better enjoy what time she has left. They’re shouldering that emotional burden so she doesn’t have to, you see.

Hell, even Nai Nai knows that something is wrong with her — she’s got Stage Four cancer, for fuck’s sake, of course she’s not feeling great. Yet she still smiles and carries on like nothing is wrong because she doesn’t want to worry anyone.

The obvious drawback is the toxic undercurrent between every character in this movie. Everyone is carrying a terrible secret from their loved ones, and it’s tearing them up inside because they can’t communicate. They can’t show whatever anguish they’re feeling, and they can’t talk about what they’re going through or why they’re going through it. There’s even a point when one character breaks down and admits that they can’t tell Nai Nai the truth just because it’s too hard. Alas, nobody asks the obvious follow-up question: Are they doing this out of tradition, or cowardice?

So where does Awkwafina fit into all of this? Excellent question, I’m so glad you asked. She plays Billi, our protagonist and stand-in for the writer/director. She was born in China and speaks fluent Mandarin, but she’s lived in the States and spoken in English since she was six. She hasn’t been to China in ages, but she has many beloved childhood memories of the homeland and she keeps in regular contact with her beloved Nai Nai. Billi has her own apartment in New York City, but she frequently visits her parents’ house, and of course her parents are hardcore Chinese.

Even after a lifetime of living in both worlds, it’s clear that Billi is still figuring herself out. After all, it’s hard enough for a young independent woman in New York to try and make a living for herself as a writer. Never mind all the pressure from two different cultures to pay the rent, find a husband, and so on.

Of course things reach a whole new level when Billi goes to China, and she’s pressured by her family into dealing with lung cancer in a way that would be straight-up illegal in America. She hasn’t been raised in this culture, nor has she been raised to bottle up her emotions like her family has, so nobody thinks she can handle the pressure. She loves her family, so she’ll put up with this bullshit as much as she has to, but she doesn’t like this arrangement and she’s taking every chance she’s got to make her opinion known. In turn, this leads to passive-aggressive sniping about how Billi isn’t as Chinese as the rest of her family.

Remember that toxic undercurrent I was talking about earlier? Yeah, the rest of the family might not like to admit that they’re suffering through Nai Nai’s illness, but they’re pretty clearly taking it out on Billi.

Then again, Billi has her own secrets. She just got turned down for a huge fellowship and she can’t bring herself to tell the family. Sure, it’s nothing on the scale of terminal cancer, but she’s still keeping a secret from her family because she doesn’t want to worry them, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and she’s too ashamed of the truth. Hypocrisy, much?

This all might sound like a heavy film, and it is indeed heavy subject matter. Even so, the various secrets and white lies lead to a steady flow of dramatic irony from start to finish. The funniest scenes in the movie are powered by everything the audience knows that the characters don’t. I can think of one or two great wedding speeches in the climax that are great cases in point. We’ve also got an ingenious scene between Billi and an English-speaking doctor, talking openly and candidly about Nai Nai’s condition while the patient herself can’t understand a word. But my personal favorite spoiler-free example would be Nai Nai teaching her breathing exercises to Billi. The same exercises that keep Nai Nai healthy, you see.

The entire cast is aces. I can’t possibly heap enough praise onto the actors for keeping these characters 100 percent sympathetic without ever completely absolving them of the manipulative dishonest bullshit they commit. It’s patently obvious that these people are not operating on any kind of logic, but their hearts are in the right place and they’re deep in mourning (however much they refuse to show it). Thus the film has its distinctly bittersweet flavor.

That said, it’s Awkwafina who makes this darkly ironic material work so well. It’s impressive how she delivers such a nuanced and authentic performance, especially in contrast with the over-the-top clowns she’s played in previous films. She’s fantastic at making the audience laugh without compromising the film’s heart, making her objections known without ever once coming off as whiny or complaining. Billi’s history and relationship with Nai Nai are the core of the film, and both actors (Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhou) sell it perfectly.

I have no problem giving The Farewell a full recommendation. It’s darkly funny and yet heartfelt. It’s a portrayal of Chinese culture that’s detailed and respectful, yet uncompromising. Awkwafina’s performance may not be enough to get her an Oscar win or an instant spot on the A-list, but it’s easily worth a nomination and more leading roles ASAP. Hell, the entire cast is phenomenal, and it never once felt like any of them were playing stereotypes.

Definitely check this one out at your earliest convenience.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Posted August 5, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not about the Sharon Tate murders. It was clearly never intended to be a movie about the Sharon Tate murders. Hell, I don’t think it was ever even marketed as a movie about the Sharon Tate murders.

I know there are many who are upset — even offended — that this movie doesn’t go into detail about the life and death of Sharon Tate, doing more to humanize her, tell her story, celebrate her legacy, portray her (and her friends and her unborn child) as the victim of a tragic untimely death. I’ve no doubt there’s a fantastic movie to be made with all of that material, and the subject certainly deserves it. Somebody should absolutely make that movie, if they haven’t done so already. This is not that movie.

And anyway, let’s be honest — if anyone was seriously going to make that movie, would you really want it to be Quentin Fucking Tarantino?

This is the man who previously made films set in Nazi Germany and the Antebellum South, both of which could charitably be called “historical fiction”, though straight-up “revisionist revenge fantasy” might be a more accurate label. So here we are with a movie set in Los Angeles, circa 1969, starring a washed-up cowboy actor (Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) with a house on Cielo Drive, and a stuntman (Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt) who takes a tour through the Spahn Movie Ranch during the course of the plot. If those specific locations mean anything to you, then you probably won’t have to do a lot of homework before seeing the film.

(Side note: No, to my recollection, DiCaprio and Robbie don’t share any scenes together. Damn shame — I might have liked to see that reunion under Tarantino.)

Sharon Tate herself makes an appearance (here immortalized by Margot Robbie), but she doesn’t have any kind of active role in the plot and she barely has any dialogue. She’s there simply to look pretty, playing the part of the naive bright-eyed up-and-coming actor and wife/muse to white-hot director Roman Polanski (here played in passing by Rafal Zawierucha). This is of course made all the more tragic by our own knowledge about the respective fates that both of these Hollywood figures would meet over the next few decades.

Moreover, even though Robbie barely has any dialogue, she gives such an emotive and transformative performance that she totally sells the role. Of course, it certainly helps that she’s filtered through Tarantino’s unparalleled skill with camerawork and editing. Also, feet shots. Even by Tarantino’s usual standards, his trademark foot fetish is on heavy display here.

Is this portrayal of Sharon Tate true to life? Probably not. Is it a strong and empowering female role? Hell no, not even remotely close. Does it work as an idyllic starry-eyed symbol of ’60s Hollywood, with glamour and beauty and short-sighted optimism for the future? Absolutely.

Watching Tate go about her business in this movie — partying at the Playboy Mansion, watching a movie she costars in, nesting in preparation for the baby, etc. — it begs the question of what might have happened if she had lived. Would she be a stay-at-home mom for the rest of her life? Would she have gone on to a successful career in acting? Would she have flamed out when the next generation of pretty young actresses came along? Would Roman Polanski have even met Samantha Geimer? Most importantly — at least, where this movie’s concerned — how might Hollywood have been different if it wasn’t so radically affected by this heartbreaking tragedy?

We’ll never know, and that’s the real tragedy.

Ultimately, this movie is concerned with the Tate Murders as part of the grand seismic cultural upheaval that was the Summer of ’69. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Senator Ted Kennedy killed a woman in a drunk driving accident at Chappaquiddick. Woodstock made its debut in upstate New York. By any metric, this month-and-a-half window was a monumental turning point in history. That’s not even getting started on the slow collapse of the studio-driven system, which went out of vogue for a couple of decades after Hollywood got hit by the Recession of 1969. While Tarantino never even mentions any of these other events or what came after, he doesn’t really need to. After all, we know from our own experience and knowledge that nothing was ever the same again.

Thus Tarantino turns his lens toward the brief moment in time just before everything changed. The better for us to see how much has stayed the same, how much we’ve lost, and how much we might be better off losing.

To take it from the top, the real star of the movie is Rick Dalton, an aging cowboy actor who’s come to the crushing realization that he’s past his peak. (Remember, he’s literally Leonardo DiCaprio’s age.) It certainly doesn’t help that Rick is consistently coughing his lungs out, presumably after so many years of chain-smoking. He’s taking steady work playing villainous guest spots for various TV shows, getting his ass kicked by a rotating list of up-and-coming young actors. Long story short, he’s faced with the choice of staying in L.A. to continue brewing in his own encroaching obsolescence, or he can go to Italy and try his hand at the blossoming industry of cheap (and flagrantly racist) Spaghetti Westerns.

DiCaprio is all aces here, turning range and intensity like I haven’t seen from him since Wolf of Wall Street. What’s especially impressive is the movie-within-a-movie aspect, as we follow Rick Dalton through one of his gigs. We watch Rick run his lines and prepare for a role, then perform that exact same dialogue in costume and character, and the repetition is somehow compelling. It’s genuinely fascinating to watch Rick switch in and out of character in mid-scene, and often in mid-line.

But my personal favorite material has to be DiCaprio’s exchanges with a child actor played by Julia Butters. Here is the contrast of old and new perfectly demonstrated, as this aging drunken maverick trades words with a poised and dedicated professional not even a third his age. She takes The Craft seriously to an extent that Rick can’t even begin to comprehend, yet she’s treating him and trusting him as a fellow coworker and scene partner. Thus Rick (in spite of himself, and perhaps even without knowing it) looks to her for approval and some slight confirmation that he can still cut it as an actor. The two of them only get two scenes together, but they’re pure dynamite.

Then we have Rick’s stuntman/chauffer/handyman/drinking parter/best friend for hire, Cliff Booth. I know what you’re already thinking: If he’s charismatic and multi-talented enough to be played by freaking Brad Pitt, why isn’t he the star instead of Rick Dalton? Well, to start with, there’s an unfortunate rumor that Cliff murdered his wife. This isn’t helped by a brief yet painfully awkward flashback in which Cliff’s wife (Rebecca Gayheart) is shown as a shrill nagging harpy, with the implication that her husband was totally justified in her cold-blooded murder. Even if it’s never explicitly stated that he did it… god damn.

It also doesn’t help that Cliff clearly has an eye for younger — MUCH younger — women. In one of his introductory scenes, we see Cliff lusting after a hippie girl (“Pussycat”, played by Margaret Qualley) who’s barely more than a teenager, while “Mrs. Robinson” plays on the radio. Yikes. Yes, there is a moment when Cliff could have his way with her and he knows enough to turn her down without proof that she’s of age, but still. Squicky as hell.

With all of that said, Cliff is very clearly a throwback to the ’60s ideal of raw machismo. (See also: Steve McQueen, incidentally played in this movie by Damian Lewis.) He’s got a devil-may-care kind of attitude and a razor-sharp wit. He can take as many beatings as he can dish out. He’s nice until it’s time to not be nice, and he’s not the type to tolerate or dish out any bullshit. I’m sure you know the type, and Pitt is clearly having a blast in the role. It’s a performance with all the terrifying fun of Lt. Aldo Raine, but without so much of the over-the-top campiness.

Something else that’s notable about Cliff is that he’s our primary source of violence in the film. And surprisingly, we don’t get as much of that as you might think. We get a street fight with Bruce Lee (played here by Mike Moh), we get a hippie’s face getting curb-stomped, and we’ve got that over-the-top bloody burning chaos in the climax. That’s three brief yet awesome major fight scenes in the space of just under three hours, and Cliff is at the center of them all.

(Side note: Speaking of Bruce Lee, I’ve got to say that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the portrayal of the martial arts legend as a braying jackass with a chip on his shoulder. Then again, I understand that the real Bruce Lee was a consummate show-off who often got himself arrested for picking fights, so make of that what you will.)

With all of that said, I humbly submit that Tarantino didn’t really gain auteur status for his violent scenes. If anything, it’s really more the looming threat of imminent violence that shows off Tarantino at his best. It’s his Mexican standoffs, his interrogation scenes, the discussions between two or more people who may be only seconds away from blowing each other’s brains out.

In this case, most of the suspense comes from the looming Tate Murders and a brief walk-on appearance from Charles Manson himself (played by Damon Herriman). We know that things are about to go to shit in a big way, but because our two main characters are inventions of the filmmakers, we don’t know exactly how. But even when the Tate Murders aren’t a factor (Because, remember, this movie isn’t about the Tate Murders.), the dialogue exchanges are still compelling because of how much it shows us about the characters. It really is fascinating to see how much we learn about Rick and Cliff based on what they say, what they don’t say, how they react, and so on. These characters and performances are so compelling that they’re endlessly watchable, even when we’re watching the two of them carrying on with trivial conversations (like the aforementioned exchange between Rick and his young costar).

Alas, while the cast is loaded from top to bottom with a wide variety of talents, none of them really stick. Aside from our three main characters, nobody gets any decent amount of screen time. Margaret Qualley and Julia Butters turn in the best supporting performances by a mile, but that’s about it.

Sometimes (as with Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, etc.), this comes off as a sad waste of talent. Sometimes (Hi, Zoe Bell! Hey there, Michael Madsen!), we get fun little surprise cameo appearances. But most of the time (as with Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damien Lewis, Lena Dunham, the late Luke Perry, and others), we get performers who come and go so quickly and with so little fanfare that they barely even register.

And of course that’s not even getting started on Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith, Rumer Willis, and other showbiz kids working here as extras. They are all window dressing and little else.

Aside from a few token scenes of violence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is far more contemplative than most of Tarantino’s work. It’s a 160-minute film not terribly concerned with rushing to the next action beat or plot point, but content to spend time with our main characters and soaking in the ill-fated Hollywood glamour of 1969. I can’t even blame the film for being all that bloated — even the apparently redundant moments convey so much about the characters, and often pay off in exciting ways later on.

Even so, sitting through such a long movie can be a huge ask. Especially since Tarantino is not a filmmaker for all tastes, and even some of the auteur’s aficionados might not agree with some of the directions he took here. God knows the ending has already brewed up no shortage of controversy, and rightly so.

The three lead performances are uniformly magnetic, and even the worst supporting role is charming enough. Plus, all of Tarantino’s well-practiced skills as a writer/director are on full display here. All told, I’d say this is absolutely a home video must-watch. And for those of you with a vested interest in the awards races, this should absolutely be considered mandatory viewing.

Sword of Trust

Posted July 27, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I was going to see the big new release this weekend, but the timing didn’t work out and every showtime near me was sold out. Luckily, my theater was also showing a lesser-known movie at the same time that I was able to enjoy instead.

Have you ever had a moment like that? No? Then maybe you should visit your local arthouses more often.

Sword of Trust opens in a pawn shop somewhere in Birmingham, Alabama. The store is run by Mel (Marc Maron, who also contributed to the charming guitar-driven score), a washed-up musician still trying to move on from his junkie ex-girlfriend (Deirdre, played by writer/director Lynn Shelton). He’s assisted by Nathaniel (Jon Bass), a brain-dead lump of a man who typically spends most of his time watching YouTube videos about conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, etc. Mel is trying to run an honest business, but of course it’s hard enough running a flea market, even without an incompetent employee and an ex-girlfriend always coming around for another loan she can’t pay off.

Enter Cynthia and her life partner, Mary (respectively played by Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins). Cynthia’s grandfather finally passed away at 90-some-odd years old, and all that he could leave her is a Civil War-era sword. A Union sword, in fact, which would be strange enough in Alabama. And with the sword, Cynthia’s grandfather included a rambling and incoherent story about a huge Civil War battle absent from the history books, ending with a Union general surrendering this very sword to the Confederate side.

In summary, this sword is proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. Yes, you read that right.

Because you are (hopefully) a sane and rational person, you might be thinking that premise is asinine at best and outrageously racist at worst. There’s no way you could possibly believe it, and rightfully so, but that’s not the point. The point is that there are so many out there who not only believe it to be true, but desperately need it to be true. I’m talking about all the racist Confederate knuckle-draggers scraping for anything that could possibly vindicate the venerated “war heroes” in their family tree, and would pay through the nose for any scrap of evidence that might possibly convince others that this fairy tale really happened.

So our lesbian couple go to our pawn shop keepers and decide “Hey, why not play these assholes for all the money they’re worth and get rid of the sword in the bargain?” Hilarity ensues. Especially the part where these delusional gun-toting rednecks turn out to be the violent type and this whole deal may very well end up with somebody dead.

While I’m personally more inclined to take aim at the “Heritage Not Hate” crowd (It’s 2019 and I make no apologies for that), the movie takes a much wider view, with commentary that’s more about the “free thinkers” who “question everything” and “think outside the box”, refusing to accept what they’ve merely been told. And sure, there’s a lot of room for speculation and difference of opinion. One character brings up the existence of ghosts, for example — we don’t really know anything about the afterlife, and there’s certainly room for debate with regards to something that cannot be definitively proven or disproven.

That’s not the same thing as arguing that the Earth is flat. Or thinking that one senile old man’s delirious rambling is enough to change anything about one of the most thoroughly researched and well-documented wars in our nation’s history. Thinking “outside the box” doesn’t mean believing in shit that is demonstrably untrue. It certainly doesn’t mean choosing a conclusion ahead of time and then cherry-picking or outright manufacturing “proof” to justify that conclusion — hell, that’s the exact opposite of rational thought!

And yet this outrageous anti-logic continues to spread, lowering the bar for what constitutes civil and rational behavior while chipping away at the most basic concept of what is objectively true. And for what? For a few cheap, ironic, mindless chuckles? So smug assholes can feel special for being contrary?

(Side note: Or maybe these YouTube content creators are simply moving in the direction of whatever will bring them Likes and Subscribes so their videos will keep generating clicks and making money. These are the times we’re living in.)

Well, in the case of our Confederate truthers, that answer is obvious: Because for better or worse, this is their heritage. Not all descendants of Confederates are racists, but every single one of them has to make their peace with the legacy left to them by their racist ancestors. Cynthia herself is a fine example: Her grandfather may have been a racist Confederate numskull, but she still remembers him fondly as a good man who took loving care of her. She makes an effort to square that circle, as opposed to so many others in this picture who would rather rewrite history so their ancestors were the real heroes all along.

Oh, and lest we forget, some of these same assholes would literally fight to the death over this; threatening, intimidating, assaulting, or even outright murdering anyone who stands in their way. How’s that for rational discourse?

This film works on multiple levels as a highly relevant satire. It certainly helps that the cast is on fire, with strong interplay between our four leads. Even among the bit players — including Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas, Al Elliott, and of course Lynn Shelton herself — there’s not a single dud in the bunch. The comedy is wickedly effective and all of the characters are compelling. Even the Confederate truthers aren’t quite the cartoon stereotypes they might have been under another director.

That said, this is still a Lynn Shelton picture.

For those who’ve never seen her other works (Humpday, Laggies, the criminally underrated Your Sister’s Sister, etc.), Shelton’s movies are deliberately very loose. She has a semi-improvised style, in which the scenes are pretty much entirely made up on the fly. Thus her movies are loaded with what I’ve come to call “machine-gun humor”, i.e. spraying a million jokes a minute in every direction and hoping at least a few of them hit the mark.

While many higher-profile filmmakers have also made careers out of this style of comedy (Seth Rogen, Paul Feig, Judd Apatow, etc.), it always feels lazy and stupid, like the filmmakers did this because they didn’t want to put the time or money into writing a script. With Lynn Shelton’s pictures, it feels like the exact opposite. Shelton’s movies feel more like devised theatre, in which the actors and writer/director are collaborating on a script in real time before our eyes.

It certainly helps that Shelton has a preternatural knack for editing out all but the most prime slices of comedy, curating the jokes and smoothing the cuts like her fellow “machine-gun” filmmakers only wish they could. To wit: It speaks volumes and makes a huge difference that Shelton’s movies are typically around 90 minutes each, while Paul Feig’s movies are closer to two hours each. Watching the films of both directors, it’s obvious what a difference it makes to have 30 minutes of less bloat.

That said, the bloat is still absolutely there. In the third act, it’s especially obvious where scenes are extended long past the point of being funny or relevant, just to draw out the runtime. This becomes especially obvious when the scenes have pathetically easy and convenient resolutions that could have and probably should have been brought in earlier, thus the stakes and tension are diminished in the bargain!

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Sword of Trust. I have to give major points for such a bold and deeply incisive premise. There’s a lot of great satire here, delivered with brains, heart, and a fair share of great laughs. Of course it helps that the cast is rock-solid and a joy to watch. Even so, while the pacing was wonderful on the whole, that only made the awkward and overlong scenes look all the more stale.

I have a difficult time justifying the time and trouble to track down and see such a tiny indie movie in peak blockbuster season, especially given the scant (and yet still bloated) runtime. But when this one hits streaming, you should absolutely check it out.

The Lion King (2019)

Posted July 21, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve heard it said that The Lion King is the most bankable franchise in history. I don’t know if that’s true anymore (I’d be interested to see those numbers after Harry Potter and the MCU), but it certainly could have been true back in the ’90s. Given the constant ubiquity of The Lion King since 1994 (I won’t even try cataloging all of its different incarnations, spin-offs, and merchandising here), of course Disney was guaranteed to revisit the film during their ongoing live-action remake phase.

With The Lion King (2019), the filmmakers promised a photo-realistic take on the same story, featuring characters and settings that look borderline indistinguishable from real live animals on the actual African savannah. Right off the bat, I considered this a massive red flag, and for one simple reason: It implies that the setting is the most important part of the movie.

Hear me out.

There’s a reason why The Lion King is frequently compared to the works of Shakespeare. The stories, themes, and characters of the original film are all classic archetypes, made from timeless and universal stuff recognizable from Shakespeare’s time and even further back into antiquity. With that in mind, answer me this: If this exact same story had been told in any other time and place, and with characters of any other species, would it really have been so radically different? Potentially, there could be as many ways to tell this story as to tell Hamlet or Macbeth.

For instance, I once saw a Romeo and Juliet adaptation in which all of the characters were orcs. Can you picture the story of The Lion King told, but all of the characters are orcs? How would that make any appreciable difference, seriously?

Speaking purely from my own experience, I’d wager that the animation and the music were both far greater reasons why the original film is so iconic and beloved. Or maybe the film means so much to you (as it did to me personally) because Mufasa’s was the first onscreen death that truly affected you. Would that death have been any less powerful or meaningful if the father and son were humans? Or aliens? Or anything other than lions?

Getting back to the animation, I disagree with the basic premise that “more realistic” automatically means “better.” The cel-shaded characters of the 1994 film may not have looked exactly like real animals, but they had personality. They each had their own distinct and identifiable look, and they could show clear facial expressions.

Just for a moment, pretend you’ve never seen anything from the 2019 remake. Maybe you’ve heard of it, but you’ve never seen a single frame of it. Now look at this picture, removed from all context. Is that Simba? Mufasa? Is it just another lion? How could you tell? But look at this picture, and I guarantee you nobody would have to ask who that is.

This gets to be an especially huge problem in the third act, when Sarabi and Nala are both grown lions, both active in the plot, and telling them apart from one another is pretty much impossible. Later on, when Simba and Scar are fighting each other, it’s all just a mass of fur and there’s no telling who’s who.

Incidentally, the original film and the remake both feature a freak bolt of lightning striking a dry tree at the most dramatically convenient time and setting all of Pride Rock ablaze in an instant. That worked in the original film because the presentation had more of a fantasy tinge, and we’d already sat through so many bright and colorful music numbers by that point. Suspending disbelief was easy. Compare that to the remake, which puts a lot more effort on setting this story in the “real” world. So much so that Mufasa’s ghost now appears as a giant thundercloud only vaguely resembling a lion’s head, and the “Just Can’t Wait to be King” number swaps out the multicolored Busby Berkeley spectacle with the actual colors and sounds of the real African savannah.

As so often happens with these Disney live-action remakes, it smacks of the filmmakers trying to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work. That said, this is the one live-action remake in which bringing back the original songs was the right decision. Because the context is virtually unchanged and all of the voices in the remake are comparable with those of the original (and in the case of Mufasa’s, literally the same), the old songs are all carried over intact. With a few exceptions.

Probably the most tragic casualty is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” here presented without a single iota of chemistry, magic, or romance. “Be Prepared” is almost as bad, as the “photo-realistic” approach means that we get a villain song without any of the larger-than-life bombast to make it scary, imposing, or fun in any way. Conversely, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is actually improved upon here, a fun little song in multi-part harmony instead of a quick throwaway joke. Otherwise, “Hakuna Matata” works out okay, and the opening “Circle of Life” number is practically a shot-for-shot remake of the original sequence.

(Side note: The soundtrack also features an original song called “Spirit”. I couldn’t tell you a thing about it if I tried.)

Speaking of which, this movie puts in a far more deliberate effort at making “The Circle of Life” into more than just a catchphrase. The interconnected nature of life, how everyone has a place in the grand scheme of things, and how we therefore have a responsibility to one another because every action has consequences… these are all prominent themes made abundantly clear to an extent that they never were in the original film. For example, it’s explicitly stated in the remake that Scar allowed his hyenas to overhunt, wantonly culling the population of prey animals to throw off the Circle of Life, and that is why Pride Rock fell to shit when he took the throne. That is a massive improvement.

On the other hand, we also get a subplot in which Scar covets Sarabi for his own wife. While this was always kinda sorta implied in the source material, this movie makes it perfectly clear to no effect at all. Seriously, the added motivation is useless and it would’ve been more than enough that Scar was greedy and power-mad for the sake of it.

Given that the remake is half an hour longer than the original, it should come as no surprise that there’s a lot of bloat here. One prominent case in point comes late in the second act, when Nala has to sneak her way out of Pride Rock. There’s this whole extended sequence in which Nala is trying to avoid Scar and his hyenas, and it would have done just as much good on the cutting room floor.

But of course the most bewildering waste of time has to be the sequence in which a tuft of Simba’s hair finds its way to Rafiki. In the original film, this took virtually no time at all — a simple cross-fade and it was done. Here, it’s this massive, sprawling, three-minute sequence in which we follow Simba’s hair every single agonizing step of the way. And a significant stretch of that journey includes the digestive tract of a giraffe. Yes, you read that correctly.

Getting back to the villains roster, Chiwetel Ejiofor was a marvelous choice for Scar and he plays the role superbly. Banzai and Ed have now been replaced with Kamari and Azizi, respectively played by Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre. (I presume Jordan Peele was unavailable.) Thus instead of a triple-act — as in the original film — we now have a double-act of bickering hyenas. I’m willing to call that an upgrade, especially since the two of them are played by gifted comedians and Ed was useless by design anyway.

Meanwhile, Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) has been promoted and she is now the Chief Hyena. This was apparently done so that Nala (Beyonce) would have a worthy opponent to fight in the climax, and I really don’t mind that. After all, it’s not like Nala served much of any purpose in the source material, except to serve as a love interest. Hell, even Zazu, Pumbaa, and Rafiki show some backbone and get in on the action at times. It’s not always much, but kudos all the same.

Zazu (John Oliver), Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and Timon (Billy Eichner) are all fantastic. Zazu and Pumbaa are by far the most improved, as it makes an incalculably huge difference to have comic relief characters played by actors who are legitimately funny. Granted, neither Oliver nor Rogen can sing for shit, but that’s not exactly a dealbreaker as neither of those were ever huge singing roles.

The big problem with the comic relief — and this is pretty much solely limited to Timon and Pumbaa — is that it gets uncomfortably meta. There are a lot of direct references to the original film, and the hula number in the original is here replaced with a straight-up parody of a Disney song from another film. (No, I’m not spoiling which one.) On the one hand, it was imperative to bring in new jokes and new surprises to keep the comedy fresh for the remake. And it’s not like the original film was entirely void of anachronisms or Disney references (“It’s a Small World”, anyone?).

On the other hand, these meta references and comments on the original film add to the feeling that this remake can’t stand on its own merit. That was always going to be this remake’s biggest problem and its main struggle for credibility. Even as it is, I’m mentally projecting the 1994 character designs onto the 2019 character designs because it’s the only way I can tell who’s who. When the filmmakers are already fighting an uphill battle in convincing moviegoers that this remake is justified, leaning so heavily against the original film and other Disney pictures seems to be a tactical blunder.

Back to the voice cast, of course it was a joy to hear James Earl Jones back in the role of Mufasa. Sure, he’s getting on in years, but that works beautifully with the character. We’ve also got Alfre Woodard on hand, turning in a solid performance as Sarabi. Further kudos are due to JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, respectively voicing Young Simba and Young Nala. I especially liked the film’s renewed emphasis on Simba’s childish fixation on being treated as the future king (read: king), rather than a helpless cub.

Alas, adult Simba and adult Nala don’t fare nearly as well. Beyonce was miscast, and she clearly sounds like the role is beneath her. And Donald Glover… buddy, I love you, but you’re not a voice actor. And that makes a huge difference when the onscreen characters are barely capable of emoting. The voice acting and the camera movements are pretty much all we’ve got for getting into the characters’ heads and understanding their emotions, so when the voice acting isn’t there, we’re dead in the water.

The Lion King (2019) is ultimately a remake. Nothing more, nothing less. It does some things better, it does other things worse, and it all evens out to nothing lesser or greater than a different telling of the same old story. Not any better or worse, necessarily, just different.

That said, I keep coming back to the meta jokes, plus the songs and character designs that are nowhere near as effective as those of the original. With that in mind, I have a very difficult time justifying this movie as its own standalone feature, and I can’t imagine that this would be anyone’s ideal introduction to the franchise.

I’m giving this one a highly tentative recommendation, but only as a supplement to the original animated feature. Not unlike the Broadway stage show, come to think of it.

Crawl

Posted July 20, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

The trailer to Crawl showed a young woman (Haley, played by Kaya Scodelario) running to help her father (Dave, played by Barry Pepper), who’s trapped inside his basement during a Category 5 hurricane. The trailer very clearly shows that an evacuation warning is in place, urging everyone to get out, and no help will be forthcoming. Yet our protagonist charges in anyway and finds herself and her father running from giant bloodthirsty alligators.

The film comes to us from producer Sam Raimi, known for his disturbing sadistic glee in making his characters suffer. The director is Alexandre Aja, still perhaps best known for his 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, though I’m honestly partial to his uber-campy Piranha 3D tits-and-gorefest. The screenplay comes to us from the team of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who’ve previously written two or three quickly-forgotten shlocky horror flicks.

Taking all of this into account, one major question springs to mind: How to make the lead character sympathetic. Even with the best of intentions, it’s tough to sympathize with someone charging into a goddamn hurricane without training, backup, equipment, or prep of any kind. At some point, there’s asking for trouble to the extent that we can’t really be shocked or saddened when trouble comes. Furthermore, these are alligators in Florida. And they’re barging into homes that should’ve been abandoned before they got flattened by the Category 5 hurricane. What reason do I have to root against the gators?

Granted, Sam Raimi faced similar problems with the phenomenal Don’t Breathe, but there were some crucial differences. That movie was about a team of bumbling coed thieves breaking into the home of a homicidal psychopath. It was a story of Bad versus Evil, in which we could watch the conflict escalate with the knowledge that both sides would be made to suffer for their respective crimes. But in a conflict between literal predatory beasts and a well-intentioned idiot on a rescue mission, that same morality doesn’t apply.

Then again, this is a movie made by Aja and the Rasmussen Brothers. This isn’t the team you hire for a character study or a morality play. This is the team you hire when you want to make a brainless action/horror thrill ride in which the plot is an afterthought at best. And that’s exactly what we got.

Granted, Haley is a competitive swimmer and her dad was her first coach, so at least the two have something of a fighting chance in the water. Even so, that doesn’t excuse our lead character from charging into an active disaster area with no backup or prep, actively and willfully ignoring the multitude of warning signs telling her to just go back already. And upon arriving at the house, she proceeds to move without any sense of urgency, taking in all the old photographs and mementos even as the literal Category 5 hurricane is beating down around her!

Yes, I’m aware that this woman is looking for her father and wants to know that he’s okay. I get that and I sympathize. Even so, one of the first things anyone learns in CPR training (and as a competitive swimmer, of course she’s trained in CPR) is to never try and help anyone in a hazardous situation without the proper training. It only means that when the professionals arrive, they’ll have to try and lift out two bodies instead of one.

It gets even worse. When Haley and her dad are in the basement, Dave informs her that the gators got in through the drainage pipe. You might be thinking “No, she couldn’t possibly be that stupid.” Yes, she certainly is.

To be entirely fair, Scodelario is a natural-born Last Girl Standing, and she plays through every super-tight extreme close-up like a champ. She’s also got a fantastic scene partner in Barry Pepper, who’s certainly worked with less before. (Battlefield Earth, anyone?) The two of them have a solid interplay that belongs in a much better movie.

It’s disheartening to see these two actors trying so hard to salvage this picture, but they’ve got nothing to work with. The characters are too thin, the plot is too thin, and the themes are too thin. There’s something about courage and self-esteem, something about home and family; all of it a load of trite and cliched cock and bull with only the faintest connection to the central premise and the onscreen action.

To recap, the movie was never going to succeed based on the strength of its characters, the relevance of its themes, or the creativity of its premise. Instead, it appears that the filmmakers were banking on visceral thrills and immersive horror. Sure enough, the gore effects are great fun, the scares are nicely timed, and the production design looks solid. There’s a neat sense of claustrophobia in that basement, especially as the water level rises and our characters are running out of air.

There are only two problems with this. One is major, one is minor. The minor problem is in the uneven CGI. Some of the alligator shots look better than others, and that first shot in particular is laughably crude.

The major problem is that half an hour into the movie, Haley gets chomped by a gator. With enough force to equal a motherfucking pickup truck getting dropped onto her leg. The gator then proceeds to quickly swing her back and forth, as animals often do. The problem isn’t that our protagonist dies half an hour in. The problem is that not even five seconds later, she’s back up and running on both feet. It’s not even a problem for her at any subsequent point in the movie.

B’dee-uh, b’dee-uh, b’dee-uh, THAT’S ALL, FOLKS!

About five minutes later, we see a gang of hapless looters getting torn apart by gators like nothing. A couple of cops are ripped to shreds as well. But Haley gets bitten and it barely even fazes her. Not even once, but multiple times, Haley is bitten by a goddamn 12-foot-long alligator — featuring the most powerful jaws seen on God’s green earth since the motherfucking Tyrannosaurus Rex! — and she’s scarcely even bleeding afterwards.

Do I even need to explain why this ruins the whole useless movie? How the hell can anyone take this survival horror movie seriously when we know for a fact that our main character is invulnerable, and it’s established by the end of the first act? How can we possibly fear the awesome power of these preternatural killing machines when simply being within three feet of our heroine means they get Nerfed?

Crawl is toothless. The scares might be wonderfully presented, but that doesn’t matter when our lead character is clearly shown to be immune from all harm at the start of the film. I commend our two lead actors, but all their effort is wasted on thin characters, a thin plot, and thin themes. All of this amounts to a movie too stupid to be taken seriously, and yet the movie takes itself too seriously to be any fun.

Couple all of this with a runtime that doesn’t even reach 90 minutes and there’s no way this is worth paying for a full-price ticket. Even for a rental, why watch this when you could check out Piranha 3D? Not recommended.

Midsommar

Posted July 7, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Here’s a riddle for you, gentle readers: When is a horror movie not a horror movie? It’s a surprisingly relevant question, as the market reaches Blumhouse oversaturation and the market begins a new wave of trial and error in search of the Next Big Thing. Thus we have so many “horror” flicks in recent memory that don’t really depend on shocks or jump scares so much as a general feeling of psychological dread.

The recent flicks of Jordan Peele come immediately to mind, as Get Out and Us both depended more on social satire taken to horrifying extremes. Hell, Us outright rejected jump scares by way of a bookending gag. And of course that’s not even getting started on the recent wave of “prestige horror”: low-budget films like The Witch, It Comes at Night, and Hereditary, all of which were made with an emphasis on cinematic craftsmanship and heady ideas rather than cheap thrills and gory kills.

So here we are with Midsommar, the prestige horror film du jour, though it’s really only being marketed as horror because it comes to us from the writer/director of Hereditary. And that’s another movie only labeled as “horror” because it didn’t fit in any other box. Rather, I think it would be more honest to call this movie a psychological thriller, as the suspense of the film comes from our protagonist questioning what’s real as she gets twisted every which way by the rest of the cast.

Though when you get right down to it, this movie really best belongs in the same subgenre as The Endless, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and perhaps most famously, The Wicker Man. (And maybe Hot Fuzz, if you’re feeling generous.) It’s a movie about some modern urban people visiting an idyllic isolated community full of suspiciously happy yet overly secretive people. Weird shit happens, bodies pile up, our characters get drawn into some fucked-up ritual, hilarity ensues.

Oh, and speaking of The Wicker Man, this one also features a man in a bear costume. Yes, seriously. And we’re just getting started.

Our protagonist is Dani Ardor, played by soon-to-be A-lister Florence Pugh. On top of her crippling anxiety, she’s still in mourning for… well, pretty much her entire family. You see, Dani’s sister suffered from bipolar disorder until she decided to kill herself and take her parents with her. Thus we have a triple-homicide on our hands even before the opening credits roll.

Incidentally, the opening credits don’t roll until 12 minutes into this two-and-a-half-hour movie. I hope you brought your slippers and packed a lunch, folks, because we’re in for one long, slow burn of a movie.

Anyway, Dani is going out with Christian Hughes, played by Jack Reynor. After three years together, their relationship is finally at the breaking point, as Christian finds himself increasingly unable to work on his doctorate thesis while also fulfilling Dani’s overbearing emotional needs. But neither one of them can bring themselves to break it off because Dani still needs her emotional crutch (in spite of herself) and Christian doesn’t want the guilt that would come with dumping a woman after such a traumatic loss.

The catalyst of the plot is Pelle, a fellow student played by Vilhelm Blomgren. Born and raised in the remote Swedish commune of Harga, Pelle is returning home for an annual midsummer festival. And this one is somehow an extra-special festival that only happens once every 90 years, but I don’t recall hearing exactly what makes this one so much more special.

Pelle invites Christian to come along, and Dani more or less invites herself as well. Also on the journey is Josh (William Jackson Harper), an anthropology student writing his thesis on midsummer festivals in different European cultures. Rounding out the crew is Mark (Will Poulter), a boorish womanizing asshole brought along for the obvious dual purpose of comic relief/cannon fodder. Still, at least the character is effective comic relief in a way that’s fun to hate. Compare that to Ellora Torchia and Archie Madekwe, both of whom play characters who are sadly disposable and unmemorable.

There’s not a whole lot more I can say about the film without getting into spoilers, but it really doesn’t matter. This is, after all, a two-and-a-half-hour movie, there are no deaths between the 12-minute and 60-minute marks, and the big revelations don’t come until the last half-hour or so. The filmmakers put such a huge emphasis on setup that the payoff almost seems like an afterthought. In fact, the filmmakers put so much time and effort into the setup that no payoff could have possibly been worth it. And indeed, virtually nobody who’s sat through any of the previously mentioned films will be surprised by much of anything after sitting through two hours of this film.

On the other hand, the journey itself can be greatly entertaining even if the destination is lackluster. (Just ask any fan of Stephen King. Or J.J. Abrams.) The village of Harga is really the star here, and it’s genuinely impressive how much detail went into crafting this independent culture. The production design, the costume design, the choreography, the world-building… it’s all immaculate. Moreover, it certainly helps that the film takes place in the far north during the longest day of the year, which means that every corner of this setting is pretty much always brightly lit for us to see.

Additionally, while the revelations weren’t always worthy of the setup, they weren’t completely without value either. My personal favorite example comes near the end, when I was howling with laughter along with the rest of the audience as we sat through the most unintentionally hilarious sex scene since Showgirls. Another fine example comes at the hour-mark, in which we see two people get brutally slain in unflinching detail.

The visuals as a whole are incredible from start to finish. I was genuinely impressed with the filmmakers’ use of reflective surfaces and background action so we could see everything in one disturbingly long take. Writer/director Ari Aster has a demonstrated skill for silence, knowing exactly how long to draw something out and/or when to cut in for maximum tension and impact. Also, when the characters are high on drugs, the sensations are accompanied by special effects that are simplistic but still look really cool.

Then we have all the symbolism and world-building at play. I was especially fond of the storytelling tapestry that led to an expertly delivered gross-out gag later on. Even so, my favorite example is still probably the recurring image of cars. Given that Dani’s sister killed herself and her parents with carbon monoxide poisoning, the tired symbols of cars and exhaust smoke as symbols of urbanization and our poisoned environment take on several new terrifying layers when seen through Dani’s perspective.

So far as I can tell, the single most prominent theme of the movie is in its examination of groupthink. At its heart and core, this is a movie all about how any atrocity can be morally justified when backed by enough tradition, authority, social pressure, etc. It’s amazing what people will do to fit in, especially when they don’t have the option of arguing back or even thinking about it for a second. And it’s particularly easy for someone like Dani — her family is dead, her friends barely tolerate her presence, her therapist clearly isn’t doing the job well enough, and Dani still desperately needs a support network. So where else is she going to find one?

There’s a lot going on in this movie, but I’m not convinced it was enough to justify the runtime. After all, if anyone with half a brain can already tell where all of this is going based on the premise alone, is it really worth drawing out the movie for the sake of some pretty visuals and thorough world-building? It also doesn’t help that for how long the movie is, virtually none of that time was spent on developing the characters. In fact, with the sole and debatable exception of Dani, it seemed like every character in the movie got more shallow and less sympathetic as the movie went on. Christian is the most obvious example, starting out as a decent guy with the misfortune to be stuck in over his head, only to end up as a self-serving cowardly prick.

Back in my review of Hereditary, I said that film was “definitely one of those times in which stellar presentation saves a subpar story. The premise is threadbare, the characters are stock, and the hole-ridden plot is so dependent on arbitrary nonsense that I couldn’t care less about how any of this fugazi occultism is supposed to work.” While the occultist material in Midsommar is bolstered by superior world-building and production design, the rest of that quotation definitely applies to Midsommar. The visuals are fantastic throughout, the themes of social pressure are intriguing in this context, and the gross-out factor is beautifully innovative in places, but all of that and the slow-burn pacing aren’t enough to justify the excessive runtime.

Overall, this gets a solid home video recommendation. The visuals might not be quite as impressive on a smaller screen, but it’ll be worth it to pause and/or fast-forward through the slower segments. Plus, it’s entirely possible that this movie — riding perfectly on the line between authentic genius and pretentious garbage — may not be your thing, so I’d definitely recommend the cheaper option just in case.

Serenity (2019)

Posted July 4, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Serenity (2019) comes to us from writer/director Steven Knight, who previously wrote and directed a marvelous Tom Hardy showcase called Locke. After that one-man film turned out better than it had any right to be, I was genuinely excited to see Knight step behind the camera again. Especially when he had a cast loaded with such talents as Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane.

Little wonder the movie was scheduled for a September/October release window, making it a prime contender for the 2018 awards season. And then this happened.

“We had the best intentions for Serenity. We were excited for the opportunity to release this uniquely original movie and work with such a stellar cast and talented filmmakers. As much as we love this film and still hope it finds its audience, we tested and retested the film — with audiences and critics alike — and sadly, the data demonstrated that the film was not going to be able to perform at our initial expectations, so we adjusted our budget and marketing tactics accordingly. […] To have spent more would have been irresponsible to our capital partners and wouldn’t have made prudent business sense for an independent distributor.” –Statement from Aviron Pictures, the film’s distributor

In other words, the studio knew from test screenings that the movie was hot garbage. So they cut all promotion and shunted it to January 25th of 2019 — probably the deepest and darkest pit of the January cinematic dumping grounds. It was a pathetic attempt at saving face, especially after Knight, McConaughey, and Hathaway all made it publicly clear that they were not happy with their movie getting shafted.

It certainly didn’t help that Aviron was still licking its wounds after A Private War garnered marvelous critical reviews and even a few awards nominations, yet grossed a pathetic end total of $3.8 million worldwide. Later on, Aviron released After in April of 2019 — even against such slim competition as Hellboy (2019), Little, and Missing Link (in the pre-Avengers wasteland, admittedly), the movie was panned by critics, pretty much entirely dropped from theaters after only two weekends, and it scored a paltry $12 million take ($69.5 million worldwide, to be fair) against a $14 million reported budget.

I guess we’ll see how The Informer fares this coming August, and whether Aviron will still be in business by this time next year. Speaking of which, Serenity (2019) was also co-financed by Open Road Films, which went bankrupt in September of 2018. Right around the time when Serenity was first set for release. No way that’s a coincidence.

The point being that Serenity had no shortage of bad press even before it had been released. There was every reason to believe that it would be a garbage fire, and the numbers didn’t disappoint. The film was excoriated by critics and took in $11.4 million worldwide against a reported $25 million budget.

But the reviews themselves were interesting.

The more I heard about this movie, the more I started to hear about how it was totally batshit. There were no spoilers or specifics, of course, but there was something about this movie that made it uniquely bad in a bold and daring sort of way. Something that set it apart in a way that had to be seen to be believed.

So finally, I waited until the movie hit DVD and rented it from my favorite rental store (All hail Movie Madness, long live physical media!). And I’m genuinely glad I didn’t pay the full ticket price or I might have done something to get me arrested.

McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a war vet who runs the eponymous fishing boat alongside Djimon Hounsou’s character, name of Duke. Business is lousy, in large part because Baker keeps losing tourist money and more lucrative commercial catches to pursue an enormous tuna that’s escaped him multiple times in the past. In fact, Baker is so obsessed with catching this mammoth fish that he’s affectionately nicknamed it “Justice”.

I know. I know. It gets worse. As bad as you think it could possibly get with such on-the-nose symbolism, it gets worse. Stay with me.

Anyway, Baker is so hard-up for cash that he gets himself a sugar mama, played by Diane Lane. Also, her cat is always running away and Baker’s always bringing the cat back… there’s a whole thing about it and it’s another thread of extraneous bullshit on top of the pile.

The point is, Baker is at his most desperate for money. Enter Karen Zariakas, Baker’s ostentatiously wealthy old flame, played by Anne Hathaway. Unable to put up with Baker’s post-war PTSD, she left him some time ago for a wealthy drunken abusive asshole (Frank, played to the cheap seats by Jason Clarke) and she can’t go through with a divorce. So now Karen is offering $10 million in cash for Baker to take Frank out for a fishing trip and send him overboard, leaving the sharks to clean up the evidence and making the whole murder look like an accident.

To recap: We’ve got the morally ambiguous protagonist, the femme fatale, the criminal tough guy, the murder plot, and the ton of money. All the ingredients are here for a straightforward potboiler neo-noir. The problem is that even in a suspense thriller/crime drama like this one, there has to be comic relief. And there is not a single drop of comic relief in this movie. Not an ounce.

The result is that we’ve got a drama that takes itself waaay too fucking seriously. For God’s sake, this is a movie with perhaps the most basic boilerplate neo-noir premise imaginable. A movie in which the protagonist is “pursuing Justice” through the most contrived and heavy-handed metaphor the filmmakers could think of. A movie in which every character is painted with the broadest possible strokes and any illusion of depth comes from the strength of this absurdly over-qualified cast. That’s not even getting started on how the camera sometimes swoops around in a conspicuous way that’s clearly supposed to look cool and only looks pathetically out-of-place.

So much about this movie is already ludicrous, yet there’s no joy anywhere to be found in any of it. Quite the contrary, everyone in the cast and crew is taking all of this deathly seriously. Paradoxically, this means that the movie becomes a parody of itself even before the big twist.

Something else about the neo-noir genre is that we already know the original premise is bullshit. It’s Mystery Thriller 101: Every character is a liar. If the femme fatale wants our main character to commit a murder, then it’s obviously because of some other reason we don’t know about yet. So the audience is automatically on high alert, looking for clues and inconsistencies and anything that might suggest what’s really going on.

Thus the audience pays exceptionally close attention to the strange man with a suit and a briefcase (played by Jeremy Strong), the weird connection between Baker and his estranged son (played by Rafael Sayegh), the errant cat, Justice, and so on. And as this keeps going on, it becomes increasingly obvious that none of these clues or oddities have much of anything to do with the central crime thriller, leading all of us to wonder just how precisely all of this ties together.

Then we find out. And the movie jumps the shark. Into orbit. On a middle-finger-shaped rocket powered by every last fuck the filmmakers ever had to give.

There are plot twists, there are genre twists, and then there’s… I dunno, watching a hockey game only to find out after the second period that we were watching a pinball tournament the whole time. That’s what this is. It makes absolutely no sense, it doesn’t remotely mesh with any of the themes explored so far, and it throws away every setup in the entire goddamn film to be resolved with a payoff only a step or two above “It was all a dream.”

Critics of the time compared this to The Book of Henry, and it’s easy to see why: Both are movies with ambitious yet squirrelly premises that could only have been salvaged with a totally different genre, and both premises are centered around a withdrawn teenage boy whose intelligence is superhuman bordering on magical. But at least Book of Henry was up-front and self-aware about its own ridiculous premise and showed a sense of humor about it. By contrast, this joyless slog looks even dumber and more pretentious for refusing to acknowledge that this is all bullshit.

With that third-act twist, the whole movie is reduced to a juvenile mess in the worst way. The stakes are removed, the character development arcs are rendered moot, every single setup and payoff is voided, and every single plot development is reduced to “because the plot says so.” Literally the entire uncle-felching story is rendered pointless, and for no reason at all.

I’m trying, folks. I’m really trying to find a single redeeming thing about this movie and that twist. As best I can figure, the filmmakers were trying to devise some rumination about fate, luck, destiny, the laws of physics and probability, the will of God, and so on. It makes a kind of sense that the filmmakers would want to explore this through a fisherman protagonist, as fishermen are such a notoriously superstitious breed. But then the filmmakers took it several steps too far and made something functionally brain-dead when it should have been thoughtful and intelligent.

In fact, you know when I said that only a complete change in genre could have salvaged this? I take that back. This did not need a massive script overhaul. All it needed was a bit of selective editing and probably a few days of reshoots to smooth out the resulting holes in the third act. Quick and easy. When the test screenings came in and it became immediately obvious that the big third-act twist wasn’t working, and the studio delayed release for so many months, why the hell didn’t they use that time to schedule reshoots and put in the effort that might have fixed the damn thing?!

Serenity (2019) is a work of malice. Everyone involved in this — from the financiers to Steven Knight himself down to the last member of this wonderfully talented cast — should have known better. It’s staggering to think of how much money was lost, how many bridges were burned, and how many audience members got swindled out of their ticket money (not many in that last group, mercifully) because not a single person in the cast or crew had the courage or good sense to say that this script is the dumbest fucking thing to ever cost $25 million.

The minute this movie hit theaters, every critic immediately knew that it was destined for hundreds of year-end “Worst of” lists. This movie shows clear hatred toward the audience and thus deserves all the hatred it gets. FUCK THIS MOVIE.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted July 2, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame will be unavoidable for many obvious reasons. So I’m going to write this review with the assumption that you’ve either seen Endgame for yourself or had somebody spoil it for you by now. You’ve been warned. By the way, can I please come live in that rock you’ve been living under, at least until the 2020 elections are over?)

All of the movies in Phase I of the MCU may have been crucial in their own way, but it was Captain America: The First Avenger that most firmly established the Tesseract, which would later go on to be the central MacGuffin of The Avengers and the first of the Infinity Stones that powered the entire Infinity Saga. While The Avengers may have been immediately followed by Iron Man 3, it was Captain America: The Winter Soldier that did the most heavy lifting in picking up the pieces and defining what the post-Avengers MCU would look like. And then of course we have Captain America: Civil War, such an enormous game-changing crossover that it might as well have been Avengers 3.

Second only to the Avengers films themselves, it’s easy to make the case that the Captain America films were the most pivotal in the entire MCU. But now that Steve Rogers has passed the shield, it appears that Marvel is positioning Spider-Man to take center stage. Which makes sense, given that the Webhead has easily been Marvel’s most iconic, beloved, universally recognized character since his introduction in 1962. And of course now that Marvel finally has some degree of control over the film rights of the character, they’re eager to make up for lost time.

So here we are with Spider-Man: Far From Home, a movie ideally positioned to pick up the pieces of Endgame and define where the MCU will be going in Phase IV. Especially because as of right now, we don’t really know where Phase IV is going. Yes, it’s an open secret that the Black Widow standalone movie entered production two months ago (Better late than fucking never!!!) with a full cast in place, and there are signs that Marvel is gearing up for an Eternals movie. This in addition to the Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels that are all either rumored or conjectured to be in various phases of development. Hell, that’s not even getting started on all the 20th Century Fox franchises and characters that have finally returned to Marvel, or when and how the PTB ever plan on integrating the Fantastic Four or the X-Men into the MCU.

Right now, we know next to nothing about any of these movies or plans because Marvel hasn’t made any official announcement about their upcoming slate. They were reportedly waiting to make the big announcement until after Endgame and Far From Home. Which means that everything I just typed could be obsolete within a week and you probably know more than I do right now.

Anyway, Far From Home opens with the immediate fallout from The Blip, which is now what we’re calling the incident in which Thanos snapped his fingers and made half the human race disappear, only for those same people to reappear five years later without having aged a day. Conveniently, it appears that Peter Parker (Tom Holland again) and all of his high school friends and family were among those who got Blipped, and so they get to appear without five years’ worth of age makeup for this film.

That said, there are very serious repercussions for suddenly disappearing without a trace only to spontaneously reappear five years later. If somebody got Blipped at age sixteen and hasn’t aged a day in five years, are they technically an adult? What if somebody reappeared in the middle of traffic? What about those who came back only to find that somebody else moved into their old place and took all their stuff in the interrim?

In theory, Spider-Man is the perfect character to examine all of these angles, since he’s always had one foot in the mundane and one foot in the superpowered. In practice, the Blip fallout is pretty much entirely contained to the first fifteen minutes, quickly supplanted by all the “hero stuff” he needs to do — and the “high schooler stuff” he wants to do — in the here and now.

For whatever reason, Midtown High has decided that immediately after the Blip (to say nothing of the cataclysmic events of Endgame) would be the ideal time to take a handful of students on a summer trip to Europe. Of course Peter is in attendance, and hopeful to win the affections of MJ (Zendaya). We’ve also got Peter’s best friend (Ned Leeds, played once again by Jacob Batalon), who’s just struck up a whirlwind romance with Betty Brant (played in this iteration by Angourie Rice). Of course we also have Tony Revolori on hand as the preening rich pretty-boy Flash Thompson, and Brad Davis (Remy Hii) is on hand as a rival for MJ’s attention. Rounding out the tour group are Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove as a pair of bickering chaperone teachers.

With the obvious exception of Peter, and the occasional exception of MJ, all of these characters are comic relief. And some of them fare better than others. Batalon is still a riot as Peter’s hapless sidekick, and the flirtatious Ned/Betty fling makes for a hilarious contrast against Peter’s own romantic troubles. It’s always fun to see Flash get the piss taken out of him, especially given how much he idolizes Spider-Man and hates Peter. Brad Davis is a sore spot — a Blipped kid inexplicably played as a young teenager in a grown adult’s body. The teachers come within a hair’s breadth of wearing out their welcome, and I was disappointed to see J.B. Smoove — a far more talented comedian who specializes in this type of character — get something like a third of the screen time given to shrill, overbearing Martin Starr.

It’s perfectly clear that all of these characters were built to be walking punchlines, as opposed to credible human beings. Then again, the MCU Spider-Man films were built from the ground up to be high school coming-of-age comedies in the vein of John Hughes. God knows that John Hughes pictures were all about teenage archetypes, and at least the filmmakers had the good sense to update those stereotypes into something more consistent with the 21st century. That said, Hughes’ pictures (at their best, anyway) always had a strong beating heart, the kind of which is virtually absent with these characters.

But let’s get back to Peter and MJ. Peter is absolutely mad about MJ, and the attraction makes close to no sense. Peter Parker, after all, is a lovable dork with his heart on his sleeve, always eager to do the right thing and make the best impression. Compare that to MJ, the iconoclast with the sardonic sense of humor, the constant expression of apathy, and an affinity for serial killer podcasts. Then again, a huge part of Peter’s problems (Trust me, we’ll get to them in a minute.) is in the fact that he cares too much. He wants to save everyone and do everything, even though he can’t. I submit the possibility that maybe he envies the girl who doesn’t seem to care at all, and maybe wants to be with MJ precisely because she’d be totally fine with him dropping everything to stop bank robbers on the other side of town.

But then the movie progresses and a funny thing happens: Peter and MJ both let their masks slip. (Yes, the trailers have already spoiled that MJ finds out about the secret identity.) It turns out that when the chips are down and MJ is presented with extraordinary circumstances, she really is every bit as courageous and kind-hearted as Peter is, and the off-putting persona is simply an image that she projects for the sake of popularity, or maybe protection. And by the way, NONE of this is made explicit in the text. It all comes through in Zendaya’s performance and her chemistry with Holland. Beautifully done.

Alas, it is the eternal curse of Peter Parker that he can never be happy. He always has to choose between his life as a normal teenage boy and his responsibilities to do as a superhero what nobody else can. And that dilemma reaches epic levels after the Blip, in a time when galactic threats have become the status quo and everyone on Earth wants to know what the plan is for the next one. That last point is especially huge, now that Spider-Man is a superhero in a time when Iron Man is dead, Captain America is retired, Thor and the Guardians are off-world, Doctor Strange is off in whatever dimension, Black Panther is busy running his own country, and Captain Marvel… well, you get the idea. There’s a deficit of available superheroes, is the point.

(Side note: If you still haven’t seen Captain Marvel for whatever reason, now’s the time. Don’t ask why.)

Which brings us to the most prominent character in the movie who isn’t actually in the movie. This iteration of Spider-Man has been living in Tony Stark’s shadow since he first stepped into frame on Civil War, and he’s still there even after Tony Stark died. Again, there’s a deficit of superheroes and everybody wants to know who will fill the void left by Iron Man. There’s a lot of pressure on Spider-Man — as a friendly neighborhood superhero who makes himself known and available to the public — to step up. It certainly doesn’t help that Tony Stark himself mentored Spider-Man, made him an Avenger, and even bequeathed him with our MacGuffin for the film.

Stark gave his life to save the rest of the world, and the rest of the world remembers him for that. What they’re conveniently forgetting is that Stark would never have made that sacrifice play until he finally did. The one other time he came close, he was traumatized by the revelation of how small he was in the grand scheme of things and overreacted by making goddamn Ultron. Iron Man was a hero who saved countless lives with so many brilliant inventions, yet Tony Stark was also a paranoid alcoholic egomaniac with crippling daddy issues and more money than sense.

On the one hand, as Peter grapples with his fuck-ups and failings, it’s sweet of him to find solace in the knowledge that even his late mentor constantly second-guessed himself and made mistakes that were literally apocalyptic in scale. On the other hand, now that Stark is dead, the darker half of his legacy is about to come roaring back in a huge way.

Getting back to Spider-Man, Stark himself was always cautioning Peter from punching above his weight class. It was Stark who encouraged Peter to find his niche as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and not as the savior of mankind that Iron Man tried to make himself into. Sure, Spider-Man went into space and fought in the battle for the Infinity Gauntlet, but that was very solidly an anomaly, and he also had help from several other Avengers at the time. Going even further up that steep difficulty curve and staying there — on his own! — is a huge ask. Especially for a teenage boy just getting started back in high school after most of his fellow students grew five years older without him and he just fought in the most epic battle of all time with the fate of the universe at stake after coming back from the dead and OH MY GOD, NICK FURY, THE KID NEEDS A BREAK!

Yes, it’s Nick Fury and Maria Hill (Welcome back, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders!) forcing Spider-Man into combat against a world-ending threat. While the constant spectre of Tony Stark is a passive encouragement for Peter to give up his public persona and pick up the Spider-Man gig full-time, it’s our favorite SHIELD honchos (Remind me, is SHIELD a thing again? I’ve lost track.) exerting the active pressure and keeping Spider-Man in the fight. It’s not their best decision — in fact, Fury and Hill make a number of bad decisions over the course of the film. And if it seems like the two of them are less competent than we’ve come to expect… well, there’s a reason. Whoo boy, is there a reason.

This brings me to our villain of the movie, and no, it is not a goddamn spoiler to say that Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the villain. He’s only one of the most iconic baddies in Spider-Man’s vast rogues gallery, and his entire persona is built around illusions and misdirections. Of course he’s the bad guy, his pretending to be a good guy is entirely in character for him, and I’m not going to waste any effort pretending otherwise.

It’s the matter of what Mysterio’s game is, and all the various ways he screws around with Spider-Man, that’s where the surprises are.

There are fans who’ve been clamoring for Mysterio to appear for twenty years, in no small part because the character lends himself to all sorts of mesmerizing VFX possibilities. Indeed, there are one or two sequences — most especially the one just after the hour mark — when Mysterio is operating at his full potential and it’s a stunning assault on the senses. Especially on IMAX. It certainly helps that Gyllenhaal has no shortage of charisma — whether he’s earning Peter’s trust or chewing the scenery with nefarious gusto, he’s always a treat to watch.

While the filmmakers took their time in bringing out Mysterio, it makes a lot of sense to bring him out now and in this way. As I’ve said a few times now, there’s a deficit in superheroes, and it makes sense that Mysterio would try to exploit that for his own purposes. What’s more, after so many movies of dealing with killer robots, magic demons, and endless swarms of aliens, the people of this world are ready to believe just about anything. Which makes them ripe pickings for a master scam artist like Mysterio.

Last but not least… well, how do I put this without spoilers? As in the comics, Quentin Beck isn’t a superhuman, just an ordinary guy with a knack for special effects who plays at being a superhuman. It plays perfectly as an extension of the Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the central notion that there’s no place for normal people in the MCU. In this world of capes and superpowers, how is your typical man on the street supposed to make any kind of difference?

(Side note: I have to wonder, without those ordinary people on the street, what exactly are the superhumans trying to change the world for? Why are the superheroes doing all these extremely dangerous things — hell, why did Iron Man sacrifice himself — if not for the chance that non-supers would have a better chance at happiness in a safer place to live? It’s not an issue ever raised in the movie, it’s something that only occurred to me just now. I sincerely hope that some superhero filmmaker out there thinks to raise the point in a movie sometime, I’d like to see that.)

Getting back to an earlier point about Mysterio, he never would have worked in either of the previous Spider-Man film franchises because during the Maguire and Garfield eras, the Spider-Sense was (let’s be honest here) absurdly overpowered. There’s no way Mysterio’s illusions and tricks would have worked on a Spider-Man whose ability to sense danger bordered on precognition. Compare that to the MCU iteration, and a Spider-Man who’s still growing into his Spider-Sense and learning how to use it. In this context, putting him up against Mysterio and forcing him to hone that power makes all kinds of sense.

That said, at least the previous franchises showed the Spider-Sense in a cool way that clearly showed when it was in effect. Compare that to this movie, in which the Spider-Sense is apparently used without much of any sign at all — not even the wavy lines of the comics. Additionally, I find it suspicious that never once in this movie (not even once in the entire MCU to date, I’m pretty sure) is it ever referred to as the “Spider-Sense”. Instead, it’s given the cutesy and barf-worthy name of the “Peter-Tingle”. At this point, I have to wonder if this is a rights thing. Does Sony own the exclusive rights to the phrase “Spider-Sense” or something? Even now, in the end credits for this picture, I notice that “Columbia Pictures Inc.” is listed as the author of this movie for copyright purposes.

And yes, you had damn well better stay through the credits for this movie. You’re going to regret it so hard if you don’t stay for the mid-credits stinger AND the end-credits stinger.

Let’s close out with a few nitpicks, some miscellaneous notes, and one huge drawback. To start with, Mysterio’s methods and master plan depend heavily on a certain plot device that would’ve made a huge difference if it had been around during Endgame. Just saying.

Major points are due for a surprise cameo role that goes all the way back to Iron Man, and another that goes back even farther.

While Michael Giacchino’s main theme for Spider-Man is growing on me, I’m still not 100 percent sold on it. Of course Giacchino’s a grandmaster and I love hearing all the ways he experiments and tinkers with the main theme all throughout the film. Even so, it still sounds like a generic superhero theme without much of anything to evoke the particular image of Spider-Man. It’s not bad, but I know he can do better.

Elsewhere, Marisa Tomei is always a joy in the role of Aunt May, and she’s got a sweet little romance arc with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, of course) to serve as yet another comic foil against Peter’s own romance troubles. Alas, Tomei is barely in the flick and she makes no appreciable impact at all. She’s functionally nothing more than Peter’s lifeline back to New York, which serves basically zero purpose here.

This brings me to the huge overarching problem of the entire movie: Much like Peter Parker himself, the movie is waging a constant war between what it wants to do and what it has to do. Reading back over this review, I’m sure you can spot so many amazing ideas and angles for the filmmakers to explore, and the filmmakers try to tackle ALL of it, while also making room for the MCU world-building, WHILE ALSO giving us long and breathtaking action sequences, all in the space of a two-hour movie.

This film has a significant problem with pacing because the filmmakers are in a constant rush to hurry us from one scene to the next. Even if the segues don’t make sense, the writers just hand-wave it away by saying “Because Nick Fury,” or “Mysterio did it.” Hell, just look at all the scenes and jokes that were so prominent in the trailers, yet noticeably absent in the finished movie — there’s proof enough that this film was hacked to pieces in the editing room.

Oh, and we don’t see anything more of Donald Glover, Miles Morales, or any of the villains from Homecoming. The movie was already so overstuffed, I didn’t even miss them.

While Spider-Man: Far From Home is a lot of fun, there’s no denying it’s got some flaws. There are so many great ideas in here with regards to deeper themes, character arcs, and the aftermath of the Blip, and pretty much all of them are only given surface-level treatment without much of any chance to really breathe. Yes, the actors involved are all a joy to watch, and the action scenes (most especially those in which Mysterio really cuts loose with no holds barred) are fantastic, but the film is sadly crushed under the weight of the MCU.

I’m still happy to give the film a recommendation, but with adjusted expectations.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted June 30, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco comes to us from debut writer/producer Joe Talbot, partially based on his own upbringing in San Francisco with lead actor Jimmie Fails (also making his debut here, playing a character also named Jimmie Fails). The plot revolves around a house in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, Jimmie’s family home ever since it was built by his grandfather, until the Failses were evicted in the ’90s. Twenty years later, the house — as with much of San Francisco — is now owned by some aging white rich people with no appreciation for the history or property they are now responsible for.

Long story short (and we never even learn the full story anyway), the house is forcibly emptied as part of an estate dispute that could go on indefinitely. So Jimmie and his best friend (artist/playwright Montgomery Allen, played by Jonathan Majors) start squatting in the house and get to fixing it back up.

Given the premise centered on race and real estate in San Francisco, of course gentrification is going to be a huge theme. We’ve got clueless white people who appropriate culture and pat themselves on the back for not being as bad as the KKK. We’ve got people turning to crime because there’s no legitimate work for them — my personal favorite is Jimmie’s father (played by Rob Morgan), who’s got a counterfeit DVD racket. We’ve got Jamal Trulove and Jordan Gomes as two in a gang of ignorant preening tatted-up douchebags who waste their time with macho posturing because they’ve got nothing else to do and it’s the only culture they’ve got left.

Then of course there’s Danny Glover, turning in a welcome but sadly unmemorable performance as Montgomery’s invalid grandfather, too old and feeble for any work on his own and too poor to afford the kind of help he needs. We’ve even got Jimmie’s Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold), a black woman who straight-up left San Francisco rather than deal with all the bullshit going on in that town. Ditto for Jimmie’s mother — not even Jimmie himself knows where she is.

But even more than the problems of living as a poor man in an increasingly rich city, or as a black man in an increasingly white city, this is a movie about the concept of home. The movie devotes a lot of screen time to the kind of health problems and insanity so common among those without a roof over their heads. We get more than one example of naked crazy, and a street preacher proselytizing to nobody (played by Willie Hen) is a prominent motif. Then again, we see for ourselves in a brief scene that the preacher does indeed have a home, so maybe that has more to do with the feeling of impotence, screaming into the void because even that would be better than silence in the face of grave injustice.

But personally, I was most drawn to the question of what ownership really means. Jimmie and Montgomery are taking over this house and basically erasing all sign of its previous (technically current) owners, without the owners’ permission. How is that any different from what the white assholes did to Jimmie’s family back in the day, and does it make the reclaiming morally justified? Also, of course this is symbolic of white people appropriating black culture and Native American land and so on, but when you get right down to it, this process of taking shit over and rewriting its history is as old as civilization itself.

So who gets to decide what history matters? Who does any speck of land really belong to, and what responsibility comes with that ownership? What makes the difference between a house and a home, between a neighborhood and a community? Perhaps most importantly, what happens when you base your entire identity on a specific place that could be taken away at any moment, and backstory about the place that could be exposed as a lie at any time?

Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors are magnetic performers, both more than capable of anchoring the film and providing all the heart it needs. Which is fortunate, because pretty much all of the supporting turns are so forgettable. Moreover, in the case of some comic relief characters (most especially the aforementioned street corner gang and the worthless clown played by Mike Epps), I actively wished they had less screen time. Oh, and while Thora Birch somehow got billing above Danny Glover, her little 30-second appearance doesn’t remotely deserve that.

Then again, very few of the supporting characters were ever meant to last for more than a couple of scenes apiece. So much of the movie is comprised of characters flitting in and out, hovering in the background somewhere. It gives the film a sense of personality, fitting for a portrait of a city and the citizens pushed to its gutters.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a slow burn, with long contemplative stretches punctuated by potent plot twists. Still, the movie gets away with taking its time, simply because of how dense it is with symbolism and thematic ruminations. Joe Talbot balances all of this superbly, with gorgeous visuals throughout, and the two lead performances alone are worth the cost of admission.

This one comes strongly recommended. Definitely seek it out.