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Locked Down

Posted January 17, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

We all knew it had to happen, and it happened surprisingly quickly: A feature film from a major mainstream studio (albeit one with a relatively microscopic $3 million reported budget) with a star-studded A-list cast, entirely developed, produced, set, and shot during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bad news is that it was written by Steven Knight, who previously inflicted the thrice-double-damned Serenity (2019) abomination upon us. The good news is that it was directed by Doug Liman, the underrated action filmmaker who previously gifted us with The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. The aforementioned cast includes such names as Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Mindy Kaling, Mark Gatiss, Stephen Merchant, and Dule Hill.

Quite the mixed bag we’ve got here, and quite the untamed wilderness these filmmakers are breaking into. Let’s take a closer look.

Our stage is set in London, just after Boris Johnson tested COVID-positive. This is the story of Paxton and Linda, a married couple respectively played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway. The two were on the rocks before the pandemic, and so much time in lockdown has actively driven them even further apart. Yet they’re still stuck in the same house together, because of the lockdown. On top of that, Paxton just got put on furlough and the financial strain forced him to sell his prized motorcycle.

As for Linda, she’s still employed with a huge international conglomerate. In fact, she’s the CEO of the UK division. And at the twenty-minute mark, she has to tell a bunch of her valued co-workers that they’re all laid off. Via Zoom call. So, yeah, she’s not exactly in a great place now either.

In summary, Paxton and Linda are both reduced to hazardous bundles of anxiety with nothing and nobody else to take their frustrations out on. So they’re driving each other crazy in a toxic feedback loop. It’s like the two of them want to part ways on good terms, but their mental states in a time of global crisis make that exceedingly difficult.

Anyway, long story short, Paxton’s old boss (Malcolm, played by Ben Kingsley) runs a delivery service and he’s just picked up a new client for extremely high-value parcels. Trouble is, the new client demands drivers without a criminal record and Paxton got a minor conviction several years ago. Yet Malcolm is so desperate for drivers that he’s willing and able to get Paxton the job under a new name and a clean identity.

Meanwhile — to make another long story short — Linda’s company was responsible for staging a massive event at Harrod’s, with an outrageously expensive diamond as its centerpiece. Then the lockdown happened, the event was cancelled, and the diamond is stuck between safe houses. So, why not steal the diamond, sell it off, give half the proceeds to the NHS, and use the rest of the proceeds to help their laid-off friends and loved ones?

That’s right, folks: We’ve got a COVID-era diamond heist. Kinda. Sorta.

See, the heist doesn’t really factor into the plot until the third act. Until then, the film is more or less about the characters getting gradually squeezed in such a way that stealing the diamond appears increasingly easy and walking away from the opportunity gets increasingly hard. So it’s really more of a character-driven romantic dramedy.

The good news is, the film legitimately is both dramatic and comical. It certainly helps that the cast is so impressively overqualified that even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them Zoom call cameo roles make a lasting impression.

But really, the two most prominent cast members by a wide fucking margin are Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway. Their chemistry together is on point, Ejiofor’s got more than enough angst and charisma to burn, and Anne Hathaway is ON FIRE here. No joke, she’s got at least two or three monologues in this picture that are goddamn barn-burners.

Put simply, Paxton and Linda are two tired people looking down the barrel of middle-age burnout. Life hasn’t worked out the way they wanted, their wild younger days are taking their toll, and they’re in the terrifying process of re-evaluating their lives, trying to figure out who they want to be and what they want to do moving forward.

In ordinary times, all of this would be mundane stuff that would make for a tired and mediocre film. But in the COVID era, the pandemic has heightened all these issues to a terrifying and unprecedented degree.

The question of fate versus free will — whether it’s a higher power shitting all over us or whether we make our own problems — takes on a whole new dimension in a time when humanity is threatened by climate change and a highly contagious plague. The question of what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives takes on greater urgency with the knowledge that any one of us might not live to see the end of this, and hundreds of thousands are already dead.

It’s bad enough to see the rich getting richer while everyone else gets poorer. But to see it happen during a pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor and middle class… well, imagine seeing that while you’re in a position to steal a diamond worth three million pounds.

Yes, the film does go into all the various minutiae about Zoom calls, wearing masks, stocking up on toilet paper, and all the other COVID-era quirks that umpteen internet videos and late-night comedians have already rendered passe. Yes, this film is utterly useless as the kind of escapism so many of us so badly need right now. And yet, I have to give the filmmakers credit for finding all the creative ways in which COVID-specific quirks elevate what would otherwise be an unremarkable picture.

Seriously, this is a time in which everyone is wearing masks and gloves, everything is shutting down, nobody’s on the streets, and keeping distance is encouraged. What better time to make a goddamn heist movie?!

And yet, for all the pathos and character drama going on, I must emphatically stress that this is also a comedy. Because really, it has to be. For one thing, this is a story about two wildly unqualified people playing amateur thieves for a take worth three million pounds. There’s no way to play that completely straight.

For another thing — again, as numerous internet videos and late-night comedians have already pointed out — there is so much about the COVID era that’s darkly humorous. Please forgive me if I don’t elaborate on the point, but it feels like we’ve all been commiserating and chuckling over the same gallows humor for the past ten months.

The difference, of course, is that the same tired jokes are being delivered via world-class actors with dialogue that flies right off the page.

I realize that Locked Down won’t be everyone’s cup of tea right now. I know we’re all sick to death of living in something that should’ve damn well been sorted out by now (and pretty much is, in a select few nations) and I’m sure there are a great many among us who aren’t ready for a lighthearted film about the COVID pandemic. That’s totally fine.

But personally, I had a delightful time with this movie. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it makes quite a few solid artistic statements that could only be possible during the COVID times. Hell, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway are more than enough to make the film worth anyone’s time.

It’s not a masterpiece — the plot certainly thins in places, and a lot of wonderful actors are underused — but in a time when any collaborative artistic endeavor has been made borderline impossible, even the bare minimum is quite an accomplishment. This one gets a recommendation.

Outside the Wire

Posted January 17, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Netflix recently announced an initiative for 2021, promising a new original film every week through the coming year. It might be fair to wonder how Netflix could possibly keep such an ambitious release schedule when none of the Big Five major studios could do as much even before the pandemic. At a guess, it might help that Netflix doesn’t seem interested in throwing $200 million at a lavish tentpole release and praying for billion-dollar grosses.

In recent blog entries, I’ve already said my piece multiple times about how mainstream films are getting polarized into microbudget indie films and too-big-to-fail franchise tentpoles. This business model destroyed 20th Century Fox after their humiliating Marvel losses and their ballooning Avatar sequel costs. MGM is going belly-up (again!) after the pandemic kept their latest $250 million Bond movie from release. And it looks like Warner Bros. might be next to go, after a string of failures put them over $150 billion in debt.

Hollywood desperately needs to make mid-budget movies again, and it looks like Netflix is making that happen. The unfortunate downside is that this will most likely mean more Netflix original films like Project Power and Enola Holmes — highly ambitious movies whose reach far exceeded their grasp. Of course I can’t say for certain if another ten or twenty million dollars would’ve gotten either film to where they wanted to go, but both films nevertheless have a frustrating sense of untapped potential for some ineffable reason.

The latest example — and the first of the new 2021 initiative — is Outside the Wire.

Our stage is set in the year 2036, out in Ukraine. The Russians are trying to reclaim the nation, but there’s a local resistance movement to maintain Ukraine’s independence. The Russians are assisted by a local warlord named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), who’s applied his vast army of Krasny terrorists into blowing up the Resistance with the backing of Moscow. However, there’s reason to believe that Koval has recently gone rogue, slipping his leash to chase after nuclear missile silos left over from the Cold War.

In the other corner, the Resistance has the backing of the USA, who of course sent Marines and aerial drones to fight off the Russians and the Krasnys. I might add that the Marines also have automated soldiers — goddamn autonomous bipedal AI robot soldiers — affectionately called “Gumps”. There are Russian Gumps as well, but they’re fewer in number and considerably less advanced.

Our protagonist is Lt. Thomas Harp, played by Damson Idris. He’s known as a preternaturally talented drone pilot who’s never actually set foot onto any battlefield or fired a gun outside of basic training. Shit hits the fan when Harp makes a snap judgment and fires a drone strike — long story short, he disobeyed orders to rescue 38 soldiers, killing two Marines in the process. Understandably, this makes him a pariah among his comrades. As penance, Harp is deployed to the frontlines at Ukraine, where he’ll see actual combat up close.

Enter Captain Leo, played by producer Anthony Mackie. For the duration of Harp’s probation, Leo will be Harp’s commanding officer. The kicker: Leo is a highly classified top-of-the-line android, specifically designed to be the ultimate combat soldier and/or field diplomat as needs demand. Yes, this purely artificial AI is so advanced that he holds the rank of captain, and nobody else in all the armed forces — save for a scarce handful cleared to know of his true nature — is any wiser.

So, let’s take a step back here. On one side is the drone pilot who believes that emotion leads to biases, hesitation, errors in judgment, and so on. On the other side is a soldier who places tremendous value in human emotions, literally built from the ground up to recognize and display emotion, either for purposes of combat or to win hearts and minds. It’s the human who says that it’s better to be coldly logical, and it’s the robot who says the world might be a better place if we all had more empathy. That’s an intriguing subversion, and it’s genuinely compelling to watch the two switch positions as the plot unfolds.

See, this is a movie about an artificially intelligent robot designed to be the perfect soldier. It’s also a movie about a human character who finds himself completely out of his depth, with no information beyond what his superiors think he needs and no choice to do much of anything except obey orders. As such, it should come as no surprise that Leo may not be 100 percent reliable. Even so, the reveals and plot twists play out in some neatly compelling ways, with some welcome surprises here and there.

There’s some genuinely good stuff in here about the nature of AI, particularly with regards to the topic of automated soldiers and remotely piloted drones in modern warfare. The film also has some elegant statements about the nature of collateral damage and the question of how many innocent lives could be deemed an acceptable loss in time of war. I might add that latter question is made even more potent by virtue of the transgression that got our protagonist in this mess to begin with.

But the film’s most central theme is in the ugliness of war. From start to finish, this movie is heavily preoccupied with the notion of war as a thing that has to be lived to be truly understood, and only those on the frontlines can ever truly know the toll that war takes. It’s an admirable statement, but the film just can’t sell it.

When you get right down to it, this is still a sci-fi movie with CGI robots. It’s a movie with heightened action sequences, physically impossible stunts, and laughably outrageous kills. (One character gets a flag javelined right through the sternum. Fucking seriously.) The central crisis involves a four-color archvillain trying to achieve world domination through stealing nuclear weapons. The film is being headlined by a name actor whom we all know and immediately recognize as Captain freaking America.

There’s a Hollywood sheen baked into the very premise of the movie, and it undercuts the film’s message at every turn. The filmmakers go on and on about the real-life horrors of war, trying to show it to us in gritty “cinema verite” detail, and they just can’t sell it. The setting and presentation are nowhere near immersive enough to make anyone forget that we’re watching a work of near-futuristic science fiction.

What might be even worse is the shitshow of a third act. It’s nothing short of embarrassing to see all the contrivances, improbabilities, and out-of-character actions thrown in to get the plot where it needs to be and keep the runtime within two hours. At the point when the Plot Convenience Fairy straight-up brings a character back from the dead during the climax, I pretty much gave up.

Yet even for all its numerous flaws, I can’t bring myself to hate Outside the Wire. The two central lead performances are great fun to watch, and I truly respect the ambition on display here. I appreciate the creative twists and turns here, even those undone by the subpar writing. The film works well enough as a breezy two-hour sci-fi suspense actioner, but it clearly tried — and failed — to be so much more.

If you want a film that does a far better job portraying the horrors of battle, the hard decisions to be made in wartime, and the place of remote drones in modern warfare, I’d strongly recommend Eye in the Sky from back in 2015.

Wendy

Posted January 15, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Benh and Eliza Zeitlin — the writing/directing team of siblings that previously brought us the kickass awards darling Beasts of the Southern Wild — finally came out with their sophomore feature after eight goddamn years, and it’s a reimagining of Peter Pan. Holy shit, sign me up.

Wendy stars the remarkable young newcomer Devin France as the titular Wendy Darling. In this iteration, she and her twin brothers (James and Douglas, respectively played by actual twin brothers Gavin and Gage Naquin) are the children of a single mother running a greasy spoon diner in some USA backwater.

The tone is set early on, when all the regular diner patrons speculate on what the kids will grow into, with one especially prominent voice stating that they’ll stay in this one-hat town and grow into nobodies, just like everyone else there. At this point, the boy next door (played by Krzysztof Meyn) refuses to let the adults decide what kind of man he’ll grow up to be, so he runs off and stows away on a passing train.

So, he’s Peter, right? Nope! That’s Thomas. He’s just another lost boy. Peter in this iteration is played by another young newcomer named Yashua Mack. Gotta say, I appreciate the novelty of a black Peter Pan, and he’s certainly got the look of it. Too bad he hasn’t learned decent line delivery yet.

Anyway, the movie doesn’t start out so bad. The relevant themes are firmly in place. The character analogues are all set. The train that takes us off to Neverland, as the kids spread their arms and pretend they’re flying? I dig that.

But then we actually get to Neverland, and this is where things start to fray.

To be clear, it takes a while. At first, Neverland is established as a remote island, far enough away that it’s untouched by civilization, yet close enough that grade-school kids can row there in a beat-up canoe. So the disbelief is stretched quite a bit at the outset.

I should also add that it’s a volcanic island, which was a neat way of giving the island an illusion of sentient life. And of course Peter seems to have an innate affinity for the island, but he could just be making that up. By all appearances, this is a perfectly mundane island with no fairies, no mermaids, and there sure as hell aren’t any outdated Native American stereotypes. But then, it’s not like an untamed jungle island needs any of that to look magical in the eyes of a young kid.

Yes, this is promised and sold as a more “realistic” Neverland where kids will eventually grow old. Yet it’s also a place with no rules, no laws, no responsibilities, and no expectations or arbitrary goals. For all practical purposes, how is that really any different from staying young forever?

But then we meet Mother. Yes, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys have a mother in this iteration, even before Wendy arrives. And no, that’s not the crazy part.

The crazy part is that Mother is some massive underwater sea creature with a glowing underbelly. And it apparently has some kind of vague magical powers that may or may not be the reason why kids don’t grow old in Neverland. So it’s like a bizarre mashup of the mermaids, the fairies, and the magic of Neverland itself.

So yes, it’s firmly established that while children can get injured and even die on Neverland, they don’t grow old. Except for when they get depressed, they lose hope, their imagination fades, and so on and so forth. So we do have adults on a remote corner of Neverland, which eventually takes us to the pirates and this iteration of Captain Hook, and the analogues have flown clear off the goddamn rails by this point.

(NOTE: In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go any further into the origins of this film’s Captain Hook and why this take is such a fucked bastardization of the source text. Though if you’ve been paying attention, you might have picked up a clue already.)

The bottom line is that in very short order, it becomes perfectly clear that the filmmakers are far more interested in the iconography and broader themes of the source text, rather than the plot or the characters. Watching this movie practically demands a kind of selective amnesia with regards to “Peter Pan”, which is exceedingly difficult for a story so deeply ingrained into our collective consciousness.

(Side note: A month ago, I checked out the 2019 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with Guy Pearce, in which the classic tale was liberally adapted into a three-hour miniseries, stuffing and reworking the source material until it damn near broke. For those of you who’ve seen the miniseries, this is pretty much the same deal.)

“Peter Pan” is primarily known as a work of escapist all-ages fantasy, and that’s not what the film is. Nowhere near it. Yet the film is very explicitly a coming-of-age story that ruminates on the nature of youth and adulthood, something that wasn’t really a prominent factor of the original book — certainly not to this extent — until its closing chapters.

It was always kind of hinted at in the source text, but the film spells it out crystal clear that Peter Pan is the only boy who would never grow up. For everyone else, Neverland is only a temporary redoubt at best and an outright lie at worst. Sooner or later, there will be some trauma, some failure, some irretrievable loss of innocence. Youth inevitably fades, and it can never be completely recovered.

And yet the movie states explicitly — far more than the book ever did, even in its closing chapters — that growing old is perfectly natural and not necessarily anything bad. In fact, with enough hope, imagination, curiosity, and a little bit of playtime, we can always maintain that sense of magic and wonder so crucial to youth.

In summary, what we’ve got here is an aggressively gritty movie about the stubbornly primal nature of youth, set on a fantasy island where kids have run from their parents and there’s nobody to tell them what to do. Funny how the film was made and sold as a reimagining of “Peter Pan”, yet it turned out to be closer in tone to the 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. And the former turned out to be the inferior film, primarily because it’s straining far more visibly against the source material.

The film is beautiful to look at, though I’m sure the shaky-cam would’ve been unbearable on the big screen. Also, the costume design left a fair bit to be desired, especially with regards to Wendy herself — either she inexplicably wore earrings to bed, or she inexplicably put them in while she was running to catch the train to Neverland. I found that design detail to be a distracting and totally unnecessary faux pas.

Also, Wendy goes through most of the film in a worn-out hand-me-down rodeo T-shirt, complete with event dates on the back. Until now, it’s ever occurred to me how much time — in any given movie — we spend looking at the characters’ backs. In all the movies I’ve ever seen, I can’t remember any other character who ever wore text on their back. Turns out there’s a very basic costume design reason why: It’s distracting as hell.

Still, the score was nice enough. And with the minor exception of Yashua Mack, all the child actors were surprisingly capable of playing their parts and carrying the film. Most especially during the underwater shots. Seriously, it’s easy to take for granted, but filming and performing underwater is extremely difficult to do well and do safely, especially for action sequences. There must have been fifteen minutes of screen time shot underwater in this picture, and that’s genuinely impressive.

Last but not least, the film is bloated as hell. There’s absolutely no reason why this movie had to be two hours long. Especially when we don’t have the crocodile, Tiger Lilly, Tinker Bell, the fairies, the Indians, or so many other prominent staples taking up space in the familiar plot.

I wouldn’t say Wendy is necessarily a bad movie. It’s constructed well enough, the child actors all range from passable to incredible, and the Zeitlin Siblings have proven themselves firmly adept at coming-of-age movies contrasting wild and reckless youth with responsible and “civilized” adulthood. But that’s just it.

For a movie that came from the prodigious talents that made Beasts of the Southern Wild, there’s a strong sense that this movie should’ve been far better (or at least less bloated) than it turned out to be. Moreover, an ostensible adaptation of “Peter Pan” comes with certain expectations that the filmmakers either treated as polite suggestions or disregarded entirely — often to the film’s detriment.

Half the time, I couldn’t tell if the filmmakers hadn’t settled on how fantastic they wanted this movie to be, or if I was just having a hard time shedding my preconceived notions of what a Peter Pan retelling should look and operate like. So if you’re okay with leaving your expectations at the door, go ahead and give it a try.

Also, fuck Pan. Yes, I’m still sore about that movie. Now and forever, FUUUCK PAN.

Valley Girl (2020)

Posted January 13, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

My friends, there’s a crisis looming, and we can’t afford to delay it any longer: The ’00s sucked.

I defy you to find anyone out there nostalgic for the time and place in which 9/11 was still a freshly gaping wound and Osama bin Laden was still at large. Back when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were rapidly unfurling into the political clusterfuck that we’re still neck-deep in all these years later. A decade of financial ruin, bookended by historic market crashes.

Who the hell wants to go back and relive those days? Aside from the “Lord of the Rings” films, Harry Potter, “Firefly”/Serenity, and Usher’s “Confessions” album, is there any pop culture worth revisiting from the bleak Dubya years? Is there any fashion from the time worth bringing back? Does anyone have any fond period-specific childhood memories in between hiding under their desks for terrorist bombing drills? Who wants to go back to that awkward middle ground when dial-up was getting phased out but we still didn’t have smartphones?

No, there’s basically zero point in making anything that banks on nostalgia for the ’00s, and the ’10s are already looking just as bleak. And this is a huge, huge goddamn problem for a pop culture industry that thrives on nostalgia. The ’80s and ’90s have already been picked clean, such that there’s basically nothing left to say about either period. To say nothing of how jokes and stereotypes of the time have been rendered problematic and offensive after two decades of progressing social protocols.

(Quick reminder: Remember that song “1985” by Bowling for Soup? That song came out in 2004. Over fifteen goddamn years ago!)

And yet, until somebody finds some way of portraying the ’00s in a manner that would make anyone want to relive that godforsaken decade, we’re stuck with more threadbare, shallow, hyper-saccharine, pointless, brainless, bullshit portrayals of the ’80s as boomers and Gen-Xers only wish the period was like. Hence the 2020 remake of Valley Girl.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I came into this with zero first-hand knowledge of the 1983 original film. I’d never even heard of it before this movie came on my radar. It’s apparently got an iconic soundtrack, that’s as much as I know.)

This one comes to us from screenwriter Amy Talkington and director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. So it’s a romantic comedy written and directed by women — not a bad start. But then I look closer and I see that Talkington’s only other feature credit is some indie film from 2006 that nobody saw. What’s worse, Goldenberg cut her teeth directing movies for The Asylum (!!!), before directing the Lifetime movie parody A Deadly Adoption in 2015.

I don’t know whether to cry laughing or scream in existential horror.

When the film opens, we’re immediately introduced to a framing device in which a delinquent teenager (played by Camila Morrone) listens to a story recounted by her mother, played by… Alicia Silverstone. Yes, Clueless is a quintessential ’90s film, but the point is nevertheless made early and emphatically that the filmmakers are banking heavily on nostalgia. This is further compounded after the opening musical number (we’ll get back to that), when Silverstone’s character clearly states in so many words that we’re seeing the story as she remembers it. So we’re told in the most plain and explicit terms that this will be a story about the heightened ’80s MTV aesthetic more in keeping with warped pop culture fantasy than reality.

(Side note: Speaking of recent overblown cinematic tributes to the ’80s, I could swear the opening musical number was shot at the exact same mall used for the first big action sequence of Wonder Woman 1984.)

Anyway, this is the story of Juliet Richman, played as a teenager by Jessica Rothe. She and her friends are rich and vacuous mallrats living in the San Fernando Valley. She’s dating some gorgeous egotistical jock (Mickey, played by the eminently punchable Logan Paul), but she meets and falls in love with Randy (Josh Whitehouse), a punk living in a grungy and worn-down Hollywood district outside the valley… wait a minute.

Is this “Romeo and Juliet”? This is “Romeo and Juliet”. And it’s a jukebox musical with shitty covers of ’80s hit songs we’ve already been hearing for thirty years ad infinitum. And it’s populated by outdated and obnoxious teen movie stereotypes, most particularly the air-headed and helium-voiced “valley girl” stereotype of the title.

Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, this one’s gonna hurt.

It was the cast that suckered me in, really. I love Jessica Rothe, I love Chloe Bennet, I love Judy Greer and Mae Whitman and Randall Park, and it really was great seeing all of them onscreen. Hell, it’s a genuinely delightful surprise to see Alicia Silverstone getting work. And I don’t know who this Josh Whitehouse guy is, but his chemistry with Rothe is on point. It’s just so hard to appreciate anything these actors are doing through all the cotton candy bullshit.

Folks, there’s simply no getting around it: These are exactly the same aggressively obnoxious ’80s cliches you’ve seen a million times before, butchering the plot of what may be the most performed and adapted work in the history of theatre, singing Kidz Bop covers of songs that everyone knows by heart. Either that or the filmmakers are trying to shoehorn bubblegum pop songs into punk rock to fit the mold of Randy and his Hollywood brethren, and it works about as… well, it’s like this in reverse.

At one point, the film throws in “Space Age Love Song” by Flock of Seagulls, one of the most tragically underrated love songs from the era. I so badly wanted to give it points for that, until it was thoroughly ruined with nasal vocals. Jesus wept.

(Side note: For the historians out there, Return of the Jedi and Sally Ride are both explicitly name-dropped, which would put this in the 1982-83 school year. Make of that what you will.)

There’s not a single iota of creativity or novelty or effort anywhere in here. What might be even worse, it really pisses me off to see someone try and adapt or modernize “Romeo and Juliet” without carrying over the death and murder. The play’s first half is a comedy, the second half is a tragedy, and the sudden cataclysmic shift from one to the other is a huge part of what gives the play its everlasting power. And it’s not like death or pathos in a neon-colored ’80s teen comedy couldn’t make for a stellar contrast — Heathers already showed how that could make for a powerful dark comedy. Hell, just look at “West Side Story”, a musical teen-centric “Romeo and Juliet” update that knew how to integrate the romance, violence, and prejudice of the source material into something timely and heartfelt.

The comedy without the tragedy — or vice versa — is just a toothless, mindless, gutless void of a story. It carries over enough of what makes the archetypal plot recognizable and memorable, but it doesn’t carry over anything that makes the story timeless and poignant. It’s a shortcut implemented so the filmmakers don’t have to bother coming up with their own plot. Pathetic.

Of course, what really sucks is that this wasn’t completely unsalvageable. There was a lot of untapped potential in the framing device, for example. This could’ve been a movie that juxtaposed the mother/daughter stories, explicitly showing how teens of the ’80s and ’20s are going through the same shit with different trappings. Moreover, when the filmmakers cut the bullshit and let the characters open up with each other, there are flashes of heartfelt themes about young adults trying to find their place in an overbearing world with too many expectations. Standard stuff for a coming-of-age dramedy, sure, but it works well enough with the premise that the filmmakers could’ve done so much more with it.

The best I can say for Valley Girl (2020) is that it’s harmless. It’s stupid, it’s shallow, it’s loaded with outdated tropes and stereotypes, the musical covers are shit, and there’s not a single original thought in the whole 100-minute running time. Yet the central romantic pairing is strong where it matters, and that counts for a lot. Plus, the cast is wonderful and it looks like they’re having a good time.

More than anything else, the film is a love letter to a decade that’s already gotten more than enough affection. There must be umpteen million other better movies out there paying tribute to the ’80s, to say nothing of the far superior films that actually came out during the time. Not recommended.

The Hunt

Posted January 10, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Yeah, I definitely needed to wait a while before getting around to this one.

The Hunt was originally slated for release in September of 2019 before news came down that it would be delayed indefinitely. This was reportedly due to the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, though of course nobody believed that weak-sauce excuse. Even at the time, there were reports that test screenings had gone terribly and the film’s reported political bent got everyone in a frenzy. It certainly didn’t help that President Trump — always eager to chase a headline, especially with his re-election campaign coming up — got his followers riled up in opposition to this militant product of “liberal Hollywood.”

In February 2020, producer Jason Blum (it’s a low-budget American-made horror film, of course fucking Jason Blum is involved) reported that the film would be released in March of 2020 without any edits or reshoots. Then the COVID lockdowns happened and it made a worldwide box office gross of just over $15 million — just barely enough to cover its reported budget.

This movie made headlines for half a year before it was finally released, and that’s probably the worst thing that could’ve happened to it. From the opening kill, it’s perfectly obvious that this was a film made for the Streisand Effect. The clear and explicit goal was to get audiences riled up over a taboo twist, bringing in curious audience members to see what the fuss was all about.

Trouble is, this particular case worked all too well. The headlines were so ubiquitous that the twist became common knowledge well in advance and the film had absolutely nothing without it.

(SPOILER NOTE: From this point onward, I’m not going to bother mincing spoilers. Everyone who’s been paying attention knew about the premise a year ago without even seeing the picture. If you’re still not up to speed, take comfort with the knowledge that you’re better off disregarding the film entirely. You’ve been warned.)

To take it from the top, The Hunt is a spin on “The Most Dangerous Game”, in which the uber-wealthy abduct unsuspecting poor people and hunt them for sport. The kicker is that the wealthy are liberal elites, the poor people are all bigoted conservatives, and this is an act of political warfare.

Incidentally, the liberal overlords explicitly refer to their targets as “deplorables” and “rednecks”, while one target calls the other a “snowflake”. And this is all within the opening fifteen minutes. Even without advance knowledge of the film’s moral “twist”, they telegraph it loud and clear right up front.

In theory, what we’ve got here would be a case of “bad versus evil”, in which we could watch both sides torture the shit out of each other with the knowledge and satisfaction that regardless of who wins, both are going to suffer.

In practice, the film goes for comedy. To repeat: We’re watching poor defenseless people getting brutally murdered, and the film is playing this for laughs. There are numerous reasons why this doesn’t work.

First of all, the film is directed by Craig Zobel, because when I want somebody to direct a morally complex political satire that perfectly sits atop the razor-thin line between comedy and horror, I want the guy who co-created goddamn “Homestar Runner”. And also, if I want a devilishly intricate plot with all manner of secrets that resolve with a satisfying payoff, of course I want screenplay co-written by that con artist hack Damon Lindelof.

(Side note: Yes, the “Watchmen” sequel series on HBO was great, and I’ve heard good things about “The Leftovers”. Stick to TV, Damon.)

Secondly, characters are getting killed off by the handful even before the fifteen-minute mark. Before the characters have any idea of what they’re doing, while they have zero chance at defending themselves, and we don’t even have the first clue who’s behind all this or how they’re operating. This is a one-sided match-up, and it’s not fun or comical to watch. Regardless of political leanings, this is a slaughter and it’s just mean.

Thirdly, because the characters are getting killed off so early, they’re dying before we even know them. We have no reason to root for or against them. We have no reason to sympathize or hate them. So there’s no reason to feel horror or humor or excitement or anything else from these kills.

Even at the best of times, presenting an effectively balanced comedy/horror is a high-risk/high-reward gambit. Likewise, there are very few ways to utterly nail a political comedy, and any number of ways to nuclear bomb it. The both of them together — a balanced political comedy/horror — has absolutely zero room for error, such that it could either be a work of genius or a tin-eared dumpster fire with no room in between. And this movie tanked all its chances within the first act.

Every character in here (with one exception, whom we’ll get to in a minute) is painted in the broadest possible strokes, speaking in canned partisan talking points without any attempt at intelligence or depth. I presume this is part of the effort at comedy, reducing the characters to cartoons so their bloody deaths are all the funnier. But in practice, it only serves to make the political “commentary” brainless to the point of insulting.

There is, however, one minor exception that comes when the plot finally gets going and the characters get wise to the fact that everything in here is an elaborate ruse. This means that conservative paranoia, with its predilection for conspiracy theories and blatant denial of reality, comes into play. Thus a crucial facet of modern political discourse becomes a wrinkle that might have added to the suspense.

In practice, though this does work a few times, the resulting tension is pretty much always resolved within minutes or even seconds. It also doesn’t help that the cannon fodder is always gullible when they have every reason to be suspicious, and they’re screaming conspiracy theories when it’s in their best interests to shut the fuck up.

Take all of these mixed messages together, and what are the filmmakers trying to say about partisan efforts at subverting and denying reality? Fuck if I know!

All told, there are two reasons and two reasons only to watch this film. One of them is Hilary Swank. She doesn’t really show up until the third act, but she makes up for lost time in a big way. The second is Betty Gilpin, in the role of our protagonist. From start to finish, Gilpin delivers a dynamic and jaw-dropping performance, effortlessly nailing the balance between tough and crazy that the whole film should’ve been aspiring to.

Gilpin more than proves herself as a capable action lead, effortlessly selling a woman far more cool-headed and badass than anyone thought to give her credit for. Major kudos are due for Gilpin’s big climactic fight scene with Swank at the end, that shit was more brutal and funny and whip-smart than the entire film deserved.

Because here’s the thing: It turns out that Gilpin’s character was brought into this by mistake. It turns out that our protagonist was mistaken for a conservative bigot of the same name, and there’s absolutely nothing in the film to suggest that our protagonist cares about politics one way or the other.

The film put so much effort into its politically fucked-up morality, only to cop out at the end regarding the one character worth a damn. FAIL.

I can only hope that Betty Gilpin gets more work ASAP, because her performance here deserves a far better movie than The Hunt. The action scenes and kills are impressive enough, but this is still a movie so wrong-headed and shallow that it’s frankly insulting. The filmmakers had no idea how to craft a decent scare, a decent joke, or a coherent political point, and they didn’t even have the guts to commit to their inverted political morality. All they could do is try their best to offend everyone on all sides of the political spectrum.

Fuck this movie, go see Ready or Not instead.

Tenet

Posted January 9, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Among the many, many reasons why 2020 will go down in the history books, cinephiles will remember it as the year in which Christopher Nolan completely and totally disappeared up his own ass.

Tenet was made with a reported budget of $200 million, which means it needed to make $400 million just to break even. That might have been doable, if COVID-19 hadn’t thrown a wrench into the works. Theaters everywhere were shut down indefinitely, as the world struggled to contain a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus.

Then Christopher Nolan opened his big mouth.

Nolan absolutely insisted that the movie had to open on the big screens, as the film was made to be seen. As if any movie or any one man’s artistic vision was worth risking the health and safety of untold thousands. Alas, WB needed to make their money back, they needed to placate one of their highest-profile filmmakers, and they needed to see if any massive summer blockbuster would be enough to bring audiences back to theaters in defiance of a goddamn plague (to say nothing of state and local mandates directed toward containing said plague).

Tenet ultimately took in a grand total of $57.9 million domestic, for a worldwide total of $362 million. To put that in perspective, the similarly-budgeted Justice League — you know, the movie that lost WB so much money that they had to get bought out by AT&T — made $229 million domestic and nearly $658 million worldwide.

As a reminder, this huge and embarrassing stunt cost the company hundreds of millions at a time when AT&T is $150 BILLION in debt. So WB panicked, making their now-infamous choice to release Wonder Woman 1984 and their entire 2021 film lineup in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. This — for reasons I’ve discussed previously — did not go over well, especially not with the filmmakers involved.

Then Christopher Nolan opened his big mouth.

“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan said Monday in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

via Vanity Fair

I can’t find any specific reason why Tenet hasn’t hit HBO Max yet, but this statement leads me to suspect that Nolan is stonewalling that for his own petty reasons.

Chris, buddy, WB gave you everything you wanted. That’s why the studio is in financial ruin right now. Because they gave you an astronomical budget to make your movie as you saw fit. And then they released it in theaters like you asked. And then nobody saw it. Because of the goddamn pandemic.

Of course I don’t want to lay all 150 billion of WB’s problems at Christopher Nolan’s feet, but he sure as hell didn’t help. It was his big mouth and outsized ego that pressured WarnerMedia into making this decision, so maybe he might’ve done more good if he had sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up just this once.

Anyway, between Nolan’s pig-headed prejudice against online streaming and WB’s desperation to make back their money, the film can only be purchased — not rented, purchased — for online streaming at a price tag of $20. Fuck that noise. I kept waiting for the price to go down, and it never did, so I didn’t review the movie.

But then I found out that the film did indeed get a physical release on DVD and Blu-Ray. And where there’s physical media, there’s Movie Madness. Seriously, people, treasure your public libraries and physical storefronts and anywhere else DVDs can be rented or sold. Fucking use them or lose them.

On one level, Tenet is an international spy caper. John David Washington plays our unnamed Protagonist, recruited out of the CIA into a shadowy organization. Kenneth Branagh is on hand as the madman Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch putting together a superweapon to wipe out humanity. Elizabeth Debicki is our femme fatale — name of Katherine Burton — the estranged wife to Sator fighting for custody of their child. Robert Pattinson plays Neil, the sidekick/handler of our lead spy, Clemence Poesy plays our watered-down Q stand-in, Yuri Kolokolnikov plays the bad guy’s henchman, and so on and so forth.

But here’s the kicker: This particular spy thriller isn’t about Americans versus Russians, or even any two nations fighting each other. This is about the present versus the future. Which brings us to the film’s second level as a sci-fi time travel thriller.

See, the people of some distant future are angry because they live in a fucked-up world ruined by events and decisions made years before they were ever born. In response, these people of the future have decided that the best course of action is to reach back into the past and blow us all up as pre-emptive retaliation for the fuck-ups we’re going to make.

Confused yet? We’re just getting started.

The primary method of this warfare is a kind of time machine called a “turnstile”. The catch is that instead of instantly sending a person or object to a specified time or place, the turnstile “inverts” a person or object so they move backwards in time. For example, if a person wanted to travel a week into the past, they could go into the machine to invert themselves, wait a week, then go back into the machine to un-invert themselves and they’d be a week into the past.

Sound complicated? Well, just imagine if that person got into fights and car chases instead of merely sitting around. What’s even crazier is the whole concept of inverted objects — bullets stuck into plaster, flying back into the guns that fired them at some future point.

You can already see the problem here.

By their very nature, spy thrillers are devilishly complex. Even Bond movies nowadays have to deal with so many personal agendas, international politics, and various plans within plans for our main character to untangle. Additionally, time travel movies are notoriously complicated, with umpteen different rules and paradoxes and contingencies to sort out.

Now imagine the two genres put together, in addition to an innovative yet exceedingly convoluted method of time distortion like nothing ever seen before in pop culture. The complexities compound each other in no time, and the bullshit piles up so high that even the most savvy character in the cast can only throw their hands up and say “I dunno, just try not to think about it.”

Luckily, the cast and crew are good enough to make this into something at least partly salvageable. I didn’t know the first thing about our unnamed Protagonist or his partner Neil, but John David Washington and Robert Pattison are both so charismatic and they work so well together that I wanted to see them succeed. I wasn’t rooting against the bad guy because I cared about the temporal war nonsense, I rooted against him because Branagh chewed the scenery playing a toxic domineering bastard. Elizabeth Debicki is playing a domestic abuse victim concerned for her son? Great, I can follow that.

Michael Caine obligingly shows up for what’s basically a glorified cameo role. Himesh Patel gets a thankless role, but it’s great to see him getting more work. Clemence Poesy, alas, is primarily responsible for establishing “inversion” in a way that makes sense, and she’s sadly unequal to the task. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Dimple Kapadia as a capable higher-up in Protagonist’s organization, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson does quite well for himself when he finally shows up in the third act.

Then we have the fight scenes. Given Christopher Nolan’s noted preference for staging larger-than-life set pieces with minimal CGI, it should come as no surprise that there are some spectacular crashes to be seen here. The inversion gimmick makes for some truly enthralling car chases and fight sequences like no other film could offer, and that counts for a lot. I might also add that Nolan seems to have developed a proclivity for literal ticking clocks (see: the climax of The Dark Knight Rises) and he uses a lot of them in this picture. It’s a simplistic method for maintaining tension in a way that the audience can immediately understand with no effort, but it’s undeniably effective nonetheless.

When the movie is focused on straightforward action and exotic locales, it works superbly well. When it spins off into philosophical debates about fate versus free will and whether events can (or should) be undone, the film goes limp. And when the movie tries to explain its own batshit internal logic, it typically raises more questions than answers.

All told, I put Tenet in the same class as Prometheus — both technical marvels that are spectacular and exciting to watch, yet both are so frustratingly opaque that they try to tackle all sorts of heady questions and fail spectacularly. This is a movie that explicitly says “this is all too complex, so don’t bother to think about it” while also trying to pass itself off as a movie that makes you think, trying to have it both ways. Fuck that.

It’s entertaining as a brainless action thrill ride, but for a two-and-a-half-hour movie — with a reported budget of $200 million — that clearly aspires to be so much more, that’s simply not enough. Of course I appreciate a filmmaker who tries to break the mold, and I respect any filmmaker who can talk a major studio into throwing so much money into such a bonkers original IP, but Nolan flew too close to the sun this time.

If you’re looking for a genuinely smart and satisfying action thrill ride with a time travel gimmick, I’d strongly recommend Edge of Tomorrow over this one.

The Midnight Sky

Posted January 3, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Sorry for the short review, folks, because I got nothing. I’ve got absolutely nothing.

The Midnight Sky is a sci-fi vehicle for George Clooney, who stars as well as directs. The cast also features such impeccable talents as Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, and a remarkable young newcomer named Caoilinn Springall. It’s a two-hour feature with wonderful performances and remarkable production design.

But what the hell is it?

As far as I can tell, George Clooney plays an astronomer named Augustine Lofthouse, who discovered a moon on Jupiter that could potentially sustain human life. That comes in quite handy in the near future, when the world has been covered in some kind of radioactive plague. The terminally ill Augustine stays behind at an observatory in the Arctic Circle while the rest of humanity takes off for Jupiter’s moon.

(Side note: Someone named Ethan Peck shows up to play Clooney’s character in flashbacks. Peck doesn’t look much like a young Clooney, but the voice is a dead ringer. I can’t find any confirmation that Clooney dubbed all the lines himself, but he could’ve fooled me.)

Why does Augustine stay behind? Well, he’s apparently trying to contact some kind of spacecraft for some reason. It’s frustrating how such fundamental basics of the plot are kept from the audience until the third act. There’s being nuanced, there’s being obscure, and then there’s being obtuse.

Anyway, things are complicated upon the discovery of a young girl (Iris, played by Caoilinn Springall) who’s stowed away in the observatory for unknown reasons. She’s practically mute, for unknown reasons. And nobody’s coming back for her, for… okay, those reasons are perfectly clear, I’ll grant the film that much.

Thus Iris and Augustine have to keep each other alive as they make their way to a weather station several miles further north. There, they can access a stronger satellite uplink with a better chance at making contact with any passing spacecraft. And again, their reasons for contacting spacecraft in the first place is unclear.

Meanwhile, there’s the spacecraft Aether. Our primary character here is the comms specialist, Dr. Sullivan, played by Felicity Jones. I might add that the character is pregnant, to accommodate for Jones’ own pregnancy at time of filming. The Aether’s commanding officer (and Sullivan’s baby daddy) would be Commander Adewole, played by David Oyelowo. Kyle Chandler is on hand as the ship’s pilot, while Tiffany Boone and Demián Bichir play a couple of engineers.

What are they doing out in space? Where are they going and why is Augustine so desperate to contact them? Again, these are frustratingly unclear until the third act.

Yes, this is sadly one of those cases that doesn’t resemble a coherent film so much as it resembles a string of Oscar clips. These are wonderful performers and they’re all acting their hearts out, but it doesn’t connect because there’s nothing in terms of a coherent plot or theme. Each individual scene is easy enough to track, but there’s nothing to help us figure out how each scene fits into the grander picture. The smaller action scenes are solid, but the setups are so needlessly drawn out for such weak-sauce payoffs that the climax is pathetically limp.

It’s a two-hour movie that feels like two hours of padding. I honestly have no idea what the film was trying to say or what the characters accomplished.

A colleague of mine recently said of Cormac McCarthy’s works that at the beginning, the characters are screwed; and three hours later, they’re still screwed. That feels more or less like what we’ve got here. With the difference that when McCarthy and his ilk dabble in apocalyptic fiction, at least they have the guts to make a strong statement that’s pessimistic, nihilistic, misanthropic, etc. Of course you’re not going to get that out of George freaking Clooney, but I’d at least hope that he’d have the courage of his convictions.

The film cost a reported budget of $100 million, and every dime of it shows up on the screen. The effects, the production design, the money that went toward paying this wonderful cast… all of it was well spent. If this movie had gone up on IMAX like originally intended, I’m sure it would’ve been astounding to watch.

So much effort and talent went into this picture that I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. I’m perfectly open to the possibility that I just didn’t get this one. But if I spend two hours watching a movie and I’m still not sure about what I’m supposed to take away from it, no way is that movie looking forward to a positive write-up.

I want to call The Midnight Sky Oscar-bait, but that might be an insult to the Oscar voters. It’s a beautiful and elegantly acted yet painfully hollow film, void of any apparent meaning or theme. The setups are nicely compelling, but it’s like the filmmakers couldn’t figure out a decent payoff, so they dragged it out as long as they could.

If you saw this movie and enjoyed it, please leave a comment to tell me what I missed. I’d love to see the film again with a more enlightened perspective. But for right now, I couldn’t possibly recommend this.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Posted January 2, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has already gained mainstream recognition as the swan song of the late Chadwick Boseman. Indeed, his performance here is a tour de force and it’s a tragic reminder of what incredible talent was taken from us far too soon. (RIP) Though personally, I would more strongly associate the film with the late August Wilson, because this one’s got his fingerprints all over it.

The film concerns Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, here immortalized by Viola Davis (late of 2016’s Fences, another August Wilson adaptation). I might add that Ma Rainey is a real-life historical figure who helped to revolutionize blues and jazz during the Roaring ’20s. But to be clear, this isn’t a biopic per se — the plot is contained to a single day in 1927, for a recording session in a Chicago studio.

Ma is accompanied by her band of four musicians. The de facto bandleader is Cutler (Colman Domingo) on the trombone, a devout Christian with the unenviable task of keeping everything on an even keel. We’ve also got Toledo (Glynn Turman) on the keys, a voracious reader who’s lived a long and full life, though it’s not always easy to tell how full of shit he is. Then there’s Slow Drag (Michael Potts), a bass player with a love of tall tales.

And then we’ve got Levee Green. That would be Boseman’s character. Levee is a preternaturally gifted trumpet player with dreams of writing his own music to record with his own band. So of course he’s an egomaniacal showman getting crushed by the chip on his shoulder.

The title refers to Ma Rainey’s particular take on a blues standard. Trouble is, Levee wrote an updated arrangement that’s more upbeat and energetic. The band’s manager (Irvin, played by Jeremy Shamos) and the recording studio’s owner (Mel Sturdyvant, played by Jonny Coyne) both prefer Levee’s arrangement and they’re the ones paying for all of this. But Ma prefers her own original take, and she’s the one with the power to walk out the studio and shut this whole thing down.

Levee’s arrangement is supposedly more popular with the dance halls and radio stations of the north, while Ma’s more soulful and traditional rendition is what speaks to the Deep South. So both sides are able to make an argument that this is what the people want. However, both Levee and Ma repeatedly prove themselves to be pathological narcissists more concerned about themselves than their art or anything or anyone else.

Case in point: Ma repeatedly insists that her young nephew (Sylvester, played by Dusan Brown) be given a speaking cameo on the album, as the spoken-word lead-in to “Black Bottom”. Even though he has a debilitating stutter and he can barely string a sentence together. Ma lost a great deal of moral and artistic high ground with that bit of nepotism.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dussie Mae, played by a smoldering Taylour Paige. It’s understandable — in fact, I dare say it’s laudable — for the filmmakers to include a girlfriend for Ma Rainey, as there is documented (albeit circumstantial) evidence that the real-life Ma Rainey was gay, or at least bisexual. Even so, Dussie Mae is here presented as a disposable ornament for Ma Rainey and a possible sexual conquest for Levee. In other words, she’s here to help show exactly how full of shit these two characters are.

And yet, Ma Rainey gets a fantastic monologue at the halfway point to explain that her voice is the only real power she has. It’s the only reason she can make any money or find any success, so it’s the only reason why any white men ever bother to give her the time of day. In fact, it’s why Irvin and Sturdyvant — for all their grumblings about how Ma is impossible to work with and the recording session is costing them so much money — will always eventually cave and do as she asks. This is the only degree of power she has over the white man, and it’s more than most other black folk get, so while she may act like an insufferable diva, who’s to blame her for using that power?

(Side note: The very first black actor to ever become a millionaire was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known for his stage persona of “Stepin Fetchit”. Yes, this man became obscenely wealthy for performing in minstrel shows, directly proliferating racist images and stereotypes. Then again, if racist bigoted white people were going to sling racial epithets at him anyway, who could begrudge him getting paid for it?)

Moreover, Ma is deeply concerned — and perhaps with good reason — that the white people in charge will have no use for her once they’ve got her voice on a record. Why would anyone come to see her shows or pay for her performances when they could simply cue up the record player? Of course, the phonograph and mass-produced records were still a developing technology in 1927 — touring to promote the latest album while developing the next one wasn’t really an accepted concept back then like it is now. And how could Ma have possibly known that recording her voice for future generations would give her a kind of immortality? And if she had known, would she have cared?

Getting back to Levee, we learn in one or two other showstopping monologues that this character was indelibly shaped by childhood trauma at the hands of violent white bigots. I won’t go into a whole lot of detail, just because there’s so goddamn much to unpack here, and a lot of it is tied up in spoilers. Suffice to say that Levee doesn’t mind alienating everyone else or killing himself for his art because he’s already effectively dead inside.

Levee saw an act of unspeakable violence committed against his family, and he thought he had seen the worst of the world. He thinks he can handle the absolute worst that the white man — hell, the entire world — could throw at him. Needless to say, he doesn’t even know. Regardless of how many times the other characters warn him about the dangers of running his mouth, he simply won’t listen until it’s too late.

There’s a recurring subplot in which Levee struggles with a locked door in the band rehearsal room. I won’t spoil how it ends, but I think it speaks volumes that Levee puts so much time and effort in opening the door just to end up… well, there. It doesn’t make much sense in a narrative or literal way, but it’s a fantastic metaphor.

I’m sorry to say that the rest of the band doesn’t register quite as well, next to Ma or Levee, but they don’t really need to. They’re a group of professional musicians who get along and play well enough together, and that’s enough. Without them, we couldn’t really appreciate the raging pathological narcissism of Ma or Levee, or how harmful those two characters really are.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, there’s no getting around the fact that this is very much a play about a specific group of characters and the action is pretty much entirely contained to a few small rooms in a specific building. I might also add that the film was adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe — while both are accomplished multihyphenates, each with a long list of film and TV credits, they’re both best known for their work in writing and directing live theatre.

The bottom line is, this is a story that feels much more at home on the live stage than on recorded cinema. Even so, we do get a few scenes outside the recording studio, to help expand the scope a bit. It also helps that we’ve got Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman delivering larger-than-life performances that would blow the doors off any theater I’ve ever been to.

But the bigger problem is that… well, as with Fences, it’s hard to get around the fact that these are fundamentally broken characters. They have good reason to be broken, sure, but so much of this movie is spent watching angry assholes shouting at each other, and that’s not always the most pleasant experience. In fact, when they’re shouting at each other over shoes and air molecules and whatnot, it’s pointless as well as unpleasant.

Yet even when Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom spends its time on extraneous squabbling, it helps to develop the characters so the monologues and plot turns hit that much harder. This is a solid character drama, with well-defined characters and palpable conflict brought to life with stellar performances. In fact, while the plot itself is small potatoes with mundane stakes, it’s elevated by sterling delivery and a geyser of racial trauma.

It’s not always a pleasant film to sit through, but there can be no doubt that it’s superbly made. If you’ve seen Fences, you’ll have a good idea what to expect here (but with much better music). If you haven’t, give the film a watch and see how you like it.

Soul

Posted December 29, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.

Mel Brooks

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, shall we?

Back in 2009, The Princess and the Frog made national headlines for introducing the first African-American Disney Princess. The celebration didn’t last very long, because A) that film was crushed at the box office under the wake of Avatar, and B) the Disney Princess in question spent more or less the entire movie as a frog.

It would be ten years before we got another mainstream animated film with a black protagonist, with the arrival of Spies in Disguise. A movie in which the black main character in question spent more or less the entire movie as a pigeon. And hell, let’s throw in Coco — a film drenched in Mexican imagery and populated with Mexican characters, yet it still featured a lead character who was turned into a skeleton and interacted with other skeletons for most of the runtime.

So here we have Soul, the very first entry in the Pixar canon to feature a black protagonist. Yet the production was headlined by writer/director Pete Docter — a white man — and the trailers sold a story in which a black leading character spent most of the movie as a pale specter. Even before the film was released, there was a lot of controversy about this.

To be entirely fair, Kemp Powers — a black man — was credited as co-director and co-writer. More importantly, I should add that the filmmakers found a very clever solution toward presenting a transformation storyline in which the main black character is onscreen — with his body and skin color intact — through the vast majority of the runtime.

Kinda. Sorta. The solution they came up with isn’t exactly foolproof, and there’s already controversy over it. Let’s start from the top and take a closer look, shall we?

Jamie Foxx stars as Joe Gardner, a middle school band teacher with lifelong dreams of being a professional jazz musician. These dreams are somewhat complicated when Joe is officially hired as a full-time music teacher, complete with steady pay, health insurance, a pension plan, etc.

Let’s pause for a second here. Of course it’s nothing new for a protagonist to choose between taking the steady and dependable path or throwing caution to the wind and following their passion. However, this iteration has a few added wrinkles in that Joe is a teacher. With this career path, he could still play music for a living like he always wanted, and potentially inspire more young musicians in the bargain. Then again, Joe was first inspired to become a musician when his father took him to a jazz club.

So, could Joe do more good and inspire more young musicians from a jazz club, or from a classroom? Perhaps more importantly, is that even the right question? After all, everyone learns at different rates and in different ways, but does that really make any difference so long as everyone’s learning?

Anyway, one of Joe’s former students (Curley, voiced by Questlove) gets Joe a chance audition to play with the great jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe lands the gig, only to stumble into an open sewer and die on his way home.

Making a long story short, the late Joe Gardner is able to weasel his way out of the afterlife and into the Great Before, where spirits develop personalities until they’re ready to take newborn physical bodies. Joe is tasked with mentoring an especially recalcitrant young spirit known only as 22 (Tina Fey), helping the unborn spirit find their “spark”. I won’t go into spoilery details about precisely what the “spark” is — it’s a topic of great narrative and thematic importance, and the characters discuss this at great length — but suffice to say that it’s something about the real world that the spirit has a passionate interest in, and every spirit needs to find their spark before they can go to Earth.

Anyway, Joe desperately wants to get back to his body on Earth, and 22 has spent the past several defiant centuries refusing to be born on Earth. Working together, they find a way to get Joe back to life. Making a very, very long story short, things go terribly wrong and 22 gets sent back in Joe’s body, while Joe himself is sent back in the body of a cat.

And we’re only half an hour into the movie.

So, on the one hand, we’ve got a film in which the black main protagonist is bodily present and on the screen through pretty much the entire movie. The bad news is, for roughly half the film, he’s being voiced by a white woman. Who is voicing a totally different character (a pre-born character, without any race or gender) inhabiting someone else’s body.

Yeah, the morality and ethics on this one get really convoluted, really quickly. I’m sure a lot of non-white folk will be offended over this, and far be it from me to tell them they shouldn’t be offended. But with all due respect, I’m loathe to talk about the race angle any more than I already have because there is SO MUCH MORE crammed into this movie.

A lot of the themes will definitely sound familiar. Life’s not about the destination, but the journey. Treasure every day like it’s your last. Be good to the people around you, because even the people you think you know may have histories and challenges you know nothing about. This is all threadbare stuff, but the execution is deep, profound, and heartfelt as only Pixar could deliver. In fact, I’d argue that the film deals so heavily with so many deeply profound philosophical questions about life and the universe, Pixar couldn’t have handled this and done it so well at any earlier point in their history.

This is a highly ambitious film, even by Pixar’s standards. Think about that.

As controversial as the basic premise is, so many of Joe’s most crucial lessons come from watching a total stranger walk a mile in his shoes. Nothing like it to give him a fresh new perspective on all the things he loved, wanted, took for granted, and never had. As for 22, she never really found her lust for life in the sterile and impersonal educational environment of the Great Before. She — as with so many other people — could only learn by getting out of the Great Before (“dropping out”, if you will) and getting her own experience out in the field.

I’m afraid I can only skim the surface here, because I couldn’t possibly hope to sufficiently detail all the thematic rumination, storytelling, and character development that the Pixar geniuses crammed into 100 minutes. If anything, it feels like this world and these characters could’ve sustained a good two hours at minimum. But I’ll tell you, between the marvelous camerawork, the gorgeous animation, the stunning production and lighting design, the delightful voice acting, and the utterly gobsmacking music, the filmmakers milk every last second for all it’s worth.

Seriously, whomever could’ve thought that freaking Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — of all people! — would’ve turned out to be two of the most versatile and sought-after composers working in the industry today? But as great as their work is here, Jon Batiste provides the beating heart of this movie, with stunning jazz compositions as fluid and expressive as any of the actors in this incredible cast.

Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey carry the film admirably. Phylicia Rashad, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, and Donnell Rawlings are all capable supporting players. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, and Wes Studi, all of whom play custodians of the Great Beyond, all inexplicably nicknamed “Jerry” — they’re a delight. Damn shame Daveed Diggs was so pitifully underutilized, though.

So, are there any nitpicks? Well… yeah.

Easily my biggest problem concerns the bridge between the living and the dead. For the third act, the filmmakers needed some way for Joe to cross between the living world and the Great Before without actually dying. It’s a tall order, sure, but the solution that the filmmakers came up with doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s flimsy and nonsensical enough — even by the film’s own internal logic! — that even the slightest doubt or inspection is enough to collapse everything.

On a similar note, there’s the matter of “Terry”, voiced by Rachel House. Terry is a kind of spiritual accountant, keeping a detailed count of all the departed souls, obsessed with tracking down the one misplaced soul throwing off the count. The character is funny and charming enough — it certainly helps that after Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, Rachel House has developed a solid schtick as a puffed-up ignoramus too drunk on power and authority to realize how small and disliked they really are.

Unfortunately, precisely because nobody takes Terry or their power trips very seriously, Terry fails to register as a threat or a worthy antagonist of any kind. On a similar note, Terry only does one (1) thing in the entire movie that impacts the plot in any appreciable way. Terry’s entire runtime is in service of the turning point into the third act, nothing more and nothing else.

The whole runtime of Soul is loaded with such improbabilities and flimsy contrivances — even outright contradictions! — all for the purpose of getting the plot where it needs to be. This was very clearly a movie built more for the heart than the mind, but it works beautifully well on those terms.

The scope of the film is astounding, with a wide variety of themes explored in heartfelt, thoughtful, genuinely comical ways. The animation is stellar, the voice acting is delightful, the music is transcendent… there can be no doubt that this is objectively a well-made film. Even when the plot relies on pathetically thin contrivances to get everything where it needs to be, the painstaking delivery and profoundly heartfelt themes are almost — almost! — enough to hold the suspension of disbelief.

I don’t think the film is an unimpeachable instant classic like Inside Out, but the two are definitely in the same ballpark. Absolutely give it a look, but don’t look too close or you’ll see the stitches.

Wonder Woman 1984

Posted December 26, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

The past ten years have been flooded with various failed attempts at replicating Marvel’s success on the big screen. The Dark Universe. The Amazing Spider-Man. Transformers. Ghostbusters. And those are just the ones that actually materialized. You know what every single one of those failures had in common?

When they inevitably collapsed, the responsible studios blew them right the fuck up.

Alas, this is not a lesson that DC has ever learned. From the DC Rebirth to the New 52, all the way back to Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC has a long and embarrassing history of “soft reboots”, trying to keep what works while jettisoning everything else. It never worked in comics, and it will never work in movies.

It’s now common knowledge that AT&T (who purchased DC and the rest of Time Warner in 2018) is now upwards of $150 billion in debt. Through the past couple of years — most especially during the pandemic — we’ve seen AT&T try to staunch the bleeding by selling off companies and laying off thousands of workers.

Most notably, WB tried directing viewers toward their flailing and expensive HBO Max service by pledging to release their entire 2021 slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. This was a unilateral decision made by the top brass at WB, made without any regards to the filmmakers who are contractually entitled to a cut of the box office take that this decision will inevitably drain. Now Dune (2021) may be exempt from that arrangement after Legendary Pictures filed suit, and more lawsuits will likely follow in the months to come. Warners’ big play backfired, they’ve alienated themselves across all of Hollywood, and they won’t be any richer for it.

And then we have the DC Cinematic lineup.

What we have here is a massive (and expensive!) cinematic superfranchise built around the Justice League, for the Justice League, without the Justice League. Their Avengers-killer failed spectacularly, and WB has no idea what to do next with the DC stable except desperately cling to Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and whatever other miscellaneous scraps of respectability are still hanging around.

Oh, and they can make a new standalone Batman movie. Another one.

The top brass at Time Warner have shown such alarming ineptitude over the past few years, I’m not the least bit surprised that they keep on throwing good money after bad. They just don’t have the brains or the guts to simply blow it all up and start from scratch. So instead, we’re left with a studio that has no idea what to do with the property aside from throw a bunch of money at it, keep on churning out movies with no purpose or direction, and hope that brand recognition alone will be enough to make a billion dollars at the box office.

(Side note: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — studios cannot keep gambling their entire existence on billion-dollar grosses for $200-million-budgeted movies. It’s already sunk at least one major studio, and it’s going to sink Hollywood.)

It looks uncannily like what 20th Century Fox was doing with the X-Men franchise over the past ten years. And I’m not talking about the Deadpool franchise or the standalone Logan films — those were made with clear artistic visions and low enough budgets that the studio left them alone. No, I’m talking about Days of Future Past, Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix, and The New Mutants, all clearly the products of a studio that had no idea what to do with their IP. Hell, Fantastic Four (2015) had similar problems for similar reasons. But at least Fox had an excuse for producing movies at a constant rate, to keep the properties away from Marvel for as long as possible.

What the hell kind of excuse does WB have for Wonder Woman 1984?

Our premise this time concerns an ancient artifact that turns out to be a kind of Monkey’s Paw — whomever uses it will get a wish, but with disastrous unintended consequences. Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (a returning Gal Godot, of course) wishes that she had her old boyfriend back, thus Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is revived. Kinda sorta. It’s a Monkey’s Paw story, so of course it’s complicated. He’s not a zombie, though, I can at least tell you that.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a geologist who gets her hands on the artifact. She’s a socially awkward put-upon klutz — complete with thick glasses and unkempt blonde hair — who isn’t very attractive or confident, but with a bit of magical help, she turns into a homicidal cat-themed DC supervillain. Now, where have I seen that before?

Last but not least is Maxwell Lord, a villain who shares a long and… *ahem* controversial history with Wonder Woman. Incidentally, you may be wondering why this blonde white man is played here by the distinctly Chilean Pedro Pascal. Well… that’s kind of the point.

Early on, we learn that Maxwell Lord is a Latino man who changed his name and image to look like a massively successful white man on television. He portrays himself as a prodigious oil tycoon, conning people across the world into investing with his company, when in fact his corporate headquarters is little more than a shiny facade over a hollow shell.

But then Maxwell Lord takes the artifact, using his wish to make himself the Monkey’s Paw. Thus he’s free to grant the wishes of the wealthy and powerful, taking their own wealth and power for himself when things go wrong. In execution, it’s a clever and effective twist on Maxwell’s duplicity and telepathic powers from the source text. Moreover, the basic notion of a Monkey’s Paw story on a literally global scale is a surprisingly decent foundation for a superhero picture.

From start to finish, this is explicitly a movie about lying, cheating, taking the quick and easy route, making selfish and/or unwise wishes, etc. And all of this dovetails beautifully with Wonder Woman, whose trademark weapon is the Lasso of Truth. Hell, she was created by the man who invented the polygraph. Only the best Wonder Woman writers have truly understood and celebrated that Wonder Woman is the Spirit of Truth, and it’s great to see the filmmakers embrace that.

That said, this angle does suffer from one crippling flaw: The particular message of “you can’t have everything” sounds really condescending, coming from a superhero. Spider-Man can do that and get away with it, because Peter Parker is a nerdy wimp whose life is absolute shit and all of his friends and adoptive family either die or turn evil. Diana Prince, on the other hand, is a freaking Amazon, born with superhuman strength, agility, and everlasting beauty.

Yes, Diana feels bad because Steve Trevor died and they can never be together in the long run. And yes, Gal Godot and Chris Pine still share an effortless chemistry that makes them easy to root for as a couple. That doesn’t make our hero look any more empowered when Steve Trevor saves the day by sacrificing himself AGAIN. And if this is Diana’s big sacrifice, the thing that she has to give up to set a good example and prove that nobody can have everything… I’m sorry, but no. That’s just not enough to cut it.

What makes it even worse is that Barbara Minerva — our latest iteration of the Cheetah — was ideally placed to directly call Diana out on this. Barbara only ever wanted the kind of power and attention that Diana has, and who is Diana to deny her that? Diana herself never comes up with a decent answer for that, and it’s a wasted opportunity.

To be clear, there’s a lot to like about this adaptation of Cheetah. Bear in mind, the various iterations of Cheetah are probably the most iconic of Wonder Woman’s villains — the closest she’s ever had to a Joker or a Lex Luthor — and this take proves herself to be a worthy foil. I might also add that in spite of my earlier Batman Returns crack, the approach to Cheetah works far better in this movie, likely because it’s a much closer fit to the source material.

Right off the bat, Barbara and Diana are both firmly established as social outcasts. One is a beautiful Amazon from another place and time and her friends are all dead, while the other is a clumsy bookish misfit who has no friends. Yet they’re both intelligent and well-meaning women, capable in their respective fields, looking for company in a world that doesn’t seem to understand them or have a place for them. Yet Wonder Woman responds to the evils of men with non-lethal force, applying her powers with compassion and integrity with the goal of making the world a better place. Cheetah, on the other hand, is all about fighting fire with fire, responding to the evils of men with righteous fury and raw aggression.

In theory, Kristen Wiig was a fantastic choice for the part. She can do dorky and sexy and all points in between. (Seriously, at 47 years old, Wiig looks damn fine in this picture.) She can do funny, she can do brainy, she can do dramatic, and she can deliver furious anger like nobody’s business. The problem, however, is that Wiig is a notable alumna of the Paul Feig School of Comedy. Thus she has the mistaken assumption that rambling on for minutes at a time is funny and endearing, rather than annoying and utterly pointless.

More importantly, Barbara was shaped by a number of outdated stereotypes regarding scientists: Big glasses, socially awkward, dorky and ugly, etc. Which brings me to what may be the single biggest problem of this movie.

It’s right there in the title: 1984. Early and often, this movie leans heavily on its setting in the mid-’80s, with a distinctly heightened and gaudy motif throughout. In theory, “heightened and gaudy” isn’t necessarily a bad way to go for a comic book movie, especially in the hands of a director like Patty Jenkins, who’s already earned her genre stripes. The problem is that this particular take is so artificial, it doesn’t even look authentic by the standards of the time. And the filmmakers compound this by using the period setting as license to indulge in outdated stereotypes, which doesn’t help.

Worst of all, Gal Godot cannot do “heightened and gaudy”. That is simply not in her repertoire. Though her Wonder Woman may dress up in flashy outfits and rescue innocent kids, this is still a superhero built for the trenches of World War I and the dour self-importance of a Zack Snyder film. With this stoic and understated performance against the scenery-chewing camp of everyone around her (Chris Pine excluded), what we’ve got here is a Wonder Woman who looks perpetually out of place in her own movie.

The action scenes don’t help either. To start with, the filmmakers took away Wonder Woman’s sword and shield. I can understand taking away the sword, as it was never really a great fit for Wonder Woman’s compassionate and non-violent brand of heroism. But taking away the shield? Come on! The scene of her using that shield against heavy weapons fire was one of the most iconic the previous film ever had!

More to the point, fewer tools and weapons means there’s less that Wonder Woman can do in a fight. She’s got her boomerang tiara, sure, but that’s an impractical weapon and she barely ever uses it. All she’s got left are her inconsistent super strength and her lasso to do all the heavy lifting. And the filmmakers were visibly straining to find new ways to make the lasso effective and exciting. It gets so bad, Wonder Woman’s big climactic fight with Cheetah gets reduced to the both of them swinging around aimlessly in the general direction of each other. Pathetic.

And don’t even get me started on that ridiculous car chase in Cairo. How could Wonder Woman spontaneously change into her outfit? How could that broken down POS car repel bullet fire like nothing? Hell if I know!

For miscellaneous notes, I’m happy to report that Lynda Carter herself finally gets to make a mid-credits cameo appearance. I’m even more stoked to confirm that we finally — FINALLY — get our Invisible Jet for Wonder Woman.

(Side note: In her recent announcement teaser for the upcoming Rogue One, director Patty Jenkins made a big deal about her father, Cpt. William T. Jenkins, a fighter pilot who was killed in action. It’s easy to see how much it meant to Jenkins that she could present a sequence with Wonder Woman and the Invisible Jet.)

We’ve also got Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, and even young Lilly Aspell reprising their roles from the previous film. Pity they only stay around for the prologue. Sure, it’s a solid and well-acted prologue that firmly establishes the themes of the movie, but I might have liked to spend more time in Themyscira. As if this 150-minute movie wasn’t padded to the gills already.

Finally, there’s the Hans Zimmer score. Such a disappointment that the signature wailing electric cello doesn’t come in until half an hour from the end. The established Wonder Woman theme never really comes alive without it. But again, that theme was very clearly built from the ground up for Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman (2017), both movies that are the complete opposite in tone, compared to this one.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a misfire. I don’t want to blame that on the script, because the central premise and themes are solid. I can’t blame the actors, because they’re all solid choices for their respective roles. I sure as hell can’t blame the director, as it’s been solidly proven that Patty Jenkins gets this character.

No, this is the kind of failure that can only come from someone up top. In point of fact, setting this film in 1984 was such a boneheaded decision, so deeply set into the fabric of this movie, it could only have come from the studio heads. This is very clearly a movie assembled from solid quality parts, put together by someone with no clue as to how or why they all fit together.

Getting back to my earlier point, it’s in everyone’s best interests for WB to just give up on DC for a while. Focus on the animated efforts, the HBO Max series, and the ongoing CW efforts, but please stop rolling the dice with muddled and inconsistent $200 million mediocrities like this.

I know it hurts to lose Gal Godot as Wonder Woman, I’m upset with it too, but she’s not to blame for any of this and we all know it. I’m sure she’ll be fine. Just blow it all up, step away, and reboot the whole thing in ten years. Hopefully, the studio will have the necessary money and talent by then.