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Enola Holmes

Posted September 27, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s surprisingly easy to forget that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t really give a shit about Sherlock Holmes. The man was a medical doctor and a prolific author in the fields of science, history, and politics. During his lifetime, Doyle himself and contemporary critics thought that his historical novels were his greatest works. Perhaps most notably, Conan Doyle wrote a short work in defense of Britain’s military involvement in South Africa during the Second Boer War — and that’s the most likely reason why he was knighted!

I don’t know if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever intended for Sherlock Holmes to be his most enduring and popular legacy, but that’s certainly what he fell into. He wrote “A Study in Scarlet”, and Holmes turned out to be so impossibly lucrative that he pretty much had to keep on writing for the character. Even when Conan Doyle tried killing off Sherlock and ridding himself of the character for good, he had to bring the character back a few years later to keep himself from going broke.

Reading through the original Sherlock Holmes adventures, it’s perfectly obvious that they were thrown together without any regard for continuity. Moreover, Holmes is conveniently and preternaturally talented at fighting, disguises, swordplay, marksmanship, handwriting analysis, and literally any other skill he ever needed in the moment. Aside from his cold and calculating demeanor, tempered by his firm devotion to justice, there’s not much about his personality that’s especially consistent or noteworthy. Holmes doesn’t really develop as a character because he’s presented as perfect from start to finish — a Victorian-era Gary Stu, if you will.

So what happens when we gender-flip the concept, making our lead sleuth into a teenage girl, but with personality and character development?

Enola Holmes tells the story of the oft-forgotten teenage little sister to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. The film is adapted from the first in a short series of YA novels written by Nancy Springer. The adaptation itself was handled by… *sigh* screenwriter Jack Thorne and director Harry Bradbeer. A female-driven movie written and directed by two straight men.

Okay, let’s get this over with. What have we got?

Enola helpfully gets us up to speed by breaking the fourth wall, repeatedly talking into the camera throughout the entire picture. Though the device does get annoying at times, it actually kind of works here. It helps the audience to feel like we’re a conspirator in whatever shenanigans our main character is cooking up (see also: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and it also forms an intimate connection with the audience in a way common to children’s television (see also: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, “Dora the Explorer”, “Clarissa Explains it All”, “Blue’s Clues”, etc. etc. etc.).

It’s a playful and subversive device that works well for a film geared toward young adults. Moreover, this is an original character in a world that’s universally known and beloved — we need a reason to follow Enola Holmes when we could be spending a movie with Sherlock instead, which in turn means that we need to get invested in Enola right off the jump. Surprisingly, the fourth-wall breaks — powered by a dynamic and effortlessly charismatic performance from Millie Bobby Brown (also a producer here) — get the job done.

Anyway, Enola was born shortly before her father’s passing, and both of her brothers had long since grown up and settled into their accomplished careers in London. Thus Enola and her mother (Eudoria Holmes, played with aplomb by Helena Bonham-Carter) are left to their own devices in their massive country home. For the first sixteen years of Enola’s life, Eudoria taught her about pretty much everything under the sun, except that she never got to see the outside world.

Cut to Enola’s sixteenth birthday, and her mom suddenly vanishes without a trace. Naturally, Enola calls in her brothers (with Sam Claflin stepping in as Mycroft and Henry Cavill as Sherlock himself) to ask for assistance. Instead, Mycroft arranges for Enola to be sent to a boarding school while Sherlock busies himself looking for the matriarch.

Thus Enola runs away to look for her mother on her own. By happenstance, she runs headlong into the errant Viscount of Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), a teenage boy facing multiple attempts on his life just before he’s set to inherit his late father’s title. Hilarity ensues.

To start with, the cast is a mixed bag. Millie Bobby Brown anchors the film superbly, appropriately tough and/or vulnerable where she needs to be. It certainly helps that this is an exceptionally showy role by nature, with numerous costume changes, multiple action scenes, and countless chances to literally mug for the camera. There’s a lot here for an actor to sink her teeth into, and Brown makes a meal of it. On a similar note, Helena Bonham-Carter gets an awful lot to do for someone who appears primarily in flashbacks, and she utterly nails the line between tough and crazy.

Then we have Henry Cavill, the latest in a long and illustrious line of actors to play the legendary Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know if I’m in the minority on this (I sincerely can’t wait to hear from the Holmesian scholars on this one), but I honestly really liked this portrayal of the character. Yes, Cavill is considerably younger than the role is typically cast, but it makes sense to me that such a larger-than-life figure built from the ground up to be innately smarter and better than everyone else should be played by freaking Superman. I could totally see this portrayal of the character in my head while reading the original Conan Doyle stories.

Granted, this particular Sherlock is a doting older brother to a rebellious teenage daughter he barely knows, and he’s a middle child trying to serve as mediator between two wildly different siblings. The character wasn’t built for any of this… and yet that’s part of what makes this particular iteration so compelling. By his very nature, Sherlock Holmes is used to having all the answers and being emotionally detached. With that in mind, this whole family drama has put Sherlock so far removed from his comfort zone that it’s a rare time when he doesn’t really know what to say or do, and that makes for some fascinating internal conflict.

(Side note: In case you missed it, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle filed suit against the filmmakers a few months ago. Yes, though most of the Sherlock Holmes canon is in the public domain, the last ten stories — and all the elements original to them — are not. The lawsuit complains that the character of Sherlock Holmes “became warmer,” with these last ten stories, and so this counts as copyright infringement.

(Put another way, Sherlock Holmes was a man void of any emotion or personality until the closing chapters of his canon. That’s coming directly from the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, and you can take that straight to the motherfucking bank.)

By contrast, Sam Claflin’s take on Mycroft is wrong, wrong, dead wrong. Yes, it’s well established that Mycroft of the original text is an employee for the British government — in fact, according to Sherlock himself, “occasionally he is the British government.” (To be clear, that’s Sherlock of the original text, not the movie.) So to a degree, it makes sense that Mycroft Holmes should be the movie’s voice for the patriarchy and the status quo. But the devil’s in the details.

Shortly before Mycroft’s grand debut (in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”), Sherlock says of his brother “he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.” In the same exchange, Sherlock states clearly and emphatically that Mycroft is even smarter and more skilled at observation than he is (to repeat, we’re talking about a man more perceptive and intelligent than Sherlock Fucking Holmes), but he only uses these talents for parlor tricks because he can’t be arsed.

By comparison, Claflin’s Mycroft never even shows a tenth of the potential to match his younger siblings for ingenuity or deduction. Moreover, this Mycroft is a puffed-up blowhard who goes to great lengths in getting Enola to a boarding school so she can be a proper English lady and not an embarrassment to the family’s image. And this is the same guy described by his own brother as a man with “no ambition and no energy”? Fuck outta here.

Elsewhere, Louis Partridge plays a serviceable yet forgettable love interest for our lead. Burn Gorman may be a wonderful character actor, but he was sadly miscast as the heavy. It’s strange seeing Lestrade played by an actor of color, but Adeel Akhtar did a fine job playing a pompous comic relief. Fiona Shaw — yes, the erstwhile Petunia Dursley herself — is of course a wonderful hate sink in the role of our boarding school headmistress.

But the undisputed champion of the supporting cast has got to be Susan Wokoma, in a brief yet showstopping performance as one of Enola’s former teachers. This character is a bona fide badass, speaking a lot of harsh truths, holding her own against Enola and Sherlock Holmes without flinching. Even more than the Holmes siblings and their mother, I’d argue that Edith is the true moral voice of the picture. Which brings me to this movie’s politics.

Front and center, this is a staunch feminist movie. On the macro level, this film is set against the women’s suffrage movement. Women’s independence and their right to vote are the stakes at play in this plot. All of the characters are unrelentingly vocal in their positions on the topic, and all of the various stances are presented without ever talking down to the young audience. Moreover, this movie had the good fortune to come out during an ongoing national conversation about when or whether property damage is justifiable in effecting social change. The story thread goes unresolved, alas, but it still gives the plot some good heft.

On a more personal level, this is a story about a young woman who wants to assert her individuality in open defiance of oppressive gender norms. Boilerplate stuff, but this movie is smart enough to shake things up a bit. To start with, as much as Enola hates the ridiculous and useless garments that women are expected to wear, the fact remains that she has to dress like everyone else because she’s on the run and trying to blend in. So she has to find a way to make it work for her. Even better, as much as Enola hates the boarding school, Sherlock himself points out that it’s an education nonetheless, and she could very well pick up on practical knowledge and skills she couldn’t get anywhere else.

And let’s not forget: Enola’s mother left her, without any explanation. It’s entirely possible that if she keeps searching — and if she survives the attempt — she might not like the reason why.

Let’s wrap up with some of the major drawbacks. To start with, the action is subpar. I was terribly unimpressed with the choreography and the editing, and the dodgy CGI certainly didn’t help. What makes it even more confusing is that the fight scenes kept getting intercut with flashbacks to Enola’s fight training with her mother. It’s like the filmmakers had no idea how to properly stage or choreograph a fight scene (or maybe the actors and stunt performers didn’t have enough time to train) so they could only shoot one move at a time and stitch it all together in post.

Easily the worst offender is the climax. To be perfectly blunt, everything about the climax is godawful. It takes place at night, and the camerawork is so inept that everything is too dark to see and it looks like shit. The big reveal was telegraphed an hour in advance. The action is pathetic, there’s a character saved from death for no adequately explained reason, it’s all just bad. Bad to the point of unwatchable.

And yet, even as wretched as the climax is, I still can’t call it a dealbreaker. I honestly had a great time with Enola Holmes. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s stylish, and the core trio of Brown, Bonham-Carter, and Cavill are more than enough to lift up the rest of the uneven cast. Even if the central mystery itself was pretty weak on the whole, there are still enough twists and turns to keep the plot compelling. Of course, the timely presentation of feminist themes is a huge help (though I’d still much rather see a female filmmaker handle the subject matter).

It’s a charming and fun little romp, fit for all ages. Definitely check this one out.


Posted September 26, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Yes, gentle readers, we’re really doing this. Buckle up.

The French film Cuties came out to immediate controversy, due in large part to a tin-eared and outrageously misguided ad campaign from Netflix. The film was made, critically acclaimed, and sold to Netflix for its examination of how society sexualizes pre-pubescent girls, and Netflix proceeded to hype the film by sexualizing pre-pubescent girls. To their credit, Netflix did eventually apologize and scale things back, but of course the damage was done and the controversy didn’t stop there.

A whole lot of ink has already been spilled about how the filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves and we should all cancel our Netflix accounts over this. Naturally, I’m sure all the outrage has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that this is a movie about a black Muslim girl, written and directed by a black woman (namely Maïmouna Doucouré, here making her feature debut). And of course I wouldn’t know how many of these same protesters are going to vote for the alleged sexual miscreant who used to own freaking Miss Teen USA and numerous other beauty pageants. Incidentally, that would be the same alleged sexual miscreant who put girls and women of color into cages on American soil, subjecting them to sexual abuse and forced sterilization. But I digress.

Getting back to the point, the simple and ugly truth is that sexualization of young girls and exploitation of their beauty have been a disturbing and prevalent trend for a long time now. For the past twenty years at least, every teenage girl who’s ever been remotely famous has had to start their career under a haze of Photoshopped fake nudes and an online countdown timer to their eighteenth birthday.

It’s a problem at least as old as pop culture itself, from Shirley Temple to Tiffany to Miley Cyrus and all her fellow latter-day Disney alumi. The list goes on and on, and quite a number have ended in tragedy. Just look at how Judy Garland ended up. Or Lindsay Lohan. Or Britney Spears. Or freaking JonBenet Ramsey.

Shit, Natalie Portman started out with The Professional when she was just a girl. And the first piece of fan mail she ever got came from some pervert psychopath who wanted to tell her about his fantasy of raping her at the age of thirteen. How fucked up is that?

This is definitely a conversation that we need to have, and it’s not a conversation that the male-dominated film industry is equipped for. The closest we’ve come in recent memory is probably Little Miss Sunshine, and it didn’t become a huge point until the climax. You could probably make an argument for Judy, though it was hardly a central focus. For fuck’s sake, freaking Johnny Knoxville might have said more about the subject in Bad Grandpa than both of those movies put together!

(WARNING: If you haven’t seen Bad Grandpa, you want to be very, very careful about clicking on that link. Trust me on this.)

And on the subject of teenage sexuality, we need to figure out how teens can explore their sexual natures and identities in a way that’s safe, appropriate, and empowering. This is another highly important conversation that we very badly need, but it’s not comfortable and so we don’t discuss it. Yes, the topic of sex has come up in a few recent coming-of-age movies — Good Boys; Love, Simon; The Spectacular Now; and The Fault in Our Stars all come to mind — but those were all from a male point of view. Coming from the perspective of a teenage girl who’s dealing with constant pressure to look and act a certain way sexually, Eighth Grade is probably the best we’ve got so far.

Then along came Cuties, which literally opens with a black girl crying into a camera. She’s surrounded by bright lights and flashing cameras, her makeup is shot to hell from all the tears, and she’s looking directly at the camera in extreme close-up. Let it be known that literally from the very first frame, the filmmakers tell you exactly what the point is, and they are definitely not fucking around.

From there, what we’ve got here is a pretty standard coming-of-age narrative. Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is a young Senagalese girl who just moved into a new housing project. She comes from a devout Muslim family, which means that her absentee father gets to take a second wife with everybody’s blessing while Amy and her mother have to cover themselves, be quiet, and abstain from anything remotely sexual. As Amy’s mother (Mariam, played by Maïmouna Gueye) so eloquently tells her daughter, “Quit taking up so much space.”

Even better, Amy’s lesson in “How to be a woman” is in cooking the food for her father’s second wedding. That is so many different kinds of fucked, I don’t even know where to begin.

Amy arrives at her first day of school and meets the eponymous Cuties (Angelica, Coumba, Jess, and Yasmine; respectively played by Medina El Aidi, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, and Myriam Hamma), a band of young girls who dress provocatively and partake in various social media stunts with the goal of dancing competitively. I might add that they got this idea from watching adult women dancing provocatively in skimpy outfits on social media, racking up hundreds of likes in the process.

So while it’s perfectly okay for consenting adults to film themselves twerking, and the audience is free to support them, there’s the possibility that teenage girls might see that and try to copycat so they can get some of that same attention and approval. Then again, the filmmakers heavily imply that none of these particular kids have any teachers or parents who are the least bit attentive or responsible, so there’s that.

Moreover, these girls are remaking themselves in the image of music video dancers, runway models, Kim Kardashian, and so on. Thus the film raises the notion that girls and young women need more positive role models, and that means more mainstream media attention given to empowering women.

Though from an American perspective, I might counter that with the ongoing lionization of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with many young girls dressing up as her for Halloween and the like. (In fact, both Dora and the Lost City of Gold and the recent Scoob! featured young female supporting characters dressing up as the SCOTUS justice, even before her passing.) And of course that’s not even getting started on recent superhero media, with a successful Supergirl show on the CW and movies for Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and the upcoming Black Widow. Progress is slow, and we can always use more feminist role models, but progress is definitely happening nonetheless.

Anyway, there’s a problem with the Cuties: they’re a bunch of stuck-up brats who bully our main character. In their initial meeting, the Cuties even go so far as to throw actual, literal rocks at Amy. Seriously, they got her on the forehead and they laugh at the giant gaping wound.

We learn very quickly that the Cuties — like most kids their age — are posturing assholes who are 100 percent full of shit. This is most especially obvious on the subject of sex, as shown when the Cuties parrot all sorts of playground nonsense about penis size and what happens during sex. This stands in direct comparison to Amy, who doesn’t even bother pretending that she knows anything about sex. This is a French movie, and this could just as easily have taken place in America — maybe woefully insufficient sex ed is a universal thing.

Perhaps more importantly, Amy has been shaped by a culture and family that oppress her and suffocate her with any number of stringent rules about how she talks, acts, and dresses. By contrast, the Cuties show a callous, self-centered disrespect for rules and authority. In fact, they have no regard for common sense, honesty, integrity, or even personal safety. Literally nothing matters to them except their own pleasure and self-image. Yes, Amy needs to find the courage and strength to break out of the conformist mold she’s been set into, but going to these extremes is something else entirely.

And sweet mercy, does Amy go to some messed-up, boneheaded, appalling extremes in the back half.

Which brings us to the sexualization issue. If a woman dresses and dances in a provocative manner, is she degrading herself or empowering herself? It’s a conundrum as old as feminism itself, and the answer depends on any number of context-sensitive factors. Though in this particular context, the pre-pubescent ages of the young women in question is a huge goddamn factor.

Even so, there are two factors that are absolutely vital, regardless of age. The first is obviously informed consent. Secondly, if anyone of any age is made to feel ashamed for dressing and dancing however they want in the privacy of their own homes, that’s fucked up.

And then of course we have the generational gap. Amy’s family comes from Senegal, her elders brought up with archaic practices of a faraway place. Amy herself, by contrast, is very much a product of modern-day France. It’s perfectly obvious that the old ways won’t work for her, though the adults raising her don’t want to see that or understand it. This is bog-standard material for any coming-of-age story, though it’s worth mentioning nonetheless.

But even with all this talk about the greater sociopolitical and gender-related factors at play, it’s important to remember that THESE ARE KIDS. They play around, they act like idiots, they make mistakes. That’s how they learn, it’s how they grow, it’s the whole point of childhood. There’s a prominent dance break at the half-hour mark, and it’s hard to even see anything sexual about the scene when these girls are just dancing around to impress each other and have fun.

Still, it’s one thing when these girls are merely having fun by themselves in an abandoned lot somewhere. When they’re dancing like this on social media, for a paying audience, or in front of judges for a competition, that’s something else entirely. And when they’re actively rewarded for it… well, the opening frames of the movie have already let us know how that’s going to work out.

Which brings us to the nitpicks. Though most of the film is pretty firmly grounded in realism, the filmmakers briefly dabble in more fantastic and dreamlike moments. It doesn’t connect. The moments aren’t outlandish enough to completely register as hallucinations or dream sequences, but they’re not realistic enough to square with the rest of the proceedings. While these moments make an abstract kind of emotional and thematic sense, it’s still tonally jarring and confusing from a narrative standpoint.

Speaking of which, there are quite a few moments when the filmmakers go to absurd lengths in getting the plot where it needs to be. My personal favorite example concerns Amy’s cell phone — of course the plot and themes demand that she have a smartphone, but there’s no way her family would let her have one. So she steals a smartphone.

For one thing, this costs our protagonist no small amount of sympathy. For another, this means that our character set up her entire social media presence on someone else’s smartphone, racking up charges on someone else’s account the whole time, and it takes over half the movie before anyone notices. Fuck outta here.

Another great example comes when Amy gets into trouble and she needs a way out. And this just happens to be the exact moment when she gets her first period. Deus ex menses, if you will.

But maybe the crowning example comes when Amy needs to find a way back into the huge competition for the climax. I won’t spoil exactly how she does it, but she completely and totally lost all sympathy from me after that move.

Still, the cast does well enough. In fact, considering how young these actors are and what material they had to work with, I’d say they deserve tremendous praise. But the real star here is Maïmouna Doucouré, for taking on such a bold subject matter with nuance and heart. I may gripe about how our protagonist wasn’t always 100 percent sympathetic, but I respect a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from the fact that kids can be ignorant, harmful, malicious little shitheads. (Again, see Eighth Grade. And also Skate Kitchen, which this movie resembles in many ways.)

But most importantly — I cannot possibly stress this enough — no way in Hell, Heaven, or all points in between could this movie have been made by a male filmmaker. This absolutely needed a female filmmaker who could handle this topic with unflinching honesty, a clear and comprehensive eye, and absolutely zero trace of any male gaze. These are uncomfortable topics, but we need to talk about them, and this is how they need to be portrayed.

On its own merit, Cuties is a stock coming-of-age story, with a boilerplate plot held together by a few flimsy contrivances. Even so, the film sets itself apart from the cavalcade of recent coming-of-age films by way of its subject matter and context in the pop culture zeitgeist. It’s a film about young women growing up and discovering themselves in a world with fucked-up and contradictory attitudes toward women and sex, discussing the subject with intelligence and heart. It’s also a movie made of and about women of color, and we could definitely use more of that too.

You may not like what this movie has to say or how it says it. Even so, you should definitely hear what the movie has to say. Brace yourselves, keep an open mind, and give it a try.


Posted September 6, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Ever since Jon Stewart started writing and directing movies, and ever since he quit “The Daily Show”, I’m sure all of his fans were eagerly awaiting the day when he’d come out with a political satire. The wait is finally over, and not a moment too soon.

Irresistible sets its stage in Deerlaken, a tiny Wisconsin town that’s been economically devastated by the closure of a local Marine base. A town hall is held to debate a new austerity measure that could hurt people who are already in dire need of assistance. Enter Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a longtime resident who gives an impassioned speech against the new measure, and the speech goes viral.

This catches the attention of Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a Democratic strategist who served on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, still suffering from that loss. Gary looks at this Marine widower farmer from the American Heartland talking like a bona fide progressive in a language that rural conservative voters can understand, and he sees a budding politician to help make Wisconsin into a swing state. Long story short, Jack agrees to run for mayor of Deerlaken if — and only if — Gary runs the campaign himself. Thus Gary sets up a new home base in Deerlaken and we’re off to the races.

It’s at roughly this point where we meet Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), Gary’s counterpart for the Republicans. The two apparently have such a fierce rivalry that the moment Faith sees all the money and manpower Gary’s putting into this campaign, Faith has to swoop in and throw her weight behind the incumbent. (That would be Mayor Braun, played by Brent Sexton.) From there, both sides push each other to escalate until things inevitably spiral out of control. Hilarity ensues.

It’s perhaps worth adding that the movie opens with Faith and Gary addressing reporters, delivering the exact same speech word-for-word, telling reporters not to believe whatever it was they thought they witnessed in the last Clinton/Trump debate. And in the mid-credits stinger, we’re treated to a cable news roundtable discussion, in which an anchor talks about how maybe reporting facts that conform to a specific narrative — without regard to what’s actually true — might be actively harmful. So literally from start to finish, it’s made perfectly clear that A) this is very much a Jon Stewart picture, and B) not everything in this film is supposed to be taken literally.

In America — especially in Trump-era America — the sad and simple truth is that too much is never enough when it comes to satirizing politics. The filmmakers could’ve gone over, above, and beyond the top, and it still wouldn’t be any crazier than the non-fictional headlines and players we’ve seen for the past few years.

Without regard for any leanings toward the left or the right, this is the bipartisan truth that the film is all about: Our elections — all the way up and down the ballot — have gotten absurdly convoluted, needlessly cutthroat, too dependent on money, and far more complicated than they have to be.

But on another level, this is very much a movie about the economic and geographical divide between the political elite and the suburban yokel. Despite ostensibly living in the same nation and under the same laws, the two of them barely seem to speak the same language. Yet the two of them need each other — the political elites need suburban voters and the moral self-righteousness that comes with feeling like they’re helping the less fortunate, while the yokels need… well, they need money. They need food, they need schools, they need roads, they need jobs.

So the massive Election Industrial Complex descends unto the American Heartland every election season, spending and raising tens of millions of dollars trying to get out the vote for one candidate or another. And as soon as the election’s over, they pack up and leave the residents to their ongoing problems. If all of that money isn’t going to help out these broke rural voters, then where the hell is it going?

The movie goes to plenty of outrageous lengths in making its arguments (the crusty old super-donor Elton Chambers, played by Bill Irwin, is my personal favorite case in point). Yet the conclusions themselves are always presented with the utmost sincerity, and the genuinely human, heartfelt moments between characters are taken very seriously. It’s that exact sense of duality that made Stewart such a legendary satirist during his tenure on “The Daily Show”, and it pays off beautifully here.

Speaking of which, of course Stewart couldn’t resist a few subtle callbacks to his old stomping grounds. Even before the opening credits, there’s an Easter Egg shouting out to Stephen Colbert. We’ve also got Desi Lydic — a current correspondent who came on when Trevor Noah took over — appearing as an anchor on Fox & Friends (here skewered every bit as mercilessly as you’d expect).

But of course the big one is Steve Carell, front and center as the star of the film. Here, Carell is playing a head honcho who genuinely loves his work, though he’s out of touch with his employees and prone to comical outbursts. (Sound familiar?) Carell has been visibly desperate to make films about heavier subject matter (see also: Welcome to Marwen, Battle of the Sexes, Beautiful Boy, Foxcatcher, etc.), but it never seems to work because he keeps taking all of these dramatic roles and the man has always been a born comedian. Here, he gets to have his cake and eat it too, under a writer/director with years of practice in getting Carell to make a serious point in a comical way.

The rest of the cast is remarkably solid as well. The comically arch bitch in charge is a well-practiced tool in Rose Byrne’s kit, and she plays it superbly well against Carell’s practiced schtick. Of course Chris Cooper brings the salt-of-the-earth gravitas that the role so badly needed. Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne both turn in brief yet amusing comic turns, and Debra Messing’s speaking cameo was a laugh riot.

But the standout for me is Mackenzie Davis, here playing Jack’s daughter, Diana Hastings. I’ve made no secret that I’ve been an adoring fan of Davis ever since The Martian, and this film demonstrates all the reasons why. She’s funny, she’s whip-smart, and she’s strong enough to hold her own against all the seasoned veterans running their established routines. It really is astounding how well Davis’ own sensibilities blend with those of Stewart, effortlessly delivering the same balance of comedy, heart, and intelligence that we’d expect from Jon Stewart at his finest. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t the potential love angle, playing Diana as a potential romantic interest for Gary, even though she’s clearly half his age. This would indeed be the typical Hollywood thing to do, and I’m happy to say the film subverts that trope rather deftly.

That said, Diana is also at the center of the big climactic plot twist, and this is probably where a good chunk of the audience will jump ship. Without going into details, it’s one of those moments in the film that makes a ton of thematic sense, but absolutely zero literal sense. This twist is the thematic linchpin of the movie, the crux of its most powerful statements about the Election Industrial Complex. And those statements are sadly undercut by the myriad of contrivances that it took to make this whole ridiculous plan actually work.

Still, the twist works on an intellectual and emotional level, even if it doesn’t work on a plot level. So while it costs the movie points, I can’t quite call it a dealbreaker.

I honestly had a good time with Irresistible. Yes, the film often makes more sense as an abstract statement about politics than a concrete plot, and a lot of the humor stems from actors delivering the same schtick we’ve seen from them a million times before. With that in mind, it’s probably no surprise that this is exactly as intelligent, funny, uplifting, incisive, and heartfelt as I had expected. Definitely give this a look.

Regarding the Mulan Boycott

Posted September 4, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Today’s the day when the live-action remake of Mulan finally hits Disney+, following a long pandemic-induced delay. Trouble is, it’s only available to those who are willing and able to pay a $30 upcharge in addition to the Disney+ membership.

I’ve already gone on record about this a few brief times in other blog entries, and I’ll come back to it later on. Right now, suffice to say that no way in hell was I ever going to pay thirty goddamn dollars just to rent a movie.

Little did I know that a lot of people are apparently boycotting the movie as well, and for a totally different reason.

Back in March of 2019, the chief executive of Hong Kong introduced a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China on a case-by-case basis. This legislation immediately set off alarm bells, for fear that it would help the oppressive Chinese government in finding and arresting political dissidents. Long story short, this prospective bill (which was withdrawn in October 2019, by the way) snowballed into a landslide win for the pro-democracy camp in the 2019 Hong Kong election, a series of Chinese emergency laws regarding social gatherings, and a whole ‘nother China/Hong Kong immigration issue brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this was fueled by a solid year and a half of protests, riots, general strikes, and demonstrations that are still making worldwide headlines to this day.

Of course, China — being China — has responded to all of this by doing their absolute best to clamp down on any resistance. The police response from China has been overwhelming, and their legislative efforts at cracking down on the protests has been outright Draconian.

Which brings us to August of 2019, when Liu Yifei — who plays the title character in Mulan (2020) — shared a post from the Chinese state-backed People’s Daily that read: “I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now.” Liu herself added “I also support the Hong Kong police.”

First of all, I want to stress that I know absolutely nothing about Liu Yifei as an artist or as a person. I don’t know her movies, I don’t know her politics, I don’t know her from Eve. And I honestly don’t care what she thinks or believes, that’s her business.

That said, it bears mentioning that while Liu is an American citizen, she was born in China and she’s been bouncing back and forth between the two nations ever since she started modeling and acting at age eight. While I certainly don’t know (nor can I prove) that Liu made this statement under any kind of duress, we do know that the Chinese government holds considerable power over her life. It’s entirely possible that if this young actress — set to gain international prominence through a tentpole Disney movie — ever made a public statement against the Chinese government, she might not ever be able to work or even set foot in China again. To say nothing of the potential ramifications against her family and loved ones.

And then, of course, there’s how Liu’s statements on the matter could affect her career. Specifically with regards to Mulan (2020).

It’s no secret that Hollywood has been actively courting China for years. The two have become so thoroughly entwined in so many ways for such a long time, it’s hard to know where to begin. Going one direction, Chinese companies like Huayi Brothers (Hardcore Henry, The Free State of Jones, Warcraft, etc.), Starlight Culture Entertainment (Midway, Marshall, etc.), and Tencent (anything STX Films has put out), have been backing prominent Hollywood movies for years, hiding in plain sight.

Going the other direction, I could point to films like Arrival or The Martian, both movies in which China plays a vital part in saving the day. And I’m sure we all remember Doctor Strange, the movie that white-washed a character traditionally from Tibet — a nation with a long, hostile relationship against China.

Now, to be entirely fair, this ongoing trend has resulted in a positive impact with regards to the visibility of Asian people and culture in mainstream American media. Crazy Rich Asians is an especially prominent and well-received case in point, though The Farewell is a fine example as well. But on the other hand, same-sex equity is still a hot-button issue in China, which is likely a huge reason why LGBTQ representation doesn’t really exist in big-budget cinema. To say nothing of the female-led Ghostbusters (2016) getting completely shut out of Chinese theaters.

If it was really about making a positive social impact, these inconsistencies wouldn’t make any sense. If it was all about appealing to China, it would all make a lot more sense.

To be clear, the Ghostbusters (2016) slight probably had more to do with China’s wildly inconsistent rules with regards to ghosts, terror, or anything supernatural. How inconsistent are these rules? The aforementioned Starlight Culture Entertainment — a Chinese company — helped produce freaking Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a movie that never even saw a Chinese release!

But wait — you might be thinking, if you’ve been paying attention — haven’t the multiplexes been deluged with scary ghost stories lately? Isn’t there supposed to be a whole superfranchise built on The Conjuring? Yeah. And how many of those had a budget anywhere near $100 million? The whole reason why those movies have been so successful is because they didn’t take much to make and they don’t need any Chinese box office returns to bring a profit.

Even crazier, China is famously stringent on movies involving time travel. The Chinese government takes history very seriously, and they don’t want a portrayal of anything that makes light of history or implies that it can be altered. Bill and Ted Face the Music was made on a reported budget of $25 million and has no release date set for China. No way that’s a coincidence.

Mulan (2020), on the other hand, was made on a reported budget of $200 million. Based on other recent films with comparable budgets (Justice League, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Dark Phoenix, etc.), that means this one has to make at least a billion dollars worldwide or it’s going to be seen as an extremely costly flop.

(And of course we have to think about the optics — how the hell would it look if such an overt cinematic love letter to China couldn’t even screen in China?!)

Disney absolutely needs that populous and lucrative Chinese box office if it has any hope at making this movie profitable. That would be true even if American multiplexes were running at their usual capacity, which brings us back to the current state of American cinema.

Last weekend, The New Mutants opened to a domestic weekend gross of $7 million. In the Before Times, that would’ve made it the most embarrassing and short-lived franchise starter since Jem and the Holograms. Right now, that’s enough to make it the highest-grossing movie in multiplexes. To say that’s pathetic would be an understatement.

What’s worse, unemployment in America is now over ten percent, and every new month brings the looming threat of more people getting kicked out of their homes because they can’t afford to pay rent. Because they’re not working. Due to the pandemic.

We’re on the brink of an economic crisis, the arts are getting hit everywhere, and we have no way of knowing which local businesses will be left standing when we finally have a reliable vaccine. But Disney needs to make their billion dollars, so here’s your $30 upcharge.

Yes, I realize that if you’re seeing it with a family of five people who’d otherwise go to the multiplex (if each of them buy concessions, more like two or three), the math checks out. However, that doesn’t make it any less of a slap in the face for those stuck in lockdown alone, or for those who are already paying for broadband internet and Disney+ with their hard-earned savings at a time of imminent economic collapse. Also, while multiplex tickets and concessions may be absurdly overpriced, at least you know that the money went toward keeping a business open and local employees paid. I don’t know who’s employed at your local multiplex, but they sure as hell won’t see a dime of that $30.

Yes, Disney did eventually back down and agree to release the film without a premium upcharge in December, though you’ll still need a Disney+ account to see it. And yes, I can appreciate that Disney didn’t try to pull a Tenet, implicitly encouraging everyone to go see a movie while a raging pandemic has made that unavoidably hazardous. But then I remember that Disney has tried moving Heaven and Earth to keep its theme parks open and active (albeit with modified protocols) throughout the pandemic-ridden summer!

Why? Because Disney only gets 17 percent of its total revenue from its movies. The various hotels, theme parks, and cruise lines generate double that — a full third of the company’s revenue! But I digress.

The point is, the makers of Mulan (2020) are in a difficult place right now. They can’t do the right thing and condemn China for their multiple human rights transgressions without fear of pissing off the censors, cutting off their movie from Chinese audiences, and dooming it to failure. To be clear, I don’t blame the cast or crew for this — Liu Yifei and pretty much all of her costars are Chinese, and none of them can risk speaking out against the government without severe repercussions. I don’t agree with that, but I can respect it.

Disney, however, gets no sympathy. The company had 40 percent of the market share before the pandemic hit. Last year, they released Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King (2019), Frozen II, Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, and Aladdin (2019) — that’s seven of 2019’s ten highest grossing films. And even now, during the pandemic, they’re sitting on a massively successful streaming service fueled by a boatload of material that they just acquired from buying freaking 20th Century Fox!

Don’t come crying to me about how the company’s in danger. Don’t tell me they can’t afford to take a hit, even one as big as this. You know damn well that between home media releases, merchandising, and any number of cross-media promos, Mulan (2020) will make back its money eventually.

I don’t care if they charge insane amounts of money to make up for the domestic box office grosses they feel they should’ve gotten. I don’t even care if they catch a massive backlash for supporting (or refusing to denounce) the terrible news out of China. Disney brought that on themselves. All of Hollywood did.

Anyone who’s been paying attention could see that mid-budget films are becoming increasingly rare. Everything is either a microbudget picture or a huge tentpole blockbuster, and the blockbusters are getting to be so huge that they’re guaranteed failures unless they break the billion-dollar mark. Trouble is, the studios can’t keep gambling their futures on billion-dollar successes when the American public doesn’t have infinite cash to spend and success in China depends on censorship in deference to barbaric government practices.

This model is not sustainable. It sank 20th Century Fox (see: Dark Phoenix, the ballooning development costs for the Avatar sequels, etc.), and nobody should know that better than Disney. If Disney falls into the same trap, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.

In closing, I’d like to remind you all of a little film called The Interview, back in 2014. You may remember this as the movie that pissed off North Korea to such an extent that its wide release was eventually cancelled (though it did eventually surface by way of home video, digital downloads, a limited release, etc.). At the time, the film’s cancellation caused a massive outcry, and everyone was worried what Hollywood might look like if we allow some despotic foreign government censor our material.

Looks to me like Hollywood didn’t learn its lesson.

Bill and Ted Face the Music

Posted August 29, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Everyone has a breaking point. Every rule has an exception.

When the lockdown started, I looked at the streaming prices for the new releases, and I balked hard. Twenty bucks to see Trolls: World Tour? The same price for Bloodshot, and Emma.? Freaking $30 to see Mulan (2020) in addition to the Disney+ subscription price?!

(Side note: News just broke that Mulan (2020) will indeed be available to all Disney+ subscribers — without the upcharge — in three months. So the extra $30 is basically for seeing it in September rather than December. I’m still not paying that, for the record.)

When I saw these upcharges, I swore I wouldn’t pay over twice the cost of a regular multiplex ticket just to see a new release. Even with the usual price gouging at the multiplex, at least I know some of the money is going to its local employees and not all to Google or Amazon. No way was I ever going to…

Sorry, what’s that? Google Play is charging $20 to rent Bill and Ted Face the Music? The capstone to a franchise that I’ve known and loved since I first knew what movies were?

*heavy sigh* Goddammit. Okay, what have we got?

We open with a voice-over prologue from Billie Logan and Thea Preston (respectively played by Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving), helpfully getting us up to speed on how their respective fathers have been doing for the past thirty years. Basically put, they’re not doing well.

After their blockbuster initial success back in 1991, their chart standings toppled and the band broke up. Only Bill and Ted themselves (once again played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) remain, their every attempt at music superstardom met with a critical and commercial lashing. You’d think that would be enough for a campy cult appeal — I have to imagine there’s a group of fans who LOVE this “so bad it’s good” kinda stuff, but of course that’s not the kind of success they’re going for.

From there, we meet back up with Bill and Ted, still in San Dimas. Now they’re doing wedding gigs, and this particular wedding is for…


…I’m sorry, my brain blew a fuse when I saw who the bride and groom were. Better to move on for now, I think.

Anyway, suffice to say that the Wyld Stallyns’ new music has been going further and further into territory that might charitably be called “experimental”, though perhaps “a parody of pretentious prog rock” might be a better description. It’s funny as hell, sending the message early and clearly that Winter and Reeves came to play like they’re making up for thirty years of lost time.

Moving on, we quickly learn that their wives (As a reminder, those would be the Princesses Joanna and Elizabeth, now respectively played by Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes.) — you know, the women who were uprooted from the freaking Middle Ages and turned out to be the most musically competent members of the band — are the only ones in their respective families with actual jobs. We never learn exactly what those jobs are, but it’s clear that they’re supporting Bill and Ted and their daughters entirely on their own backs, and they’re not happy about it. The only ones who are really 100 percent in Bill and Ted’s corner are their daughters, two unemployed twenty-somethings who listen to music all day.

Furthermore, despite all the supernatural sci-fi shenanigans these two have been a publicly visible part of for the past two movies (They toured with robot copies of themselves and the actual Grim Reaper himself, for fuck’s sake!), nobody else really believes that Bill and Ted ever actually traveled through time, went to Heaven or Hell, and so on. And let’s not forget that the two are getting on in years and their best is probably behind them.

In summary, Bill and Ted are under increasing pressure to finally grow up, get real jobs, and give up on ever crafting the music that was prophesied to unite the world. Oh, and did I mention that the space-time continuum is folding on itself in weird and unpredictable ways? Because that’s another thing going wrong.

So where’s Rufus in all of this? Well, it’s never explicitly stated, but the implication is that he’s passed on. In his place, Bill and Ted are assisted by Kristen Schaal, here playing Rufus’ daughter. I might add that the character is named Kelly, after Carlin’s own real-life daughter (who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, by the way). Isn’t that sweet?

From here, the movie effectively splits into two.

In one movie, the Wyld Stallyns are told they only have roughly two more hours to write and perform the song that they’ve already been trying to write for their entire lives. Their solution: Hijack the old phone booth to meet different versions of themselves throughout their future, hoping to catch up with them after they’ve actually written the song. It doesn’t go well — in fact, it’s repeatedly shown that Bill and Ted only make their own lives worse with every jump.

As you might have guessed, this causes the space-time continuum to unravel even faster than it already has. In response, the future’s Great Leader (Holland Taylor) — who just happens to be Kelly’s mom — sends back a freaking Terminator (also named “Dennis”, played by Anthony Carrigan) to chase down Bill and Ted, hoping that their martyrdom may be enough to unite the world and stop the damage.

In response, Kelly recruits Billie and Thea, loaning them a newer model of time machine. This leads to our second movie, in which Billie and Thea try to recruit great musicians from throughout history to help write the song that’s going to save all of reality. So it’s basically a backdoor soft reboot of the franchise. Not a bad way to go about it, really.

Unfortunately, the new time machine has a seed-shaped design, with all the smooth, sterile, featureless, colorless edges of an Apple Store. It doesn’t have the approachable iconic charm of the phone booth (to say nothing of the DeLorean, the TARDIS, etc.), and the time travel effect looks ripped off from that wretched teleportation effect of Star Trek (2009). Even with the original phone booth (now an older model, by this movie’s standards), the time travel effect is much cleaner and faster than it was in the first movie. I don’t like it.

But by far the bigger problem here is that the second act feels like two stories slammed together, and the two have so little in common that it leads to issues with tracking, pacing, and tonal whiplash. More to the point, it feels like either one of them should’ve been enough to carry the entire film on its own.

And yet on further reflection, I don’t really know if that’s true.

In the case of Billy and Thea, they’re travelling through history and recruiting a bunch of famous people to help with a big performance at the end. On the one hand, that’s exactly what happened with the first movie, so we know for a fact that it’s enough to support a 90-minute movie. But on the other hand, that’s exactly what happened with the first movie, so why bother doing the exact same thing all over again?

With regards to Bill and Ted, the movie had been sold to me through various interviews and promos as a story about two men who were sold a false bill of goods when they were teenagers. They were told that the future was going to be amazing, they were going to do all these wonderful things, and none of it came true. How do you keep pursuing your life’s dream for thirty solid years, even after it’s given you nothing? Hell, what do you do if the dream somehow comes true and you’re too old to do anything else with the rest of your life?

It’s a powerful subject, especially for the millennials — the so-called “unluckiest generation” — who grew up with this franchise. (*ahem*).

And yet, while this profoundly personal and introspective topic was never really given its due, it’s not exactly in the wheelhouse of Bill and Ted, either. William S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan are clueless, carefree, self-unaware doofuses — whether they’re teenagers or grown men, that’s who and what they are and it’s why we love them. While they’ve had their dark and introspective moments in the past, they’re simply not built or equipped for the kind of existential soul-searching that my generation has had to deal with — certainly not for an entire movie.

So what we get instead are Bill and Ted watching themselves get older, uglier, angrier, lonelier, more pathetic, and more bitter with every time jump that passes. Every few years when they’re that much farther estranged from their wives and daughters, from the song that was supposed to lead them to greatness.

With that in mind, it really is a mercy that this wasn’t the entire second act, and it’s frankly a miracle that this storyline is as funny as it is. Though of course, I’m sure it helps that Winter and Reeves are obviously having a blast, playing all these wildly different iterations of the characters. It absolutely helps that we’ve got Dean Parisot on board — if you want a director for your retro-tinged, self-aware, intelligent and heartfelt sci-fi comedy about unintelligent people, look no further than the man who made Galaxy Quest.

But then we come to the third act — most especially the climax — when the two separate stories recombine and more prominent themes start to crystallize. By far the most obvious is in the unifying power of music, its power to bridge all times and cultures. Hardly a new theme, but the time travel gimmick makes it fresh, and the execution is a worthy payoff to all the setup that was done back in 1989.

Moreover, if the first movie was about the people who change the world, this movie is about people who go on to inspire even greater minds to keep pushing further. I’m sorry to say that spoilers prevent me from going into much detail, but the movie raises the distinct possibility that even if we fail, there may be others to pick up where we left off and finish the job. And that’s exactly the kind of warm, optimistic outlook that I’d expect from this franchise.

Let’s move on to the cast. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are delightful — they dove right into playing versions of their classic characters who never really grew up. We’ve also got William Sadler, Hal Landon Jr., and Amy Stoch all making fantastic return appearances. Even the late George Carlin pops in for a cameo, by way of archival footage and a bit of admirable assistance from soundalike Piotr Michael.

And what of our new arrivals? Well, Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine are… to put it bluntly, they’re playing a gender-swapped modern reboot of Bill and Ted, and that’s way more adorable than it sounds on paper. Imagine if the original characters were reinvented as media junkies of the online world, the kind who thrive on musical trivia and ephemera, with deep knowledge and appreciation of everything from the classics to the obscure. We never actually see Billie and Thea’s YouTube channel, but I’m sure they have one. And of course it helps that the Weaving/Lundy-Paine chemistry is an uncanny match to what Winter and Reeves had back in the day. Outstanding work.

Jayma Mays and Erinn Hayes fit nicely as the third pairing of actors to play their characters, though it helps that they don’t have to really do much except act off of Winter and Reeves. Speaking of which, major kudos to Jillian Bell, a battle-tested comedic actor here demonstrating her chops as a marriage therapist for Logan/Preston.

Beck Bennett was an inspired choice to play Ted’s little brother Deacon. Kristen Schaal is no George Carlin, and Kelly is certainly no Rufus, but Kelly tries her hardest to do the job in her own way as best she can, and so does Schaal. No way in hell am I going into any more detail about Dennis than I have to, but there’s far more to the character than appears at first blush and Anthony Carrigan plays it all superbly.

Then we have the musical icons that Thea and Billie meet on their adventures through time and space. I don’t dare spoil which ones they meet, though I regret to say that they’re fewer in number and (I would argue) smaller in historical stature than the roster of the first movie. It certainly doesn’t help that certain rights issues meant that some of their most iconic songs couldn’t be played. We’ve still got a nice variety of household names, though, all talented and very capably played. A couple of musicians even play themselves: One has a show-stopping cameo and the other has a show-stealing role.

(Side note: Speaking of cameos, keep an eye out for franchise masterminds Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, here making fantastic use of their brief screentime as a couple of demons.)

Even more interesting, Thea and Billie go back to recruit a quasi-historical mythical figure — on the level of Robin Hood or King Arthur — and the filmmakers gender-swapped the character. And for extra measure, they threw in a fictional musician from pre-history. All bold moves, far from anything the franchise has dared up to this point.

Though Billie and Thea never think to go back and recruit Beethoven. Even if they would’ve had to recast the role (Clifford David died of undisclosed causes in 2017), that seems like a huge missed opportunity. I have to believe Ludwig Van would’ve been all to happy to help his old friends and their daughters in their time of desperate need, but I guess we’ll never know.

Speaking of which, Bill and Ted of the first movie either recruited all their historical figures through outright kidnapping or through time-hopping right in front of them. Billie and Thea take a different approach, recruiting musicians to persuade each other. This results in some fantastic musical exchanges, including a trans-historical musical duel at the 40-minute mark to bring the house down.

(Side note: If you want slightly more spoiler-y details about the relevant musicians — along with the whys and wherefores of their involvement — I strongly recommend this most excellent article on the subject.)

In summary, Bill and Ted Face the Music is something increasingly rare in the film industry: A solid franchise capstone. It’s a movie that firmly and definitively closes the book on Bill and Ted, but it does so in a way that respects the characters and the fans. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it’s loaded with callbacks and payoffs that reward franchise fans, all while maintaining the optimism and the defiant innocence we’ve come to know and love from these characters.

How would it play to someone who’s never seen the first two movies? I don’t have the first fucking clue. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I grew up with the first movie, I’m very likely the very last person who could possibly answer that question. All I can say is that this got the franchise back on board after the misstep of Bogus Journey, folding the lesser sequel into continuity without repeating the same mistakes. Beautifully done.

With all of that said, I must note that all of my praise is contingent on this being the last Bill and Ted movie. There’s no way to Toy Story 4 this, not without bringing everything down around its ears. Though I certainly wouldn’t object if Universal Studios found a way to bring back the Halloween stage show. And if any future movies passed the torch to Billie and Thea… well, let’s see what happens.

Be excellent to each other.

Project Power

Posted August 22, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Project Power is a new action film from Netflix about an unsuspecting young black woman who gets entangled in a massive conspiracy involving superpowered humans and an immoral Big Pharma conglomerate. I thought I’d give it a try because it worked out so well for The Old Guard, but the film is far and away worse for inviting such comparisons. Let’s take it from the top, shall we?

We open in modern-day New Orleans, with the arrival of a new drug called “Power” that grants superpowers to anyone who ingests it. However, the superpowers only last for five minutes at a time. More importantly, the drug interacts in an unpredictable and potentially volatile way with the genetic makeup of each individual user. Until the drug is taken for the first time, there’s no way of knowing whether the little glowing pill will grant someone super strength, super speed, telekinesis, invulnerability, or maybe just blow them up on the spot.

Oh, and some giant pharmaceutical company is behind the whole thing for their own nefarious purposes, that goes without saying.

On one side is Art (Jamie Foxx), a former major in the Army Rangers who’s out to dismantle the Power drug trade for his own personal reasons. On the other side is Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a detective in the New Orleans PD who has to go rogue because strange men in black suits keep turning the police away from any investigation into Power.

Caught in between the two is Robin (Dominique Fishback), a young black girl with a diabetic single mother who doesn’t have health insurance. (By the way, it’s clearly established that this same single mother works in a veterinary clinic. A medical clinic that doesn’t give its employees health insurance? Sounds screwy to me, but we’ll roll with it.) Anyway, Robin and her family need money badly enough that Robin doesn’t really waste her time with school, so she sells drugs on the side while practicing her skills for a nascent rap career.

Thus the young drug dealer gets in over her head and we’re off to the races.

Let’s start with the casting. Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are both playing solidly to their respective wheelhouses. There’s not much of anything we haven’t already seen these two do in so many other, better movies, but it’s still entertaining to watch.

Alas, while Dominique Fishback shows a lot of potential here (and she’s quietly been developing a sturdy resume over the past few years), she’s not strong enough to carry the whole film. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that she’s a relative newcomer trying to hold the screen against the finely-honed and well-established routines of Foxx and JGL.

But perhaps more importantly, Robin is a weak protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, the character is proactive and she’s clearly got initiative, that’s not the problem — the problem is that Robin’s motivation isn’t nearly strong enough or clear enough to justify the actions that she takes for as long as she takes them.

For that matter, the antagonist is pretty weak as well. The bad guys are never really developed beyond a vague shadowy monolithic force that somehow plans to take over the world with this wonder drug. There is no one character we can track and follow and pin all our hatred on, because the bosses are all killed off just as soon as we meet them. Everyone’s this nameless faceless figure who wants money and power because they’re evil.

There are no specifics as to who the major players are, what their plan is, or how they plan to accomplish any of this with a drug that might spontaneously kill the user upon ingestion. And there’s no stated motivation for any of this, beyond some overdramatic monologues about evolution and scientific progress and blah blah blah.

And then of course we have the premise. The very nature of the premise lends itself to a vast array of potential superpowers, and this potential is mostly squandered. The powers on display are pretty much entirely limited to super-strength or invulnerability, or they’re limited to tight quarters. Seriously, nearly every fight scene either takes place in a cramped hallway or between rows of shipping containers. There’s even one fight scene that takes place inside a bar, but it’s shot from inside a cage for some reason and it’s barely visible. Even the huge climactic moment is a massive CGI explosion (of sorts) that doesn’t involve any actual conflict.

Though we do get one chase scene with a guy who blends into his surroundings, that’s pretty cool.

A lot of these problems might have been solved at the screenplay stage, but I’m not sure that’s the real problem here. The screenplay is credited to Mattson Tomlin, a relative newcomer to feature cinema, though he’s apparently hot enough that WB hired him to help write the upcoming The Batman. No, I think the bigger problem here is that Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are hacks.

This is the same duo that directed the pathetically brain-dead Nerve and the pitifully overrated Catfish. I haven’t seen Paranormal Activity 3 or 4, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they came on right when the franchise nose-dived.

(Side note: This same team of Joost, Schulman, and Tomlin recently announced that they were working on a Mega Man film adaptation. If this falls apart in development, I get the feeling it would be a blessing.)

Here we have an action movie in which all of the action is too cramped and underlit to be any fun. A movie with huge ideas and half-assed follow-through. Going on to the performances, the editing, the shot compositions… everything about this smells of a film put together by directors who had no idea what they were doing.

With all of that said, at least the film makes one coherent statement about how all of us are naturally good at something. We all have something to bring to the world, and there’s something each of us can do better than anyone else. Tying that empowering theme into a story about drug-induced superpowers was an inspired move. Such a damn shame that the filmmakers had so much else to say about capitalistic tyranny, the current state of (American) medical care, race relations, and so many other topics that never quite congeal into coherent artistic statements.

Project Power is the very definition of mediocre. It doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, but it doesn’t do anything especially right. It’s a decent way to spend 100 minutes, but this easily could’ve been so much more.

My advice: Keep an eye on Dominique Fishback’s next career moves, watch The Old Guard instead, and quit giving Joost and Schulman work.

The Lovebirds

Posted August 20, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

In a recent review, I made the promise that I would be there for the next movie Issa Rae made. Lo and behold, it turns out that the lovely and talented Ms. Rae came out with another movie this year and it’s free to stream on Netflix. Even better, she stars and exec-produces alongside Kumail Nanjiani, a charming and talented comedian in his own right. Oh, and the film was directed by Michael Showalter, who previously directed a delightful little romcom with Nanjiani called The Big Sick.

I’m sold. Let’s see what we’ve got with The Lovebirds.

The film opens with our romantic leads, Leilani and Jibran, respectively played by Rae and Nanjiani. We meet them when they’re in the initial stages of dating, and it’s… well, it’s cute. “Adorably awkward” might be more descriptive. Their chemistry is nowhere near what Nanjiani had in The Big Sick, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Rae’s smoldering intensity in The Photograph. Still, for a couple in the awkward phase of starting out, it’s passable.

Then we cut to four years later. Leilani and Jibran have been in a committed relationship this entire time and they’re now having a petty squabble over nothing. This is where the chemistry really fires on all cylinders. They’ve got the rapid-fire banter, the underhanded remarks, and the pain that can only come from a loved one. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s sympathetic, and, uh… yeah, it’s, ah… it’s still going.

Yup, they’re still going at it.

Look, a little bit of a lovers’ quarrel goes a very long way. Especially if these are the only two characters on the screen and we’re stuck in a car with them. At that point, it feels like we’re caught in the middle of something, and in real life, this is the point where any reasonable person would excuse themselves to let the couple in question sort things out. Yet we’re stuck with them past the point where it stops being funny and starts getting painful and awkward…

Wait, what’s that? We’re ten minutes in and the plot’s getting started? Perfect timing. What’ve we got?

Long story short, Jibran unwittingly hits an anonymous bike messenger, who proceeds to get back up and flee on his bike. Jibran’s car is then hijacked by some anonymous mustachioed heavy (played by Paul Sparks), who chases the bike messenger and proceeds to run him over about four or five times until the bicyclist is finally dead. The mustachioed heavy then proceeds to exit the scene, leaving Jibran and Leilani to deal with the bystanders.

At this point, Jibran and Leilani proceed to implicate themselves with every word out of their mouths, loudly giving their names to the bystanders before running from the murder scene. A short while later, they take a cell phone call from the police and proceed to compound the error by outright lying to the cops.

And this, gentle readers, is why lawyers make so much money just for telling their clients to shut the fuck up. Seriously, all these characters had to do was demand an attorney (they can certainly afford to hire one, based on the look of their New Orleans apartment) and invoke their right to remain silent, and this would’ve been a very different movie.

These are the characters who call for rideshares with their cell phones, dressing up in gold jackets and bright pink unicorn hoodies that they pull off the rack, all while they’re running and hiding from law enforcement. Did they buy those clothes with a fucking credit card while they were at it? Because at this rate, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they did!

I should add that later on, these same characters try and fail to break down a front door after Jibran actively balks at climbing in through the fire escape. Then they finally go up the fire escape and try breaking through a window… except that Jibron tries to break the glass with his bare fucking hands instead of wrapping that ridiculous gold jacket around his fist like any rational person would do!

Yes, I realize that these characters are in over their heads. Yes, it’s perfectly sensible that anyone so rightfully nervous may not be thinking straight. I completely understand why two people of color would have no reason to trust the police.

But even with all of that being said, there is absolutely no excuse for characters acting this impossibly stupid. From start to finish, top to bottom, this is unmistakably an Idiot Plot, powered exclusively by the characters’ rank stupidity. Without fail, every single time the characters are faced with a brazenly obvious right choice, they consistently make the worst possible wrong choice.

I can only put up with that so many times before I lose all sympathy, the joke gets old, and the plot becomes predictable. I honestly didn’t even care what blackmailing scheme Jibran and Leilani got mixed up in, I just wanted the movie to end so I wouldn’t have to hear their incessant babbling anymore. My the time the third act started, I was screaming “SHUT THE FUCK UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP!” because it was the only way I could get through the umpteenth scene of our two leads blathering their way into an even deeper hole.

Seriously, when the characters are so annoying that it becomes a factor in the climax, that’s when you know it was a mistake to start watching in the first place.

So is there anything about it that works? Well, I genuinely like the film’s portrayal of how and why two people of color would have no reason to trust the police. In fact, that lack of trust makes a bad situation far worse than it would’ve been if our leads had just gone to the cops in the first place, implicitly demonstrating a powerful reason for systemic change. And really, portraying this issue as a crime thriller comedy was a bold move so courageous and creative that I have to commend the filmmakers for the effort.

Perhaps more importantly, this is a movie all about a couple on the rocks. Our two leads have been in a fantastic relationship for four years, and they have to figure out if they really are breaking up or just going through a rough patch. It’s not always easy to tell when two people are better off apart than together, especially when looking from the outside. This issue is nuanced and it’s not terribly romantic, but it’s a very real question that couples face every day.

I have personally seen Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae in far superior romantic dramas. I know for a fact that they both have the talent, the charm, and the sensibility to sell the internal and external conflict of a couple trying to figure out what their next step is. Trouble is, whatever soul or heart they might’ve brought to the table got drowned out by inane drivel and boneheaded decisions.

The Lovebirds was excruciating to sit through. It would’ve seriously been less painful to spend 90 minutes beating my head against a wall. As much as I love these actors, Issa Rae’s talent was totally wasted here and Nanjiani’s dorky charm is pathetically misplaced in any kind of crime thriller.

The characters are relentlessly annoying for how aggressively stupid they are. And no, I don’t care if their annoying nature pays off in the climax, it’s still annoying. This one is absolutely NOT RECOMMENDED.

(P.S. I’ve just been informed that Manic Expression permanently shut down yesterday, due to problems with their hosting service. For practically as long as I’ve been writing reviews, that site was a second home for my blog entries and a great many of my readers found me there. I will miss the site dearly, with gratitude for the memories and all the belief they had in me.)

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Posted August 18, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

My history with William S. Preston, Esq., and Ted “Theodore” Logan is literally as long, strange, and embarrassing as my own life.

Back in my formative preschool years, I didn’t think Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was the greatest movie ever — I thought it was the only movie ever. Until I finally grew out of the phase (roughly around the time when Power Rangers became a thing), my household played this movie on such heavy rotation that we wore out at least two VHS tapes. Did you even know that a VHS tape could be worn out just from playing it too much? Do you even know what a VHS tape is?

I know, I’m old, get over it.

To this day, I couldn’t begin to explain why I was so obsessed with this movie at such a young age. I don’t even know why my parents thought this film was appropriate for a three-year-old to watch. And I sure as hell don’t know why this movie means so much to so many people over thirty years later.

But then I pop in the DVD, that synth beat starts pulsing, and some part of me deep down inside says “Oh, right. That’s why.”

It’s so perfectly fitting that this is a movie about time travel, because if you’ve got a nostalgic itch for the late ’80s, nothing will get you back to 1988 faster than this movie. Whatever “cool” was back then, this is it to a solid T. The effects, the fashion, the lingo, that incredible soundtrack, the casual homophobia, absolutely EVERYTHING in this movie (for better or worse) perfectly and completely embodies the mythical American ’80s that has crystallized over thirty years of hindsight.

(Side note: And yet, right when this movie gets into its ’80s groove, we’re treated to a young black woman talking about how the stratification of our society resembles that of Marie Antoinette’s time. If you only knew, sister.)

Then we have the cast. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters are perfectly charming in the two lead roles, and even all this time later, who doesn’t like Keanu Reeves? It’s a treat to see the late Grandmaster George Carlin put his colossal comedic chops to a more sagely and understated use. And every last person in the supporting cast — most especially those playing the historical figures — came to play and play HARD.

That may ultimately be the secret to the film’s inexplicable lightning-in-a-bottle success: It’s fun. It’s just plain fun.

On one level, this is the rare time-travel movie that doesn’t have any grand cosmic stakes. Yes, Bill and Ted are unwittingly trying to save a utopian future, but they don’t learn that until after the climax — through most of the film, they’re just trying to get through a school report, put together a band, meet some hot babes, hang out at the mall, and so on and so forth. These kids don’t mean any harm — in fact, they’re too shallow and stupid to be any harm.

And yet the utopian future of the premise makes this an inherently optimistic and upbeat film. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that while “be excellent to each other” may not exactly be insightful or eloquent, it’s a solid philosophy to build a life and a future around.

At its heart and core, this is a movie about people who change the world. Yes, we meet with such timeless figures as Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc, but we only ever meet them after their place in history as already been assured. And we’re meeting them through Bill and Ted, who don’t even realize yet that they’re destined to be world-changing figures on the same level. Improbable? Sure. But we all have to start somewhere. Once upon a time, it’s safe to assume that Abraham Lincoln and Ludwig von Beethoven were just clueless teenagers themselves.

You never know where the next big thing may come from. Given time and determination, even an ignorant child could grow into the next artist, the next politician, the next scientist who could change the world for the better. Of course, I’m sure it helps to be a white boy living in affluent suburbia, but I digress.

On the other hand, there’s something inherently subversive about showing revered historical figures going hog wild on modern technology and creature comforts. To say nothing about the irony of modern suburbanites making fun at their expense. (“You are such a geek!”) The 20th century mentality and pop culture references contrast against those from older times and cultures, yet it’s all done in such a way that they celebrate each other, even as they poke fun at each other.

The late Chris Farley had a famous SNL routine in which he would interview famous guest stars, and he kept flubbing the interview because he was this star-struck doofus too nervous to make a good first impression. Bill and Ted strike the same kind of chord. They’re not geniuses, they’re not heroes, they’re just ordinary people and they react to meeting all these great legendary figures like any of us would.

(Side note: Incidentally, this was a huge factor in the popularity of Bill and Ted’s long-running and tragically cancelled annual Halloween show at Universal Studios. Literally ANYONE from the past, present, or even fiction could’ve stopped by, greeted with the characteristic blissful ignorance from our two leads.)

Also — because I feel this bears repeating — the filmmakers contrived a premise in which a freaking high school history presentation could determine the fate of the entire human race. It’s such an asinine pretense, yet everyone on both sides of the camera plays it so sincerely, taking it so seriously, that it immediately becomes endearing and comical. It’s a mundane crisis with a high-flying gimmick that doesn’t just make the title characters relatable, but it humanizes the long-dead figures and makes them more accessible to a modern audience. (Especially a younger audience who might’ve been introduced to the likes of Socrates and Napoleon through this film.)

Even the method of time travel itself is approachable. It’s not a bunch of complicated keystrokes and lever pulls, it’s not even anything so complex as a DeLorean, it’s a freaking phone booth! Just go in, look up your destination in the phone book, type in the numbers, and you’re off. Any child could do that, and anyone could understand it. (In fact, if it was any more complicated, Bill and Ted probably couldn’t figure out how to operate the thing and we wouldn’t have a movie.)

Of course, it’s implied that a lot of stuff is going on under the hood, all hand-waved away with the “circuits of history” visual effect and George Carlin’s effortless line delivery. (“Modern technology, William.”) But when the phone booth breaks down, they don’t fix it with technobabble and sonic screwdrivers, they literally repair it with chewing gum and pudding cups!

I’ve never been a fan of time travel in most other movies and TV shows, because the timelines and paradoxes tend to complicate everything mighty quick. Not here. Again, because our protagonists are so perpetually clueless, everything about time travel has to be dumbed down and sugar-coated so they (and we) can understand it. So instead of going into this huge expository monologue to explain everything so that Bill and Ted believe it, let’s just have Bill and Ted themselves drop in from later in the movie. Instead of contriving some way to get everything to where it needs to be in the climax, let’s have Bill and Ted themselves do some time travel shenanigans and arrange everything offscreen. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and yet the end result is so much funnier and more accessible than straight science fiction typically is.

Basically put, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is somehow both innocent and transgressive in equal measure, and at the same time. It’s a deceptively intelligent movie about rock-stupid characters. The entire movie sits right on that juvenile PG-13 razor’s edge where kids and adults can both watch this movie and feel like they’re getting away with something. It’s like the best kind of prank: There’s a shock, everyone laughs, and everyone walks away unharmed.

So why didn’t Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey ever reach the same level of fame and adoration? Well… I humbly submit that the filmmakers took the premise a little too far into the fantastic. Heaven, Hell, robots, aliens… all of these things are way too abstract. A million different filmmakers could interpret the afterlife in a million radically different ways that have virtually nothing in common. There are significantly fewer ways to portray Thomas Edison onscreen in a way that audiences will immediately recognize.

When Bill and Ted meet some figure we’ve come to know and respect through a million history books and successfully bring them on board, it feels like an accomplishment. Even as we’re making fun of a sacred idol (which itself has a kind of transgressive thrill), we’re humanizing them and getting to know them directly without the intervening centuries getting in the way. It is fundamentally impossible to get that same feeling with an alien, an android, or any other kind of purely fictional construct.

What’s more, if the first film is like the absolute best kind of prank, the second film is like a prank that results in somebody poking an eye out. Even if Bill and Ted both come back to life later on, the fact remains that the both of them really do end up dead and the film plays it totally serious. I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a great comedy about dead people (Beetlejuice cracked that nut a year before Excellent Adventure came out) but it makes the comedy inherently darker in a way that precludes the warmth and optimism that made the first film so innocent and fun.

The first film depended on so many delicately tuned balances, and pretty much the one and only aspect of the sequel in which all the balances are in perfect alignment is Death (as portrayed by William Sadler). Though he may be a purely fictional construct, we immediately recognize him as the Grim Reaper, just as anyone would immediately recognize any portrayal of the Grim Reaper anywhere in the world. And though he’s respected as such, he’s still made to contrast with modern concepts (most especially modern games) in a comical way — not unlike Napoleon’s earlier misadventures in San Dimas. For this reason, it’s not remotely surprising that Death is by far the most beloved and enduring new character in the sequel, to the point where he was brought back for the upcoming third entry, complete with William Sadler reprising the role.

After twenty years of waiting, Bill and Ted Face the Music is finally set to hit streaming platforms on August 28th. Will it be worth the wait? Will it recapture the magic of the first? Time will tell.

Guns Akimbo

Posted August 17, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Guns Akimbo is an action romp in which Daniel Radcliffe goes through the entire movie with pistols bolted to his hands. If that’s not enough to sell you on this film, you should probably adjust your standards. Even so, while that’s one hell of a fantastic hook, there’s a lot more to this movie beyond the surface-level description. So let’s dig in, shall we?

The center of the premise is Skizm, an underground and highly illegal kind of online Fight Club in which the bloodthirstiest dregs of society hunt and murder each other for the enjoyment of the viewing audience. This is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of premise — Nerve comes immediately to mind — but this movie fares better than most because the filmmakers actually demonstrate some working knowledge of online culture. Of course (again, I’m looking at you, Nerve), it helps that Skizm has consistent rules and a centralized power structure just plausible enough for suspension of disbelief. In this case, Skizm is run by a tatted-up psychopath named Riktor (Ned Dennehy).

Radcliffe plays Miles Lee Harris, a put-upon code monkey working for one of those cute mobile games that baits the players into one micro-transaction after another. He’s an asthmatic and a weakling who’s socially inept and spineless in the real world, but he’s got a black belt in taking down social media trolls. Eventually, Miles finds his way onto Skizm — which is of course Ground Zero for the worst of the worst online trolls — and starts putting down every last one of the sick immoral fucks who watches people blow each other up live on the internet.

Then Skizm finds Miles through his IP address. I guess the self-titled professional online troll hunter had never heard of a fucking VPN. Idiot.

Anyway, Riktor and his goons pound down Miles’ door, drug the guy, and then bolt a couple of pistols to his hands, each with 50 bullets. So now Miles has to relearn how to dress himself, how to eat, how to use his smartphone, how to open a door… really, he’s pretty much incapable of doing anything now that he doesn’t have any working digits anymore.

Oh, and did I mention that Miles is an asthmatic? Yeah, he can’t even breathe without his inhaler, which he has to relearn how to use without shooting his own head off. And of course it gets even worse.

Skizm has forced Miles into a deathmatch, livestreaming online for all the murder junkies out there. His opponent: Nix (meteoric up-and-comer Samara Weaving), easily the most successful and popular “contestant” in Skizm’s history. I might add that Nix is a coke-fueled, foul-mouthed, misanthropic, gleefully violent homicidal nutjob. Seriously, she makes Harley freaking Quinn look like Lois Lane.

Further complicating matters is that if Nix wins this one last deathmatch, she’s out of Skizm for good. If Miles wins, he gets to live. I might add that Skizm never promised that Nix could walk away alive, nor did they ever promise to take the guns out of Miles’ hands.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Miles only has a hundred bullets to work with. He can’t reload his weapons or use anything other than his two pistols because — again — they’re freaking bolted to his hands. As if an out-of-shape programmer going up against a lifelong cutthroat wasn’t at enough of a disadvantage.

There’s also the matter of Miles’ ex (Nova, played by Natasha Liu Bordizzo). She acts as a kind of grounding rod, a more mundane character to contrast against the madness of Skizm-world, right up until she gets herself kidnapped as motivation for the protagonist. I hasten to add that even after she gets captured, Nova’s still highly proactive in getting herself rescued, slowing down the bad guys, and helping out the main character in any way she can. Nicely done.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Degraves and Stanton (respectively played by Grant Bowler and Edwin Wright), two cops who’ve been chasing after Nix for the past several years. They eventually find out that they can get to Nix through Miles, thus complicating matters even further. That’s as much as I dare spoil here.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rhys Darby, here playing a homeless man as a motivational comic relief like only he could. Seriously, every movie shot in New Zealand could be better with a Rhys Darby supporting turn. Even the Lord of the Rings films would’ve been so much better if Darby had put in a speaking cameo as Fatty Bolger or something. I digress.

The filmmakers lean heavily on video games and social media, yanking iconography from and offering commentary on both. Yet the filmmakers are primarily interested in them as cases in point for a far broader, more timeless, more universal theme: Violence.

At its very heart and core, this is a movie about a harmless man learning how to survive in a dangerous world without sinking to the level of those who are making it more dangerous. It’s about a pacifist who has to learn when violence is necessary, learning how and why to fight back when the time comes. The development arc is made even more compelling opposite that of Nix, who has to learn when not to fight or kill. The two complement each other surprisingly well, though of course it helps that Radcliffe and Weaving are two remarkable talents hitting their stride.

On every implicit and explicit level, this is very much a movie about our innate need for conflict. From a bare-knuckle brawl to a pointless social media flame war, there’s this strange inherent thrill in any conflict, and an addictive rush of superiority that comes with winning… well, anything, to some extent.

But of course it’s the action you all came for. And it’s beautifully batshit. The camera movements, the editing, the speed-ramping, the colors, the choreography, the music… every aspect blends together into a kickass feast for the senses. I can’t even call it a symphony — this is a heavy metal concert rocking into 2 AM, with hundreds in the mosh pit fueled by Red Bull and angel dust. It’s incredible fun to sit through.

Speaking of which, I loved the music. A soundtrack full of cover songs may not sound terribly thrilling, but the songs are eclectic and placed for maximum effect. The covers of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” and “Ballroom Blitz” are especially great.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, the pacing is a bit wonky in spots, with a couple of minor plot cul-de-sacs. There’s also the matter of the entire third act, which might have been a lot more awesome if it wasn’t all predicated on a single glaringly obvious plot hole. Spoilers forbid me from going into detail, but suffice to say a certain meeting shouldn’t have been possible in Skizm-world, where every contestant is under 24-hour drone surveillance.

And then of course there’s the elephant in the room. I won’t go into details about the whole sordid saga, but suffice to say that writer/director Jason Lei Howden got himself embroiled in a massive social media brouhaha in which nobody came out looking like a hero. Everyone involved was an asshole, on all sides. It was such a massive sprawling controversy that allegedly, it threatened to cancel the film entirely.

As a rule of thumb, I only care about filmmakers’ personal lives to the extent that it affects the final product I’m paying to watch. In this case, when I see a film about assholes on social media and it’s being made by a guy who publicly acted like an asshole on social media, it raises certain questions.

For example, Miles’ viral stardom increases dramatically throughout the picture, as more and more Skizm viewers start cheering him on. Even when Miles’ victory means that Skizm would effectively cease to exist. The viewers are actively cheering against their own self-interest, and the point is never once brought up. I’m curious to know why that went unexplored, and what point Howden might have been trying to make about social media junkies.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s at least one point when Miles is screaming at the Skizm cameras, calling out how this whole show is disgusting and everyone who takes part in it is sick. The audience responds by laughing and sneering to the screen. Riktor himself responds that Miles is no different — even if Miles was only on the Skizm boards to troll the other users, he is nonetheless just another troll like so many others.

And again, this is coming from a filmmaker who went on Twitter to complain about “cancel culture” and “woke cyberbullies.” From that perspective, how are we supposed to feel about our protagonist? Did Howden really intend for us to side with the murderous livestreaming fuckwits?

At the end of the day, Guns Akimbo is purely a matter of taste. For all the surrounding controversy and its discussions about violence and online entertainment, this is a action comedy with a wickedly crude sense of humor. It loves dirty jokes, it loves ultraviolence, and its only setting is “over-the-top”. Not everyone has such a juvenile sense of humor, and that’s okay.

Me personally, I loved it. As a fan of Edgar Wright’s style (most especially Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, still my all-time favorite movie), I couldn’t get enough of the colorful hyperkinetic style and the fast-paced humor (even if the cruder jokes grated at times). Also, I’m the guy who holds every modern action film to the standard of John Wick, and Shoot ‘Em Up is still my all-time favorite actioner — fearless and inventive action flicks that gleefully accept the challenge of finding new ways to make people suffer are totally my bag.

I strongly suggest checking it out, just to see if it’s to your taste. And again, Daniel Radcliffe goes through the entire film with pistols strapped to his hands — even if you hate the film, where else are you ever going to see that?!

The Photograph

Posted August 16, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Time to make a confession: I’ve been rather harsh on black-centric movies in the past. To be clear, I’m not talking about movies with black protagonists, made by black filmmakers, about subjects pertaining to racism and America’s history with slavery — I’ve seen and vocally supported quite a few of those.

No, I’m talking about romcoms, dramedies, thrillers, horror films, and anything with Tyler Perry’s name on it. The kind of movie that looks like it could’ve been made with a white cast, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Cheap, lazy, disposable cinema made to pander to a certain demographic I’m not a part of. Then came the current ongoing racial protests.

A friend of mine (I’m sorry I can’t remember whom) alerted me to the concept that there’s more to being a black person than systemic racism. Indeed, black people have lives and emotions and aspirations just like anyone else, and they deserve to see those portrayed on the screen across a wide spectrum of genres, just like anybody else. While slavery and systemic racism are important issues that need to be talked about, we should still make room for the rest of… well, life.

And anyway, if a movie was made with a primarily black cast and crew, and it was made and marketed to look like a cheap and disposable trifle, maybe that says more about the greater film industry than the film itself.

So here’s The Photograph, a film that got solid reviews when it came out earlier this year. And of course it’s also a film with an impressive cast, led by the proven talents of Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield. Alas, because it looked like a pablum romantic dramedy (Complete with a Valentine’s Day release date. Gag me.), I slept on it. But in the spirit of learning to be a better ally, let’s give it a shot tonight.

(Side note: Only just now did I realize this film had been directed by Stella Meghie. If I had known this was a romcom that was actually directed by a woman, I might’ve made more of an effort to see it sooner.)

Back in the ’80s, Christina Eames (Chante Adams), was an aspiring photographer living in a New Orleans backwater, romantically involved with a chronically poor Army vet (Isaac Jefferson, played Y’lan Noel). In the present day, we meet Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield), a reporter who came to Louisiana to meet with Isaac (now played by Rob Morgan) to find a story about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

What Michael got was a story about a remarkable photographer who broke Isaac’s heart when she moved out to New York. How and why Christina moved to New York, well, that’s part of what we’re here to find out.

Incidentally, Christina herself has just passed away from cancer. Thus her belongings and old letters were left to her daughter (Mae Morton, played by Issa Rae). Trouble is, Mae and Christina were always distant for some reason, and Mae feels like she never really got to know her mother.

And then, of course, Michael crosses paths with Mae in the process of researching Christina, sparks get to flying and we’re off to the races. Thus begins a parallel storyline, as the uncertain Michael/Mae modern romance is juxtaposed against the doomed Christina/Isaac romance in the earlier time period.

First and foremost, we’ve got to start with the two most important factors in any romance: Its leads. I’m happy to say that Stanfield and Rae are on fire from start to finish here. They turn in perfectly fine performances on their own individual merit, and the chemistry between them is through the roof. From the very first time they meet, they’re so effortlessly charming with each other that I had no problem rooting for the two of them to get together in the end.

Moreover, it bears mentioning that Mae left her last boyfriend after he proposed to her, and her mom died a month ago from a cancer diagnosis that even Mae never knew about. Christina was never there for her daughter, only really opening up about her life and her feelings through postmortem letters, and that’s a lot for Mae to process. As for Michael, he just got dumped by his long-distance girlfriend of however many years, he’s unhappy with his current job at a small paper, and he’s applying for a job with the Associated Press out in London.

In short, these two characters found each other at an extremely unstable point in their respective lives, and neither one of them really knows who they are. This at once shows why the two of them need each other in this exact moment, and why their romance may crumble by the end of the running time. Beautifully done.

But then we have the matter of how the present couple is affected by the past. It’s pretty straightforward in Michael’s case: He listens to Isaac’s regrets about letting Christina go and he learns from the older man’s mistakes. Mae’s case is a bit trickier, as the similarities might be chalked up to coincidence, genetics, or lazy writing. Yet as the film continues, it starts to get increasingly obvious that Christina was messed up by her own mother, thereby making mistakes that got handed down to her own daughter. Mistakes that Christina herself didn’t have the nerve to try and set right until she had already kicked the bucket. Luckily, Mae is still alive to try and break the cycle, if she can figure out how.

Of course I’ve been a fan of Lakeith Stanfield ever since Sorry to Bother You, but I’m now firmly and devoutly a fan of Issa Rae. The Hate U Give, Little, and now this — three wildly different roles in three totally different movies, and she knocked every single one clear out of the park. Whatever she’s doing next, I’m there for it.

As for Y’lan Noel and Chante Adams… well, their chemistry is never quite that solid, but it’s still more than good enough to be getting on with. That said, it really is a case of comparing apples and oranges — with Mae and Michael, the tension is in wondering whether they’ll end up together; with Christina and Isaac, the tragedy is that we know they won’t. And when they need to sell that heartbreak, they do so brilliantly. Rob Morgan sure as hell sells it, I can tell you that.

The supporting cast is pretty solid as well. Courtney Vance is always a welcome presence, here playing Mae’s father. We’ve also got Jasmine Cephas Jones as the sounding board/best friend/sidekick to Mae — between this and “Hamilton”, I have to wonder if this is just how Cephas Jones is getting typecast. On the other side, we’ve got Lil Rel Howery as Michael’s brother and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as an intern at the paper where Michael works. The both of them provide capable comic relief.

To my surprise, the unsung hero of the supporting cast is probably Marsha Stephanie Blake as Violet Eames, Christina’s mother. It could’ve been so easy to play this character as a wicked witch, but Blake plays the character as a very clear antagonist while keeping well away from anything arch. It’s an extraordinary balancing act.

On a technical level, it’s fine. The camerawork is pedestrian enough, with a few subtle handheld flourishes, about what I’d expect from a romantic dramedy. That said, I was a little disappointed to see all the New Orleans shots drenched in gold lighting. Not that it’s a particularly bad look, I just think it does a disservice to such a famously colorful location.

The editing does a decent job of keeping the different time periods and storylines straight, though I’ve seen it done better. (The most recent adaptation of Little Women is still the high-water mark for that, in my estimation.) I’m sorry, but when a story takes place across two different time periods and they’re both made to look almost exactly the same, that’s going to cause problems.

The music is mostly comprised of what sounds like jazz music — it gets the job done, but I can’t help feeling like it might have been more at home in a noir caper. Also, I take serious issue with a scene at the half-hour mark, in which our two leads are trying to figure out their feelings for each other while a cover of “Tempted” by Squeeze plays. Bad enough to be so aggressively on the nose, but on the nose with such an overdone song?

But the big problem here — hands down, without any shred of possible doubt — is the plot. The story glides on rails, hitting every single expected story beat like clockwork. Seriously, when the third act is powered by a huge revelation that everybody saw coming from an hour away, there’s a sure sign the plot is FUBAR. No joke, if you only make it fifteen minutes into this one, you’ll already know exactly how this entire story is going to play out.

Then again, if you’re not going to do anything new, then you’d be better be damned sure to do it right, and that’s The Photograph to a T. This is a movie that aims for mediocrity and achieves its goal perfectly in all regards, except every last one of the actors (most especially Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield) are working their butts off and they sell the movie through sheer force of charisma. There’s really nothing to commend this film except for its two incredible lead characters, and with a straightforward romance like this one, that’s enough.

It’s amusing, it’s romantic, it’s sweet, it’s completely and totally forgettable. So if you’re looking for a cute and casual little romantic dramedy, I’d strongly suggest watching Emma. But if that’s too white and not modern enough for your tastes, I’d say The Photograph would be a suitable alternative.