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The House (2022)

Posted January 18, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

Ever since Disney gave us the first animated feature film, mainstream animation in film and TV has primarily been geared toward kid-friendly fare. Here in the West, at least — animation in Japan has a long and robust history across all genres and age groups (see: Hentai). But even here in the States, we’ve got such adult-oriented fare as Beavis and Butthead Do America, Team America: World Police, and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, not to mention the relatively recent Hell and Back and Anomalisa.

If these past examples are any indication, it’s safe to assume that anytime somebody pursues an animated feature with an adult audience in mind, we’re in for a massively fucked-up mindtrip. Our latest case in point is The House (2022), a stop-motion anthology film brought to us by Netflix.

The film is comprised of three segments, all set within the same distinctive house. The first segment takes place in the distant past, and our protagonist is young Mabel (voiced by Mia Goth). Her father (Raymond, voiced by Matthew Goode) is raising a good happy family in a modest provincial home, but his relatives shame him for settling for so little when he could have so much more. Enter Mr. Van Schoonbeek, the mad architect who’s just build a lavish house and offers for Raymond and his family to come live there for free. Of course the deal is too good to be true and the house is still under construction. Hence things go missing, strange men come and go through the house, and that’s when things REALLY start getting weird.

The middle segment takes place in the modern day, except that all of the characters are anthropomorphic mice. This is never explained. Jarvis Cocker voices an anonymous real estate developer who’s taken purchase of the house and sunk his entire life savings into renovating it in the hopes that some wealthy patron will buy it. Trouble is, the house has a stubborn pest infestation that explodes into nightmarish proportions as the plot unfolds.

Last but not least is the third segment, set in a post-apocalyptic future. The characters are all anthropomorphic cats, and this is never explained. Rosa (voiced by Susie Wokoma) is now in possession of the house, renting out rooms to try and raise money for renovation. Alas, she only has two renters left (Jen, voiced by Helena Bonham Carter; and Elias, voiced by Will Sharpe) and neither of them can afford to pay their rent in legal tender. So Rosa is trying to renovate the entire house by herself with no income, and the house itself is stubbornly falling apart to spite her. It’s an untenable situation that comes to a head with the arrival of Cosmos (Paul Kaye), a wandering spiritualist who’s basically Rosie’s polar opposite.

All three segments are standalone stories with virtually no crossover, but there are a few recurring themes. To start with, the first one is about a family (more specifically, a father) obsessed with the status and security of wealth. The second protagonist is focused on loading up the house with all the flashiest and most modern whistles and bells, no matter brittle or instantly dated they are. (To wit, the developer puts great emphasis on the gimmicky rotisserie oven.) And of course the third lead is single-mindedly focused on raising money to fix up a house that’s clearly beyond saving.

In all three cases, the film is explicitly about characters who are fixated on and ultimately destroyed by their own materialist pursuits. It’s a classic anti-materialist tenet that the things you own end up owning you, and that does indeed literally happen more than a few times in this picture. Yet it’s curious to note that one segment has a deeply tragic and disturbing ending while another ends on a more uplifting and optimistic note. And the remaining segment has a more ambiguous ending that’s honestly far more disturbing than either one.

Moreover, the house itself is a thing that consistently takes and takes from its protagonists, consistently promising yet never delivering any kind of return. In fact, it often appears that the house itself doesn’t want to be any better than it is — there’s even a brief yet crucial moment when a character clearly states “this house has been fighting me at every turn.” The smart and sensible thing to do would be to give up and move on, yet that’s easier said than done when so much time and money and pride has been sunk into this poor investment. How is it even possible to move on when there’s nothing left and nowhere else to go? In this way, the house makes for a rather poignant allegory on the subject of toxic relationships.

Even worse, there comes a point in all three stories — most especially in the first and second — in which the house becomes their identity. In the first segment particularly, the house forces the characters to give up everything they had, everything they knew, and everything they were before they moved into the house. They exist for the simple purpose of living and working inside the house, that is all they are and it’s all they do. Another potent allegory, this one about how our work and/or our art can consume us to the point where the labor is an end in itself.

Then we have the matter of the stop-motion animation. Obviously, animation was the most feasible option for presenting the characters as anthropomorphic animals, though I still have no idea what the fuck that was about. Though if I squint and tilt my head, I can kind of see how cats — famously stereotyped as a hydrophobic animal — would make sense in the context of a sunken world (presumably flooded by climate change). And yes, presenting another main character as a mouse makes sense from a metaphorical perspective that’s sadly too spoilery to discuss further here.

Anyway, stop-motion animation is inherently tactile like no other form of animation. Even if the characters don’t look or act quite perfectly human (or animal or what have you), they still register as a being in space, with volume. They have hair and fur that you could practically reach through the screen and touch, like so many animators clearly have. And when a living being is perfectly still — without blinking or breathing or moving a muscle — it’s inherently creepy in a way that could never be possible in live action, and nowhere near as effective as it would be with CGI or cel-shading.

The House (2022) is a strange one by any metric. There are many layers of thematic depth here, but they’re buried beneath a mile of aggressively weird and relentlessly disturbing shit. Everything from the animation to the setting is specifically engineered to be strange, either to the point of charmingly odd or to the point of nightmare fuel, and all points in between.

This isn’t an easy one to grade or classify, but it seems to fit quite nicely under the heading of “prestige horror”. The anthology structure and stop-motion animation certainly set it apart from the works of Ari Aster or Robert Eggers, but this definitely feels like the sort of thing that A24 might have released if Netflix hadn’t. So if you like your horror movies heady and creepy, definitely give this one a look.

The 355

Posted January 15, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

Back in May of 2018, news broke that Jessica Chastain was producing a new picture through her Freckle Films shingle. The 355 was her brainchild, conceived as a female-driven spy thriller with an international all-star cast. And who did Chastain select to write the script? Theresa Rebeck, whose most prominent screenwriting credits to date have been the 1996 adaptation of Harriet the Spy (yikes) and the 2004 Catwoman film with Halle Berry (fucking YIKES). Even worse, Chastain personally hand-picked Simon Kinberg to direct, co-write, and co-produce the picture.

To repeat, Producer Jessica Chastain made the decision to hire Simon Kinberg to make this his sophomore directorial effort, after his directorial debut resulted in the nuclear industry-shaking catastrophe of Dark Phoenix, featuring a career-worst performance from Chastain herself.

Jess, I love you, but what in the nine hells could you have possibly been thinking?!

The crux of the film is a hard drive containing a computer program capable of accessing, hijacking, and potentially destroying literally anything connected to the internet. I might add that this was literally the exact same crisis as F9. Long story short, the drive falls into the hands of a Colombian federal agent (Luis Rojas, played by Edgar Ramirez), who offers up the hard drive to the CIA for a grand total of $3 million.

To repeat: This is a device that could single-handedly devastate the entire global economy, start World War III, kill pretty much anyone instantly with the push of a button, and God knows what else… all for the price of $3 million. Of course, it’s mentioned in passing that Luis didn’t know what was on the drive, but then why would he go to the CIA with this sale if he didn’t know what was on the drive? Furthermore, there’s a point later on in which the hard drive is put up for auction, with hundreds of well-financed criminals in attendance who know exactly what the drive is. The winning bid is just over $500 million. For a device that could reshape or outright destroy the world’s economy overnight. WHAT THE HIGH-FLYING FUCK?!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Point is, the hard drive is pathetically cliched and absurdly underpriced from the get-go, I’m calling that Strike One.

The CIA sends in Mason “Mace” Browne (Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) to make the exchange. Thing is, Mace has friend-zoned Nick even after a failed attempt at romance, though that doesn’t stop Nick from coming onto her as hard as he possibly can even though they’re both on a mission. Mixing work with pleasure like this is a terrible idea for obvious reasons, and Mace makes it perfectly clear she’s not interested in him as a romantic item, but she still agrees to have sex with him after maybe two minutes of banter. That’s Strike Two.

To make another long story short, of course the exchange goes bad. And after a chase sequence ruined by bad choreography and unwatchable shaky-cam, Nick dies and/or turns evil. Not even ten minutes in and we’re already past Strike Three.

Alas, the movie doesn’t get any better from there. We’ve got a heist with plot points lifted directly from Ocean’s Eight. We’ve got the aforementioned MacGuffin pulled directly from the most recent Fast and Furious movies, (Come to think of it, didn’t The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard have something similar?) but it doesn’t work nearly as well here because it’s supposed to be played straight. We’ve got dialogue comprised of cliched lines left, right, and center. The climax has an honest-to-God “No, that would be cheating” moment. There’s a bit of lamenting about how we all knew who our enemies were back in the Cold War and now our international threats are invisible, straight out of every single one of the James Bond movies made under Daniel Craig’s tenure. And of course we can’t forget the woefully incompetent fight scenes, nor the empty and utterly trite feminist statements.

But what about our lead actors, rightfully billed as the primary reason to watch this? Well, let’s run down the list.

  • Jessica Chastain plays Mace Brown of the CIA, de facto leader of the team. Her primary motivation is to avenge Nick, but that doesn’t work because their relationship was broken from the outset. Otherwise, her performance here is like if Zero Dark Thirty had been made by Peter Berg: A committed performance in the wrong movie. Chastain is well within her wheelhouse, but she’s done far superior work elsewhere in this lane.
  • Diane Kruger plays Marie Schmidt of the BND, an explosives specialist and a loose cannon who doesn’t trust anyone because of her traumatic past and her daddy issues and blah blah blah. Again, this is a wonderful actor who’s done far better work in this lane. It certainly doesn’t help that Mace and Marie have this whole cliched arc in which they hate each other and they have to gradually learn how to trust each other, but the script and direction are too hopelessly broken to make it work.
  • Penelope Cruz plays Graciela Rivera, of the same Colombian agency that employs Luis. The catch is that she’s not really a field agent — she’s a therapist who helps Luis and other agents like him to move past the stress and trauma of their jobs. She’s got a family back home, and she really has no business on this mission, but Luis dragged her into it (that’s another long story) and now she has to step up. And honestly, her development arc isn’t bad at all, and I appreciate all the clever ways that Graci thinks to make herself useful despite her inexperience in the field.
  • Lupita Nyong’o is on hand as Khadijah “Dij” Adiyeme, a cybersecurity expert formerly of MI6. As with Graci, Dij is technically out of the game with a loved one at home, and she’s called upon to be a level-headed counter to Mace and Marie. Yet Dij proves herself to be no slouch in combat and her tech savvy is endlessly useful. She’s a good well-rounded character, and Nyong’o is of course more than capable as a supporting player.
  • Last but not least is Fan Bingbing, representing the MSS of China. There’s not much to say about the character, as she comes in terribly late to the party and doesn’t play any kind of significant role until the second act is practically over. She makes up for lost time in a big way during the climax, though.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our two male leads. Alas, Sebastian Stan seems to be sleepwallking his way through this one, and Edgar Ramirez is pathetically wasted.

In summary, I think the late Gene Siskel said it best: “I wish I’d seen a documentary about the same actors having lunch.”

The more I think about The 355, the more I write about it and the more I research it, the more I hate this piece of shit. It’s asinine, it’s boring, it’s threadbare, it’s incompetent, it’s uninspired, it’s just plain BAD. It’s a pathetic mishmash of scenes and plot points from other, far superior and more enjoyable globe-trotting action films stitched together by a filmmaker with no idea how to make them novel or fun. The themes about feminism and national security are shallow and brain-dead to the point of insulting. The action scenes themselves, and even a good chunk of the characters simply talking are rendered unwatchable by incompetent camerawork and editing.

Seriously, it’s like the filmmakers didn’t have a single good or unique idea aside from putting an international cast of women in a room together and hoping their world-class talent would salvage something. Instead, every single one of them — most especially Jessica Chastain — should be embarrassed for taking part in a project that so terribly wasted their time and talent.

This year, the traditional January dumping grounds are compounded by fears over the ongoing COVID-19 Omicron surge. With such a godawful release date, this movie was destined for obscurity. It should be left there. And for everybody’s sake, we should throw Simon Kinberg in there with it!

The Lost Daughter

Posted January 10, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

I don’t know what I was expecting from the writing/producing/directing debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it sure wasn’t whatever the hell this is.

The Lost Daughter stars Olivia Coleman, but it’s Jessie Buckley who’s the real MVP here. They’ve both got roughly equal screen time, as the film flips back and forth between time periods, and the both of them play the same character at different ages. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Coleman and Buckley play Leda Caruso, a professor of Italian literature who’s taking a working holiday on a remote island off the coast of… Greece. I suppose that’s close enough, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Leda’s peaceful vacation in Mediterranean paradise is continually disrupted by a large family of wealthy New York assholes who own a large swath of property on this island. (Including the apartment that Leda is renting, incidentally.)

Though Leda takes an immediate dislike to pretty much everyone in this family of douchebags, she is strangely fond of Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young woman with a three-year-old daughter named Elena (Athena Martin). Indeed, as the plot unfolds across two simultaneous timelines, we watch as Nina apparently makes many of the same mistakes that Leda made in raising her own two young daughters (played in flashback by Robyn Elwell and Ellie Blake). The two inevitably meet up as Elena gets herself lost, and Leda is able to get the child back safely to her mother.

But in the process of getting lost, Elena misplaced her favorite doll and she spends the next several days beside herself with grief over it. Except that the doll wasn’t really misplaced, it was stolen. By Leda. Who’s keeping it hidden to herself. Because it apparently reminds Leda of a doll that she had in her youth before handing it down to her eldest daughter.

To repeat, this is the central crisis of the film: A woman stole a child’s doll for no reason whatsoever. And just like that, the film is irreparably broken.

To be entirely clear, it’s obvious that this is a movie about our deep-seated need for attention and all the irrational, even hurtful things we’ll do to get it. Children do things they know for a fact to be selfish and wrong, just so people will be mad enough to take notice of them, and a great many adults never grow out of that phase. It’s a perfectly valid artistic statement to make. The only trouble is that between the irrational woman who stole a young girl’s doll, and the family loaded with self-centered wealthy assholes, we’ve got NOBODY in this entire movie who’s worth emotionally investing in. What’s worse, we’re left with a plot that has zero stakes, a conflict that begins and continues for no reason whatsoever, and themes that fall completely flat without empathetic characters to convey them.

It also doesn’t help that Lady Bird was a recent movie that discussed our irrational need for attention, and did so in much greater detail and with far more heart. Hell, if you want a movie about the physical, mental, emotional toll that motherhood takes, we’ve already got Tully, We Need to Talk About Kevin, the aforementioned Lady Bird, or even freaking Titane. All of those recent movies went into these and/or similar themes with more heart, more intelligence, and more eloquence, all more distinctly memorable and unique than this picture, with more fleshed-out and sympathetic characters in the bargain.

In all fairness, the cast is wonderful. Of course Olivia Coleman is a delight, but I honestly think that Jessie Buckley deserves more credit for holding her own and keeping pace with the more seasoned actor, crafting a seamless transition between the two different ages of the same character.

Ed Harris shows up for a delightful supporting turn as a potential love interest, right up until the character reveals that his first-born son is older than Leda. And he’s still hitting on her. Gross.

Elsewhere, Dakota Johnson is playing well within her comfort zone as the tortured beautiful young mother whose life may not be as perfect as she pretends it is. I might add that Peter Sarsgaard — Gyllenhaal’s husband and a highly accomplished actor in his own right — was obligingly given a small yet crucial and memorable supporting role.

Gyllenhaal proves herself to be a remarkably savvy director and she’s got a wonderful cast to work with, so what went wrong here? At a guess, I’d say this goes all the way back to the original novel, written by Elena Ferrante. Not that I’ve read the book, but this could easily be one of those cases in which the characters’ pathos and emotional turmoil works better on the written page. This has all the earmarks of a story that falls apart unless we can crawl inside the characters’ heads as only a novel can allow. Some books were simply never meant to be adapted into other media.

With its leaden pacing, broken premise, and absence of a single likeable and/or interesting character worth following, The Lost Daughter is dead on arrival. The cast is wonderful, but all of these actors (except for Jessie Buckley, who totally deserves more work ASAP) have turned in better performances elsewhere. I appreciate the artistic statements that the film is trying to make, but so many other, better recent movies (albeit underappreciated ones) have made these same statements in far more potent ways. I want to like Maggie Gyllenhaal as a director — after spending her entire adult life in showbiz, God knows she’s earned the right to direct her own movie by now — and she does show potential here, I just hope she finds a better story to direct with her next effort.

The bottom line is that I have an extremely difficult time recommending a film in which the protagonist knowingly and freely causes her own problems, making life miserable for everyone else with no reason at all. Sorry, but I can’t sign off on this.

2021: The Wild Rides

Posted January 3, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

We come at last to my favorite films of 2021. They may not get any awards, but god damn if they weren’t a good time to sit through. These are the Wild Rides.

Best Superhero Movie

Fun fact: The entire Infinity Saga — all of the movies from Iron Man in 2008 through Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019, including the one-shots and supplemental short films, but not counting any of the TV shows on ABC or Netflix — has a collective runtime of 51 hours and 20 minutes. By my own calculations and research, the entire collective runtime of MCU Phase Four — including the Disney+ shows — currently stands at 30 hours and 46 minutes. Well over half the entire collective runtime of Marvel’s grand eleven-year industry-smashing multimedia enterprise.

And remember, Marvel’s Phase Four didn’t exist before 2021. So that’s nearly 31 hours of content released just this year.

Yes, WB/DC got in some shots as well — The Suicide Squad was a remarkable feather in their cap (though its status as a “superhero” film is debatable), and Zack Snyder’s Justice League made a fine epitaph for the DCEU and Zack Snyder’s career at WB. Even so, this was unquestionably Marvel’s year, at least, in terms of quantity. On the one hand, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a delightful origin story with the greatest martial arts sequences of any MCU project to date. On the other hand, Black Widow was a sadly forgettable and long-overdue affair while Eternals was a noble effort that nonetheless fell short of its lofty Best Picture ambitions.

But then there’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which is easily in the same league as Avengers: Endgame. We’re going to need a new word for this kind of picture: Something that’s not really a movie in itself, but a payoff to years’ worth of setup. A seismic event that closes the book on several different eras of cinematic franchises and transitions into something potentially greater. This was a colossal undertaking, even for the combined strength of Marvel and Sony. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would’ve taken behind the scenes to coordinate all of this, keep it secret for so long, and pull it off so well. It’s a miracle of miracles, and no mistake.

Best Horror (standalone)

Antlers was a much better film in theory than in execution, and a far better character drama than a horror. The Night House honestly did a far better job of delivering a spooky ghost story and dovetailing the scares with themes of grief and loss.

Still, I’m giving this one to Blood Red Sky. Here we have a film with a potent mother/son emotional hook, compelling themes of addiction, effective horror, and nonstop action, all wrapped in such a beautifully bugfuck premise as “vampires vs. terrorists on a plane.” What more could anyone want?

Best Horror (franchise)

I was personally quite happy with Don’t Breathe 2 and A Quiet Place, Part II, but only with some huge fucking asterisks: Neither one is quite as effective as a horror film, neither one is quite as good as the first movie, and I’ll take back every nice thing I ever said about either if we get a third one.

I know Halloween Kills caught a lot of flack from fans and critics alike, but I’ll be honest, I really loved how the film expanded the scope of the franchise to explore how Michael Myers’ legend affects the entire town of Haddonfield, using him as an allegorical means to explore fear and mob rule in the modern day. Still, if we’re talking about horror films with a political message, the master remains unchallenged.

With Candyman (2021), producer/co-writer Jordan Peele and director/co-writer Nia DaCosta didn’t just craft an immaculate horror film, and they didn’t just write a powerhouse treatise on racial persecution and white-on-black violence. No, this might just be the first time in history when a sequel came out to a movie released thirty years prior, and it retroactively made the prequel even better. As I said in my review…

“The first movie is built on the assumption that fables and urban legends can offer a kind of immortality that will continue to last after mere facts have crumbled to dust. The more recent film is built on the assumption that our brighter future is built on the atrocities of the past. Each film proves the other true.”

I’ve never seen or heard of anything even remotely like this before. It’s a tremendous accomplishment that absolutely demands to be counted among the year’s greatest.

Best Action (franchise)

This one is no contest. Yes, No Time To Die finally gave a worthy send-off to Daniel Craig, who was so clearly over this role already. And yes, F9: The Fast Saga gave us more globetrotting thrills with the Toretto Gang. But let’s be real — neither of them gave us much of anything we hadn’t really seen before. The Suicide Squad totally fucking did.

Once again, James Gunn dazzles everyone with his encyclopedic knowledge of Z-tier comic book characters, his bottomless empathy for them, and his impeccable comic timing in gleefully killing them off. And yes, while the film works superbly well as an innovative action comedy, its crowning achievement is in finding a way to take the basic premise of the Suicide Squad and make it into something genuinely empowering and uplifting. James Gunn made a compelling case for why we need the Suicide Squad, every bit as much as we might need Superman or Batman. That shouldn’t even be possible, but he did it and he deserves serious goddamn accolades for it.

Best Action (standalone, feminine)

Here we’ve got three movies that served as standalone action vehicles for female protagonists. There’s Kate, in which Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a stone-cold badass killing her way through so many threadbare cliches. We’ve also got The Protege, a sadly uninspired and forgettable film nowhere near worthy of Maggie Q and Samuel L. Jackson. Last up is Gunpowder Milkshake, the Karen Gillan vehicle sadly held back by some fatally flawed worldbuilding.

I might add that Gunpowder Milkshake indulged in many of the same worn-out tropes and cliches that Kate and The Protege did, yet delivered on those same tropes and cliches a million times better. Of the three movies in this category, it had the strongest cast, the most distinctive visuals, and some of the most wickedly creative kills and fight scenes I’ve seen in any movie all year. Even for all its numerous flaws, I have to list this film among my favorites for the year if only because it gave me so much I hadn’t seen before in an action flick.

Best Action (standalone, masculine)

Now we come to the standalone action films centered around male characters. Granted, Copshop is debatable in this lane, as the protagonist of that film is technically female, but that movie was positively swimming in testosterone, let’s be real. That movie was a good time, but I honestly preferred the comical energy and gleeful creativity of Frank Grillo’s other big 2021 showcase, Boss Level. Oh, and let’s not forget Below Zero, even if the film was sadly forgettable in spite of a wonderful premise.

The clear winner here is Nobody, in which some of the greatest action filmmakers currently working collaborate to do the improbable and make Bob Odenkirk into a plausible action star. Even better, it turned out to be a diabolically clever movie, with inventive kills and plot twists on top of its powerful statements about toxic masculinity. It’s just a kickass movie all around.

Best Comedy

I’m putting A Boy Called Christmas and Ghostbusters: Afterlife under this heading, even though both were more effective as fantastical family dramas than as comedies. On the more adult side of things, we’ve got the outlandish semi-improvised comedy of Bad Trip, along with the self-indulgent and unwieldy yet serviceable Good On Paper. But I’ve got a clear winner for this one, though it may not be a popular choice.

I know that Free Guy has picked up some backlash in recent months, but I still don’t understand why. Aside from a few outdated “geek stereotype” jokes in poor taste, the film was remarkably canny in its use of pop culture jokes and nostalgia-based humor. It was deeply heartfelt, the action was fantastic, and the whole movie had layers upon layers of jokes and commentary about the potential nature of AI and the current state of Big Tech. This movie had no right to kick as much ass as it did, but here we are.

Best Wild Ride

We come at last to my personal favorite film of the year. I simply must give an honorable mention to Space Sweepers, a remarkable and ambitiously epic sci-fi romp. Even so, this is no contest, I’ve got to give it to Last Night in Soho.

This film is yet another reason why Edgar Wright is my absolute favorite director. The premise is inspired, the horror aspect is engaging, the music is phenomenal, the effects are spellbinding, and the cast is wonderful. I’ve seen a great many films talk about the nature of nostalgia and how the past affects the present, but this one explores the double-edged nature of nostalgia to a mind-blowing extent, diving into layers upon layers with courageous aplomb like precious few could ever dream of. It’s a bold, brilliant, innovative flick that’s funny and sexy and thrilling all at once. Anything you could want from a good time at the movies, this one’s got it.

And on that high note, let us close the book on 2021. Onwards and upwards!

2021: The Disappointments

Posted January 2, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

For those just tuning in, this is absolutely not to be construed as a “worst-of” list. I don’t do “worst-of” lists, because I make it a point not to intentionally review bad movies. I try as hard as I can not to go into a movie unless I know there’s some chance it will turn out to be good and I’ll find something to like about it. These are the films that didn’t live up to that potential.

In years past, I’ve divided the “Disappointments” list into three different classes of disappointment.

  • Benign Disappointment: The lowest level, this is simply a cordial difference of opinion. A benign disappointment is a movie that everyone else (or at least, a great many other people) seem to like for perfectly legitimate reasons, and I get the appeal, but it’s not for me.
  • Stupid Disappointment: There was effort here. The filmmakers were clearly doing the best they possibly could and they might’ve gotten a few things right, but the end result didn’t measure up for whatever reason.
  • Malicious Disappointment: The filmmakers made so many glaringly obvious bad decisions that the movie could only have failed on purpose. A willful destruction of potential, a waste of money and time, a product of naked and unrelenting malice toward the audience.

I list the classifications here because this year’s list isn’t nearly as stratified as in years past. Alas, the tidal wave of content in 2021 inevitably washed up more trash and malicious disappointments, so we’re going to see more of them in categories that might’ve been limited to stupid disappointments in previous years. So let’s dig in.

Worst Benign Disappointment

Look, I get the appeal of Jungle Cruise, but it made far too many fatal errors for me to move past. Likewise, while I understand that Licorice Pizza is a critical darling, it’s beyond me how anyone can move past the inherently squicky romance at its heart and core. We’ve also got Army of Dead, an overlong visually incompetent chore to sit through.

But then there’s Malignant, a horror film that lives and dies on its preposterous third-act twist. That one moment made this the ultimate “love it or loathe it” movie of 2021, prompting incendiary debate that continues well into 2022. Personally, I’m not wasting any more time or effort on a film that proves how James Wan is nowhere near worthy of his own hype without Leigh Whannell to back him up.

Most Disappointing Biopic

I maintain that King Richard is an uninspired biopic made about the wrong subject, and Respect is an uninspired biopic that mishandled its subject entirely. We’ve also got The United States vs. Billie Holliday, in which Lee Daniels bit off way, WAY more than he could ever hope to chew.

But at least those three movies knew what they wanted to be. Hell if I know what anyone was trying to accomplish with House of Gucci. The talent is unquestionably there, but it’s tough to make a coherent film when it seems like half the cast is in another film entirely. The film had everything it needed to either be a sprawling and epic tale about the downfall of a family dynasty in the wake of changing times and clashing egos; or a diabolically campy drama that leaned into the outsized personalities and outlandish styles of the fashion industry. But the filmmakers apparently tried to have it both ways, and it’s heartbreaking to watch the filmmakers lose control of that balance in real time.

Most Disappointing Comedy

Locked Down was a neat little failed experiment, but even factoring in WB’s yearlong incompetence with advertising, nobody was going to remember it within a few months. Though at least it tried something new, while The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard was unfunny, uninspired, and wholly unnecessary.

It might be strange listing America: The Motion Picture as a disappointment, because it’s not like anyone expected much of anything from that movie in the first place. But no, that did indeed turn out to be a stupid movie made by clearly intelligent people, with sterling animation and a stellar voice cast to boot. The film had everything it needed except a point, and that is the crowning disappointment.

But not even that movie could hold a candle to Tom & Jerry, a heaping pile of clownshit from start to finish. An unfunny, disjointed, uninspired, outright tragic waste of all the comedic talent and beautiful animation on hand. We should all consider ourselves exceptionally lucky if this didn’t kill Chloe Grace Moretz’ career on impact. This film was a tragic portent of the year that WB would go on to have, and we can only hope they get their shit together for 2022.

Franchise FTL

Though Red Notice and Cruella were sadly nowhere near good enough to justify all the money spent hyping them up, they did regrettably get enough money and attention that sequels will likely be forthcoming to both. Compare that to Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, which bombed for the capital failures of bad CGI and lackluster fight scenes. On a similar note, it’s still not entirely clear if Mortal Kombat (2021) is getting a sequel, or if anyone up top has figured out what the fuck they think they’re doing with that IP.

But if we’re talking movies positioned to be franchise pilots, I defy any critic out there to find a more egregious failure than Thunder Force. Painfully annoying and aggressively anti-funny, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see so many wonderfully talented comedic actors slumming it this hard. Such an outrageous waste of money that Netflix should sue somebody for squandering the production budget. Seriously, get the SEC and the IRS on the case, I want to know where the money went for this picture. At the very least, someone please arrest the filmmakers for this cinematic crime against humanity.

Franchise Faceplant

The past year brought us Godzilla vs. Kong and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, both products of studios who desperately want to make highly lucrative cinematic superfranchises without the first goddamn clue how to actually accomplish such a feat. Still, of the two epic clashes that we’d been promised for years, I hope we can at least all agree that the Godzilla vs. Kong matchup (not to mention that climactic three-way brawl) was far and away more entertaining than the Venom vs. Carnage letdown.

Oh, and speaking of bloody conflict, this year also brought us Spiral. Alas, this continuation of the Saw franchise only further proved why the Saw franchise is a relic of a bygone era and we’re all better off moving on.

Still, none of these sequels instantly killed their franchises stone cold dead the way The Addams Family 2 did. Whatever goodwill might’ve been earned by the first movie, this one fucking trashed it. A slapdash and unfunny wreck of a film, loaded with egregious product placement, openly flouting everything that made the Addamses a pop culture mainstay through the past 80 years.

Fizzled Thriller

False Positive was the earnest yet misguided effort of comedians who wanted to make a socially conscious horror thriller with all the ambition of Jordan Peele and maybe a third of the talent. Likewise, Things Heard & Seen was another attempt at a socially conscious horror story, though the absence of actual scares renders it a failure. We’ve also got The Little Things, a movie that only proves why the script had languished in development hell for 30 years and damn well should’ve stayed there.

And then there’s The Woman in the Window, in which director Joe Wright once again earns my unyielding wrath. This one is trashy, threadbare, and predictable, with an over-reliance on outdated mental illness tropes that are offensive and frankly harmful. This whole movie reads exactly like it adapted a book written by a confirmed fraud who claimed to have bipolar disorder as an excuse for why he’s a plagiarist piece of shit. I’m aware that the movie features an all-star cast list of world-class talents, every last one of whom should be ashamed for taking part in this atrocity.

Dumbest Attempt to be Smart

I’m tempted to list Don’t Look Up here, but I don’t think the movie or the filmmakers are necessarily stupid. Quite the contrary, this film is more like the work of a genuinely intelligent young boy who gets bad grades and doesn’t apply himself because school is stupid and he hates his parents and everything sucks, so why bother? You know the type.

I’d much rather give this one to a film like Outside the Wire, which apparently wanted to make some kind of statement about artificial intelligence and the nature of war before it got bogged down in a ramshackle plot and pathetic action sequences. Another strong contender is Reminiscence, which might have been a fantastic sci-fi neo noir if the filmmakers could figure out what the hell they were blathering about.

But the clear winner here is Stowaway, a laughable and lamentable waste of a fantastic sci-fi premise. This genuinely could’ve been a fascinating story of human ingenuity and persistence, centered around a compelling ethical dilemma, if only it wasn’t wasted on an Idiot Plot powered by an entire space program’s worth of astronauts and engineers dumber than your average third-grader. And of course we can’t forget the action scenes only made possible by the most boneheaded, godforsaken, outright suicidal spaceship design in all of history or fiction. Seriously, this is like if “Avenue 5” was played straight, and the characters were somehow even more stupid.

Most Malicious Disappointment

We come at last to the most malicious disappointment of 2021. The biggest waste of time and talent for all involved. The most outrageous waste of money and potential. The most egregious and outright harmful act of willful abuse toward the public, in which every frame projects the words “FUCK YOU, PAY ME” between all corners of the silver screen.

This year, it was an obvious choice. Nothing short of a slam dunk, in fact.

Bad enough that Space Jam: A New Legacy is a Looney Tunes movie with only one (1) funny joke in the entire runtime. Bad enough that Don Cheadle damn near broke his back trying to carry this movie, and LeBron James has to spend half the runtime failing as a voice actor. Bad enough that the WB execs apparently saw millennials’ nostalgic affection for Space Jam and mistook that as clamoring for a sequel, even though nobody had been asking for a sequel at any point in the past twenty years. But then WB tried to cram in dated references to Austin Powers and the first Matrix movie right next to the Rick and Morty cameo in a goddamn Looney Tunes movie, thoroughly proving that the WB execs have no idea who their audience is or what their audience wants.

The whole movie reeks of obnoxious desperation, the way WB smears their brand all over the screen and charges us for the privilege. It comes off especially bad in 2021, a year in which WB repeatedly and flagrantly tanked their own movies, their own marketing incompetence and arrogant confidence in HBO Max drowning what should’ve been surefire hits. This is the crown jewel of WB’s numerous failures in 2021, the exemplar of the studio’s self-centered delusions.

Bad enough that WB had to give us all a stiff middle finger projected 70 feet high. That they should make the Looney Tunes and so many other treasured WB properties radioactive in the process is unforgivable. Fuck you right back, WarnerMedia.

Stay tuned for the Wild Rides list tomorrow.

2021: The Masterpieces

Posted January 1, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve long established that there is a difference between “the greatest” and “my favorite”. What’s the difference? It’s like this: Schindler’s List is a great film by any metric, but NOBODY is putting it on to wind down after a hard day.

This first year-end list for 2021 is dedicated to the year’s Masterpieces. These are the Oscar contenders, the critical darlings, the movies that film students of the future will write papers on. These are my picks for the greatest films of the year.

Best Musical

This was a year thoroughly dominated by musicals with a Hispanic/Latinx influence, most especially from Puerto Rico. And though West Side Story (2021) is absolutely a wonderful movie, I have a difficult time giving it the crown when it’s the only musical heavily influenced by Puerto Rico that didn’t actually have any Puerto Rican or even non-white filmmakers at the director/producer level. Which brings us to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Encanto is a wonderful movie with the misfortune of an underwhelming soundrack, while Vivo had the opposite problem. That leaves In the Heights and tick, tick… BOOM!, the two other films that came to us from Lin-Manuel Miranda this past year. Because In the Heights was a sprawling movie, epic in scope, it inevitably had some uneven points even though it was an excellent film on balance. Compare that with tick, tick… BOOM!, which had a much tighter focus and tried to do fewer things, but excelled at each and every one and made some powerful thematic statements in the process.

It’s a tough call, and I’d say that In the Heights is probably the film most representative of movie musicals in 2021. But strictly in terms of quality, I’m siding with the leaner and meaner film. This one goes to tick, tick… BOOM!

Best Mindfuck

I feel like The Matrix Resurrections didn’t really blow minds, so much as cave them in with a sledgehammer. Elsewhere, Old did a masterful job of messing with the audience’s heads and forcing everyone out of their comfort zones, right up until it hopelessly botched the landing. Elsewhere, Synchronic offered a great many themes about nostalgia and living in the moment, but the film wasn’t nearly as off-the-wall batshit as the premise and creative team could’ve delivered. Then we’ve got Lamb, so laser-focused on disturbing the audience that it failed to make any kind of coherent point.

This one’s no contest. There’s simply no beating Titane for demented novelty and balls-to-the-wall insanity that will leave your shit absolutely fucked. Like only the best cinematic mindfucks can do, this is a movie that truly made me think even as I desperately wanted to throw up.

Best Animated Film

I’m truly disappointed that Earwig and the Witch was so underwhelming. Hell, it wasn’t even the best Studio Ghibli film released this year — they got thoroughly beaten at their own game by Pixar with Luca! Disney Animation also had a marvelous year with Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto, both wonderful movies despite their glaring flaws.

We got quite a few great animated films this year, but my choice for the greatest is indisputably The Mitchells vs. the Machines, if only because the basic concept of a post-apocalyptic family comedy action film shouldn’t work anywhere near so well as this one does. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s ingenious, and it offers whip-smart social commentary on Big Tech like I didn’t think Hollywood was even capable of. Outstanding work.

Best Historical Fiction

I’m giving Cliff Walkers a mention here, even though it wasn’t actually based on real people or events, because it still deserves recognition as a solid espionage caper about an under-explored corner of WWII history. Elsewhere, we’ve got Spencer and The Dig, both serviceable if ultimately forgettable films based on true events. I’m sure some other critics would give this one to Judas and the Black Messiah — and with many good reasons, it’s an outstanding picture — but I still feel like the casting in that movie isn’t quite as strong as it should’ve been. Moreover, we’ve seen a great many films about 1960s America, but not so many about 14th century France.

So instead, this one goes to The Last Duel. The entire cast is aces, the triptych presentation is far more effective and compelling than it has any right to be, and the filmmakers are to be applauded for their use of a medieval French event to make such timely and hard-hitting statements about sexual assault and gender disparity in the modern day.

Best Crime Thriller

We’ve got no shortage of phenomenal candidates for this one. It speaks volumes that The White Tiger came out to staggering critical acclaim and a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at the Oscars for 2020 (Don’t ask me how the hell it qualified, that film wasn’t shown anywhere until January 2021.), and it still got blown out of the water by all the amazing crime thrillers we got in the subsequent months.

I absolutely loved I Care a Lot for how angry it made me. The Card Counter had an extraordinary supporting cast, centered around what may be the greatest performance of Oscar Isaac’s career to date. Those Who Wish Me Dead was a tragically underrated thriller loaded with suspense and grit as the day is long. I would happily give this one to the innovative and hard-hitting The Harder They Fall, and the only reason I’m not is because such a progressive film should’ve known better than to fall back on the “damsel in distress” trope.

So instead, I’m giving this one to No Sudden Move, one of many 2021 films tragically buried under WB’s marketing incompetence. This one’s got an all-star cast, phenomenal direction under Steven Soderbergh, bottomless layers of socially relevant themes, and a labyrinthine plot laid out in such a way that the audience is made to feel smarter for following along. It’s a merciless potboiler par excellence, absolutely not to be missed.

Best Light Drama

Nomadland is an aimless and meandering film by nature, while The French Dispatch is broken into several pieces that never really mesh together into a coherent whole. In both cases, that’s part of the charm. And frankly, I’d much rather take either film than Belfast, which was impeccably made yet sadly unremarkable.

I was much more fond of C’mon C’mon, a film that brought an incisive kind of charm. We also got Lorelei, another delightful movie about critically flawed adults trying to anchor a fractured family and take care of deeply troubled children. In both cases, the movies work because they’re not afraid to show the characters as dysfunctional fuckups who are nonetheless making a sincere good-faith effort at bettering themselves.

But in all honesty, this award was always going to Moxie. Not only is this one of the greatest coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in recent memory, but it’s easily the most powerful work of feminist cinema that I’ve seen in a very long time. Every line of dialogue is a powerful statement about living and growing up in politically charged times, and every corner of the set has some joke or barb tucked in there. This film is absolutely merciless, totally uncompromising, diabolically smart, and wickedly funny. I could rave about this one all day.

Best Heavy Drama

I’m not entirely sure whether to classify @Zola and Pig as crime thrillers, but I’m putting them here instead because the films are far more notable for their exceptional character work than any ill-fated scheme. Contrast that with Concrete Cowboy, which might have made some powerful statements on race and economic disparity if the “coming-of-age” angle wasn’t so terribly broken. But then we’ve got Passing and Malcolm & Marie, both dynamite romantic dramas that made powerful statements on race, and with top-shelf performances to boot.

But this was always coming down to two movies: The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) and The Green Knight. Both fantastic and creepy movies with non-white male leads in iconic tragic roles, adapting classic tales from antiquity in what is now the UK. Both masterfully crafted films worthy to be listed among the year’s best.

That said, “Macbeth” has already been done exceptionally well by countless others. Not many have ever tried adapting the tale of Sir Gawain, and it’s certain that nobody’s done it anywhere nearly as well. So if I can only pick one (and by my own made-up rules, I do), I’ll give the edge to The Green Knight.

Best Masterpiece

My choice for the year’s greatest film is a tough one. Sure, I’d be tempted to give this one to Dune (2021), The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), or even Nightmare Alley. Any other critic might’ve given the top spot to any of those films, and with good reason. They’re all amazing. (Even if the “Dune” adaptation is still only half a movie.) But that’s not enough for this spot.

When I choose a film for “Best Masterpiece”, I’m not just looking for a film that’s merely good, or even great. I’m looking for a movie that advances the entire medium of cinema. Something so bold, so exceptional, so far beyond the boundaries that it might push filmmakers to go farther and encourage audiences to demand more. This is not a choice or a claim that I make lightly. And in this case, my choice is clear.

Nine Days is a staggering work of cinematic allegory from debut writer/director Edson Oda. As deeply moving as it is ingenious, this movie examines a wide variety of existential themes with boundless heart and intelligence, with innovative writing and incredible visual storytelling like precious few other filmmakers would ever dare to attempt. Oda shows an uncanny skill for breaking rules like an artist, because even if the world-building is flimsy and the internal logic makes no sense, this movie uses fully-realized characters, compelling performances, and a heartwrenching plot to make thematic statements guaranteed to stay with the audience for years to come.

This is a tragically underappreciated movie like no other, guaranteed to charm you into accepting the film on its own terms so it can blow your mind and change your life. Stay tuned for the Disappointments list, coming up tomorrow.

2021 in review (preface)

Posted January 1, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

I need to ask a favor.

Over the next few days, you’re going to see a great many year-end articles listing the best/worst/whatever of the year. Untold millions of these lists are generated by umpteen critics, looking back at the movies, TV shows, books, songs, video games, and other media of the year previous. And at the end of these lists, it’s customary to leave a comment with anything that the author neglected to include or perhaps overlooked entirely.

Don’t do that. Please don’t. Not this year.

I beg of you all to remember that 2020 was the worst year in recorded history, the year in which everyone had to stay at home and deal with the double-whammy of a global pandemic and a presidential election. Entire industries were shut down, many businesses didn’t survive, and all we got were a couple thousand dollars from the government that did about as much good as a Post-It note on a bullet wound.

Cut to 2021. Though the pandemic still rages on (indeed, there were more COVID-related deaths in 2021 than in 2020, and by a wide margin), 2021 was the year in which vaccines and mask mandates meant that getting out of the house and into a theater was at least a semi-plausible notion. Thus the studios rushed out to release all the movies that had been sitting on their shelves for the past few years, all eager to make back the money they lost in 2020. And of course the streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) were not about to give up any of the growth they made while everyone was stuck at home, so they likewise scrambled to push out all the content they could.

And remember, I’m just talking about the cinema side of things. Whether it was TV, video games, music, books, or whatever, you saw this exact same pattern everywhere. The dam had burst, and fucking EVERYONE was in a rush to try and cram two years’ worth of content into 12 months. And looking ahead into 2022, I’m seeing such long-delayed films as Jackass Forever and Top Gun: Maverick, signalling that we’ll be sorting through this backlog for months or maybe even years to come.

Seriously, folks, say a prayer for your favorite critics and reviewers. You can’t even begin to imagine how stressful it’s been to try and keep up with everything that came out this year while also leading some semblance of a happy and productive life, WHILE ALSO dealing with all the political and pandemic-related shit everyone else had to deal with all through 2021.

But at least we’re here. And for all the ways 2021 sucked, it was still a marked improvement over 2020. And in that spirit, let’s look ahead to my year-end lists.

For those just tuning in, my typical style is to write up three year-end lists in a kind of “awards” format, with movies grouped into “categories” and a “winner” selected from each one. (It’ll be more clear in context, I promise.) The categories are divided into three lists: The Masterpieces, the Disappointments, and the Wild Rides. Each list and category has its own parameters, but they all follow the same basic rules.

1. Only movies that I’ve seen and reviewed will be considered. I believe I’ve already said enough about this particular subject.

2a. Only movies released in 2021 will be considered. I know it feels like linear time stopped existing somewhere around March 2020 (one of many reasons why I didn’t write any year-end lists for 2020), but I have to draw the line somewhere.

2b. Festival premiere dates don’t count. Because movies have been known to change in post between festival screenings and public release, I don’t consider a movie to be truly completed while it’s on the festival circuit. I know Nomadland won Best Picture for 2020, but the film was only screened in festivals during 2020 and didn’t even see a limited release for common moviegoers until January 2021. So fuck you, AMPAS, it’s a 2021 film.

3. Only one award per film, and one award per category. I don’t want a situation in which one movie wins everything, and I don’t want to call any ties. That would be too easy, and frankly boring.

I’ll be kicking things off with the Masterpieces list tomorrow at the latest, so stay tuned!

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

Posted January 1, 2022 By Curiosity Inc.

Among the many reasons why Shakespeare is probably the greatest playwright who’s ever written in the English language, the best of his works renew themselves with every telling. Every time I see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, it’s as funny as the first time. Every time I see “Romeo and Juliet”, it’s like watching a new generation of teenagers fall victim to the same old shit because we’re all too stubborn to learn any better.

And then there’s my personal favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Macbeth”. Such a primal and universal tale of hubris and unhinged ambition that it can (and has) been adapted into every setting and time period imaginable. With each new iteration, I’m dying to know whether the Scotsman and Lady Mac will be scrappy young up-and-comers flying too close to the sun, or older seasoned veterans taking what they feel they’ve long since earned. Will the witches be beautiful sirens luring Macbeth to his doom with seductive whispers of greater fortune, or will they be avatars of an older and greater power? How will Banquo’s ghost be presented? How will Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane this time?

Granted, I’m still nursing a grudge after getting burned by that incompetent, borderline-unwatchable 2015 take with Michael Fassbender. But this time, we’ve got a Coen Brother in the writing/directing seat, complete with wife Frances McDormand as Lady Mac and Denzel Washington himself as the Scotsman. These in addition to Brendan Gleeson as Duncan, Corey Hawkins as Macduff, and so many other wonderful actors in this remarkable cast.

(NOTE: To be clear, when I say that Joel Coen was the writer, I mean that he adapted Shakespeare’s text for the screen. The characters all speak with the original dialogue.)

In point of fact, Joel Coen and his brother have both made a solid name for themselves off their knack for supporting characters, and there are so many underrated and underappreciated characters in this text. To wit, the Porter is a comic relief character frequently cut for time, wholly absent from all the previous film adaptations that I’m aware of. But here, the Porter is played by Stephen freaking Root. Slam-dunk casting right there.

Couple all of this with a trailer that promised a Shakespearean tragedy in the style of Ingmar Bergman — again, under a cinematic grandmaster like Joel Coen — and I couldn’t help getting hyped. And whoo boy, does this film deliver.

Seriously, you’ve got one of the greatest living actors in Hollywood playing one of the greatest tragic characters in all of fiction. And he’s acting opposite goddamn Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. You could buy your ticket based on those two actors alone, and you would come away satisfied. I guarantee you that this casting is every bit as exquisite as it sounds.

Likewise, Brendan Gleeson came ready-made to play Duncan, ditto for Harry Melling as Malcolm. Corey Hawkins more than brings the fire as Macduff. Alex Hassell’s unique brand of unhinged crazy might’ve singlehandedly ruined the recent live-action “Cowboy Bebop” adaptation, but that same energy makes for the most memorable portrayal of Ross that I’ve ever seen.

In point of fact, Joel Coen’s trademark attention to the background characters pays massive dividends here. Who else would hire an actor of Ralph Ineson’s extraordinary screen presence to play the unnamed captain in the opening scene? This in addition to the aforementioned Porter, Lady Macduff and son (Moses Ingram and Ethan Hutchison, respectively), the two murderers (Scott Subiono and Brian Thompson), and so many other bit part characters from the text whose scenes and exchanges could have been (and typically are) cut. Yet the filmmakers have such an extraordinary knack for knowing exactly which lines to cut and how to emphasize which lines, such that everyone gets their moment to shine while keeping the runtime to a brisk 105 minutes.

To repeat: This movie adapts Macbeth — freaking Macbeth! — into a movie under two hours long, and the end result more than does justice to the original text. That in itself is an accomplishment.

Then we have the matter of the Witch, played by Kathryn Hunter. Yes, that’s Witch, singular. Instead of three witches, we get one witch with three voices, like a split-personality thing. Yet there are unsettling visuals just subtle enough to hint at something more supernatural going on. Couple that with Hunter’s raspy voice and inhuman mannerisms, and you’ve got a Witch who’s creepy as all fuck.

The only unfortunate weak link in the cast is Bertie Carvel in the role of Banquo. To be fair, Banquo has always been an awkward character in the play. On paper, he’s a character far more notable in death than in life, and it’s difficult finding someone who could make his own impression in the role without showing any discomfort playing second banana to Macbeth. (see also: Horatio of “Hamlet”) Alas, Carvel doesn’t manage that balance particularly well, though the inexplicably godawful eyebrows don’t exactly help.

Then we have the choices made in adaptation. Reframing the “dagger” as the handle to Duncan’s bedroom door was genius. Utilizing crows as a symbol of death, thus using a flying animal to bring some movement and action and scope to the banquet scene was utterly brilliant. I’m not even going to spoil how these filmmakers handled the “toil and trouble” scene, but their approach to the cauldron was truly inspired.

Macbeth demonstrates his own “charmed life” by standing unarmed against a soldier with a blade, and killing him. Total fucking badass. Granted, they botched the “thou wast born of woman” line, but still.

But of course the most prominent and crucial creative liberty taken here is in the black-and-white presentation. It works on so many levels. For one thing, the crisp contrast between black and white onscreen nicely demonstrates the black-and-white morality and binary logic of extremes that make this play such a tragedy. More importantly, the monochrome photography — bleaching all color out of the picture — pairs nicely with the no-frills costume design and the aggressively minimalist set design. If anything, it’s like the characters are dwarfed by the pillars and ramparts and flawlessly straight lines of Dunsinane.

It all adds up to a film that’s aggressively bleak in its presentation. The filmmakers have crafted a harsh and unforgiving world to place this story into, and the whole movie conveys a hostile kind of attitude toward its own characters. And that fits superbly well with the kind of foreboding dread and savage violence that marks the best productions of “Macbeth”.

Last but not least, the camerawork and editing are marvelous across the board. Every single frame of this picture is flawlessly composed and instantly striking. I must also give kudos for some ingenious scene transitions.

The best compliment I can give to The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) is that I wish I’d had this picture when I was in high school. Every new cinematic adaptation of The Bard is destined to be some teenager’s first impression of Shakespeare’s work, and this is a damn fine movie to start with. With a cast of world-class actors under the direction of a cinematic grandmaster, every line of dialogue is expertly delivered and every last character — down to the lowliest chorus role — is brought to vivid life.

More importantly, the filmmakers were not afraid to make the movie genuinely creepy. From the supernatural aspects to the casual homicide, the filmmakers are abundantly clear in stating that nobody is safe and not even the King of Scotland is above the whims of fate. I might add that there were some truly ingenious decisions made in adapting the play and paring it down to under two hours (not to mention giving more detail to Macbeth’s arc of corruption and Lady Mac’s arc toward insanity), and stage productions everywhere would do well to crib from Joel Coen’s notes.

If you’re already a fan of Shakespeare, you’re going to love this. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, this might be the film to convert you. Don’t miss out.

Licorice Pizza

Posted December 30, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

In 1960, the folk music duo of Bud & Travis recorded a concert album live at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. At some point, the both of them start making fun of their own unsuccessful record, stating that it had “sesame seeds on the other side” and could be played on a Waring blender. Just before going into their cover of “La Bamba”, they mention that the sesame seed LP was being sold at feed stores as a “licorice pizza.”

Flash forward to 1969, when James Greenwood founded a record shop inexplicably named in tribute to this random joke. The shop would grow into a full-fledged chain of record stores, with no less than 34 locations throughout the SoCal area until it was finally sold in 1985 to the nascent Sam Goody conglomerate (itself now a mere shadow of its former glory).

I mention all of this because the film never does. Licorice Pizza has absolutely fuck-all to do with “Licorice Pizza” the record store chain or “licorice pizza” the Bud & Travis routine. None of them are even mentioned in passing, not a one of them has anything to do with the plot. As best I can tell, the phrase “Licorice Pizza” is a kind of secret handshake, a dog whistle for those who grew up in the LA area back when the record store was a thing. It’s like one of those online memes, “If you know what this is, see the movie.”

So what does the film have to offer those who don’t have that nostalgic connection? Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out.

Right off the bat, I was fascinated to give this movie a try because it features the debut of Alana Haim in a lead role. It’s not always an easy transition to go from musician to actor, and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see that she can indeed carry a film. But then the filmmakers went further and cast her as a character named Alana Kane. Same first name, same spelling and everything.

And then the filmmakers cast Danielle and Este Haim — famously Alana Haim’s actual sisters and bandmates — along with both of their parents. And they’re all playing Alana’s family, each character named after their respective actor. The entire Haim family is playing a lightly fictionalized version of themselves. We haven’t even started yet, and I have to ask what the fuck is this?

Anyway, we set our stage in Los Angeles and the plot unfolds through… let’s say the summer of 1973. Cooper Hoffman (son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, here also making his film debut) stars as Gary Valentine, a child actor who’s already built up a respectable CV at fifteen years old. He claims to be a showman, and that’s certainly not a lie, but he’s a hustler first and foremost.

At this point, it’s perhaps worth noting that Gary Valentine is a heavily fictionalized version of Gary Goetzman, a massively successful film producer. In his youth, Goetzman found early success as a child actor, started his own business as a waterbed salesman, delivered a bed to Jon Peters (here played as a coked-up hate sink by Bradley Cooper), and founded a pinball arcade. And yes, Gary Valentine does all of those things as the plot unfolds.

So where does Alana fit in? Well, Alana’s helping out the school photographers during photo day at Gary’s high school. The two meet up, Gary falls immediately in love with her, and she’s charmed enough to hang out with him. The kicker here is that he’s 15 and she’s 25.

(Side note: The actual Gary Goetzman has been married to someone named Lesley Ann Carroll since 1986. As best I can tell, she’s only five years his senior.)

Despite the age gap, Gary and Alana get to be good friends and business partners. They can never be any kind of proper item, but they still get a romance arc that’s the centerpiece of the movie. In fact, the central through-line of this movie is all about how a 15-year-old boy and a 25-year-old woman grow closer together until they’re finally outright lovers.

At this point, you might be tempted to close the review altogether and turn your back on the film forever. I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I’m right there with you.

What adds insult to the injury is in how utterly fractured the film is. Gary takes part in a massive song-and-dance number, but it never leads to anything and it’s never mentioned again. Gary gets arrested in a case of mistaken identity, he’s arrested five minutes later, and nobody ever mentions it again. The whole film is comprised of these five-minute sequences, any one of which could’ve been cut without affecting the rest of the film as a whole.

Now, that’s not to say a few of these segments aren’t enjoyable. Bradley Cooper is great fun playing an oblivious conceited asshole, Sean Penn is a bona fide force of nature as Jack Holden (loosely based on William Holden), and Tom Waits steals the damn show as a loose cannon director. Seriously, it’s almost worth seeing the movie just to see Tom Waits and Sean Penn riff off each other like they do. But then five minutes later, they’re out of the picture like they were never even there. Fuck.

To be clear, that’s not to say this particular structure can’t work — for instance, I’d argue that The Big Lebowski perfected it. But the big problem here is that the main throughline — the one thing that absolutely can’t be cut — is the illicit relationship between the adult woman and the teenage hustler.

Yes, Gary and Alana are both superbly developed. Gary is a teenager who carries himself like an adult, powering through every obstacle through ingenuity and sheer willpower. Meanwhile, Alana is an adult who’s still trying to find her place in the world. Implicitly, the film is trying to make the argument that age is just a number and I can’t even finish that sentence. Sorry, but if Gary has an outsized opinion of his own maturity and Alana is a case of arrested development, that only further makes the case that this whole romance is a horrible, terrible mistake.

Because the whole movie is so fractured and the one pivotal throughline is misguided wormshit, nothing in here congeals into anything coherent in terms of theme. Yes, the film works well enough as a love letter to Tinseltown of the 1970s, and I totally believe that Paul Thomas Anderson was sincere in his desire to make a film that evoked his own experiences growing up in the LA area. Trouble is, we’re not exactly at a loss for movies about the topic. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood only came out two years ago, for fuck’s sake. Hell, Paul Thomas Anderson himself gave us Boogie Nights, a far superior film set in roughly the same time and place.

Yes, Licorice Pizza is a technical marvel. It looks amazing, the soundtrack slaps, and the entire cast is wonderful, even if most of them only get five minutes of screentime apiece. Still, the film gave us incredible debut turns from Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, proving that the both of them have promising futures in film, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Trouble is, the basic premise that actively roots for our two romantic leads to enter into a pedophilic relationship is fatally flawed from the outset. Moreover, this is a film built around fictionalized versions of so many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s friends, starring a cast loaded with nepotism (Did I mention that one of Steven Spielberg’s kids is in here somewhere), and the film seems to have no point other than Anderson’s own childhood nostalgia. Put it all together, and the whole thing looks uncomfortably like a work of masturbation.

I know the film is being positioned and praised as a major awards contender, but I’m sorry, I’m not seeing it. I’m open to the possibility that I’m just not getting it, and the film is charming enough that I wish I could recommend it, until I remember that the charm is based off a teenage huckster romancing a woman nearly twice his age. Not recommended.

Don’t Look Up

Posted December 29, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

-Kay, Men in Black

There was a time when Adam McKay was best known for Will Ferrell vehicles like Anchorman and Talladega Nights. But in the middle of all those Will Ferrell vehicles was a little movie called The Other Guys, an oft-overlooked action buddy cop comedy starring Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg until — psych! — literally at the very last minute, the film threw a curveball and hit us with a pre-credits barrage of title cards about how our entire system is rigged to make the rich even wealthier. It came right the fuck out of nowhere and didn’t remotely mesh with the rest of the movie, which is likely a significant reason why The Other Guys is barely a footnote in the filmographies of everyone involved.

At the time, The Other Guys was only a blip on the radar — one of those pictures that comes out in August, gets a moderately favorable critical reception, makes roughly $100 million, and disappears from the public consciousness altogether. Only in hindsight did that 2010 movie turn out to be a crucial portent of what was to come.

After a brief and obliging pause to make Anchorman 2, McKay dropped a bombshell with The Big Short in 2015. This was the movie The Other Guys signaled that McKay really wanted to make: A deep dive into how the Great Recession happened and nothing has really been done to make sure it could never happen again. But what really made The Big Short such a work of satirical genius is in how it took such a complicated subject, byzantine and unwieldy by deliberate design, and made it accessible to an audience of laypeople. It didn’t just give the audience a reason to be angry, it made the audience feel smarter, like we had a better grasp of exactly what happened to bankrupt an entire generation.

But then McKay came out with Vice, a dramatization of the Dubya years through the eyes of Dick Cheney. And the film had nothing of any value to say about the George W. Bush administration that hadn’t already been extensively documented in contemporary news outlets and subsequent movies. There was nothing remotely constructive about how this all happened or what we can do to prevent it from happening again, just so much finger-wagging about how we’re all more interested in the next Fast and Furious movie than in our own government.

I already knew that McKay was going to double down on the condescension and pessimism the minute I first heard about Don’t Look Up. It was only a matter of how bad the damage would be.

The premise is simple: Professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s apparently been chasing that Best Actor trophy for so long, he doesn’t know how to stop), alongside post-graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Hey, Jennifer Lawrence, we missed you! Could someone please break the news to Haley Bennett we don’t need her anymore?) discover a massive comet that’s set to collide with Earth and destroy the entire planet in just over six months. Trouble is, they’re trying to break the news to politicians more interested in their own egos and re-election chances, billionaires more interested in their own bottom lines, and media outlets more interested in catering to an audience more interested in mindless pablum.

What follows is ripped-from-the-headlines stuff exaggerated to a heightened and satirical degree. Everything has to be divided along partisan lines, nobody can agree on what’s real anymore, nobody knows whom to trust, the wealthy and powerful keep us all ignorant sheeple, the people who actually know what they’re talking about are more proficient with math than with public speaking, and so on and so forth. Basically put, if you’ve seen The Matrix Resurrections, imagine Neil Patrick Harris’ two-minute monologue stretched out to 130 minutes. Complete with the condescending tone, the aggressively blunt moralizing, and the special effects.

What it really comes down to is this: There’s being blissfully ignorant, there’s being pessimistic to the point of rooting for the comet, and then there’s being constructive. You know, setting aside our differences and focusing on the question of what we can do to deal with the problem. The crazy thing is that this movie actively wants us to take the more constructive attitude while openly stating that it’s no longer possible. The film aggressively and painfully makes the case that even if we did pay attention long enough to try and deal with the problem, we as a species have grown so short-sighted and self-righteous and greedy and outright dysfunctional that we’d find a way to fuck it up anyway.

To some degree, I have to respect the movie for not pulling its punches. At its heart and core, from start to finish, this movie is all about the notion that we’re not guaranteed a happy ending. Bad shit happens that can’t be ignored. Sometimes we have to be angry, sometimes we have to be afraid, and there’s no sugar-coating those moments.

The film made that point perfectly clear. Now what am I supposed to do with that? How does this make me a smarter, stronger, more enlightened person? How can I use this knowledge to help make the world a better place? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset with the movie because it didn’t solve climate change. I’m upset with the movie for expressing the notion that even if we all worked together to try and solve climate change, it wouldn’t amount to anything.

I remember the words of a colleague, with regards to why he didn’t like Cormac McCarthy’s works: “We start out, and everything sucks. At the end, it’s three hours later, and everything still sucks.” Give or take an hour, that’s this movie.

But this brings me to the more personal themes that resonated with me far more strongly: The ones that center around the question of “What would you do if you knew the world was going to end in six months?” What new experiences would you try? Who would you want to be with? What new sins would you commit, and what (if anything) would you do to try and make amends to those you’ve wronged?

At the heart and core of this premise is the knowledge of precisely how and when all life on Earth is going to die. How could the human mind even comprehend something that huge? Perhaps more importantly, how would it feel to be a modern-day Cassandra, desperate to share such cataclysmic news that everyone else is unwilling to hear and/or fundamentally incapable of accepting? There’s a reason why denial is the first step in getting over a trauma, all we’re talking about here is a matter of degree.

We as a species have made great accomplishments. We’ve built skyscrapers and cured diseases. We’ve built machines that can carry people and cargo all around the world in only a few days, and machines that allow for instantaneous worldwide communication. Even as I type this, NASA is constructing the Webb Telescope — a machine so powerful that it will let us see the outermost edge of the known universe, showing us the stars as they appeared at the beginning of time itself — and the construction is happening entirely in outer space under the remote control of engineers here on Earth.

Yet for all the mind-blowing technology we have at our fingertips, for all the scientific breakthroughs that give us a better understanding of life and the universe, we are still only sacks of wet meat. We’re still slaves to our emotions, our biological urges, and our basic needs. We want to feel safe, we want to be happy, and we want to be part of a community. Even if it means making unthinkable compromises or horrific sacrifices. It’s just a damn shame we’re only allowed to explore these potent themes in short bursts, because pretty much all of the characters are only two-dimensional caricatures of humanity.

The cast is positively loaded with talent, and the performances here are definitely in the same class as The Big Short and Vice. Everyone’s trying so hard to strike a fine balance, chewing the scenery just enough to make a satirical point through exaggerated comedy, but playing it straight just enough that we can still take the film and its messages seriously. DiCaprio literally cut himself in Django Unchained, spilling his own actual blood in his unhinged pursuit of an Oscar, and that’s the kind of crazy he brings here. Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t lost a step, Meryl Streep is of course a notorious ham, and Jonah Hill once again plays a douchebag hate sink like he has so many times before.

Cate Blanchett’s turn here would’ve been so much more impressive if she hadn’t just done the same thing a hundred times better in Nightmare Alley. Timothee Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Tyler Perry, and Himesh Patel are all sadly wasted, but at least they play their supporting roles well enough to prop the film up. I didn’t even realize Michael Chiklis was in this picture. Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi do marvelous jobs playing parodies of themselves. Melanie Lynskey is easily the unsung hero of the supporting cast — she and Rob Morgan are pretty much the only two people in this cast playing characters recognizable as actual human beings and not shrill caricatures of modern archetypes.

Speaking of which, there’s the matter of Mark Rylance, here playing the personification of Big Tech. He’s a great actor, don’t get me wrong, but he was miscast here. For one thing, he’s too old by half to play the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. For another thing, Rylance was very clearly given the assignment of capturing that uncannily inhuman vibe that Musk and Zuckerberg so famously give off. As talented a dramatic actor as Rylance is, the guy was stuck playing a parody of a parody of an actual person, while also striking the aforementioned balance of keeping it just straight-faced enough. That’s indisputably a tall order, and I’m not entirely sure he found a way to pull it off.

Look, folks, this has been an exhausting couple of years. Hell, the past five years have been terrifying and traumatic. We’re confused, we’re scared, many of us are dealing with the pain of losing loved ones to COVID, and all of us are wondering what we can do to come out the other side with a brighter future, if we haven’t given up hope already. Don’t Look Up is only a reflection of all that uncertainty and ugliness without offering anything in the way of commentary. It’s not funny because we already know all the jokes. It’s not informative because it doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already heard. It does nothing to help us understand any of this or move past it. If anything, the film posits that the system is rigged in such a way that nothing will ever improve and we’d all be better off if the apocalypse would just come already.

I could watch the likes of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyer, Trevor Noah, Jon Oliver, or even Jon Stewart’s new program, and any one of them could make me laugh harder while helping me feel like I’ve got a better grasp on what’s going wrong and how we can fix it. What use could I have for a 130-minute movie when a ten-minute late night monologue would be more enjoyable and edifying?

Come on, Adam McKay, fucking try harder.