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Posted July 5, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Back in April of 2018, I was lucky enough to see the touring production of “Hamilton” when it came through my town. (Don’t ask how I was able to get tickets, it’s a long story.) I took my mother — she who taught me pretty much everything I know about musical theatre — as an early birthday gift, we went, and we had a wonderful time. Yet I still found myself somehow slightly underwhelmed.

A lot of that comes from the fact that all the best parts of “Hamilton” are right there in the original cast recording. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the whiplash wordplay from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the groundbreaking music, the myriad of thematic layers based in patriotism then compared and contrasted with patriotism now, it’s all there. Watching the stage production felt like watching an adaptation — a fine interpretation of a far superior source material.

But then I had an epiphany.

Longtime readers are surely aware that I’m extremely active in the local theatre scene. Specifically, my people are those in the community theaters and independent productions of Portland. The kind of companies that thrive on immersion and innovation to make up for their lack of resources. The kind of companies that perform in venues that can only house twenty to fifty people.

(For perspective: My own production of “From the Ruby Lounge” had a capacity of 35. And we had to get REALLY creative about fitting that many in there.)

In my kind of plays, the fourth wall is practically nonexistent. My kind of venues are so small, there’s nowhere to hide and no escape from the unfolding action. When the actors are literally within arm’s reach, in constant danger of tripping over an errant foot in the audience, it feels like I’m right there in the moment. There’s an intimate, immediate feel to the proceedings — though it helps that the cast and crew will actually stick around to chat and share a drink when the show is done.

I can’t share that intimate feeling with an audience of hundreds. I can’t feel like I’m there in the moment when the stage is fifty feet away. But I can feel it on a cast album, like the characters are talking two feet away and my imagination can fill in the visuals. I can even feel it in most movies, when I’m experiencing a story through the camera lens and I can see every micro-expression like the characters are right next to me.

Which brings us to Hamilton, the long-awaited recording of a performance with the original cast, finally released on Disney+.

It feels strange to review this one, for so many reasons. Sure, the review is entirely justifiable, as this was the huge movie release everyone’s been hotly anticipating for the past several weeks. (Which has come to mean something very different in this pandemic world, but still.) But does this even qualify as a movie, really?

Stage recordings like this one are nothing new — perhaps the most famous example is the original cast performance of “Into the Woods”, taped for “American Playhouse” and aired in 1991. As opposed to Into the Woods, the 2014 film adaptation directed by Rob Marshall. One was built from the ground up to be a movie — utilizing the effects, procedures, and audio/visual language unique to the medium of cinema — while the other was built just as specifically around the arts and sciences of the live theatre medium.

Does the stage show become a movie just because a camera was rolling during production? Probably not where AMPAS is concerned, but really, who cares what the Oscars think anymore?

Another reason why this is a strange one to review is because… well, “Hamilton” debuted in 2015. The cast album firmly and immediately embedded itself in the cultural zeitgeist and it hasn’t remotely faded in the five years since. Hell, this film has been sitting on the shelf for the past four years, and hundreds of people have seen this show on the stage in the time since. Not to mention the millions of people who’ve listened to the original cast album, most of whom could probably recite every lyric backwards and forwards by now.

After all the Tonys, the Grammys, the colossal pop culture presence, and the meteoric rise of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the play has been dissected every which way by various writers far more dedicated and educated than I. Just today, a friend on social media (a person of color, and a friend in the Portland theatre scene) posted this article, stating “the American elite can’t get enough of a musical that flatters their political sensibilities and avoids discomforting truths.” A significant chunk of the article complains about how “Hamilton” was made specifically to avoid offending the wealthy elite few who could afford Broadway tickets. Not so much of an obstacle anymore, as of 07/03/2020, but we’ll come back to that.

What interested me most about the article was this point, especially in light of the ongoing nationwide racial protests:

The most obvious historical aberration is the portrayal of Washington and Jefferson as black men, a somewhat audacious choice given that both men are strongly associated with owning, and in the case of the latter, raping and impregnating slaves. Changing the races allows these men to appear far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says he did this intentionally, to make the cast “look like America today,” and that having black actors play the roles “allow[s] you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” (“Cultural baggage” is an odd way of describing “feeling discomfort at warm portrayals of slaveowners.”) Thus Hamilton’s superficial diversity lets its almost entirely white audience feel good about watching it: no guilt for seeing dead white men in a positive light required.

It’s absolutely true that our nation was built on the backs of slave labor. It’s true that our Founding Fathers were a bunch of white men who declared that all men are created equal, conveniently omitting women and people of color from that statement. This is the great Original Sin of America, and it’s something we’re still grappling with. It’s also a problem much bigger than “Hamilton” was equipped to address.

First of all, to think of all the Founding Fathers as any kind of monolithic entity is playing directly into Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hands. The entire play — most especially the second half — is all about showing how the Founding Fathers had their differences. They were debating each other, backstabbing each other, currying favor, fighting to win elections and power for different reasons and causes. Hell, there’s one point in “Cabinet Rap Battle #1” in which Hamilton explicitly calls out Jefferson in particular and the Southern States in general for the practice of slave labor.

(Side note: From what I can tell, the real Alexander Hamilton was never a slave owner, but the Schuylers were prominent slave-owning aristocrats. Thus while Hamilton himself was likely against the institution of slavery, he probably refrained from overt abolitionism in deference to his in-laws. I mention this because the play never does.)

There’s also the matter of John Laurens, an outspoken abolitionist who was active in America before the Revolutionary War had even ended. If Laurens and his vocal abolitionist actions hadn’t been given such a prominent supporting role in the first half, audiences around the world might have never known about him and kept on thinking that all of our Founding Fathers were 100 percent in favor of keeping slavery legal.

But really, the simple fact of the matter is that “Hamilton” casts its net much, MUCH wider. To focus solely on the slavery issue — which is necessary and important, don’t get me wrong — is to lose sight of the numerous other valid and important points raised by the play.

First of all, this is a movie full of wonderful and amazing people of color, all playing empowered and well-developed characters. Can we just take a moment to appreciate that from an aesthetics point of view, if nothing else?

Secondly, making the Founding Fathers into people of color reinforces the idea that these revolutionary Americans were immigrants. White people back then weren’t so firmly entrenched in North America like they are now, they were only a handful of generations removed from the first immigrants who came to this continent, if they didn’t directly come off the boat themselves.

Thus the Founding Fathers are reframed as a bunch of scrappy underdogs who were fighting against impossible odds to build their own nation. And if it sounds like the play is glorifying our founders, I’ll refer you back to my earlier point about how they’re portrayed as a bunch of squabbling backstabbers. Moreover, the play is explicitly clear in portraying George Washington’s doubts and previous failures, in addition to Alexander Hamilton’s marital infidelity, and so on and so forth right on down to the last member of the chorus. From start to finish, top to bottom, not a single character is ever portrayed as a saint.

Perhaps the single most important accomplishment of this play is that it humanizes the Founding Fathers. By making them look and talk like us, we’re able to recognize them as the fallible and flawed human beings that they are. We of the modern age (especially in an election year, like this one) often complain about partisan gridlock, idiots in government, and how compromise is exceedingly difficult if not impossible. The play takes basically every complaint about current American politics and reframes all of them in the context of our nation’s earliest days. The message: It was ever thus. We’ve worked through it for the past 200 years and change, and we can keep working through it.

Furthermore, by making these historical figures look and act more modern, the play sends what’s potentially a far more important message: Any one of us could be the next Washington. Any one of us could be the next Jefferson. If nobody has any control who tells your story, that means any one of us could have a story worth telling for generations to come. History has its eyes on every single one of us, and we therefore have an obligation to make the most of what time we have.

If an immigrant bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman could grow up to be freaking Alexander Hamilton, any of us could potentially accomplish so much. And that message is especially powerful coming from a BIPOC cast and crew. Any immigrant, any person of color, anyone who’s been persecuted or discriminated against could be the next one to change the world. It’s the American Dream.

Then the play ends and we remember that the American Dream is effectively dead.

Income inequality is higher in the USA than pretty much anywhere else in the world. We have immigrant children in cages, courtesy of an openly racist administration elected and empowered by fellow racists. Even as I type this, the nation is still mourning over the deaths of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Elijah McClain, and too many other people of color killed by police without trial, the victims of a system that protects racists in law enforcement.

But I also see people in the streets, protesting for greater accountability and transparency in local law enforcement. In our America — as in Hamilton’s America — we only get the change we fight for.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that this play — as with most Broadway plays — was very specifically built for the wealthy elite few who could afford tickets. To their credit, the cast and crew have implemented such measures as the $10 ticket lottery, educational outreach, YouTube content updates, and of course the relatively inexpensive cast album recording. Even so, the fact remains that a Broadway show has to jack up ticket prices to the sky, partly to recoup their astronomical budget and partly (especially in Hamilton’s case) to compensate for booming demand. And even if ticket prices weren’t a factor, there’s still the cost of plane tickets for those out of New York, and the cost of travel for those who don’t live near a place where the show is touring.

The bottom line is, Broadway is insanely expensive to produce and prohibitively expensive to attend, and so any Broadway show that offends the uber-rich is a show that probably won’t last long. So of course Hamilton paints a generally rosy picture that doesn’t challenge the status quo, even on subjects where maybe it probably should.

But goddammit, I’ve gotten so incredibly tired of waking up every day to yet another reminder of why my country sucks. Complaining is all well and good — especially if it’s complaining to the elected representatives — but we need hope. If we can’t remember (on July 4th, of all days) what potential we had as a nation and whatever made this a country worth living in to begin with, then really, what the hell are we fighting for?

These are shitty, godawful times to be an American. And that’s especially true of our BIPOC citizens, who’ve never had it all that great to begin with. But if this play can help someone rediscover some sense of optimism and patriotism — or help them discover what patriotism means to them — why take that away?

But again, we run into the inherent hypocrisy that this is a message for the masses, only available to the elite. That’s not such a problem anymore, as the stage recording is now available on Disney+, in all its glory with the original cast. Yes, it’s true that “Hamilton” still won’t (legally) be available to those who can’t afford Disney+, those who can’t access it for whatever technical reason, and those of some hypothetical future in which the recording and/or Disney+ are offline.

While the bar has been dramatically lowered, it’s still there. But it won’t be for long. There is absolutely no reason why this show — with its minimal demands for set design, special effects, costumes, etc. — cannot be made into something affordable and accessible by any community theatre or high school just as soon as the rights are available. It might take a few years, maybe even a couple of decades, but I guaran-goddamn-tee that this will happen within my lifetime.

But let’s circle back to my earlier question, with regards to the cast recording now on Disney+: “Does the stage show become a movie just because a camera was rolling during production?” I submit that the answer is no — there’s a lot more that goes into it, as Hamilton demonstrates.

I’ve personally filmed some of my own shows, so I’m here to tell you from experience that it’s nowhere near as easy as you think. Even if you know exactly where every member of the chorus is going, trying to capture all that moving chaos in the frame, or figuring out what to focus on to the exclusion of whatever else is going on in the moment, is exceedingly difficult.

This, to me, is the strongest case for why Hamilton deserves to be recognized as a work of cinema in its own right. The camera movements, the camera placements, the editing, the close-ups… all of it’s done in such a way that it serves to advance the story. Even better, it delivers that feeling of intimacy and immersion I was talking about earlier — this movie doesn’t keep you stuck in a house seat 50 feet away from the stage, it places you directly on the stage, moving and dancing right there in the action.

These are not hallmarks of live theatre, certainly not Broadway theatre. This is filmmaking. This is cinema, pure and simple.

Moreover, the visual aspect brings so many layers that are simply not possible in a purely auditory medium. This is most especially prominent in “The Reynolds Pamphlet” and the “Helpless”/”Satisfied” diptych. The choreography, the body language, the facial expressions, the characters who are onstage even though they don’t have a line… ALL of this conveys volumes of information that would not be accessible on the cast album.

On a slightly different note, we have songs like “Wait For It” (my personal favorite), “Burn”, and “It’s Quiet Uptown.” These are quite possibly the three most dynamic and emotionally charged songs in the entire show. Listening to them, you might expect performances with broad gestures, playing to show the cheap seats what inner turmoil the characters are suffering. But in the film, all three songs show the affected characters standing alone and stock still, covered in blue light. The effect is that the characters look like bombs ready to explode. They look like trapped energy under immense pressure, with no outlet to express it except for music.

And then of course we have the performances. Jonathan Groff is probably the most improved, as he brought a ton of physical/visual comic relief to King George that wouldn’t be there on the album. And of course we’ve got Daveed Diggs playing Thomas Jefferson like a force of nature, mugging to the crowd and dancing circles around everyone else onstage. There’s the raw onstage charisma of Chris Jackson as George Washington. The warm, playful, sisterly body language between Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones as the Schuyler Sisters.

(Side note: Lin-Manuel Miranda himself once said that falling in love with Phillipa Soo every night was the easiest job he ever had. I never believed that like I did when I finally saw the both of them in this picture together.)

And then of course we’ve got Goldsberry, Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and others in the cast all delivering subtle facial expressions in a way that wouldn’t even be visible to ticket holders, much less anyone listening to the album.

This comes back to something I’ve been saying for years about musicals adapted to film (like the aforementioned Into the Woods and the notorious Cats production last year): Musicals are hugely elaborate by nature. All it takes is one actor who doesn’t have the vocal range of the character as written, and the whole production is in potential jeopardy. There are so many individual pieces that all have to move perfectly, altering any one of them could lead to a chain reaction that brings everything down. And we’ve already seen this happen far too many times with the switch to a medium that the musical in question was never written for.

Compare that to this picture, in which the music, the dialogue, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, and literally everything else was made specifically of, by, and for this cast, this crew, this orchestra, and this stage. With all due respect to the future community theatre and high school productions of this show, in addition to all those on Broadway and on tour who’ve staged this show in the past four years, there can be absolutely no doubt that this will always be the definitive presentation of “Hamilton”. And I’d love nothing more than to see this normalized, with more Broadway shows given mainstream attention through easily accessible cast recordings, Oscars be damned.

As much as I like reviewing Hamilton because of all the thematic layers to sink my teeth into, I hate reviewing Hamilton because it’s a critic-proof film. The Broadway play has ingrained itself so deeply into the popular consciousness and in so short a time, you already know what you’re getting and whether or not you’re going to see it. All that’s left is for me to tell you that if you’re a fan of the album recording, you won’t be disappointed by the cinematic presentation (and I mean that as exceedingly high praise). Even if you were lucky enough to see the stage show in person, you should still see this to spot all the details that the camera picked up while you were all the way back in the house.

But at the same time, I can also get the appeal of sticking with the original cast album. While the visual aspects of the show are amazing and well worth seeing, the album is still the best part of the show and it’s still as awesome as it ever was, even without the visuals.

Maybe you’ve spent the past five years obsessively listening to the cast recording with no way of seeing the stage show, and you’ve got your own version of the show in your head. That’s okay. I wouldn’t take that away from you. In fact, I dearly hope with all my heart that someday, in some community theatre or high school somewhere, you get the chance to see that vision fully realized.

Crossing Shaky Ground

Posted June 30, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

This one comes requested by Paul Bright, a local actor/writer/director multi-hyphenate whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet on quite a few occasions. His latest endeavor is Crossing Shaky Ground, a new indie film set and shot right here in Oregon.

To be perfectly frank, I don’t mind confessing that I tend to go a bit easier on films that appeal to my hometown pride. (Though admittedly, that same pride makes abominations like Gone or Bad Samaritan all the more painful.) And when I see so many of my good personal friends in the cast and crew, of course I want them and their movie to succeed. And anyway, in the specific case of indie films, of course it’s only fair that films made without Hollywood money or equipment be held to a different standard.

But not even fifteen minutes into this one, I knew I was in trouble.

For those who haven’t spent any time living here in recent memory, we of the Pacific Northwest have spent the past several years in a constant state of crippling anxiety over the Great Cascadia Quake. Long story short, based on all the archaeological and geological evidence available to us, the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Pacific coast creates a massive earthquake — somewhere between 8 and 9 on the Richter scale — roughly every 500 years. The last time this happened on January 26th of 1700, the earthquake off the Oregon coast caused a massive tsunami all the way over in Japan!

For the past decade or so, all of Portland has been deathly afraid that The Big One could strike at any minute. When it does, huge swaths of the city — including pretty much all of our bridges — will collapse into the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Our infrastructure will be totalled, and of course the casualties will be sky high. As a direct result, disaster preparedness has been a significant factor in Portland culture and politics for quite some time now.

Crossing Shaky Ground is a movie that speculates on the aftermath of the Great Cascadia Quake. It’s a road movie that covers a 750-mile journey from the coastal town of Astoria to the populous city of Portland. Bear in mind that Astoria (a coastal town) was literally wiped off the map by the quake, and Portland (the most populous city in Oregon) has been reduced to what’s basically a war zone.

The kicker here is that the filmmakers wanted to use this natural catastrophe as a means of examining human nature and the divisions between us in these hyper-polarized times in which everyone is fighting each other along sociopolitical lines. As a direct result, this isn’t the kind of movie in which a huge natural disaster brings us all together.

This is the kind of movie in which everyone’s an asshole. Even the protagonist only gets more grating as he interacts with all the other argumentative assholes in this picture.

The opening scene sets the tone, introducing a supporting character (later identified as Lynda, played by Maria Mogavero) as she pulls a shoplifting scam. We then cut to our protagonist (Aaron, played by Sean McCarty), a disaster preparedness expert giving a lecture to three insultingly whiny millennial stereotypes without an ounce of common sense or empathy between them. (Why such narcissistic nincompoops would ever sign up for disaster preparedness in the first place is beyond me, so my suspension of disbelief was already shot.)

Then the earthquake hits. The sequence was quite obviously shot on East Morrison in the central eastside of Portland, which I guess looks close enough to downtown Astoria, but I digress. The point is, we see Aaron in downtown “Astoria”, then we more or less smash cut to him hitchhiking through the rural Oregon backwater.

The first car drives right past him. The second car stops long enough for the driver to steal what cash Aaron has. The third car actually hits Aaron, and the driver (the aforementioned Lynda) drives off while actively refusing to give Aaron a ride.

This point right here, roughly 20 minutes into the film, is where I checked out entirely.

According to the screenwriting credits, Paul Bright got credited for “story”, and all five of the leading actors (namely Sean McCarty, Maria Mogavero, Eleanor O’Brien, Jonas Israel, and Jonah Kersey) are credited with “dialogue”. Additionally, the film’s website sells this movie as a work of “cinema verite”. Put together, it appears that this was a film made in a semi-improvised style, like the late Lynn Shelton did to far superior effect in films like Your Sister’s Sister, Sword of Trust, Humpday, and so on.

When Shelton did this, it allowed for moments that felt spontaneous and characters that felt authentic. With Paul Bright and company, alas, all the dialogue feels terribly forced. None of the transitions or segues feel natural. The scenes themselves are awkward and unpleasant to sit through. The ramshackle plot can only barely hold itself together until it finally and completely implodes in the closing fifteen minutes. Worst of all, not a single supporting character registers as a sympathetic human being, or even a real one.

With one exception.

My man Jonas Israel comes in (you may remember him from my review of My Summer as a Goth), near the end of the first act, in the role of Ben. He serves as a kind of traveling partner/sounding board for Aaron. Jonas’ brand of dry humor and world-weary charm was exactly what this film needed. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to have two characters on the screen I didn’t hate, talking with each other like halfway decent people. It’s not a lot and the dialogue isn’t much better, and we still have to deal with the three utterly wretched travelling partners who hop on and drop out as the plot unfolds. But god damn did it help to have something — ANYTHING — I could emotionally invest in.

The movie has a lot to say about how completely and totally unprepared we are for The Big One. A great example comes when Aaron is faced with the reality that his money is entirely gone. I’m not just talking about the cash that got stolen. I’m not even talking about the cards in his wallet that he can’t use because nobody in the Pacific Northwest has electricity. By the time the banks come back online, they’ll be completely wiped out and it could be ages before Aaron or anyone else is able to access the money in their account, if at all.

Furthermore, it’s one thing to be a selfish asshole who takes advantage of everyone else. It’s quite another to stand your ground and defend what’s yours. And it’s (possibly) something else to be in such desperate straits that you can’t help somebody else, even if they’re just as fatally desperate for help. The lines between them aren’t always clear, and they’re even harder to figure out in the middle of a natural calamity when all of society has broken down.

In fact, our main characters don’t really start acting like a cohesive unit until they finally find some semblance of shelter at the start of the third act. It seems so obvious, but it’s maybe worth considering that we’re so angry with each other all the time because we’re constantly worrying about keeping our jobs, keeping our homes, putting food on the table, and so on. Maybe if we all took care of each other and made sure our needs were properly met, we could slow the pace and calm down long enough to have an actual discussion.

Moreover, it’s explicitly shown that because Aaron and company have suffered such hardship, they’re so much more sympathetic to the strangers crossing their paths. As opposed to the local yokels who hunker down in place and shoot intruders on sight.

Maybe it takes both to bring us together: It’s not enough merely to share hardship, but also to share in the reprieve when the hardship has passed. That’s basically the most coherent artistic statement I can get out of this picture.

In the end, I’d say that I respect Crossing Shaky Ground more than I like it. I don’t see many movies coming out of Hollywood to promote disaster preparedness and awareness of the Great Cascadia Quake, and of course I’m all for it. More than that, these filmmakers clearly set out to ask how modern Americans — a society of paranoid, materialistic, narcissistic, belligerent, militaristic, judgmental, willfully ignorant bunch of conspiracy theorists who can’t seem to agree on much of anything except “I got mine, so fuck you” — could possibly come together even in time of crisis. God knows that’s a relevant topic right now, in an election year marked by escalated racial protests and open defiance of pandemic protocols.

This film was made with the explicit goal of holding up a mirror to life as it is right now, and it succeeds all too well. Because like real life, it’s messy, unstructured, heartbreaking, meandering, and loaded with assholes too proud to accept your sympathy. Of course I can forgive the film for its nonexistent budget, but I can’t forgive plotting and dialogue so sloppy that the cast and crew might as well have gone in without a script and made everything up on the fly.

I asked Paul when the film might be available to public audiences, and the short answer is “We don’t know.” Typically, distributors gauge interest by way of audience reactions at film festivals, except there are no audiences or film festivals right now. So instead, the filmmakers and prospective distributors are relying on advance reviews (like this one).

In any case, Paul assured me that if nothing else, the film will be heading to online streaming somewhere at some point eventually. If you’re interested, here’s another link to the film’s website so you can keep current on future developments. Also, be sure and leave a comment here if this sounds like the kind of movie you’d be interested in seeing, or even if you wouldn’t be interested, because distributors are apparently listening. You can also contact Paul directly at paul@paulbrightfilms.com — let him know I sent you.

Artemis Fowl

Posted June 23, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

At long last, my family bit the bullet and signed up for Disney+. So now the time has finally come to talk about a film I’ve been heavily anticipating for the past couple of decades, and dreading for the past few months.

Like many other children who devoured every YA fantasy book within reach until the next Harry Potter hardback came out, I grew up with the Artemis Fowl books. I went back and revisited the series about a year ago, and the books have really held up (though the last few entries lost a fair bit of steam — Eoin Colfer was smart to end the series when and where he did). The world-building is still mind-blowing, the comedy and wordplay are still whip-smart, the plots are devilishly intricate yet simple enough for young readers to follow, and the environmentalist message has only grown more relevant.

Yet while I loved the fusion of futuristic sci-fi with old-fashioned fantasy lore, it was the central band of misfits that I kept coming back to. Mulch Diggums, the kleptomaniac dwarf who was never the least bit trustworthy and never trusted anyone in turn. Foaly, the centaur whose genius was at least partially rooted in crippling paranoia. Holly Short, the loose cannon of the Lower Elements Police (LEP)Recon who had to push herself so much harder and faster because of institutional sexism. Butler, that giant tank of a human who served the Fowl family because — the way he was born and bred — it’s unlikely he could’ve found a peaceful and non-violent life anywhere else.

And at the center of it all, Artemis Fowl himself. A criminal prodigy and a technological genius who lusted for gold above all else. Artemis was always quite explicitly a bad guy, resorting to kidnapping, blackmail, extortion, theft, even breaking the laws of time and space itself to get what he wanted and needed. Yet as the books progressed, Fowl and his fairy friends would often set aside their differences in the face of some greater threat.

Oftentimes, Fowl was only the good guy because he was up against somebody even worse. It made him the good guy by default, while also helping him to grow a conscience and make him more sympathetic. Even at the start of the very first book, it was always perfectly clear that Fowl was motivated by a love for his family, so he couldn’t be all bad. Moreover, I don’t think he ever outright kills anyone or orders anyone killed, so there are definitely lines he won’t cross. It also helps that while Fowl has the highest tested IQ in Europe (and yes, that’s explicitly stated in the text, I’m not just making that up for effect), he’s physically incompetent and needs Butler to do all the heavy lifting, so he’s not perfect.

And lest we forget, Artemis Fowl is a prepubescent millionaire who gets to go on globe-trotting adventures, hang with fairies, operate and even invent hyper-advanced machinery, and save the world multiple times. Even if he’s a villain or an anti-hero or whatever, there’s an inherent vicarious thrill in that.

Anyway, with the respective film franchises of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings going on to immediate world-conquering success, of course the film rights to Artemis Fowl were scooped up in 2001. Trouble was, they were purchased by Miramax. Which would’ve put this right about the time when Harvey Weinstein was actively laying the foundations for his own downfall.

It wasn’t until freaking 2013 when Disney finally pulled this picture out of turnaround. Kenneth Branagh came on to direct in 2015, and it looked like things were finally going smoothly for an August 2019 release. Until the Disney/Fox merger pushed the release back to May of 2020. Then the COVID-19 epidemic pushed the film onto Disney+, cancelling the theatrical release altogether.

Think the film has had a rough time already? Ye gods and little fishes, we haven’t even gotten started.

I mean, seriously, the trouble starts almost as soon as the movie does. Not even five minutes in, we’re introduced to Artemis Fowl (newcomer Ferdia Shaw) on a surfboard. Artemis Fowl — the boy so physically inept that he can barely throw a punch or run a mile without getting winded — and he’s surfing.

…Artemis, buddy, what in God’s name have they done to you?

What makes it even more perplexing is Artemis’ therapy session in the scene immediately after. I checked the scene against my copy of the second book, and it’s adapted practically verbatim. With one crucial difference: In the film, Artemis’ mother is dead. The one person in all the world (with the debatable exception of Butler) that Artemis truly loved and cared about, his one remaining tether to humanity, the motivation for pretty much everything he does in the first book… and she’s already dead.

This is maddening. With that one scene, the filmmakers show that they damn well know better, and they’re deliberately going clear off the rails.

The filmmakers did keep Artemis Fowl Sr. (Colin Farrell) in the picture, apparently trying to merge both of Artemis’ parents into a single character. I can see a kind of logic in that. After all, Artemis’ determination to find his missing father and restore the family fortune was another central motivation for the character. But then the filmmakers had to go and make it so that Senior already knew all about the fairies, serving as young Artemis’ introduction to the Lower Elements.

It’s not that young Artemis was so desperate for untapped riches that he went looking in places that everyone else assumed were fictional. It’s not that Artemis was so intelligent and tenacious that he succeeded where everyone else on Earth had failed, even against all the security measures put in place by the fairies themselves. No, it’s that Artemis Fowl Senior had already done all the legwork offscreen so Junior could hit the ground running.

WRONG!!! Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong WROOOONG *deep breath* wrongwrongwrongWRONGwrong wrong wrong wrong….

For whatever spiteful and/or misguided reason, the filmmakers are trying to force these characters into acting and speaking in ways they were never designed for, and this affects the performances in a big way. Ferdia Shaw is of course the most obvious example. I’m sure that Shaw is perfectly capable of playing a cold, calculating, manipulative young bastard who could run intellectual circles around everyone else in the room. And I’m sure Shaw could play a relatable young kid who speaks in canned lines because he’s upset that his mom is dead and Daddy’s never home. Except he can’t do both. Because the latter is the exact diametric opposite of Artemis Fowl as we know and love him from the books.

Thus we get the painful exchange at the ten-minute mark, in which Artemis of the film utters whiny cliched tripe that Artemis of the books would be ashamed to even think. And we also learn about the secret basement that super-genius Artemis Fowl Jr. didn’t even know was in his own house. It doesn’t fucking work.

Colin Farrell has a similar problem. Of course I could totally believe Farrell as a criminal mastermind who sired and raised his own deviant son. And of course Farrell can play a loving yet slightly absent father with a penchant for the paranormal. But again, Fowl Senior from the books (at this point in the books, anyway) was an overbearing and unforgiving father figure obsessed with gold and power, pressing his son into more of the same. So the film version is the diametric opposite of how he is in the books. Thus the filmmakers are actively fighting against the source material, and Farrell is caught in the middle, so of course his performance suffers.

And it turns out that in the movie, Junior — who, again, is supposed to be a master manipulator and a certified genius — never knew or even suspected that Senior was a criminal of any kind. Just… fucking… WHAT?!

Then we have Nonso Anozie as Butler. Again, a phenomenal choice on paper. Yes, he’s a black man while Butler of the books was described as vaguely Eurasian, but whatever. Anozie has firmly proven that he can play a loyal and loving parent figure, he can play a terrifying hulk of a man, and he can switch from one to the other on a dime. Exactly what Butler needs. Perfect casting.

Then he’s introduced as Domovoi Butler. His first name — such a closely guarded secret in the book series that he never shares it until he’s seconds away from death and everyone makes a huge deal out of it — and it’s literally the very first thing we learn about him. What’s even worse — far and away worse by many orders of magnitude — he only gets maybe thirty seconds of action in the entire film.

Consider the set piece roughly 70 minutes in, when a troll is set loose in Fowl Manor. In the books, this is when Butler proved himself a bona fide force of nature, taking down the troll with his bare hands in an epic mano-a-mano brawl that “became something of a legend, initially doing the rounds on the Amateur Home Movies cable shows and ending up on the LEP Academy Hand-to-Hand Curriculum.” In the movie, all the characters flail around aimlessly until the troll is taken down through sheer dumb luck more than anything else, and Butler himself is easily the most useless of all the characters involved.


There’s a character named Juliet Butler, played by Tamara Smart, and I don’t even want to talk about her. She’s the niece to Butler (younger sister in the books), she’s another prepubescent so she doesn’t have the pro wrestling background, and of course she isn’t the nurse to Artemis’ mother because said mother is dead in the movie. This is Juliet in name only, nothing iconic or interesting about her has been adapted, and she’s entirely useless to the plot. So let’s get to the fairies already.

I must admit that Haven City and its inhabitants look incredible. The setting, the tech, the creatures, the costumes, the magic effects, everything looks like it came right out of the books. That magma flare scene is a particular highlight. And of course we’ve got Kenneth Branagh directing, coming off his recent successes in crafting huge epic fantasy worlds for the screen (see: Thor, and Disney’s recent live-action remake of Cinderella).

In what’s getting to be a recurring theme with this movie, all of it works great in theory. Alas, the cracks start to show upon the realization that the fairies always refer to “humans” and never to “Mud Men”. But of course that’s just a pet peeve compared to the complete and total omission of the all-important environmentalist themes from the books.

And then we get to the characters themselves.

The first one we meet is Mulch Diggums, here played by Josh Gad. Another fine choice on paper, and probably the least offensive case in point. Mulch of the film is a smartass, a kleptomaniac, and a master of chaos who can scheme his way out of pretty much anything. Not bad. Even better, the film was remarkably accurate in portraying Diggums’… *ahem* dwarvish anatomy and how he tunnels through dirt.

Trouble is, for whatever stupid reason, the filmmakers put in a plot point about how Mulch is a human-sized dwarf and thus a pariah among his own kind. As if being a career criminal wasn’t reason enough for that, and why the hell would Mulch even care?

But then the real problem comes when Mulch finally gets a decent amount of screen time and Josh Gad is let off the leash. Gad is — and has always been — a notorious camera hog who will mug to the audience at every possible opportunity. And every single time he does so, without fail, he stops playing a character and starts playing himself in the same schtick we’ve seen a million times before (see also: Seth Rogen). Thus Mulch Diggums is subsumed and upstaged by the actor playing him. Great news for fans of Josh Gad, awful news for fans of the book or anyone who wants to see a character and not a showboat.

Judi Dench is on hand, here playing a gender-swapped version of Commander Root. Here we have a stern yet loving parental figure to Holly Short (oh, you’d better believe we’ll get to her in a minute), probably the only figure of authority that Short ever truly respected and listened to. In the books, Root held Short to extremely high standards because he wanted Short to succeed in spite of the oppressive gender politics. We still could’ve had that with an older mother figure who’s already blazed the trail and faced the obstacles that Short is destined to meet.

This role was perfectly in Dench’s wheelhouse. Maybe ten or twenty years ago.

See, the other thing about Root is that he was a thunderous force of personality, so renowned for his explosive anger that he was nicknamed “Beetroot.” With all the utmost respect to the great Dame Judi Dench, she doesn’t have that kind of fire in her anymore. She’s trying so hard to sell it, but her age keeps getting in the way. Though that wretched and inexplicable voice filter on her isn’t helping any.

So what about Foaly, played by Nikesh Patel? An Indian actor playing a centaur? Sure, why not? Sounds great. Does he have the tinfoil hat? Is there a single word about his paranoia regarding human surveillance and cyber espionage? Does he have a dry sense of humor that’s his only defense mechanism because he doesn’t have any hint of magic? None of the above? He’s just a bland exposition machine with no personality to speak of? GODDAMMIT!!!

Opal Koboi is here, which makes sense as she’s the grand overarching villain of the entire book series. Every bit as smart as Artemis Fowl himself, but with none of the conscience, even more wealth and power, and maybe five gajillion times the arrogant vanity. Except when she’s a vague figure with no grand master plan aside from standing in the shadows and spouting cliched threats. The megalomaniacal pixie whose all-consuming vanity is her most defining feature, and the movie never shows her face. This… no, this didn’t even look good on paper, seriously what the almighty fuck?

And then we have Holly Short. Oh, my dear sweet Captain Short, they did you so wrong in so many ways.

Par for the course with this film, she looks great on paper. Yes, the book consistently describes Short as an adult with child-like proportions, and here she’s played by a pre-teen (namely Lara McDonnell). I can look past that. McDonnell looks the part well enough, and her introductory exchange with Mulch Diggums is close enough to the source text by the atrocious standards of the surrounding film. And they’ve given her some daddy issues to give her something in common with Artemis? Questionable, but it does have some basis in the source material, as the death of Holly’s mother — another LEPRecon officer — was a pivotal trauma in the books.

(Side note: What in the Nine Hells is with these filmmakers and swapping out tragic mother figures for tragic father figures?!)

But then we get a scene in which Holly looks out longingly at the flight shuttles, told that she’s got her whole career ahead of her to go and fly.

To repeat, Holly Short doesn’t have clearance to fly in this movie. This can’t possibly be the same Captain Holly Short who was the notorious hotshot pilot of the Lower Elements Police. The books established early and often that flight was her specialty, her pride and her passion, and the movie does fuck-all with this.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the movie jumps the shark an hour in.

Things had been going relatively well up to that point. Holly gets captured, Artemis is holding her ransom, and things are more or less as they are in the book. But then, an hour in, Artemis asks if he can trust her. She says yes, and just like that, the criminal mastermind takes off the mirrored sunglasses that are his only defense against fairy hypnotism. And Holly doesn’t immediately take the chance to hypnotize him and get out of captivity.

I hate this movie. I hate this fucking movie.

I realize that I might sound like a fanboy who hates this movie for making changes to the source material — because I am — but of course I’m aware that changes in adaptation were inevitable. In the books, there were huge swaths of important world-building exposition conveyed through narration. That was never going to work in cinema, and the filmmakers were visibly struggling through the whole picture to try and cope with that. Some of them even work relatively well — recruiting Mulch Diggums as our narrator really wasn’t a bad idea in theory, even if the execution is a bit shaky. But then we have Artemis Fowl Sr. and his vast collection of fairy lore, and I really don’t have the energy to spend another paragraph ranting about that.

I’m not pissed off that the movie is different. I’m pissed off that the movie is worse. I’m pissed off that the filmmakers solved every problem with the dumbest and most uninspired solution possible.

From start to finish, it feels like the filmmakers tried to deal with the world-building and the exposition strain by dumbing everything down. And in a movie about a young criminal genius, built on an established IP that became so popular precisely because of how intelligent it is, dumbing it down to this extent is a capital offense.

Another prime example is the Aculos. What’s the Aculos? It’s a MacGuffin that the filmmakers introduced at the last minute to simplify everyone’s motivations and get the characters where they need to be in the moment. Seriously, the reshoots and ADR are so glaringly obvious, you can practically see the stitches where they patched it in.

What makes all the crowbarred exposition and dumbing down even worse is that the filmmakers inexplicably tried to cram the events of the first two books into one film. Not only does this mean whole storylines and events getting cut, but the filmmakers have to try that much harder to rush everything so it all fits into a 95-minute film. Easily the best example — the crowning achievement of this movie’s stupidity and flagrant disregard for the source material — is when Holly Short joins up with Artemis and forgives him for freaking kidnapping her. In the book series, it takes Holly the entire second book to get anywhere near that level of trust.

In the film, half an hour after the kidnapping, they’re “forever friends”. That is an actual verbatim quote from Artemis freaking Fowl. I’m done. I’m so completely and totally done with this.

Artemis Fowl had everything it could possibly need. It had the right director, the right cast, a great budget, phenomenal design, incredible source material… all of it destroyed so completely and utterly, with so many bone-headed decisions, it could only have been done intentionally.

It’s like the filmmakers wanted to keep everything that was superficially cool and pretty and marketable about the franchise while jettisoning everything that made it subversive, intelligent, and unique. What we’re left with is something brain-dead and uninspired, the smoldering wreckage of a war between incompetent filmmakers and the brilliant source material they were trying to beat into submission.

If you still don’t believe me, just look at this. Look at that awesome announcement teaser. The voiceover that firmly establishes the environmentalist themes. The opening scene of the first book, perfectly realized on the screen. They shot all this, they recorded all this, and they cut every single scrap of it from the finished movie. They had all of this great stuff and they threw it away with the rest of all the potential this project ever had.


Phoenix, Oregon

Posted June 13, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

For those of you who don’t know her, Ronni Lacroute is a prolific local philanthropist here in Portland. Her impact on the local theatre scene is so incalculably great that every other curtain speech in town is contractually obligated to begin by thanking her.

(Full disclosure: Yes, Ronni was an especially generous sponsor for my own “From the Ruby Lounge” production a while back.)

I bring her up because few months ago, in an interview with Oregon ArtsWatch, Ronni observed that it’s actually the smaller theatre companies that are in a better position to adapt to life during and after the COVID-19 shutdown. Her logic goes that the bigger companies have so much more contracts, scheduling, and money involved, all of which have to run like clockwork or little problems cascade into bigger ones. By comparison, smaller theatre companies are used to running on a hand-to-mouth basis, raising money and putting on shows whenever and wherever they’re able, so they’ve got a lot more flexibility.

I’m seeing something like that in cinema as well.

It’s the bigger studios that seem to be struggling with life in a pandemic world, either delaying their huge tentpole releases indefinitely or trying to figure out advertising and distribution via streaming. The bigger studios and multiplex chains are scrambling to figure out how to reopen the theaters safely, not to mention the self-defeating dustups over how to implement streaming on a broader scale in a mutually beneficial way without completely upturning the film industry as we know it. Hell, that’s not even getting started on the multitude of unions in Hollywood — I’m sure they’ve all got something to say about this. To say nothing about the Oscars and what all those elaborate awards ceremonies will look like for this year.

All of this squabbling, all of this indecision, and millions of dollars are being lost with every day this drags on. But indie filmmakers don’t have this problem.

This pandemic has proven to be a windfall for independent filmmakers who’ve never had hundreds of millions of dollars to lose. Filmmakers who were struggling to get their pictures up on the big screen at the best of times, many of whom have been resorting to online streaming and social media word-of-mouth for years. Filmmakers who’ve always had to be crafty and flexible because they can’t throw money and manpower at any problem (except a worldwide pandemic) like the big studios can.

So here’s Phoenix, Oregon, a film set in the namesake town just north of the California border. Though it was actually shot in Klamath Falls, roughly 72 miles away, presumably on a budget within six or seven figures. You probably haven’t heard of this movie — to date, it’s only grossed $23,613 worldwide on 33 theaters. Yet because the film hit theaters right when the pandemic lockdown started, this meager success was enough to put it right at the top of the box office charts, fluctuating between #1 and #2 for four weeks straight.

Thus the filmmakers took the movie online and now it’s available for streaming. Let’s see what we’ve got, shall we?

The film opens with Bobby, played by James Le Gros. He’s living alone in a trailer home, moping around because it’s his birthday, he’s feeling his age, and his boss (Kyle, played by Diedrich Bader) is a bully who’s aggressively running his employees and his business into the ground. Oh, and Bobby’s fawning over Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), a liquor dealer with a complicated relationship of her own (Mario, played by Reynaldo Gallegos), even as Bobby is still holding a torch for the ex-wife who got away.

And I’m watching this at a time when our streets are erupting with racial protests and we’re all at risk of dying from a contagious pandemic. This really isn’t the best time for the subject matter, is what I’m saying. In fact, movies about the ennui of an aging straight white everyman haven’t been relevant since… what, American Beauty in 1999?

After the cavalcade of political shakeups, economic disasters, global crises, and cultural revolutions from 9/11 onwards, we’ve all got bigger problems to deal with. I’m sorry, but we’ve already got a metric ton of stories about middle-class white men suffering from the privilege of growing old — right now, we’re dealing with people of color and LGBTQ individuals getting killed in their youth, a far more relevant problem that we still haven’t discussed or portrayed nearly enough.

To be entirely fair, Bobby is clearly living in poverty and he’s getting screwed over by his well-to-do boss. Who among us can’t relate to that? It’s also plainly visible that his ambitions never came to pass, his life’s dream of being an artist completely fell apart despite all his best efforts, and he’s looking at a life of wasted potential. That’s an inherently sympathetic position to be in. Then again, the guy’s an aspiring artist trying to sell an autobiographical graphic novel — little wonder it hasn’t sold.

Anyway, the plot kicks into gear with Bobby’s longtime best friend (Carlos, played by Jesse Borrego), who’s been saving up his money to buy an abandoned bowling alley. With nothing left to lose, Bobby agrees to pitch in his life savings to become a part owner of the bowling alley, restoring the venue to the former glory of their high school days. Carlos runs the pizza kitchen while Bobby — a high school bowling champ — runs the bar and the bowling.

Potential catch: Mario (The quasi-boyfriend of the love interest, remember him?) is the third investor. Yeah, it turns out he’s a venture capitalist who came to Oregon to get an early foothold into the legal marijuana industry. Why he set up shop in southern Oregon instead of Portland, hell if I know. Anyway, he’s flush with cash from some billion-dollar weed investment (those are his figures, not mine), so now he’s got some extra money to throw toward this little pizzeria/bowling alley, with the understanding that he won’t be running the place in any official capacity.

Does anyone think it’s seriously going to be that easy? Especially when his quasi-girlfriend is the protagonist’s love interest? Didn’t think so.

Then there’s the matter of Al, played to the cheap seats by Kevin Corrigan. He’s the technician brought on board to renovate the lanes, the pin setters, the ball returns, and so on. It bears noting that Al is a technician with a highly particular specialty, purportedly the only one in the county who can work with these machines. And he’s played like a boorish asshole so our protagonist can have a bowling rival. There’s also a kind of irony — Bobby left his former job so he wouldn’t have to be employed by a domineering jerk, and now he has to deal with a domineering jerk of an employee.

(Side note: As someone who watched the first few seasons of “Fringe”, yes, I’m somewhat tickled to see Kevin Corrigan back in a bowling alley.)

The film and the bowling alley itself are perhaps most notable for their emphasis on small-town pride. The notion of a Portland-caliber venue in the boondocks of Southern Oregon is brushed off as laughable, but that’s exactly what these these characters are building together. Bobby explicitly forbids selling Budweiser products, procuring only the finest in locally sourced beverages. Carlos’ incredible pizzas are made with family recipes and home-grown ingredients.

Speaking of which, Carlos has a lovely development arc in which he has to learn how to accept compromise. His pizzas are amazing and his methods are top-notch, but they were never designed to work on this scale. He can’t bring himself to make any kind of substitutions, he won’t make pizzas in different sizes, he won’t freeze the dough for preservation, and training additional staff could take months. This is his art and he takes great pride in it, but he has to learn how to adapt if he’s going to keep making these pizzas and stay in business. I know it sounds cliched on paper, but it’s all delivered in a way that’s genuinely effective.

When the film is at its best, it shows a distinctly blue-collar sensibility that never comes off as phony or condescending. Rather, it comes off as a movie that speaks to and celebrates the 99 percent. It’s a movie specifically built to bring affordable joy to the masses, and it’s about a bowling alley built with the same goal in mind.

As someone wiser than I — Benny Binion, most likely — once said, “If you want to make money, make the little guy feel big.”

But then we get to the aliens. Not literal aliens, of course, the aliens that figure into Bobby’s graphic novel. See, Bobby has this idea that we’re all living in a simulation and all of life is preordained by the will of aliens who dick around with us for their amusement. Basically, the aliens are a metaphor for fate. I’m afraid I couldn’t take the concept anywhere near as seriously as Bobby does.

A much bigger problem is the Bobby/Al rivalry. To put it bluntly, I completely checked out every time Al came onscreen. I could never understand why Al would keep antagonizing the manager of a brand new bowling alley that could pay his bills for the foreseeable future if it does well. And it makes no sense why Bobby would challenge Al to a bowling match — the one guy in all the world who knows Bobby’s lanes and machinery better than he does. And Al is such a ridiculously heightened character that he doesn’t remotely fit in what’s otherwise a sweet and authentic movie.

Al is apparently the only bowling technician in the county, and Bobby’s place is apparently the new greatest bowling alley in the county. You’d think these two would at least be self-conscious enough to know that they need each other, so grow up and get along already.

Though to be fair, if I squint and tilt my head a little, I can see how this might feed into the overarching theme of nostalgia. Bobby constantly remarks about how this new bowling alley makes him forget about his midlife crisis and he feels like a teenager again. So if the goal is to make Al a stereotypical high school bully to Bobby’s everyman teenager, then mission accomplished, I guess.

Oh, and also: Never once do we ever see Bobby bowl anything less than a strike or a spare. That doesn’t exactly help the tension. He’s only bowled the one perfect game back in high school and he hasn’t bowled since? Yeah fucking right.

(Side note: For how much I absolutely hated Al, he got a line that deserves special recognition. “I can smell the turkey cooking.” Great double entendre there with bowling terminology and Corrigan delivers it beautifully. I love it.)

But then the climax happens. I won’t spoil exactly what happens, but major kudos to this movie for taking a bold step, because it pays off the major themes and arcs of the film with a serious gut punch. Wonderful.

Phoenix, Oregon starts out rough, but it sticks the landing in a big way. The acting is uneven, and the plot is rough in stretches, but there’s some genuine heart in here. And of course I appreciate the presence of so many prominent Latinx actors to spice up the boring old melancholy whiteness of our protagonist and his bullshit penny-ante bowling match. But even Bobby is bearable in those moments when he finally gets over himself and learns to have a good time.

You might have to stick with this one for a while, but you’ll probably find it a sweet, charming, intimate little picture if you give it half a chance. Definitely worth a $5 streaming rental.

Military Wives

Posted June 12, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Today’s entry was brought forth by the Portland Revels, the Portland chapter of an international organization that started in Boston. While I can’t speak to any of the other chapters, Portland Revels is known throughout the city for finding songs, dances, and traditions from Ye Olden times, bringing them to vivid life for a modern audience. It’s terribly hard to describe in mere words without coming off as stuffy and boring, because the experience is anything but. Their massive Christmas Revels show is an annual institution here in Portland, and going to their show last year made me rediscover the joy and magic of Christmas like I hadn’t known since I was a boy.

Alas, like many theatre companies nationwide, Portland Revels was hit hard by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. Enter Bleecker Street, the enterprising studio that’s previously distributed a wide variety of recent sleeper hits. Of their catalogue, I particularly recommend Eye in the Sky, Leave No Trace, and The Man Who Invented Christmas. You might already be familiar with their biggest hits, Logan Lucky, Captain Fantastic, and Trumbo.

And in these hardened times, Bleecker Street very graciously launched their Community Cinema program, in which various clubs, charities, and non-profits are given their own unique hyperlink to a movie in the Bleecker Street catalogue. Half of all rental fees made through that hyperlink go to the group in question. It’s a fantastic way of supporting a fine local charity and reviewing a new movie. So what’s on the ticket?

Military Wives. An “inspired by true events” movie in which a bunch of soldiers go to Afghanistan and their wives form an amateur choir. Yes, that is on-brand for the Portland Revels, a company that thrives on elaborate choral sequences with extensive audience participation.

Taking a closer look, the poster says right up top, “From the Director of The Full Monty.” It’s never a good sign when the advertisers have to reach back over twenty freaking years to find a movie in the director’s filmography that audiences might recognize. And I have to question the wisdom of calling attention to the male director of this clearly female-driven movie, associating a film about a military wives’ choir with a film about an all-nude male revue.

Also, I looked it up: Director Peter Cattaneo has indeed done a whole lot of nothing since 1997. Unless you’re a huge fan of The Rocker or Opal Dream, his IMDB page is a sad, sorry sight.

At least the film was written by two women, so that’s got to count for something, right? Well, the two women in question have virtually zero produced written works between them. Rachel Tunnard came up through the ranks editing short films until she finally made her writing/directing feature debut in 2016 with Adult Life Skills. Critics seemed to like it, and we’ll have to take their word because nobody saw it. Roseann Flynn has it even worse — her only other feature screenwriting credit (2017’s The Labyrinth) doesn’t even have a BoxOfficeMojo page! And apparently she earned her stripes as a researcher/production assistant/hell if I know.

I’m not gonna lie, folks — my expectations for this one were rock-bottom. I’ve passed on films that had more to work with than this. But it’s for a good cause and I’m stuck indoors anyway. Also, it’s technically a new release, since it made the festival rounds last year before making its wide debut in Europe right when the pandemic hit. So fuck it, what have we got?

Right off the bat, the film wastes no time in letting us know that this will primarily be set in Britain. Little wonder, as at least two-thirds of the writing/directing team (I couldn’t find confirmation for Flynn) is British. Still, given America’s central role in the ongoing Afghanistan invasion, it might be easy to see the poster and hear the premise and assume this will be some jingoistic pro-America “support the troops” propaganda. That’s not even remotely what we’re getting here, so there’s one less thing to worry about.

(Side note: Kristin Scott Thomas leads the cast, and it turns out she’s a British native as well. I’d totally forgotten that.)

The premise is pretty simple. Britain is sending its troops off to a tour in the Middle East, which means six months of families and wives without their loved ones. (The filmmakers include a lesbian couple in the mix, so kudos for inclusivity.) So, to keep up morale and engender solidarity, a particular garrison of the British Army arranges for the soldiers’ wives to meet regularly on an informal basis. Traditionally, these activities are coordinated by the RSM’s wife — that would be Lisa (Sharon Horgan), whose husband just got promoted.

However, the colonel’s wife (that would be Kate, played by Scott Thomas) volunteers to come aboard in an advisory capacity. Speculation abounds that given her husband’s departure and her son’s recent death in overseas action, Kate may be looking for something to keep her occupied. Even so, given that the colonel’s wife isn’t typically a part of these gatherings, it becomes obvious very quickly that this isn’t her usual crowd. She’s used to formal upper-class entertainment while the rest of the wives are blue-collar women more interested in lowbrow escapism (read: getting drunk). Moreover, Kate is an old hand at deployment, married for two or three decades to a colonel with multiple tours under his belt, and she’s talking to the young wives of privates and sergeants.

Awkwardness ensues, as Kate tries to introduce new ideas while the rest of the wives stick to what they already know. Long story short, Sarah (Amy James-Kelly) suggests the idea of singing and we’re off to the races.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning another film about women trying to keep themselves and others entertained in time of war: A League of Their Own. Except that movie had the charm and comedy of Tom Hanks in his prime, the sex appeal of Madonna in her prime, the snark of Rosie O’Donnell in her prime, and the tenacity of Geena Davis in her prime. It also had the inherently competitive sport of baseball to provide some conflict, in addition to tension provided by the huge corporation that could shut the whole thing down at any time to protect their investment, not to mention the oppressive gender politics of the day and the constant sibling rivalry between Davis’ character and that of Lori Petty.

This movie has none of that. It doesn’t even have anything remotely comparable. So basically, take A League of Their Own, take out everything that made it good, and that’s this movie.

…Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair.

The most obvious difference is this film’s focus on music, and that’s easily the movie’s strongest point. At its best, this is a movie about how different genres of music can mean different things to different people, yet it still has the incredible power to bring us together. Music can be fun, it can be personal, it can be bubblegum entertainment, it can be a profound artistic statement, it can be whatever emotional or creative outlet we need it to be.

That said, it’s also a story about a group of women with no previous musical training, and they’re learning how to form a choir. This naturally means they suck hard until they’re finally good, so I hope you think tone-deaf wailing and pitch-mute warbling are the height of comedy. (Hey, people liked Florence Foster Jenkins, so I guess there’s a market for that.)

More importantly, there’s the matter of how to introduce stakes into the plot, especially against the backdrop of the far more interesting story happening simultaneously in the Middle East. On a similar note, how are the filmmakers going to make us care about these characters? Yes, it’s inherently sympathetic that they’re alone and uncertain as to when or if their loved ones are coming back from war, but I’m sorry, that’s not enough to sustain a two-hour movie.

The obvious answer is to make this a story about how all these women will come together to function as a cohesive whole. This might have worked if any of the women had any serious differences or obstacles to overcome. But no, everyone wants them to succeed, and all the tools they need for success are readily available. The women themselves have merely superficial differences — more like quirks, really — completely and totally eclipsed by their shared position as military wives and their mutual need for this to work.

The best this movie has is the push/pull relationship between Kate and Lisa as the plot’s main thrust. Kate is the domineering workaholic who wants to keep everyone involved and distracted, while Lisa is more interested in keeping it casual and low-stress. Yes, Kate is right that the women need something to think about except Afghanistan, but Lisa may be right that giving these women more responsibility on top of that — whether they like it or not — may not be the answer either.

And again, there’s the class disparity that comes into play here. Kate wants to bring the other wives up to her level, but Lisa is actually on their level. Kate doesn’t know how to talk with them or work with them, not like Lisa does. The two of them need each other, so it’s a blessing the chemistry between Scott Thomas and Horgan is strong enough to carry the dynamic. It’s genuinely funny when they take the piss out of each other, and heartwarming when they lift each other up.

Which makes it all the more painfully, pathetically obvious when the relationship gets kneecapped and body-slammed to suit the needs of the plot. The most obvious example is that turn into the third act, when Kate and Lisa are at each other’s throats for no better reason than because we’ve got to cram a climax into this picture somehow. And of course it’s still not enough to fool anyone into thinking — even for a second — that all of this won’t result in the happiest of all possible endings.

And then of course we have the thematic angle. Kate goes on and on about distraction, repeatedly talking about how the wives need something to distract from their anxiety and sadness. But what if they don’t? Maybe sometimes it’s better to accept the pain and embrace it, especially if they’ve got friends to sympathize and share the pain with. And maybe sometimes, they just need to scream out their feelings through the inherently cathartic power of music.

And then of course we have Lisa’s line at the halfway point that ties it all together: “Maybe this choir isn’t about singing for ourselves. Maybe it’s for them being heard.” That’s about as deep and thoughtful as the dialogue ever gets.

I’ve seen paper airplanes more complex, inventive, and functional than this plot, and the characters are just as thin. There’s no tension, precious little creativity, and nobody behind the camera is even pretending to do more than the bare minimum. Yet the cast is full of charismatic actors who are all having a blast, and they’re trying so damned hard to sell the themes and ideas here. Plus, even if it’s a cheap and lazy tactic to play on our shared cultural love of music, the trick is undeniably effective. It’s certainly not a great movie and I’d argue it’s not even a good one, but it’s totally and completely harmless.

For better or worse, the pandemic was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to Military Wives. This movie was not built for the big screen, and it’s not worth a big screen ticket price. It sure as hell isn’t worth buying the DVD. This is a fluffy bit of cinematic comfort food to enjoy at home at your own pace, retreating from the unfolding apocalypse outside, and then promptly forget about. So, five bucks for a streaming rental sounds about right.

And if you’d rent it through this link — from this writing until June 25th, 2020 — so the Portland Revels can make a couple dollars, I’d take it as a personal favor.


Posted June 6, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

I had a totally different movie queued up for today, folks. I won’t say exactly which one, because it looks pretty interesting and I’d very much like to review it soon. But when I went to the website, ready to order a rental, I looked at the sea of white faces in the cast and I just couldn’t do it.

As I type this, the nation is tearing itself apart over grief for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two of the latest in a long, LONG line of African-Americans gunned down by police brutality. Floyd was murdered by police in broad daylight because of a counterfeit $20 bill that might well have gotten into his hands by accident. Taylor was murdered in her home, minding her own business, over a no-knock warrant pertaining to a suspect who was already in custody.

Granted, some of the police officers involved have been fired and/or arrested, with trials and investigations still ongoing. Meanwhile, reports are coming in from all over the nation with regards to American citizens getting tear-gassed and viciously beaten while peacefully protesting. An especially notorious case involves police officers in Buffalo who shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground, barely even breaking stride as blood poured from the victim’s head.

Of course there are some bad actors in the protests. I’ve seen footage of property damage and looting during all this, and that should rightfully be condemned. But I can also point to LAPD Chief Michael Moore, who infamously stated “Last night, just under 700 arrests. Of that, just under 70 were for looting and burglarizing.” Which means that ten percent of those arrests were used to justify the other 90 percent who were peacefully protesting. That’s inexcusable. And saying that like it’s something to be proud of is sickening.

What’s even worse is that we’ve been here before too many times in the past decade, long before the current administration. Here’s a list of sixteen people of color killed on the street by police officers, starting with Dontre Hamilton in April of 2014… and ending with Freddie Gray in April of 2015. Sixteen cases in one year, and that list has only grown exponentially longer in the five years since.

Cue the protest, the protesters are all grouped in with violent thugs and terrorists, they get shouted down in a cloud of tear gas, nothing happens, rinse and repeat. We’ve seen this happen repeatedly over the past few years, and we should know damn well by now that it’ll keep happening until something changes on a fundamental nationwide level.

Then came the COVID-19 lockdowns, resulting in a bunch of white people storming state capitols to demand the end of shelter-in-place orders. I don’t remember any reports of the National Guard getting called in to break those up.

Right now, in literally every state in the union, millions of American citizens are risking tear gas, bodily harm, and legal trouble — to say nothing of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — to demand systemic change and police accountability. Many good friends of mine are marching downtown every night, livestreaming on Facebook to hold police accountable and let everyone else know that they’re safe.

This is a time when people of color and their allies are screaming as loud as they can, literally putting their lives on the line to demand recognition that Black Lives Matter. These protesters are putting their own health at risk, facing violence and persecution, all to lift up the voices of those who’ve been silenced (and/or killed) because of their color, demanding that action FINALLY be taken before another life is taken over nothing at all.

And I’m going to sit here, using my platform to talk about a movie made by a bunch of white people? No way. Not right now. There’s got to be something else.

After a bit of searching, I found Clemency, a film that made the festival rounds last year and saw limited release near the start of 2020. It’s a film about the death penalty, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu (a black woman) and Alfre Woodard stars.

Sounds perfect. Let’s do this.

Right off the bat, it’s perhaps worth bringing up Just Mercy, a movie from last year about a similar subject matter. Yet it was also a movie that cut away right when the execution was actually carried out. Compare that to this movie, in which the capital punishment is clearly shown in graphic detail.

We see the protests happening outside, hearing them echo through the warden’s office. There are close-up shots of the condemned’s face as he’s getting strapped down. We see the paramedic as he tries and fails numerous times to find a suitable vein. We see the chemicals coursing through the medical tubing on their way to the needle. We even hear the condemned’s heart pounding away on the EKG.

We see the condemned thrashing and coughing in agony through a bloody botched execution, until he finally dies. And we’re only ten minutes in, before the title credits have rolled. Give it to the filmmakers, they let you know early and in no uncertain terms that they’re not fucking around.

The condemned in question is Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), and his botched execution just caused a world of pain for the prison warden (Bernadine Williams, played by Alfre Woodard). For one thing, she’s struggling with the trauma of a man dying a horribly painful death right in front of her. For another, there’s the matter of the legal and bureaucratic blowback, as everyone from the State Attorney General on down wants to know why the execution was botched.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the next execution scheduled to happen in a short time: That of Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), convicted of killing a police officer fifteen years ago, and his last shot at appeal fell through. However, given the previous botched execution and certain ambiguities regarding the crime in question, there’s still that potentially treacherous bit of hope that the execution might be stayed.

Oh, and Woods’ mother just passed away, so there’s that to deal with.

The main thrust of the film concerns the multiple contradictions inherent in Bernadine’s job. She repeatedly insists that she treats her prisoners with dignity and respect, even as she keeps them cooped up in prison cells and ushers a few of them (twelve, at last count) to their deaths. She has to maintain a stoic and impersonal demeanor with her prisoners and her staff — in addition to various lawyers, activists, journalists, politicians, etc. — thus keeping her emotions behind an airtight and possibly harmful partition.

In many ways, this is emblematic of the greater contradiction inherent in the death penalty. We claim to be a civilized people, yet we still sentence our own to death. We uphold the illusion that capital punishment — especially by lethal injection — is quick and painless, except that it very clearly isn’t in every single case. How is it possible to kill a human being in a humane way? How do we reconcile our self-image as an upstanding and compassionate society, even with all the blood on our hands?

In Bernadine’s case, she finds a great deal of comfort in her loving husband (Jonathan Williams, played by Wendell Pierce), but the strain on their marriage shows that he can only do so much. She still has insomnia as a result of night terrors. She still goes out drinking every night. And if all else fails, she can always fall back on the tried and true Nuremberg Defense, saying that she’s just doing her job and she’s doing it damn well.

Then there’s the matter of Woods’ attorney (Marty, played by Richard Schiff). We learn early on that Marty has made the choice to retire, and Woods will be his last client. After all, he’s been doing this for 30 years, there’s a new and more tech-savvy generation of lawyers, and he’s done losing his clients to the death penalty. (To say nothing of all the activists protesting the death penalty — I’m sure he’s disappointed them just as many times.) This is only one of many ways in which Bernadine is faced with the possibility that maybe she’s been in this game for too long. More importantly, there’s the possibility that this job is actively harming her and stepping away could do her a lot of good.

Then again, maybe “retiring” means “giving up hope that things will get better”. Moreover, who or what is Bernadine without her job? Who might step in to do the job in her place? Maybe it’ll be someone with less compassion for the prisoners. Which brings us right back to the question of how it’s even possible to be compassionate to humans while keeping them in sub-human conditions.

“But what about the racial aspect?” I kept asking. Well, it’s definitely there, but it’s subtle. Roughly an hour in, there’s a sequence in which Jonathan (he’s a high school teacher, by the way) is reciting Ralph Ellison to his students. And while we’re hearing Wendell Pierce’s baritone talk about the plight of the subjugated black man in metaphorical poetry, we’re treated to extreme close-ups of his students, all of whom are people of color. It gets the point across, but the film could have and probably should have gone into more pointed detail about how the death penalty is disproportionately leveled against people of color.

Yet for better or worse, it’s obvious that the filmmakers weren’t really interested in making any kind of overt political or racial statement. Rather, this film is laser-focused on the deep-seated personal trauma caused by the death penalty. The psychological toll that it takes on the prison staff, the condemned, their families, and so on. Thus by making an explicit statement on a personal level, the film makes an implicit statement on a wider cultural level; not unlike how most war movies talk about the greater horrors of war by focusing on the hellish trials of individual soldiers. That’s actually pretty clever.

This is most plainly obvious in the pacing. It might be described as “slow”, as there are several minutes that might have been shaved off with no harm done. Though honestly, I think “unflinching” might be the better adjective. As with that opening execution scene, the filmmakers make every deliberate effort to put us in the characters’ headspaces.

My personal favorite example comes roughly fifty minutes in — it’s an extended and extreme close-up shot of Woods’ face. We hear Bernadine talking about the last meal, asking if maybe Woods might want seafood, halal, steak and lobster, anything he might want. And the extreme close-up shot makes it perfectly clear that Woods himself is totally checked out. The message is clear: “You’re trying to cheer me up with food before you kill me? Fucking seriously?”

It’s total bullshit how we make all these superficial gestures to comfort the condemned, all of which are really more for our benefit than for theirs. Yet there’s one gesture that matters more than all the others, and may in fact be the one genuine source of comfort: The right to be seen and heard. The knowledge that they are not alone. For whatever it’s worth, the world will know that Anthony Woods existed. People are fighting for him, and people love him. Even if it’s only in his final moments, and even if everyone moves on soon afterward, the world is watching Woods and listening to his every word. That’s more than most of us may ever get.

Clemency makes a fascinating counterpart with Just Mercy. While the latter film was far more overt in its political and racial messages, it was also clearly made as an awards-bait film, wrapped in a friendly package nicely acceptable to Academy voters and mainstream audiences. By contrast, Clemency offers no easy answers. It takes bolder risks and dives deeper into the mindsets of more complicated and nuanced characters. Not only does this allow for the talented cast to turn in more dynamic and compelling performances, but it also shows a side of the death penalty that isn’t often seen or considered in the news or in cinema.

It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s certainly a timely and maybe even necessary film to watch. I’d recommend it, especially in conjunction with Just Mercy. In addition to Blindspotting and The Hate U Give, two of the most tragically underrated, underseen, and underappreciated films about police brutality made in recent memory.

Additionally, if you can’t go to any of the protests for fear of personal safety (trust me, I’m right there with you), then I hope you at least donate to one of the many bail funds and charities that advocate for people of color. (I personally recommend the Center for Community Change, though you can’t go wrong with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, or Equal Justice Initiative either.) If times are lean and you don’t have the money to give, call your elected representatives and their opponents in the upcoming election.

Right now, in an election year when it feels like the world is on fire, caught between a ruthless pandemic and a government gone mad, we need each other like never before. People of color and the poorest among us — and the overlap between those two groups is unacceptably massive — have always been at the greatest risk and now they need our help more than ever. Silence and the status quo are no longer tolerable, and the next five months are the perfect time to change the world on a massive scale. So as long as you’ve got a voice, make it heard by any means necessary. And as long as you’ve got loved ones, stay healthy and be good to them, for your sake and theirs.

All lives can’t matter until #BlackLivesMatter.

Blood Quantum

Posted June 2, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

So. It looks like this pandemic has been going on for a bit longer than I expected back when the shutdown started and I decided to step away from the blog. I know it’s been a while and I hope this finds you well.

For my part, I’ve been doing relatively well. As of this writing, my home state of Oregon has only seen 157 of the 104,000+ COVID-related deaths in the USA so far. I’ve been working from home until I was finally furloughed this week — it’s lucky I’ve been sitting on a mountain of PTO and I need the week off anyway, so I’ll be fine.

My pirate metal musical — “The Jolly Riot”, set to remount this summer with original songs — has been pushed back to next year, but that didn’t stop me from writing a sequel to it while in quarantine. I’ve also completed a one-act play and numerous short works for The Pulp Stage — tune in to their Facebook page on Thursday nights and you just might hear one of mine. Oh, and I also produced a live online reading of my Shakespearean adaptation of The Princess Bride, that was fun.

Meanwhile, in the world of movies, this is the first time in recorded history when box office grosses have been exactly zero dollars. Many blockbuster films have been delayed, though some others have been released online. An especially famous case was Trolls: World Tour, which saw such massive success that Universal decided to permanently incorporate streaming into its business model. To which AMC responded by cutting off its nose to spite its face.

In addition to the Trolls sequel, I’ve seen Emma, Bloodshot, Scoob! and others hit various streaming platforms over the past few months. Why didn’t I review them? Because Amazon was charging $20 apiece to rent them. Roughly twice the cost of a movie ticket, almost enough to buy the Blu-Ray outright, just to stream a movie on my laptop for three days. Fuck that noise.

But in light of the Pandemic Year and certain racial tensions that have flared up recently, one film came onto my radar that I simply had to address. And all it cost was a 7-day free trial on Shudder. So let’s take a look at Blood Quantum, shall we?

What we’ve got here is a pretty standard zombie flick, with two very important twists. First is that the film takes place in 1981, so this is quite definitely a world without cell phones, the internet, digital media, etc. The second quirk is by far the most important: For whatever reason (very likely some genetic quirk), the residents of the Red Crow reservation are immune to the plague. They can still be eaten, injured, and killed by zombies, but they can’t be infected.

In most zombie/horror/slasher flicks, the token person of color would be a supporting role if that. Hell, movies of any genre that feature Native Americans in any kind of significant role are few and far between. Yet here we are with a film that boasts a solidly Native American cast, led by writer/director/editor/co-composer Jeff Barnaby of the Mi’kmaq tribe. This should be interesting.

Our protagonist is Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), sheriff of the Red Crow Police who’s seen a recent uptick in violent crime and dead animals springing back to life. His ex-wife is Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a nurse who’s dealing with a sudden shortage in tetanus medication. His son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) is an imbecile juvenile delinquent, and he’s expecting a baby with his white girlfriend (Charlie, played by Olivia Scriven). Traylor’s other son from a different mother (inexplicably nicknamed “Lysol”, played by Kiowa Gordon) is a more belligerent asshole who frequently joins his little half-brother in the local drunk tank. And then of course we have Traylor’s father (Gisigu, played by Stonehorse Lone Goeman), the tough old fisherman who first spotted all the weird shit going down.

When the first act is done establishing our characters and the zombie plague, we jump ahead six months to when the apocalypse is in full effect. The whole world is overrun with zombies and (so far as anyone knows), the Red Crow reservation is the one last oasis free of the virus. So of course all the paranoid white people flood to the reservation begging for help, without even the faintest hint of irony.

What we’ve got here is a case of racial disparity getting turned upside down. After so many hundreds of years, it’s white people who are completely at the mercy of the First People. The people of the Red Crow set the rules, they determine who to help, and they don’t have to speak a word of English no matter who demands it.

Yes, it’s generally understood that the Red Crow have rules and precautions in place for the sake of everyone’s survival. Even so, white people really have no idea how persistent and addictive white privilege is until they don’t have it anymore. Of course the white plague survivors are testy about being on the inferior end of racial disparity, deprived of the inherent power they and their ascendants have had since birth. This is especially true of the survivors that are hiding zombie bites — why follow the rules if it’ll get them killed?

On the other side, the Red Crow have several generations’ worth of anger to work out. While some are altruistic and genuinely want to help people, we see a few others who relish this opportunity to make the white man beg for mercy. Again, this kind of power is insidious and toxic, and this scenario puts it in the hands of people who aren’t used to having it. Then again, if white people wanted to smuggle in a dormant virus so an unsuspecting Native American tribe might get wiped out from the inside… well, it wouldn’t exactly be the first time that’s happened.

Then there’s the matter of Joseph and his pregnant white girlfriend. Obviously, there’s the burning question of whether the child will inherit the father’s immunity, or even if the child will be infected at birth. Perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that this child will be the product of a teenage pregnancy, with an idiot father who routinely gets drunk and does stupid shit I don’t dare spoil here.

The point being that this could be the very first child born into a post-zombie world, and there’s no telling how many — or how few — may follow. Are these really the best people to repopulate the planet? Given how deeply flawed all these characters are, and given how fucked up this post-apocalyptic planet is, what kind of world could they possibly leave behind for their children? What kind of world could their children possibly go on to build?

Oh, and did I mention that all of these people are stuck within the same walls while the world is crumbling around them? Because of course that’s going to lead to some tempers boiling over.

With all of that said, I know what you must be wondering: Do we ever see a zombie getting its head split open with a chainsaw? You bet your ass. After six months of hunting zombies and collecting scarred zombie bites, these characters have gotten it down to a fine art. We’re not exactly talking Zombieland levels of clever and intricate kills, but it’s definitely in the same class. We’ve got all the gory fun and body horror you’d expect from the genre, with neatly creative use of blades and bullets.

Of course, it also helps that the filmmakers are sparing and strategic in their placement of scares, placing them for maximum impact while also cutting down on the effects budget. It’s deeply impressive how the filmmakers use their resources, shooting and cutting and placing the action such that every single shot goes a long way.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, there are some scenes that go on a touch too long, and the padding sticks out in an otherwise sprightly 96-minute film. I could also point to a few brief animated segments that completely lost me.

Still, my most prominent nitpicks are with the performances. Not that they’re bad by any means — all of the performances are at least on par with what you might expect from a no-name cast in an indie zombie movie. Still, I found the performances to be sadly uneven in places. A fine case in point is Michael Greyeyes, who seems to be floundering for want of direction until things kick into gear in the second act and he’s all aces from there.

Kiowa Gordon has the opposite problem. His character worked well enough at first, but his turn into an archvillain just didn’t work for me. I get what they were trying to do with the character, but the development arc was too rushed and Gordon couldn’t sell it.

Overall, Blood Quantum works perfectly well as a gory and scary horror movie with a neat race-intensive twist. It’s straightforward enough to deliver all the tried-and-true zombie thrills you know and love, but clever enough in its kills and commentary to deliver something extra. It’s genuinely impressive how the racial commentary is prominent enough to register without distracting from the blood and combat, such that neither gets monotonous or boring.

This one is absolutely worth a recommendation. Definitely check it out.


Posted March 8, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Back in 2009, Bob Peterson and Peter Sohn came up with the idea of an alternate history in which the dinosaurs never went extinct. The film was set for release in 2012, and interviews from the time show that the filmmakers had a keen interest in exploring stereotypes through dinosaurs, asking what dinosaurs represent in the 21st century. Long story short, the film went through a myriad of revisions and delays until The Good Dinosaur finally saw release in November 2015. It is the only undisputed box office bomb in the otherwise legendary canon of Pixar, an uninspired snoozefest with barely a hint of the modern alternate history premise.

So here’s Onward, in which Pixar takes another crack at the “alternate history” conceit to more successful — though still shaky — results.

Our film is set on a world with two moons and no humans, so it’s immediately obvious that we’re not dealing with Earth. Though it is a world populated by elves, manticores, pixies, ogres, centaurs, and other creatures recognizable in European fairy tales. More importantly, it’s a world of magic, in which wizards were on hand to help with everyone’s problems.

Until somebody discovered electricity. And that turned out to be so much easier. Thus technology advanced and the world became more recognizably modern, while obsolete magic faded into history.

Our plot begins with the elven Lightfoot family, with the younger son (Ian, voiced by Tom Holland) serving as our protagonist. He’s hopelessly awkward and endlessly paranoid, as capably demonstrated in a sequence in which he tries and fails to not be so awkward and paranoid. It’s really quite endearing in execution.

His older brother is Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt. This is the kind of guy who rushes into everything, all heart without much of the way of brainpower. Moreover, he’s a fanboy for the olden days, with a strong passion for a “historically accurate” tabletop game called “Quests of Yore”.

As their mother (Laurel, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) says at one point, Ian is afraid of everything and Barley is afraid of nothing. The perfect recipe for a buddy road comedy.

Anyway, the boys’ father died a long time ago of the dreaded Disney Parent Flu. Barley only has three or four distant half-forgotten memories of his father, and Ian’s got nothing but a metric ton of daddy issues. Then Ian’s 16th birthday rolls around, and Laurel brings out a package that the elder Lightfoot left behind for his two sons.

The package turns out to be a wizard’s staff, an extremely rare Phoenix Gem, and a spell of the Lightfoot patriarch’s invention. What does the spell do? It brings Papa Lightfoot back to life for 24 hours. Yes, seriously.

Long story short, the spell goes awry and the Lightfoot father has only materialized from the waist down. Thus Ian and Barley have 24 hours to find another Phoenix Gem and fix the spell before their dad fades back to the afterlife for good.

I have so many questions.

First of all, it’s clearly and plainly established that the elder Lightfoot was not a wizard, but merely an accountant who dabbled in magic. It’s likewise established that magic has been obsolete for centuries at least. So how the hell did he get a functioning wizard’s staff? How did he ever get something so impossibly rare and fragile as a Phoenix Gem? How the high holy fuck did he invent a spell that brings someone back to freaking life?! None of this is ever explained.

It’s established that every quest has to begin at the Manticore’s Tavern, and the Manticore herself (voiced with aplomb by Octavia Spencer) is the would-be oracle who tells our heroes where to find the thing they’re questing for. Who or what put the Manticore in charge of this is anyone’s guess. And then of course we get to the back half of the film, in which Ian and Barley have to survive an elaborate gauntlet on their way to the terrible curse that guards the Phoenix Gem. Who built this gauntlet? Who put the curse there? Why was any of this put in place? Never explained.

It’s clearly established that magic is difficult to master, yet Ian is somehow such a natural that he’s able to go from novice to professional in 24 hours. Moreover, it’s established that all of this monsters and magic stuff is settled history in this universe, yet for whatever reason, none of it is apparently taught in school. Thus it’s the board game fanatic who’s the expert on all this lore, while the withdrawn studious bookworm knows none of it.

To be entirely fair, the movie is such a love letter to high fantasy that of course the filmmakers had to find some way for the D&D fan to save the day. And of course high fantasy has always been full of arbitrary rules and contrived shortcuts, going all the way back to goddamn Greek mythology at least. But it’s frustrating that the plot and premise are full of so many holes when Pixar is otherwise phenomenal at world-building. So much love and attention has been packed into every last detail of the setting, it’s disappointing to see the plot held together with limp hand-waving.

This brings me to the central conceit of the past clashing with the present. Old temples getting cleared away to make room for new homes. Pixies and manticores who don’t need to fly, because cars and airplanes will serve just fine. This is genuinely fascinating stuff, and virtually nothing is done with it after the halfway point.

Instead, Pixar falls back on their tried-and-true family themes. Loss, grief, cooperation, forgiveness… these and other related themes are well-worn ground for Pixar. But hey, they do it like nobody else and it works beautifully.

Likewise, all the voice actors here are playing well within their respective wheelhouses, and they all turn in solid work. The central relationship between Ian and Barley is rock-solid, with fantastic chemistry between Holland and Pratt. Of course, it helps to have a disembodied pair of legs as a moderating influence between them, and the work done to make a pair of legs into such an expressive character is deeply inspired.

(Side note: To address the cyclops voiced by Lena Waithe, she’s only really present in one scene and her sexuality is only referred to in a throwaway line. Hollywood really needs to cut that shit out — either go for accurate representation or don’t, but quit begging for praise over half-measures.)

The animation and the comedy are all of Pixar’s typical high standard. The action is entertaining enough. But more than all of that, I was impressed with how the filmmakers employed setups and payoffs in genuinely clever ways. For every predictable plot turn, there were at least two or three remarkable curveballs. For a film that leans so heavily on standard fantasy conventions and follows the Monomyth to a T, that means a lot.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the short film that precedes this one. Taking full advantage of Disney’s recent acquisition, “Playdate with Destiny” is a romance parody starring Maggie Simpson. A convenient way to produce a Simpsons cartoon without paying any of the voice actors. Romantic parodies have been done to death and “The Simpsons” is far more iconic for its dialogue than its visual humor, so the short is definitely more forgettable than bad.)

Onward averages out to an okay film, though an “okay” film by Pixar standards is something else entirely. It’s certainly enjoyable enough, considering that everyone involved is doing what they do best. That said, it’s depressing how the basic fantasy-versus-modernity clash is all but completely abandoned halfway through, and the basic foundations of the plot are riddled with holes. The fine strokes are all so beautiful, it’s frustrating how the broader strokes got botched like this.

The movie doesn’t live up to its promises of delivering anything new, but it does the old stuff really well. It’s worth a look.

The Invisible Man (2020)

Posted March 2, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve already spilled a lot of ink on the subject of the Dark Universe fiasco. And I’m probably going to say a lot more about it, because it can’t possibly be overstated what a costly and embarrassing self-inflicted black eye that superfranchise investment was. Especially since it happened when the execs at Universal still hadn’t completely lived down the disaster of Van Helsing.

The execs at Universal have been pathetically desperate in trying to make their Movie Monster lineup relevant again, ever since Stephen Sommers found improbable success with the two Mummy films made twenty freaking years ago. And right from the jump, The Invisible Man (2020) shows conspicuous signals that the PTB may have finally — FINALLY — learned some valuable lessons.

To start with, they took Johnny Depp off the project. Yeah, for those who don’t remember, Universal was extremely proud of the fact that they had hired one of the most expensive, controversial, and increasingly unstable movie stars in Hollywood to play the goddamn Invisible Man. A character that — by definition! — meant that Depp would’ve collected a massive payday with top billing while barely spending any time onscreen or on set. This is the kind of sensible thinking that made the Dark Universe such an industry laughingstock.

Second, Universal co-produced the film with Blumhouse. That sends all sorts of messages, because billion-dollar tentpole blockbusters are not in the Blumhouse business model. This is the company that built an empire on horror movies that don’t typically gross much, but turn a profit because they’re made for even less.

Add all that to the fact that this is an R-rated movie with a release date right on the cusp of March — a month increasingly reserved for more experimental releases. All of this sends the clear message that Universal is done trying to make their movie monsters into four-quadrant crowd pleasers. No way is Universal trying to position this as the start of another MCU knockoff — hell, it’s an open question as to whether this movie can even sustain its own franchise, much less a superfranchise.

But perhaps most importantly of all, Universal apparently (read: hopefully) decided to take the bold step of making their Movie Monsters relevant by liberally adapting them to reflect modern fears. I know. What a concept.

In this latest iteration, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a wealthy scientific genius who might charitably be called “eccentric”, though perhaps “narcissistic sociopath” would be more accurate. But here’s the kicker: He’s not the protagonist. That would be his wife (Cecilia, played by Elizabeth Moss), who finally takes the step of leaving her abusive marriage, sneaking out in the dead of night for fear of what her asshole husband might do to her. He smashes a car window with his bare hands while chasing after her, by the way.

Cut to two weeks later. The good news is, Cecilia has found a temporary home with a police officer and his daughter (James and Sydney, respectively played by Aldis Hodge and Storm Reid). They might’ve been old friends, or maybe Cecilia met them through her sister — it’s unclear, I’m disappointed to say. Anyway, the bad news is that Cecilia is a paranoid wreck. She won’t leave the house, she’s terrified of any online technology, and she visibly jumps when anyone comes to the door. She doesn’t even want any friends or family coming by, for fear that Adrian could follow them to find her.

Then the news comes in that Adrian is dead.

The details are unclear, but we’re told for a certainty that Adrian Griffin is dead and cremated, and he’s left Cecilia $5 million in his will. On the condition that she can’t be charged with any crime, she can’t be ruled to be mentally incompetent, and so on. This is roughly the point when weird shit starts happening, and Cecilia has to convince everyone that Adrian’s still alive and messing with her and no she’s not just being paranoid.

I mean, it’s right there in the title. Even if we don’t know exactly how Adrian faked his death or turned himself invisible, we know what’s going on here. The question is whether Cecilia can figure it out in time and convince everyone else that it’s not just her trauma playing head games.

This movie comes to us from writer/director Leigh Wannell. That’s the same guy who made his name as a co-creator of the Saw franchise before making his directorial debut on the excellent and sadly underappreciated Upgrade. (A $16 million worldwide gross against a reported $3 million budget. Welcome to Blumhouse.) Having seen both of his movies so far, I’m here to tell you that for a horror filmmaker, he’s a hell of an action filmmaker.

Consider that we’re talking about fight scenes with an invisible man. I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to stage that without coming off as some hokey bullshit that looks like the characters swiping at thin air or fighting with themselves. But then, thank God I’m not Leigh Whannell, because the fight scenes are phenomenal across the board. The effects are flawless, the camera moves are inspired, and the unseen assailant adds a superb layer of suspense. Of course it also helps that Whannell leans hard into the R-rating, delivering palpable blows and shots that really fucking hurt.

But then there’s the horror aspect. I don’t want to say it’s bad, necessarily — there are a lot of good scares and shocks in here, most especially when the film lulls us into a false sense of security and the Invisible Man strikes out of nowhere. But those all come later in the movie.

Early on, when the audience is still waiting for the Invisible Man to arrive already, the filmmakers use musical cues to let us know that he’s there. In theory, not a bad idea. In practice, the score is laughably overblown in the mix. The whole score is so aggressive and so simple that it badly damages all efforts at horror.

What compensates for all of that is the very nature of the beast. For all his faults, Adrian is way, way smarter than everybody else in the movie. He’s cunning, he’s patient, and he has zero conscience. There’s no telling what he’ll do, when he’ll do it, or who will get hurt along the way. Moreover, it’s not always easy to tell when Cecilia is genuinely making progress, or when she’s playing directly into her husband’s plans.

Then again, the Invisible Man is still just a man. He’s not super-strong, he’s not bulletproof, he can’t fly or walk through walls. For all his gadgets and intelligence, he’s still the same small and insecure egomaniac he always was, fallible and mortal like anyone else. That glimmer of hope is a central component of what powers the film, and it’s a strong implicit message about abusive partners in general.

Which brings me to another potential problem: Whannell is a male filmmaker taking on the story of a woman badly damaged by her abusive marriage. Moreover, it’s the story of a woman whom nobody believes, even when she’s accused of striking somebody who wasn’t even in arm’s reach at the time. (Seriously, what the fuck?)

To counter this, the filmmakers brought on Elizabeth Moss, whose leading role in “The Handmaid’s Tale” has made her a kind of unofficial mascot for the modern feminist movement. Between that and her recent cinematic output (Us is perhaps the most high-profile example), Moss has overtly made socially conscious media her brand for the past few years. Bringing her on gives the film a lot of credibility, in addition to a rock-solid leading performance that brings strength and vulnerability exactly where each are needed.

It’s a good thing that Moss’ performance is so strong, because the rest of the cast is pretty weak. Yes, the Invisible Man himself is a fantastic villain, but he’s also (obviously) a mostly offscreen presence. Though Oliver Jackson-Cohen is remarkable in the title role, he’s only really got one scene to work with. Likewise, Storm Reid is a wonderful young talent with charisma to burn, and she’s wasted on what’s basically the comic relief role. Aldis Hodge is another rock-solid supporting player, but the character doesn’t have much depth — it upset me that the James/Cecilia friendship is such a central plot point, yet we never learn the first thing about how they know each other. The weakest in the supporting cast is easily Harriet Dyer in the role of Cecilia’s sister. Dyer might be trying her best, but the character totally fails to register as anything more than a plot device. It certainly doesn’t help that the filmmakers go to all manner of contrived lengths in getting Emily where she needs to be, regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

The MVP of the supporting cast is unquestionably Michael Dorman, in the role of Tom Griffin, Adrian’s younger brother/lawyer/estate manager. On the one hand, Tom only ever thought that Cecilia was just another woman who only wanted Adrian for his money. On the other hand, he’s literally spent his entire life subjected to the kind of physical torment and emotional abuse that Cecilia had to endure throughout her marriage. He’s a true wild card, so capably played by Dorman that there’s no telling where his loyalty really lies or which way he’s going to go.

The Invisible Man (2020) is enjoyable overall, but it comes with some major caveats. Most of the supporting cast is pretty weak, you’ll have to swerve around some gaping logic holes, and god damn did Benjamin Wallfisch turn in a wretched score. Still, the action is amazing, Elizabeth Moss’ central performance is wonderful, and the choice to make the Invisible Man an allegory for an abusive husband was an inspired use of a monster that embodies the primal fear of being watched by some unseen force.

It’s not a perfect film, but it’s great where it counts. Definitely check it out.

The Lodge

Posted March 1, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

In my last entry a week ago, I wrote a lengthy opening statement about the industry shakeups that led to upstarts like Lionsgate, STX, Netflix, and Amazon stepping up as worthy rivals to Paramount, Viacom, AT&T Time Warner, and Sony. I listed Neon as one of the upstart studios in question, though it seemed a bit presumptuous at the time. Flash forward to this weekend, when The Lodge hit my local multiplex while Portrait of a Lady on Fire is still playing and Parasite is still on its Best Picture victory lap.

A year ago, nobody knew who Neon was. Now they have three — count ’em, THREE — movies running on the big screen at once. And all three of them have found critical success. Now there can be no doubt, Neon is a studio to watch.

The Lodge comes to us from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the aunt/nephew filmmaking team who previously gave us the creepy-as-fuck Goodnight Mommy. Last time, we got a psychological horror film stuck in a house with twin boys and a woman who may or may not be their actual mother. This time, we’ve got a psychological horror film in which two siblings are snowed into a house with their new stepmom.

Let’s get into details, shall we?

The premise begins with Richard, played by Richard Armitage. He’s left his wife for a younger woman (Grace, played by Riley Keough) and he wants the divorce finalized so he can marry Grace. The wife in question (Laura, played by Alicia Silverstone) responds to this by killing herself.

And we’re not even ten minutes into the movie.

Cut to six months later. Grace and Richard are still planning on getting married, and Richard’s kids (Aidan and Mia, respectively played by Jaeden Martell nee Lieberher and Lia McHugh) are still in mourning. Also, the kids still hate their prospective stepmom, labeling her a psychopath.

See, Aidan and Mia were raised to be good Christians with a strong abiding love for their lord and savior. Grace grew up in a religious cult, and was (inexplicably) the sole survivor after everyone else in the cult killed themselves. So while the kids see God the loving and redeeming father figure, Grace sees God the hellfire and brimstone destroyer of unrepentant sinners. It’s a difference of interpretation that of course the kidswere never raised to understand, and they have no idea just how far deep those scars go.

Anyway, Richard comes up with the brilliant idea of leaving Grace and the kids alone to hash out their differences in a remote mountain cabin. What starts out as a bad idea gets even worse when the snow piles up and the power cuts out, so now all the cell phones are out of juice, the heating is gone, and the lights are all dark. And then things inexplicably start to go missing. Including Grace’s psychiatric meds.

Things get increasingly weird, and our characters get increasingly desperate to find an explanation. Much as Grace genuinely wants to be on good terms with her would-be stepkids, she knows they don’t like her and thus she has little reason to trust them. Then again, given Grace’s history of trauma and her sudden lack of medication, nobody — not even Grace herself, alas — is entirely sure of what she’s doing or why. It’s a situation in which there are no bad guys, only unwilling victims and unwitting perpetrators.

Until the big reveal comes. Of course I won’t spoil what’s really going on, but that was the moment in which I completely lost all sympathy for the characters involved. It was also the moment in which the themes came into sharp focus and the movie finally crystallizes.

This is very much a movie about sins and repentance. For Grace, that means making amends for whatever damage she may have caused to this family. For the kids, that means atoning for whatever they’ve put their parents and Grace through. But how many of these perceived sins are simply the complaints of hormonal teenagers in mourning for their dead (by suicide, no less) mother? How many of these slights are the grievances of a woman off her meds, stuck in a house that isn’t hers with two kids that aren’t her own?

On the flip side, there’s the matter of redemption. Is any amount of pain and suffering truly necessary to make amends? At what point has that debt been paid? What does it take? Well, here’s a hint: To the best of my recollection, not a single character ever says “I’m sorry” at any point in the movie. If any of the characters ever directly acknowledged wrongdoing, expressed sympathy for each others’ pain, or offered even a token apology, this might have been a very different film.

Speaking of which, let’s circle back around to the religious angle. It cannot possibly be overstated that Grace and the kids see the same God in two very different ways. For Aidan and Mia, redemption means accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal lord and savior, living a happy life knowing that all sins are forgiven. For Grace, that same acceptance means horrible self-inflicted suffering, and faith that happiness will only come until after death (if then). Two conflicting viewpoints on what is ostensibly the same deity, and both are fundamentally incapable of understanding the other.

These are all bold and fascinating ideas, made far more compelling in execution. If I wasn’t dancing around spoilers, I could keep on dissecting and examining this stuff for several more pages. But it’s still not enough to make for a good movie.

The recurring musical motif of “Nearer My God to Thee” got tiresome rather quickly. Even worse was the emphasis on dolls and dollhouses, a threadbare horror cliche that added nothing. The camerawork and editing were sadly unimpressive, with so many shots done in extreme close-up for no discernible reason.

Most importantly of all, the scares just aren’t there until the third act. The basic conceit of “shit gets weird in an isolated cabin” has been done to death, and there’s not much of anything outside the established formula until the big reveal. Up until that point, I simply took it for granted that everything was fake and waited with growing impatience for the explanation behind everything. At which point, I hated the characters all the more and got a kind of sick satisfaction in watching their comeuppance unfold.

How does The Lodge stack up against Goodnight Mommy? I’d say that Lodge had better ideas and more compelling themes, but Mommy had better scares and more enthralling atmosphere. It’s definitely a slow burn, but your mileage will vary wildly with regards to whether the payoff is worth it. Lodge is still decent enough as a work of prestige horror, but there’s an unavoidable sense of wasted potential. Check it out on video if you’re curious.