Thursday, September 16, 2021

Let the Right Wan In:
THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT
and MALIGNANT

Two recent Warner Brothers’ horror movies have been a case study in James Wan’s talents as a director. Maybe the clearest example of what he can do is the one he didn’t do, proof through absence, since The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is a sequel to two movies he directed. After Saw and Insidious, he launched The Conjurings. The series starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as paranormal investigators, loosely based on real people who claimed they were such a thing, had a good start. It also made him one of a select group of directors who’ve kickstarted three iconic horror franchises. Wan gave it style and character, long slow build ups to good ghost scares and in between the great actors were allowed to build warm chemistry for a portrait of a loving marriage. It satisfied, and made a whole cinematic universe of spin-offs in which other directors tackled the story of haunted objects largely disconnected from the central Conjurings, and therefore freed from the direct comparison with the flagship’s style and tone. (Even the ones that featured good cameos from Wilson and Farmiga, like a third Annabelle movie about a possessed doll, managed to do fun creep-outs with its ideas without stepping on the larger franchise.) What a disappointment, then, that the third in the central series is such a slack and boring affair.

Wan passed the reins to Michael Chaves, whose modestly effective The Curse of La Llorona was the least connected in the Conjuring-verse. (It was also, coincidentally, the second-best film of that Latin American folk tale in recent years.) With this new movie, he makes a competently framed sequel, but the screenplay is just so weak that it hardly matters he can do the sliding digitally-assisted camera moves and gin up some token suspense. Instead of the haunted house tours of the prior films, this one feints toward the idea of being a legal thriller. There’s a grisly murder, and the main suspect tells his lawyer that the devil made him do it—hence the title. So Wilson and Farmiga, taking this very seriously because the alleged murderer was a witness at one of their exorcisms lately, tromp off to investigate. Weirdly, the courthouse is left entirely behind so that they can snoop around secret Satanists and ferret out a conspiracy of evildoers lurking in the shadows. (Maybe because the “true story” would find a judge dismiss the defendant’s claim of possession and lock him up, the filmmakers needed something more supernatural to happen.) Its 80s setting places it squarely in Satanic Panic territory, a time when a frenzy of right-wing Christian scaremongering about phony devil-worshipping cabals led to false accusations against all manner of teachers, parents, and childcare workers. (n+1 editor Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children is a well-researched overview of this history.) So it’s certainly more difficult to take the series’ fake “true story” claims in good fun when it’s now pretending this damaging falsehood might’ve had a point, even in such a limited case. Even if I could get past that, though, the movie itself is mechanical and dry, self-seriousness tipped fatally toward silly, with its good leads stranded in a plot that plods. I was thoroughly bored.

That’s not to say the movie Wan did direct, Malignant, is any less silly, but it owns it. The thing is so committed to its kookiness it reaches a fever pitch of style and confidence. The thing starts overheated and maintains a roiling boil from there. After some spasms of plot-setting, we arrive in the life of a woman (Annabelle Wallis) who, recuperating from having her skull cracked against a wall by her abusive husband, dreams he’s killed. She awakes to discover he was. From there it’s a not unfamiliar story of its kind, as the woman imagines herself present at more and more grisly murders—bodies torn apart with gross effects for gooey stabbings. The police view her suspiciously. Her sister tries to be supportive. It all ramps up until there’s a huge twist or three, and the movie adds a kind of manic glee to its increasingly wild images. Wan starts with the show-off overhead shots and gliding through walls he so loves. But the dialogue seems a little too flat, and the acting seems all dialed a bit off from the norm. The investigation is sluggish, and the psychology half-baked. The thing starts to feel strikingly composed—with dark and stormy nights and color filters and self-consciously posed blocking—but bog standard. It’s maybe the awkward halfway point between Dario Argento’s excess and M. Night Shyamalan’s earnestness for a while.

But by the time a stunt person, makeup, and wriggling gross-out body horror erupts into spasms of mind-boggling action and violence in pursuit of an amped up high concept giddily displayed, it’s hard not to get on board. I could appreciate the whole project then. It started by showing us a deceptively normal (in genre terms) idea, the better to satisfy when it reveals its extreme grotesqueries from the other side, an awkward but not unenjoyable mix. Wan isn’t pursuing the virtuosic symphonies of jump scares and spectral visions he brought to his ghost stories, or the twisting suspense gore of his earlier works. Instead he’s in pursuit of just how far over the top he can take a concept while still playing it straight. Does that make it a good movie? Maybe not quite. But it makes it a watchable and memorable one with a few fun sequences. It’s certainly the superior Wan production of the year. It strikes me as the kind of outlier horror movie best appreciated for what it’s trying, and admiring what it can pull off.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Where Are We Going; Where Have We Been?
9/11 Cinema at 20

“It’s like something out of a movie.” I don’t remember the first time I heard someone say that on September 11, 2001, as we stared in horrified curiosity at the news footage, compelled to see what would happen next, afraid and confused and reaching for the only comparison point that made sense. It was one knee-jerk way to try to understand something that barely felt real at first. Maybe I even said it myself once or twice. Skyscrapers burning, the towering infernos collapsing. Smoke billowing, debris floating, people running. The images were indelible; for anyone alive and able to witness the unfolding crisis of that day, the sensation they cause are unshakeable. We stared at the images intently, repeatedly, the inescapable news footage on a loop for days and weeks. We looked until the smoking towers looked like black caskets against the sky, until the rubble became a landscape, until the smoke became sorrow itself. Even so, we turned to the movies, even in some small part, that day to try to contextualize the novelty and all-encompassing terror in the images we were seeing. We continued to turn to them in the decades after, as the ripple effects of that terrible shock reverberated in images and stories we told ourselves afterwards. Beyond the propaganda that would follow, beyond the news that would endlessly roll, beyond the photo spreads and press conferences that tried to contextualize, cinema reacted, too. All along, the movies have helped and hurt our understanding. 

On that sunny September day twenty years ago, we had not long before emerged from the 1990s, whose blockbuster cinema reliably brought us these visions of disaster. They gave us a resurgence of such calamities, ever escalating. Daylight flooded the New Jersey Tunnel. Speed hijacked a bus. Titanic sunk a famous boat. (That one, of course, had a dose of reality. It was also easily the best, and stuck in the conversation such that more than one person wondered how 9/11 could be turned into a romance. Remember Me?) Volcano burbled lava down LA streets. Independence Day blew up the White House, and other major landmarks. Deep Impact took out the whole coast. Armageddon took out several places—most hauntingly, in retrospect, the chunk a meteor took out of the side of the World Trade Center. When they came down for real, it was our only comparison point. What often felt like safe fantasy in those movies, bemusement at the sight of destruction, became suddenly, horribly, actual events, news footage to witness.

For those of us otherwise unaffected directly in smaller towns across the country—those of us with no relatives in New York, no flights to be diverted—it was still an event on a screen. And yet the reality sunk in. The citizens of my midwestern hometown talked in shocked tones, worried some building near us might be next. Such was the effect of these new images supplanting and overriding the Hollywood explosions in the mind. Surely, they thought, it doesn’t end there. A sense of surety and safety had been shaken, with many feeling suddenly vulnerable to the consequences of history, as writer Mike Davis put it. How interesting, then, that the ways in which these images of destruction were reclaimed by Hollywood were mostly for fantasies of power and control. As we marched off to ill-considered wars doomed to some degree of failure, loss, and calamity, superheroes stories started their latest flourishing, at least in part because the narratives of apocalypse narrowly averted by strongmen played upon the nation’s desire for easy resolution, a reclamation of all-powerful American supremacy. Seen from that angle, what are the Avengers, after all, but the elite global police force some dreamed the United States could be in those early interventionist pre-emptive strike years?

The so-called incoherent texts of Hollywood filmmaking worked overtime in the Bush era. Movies whose politics are hard to parse on purpose get bigger box office, or so the suits often say. Sure, some mainstream movies dripped with a productive poison pen of politics—Demme’s 2004 Manchurian Candidate remake was an astute dagger to the heart of the military industrial complex’s many tentacles; Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales extrapolated a dystopian mania from its sprawling future shock sci-fi insanity that feels quintessentially mid-aughts in tone and intentions; the Coens’ cynical Burn After Reading lampoons flailing intelligence agencies. They were the exceptions, though. Some, like the South Park guys’ broad puppet comedy Team America: World Police had a few good jabs buried under the slobbering prejudices of the time. Others, like the Bourne films and their ilk, took the jangled geopolitical destabilization—and deep suspicion of surveillance and dark espionage failings—as bruising shaky-cam set-dressing. That’s effective, and remains a time-capsule in that regard, but is shallow commentary that stops at that level. Still others bolstered lizard-brained concerns with Islamophobia—how many Middle East-set thrillers started with the distant sound of a muezzin over an ominous opening?—and retrograde ideas. Even the horror movies—Saw, Hostel, and, the best, a gutsy remade Hills Have Eyes diptych from the thoughtful gore-meister Wes Craven et al—were torturous, spilling innocents’ viscera as we learned the depravity our worst representatives in the wars carried out in our name.

Some filmmakers eventually found ways to draw more directly on the terror of the day—through what might be coyly called “9/11 imagery” in the reviews of the time—and bring the unsettling feelings to life in fiction. Matt Reeves’ found-footage Cloverfield reconfigured the chaos of first-person footage into a terrifying kaiju attack. Spielberg perhaps had the best blockbuster reactions—Minority Report’s corrupt paranoid pre-crime units presaging the Patriot Act, The Terminal the first studio picture to include the new Department of Homeland Security, and the one-two punch of the terrifyingly vivid War of the Worlds and mournful historical revenge thriller Munich making our post-9/11 anxieties rich cinematic texts. Others, like Michael Bay’s grinding globetrotting Transformers bringing down buildings all over the world in outsized spectacle, played both sides—skewering and celebrating might-make-right jingoism. Even some superhero movies—the X-Men’s haunted Others, in particular—managed to strike a tuning fork on the tenor of the times. On television, the complicated response blasted out in propagandistic ads and TV movies. (Even Disney Channel aired tributes to the American flag, and did a story of 9/11 from the perspective of an aircraft carrier in an original movie, Tiger Cruise.) Some burst out as the ticking clock hook of 24’s right-wing urgency to its one-man terror-preventing violence; the brooding slow-rolling cyclical horrors of Battlestar Galactica’s sci-fi warfare was the tortured left-wing hawkish dove on the flip side.

What the public generally didn’t want from its screen time, however, was any direct consideration of the War on Terror. Fantasy ruled the day—especially ones that dealt indirectly in uplift—a la the New York resilience of Sam Raimi’s cheerful Spider-Man or entirely in magical characters’ made-up realms: Harry Potter, Hobbits, Narnians.  Direct adaptations of the events of 9/11, no matter how well-intentioned, like United 93 or World Trade Center, underwhelmed. War stories, or war-inspired stories, flopped worse. I somehow saw a bunch as they were new, making me one of the few to hit all these, I imagine: Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone, Stop-Loss, Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Body of Lies, Fair Game, Syriana, The Kingdom, A Mighty Heart, and more I’m forgetting, I’m sure. Some are quite good; others are listless and stumbling in their own self-important messaging.

On the doc side, everything from verite to issue statements flowed. None were as wide-ranging as Adam Curtis’ attempt to understand the philosophical origins and implications of the crisis: The Power of Nightmares. Nor were they as electric as left-leaning populist provocateur Michael Moore’s last true lightning rod moment as an agitprop activist documentarian: Fahrenheit 9/11. A persuasive, enraging, sly and upsetting argument against Bush’s handling of 9/11 and its aftermath, the movie remains a great time capsule of mainstream left-wing dissent in the moment. It was a surprisingly big hit in the election year summer of 2004, when it felt like it might actually win Democrats the presidency. We know how that turned out. We also know how irredeemable viral conspiracy theory docs, like Loose Change, prefigured the new media waves of disinformation and “doing your own research” that has walled off swaths of the American public from reality. Better captures of the paranoia and devastation that was the fallout and blowback of the times can be found in Laura Poitras’ work chronicling violent wars abroad and digital wars everywhere. Many attempts to wrestle with the meaning of the moment in the moment fell short, victims of a cultural conversation that just didn’t want to confront the ugly truths head on. It was Support the Troops or be silent, The (Dixie) Chicks told to Shut Up and Sing, talk show hosts cancelled for questioning the misinformation fed to them as reason to spark a forever war. Rare was the serious consideration given to understanding the moment deeply, that a way to Support the Troops and Be American could be to help us avoid making grave mistakes.

So here we are, 20 years later, with the images of that fateful day long since passed into the history books, while the conflicts and ideas stirred up by them linger in our increasingly polarized and poisoned discourse. We’ve had many good articles and essays over the years, and some good documentaries. And now the 9/11 imagery has long since passed into visual cliche. The shock of the new has softened. Pull up footage from that day—YouTube users have uploaded full programming from the morning shows breaking in with the jolting alarm; they make for a fascinating rewatch—and it’s easy to see why the tremendous upset and reverberating consequences are hard to capture and synthesize. The real raw moment— not reconfigured into superpower fantasy or topical terrorism thrillers—remains a rare sight on our screens. Zack Snyder touched it for his breathtakingly pessimistic Superman and Batman, and the visceral negative reaction from many in the audience—critics and Joe Popcorn alike—proved the toppling towers are still a bruised sore spot, especially if you’re selling it as futility and fallibility, something a superhero can’t stop. It still hurts, despite and perhaps because we have yet to fully digest its impact, the buried psychological wounds of seeing this mass casualty event repeated ad infinitum for years.

How will we ever process this open wound, when the ways we’ve covered it up are to let its intense emotions get ignored, trotted out only by hypocritical politicians and pundits in diminishing (fingers crossed) attempts to goose the public’s appetite for further war. (Look no further than the outsized opprobrium Biden has received in the press for ending the war in Afghanistan. We can argue the merits of the moment, but let’s not pretend it’s not two decades of mistakes that got us to this point.) The smoking towers have joined the indelible moments of history, the kind those who weren’t yet born look at in dreadful amazement, asking of us older folks, “Where were you when…?” Meanwhile the confusion of that day has metastasized in our fearful, paranoid, conspiratorial discourse of these days. I often recall Susan Sontag’s essay for The New Yorker’s issue the week after the towers fell. She wrote: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. ‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” Alas. The stupefying effects of such massive trauma continue.

This milestone anniversary has, understandably, turned many of our minds back to that day. With the increasing distance of time, the culture at large has been able to move somewhat closer to Sontag’s hope. We did end up being stupid together, but historical awareness, and a sense of moving beyond the simple projections of strength, can be seen in new reconsiderations. Now studios have taken some attempts to retell it to us beyond the references and debates that it used as the grist for so many plots over the years. (Yet it’s still all about what can be sold to us, isn’t it?) Disney through National Geographic released 9/11: One Day in America on Hulu (notably not the Disney+ NatGeo tab). It opens with a disclaimer: “The following program shows…intense scenes of suffering and trauma.” There’s something we weren’t so lucky to get twenty years ago. It’s immediate and intense. Here is a six hour experience that takes us hour by hour through the day, using many first-hand videos and audio intercut with newly recorded testimonies from survivors. Some footage is familiar, but the biggest moments sneak in with a preserved stunned surprise, and from angles that are unexpected. It restores the day’s despair through a methodical accounting of the process, seen through the lenses that happened to be in the right place to see. This NatGeo project has a weight—comprehensive, all encompassing, present-tense cut with the still-rattled words of those who lived it. Every new piece of information—specifics of injuries, coincidences, consequences—reminds the viewer that a mass tragedy on this scale is built out of thousands of individual tragedies.

This feels like an essential historical accounting. Made in conjunction with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, it has a funereal quality, partly the simple staging and industrial art-installation reels of primary sources, partly the low strings droning on the score, the pace’s patient unfolding, the heavy accumulation of detail. (It also reminded me of The Washington Post’s art critic’s writing, on the occasion of that museum’s opening, that it’s “a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing.”) The full picture in this documentary emerges with deliberate, harrowing slowness, with considered unflinching images artfully arranged to reconstruct the story, and draw us back into not just the facts, but the feeling of that moment with the benefit of being able to see a full panorama instead of the immediate gripping pinpricks of confusion. It lingers on its shots, lets the enormity descend with grim reality. I watched it with my shock and sorrow renewed. But the documentary is also, in its length and shape, soberingly manipulative, with anecdotes coached to have bitter stinging revelations and delayed gut-twisting reveals. Because it narrows its focus to just the day in question—not making large claims about What It Meant or Where It Went—the power and weight is maintained throughout, though it slips when it feels the need to nod toward later events for the interview subjects. And even as it provides the horrible hows, it studiously avoids the just-as-uncomfortable whys. As it goes on and on, it can occasionally get lost in narratives even as it tries to recreate experiences of the day. I can understand the temptation. The loss and pain and violence and grief is still difficult to take in. No wonder we’ve yet to fully process it.

The events of the day are too large to contain. Although it is important to understand the experience of that moment, it’s just as important to see the world it wrought, the unsettledness left in its wake. To narrow our focus risks simplifying our understanding. Take Apple TV+’s contribution to the anniversary doc space: 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room. It has incredible access and interviews polished to a confident shine. The talking heads include: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and many other high-ranking government officials from the time. They speak simply and clearly in a standard oral history way. Which means they’re also speaking for posterity quite obviously aware of the way these comments will pass into public record. I found a certain interest in their words about the day—where they were, what they claim they thought, some little details and unexpected comments. But the thing is so professional and poised that it never once asks the difficult questions of its powerful people. They don’t have to reckon with their warmongering and other mistakes that followed. And in that context, the stark judgements the movie leans into feel all the more unseemly. If Nat Geo’s accounting is sometimes heavy-handed, at least it’s also experiential, and generally uses good judgement in picking out its use of the day’s footage and audio; War Room uses it to goose suspense as if the events aren’t plenty gripping without cheap glossy embellishment. The film treats the day with all due enormity, but won’t let it speak for itself. It has people who were in important positions tell us little more than we’d get from anyone.

Good news, then, for those looking for context, that Spike Lee understands that day is one major inflection point at the dawn of our turbulent young century. Hence his epic new documentary for HBO, the complicatedly named NYC Epicenters: 9/11→2021½, frames the last twenty years as a series of shocks to the country’s system, bookend by calamities beyond our control that nonetheless spun further out of control through our mistakes. The film runs nearly eight hours, told in several chapters, beginning with 2020, reeling forwards, then backwards, tumbling back through the past couple decades. Lee starts with the pandemic, proceeds into the political turmoil of recent years, the various ugly outbursts of violence and prejudice flowing through our culture. He hits the highlights. Or lowlights, as the case may be. Elections. Uprisings. Police brutality. Insurrections. Massacres. Diseases. Disasters. And yet, because Lee is such a jovial interlocutor and clever filmmaker, he weaves the story of these decades like a juggling act between sorrow and uplift, honesty and curiosity. It’s filtered through his personality, filled with well-chosen archival footage, ironic juxtapositions, emphatic intertitles, eccentric observations, and passionate pleas. One of its most moving sequences is a wordless one: an Aaron Copland fanfare playing over film of the World Trade Center being built.

And because Lee expands the frame of the story, he talks to all manner of New Yorkers: governors, mayors, senators and congresspeople, yes, but also: actors and activists, nurses and journalists, teenagers and teachers, doctors and lawyers, writers and witnesses, firemen and firebrands, experts and bystanders. (This expansiveness also led him to lengthy sequences with 9/11 conspiracy theorists removed before that episode aired.) Here’s a film that understands we’ve lived through two decades bracketed by tragedy and buffeted by unrest. It also knows it happened to people with perspective and experience. It’s a loving appreciation of the people of New York and a testimony to their resilience. And in doing so it becomes a testament to the qualities that just might see us through: diversity, perseverance, and love for one’s neighbor. This we should be able to understand.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Royal Mess: HARRY & MEGHAN: ESCAPING THE PALACE

It’s plain to see why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have become a most fascinating celebrity story of our time. It has everything: tragic backstory, complicated family dynamics, international politics, conversations of privilege and empire, race and class, royalty and, yes, romance. The youngest son of the tragically killed Princess Diana, the party boy veteran settles down after falling for a biracial American actress. It’s quite a story, even if that’s as far as it went. Marrying into the ongoing tabloid soap opera that is the royal family, however, sadly guarantees that’s not the end of it. In the disreputable genre of ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movies, the whole complicated narrative is obvious grist for vaguely-lookalike unknown performers to get made up and reenact moments we read in tabloids. Lifetime, the leading purveyor of this once more prevalent genre, has now done it three times. And the third time is something like the charm because it finally has enough story, and permission from recent revelations, to lean all the more heavily into scandal roiling with suspense and emotional upheaval.

Thank Oprah for that. Her widely seen primetime CBS interview with the couple remains one of the most captivating TV moments of the year. Impeccably staged and probingly candid—albeit still carefully managed—and given the space to go on in detail, the former talk-show host proved she still had the considerable presence and skill she developed over decades in this space. She allowed Harry and Meghan to present a united front, speaking openly and guardedly about issues with the family. Racist comments toward their children. Unfair treatment in security and publicity. A lack of concern for their emotional and psychological well-being. Oprah’s reputation as a facilitator of Important Conversations, and the sagacity with which her every furrowed brow and nodding head—there’s no better listener on TV—and turn of phrase—“Were you silent or silenced?” was an instant classic—contains lent gravitas and believability to their captivating revelations. (It also made me wish Oprah did this more often. We’re not exactly overflowing with good interviewers anywhere these days.) These stories didn’t come out of nowhere. The couple had already stepped back from their royal status, a turn which followed a rabidly racist English tabloid culture and off-the-record reports of palace discord. It’s not news to hear stories like this leak from the place, but the source made it all the more persuasive.

So without that confirmed reporting from their mouths, it’s no wonder Lifetime’s earlier attempts to dramatize their lives flailed. In 2018’s Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, a pretty tepid rom-com filled time on the network’s schedule. It made the whole thing dewey-eyed in the most mechanical ways, and hand-waved the real issues in the mix. The movie has Harry coo sympathetically that he understands the Black experience because he has red hair, and ends with the grandmotherly Queen telling her staff it’s okay Meghan is Black. The network’s sequel, 2019’s Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal is a feature-length montage of made-up moments tepidly staged and flatly developed. Best is probably a little arc with a fake British morning show as the bobble-headed hosts slowly diverge—one representing the scoffing white male prejudice, the other a woman who reaches her breaking point with him. Both films are pretty bland with makeup slathered on like a thick polish and every scene lit like an IKEA showroom. It’s pretty clear the filmmakers had a tight budget and cramped ideas, with little insight into what to do with the story at hand. They didn’t really know what they were telling. Turns out, it was because we didn’t have all the information.

Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace is a different beast entirely. It grabs the throat right away, with a revving engine over black, a smash cut to a car crushed in a Parisian tunnel. It understands the stakes at play. Turns out it's a dream sequence. It’s Meghan in the car. Harry sits up in bed sweating, with the gasping fear that accompanies every such scene you’ve ever seen. One could call this tasteless, but it’s also out to joltingly embody the Oprah special’s implications. Here’s a man in love with a woman who he increasingly fears is doomed to the same fate as his late mother. He sees the same swirl of factors brewing on the horizon. Most of the movie isn’t as dramatic as its opening, but is still plenty invested in the drama, the sense of real people in all the news. It stands up the conflicts and allegations with a subtext-less verve. Subtle, it’s not. But it is restrained and respectful, with even that attention-grabbing, controversy-courting opening intended to be fair to the real motivations of real people. Those looking to be superior to the form will certainly find plenty at which to scoff. And it certainly would not stand up to scrutiny if you put it next to a big-budget theatrical standard. But connoisseurs of the TV movie will recognize its flat-footed charms.

Returning director Menhaj Huda makes it with the same bland wallpapering of muzak-ish score, stock footage establishing shots, and simple, brightly lit staging as the previous films. But the acting chews into meatier scenes, with meaner personality clashes and tightly navigated discomforts. And there’s an underlying tension to the conflicts that build up a head of pressure on the family drama. Huda matches it with some pushier camera moves and snappier cutting. We see negotiations between family and fame, palace politics and brand management, and the gilded cage of their privilege as they yearn to break free. The heartbroken and the greedy alike plot and snipe, behind each other’s backs, of course. (There’s also a cavalcade of other dilemmas, from Prince Andrew to the pandemic.) There are relentlessly ironic juxtapositions and manipulatively positioned flashbacks to Princess Di for counterpoints. And the sense of royal fragility cooks up fine fissures of melodrama. I enjoyed it in the junk food way it’s intended, turning a real recent news story into a fast-paced tabloid tale gratefully committed to energetically recreating the juicy details without quite losing the human feeling inside. It’s about as good as this quick, cheap, surface-level production could be. But it’s also worth noting the Oprah interview did more in a conversation than this movie does in all its well-intentioned hustle.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Dragon On:
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a pretty good first hour. It’s bright and lively. It starts with a flashback about a devious semi-immortal kung-fu kingpin played by the never unappealing Tony Leung. (These superhero movies sure have a way of drawing in the biggest cinema royalty for paychecks and borrowed prestige.) The flashback plays out in some small amount of Zhang Yimou-inspired whooshing marital arts and flowering scenery. Then it hops a couple decades to the man’s grown son (Simu Liu), who fled his bad dad for a life as a normal bloke in San Francisco. He gets the expected call to action when attacked by some brutes on a bus and ends up proving he has moves like Jackie Chan. (He hangs out the window like a guy who’s seen Police Story’s impressive opening sequence.) This is, of course, a surprise to his best friend and comic relief (Awkwafina) who tags along on his journey back to his family where, surprise surprise, his pop is up to supernatural shenanigans that might bring about the end of the world. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, swerving away from the decent, intimate, indie-adjacent dramas he’s been making (like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy) into the bland and shiny machinery of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nonetheless allows his performers a little bit of room to strut their stuff before the plot gears swallow them up entirely. An early highlight finds Shang-Chi fighting a kabuki-masked baddie up and down towering bamboo scaffolding, an enjoyable mix of place and space and personality juggling characters and variables. Eventually Michelle Yeoh shows up as Auntie Nan, who knows a thing or two about the deep magic of their family and how it might save us all. That’s never a bad choice, either.

But by then, that’s also where the movie's gone big and slow, trading a light touch for a sluggish trudge through exposition, backstory, flimsy family drama, thinning characterization, flat Marvel cameos, and a lengthy CG shooting gallery in which all the major players stare off at the phoniness with faux-profundity between quips. Gloopy beasties flop around and energy beams zip-zap and the apocalypse is trying to burst out of a hole in a cave (big improvement on the old hole-in-the-sky climax, eh?). It is, in other words, a Marvel movie. It has an appealing cast of movie legends, up-and-comers, and character actors trade bouncy banter and establish fun dynamics, ricochet through some clever early action sequences, and wear slick costumes. Then it lets all that dwindle down into routine resolutions involving energy beams and super-punches and swirling pixel clouds. The extent to which this one distinguishes itself is the genre skin it chooses to inhabit—reason for cinephiles to nod in recognition and critics to dutifully list off other, better filmmakers of which the movie reminds them in hopes the MCU fans choose to wander outside the franchise in a mind-expanding direction. (Here: in addition to Yimou and Chan, the fantasy epics of Tsui Hark, Wong-Kar Wai’s Leung-starring Grandmaster, and Ang Lee’s Yeoh collaboration Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) This is like those but worse and with Iron Man references. The extent to which any of these Marvel programmers works depends entirely on how much escape velocity of affection that first hour gathers before flattening out. For my money, this one is straight down the middle: better than some and worse than others. So it goes.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Urban Legend: CANDYMAN

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman movie takes the 1992 original’s subtext and flattens into the surface text. Gone are the creeping insinuations and curling undertow of a ghost story about a lynched Black man lurking as an urban legend in a Chicago housing project. (Say his name five times and he’ll haunt you, drive you mad, or maybe slaughter you with his hook-hand.) The new film just states flat out that it’s all about the lingering aftereffects of racism’s traumas, and the ongoing wound-prodding the constant reminders and recapitulations of them with which we live are. What the earlier film allowed to bubble up from the depths of its horrors, this new one uses as dialogue to be repeated over and over as the didactic thematic design of an otherwise simple slasher trajectory in which all of the character start alive and most end up dead. It opens with a painter (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his gallerist girlfriend (Teyonah Parris) moving into a fancy new apartment in the recently gentrified neighborhood that was the housing projects where the first film took place. There’s a discussion about the ethics of such a move, and some gentle ribbing from the woman’s realtor brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who retells the story of a grad student (Virginia Madsen) who lost her mind investigating the Candyman there three decades earlier. (Astute viewers might quickly piece together the movie’s other Big Connection to its inspiration well before the surprise is sprung.) Intrigued, the boyfriend ends up using the story as material for his upcoming art show, sending him spiraling into artistic obsession that lets the Candyman back into the world. I liked his first idea: a mirror that opens onto paintings of lynchings. He calls it "Say My Name," a doubled reference to the activist urgency of remembering victims of police brutality and the lore of the Candyman. That’s the sort of mirroring where the picture’s at its best.

But then the movie is going about making its points flatly and obviously. Even as DaCosta films each scene with artful intent and striking images—I most appreciated Lotte Reiniger-style silhouette animation used to dramatize supernatural events in flashbacks, and establishing shots of upside-down Chicago streets, especially eerie when the tops of the distinctive Marina City towers plunge downwards into an overcast sky—the script undercuts them with declarative and repetitive plot explanations and thematic expostulation. The cast’s charisma—I didn’t even mention the great Colman Domingo as one of the few selling a flimsy supporting role—nearly carries it anyway, but it’s an uphill battle. The film’s politics are admirable—as is its craft—but the story stumbles. Its supporting cast is there to state the themes, provide exposition, and (usually) die. (Worst has to be a smarmy art guy or a sniffy critic, both drawn in such obvious villainy you’re just itching for comeuppance until their deaths are doled out with strange restraint.) Most disappointingly, some of the late reveals muddle its message, and on a scene-by-scene level the scares never quite hit. Elsewhere some curious gaps of logic open up. Cuts to black obscure some holes, while off-screen dialogue papers over others. The movie is full of the sort of things that might not bother me if it was otherwise working, but when my investment is slowly leaking away, it’s all I can focus on. Interesting how the truly great horror movies are simply unreproducible regardless of how many sequels try. Somehow the original is scarier, and more effectively topical, than the new one, no matter how insistent it is about contemporary concerns. It’s a good effort, but a dissatisfying result.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Game Theory: FREE GUY

Free Guy is nakedly manipulative nonsense pop filmmaking—but it works on its own terms. It helps that it’s not exactly the movie it appears to be at first. The picture opens in a video game, a combination of Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto in which we set our scene. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) tells us the rules. The sunglass wearers airdrop in to cause mayhem: carjackings, robberies, assassinations, and so on. They’re the players. Guy doesn’t know that. He’s just a Non-Player Character, a slave to the routine of his programming. One day he sees a pretty player (Jodie Comer) and falls in love. He has to know her. Along the way, he’ll learn he’s in a video game and tries to take control of his own destiny, code be damned. The problem here strikes me as the difficulty in caring about a character in a game. Remember when critics used to call bad CG spectacles “like watching someone else playing a video game?” That fell by the wayside lately, maybe because so many climaxes play that way, and maybe because Twitch and like have improbably proved a popular pastime among the younger crowd. Still, watching this phony world it is impossible to invest in the unreality. The concussive needle drops, busy heads-up displays, and loud gunfire have all the weight and impact of so many pixels. Then there’s Reynolds himself, who plays the guy like a human version of Emmett from The Lego Movie (down to the love of brand-nameless coffee) with his own particular brand of terminal insincerity melded to saccharine sentimentality. (What a strange blend of tones he’s been hawking in every role since Deadpool.) Luckily the movie uses this a jumping off point of an actual human story, turning its broad video game spoofery—with some fine nods toward violent games’ sociopathy and shallowness—into something a little more real.

I found myself relaxing into the movie’s artificial charms when it pretty early on reveals what it’s actually getting up to. It turns out Comer is, in real life, a coder who thinks the bestselling game’s designer (Taika Waititi) stole the work she and her partner (Joe Keery) did and used it as the basis of the open world software that made him rich. So she’s become a power player in hopes of uncovering proof for a lawsuit. Her unexpected realization? Her A.I. ideas might be what woke Guy from his routine. So the fake world is given some unexpected stakes—and it’s worth enjoying the lark when it might end up in actual real world consequences. There’s even some slight dancing around some Star Trek ethics of being, with the NPCs in the servers slowly dawning to their little riff on the allegory of the cave. (The movie is the junior high brain teaser to The Matrix’s grad school seminar.) The light gloss of corporate espionage cuts well against the empty quips on Reynolds’ side, and goes one step further into a secret (and only a little strained) rom-com buried under layers of genre elements. No matter how strange Reynolds is playing a proxy love interest for a totally predictable flesh-and-blood programmer, it somehow lands the emotional arc for Comer with some agreeable satisfaction.

Director Shawn Levy is nothing if not a consummate professional. He’s capable of sturdy big budget studio mechanics in ways we take for granted sometimes because he makes it look easy. With the likes of ensemble family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen and robot boxing drama Real Steel—two surprisingly satisfying efforts for which I have lingering affection—he’s proved he knows his way around hitting the right rousing beats with clean, legible throughlines and visual cohesion. There can be a charm to watching an oversized smooth shiny object of a big screen experience. Here Levy pushes a little too hard on pandering referentiality—does the ending really need two back-to-back overt references to its corporate sibling’s biggest sci-fi properties?—but stages some competent phony action. It takes the repetitive violence of video games and plays its mind-numbing senselessness for the shallowness it is. No wonder Guy, with his aw-shucks disbelief, wants more. The script finds a few good jokes here and there, and hooks into some ideas about games and modern life and creativity. (That Waititi is the mouthpiece for the movie’s swipes at corporate sequel culture is amusing, and ironic.) And in the end it’s somehow a little sweet and genuine in the midst of all its foolery. I still didn’t care about Reynold’s Guy and his computer friends, and didn’t entirely buy the ways the code of the game interacts with its makers, but sometimes when a movie plows ahead believing something so intently while making it the cornerstone of its emotional appeal, you just go with it.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Furred Responders: PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE

PAW Patrol: The Movie is strictly kids’ stuff, and that’s what’s refreshing about it. Watching the feature film adaptation of a long-running Nickelodeon cartoon pitched squarely at preschoolers, I found myself charmed by its bold primary colors and the Fisher-Price textures to the rounded shiny CG animation (much better than the show’s cheap look) in a story about a team of first responders who are little dogs. The first scene finds a tanker truck dangling precariously over the edge of a suspension bridge. “Call the police!” the driver hollers. No can do, a witness shouts back. In this town, they have the PAW Patrol, puppies who zip around in emergency vehicles outfitted with little gadgets that help them save the day. There’s a cop pup, a fire pup, a helicopter pup, a recycling pup, and so on, color coordinated and in their own spiffy little outfits with distinct little personalities. They’re led by a plucky boy who somehow is their boss and supplies the tech. They drive into this cliched superhero scenario and rescue those in danger. They do a good job. It’s not hard to see why this town would defund the police and just fund a PAW Patrol instead. They all bark in squeaky kid voices and spend long sequences announcing their vehicles’ features—the better to advertise what’s now in a toy catalogue near you, I suppose. But there’s a grinning simple charm in seeing these dogs bop about their episodic adventures saving people—protecting and serving in ways first responders do at their best. It’s an easy-going movie, full of high-stakes peril in low-stakes presentations, a comforting professionalism and a squeaky-clean good-conquers-foolish tone.

Watching them do their thing, I realized how few superhero movies are accessible to actual children these days — they’re all dark and hectic and bloodlessly violent and over-plotted and stuffed with quips that can drip innuendo. When was the last time you saw a comic book hero merely save a vehicle from falling off a bridge? Or stop a puffed up egotistical incompetent mayor whose kooky ideas lead the citizens of his metropolis into regular danger? (When the mayor unveils the roller coaster loop he put in the middle of the subway route, he preens for the cameras, saying, “I’m an unqualified elected official! What could go wrong?”) Here the PAW Patrol is a civic-minded Avengers, saving people by driving out of their headquarters on an enormous Hot Wheels-style ramp and into gentle but bouncy adventure with mild jokes and easy lessons. Through the power of teamwork they’re putting out fires and pulling people out of floods and all sorts of things that honest-to-goodness real-life heroes do. After the year we’ve had, how nice to sell young families a cheery, earnest, clear message that caring about your fellow citizens builds a better world for us all. Even if it’s also hoping to sell merch along the way, it’s colorful and kind and quick. I suspect it won’t make many adult converts to the series, but it does what it does just well enough. I was glad to see it.

Monday, August 16, 2021

In Bloom: THE WHITE LOTUS

Writer-director Mike White knows wealth is a poison. The ways privilege infects a mind and soul has been the background hum of his work over the last decade, sometimes bubbling up to the surface. His two-season HBO comedy-drama Enlightened took a corporate exec and watched her spiral as she tried to put her life back together. His Beatriz at Dinner stranded a working-class Mexican-American masseuse at a client’s party where a bloviating racist mogul oozes non-stop Trumpian chatter. His Brad’s Status found a Ben Stiller of anxiety burbling out of a college tour that highlighted an aging man caught between the separation of the very wealthy from the merely well-off. But all this swirling interest in inequality and its effects, so well-attuned to the currents underlying whorls of outrage, finds a refinement and culmination in The White Lotus, a six-hour resort-set miniseries HBO finished airing tonight. (There’s already word it’ll get another season with a new location and new cast; here’s hoping it’ll be just as good.) This work is a reaction to and dissection of the prevailing culture of the time in a way that’s bleakly hilarious, simultaneously sympathetically observed and witheringly, pitilessly critical. It’s a low-simmer melodrama, even a tragedy in some of its dimensions, wrapped in a dazzling social comedy of manners and errors. There’s rot in this here resort, and it’s not the staff. We watch as the wealthy bring all their problems on vacation, and, if they leave with a step up to a better life, it’s often, whether they’re aware of it or not, on the backs of those they view as beneath them. In our economy, what’s trickling down from the one percent is the pitch black toxin of their privilege.

White sets up an ensemble of guests arriving at the eponymous Hawaiian resort, some more likable than others. There’s a Big Tech boss (Connie Britton), her insecure husband (Steve Zahn) and their two near-grown children (Sydney Sweeney and Fred Hechinger) with a friend (Brittany O’Grady). There’s a newlywed real estate heir (Jake Lacy) and wife (Alexandra Daddario). There’s a spacey, needy inscrutably wealthy (Jennifer Coolidge) with her mother’s ashes in tow. They show up hoping to get away from it all, but find they’ve brought their emotional issues and interpersonal melodramas with them. White stages their criss-crossing dilemmas with a great skill for juggling complications in rich juxtapositions that build up momentum and sharply timed shaping to each hour. No one plot thread gets more or less attention than feels exactly right.

Through the course of their days, relationships start to chafe. There’s something about a vacation that lets one really confront a traveling companion’s true self, who they really are when the quotidian day-to-day goes away. White sees how these awful people’s flaws are the reasons for their unhappiness. No wonder vacation is no perfect balm; they are the ones they need to escape. All they’ve done is bring their whirling problems—insecurities, jealousies, inadequacies—to rest among the locals and staff forced to put on a happy face and put up with them. We see the annoyance behind the Fawlty grins of the hotel manger (Murray Bartlett) and empathetic spa manager (Natasha Rothwell). They want to do their jobs well, but these guests sure make it difficult sometimes. There are unmistakable optics to these wealthy white privileged overgrown babies looking to be coddled—throwing tantrums about booking errors, or wandering listlessly in search of a drink, or validation—arriving on the shores of a tropical island with all the presumption of ownership.

It’s underlined by the teen’s friend admitting her college research is on colonialism. (Big topic, the dad shrugs.) The colonizer/colonized relationship not only isn’t dead, it’s here. We meet a native Hawaiian working at the resort (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) who says his family is fighting his place of employment in a land dispute. We see an employee strung along by a time-suck of a guest who dangles the prospect of funding her business idea. We see the hotel manager increasingly frazzled by the unrelenting demands of a blood-boilingly entitled guy’s inability to let a small problem go. This hotel is a paradise of astonishing views, sumptuously photographed in every crashing wave and painterly sunset, and it’s filled with the pettiest, shallowest, tunnel-visioned people. The ensemble is uniformly strong—biting off snappy lines and wallowing in self-loathing or despicable behavior, all the worse when it’s tossed off so casually as to not see the impact, even on their supposed loved ones. They’re too busy rushing off to the next sex, drugs, alcohol, conference call, spa treatment, or scuba training on their to-do list.

White writes the upstairs-downstairs dynamic with aplomb, clearly having great empathy for the genuine pain all parties find themselves in, while allowing the dialogue to sparkle and snap with the most laser-focused incisive satirical detail. He lets the truly loathsome distinguish themselves from the merely troubled with their own words—digging holes for others to fall into. Watch how a well-meaning person accidentally ruins a life; or a high-society mother (Molly Shannon) swoops in chanting about the benefits of money, money, money; or a seemingly good-intentioned offer becomes just another heartbreak when a new distraction comes along. In total, the six hours add up to a compelling piece of work, as hilarious as it is sad, as enraging and it is engaging. Even the score, a howling, near-hyperventilating pseudo-Hawaiian folk song theme that settles into lovely languors of classical music or tribal hymns, captures the uncertain mood. The season builds to a fevered finale in which agonies and ecstasies are approached and sometimes tipped over, and ends in a grand melancholy disappointment and a note of tenuous, fleeting near-hope. White sees the worst in his characters while also seeing the full complexity and context behind these qualities. He loves, and he loathes, sometimes at once. He transcends caricature to find real, complicated portraits of these particular people. He finds moments of grace, and moments of criticism, and moments when characters finally collide in inevitable disagreements. And he understands the greater societal impact their flaws have. He watches as no matter what happens, these guests are free to go take their chaos elsewhere and leave others to pick up the consequences.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Call of the Mild: JUNGLE CRUISE and VIVO

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to a throwback to a throwback. It’s Jaume Collet-Serra’s Stephen Sommer’s Steven Spielberg’s homage to adventure serials. And then there’s a whole lot of other recent(ish) live-action Disney adventure movies — Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure — thrown in on top of the fact it’s loosely based on an attraction from Disneyland et al. The wonder is that it works at all. The jaunty opening has much promise. It’s 1916, a time when a story like this would’ve made fine pulp magazine reading. We find a scrappy woman explorer (Emily Blunt) infiltrating a stuffy old boy’s club scientific association in jolly old London in order to heist an artifact that will lead her to a magic flower deep in the Amazon. There’s some clever sneaking and light fisticuffs, ending with a near-pratfall involving a window, a ladder, and a double decker bus. Neat. From there, the whole set up is archetypal adventure fun as it goes through some stunt-show paces. To the plucky woman we add her persnickety posh brother (Jack Whitehall) off to the jungle where they hire a punning, slumming skipper (Dwayne Johnson) willing to hire his ramshackle boat for their purposes. Hot on their tail: the Kaiser’s U-boat-captaining son (Jesse Plemons) who speaks in a loopy accent and talks intently with wild animals; and some gloopy undead conquistadors who look like rejected designs from Verbinski’s Pirates.

So the variables are there for a fine adventure, every cog in place. Even the thin, vaguely African Queen dynamic plays off some light crackling dialogue at first. Johnson does sturdy, unsurprising work as a steady rock, while Blunt wears the pants in the transaction, and the character actors spin around the margins to keep the plot and the comedic relief puttering along. There’s a baseline competency here, surely courtesy director Collet-Serra, who, with smaller genre efforts from the disturbing adoption horror story Orphan and economical shark attack picture The Shallows to a string of Liam Neeson’s best thrillers, often does more with less. Here, though, in the grinding machine of the biggest studio around, he ends up doing less with more. As the movie goes on, the stunts get less focused on charming old school pleasures like dangling from ropes and swinging off boats, and more on endless CG haziness and weightless peril that drags on and on. By that point the characters have never really sparked with personality beyond the surface appeal. Even the increasingly boring puzzle that is the central quest — it’s both too simple to care about, and too complicated to figure out without arbitrary exposition — never generates more than a token amount of suspense. The fizz goes out of the confection way too early and then you’re just stuck watching the animatronic figures passing for people as the screenplay’s stiff hydraulics makes them herk and jerk. The whole thing is dopey and baggy and corny and chipper and artificial. In other words: it’s a theme park ride. Guess that’s the point.

Somehow Sony Animation has been more consistent about letting the distinct personalities of its filmmakers shine through their projects. Earlier this year was the charming, hectic, sharply funny The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which definitely fits the Gravity Falls sweet-and-silly creepy-and-clever mold from which its makers hail. Other high points include Spider-Verse making comic panel sense out of CG swoops. Even the Hotel Transylvanias have been an interesting push-pull between the cartoony look of animator Genndy Tartakovsky and the hangout vibe of star Adam Sandler. The studio’s latest is Vivo, the story of an adorable kinkajou, a small critter that looks like a cross between a monkey and a raccoon. He performs with an old busker on the streets of Havana. If you didn’t go in aware this was a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, you’d know the instant the animal opened its cute little mouth to sing-rap his way through an introductory song. It gives the movie that distinct wordy patter and lilting melodies that made Hamilton and In the Heights such good song scores. Sure, Miranda’s seemingly been everywhere the last six or seven years, and sometimes crosses over into the omnipresence that invites backlash — or at least people growing tired of his formula — but I still get a little musical theater lift out of his syncopated enjambment and complicated rhymes. Vivo feels like his work through and through, from its loners longing for belonging, to families struck with loss, and communities coalescing around what makes them special. That the screenplay is credited partially to Quiara Alegría Hughes, Miranda’s Heights co-writer, makes that continuity all the more apparent.  

The plot here is pretty standard kids’ movie stuff, but it’s done up in pleasant style and set to a fine beat. Vivo’s elderly owner gets an invitation to attend the final concert of his old unrequited love, a famous singer who moved to Miami when they were younger. He can’t make it, for sad reasons, but Vivo gets his hands on a love song the man wrote for her explaining his true feelings. So it’s up to the kinkajou to get it to Miami himself, reluctantly tagging along with a rambunctious tween Floridian to get there in time. The simple story jets through the Everglades, meeting other animals along the way, while the girl’s mother gives chase, and the big concert draws nearer. The whole thing has the hurry-scurry energy of some Pixar-style moves, without working up to that level. And there’s never much sense that the ending’s in doubt. But, however thinly drawn, the designs of the characters are cute, and the look of the animation is painted in popping primary colors. And there’s a zip to its plotting that seems to understand the story is simple and the motivations are broad. Even when it leans down hard on sentimentality, there’s plenty of time spent in a sweet spot of cartoon silliness and unexpected little gags. (I liked a despondent love-sick bird, and, elsewhere, some overzealous Girl Scouts in pursuit of our leads.) There’s also the bouncing energy from consistently apportioned musical numbers keeping the project afloat. They may not be top-tier Miranda compositions (maybe the Moana vet is saving his really great stuff for his forthcoming return engagement with Disney Animation), but there’s a certain charm and cleverness to the Latin rhythms in music and lyrics. I couldn’t help but grin when an imaginative girl spins a swirling hallucination out of a dance track about following the beat of her own drum, or at a climactic number in which a speedboat zooms toward a neon Miami as different characters sing about running out of time. And in the end it’s a sweet-hearted all-ages movie about appreciating family you have and what talents you can share. It’s nice.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Bad Blood: THE SUICIDE SQUAD

James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is better than David Ayer’s 2016 adaptation of DC’s Dirty Dozen riff to which the new movie is a combo sequel, retread, and reboot. But what a low bar to set. Ayer’s version was severely compromised by studio meddling, as he’s more than willing to tell anyone who’ll listen. But even so, though his movie looked and moved like it barely got out of the editing room — choppy, ungainly, atonal, nonsensical — and had an off-putting ooze of nastiness in characterization and tone, it matched his filmmaking personality. Ayer, of End of Watch and Fury, is darkly preoccupied with antihero ugliness, cops and gangs, men of violence, inscrutable poisoned macho codes, and leering pleasure in bloodletting. One felt that, among the film’s many issues, his go-around in the comic book movie world was an oozing R barely, uncomfortably, trimmed back to a chaotic blockbuster PG-13. Somehow Gunn got to go all the way in this new version, clearly positioned as a corrective, a make-good acknowledgement the studio shouldn’t have held back last time. It just took a string of pleasantly eccentric and uneven DC movies — Aquaman, Shazam, Snyder’s Justice League — to get Warner Brothers to let creatives swing away, cinematic universe be damned. Why out do Marvel with connectivity when they could differentiate by going wilder and woolier?

So Gunn, hopping over from the rival house style after a stint with the Guardians of the Galaxy, is happy to meld the joshing Marvel sentimentality with his brand of affection for assembling a band of misfit toys and a bracing exploitation cynicism from his Troma days where gooey body horror and geysers of blood and guts are meant to give the audience a sick kick. The idea of assembling a team of C-list supervillains for a suicide mission remains an irresistible one, and this film is eager to turn it into a playground for character actors and effects artists. And the abandon of the storytelling makes any character fair game to receive a headshot as a punchline. It carries over leaders Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), as well as wild card Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and surrounds them with a new cast of expendables. Idris Elba makes the best impression as a reluctant leader, while the likes of John Cena, David Dastmalchian, and Daniela Melchior play a motley crew of combination comic relief and oddball energy. Each with their own powers — marksmanship, deadly polka dots, rats, and did I mention the talking shark (Sylvester Stallone)? — they’re dropped onto a fictional South American island where they trudge through the jungle and slip into a dictator’s compound with the mission of getting rid of a shady science experiment. The movie at least has the sense to set that simple objective and head straight there, while finding a few moderately engaging twists along the way. It’s enjoyable, if all a bit too much.

The project matches Gunn’s filmmaking personality, a quipping, vulgar, tightly scripted and shaggily developed mean-streak with a mix-tape heart of gold. He can’t help himself. His films play like the work of the most talented dirty-minded dork from your junior high all grown up. Here it comes out as prankish and coarse and high on its own self-amused supply. There’s some token nods towards serious ideas, like a recognition of compromised US foreign policy and a fig leaf of social commentary about prisons and militarism. (An all-American anti-hero named Peacekeeper says he loves peace so much he’s willing to kill every man, woman, and child who gets in its way. Ha.) But the movie is far more interested in sending its colorful characters into outrageously gory action and concussive, episodic spectacles. (Each new sequence is even separated with a new splashy title, like the next issue of a comic.) In practice, each little bit is a fine spin of studio filmmaking, loud and entertaining, bright and legible, smirking and savage, clever for clever’s sake. But as a total experience is gets awfully tedious and repetitive. I felt hollowed out by the end. Part of that draining sense comes from the slippery sliding scale between deaths played for laughs and deaths played for poignancy which feels all out of whack, from a massacre of freedom fighters shrugged off to one of our more sympathetic bad guys given a backstory of a hated mother that turns into a mean sight gag. It’d be more entertaining if it was less exhausting. And yet I found myself thinking despite myself that maybe the third time would be the charm?

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Head Games: THE GREEN KNIGHT

As an Arthurian legend, the English lit staple Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a chivalric stress test. It takes the self-professed weakest Knight of the Round Table, nephew to the King himself, and puts him in a simple supernatural contest that eventually tests his every vice. Thus, it makes sense The Green Knight, David Lowery’s new adaptation of this tale, is down in the gnarled moral complications and ponderous deep sorcery. It authentically inhabits the central tension between the upward pull of virtue and the the downward thrust of temptation. Watching it, so unusually structured, sticking more or less to the progression of events, with some embellishment and changes to the specifics, as laid forth in the 14th century poem and steeped in the symbolism and priorities of its characters’ moral perspective, the film starts to feel like what a medieval poet might’ve conjured if they knew about cinema. Lowery, whose works are so often atmospheric and moody in this particular hazy way, from big stuff like Disney remake Pete’s Dragon (perhaps the finest of its ilk) to intimate high-concept experiments like the spectral time-bending A Ghost Story, visualizes a stately verdant and chilly world, where the medieval muck of mud and blood is already dotted with crumbling buildings and moss-covered brick between vast stretches of pale fields and dark forests. The characters speak in murmurs, intone grave importance, cast spells, recite prayers, and send each other off with symbols and speeches, ritual perhaps grown hollow with the passing years. Arthur, too, is near the end, speaking in a sickly whisper; Sean Harris plays him with teeth hurting and breath cracking. When he stands at the Round Table for a Christmas celebration we can see the respect the Knights and Ladies have for him, but can only triangulate his charisma and power as things of the distant past, already passing into legend.

We can also see how the young man at his side, Gawain (Dev Patel), theoretically in the early heights of vigor and power, can’t quite measure up. Yet. That’s why he takes the challenge put forth by the surprise visitor, the Green Knight, who asks to receive a blow from a weapon, a strike he will repay one year hence. Gawain, afraid of those consequences, beheads the guest, who promptly recapitates himself and reminds all listening of the deadline. A deal’s a deal. The rest of the story involves Gawain diligently following through, trudging north after this magical figure in order to remain a man of his word. Along the way, as Lowery adds details to his laborious journey, including encounters with bandits, giants, and spirits, among others including a seductive Lady and Lord (Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton), it’s easy to wonder if living up to his promise is worth the cost. All this trouble just to lose one’s head. Patel makes a marvelous Gawain, handsomely smoldering with a wet-haired puppy-eyed fear and hidden hard-nosed ambition; he can be courageous, but when he is, it’s almost despite himself. He anchors long wordless stretches of dread wandering and enigmatic fantasy in the margins. 

Between the moody visuals and sluggish pace, the film becomes a slowly unfurling episodic parable, or maybe a clammy waking nightmare. More than once, the camera drifts and supernatural events are presented ambiguously. Lowery imbues the proceedings with a sense that the line between reality and unreality, truth and legend, is thinner the closer we get to the climax. And even there, where he adds a poignant riff on the idea of a life flashing before his eyes, you might initially scratch your head about what, exactly, you’re seeing. But it makes a certain intuitive, emotional, moral sense. The movie is so plain about what’s on its mind, and presents violence and sexuality so plainly (that and its narrative tweaks ensure it won’t be classroom viewing), that the big questions it tackles are never lost in the mists of a film that’s both magisterial and base. Can an impulsive young coward grow into a great knight? Can one easily drawn into mistakes learn from them and become a good man? What, in the end, are we to make of Gawain's plight? The questions are left naggingly unresolved in ways new and old here. Besides, we Gawain scholars have been wrestling with it for 600 some years. Here’s a striking reason to return.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Life's a Beach: OLD

M. Night Shyamalan’s Old has the simple parable power of a Twilight Zone-style conceit, the cheap one-location resourcefulness of a low-fi 50’s sci-fi B-movie, and all the potential stiffness that that could imply. And yet it has an eerie affect through nothing more than suggestion and contemplation of a genuinely horrifying idea if you approach it at the level of earnestness its filmmaker did. What would it be like to live a lifetime in an afternoon? How would your mind race and scramble? How would your anatomy betray you? What would you do with the time given to you? Seeing life dimming as sunset draws near gives you a painfully clear metaphor. The clock is always ticking. So it is with the characters here, a few families and a handful of others driven to a secluded beach by their hosts at the tropical resort where they are vacationing. Once there it’s soon enough clear that the kids are growing up right before their eyes. And then the adults start greying and wrinkling and, well, what else could be happening? They’re aging too fast! Thus goes this nutty thought experiment with Shyamalan’s usual preoccupation with creepy shivers and familial sentimentality. But he’s also here up to subtextual freakiness with squirmy ideas and twisted implications. The movie may not cohere as well as Shyamalan’s best work, but it’s gross and propulsive and never flags in its fluid focus.

On the one hand, it has the trauma of aging from the view of parents who see their cute offsprings’ entire childhoods fly by. (Don’t wish your life away, the mother ironically warns before the beach.) On the other hand is the perspective of adolescences transmogrifying youngsters in practically a blink, so that a 6-year-old mind is broiling in hormones of a 15-year-old body. That’s messed up. The film never quite pushes as far as it could into depravity — Shyamalan’s just not that kind of horror filmmaker — but it’s plenty unsettling as the paradoxically claustrophobic beachfront becomes the site of a cataloging of all the ways aging can turn your body against you: tumors and dementia and seizures and heart attacks and broken bones and blindness and so on. As the day continues, the adults are in rough shape, and the children are thoroughly rattled. (Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie do good work playing stunted kids caught between ages, foreign in their own bodies.) Looking at them, it’s clear growing old is scary stuff. Sure, the movie has them behave in some clunky ways and dialogue can grow creaky and the progression of events sometimes wobbles. But one could easily hand wave that by asking if you’d handle being trapped in this situation any better. How would you even begin to reason your way out of this dilemma? You’re getting older by the second! I suspect there is a purposeful disconnect from the expected behavior. Do you think Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps and Rufus Swell, among others, would behave this awkwardly and unnaturally, all together and in the same pitch and register, for no reason? They’re lost in the melancholy and confusion of passing time as it rushes past. They hardly recognize what they’ve had before it’s gone.

There’s something bordering on chintzy to the premise and execution, but just when I found myself squinting to comprehend its sometimes-flimsy leaps, Shyamalan would win me back by hooking into the tingling emotions jolting the odd mystery of the piece. By the end, of course there’s a solution to all this. And though it wraps up the events with a tight semi-silly but workable conclusion, it doesn’t exactly satisfy (and also clangs a bit against the tenor of the times — I wonder how it’ll play a decade hence). But the journey there is so persistently off-kilter, adrift from convention, with characters totally at a loss to describe what they’re seeing or to understand a way out. Who can’t relate? And Shyamalan matches the confusion with a sincerity attuned to that state: with long takes falling into jittery handheld shots, 360 degree pans that blur and smear, a lingering on bodies in ways that matter-of-factly clue us into shocking changes by revealing a curvier hip or a freshly bulging belly. The shot framing our group of characters through a decomposed rib cage is typical of the attention to highlighting the potential for decay in all of us, the bars that hold us captive. Even when scripts get thin, Shyamalan remains a filmmaker with a distinct visual sense and a finely honed sense of space and storytelling within the wide screen. To see a movie that could’ve easily been disposable or even unworkable on the page lifted to intriguing and compelling and downright interesting through sheer force of filmmaking makes me wish we had more directors working at this level.

Hit Record: SUMMER OF SOUL, Taylor Swift (x2), BILLIE EILISH, TINA, SPARKS, and MCCARTNEY

Regard a recording of a musician at work — movement and sound inextricably tied, plus the magic trick of seeing beautiful melody and rhythm plucked out of thin air, and the artist-magicians who conjure it up despite, or maybe because, of their problems. How cinematic. The best music documentaries give us a sense of being present with the art form as it is expressed — and the very best help us hear what makes it interesting. Although the greats in the genre are fine works of style and function on their own terms, there are plenty more that are hardly better than actually spinning the record or pulling up to a concert. But since the live show has been rightfully paused of late, it’s made it not quite so bad that the past couple years we’ve been drowning in these films. I bet the fans of the artists so chronicled don’t mind. If music be the food of love, play on, and all that. It’s no wonder Questlove’s Summer of Soul, which bounces with high spirits between retrospective and contextualizing interviews and long excerpts from footage of a 1969 summer concert series in Harlem with a star-studded lineup of Black musicians, has struck a satisfied nerve for some audiences. In these long, slow, frustrating days that are what we hope might be the end of our current epidemic, just the sight of a huge crowd of people gathered anxiety free to get transported to a place of pure delight through the charisma and style of the people there to play for them is a delight. That the movie might overreach in some of its claims — the concert was, contrary to the subtitle, televised — doesn’t diminish Questlove’s high-energy treatment of the standard talking head style. When a music doc is really cooking, it makes the best of the charisma of performance and interplay with audience. It makes a musician look good.

The artists, too, must love that treatment, since they’ve so often been guiding these projects as an extension of brand management and reputation burnishment. Take Taylor Swift, whose busy 2020 included two documentaries. The better was the pre-pandemic Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s relatively open look at the process of Swift developing Lover after the comparatively less well-received Reputation. (An unfair knock, I’d say. There are, as the kids say, some real bops on that record.) Throughout, the backdrop of These Times In Which We Live play out, and force her to confront her fear of going the way of The (Dixie) Chicks if she gets too overly political. We see the pressures to open up — and stand up. And we see how it adds stresses to her professional and personal circles. But we also see an artist at work, noodling through melodies and lyrics with casual professionalism, flowing talent, and steely determination. It’s the kind of carefully crafted drops of personal revelation and behind-the-scenes machinations that makes for an interesting watch. Her Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions, coming on the heels of the first of her surprise lockdown-made albums last fall, is more straightforward—a cozy, simple performance of a solid album interspersed with some brief comments about each track, clearly a way to do an intimate concert for her fans in a way that’s impossible at the moment. Taken together, the two films are a fine picture of a few years in the life of an interesting pop figure. Unlike, say, Demi Lovato’s YouTube doc Dancing with the Devil, an awkward blend of harrowing detail and glossy remove which presents candor as a value in and of itself while being edited so slickly and choppily that it’s hard to think about anything but the packaging, Swift has opened up in ways more akin to the usual pop star realism.

Similarly, and even better, is R.J. Cutler’s Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. It’s a fly-on-the-wall as the teenager emerges from her childhood bedroom with some powerfully catchy hooks and moves toward stardom with a winning reluctance. Within baggy clothes and behind rolling eyes, she’s every bit the reluctant rock star, overflowing with obvious talent and yet skeptical of the hoops through which she’s jumped. The film shows her parents as cautious and supportive, her older brother as protective, and Eilish herself a lively, excited, sarcastic, surly, and altogether real young person. Surely that’s good for the brand. But it also feels real enough. It preserves a sense of authenticity even as she’s pulled into concert tours and music videos and Grammy awards. It has tons of footage of her testing talents at a young age, her giddy bewilderment as her songs catch on, and her hard-working drive that can send her limping backstage with an ice-pack, or leaning on the emotion her young audience pours back at her. See, too, her mix of pop star posturing and starstruck fawning when Justin Bieber’s people reach out for a potential collaboration. Come to think of it, this film is a more earnest version of the Biebs’ Never Say Never, a similar look at a turning point that took a teen from a young person’s social media phenom to a global sensation. Eilish's doc, true to its title, presents a blurry sense of sudden ascension, and the tensions it creates, a push-pull in the life of an abnormally normal star-on-the-rise. Somehow she’s still coming across as relatable and real despite the skyrocketing trajectory of her stardom. As a picture of a new star, it’s an interesting document. No matter where she goes from here, it’ll be an engaging marker of this moment in time.

At the other end of a career is Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Tina, an authorized biography interviewing Tina Turner about the trials and tribulations of her career. We also hear tape of 80’s conversations she had with Kurt Loder when he helped write her autobiography. She’s always present, but the movie does a good job making it more than a long self-narrated career retrospective. (Not that I would’ve minded that, necessarily. Spike Jonze made a good version of that form with the surviving Beastie Boys for last year’s fun Beastie Boys Story.) For Tina, we pause at all the hits and see great footage of her in concert and TV appearances at every stage of her career. The film deftly weaves in an understanding of her challenges and assets, contextualizes her talent in the business of the time, and watches as she rises from professional and relational struggles to become a self re-made woman. It touches upon her experiences with domestic violence without lingering on unseemly details and crafts a fine sparkling uplift out one of the great singers finding her voice as a singer and an independent woman. It’s fast-paced and full of well-chosen archival footage (among the highlights has to be an interview promoting her great villain turn in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where she discusses the angry man in her past while Mel Gibson sits silently next to her) and knows to let the songs play. They speak more than anything else can. When she struts up to the microphone and pours every ounce of her grit and perseverance into her singing, you don’t want to be listening to anyone else. She earns the legend status the awestruck movie takes as its underlying thesis. We don’t need another hero, indeed.

Another in the what-a-career style comes from Edgar Wright, that most inventive and original of filmmakers, he of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and other visually zippy and creatively cut genre fare. He’s a big fan of the oddball underground rock band Sparks and sets out to tell us why they’re great. He does so through The Sparks Brothers in a relatively standard style, with talking heads (of critics and fans and bandmates and contemporaries) and tons of archival footage, with a chronological stop at each and every one of the band’s albums for discussion about the hit singles, underperforming disappointments, sonic experimentation, or oddball genre swerves. They’re a band that turns falsetto loops over sharply ironic lyrics on albums that run the gamut from glam rock to proto-punk to early synth. They’ve had eccentric chameleonic abilities to anticipate shifts in sound, while simply following their creative bliss. This sometimes puts them ahead or behind the times—or way off on their own doing their own thing.. This has left them the status of having incredible longevity despite being, for most people, a name they might’ve heard once or twice, or a novelty song they might distantly remember more than a going concern. As a whirlwind fanboy tour, Wright does a good job introducing the world to why these guys are of note. It’s clear Sparks has passion and creativity and originality and it’s fun to see them emerge from the underground cult status to something like a mainstream spotlight. As a movie, it’s pretty standard stuff. Even Wright’s cute touches are less inventive than his wont, tending toward the trendy animate filigrees and recreations that clutter so many modern docs. (I did like best how he credits each member of Duran Duran in their interview as just one Duran each.) But it did make me cue up a couple Sparks albums on Apple Music afterwards, so there you go.

My favorite music docs, if you follow the trend, tend to be the ones that, through context or focus, attention or expression, teach you how to understand what you’re hearing, not didactically but sensorily, opening up new ways of comprehending what might’ve ear-wormed pleasingly without a second thought to the complexity. And in doing so it brings the artists into a more revealing light. So it is I’ve probably most appreciated Hulu’s McCartney 3,2,1, a short series of six half-hour episodes shot in evocative black and white, the better to focus in on every note in the sound mix. Loosely organized, each part finds Paul McCartney in conversation with record producer Rick Rubin as they play back tapes of Beatles cuts and solo stuff. As they run, he talks about inspirations and collaboration, the decision behind certain choices of instrumentation and intonation, and approaches a seemingly genuine humbleness when he half-embarrassed, half-proud admits that he’s grown into a fan of his own work. The production might lean a little heavily on Rubin’s starstruck wonderment at some of McCartney’s tales and tidbits, but, hey, I’d would be doing the same, too, wouldn’t you? The show lets these classic songs come back to life. I’d never really heard the bass line in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until all of a sudden Rubin pulls it out of the mix and lets it live alone in all its crunchiness. Or felt how fast the guitar rushes through its lick in “A Hard Day’s Night” until McCartney explains its speed. (If these bits of trivia have been told before, I hadn’t heard them.) I savored every note of this doc, and could’ve watched another three hours easily. Sometimes you just want to hear one of the greats talk about his work. We’ve never before had so much access to our biggest stars—it’s nice to see some of these music docs put that to good use.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Ready Player Dumb: SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY

From the time news of Space Jam: A New Legacy’s concept leaked, the comparison to Spielberg’s Ready Player One was inevitable. After all, both films from Warner Brothers involve video game worlds wherein a cavalcade of cameos from all manner of Intellectual Property (that joyless term) make appearances. But Spielberg’s film, for all its fluid spectacle and zippy formula, was often interested in the interplay between the airless echo chamber of the digital noise and the flesh-and-blood relationships withering on the other end of the virtual reality encasements — leading to a climax where pushing the button to delete the whole shebang seems a tempting prospect, and the hero ultimately coasts to a detente where the artificial culture is paused now and then to give our brains a break. No such reprieve is in store for the Space Jam sequel, a noisy and desensitizing blitz of branding and corporate braggadocio. Sure, it’s the sequel to a movie that was a similar calculation, but the smallness of the studio’s 1996 thinking the old beloved Looney Tunes and the surging popularity of the NBA would make sweet synergy seems almost quaint when confronted with where we are now. New Legacy finds LeBron James, as himself, sucked into the WB server at the behest of an evil algorithm (Don Cheadle, of all people) that wants to blackmail him into using his celebrity to boost old studio product. The computer offers him a chance to be in a Batman or a Harry Potter or a Game of Thrones, but when the star refuses, the servers zap him into a digital netherworld, and kidnaps his son (and eventually not only his family, but all their social media followers?). From there, the movie becomes endless noise and motion that congeals into one bland hyper-capitalist sludge — eventually culminating in nearly an hour of faux-cartoon pseudo-basketball that’s basically impossible to follow as it’s surrounded by a crowd of distracting random audience members and played by inscrutable video game rules.

So James must play this nightmare game to win their safety. And for some reason he teams up with Bugs Bunny. And to fill out the team, Bugs recruits the other Tunes, who are running wild through other WB movies in the vast solar system in the studio’s archive. Why? Because the movie wanted to insert them into old projects to remind us what they own. (That it’s a string of decidedly adult-oriented properties — Austin Powers, The Matrix, Mad Max, Casablanca, Rick and Morty — is beyond strange for an ostensible kids’ movie; at least DC is represented by Paul Dini-style animation and George Perez panels.) “Stream it now on HBO Max!” goes the missing ad. But why the Tunes? Because of the original Jam, I suppose. There’s little reference to it otherwise, and the Looney Tunes have been lobotomized, and removed of all wit and soul. They’re cheaply, roughly, blandly animated, so they don’t look quite like themselves — imagine if Disney trotted out the Muppets and they were moth-bitten and falling apart. The Tunes are made to say things like “haters gonna hate” and “well, that happened” as if they’re the idiot reaction shot comic relief in a subpar youth-baiting studio fantasy. (A low point has to be Daffy Duck sputtering that the villain is “a son of a glitch.”) The slapstick they’re given is, at best, dull copies of better gags from shorts gone by. And, worse still, they spend part of the movie as dulled CG versions of themselves, the better to have Porky Pig rap, I guess? Worst of all, though, is how meaningless and empty the movie is from first frame to last. It plays like one of those dead-eyed belated sequels cooked up for an unrelated Super Bowl commercial — a fate befallen E.T. and Edward Scissorhands of late. A New Legacy, funnily enough, has nothing new, and ends up ironically agreeing with its villain: a studio mercilessly exploiting stuff it owns and brands it can acquire to remind us of all the better original things they once did. And trick as many people to pay for it as possible.