Monday, May 10, 2021

Movie Review: Shadow in the Cloud

By rights, this should be in one of those mini-review roundups I've been doing. This movie isn't all that new (its US release was on January 1, and it technically premiered last September). And I was going to just toss it into one of those. I even started typing up some thoughts. The thing is... it's just that...

This movie fucking rules, and I couldn't bring myself to relegate it to a few paragraphs.

More than that, this doesn't just rule in a conventional way. This isn't a situation where someone took a typical premise, produced a typical genre movie, and just managed to get everything right. This thing is weird as hell, its existence feels bizarrely anachronistic, and it delivers an experience that's as unique as it is, once again, fucking awesome.

If that's enough for you, please stop reading, open Hulu, and watch this batshit crazy horror/action/adventure hybrid for yourself. Just take it in. Maybe you'll love it like I do; maybe you'll be more bothered by the obvious seams where the movie's budget falls short. Either way, I promise, it's not what you're expecting.

For those of you still here, as always, I'll try and avoid plot points or twists, but I want to stress this thing isn't really powered by those. Its strength comes from visceral emotion and artistic audacity, and it's hard to talk about a movie like that without spoiling a bit of that experience. So, again, I'm inviting you - begging you even - to go watch Shadow in the Cloud without reading another word.

All right then. Since you're still here, let's talk about realism, or more accurately the absence thereof. This movie is untethered to reality in a way few modern movies are. What's almost more intriguing, however, is how it reveals that. Most movies that embrace truly impossible elements (I'm not just talking monsters - I mean physics and reason) do so upfront. They open with an acknowledgement of the absurd to get you onboard. They ask you to suspend your disbelief from the start, so you're not surprised when reality unravels. Think Tarantino movies or Speed Racer: these movies maintain a consistent tone to ensure they're not too jarring.

This does something a bit more subtle. With the exception of a monstrous creature, the first half of the movie is largely realistic. It uses this time to bring us into the point-of-view and psychology of its protagonist, played by ChloĆ« Grace Moretz. It creates a claustrophobic environment for her and puts pressure on her from all sides. You see that pressure affect her. Scare her. Threaten her. You almost expect it to break her, only...

If she was going to break, she'd have broken a long time ago. The movie doesn't say this outright, but it shows us. It sells us on how tough she is, which matters, because we need to buy into that to accept what comes next.

We've seen heroines in horror movies pivot before - that's not new. I'm not sure I've seen it done this effectively. Everything in the movie builds to a moment when we watch Moretz lose her patience rather than her mind, and just as the first half was expressed by showing her being quite literally bottled up, the second half... well... you couldn't convey her mental state in anything resembling reality, anyway.

The movie's big set piece is, in a word, audacious. It would have been audacious in a movie with ten times the budget this had. Attempting it at all was absurd, and by rights it shouldn't work. We're talking trying to do a big-budget sequence without the budget, so they're left trying to sell an already ridiculous sequence with obvious green screens, silly-looking explosions, and not even a big enough fan to sell the wind in her hair.

And they knock it out of the goddamn park.

None of it looks real or believable. But because of the way the movie's structured, it doesn't have to. Because we're in the head of the protagonist, we only need to believe in her motives and determination. We don't need to believe any of this is real; we need to experience the story on its own terms.

They used to make genre movies this way. They used to sell fantastic ideas with actors and stories rather than trying for flawless effects. I'm not saying that philosophy was always better, but it's refreshing to see it used again, and even more refreshing to see it used that well.

It's also refreshing to hear it. This thing also tosses out the assumption movie music should disappear into the background. Shadow in the Cloud features a delightfully retro soundtrack that makes its presence known, and I love it.

I love a lot of things about this movie. I love that the monster is maybe the third most pressing concern as far as the main character is concerned. I love that the ending goes in a direction I don't think I've ever seen before, and it's glorious. I love that the theme is as unsubtle and unapologetic as the physics. ChloĆ« Grace Moretz nails absolutely every scene she's in, which it turns out is literally every scene in the movie, so that's another point in the movie's favor.

This was directed by Roseanne Liang, who I'm guessing you've never heard of before, either. Well... now I've heard of her, and I want more. Someone airdrop her a pallet of money to make a Marvel flick or two dozen indie productions or something. Anything. Whatever she wants.

It's hard to compare this movie to anything, but if pressed I'd point to Attack the Block or Mandy. It's genre that ignores the rules and actually offers some genuine surprises.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Catch-Up, Part 6: Awards Bait

This is the sixth installment in my ongoing series of mini-reviews of newish movies I missed in the theater, because I literally haven't been to a movie theater in close to two years.

The movies I'm looking at today were all well received and with good reason: to the extent the word "objectively" means anything in this context, they're all objectively great films.

I hadn't meant to do a "movies for grown-ups" installment - I'm a strong believer that "good" and "genre" aren't mutually exclusive labels, and further that most "awards contenders" can be accurately classified under various genre labels. But I basically spent the last five articles siphoning off all the conventional genre movies - good and bad - I've seen, leaving... well... mostly a bunch of high quality films that didn't fit elsewhere. I don't want to sit on these forever - I saw one of the movies below back in January 2020 - so here we are.

Nomadland (2020)
Not a lot to say here aside from the obvious: it's beautifully shot and edited into something that feels closer to a cross between a documentary and poetry than a narrative film. This is already blurring the line between reality, adaptation, and story - it doesn't fit neatly in any bucket. On one hand, it's a moving and simple character study; on another, it probes into some darker aspects of how our nation operates.

It's a fantastic movie, so I feel bad admitting my main takeaway is that Eternals is in great hands.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
I hate that I don't love more of Taika Waititi's movies. For the record, I did love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And I've been getting into the series, What We Do in the Shadows, but the movie it was based on didn't really work for me. Same goes for the rest of his filmography - I liked them fine, but I didn't love them.

The weird thing is I should love them. I'm generally a sucker for this kind of humor, and I love absurdist settings and situations. His approach should be right up my alley. And it's not like I think the love he gets is unearned - I can watch these and appreciate how well they're crafted. He's a phenomenal filmmaker.

I think it comes down to a minor stylistic quibble. His movies are made to keep the audience at arm's length. He wants you to be conscious of the fact you're watching a movie, and he uses the fourth wall accordingly. He doesn't want the audience pulled so far into the film they get lost in the story.

Again, this isn't a good or bad thing, just a choice. But it's a choice that clashes with my personal preferences regarding movies (especially these kinds of movies).

I want to stress, this is a great film. The characters are fantastic, the direction is wonderful, the story is timely... it's fantastic. I'm not criticizing any aspect. I honestly wish I could toggle the part of my brain that kept me from enjoying this more.

Little Women (2019)
I'm a geeky man who generally prefers movies about spaceships and superheroes. If I'd been living in the world of Little Women, I'd have been one of the readers who was sad Jo's violent genre stories disappeared. This movie isn't from a genre I seek out.

A few years ago, someone convinced me to give the 1994 adaptation (that's the one with Winona Ryder) a shot. Their pitch may have involved overselling its holiday credentials (I've got a relatively liberal outlook on what constitutes a Christmas movie, and Little Women doesn't check enough boxes). At any rate, I watched that and was bored to tears. Nothing about the story or characters clicked with me.

So why in the world did I give another adaptation a shot? Simple. Because all the geeky reviewers I listen to who also like spaceships and superheroes swore this was one of the best movies of last year. So I gave it a chance, and...

Yeah, this movie rules. It just totally rules.

I'm not going to sit here and write at length about how amazing the cast was or how beautiful the film was. I'm not going to go in depth about how brilliant the structural changes were or how cleverly the movie explored the book's relationship to the author's life or any of that. I'd just be rehashing what a billion critics already said. And besides, while those aspects are a big part of what I appreciated this adaptation, they're not why I loved it.

What I actually loved about it was the humor and warmth. Moments that bored me in the 1994 version felt fresh and real here. It didn't matter that I knew the story or even that I had negative associations with it - I was riveted. 

That's a hell of an achievement. Check this out if you haven't already.

Spaceship Earth (2020)
Do I include documentaries in these things? Have I ever talked about a documentary on this blog in any context? Damned if I remember. But I want to say a few things about this one, mainly because it was a lot of fun. Also, while it isn't technically science fiction, it's science fiction adjacent to a degree that's absurdly rare.

The subject of the documentary is the 1991 "experiment" where eight people were sealed (well, mostly sealed - there were complications) in an airtight complex for two years. The goal was to create a sustainable environment made up of habitats from all over the planet. The idea was both inspired by science fiction and motivated by a similar drive: if we ever want to set up colonies on other worlds, this is what they'll need to look like.

The first third largely centers on the group behind the project, and they're hard to categorize. Part-hippie, part commune, part corporate think tank... I kept feeling conflicting reactions where part of me wanted to laugh at them while another part wishes I was alive back then and could have joined them. They're a fascinating group.

It's kind of a shame they conducted their experiment when they did. I feel like the concept could be executed much more effectively now using hydroponics and an improved understanding of biology. But good luck getting the funding together - I suspect that was a one-time deal, at least in this country.

At any rate, the documentary is worth a watch, just be prepared for the twist ending, when [spoiler alert] Steve Bannon shows up and takes over. Seriously - Steve Bannon. It feels like the studio interfered and made the director wedge him into the movie to set up a sequel, until you remember you're watching historical footage and all this really happened.

Hustlers (2019)
Hustlers is the kind of movie I'd typically ignore entirely, despite being able to hear every critic in the country hollering its praises at the top of their lungs. At a glance, it just doesn't sound like a genre I'd be interested in.

But, okay, funny story. A few years ago I got bored and watched "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," a movie that received lukewarm reviews. And once I finished watching it, I vowed to watch basically anything else the mad genius behind it made for the rest of her career. Damn, that movie is good.

I wasn't disappointed in The Meddler, and I sure as hell wasn't disappointed in Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria is a master at juggling genres and balancing tones. Hustlers is more or less a mafia movie spliced with a drama about friendship, all delivered with humor. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't work, but Scafaria makes it look easy.

Track this down if you haven't seen it. And, for the love of God, also watch Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Seriously. It's one of the most underrated genre films of all time.

Dolemite is My Name (2019)
After watching Dolemite is My Name, I tried explaining the premise to my wife and was mostly at a loss. In some ways, it's closest to Ed Wood, but that's not a fair comparison. If anything, this movie seems intent on dismissing just that sort of characterization of Rudy Ray Moore. The film is ultimately a comedy, but it's not an especially funny one. It's more interested in celebrating its subject's unique place in cinema and pop culture than in making jokes.

This is, at the end of the day, a character study. It's a biopic about a man who realized there was a untapped market for a particular type of entertainment producers didn't understand or take seriously. While I don't have a background with this character or the genre he worked in, I'm more than familiar with that theme - it's somewhat universal in film and television. And this movie handles it masterfully.

And that's not even getting into the fantastic character work and the beautiful visuals (this looks more like a movie made in the '70s than most movies made in the '70s).

If you've got a few hours and a Netflix subscription, this one's more than worth the time.

The Farewell (2019)
This is the sort of movie I rarely watch unless it’s set at Christmas, but my sister gave it a strong recommendation. And… yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s a dramedy about cultural differences, family relationships, and difficult moments. There’s not a great deal of story beyond the premise (which I’m not spoiling for a reason), but this winds up feeling like a feature rather than a bug. Characters behave realistically, which means growth and development are more subtle and internal than you’d typically get in this genre. I spent the movie waiting for “the big moment” and was pleasantly surprised when it went in another direction (it kind of had to – the movie’s based on a true story).

Beyond the fantastic character work, amazing acting, and nuanced look at cultural differences, the movie also features some stunning cinematography. It’s beautifully shot, to the point I’d recommend it on that fact alone (or at least I would if everything else wasn’t even better).