Sunday, March 27, 2022

Catch-Up, Part 9: Best Picture Adjacent

Welcome back to my series of mini-reviews for movies that have been out too long to justify anything more substantial.

I already uploaded the installment doubling as my rankings for this year's Best Picture nominees, but that leaves out a bunch of movies that were nominated in other categories, as well as some from previous years. I've also got one or two that weren't nominated but should have been (That'll do, Pig. That'll do), and a few that had a lot of awards-season buzz.

Look, no one promised these themes were always going to make sense.

Titane (2021)

I honestly think that's the most messed up movie I've ever seen. I don't seek out highly disturbing movies, and I outright refuse to watch torture porn, so take that with a grain of salt. But with that being said, Titane is... it's pretty horrific.

That said, it's incredibly well made. It gets under your skin, in your head, and then it just... it does really unsettling things once it's there. Like, really unsettling.

The movie's narrative doesn't make much sense if you try to understand it rationally, but it all feels right. I found the effect incredibly impressive: I kept thinking the movie should be losing me with each successive step away from reality, but instead it kept me engaged. You believe in the world of the movie, even knowing how ridiculous it would sound if you attempted to explain it. Titane is very much running on dream logic. Nightmares will do that, I suppose. 

Recommendations are particularly tricky. You really want to go into Titane blind, but I'd hesitate to send the wrong person in the direction of this film. Seriously, if you've got the wrong phobia or trigger, this thing could do serious damage. If that sounds like an exciting challenge, then this one's for you. Otherwise... I don't know what to tell you. Maybe find a friend you trust who's seen it and knows what bothers you, then visit them in the asylum they were committed to after watching Titane and ask for their opinion.

Pig (2021)

I went into this relatively blind, which is by far the best way to experience this thing. In that spirit, I'm going to start by saying upfront if you haven't seen this, you should do so without reading further. While I'm not going to go into detail, even discussing genre spoils a lot.

You were warned.

Okay, a lot of what makes this delightful is what it isn't. Because, if you know the premise, you know it's about a man, played by Nicholas Cage, trying to reclaim his stolen pig. And if you've seen any publicity artwork, you're likely expecting a cross between John Wick and Mandy. And this... it's not that. At all.

Because this isn't an action movie. If anything, it's an anti-action movie. It uses the visual language of action movies and related genres, but it subverts every expectation as far as violence is concerned, to the point it starts to feel like Pig is mocking you for expecting Cage to throw a punch or reveal he's ex-military or some other cliché.

Instead, we're treated to the pacifist equivalent of a crime story, set in the Pacific Northwest, starring Cage at the top of his game. The movie's funny, sweet, intelligent, and profoundly sad. It's beautiful and wonderful, and I hope you didn't read all this before getting to experience it for yourself.

Summit of the Gods (2021)

Apparently the backstory here is dense. This is a French animated movie based on a Japanese manga inspired by an ongoing search for a camera belonging to a mountain climber who vanished in the 1920s. The primary story in the movie centers around a pair of fictional climbers, though I doubt I was alone in needing Google to confirm who was real and who wasn't.

The movie itself is a sort of an existential meditation built around mountain climbing. Tone drives the film - it wants you to feel the epiphanies, fear, and loss its characters go through on their journeys. And to its credit, it does a pretty damn good job selling all that.

The downside is that's more or less all you get. There is some development and exploration of character, too, but it's mostly in service of its tone and philosophical exercise. Even with a relatively tight focus on just a handful of important characters, you don't feel like you get much more than a surface glance and the outlines of a manifesto.

That's not a problem - the movie isn't trying to do anything other than what it manages - it's absolutely a success. It's an effective, tense adventure that takes you through an ideology pertaining to mountain climbing and (obviously) any other human endeavor you want to extend the metaphor to.

If that's what you're looking for, you'll be impressed with the result. But if you're looking for anything else, you'll likely be underwhelmed. This is the sort of movie where one viewer might call it "captivating and profound" while another calls it "boring," and both perspectives have merit.

Tick, Tick... Boom (2021)

I'm not sure whether or not this was a good idea. It's essentially an autobiographical musical from Jonathan Larson, the playwright behind Rent who died just before it became a massive hit. On one hand, the mystique and tragedy of his life are inherently interesting, and the fact there's a way to tell his story in his words and music is really cool. It's the story of him creating his art and contemplating his life and legacy.

It's just... let's back up and examine what that art actually is, because this isn't the story of Rent. Instead, it's the story of another musical, which ultimately fails to launch and teaches him that he needs to write what he knows, a revelation that results in the creation of the musical we're watching, which...

I mean, there's a reason this one never went anywhere. Actually, there are several reasons. First, the songs aren't great, which is kind of an issue given the medium. Second, this is, well...

I feel bad saying this, but let's not kid ourselves: the premise is a fairly generic, self-indulgent story that assumes audiences will find the author's life and point of view meaningful or compelling. And it doesn't help that the parts that are kind of meaningful aren't really his story. Larson lost friends to the AIDS epidemic, and one of them is a major character. Major, but not the main character: this is still about the lessons Larson learned. The way others' tragedies effected him. His pain and growth.

And... yeah, that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This kind of "stories about middle-class white authors turned bohemians writing stories" is extremely common. It's practically a cliché: every writer (and I'm no exception) thinks they're special. A lot of writers try to chronicle their lives and tell their story. The reason these don't make up the majority of movies, books, and plays out there is readers and audiences disagree with that assessment.

Does the fact Larson was ultimately right change that calculus? I guess that depends on whether you're invested in Larson and his legacy. If so, this is likely going to appeal to you. But me? I still haven't actually seen Rent, so, while I know the context, it doesn't mean much to me. I'm left rating this on its own merits, and....

Look. This isn't bad. Lin Manuel Miranda does a solid job turning this into a movie. He doesn't transform this into something incredible, but he's fine as a director. Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield is really good in the lead. And if you look through the Wikipedia article, the research behind this thing is really impressive.

But, again, the music isn't all that good, the story isn't particularly interesting or unique, and I didn't find the main character all that likable, in no small part because he clearly believed the story he was writing was worth writing. If that seems like an overly meta complaint, keep in mind, this movie is several adaptations deep, to say nothing of the abandoned play it's partly about and features a song from.

If you're a fan of Rent, my guess is you've already seen this, love it, and most likely hate me right now. Sorry? But if you're not a big fan of that musical, this probably isn't going to win you over.

The Last Duel (2021)

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, which I actually think is kind of a strike against an otherwise pretty good movie. Let me explain: this is ultimately a fairly brutal look at sexual assault and the way society devalues women. The fact the society in question is 14th century France and the issues at play remain completely relevant is basically the point. The details have changed, but the social dynamics are eerily similar. Women's voices are largely ignored, accusations of rape are more dangerous than the crime itself, and vast legal systems give powerful men a host of options and protections. Still pretty damn relevant.

The problem is those themes are kind of overshadowed by Ridley Scott's preoccupation with settings and atmosphere. That's what really stuck with me - I found the experience of watching that world enjoyable, which feels inherently wrong. This shouldn't be fun or pleasant: it should be upsetting and scary. And, to be fair, when we actually get to the titular duel, it is. There's a lot at stake for the only character we give a damn about.

Those who aren't comfortable watching sexual assault should of course approach with caution, if at all. The rape scene (scenes, really, though the last one is by far the hardest to watch) is pretty brutal. And, despite unambiguously taking the victim's side, the movie still feels more interested in its male characters.

Outside of the ending and the assault sequence, this was mostly just fun to watch. In this context, I suppose that counts as both an indictment of the film and as a sort of ironic recommendation for history and D&D nerds.

Flee (2021)

An absolutely incredible, heart-breaking film that pushes the boundaries of what animation can be used for and how documentary can be presented. It's hard to overstate how good and how effective this is. It's emotionally devastating, because it's so real and - on some level - so mundane. The experience of the man at the core of Flee isn't unique or even rare. Flee doesn't point fingers or delve into politics,  but if you can watch it without feeling ashamed at your country's policies, I don't know what to tell you.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

There's a moment at the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire when I was no longer certain whether I was looking at film, an oil painting, or some sort of animated effect or hybrid. The entire movie was designed and lit to resemble 19th century art, but in this moment, I honestly couldn't tell.

It was still live action, of course. I'm not sure if my experience was intentional or shared - honestly, I think most of it was in my mind. But that's the sort of magic trick this movie accomplishes through an almost unfathomable control over what you see and hear. It's difficult to convey how meticulous this film is. The most apt metaphor for the experience would be to that of watching a master painter create a portrait. It's a magic trick of storytelling that uses the medium of film with incredible precision.

I feel like I'm underselling this when I say I love this movie. I am in absolute awe of this movie. It's a work of art.

Parasite (2019)

Maybe my expectations were set too high, but while I enjoyed Parasite, it didn't leave all that much of an impact. Don't get me wrong - it's definitely a great movie. Well acted, extremely well written, and really well shot, I'm not at all confused as to why critics loved this. It just didn't entirely click with me.

That goes for the other movies I've seen from Bong Joon-ho, too. I wasn't a fan of Snowpiercer, and while I liked The Host, I wouldn't say I loved it (though it's definitely my favorite of the three). All are impressive films, but they weren't for me. Which is honestly odd, because on the surface, it seems like they would be - smart, genre films are typically what I'm looking for.

Some of this may come down to the endings. I'm not entirely adverse to dark finales, but I find I usually connect more when there's some grand twist or resonant connection. Bong Joon-ho's movies tend to wrap up with the concepts taken to their logical conclusion, coupled with an implied thematic statement. I certainly can't fault that style, but I also can't change what appeals to me.

Dunkirk (2017)

I always feel awkward in situations like these. Dunkirk's clearly well directed - fantastically well directed, in fact, in that it's expertly executed and is clearly as close to a perfect reflection of Nolan's vision as the medium allows. The pacing and editing give the film a relentless sense of dread, despite most of the major characters making it out alive.

So why was I left thinking, "Is that all?" as the end credits rolled?

The main issue (I'll leave it to you to decide whether it's an issue with me or the movie) is character. I rarely connect emotionally with characters in Nolan's movies, this time more than usual. Yes, I realize that's intentional. But it still leaves me unsatisfied at the end of most of his films.

I've watched enough movies to know this is good. And I did find it compelling enough - I liked it overall. But this didn't really pull me in or anything. I understand why its fans love it, and I think the awards were warranted. But when all was said and done, I was left underwhelmed.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

So... yeah. That might be one of the best movies I've ever seen.

I actually have a lot I'd like to say about this, in particular about my reaction to the ending, but I'm not going to. I honestly don't want to spoil anything. This deserves to be seen cold.

I will offer a few thoughts on tone, genre, and content, though I'm not sure how coherent they'll be. I'm seeing the movie referred to as a "dark comedy," which I think is technically true, but it doesn't really prepare you for what you're seeing. It's alternatively identified as a thriller, which I think is much closer. Tonally, it feels a little like American Psycho, with two major differences: 1) it's not gory, and 2) I liked it.

Let's talk content for a moment, because if you know anything about this movie, you know it deals with subject matter that can be difficult for some viewers. For what it's worth, the movie doesn't put much on screen: this is quite literally about the effects, not the actual crime. But that also means it digs into the psychology of its subject matter, which can be brutal in its own way. If that could be an issue, by all means read a plot synopsis before watching. But for everyone else, this is better experienced unspoiled.

It's a hell of a movie. Just phenomenal writing, acting, directing, and editing. I could go on, but honestly... just watch this.

Black Bear (2020)

This was a very weird, very artistic film that I enjoyed but didn't love. To be clear, in this context "didn't love" doesn't mean that this isn't great - I think it's extremely effective at what it's trying to achieve, the pacing is fantastic, and the performances are amazing (with Aubrey Plaza being the standout, though when isn't that the case?). 

What this doesn't do for me is connect. It's a movie about the artistic process, specifically about the dark side of the artistic process. Only like anything related to art, process isn't universal. This isn't how I find inspiration, so I feel a bit removed. That's not a problem with the movie, just a disconnect between me and the film. And, in all likelihood, with a lot of people. In particular, if you're not an artist who's played around in narrative mediums, I suspect this won't mean a great deal to you. That's not to say you won't get it, just that it won't have the same emotional impact it'll have on someone who bases stories on people they've known and situations they've experienced.

I'm not saying it's not still worth seeing - I think this works well enough as an off-kilter surrealist thriller - but there's a subset of artists I expect will walk away from this feeling like they just watched another Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. I'm just not one of those people.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Why the Best Picture Oscar Doesn't Matter This Year... But the Animated Does

I know everyone's laser-focused on the Best Picture race, but honestly I think the stakes are significantly higher in the Animated category this year. I've seen seven of the ten Best Picture nominees, and - with the exception of Don't Look Up - I wouldn't be particularly surprised to see any of them win. And even if Don't Look Up picks up the trophy, I'll mostly just find the whole situation funny (in contrast to Don't Look Up, which I did not find funny in the least).

When all's said and done, I don't think any of the Best Picture Nominees I've seen are significantly better than the majority of the other nominees. And while I reserve to change my mind after watching the remaining 30%, I'd be surprised if that were the case (I've seen the ones that are commonly shortlisted as the best of the bunch). This year's crop is pretty uniformly good (again, with that one exception): really good picks, but nothing I'd consider the absolute best, hands down.

Likewise, four of the five animated movies up for that category are all fantastic (the odd one out being Raya and the Last Dragon, which is still fine). I have an opinion on which is best, but it's not a particularly strong opinion.

But I don't think these awards should only be about which is the "best" movie. Even setting aside the fact it's a hilariously subjective concept, I think that framework ignores some crucial aspects as to which elements should be rewarded and why.

First, I think we need to consider whether a movie innovates and changes its category. For what it's worth, I don't believe any of the Best Picture nominees I've seen really check this box (though I can imagine a case being made for Drive My Car). But at the end of the day, the Best Picture nominees are pretty straightforward in their approach. They're entries in their respective genres that do those genres proud, not entirely new creations that change how we look at those genres.

To put it another way, I don't think the 2032 Oscar nominees are going to be appreciably different because these ten movies were made. Tell me that's not the case for Jaws, Star Wars, Black Panther, or Get Out (to name a few past nominees that didn't win but maybe should have).

I want to be clear this isn't something I expect all nominees or winners to accomplish, but I do think it's valuable to take it into consideration when picking. If all your movies are equally "good" but one transforms the medium, isn't that the "best?"

Alternatively, I think there's value in asking whether a movie is important. Does a piece of art change the conversation about its topic outside of its medium? Does it have the power to influence the world, even a little?

This isn't just a matter of having a good theme; you need to convey that theme in an effective manner. The issues Don't Look Up is discussing are of incredible significance, but can you imagine it changing any minds? 

Granted, a lot of movies are at least somewhat important. I could make a case for several of this year's Best Picture nominees (West Side Story in particular) offering value beyond entertainment, but I don't think any of them are in the same league as Get Out, Promising Young Woman, or Parasite (hey, one of those actually did win).

Ultimately, none of this year's nine worthwhile Best Picture nominees has really sparked discussions beyond the limits of the films themselves or forced the medium to evolve. They're all just really well-made movies. And, again, that's not a flaw. There's no reason movies can't just be really good versions of what they are, and I think it's fine to hand the award to whichever one everyone decides is the best.

But when a movie is important or has the ability to influence its genre or medium... isn't it extremely valuable to reward that or at least consider it? And while I don't think that's the case with the Best Picture nominees, I absolutely think there are multiple animated nominees that excel in one or both of those categories.

With the possible exception of Luca, I actually think all of them are at least somewhat important, by virtue of offering representation for kids who haven't been able to see themselves in movies. The quality of that representation varies - Raya's portrayal of Southeast Asian cultures was fairly surface level - but none of them were entirely without merit. Even Luca is kind of a complex picture, for reasons I'll get to in a moment.

But first, I want to talk a little about Flee, because while I think all of these are sort of important, Flee is monumentally so. It's also the only one of the nominees that isn't a kid's movie, which makes that all the more striking. It's easy to make a kid's movie important by virtue of the audience. Kids are impressionable and many are in need of representation. When I say that Raya and the Last Dragon might be more "important" than at least six of the Best Picture nominees, you should absolutely take that as a sign the field isn't level.

Flee isn't a kid's film, though. I mean, you could probably show it to teenagers, assuming you can convince them to sit through it, but the themes are intense, the subject matter dark, and the story - while ultimately hopeful - is incredibly sad. Animated or not, this is a movie for adults.

It's also maybe the most important film of the year. It provides insight into what refugees experience, in the words of a survivor. It shows us how we appear to those displaced by our wars who are then turned away at our borders. It's heart-breaking, and if you're from the US, Russia, or Europe and it doesn't make you ashamed of your country's policies, I don't know what to tell you.

So, yeah, I think Flee is pretty goddamn important. It's also one of two movies I believe will have a significant impact on animation. The nature of that impact is somewhat unusual in that it's not related to the visual or technical side of the medium, but rather the way it's employed. Having a movie like Flee get this level of attention illustrates that animation is far more versatile than the limited ways it's been used by major US studios suggests. I'd be shocked if there weren't imitators, but more than that I expect we'll see studios and producers greenlighting projects they'd never have seriously considered otherwise.

Is all that enough to justify a win in this category? That's probably irrelevant. Flee was made on a micro-budget, and my guess is the majority of those voting in this category won't even have seen it. Even among those who have, I think it'd be fair to pick one of the other nominees on the basis that the animation in Flee is comparatively simplistic. If Flee somehow wins, I'll be elated with the choice, but I think it's extremely unlikely.

Let's turn our attention back to the other contenders. Of these, the only one I believe makes a substantial stylistic contribution to animation is Mitchells vs. the Machines. It's continuing the work of Into the Spider-Verse by exploring other styles 3D animation can be presented in and further integrating 2D and 3D effects.

You could probably make a case for Luca expanding Pixar's stylistic range (which is good!), but I don't think the philosophy they're using is all that different from numerous films from other studios. Ultimately, I think Mitchells is by far the nominee pushing animation the furthest.

Is it also the best? I think that's a harder question. Encanto is really, really good. My personal opinion leans slightly towards Mitchells, but if we were just talking about which is "best," it'd probably be a toss-up, with Luca at most a hair's breath away.

But, again, I don't just think this should be about which is the best. And on top of everything else, there's an elephant-sized mouse in the room we need to discuss. Three of the five movies up for this award are from Disney, which isn't a surprise - they're kind of the leaders when it comes to animation, after all. And the company deserves recognition for some kinds of representation: it's gotten much better at including characters from different cultures and backgrounds. But there's still one area where their studio is outright regressive, and that's LGBTQ+ representation.

To be fair, their competitors have also been fairly slow to change in this area. Television shows have been better, with Steven Universe and She-Ra leading the way. But animated movies have been much slower, likely out of concern they'll anger far-right groups and damage their films' prospects overseas. As a result, the little representation that makes it through tends to be brief and - more often than not - the kind that can be easily cut when distributing to foreign markets.

A few weeks ago, I really thought Encanto was more or less a lock for the Oscar. But then, right when the Academy was starting to cast votes, something happened to highlight Disney's failure to include same-sex couples and queer individuals in their movies. I refer, of course, to Florida's draconian "Don't Say Gay" bill and Disney's fumbled response.

When Disney's CEO defended his company by claiming their movies were proof they were allies, employees came forward to say publicly what's been obvious for years: that Disney executives have been vetoing attempts by creatives to include queer characters in their movies.

Remember when I hedged on saying Luca wasn't "important?" A lot of people looked at the relationship between its two protagonists as a sort of ambiguous love story. While I'd hope some kids felt represented by the characters, imagine how much more powerful that would have been if it were acknowledged.

I don't want to put too much emphasis on Luca. Again, I'm not even sure it was intentional, just as I'm not 100% sure that Raya's relationship with Namaari or Elsa's story in Frozen 2 were originally going to include queer aspects... but I'd probably be willing to put money on any or all of them.

I shouldn't need to say this, but this kind of representation is important, especially in films intended for young audience. It's important kids are shown that same-sex relationships are normal and healthy. It's also important they're not stigmatized. Actively censoring these characters and romances sends a message that they're somehow less appropriate than opposite-sex couples.

I'm thrilled Disney's finally being called out on this, and I'm hopeful the outcry may result in some of these policies changing. But you know what would really give that a boost? Giving the award that one of their movies was almost a lock for to a different studio for a film that prominently features a gay protagonist.

Actually, the Academy has two choices for this, as the main characters in both Flee and Mitchells vs. the Machines are queer. But, again, I don't think Flee is going to take this. If anything wins over Encanto, I'm betting it'll be Mitchells. And doing so will reinforce the message that Disney needs to be better if they want to continue to be seen as leaders.

I hope that happens.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Catch-Up, Part 8: Best Picture Edition

With the Academy Awards coming up, I thought I'd catch up on some of this year's Best Picture nominees. I wanted to check them all off, but I also didn't want to drop piles of cash subscribing to additional streaming services when I've yet to exhaust the ones I'm already paying for. I'm arranging these in reverse order, so the last movie listed is the one I think *should* win.

That said, with one exception I think all of the nominees I've seen range from very good to extremely good. Of the seven movies below, four are separated by a hair - I won't bat an eye if any of those win. All of them deserve it.

I think the movies in spots 5 and 6 are great, but not quite in the same league. I certainly won't be upset if either wins: they're not my picks, but I still really enjoyed them. As for the last movie, well...

7. Don't Look Up (2021)

I find it bewildering that this was nominated for Best Picture. The only thing that makes this standout at all is its weirdly impressive cast, the majority of which, to be fair, does great work in a mediocre picture.

Honestly, "mediocre" might be overly generous. This just isn't well written, directed, or edited. It's a tonal mess that fails to actually deliver on the promise of its premise, which - at this point in time - amounts to screaming the obvious, then kind of muttering incomprehensibly for a couple hours. The central idea is fine (albeit not entirely original - variations on this "joke" have been floating around the internet for a while), but the execution amounts to what might be the most boring version of this movie possible.

One of the movie's largest sins was failing to deliver on the genre. This was, first and foremost, a satire. But satires are really supposed to reflect reality dialed up to eleven; this thing feels muted and understated. Obviously the threat is bigger and more immediate than climate change, but public reaction in the film feels less comically exaggerated than real world responses to that and COVID.

The movie's tone undermines itself, as well. The actors clearly think they're acting in a modern day Dr. Strangelove, but the editing tries to interject pathos throughout. The result is neither darkly humorous nor dark: it's just dull. I get what the flashes of stock footage are trying to convey, but I'm just not feeling it.

I respect the impulse to speak up about climate change, and I share the frustration with a world that refuses to acknowledge the obvious. But, aside from some fun performances, this just doesn't work as a movie, and the point it's trying to make - while absolutely well intentioned - is lacking the teeth it needs.

6. Nightmare Alley (2021)

Full disclosure: I watched this not realizing it was a remake of a 1947 movie, a fact that's kind of significant in terms of how this hits. Having not seen that or read the book both versions are based on, I'm unable to offer any insight on how this compares or plays off of ideas from the source material. Taken entirely on its own merits as a standalone piece of entertainment, this is...

Well, it's a noir from Guillermo del Toro, so it's obviously going to be good. But good and satisfying are very different things, and as the end credits rolled, I was a little underwhelmed. I had a pretty good idea how it would conclude from early on, and it more or less circled back to where I expected, and the few surprises it offered felt somewhat unearned. That said, as soon as I realized this was a remake, everything fell into place. Of course the ending was telegraphed: they're assuming viewers are already familiar. And of course the twists are more inline with old genre conventions than believable character motivations: this is a remake of an old genre movie and older novel.

I get it, and it's well done. Really well done, in fact (though I'm not entirely sold on the Best Picture nomination). Again, it's a good movie. And I loved the first half. But the second half, after the movie shifted away from the carnival, grated on me a bit. Then, as I said, the ending didn't surprise me. These aren't flaws, but ultimately the experience was less than I'd hoped.

I won't be upset if this takes the prize - it really is a good movie - but I think it's a tier below the nominees in spots 1 through 4.

5. King Richard (2021)

This is nothing like I expected. Based on the premise and the fact it was nominated for Best Picture, I assumed this would be a melancholy sports drama with a triumphant ending. Instead, I found myself watching one of the funniest movies of the year. I had a blast.

That's not to say there's nothing dark or serious in the movie - there are a handful of violent moments when Richard is attacked or his family is threatened, and there's some drama in the third act - but those scenes are exceptions in a film that's otherwise a delightful comedy.

What impressed me most was the movie's ability to transform what should have been a major liability into its most effective asset: we all know what's going to happen. Hell, even I know Venus and Serena Williams are the best tennis players in the known Universe, and there's no one on the planet who knows less about sports than me. This should have kneecapped the film: it effectively robs them of the ability to build stakes. Instead, they saw an opportunity to exploit the fact that literally everyone is in on the joke. From the second Will Smith's Richard starts making outlandish claims about his daughters' abilities to rich, white people who think he's crazy, we start chuckling because we know who's actually the butt of the joke. The movie exploits this to amazing effect: it's just wonderful.

If I were ranking this based on my enjoyment, it would be three spots higher. But, unlike my end of year rankings, I'm trying to give my opinion of which movie most deserves the award. And as great as this was, I think the stylistic and tonal complexities of the remaining films place this at a disadvantage.

That said, I'm certainly not rooting against this. Comedies don't get anywhere near enough respect - I'm thrilled this was nominated.

4. The Power of the Dog (2021)

I went into this knowing it was an R-rated western, it had been nominated for a pile of awards, and some of the cast. I naturally went in expecting gun fights and bloodshed, which in hindsight feels kind of silly.

This is, indeed, a western, though it's set quite a bit later than the era that genre is typically associated with. More than that, it's a far more grounded take on the genre. I'm not sure "realistic" is the right word - by its nature, fictional media is rarely if ever realistic - but it's extremely honest about its subject matter. The characters are flawed and believable. None are unbelievably effective or talented. It's a movie set, in more ways than one, in the literal shadow of the mythic west. I should note that it's as much a drama as a western, maybe more so. I'll add it's heavily indebted to a third genre, as well, but I won't reveal which to avoid spoiling the film's resolution.

This is a great movie, but that's not to say it's going to please everyone. The Power of the Dog is slowly paced and keeps the viewer at arm's length from the characters. It's one of those movies where the narrative feels unfocused until the end, at which point everything snaps together. Anyone looking for action is likely going to feel disappointed; those willing to explore the characters on the movie's terms will find this far more rewarding.

To be perfectly honest, I found myself somewhere in between those extremes. The Power of the Dog was masterfully made, but I'd be lying if I said it perfectly aligned with my tastes.

3. Dune (2021)

I've both reviewed this and discussed it on my end-of-year ranking, so I don't really have anything else to say. I'm only including it here to note where I'd put it in these rankings and why. And, for what it's worth, it's held back here for an entirely different reason than it was held back last time.

Unlike the end-of-year thing, I really am aiming for "best" here, or at the very least the movie I think deserves that award (at least from the ones nominated). And there's a part of me that thinks maybe this should take the statue. I certainly won't be bothered if it wins (that goes for most of the nominees I've seen, though).

Dune is sort of an unusual situation, where I think it's the best of these, but not the best movie. To put it another way, it's an experience unlike anything else nominated. It's an engrossing, expertly constructed universe, incredible to see and hear. On every technical level, it's really in its own class.

But it's also half a movie. I don't think that's a big problem for what was being sold, but if we're handing out awards, I think it needs to be taken into consideration. And, when all's said and done, the fact it really isn't a complete film should probably preclude it from taking the prize.

2. Drive My Car (2021)

This is an extremely difficult movie to describe, because any attempt is likely to make it sound boring and pretentious, and part of what makes this so impressive is it isn't. Instead, I walked away feeling like I'd seen something profound, even before I had a chance to finish parsing out what any of it actually meant. And, hell, I'm still not entirely sure, but that's sort of the point. This is about the connection established between the audience and the thing they're watching. It's about translation, communication, interpretation, and the way stories change us and help us overcome trauma. What you make of the ending is up to you.

And, yeah, that would usually register as pretentious, but in this case... it just doesn't, at least not to me. Maybe it's because the movie is extremely methodical in its delivery. Or maybe it's just edited in such a way you can't help but be drawn in - I'm honestly not sure why this works as well as it does.

Regardless, it's a hell of a film. Just a hell of an achievement.

1. West Side Story (2021)

It's a pretty good sign when the biggest issue I can find with your adaptation of one of the most famous musicals in history is there are a couple character decisions that never felt believable in the source material you only mostly managed to smooth over and sell in the context of the movie. Otherwise, this is about as close to flawless as adaptations or remakes get and easily one of the best movie musicals ever made. Visually, it offers a gorgeous world that feels like it's set at the intersection of '60s film and stage. It's an engaging, beautiful accomplishment deserving of the accolades it's received.

I honestly don't know what else to say - this was a fantastically well-made movie. It's one of Spielberg's best films, which is saying quite a bit.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Movie Review: The Adam Project

The Adam Project blends goofy sci-fi action with a serious exploration of grief and trauma, and it probably should have just stuck with the goofy stuff. That's not to say the drama is particularly bad, but even at its best it's sort of a buzzkill. The comedy mostly works, the action is pretty good, the genre stuff is solid... the serious stuff is a bit boring. Not excruciatingly so, but it just doesn't connect enough to compensate for taking time and attention away from the fun, adventurous stuff going on.

And I think it needs stressing: the fun stuff is actually quite a lot of fun. It's not particularly original or abnormally well done, but for a B-grade PG-13 kid's flick, it's significantly better than it has to be. The Adam Project has a by-the-numbers feel, but that doesn't stop the stuff that works from being fun, even when you can see and hear the "influences."

And let's be clear: the influences are readily apparent. Even if you overlook the fact that 80% of its adult leads are Marvel alums, The Adam Project clearly yearns to be an MCU movie in general and a James Gunn movie in particular (if you wrote a computer algorithm to mimic Gunn's needle drops, I'm pretty sure it would have made the same choices). Throw in a touch of Star Wars (and maybe a little of the 2009 Trek reboot), and you've got a good idea for the style and tone. Honestly, the most baffling part of this production is that it was picked up by Netflix instead of Disney+.

As a movie, this feels hollow but still mostly good. This is disposable, derivative entertainment, but as long as you come to terms with those limitations there's a lot of fun here. A lot of the credit rests with the editing and effects work, which manages to consistently be good enough to maintain the energy. I also think the cast and director deserve credit. The characters aren't particularly complex or interesting, but they're entertaining and cool. Imagine a slick comic book, and you'll have a good idea of what to expect from the bulk of the film.

While I keep bringing up Marvel, I'll say the movie this most remined me of was actually Zathura (though there's a pretty big Marvel connection there via that movie's director). In addition to some shared ideas, it went for a similar tone and mostly succeeded. That said, I don't think this is nearly as good, largely because Zathura managed to integrate its emotional journey better with the genre stuff.

I should also add something about The Adam Project's overuse of references. Oh, yes, this movie is self-aware, and it wants you to know it. This was also an issue in the last movie Shawn Levy and Ryan Reynolds collaborated on, Free Guy, but I found it far more grating here (side note: if you haven't given Free Guy a chance yet, it's kind of great - by far the better of the two). I'm not sure how what to make of Levy signing on to direct Deadpool 3. Obviously, those meta-references are going to be far more appropriate, and it's certainly stylistically the kind of thing he's interested in. But while Deadpool 3 is a good fit for Levy, I'm not convinced he's a good fit for it: he's not an especially interesting director, and even at his best he feels like he's mimicking other filmmakers. But, hey, Free Guy was really good, so here's hoping. Deadpool 2 felt kind of generic and lacking in directorial voice, too, so there's a good chance this will at least be a lateral move.

Since I'm me, I'm going to say a little about the genre elements, particularly the time-travel stuff. The Adam Project does a good job establishing its rules quickly and effectively. That said, the third act gets a little sloppy around execution. I'm not sure I consider this a flaw, though. My guess is there were earlier drafts of the script that checked all the boxes and remained faithful to the rules and logic of the story. I'm also guessing the pacing was significantly worse in those drafts. I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but they actually had the tools necessary to "resolve" the movie according to the established rules with an extra five or ten minutes of explanation and problem solving... all of which would have broken the pacing that was already strained around the dramatic resolution. Skipping ahead via generic movie magic was probably the lesser of two evils.

At the end of the day, The Adam Project is a mediocre film but a pretty good time. There's a lot to nitpick here (as I just illustrated), but let's put things in perspective: the fact this was basically okay instead of godawful feels miraculous when compared against the sort of things coming out before the MCU raised the bar. Look, I grew up in the '90s, and I can think of maybe two or three PG/PG-13 genre movies from that entire decade that can match this. The Adam Project isn't great cinema by a longshot, but for a direct-to-streaming kid's time-travel flick, it's plenty good enough.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Movie Review: Turning Red

Turning Red is great. It's gorgeously animated, extremely funny, and emotionally effective. It's Pixar quality without being overly beholden to the studio's usual formula. It's a wonderful movie, and you should go watch it immediately.

Also, it's weird as hell in ways I honestly wasn't expecting. I want to be clear, this isn't a complaint. If anything, I was impressed with the movie's willingness to deviate from the norm, though there were occasionally choices I found slightly distracting. For instance, the film is quite explicitly set in 2002. The movie goes out of its way to establish and remind us of this several times. But with the possible exception of a Tamagotchi, nothing unique to that era felt particularly relevant to the story or setting (the Tamagotchi served a fairly large role, but it would have been easy to replace it with something else). I can't find an obvious reason for setting the movie in this particular era, though I can't think of any reason to prioritize using a less specific time.

Again, that's not a complaint. While I found the decision slightly distracting, it was a small price to pay for the experience of seeing something that looked and felt different than anything I've seen from Pixar to date. And make no mistake: this is absolutely something new.

I'm not talking about the lead character or themes, either - I'm talking style. The movie is set in Toronto, but it's a version of Toronto bathed in pastels. I understand aspects of the look were inspired by anime, but the effect doesn't match anything I can think of. It feels almost like a three-dimensional watercolor painting, or maybe a kid's picture book. I'm not sure why they chose to match this style with this story, but it absolutely works. On paper, I almost think it shouldn't: this is a coming of age story - I'd expect something more realistic would be a more obvious choice. But while I'd be pressed to explain the rational behind this style, the effect is nothing short of inspired. I was pulled in by the visuals immediately.

It's a good thing, too, because while the style won me over at once, the comedy did not. The humor in the first act felt a bit too over-the-top for the otherwise grounded opening. Until the movie introduced its magical elements, I was ready to dismiss it as a beautifully animated movie that didn't quite work tonally.

I should have had more faith. As soon as the second act started, all the setup started paying off. The jokes landed, the characters developed depth, and I was invested. From that point on, everything worked for me. And, hell, I'm not even a furry.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention this movie is kind of about furries? I don't mean that in the conventional sense, where you could argue anything about were-creatures or animal transformation might be of interest to furries. I mean, the look of the main character's transformation absolutely appears to be a direct reference to that subculture.

Again, a weird choice for a kid's movie, but it absolutely works in context. That sentence is basically the movie in a nutshell: this is the sort of movie Pixar doesn't made. It's in a different style, from a different point of view, and is set in the last place and time you'd expect from this studio. Domee Shi is far from the directorial voice the studio is known for. Thank God they they could see the value of that voice, because Turning Red is fantastic.

I really hope this represents the philosophy we'll see driving the next era of Pixar. As much as I've loved the studio in the past, they too often lean on structures, tones, and styles they've used before. Turning Red delivers all the quality Pixar is known for, but it does so in its own way, from a fresh perspective. I loved it.