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Sunday, June 6, 2021

Cruella (2021)

Cruella by Jansumalla
From Disney+, "Emma Stone stars in Disney's Cruella, which explores the rebellious early days of one of cinema's most notorious - and notoriously fashionable - villains, Cruella de Vil...The movie follows a young grifter named Estella and reveals the series of events that cause her to embrace her wicked side and become the raucous and revenge-bent Cruella." The movie co-stars Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste. It is directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya). Based on the book by Dodie Smith and Disney classic by Bill Peet, the winding road of events that change Estella was plotted out by Aline Brosch McKenna, and Kelly Marcel & Steve Zissis, and it was transformed into a script by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara. After watching the movie, that must've been a journey in its own right.

Matt Neglia, of the Next Best Picture Podcast, said it pretty well when talking about Cruella. When Disney just takes a few characters and lets them do their own thing, these remakes and new origin stories are able to breathe and come out better. That's what happens, after a lot of references are painfully front-loaded into the film. Estella/Cruella (Emma Stone, and Billie Gadsdon and Tipper Seifert-Cleveland as a kid and pre-teen, respectively) is born with her signature hair color, teased for it, and she, naturally, retaliates. The many, many marks on her grade school permanent record that are caused by that and other acts of rebellion, create a dalmatian pattern. Luckily, she quickly changes schools. It's absolutely an eye-rolling intro, and I have a bit more to say about why later, but Seifert-Cleveland is doing great work with what she's given, while Gadsdon has, unfortunately, just has one of those front-loading scenes. Cruella's brilliance is quickly shown through Seifert-Cleveland's brilliance, as the early indications of artistic talent and brawling street smarts are mixed with a lot of heart and some deeply buried sorrow. The whole cast really is fantastic. 

Cruella by jansumalla
Cruella, by Jansumalla

A lot of people are saying that if the Golden Globes were airing next awards season, there's a good chance we'd see Emma Stone accepting an award for her performance. I couldn't agree more, as she commands the screen with a blend of wit, energy, and versatility that was quite unexpected. It's not unexpected because of Stone herself. She's always been great, and actions like taking a business card with her teeth shows that she's up for anything, but because of that winding road the movie takes. Her stealing from her boss's private stash before going on a "fashion bender," and later celebrating a victory over a rival designer, The Baroness (Emma Thompson), with a few notes of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" were a few of my favorite moments because they're a couple of the smaller ones in the movie. Stone, the cast, and the crew are able to be a little more loose, although this is always Gillespie's vision.

Emma Thompson's performance benefits the most from that winding road I keep mentioning. The comparisons between The Baroness and Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada aren't cut-and-dry. As the movie goes on, and plots change, Thompson is asked to tap into her own range and become more of a monster than expected. If she started out as a complete cartoon, a large chunk of the movie would fall apart. Instead, she begins as just the right amount of cut-throat. When she accidentally nicks Estella when altering one of Estella's designs, she asks fabrics if that red is a possibility. Maybe it's the paper cuts and hangnails I was suffering from that week because of filing, but it instantly sold me on the character.

A few other people of note are Cruella's henchmen Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry), and The Baroness' right-hand man, John (Mark Strong).  Paul Walter Hauser stole the show in I,Tonya as  Shawn Eckhardt, the "mastermind" who baselessly claimed to be working in counter-terrorism and kept re-parking his car to appear less suspicious to people. Give that character a lot more brains and compassion, but keep a tiny pinch of the self-interest, and you've got one of the best comrades around. Fry also plays a great friend, and I look forward to checking out his other work. The romantic angle between him and Stone is handled really well, as it can be explored down the line in a number of ways that all work. Plus, he doesn't have that pinch of self-interest, and that creates a great dynamic between him and Hauser. Actually a completely different movie where one is the henchmen for the other would be a lot of fun. Mark Strong is an odd case. He's given very little to do outside of delivering some exposition. Because his role is so small, it seems like he was miscast, and he stuck out in the crowd. I really just wish he was given more to do. There are plenty of opportunities, as the story evolves. 

Cruella is a long movie, at about 135 minutes, and to sustain that runtime, it changes plots a couple times. It's a heist movie twice, and it's The Devil Wears Prada once. Now, each change is clear and makes complete sense, but a lot of unexplored character gets sidelined because of it. Some have even said that it's a huge problem because it means that Cruella's mental health isn't properly addressed. I wouldn't go that far. To me, she's just temporarily overtaken by a combo of grief, guilt, and obsession. The reasons why are clear in the opening. I don't think there's anything wrong with what's being said about her, it's just that not a lot is being said in general. For all the great character work, and just work, Cruella is more, but not all, style over substance. That's a real shame. On this subject though, a character named Artie (John McCrea) is under some scrutiny for being an attempt by Disney to pat themselves on the back for being inclusive. McCrea's role is basically to be Cruella's stereotypical gay best friend. McCrea is great in the role, but considering that Disney should've caught up by now and moved past a cookie-cutter portrayal already, it's two steps forward and one step back. Artie runs a second-hand boutique and helps Cruella with her designs. Speaking of designs...

Costumes were designed by Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road and Room with a View), cinematography was by Nicolas Karakatsanis, and hair & makeup was designed by Nadia Stacey. With Gillespie, they all work together to build one hell of a picture, over and over again. Cruella is intensely beautiful, and, naturally, it's at its best when a signature outfit is on display. Most of these '70s-inspired ensembles are worn by Stone, while some that go back to the '60s, according to Beavan, adorn Thompson and were chosen to show her slightly aging instincts. It's those small details that keep the movie freshly in-mind nearly a week after a first viewing.  Hopefully, Beavan's is rewarded with more than only award recognition, since, according to VarietyDisney is officially licensing a Cruella collection with her designs without additionally compensating her. Even smaller details are the ways the camera moves, like when it follows one of the dogs, Wink, as he's exiting a bus. It's such a tight shot, that it seems like it couldn't have been easy to film. The effort was appreciated, as long as the dog had a good time, of course. Plus, there are grander versions of this kind of movement throughout the film. Tatiana S. Reigel assembles these pieces pretty well as the movie's editor, overlooking a couple of hiccups. 

That opening sequence, again, is one of them. The moment young Estella, Horace, and Jasper meet is just very choppy as it just quickly cuts to whatever lines will finally get us onto the real show. This sequence is capped off with a transition to the present that was done much better in Sam Levinson's Euphoria. The shot has purpose, but that's not enough to sell an, excuse the excessive harshness and on-the-nose term for a second, a knockoff. 

The other hiccup in editing is the use of newspaper text and headlines filling the frames in a couple of sequences. It looks good, but there isn't a whole lot of new or necessary info being delivered. It has no real purpose, the shots already look great without them, and time and money possibly could've been put into other parts of the film. That's the unfortunate thing about the movie as whole, it doesn't say much because of the pieces it's cut into.

Each plot and each heist, or heist-like plan, could be an entire incredible movie, and I'd like to see each of them because of the depth that the writers and Gillespie are only able to hint at with a line or short scene. The The Devil Wears Prada part of the movie could stand on its own thanks to Stone, Thompson, and the fresh setting of '70s London. Maybe Disney could remedy that? Fox made The Devil Wears Prada, and Disney bought them, so maybe they could at least arrange a round-table with Stone, Thompson, and Streep, in-character and out, and with some other costume designers and creatives from both movies? At least it's a nice thing to think about and maybe create some fan-fiction around. Cruella will definitely open up some minds that way. It worked on me.... 

Made after watching Birds of Prey and DC's Harley Quinn (Season 1 and Season 2)

Re-skinned after watching Cruella. The morning star was also made along with the original two. Does anyone else want Emma Stone to play an alt-universe Harley?

3.5/5 +.25 for the artistic inspiration it gave me and has given others. Please scroll up and take another look at those depictions of the character by Jansumalla. She's selling prints of it, by the way. While the audience of kids in my theatre got remarkably quiet after the previews started playing, it wouldn't be a surprise to find out years from now that a fashion designer, or hair or makeup artist, maybe one of them, was sparked by Cruella, and that's all that really matters.

Dog Cane
Last one. This was kinda quickly put together after the review was written. The materials are from BlenderKit, and the head is part of a full, rigged model by pomilecrown

One last thing, the soundtrack. I have it. I tried to put it on my phone when I left the theatre but didn't have wi-fi. I tried to stop somewhere with wi-fi on my way home but instead had to drive back in silence. It's great. It may overwhelm some people, but the songs were just right for me. The worst song choice, the last one, isn't on there, so there's no risk of reliving that moment. Instead, for example, you're treated to Ike & Tina Turner's "Whole Lotta Love." The power of it, to someone who grew up on classic rock, cannot be overstated. Stone's celebratory rendition of "I Want To Be Your Dog" comes after a different John McCrea's full performance, and it's literally a showstopper. Nicholas Britell's score doesn't get equal treatment, but the times it's allowed to shine, like when Estella's making her first dress for the Baroness, give the movie a little more grounding. 

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

The best thing I heard about Mitchells vs The Machines when previews and posters started coming out is that it looked like it wasn't going to go all-in on technology being evil. I'm happy to report that that's true. Instead, Mitchells vs The Machines goes all-in on the visuals, and that's surprisingly not always a great thing, no matter how masterfully it's done. 

From the official Netflix summary, "A robot apocalypse put the brakes on their cross-country road trip. Now it's up to the Mitchells - the world's weirdest family - to save the human race." The trip was to give the family one last bonding experience before Katie (Abbi Jacobson, from Broad City) goes off to film school, as she's anxious to get away from her dad, Rick (Danny McBride), who just doesn't fully understand her passions or how society at large has become so screen-centered. The three other big parts of the family are matriarch Linda (Maya Rudolph), younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda), and pug Monchi (Doug The Pug, linked for convenience).

The movie is written and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe (both writers on Gravity Falls and Disenchantment), produced by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, and Kurt Albrecht, and it was set to be a Sony Animation/Columbia Pictures release before Covid-19 made them sell the distribution rights to Netflix. So, Sony Animation, Lord, and Miller, that's why this movie is as off-the-wall and colorful as it is. However, this is quite different in its look and feel.

It's incredibly fast-paced, and it very rarely sits and breathes. For a movie with a smartphone focus, it makes a lot of sense to occasionally cut to a semi-random YouTube video as quickly as we go to them just because something popped into our heads. It's not a kid to adult thing, it's a generational and tech shift that we're all adjusting to. And we always will, as each shift and advancement is leaps and bounds greater than the one before, and it always comes with new communication skills to adapt to. I'm in my (late) 20s and don't fully understand how my younger cousins use some of the apps that they enjoy, but the point is being open to those new things and learning from my family. That's what this movie is about. So with the big lesson out of the way, let's talk about why it works so wonderfully, the characters and the humor.

Stylized Columbia Pictures Logo
It's always a good early sign when this lady gets funky | Copyright 2021 Sony & Netflix

Katie is the best kind of film student and (future) auteur. She loves learning about the process and technical aspects, she uses her shorts to speak from the heart, and has no fear. And Rick is kinda the best kind of concerned parent, when it comes to this. He doesn't fully understand her videos, the industry or those technical aspects, but he does understand it's competitive as hell and a tough way to make a living, especially in a major city. As someone who crashed and burned a year into studying animation, switched to business, and just does film stuff for fun, Rick is right to be concerned. The difference between my situation and Katie's isn't that Katie can draw and will be a few steps ahead of her classmates, but it's that my parents were aware that failing in early adulthood is okay and there's plenty of room to pivot. He thinks a setback could be catastrophic, and her experiencing that scares him because he's a pretty awesome dad. That's not something I thought I'd say about a character voiced by Danny McBride. Before getting to him, it's worth noting this movie has an even-handed say on film school. Very simply, take it or leave it, depending on the person and what they want to specialize in. Film school is if you want to be on-set and learn how to collaborate, and self-teaching is for people like me who don't get involved in production.

From early previews, it looked like Rick would go full-Ron Swanson and be voiced by Nick Offerman. And they can do that without those characters being overly similar, but it'd still probably be distracting. Instead McBride is pretty unrecognizable. It's not just that Rick is sweet, but it's a complete change, as his accent largely drops, he's more timid in intimidating situations, and any trace of something like bravado is reserved for mountain-man and dad joke moments. Those moments are great. I hope he, or some piece of the cast, at least gets an Annie nomination for creating this incredibly lived-in family dynamic. Hopefully it's revealed that a lot of the recordings were done at the same time. 

The humor kind of reminds me of watching Storks, and that reminded me of 2010s Cartoon Network. What I said then is "No one gets society like Warner Brothers Animation," as they handle everything from technology, to representation, to millennial culture, and more. Sony Animation can be added to that list; they put a huge emphasis on making jokes character-driven. One of my favorite little ones is the justification of the slow-motion walk after an explosion. Being like Katie, and having a camera, is all the justification you need...and how many opportunities are there to do that with other people. It's much more badass with a group. The explosion, surprisingly is one of the visually restrained moments of the movie, unlike when Sony and Warner Brothers had two stunning ones in Storks. Efforts were put into a million little moments instead of a few big ones, and the payoff is much larger...possibly too large. 

Painstaking efforts were put into making Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse look and move like a comic book. So this has to be made clear, those same painstaking efforts were put into making Mitchells look like a cross between a phone screen, that's opened to Instagram or Snapchat, and a lightly done anime. Filters and social media stickers are used a lot in this movie. It's not like it's just for fourth-wall breaking moments, but it's stitched right into the movie. Since so much of that is 2D, it really pops, sometimes more than the computer-animated components. That's what Spider-Verse had going for it but a bit more scaled back.

This is on top of the break-neck speed Sony Animation has become known for, so the results can be quite taxing to the eyes, especially during the action-packed climax. At nearly two hours, cutting ten or twenty minutes would've helped with late-stage burnout, but in a movie like this there's no telling what could've been incidentally lost.  

Re-watching the movie for this review, and pausing let the details really sink in, like a lot of the movies that inspire Katie being part of the K Collection. I'd like to think that it's personally made for her, or it's this universe's version of the Criterion Collection, similar to how they also have a store named Good Get. Sony itself seems to lack a knockoff when it comes to their headphones and cameras, of course. 

Sony Product Placement 1Sony Product Placement 2
Creativity and a great story in exchange for some bill-paying product placement can be a pretty fair trade | Copyright 2021 Sony & Netflix

This is an odd way to recommend the movie, but I think one of the best ways to test it out is to watch the first ten minutes or so, and if the visuals are straining, consider turning your screen off and just listening to it with the movie's audio-description settings for the blind. If the viewing experience is too nontraditional, try reading the script because the story is very well-written. While better together, every element of the movie stands on its own. 

One last thing, seriously, say please and thank you to your Alexas/Siris/Cortanas. It sounds ridiculous, but it reinforces our P&Qs, and it's a good way to teach manners and basic behaviors to children. The fact that that never happens in this movie, even after meeting good machines, is a major knock against the movie and a weird oversight. It's a disconnect in the movie formerly titled Connected.

4/5

Note: I highly recommend listening to Mike Rianda's interview with the Next Best Picture's Matt Neglia. What struck me is when Rianda talked about how the visual style directly relates to Katie's filmmaking style. Without spoiling the interview, stuff like that adds a lot both to the movie itself, its development, and what we can expect from Rianda and, possibly, Rowe next. NBP's review of the movie can be found here. I really look up to these guys, and they put Promising Young Woman on my radar like a year before it even came out, so this is the least I can do as a fan who wanted to return that favor. CinemaWins did a fantastic video on the movie, too.

Finally, if you are like Katie, please look into film school and the free filmmaking resources available to you. Even if you want to teach yourself, a school's curriculum can provide a helpful learning path. Katie taught herself Photoshop, and you can learn free programs like Gimp (free Photoshop), Openshot (video editing) and Blender (animation and video editing). Finding the right beginner tutorial or starting point is tough because everyone learns differently, but once you find it, you'll pick these tools up in no time. 

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Coming 2 America (2021) [Short Review]

That was a lot of fun! It's amazing seeing Eddie Murphy, along with the rest of the cast, firing on all cylinders. Dolemite is My Name quickly shot up the watchlist because of him. The plot in this movie is a little too standard, but everyone happily does everything they can to elevate it.

For people around my age and younger, you "can" go into Coming 2 America without seeing the first one, but are you really going to dismiss a classic? Honestly, that's probably why I liked it so much. I remember just enough that I recalled a few jokes but wasn't anywhere close to disappointed with this satisfying sequel. 

Coming 2 America Promo Poster
Coming 2 America Promo Poster | Property of Amazon and Paramount/ViacomCBS

Also, the soundtrack is now on my phone and will be part of my long drive to Syracuse tomorrow to get my 2nd vaccine shot. The main thing I'll be listening to is the Norse Mythology audiobook by Neil Gaiman.

3/5
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Monday, March 8, 2021

Lava (2021)

In Lava, "Deborah, a lonely tattoo artist, endeavors to save herself and her town from an alien invasion. The aliens come in the form of large cats, cackling witches, and never-ending snakes; what's more, these dangerous invaders have harnessed the media as a means to hypnotize humanity into submission. Deborah must learn to resist their control and convince others to do the same" (Rock Salt Releasing). The movie is directed by Ayar Blasco, it is co-written by Ayar Blasco and Nicolas Britos, and it stars, among others, Janeane Garofalo and Cedric Williams. It is based on a comic by Salvador Sanz.

So, I had to dig a little into Lava to review it, which is something I try not to do. It's just one of those ones where it's hard to pull much out of it apart from the art style. So, let's start there. It's a very flat and simple style. The animation can be a little stiff, but movement is far from lifeless. Little touches, like the secondary motion of hair moving/reacting, give the feeling that as much care as possible was put into the animation and world, it just had to be allocated as best as possible. I really appreciated how this shined through in the background environments, and a few other places. A full-body blush of embarrassment isn't something you see in cartoons these days, so it's sweet to see something like that brought into contemporary adult animation. Along with some funny logos and titles, like Gain of Clones, that reminded me of the comic Sex Criminals, there were also WinRAR and VLC logos on a character's computer. The people who made this movie know and live the culture they are talking about, Generation X-ish geeks/nerds who are in their 20s-30s. Overall, they're very-well portrayed, but that really just comes out when the when the movie occasionally picks up steam. We'll get to that in a minute. 

Lava makes me less scared to get a tattoo, and that's an accomplishment. The sound design is a big part of that, and just shows that a lot of thought went into crafting a lot of what's on-screen, although the "why" of everything is something we'll get to.

Lava

Lucy Daughter of the Devil
The art style that Lava (Above) reminds me of is Lucy, Daughter of the Devil's (Below) | Above is Property of Warner Media. Below is Property of Rock Salt Releasing.

The look also is similar to a lot of classic flash videos. Where Lava falls short of even them though is in the lip syncing, but that's probably because it was re-dubbed in English. It just looks a little too exaggerated when lines don't match up, but that also positively lends itself to the ridiculous feel of the film.

At under 75 minutes, this should feel like a quick watch, but it wasn't. Lava, unfortunately, flows about as slowly as the real thing typically does. There seems to be two big problems with Lava. First, character interactions and relationships rarely have a lot of weight to them. Second, the film's editing is incredibly dry and static. The best scene in the movie is one where all cards are on the table and we know where Deborah (Garofalo), her roommate Nadia, and Samuel, who's into Deborah, are in relation to each other, as far as who is/isn't interested in whom. I think it stood out because it was more drawn out than most of the quick chats in the movie. It leads to something great later in the movie, where Deborah and Nadia's relationship grows. The movie has a solid LGTB+ moment, but how people react to them explicitly highlighting the moment may annoy some people. Lava's editing in between sequences is to cut to black and just stop for a second. Once or twice music bridged the gap, but it just felt so lacking that it had to be brought up. That's, apparently, a very tricky cut to pull off right. Luckily, there are some things about the movie that are nailed incredibly.

With that solid grasp of, as mentioned, "Generation X-ish geeks/nerds who are in their 20s-30s" comes a solid grasp of the crap they put up with. The takes some solid jabs at the business side of the entertainment industry, and it's through more than a tattoo of Mickey Deborah does for a client. Employee burnout is shown and how various types of studios and production studios can wreck someone's creativity is shown too. Knowing when to walk away from that kind of environment is a rough analogy, or metaphor(?),  that can be pulled out of Lava, but it's rough because it's also walking away from a probable apocalypse. It doesn't work when trying to apply the message to something like current politics, but the relatively small-scale of Lava doesn't make that a lasting issue. All-in-all, it's incredibly rough, but with it's choice moments. For every silent cut to black, there's an interesting tattoo scene or blink-or-you'll-miss-it reference. 

3.25/5

It's certainly not for everyone, but people who love this style, or at least grew up around it, will find something to enjoy. That's actually a similar conclusion I arrived to with a movie called Unicorn Store, but its feel was more 2000s to mid 2010s quirky/indie. Just wanted to throw that comparion out there because the return to simplicity, in any and all aspects right now, is a welcome one. It's a knock against the Lava to say try to view it in chunks, but it may warm a few extra people up to it. And try the comic, too. I haven't yet, but this really feels like it plays a lot better as a book. 

A screener of this movie was provided to me by TriCoast and Rock Salt Releasing. Original reports of Rock Salt picking up the movie come from Variety. I was not compensated for this review. 

Lava Promo Poster
Promotional Poster | Property of Rock Salt Releasing 
Rock Salt Releasing will release Lava onto various digital streaming platforms for pre-sale on 2/22 and on 3/15/2021 (Amazon, InDemand, iTunes, Google Play, DirecTV, AT&T, Vimeo on Demand, FANDANGO) in both English & Spanish.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Iron Man 3 | Mambo No 5 TV Spot (Fan Made)


Original start to this post:
Similar to re-doing Hitman: Agent 47, this is just a bit of fun editing practice.  I'm not going to go into how the Mandarin was handled because it's been done to death, from both viewpoints. What I can say now, that I couldn't in my initial review, is that Kingsley's accent did seem slightly off in that first trailer. Clearly, it was intentional, and his performance was excellent from every angle. 

And the tone, post-Avengers, is perfect and drew us in, but I wanted to try something more in-line with the director. Shane Black's movies are silly, and he reminds me of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino, so that's definitely something to play with. 

Another great trailer without the big ticket villain is by Split Second Media. It's in the style of Logan, and that is super fitting.

New start: The FanTrailer subreddit had a Spot Contest in February. Hearing Mambo No. 5 in Iron Man 3 created a backup plan. It became the best option because the movie isn't as comedy heavy as Ant-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp (reviewed here), and Thor Ragnarok. A solid fifteen seconds of jokes, and plot without mentioning Mandarin, was either non-existent, or I would've had to really squeeze material out of the movie. 

So, I went humorless and plotless. The first idea was to do Tony getting into a new suit with each name, but there was a surprising lack of moments like that. So, lone suits being used and incorporating Tony's friend's into the Iron Legion became the way to go. Tony himself kinda bookends things. Hopefully, it runs smooth moment-to-moment.

My family and a few friends looked this one over for me. Also Drw.17, Onomatopoeic Pictures, and  Joshnitt, all from the community (on Reddit and Discord), helped out tremendously, too. They suggested, among a couple other things,  ducking the music volume as needed to bring out the sound effects more, adding studio logos to the beginning, and adding extra dialogue, to break things up a little toward the end. 

Additionally, I'd like to give a special shoutout to Ntenis Kapanidis. He was very hands-on with assisting me. He gave me tips on spot making in general, and he recently found and shared a podcast all about teasers and trailers. It's called Trailer Geeks and Teaser Gods, it appears to be on all major podcast platforms, and I look forward to listening to it.

As always, please check out the community, and if anything you see sparks an idea, run with it and put together your own videos. Tons of free resources are available, like Blender 3D's video editor, GIMP (free Photoshop), and other tools you may need. 

It's not the most complex edit, but just getting back into the MCU and watching Robert Downey Jr. work his magic were just wonderful by themselves. Speaking of getting back into it, WandaVision is pitch-perfect. And I'm proud to say that J.A.R.V.I.S is in this spot!

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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Malcolm & Marie (2021)

This film is an acute study of...Malcolm and Marie, and from there it branches out to cover the bases of relationships, film criticism, filmmaking, the "woke" versions of film criticism and filmmaking, and everything under the sun. It would be exhausting to write about this kind of movie "properly," according to Malcolm, but it was very interesting to watch...even if watching itself is exhausting. So the best way I can write about it is probably in a disjointed fashion. The synopsis, as always, is still a strong start.

Malcolm and Marie

The title characters, played by John David Washington and Zendaya | Copyright 2021 Netflix

Direct from Netflix's menu of endless browsing, "As a filmmaker (John David Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya) return home from his movie premiere, smoldering tensions and painful relations push them toward a romantic reckoning." It is written and directed by Sam Levinson, and he is also behind the HBO show Euphoria, which also stars Zendaya, and the movie Assassination Nation. I'm probably never going to do a full write up of Euphoria, so let's give it a few words here, since I already promised something disjointed. 

Euphoria is about high schoolers navigating their everyday life. Everything is a little bit heightened and exaggerated, but it comes from a very real place of millennials and younger struggling in a world designed to disenfranchise and drive them to vices. The best way to make extreme vices palatable, especially when their part of a self-destructive path, is to make the visuals and colors pop. It gave Euphoria a beauty and identity that drew people in to the little details of the characters' lives, while the big picture was sometimes given through narration. Malcolm & Marie is in black and white, and it makes a lot of sense, in the context of the show, because it's all about slowly discovering the intricacies of these two characters...That's just me reading into things though, and we'll get back to that.

John David Washington's performance is pretty great, as he makes an insufferable, and at times cruel and downright abusive, character fun to watch. It helps that the opening of the movie is him dancing, singing, and doing everything he can to set himself apart from his father. His energy is positively infectious. Unfortunately, it's not always channeled well, but that's not John David Washington's fault. When Malcolm is presenting some of his arguments about film criticism to Marie, the ratcheting up to eleven makes him come off like a cartoon character. This is also because Levinson writes him as some kind of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" libertarian. He spouts occasional crap about hard work, not realizing that his work would be a lot easier, and possibly better, if he collaborated with people more. I think a conversation of different men comparing themselves to Malcolm could be incredibly eye-opening. With all that said, Malcolm's commitment to his point-of-view and learning more about what makes him tick made his insufferable and cruel moments, and his narcissistic personality, and the overall movie, more engaging, personally.

Zendaya gives one of the best performances of the year. It pains me to say that as someone who was absolutely floored by Promising Young Woman and Carey Mulligan. Speaking of which, to hear more about that movie and Mulligan, please check out the site Next Best Picture. They did a great podcast episode on it...I was too intimidated by the movie to review it, but it's one of my favorites of the year.

Back to this, Zendaya had a more "showy" performance and role, but there are plenty of smaller moments in it that stood out, too. It's in the ways she tilts her head and has to take on the form of a statuesque goddess for Marie to keep, or stop, wrapping Malcolm up in knots throughout the night. It's in the toe tapping to Dionne Warwick's "Get Rid of Him," which is just one of a few great music cues. She's also very funny. Her imaginary trajectory of her boyfriend's career paints a real picture of how people like me consume and talk about media, for better and worse. There's a lot of moments like that from both of them, but at least she's tongue-in-cheek about it instead of taking the stick-up-ass approach.

Between the two, Levinson is even-handed enough with everything he's trying to say, which is pretty much a stream of consciousness put onscreen...and on stream, since it's Netflix. And it's mostly just to get people talking in general, and I like that approach...or I miss talking to people about this stuff in-person. Either way works. As good as time as any to mention this was made, start to finish, during the pandemic.

So, the problem with reading into things is it's not how a movie is supposed to be reviewed, maybe? At least according to Malcolm, context and different directions the filmmaker could've gone with aren't supposed to be brought up, just what is presented should be. I haven't looked into it yet, but the movie is getting a lot of heat for a pretentious view of critics. Levinson, luckily, may not share these views. He said in an interview with Landmark Theatres that it's about presenting all sides of a subject or argument through Malcolm and Marie. If he keeps in mind that he can't control the discourse after the movie is out, then we're good.

He also said black and white was chosen because a lot of the visual references he and his cinematographer, Marcell Rév, used were from black and white movies, but "by the time black actors got the opportunity to be leads in film, black and white had sort of fallen out of fashion," and this was a way to immortalize these characters in a piece of that era, even if the movie takes place around now.  

The third major player in the movie, apart from Levinson, would be the film's composer Labrinth. His score is very jazzy and fits this 40s-era look incredibly well. Also, it makes the romance, and just general connection, between the two characters feel earned, in the moments where it plays. 

A few little touches that add to the look and sound are that it was shot on 35mm film and has the full set of credits at the beginning of the movie. There's so much about it that screams classic, and I just love that. No surprise here if Netflix sent screeners of this and Mank as a double-feature for critics and award voters. 

4/5 but certainly not for everyone Still, I especially hope those guys share their thoughts on the film.

Finally, three little things are what put it over 3.5 for me. The first, was a little reference to BlacKkKlansman that extends to Sorry to Bother You (reviewed here). The second is this idea, does having a character you can point to as going through the same struggles as you rob you of your story? Is there a point where deep, personal relatability becomes a problem? The last was this line, "Thank you for being a drug addict. Thank you for being clean." The way it was said, that's the sign of a better world, and it's just one of a million little things people may get out of this movie. So, definitely write your own review of this one because we're all going to have to work together to touch on everything in it.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

White Lie (2021)

White Lie is about a student who fakes a cancer diagnosis for the attention and financial gain, and then struggles to keep up with that lie. It stars, among others, Kacey Rohl, Amber Anderson, Martin Donovan, Thomas Olajide, Connor Jessup, and Sharon Lewis. It is written and directed by Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas, and Thomas also acted as cinematographer. The music is by Lev Lewis, and that's as good a place as any to start things. 

After an opening of Katie Arenson (Rohl) shaving her head and giving the audience an idea of what this movie might be, the music kicks things off with a quick pace that mostly confirms it. That pace is accompanied by the opening credits and Katie hugging students, accepting donations, and living the lie with ease and grace. Within that all that though, there are this drum beat and guitar riff hinting at the pressure of maintaining everything. That, maintaining everything, and Katie's character is where the movie could fall apart at a moment's notice, but it remarkably doesn't. 

White Lie's greatest strength, aside from an exceptional cast, is in its script. Lewis and Thomas have thought of every aspect of what goes into not just performing fraud like this, but also how many different parties it can involve, all the costs, the different avenues it can take, and most importantly the best way to confront someone who's faking an illness and how someone's who's faking can deflect that confrontation. So, an as example, Katie has a medical resident, Dr. Jabari Jordan (Olajide)  help her forge medical records from the ground up, so a complete medical history starting from her diagnosis is necessary. In most movies, this stops at "what kind of cancer do you have?" White Lie keeps this moment going, "what type of melanoma do you have?" And they use someone else's actual records that can match up with the chemotherapy regimen she told people she had. 

Still from White Lie
Crowdfunding and cash donations each play a significant role in maintaining the illusion | Property of Rock Salt Releasing

Lewis and Thomas were interviewed by Karen Benardello at the Toronto International Film Festival during the film's release. They said "When you start doing research into people who fake cancer, a lot of the stories are pretty carbon copy...We did do a lot of research with lawyers and doctors, to help make the story feel real..." Even with a clear roadmap, it's not an easy thing to depict in a movie, especially one that doesn't show that roadmap ahead of time and has the audience as in-the-moment as the main character. 

Keeping scenes going a little longer than expected and keeping everything in the moment are a very naturalistic approach to filmmaking and letting this story unfold, and that's what really stuck with me during the movie. An example of this would be how someone who doubts the story comes into play. It's the big third act bombshell in front of a crowd or even a couple people. It's a Facebook post on the fundraiser/event page. As true to life as it gets, with all the right follow-through to a plot like that.  A result of this is there's so much we don't know because the filmmakers don't waste their runtime or want to force exposition dumps on us or their actors. This leads to some notable moments like when Katie's father, Doug (Martin Donovan), gets the name of Katie's partner, Jennifer (Amber Anderson), wrong and is quickly corrected. It may have been intentional, it may have been something that just worked out on-screen, but either way it works and fits this tone. There's only one moment when the movie isn't like this, and it's more noticeable than it would be in any other film. It's just one cut during a "pivotal reveal." It seems like a better take just had to be used, but if the camera was still rolling, maybe that didn't have to be the case? It was just oddly jarring because of everything onscreen before and since. 

Jennifer (Amber Anderson) | Property of Rock Salt Releasing

Finally, I want to talk about the character of Katie herself. She is where it's easy to step away from the technical aspects of the movie and get into something more. It seems like the filmmakers researched people as thoroughly as the intricacies of their actions. At least up to a point, I didn't not feel forced to judge her, and that's a surprising feeling others may encounter, too. There's sympathy somewhere in her story, and it is what sets the movie apart from anything else like it, although it's possible, based on a different interview "no one had made a film about faking cancer for personal gain." That's as far as they know. So that's another reason why research was key. Something everyone involved really seemed to nail is how people react to this pressure. Katie is able to deflect, project, and think fast, but in the end there's are still some signs, still some missteps. It was something I heard on a podcast. Now please, please take this with a grain of salt because everyone is different, and this is highly subjective. It just happens to fit this piece of fiction well. When accused, those who are telling the truth get angry, and the liars will cry and double down with these "convincing statements." She's not a master manipulator, she just is lucky that a lot of people need to hold on to what they believe. It's all incredibly well shown through Rohl, as she portrays confidence, that in this situation hints at someone mentally and/or emotionally unbalanced. It's a really tough role to pull off, especially with the genuine warmth trapped behind the lie.  

So, with all that said, this is an incredibly engaging film. Please give it a shot. 
 
4/5

A screener of this movie was provided to me by TriCoast and Rock Salt Releasing. I was not compensated for this review. 

White Lie will be available for pre-order on 12/20 and Rock Salt Releasing will release it on various digital streaming platforms on 1/5/2021 (DirecTV, Amazon, InDemand, iTunes, FlixFling, AT&T, Vimeo on Demand, Vudu, Fandango & Google Play).
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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Harley Quinn: Season 2 (2020)

One complaint I had about the first season of Harley Quinn is that "some episode endings seemed a little rushed so that they could save pieces of an arc for the rest of the season." With the show established that's no longer an issue, and it's able to go into the second season expanding on what it does best. Story arcs are written tighter, many characters from the year before are given additional depth, some new ones are given fantastic introductions, and the jokes just keep coming. Unfortunately, some characters feel sidelined at best, and at worst others are just painfully underwritten. The action and animation is still largely the same and feels like it's on the lower-end, but that's not a real problem. It's a mixed bag, if you dig through it too much, but odds are you're going to really like what you see. 

This season is cleanly divided into a couple neat stories. There's Harley (Kayley Cuoco) taking control of a divided Gotham, one villain-controlled territory at a time, and then there's the fallout from the volatile shifts in power. The first part is pretty clear roadmap to get people back into the swing of things, as each villain takedown gets an episode. Personally, I really needed this since binging shows can leave the details of the previous season a little fuzzy. A season recap, even as a bonus extra on the show page, would've been even better, but we're all just counting our blessings this year.

Harley Quinn Season 2 Promo Image
Harley's Progress (Season 2 Promo Image) | Copyright 2020 Warner Media

Old characters are fleshed out, new ones get proper intros, and the show is able to experiment even more with just about everyone. It's not everyday that Nora Fries (Rachel Dratch) is given the opportunity to have character outside of her husband (Alfred Molina), let alone...move or talk. In fact, the "additional story," in Arkham Knight may be the only other example. Other great examples include Christopher Meloni's Jim Gordon. As much as I loved him last season "flipping the Bat Signal on-and-off [for emotional support]," seeing him actually get some of that support through his daughter (Brianna Cuoco, Kayley's sister) was even better. He even cleans himself up, albeit too quickly, "in a montage where we skip past the hard parts of beating an alcohol addiction." Taking a little more time with Jim's journey would've been great, but still, it honestly was unexpected either way, since characters outside of the main ensemble are not treated seriously all that much in the first place. It may be growth from the creators, and it holds a lot of promise of things to come. I still believe this particular Gordon and Batman (Diedrich Bader) should have more time to shine, but Harley Quinn isn't the place for it. Some characters have a long way to go, in this regard. This version of Two Face (Andy Daly) is a serious letdown, thanks to shallow characterization in a mostly filler episode. 

This is my main black mark on the season. "All the Best Inmates Have Daddy Issues" is midway through the season, and it's about Harley's time in Arkham as a psychiatrist, and it does something I had a problem with in Solo: A Star Wars Story. "Some of these references unnecessarily setup the original trilogy, or foreshadow it in a way that's more like fortune-telling." And with characters many know very well already from other media, it just doesn't feel like it's doing anything really new with them. All these interpretations may have just backed the writers into a corner, and that's understandable, but in that case a less-is-more approach would've done the trick. Joker, who is very well-crafted by Alan Tudyk, asks "You wanna know how I got these emotional scars?" It'll make people either chuckle or groan, but at least it's just one line. This unscarred Harvey Dent constantly refers to the citizens of Gotham as voters, and it gets old quick. Making him one dimensional is one thing, but at least give him some kind of creativity to go along with it. It's like that acid also kicked the vocabulary section of his brain into action, too. On the bright side, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) revealing why she thinks so little of humanity does a lot for her as a character and propels her, Harley, and the show to a fantastic rest of the season. 

The action and animation could still use a touchup, and that might've actually happened in the last couple episodes. Starting out though, there's just stupid little errors I noticed, like someone drinking something, but then the same amount is in the glass in the next shot. Toward the end though, there are some fun arena-type fights. The GCPD taking on Darkseid's (Michael Ironside) parademons, for this show, is a matchup made in heaven. The highlight, however, has to be Batman getting his own version of Tony Stark's Extremis armor, complete with his own J.A.R.V.I. S-like companion. First, it gives Alfred (Tom Hollander...so, so close) a much needed break from Bruce's shenanigans. Second, it leads to a fight with Bane (James Adomian) and some thugs that includes flight and lightning punches, and those are always great things. Still, even if that flash was throughout the season, it wouldn't compete with the shows humor. 

Harley and Ivy looking like regular people
Remember, they both had to put a ton of makeup on to achieve this look. It's a great detail | Copyright 2020 Warner Media

For last season, I said "the jokes had a certain South Park quality to them, and that's not just due to the MA rating of the series. It's in the little things, too." That actually might just be strong sitcom humor in general, since I ran across Josh Weinstein's study of Simpsons jokes, recently. Whatever the case, for me, that off-the-cuff clean humor feels like Harley's secret weapon. Stuff like Bane going for one of the open cushy office chairs, now that other villains are incapacitated, and then being shut down for "honorary purposes" and forced to sit on a crappy folding chair. Last time, I said it was just a good way to break up the more mature material. This time, with that joke sowing the seeds of Bane's rivalry with other villains, I'm calling it character-building. This quickly found its identity. With it knowing exactly what it is, and a confirmation of a third season, it feels like it can run straight ahead into what's next. There's just some tiny bumps along the way to smooth out. 

So, there's a lot that's not being covered in this review for plot reasons. Look forward to the shakeups that'll be explored further in the future.  Instead of that, and because the basic circumstances leading to this review. There's just a couple little things to add as a wrap-up. This character, and her associates, was one of the major pieces of fiction I kept coming back to during this horrible fucking year. There's three other posts here (1, also linked above) (2) (3), plus a little something just two paragraphs down. Maybe it's because of the (almost) guaranteed humor, because Birds of Prey might've been the last thing I saw in an (indoor) theatre, or because that movie helped me grow as a hobbyist video editor? It could be a combo of these things, but whatever the case, she and her cronies helped a lot. Knowing that this review is how I may have wanted to cap off 2020 was something to hold onto through quarantine and recovering from fucking heart surgery (valve replacement in March). 

So, with all that said, I'm giving this season a 4/5.

Similar to last time, HBO Max may still be doing some kind of free trial or starting discount to help promote Wonder Woman 1984. So if you can watch the season, and Zendaya's show Euphoria because I just want to throw that out there, without a major financial commitment, definitely go for it. Finally, there's one last thing. Doing a full write up on it is a little tough because I have trouble smoothly jumping back and forth between all these interpretations of the characters sometimes, and reconciling them with each other, but if you love the character in general, please check out the graphic novel Harleen by Stjepan Sejic. This is a version of Dr. Quinzel, emphasis on doctor, and the clown you've probably never seen before, and the slow burn approach to Harley's transformation builds upon the wonderful introduction from character creators Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Hearing Harley in your head without the resonance of Cuoco, Strong, Sorkin, or Robbie may not sound "right," but I promise you the voice Sejic gives her is a long time in coming, and it doesn't take away from those wonderful portrayals in the slightest.

Harleen Graphic Novel
Harleen Cover | Copyright 2019-2020 Warner Media

And give Sejic's other work a shot too, but just keep in mind it's usually made with a mature audience in mind, and discretion is advised. 

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