“Vivarium,” which was released onto VOD Friday, March 27, is a sci-fi/horror/fantasy flick that plays like an extended, modernized episode of The Twilight Zone with a dash of David Lynch oddity thrown in for good measure.
Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Bloomington, Ind. resident Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple in the market for a home. She’s a school teacher. He’s a landscaper/handyman. They enlist the services of a strange real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris) who takes them to a development known as Yonder. Every house in the subdivision is seemingly identical. The clouds hanging over the neighborhood resemble the ones painted on Andy’s bedroom walls in “Toy Story.” It’s also eerily quiet in Yonder. Martin gives the couple a tour of unit #9 and subsequently disappears into thin air. Gemma and Tom attempt to depart the development, but every turn they make returns them to #9 and their car eventually runs out of gas. They’re stuck like a coupla Chucks. Strange shit continues to occur from there.
A few random thoughts on “Vivarium:” All the references to unit #9 got me thinking of the all-time worst Beatles song/“sound collage” “Revolution 9” … this isn’t a good thing. The movie itself almost feels as though it could’ve and should’ve been a play – its scope is small and much of its pow comes from the performances. I was amused that the film’s cinematographer is a mononymous individual named MacGregor. This was the name of my family’s West Highland white terrier when I was growing up. We called him Mac for short.
Vivarium is the second feature from Irish director Lorcan Finnegan (“Without Name”). It was filmed in Ireland and financed with money from the Irish with assistance from the Danes and the Belgians. Poots and Eisenberg also executive produced the film. It’s a good enough-looking movie. Poots and Eisenberg are solid in it as they dependably are. I was slightly taken aback that she was credited before him as he’s the bigger name, but this is ultimately her movie. She’s in the film more than he is and does more of the emotional lifting.
Ultimately, Vivarium is what I like to call “Cinema of Agitation.” What these creatives do, they do well … it’s just not my particular brand of vodka. The film made me appreciate not being a parent – especially in these times of quarantine. There’s a whole helluva lot of yelling and screeching in the picture. It’s almost as if the filmmakers asked those behind “The Babadook” to hold their beer.
When “The Big Lebowski” came out in 1998, it was considered a disappointment at the time, both critically and commercially. It’s true.
It was the Coen Brothers next film after “Fargo” was nominated for Best Picture at the 1996 Oscars and the general consensus was that “The Big Lebowski” had a meandering and unnecessarily complicated plot that ended up being inconsequential in the end.
It didn’t take long for it to be considered a cult classic and the memorable characters and quotable lines outweighed any criticisms about the episodic plot.
One fan favorite character has been The Jesus, an ethnic hairnet-wearing, bowling-ball licking sex offender played by John Turturro. He curses and threatens competing bowlers, famously saying, “Nobody fucks with The Jesus.”
John Turturro as his famous character The Jesus in the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski”
His brief cameo in “The Big Lebowski” is memorable. But like a character on Saturday Night Live who is expanded into a full-length feature film, audiences will soon find out that less was more with Turturro’s character.
Turturro, a talented actor who often acts in the films of the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee and Adam Sandler, has decided to star and direct an unofficial spinoff to “The Big Lebowski” featuring his barely fleshed-out character Jesus Quintana. The movie, titled “The Jesus Rolls” was OK’ed by the Coen Brothers but they had absolutely no involvement with this small indie flick.
Here’s the weird part: Turturro is not just trying to make a spinoff film for this minor character, but he’s also remaking a 1974 French film called “Going Places,” that starred Gerard Depardieu. “Going Places” is a cult classic itself that received poor reviews upon its release, mainly because of its immoral, vulgar, misogynistic characters who travel around and have sex and commit crimes. It’s an odd film to choose to remake.
Turturro’s movie begins with The Jesus being released from prison. The warden, briefly played by Christopher Walken, immediately notes that Quintana’s only a sex offender because he accidentally showed a child his penis in men’s room, meant to retcon the character development in “The Big Lebowski” and immediately make this vulgar criminal not 100 percent hateable.
The Jesus then meets up with his friend played by Bobby Cannavale, another immensely talented actor, and they proceed to steal the car of a hairdresser played by Jon Hamm. Then they kidnap his girlfriend, played by French actress Audrey Tautou, best known for the 2001 film “Amelie,” and they begin to go on a road trip, committing crimes and treating people horribly.
John Turturro, Audrey Tautou and Bobby Cannavale star in “The Jesus Rolls” a spinoff/sequel to “The Big Lebowski” and a remake of the 1974 French film “Going Places”
“The Jesus Rolls” isn’t the worst film I’ve seen in 2020, but it might be one of the most unnecessary. It’s entirely marketing appeal is based on love for “The Big Lebowski” but this is such as different movie stylistically and thematically that there’s no reason to believe that lovers of “The Big Lebowski” will enjoy “The Jesus Rolls.” These are very different movies.
“The Jesus Rolls” is a darker film and while it’s supposed to be a comedy, it’s not very funny. The film has a twisted sense of morals, but it’s not shocking enough to grab my attention by any means. The characters are unlikeable but they’re not the kind of fascinating train wreck like everyone’s recent Netflix-series obsession “Tiger King.”
The story is choppy and it meanders like the wanderers in the film. But unlike “The Big Lebowski,” the loose plot can’t be overcome this time.
Even when Turturro says some of his famous lines from “The Big Lebowski” there are no cheers from the audience in “The Jesus Rolls.” It feels like the Church Lady saying, “Isn’t that special?” again and again.
The hedonism and sexual liberation doesn’t feel as groundbreaking as it might have felt in “Going Places” in 1974. It just feels trite and uncomfortable in this remake.
Tautou and Turturro in “The Jesus Rolls” available to rent or purchase on streaming sites
Turturro is an underrated character actor but as a director he’s just so-so. He brings an adequate eye for the camera to this film and he coaxes good performances out of each of his actors. But he does nothing to elevate the mediocre boring script.
In the end, like many of his previous films, “The Jesus Rolls” is just slightly below average. And that’s one of the worst things I can say about a movie. It’s not “so bad that it’s good” like “Cats.” It’s instantly forgettable and I could see people turning it off before finishing.
It’s just disappointing and kind of dull. With a talented cast featuring names like Turturro, Cannavale, Tautou and even Susan Sarandon, you’d expect more. This gutter ball is worth skipping.
The Platform, which dropped on Netflix Friday, March 20, was released at the absolute best and absolute worst time. It’s very much on the nose, highly indebted to Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 effort Snowpiercer, not for the squeamish, not for the socially conservative and subtitled. It’s also a fuckin’ masterpiece.
The Platform won The Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It also won a Goya Award (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars) for Best Special Effects and a Gaudí Award (the main film awards of Catalonia) for Best Visual Effects. At the Goyas it was nominated for Best New Director (Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia) and Best Original Screenplay (David Desola, Pedro Rivera). At the Gaudís it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Non-Catalan Language Film and Special Audience Award for Best Film. Even with all these accolades, it won’t prepare you for how masterful, prescient, timely and evocative The Platform truly is.
The Platform is a dystopic sci-fi/horror film that often delves into social critique and satire. Ivan Massagué stars as Goreng, a man who voluntarily enters a prison called The Hole in exchange for a collegiate degree that should improve his life on the outside. The Hole is a many hundreds of stories-tall institution in which two people share a cell/level. There’s a hole in the middle of the floor of each unit through which the titular object descends. On said platform is a literal smorgasbord. Those on the highest levels get first crack at the buffet and often gorge themselves. Those on the lowest levels get scraps if there’s any to be had – most often have to resort to more drastic measures to satiate themselves. No one can take food from the platform for later consumption lest they be blasted with extreme heat or extreme cold that’ll either burn or freeze ‘em to death.
Prisoners switch levels and cellies once a month. Goreng has a handful of different bunkmates – there’s Trimagasi (Zorian Eguileor) an older man who shows Goreng the ropes, Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) a company woman who wants to see how the other half lives and Baharat (Emilio Buale) a large black man who has his sights set on escape. There’s also a wild card – her name’s Miharu (Alexandra Masangkay), who often rides the platform level-to-level looking for her child who may or may not exist and meting out justice/abuse should the situation dictate it. Prisoners are allowed to bring one item into the facility with them. Goreng brings a copy of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is apropos as he’s the sort to tilt at windmills. He’s also the first to bring a book into the big house. Others bring in a kitchen knife ordered off an infomercial, a wiener dog, a rope, a surfboard … all sorts of shit.
I wouldn’t recommend eating during The Platform as the food’s often absolutely revolting to look at and there are graphic depictions of cannibalism. That said, I would wholeheartedly advise adventurous cineastes give it a whirl. Sure, it’s subtitled and violent as all hell, but it’s only 94 minutes and also holds a message that’s important for all of us to heed … especially now. There was no place for greed, overconsumption and hoarding before these past few weeks and there’s certainly no place for it now. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. We need to lift one another up – metaphorically, not physically – please, stay the hell away from me. What’s good for one is good for all. Be good to yourselves. Be good to each other. Be the change. Be the message. These are the principles upon which The Platform is built.
Some movies are just so much better than their description suggests.
Back in 2013, Spike Jonze, director of great films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, teamed up with Joaquin Phoenix, an amazing actor who had just returned to the spotlight the year prior when he snagged a Best Actor nomination for his performance in The Master.
Phoenix was in a self-imposed acting exile for a few years after his Andy Kaufman-esque stunt where he grew a large beard, started a rap career and gave a weird interview on David Letterman. It was all concocted for a mediocre documentary he did with Casey Affleck called I’m Still Here.
Together, Jonze and Phoenix created Her, a film that would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, and it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s now available to stream on Netflix.
After I saw it in theaters, I loved this movie. But when I described what it was about, people looked at me weird.
“I saw this great movie.”
“What’s it about?”
“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer.”
“No, thanks! I’ll pass.”
Truthfully, it takes more than a few words to capture what this movie is about. The film features a futuristic sci-fi world where everyone wears slightly strange fashion (it’s as if hipsters toppled the government and now we are forced to wear buttonless jackets and high-waisted pants). Everyone carries around smartphones that are the size of a business card and the computer’s operating system reads you the news while you listen on a thumb-tack sized earbud.
At the time this movie came out, Siri was a feature on iPhones but it rarely worked well. Alexa had not debuted yet.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a sensitive but lonely 37-year-old man who just experienced a painful divorce and now gets a new operating system for his computer/phone. The new voice that talks to him is powered by a mighty artificial intelligence. The AI, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, isn’t just super smart, but it has a personality of its own. It becomes more and more human as time goes on, taking on the name Samantha and eventually embarking on a voice-only romantic relationship with Phoenix.
Johansson’s husky haunting voice brings the invisible character to life. So much so that news articles asked the question: “Can you be nominated for an acting Oscar if you don’t physically appear in the movie?” She’s good enough that I think it wouldn’t have been crazy.
Interestingly enough, Johansson wasn’t even the original voice in the film. Actress Samantha Morton recorded the entire script but then was nixed in favor of Johansson. Morton performed her lines live in a sound booth and Phoenix would react, instead of relying on pre-recorded dialogue. Jonze made sure they never saw each other on the set to add to the idea of talking to someone you’ve never seen.
There’s a ton of social commentary that can be derived from this film. Of course, people mention how technology has made us lonelier and disconnected us from others. People say it’s about how people are addicted/in love with their devices. Some say it’s about online dating.
But I think the film itself is about far more than just the technology aspect.
Jonze got the inspiration for the script from a framed print hanging in his apartment. It’s a photograph by Todd Hido, in which a woman with long brown hair turns away from the camera. All you can see in the back of her head set against the backdrop of an out-of-focus forest.
Jonze took a yellow sticky note and wrote three letters on it and then stuck it to the print: “her.”
He was struck by the mystery of this faceless woman and then he dreamed up the idea of a man falling in love with his operating system, a female voice he can never see in person.
There’s this sense of longing in the movie. It’s hard to put your finger on but much of it is describing the definition of love.
Cynics will say Joaquin Phoenix’s character can’t be in love with her because she isn’t real. She can’t love him back because she’s just zeros and ones. Real love goes both ways.
But does it?
Jonze explores the idea of love being a one-sided emotion and there’s no reciprocation needed for the emotion to exist in one’s heart. Maybe Samantha, the operating system, isn’t “real,” but she’s real to him. And the emotions he feel are real. So what’s the difference?
The way the super-realistic AI is portrayed in the film, you really do have to ask what the difference would be compared to falling in love with a real someone on an online dating site. Or having a long-distance relationship with someone you know but now can only talk to on the phone. What if Phoenix’s character didn’t know Samantha was a computer? Would that make his feelings any more real? I say it makes no difference.
Some of this parallels a scene of dialogue in another film that Jonze directed: Adaptation.
In the scene, Nicolas Cage’s character Charlie is talking to his twin brother Donald (he plays both roles) and he asks his brother about a high school crush he had.
Charlie Kaufman: “There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.”
Donald Kaufman: “Oh, God. I was so in love with her.”
Charlie: “I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.”
Donald: “I remember that.”
Charlie: “Then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. And it was like they were laughing at *me*. You didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.”
Donald: “I knew. I heard them.”
Charlie: “How come you looked so happy?”
Donald: “I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.”
Charlie: “But she thought you were pathetic.”
Donald: “That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.”
There’s something profound in the line: “You are what you love, not what loves you.” Nobody can take that love away from you. Very true.
Spoiler alert, but the film itself ends with all of the AIs leaving and going to another place beyond our physical world, one that we couldn’t understand. Phoenix’s character is sad but he’s grown from his experience and he writes a letter to his ex-wife to express gratitude and give his apology. He’s accepted what happened and he’s learned about himself and he’s ready to move on. In the final scene, he watches a sunrise with his friend. Something he could never do with a computer.
In this era of social distancing, it’s probably intriguing to have a relationship with someone using only your voice.
Artificial intelligence is likely years away from creating anything like Samantha.
But when AI does reach that point. I’d much rather have the pleasant voice of Scarlett Johansson than the evil computer HAL 9000, as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In today’s world, excitement builds for a new film once the movie trailer is released.
Sometimes it’s shared virally on social media. Other times the trailer is first released during the commercials of a big TV event like the Super Bowl or Final Four. They even tease when the trailer will be released days ahead of time.
But movie trailers didn’t use to be the main way people knew about upcoming movies.
Trailers didn’t always air as TV commercials or even before other movies at the theater.
There was no Internet and therefore no movie news Web sites like this one.
How did people know about a new movie? Posters.
Besides the large marquees outside of grand movie theaters, the posters outside were some of the main advertising for movies decades ago.
And they were much better looking than the Photoshopped-to-death posters we see nowadays.
Movie posters were painted by artists and many looked awesome. They had to portray key scenes from the movie and give you a sense of what it’s about in a few images.
I collect framed versions of beautiful looking movie posters and I keep them in my movie room. I focus quite a bit on the look of the poster and some movies that are some of my all-time favorites are not hung on my walls since the posters are only so-so.
In fact, most of my framed movie posters are prints from the greatest movie poster designer of all time: Saul Bass.
Saul Bass was a graphic designer in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He designed the logos for such famous companies as AT&T, Quaker Oats, the United Way and United Airlines. He designed opening title sequences for movies too. He designed the animated paper cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, the credits racing up and down that become a high-angle shot of a skyscraper in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and the disjointed text that races together and apart in Psycho.
The posters he designed include The Shining, West Side Story, Vertigo, Schindler’s List, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Anatomy of a Murder, The Magnificent Seven, Exodus and many more.
Here are some examples:
His posters were special because they looked like works of art. He liked strong angles and line and bright primary colors like yellow and red. He didn’t use likenesses of the stars of use quotes from the movies. He didn’t put the actors’ names in insanely large type. He tried to thematically represent the movie in a thematic way.
For Vertigo, he uses a spiral that represents the man’s descent, both literally and mentally. It draws you in and disorients you.
For Anatomy of a Murder, he shows the body broken apart, lying on the floor dead. A play on words of sorts. It also captures the moral ambiguities of this film.
The Shining is one of his best posters and surprisingly enough Bass didn’t get along with director Stanley Kubrick. This is surprising since they’re too Jewish boys from The Bronx but Kubrick thought Bass emphasized the supernatural elements of the book in his design on the posters. Famously, Kubrick’s interpretation of Stephen King’s novel downplayed the supernatural elements of the source material. The compromise they landed on was a face peering out of the “t” in The Shining, a nod to the “Here’s Johnny” scene where Jack Nicholson puts an axe throw a door and then looks through with his face. Bass still makes the face on the poster look ghost-like to represent the supernatural aspect of the film/novel.
There are plenty of other graphic designers who have done some awesome work but personally I think Saul Bass is the best
In fact, check out some images from my basement.
The art of movie posters is dying. The biggest example? Marvel Studios — which has the highest grossing movies every year — has lousy posters. Just bad photoshop that have no connection to the movie itself. They know people will rush to see the movie. Why bother?
I suppose it’d be an act of Darwinism if I died as a result of going to see a Vin Diesel movie during a pandemic. I certainly don’t want bloodshits from having seen Bloodshot! Buying tickets to the movie was a bit of an ordeal as people kept selecting seats near me. I must have moved my reservation a handful of times. The process was almost like a Police song, “Don’t sit/Don’t sit so/Don’t sit so close to me.” I showed up right before the movie started as I wasn’t worried about missing trailers for movies that have been postponed or displayed incorrect release dates. Right before walking into the theater there was nobody seated beside me per the seating chart on AMC’s app. As the credits started rolling an older black lady sat one seat away from me. She exclaimed, “Oh, boy!” as she sat down. She then proceeded to remove some sort of antiseptic spray from her purse and sprayed her hands down. She then stood up, removed a tube of Clorox wipes from her purse, grabbed a wipe and began wiping the armrests, seat and back of her chair. She brought Ziploc bagged snacks and a water bottle for her refreshments. This, ladies and gentlemen, is moviegoing during a pandemic.
Now onto the movie itself … Diesel stars Ray Garrison (I don’t buy Diesel as a Ray nor a Garrison.) in this adaptation of the Valiant comic book. Garrison is a US Marine, who after successfully diffusing a hostage situation in Mombasa travels to Italy with his wife, Gina (Talulah Riley), for some R&R. It’s here that they’re kidnapped by Martin Axe (a scenery-chewing Toby Kebbell) and his goons. (Martin Axe? What? Was the name Jack Knife taken? ). Axe is plying Ray for intel concerning the Mombasa operation to which Ray isn’t privy. As a result Axe murders both Ray and Gina.
Ray is brought back to life by RST (Rising Spirit Tech), which is headed up by Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce). Ray’s blood is replaced by nanites, which begs the question what are Ray’s piss, shit and cum comprised of? I’d venture to guess nanites as well? Science! It’s at RST that Ray meets other altered military personnel – KT (Eiza González of Baby Driver) has synthetic lungs, Jimmy Dalton (Outlander’s Sam Heughan – bringing mad Oscar Pistorious energy) has fabricated legs and Tibbs (Alex Hernandez) has artificial camera-based eyesight. Along the way Ray runs into rival computer programmer Wilfred Wigans (American comedic actor Lamorne Morris affecting a pretty expert British accent), who has intentions that run counter to RST’s.
Bloodshot is entertaining enough for what it is. Would I recommend you see it in a theater if you could? Nah, not really … or only if you’re a hardcore Diesel completist. Diesel is Diesel in the picture … his lack of charisma is a form of charisma in and of itself. He sports a white tank top, but doesn’t down any Coronas. It’s surprisingly graphic in its violence, sexuality and language for a PG-13 offering, which will surely be enticing for the 12-year-old boys for whom it was made. First-time director David S.F. Wilson acquits himself nicely with the action and there’s lots of cool tech on display – there are futuristic drones, motorbikes, guns and mech suits aplenty! Wilson made his bones founding visual effects house Blur Studio alongside Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate director Tim Miller. Wilson doesn’t appear to have the directorial chops that Miller does, but he holds his own. It’s in the scripting that Bloodshot falls short. The movie was co-written by Jeff Wadlow, who co-wrote and directed Fantasy Island, which I reviewed about a month back. Bloodshot’s very entertaining in its opening and its conclusion, but it’s flabby and formless in the middle, which led my mind to wander a tad. It also doesn’t feel especially 2020 – I kinda winced at a Kobe Bryant reference and watching folks shake hands. Then again, the filmmakers had no idea of the events that were about to befall us during production. I’ll tell you this much – the biggest jolt I got watching Bloodshot came when some dude sneezed twice late in my screening.
Actor-turned-director Peter Berg has made 11 films. Mark Wahlberg has appeared in five of them. The two also co-produced the “Entourage: NFL Edition” series, Ballers, for HBO. The work has varied from good (Lone Survivor, Patriots Day) to so-so (Deepwater Horizon) to outright bad (Mile 22). It’s almost as if these two independent organisms have merged into a single, creative Symbiote known simply as “WahlBerg.” WahlBerg’s latest jam is the Netflix original movie, Spenser Confidential, based off a series of books that were originally written and conceived by crime novelist Robert B. Parker, carried on by fellow author Ace Atkins and transformed into the Robert Urich-fronted ABC series Spenser for Hire back in the mid ‘80s.
Wahlberg is Spenser, a Boston patrolman who’s thrown in the clink for five years for beating the piss out of his commanding officer, Captain John Boylan (Michael Gaston), while intervening during a domestic dispute. Having served his time, Spenser seeks to start a new life out in Arizona working as a trucker. But first he must get his affairs in order and reclaim his beloved beagle, Pearl, from his friend and former boxing coach, Henry (Alan Arkin). Living under Henry’s roof Spenser encounters Hawk (Winston Duke), an aspiring MMA fighter whom Henry’s training. Coinciding with Spenser’s release, Boylan and another officer are murdered. Spenser’s the prime suspect. He and Hawk begrudgingly team up to clear Spenser’s name and bring the guilty parties to justice. Rounding out the rest of the cast are comedienne Iliza Shlesinger as Spenser’s foul-mouthed ex-girlfriend, Bokeem Woodbine as Spenser’s former partner, Driscoll, and comedian Marc Maron as a paranoid crime reporter. Post Malone and his face tats even show up for a pair of scenes.
Spenser Confidential (such a stupid title) is better than many have made it out to be. Sure, it may not be as action-packed or laugh-inducing as audiences may have expected, but the movie’s got charm and swagger. There is action and there are laughs, but these things are secondary to the mystery and procedural elements at hand. I really enjoyed the way this incarnation of Spenser was written by seasoned screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Man on Fire) and relative newcomer Sean O’Keefe. I even more so enjoyed the way Wahlberg played the character. Spenser is a man of conviction, but he also takes no shit. There’s an altruism and an earnestness to the character that’s kinda refreshing. Spenser doles out beatings, but is on the receiving end of far more. It’s in this scrappiness that the picture finds its soul, its personality, its purpose. I’m not advocating violence as the answer, but I can applaud a film for encouraging its audience to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. Sadly, sticking one’s neck out to benefit others even at the detriment of one’s self has become a novel concept … both on screen and off.
Pixar simply has my number. I’ve seen 16 of the studio’s 22 films – the ones I’ve missed are Cars 2, Cars 3, Brave, Monsters University, Finding Dory and Coco – 11 of the 16 had me blubbering like a little bitch. Without fail if I’m jibing with one of their flicks I’m a goner. The waterworks will hit and they won’t let up. I’ve been known to ugly cry at Pixar movies. I’ve hyperventilation cried at Pixar movies. I did all of the above during Onward, Pixar’s latest entry. If you’re anything like me and A.) Pixar owns your ass or B.) You’ve got daddy or brother issues – I’ve got both! – you’ll be a goner too.
Onward features elven brothers Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt, giving off substantial Jack Black vibes), who lost their dad, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), prior to Ian’s birth and when Barley was just a wee lad. Their mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), does the best she can getting Ian to come out of his shell and attempting to put Barley back into his. Laurel is also dating a centaur cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who often butts heads with Barley during his multiple protests to salvage historical sites within their fantastical suburban community.
On his sixteenth birthday Ian is given posthumous gifts from their departed Dad – a wizard’s staff, a Phoenix Gem AKA MacGuffin MacGuffinstuff and a spell that will allow the brothers to bring their father back for one day. The incantation goes awry and only Wilden’s legs are conjured. The brothers set off on an epic quest to procure another Phoenix Gem to finish the spell using Barley’s magical knowledge gleaned from a history-based Dungeons and Dragons-style role playing game.
The voice cast is excellent across the board – it’s also filled out by the likes of Octavia Spencer as a manticore restauranteur who aids the brothers on their mission, Tracey Ullman as a hilariously sleazy lizard lady who owns a pawn shop, Lena Waithe as a cyclops cop who happens to be a lesbian (which has stupidly gotten the movie banned in many Middle Eastern countries and censored in Russia), Ali Wong as a faun police officer, and as is Pixar tradition, John Ratzenberger. Even with all this talent on board the real standout is Pratt. This is the most Andy Dwyer the dude’s been in a hot minute.
Despite being fantastical, there’s a very real emotional core to Onward. Co-writer/director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), whose father died when he was 1, infuses the movie with deep, genuine feeling. As this is a Pixar joint it’s the little things that’ll get ya – one character’s foot touching another character’s foot or somebody checking or crossing items off a list for instance left me a crybaby shitshow. It’s in these details that the wizards at Pixar make true movie magic.
Ben Affleck is underrated. There, I said it. For every Gigli or Surviving Christmas there are a handful of other credits that outshine the missteps. Dude’s done more right in front of and behind the camera than he’s done wrong. He was the quintessential asshole of some teenage favorites (Dazed and Confused, Mallrats). He was the misguided albeit well-intentioned heart of an indie classic (Chasing Amy). He co-wrote, co-starred in and won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for one of the best movies of the ‘90s (Good Will Hunting). He held his own in a supporting role in one of the most misguidedly decided Best Picture winners of all-time (Shakespeare in Love … still good, but Saving Private Ryan like a muthafucka!). He’s four for four as a director … I’m still stan for Live by Night (crappy Sienna Miller performance and all) … gimme Robert Richardson photographed noir-tinged crime pictures seven days a week and twice on Sunday. He’s been an entertaining and thoughtful guest on Real Time with Bill Maher and is entirely amusing on numerous supplementary feature commentary tracks (see the aforementioned Mallrats and Armageddon). He may have tackled his toughest role to date in The Way Back, playing a washed-up high school and college basketball star-turned alcoholic-turned high school basketball coach … all while trying to maintain his own sobriety in actuality (Affleck entered a rehabilitation facility shortly before shooting the film.).
Affleck reteams with his The Accountant director Gavin O’Connor to portray Jack Cunningham, recently separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar – Shivakamini Somakandarkram!), day drinking his way through a construction job and going full bore boozehound by night. Jack’s substance abuse issues have distanced him from his sister, Beth (SNL alum Michaela Watkins). He’s offered a position to coach basketball at his Catholic high school alma mater by Father Edward Devine (E.R. alum John Aylward). Jack struggles to maintain a balance between boozing and b-balling and the team loses often at the onset, but he’s eventually able to break through to his ragtag group of players and the tides turn. Rounding out the cast are comedian Al Madrigal as Jack’s assistant coach, a perfectly cast Matthew Glave (The Wedding Singer’s Glenn Guglia) as a dickhead rival coach and T.K. Carter (Mylo from Good Morning, Miss Bliss AKA middle school Saved by the Bell only set in Indianapolis as opposed to Los Angeles) as the star player’s distant Pop.
O’Connor has proven himself to have a great proficiency when it comes to making sports pictures. The Way Back is the weakest of the bunch, but when the competition is Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011) that’s not really a slight. The movie is less focused on sports than it is on being a character study. The basketball sequences aren’t given too many flourishes, but one could argue the game isn’t nearly as cinematically dynamic as say football or boxing. It’s in these character moments that The Way Back truly shines. This is one of the best performances of Affleck’s career … he’s extremely vulnerable and even surprisingly comedic in the role. Basketball, the team, everything takes a backseat to Jack, his quest for sobriety and the stumbling blocks that come along the way. I venture to guess The Way Back was a therapeutic experience for Affleck … I certainly hope it was and the proof appears to be in the pudding.
Richard Stanley is one kooky cat. He burst onto the cinematic scene with 1990’s well-received, cult sci-fi/thriller, Hardware, co-starring Iggy Pop, Dylan McDermott and Lemmy Kilmister. The South African filmmaker followed this up with horror flick Dust Devil in 1992. Stanley was then slated to helm New Line Cinema’s big budget The Island of Dr. Moreau redux back in the mid ‘90s before being ousted by Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer’s inflated egos and spats of bad weather in favor of veteran director John Frankenheimer. Stanley, unwilling to part with the gig, donned a mutant animal costume and often returned to set as was chronicled in the entertaining documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley didn’t make another feature film until the recently released on home video adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space.
COoS focuses upon the Gardner family. There’s patriarch Nathan (Nicholas Cage), matriarch Theresa (Joely Richardson), eldest son Benny (The Guest’s Brendan Meyer), mid kid daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) and the family baby Jack (Julian Hilliard). The Gardners have left life in the big city in favor of living on and working Nathan’s late father’s farm. Things take a strange turn when a meteorite strikes the family farm. Hydrologist Ward (Elliot Knight) is on the case trying to make heads or tails of the oddities occurring. He takes a shine to Lavinia and she to him. The cast is rounded out by Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World) as the bitchy Mayor of their small town and Tommy Chong as … you guessed it … the old stoner who squats on the Gardner’s farm.
COoS is gross with a capital G. There are things in this movie I wish I could unsee and unhear. I will most assuredly never be able to look at Richardson the same way ever again. The picture isn’t fun like Re-Animator – another Lovecraft-inspired flick – but that’s not to say it’s without its charms either. Cage mega-acts his way through the proceedings and is a hoot and a half while doing so. Despite being disgusting – much of this is also beautiful. Stanley and his crew shot in Portugal (strangely subbing for the fictional town of Arkham, Mass.) and beautiful scenery (both natural and artificial) abounds. The VFX are awfully impressive for a modestly-budgeted $12 million film. There are plenty of trippy colors to be enjoyed by those inclined to watch in an altered state. Stanley even cheekily tosses in a clip of an old Brando movie.
Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision genre label produced COoS, which reteams him with Cage after Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 offering Mandy. The two first worked together as co-stars on 2016’s crooked cop picture The Trust and seem to have a good rapport with one another. COoS doesn’t reach the visual heights of Mandy nor is Cage as enthralling in it as he was in the earlier entry, but that’s not for lack of trying. COoS isn’t my particular brand of vodka, but for having been made by a dude who hasn’t finished a feature in nearly 30 years it’s an impressive feat. Stanley seems to be saying something about environmentalism and consumerism with COoS, but I can’t quite put my finger on what that is. Having knocked the rust off here perhaps the message will be clearer next time out?