Stop and Go (2021)

Stop and Go (2021)
Directors: Mallory Everton, Stephen Meek
Writers: Whitney Call, Mallory Everton
Cast: Whitney Call, Mallory Everton, Julia Jolley
Genre: Comedy
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I know many don’t exactly appreciate the idea of a COVID-19 comedy amid a resurging COVID-19 pandemic – it betrays cinema’s inherent escapism, plus it’s not like Hollywood’s blessed us with great film comedy of late. Stop and Go (also known as Recovery in non-North American markets) finds itself in a uniquely advantageous position: it takes place during the early stages of the pandemic, when we didn’t know if our pets were possible plague vessels primed to end us all, and when I would disinfect fruit. In that sense, Stop and Go serves as a time capsule chronicling the frenetic confusion of those early weeks and months, a blanket of solidarity.

Thankfully, for the most part it manages to toe the fine line between trying to make awareness of clichés funny in and of itself (see Netflix’s Death to… series for some egregious examples of this) and being tasteless. It gets direly close to falling into either trap. Writers and stars Whitney Call and Mallory Everton (who co-directs with Stephen Meek, who also appears in a minor role) know it, you know it, I know it, and I got quite a bit of satisfaction watching them routinely inch ever closer off that line and pull back on track at the last minute, like some recurring minor act of heroics.

Anyway, the premise, which is brisk enough: two sisters, Jamie (Call) and Blake (Everton), find out a COVID-19 outbreak’s going through their grandmother’s (Anne Sward Hansen) nursing home, so they set out to rescue her. Stop and Go is very much a road trip film, devoting most of its 80-minute runtime in and around the sisters’ car, leading to the movie’s greatest strength and its greatest downfall – we spend the entirety of our time getting to know the sisters, doing much of the legwork for making this function as a non-tacky COVID comedy, but we spend the entirety of our time with the sisters, so when a weak gag rolls around there’s nobody the movie can escape to, we’re just fucked and forced to endure.

Now’s a good time to note that the key players herald from Studio C, a sketch show ala Mad TV, evident by the soul of sketch comedy running rich through Stop and Go‘s pacing and joke delivery. Good sketch makes the world a better, warmer place, as certain a thing as soup nourishing the sick and Mariah Carey rising from her tomb at Christmastime. Stop and Go boasts a healthy selection of good bits (a COVID-fueled dream sequence with an excellent cap-off comes to mind, for one). Bad sketch is its own special form of brutality – when a bit starts going, by God it isn’t stopping no matter how hard it falls. There isn’t really bad comedy in Stop and Go, but there’s without a doubt some not good comedy, usually in the form of weak jokes that go on for way too long, calling maximum attention to just how awkward they are. Hell, even some good jokes are diluted by stretching them well beyond their means, like Blake’s arc involving her maybe-boyfriend Scott (Noah Kershisnik), who’s clearly a socially awkward person, which is funny for one scene, then the movie just keeps on going with it, as this arc causes Blake some stress and becomes a frequent talking point for her as she laments the status of their relationship – something a typical person might do in your day-to-day, sure, but it’s notably uninteresting, hogging runtime in a movie that needs to savour what little it uses.

Regardless, Call and Everton have terrific chemistry, and I can admire the movie’s commitment to rounding out the sisters as people even if the results can be haphazard; it helps immensely that we’re watching characters we recognize as flesh-and-blood people reacting to the world we had (and still have) to react to these past couple years. In doing so, both Call and Everton act as anchors, often expressing shock at the antics of the more off-beat side characters, such as their sister Erin (Julia Jolley) who routinely disregards COVID as a Big Deal, contextualizing the COVID jokes (which would otherwise be largely unimpressive) such that they reflect the sisters’ varying emotions towards what’s happening to their lives.

I wish the film’s visual style also reflected these shifts in the sisters’ world – Everton and Meek keep things strictly naturalistic as with many a recent American indie. It’s very obligatory filmmaking – I’d call it mercenary if it wasn’t obvious everyone involved was having a good time – and doesn’t really humour the idea of style. It doesn’t have to, but since we get to a point where the movie’s grasping for plot elements it would’ve given us something else to latch onto, added some extra oomph. Or maybe I’m just needy.

Still, it’s a sweet lark of a movie, made by people trying to make us laugh in the face of seemingly perpetual tragedy and, perhaps, make sense of it themselves; that it succeeds at all is a small achievement. In the hands of lesser talent, Stop and Go could’ve been worse. Much, much worse.

Horror Spooktober

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)
Director: Beom-sik Jeong
Writer: Beom-sik Jeong, Sang-min Park
Cast: Wi Ha-Joon, Yoo Je-Yoon, Seung-Wook Lee
Genre: Horror
Country: South Korea

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

You may have caught from my review of The Power, which immediately precedes this review, that I am a fan of horror movies in hospitals. I can hedge on that despite being generally inconsistent as a person, proven by how much I enjoyed Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum almost entirely on the principle that it’s set in the most decrepit hospital imaginable. So try to further imagine how joyed I was when I found out it had other things going for it, too.

The title does not mislead, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum does revolve around a haunted asylum named Gonjiam. Following the disappearance of two teenage boys who broke into the abandoned place, Ha-joon (Wi Ha-Joon) seizes the opportunity to prop up his YouTube channel “Horror Times,” enlisting a number of folks to help his venture and explore Gonjiam on a livestream. And since writer/director Beom-sik Jeong and co-writer Sang-min Park are thankfully not under any pretence that this movie is anything more than it is or needs to be, that about sums the plot (in keeping with its title, the movie is efficient), and from there we just watch this group of people get fucked around with for our delight, as these things tend to go.

More delightfully, Gonjiam manages to overcome many faults other found footage movies fall into by understanding an elemental rule in horror: simplicity is gold. This is not a movie with needless arcs or burdensome, contrived plot threads – we know why we’re here, it knows why we’re here, it doesn’t complicate things. Hell, it even understands we’re meant to like the characters – of whom one presumes a significant portion will face death or trauma of some sort – and so spends the first little bit establishing these characters and building their personalities, showing them doing everyday things and just being everyday people. Many a found footage film falls painfully flat when trying to get us to care for its expendable meatsacks, so all the better that such scenes in Gonjiam actually do endear us to this cast. They jive with each other quite pleasantly, and Charlotte (Ye-Won Mun) easily qualifies as a modern horror icon – of this I am certain.

But this isn’t a John Hughes film, we’re not here to see a tale of youthful camaraderie. Gonjiam, keeping in spirit with its aforementioned efficiency, shepherds us right to the namesake asylum and gets things going in earnest, starting us off with some light spooks and gradually getting more unsettling. This is mostly successful, though we get some House on Haunted Hill riffs that are admittedly a tad tired, as if we haven’t been subjected to the grand irony of “these characters are setting up fake scares, but we the viewers know the ghosts are actually real” over the last handful of decades, consequently making it feel like a narratively okay detour, though a detour nonetheless (it’s not the biggest deal, but for a movie so eager to get things going it feels like an unsatisfying cockblock).

When we do get to the ghosts they’re largely excellent – one particular scene with a Silent Hill-esque ghost creature, slowly stalking us through back-and-forth POV shots, is as intense as any horror scene the past decade – and Gonjiam typically opts for steadily mounting dread over outright jump scares. The movie’s nasty abandoned asylum set gives it an easy advantage: it frankly doesn’t have to do a whole lot to be exquisitely creepy, and cinematographer Yoon Byung-ho has an eye for optimal angles within the asylum’s spaces, the best of which being Room 402, warping reality and harbouring the majority of the film’s malevolent entities. The editing’s fairly decent – everyone’s outfitted in cameras and we’re constantly flitting from person to person, yet we maintain a consistent sense of where we and every character is, plus there’s discernible flow to everything. Thank god for this, as found footage movies have a tendency to go bugshit towards the end, usually culminating in an editing catastrophe.

Of course, it’s worth noting that what this all amounts to when said and done is textbook boilerplate. Gonjiam isn’t doing anything particularly novel, although one can argue – and I will – that it has no desire to, and functions more so as a case study on how good production design and a game cast and crew can take common, simple ingredients and present them in a satisfying way. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an annual haunted house: creepy and familiar, a bit of a fleeting memory afterward, yet a pleasure all the same.

Horror Spooktober

The Power (2021)

The Power (2021)
Director: Corinna Faith
Writer: Corinna Faith
Cast: Rose Williams, Emma Rigby, Shakira Rahman
Genre: Horror
Country: United Kingdom

Rating: 3 out of 5.

If you want to finetune a horror movie to my taste, you can either make it a period piece or set it in a hospital. The Power does both these things, so we’re off to a sterling start.

Better yet, writer/director Corinna Faith hinges the movie’s entire atmosphere on 1970s set dressing and accompanying hospital rooms and corridors, each littered with doors leading into seeming voids, and in darkness seem off-puttingly long. It’s the correct choice, a perfect environment to take the pure Val (Rose Williams) and ruin her evening. And what a setting! London, 1974, during the miner’s strike that led to evening blackouts – and Val, ever earnest and wishing to further understand the links between poverty and wellbeing, must prove her worth as a nurse to the hospital’s matron (Diveen Henry) by working the “dark shift.” As this is a horror movie, we can assume the barebones staff working through the darkness aren’t going to bide their time playing chess.

The Power‘s bones are very good, and the first 15 minutes or so do an excellent job establishing a general sense of ‘off-ness’ within the hospital, and establishing that Val is a protagonist I will feel quite bad for when terrible things start happening. There’s immediate tension, helped by an excellent motif in the sound design wherein the soundscape fills with crackles and droning noise as Val approaches dark closets and rooms.

Things get exciting when the hospital’s lights shut off, quickly enveloping Val in a darkness we’re well aware probably contains unsavoury things, and The Power keeps things in a consistent unnerving mode. Val’s an endearing protagonist, and has a purity that makes anything terrible happening to her all the more affecting. Unfortunately, this is also where The Power runs into something of a wall – you see, it never achieves much beyond that mode, and in fact becomes gradually less scary as the movie starts showing its true hand. Faith has a grim story to tell, but there’s a lightness to everything, it all feels a bit less serious and grave than the themes suggest it ought to. Case in point: most supporting characters are eclectic and theatrical, usually speaking in quips – and while that’s good for a haunted hospital movie that wants to be fun, it’s considerably less effective for ones that delve right into “oh shit” topics like The Power does.

There’s also the problem that we don’t have a sense for what’s happening narratively until the last half of the film. I don’t mean this as in it’s a slow-burn, unravelling a grand narrative that pays off in the end. That would be reasonable and something I can’t clock as much. Rather, The Power feels like it’s going through a rolodex of things that could each be The Point. At the beginning, you think it’s going to be a tale of poverty and the effects of political ineptitude, tying into the blackouts themselves and suggested as much by Val’s motive for becoming a nurse. Then you get the sense the movie will tie into the misogyny of the time period. It kind of ends up doing all that by the end, but somewhere around the midpoint the movie becomes about child abuse and plows full steam ahead on that, largely abandoning those prior two topics. It examines abuse in a fine though superficial way, relying more on the inherent horror of it than much else.

Aside from that, the hospital sets are terrific and fine-tuned for scary times, and Val’s face is often softly lit amongst the blackness, emphasising her routinely terrified expressions, and it all works to conjure that tense atmosphere I mentioned before. I ran into an issue – and I don’t know whether this is a Shudder (of which The Power‘s an exclusive) fault or a filmmaker fault – where said darkness was quite compressed, making its varying shades of blackness distractingly pixelated. I’d like to say this added a sense of grittiness to the proceedings and therefore heightened the movie’s spook factor, but alas, it just ended up bothering the hell out of me and making me yearn for glorious smooth gradients.

None of this is to say that The Power‘s bad. It isn’t. It’s competently made and boasts some excellent sequences of growing tension. It’s bursting with great ideas, the potential for something great is staring us in the face, but its too light on its feet to buckle down and manifest these ideas into something special in the horror realm. I found myself wanting more, and that can interpreted in both a good and bad sense.

Horror Spooktober

Candyman (2021)

Candyman (2021)
Director: Nia DeCosta
Writers: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfield, Nia DeCosta
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I wanted to love Candyman. The 1992 original stands as a rare gem in 90s horror – genuinely scary and bursting with theme in a remarkable way not oft seen – and it’s certainly a classic overall. Candyman ’21 acts as a direct sequel to Candyman ’92, continuing this trend of sequels to excellent horrors that show their sequeldom with neither numbers nor subtitles, but rather copy/pasting their predecessor’s title, ala 2018’s Halloween. I guess that’s the state of affairs these days. Regardless, here we are – Candyman, the sequel to Candyman.

Candyman has pros, quite a few in fact, but it has some exceptionally glaring problems, many of which stop the movie right in its tracks. Before anything else, though, the particulars: Cabrini-Green, an affordable housing project in Chicago rife with problems (it has a fascinating history and I encourage you to read into it) and where Candyman ’92 took place, has since been rezoned into upscale living. Artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director, have moved into one of these upscale developments, where Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), regales them on Cabrini-Green’s history. Anthony, struggling to make further headway in the Chicago art scene, meets Billy (Colman Domingo), who teaches him the legend of the Candyman – a hooked supernatural killer who, as you probably already know, can be easily summoned by saying his names five times in a mirror. Inspired by this legend, Anthony imbues the Candyman in his next exhibition, to which he receives decidedly mixed reception. However, Anthony’s exhibit handed out pamphlets inviting naïve visitors to summon the Candyman, and that bit got me particularly excited. Plus, Anthony got stung by a bee prior to meeting Billy, and it’s turning pretty nasty, and Anthony himself is becoming a tad unhinged. Off we go.

Credit where its due, exploring the gentrified neighbourhood where Cabrini-Green once stood is a brilliant idea for a Candyman sequel, and the idea of legends providing purpose – for better and for worse – and how that intersects with one’s capacity for violence is an excellent framework to hang the movie’s themes around. In fact, if you were to just read the entire story on Wikipedia or wherever you’d probably be impressed and think it sounds great.

So how the hell does Candyman drop the ball?

Candyman‘s conspicuously a Message Movie, that’s never not been in question, but it’s perhaps too conspicuous about it. It’s one of the worst types of message movies: patronizing in its inability to trust your sense of nuance, brimmed with expository dialogue that sounds like characters reading out dictionary definitions of the movie’s themes – and believe me, every theme gets its moment in the sun this way – and it’s all to the point where I’m thinking that DeCosta and company had no faith in the story itself to convey the ideas they wanted to express, and so had to add these stilted ‘assurances’ from the characters that, yes, we indeed understand what’s happening and the theme du jour. I get that in the year of our lord 2021 the notion of metaphor’s out the window, but it holds Candyman back quite a bit in that we’re spending more time spelling out these themes than, you know, actually diving into them.

The characters functioning like exposition/plot vessels than people don’t help. They more or less speak in tweets, with a kind of airy wit that sucks the gravity out of most scenes (much of the first half feels more like a Velvet Buzzsaw sequel than anything else). Everyone’s acting at the same register of lightly sassy with the notable exception of Abdul-Mateen II, who greatly succeeds at portraying somebody inching ever closer over a mental cliff, harbouring some primal, violent energy within that manifests in sporadic body movements and facial expressions. So there’s that if little else.

And, of course, one does not see a movie called Candyman without some expectation of hook-related slayings. This iteration has some splendid deaths, particularly one in an apartment window as we pan out on the Chicago skyline, the frame illuminated with a bunch of people going about their high-rise lives while the victim meets their fate, just excellent all around. The other kills are quite good, like a slaying in an art gallery with a brutal bloody throat slash, or a bathroom scene that’s conversely bloodlessly brutal. On top of this, we have Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s terrific score guiding us through these moments, playing on dissonance than Philip Glass’ bleak compositions, though Glass’ original theme makes some well-timed appearances. Alas, these kills aren’t perfect – Candyman relies on neon red blood that looks more like juice than actual blood, and some especially artificial-looking prosthetics, that take much away from the shock inherent to these killings and the occasional strides into body horror the movie makes.

Which, frankly, speaks to Candyman‘s broad problem in that its stylistic leanings tend to get in the whole movie’s way. The blood’s a simple example. More so, the polished visuals are too polished to invoke a sense of oppression and danger, something Candyman ’92 accomplished exquisitely well. Make no mistake, Candyman has some beautiful visuals and DeCosta has an eye for assembling very pleasing compositions, many of which play with colour and shadow, usually pushing the Candyman into the back of the frame (there’s a shot of the Candyman imposed in the dark next the soft neon of an art gallery that is simply A+), but these, again, are more pleasing than they are conducive to creating a sense of horror.

Not worst of all, but up there, the editing’s very choppy – surprisingly choppy – often lurching us awkwardly from scene to scene and usually missing the ideal cut points +/- a few seconds. It creates this sense of disjointedness that kills the movie’s momentum, making me feel like I’m watching a collection of scenes the filmmakers liked versus a cohesive story with an organic flow. These problems make it hard to feel arrested by Candyman, which is a deep shame considering there are key scenes, especially the excellent pre-credits scene (and the credits sequence itself, brilliantly toying with the 1992 version’s and reflecting the ominous mystery of a world that stretches well beyond our reach), that really do fire on all cylinders. It feels a bit like fan-fiction overall, like DeCosta, Peele, and company decided they wanted to add to the existing Candyman story but lack that certain zeal for the property their progenitors had.

That, and it feels like a movie for people who already agree to everything it has to say and already know everything it has to say, which makes its efforts to spell out everything particularly artless. It doesn’t pose many questions despite having many ideas; it doesn’t offer much to ponder and consider, and in that sense it isn’t even a landslide triumph over 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s Candyman: Day of the Dead (neither of which are achievements, to note). Again, the idea of gentrification is such fertile ground for a Candyman film, lending itself to so many plot arcs and visual storytelling tools, but this one barely cracks the surface. The themes are too conspicuous to be thoughtful, the characters too inhuman to be interesting but not so inhuman as to be strangely compelling, the visuals too precise on satisfying colour palettes but not on reflecting our increasingly unhinged protagonist and the horror of his circumstance, the gore plentiful but too stylized to be impactful. It’s all too much and not enough.

P.S. A quick moment to vent: Tony Todd reprising the Candyman role thrilled me much. I was just as deflated to find out he has no speaking lines throughout the film, and when he finally does the filmmakers opt to use wildly unnecessary CGI to de-age him. That is all.

Horror Spooktober

Hell House LLC (2015)

Hell House LLC (2015)
Director: Stephen Cognetti
Writers: Stephen Cognetti
Cast: Gore Abrams, Alice Bahlke, Danny Bellini
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Ever since The Blair Witch Project made a wild amount of bank for a group of folks shaking a camera in the woods, we’ve been inundated – or blessed, depending on your inclination, I don’t know you – with found footage horror. Some do novel things with the genre and are genuinely entertaining for it (e.g., Cloverfield), whereas most are gutter trash, and if you have even a passing interest in horror you’ve encountered these entities.

But, it is October, and that means there are many a horror film to watch, and after an extremely long absence I will be taking you on this journey, dear reader. Whether these movies are good or numbing, we will have each other.

All the above brings us to Hell House LLC, a very indie found footage film that doesn’t initially stick much from the pack, and with a title like that the chances are fairly high we’re in for a dire time, but it’s spawned two sequels, so obviously it must do something right. Right?

At any rate, Hell House tells the tale of a quintuple dressing the Abaddon Hotel, an abandoned squabble in upstate New York, as their annual haunt. Things go awry. Easy enough.

Off the bat, Hell House blows its load, informing us that a horrible tragedy occurred on opening night, fifteen people died, survivors are forever scarred, all that. We get some scattered footage and dramatic expert commentary, emphasising that Bad Things Have Happened, generally revolving around the basement. The movie very much wants us to know the basement’s important. A producer, Diane (Alice Bahlke), and her crew have nabbed Sara (Ryan Jennifer), the sole survivor of the Hell House company’s quintuple, who offers tapes of the event itself and what led up to it. And we have a movie.

None of this is exactly bad on paper. Hype up the tragedy so we’re always anticipating the impending Bad Things, that’s well and good. In doing this Hell House puts itself in a corner, though. Instead of relying on any organic buildup, which we would’ve gotten had we just followed the quintuple from the beginning, the movie sets itself an ultimatum: absolutely deliver on the basement and the tragedy or bust. We’ll get to that in a moment. In the meantime, we have the exploits of the Hell House company and their efforts to convert the Abaddon Hotel into something functional (the actual effort to turn it into a haunt is largely brushed past, which is probably for the best), all the while dealing with increasingly bizarre occurrences.

And thank god for these occurrences, because they swoop in to save a movie actively on the verge of cratering. This is especially true in the first half, where I grew ever more impatient waiting for something to happen. Right before I was about to write off the entire thing, Hell House brings out an ominous clown mannequin stained in fake blood and everything becomes rosier from there, as though writer/director Stephen Cognetti snapped out of making mostly flatlining character moments and went, “Oh, fuck, right, I’m making a scary movie.” There are many elements in Hell House‘s favour, almost all hedged within its production design. The bulk of the movie’s set in the Abaddon itself, chocked with narrow corridors, shadowy corners, and a general sense of decay. Cognetti and cinematographer Brian C. Harnick are broadly aware of how to use this space and how our eyes will wander within, how we’ll examine for anything ‘off,’ and they use it to supremely creepy effect. Even when things stop happening, you get the distinct feeling things could resurge right away, leading to a constant, palpable sense of danger.

Hell House mostly keeps that momentum going, despite cross-cutting these events with more present-day expert commentary in a traditional documentary format, most of which choreographs unfortunate happenings before said happenings happen. It’s kind of like two different movies intersecting – one about the Hell House company, the other about the aftermath of their Abaddon haunt – and I’m not sure Cognetti possesses the directorial prowess to strike the perfect balance between them. The present-day stuff’s always on the precipice of sabotaging the rest of the movie in that it’s a) the least engaging part, and b) adds little to the horror factor, opting to hype us for scary things when they speak for themselves just fine (one journalist describes how a person in the Hell House company cut their own throat, and later in the movie the Hell House guy does just that, and the movie lingers on this like it’s quite a shocker). That said, it feels like an exercise in trying to make scares work despite pre-emptively showing their hand, and it’s kind of impressive that most of them indeed still work.

These scares aren’t all perfect, however. Hell House relies a lot on the “creepy entity suddenly there, suddenly not” trick, and clown mannequins can only go so far, although I’ll note these get more mileage than one might think. This leads me to the basement/tragedy finale, and oh my is it a little bit of a disaster. Rather than capitalizing on the drawn out dread the movie partakes in, it opts for full on chaos – this would be fine, but remember that this is a found footage film, AKA “chaos” means a ton of shaking and a general sense that you have no fucking idea what’s happening. It does not establish well why the haunted housegoers – or us – ought to be horrified by whatever’s going on in the basement, for the tragedy involves a hooded paranormal figure (that’s clearly some guy in what looks like a cheap Spirit Halloween mask) wandering around and doing what I presume to be bad things, but the movie gives us no concept what these bad things really are, there isn’t a “wow” moment. Hell House isn’t a gory movie, but the big basement blowout presented the ideal opportunity for some spectacle. It kind of needed that spectacle, as what we have now is a lot of screaming, general confusion, and a sense of slap-dashedness that isn’t so much scary as it’s deflating and occasionally annoying (Cognetti’s a fan of cheap distortion effects here that are supposed to give the impression the camera’s getting fucked with, but it ends up being overtly amateur). There’s a ‘twist’ at the very end that I think I like for its tackiness, and how it kind of hilariously abandons the notion we’re watching some documentary of a real-life event, but it still lacks that oomph the movie needed to cap things off.

That said, it mostly gets its spooks right, and if you take the movie at pure face value (and watch it well aware it’s low-budget and you shouldn’t have many expectations) it’s fairly enjoyable. The characters are appallingly dumb in the best way – my favourite recurring bit is the clown mannequin showing up in random places and each character freaking out every time, essentially going, “I sure hope that third incident was a one-off.” There’s even a moment where one guy, Tony (Jared Hacker), has the good sense to quit the Hell House quintuple, but we cut to a scene where him and Andrew (Alex Schneider), who looks broadly like Linguini from Ratatouille, are sitting in a field, where both parties are lamenting over some vague reason they can’t leave, and how Tony should’ve known earlier. Nobody follows up on this, it’s just an easy plot device to guide Tony to his death with everyone else, and I love how Cognetti doesn’t even bother to justify it. That’s Hell House for you; it doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to when it knows its dark hallways and creepy mannequins carry the show anyway, and it largely wins that gamble in spite of its botched finale and a narrative structure that seems designed to harm the movie. You could do worse – not a glowing critique, but one almost uniquely fitting for Hell House LLC.

Action Adventure Kaiju Science Fiction

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
Director: Adam Wingard
Writers: Eric Pearson, Max Borenstein
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobbie Brown, Rebecca Hall
Genre: Action, Adventure, Science-Fiction
Country: United States

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Despite being the 36th movie in the Godzilla franchise (and the 12th in the King Kong franchise, I suppose), Godzilla vs. Kong manages to be pretty clever with its kaiju. They are absolutely glorious. And for a movie very clearly made by committee, that’s something to celebrate.

Godzilla vs. Kong even summons the ingenuity to have a likeable character or two, quite an achievement given Legendary’s so-called Monsterverse has a bemusing habit of offing its best characters. 2014’s Godzilla killed off Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who I think would’ve done an outstanding job being the central human anchor for this universe, as the characters introduced in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters sure as hell don’t succeed. King of the Monsters added insult to injury, killing off Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the only one making the cast of disposable sacks remotely bearable. To note, Godzilla vs. Kong keeps most of these characters, probably due to contractual obligations (this was filming by the time King of the Monsters released). The movie seems embarrassed by this and opts to give the Kong side of the story much more TLC, which I’m happy to report does pay off (it’s still not amazing, but it’s relatively good).

But we’re not here for the people, who are more so little plot ants to carry us from one beat to the next. We’re here for the title monsters, giving Godzilla vs. Kong some grace in that it doesn’t need to try very hard story-wise, as that isn’t the gambit. “Kong whisperer” Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is working at a Skull Island containment facility, where Kong is isolated from the rest of the world in fear that Godzilla will detect him and come to assert dominance. Ilene’s adoptive (I think) daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), has formed a special bond with Kong. Meanwhile, Godzilla has become extremely pissy and attacks a Florida facility belonging to very obviously shady tech company Apex Cybernetics, prompting Titan (the universe’s name for kaiju) organization Monarch’s concern that Godzilla has become a threat versus a protector as previously thought. This then prompts Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown) to join forces with Titan conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Bryan Tyree Henry) and her friend Josh (Julian Dennison), and the trio investigate Apex, reasoning that Godzilla had to have a reason for specifically attacking them. This line of thought doesn’t cross any other character’s mind.

As for Apex themselves, founder Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) convinces Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) – a scientist discredited for his theory about a “Hollow Earth” in the planet’s centre being responsible for the Titans’ origins and evolution – to use Kong to investigate the Hollow Earth. Thus, Lind joins forces with Andrews and her (again, I think) daughter, along with Simmons’ daughter, Maia (Eiza González), and they go on a little odyssey with Kong.

One must note that Godzilla vs. Kong is really a Kong movie ft. Godzilla – probably for the best, as the Godzilla end of the story is pretty desolate. Henry tries, but he’s shackled by a script that really would love to skim over character details, such that he’s stuck vomiting rushed exposition. Dennison is absolutely wasted, and Brown is just there. (Spoilers) In the end, they discover that Apex is developing Mechagodzilla to finally overthrow Godzilla as the… apex. It’s a subtle film.

What really gets me about the Godzilla end of the story is how a better, more narratively cohesive storyline was staring the filmmakers right in the face. Mechagodzilla is controlled by Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri). Note that he is the son of Ishirō from the past two Godzilla movies, as this movie isn’t keen to dwell on that. Also note that his father died in King of the Monsters, sacrificing himself to revive Godzilla. Also note that Apex is using a King Ghidorah skull from King of the Monsters. I like to imagine a version of Godzilla vs. Kong‘s script exists where we follow Serizawa helping develop Mechagodzilla, finding a way to acquire the Ghidorah skull, tying into loose plot threads from King of the Monsters, giving Serizawa’s family’s arc some depth, and also giving Mechagodzilla more impact than it basically showing up out of nowhere. Instead, we get Brown and co. bumbling about and managing to flank a startling lack of security for a company that managed to dig a Blade Runner-esque tunnel from Florida to Hong Kong. Worst still, none of the trio are actually doing anything until the very end. The filmmakers seem at least somewhat aware that this is bad and keep most of these scenes brisk, so there’s that if nothing else.

Conversely, the Kong plot matters to the overall story, and its greatest strength is Kong himself – a hugely expressive character, and the movie rightfully plays to Kong’s humanoid strengths, planting him as the protagonist. Kong’s relationship to Jia slots into your typical animal-human bond tale, but it’s effective – thanks to Hottle’s performance and Kong’s excellent character animation – and gives this side of the story way more emotion than the Godzilla side can hope to conjure. Lind and Andrews are decently watchable, with Skarsgård avoiding playing the macho leading man, instead opting for an ’80s-style mildly reluctant hero. Hall doesn’t do a ton, but she makes Andrews pleasant in a “I guess I don’t want to see you die when monsters throw down” way.

The Kong plot also brings us to the Hollow Earth, a lovely bit of sci-fi excess that the movie didn’t need to do but I’m pleased it did. It’s hard not to admire Godzilla vs. Kong‘s lack of restraint towards its sci-fi/fantasy elements – and really, why not? It’s a movie about giant impossible creatures causing massive swaths of destruction for our entertainment, why not throw the kitchen sink (especially when it looks as beautiful as this)? The Hollow Earth’s a fun bit of world-building, opening the door to future movies without forcing teases.

Of course, the Hollow Earth isn’t Godzilla vs. Kong‘s big-ticket item (but it’s a nice bonus) – that honour belongs to Godzilla and Kong and their inevitable versus-ing. The monsters’ Hong Kong fight is outstanding, taking full advantage of their distinct characteristics to choreograph a visceral and genuinely rousing centrepiece brawl. It’s aggressive, too, showcasing each monster at arguably the most primal and violent they’ve ever been, all under tremendously satisfying neon lighting. It’s among the very best fights in kaiju cinema and a joy to watch on a theatre screen.

The other two battles – one at sea, one against Mechagodzilla – are decent-to-good, never quite reaching the heights of the main Hong Kong fight. The one at sea’s quite fun in that Kong uppercuts Godzilla, followed by Godzilla bitch slapping Kong back, and I will never not enjoy either of those things, but it gets lost a little bit within its chaotic cutting and an excess of water effects. The Mechagodzilla fight’s also fun insomuch that you have Godzilla and Kong teaming against one of Godzilla’s historic nemeses, though it’s at the disadvantage of shortly following Godzilla and Kong’s one-on-one centrepiece battle and doesn’t really compete, ditching the cinematic neon for an overcast sky and drab neutral colours. That, and I have a disdain for this Mechagodzilla’s design – it’s a spindly thing more reminiscent of a Transformer than Mechagodzilla as we know and love it (its lack of teeth and plates are salient). A real bummer given that Godzilla and Kong both look exquisite. Kong’s design has never intrigued in its 88 years of existence (the brief is a large gorilla, not exactly open to massive creative liberties), but the monster’s facial expressions and overall movements are lovely achievements. And while a CGI Godzilla will never be quite as personally fulfilling as some person running around in a rubber suit, this is easily Hollywood’s best incarnation of the creature (that said, I have a minor gripe with its oddly bear-like snout, which has existed since Godzilla ’14 and throws me a little every time).

All told, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers exactly what it ought to and a little bit more, certainly improving over King of the Monsters by only having half the human characters completely flop instead of nearly the whole lot, and we get some truly exciting kaiju fights that aren’t shrouded in nighttime rain. It doesn’t threaten the top-tier Godzilla movies – like 1954’s Godzilla, or 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla – though it is snugly in the better-half, for whatever that’s worth (King Kong movies are largely trash, save for the 1933 original and 2005 remake, so Godzilla vs. Kong ranks as one of that franchise’s best without much effort). As for the future of Legendary’s monster movies, I look forward to the inevitable Kong sequel that further explores the Hollow Earth, promising some nice pulp fantasy. As for the lizard’s next outing, God help us all if we’re latched with King of the Monsters‘ characters yet again.

Action Adventure Superheroes

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writers: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig
Genre: Action, Adventure
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Walking out after 2017’s Wonder Woman, I thought about how they (“they” being whichever filmmakers) would top that movie – where they would go from here. A tall order, coming off one of the best comic book movies of the 2010s, a movie that enveloped itself within the mythos of superheroes and the idea of human gods among everybody else, and also one that clearly relished being the first de-facto Wonder Woman movie, treating the character with all the stateliness and iconography such an honour entails. Wonder Woman 1984’s decided to go from Wonder Woman by well and truly going from it. As in distancing itself from it – as in being a very different movie altogether. A choice, for better and worse.

Returning director Patty Jenkins and team are not subtle about this pivot, to be fair. Hans Zimmer’s brassy, “gee-whiz” score should immediately tell you this won’t be encroaching upon such escapades as Wonder Woman’s WWI trench warfare, and cinematographer Matthew Jensen reaches for every colour that can feasibly be reached – starkly different from the dour greys and blues permeating the 2017 film. It’s the bright pop song to Wonder Woman’s stirring ballad, and your feelings about that ought to indicate how much your mileage will vary.

As for the particulars, Diana “Wonder Woman” Prince (Gal Gadot) lives her life as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, “secretly” fighting crime as her obvious alter ego. I say “secretly” but that’s just a formality – WW84 gives no shits about secret identities or anything like that. Just as well, given one scene where Wonder Woman returns to her apartment from a mall fight via confidently strutting across her terrace in costume, my favourite part of the movie. Diana meets cripplingly awkward gemologist Barbara (Kristen Wiig) and they discover a supposed wishing stone in the museum’s collection, a stone of great interest to scuzzy businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Diana uses the wishing stone to resurrect old love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) – more on this later – and Barbara wishes that she possessed Diana’s strength and beauty. If Barbara had been on Diana’s neighbouring terrace at the right time she would’ve witnessed what that strength means, but I digress. Max Lord, in a move I enjoy, wishes to possess the stone’s power. Bad things ensue. To defeat Max is to negate wishes, and both Diana and Barbara, who are enjoying love and increasing power, respectively, struggle to part with their wishes. That’s the meat of it, really.

The story’s neither deep nor very insightful, but Jenkins and co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham (all of whom did not participate in writing the 2017 film, and the absence of writer Allan Heinberg shows) try to weave a general point of “truth is good” and that one’s wishes probably shouldn’t take precedence over reality, and it’s… fine. This isn’t a movie where you’re meant to dwell on threads. In fact, it’s best if you don’t, as WW84 falls apart surprisingly quickly if you start thinking about what’s happening. Prime example – Steve Trevor’s resurrected by possessing a random guy (Kristoffer Polaha, credited as “Handsome Man”), who Diana promptly sleeps with and takes on dangerous adventures, paying no mind to the fact some guy’s life has been effectively roofied for however long Steve can commandeer his body. Well okay, you might think, trying to rationalize that you’re witnessing, that’s just the nature of WW84‘s wishing stone. But then others make various wishes, like the U.S. president wishing for more nuclear missiles, and most spawn out of nothing. WW84 would rather you not marinate on such things, but it’s kind of difficult when the movie basically ends with Diana eye-fucking Handsome Man after Steve’s gone. Anyway.

The third act tries very hard to ratchet the stakes up to Society level, but the rest of WW84‘s more content to keep the story contained to Diana, Barbara, Max, and their own strife and desires. Almost refreshingly, honestly. Where the 2017 movie amounted to Wonder Woman versus the God of War and the German army, WW84 amounts to Wonder Woman versus an 80s capitalist parody and Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat. The movie embraces comic book absurdities like Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and using her lasso on lightning bolts to maneuver the skies, all of which would feel severely out of place in Wonder Woman ’17. There’s a scene where Wonder Woman learns how to fly (just ignore that she never uses this ability in this movie’s technical sequels, Batman v Superman and Justice League), shot like a scene from the 70s Wonder Woman show – bloom cranked up to hell and quite lovely. It’s an easy-going movie, more content to hang out with its characters than throw them into action setpieces, not something you typically get out of a $200 million blockbuster. The action we do get rivets reasonably well, even if none of it’s that memorable and relies too much on slow-mo that gives nothing and takes much in return. The Wonder Woman vs. Cheetah fight’s the worst of the handful, too brief to be meaningful and also the murkiest setpiece (likely to obscure Cheetah’s CGI, which I think is about as good as it could be despite the flak it’s getting – not a ringing endorsement by any means, as mounting evidence suggests CGI human-cats are a terrible idea, but that’s where we’re at).

Max and Barbara make fine villains, though neither are really “evil” per se, more so misguided souls who make some especially shitty decisions. Pascal plays into the campy businessman archetype extremely well, feeding Max necessary flamboyance and presence. I went into this wanting Kristen Wiig being Kristen Wiig as an eventual CGI cat and that’s exactly what we get – she chews stupid lines such as “I want to be an apex predator” like somebody quite aware of how stupid those lines are.

Gadot and Pine are more interesting to unpack, mainly in that the excellent chemistry they had in Wonder Woman ’17 has dropped off the planet. They play swapped roles here – Steve as the naive person in a new world, Diana as the guide – and since Steve’s not our protagonist and this doesn’t encompass any character development for Diana at all (aside from an apparently warped sense of morality since, again, she’s with a random guy), it’s just fluff. Gadot, per usual, does a swell job striking poses and modeling costume designer Lindy Hemming’s work (there’s a flowy white dress that – if I may have a gay moment – is divine and gave me great satisfaction), though I guess this comes at the expense of acting on every other level as Gadot looks bored much of the time and speaks accordingly, including a line reading during the movie’s centerpiece desert action scene that’s hilariously Tommy Wiseau levels of bad. Pine’s more enthusiastic, thankfully, even if that doesn’t fix the problem that these two characters are padding familiar territory but with less charm and less purpose.

The movie’s insane 152 minute runtime doesn’t help anything. WW84‘s story is perfectly sufficient for 100 minutes or so and only 100 minutes or so – the movie’s a lark, there’s simply not enough happening to warrant going any further. There’s an opening scene in Diana’s homeland Themyscira, where a child Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes in an Olympic-esque competition, and it’s just way too goddamn long. It couldn’t even convince Connie Nielsen (playing Queen Hippolyta) and Robin Wright (playing Antiope, struggling very much to nail down an acceptable accent after all these years) to give a shit, as they flatly deliver platitudes about the virtues of truth. I’m fairly certain that the 2017 movie established Diana didn’t begin training until she was a teenager, so this sequence is both long and at odds with its own franchise. The 80s setting serves as set dressing: a shot of an arcade here, a shot of a perm there, but it’s largely arbitrary, seemingly existing to justify the film’s campier vibes and give Steve something to act dazzled by (I’m sorry to those who saw the title Wonder Woman 1984, drew obvious parallels to it and a select novel, only to see that this is not about Wonder Woman facing off against an authoritarian surveillance state. That would be an exciting movie, though).

It really comes down to Wonder Woman 1984 lacking the good sense to trim fat and tighten its relatively basic story and themes – it’s something much more suited for a sleek adventure than slogging for 2.5 hours, akin to DC’s fellow bubblegum-essence superhero movie, Shazam!. 2018’s Aquaman -operating within a similar mode of “let’s embrace all the delightful superhero bullshit in comics” – ran 143 minutes, but that movie knew to just relentlessly plow your brain with delightful superhero bullshit and you know what? That’s the way to do it. I buy into DC’s swerve from grim, philosophical fare (though I didn’t hate that) to more Silver Age, inherently ridiculous adventures, so that’s something at least and, in fairness, WW84 doesn’t veer from the new status quo. I was left feeling entertained despite all the obvious trappings, and I’m interested in the inevitable Wonder Woman 3 (mainly because it seems to promise that we’re finally moving on from Diana’s dependence on Steve). But after witnessing the power and grace Jenkins, her team, and Gadot crafted with the character in Wonder Woman ’17, it’s disappointing watching WW84 fail to match any of it, even if that isn’t its gambit anyway.

Comedies Dramas

On the Rocks (2020)

On the Rocks (2020)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writers: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Before starting, one thing: On the Rocks is quite competent. Please note this, tuck it away in the back of your brain, because On the Rocks is also another thing: it’s quite boring.

Following the story of a young New York couple, Laura (Rashida Jones) becomes increasingly suspicious that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is sleeping around. Not impressed, Laura is unwittingly dragged into a spy operation of sorts by her father Felix (Bill Murray), who tries to prove Dean is, in fact, sleeping around.

Off the bat, it’s one of the more visually striking dramedies of late – softly lit, peaceful yet slightly uncomfortable darks. It’s really natural, but God help you if you try watching in broad daylight. The first five minutes are stately, honing us in on these people’s lives, focusing less on words and more on visuals, letting expressions and body language convey a marriage beginning to crack, and it just feels correct. There are a few of these moments, usually playing with the quiet anxieties of uncertainty in various respects, whether it be marriage or purpose or fulfillment, and in those moments On the Rocks is effective.

To boot, each of the main three actors – Jones, Murray, and Wayans – are game, each successful with the varying degrees of quality their characters are blessed with. Murray can’t really bomb this type of “charismatic oof” role. Wayans doesn’t have much to do, or much of a personality, though he makes a decent enough effort when his infrequent moments turn the corner (he plays the “I’m always working but love my family” type, which, to be fair, is limited at baseline). Jones is the crux of the movie and she shines brightly, bringing great deals of internal strife that define and humanize Laura.

It’s mildly annoying, then, that On the Rocks relegates Jones to the type of protagonist subject to exposition dumps early in, killing the natural momentum those first five minutes gave. I understand that it’s easy to get baggage out in the open early, but at the very least one can characterize Laura better than, “I’m a writer, should’ve never sold a book, now I have problems,” and On the Rocks loves to use Laura’s ability to write as an easy barometer for her mental well-being, despite us having no idea what she writes or what really drives her, as apparently that falls outside the scope of this film. It makes for less-than-riveting characters, with Murray’s Felix being the only one coming to grips with any personal demons, and even then it’s almost cursory. The last half-hour nicely picks up pace, finally bringing the Drama™, but hits a narrative wall once (spoilers) things wrap up between Laura and Dean in a pretty little bow and that’s that. The resolution between Laura and Felix is surprisingly more complex, suggesting that you can love and keep questionable people in your life without necessarily absolving them of the things they’ve done – probably the most insightful thing throughout a film that doesn’t have much to say.

It all falls a little flat compared to the zest of Coppola’s prior work, like Emma Watson’s iconic “I wanna rob” from The Bling Ring. To be clear, though, On the Rocks isn’t bad. It’s light and airy enough to be innocent viewing, but a consequence of that is a distinct lack of fervor, flair, or anything particularly memorable, which is disappointing when you have a hotpot of talent who can obviously do much more.

Action Adventure Remakes

Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)
Director: Niki Caro
Writers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Cast: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong
Genre: Action, Drama
Country: United States

Rating: 2 out of 5.

If there’s any silver lining to Mulan – and there are not many – it’s the decency to experiment with the source material, 1998’s animated Mulan (better in almost every conceivable metric, unsurprisingly). This experimentation ends up flat and arbitrary, but at least it does something, even if that something isn’t good. But when we’re this deep in the throes of Disney’s live-action remake cycle, at this point a rather striking display of extracting every ounce of charm for cash, almost elegantly so in its factory-esque efficiency, we take what we can get.

Because let’s not kid ourselves, friends: 2020’s Mulan is not great. Dare I say, it’s bad. Fine on a technical level, sure, but remarkably inept on an emotional and soulful level, taking the power of the “Ballad of Mulan” legend – a simple story that lends itself easily to resonance – and addressing it with all the grace filmmakers absolutely rushing through said story can bring.

Which is a funny thing, given 1998’s Mulan pretty definitively laid the blueprint for soul here (within the Disney paradigm, anyway). Yet, Mulan is interested in eschewing the lightheartedness of yore in favour of something a little more serious, and you see attempts of this everywhere: aside from choice sequences, the film’s palette is bleak, relying on neutral colours and grey hues; sprinkles of light comedy are few and far between; the creature sidekicks are gone, save for a gaudy phoenix representation of Mushu (once portrayed by Eddie Murphy, now infrequent window dressing); and everything, generally, feels dourer. So imagine the dissonance when Mulan hurls these efforts out the door by making Mulan (Yifei Liu) herself a fucking superhero. The first time we see her, as a child (portrayed by Crystal Rao), she’s parkouring down rooftops and as an adult she’s doing all sorts of gymnastics, mincing through enemy armies with complete ease.

Shifting Mulan into a Mary Sue role does zero good, robbing her of any meaningful progression or character. Where Mulan ’98 is a good fighter, this isn’t innate, and her success stems from perseverance. Mulan ’20, uh, does not share this. Where Mulan ’98 learns lessons about fighting for and staying true to what you believe is right, Mulan ’20 doesn’t learn any lessons at all: her shame about avoiding “truth” is entirely predicated on lying about being a male soldier, which fundamentally misunderstands the internal conflict Mulan ’98 perfected. A lot of the dull characterization can also be attributed to Liu’s terrible performance, poker-facing the entire movie and regurgitating lines about loyalty, family, etc. with a stunning lack of emotion (personal favourite moment: Mulan trying to motivate her colleagues before heading into a grisly battle, which Liu starts by flatly stating “listen to me”). You could argue this is due to a language barrier, and that’s reasonable on paper, but she’s won the Chinese Razzie Award equivalent in 2012, 2013, and 2016, so you do the math.

The majority of Mulan‘s supporting characters are so non-specific that it doesn’t bother giving them much time of day (the musical numbers are sorely missed, particularly their ability to quickly and nicely establish characters) – except for Xianniang (Li Gong), a bird witch who really adds nothing in the end. Mulan sets up Xianniang as a foil to Mulan, presenting a scenario of two powerful women putting their lives on the line for people who will never accept them (in Mulan’s case, the “good” army, and in Xianniang’s case, the “bad” army) – the “good” army threatens to execute Mulan upon discovering she’s female and yet she stays with them (plus they accept her literally two scenes later), whereas Xianniang betrays her army, clashing with the movie’s endless mantra of loyalty, and we’re just like “oh… okay.” Xianniang’s story never connects with the broader themes the movie aims for (you could cut her out of the movie and nothing would change), meaning we’re left with a needless character who takes screentime away from those who desperately need it, like Mulan’s various army colleagues and awkward kind-of-but-not love interest Honghui (Yoson An). And Xianniang’s the most prominent supporting role, so it’s needless to point out the character situation in Mulan is dire, to say nothing of Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the film’s villain, who just flashes crazy eyes and dumps exposition.

The bare minimum Mulan could achieve was looking nice, and thankfully it does accomplish this (with caveats). Mandy Walker’s cinematography does an excellent job with the occasional bursts of colour on offer, with her best work in the opening scenes, which look warm and very inviting, as well as the fireworks scene towards the end, which is just lovely spectacle. The rest of the movie is surprisingly grey, as mentioned before, and I get they were going for the juxtaposition of the Imperial Army’s red costuming against the grey of bleak war, but those reds don’t pop as much as they could and those greys command the palette. And the movie’s kind of a slog as is, so being a slog and depressing isn’t a compelling combo. On the costuming, a lot of it is merely okay, some of it is strangely bad, like an early scene with Mulan riding a horse and it looks like she’s wearing an artisanal autumn coat from Etsy. Grant Major’s outstanding production design picks up much slack (especially the circular living hamlet Mulan and her family reside within, it’s so good) and none of these sets look artificial, instead taking on liveliness of their own.

None of this is helped by David Coulson’s pretty awful editing. We’re frequently yanked from one scene to another with little regard to rhythm, posing two net effects: a) scenes aren’t allowed to breathe since the movie’s so eager to plow through to the next, stripping them of any emotional resonance; b) the action scenes are not fun and we’re often lost in time and space. Though, to be fair, these action scenes aren’t great to begin with, as Mulan is eager to take a pastiche of Asian action movie tropes (think kung fu movies with a touch of Bollywood) and… that’s it. There’s no real grace to the choreography, almost as if the movie is content to be like, “Hey, we did this thing. We didn’t do it very well, but we did the thing, so that’s cool on its own! Right? Hello?” It speaks to Mulan‘s tendency to want different things – a stirring story about a daughter honouring her family, a fun stylized action-adventure, an update that celebrates Mulan ’98 and the original fable – and its inability to put in the effort to actually achieve any of these things.

It’s worse off given the movie wants to take after the Ballad of Mulan more so than Mulan ’98, but it clearly derives its power from Mulan ’98 – hitting more or less the exact same plot beats, relying on the viewer’s nostalgia and knowledge of the animated Mulan to inform certain scenes because this one sure as hell isn’t interested in doing it, like Mulan taking her father’s sword, which in Mulan ’98 is pensive and empowering, but here she just takes the sword and that’s that (if I were playing stupid and wasn’t familiar with Mulan ’98, I would struggle to figure out what really drives Mulan here). And when you have to rely on another movie to provide your movie’s soul, your movie has no good reason to exist. Add in the deeply unfortunate associations with Xinjiang – including a shoutout to the government bodies responsible for the internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps – and overall there’s precious little to redeem Mulan, and even fewer reasons to recommend it.

Horror Summer of Horror

The Neon Demon (2016)

The Neon Demon (2016)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Country: Denmark, France, United States

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s difficult to label The Neon Demon as any one thing – horror, thriller, what have you. If you really wanted to, you could label it a “psychological thriller” – that’s probably the most fitting – but the film doesn’t operate within genre constraints, at least not initially. Really, The Neon Demon comes off more as a project, an audio-visual experience with the trappings of storytelling serving little purpose other than to guide it accordingly. Which is all to say that if one is familiar with the works of Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon fits comfortably within that schema.

The Neon Demon owes much of its being to the works of Dario Argento – Suspiria, specifically (the influence is everywhere and immediate) – and is the best recent example of “not style over substance, but style as substance,” normally a coda used as an easy excuse to compensate for arduously thin story, but very few films wholly own that statement and nurture it like The Neon Demon. And to really get where the film’s coming from, you have to shed the idea that it’s a story about people. The Neon Demon is a story about things – it’s about Los Angeles, it’s about a sexually pervasive industry filled with beguiling and strange people absorbed in selfish realities, and it’s about a culture that places beauty above all else and consumes the young in the process.

We follow Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young woman who recently arrived to L.A., looking to model with no discernible talent other than “being pretty.” She meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a friendly makeup artist who takes it upon herself to watch over Jesse in a way, introducing her to model industry friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Jesse’s very obviously the odd one out, behaviourally, but she quickly ascends the modelling ladder (not in a Star is Born-esque macro way), with everybody noting an undeniable magnetism about her, a perfection to her looks. Gigi and Sarah become increasingly scornful with Jesse, since her exquisite natural looks are affording her great opportunities despite their efforts to manufacture themselves for the same ones. Jesse’s very much the “it” girl, initially quietly so, but turmoil ratchets up along with her eventual narcissism.

Mostly everyone in The Neon Demon is creepy and/or off-kilter, aside from Jesse – this is partly due to the extremely deliberate, sparse dialogue (there are barely any monologues, with conversations mainly composed of quick back-and-forths), and to the pointed gazes towards Jesse, each harbouring clear intent of some kind, but probably not benevolent intent. This intensity can be brushed off as, you know, par for the industry course, but everything gets triply creepy when we find out Jesse is only 16 years old (and is told to pretend to be 19, as 18 is too “on the nose”), and it’s impossible to think of everybody’s intentions as anything more than uncomfortable.

The Neon Demon is kind (and clever) enough to withhold its shocks and violence until the last half, which departs heavily from the first. The first half is totally intoxicating, a slow-moving haze about Jesse finding her way to a modicum of success, with its allure predicated entirely on the stunning cinematography by Natasha Braier, who along with Refn flits between striking scenes of brilliant, vibrant colour to dreamier scenes, with characters lit softly, usually amid a gorgeous purple hue. There’s much to admire about these images, and the composition – with characters often centred in the frame – forces your eye to explore and it’s just a joy to view. The excellent score from regular Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, mixing Vangelis’ thumping electronic soundscapes and Giorgio Moroder’s disco flair, marinates the background, accentuating the dreaminess of the visuals. It’s also sweetly melancholic, managing to add a layer of innocence to Jesse and her journey (credit also goes to Fanning, who owns the character and legitimizes her extremely well) while deepening her character where the screenplay doesn’t. That’s not a critique – it’s exactly what The Neon Demon sets out to do, I think, using filmmaking to carve emotion. It’s a film where experiences are louder than words and expressions, and sure, that might feel a little empty, but this is about a teenage girl navigating a morally bankrupt industry and various people who want to suck the life out of her, so it’s only apropos that we feel empty.

The transition to the second half is slightly abrupt, but has a clear dividing line in Jesse’s runway show, which we see in a hypnotically lovely mix between her runway walk and her internal feelings. Jesse falls in love with herself, and the film shifts along with her newfound narcissism. It’s a distinct shift in every way – the music becomes more grumbling and dissonant, the beautiful hues vanish in favour of natural light, the compositions are more claustrophobic. The people become less like people, going from someone to something, embracing archetypes and shedding personalities. It’s also far more dangerous. Where The Neon Demon reveled in being mildly creepy without being too explicit before, it’s very unshackled here and wastes little time doing it. Jesse ditches her friend and kind-of boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) with a sudden lack of empathy, abandoning her one genuine semblance of a support system (even though the guy is looking to shag a teenager, so we’re not overly pressed). Her landlord, Hank (Keanu Reeves, in probably the least “nice guy” role Keanu Reeves has ever done and he’s terrific), goes from being licentious to completely disturbing. Then you have Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah, whose unsettling intent unravels in full. This all happens very quickly, but that’s the point – like Jesse, we’re allured to the beauty and the dream of what could be, only for things to go to total shit once we’re cinched and unprepared. Refn manages to keep pushing the film to new extremes, forcing you from one strong reaction to the next. Say what you want about The Neon Demon, but my god it’s not safe – nothing is sacred here, not even the beauty most of its characters covet so fondly. And then when you think everything ought to end, it still goes, culminating in unabashed freakishness, spewing gore amidst some of the glossiest lighting and framing the film gives. In the actual end, we’re left feeling numb, angry, confused, all without respite.

It’s not satisfying, admittedly, and it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. Refn mentioned he wanted to make a film about beauty without critique or attack, and I think that’s a stretch (one of the earliest lines in the film, “Are you food, or are you sex?” is as clear a statement as any, not an overt critique towards the culture of beauty but a decidedly pointed observation regardless), though The Neon Demon is really a film that says as much or as little as you allow it to. It’s a wash as a story in the traditional sense and its characters are more things than people, but that’s its game – it’s not about people, it’s about how people become things to achieve self-obsessed ideals, losing their humanity in the effort to become perfect humans. The Neon Demon isn’t pleasant, but it’s brazen, and is so assured in its ability to affect you through sensory experience that I can’t help but be very impressed at the grotesque pageant on offer.