Friday, May 31, 2024

Backspot (2023)


An athlete's mindset can be their greatest advantage or distraction. When scrutiny of the outer world - family, coaches, society - bears down on players for their performance, let alone their gender or identity, the moment to break under pressure is always simmering under the surface. Much of this is the heart of director D.W. Waterson's feature directorial debut Backspot.

An ambitious cheerleader, Riley (Devery Jacobs), faces new adversity, an increased drive for perfection, and a demanding head coach (Evan Rachel Wood) when she and her girlfriend are selected for an all-star cheer squad. With a competition looming, Riley must navigate her drive alongside her crippling anxiety, as one wrong move could bring her crashing to the ground.

The world of sports is not easy for women, no matter the field. Cheerleading is itself is not considered as gruesome with their squad smiling through choreography and poses. Backspot doesn't merely aim to dispel the lack of dedication these athletes face but portray a well-rounded portrait of female and/or queer identity.

As the backspot, Riley leads the counts and supports her team with their dismounts; her teammates are counting on her vigilance and accuracy to avoid injury and to stay on time with their routines. Throughout the story, we see Riley's life fully from its interior - anxiety perpetuating Trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder), a celebrated love of queerness, and navigating a dysfunctional family life an overwhelmed mother played by Shannyn Sossamon and absent father. Among her comrades, Riley is the first to question authority, to be open about improving, and wanting others to do better. Starring outside of her breakout role from Reservation Dogs, Jacobs tows the fine line to not be rebellious for rebellious' sake but to assert herself where so much of her training has no room for error. She is the exact leading star the film needs to give Riley all different shades of strength and vulnerability.

Witnessing players getting wiped out, enduring bone-breaking injuries, battered feet, and endless hours of precise choreography, becomes the unknowing sacrifice only those from the inside truly know about.

And, as a counterpart to Riley, there is Eileen. She is everything that Riley looks up to. But, in the pursuit of being at the top, Eileen's iron-clad standards brings to question whether her teaching techniques are brutal in general, or brutal because she does not present herself softer as a woman. As she says, "If I were Bill Belichick, you wouldn’t look at me like that" after a disastrous practice, and Riley comes to her almost like a daughter wanting compassion where there is little to be given. Their mentor-mentee relationship teeters on being fully realized, as Evan Rachel Woods delivers a wonderful blend of ruthlessness and impartiality - she's exacting and straight-forward in what her character demands but extracts enough empathy for a female and queer coach who refuses to be seen as weak.

Written by Joanne Sarazen, most of the conflict lies in the head games the lead character is pulled towards and heightened by those around them. While the tension of Jacobs and Woods takes center stage, Sarazen leaves enough room for glimmers of the supporting roles to become warm outliers amidst the stress and pressure - Thomas Antony Olajide as Eileen's right hand man Devon, Kudakwashe Rutendo as Riley's compassionate girlfriend Amanda, Olunike Adeliyi as Amanda's life-of-the-party mother, and Noa DiBerto as Riley's bubbly teammate Rachel.

Between the leads and supporting cast, the film is a mix of a thriller and young adult drama, doing its best not to cast everyone in the same light. But just like nerves and excitement drum up the same physicality - elevated heart rate, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, sensory overload - sometimes the production reutilizes elements to recreate a similar mood- swirling cinematography, claustrophobic camera work, a pulsing soundtrack. Many shots seemed to capture an aesthetic more than adding to the story; at times dazzling and dynamic, but also making transitions at times uneven. The film's ambition in trying to achieve the high octane energy falls slightly short as similar films - the unrelenting intimidation of Whiplash and obsession with transcendence from Black Swan. It holds more steady as a solid coming-of-age film with thoughtful queer representation on and behind the screen (director D.W. Waterson identifies as non-binary, helms an LGBTQ+ cast, and and the film is produced by Eliot Page's Page Boy Productions)

Like many entries in the sports genre, Waterson focuses on how an athlete's inner conflict is on the verge of exposing Riley to her worst self-doubts or gifting her with the ability to take what she needs and use it as fuel. Structurally, there may be familiar elements with Backspot in comparison to other athlete/performer vs mentor films. But there is a refreshing twist that buoys with the notion that anyone in pursuit of a greater goal may suffer for their performance but therein lies deeper choices on how far to let those sacrifices take them - it can push you to the finishing line, to realize it's okay to be yourself first and walk away. Within the best of what Backspot features, is the lesson that it is enough to try and fail, or try and succeed, but most importantly, to try anyways.

Rating: ★★★1/2☆☆

Note: I was provided with a screener to provide this review. BackspotBackspot is available in select cinemas May 31st.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Courtney Gets Possessed (2023)

In Sickness and In Hell.”
Melting ice sculptures. Sibling rivalries. A mother’s cringe-worthy honeymoon advice. Plenty of mishaps can and will throw off a bride’s special day. Perhaps nothing more can cause such damage than when an ex-flame shows up out of nowhere and that ex just happens to be….Dave. Also known as Satan.

The horror of tying the knot has never been so much fun than in director and writer combo Jono Mitchell and Madison Hatfield’s latest film Courtney Gets Possessed.

When soon-to-be-newlywed Courtney (Lauren Bugioli) becomes possessed by Dave (Jonathon Pawlowski), her bridal party – including type A maid of honor Lexi (Aditi George), jealous sister Caitlin (Madison Hatfield), and groom’s disapproving sister Jasmine (Najah Bradley) – race to exorcise Dave out of the picture for good before he makes their beloved friend tie the cursed knot for all eternity.

Following in the footsteps of famed classic The Exorcism and hit-comedy Bridesmaids, Mitchell and Hatfield captures both the anticipation and joy of such an occasion as a wedding. Using a limited setting in the characters’ main home, there’s tremendous attention to detail with the production from the neon lighting design that evokes both hell and a rave to the 80s synth theme score composed by Jordan Benett. The film manages to break the limitations of independent features to capture the essence of major studio flick – it never feels entirely claustrophobic with clever cinematography by Brett A. Frager that moves the story forward from room to room. 

As the panicked attendees take the DIY approach to get their friend back, the direction paces the unexpected bloodshed with wry humor. When a large ensemble shares sufficient scream-time and mic-drop jokes, many films stumble in losing sight of the story to capture all of the players at work and vice versa. In contrast, Courtney Gets Possessed allows Bugioli to offer a stellar leading performance with a double-take between Courtney and as Dave, but never dilutes the supporting cast into mere reinforcements. Each character leads as a star in their own right – Madison Hatfield masking Caitlin’s sarcasm with self-doubt and envy, Jonathon Pawlowski’s mischievous devilry as Dave/Satan, Najah Bradley’s Jasmine heartfelt protectiveness over her brother and charismatic bait Zae Jordan Glen, Aditi George’s spinning Lexi’s perfectionism into nerdy endearment, Steve Reddington’s blusters of expletives will live in my head rent-free – to name a few. It's difficult to point out one performance over another, speaking to how evenly focused the directors were to both the plot and characters.

Performing a cover of boy band hits and delving into sibling rivalries while performing a How To: Exorcise The Devil can only be carried on with verve if trust is infused by the directors and carried on by the actors. As the characters feel the pressure to save Courtney while peeking at the Prince of Darkness’s Wikipedia and throwing together impromptu internet-ordained exorcisms, Hatfield and Mitchell maintain a steady confidence over their inspiration from cinema and wedding season. While there are notable homages and nods to classic demonic possession movies, the duo at the helm put their own confident stamp on both comedy and horror. Even though every day is a good day for an exorcism for some – for others, not so much. But Courtney Gets Possessed certainly makes a must-watch good case for it.

Rating: ★★★★★

Note: I was provided with a screener to provide this review. Be sure to check out Courtney Gets Possessed - available on digital and demand November 3rd.

Friday, October 13, 2023

The Eras Tour

I've only been a Swiftie for a good six or seven years. I always kinda question my stance in the fandom, given that I'm not afraid to speak out against things that I disagree with and haven't been following her career since the beginning (which I guess earns some the 'real stan' badge or something on social media). But the depth of my admiration for her springing out is not something that I'm genuinely aware of until I pretty much become the resident Swiftie in close circles. With the 1989 re-recording on the way, and much of the publicity this year for the Eras Tour, Speak Now re-release, and the hubbub with the NFL, has been giving me overexposure vibes via 2015 right before she got cancelled. Going into this, and being a big lover of concert films in general, I was very much giving neutral energy just to keep my expectations at bay and mostly expecting to have a nice day out from my hellfire workplace. And, what in turn ended up happening was feeling like not only was I back seeing the concert in person earlier this summer but just completely absorbing everything that was happening on stage as if for the first time.

A journey of her albums from one to the next, takes us through as promised, seventeen years of unflinching inventive, vulnerable, and catchy entries into country, pop, and indie-folk history. With some of her past concerts ranging from getting a gold star for trying (Fearless), and hardcore 'someone edited this on shrooms' (1989) to the solid production of finding light and love in the world's white noise  (Reputation), director Sam Wrench simultaneously lets us settle in for the night as if we're in the stadium seeing it in person and also drop kicks us into the imagination that is Taylor Swift. By taking the concert running time from 3 1/2 hours to 2 hours and 48 minutes (with 30 minutes of "trailers"), unfortunately someone's favorite song is gonna get cut. But with those cuts still encompasses a concert movie where every song is treated like it's only mini-production complete with costume changes and succinct set details you might never be able to pick out unless you memorize the whole concert - dancers taking golf clubs to the famous Blank Space car and smashing it to pieces or performing in the glass cages during Look What You Made Me Do, the tracks on the stage while witches cast a spell in Willow - and a performer at the highest of all her heights thus far. Wonderful cinematography and smooth editing makes it possible to accompany Taylor and her co. on stage, that is a real lavish visual treat that neither leaves you with whiplash or deprived of getting the full scope of the production design.

Though the running time is bound to have casual viewers running away - there is no behind the scenes documentary footage or intermissions - the pacing of over-the-top hits to softer vulnerable tracks offers a nice balance between the heartracing highs and slow-sway lows. At the center of the concert is a performer who invites you into her radio-ready Grammy winning life-spanning diary with an expressive presence that wields both an nostalgic appreciation for her longest-running hits and a mature artist on top of the world. Rather than showcasing a presence that feels implicity only 'on' for the cameras, she makes you feel as if she's performing just for you whether you're in the nosebleeds and first row at a massive stadium, or row five in the a movie theater. It's a real fantastical feat. Even though I've seen the concert in person and streamed it on social media, and knew what to expect, there was so much that I felt like I was just absorbing, and other times I'm pretty sure I just Winnie The Pooh-esque ascended to another plane of existence - it might've been wanting to go anywhere my Lover goes, having a marvelous time ruining everything with the last great American dynasty, or committing revenge with only a chair and some hardcore Chicago vibes like my life depends on it. By the end, it's tough to trace back exactly when a smile that breaks out on your face or the awe you've just witnessed. Maybe it's been there the whole 3 hours. Regardless, like everything Taylor touches, this is a joyful and heartfelt spectacle that proves why she's a mastermind and we're all so lucky to live in a world where we can take it all in and go along for the ride.

Rating: ★★★★

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Barbie (2023)

Humans have only one ending. Ideas live forever.

Contains slight spoilers

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Nope (2022)

The muddled execution of Us didn't make me question what Jordan Peele could do next. He's only three films into his career, and doing all right for himself despite the divisiveness surrounding his last film. Still, with so little time to prepare my hype in these 'The Myans Were Wrong' times, Peele has regained stride from Get Out . 

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Gray Man (2022)

For the past four years I’ve been playing a torturous one-sided game of 'Where in the world is Ryan Gosling?' Without hesitation or any expectations, The Gray Man answered that question. And the answer is pretty much everywhere - Bangkok, Hong Kong, Croatia, Berlin, Florida. Despite the impressive array of settings for the Russos' latest Netflix project, and the streaming service making me wait two years for this with barely any promo tours of my baes Ryan and Chris...the film itself is spectacularly bland. Fun? Yes. But bland.

My long-awaited return of Gosling brings him to play a so-called violent prisoner picked up from the CIA to do their dirty work as Sierra Six aka American Bond. On a mission to kill another target, he realizes his time is up. A hotshot new director is hunting the agents in the shadows like Six ~for reasons~ and is forced to go on the run as a rogue assassin Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) guns him down.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

The Batman (2022)

Is Batman overrated? Aren't there more superheroes to make movies about? Isn't a big reason why some feel Batman is overrated is because he's gotten so many adaptations - almost as much, if not more, than Superman? It's hard to ignore these questions as another reboot releases this Spring and takes the world by storm. However, when its long-awaited hype promises to do something different with the Caped Crusade and delivers, it's almost impossible to not acknowledge how an iconic character can once again seem new.

Director Matt Reeves had a very specific vision that made Warner Bros want to take another shot at the eternally brooding Bruce Wayne. It's that vision which makes going to the cinemas worthy again, especially after the past two years we've had. His universe is designed specifically for a cinematic experience with Michael Giacchino's unpredictable score, larger-than-life cinematography, and visceral production design. Set against the darkest days Gotham faces, this doesn't take us back to the roots of Wayne's origins as Batman - it drops us right in the middle of his second year with the "Gotham Project", trying to etch a legacy through his family name as his alter-ego as the Riddler uses the bodies of Gotham's elite as pawns in an ambitious cat-and-mouse game.

Brought to life by a top-notch ensemble, the familiar faces we've seen before come to life on-screen with a few twists - Zoe Kravitz's Catwoman wanting to escape and avenger from the power-hold of her crooked bosses (the character is slinkier and graceful than ever before yet just as bad-ass as Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfieffer, and Anne Hathaway (sorry Halle Berry). Jim Carrey's over-the-top and very gay Riddler is usurped by Paul Dano's 99%er plotting and murdering his way to justice. Colin Farrell's Penguin doesn't see the light of day as much as Danny DeVito's sympathetic villain from Batman Returns, but it's a character turn that's refreshing for the blockbuster-turned-character actor. Jim Gordon still maintains his right-hand-man status with Bruce Wayne investigating crimes, but Jeffrey Wright feels just as grounded and palpably anxious to rid Gotham of its devils. Not to mention - Andy Serkis, Peter Sarsgarrd, John Tuturro, and whoever is silhouetted as the next possible villain before the ending credits roll. Oh, and then there's Robert Pattinson. Known for his weird quirks and insane choice of freakish roles, Pattinson slips into the scarred and damaged Bruce Wayne almost as easily as Christian Bale - if not more so. When that light hits the sky, it's not just a call, it's a warning. While the rest of the film certainly roll along, he manages to exude elements of past actors - their awkwardness, pain, hope, resilience, humanity - and also adds new layers of fear, intimidation, and anger.

As grim and raw as The Batman is in the wake of his predecessors more family-friendly vibes, it's not  as revolutionary as so many reviews point out for me. Story-wise, I didn't find the plot much different than Christopher Nolan's trilogy. The script still heavily focuses on corrupt cops and government needing to be overthrown, not putting to use supporting characters of color, the seediness of Gotham's underground taking advantage of the system and disadvantaged as Nolan's series did. In the same vein, as much plot as this film tries not be as formulaic as the MCU or DCEU recent entries, some of the characters fall to the wayside - Riddler is terrifying but his re-appearances grow repetitive; Farrell's unrecognizable as The Penguin, but he's mainly a lackey who will have his own familiar rise to power soon. The winding road of 'see another victim, get a new clue' rinse and repeat runs the plot for the most part, which makes the running time run pretty smoothly. However, the big reveals wasn't predictable - it's like realizing halfway through a maze, you already know where the exit is.

In looking towards the future of the new Batman slate, we also have to look at the past...and it's  refreshing that The Batman managed to give a whole arc to its leading character in one-go rather than resting on the whims of the studio bouncing from director or actor to another, or inhabiting the same type of themes throughout a trilogy. We've come so far with these films, it's a disservice to say this one is merely better when it's merely adapted to audiences' tastes and technology over the decades. Yet Reeves's approach does not detract from its subtle humor and effective character development. Two and a half hour plus running time seems excessive in the beginning, but the film remains intriguing enough from beginning to end that the time simply flies by with suspense, action, and romance peaking at just the right moments. After my showing, someone on the way out of the theater mentioned that they'd like to see a five hour cut, and I have to agree. Even if every frame is utilized to its best advantage, it doesn't stop me from wanting more, more, more.

Rating: ★★1/2☆