Thursday, December 9, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks: Rags to Riches

Wandering Through the Shelves hosts Thursday Movie Picks. It's a weekly series where bloggers post and share various movie picks every Thursday. 

The rules are simple: based on the theme of the week pick three to five movies and tell us why you picked them. For further details and the schedule visit the series main page here.

This week's theme is Rags to Riches.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

tick, tick,....BOOM (2021)

Even though I'm a musical nerd, I've never been an avid Rent fan. #blasphemy However, I am Lin-Manuel Miranda trash, so the two was easily a mixed bag to convince me to watch. Like it or not, he's doing things with musicals across every medium that just isn't being achieved by one person. And that is both a good and bad thing. 

The level of creativity in lyricism and storytelling explodes from his mind at a frenetic unmatched pace, but that doesn't always spell 'accessible' to most audiences especially when it comes to musicals (an already divisive genre). For his directorial debut, the story of Jonathan Larson's (Andrew Garfield) life is right up his alley. He filters the composer's creativity as he tortures himself to produce his breakthrough Broadway show (a couple of years before Rent) and the sacrifice of never giving up on his dream even if it means paying a significant price to make it come true. 

As a musical first, it works. Miranda provides a wealth of inner-genre homages and styles that helps Andrew Garfield go balls-to-the-walls in a performance that...nobody probably expected to pour out of him. For Miranda's first step behind the camera, it doesn't surprise me that he wants to maximize his experience from the stage. Throughout most of the film, I was awed by his sheer imagination to transform songs in a multitude of ways most would never dream to string together. 

But as a film told part flashback, part-prophecy of the now-recognized genius, the plot plods along from one musical sequence to another that makes Larson range from a destitute artist to insufferable know-it-all as the world and his friends struggle as much, if not more than him. The story holds the promise of what it means for creative types to never give up because one day that dedication above all else will be worth it, but other than that, it's tough to see the forest from the trees several pivotal moments of his personal arc. Garfield commands the role effortlessly, balancing a breakdown of his character's own journey and the journey itself - it might be one of his best yet. Somehow, he doesn't let Miranda's complex vision drown him out and instead leads the parade to make Larson's workaholism as heart-racking as possible.

However, couple a character that's not the most likable with occasional confusing, occasional brilliant staging and editing choices that simply needs more restraint, tick, tick...BOOM!'s build-up to the spark of inspiration for Rent doesn't feel as contextually layered as the film leads on. Some elements that work on stage might not work on film and vice versa - it's still a lesson that most adaptations or musicals need to accept. Of Miranda's works so far, that also split audiences between musicals versus their subjects, tick, tick...BOOM! will primarily pack a punch for the theatre kids crowd. Even this one.

Rating: ★★☆

Rest in peace, Stephen Sondheim. Thank you for way too many 3 am nights where I should've been studying but was listening to your work and pretending I was on stage in my bedroom instead.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Spencer (2021)

The world knows everything there is to know about Princess Diana. Hollywood has certainly exhibited its fair share of arthouse films and hot-gossip biopics of her life to have all of the bases covered. Where could another movie delve into that hasn't been explored before? Enter: Pablo Larrain, who does not settle for a paint-by-numbers biopic and goes all out with a psychological mindfuck. 

Set during the weekend of December 1991, the British Royal family is spending the Christmas holidays at the Queen's Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. Instead of bucking to the traditions of showing up on time, weighing-in on arrival, and hunting escapades, Diana becomes consumed with the image of herself - in the mirror, all the ways the house hears and sees her every move, what the world will think of her in the future - and trying to break free from it. 

Where his former biopic Jackie is a spiritual monument to American royalty, here Diana eats her giants pearls for dinner, convinced Anne Boleyn is sending her messages from the beyond, and breaks into her dilapidated childhood home to say goodbye for good. This is far from a dysfunctional-family drama, even a royal one; it's a gothic-esque horror with Johnny Greenwood's haunting score, and Claire Mathon's claustrophobic cinematography. Rarely is there a moment where any interaction Diana has doesn't pivot close to Kristen Stewart like you're climbing the walls with her or towards the house staff  conversing with the ghostly bartenders in The Shining - eery one-on-one probing interrogations and endless heresy. There isn't a second that this movie doesn't let up with Diana's tribulations and what she needs to shed before the weekend is over - her royal responsibilities, the ghosts of her past, any vague prophecies she thinks the world will have of her. 

All of this certainly feels like a hefty subject matter, and for bigger Diana fans, they will automatically try to carry the burden that she had to. However, as much as the film is a visceral cinematic treat, I also found it lacking in its effectiveness to make me lose myself in the story. With Jackie, Larrain was both bold and subtle in its symbolism; there was a drive for Jackie Onassis to enshrine John F. Kennedy's legacy into his funeral, to not leave the White House quietly in the night like the Johnson administration wanted her to - but with a bang. And, her decisions to do so, losing Jack and their hot' n cold marriage played into that all-consuming grief. For Spencer, the plot is very much static - almost too much. There's symbolism, there's intense isolation and paranoia, there are plays on imagery and what is reality vs Diana's imagination. The film opens as a "fable based on a true tragedy" and drops the audience into her nervousness right off the bat. As the running time goes on though, it doesn't necessarily capitalize more on fictionalizing the facts to create tension or drive a palpable unease in the script. Maybe because Diana has had more than her fair share of B-list drama and lies surrounding her name, the film veered away from that. But I kept wanting "more" I can't put my finger on - more stakes placed on Diana and her breakdown/breakthrough, tension with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles or the new Equerry Major, less of a carousel of symbolism to carry me to the end. Something to give me more than Stewart's performance to go on. 

Understandably, Stewart is one of - if not the - front runner for the upcoming Oscars season, and for good reason. The film leans on her to bring us into the surrealist fold of Diana's life and that specific weekend. And, she does so by achieving what so many in biopics who have won Oscars has achieved - capturing the likeness to a tee that it makes you forget and at times remember this isn't the real person - it's an actor. But, it's also not enough for me to confidently say she carries the film on her own. Around the half-way mark, the story and performance trying not to to summarize her life as the tragic princess by fictionalizing a lot of the tragedy...just felt like her portrayal was going around in circles. (Sean Harris's stern yet tender performance as the royal head chef and Sally Hawkins as her dresser stood out to me portraying the commonfolk rooting for Diana to survive the royal circus. But the supporting cast isn't featured enough to be an ensemble). 

When Diana's liberation to reclaim her name arrives, the ending is an earned wish-fulfillment of a future she struggled to achieve. I understood everything that was conveyed, but that catharsis didn't burrow itself as deeply for me as it has with many critics and admirers. I'll revisit this in the upcoming months and years to see if another viewing will change my mind - I'm open to it. Vague familiarity with the real events is suitable for anyone who wants to see this, but fans with advanced degrees in all things Diana will walk away the most satisfied with this refreshing arthouse take.

Rating: ★1/2 to 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks - TMP Television Edition: Mystery

Wandering Through the Shelves hosts Thursday Movie Picks. It's a weekly series where bloggers post and share various movie picks every Thursday. 

The rules are simple: based on the theme of the week pick three to five movies and tell us why you picked them. For further details and the schedule visit the series main page here.

This week's theme is TMP Television Edition: Mystery.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Do throwbacks make the movie? is a question that has been on my mind with the current string of beloved franchises - specifically ever since Avengers: Endgame . Since the 22nd Marvel film and the end of an era delivered a soul-satisfying ending for me as a Captain America fan, I shouldn't complain. But it's lack of a tight script and loose threads back down memory lane simply doesn't compare to the leaner, meaner and more tension-driven conflict of  Avengers: Infinity War  that always leads me to question 'what if sequels didn't focus so much on fanservice'. And, it's something that came up repeatedly with  Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

With director and writer Jason Reitman's personal attachment to the original 1984 film, it's obvious that this version would try to be a family affair both in production and plot - the grandkids and daughter of Egon Spengler are drawn into an old conspiracy that drove him to the middle of nowhere and face-off against another ancient 'inevitable' ploy towards the end of the world. Any personal connection between characters is a dead giveaway to build a foundation for the second reboot, but the script doesn't feel as confident in its choices. 

Like proton packs crossing the streams, the film tries to establish itself as an original YA piece bridging to the original, but before you know it becomes all consumed by connecting every dot towards a throwback. Nerdy and awkward Phoebe Spengler (McKenna Grace) and her friend Podcast (the amazing Logan Kim) drive what could've been a deadbeat summer into an spectral-fighting adventure, unlocking the clues of what her misunderstood and ostracized grandfather left behind.... while everyone else starts out as compelling characters but then end up unraveling as time goes on (Finn Wolfhard, Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, and Celeste O'Connor). Reitman aims to unravel a new mystery Egon left behind, but can't do so without rehashing the past to the point that the easter eggs run the extreme gamut between earned and forced. Every time the story moves towards establishing more of the new characters, there's always another moving piece that takes it backwards too much. It never quite feels like this cast or characters enacting on a new adventure gets their due.

It's not that this movie isn't a good time at the cinemas. It is. And, after the year-plus we've had with COVID, we shouldn't not feel good about having more harmless fun. There are plenty of laughs and fitting homages, and the beating heart of a disconnected family rehabilitating their legacy is wonderful (again, McKenna Grace embodies a heroine I love now as an adult and makes me sad that 15 year old me didn't have growing up). But eventually, the easter eggs mainly add up to satisfying hardcore fans who are divisive about Ghostbusters 2 and want to completely erase the 2016 reboot as if it never existed. Outside of that, there aren't many risks or originality that makes it stand out from the string of sequels-reboots struggling to follow the footsteps of their iconic predecessors. For a film that remains unmatched by the newer reiterations, when will we accept that the originals are free to be revered  without something shiny trying to live up to its memory.

Rating: ★1/2☆☆

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Thursday Movie Picks - Book Adaptations

Wandering Through the Shelves hosts Thursday Movie Picks. It's a weekly series where bloggers post and share various movie picks every Thursday. 

The rules are simple: based on the theme of the week pick three to five movies and tell us why you picked them. For further details and the schedule visit the series main page here.

This week's theme is Book Adaptations.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

All Too Well (2021)

All Too Well could be considered 'the song' for Taylor Swift's fanbase. It's tough, but not impossible, to find fans who voice an opinion for it above okay. If they do, they're certainly outdone by the legions who have been singing, nay screaming, the lyrics back to Swift for the past ten years. With Taylor working on the re-releases of her past albums, there are expectations of more songs from her vault to come. But none have accomplished the hype for one of her most popular ballads. It's this special  reverence - about a seemingly casual break-up that provokes cruel and painful memories - that has had fans begging Taylor to release an extended ten minute version, and now she's finally delivered.

As a certified Swiftie, All Too Well is one of my favorites of hers. It's not my most beloved song, but it's cathartic to listen to, to shout-sing when I'm left reeling by the world or a person in my life. And though I follow along with fun updates and crazy-ass theories with the fandom, I can't say for sure I ever wanted the extended version. It'd be fun to listen to, sure, but I mostly wandered if it would add anything new. It'll be blasphemy to say - in comparison to the rest of the internet - but Taylor's Version of All Too Well was reasonably good enough on a first listen. The added imagery heightened the lyrics and will also simply take some getting used - since like so many, I know the original track forwards and backwards, sideways and diagonal. I love the addition of several new lines and metaphors here and there, but I was still left wondering what was new that added to the song that made my emotions echo everyone else the second this version dropped online.

And, that answer really came with the short film starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O'Brian.

"I walked through the door with you, the air was cold / But something 'bout it felt like home somehow / And I left my scarf there at your sister's house / And you've still got it in your drawer, even now /" as well as "Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / And I can picture it after all these days" sets the stage - a familiarity of a new relationship starting, a blossoming of love when Mother Nature is going into hibernation, the adventurous innocence and hope of something to live for. Swift starts by taking the audience upstate, exuding the long road ahead of ups and downs. On the surface it seems like nothing can go wrong; surely, this will have an happy ending. As we lean into the 2 minute mark, things divert into a horror movie. Bright dispositions are laced with passive-aggression. Sink might be wrapped O'Brian's arms but the embraces are practically empty. Passion seems to boil with the slightest sign of affection, but withdrawing it all leaves her dead in her tracks and questioning everything. 

Instead of moving the film's settings along at the same pace of the song, Swift cleverly avoids making this another music video. It's simultaneously a vignette of memories but also a story that's progressively moving forward. For the first two acts, she focuses more on the relationship between herself and Jake-Gyllenhaal-Or-Not-Jake. There's no real need for the lyrics to line up exactly with the imagery. Yet, at the video's most poignant moments, she manages to do both without feeling too forced or rushed. She's not strictly going by her own words to tell the story to build up the bridge, but at the same time she is.

As director and writer of the song she wrote about her life, it could be easy to take that personalization a little too far - to not see the forest from the trees. The best places where Swift casts distance between herself and the story is the casting. Sink creates the balance of being a young girl becoming increasingly aware of how broken and twisted this relationship is; she's not a blank canvas but she's not an impersonation of Swift either. And, O'Brien, I hate to say it, immediately captures the essence of a douchebag with his anger-driven expressions in the eyes practically casting aspersions towards her, the mocking apologies, and white-man-hipster bruised ego. They hold down the story where Swift's attention to detail is both a strength and a hindrance.

For the back-half of the song, however, Swift struggles to keep up her own pace. Most of the 'script' navigates her lyrics without being too on the nose. But, her inclination to spell out what's happening on screen can be distracting. Here, she uses title cards to mark the various beats she's already hitting naturally. On their own, they're just harmless title cards. But as the story wraps up between 'the breaking point, the reeling, the remembering', the newer verses (3 and 5 in particular) feel rushed. Taylor initially uses the song to show that this moment in her life is impossible to forget, yet proved that pain could be forged creatively and take on new meaning. She loosely shows the connection between the characters so they aren't screaming the meaning of the lyrics at us. As the new additions pivots to the "nameless" heartbreaker remembering the relationship, we're left to wonder why he wouldn't just return the scarf and make amends. Does he recognize the heartbreak he caused too much to do anything about it after all this time, or still just to ignorant to be anything but an observer from the sidelines? Has too much time passed now to even try to make up for what was lost? The ending doesn't focus on vague imagery anymore, but it's trying to squeeze in both narratives that the film doesn't have enough room for.

Swift can be and is recognized for having a reputation of extremes - taking what the critics say and proving them wrong; reaching unexpected places with every new album or era; hinting countless easter eggs that fans sort through and predict her next move. Not many artists would probably consider dropping a whole short film for an old-new song, but Taylor does. While I'm a huge fan but not always on the same page of extremes the fandom goes to, or Swift herself, I think she did a good job here with creating a short film that puts into context the extent of the pain of All Too Well  emanates- especially for those like me who might not automatically relate to the extended version or understand its vision.

Swift's film directorial debut is a gift for the fans, but where Swift saves face is not by crowding it with so many easter eggs that it's alienating to non-fans. Swifties can still watch this and pick it apart, or pass it onto non-fans to say 'hey check this out' without needing an advanced degree in her career or the song itself. It can be the new starter park to becoming a Swiftie or another familiar tune in a long list of familiar tunes by her. This, in itself, will make the song an even grander masterpiece to be remembered all too well.

Rating: ★★☆