Week Ending 5/12/23
A quality week
I only got to four titles this week (although rewatching AVATAR and watching THE WAY OF WATER is almost four movies in two), but all were very good. Can’t go wrong with quality above quantity—especially since the Stanley Cup Playoffs have turned into a steady stream of blowouts devoid of drama.
The week also marked my first time going to North Park Theatre since everything shutdown with COVID. I had tickets to see NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS there a couple days after everything stopped. While I was able to catch a lot of great work via their “virtual cinema” in 2020, it was nice to walk in and sit front row again for SHOWING UP.
And it was a welcome switch from the popcorn-littered floors and faulty projector bulbs I’ve been subjected to at Regal Elmwood the past two weeks.
What I Watched:
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER
(now on Digital HD)
I love how so many people online joked about no one caring about the lore of the highest grossing film in history anymore when the marketing push for the long-awaited AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER finally began. You can’t necessarily blame them considering it had been thirteen years since the first AVATAR blew minds with its visuals in 2009. That’s a long time to wait for a continuation regardless of the story jumping ten years itself. But trends and attention spans don’t work the same when James Cameron is involved. A master of the big budget sci-fi action blockbuster who always backs up his exorbitant price tags with gargantuan box office takes that still turn a profit, he can seemingly do no wrong.
So what if it took seven years to finish fleshing out the mythology and write scripts for chapters two and three? So what if it took three years to film WATER and THE SEED BEARER and then another two to finish post on the former alone? It’s not like laziness is the reason. Cameron helps create new technologies. He and his team single-handedly propel the cinematic medium forward with every new film they put in theaters. And you can see it just by watching the two AVATARs back-to-back. I remember thinking nothing could ever look better than the first as far as believable computer-animated characters and yet it’s practically night and day when compared to the sequel. Does it help that the human element is dialed back to virtually zero so everything can be created out of thin air? Sure. Either way, it's still a stunning feat.
That visual splendor also compensates for other parts of the whole. Take it away and the first is an average film with a familiar storyline bolstered by effective action. The same could be said about WATER too in many regards. The script is perhaps even thinner with a revenge plot pitting the Sully family (Sam Worthington’s Jake and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri joined by four children: Jamie Flatters’ Neteyam, Sigourney Weaver’s Kiri, Britain Dalton’s Lo’ak, and Trinity Jo-Li Bliss’ Tuk) against the Sky People yet again. Because a world where you can pipe your consciousness into another species’ body (grown as a hybrid clone with your DNA) is a world where death isn’t quite permanent. Cameron can therefore bring Stephen Lang’s Quaritch back to life as a Na’vi hellbent on killing his previous self’s murderers. He can distract us with that simple conflict while building out Pandora in the background.
Because the real meat here isn’t whether Jake beats Quaritch again. That provides the standalone through line to sustain a three-hour runtime while we meet a new aquatic Na’vi clan known as the Metkayina (and subsequently go through the motions of the Sullys learning how to race through water just as Jake learned to race through the trees in AVATAR). Then there’s a mirrored “The One” subplot that begins like Jake’s with pollen from the trees floating to Kiri as though she’s being anointed by God. An “immaculate” conception of sorts (she’s played by Weaver because she was born from Dr. Grace Augustine’s avatar), Kiri is constantly making good on people’s impression that she’s a “freak” by communing with nature in strange, magical ways. Cameron is sowing seeds for the future amongst these children (Lo’ak’s outcast befriends a whale-like creature the Metkayina had forsook) while Mom and Dad fight to prove their might and love.
Throw in Spider’s (Jack Champion) orphaned human left behind when the Sky People were exiled (raised by the scientists and a playmate with the Sullys) who possesses his own soon-to-be revealed Daddy issues, and the gang is set. Metkayina leaders Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet) deliver Jake and Neytiri facsimiles to bridge the gaps and connections between kingdom and family, Quaritch is still Quaritch, and humanity once again shows that they’ll kill anyone and anything to make a profit. It’s an adventure film with an exotic locale, gorgeous environments, and beautifully orchestrated action sequences regardless of whether they involve surfing the water, escaping wild predators, or opening fire on enemy battalions. It’s about the experience, investing in the characters, and finding that some stakes do exist despite Lang and Weaver’s return.
The visuals aren’t mind-blowing in quite the same way as 2009 being that they’re mainly an upgrade rather than wholesale paradigm shift, but they still ensure a higher score than would be warranted without. Solid acting and emotive arcs keep us enthralled as the pacing moves things along at a quick enough speed to let the whole feel about an hour shorter than it is. And while some thought it wouldn’t be able to overcome the lengthy wait, I’d argue the decade-plus helps insofar as letting us forgive just how thin the narrative proves. We can accept a barebones revenger because it lets us reacquaint ourselves with Pandora. Cameron is easing us back in with a conflict we don’t need to expend too much energy on so we can absorb everything else in the background. Here’s hoping THE SEED BEARER makes good on that promise in 2024 by showing us something wholly different.
(now in theaters)
Jack Manishen (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll) was spot-on when assessing Apple’s projections on the first iPhone: my BlackBerry Bold was indeed “the phone I had before I switched to Apple.” Because, as Jim Balsillie (Glen Howerton) posits, AT&T knew what they were doing. By pivoting telecommunications away from minutes and onto data, they were shifting the economics of the industry to a place where RIM and BlackBerry became obsolete overnight. If I’m going to be paying for data anyway, I might as well buy the more expensive unit to ensure the quality of what I’m using that data for is worth the cost. It’s still insane to imagine how you go from a 45% market share to 0% so quickly, though—more so when you consider all the legitimately wild innovations Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his team problem-solved between company movie nights. Well, Matt Johnson’s BLACKBERRY seeks to help make it make sense.
Adapted by Johnson and Matthew Miller from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book LOSING THE SIGNAL, you’d be forgiven for wondering if this fictionalization would be a full-on farce. The trailers have Baruchel with huge silver hair and Howerton in a bald-cap, fast-paced edits for comedic effect, and a collection of jokes to give even the most gullible person pause when considering veracity. But after watching the finished result, I can confidently say it proves more biopic than satire. Yes, it’s a comedy with comedic actors in traditionally serious roles, but it plays more like a Canadian THE SOCIAL NETWORK than a WALK HARD spoof. This is the story of two best friends (Lazaridis and Johnson’s Doug Fregin) hitching a ride on corporate shark Balsillie’s promises to both find the astronomical success they couldn’t achieve on their own and the destructive force of ego that had yet to consume them whole.
They’ve built a nice simple journey through the chaos too, deftly moving from 1996 origins to 2003 explosion to 2007 implosion. We see the passage of time via the changing attitudes of the characters—namely Lazaridis gradually becoming more like Balsillie than his former self ever would have believed possible. Details like the name are ignored (beyond mention that the original, more literal moniker wasn’t marketable) so that the rushed thrills of Balsillie setting impossible deadlines for the engineers to somehow hit anyway become the main focus. If you want to know those nuances, you can look them up. Johnson is trying to entertain with the pitfalls of hubristic over-reach, loss of idealism, and ticking time bombs of revenge-fueled, illegal poaching. Add the NHL and PalmPilot’s involvement in the circus and you really get a big picture look at greed’s propensity to destroy morality and plain old common sense.
Baruchel and Johnson are great. The latter’s Doug is a goof, but he’s not a moron. He knows his friend better than anyone and serves as Mike’s conscience above partner in RIM endeavors. We need him to be over-the-top and all over the place so that we can see how far Mike falls once “fun” is no longer able to be the hard reset it once was. But if I were to single out one performer, it would be Howerton. He’s able to package the absurdity of his IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY energy into a business suit with perfect comedic timing and dramatic gravitas depending on what the situation demands. I would have actually liked more of the evolution of his relationship with Mike during the time skips because they do seem to really soften while getting on the same page when a common goal of success is forged. Not having it doesn’t make their final interaction any less authentic, though. Because, in the end, tech’s volatility demands sinking ships leveraged to the hilt. Casualties were inevitable.
STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE
(streaming on AppleTV+)
All credit to Michael J. Fox for finding the irony in the juxtaposition of where he came from and where he is now. That he was never able to be still until he became physically unable to stop moving. Director Davis Guggenheim puts a lot of running into his documentary STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE as a result. All the characters Fox played running and sliding through hallways and newly shot footage of scripted stand-in Danny Irizarry playing the youthful Fox in reenactments of the words the actor narrates. It’s those words that admit he was always running away—from fears, insecurities, and eventually the diagnosis he kept hidden for seven years by always keeping his left hand behind his back or holding a prop. Running from life and truth with alcohol. Running until the point where one single step suddenly holds the potential of broken bones from another fall that cannot be avoided.
STILL becomes a great double-feature title to go alongside INTRODUCING, SELMA BLAIR: candid looks inside diseases as told by charismatic entertainers who can no longer be quite who they once were that prove powerful documents of humanity’s perseverance. Fox takes us to physical therapy and hangouts with wife Tracy Pollan and their four kids when not sitting in front of the camera for one-on-one interviews with the director. Guggenheim supplements that insight with expertly curated scenes from Fox’s TV and cinematic canon to help advance the narrative in entertaining and familiar ways. Sometimes we’re watching a young Alex Keaton or Marty McFly flashing a smile or providing a witty retort to serve as a projection of current feelings. Sometimes it’s Mike Flaherty doing something weird with his hand to show just how easy it is to ignore the obvious when you don’t know what it is you’re seeing.
And through it all is unpolished honesty. Tales of meeting Tracy and discovering how fake the celebrity façade consuming his life was. The whirlwind of shooting a season of FAMILY TIES and BACK TO THE FUTURE simultaneously, sleeping in vans as he traveled between sets. Admissions of using alcohol to dissociate from the reality that his world was falling apart and the darkness that came with sobriety insofar as finally needing to accept himself and his place as husband and father above simply being an entertainer. The film doesn’t go too far into his advocacy work beyond a passing mention alongside Muhammad Ali, but we get the idea of him shifting the impact of his fame and influence. I get leaving that stuff out too, so the film doesn’t become a self-aggrandizing show of heroics. That’s not STILL’s purpose. It’s instead about normalizing Parkinson’s. Defanging some of the stigma. Just as Fox’s ascension shows stardom is possible for everyone, his humor in coping with his fate shows hardships are too. Approach both with grace.
(now in theaters)
I could feel the procrastination in my bones. Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is too busy finishing the sculptures for her show (happening in seven days) to bother sending out invites. Jo (Hong Chau) has agreed to participate in two shows simultaneously with work to finish and pieces to hang, but she comes back home to tie up a tire she found because she’s always wanted to put a swing in the yard of the two-home unit she bought that she and Lizzy share as landlord and tenant. I was never as bad as some (one classmate used a soft drink cup as a mold the night before critique and barely had his BS straight to pretend the result held meaning), but crunch time was always when I wanted to work least. It’s also when I’m often at my most creative. Unfortunately for Lizzy, it might be when she’s at her most destructive.
Don’t expect ceramic smashing to the ground, though. Kelly Reichardt’s SHOWING UP is much too subdued for that (even if hers and Jonathan Raymond’s script flirts with the potential throughout). I mean destructive in the emotional sense since the moment Lizzy should be her most excited and anxious becomes the moment she’s at her most abrasively combative. While a lot of that is self-inflicted—to distract herself with non-critical drama between friends, family, and coworkers—some is justified. Because it does seem like the people she wished supported her most (Maryann Plunkett as her mom/boss Jean, Judd Hirsch as her dad Bill, and John Magaro as her troubled brother Shawn) could honestly care less beyond hollowly conditional placation. It irks her so much that she can’t see those who are genuinely invested.
The result is a quiet comedy surrounding a high-strung introvert trying to be martyr and savior at once. She needs to “save” her father from houseguests and “save” her brother from himself. She must remind Jo that her paying job is that of a landlord who is obligated to fix her hot water regardless of how many art shows she has scheduled. And she must do all that while finishing her own show and working full time at an art school where the latest artist-in-residence believes she’s nothing more than an office manager designing show flyers rather than a working artist herself. But that’s the price that must be paid in this world. Few garner the acclaim and status to survive on the work alone. Sometimes the doldrums of day job monotony threatening to derail everything can only be fought off by fabricated life-or-death nonsense.
Enter the thematic metaphors. A pigeon with a broken wing needing to be nursed, but perhaps not as much as Lizzy believes. A ceramic statue burned in an uneven kiln that exists as evidence of the beauty of imperfection and bane of expectation. How much of who Lizzy is stems from her desire to fix things outside of her control? How much from letting herself get too close to the flame? We’re watching her push away allies and be ignored by those she loves—the weight of frustration and uncertainty placing her on the precipice of implosion. But no matter how dire things seem, it’s just art. Some people will like it. Others won’t. Until the moment it’s released into the world, however, it’s everything. Only afterwards can she return to the normalcy of “lower stakes” reality.
This week saw ENVY (2004), GREYHOUND (2020), RENT (2005), RUN (2020), and WAITRESS (2007) added to the archive. I would love to know the reasoning for why a PG-13 film would cut its one f-bomb off rather than let it rip. The moment in RUN remains effective nonetheless. Just an interesting choice. cinematicfbombs.com
New Releases This Week:
(Review links where applicable)
Opening Buffalo-area theaters 5/12/23 -
BLACKBERRY at Regal Galleria
Thoughts are above.
BOOK CLUB: THE NEXT CHAPTER at North Park; Dipson Amherst, McKinley, Flix & Capitol; AMC Maple Ridge; Regal Elmwood, Galleria, Transit & Quaker
CUSTODY at Regal Elmwood
FOOL’S PARADISE at AMC Market Arcade; Regal Elmwood, Galleria, Transit & Quaker
HYPNOTIC at Dipson Capitol; AMC Maple Ridge; Regal Elmwood, Galleria, Transit & Quaker
KNIGHTS OF THE ZODIAC at Regal Elmwood, Galleria, Transit & Quaker
RALLY ROAD RACERS at Dipson Flix & Capitol; AMC Market Arcade; Regal Elmwood, Galleria, Transit & Quaker
Streaming from 5/12/23 -
AIR - Prime on 5/12
CALL ME KATE - Netflix on 5/12
CRATER – Disney+ on 5/12
THE FIVE DEVILS – MUBI on 5/12
HUESERA: THE BONE WOMAN – Shudder on 5/12
“Huesera is a psychological thriller dealing more with the myriad uncertainties that have ravaged Valeria's life. Cervera and co-writer Abia Castillo are breaking Valeria down to build her back up.” – Full thoughts at The Film Stage.
THE MOTHER – Netflix on 5/12
STILL: A MICHAEL J. FOX MOVIE – AppleTV+ on 5/12
Thoughts are above.
ANNA NICOLE SMITH: YOU DON’T KNOW ME – Netflix on 5/16
BUTTERFLY VISION – MUBI on 5/17
FAITHFULLY YOURS – Netflix on 5/17
FANFIC - Netflix on 5/17
QUEENMAKER: THE MAKING OF AN IT GIRL – Hulu on 5/17
Now on VOD/Digital HD -
CHOP & STEELE (5/9)
“Sadly, the film is all build-up. While this fact ensures the end will be unsatisfying in its ambiguity, it also means that everything coming before the letdown is quite effective.” – Full thoughts at HHYS.
EVIL DEAD RISE (5/9)
A LIFE ON THE FARM (5/9)
THE LOST KING (5/9)
“The feel-good sensibility [of PHILOMENA] remains, it's just a bit messier in its hope to endear Philippa's story to a wider audience. Thankfully Hawkins is too good to care much.” – Full thoughts at HHYS.
“Add some ageist gags with lazy art world commentary and the whole feels like one of Nargle's paintings: a hollow, passionless canvas fit for a Motel 6. (McAdams' words, not mine.)” – Full thoughts at HHYS.
SICK OF MYSELF (5/9)
“It has enough to say about mankind's obsession with celebrity and capitalist greed's manipulation of the disadvantaged for profit to give the whole value beyond just the satirical nature of its narrative, but [it works on that level] too.” – Full thoughts ay HHYS.
THE TUTOR (5/9)
EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH (5/12)
“Some bits may seem convenient as far as providing these women everything they need exactly when they need it, but why not let karma reach out a helpful hand? The men in Inès' soft-spoken crosshairs have operated in "easy mode" their whole lives.” – Full thoughts at The Film Stage.
THE FIVE DEVILS (5/12)
From the press kit archive:
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