Monday, January 25, 2021

Wonder Woman 1984

Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Lilly Aspell, Kristoffer Polaha, Lucian Perez, Gabriella Wilde
Running Time: 151 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Wonder Woman 1984 opens with a great sequence of a young Diana Prince (Lilly Aspell) competing in a triathalon-style athletic event on Themyscira. It's probably one of the more exciting and thematically relevant openings to a superhero entry in a long time, setting the bar extremely high for whatever follows. Racing against older, more experienced gladiators than herself, she takes a shortcut, attempting to cheat to secure a win. This doesn't go well for the future warrior, but perfectly sets the table for rest of the story, which eventually introduces a 1984 that can really only be seen through the prism of present-day. And in an an effort to depict the toxic selfishness and individualism running rampant in both decades, director and co-writer Patty Jenkins delivers a sequel that's actually about something. 

While that ambition doesn't always translate into creative greatness in a conventional sense, this is an effort that's ridiculously eager to please and entertaining in all the ways a new Wonder Woman entry should be. 2017's reboot of the franchise proved that Jenkins had a strong handle on what exactly this character should be, and now freed from handling the responsibility of an origin story, she lets loose. While the action's set in the '80's, it also carries with it many of the qualities that would accompany a big budget comic book movie that came out during that era, throwing a lot of elements against the wall with a cheeky tone. Most of it sticks, in no small part due to a plot that's silly beyond belief, but executed with enough flare and confidence that you can't help but respect her for going all the way with it.

It's 1984 and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is working as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., while also moonlighting as Wonder Woman when necessary. After encountering the shy, awkward new museum crypto-zoologist, Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig), the two bond over antiquities and become fast friends, with the socially invisible Barbara envious of Diana's intelligence, beauty and confidence. But when both come upon a mysterious rock from a burglary they're able to eventually identify as a "Dreamstone," its Latin inscription reveals it to be capable of granting the holder a single wish. For Diana, that wish would be for her deceased love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to be alive, while the ignored, insecure Barbara wants only to be just like Diana. 

It turns out both wishes carry more baggage than expected, along with some dangerous trade-offs. Enter sleazy, failing oil businessman and TV personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) who, posing as a museum donor, looks to get his hands on the stone, planning to make a wish that could cause disastrous worldwide repercussions if it's successfully granted. With Max using Barbara as a pawn in his evil plan, Wonder Woman is faced with a debilitating decision, forced to choose between two unthinkable options in order to protect society from destroying itself.   

The biggest difference between this and the fairly praised first film is most obviously its setting, taking place nearly three quarters of a century later, Jenkins takes full advantage of the era to deliver a fish-out-of-water story of Diana attempting to find her barings without Steve in new, unfamilar territory. This opens the door for a lot of visual gags and jokes centered around the mid 80's, to the point you'd think this was a lost long-form episode of Stranger Things, even featuring a mall fight to start things off. While it's more of a corny, cartoonish version of the decade than that series, it still works really well since the actual plot is an ideal fit for the era during which it takes place, with Max's insatiable greed and Barbara's desperation in providing its driving engine. 

The Dreamstone's introduction doesn't initially inspire confidence the plotline can sustain enough narrative momentum, especially in regards to Steve's sudden resurrection. In some ways his body swapping return feels like the ultimate deus ex machina until we get an explanation of how it fits into the bigger picture. But it's still fair to say that the character feels more like Diana's appendage or sidekick this time around, reappearing with far less agency than he did in the first film. Due to these circumstances, the reunion itself doesn't emotionally land as solidly as it should, as Pine's sort of hung out to dry for extended stretches. If Steve's arc is the weak link, the idea itself eventually turns into an intriguing one for Diana when she has to face the true ramifications of her wish. 

Whatever may be sacrificed with Diana and Steve is made up ten-fold with a surprisingly involving pair of top-notch villains. Kristen Wiig, whose big screen mileage can vary depending on the role, is pitch perfect as this mousy museum employee who finally has a chance to be noticed and respected in a trajectory that's very similar to Selina Kyle/Catwoman's in Batman Returns. Her slow-burning transformation into Cheetah is built with just the right dose of empathy, moving at an ideal pace and peaking exactly when it needs to. Claiming she's the best thing in this movie wouldn't be inaccurate, but The Mandalorian's Pedro Pascal sure gives her a run for it as Max Lord, a crooked oil magnate obviously patterned as a hybrid of Gordon Gekko and Donald Trump, with heavier emphasis on the latter. 

Pascal really goes for the jugular with a maniacal, over-the-top performance that contains some quieter, subtler acting choices, investing what was probably intended as a broad parody with surprising depth. He makes this guy so deliriously full of himself that it's kind of a joy to watch, completely washing away whatever preconceived expectations fans may have had about his casting. One of the more impactful sub-plots involves Max's relationship with his young son Alistair (Lucian Perez), adding another interesting layer to this diabolical, larger-than-life scam artist turned deranged cult leader. 

If the third act is where most superhero endings falter, this one actually gains quite a bit of steam when the enormity of Max's plan comes to fruition, along with Wonder Woman's eventual showdown with Cheetah. The most resonant aspect of its concluding forty minutes is how the Dreamstone's powers, or more accurately Max's abuse of them, leads to the emergence of another villain: Us. With him preying upon and manipulating everyone into indulging in their basest instincts, the script takes a timely turn that's sure make more than a few viewers do a double take, if not outright squirm in their seats at what's unfolding.

Featuring two wildly entertaining supervillains that compliment each other surprisingly well, this doesn't feel overstuffed or self-indulgent, despite its extended length. Gal Gadot serves as its effortlessly steady anchor, impressing again in the role she was born to play, after Hollywood spent decades trying and failing to find the ideal actress for it. Of all the tentpole comic book franchise leads, whether it be DC or Marvel, she feels the least replaceable, lending even more credibility to a series that truly "gets" its character. Without discounting its minor issues, I'd still probably take WW84 over its predecessor simply because it's more fun, utilizing its setting and time period to deliver the rare superhero sequel that feels less like a cash grab than a smart, purposeful continuation.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Tenet

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Running Time: 150 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
 
Pending its heavily discussed arrival into theaters, Christopher Nolan's Tenet was promised to "save movies," which is a silly expectation to thrust upon any major release regardless of quality, but one Nolan can at least partially put on himself. Instead, it ended up being the equivalent of a tree falling in the forest, with the few who did risk venturing out to see it leaving perplexed and frustrated by its complicated plot, among other perceived issues. But those who loved it really did, touting it as a visionary accomplishment that's staggeringly original even by the director's highest standards. So here we are, and if two completely conflicting viewpoints could ever both be true, it's now.

What hits the screen is ultimately matters most, and as confusing as certain sections of this are, its strengths and weaknesses are plainly obvious, laid bare for everyone to judge. Technically, it may be the most ambitious picture Nolan's made, while still justifiably earning its label as his most inaccessible. Following the more conventional Dunkirk, it returns him to the cerebral mind mash that's become his trademark, both for better and worse. That inescapable feeling he's become a parody of himself in the public consciousness has always been mitigated by his sheer talent, the full scope of which is given an incredible platform here, despite any of the film's perceived faults.

When a CIA agent known simply as the "Protagonist" (John David Washington) has his life saved during an extraction operation at a Kyiv opera house, he ends up captured and tortured by unknown mercenaries. With the rest of his team dead, he's recruited by this covert organization called "Tenet," which is experimenting with time manipulation technology, such as bullets that can move backward through time. These inverted objects are believed to have come from the future, as The Protagonist is aided by his mysterious contact Neil (Robbert Pattinson) in tracing them to Priya (Dimple Kapadia), an arms trafficker who reveals they were purchased by ruthless Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). 

After approaching Sator's estranged art appraiser wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), The Protagonist soon discovers the bitter, volatile nature of their relationship, which hinges on blackmail stemming from a falsely authenticated drawing. As he and Neil close in on Sator's catastrophic plan involving the inverted technology, they realize its capabilities are far more dangerous than initially feared, resulting in not only the entropy of objects, but people as well. With Sator holding all the cards, The Protagonist will have to depend on Neil and Kat to help stop him before it's too late. For everyone. 

It's odd resisting the temptation to describe Tenet as a time travel film because in many ways that's exactly what it is, and also isn't. When characters come face-to-face with past versions of themselves the general rule is that it qualifies as such, even if part of this confusion stems from the fact that nothing in the narrative is spoon fed to us.You can't help but feel the audience is being placed in much the same way as The Protagonist in that there's a certain disorientation that defines the first thirty to forty minutes where you literally have no idea what's happening or why. We're given some information, then a little more as he gets closer, before the film really kicks into high octane mode and everything somehow comes together as it goes.

A highway heist sequence and a gripping airport-set fight with a character moving backwards through time form the mostly solid foundation of a plot that's very Bond-like in presentation, aside from the script's complex, impenetrable ideas that required an almost inhuman level of attention from viewers. Most of it does make sense upon retrospection, but you're so absorbed in the breakneck action sequences and undeniably cool aesthetic that even its admittedly overlong two and a half hour running time feels less like a chore than a mission. And that's actually more of a compliment than it seems when you're talking about considerably harder science fiction than either Nolan's own Inception or Interstellar. This aims higher, unconcerned with the touchy feely component many thought bogged down that latter effort in the end. Clinical and cold as ice, this doesn't come without a cost, as its plot is packed with expository dialogue that gives up frustratingly little. 

Having disregarded most previous complaints about sound in Nolan's films, issues are unmistakenly noticeable this time, even on a home viewing. At the risk of joining a chorus of dissenters, it's called for here since there is a legitimate challenge hearing and understanding some the dialogue due to background noise or Luwig Göransson's score drowning it out. While he's probably the single best composer working today and this is a top tier effort from him, there's hardly a minute in the film where there isn't music, occasionally detracting from verbal exchanges that relay key information. It's to Nolan's credit that every spoken line is that important, but he just saved Oscar viewers the trouble of having to distinguish between sound mixing and editing this year since it won't be nominated for either. If he was going to so boldly demand this get the widest theatrical release at the worst possible time, it would have benefited him, and us, to fix that. 

Washington is the ideal fit for the unnamed Protagonist, subverting what could have easily been a standard issue superhero by conveying a fearful everyman quality that's masked by his cool and competent professionalism in the face of insurmountable danger. Branagh is barbaric in the best way possible as Sator, legitimately chilling and sadistic every moment he's on screen. If Pattinson has the least to do as Neil, he does it better and more agreeably than just about anyone else would, radiating a brooding inteligence that gives glimpses into why his run at (The) Batman is likely to work. 

The movie really belongs to Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, a physically and psychologically abused spouse desperate to get out. But here's the kicker. While that's exactly what it is, everything about that just seems like so much more in her hands. Unmistakably distinct and captivating in how she speaks, looks and carries herself, she brings an intellectual curiosity to the proceedings that would have been glaringly absent otherwise. The actress has been quietly on the upswing in various roles, but this feels next level, representing the best kind of supporting performance in that it's almost invisibly indispensible. Of all the crazy, inexplicable events that occur, it's actually her scenes opposite Branagh that strike the hardest, giving the film that emotional core we previously assumed was lacking. 

Tenet is something we've never seen before, and while it may take many more viewings and the use of subtitles to completely sort out, it's also unforgettable, looking and feeling like a groundbreaker the more you back away from it. Having finally made his own Bond film, this plays better than most of them, while containing a concept you'd believe gestated for over a decade and uniformly excellent performances from an intriguing, eclectic cast. Having already gone through the inevitable phase of parsing through it all, it's both more and less complicated than it appears. But as polarizing as it is, you'd have a harder time writing it off as insignificant, signaling that Nolan hasn't lost his touch, consistently confounding us as we bang our heads against the wall. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Cobra Kai (Season 3)

Creators: Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Peyton List, Gianni DeCenzo, Martin Kove, Vanessa Rubio, Diora Baird, Ed Asner, Dan Ahdoot, Bret Ernst, Ken Davitian, Yugi Okumoto, Tamlyn Tomita, Traci Toguchi,
Barrett Carnahan, Terry Serpico, Jesse Kove
Original Airdate: 2021  

**The Following Review Contains Major Spoilers For The Third Season Of Cobra Kai **

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Of the many elements The Karate Kid sequel series, Cobra Kai, has executed with creative perfection over its two seasons, the most glaring is that it's taken two iconic characters from a wildly successful movie made over thirty years ago and enhanced them. By deepening an iconic rivalry into something even more relatable, the show's freed from having to entirely rely on nostalgia as a storytelling crutch like so many failed reboots before it. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) are two fundamentally flawed characters whose lives have been framed and steered by what happened in high school, triggering both anytime they even share the same air space. 

While they've had fleeting moments of peaceful co-existence since Johnny's resurrection of the Cobra Kai dojo prompted Daniel to open his competing Miyagi-Do, their feud's fully spilled over into the All Valley community, with disastrous consequences. And in starting essentially from scratch with a new generation of teen characters, the show's other gigantic achievement is in getting us to care as much, if not more, about them as we do this legendary pair of dueling middle-aged senseis. 

If Johnny's purpose has been to correct the mistakes he's made as a person and father since high school, Daniel's focus has revolved around honoring the teachings of his late mentor Mr. Miyagi into his personal and professional life. Of course, the more he gets sucked into this rivalry the harder that becomes, reminding us that if there's one thing every fan thought was impossible, it was doing this series without the late Pat Morita's presence as Mr. Miyagi. And they don't, since hardly a minute goes by where he doesn't still feel like an integral part of the proceedings. These ten episodes do the best job thus far incorporating him in, not only with some really meaningful call-backs and flashbacks, but actual plot points that adapt his philosophies into action.

Any concerns the series would be lose steam with its jump from YouTube to Netflix or the creative well would start to run dry are unfounded as we're treated to the return of a major character that couldn't be handled any better, exceeding all expectations of how she would slide back into this story, no matter how briefly. And if the two previous season finale karate battles helped define its characters, we get a final episode here that simultaneously juggles three such sequences, including one that literally feels thirty years in the making.

As the fallout from the high school fight continues to reverberate through the Valley, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña,) lies in the ICU facing the prospect he may never walk again, much less compete. Johnny's estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) is on the run, facing the prospect he could face charges for the attack, as both Johnny and Daniel reluctantly team up to find him, strongly disagreeing on the methods they'll use to do it. 

With a returning John Kreese (Martin Kove) having betrayed Johnny and taken ownership of the Cobra Kai dojo and Miguel's mother Carmen (Vanessa Rubio) blaming him for the accident, Johnny's spiraling again. Only a possible reconciliation with his and Daniel's ex-girlfriend Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) provides him with some semblance of a second chance as he helps Miguel recuperate.

Daniel's also struggling since Miyagi-Do's role in the fight has shattered his upstanding reputation, sinking sales at the car dealership. As he and wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) formulate a plan to save the business, daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) struggles with panic attacks in the wake of Miguel's fall and attack at the hands of badass Cobra Kai queen Tory (Peyton List), whose school expulsion and family problems have temporarily sidelined her. 

Assembling a more ruthless group than ever before, led by an angry Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), Sensei Kreese wants to extract revenge on Miyagi-Do, even as we learn about the traumatic life event that turned the hardened karate instructor into this monster. Now, Johnny and Daniel may have to put their differences aside long enough to deal with him while Miguel inches closer to recovery, only to return to a Cobra Kai that's channeling its bloodthirsty roots of decades past. The battle for the very soul of the Valley is on, and everyone's going to have to pick a side. 

There's a reshuffling of the deck, with Miguel's injury essentially ostracizing Johnny from everything and everyone, leaving him to contemplate the role he may have unintentionally played in encouraging the fight that saw his own son nearly killing the student he coached to the championship trophy. But his biggest mistake was letting let Sensei Kreese back into the Cobra Kai fold, somehow thinking things would be different, resulting in him again getting cruelly manipulated by the only father he's really ever known.

The relationship between Johnny and Miguel that's always been at the series' core is now strained, but undergoing repairs, with the rebellious sensei employing a grab bag of unconventional techniques to literally get him back on his feet. It calls back to some of their best training scenes from the first season, while providing some hilarious moments that effectively play off Johnny being stuck in the past. 

When the show was first announced, initial worries the material would be treated as merely a comedic spoof of the films proved completely unfounded as it ended up finding just the right dramedic mix. But by far the the most effective ongoing gag is Johnny being frozen in the '80s because it's not only good comedy, but completely true to the character. 

If the writers are ever in danger of veering into Encino Man territory with this, Zabka's smooth timing conquers all, whether Johnny's dishing out some "tough love" by setting Miguel's shoelace ablaze to get him walking again or making painfully dated Vanna White references. And while his inability to understand the concept of public parks or any social norms might raise eyebrows, nothing tops his attempts this season to use social media.

Despite Johnny steadily growing in this reluctant mentoring role, the writers and Zabka have excelled at making sure he's still very much the Johnny we knew, resisting the urge to have him go "soft," with those aforentioned scenes and occasionally boreish behavior reinforcing that. Mistakenly putting his trust in Kreese again may have put him on the outs with Robby, Miguel, the Larusso's and basically the entire community, but as the season progresses it becomes clear he's not ready to throw in the towel just yet. 

The past also catches up with Daniel when an unexpected business trip to Japan to save the dealership reunites him with former girlfriend Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and arch nemesis Chozen (Yugi Okumoto) in a far different and more commercialized Okinawa than he remembers having visited with Miyagi as a teen (Ep. 3.4, "The Right Path"). While creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg haven't shied away from diving into the film mythology, this is their biggest swing yet, if only because The Karate Kid Part II was always viewed as paling in comparison to its more respected predecessor. But hindsight has revealed it to be an undervalued chapter that actually did a lot right, delivering some memorable franchise moments. And since this isn't nostalgia for the mere sake of it, Daniel's scenes with Kumiko dovetail into his current situation, while continuing to emphasize Miyagi's lifelong impact on him. 

For those who do hold the sequel in high regard, his interaction with Chozen is even more satisfying, with Okumoto returning to the role a far better actor, and with a more complicated, intriguing character to play. Conveying a mix of menace and calm, he gives us more than what we came for, before the script is flipped and we also end up getting something else entirely. It's one of the season's many reunions that challenges Daniel, as many of his actions and decisions upon returning home can be traced to what occurs in the episode. 

If ever a character seemed immune to change or growth, it's the sadistic John Kreese, whose origin story is explored in considerable detail. There's always a level of creative risk when incorporating flashbacks that could potentially alter our perceptions of already established figures or overexplain actions better left to viewers' imaginations. The writers successfully walked this line in the first season in showing glimpses of Johnny's troubled childhood in pre-Karate Kid scenes and again last season with flashes of Kreese's life before he returned. 

Now with a full 1960's Vietnam subplot, they're able to go all in, showing how he came to be and what exactly led to his founding of Cobra Kai. But anyone understandably ready to reject any attempt at "humanizing" him or creating empathy that could suck the venom out of his villainy can breathe a sigh of relief since that's not at all what's done here. Seeing the show tackle a supporting story like this in its own action-adventure style is kind of thrilling, with end result being a presentation of Kreese completely in line with our previous perceptions, yet surprising at the same time. 

Focusing on the volatile relationship between a young Kreese (Barrett Carnahan) and his commanding officer, Captain Turner (a menacing Terry Serpico), it encapsulates why the series is so successful by adding layers to stories and characters without detracting from what we already knew. The desire to understand "why" with Kreese was already there from the beginning, but now we can appreciate Martin Kove's work even more knowing that the writing has caught up to his performance, investing him with substantially more depth than the movies did. 

If Kreese's return to prominence stoked the flames of a dojo feud that was already boiling over after last season's incident, Cobra Kai's now emerged as something more closely resembling a cult for disaffected youths. If there's any criticism to be made of the season it would be that the crimes and assaults committed would result not only serious jail time for all involved, but some kind of charges against the damaged vet. Of course, doing that would damper the escapism of a story that actually does an entertaining job showing how he pulls the wool over the community's eyes, convincing them he's a pillar of society while Johnny and Daniel fume. 

The one character who does serve jail time, Robby, has a really rough go of it, having to not only fight for his survival, but reckon that what he did to Miguel may qualify him as even more like his father than he feared. And we all know Johnny's diabolical former sensei won't waste any time exploiting that rift. It might be Hawk who emerges as the true second coming of Johnny, a dangerous bully whose betrayal of former best friend Demetri (Gianni DeCenzo) has been one of the more underappreciated long-term arcs in the series. It's taken to a whole new level here, even as Hawk shows his first subtle signs of doubt about the direction Cobra Kai's taking. 

Showing less hesitation is Tory, whose troubled home life and anger over Miguel results in the most intriguing Sam LaRusso storyline yet, as she struggles to mentally rebound from last season's attack. And since Peyton List is so ferocious as Tory, it's even easier to understand Sam's paralyzing fear at the mere thought or sight of this girl. Theres' no question it's leading to a big showdown between the two, with Sam having to dig down deep to overcome her crippling anxiety. 

After a clever early episode fake-out, the moment everyone's been waiting for since Ali acceptied Johnny's friend request in last season's cliffhanger finally comes to fruition with Academy Award-nominated actress and 80's movie icon Elisabeth Shue's highly anticipated return to the franchise (Ep. 3.9, "Feel The Night"). While we suspected the possibility, it was far from a lock considering how well they kept her appearance a secret. But does it ever deliver, undoubtedly causing diehards like to jump out of their seats when she reenters the picture some thirty plus years later to discover the more things change, the more they don't. Our first instinct is to want to see her and Johnny back together, and while I'm not sure that wish changes after the two-episode arc, the writers manage to again subvert expectations by giving her a more important purpose. 

The Johnny and recently separated Dr. Ali reunion we've been clamoring for ends up being much more than a mere tease, with them basically picking up where they left off, until Daniel squeezes his way back in (Ep. 3.10,"December 19"). The country club Christmas party scenes that bring the three together for the first time in over three decades just might stand as the best work the series has done thus far, with both guys instantly reverting back to their high school selves in her presence, as if they weren't already halfway there anyway. 

Shue's terrific as a wiser, more experienced Ali, effortlessly sensible and likable in these scenes as the only adult in the room. Well, besides Amanda. who also attempts to bring Johnny and Daniel back to reality (between this and that great Kreese confrontation, this is Henggeler's best season as Amanda).  Lesser writing would have Daniel's wife consumed with jealousy or attempted to manufacture another triangle of some sort that will threaten their marriage, but the show's too smart for that. They both tease and torture both guys about it instead, forcing them to come to realization that they'll always be more alike than different, even if both are too stubborn to admit it. 

Recognizing that Johnny needs to "move on" and the writers are painted into a corner with Shue's limited availability, I'm still not quite sold on his relationship with Carmen. There's a lot work left to do there and if it seems impossible for diehards to endorse him ending up with anyone other than Ali, that's because it is. Still, they made the right decision under the circumstances so if this does ends up being a one-off and we never see her again (please, no!) credit the show for still overdelivering. Waiting the two seasons to bring her in paid off big, maximizing the impact of a return that couldn't have possibly gone any better.

Thanks to Ali, Johnny and Daniel now know exactly what they need to do, if only their egos can allow it. An alliance of some sort is what we've been building toward since this started, but Kreese's stranglehold has forced it, with Cobra Kai's actions putting the community on high alert and even threatening the continuation of the All Valley Karate tournament. A wild Christmas brawl to settle the score between Miyagi-Do, Cobra Kai and Johnny's fledgling Eagle Fan faction rivals last season's school fight, forcing Sam to face her fears, Miguel to test his health and Hawk to make a choice. But its Kreese's attempted poisoning of Robby's mind that ends up being a bridge too far for Johnny.

The sight of Daniel saving Johnny is comparable to what Star Wars fans experienced in the gasp-inducing final minutes of The Mandalorian's second season in that it's this franchise's finest hour in many years, bringing everything back around while still pushing the characters forward. Having the two rivals finally on the same side does feel right for the story at this point, but also well-earned since all the pieces were so carefully placed to get them there. Brilliantly juxtaposing this with the culmination of the Vietnam story puts viewers in the awkwardly thrilling position of seeing Kreese through two different lenses, which are ultimately one in the same. 

With his reckoning in Vietnam, a young Kreese lights a life-altering fuse that rots his soul, causing him to continuously replay that defining event under far different circumstances. In a way it explains everything, while laying the groundwork for the return of another familar character that indicates his war with Johnny and Daniel is far from over. The Karate Kid fans will need to pinch themselves that they're getting all this, but still may need a flowchart handy to track all the turns, betrayals, and shifts in allegiances that take place, all of which feel completely organic to the "Myagi-verse" that's emerged from within this series. While it's becoming repetitive to heap piles praise on each season before the next tops it, Cobra Kai's momentum not only shows no signs of slowing, it may just be getting started.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Palm Springs

Director Max Barbakow 
Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang, June Squibb, Jena Friedman, Dale Dickey
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R 

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

To its credit, Hulu original Palm Springs takes what's been becoming a fairly familiar premise and does a lot of things differently with it, directly addressing some little nagging problems that have always held the idea back. A character re-living the same day in a continuous time loop has, ironically enough, been repeated many times since its most famously successful iteration, 1993's Groundhog Day, to decidedly mixed results. That no film has come close to equaling it since does have a lot to do with the fact there's only one Bill Murray, but also the many self-imposed limitations filmmakers have put on the concept. 

Director Max Barbakow (working from a script by Andy Siara) doesn't box himself in like that, allowing this take to reach for heights those many imitators wouldn't. So even while Groundhog Day remains the benchmark in having most everything else beat in the romantic comedy department, this adds more than a few wrinkles to a certain type of movie we thought we had all figured out already. Its willingness to break rules we weren't conciously aware existed and its excellent use of two leads who have rarely been better, leads to a somewhat unique experience that taps into current events and feelings in ways that would barely register a few years ago. While they may not have known it before the cameras started rolling, if ever there was a more relevant time to release a film about two characters stuck repeating the same day, it's 2020. 

Nyles (Andy Samberg) has a problem that no one else seems aware of.  He's reliving the day of November 9th over and over again, waking up next to his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) in Palm Springs on the day she's serving as bridesmaid in her friend Tala's (Camila Mendes) wedding to Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). Drunk at the reception, Tala's sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti) watches as Nyles delivers the speech she's supposed to give and the two form a bond, going out to the desert together before he's unexpectedly attacked. Crawling injured into a nearby cave, he's sucked into some kind of a vortex, which she follows him into despite his warnings. 

The next day Sarah discovers the truth that it's actually the same day, and she's now stuck in this time loop he's been in. Failing to find a way out and having repeatedly committed suicide only to awaken in the same bed, Nyles now has a partner in crime, as the two wreck havoc and live for the moment knowing there won't be consequences to face. But that only lasts so long, as Sarah realizes she has as much reason to get out of this as he does for resigning to stay. Having finally found someone he wants to spend the rest of his days with, Nyles will have to decide if he wants to continue living in this seemingly neverending loop.  

Cleverly, the script makes sure Nyles' journey is already well underway by the time we meet him, even if we're not completely sure what that is yet. By sparing the viewer that overly familar set-up of discovering the protagonist's situation as he does, we get to see how this guy already has everything down to a science, having done this hundreds of times already. This leads to a great early gag with him on the dance floor at the wedding reception, anticipating the moves of every guest. 

The story doesn't get bogged down in needless expository descriptions of how or why this is happening, opting to show instead of tell, trusting we'll be onboard because Nyles is just too wacky and entertaining for us not to be. Basically, there's a cave with a time loop and that's it. Bucking the trend of this sub-genre, he's not the only one going through this, as Sarah's unwittingly dragged along for the ride, becoming for her and him to be a lot more fun than expected, at least until it isn't. 

The picture's peak comes when Nyles and Sarah fully exploit this new world devoid of consequences in a montage highlighting their debaucherous behavior, which take wildly different turns in completely different locations with a wide variety of hapless victims. Of course, all of this helps correct the problem this premise has always faced in having one person going at it alone and trying to convince everyone else in their vicinity of their plight, over and over again. Having two people in this situation really opens up creative possibilities that weren't there before, many of which Siara's script fully explores, allowing the characters to bounce off each other and mock everything and everyone around them, upping the hilarity level. 

Samberg and Milioti have great chemistry, with the former again proving his chops as a funnyman in no way distracts from his believability as a lead, albeit one more in the vein of fellow SNL alum Adam Sandler, when he's on his game. This is probably the most high profile feature role Milioti's had and she displays some quick timing and brings genuine likability to a character who isn't easy to embrace considering she's kind of a selfish trainwreck. If anything, this should hopefully further erase painful memories of her brief, creatively botched run as the title character in How I Met Your Mother, which did little to properly showcase her true comedic talents. 

The plot wouldn't be complete without a villain, wedding guest Roy, who's played by the great J.K. Simmons, even if that one-word description unfairly oversimplifies a role that's actually a lot more clever than it appears on the surface. He's one of the many ways the screenplay upends expectations, with the actor bringing a welcome crankiness and sarcasm to the proceedings. While he's one of the many complication arising in a Nyles and Sarah's relationship that wouldn't seem out of place in a more generic rom-com, the time loop plot at least makes it seem like anything but, continually raising the stakes.

That this manages to do something fresh here would be a victory in itself without the added resonance, even if I'm still not sure the resolution is completely what it could have been. It settles into a more traditional rom-com groove in its last act, making the movie seem slighter than it was midway, where it seemed destined, if not for greatness, at least cult status. But it's still a surprisingly original time loop movie from the moment it starts, as even our introduction to the idea feels novel, appreciating the audience's intelligence and never taking itself too seriously. It also doesn't fall back on the old trope that moral lessons must be learned for the characters to physically escape this. Of course, they both learn something anyway, but a more practical solution is presented that firmly puts the characters in charge of their own decisions and fates rather than being jerked around by the concept.

Palm Springs' top priority is to get laughs, and that it does, before unspooling a high concept story that makes those jokes and gags even funnier. It should seem obvious that the one thing you don't want to do with a movie that's plot revolves around repetition is make it "feel" repetitive with the same locations serving similar functions and the same people doing identical things,  But that's hard. This might be the only recent one of these to avoid that extremely common pitfall, more interested in the characters than the machinations of its own script.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2020

After begrudgingly accepting that far fewer films would be released in 2020 than anticipated, accompanying it was the bitter reality that there also wouldn't be as many movie posters to admire, or even dislike. With the state of movies on shaky ground all year, the industry was basically forced to adjust its business model on the fly, pushing releases out a year or longer regardless of the advertising. With no concrete idea as to how much it affected the studios' marketing strategies for these titles, we do know it made an impact, causing more films to fall through the cracks than ever before. On the flip side, many were able to reach an untapped audience, giving them attention they may not have otherwise gotten.

This wild year actually made my 15th edition of The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters list one of the more interesting to compile, even while it wasn't the easiest, fraught with more hunting and pecking than usual to make sure nothing was missed. Of course, the big story, already building for years but breaking through in a big way in 2020, was the rise of home viewing, with a Netflix release nabbing top poster honors for the first time. Otherwise, the rules haven't changed all that much.

Complicated or busy just aren't hallmarks of an effective movie poster design. Layouts like that might get a lot of attention, but they're hardly ever capable of holding it. And when you don't see a poster here that was universally praised everywhere for its ingenuity, there's a good chance that's the reason.With only the occasional exception, a poster's main pupose is to cleanly, crisply convey in a single image the idea of the film, giving up just enough, but not too much about what we're in for. 

I'll always contend there's a direct, symbiotic relationship between a movie's marketing and quality. There have been too many posters for great pictures cracking the top 10 each year to think otherwise. And an intriguing enough one-sheet on its own can always make a difference in eventually getting me in front of the screen to watch the film, no matter how little known it may be (case in point--2019's winner, Starfish). While 2020's champ isn't a title in need of such attention, that doesn't make its original, eye-catching poster any less impressive. 

In a distinction suddenly more important than usual this go around, a poster would need to be released during the 2020 calendar year to qualify, regardless of whether the film was. So while any official design that dropped between January 1st and December 31st is eligible, it did lead to one unusual situation where two entirely different posters for the same movie appeared on both last year's and this year's lists. As usual, only "official" movie posters are eligible, as shaky as that definition has become. The runners-up, along with the always popular compilation of the worst, are alphabetically listed below. All images via Impawards.com. Just click to enlarge.


The Best...


10. She Dies Tomorrow

Maybe not the most upbeat title for a horror film, but you don't exactly go into a psychological horror thriller about a woman sure she will perish the next day looking for laughs and giggles. By these standards, Legion Creative Group's design for Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow is terrifyingly effective and not entirely unfamilar to the genre, as either melting or distorted faces in a state of distress have gotten very popular of late. This unquestionably stands out from the pack, not only because actress Kate Lyn Sheil's haunted face (s) is perfect for this kind of presentation, but those colors. The reds, blues, purples and pinks are literally exploding all over the page in a swirling, mesmerizing pattern that seems to be taking us down the rabbit hole. The red blood effect around her mouth really take it to another level, as does the bright, perfectly centered title. "Your Deepest Fear Is Spreading" is too good a tag line to that hidden though, making reference to the parasitic, contagious nature of her condition. Well done.

 

9. Funny Face

Now this is unique. And no, it's not a poster for that other Funny Face movie, but Tim Sutton's low-budget revenge crime drama about a young man (played by Cosmo Jarvis) who adopts a masked persona after his grandparents' home is destroyed. As you can probably tell, this mask is certifiably creepy, only made more jarring by the manner it's inserted into this one-sheet, presenting a darkly violent social allegory (it's supposedly not a horror film) as a spiritual and religious experience. Consider us disturbed. Great use of the fire engine red against the black background, and the title and credit placement on the top left is a disorienting attention grabber, freeing up all that negative space. Up close, it looks even better, with a weathered, distressed quality that only adds to its appeal. It's surprising this poster hasn't been talked about more, flying so far under the radar I couldn't even uncover the designer.

 

8. Moving in 2008

Talk about negative space. Taking a cue from that legendary Downhill Racer one-sheet, there's something special about the audacity of this Sister Hyde design, especially considering how the film's subject matter deals with a 2008 recession, "catalyzed by unemployment, personal crisis, and illness." So yeah, not timely at all. Even if brown isn't the most pleasing color, you could argue that's exactly the point considering this isn't an image intended to convey comfort or tranquility. Love the bold title treatment here, both in look and placement, with that "everything just happened so fast" tagline and its microscopic size contrasting nicely with the vast sandy background. Barely keeping her head above ground, those uncertain, sorrowful eyes trail that moving van as it makes it way across the page, delivering a great visual metaphor for an entire life being packed up and driven away.

 

7. Minor Premise (Both Versions)


More melting and distorted faces, this time in two entirely different one-sheets for Minor Premise, which may not be living up to its title since the plot seems to be anything but. According to imdb, "a reclusive neuroscientist attempting to surpass his father's legacy becomes entangled in his own experiment, pitting ten fragments of his consciousness against each other" in co-writer/director Eric Schultz's sci-fi thriller. It's great when you can read a logline and then literally see the visual manifestation of it in poster form. That top one, designed by Jump Cut and Brandon Schaefer, has the fractured fragments portion of this pretty well covered with that blurry, overlapping imagery conveying a genuine sense of unease and dread. But the face-melting design could be also considered another close relative of last year's aforementioned Daniel Isn't Real design, right down to the color scheme. And you have to love it when a movie's consistently branded across the board, in this case with that slanted "M" in the title treatment.     

 

6. The Atlantic City Story

What a throwback this is. The watercolor-style design looks like it came straight out the 1970's, causing anyone to do a double take on The Atlantic City Story's release date. But yes, it did come out in 2020 and is about an unhappily married woman who runs away to the title city where she meets a young gambler. There's just something so aesthetically pleasing about this one-sheet that harkens back to a simpler time in movie advertising when photoshopped heads of actors weren't used to sell smaller adult-skewing romantic dramas. Supposedly, this is more of a muted character study, which only makes this off kilter idea work that much better, with great faded use of pinks and purples, a magnificent illustration and some more excellent use of negative space. But it's that retro title font that seals the deal, perfectly complimenting the tone and style of the poster. Haven't seen the film, but will now knowing there's at least a small chance it could live up to the high bar set here.     

 

5. Promising Young Woman

Yes, yes, and yes. This is how you make an impact with a single, striking image.Writer/director Emerald Fennell's polarizing #MeToo revenge thriller Promising Young Woman dives head first into the controversy surrounding it with a teaser poster that's basically the movie incarnate There's another one-sheet for this below in the runners-up section that's visually clever, but this feels more wholly original and literally dripping with with the toxic venom "promised" from the film's protagonist /antagonist played by Carey Mulligan, who has unusually long arms if this image is to believed. Proportions notwithstanding, it doesn't get much better than her sprawled across hot pink dripping lips, with a wicked tagline ("Take Her Home And Take Your Chances.") and an 80's inspired title font.  Memorable and provocative, it's everything a poster for this kind of movie should be, with an image that already feels iconic.  

  

4. Color Out Of Space

Just when you thought we couldn't get a crazier Nic Cage poster for director Richard Stanley's 2019 sci-fi adaptation of Color Out of Space, Tom Hodge arrives with a one-sheet that breaks that aforementioned rule that all great one-sheets must be clean, simple and uncomplicated. If ever an exception is to be made, you'd figure it would be for a Cage movie since those adjectives would be among the last to describe the actor's career. While I still prefer last year's trippier, psychedelic design, this one that dropped at the very start of 2020 is a worthy companion that's very Mondo-like in its style, further cementing that company's influence on more mainstream releases, if this could be considered that. Despite seeing chaotically illustrated posters more than ever, this does feel a level above, and definitely in line with Hodge's other work. It's also giving off some major Stranger Things vibes, trading out that series' red color scheme for a very memorable purple.       

3. The Nest

Coming soon to NBC: A Sunday Night Special Feature Presentation of Sean Durkin's The Nest, which is sure to be the top ratings grabber of 1987. Brought to you with limited commercial interruption by   Chevrolet ("The Heartbeat of America") and Pepsi ("The Choice of a New Generation") American entrepreneur Rory O' Hara (Jude Law) and his wife Alison's (Carrie Coon) seemingly happy lives take a sinister turn after relocating their family to an English country manor in this heart-stopping thriller. Okay, it's one thing to pay homage with a retro poster design, but it's legitimately scary how P+A's design exactly resembles a poster or advertisement that would appear in TV Guide in the 1980's, the decade during which the film's events take place. 

This nails everything, from the layout to the title treatment to the washed out color, as well as the lost art of correctly lining up the actors with their names. Even the cracked mirror visual (often overused and poorly presented in other poster designs) works incredibly well, done just subtly enough to throw you off balance while conveying the film's theme of shattered identity. Who cares if Law's reflection looks more like a young Bryan Cranston's or that Coon is completely unrecognizable with longer hair? Staring at this poster out of context I'd believe it's from thirty years go, deserving of prime gallery space right next to this classic,VHS-inspired design for Frost/Nixon. Now there's a double feature.           
 

2. Stardust (U.K. and U.S. Versions)


  

Ground control to Major Tom. It may not have generated a lot of buzz, but a David Bowie biopic came out in 2020 called Stardust, starring Johnny Flynn as the young singer making his first visit to the U.S. in 1971, inspiring the creation of his Ziggy Stardust persona. That hook alone should solidify the film as a must-see, but these teaser posters, which couldn't be further apart conceptually, are equally effective at conveying the spirit of the artist as he approached his peak. As a fan of stark simplicity and logos, that U.K.teaser is the embodiment of Bowie with the instantly recognizable lightning bolt design seen on his Aladdin Sane album cover. 

In a uniquely advantageous position to use music iconography to sell their movie, it's hard to imagine anything that would have looked or felt as right. Taking a totally different route, P+A strikes again with that wild design directly above, highlighting the outer space theme to maximum effect. The bright pinkish red against the beige and black background really compliments the bold title treatment and teal credits, but the real focal point is that astronaut floating into the abyss. Perfect.

 

1. Mank

That the winning one-sheet for David Fincher's Mank doesn't even look like anything resembling a traditional movie poster is one of its greatest assets. Much like the film, it's outside the box and requires some effort to absorb all the wonderfully hidden details. Depicting what's arguably the best scene in the entire picture when a drunk Herman J. Mankiewicz crashes a costume party at Hearst's mansion and pitches his Citizen Kane idea right to the publishing kingpin's face. Obviously, the black and white sketch-style illustration is completely unique, superbly capturing the look and atmosphere of this memorable sequence while still managing to go even a few steps further. 

Not only playing with depth in the same way Kane does with some of its most famous shots, it absoutely nails the looks of horror and concern on the faces of these guests, most of whom are artistically rendered as almost exaggerated caricatures of themselves, like something out of The Twilight Zone. That's especially true for our title character, who's never appeared as maniacal or frightening in the film as he does raising his glass like a court jester on this one-sheet, showcasing the enormity of his montrous outburst. Of everyone, he looks the least like the actor playing him, baring virtually no resemblance to Gary Oldman, which had to be intentional. Larger than life and cartoonized, this may as well serve as a dark teaser for Citizen Kane: The Animated Series. And it works. 

With her unmistakably unique look, Amanda Seyfried has rarely been properly captured in illustrative form until now, clad in Marion Davies' unforgettable circus costume from that party. The title typography serves as another neat Kane homage and I like how the credits are arranged almost like a menu or drink list. That makes sense not only considering the protagonist's demons, but because the poster looks like it could be hanging in a pub or tavern in the 1940's. Just imagine this thing on the wall lit up. After waiting fifteen years for my favorite director to have a movie that's poster is the best of the year, this definitely didn't disappoint. 


Runners-Up...



 


 




 
 






  



 








 
 

 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 






 
 
 

 
 



  
 












 

 
 
 

 












   

...And The Worst

There are a lot of different poster ideas going on in this single one-sheet for Blindfire and all of them are equally ill-conceived. For all we know, this low-budget cop thriller could actually be of decent quality (Geraghty and Lenz are good actors who deserve a hit), but its 3.9 IMDB score strongly suggests otherwise, as does this visual monstrosity, a mish mash of 90's action cliches gone bad. It's hard not to despise the positioning of its generic title, the tagline and the black and white color scheme, which might go further than being a poor design choice, veering into tastlessness once you read the description of its racially-charged plot. 



These had to be included as a pair since, let's face it, they're the same exact poster with a different title and actors. And judging from the poor photoshopping, they may even be the same actors. Boss Level's title treatment utilizes a font so ugly the marketing department should be forced to write a formal letter of apology to all 80's video game packaging designers. And those pixels and explosions. What a mess. In a rare event, the U.S. version of this poster, while entirely similar and awful, does clean things up a little. Can understand Gibson doing this, but Watts? The one-sheet for Clover (with a shamrock target for the "O"--ugh) doesn't even bother crediting the actors at all. They're all probably grateful. Get ready for a lot of people pointing guns and some big explosions. Let's hope the effects look nothing like whatever that is going on behind Ron Perlman. 



Much like Nic Cage did at one point, Tom Hanks is emerging as a fixture on this list. But it's not because the movies are bad or cheaply made that we so frequently see his visage plastered on some of the worst posters of the year. It's studio laziness. "We've got Hanks. That's it. Just airbrush and photoshop the hell out of it and we're good. Oh, and make his head as big as possible." If forced to pick, version 2 is worse if only because of that horribly rendered ship, but the long and wordy tagline remains equally unreadable on both. By all means, Hanks should be the centerpiece of the movie's promotional efforts. Just not this clumsily. And it's been a noticeable problem for a while now.


Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie are all in a movie together and THIS is the poster for it. Making this approach even more inexcusable, it's actually a really enjoyable film. Outside of a potential sequel, there are no second chances for Hulu as they blew it here, its poor promotional material luckily saved by the actual movie. This poster somehow makes them all interchangeable with a generic Christmas snapshot gimmick that buries everyone's star power. It's quite an accomplishment considering each of them have enough rabid fans to fully populate a new country. They should have instead gone with the illustrated retro greeting card design from the film's opening credits. A far safer route was taken, likely rationalized by the argument that the cast sells itself.  

 

The chief offense of Netflix's teaser for Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy isn't how drab and uninteresting it makes the film look by simply showing an overhead shot of trees and a car, but the needless amount of text overwhelming it. It's almost as if the marketing department knew they didn't have anything so opted to stretch out the credits to hide the lack of any compelling image or message. Kind of like that time in school when you wrote as big as possible on really small paper so the book report would look longer.
 

You just know Fred Goldman and Denise Brown are on the phone with their lawyers right now. And they should be, based on this deplorable one-sheet that finally answers the question of what really happened to...Nick Stahl and Mena Suvari's careers. Aesthetically, the poster isn't any worse than your average VOD stinker, but boy is that tag line scraping the bottom of the barrel, even for a brazenly exploitative thriller "inspired" by true events. Of course, those events seems to involve some cross country serial killer (with the "bloody glove?!") who looks to have either framed or helped O.J., a likely co-producer of this project. The one-sheet's just trashy enough to make The Haunting of Sharon Tate seem like a touching tribute, causing more speculation about the film's legality than its advertising. Assuming there's even a line anymore, it's just been crossed.

Next.

Isn't he holding the phone backwards? Wait, is someone else holding the phone? Whose hand is that? And wasn't this supposed to be a selfie?  I hope they all don't think they're actually in the shot because that's just not possible. So confusing. From a strictly technical standpoint, let's at least hope the film fares better than this.


If anyone still feels brave enough to go for a dip in this water after seeing the look on Luke Wilson's face, let me know.