Review: Ne Zha (2019)

Ne Zha is a film that captured my curiosity after seeing its performance at the worldwide box office. Like The Wandering Earth earlier this year, Ne Zha is a work of mainstream Chinese cinema that broke big enough in its own country to land within the top ten for the year so far. I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of foreign films, but I realize most of those fall into the art film category; it’s actually quite rare for me to engage with a film actually made specifically with the mainstream audience of another culture in mind.

The story itself is based upon Chinese mythology, the tale of a young boy who should have been born of a heavenly pearl but is instead imbued with the forces of a demonic orb. His parents are devastated by the switch but have been just as desperate for a child and decide to continue raising the boy. Unfortunately, that orb had been cursed to be destroyed after three years, and the parents decide to raise Ne Zha to be ignorant of both his origin and his fate.

This feels like China’s closest equivalent to a Dreamworks film, a work with something to say about good and evil that should appeal to all ages. However, it is absolutely bogged down by a crude, childish sense of humor. These jokes are ever-present and rarely funny. A key sequence nearing the film’s climax is resolved with a fart joke. Another cheap joke finds Ne Zha terrorizing his community right after his birth, causing the most masculine-looking man in the crowd to scream like a woman. Then this happens again, and again, and again.

This is really jarring because the moral message seems to be coming from a much better place. This is the tale of two beings rising above their origins while still faltering due to the baggage they carry. The view of morality shifts in surprising ways, and there’s a lot to dig into when not being overwhelmed with crudeness.

The animation here is a strange beast. The fluidity of the motion is fine, which is good considering this is largely an action movie. However, most of the scenes have stale camera work and similarly lacking backgrounds. Much of the movie looks like characters standing in front of a flat background while the camera refuses to move. It shakes out of this on rare occasions and especially during the final battle, but this is clearly a company that has decent technology and little experience to put it to use.

Despite the flaws, I found it strangely charming. I think this is due to the characters. Ne Zha is enjoyable in his devilish mischief while carrying the extra complexity of still being driven to improve his relations with a small community that naturally scorns him. His rival, Ao Bing, is much more collected, being born of the pearl – but he is similarly born of a much-maligned race of dragons. Their conflict is striking, as they appear to be the only two that can possibly understand the other’s experience and form a friendship while being seemingly doomed to fight each other. Just as strong is Ne Zha’s relationships with his parents. His father Li Jing is always at a distance, but mother Yin is compelled to try and connect with her son, if only to bring him some pleasure in his short life.

All in all, Ne Zha can be charming at the right times and annoying at its worst. It’s a fine enough animated film and it’s good to see something like this coming from a foreign market. There’s enough promise here to have hope that this company can eventually produce something that transcends beyond a mere curiosity for audiences outside the Chinese market.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: Hustlers (2019)

Hustlers is one of those delightful surprises that pops up now and then, a film directed by a relative unknown with a plot that renders simple advertising inadequate for daring to explore a controversial subject matter with an uncommon amount of depth. This is the story of a group of strippers who begin drugging and robbing rich men after the 2008 financial crisis, a tale that unfolds with surprising grace.

The risk of a film about strippers is the overwhelming presence of the male gaze; even with Lorene Scafaria directing, there’s still the worries of outside pressures enforcing a certain focus. The film is indeed loaded with sexy scenes (as far as my rather gay eyes can tell), yet these moments are cast in an empowering light. Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona Vega as a woman in full control of her situation, suggesting she’s the one actually exploiting the men who lob money at her simply for moving a certain way. A stellar pole dance to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” sets the tone, Ramona taking center stage while being at a safe distance from the cheering crowd. Dollar bills cover the stage and, when she finally approaches the edge, more money floods her way. Ramona may be the center focus for the men, but the film is really guiding our focus to the surprising amount of cash covering the set.

This film doesn’t intend to mislead its audience about the plights of women in this business. This film is framed with an interview, the type of element many stories based on true events use to remind us that they really happened. Hustlers instead uses these moments to add effective punches. An early scene finds Constance Wu’s Dorothy calling out the interviewer for suggesting Ramona was manipulative from the beginning and therefore attempting to paint strippers in a bad light. These scenes reinforce the fact that women like Dorothy and Ramona are fully in control of their own agency. By so perfectly establishing Dorothy as a real woman, it makes her most desperate moments all the more devastating.

Hustlers is loaded with a surprising amount of heart; it simply would not work as well without the chemistry between Lopez and Wu. Their first scene together finds Ramona almost literally taking then-new girl Dorothy under her wing by engulfing her in a fur coat as they sit together on a cold roof and discuss technique. This evolves into a genuine friendship, the two becoming close enough that they almost seem like family at a certain point. This makes the inevitable collapse that the interview scenes allude to all the more heartbreaking.

A lot of this works by keeping entirely focused on women. Despite performing for men, there is not a single important male character in this cast. As such, we really get into the soul of what guides these women. A simply hilarious scene finds the women getting ready for work and talking about their total disinterest in actual sex, with Cardi B’s Diamond pulling out a new vibrator and suggesting it to be a better lover than any man. There are enough scenes with the women simply preparing for work that the film showcases how mundane this whole experience is from their perspective.

All of this is backed up by surprisingly proficient stylistic and technical precision. The editing here is key to the entire experience, time passing in montages and no second ever being wasted – I can’t think of a single moment where I felt that the movie was missing a beat. Despite the high stakes, Hustlers knows when to play to comedy, and a lot of the best jokes exist within the cuts – one scene finds the two leads testing out a new mixture for their drug followed by an immediate shot of the two sprawled out on the floor.

For a film about strippers, Hustlers has a fantastic eye for costume design. Fur coats and fine jewelry operate as signifiers that everything these women do is worth it to be able to survive comfortably in this system. I particularly like Dorothy’s outfit during the interviews, wearing a chain bracelet with a powerful rattle. This is a reminder that extravagance is sometimes justified as a form of self-love, especially for those so used to struggling day to day.

Hustlers is the rare semi-mainstream American film that actually embraces the technical elements of the medium to stellar results. Telling a story as timely as ever through the eyes of a group commonly treated as if they’re on the lowest rung of the social ladder, it transcends expectations to become a powerful take on America as it is today. By keeping so ground-level, Scafaria makes a stronger statement about the failure of the American Dream than so many others that only approach the subject from a heightened level. Equally joyous and moving, Hustlers is a film that demands to be seen.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Goldfinch (2019)

The Goldfinch is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt. After exposure to this film, one might walk away convinced that literature as an art form must have died a decade ago if this was even on the shortlist for best of 2014; having never read the book, I desperately hope some key feature got lost in translation, as even the most basic plot developments are laughable conceited.

John Crowley’s adaptation is Oscar Bait in the most obvious form. This term is commonly misused as an indicator of bad quality, but this film exemplifies the most negative associations. The hook is painfully on-the-nose, following a young boy named Theo who survives a terrorist attack but loses his mother, eventually falling into drug addiction after a tumultuous childhood. The bombing happened at a museum where he ended up stealing a painting in his haze. This is the type of film where a character will go unquestioned while arguing the value of art over human life.

Everything is all so very pointedly poignant and infuriatingly coincidental; this story spans several locations and eras, yet every major character from Theo’s childhood pops up in his adult life. The inciting incident for the adult side of the plot has his childhood friend’s older brother recognize him on the street almost a decade later; this is a character who I believe only appeared in one earlier scene for all of fifteen seconds. How does he recognize Theo?

Nothing that happens in this movie seems to be guided by Theo himself. He survives a bombing and is dragged to Las Vegas by his father before he is eventually dragged into the affairs of the other characters as an adult. He has so little agency that the only major action he does simply serves as the basis for the time skip.

Somehow not the worst of all these various threads is Theo’s engagement. He gets engaged to a woman he doesn’t love simply because he likes her family – she similarly doesn’t actually love him. How are we supposed to believe this? This leads to a moment where he catches her cheating (surprise surprise, it’s with yet another character from his childhood), but that carries no weight since we have barely spent any time at all with these characters as a ‘couple.’ Theo is so focused on an actual love interest that it exposes this entire sequence as an obvious red herring, existing purely to show how supposedly harried his life has become.

And, again, it gets worse from there.

This is a film loaded with capital-A Acting. Nicole Kidman is painful to watch here, her face constantly contorted with deep thought and concern, always speaking in a near-whisper. Jeffrey Wright carries a similar softness, as if Theo would be blown away by a normal volume. Really aiming to outclass these performances, Finn Wolfhard hams it up with a bizarre Russian accent – this at least offers something enjoyable, if not for the intended reason. Ansel Elgort is so plain that he barely registers, though that admittedly fits his function as the adult Theo.

What really highlights the pure lack of substance to any of The Goldfinch‘s design is the costumes and sets. Take almost any still frame from the first thirty minutes and it’s nearly impossible to tell in what era this story takes place. Nothing about the way people dress suggests the modern day. It’s as if Crowley just desperately wanted to make another period piece after Brooklyn and didn’t care that the story he was adapting took place in an entirely separate era. Otherwise, it’s a completely misguided attempt at making something timeless that instead becomes shapeless, a representation of the filmmaker’s complete misunderstanding of the era they are literally living in. The strange truth is that this is a film that looks pretty good but the images are in such stark contrast to the narrative that it elicits little beyond confusion.

The Goldfinch is a total mess, an obvious attempt to win awards while putting in little effort to actually say anything meaningful. Complaining of style over substance is a tired argument, as it’s usually used to deride effective genre pieces for having a minimal plot. This, on the other hand, is an actual example of a work that favors style at the expense of its substance; nothing in the aesthetics matches the narrative thrust. This borders on being a sappy after-school special about traumatized youth that has as many pulpy turns as a soap opera – coating that with expensive costumes does nothing but suggest the filmmakers don’t understand the story they are trying to tell.

1.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: It Chapter Two (2019)

The first of these It films, which really ought to have been titled Chapter One from the get-go, was one of the most surprisingly fun horror movies in recent years due to its mixture of standard horror thrills with an engaging coming-of-age adventure. Pennywise and his cavalcade of monstrosities are never all that scary, but I also don’t believe that to be the franchise’s biggest appeal. In many ways, it is a fantastic journey split between two distinct eras – it just happens that this particular quest has dropped the usual hobbits and dragons for modern people and an illusory killer clown. In other words, It works best as a dark fantasy with a horror coating.

The original novel is a massive tome and, when the first half came out, it seemed logical to divide the work between the past and the present. That ultimately worked for the first film – if they wanted to, that story could have easily stood alone. However, this split has exposed certain structural issues with the adult half.

The concept of memory is at the heart of this story, and it is now absent in the first half and overbearing in the second. This story runs on parallels, and what can be striking when you immediately compare the past and present is repetitive when you get all of one and then the other. Chapter Two unfortunately still tries to directly parallel the two eras, and it ends up bloated with flashback sequences that really add little besides some fun set pieces. What results is a film more formulaic than a subpar crime show, the second act becoming a tiring cycle of adults returning for a childhood object before flashing back to a scene in the same general location with the monster and then back to the present with a similar encounter. There’s no real tension to these flashbacks, as we have already seen the conclusion of that side of the story. They attempt to justify this because the characters are only now regaining these memories, but it’s simple retreads for the observer. With so many characters, the experience turns surprisingly dull.

Beyond feeling largely unnecessary, the flashbacks have a fair share of technical flaws that don’t seem present in any other part of the film. The audio mixing is off, with Jack Dylan Grazer’s lines feeling glaringly dubbed over. Even worse, they attempted to digitally de-age these young actors and the result is as uncanny as any of the monster’s forms.

These flaws feel especially odd considering the rest of the movie is rather well-polished. This is horror as a rare high budget spectacle, and most of these individual sequences work surprisingly well in a vacuum. The filmmakers clearly had fun cobbling together a hundred creepy designs and situations, from the familiar leper to a grotesque old lady. None of these are particularly scary but they’re certainly fun to look at in a macabre way. The film additionally has some stellar transitions, from the night sky transforming into the underside of a puzzle and a fantastic matching shot of Eddie’s two actors.

The most surprisingly strong element is the acting; the cast brings depth to what was at risk of being standard popcorn horror fare. Bill Hader and James Ransone especially have great chemistry as Richie and Eddie, both adding a certain playfulness that makes the experience more lively than most other horror I have sat through this year. Their range allows key tonal shifts and spot-on delivery, ensuring this rather silly film never takes itself too seriously.

Though it’s easy to lose him beneath all the clown makeup, Bill Skarsgard is still the center attraction. Between his startling physical presence and command over his voice, he truly brings the clown to life. His plain-faced confrontation with Bev is a perfect showcase of his raw talent, but he really steals the scene as he lures a young girl beneath the stands at a sports game. Pennywise is a classic villain and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job.

Even with these strong features, there are some moments that feel entirely misplaced. One particular horror scene suddenly drops “Angel of the Morning” during what was otherwise one of the better sequences and I honestly have no idea what the filmmakers were going for. This movie clearly toes the line between traditional horror and horror-comedy, but this leans into the entirely random. Another sequence has a character shout “Here’s Johnny” and, again, it’s so jarring it immediately took me out of the moment. Brechtian technique can be effective but these were the wrong moments to break the fourth wall.

The real elephant in the room is that the novel really doesn’t seem to be the best source material for a film, even one that runs well over five hours altogether. The people involved really seem to be doing the best they can with what they have. This is Stephen King at some of his most self-indulgent, twisting a tale of cosmic powers all situated among a group of friends in a small town. There is a monster that feeds on fear that seems happy to kill most of its prey within minutes yet repeatedly lets the central characters escape for no adequately explained reason. What is the monster’s goal here, exactly? A bit of research suggests there are cosmic elements in the source that the filmmakers must have been too embarrassed to include, but removing this instead makes the monster seem entirely incompetent as a villain. I cannot buy him as a threat when he passes up so many opportunities to finish off the Losers.

It Chapter Two is seriously flawed, yet that comes down almost entirely to a questionable structure and some odd edits. Otherwise, it’s a far more fun ride than most standard horror movies and, even at nearly three hours with a repetitive rhythm, I somehow never felt like it was too long. I wouldn’t be surprised if a re-edit mashing the two films together actually turns out better than either half on their own; there is a lot here that really works.

3 Stars Out of 5

Review: 47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)

I feel like little should need to be said about this movie after mentioning that the first real ‘scare’ of the films involve an atrocious CGI fish lashing out and literally screaming at a teenage girl. Unfortunately, it would be misleading to stop there, for such an absurd moment suggests this to be the type of film that is just so bad that it has to be enjoyable. Make no mistake – this absolute train wreck of a movie is so poorly shot that several sequences are nearly impossible to discern. This is a visual disaster backed by atrocious writing.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged follows teenage Sasha, the class loser that everyone hates. We know this because the film opens with her being thrown into a pool and it’s clear her stepsister is embarrassed by her presence. Why she’s so mistreated is never elaborated upon and this trait is all but forgotten as the actual narrative begins. More than likely, it’s a cheap attempt at forcing our sympathy for a character otherwise entirely devoid of a personality.

After fifteen minutes of setup loaded with absolutely bizarre shots of the bikini-clad protagonists, we finally get into the meat of the film as the girls dive into the underwater ruin. This is where the film pulls out its most mesmerizing trick by making its diverse cast entirely indistinguishable. It’s a rare moment when the camera is steady enough and the lighting actually present to get a handle on which character you’re actually looking at. Their faces obscured by clunky masks, the women are all but reduced to their bodies.

So many of the deaths in this movie are set up more like comedy bits, carrying nothing resembling tension. These moments seem to be aiming for the most rudimentary sort of jump scare, but the action passes so quickly that I hadn’t yet processed any attempt at horror by the time it was gone. When we actually do get the characters actively engaging with the sharks, the animals just seem to inexplicably wander away at the last second. That screaming fish was somehow the one thing to catch me off guard, and that’s only thanks to the idea being so ridiculous I would have never expected it to happen.

There are other moments that I’m sure were supposed to be scary as the film cuts between a shark in pursuit and a girl fleeing, but the water is so murky and the camera so unstable that most of these scenes are visually incomprehensible. The camera tends to linger way too close to the subject that it ends up obscuring the surrounding action.

Tons of distracting plot developments pop up throughout the film. The four girls are exploring this ruin because Sasha’s father is researching it, and they naturally run into him and his two assistants because the film needs a higher body count. They have been working down here for a bit now yet the water appears to be absolutely infested with sharks – naturally, they seem totally unaware of this presence until the girls arrive and then everything falls apart immediately.

The relationships between any of the characters are as murky as the cinematography. Sasha just immediately seems to become one with the group despite the film’s insistence that she’s some sort of outcast even with her stepsister. There’s a fantastic glance between her and the bully near the end that is absolutely devoid of any meaning – this bully wasn’t one of the girls to journey into the ruin, she has absolutely no reason to have changed her opinion on Sasha. What is the point of this shot?

47 Meters Down: Uncaged is the type of low effort work that feels like it would fit perfectly on a specialty cable channel – how it was released theatrically or cost $12 million to make is beyond me. Outside the bare-bone narrative that could be acceptable under the right circumstances, it’s simply an unpleasant film to observe. The PG-13 rating is written into the film’s DNA, each of these horrid stylistic choices clearly existing solely to mask the violence and clouding the entire film as a result. With images as indistinguishable as the characters, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged takes a whole lot of time to do absolutely nothing interesting.

1 Star Out of 5

Review: The Angry Bird Movie 2 (2019)

A movie like The Angry Birds Movie 2 is all but doomed from the start, being based on a property that really offers nothing in terms of narrative or aesthetic potential while having enough familiar imagery that the film can’t step too far away to dive into unexpected places. This is a work required to hit certain beats to be familiar as an adaptation while none of these beats actually add up to anything meaningful.

Red and friends must unite with their rival pigs to rescue both of their islands from a psycho bird that wants to force both into fleeing. Wacky hijinks ensue. This is the type of children’s film that rarely inspires to anything beyond a few laughs.

Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks have always been easy to write off as a second-rate animation studio, creating a set of films happy to settle into that inoffensively mediocre zone while also gifting us the abominable Emoji Movie. Late last year, they shattered everyone’s expectations by releasing one of the best movies this decade with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – how were they able to turn so quickly?

Even The Angry Birds Movie 2 shows a certain level of craft that seems beyond its premise. The fluidity of the animation and editing is at times surprising; despite the limiting factors of the source material, the people involved with the movie were clearly working hard to make the best of it. This is a work with pretty spot-on comedic timing (when it’s not grinding to a dead halt to really drive home that it just made a joke) – the problem is that many of the jokes land flat anyway.

This is a movie in constant conflict between presentation and substance. The stellar animation is brought down by the overly basic visual design while jokes jump between truly clever visual gags and an endless cycle of pig butts. There is a plot here, but the series feels like a series of disparate vignettes.

The most emblematic moments of this film come with an almost entirely disconnected b-plot as three baby birds get caught up in misadventure as they try to rescue three eggs. Several of these scenes are legitimately hilarious, especially one that involves a snake, but they also have no functional narrative purpose. Every scene in this movie feels so randomly constructed.

As such, the characters don’t really have much room to grow. Central figure Red is desperate for adoration and crushed when people pay him little mind after the truce between bird and pig. Thus, he is guided to prove himself by saving the island again. A new love interest is brought in, but that amounts to little of value besides adding a rare female face to this male heavy cast. The other characters mostly exist to set up bits than to be real characters.

The Angry Birds Movie 2 is a surprisingly competent film saddled with the most subpar source material. With what they were handed, the studio did a fantastic job – the question is why this studio keeps failing to invest in better stories to match their animation. So few animated movies get released every year and it’s a shame that such a company appears so eager to accept whatever generic screenplay comes their way. There’s promise here, but nothing can be done with it when they’re asked to do so little.

2.5 Stars Out of 5