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Review: The Mustang (2019)

The debut feature film of director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, The Mustang is the tale of a violent prisoner named Roman (played by Matthis Schoenaearts) who begins working in a horse training program soon after his release from solitary. He ends up forging a bond with a mustang that refuses to be tamed and soon finds himself assigned as its main trainer.

This film carries a certain obvious symbolic quality; two beings confined by a system they will never fit into. Roman recognizes Marcus’s fear and frustrations, the horse constantly kicking the walls of his cage and approaching any presence with hostility. Part of this feels too on-the-nose, though it can also be effective in its simplicity.

I would categorize this in the same way as a film like Fighting With My Family – it’s a familiar sort of story presented in a technically streamlined manner. There works let everything take a backseat to the story and performances. The Mustang feels constrained by its lack of cinematic vision, letting the success of scenes fall largely on the shoulders of Schoenaearts.

This film tries to tackle elements of the contemporary western and prison drama genres, and it doesn’t quite succeed at juggling the two. Compare this to McQueen’s Hunger, another debut film that, while carrying greater stakes, is a similarly small production. McQueen would find a resonant image and linger on it – de Clermont-Tonnerre seems to simply present the necessities and glide along. The most important difference is how McQueen reinforces his actors; that seventeen minute scene highlights Fassbender’s capabilities as an actor. Here, Schoenaearts’ performance is merely captured.

The Mustang rarely seems to consider the power of the camera – there are beautiful shots for sure, but they’re in the most obvious places. We open on a scene of wild horses, and the view is stunning as they laze about and then run in a panic as a helicopter herds them into a fenced pasture. There is this great shot of Roman riding Marcus, the camera at an almost head-on, steady angle. That moment really underlines Roman’s sense of cautious wonder, and it’s a shame so many other scenes have such rudimentary presentation.

Any time we cut back to the prison drama, a lot of the artistry seems to fade. In the first scene, Roman remarks that he doesn’t mix well with people, and the same seems true of the narrative. The tension of these segments don’t add much – there’s an awful cellmate, an estranged daughter, racial tension. Everything here is so familiar. I guess a man and his horse is also a bit familiar, which really proves the idea that how you tell a story is more important than what story you happen to be telling. The Mustang is a much better contemporary western than it is a prison drama.

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh on this film – when a film narrowly misses out on greatness, it’s easy to fixate on what went wrong. This movie is still loaded with stellar sequences – I particularly liked an early scene where Roman gives up on his attempts of training Marcus as the horse simply turns his back. Roman sits down, and the horse casually walks over and rubs his face against the man. It’s this gentle, somewhat funny moment, and I wish the film fell more into these rather quiet observations.

Honestly, the best part here is the chemistry between Roman and his horse. If a film is going to fall back entirely on a single actor, they did a good job picking the right man. This is the type of film I could imagine picking up a few stray Best Actor nominations and absolutely nothing else. While I wish de Clermont-Tonnerre did more to reinforce his performance, Schoenaearts really captures a man who relies on silence, not because he has nothing to say but because social engagement risks frustration that leads to violence – this is a man who lives in terror of his own reactions. His quiet growth as he bonds with this horse really shines through.

There is a lot about The Mustang I find worthy of praise – I just wish certain elements didn’t fall so hard into the familiar. Thankfully, it ties everything up in an unpredictable manner, though it again fumbles with a very obvious closing shot. Either way, it’s strong enough to suggest Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre could become a great director with a bit more consideration for the craft.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Missing Link (2019)

Missing Link is the fifth film out of Studio Laika, that relatively new stop motion company that broke through with 2009’s Coraline. The release of Missing Link seemed to be approached with a certain amount of hesitation, as if the studio was losing its edge after a string of masterpieces – I suspect many have simply forgotten about The Boxtrolls at this point.

What I gather from this hesitation is more a concern over a change in style – their two great works, Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, carry an effectively heavy edge. They belong to a dark group of animation we haven’t seen that often out of American studios; Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks tend to play it safe with the bright and cheery, and any studio that did stray into bleaker subject matters seemed to have died off decades ago. To see Laika put out a film that looks more akin to those major studio productions suggests we could be losing a unique voice.

In the end, however, Missing Link feels distinctly within their style. It may shed the surface darkness, but that’s because it’s simply replacing the gothic horror or spirit-based quest with a more classically European style of adventure – the stakes are as high as the others, the setting has simply changed.

Missing Link generally handles its themes well – Sir Lionel Frost hopelessly seeks the approval of a group of powerful men by attempting to find proof of mythical creatures. This leads him to meet Mr. Link, a Sasquatch that wants to seek out others like him. Lionel agrees to the trip largely for his own image; these two singularly unique individuals are both on a desperate quest for validation.

While the style is fine, what Missing Link really lacks is a proper screenplay. There’s nothing that particularly stood out as wrong, but it leaves little impact. The jokes are fun in their moment but quickly pass. In reflection, I don’t feel like Coraline or Kubo had that strong of writing either, but their unique style granted an extra sense of gravitas to every sequence. Missing Link holds back on the fantastical to its detriment, as it reveals itself to be a bit too straightforward.

Despite this lightness, the individual moments do shine through. This film is consistently fun from the opening at Loch Ness to the climactic moments in the Himalayas. The characters are all charming, suited with a unique sense of motion and visual communication. Certain moments are surprisingly tense – the entire closing sequence had me on the edge of my seat, while also being pointedly hilarious. Missing Link digs its claws into colonialism and elitism throughout, and it really builds into a fantastic ending. There’s something to be said about a movie that manages to keep building interest even within a simple structure.

As expected with Laika, Missing Link is a wonderful film to look at. While its style isn’t their best, the smoothness of the animation is breathtaking. Where the character design is a bit basic, the set design is wonderful – each sequence has a unique location, which really helps build the sense of this being an epic adventure despite its short running time.

Missing Link offers little beyond its pleasantness, but it does so without hitting any notable sour notes. While I’d love to have another Kubo, I’m still happy with what we got. I walked out happy with the experience, fleeting as it will likely be.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Hellboy (2019)

Hellboy starts with a sequence of Arthurian legend, read out by a man who seems in a rush to be anywhere else. We open on a gross-out shot of an eye being plucked out, and the narrator quickly descends into cursing as he speaks. None of this is funny, nor particularly horrific – this is exactly what a thirteen-year-old edgelord would craft if tasked with the lofty goal of trying to impress the goth kids two years his senior.

Can we start with the sound editing? Despite sitting through two hours of bloated narrative, that’s somehow the element that left the biggest impact. Sound editing is a key element that I rarely notice, as most films try to be as seamless as possible in that regard. When discussing my favorite bad movies, I usually lean toward Birdemic as the top of the bottom, usually with the explanation that I never fully understood the difference between sound editing and mixing until witnessing that monstrosity butcher both – so Hellboy is in fine company. Here, it’s so obvious that lines were simply dubbed in – there are these shots from a distance with the characters having their backs to the camera as they deal out pointless quips, as if the creators were terrified at the idea of a brief quiet. These added lines are not mixed in well, never accounting for the distance between the camera and the speaker – they always seem right on top of us, even if the camera is quickly zooming away from them.

Then there’s the choice of what scenes made it into the final cut – this is a movie loaded with violent imagery, yet it’s all so disconnected. We are buffeted with frankly disgusting shots of innocent people being massacred, and none of it has any reason to be in the film whatsoever. These moments all take place far from the central narrative, suggesting they are pure fodder added in so marketers could attempt to sell this as 2019’s Deadpool equivalent. Between the dubbing and these excess moments, it feels like much of this movie was generated in post-production.

When it’s not being sidetracked with attempts at recreating laughable 80s metal album covers, it’s instead sidetracked by flashbacks. I can understand setting up the film by giving Nimue’s origin, but Hellboy’s familiar backstory is unnecessary – dedicating a scene to Nimue’s lead henchman, even if it’s in the source, is an exercise in tedium. Even when we don’t cut to a separate scene, a lot of time is wasted on characters simply discussing their past.

One would hope that all this set-up would go somewhere, yet the central story is a mess – not that it’s hard to understand, but it simply seems to be dealing in several subplots that serve little purpose. The final production comes off as a series of set pieces, a cavalcade of fan service without proper context – Lobster Johnson is inserted into Hellboy’s origin story (which admittedly makes the scene a bit cooler), while the entire Baba Yaga sequence comes off as a non-sequitur. It’s as if someone challenged the team behind this film to fit in as many stray narrative elements as possible.

While Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 take on Hellboy might have been a fair bit lighter than its source material, this reboot completely misses the point. The comic is in no way an endless, juvenile gore fest. They are actually rather deliberately paced, taking the time to set the various mythical elements into motion. The 90s were a dark era for comics, with Hellboy as a bright spot that fit in with the brooding surface style while actually tackling darker themes. Just going back and flipping through a collection, I’m immediately struck by the use of shadows, which the film makes no attempt at capturing. Paging through The Wild Hunt, which serves as a backbone for this film’s narrative, there’s really not much violence at all – the gross-out battle with the giants in the film is quickly cut away from in the comics, then returned to as a gag and again as a horrified reflection.

In the comics, violence has an impact. Contrast this with the scenes of carnage in the film – it’s a celebration of gore. We’re not supposed to be taken aback by the horrors of the end of the world – no, Marshall appears to simply be wallowing in how ‘dark’ he’s being. We’re expected to enjoy the sight of random people being impaled – it was a selling point in the marketing. These sequences exist purely for our apparent pleasure, as it certainly isn’t there to remind Hellboy of the stakes. After all, he’s never there to directly witness it.

This is Hellboy as if it were a lesser creation of Rob Liefeld. Which, yes, Rob Liefeld’s most famous invention has been a repeated box office smash, but that seems largely despite his influence. Deadpool balances the violence with fourth-wall-breaking wit – Hellboy balances it with the title character breaking his phone multiple times. Get it? Because his hand is very large?

Hellboy is a failure on all fronts. It lacks the atmosphere that defined Mignola’s art, while similarly failing at the sense of fun del Toro managed in his take. If it’s trying to fill the niche created by Deadpool, it doesn’t actually understand that niche. It might not quite reach the disastrous level of The Last Airbender, but it certainly hurts just as much to see a good franchise so mishandled.

1 Star Out of 5

Review: Shazam! (2019)

The problem with most DCEU films is they’re all rather joyless; they don’t have to be borderline comedies like the Marvel films, but they have embraced this bleak outlook that is rather repulsive even from a distance. Wonder Woman and Aquaman toned that down quite a bit, but Shazam! feels like a total reversal, a concept goofy enough that it demands a much lighter approach.

Walking out of the theater, I realized Shazam! was the first live action superhero film in years that really left me with a sense of joyous wonder. Though its origin story structure has obviously been done into the ground by this point, it left me with a nostalgia for an older kind of superhero flick.

This feeling in large part lies in the central concept – a desperate wizard gives eternal runaway Billy Batson the power to transform into a man loaded with magical powers. The film proceeds to run almost entirely on Billy’s amusement with his own abilities. There’s a certain potency to an origin story from the perspective of someone young enough to appreciate the pure fun of suddenly having power – where most adult characters seem immediately burdened with a sense of responsibility, Shazam is a rare character allowed to initially run wild.

Being a film focused on a teenager moving into a group home with five other kids, Shazam! is given the burden of being flooded with child actors – thankfully, most put in pretty good performances. Among the younger actors, Jack Dylan Grazer steals the show as Billy’s disabled foster brother, Freddy. He carries this obnoxious and opinionated edge, which plays well against Zachary Levi’s jovial bravado as the adult Shazam.

Shazam! is at its best when it’s not quite being a superhero film – my interest waxed and waned depending on the presence of the villain, Dr. Sivana. Turns out, most superheroes who fly around and punch things kind of look the same in action. There’s nothing wrong with the character of the villain – in fact, I enjoyed his twisted origin story and his lifelong search that opens the movie – but the simple fact is that the film suddenly turns dire and loses the energy that sets it apart whenever he’s on screen. His presence is necessary due to the genre, I just wish they could have trimmed the action sequences down.

The real highlights are those moments of discovery – Billy starts off having no knowledge of what he’s really able to pull off, and he ends up stumbling into everything. The boys make great use of the most obvious new power – Shazam’s adult appearance allows them to get away with various hijinks, from trying booze for the first time to checking out a strip club. This is a childhood wish fulfillment fantasy wrapped in a cape – a Big reference is as on-the-nose as it is hilarious.

Between the comedy and action is some surprisingly effective room for drama. Shazam! plays well into the concept of family – Billy begins the film in constant search for his mother, who very obviously abandoned him as a child. He immediately rejects his new foster family and returns to his search, only to find a mutual understanding between him and this new family. The phrase “I get it” is repeated throughout – they know what it’s like to be searching for a family. This all builds up to a wonderfully poignant moment where Billy learns what happened with his mother – I can think of few superhero movie scenes as effectively gut-punching as this one. Where it might fumble with action, Shazam! really plays into its themes well.

My only real concern with this theme of found families is how little time certain members are given. Billy and Freddy get plenty of time as the leads, Darla and Mary have a few key scenes, but Eugene and Pedro are just kind of there. They are given a few minor things to do, but they almost seem inessential, which makes it a bit harder to buy Billy’s investment into his new family as a whole unit – he simply hasn’t interacted enough with multiple members. The theme still works, but the connections between certain characters feels glossed over.

Within the span of a month, both Marvel and DC released movies based on characters originally known as Captain Marvel – what’s shocking here is that DC won out this time. Both films feel a bit too familiar, but where Captain Marvel comes off as a strict adherent to the MCU formula and little more, Shazam! manages to gather the best elements of the superhero origin story. Nothing here is particularly new or innovative, but Billy’s relative youth allows certain classic tropes to be amped up in fresh ways.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Pet Sematary (2019)

The horror genre has been on a roll recently, and a lot of these great works, from The Babadook to Hereditary, reached their emotional heights by focusing on families struggling with the grieving process. Stephen King’s classic story seems a perfect fit, following a man who outright refuses to cope once he learns of a magical patch of nearby land that brings the dead back to life.

Yet there’s not as much consideration here as there is in these other works – the idea of a child returning to life but slightly off is obviously horrendous, but Pet Sematary does little with this concept. We spend too much time getting to that central element, and the payoff feels so slight in comparison.

This modern Pet Sematary suffers from an atmospheric clash. The finale is clearly from a pulpier work, becoming a tale of violent demonic possession. Honestly, the film feels like it’s missing an entire act – it’s as if the first act swallowed up the second. We really don’t linger much on the trauma of losing a loved one or even seeing that loved one return but slightly off – the possessed child is so immediately and obviously a demonic entity out for blood.

There’s nothing wrong with pulp – the problem is how painfully serious this movie is up until that point. Pet Sematary makes a sudden jump from modern arthouse horror to a more straightforward shock-fest of the past. It spends an hour building up a certain atmosphere and then tosses it aside.

The big problem here is expectation – even as someone who has never encountered this story previously, I knew pretty much every detail from the trailers. So much focus was put on the child coming back from the dead, but different – as this sequence doesn’t occur until the back half of the story, it really detracts from anything that happens before.

The seemingly missing second act should have occurred between this death and the revival. If the film truly wanted to explore the concept of grieving, it should have spent more time with Louis as he makes his decision. Ultimately, it doesn’t even feel like a decision – the seemingly unconsidered inevitability of his actions are too mechanical to carry real emotional weight.

Uneven pacing plagues this film. Looking briefly through major changes from the novel, it appears Jud originally spends more time attempting to dissuade Louis from his decision. Here, everything’s 0 to 100. If the filmmakers really wanted to skip ahead to the demonic child, they could have at least lingered a bit on her uncanny presence before switching into her murderous mode, but it instead stumbles into something violent and atmospherically inconsistent.

The visual presentation is similarly inconsistent. An early scene finds Louis failing to save a badly-mangled student. The details here are gruesome, brains poking out through his charred face. Yet the terrible accident at the heart of this film leave a rather undamaged corpse – this was likely due to the age of the victim, but in a post-Hereditary world, it’s jarringly clean. If you’re not going to show the gruesome aftermath of such a crash, then simply don’t show it at all. Considering the nature of the accident, the film could have both avoided grisly details and implied something worse by suggesting the body couldn’t immediately be found. They could have even just kept to the reactions of the traumatized parents – anything other than showing an almost perfectly preserved corpse.

Other visual elements are also lacking. The burial ground has this air of artifice that clashes with the standard realism of the setting. The whole presentation seems to be hiding the cheapness of the set. Even if the finale didn’t feel so tonally inconsistent, it would have still faltered due to some poor visual effects.

I think the most disappointing thing here is how well it manages its themes before the tonal shift. The mother’s inability to confront death, even one as small as a cat’s, sets off a chain reaction. It then becomes a piece about a man committing evil acts for both the sake of the people he loves and his own inability to cope. Yet that personal failure doesn’t seem to play much into the ending – which, again, is a change from the novel. His inability to move on seems to play into the very final moment of the book, yet that’s completely dropped here for something without much meaning at all.

Pet Sematary is completely indecisive about what it wants to be. It puts on the appearance of a modern domestic horror but then drops the elements from the source material that would have aided in that goal. A film with such themes shouldn’t have left me feeling so indifferent.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Beach Bum (2019)

The Beach Bum is the latest film by Harmony Korine, perhaps the most detestable director working today. His works are largely exploitative and nihilistic, gratuitous in their depictions of women and following characters who seem to have no purpose in life.

This is my third encounter with Korine after Gummo and Spring Breakers – and, well, both of those grew on me after I initially had a strongly negative reaction. As sleazy as his works are, Korine has this odd ability to make them linger.

These three works all tackle nihilism but in different ways. In Gummo, he gives us a view into the world of the desperately poor, an observation of people who are given no sign that life can be anything more. Spring Breakers utilizes nihilism as a tool for violence, following a group of college girls who leave a wake of bodies while on vacation. If those two represent nihilism as a destructive force, The Beach Bum loops it back around to its most positive side – if life has no purpose, why not have fun with it?

The Beach Bum isn’t that naive – there’s an underlying sense of dread and giving up, people drifting without a focus. This film feels similarly unfocused, but in a way that suits the mood. This is a slice of life through the eyes of people who can get away with anything due to their undeserved riches.

What makes Korine such a compelling figure is how talented he is – he takes these detestable tales and gives them a truly impressive presentation. He’s like if John Waters had the visual mastery of Terrence Malick. His films carry this hypnagogic style, this feeling of drifting through the imagery.

So, where it’s easy to pass off Korine as merely exploitative, I think there’s more to what he’s doing. His film feels like a prime example of post-modernism – explicitly in its mixing of heightened visual language with low themes. Films about wanton debauchery don’t deserve to be shot so compellingly – yet Korine has proven time and time again that he can do so with ease.

The Beach Bum feels like the most accessible of his works, giving Matthew McConaughey a perfect role as he drifts between several figures – it’s like if Linklater’s Waking Life toured various forms of self-destruction in place of philosophy. Despite the context of what’s on screen, a lot of this film is strangely beautiful. Bright colors cover the screen, the thoughts of characters linger as the scene cuts to new shots. Some conversations occur over several cuts, the characters shifting places but their dialogue continuing as if no time has passed – it’s almost hypnotic, the way in which it plays with time.

The Beach Bum is excessively obtuse – your opinion of this film is going to be largely dependent on your tolerance for a narrative that goes nowhere, making statements that don’t add up to much. But if you’re less concerned with narrative cohesion and more drawn to the mixing of fine cinematography with vile excess, as I apparently must be, The Beach Bum is another good time. Where the overall picture might not add up to much, each individual sequence is strangely compelling – whether it be Zac Efron’s take as a completely misguided Christian youth while rocking panini-chops or Martin Lawrence as a woefully incompetent dolphin tour guide, there are several moments that are hard to forget.

God – when did I become such a big fan of Harmony Korine?

4 Stars Out of 5

Review: Dumbo (2019)

Dumbo is one of several Disney remakes releasing this year, and the one that appeared to hold the most promise – instead of being an apparent shot by shot remake, this film attempts to tell its own version of the story. So, what happens when you expand the tightly-focused, 64 minute original to nearly two hours by shifting focus to a bunch of human characters?

I really hate to open this review by attacking a child actor, but if you’re going to put a young person in a lead role, you really should make sure they can act. Nico Parker’s performance is distracting throughout – it feels as if they were attempting for this sort of stoic, wise-beyond-her-years child, and the result is this really boring version of Violet Baudelaire. This film is loaded with shots of her responding to big moments with completely dull surprise.

Her lacking gaze is far from the only dull element of this film – this entire work felt like a slog. Much of the film’s plot focuses on an attempt to reunite Dumbo with his mother, and the human characters all feel so secondary to this – yet Dumbo himself feels reduced to a non-character. While Dumbo didn’t speak in the original, having him surrounded by animals made him feel like an equal. That film was the story of a young animal struggling to find purpose in a cruel world.

This remake quickly leaps through the flying wonder stage – with Dumbo’s magnificence being established early, there’s really not much for him to do on a personal level. Instead, the film shifts into this awkward take on corporate takeovers, coming from a company guilty of doing so on a large scale. The corporate circus at the end seems to be a direct riff on Disneyland, but it’s such a hollow sentiment coming out of a film that exists due to a corporation exploiting one of the properties that got it established.

Disney has no apparent interest in reestablishing these classic takes for a modern audience. Everything about this production suggests it was rushed. Much like Mary Poppins Returns, it falls so quickly into a cycle of the most basic Hollywood-style framing and editing, the camera desperately chasing the action. The original Dumbo contains one of Disney’s most iconic and experimental sequences – that film deserves better homage than this shallow take.

This is yet another prime example of what Tim Burton lacks as a director. He has always been a top director when it comes to the plastics of his film – the set design, the costumes, they’re all fine here. But he is rarely able to capture his daring designs with worthy technique, and his narratives largely tend to be shallow. He understands the visual aspect of the image but not how to capture it, to add meaning to it.

Again, Disney has pushed out a film that feels less like an artistic work and more like a product. The original has always been the odd one out among Disney’s first five animated features, and it’s one that deserves a better legacy – but this remake shifts the focus to an unnecessary lens and adds a few side stories to draw the plot out longer. I can understand the compulsion to go beyond the original’s 64 minutes, as a film of that length is practically unheard of these days, but stretching it to two hours is a simply violent act against the audience.

Tim Burton’s Dumbo is an unfocused mess of a film, one that loses all traces of charm from the original to tell an entirely different story it really has no right to be telling. An adaptation of a visually inventive film from a director that used to be accused of similar creativity, this work is disarmingly bland.

So, I will instead implore you to revisit the original. It comes from an era when Disney could take risks, back when animated film was still being established as a form. Some of it might seem familiar now, but it still feels like a fresher tale than this newly minted adaptation.

2 Out of 5 Stars