I’m joined again by my IFJA colleauge Ben as we wrap our brains around the long strange trip that is Beau Is Afraid, the latest from Ari Aster playing in theaters now. Then we discuss other things we’ve been watching, including 20th Indy Film Fest selection In A Good Way (now available to rent here) and 30 Rock (all 7 seasons streamable on Peacock). Find us on Facebook, Twitter and Letterboxd.
With only three features under his belt, writer/director Ari Aster has already made quite a name for himself with back-to-back nervy horror hits Hereditary and Midsommar. He returns after a four-year break with Beau Is Afraid, a three-hour Oedipal odyssey that is certainly anxious enough to argue that it incorporates elements of horror but mainly plays like a pitch-dark comedy. Massively expanding on his eleven-minute short Beau made twelve years prior, Aster seems to throw everything he has into his latest venture but in its attempt to exorcise personal demons, the film loses the plot along the way. There are scenes of demented comedy and well-directed chaos that almost make the journey worthwhile but the experience in retrospect is more exhausting than awe-inspiring.
As can be expected at this point, Joaquin Phoenix gives another fully committed and involving performance as Beau, a middle-aged man struggling with neuroses and arrested development. On the anniversary of his father’s death, he plans to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone) but several obstacles near his threatening apartment dwellings preclude him from making the flight. As he crosses the street to a convenience store, he is struck by a food truck driven by Grace (Amy Ryan) and her husband Roger (Nathan Lane). Feeling guilty about the accident, the couple take Beau into their care until he heals enough to make the trip but their initial benevolence is not as altruistic and nurturing as it seems to be. After a misunderstanding with their daughter Toni (Kylie Rogers), Beau flees to the woods nearby and his long strange trip only gets weirder from there.
The structure of Beau Is Afraid isn’t exactly a traditional three-act structure but the movie can be thought of in three distinct sections that roughly correspond with about an hour of runtime each. There are portions from each of these chapters that work and could be rearranged to make a more cohesive story but all three also have too much extraneous material that should’ve never made it to final cut. That first hour is both the most structurally approachable and comedically accessible, setting up Beau’s paranoid perspective on his urban environment with crime-addled surroundings so hyperbolic that we don’t have a choice but to laugh. As someone who gets nervous by the overactive nature of big cities, I got a kick out of Aster pushing the heightened reality of street-level activity to ridiculous proportions.
If the first act is mother! meets Misery, then the ensuing act set in a forest is Aster’s attempt at an esoteric and verbose Charlie Kaufman affair, specifically Synecdoche, New York. It’s here that cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski really gets to shine, balancing the ornate set design and inventive effects work with aplomb and splendor. But Aster completely loses his way from a storytelling perspective in this section, weaving a lengthy post-modern yarn that doesn’t lend nearly enough significance to the central plot. While the wheel-spinning is often pretty to look at, it stops any narrative momentum that the first section built up dead in its tracks. There’s an explosive end to this act that carries over the comical levels of violence from the movie’s first hour and at least tries to get things moving forward once more.
By the time the third act rolls around, it becomes more obvious what Aster is attempting to say and accomplish with Beau Is Afraid but it takes a long while to get to that final punchline at the finish line. Like the previous two sections, there are individual segments that work terrifically here; if nothing else, you’ll never listen to a particular Mariah Carey track the same way again. In stretches, it evokes the parental spiritualism of Eraserhead and The Truman Show but without the former’s cogent symbolism or the latter’s sense of childlike wonder. It’s a film destined to spawn a thousand “Explained!” video essays on YouTube, even though it’s simply not worth all the effort. The self-indulgent Beau Is Afraid finds Aster at the crossroads of what kind of filmmaker he’s going to be moving forward and I hope whatever path he picks leads to more fruitful results.
Score – 2.5/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., a coming-of-age dramedy starring Abby Ryder Fortson and Rachel McAdams, which adapts the groundbreaking Judy Blume novel about a middle schooler who navigates friends, family and religion in 1970s New Jersey.
Also playing only in theaters is Polite Society, an action comedy starring Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya about a younger sister who goes to great lengths to stop her older sister’s wedding from occurring to preserve their independence and sisterhood.
Premiering on Disney+ is Peter Pan & Wendy, a fantasy adventure starring Jude Law and Alexander Molony that retells the classic tale of a boy who wouldn’t grow up as he recruits three young siblings in London to join him on a magical journey to the enchanted Neverland island.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup
The new horror comedy Renfield begins with a fantastic premise for a 5-minute sketch. After hearing a couple people in a self-help group share details of their toxic relationships, the titular character (played by Nicholas Hoult) opens up about how terribly his boss treats him. The support group leader (played by Brandon Scott Jones) asks Renfield what would happen if he put his needs above his boss’s, allowing Renfield to surmise that doing so “won’t allow [his boss] to grow to full power.” Dramatic irony starts to set in as we get the sense before the characters do that this isn’t a typical superior-subordinate situation, at which point Renfield’s boss crashes the meeting. Turns out, he’s Dracula (played, because of course, by Nicolas Cage) and Renfield is his familiar and personal assistant.
The problem with Renfield is simple: it doesn’t know how to meaningfully expand upon this premise. It would be fun to see how Dracula and Renfield interact, comically juxtaposing the Count’s unwavering bloodlust biddings with the typical requests an underling would fulfill at a traditional desk job. Perhaps Renfield could meet someone that he was supposed to bring to his vampiric master as bait and fall for them instead, allowing for the story to go in a more romantic direction. We get bits and pieces of those narrative inklings but the film is more interested in the bloody bits and pieces that come from a super-powered Renfield laying waste to groups of criminals. The movie takes the easy way out, centering its narrative around a trite cop-and-robbers storyline with Awkwafina playing a traffic cop looking to move up in the department and Ben Schwartz as a haywire drug dealer.
That’s not to say that Renfield doesn’t have its moments. Cage has turned the vampiric into comedic previously with 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss and he’s as good as you would expect him to be playing the most infamous bloodsucker of them all. In fact, the Vampire’s Kiss scene where Cage barks at his psychiatrist about an employee putting documents outside of alphabetical order wouldn’t even be out of place in this movie. Oddly enough, Cage’s performance here is the more restrained of the two but he still finds the right opportunities to chew (bite?) the scenery. There’s an expository scene early on that intentionally evokes the feel of the classic 1931 Dracula movie, Cage naturally channeling Bela Lugosi and all, and I wish we could have stayed in that setting longer.
Instead, director Chris McKay favors a seedy modern-day New Orleans environment similar to the one from Netflix’s Project Power starring Jamie Foxx. I wish McKay had taken more cues from Day Shift, another Jamie Foxx-starring Netflix movie that also involves vampires but delivers much more compelling action and comedy along the way. Like Cocaine Bear, another Universal Pictures movie from earlier this year, Renfield traffics in a CGI overkill of gleeful violence that isn’t as edgy as it thinks it is. When it comes to bad guy bloodletting, there’s a creative death here and there but most of the digital gore becomes a bore and a chore to sit through after a while. The bar for action on film keeps being raised by standard-bearers like the John Wick and Mission Impossible series and while Renfield may not be aiming that high, the action setpieces in the new Dungeons & Dragons movie were much better than what we get here.
In addition to Cage, the cast does what they can to make the most out of a script by Ryan Ridley that mainly plays like half a dozen half-coagulated ideas that never congeal. Hoult is a strong match for the beleaguered bossed-around sidekick, transmuting the haughty nature of his characters from The Favourite and The Menu into a subservience that inspires both pity and laughs. Awkwafina has been terrific in recent movies from The Farewell to Shang-Chi but she’s the wrong fit for this role, especially since a character avenging the death of her police captain father is a plot tangent that didn’t even need to be included. Of course it’s impossible to buy Schwartz as a mob enforcer named “Teddy Lobo” and McKay can’t decide if we’re supposed to take him seriously as a secondary antagonist. If you retain the same jumping-off point for a story and the presence of two Nics, Renfield has the makings of a killer comedy but as is, it feeds off all of the wrong action-comedy tropes.
Score – 2/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Evil Dead Rise, a horror film starring Lily Sullivan and Alyssa Sutherland which follows two estranged sisters whose reunion is cut short by the rise of flesh-possessing demons, thrusting them into a primal battle for survival.
Also playing in theaters is The Covenant, an action thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim which takes place during the War in Afghanistan where a US Army Sergeant ventures to repay a life debt to his Afghan interpreter.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Ghosted, an action comedy starring Chris Evans and Ana de Armas about a man who falls head over heels for a woman before making the shocking discovery that she’s a secret agent.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup
30 years after the nightmare vision of a live-action adaptation, the world’s most popular video game franchise finds new cinematic life through Illumination with The Super Mario Bros. Movie. As bright and cheery as 1993’s Super Mario Bros. was dank and enigmatic, this franchise kick-starter is designed to appeal to both those who have logged hundreds of hours playing Mario games and those who are discovering this world for the first time. With a simple story and cursory characterizations, it’s also a film that’s meant to be extremely palatable to all age groups, much like other Illumination series from Despicable Me to The Secret Life of Pets. But there’s so much care and craft that’s gone into the visual design and musical score alone that it’s difficult not to get swept up into the magic emanating from this charming crowd-pleaser.
Living in modern-day Brooklyn, brothers Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) are doing what they can to get their fledgling plumbing business off the ground before it goes down the tubes. After seeing a massive mid-city manhole leak on the news, Mario convinces Luigi that they’re the ones who can fix it but as they make their way underground towards the deluge, the brothers get sucked into a large pipe. They get split up to two different areas of a magical world, brave Mario in the vibrant Mushroom Kingdom and timid Luigi in the ominous Dark Lands. Luigi is summarily captured by King Bowser (Jack Black) and his army of turtle-like Koopa soldiers, while Mario calls upon Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy) for help in getting he and his brother back home to Brooklyn. Along the way, Mario and Peach recruit the mighty ape Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) from the Jungle Kingdom in their quest to defeat Bowser.
The most striking aspect of The Super Mario Bros. Movie is not only the bright and stunning animation but how it’s used to create these distinctive areas of this enchanting world. Obviously there are numerous sprawling Mario games from which to draw upon when designing these settings but co-directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic focus these influences for one all-encompassing narrative. In a couple key sequences, they cleverly recreate the 2D side-scrolling nature of the early Mario games and repurpose the light-up blocks and obstacles as part of a Mushroom Kingdom training course. Naturally, there are innumerable references to platform game mainstays like the Fire Flower and Piranha Plants that even those who have never played the games will likely still recognize.
The music of Mario by Koji Kondo is another cultural touchstone that one doesn’t need to be a gamer to recognize and composer Brian Tyler beautifully weaves in leitmotifs from various Mario games throughout the years. In a moment of scheming, Bowser and his adviser Kamek sit together at the piano to duet the “Underworld Theme”, followed by Bowser crooning a hilariously overwrought new song “Peaches”. Aside from the Kondo music and the original tunes, The Super Mario Bros. Movie also includes some needle drops that aren’t unexpected from an Illumination entertainment but not really necessary either. Between this, the comparatively duller video game-related Tetris and the Shazam sequel, this is the third new release I’ve seen in the past few weeks that interpolates Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero.” I can only be grateful it wasn’t in Air as well.
The voice cast isn’t filled with the most inspired choices for every role but the performers do what they need to in order to make the characters feel like they’re sharing this world together. Jack Black brings some heavy metal gusto to his put-upon Bowser that makes him alternately menacing and pathetic, depending on the scene. Charlie Day hits his high register for the perpetually nervous Luigi and Chris Pratt brings an easy confidence to his aplomb older brother. There’s a joke early on about the stereotypical Italian dialects that Pratt and Day chose not to lean on while voicing their characters and where the duo ended up tonally suits the movie just fine. Hopefully the inevitable sequels will get more ambitious with casting and plot but as a visually and sonic spectacle, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is an accomplished first level that will no doubt have audiences pining for the next one.
Score – 3.5/5
New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Renfield, starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage, is a horror comedy about Dracula’s beleaguered servant and sidekick, who yearns to get out from under the thumb of his vampiric boss and the bloodshed that his lifestyle seems to accrue.
The Pope’s Exorcist, starring Russell Crowe and Daniel Zovatto, is a supernatural horror film following the chief exorcist of the Vatican as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy in the process.
Sweetwater, starring Everett Osborne and Cary Elwes, is a sports biopic covering the life and career of Hall of Fame basketball player Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who made history as the first African American to sign an NBA contract.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup
Michael Jordan is such an enduring cultural figure that even the finer details of his unparalleled legacy can be the focus point for a sports biopic. Enter Air, which recounts the true tale of the bidding war between Nike, Adidas, and Converse for an exclusive shoe deal with then-rookie Michael Jordan. If Netflix had a miniseries about Jordan’s rise to basketball superstardom, the events of this movie would likely be condensed into one episode but at the hands of director Ben Affleck, the business deal is unpacked breezily over 112 minutes. Thanks to a deep roster of talented familiar faces and a quippy script from Alex Convery, the film takes what could be considered an unremarkable story of corporate jostling and makes it go down as easy as a swish from the baseline.
Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, an executive at Nike desperate to surpass Adidas and Converse in market share for shoes worn by superstar NBA players. His efforts take him to the top, where he asks CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) for more funds to bankroll new recruits but is told that he has to make it work with their current allocation. Sonny’s desk is across the hall from the tape archive room, in which he seems to spend more time than his actual desk chair. While watching footage of Jordan making a championship-winning shot at UNC, Vaccaro becomes convinced that he’s their guy and convinces Nike Basketball VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) that they should spend the budget for 3 players on just one instead. Even though Jordan is rumored to have a deal with Adidas, Vaccaro doesn’t give up and visits Jordan’s parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon) to plead for a meeting.
Air is the most concerted effort so far from Amazon Studios to make one of their films a theatrical event, as opposed to releasing it on Prime Video with little to no fanfare. Opening with Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” over the production logos into the credits, there’s a sense that this is almost certainly the most expensive project that they’ve distributed and is their attempt to make ripples at the box office. Certainly no expense was spared when it comes to the music licensing, as the film is packed with 1980s hits from “Born In The USA” to “Can’t Fight This Feelings”; there’s even room for not one but two Violent Femmes cuts. Even though the needle drops aren’t cheap, the majority of the budget assuredly went to the all-star talent in front of the camera.
Much of Air‘s affability comes from the deep bench of household names in the ensemble cast, which also includes Marlon Wayans and Chris Messina. The long limelight-absent Chris Tucker even steals a few scenes as Howard White, who became the VP of the Air Jordan brand and is a close friend of Jordan’s in real life. Thankfully, there aren’t any scenes of contrived drama where actors strain a muscle trying to compete for their own Oscar Moment. Like the businesspeople at Nike in 1984, everyone here is doing their part to make this deal work. Damon and Davis are especially good in their scenes together, where their characters slowly develop each others’ trust, even though there are financially-related motives underneath their seemingly innocuous discourse.
Air is working from the same playbook drawn up by sports business movies like Jerry Maguire and Moneyball but it simply doesn’t have the dramatic inertia to put it in their company. Even with suspension of disbelief intact, the outcome of this story feels arbitrary and inevitable from the get-go. We get very little first-hand insight into how Adidas or Converse fought for Jordan and the film lacks an antagonistic pressure that would make this story feel like it had to be seen to be believed. It’s also difficult to get around the fact that despite the historical significance of the Air Jordan line, the movie is ultimately a commercial for the Nike brand. Corporate interests aside, Air is an accessorial but amicable bit of sports fluff from another streamer trying to get their piece of the Hollywood pie.
Score – 3/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is The Super Mario Bros. Movie, an animated adventure starring Chris Pratt and Anya Taylor-Joy which brings the video game characters to the big screen as Mario and Peach must rescue Luigi from the clutches of King Koopa.
Also playing only in theaters is Paint, a comedy starring Owen Wilson and Michaela Watkins about a soft-spoken public television painter who feels the heat of competition when the station hires a younger and more talented painter for a new program.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is On A Wing And A Prayer, a faith-based survival film starring Dennis Quaid and Heather Graham which tells the true story of a pharmacist who must fly his family to safety after their pilot dies unexpectedly mid-flight.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup