The Spine of Night (2021)

There’s a character design in The Spine of Night that I swear was animated to look exactly like Sean Connery in Zardoz.  That should be a strong indicator of the genre-nerd waters this film treads, whether or not the reference was intentional.  A rotoscoped throwback to retro D&D fantasy epics like Wizards, Gandahar, and Heavy Metal, The Spine of Night is a for-its-own-sake aesthetic indulgence on the artistic level of a metal head doodling in the margins of their high school notebook.  If you’re not the kind of audience who thinks giant tits & giant swords make a badass pairing—especially when airbrushed on the side of a van—the movie will not offer much to win you over.  Its story is consistently thin & disposable, but it’s just as consistently good for flashes of metal-as-fuck imagery from scene to scene (“swamp magic,” beheadings, galloping horse skeletons, etc.).

The Spine of Night‘s voice cast is packed with always-welcome celebrity contributors: Patton Oswalt, Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Betty Gabriel, etc.  I can only claim to have recognized a few of those voices without an IMDb cheat sheet, but the only contribution that really matters is the novelty of hearing Lucy Lawless voice a warrior princess in the 2020s.  She’s a perpetually naked swamp witch, the spiritual leader of her people, and a fearless warrior who unites oppressed communities from many disparate lands & eras to stop a power-hungry sorcerer from using magic for his own selfish, world-conquering ends.  At least, that’s the gist of what I picked up between all the beheadings & disembowelings that the movie’s actually interested in illustrating, with only the vaguest whisper of a plot reverberating onscreen amidst the gory mayhem.

I’m not entirely convinced by the visual majesty of the rotoscope animation showcased here, which I feel like is the entire point of the production.  The crisp, flat line work makes the characters less visually interesting than the detailed backdrops they disrupt (Zardoz references notwithstanding), which feels like a major problem.  There’s something clunky & leaden about the way they move too, as if the original footage they were traced over was accidentally slowed down a touch in the editing process.  Still, I’m enough of a sucker for heavy metal badassery to give the film a pass for what it is: bong rip background fodder.  There are plenty of “adult” animation curios from the 70s & 80s that enjoy ongoing cult-classic status for serving that same superficial function, so why not throw one more on the fire? The Spine of Night is not even the best nostalgic throwback to that era of fantasy animation from last year, though; that niche honor belongs to Cryptozoo.  It’ll have to settle for just being the more gleefully violent of the pair.

-Brandon Ledet

Rampage (2018)

Despite the conventional wisdom, I believe the video game adaptation is a strong template for a deliriously fun B-picture. Much like how novellas & short stories often make for better literary adaptations than lengthy novels because they invite filmmakers to expand rather than condense, the video game medium (particularly in vintage examples) tends to only carry vaguely sketched-out lore & world-building that affords filmmakers a lot of freedom to create in extrapolation. In theory, the Rampage arcade game should have been a prime candidate for an entertainingly absurd action movie, since it’s basically a blank-slate, plot-wise. In the game, players assume the avatars of three cartoonish kaiju—a gorilla, a wolf, and a lizard—earning points by destroying buildings & eating helpless citizens one city at a time. There’s no progression to this initial setup, just more buildings & people to populate an eternally resettable scenario. Unlike the better examples of video game adaptations that use these blank-slate launching pads to create absurdly preposterous worlds, the film version of Rampage instead exhausts itself trying to imagine a plot where its resettable videogame scenario could be at least somewhat plausible. The Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil movies accept the over-the-top absurdism of their source material as a matter-of-fact conceit; Rampage instead goes out of its way to reduce its premise to the most unimaginative action vehicle possible, one it already feels like we’ve seen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star in before. A better-realized Rampage adaptation would have just started with the monster attacks destroying a major city and worried about the reasoning behind their origins after the fact (there are literally dozens of Godzilla pictures that teach that lesson). This adaptation instead dulls down its entertainment potential by laboriously working towards that payoff in a too-late third act turnaround.

The Rock stumbles into this picture wearing a khaki-colored composite costume of every single ex-military jungle adventurer character he’s played before. In this particular case, our impossibly handsome, charismatic hero is defined by his relationship with an albino gorilla named George. With a rapport established through sign language and sex jokes, this Buff Zoologist & Brilliant Gorilla supercouple are seemingly best-bros-for-life until a nearby satellite crash infects George (along with a wolf & an alligator) with a “genetic editing” pathogen. Designed by an Evil Corporation for military weapons purposes, this pathogen causes the three beasts in question to grow exponentially larger, more aggressive, and more resistant to harm. Teaming up with a rogue scientist (Naomie Harris) who helped develop the pathogen, The Rock must race to cure George with an antidote before the military strikes him down and to destroy the other two monsters before they destroy Chicago. And because the movie delusionally believes the monsters need a reason to work together to destroy Chicago, there’s also a broadcasted signal attracting them to the Evil Corporation’s headquarters that must be shut off before it’s too late. Beyond the too-few scenes of monsters destroying buildings (and a few villainously hammy performances from what-are-they-doing-here actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, and Joe Manganiello) there’s nothing distinctive about Rampage as a disaster epic, not even its deployment of three separate kaiju. The movie could have made better use of its satellite crash opening by taking its monster fight to outer space or used its inciting pathogen to create Dwayne “The Giant Boulder” Johnson or anything over-the-top enough to suggest that it fully embraces the absurdity of its central conceit. Instead, it almost outright apologizes for being built on a silly video game foundation by exhaustively explaining a scenario where a giant wolf, gorilla, and reptile might team up to destroy a major city as a team, when that should have been its first act starting point—no explanation necessary.

I was left exactly this cold by last year’s giant ape monster movie Kong: Skull Island, which also hosted just enough monster action & hammy performances to call into question how the sum of its parts could possibly be so aggressively bland. Rampage is a total MoviePass decision, an unenthused picture that’s only worth your attention if it has a convenient showtime in a directionless afternoon you’re looking to kill. No amount of helicopter-tackling wolf action or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cowboy cop quipping things like, “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to clean the sheets,” can make up for the grey mush that surrounds them. Even the novelty of the glorious creature feature Alligator being blown up kaiju-size is only worth a fleeting smirk. The only moment of pure so-bad-it’s-great bliss at hand is a spectacularly awful Kid Cudi remix of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that the film unfortunately buries deep in its end credits, where it’s meant to not be heard. It’s ashamed of that cheese just as much as it’s ashamed of its video game roots. Cut the wolf out the the kaiju trio and there’s no point in passing this movie off as a Rampage adaptation at all; it might as well be San Andreas 2 or Journey 3 or a sequel to any number of The Rock’s disaster epics. The green screen/mocap animation, closely cropped shaky-cam action (which is a really weird choice for a film about giant monsters), and cornball stepdad humor are entirely indistinct & interchangeable within the context of the modern Rockbuster. It’s a total shame, because the gleefully trashy arcade game the film chose as a starting point should have been an easy layup in delivering something fun & memorably absurd. Instead, five no-name screenwriters ground it down into a shapeless, unremarkable orb carried on the back of a bored-looking Rock.

-Brandon Ledet

Knight of Cups (2016)

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Full confession up front: I don’t “get” Terrence Malick. The filmmaker has an admirable eye for breathtaking imagery & in theory I like the idea of the way he deconstructs the very concept of narrative cinema, but I simply get no enjoyment out his work. The much-beloved Tree of Life in particular might be the single most personally disappointing trip to the theater I can remember, based on the critical hype I was riding in and the wave of dejection I rode out. As a collection of isolated images Tree of Life succeeds in provoking awe & reflection. As a two hour theatrical experience, however, it’s an extreme exercise in patience with Sean Penn whispering vague, pretentious nothings about humanity & motherhood.

I mention this here because Knight of Cups is a deliberate doubling down on Tree of Life’s worst impulses. It trades in the former film’s suburban America setting for a similar snapshot of a wealthy man’s vacuous life in Los Angeles & swaps out Sean Penn’s whispered vagueries for those of Christian Bale, but the results are mostly the same. I feel like both Tree of Life & Knight of Cups establish their best selves & all they can offer in their opening few minutes, as if they were a resume for a cinematic skillset instead of an actual product. Both films have the feeling of an art school student trying to prove their worth in an early gig car commercial, except the car never arrives & the credits never roll. What frustrates me the most about Malick is his obvious wealth of raw material. If there weren’t so much technical skill displayed in his films I’d never feel the need to return to his work, but there’s too much promise here for me to simply walk away. He’s the filmmaking Roadrunner to my critical Wile E. Coyote. I just keep returning for more punishment, never learning my lesson.

It would feel disingenuous to tack on a plot synopsis for a review of Knight of Cups. The best I can put it is that Christian Bale is sad from having casual sex with too many beautiful models & attending too many Hollywood soirees. He navigates a world of strippers, luchadores, outer space, pool parties, and nothingness. Malick constructs “fragments, pieces of a man” in a disorienting display that might be intended to mirror the emptiness of his protagonist’s existence, but ultimately feels far too exhausting & reverently celebratory in the process to resonate as meaningful. There are a few interesting moments here or there – like when a promise of stillness is interrupted by an earthquake or when you can spot a seemingly random Famous Beautiful Person, say Joe Manganiello, in the background of an L.A. party – but for the most part the film is a wash. Once it hits its hypnotic rhythm it’s extremely difficult to focus on. The voice over becomes a foreign language and the beauty in the imagery loses its initial poetry. By the end credits there’s nothing left to feel but drained, empty, and at least a little bit cheated.

The wealth, beauty and ennui of Knight of Cups feels very much akin to a music video. Imagine, if you dare, a version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade film where nearly every actor is white and all of the pop music has been replaced with more spoken word poetry. Better yet, imagine Kanye West begging on loop that there please be “No More Parties in L.A.” for two solid hours with no indication that the party will, in fact, ever stop. The opening title card of Knight of Cups suggests that the film would be best enjoyed with the volume cranked, but I felt the exact opposite way. The film is probably best enjoyed with the soundtrack muted & replaced with something more narratively exciting & cohesive, like a rap album or, honestly, dead silence while you take care of some household chores.

I would say that after this film & Inland Empire I’m proving to have a back track record with the glacial, narratively sparse high art meditations end of cinema, but that’s not necessarily true. I fell madly in love with The Neon Demon & Heart of a Dog, which while not on an exactly comparable wavelength as Knight of Cups, at least follow a similar approach to valuing imagery & cinematic hypnosis over linear storytelling. The truth is probably a lot more likely that Knight of Cups wasn’t my thing because Malick himself just doesn’t do it for me. He probably never will, but I’m too fascinated with the glimpses of brilliance lurking in his exhaustive haze of artistic pretension to walk away. Much like Wile E. Coyote, I suspect this won’t be the last time I fall off this particular cliff. I’ll just keep doing it forever.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

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fourstar

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Is it possible for someone to have an unbiased opinion on Pee-wee Herman in 2016? It seems like everyone in the world even remotely in tune with the pop culture landscape probably knows by now whether or not they’re on board with Paul Reubens’ man-child alter-ego & his home planet of eternal 50s kitsch. I guess for the purposes of this review I should go ahead & confess my own bias: I’m a wholly committed fan of everything P.W. Herman. The long-defunct television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse is one of my favorite examples of modern surrealism. His 1985 cinematic debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains my all-time favorite Tim Burton feature (though Ed Wood is a close second). I’ll even stand up for the much-hated sophomore feature Big Top Pee-wee, which I think is underappreciated for its off-putting sense of tongue-in-cheek camp. I love Pee-wee so much I should probably marry him.

So, yeah, to say that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a for-fans-only venture is a bit of a redundancy, since all Pee-wee content is something of an acquired taste. The direct-to-Netflix production is only different from earlier Herman outings in that it feels like it was made by fans (who now happen to be moderately famous). Heavy-hitter comedy producer Judd Apatow, Comedy Bang Bang regular & creator of the excellent Netflix series Love (also produced by Apatow) Paul Rust, and director/multi-media artist John Lee (who had an absurdly subversive/satirical run with the projects PFFR, Wonder Showzen, and Xavier: Renegade Angel) all come together to form a really geeky Pee-wee Herman fan club, making Pee-wee’s Big Holiday out to be something of a labor of love (or a dream come true, depending on your perspective). And the president of this fan club just happens to be none other than Magic Mike XXL star/popular kid Joe Manganiello, who appears here as the film’s hunky MacGuffin.

In the same way J.J. Abrams recently took the reins of the mighty Star Wars empire by mirroring past story lines in The Force Awakens, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday tries to revive Herman’s prominence in the world by returning to the roots of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The similarities between Big Adventure & Big Holiday are unavoidable, even right there in the titles. Both films are road trip comedies. Both open with needlessly complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions. Both feature surrealist dream sequences (this time with a Mac & Me-style alien instead of the much more terrifying clown surgeons of yesteryear). Both feature former new wave punk legends on their scores (this time Mark Mothersbaugh instead of Danny Elfman). Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. It also helps that the film finds Pee-wee just about as charming & hilarious as he’s ever been, even if its financial freedom & resulting ambition are somewhat diminished.

While working as a short-order cook at a 50s-style diner in the Pleasantville-esque town of Fairville, Pee-Wee is shocked to discover that his doo-wop band is calling it quits, a blow that pretty much puts an end to his social life. Stuck in a hopeless rut, it takes a chance encounter with Joe Manganiello (starring as his wonderful self) to convince Pee-wee to break free from his milquetoast lifestyle & explore the world outside Fairville on a quest to attend Manganiello’s birthday party in NYC. Along the way he meets a long line of eccentrics played by mainstays from past Pee-wee projects & minor comedic personalities. His run-ins with traveling novelty product salesmen, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!-style gangsters (who include among them Arrested Development/The Final Girls‘s Alia Shawkat wearing the exact angora sweater director Ed Wood spent a lifetime fetishizing), strange mountain men, Amish folk, and sassy beauty salon weirdos are all entertaining in a lighthearted, episodic sort of way, but they all exist merely to support Herman’s madness-in-repetition comedic stylings, which are just as top notch as ever.

It’s easy to see why Lee, Rust, Apatow, and company would return to the road trip format for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. All the movie has to do to succeed is provide Herman (who’s also billed as playing himself) with a variety of backdrops & supporting players to bounce his bizarrely childish humor off of. In one highly pertinent scene, Herman proves that he can entertain an entire village of on-lookers with a single, ordinary balloon. Just about the only aspect of Pee-wee Herman’s Big Holiday that isn’t bare bones in this way is Joe Manganiello’s involvement. Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle. The gay subtext certainly doesn’t end there. By the conclusion of the film, Herman & Manganiello’s instant attraction to each other fully blossoms into a really sweet, very romantic story about “friendship”. If there’s any chance for a non-Pee-wee fan to enjoy Big Holiday it’d be in watching just how naturally & enthusiastically that “friendship” develops. All else should be pleased to know that Big Holiday is more like Big Adventure than Big Top (which I still contend is under-loved) and should pretty much already know whether or not they’ll have fun with what’s delivered.

-Brandon Ledet