Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Christmas 2019: December 3rd

Klaus (2019)

Boy, do I have some mixed feelings about the monolith Netflix has become. When it was nothing but a by-mail online video store, I loved it. The selection was great. If it was on disc, you could most likely rent it! Of course, then Netflix birthed the modern streaming revolution, completely changing the way most people watch TV and movies... And bleeding their by-mail service practically to death in the process, not to mention spawning a hundred equally pricey rival services. Now Netflix only cares about pimping their original films and shows, their actual selection of movies suffering in comparison. And Netflix isn't even good at promoting their original content half the time. Their big 2019 Christmas release, “Klaus,” has gone largely overlooked. Yet a high profile traditional animated holiday movie sure wasn't going to get by me!

“Klaus” is another film that attempts to offer a definitive origin for the mythical figure of Santa Claus. Jasper is the spoiled son of the local post office empire. His dad forced him to join the post office academy, which he's been trying to flunk out of. Instead of getting his wish, his father assigns him to Smeerenburg, an obscure island community currently torn in two by warring rival factions. Through chance, the reluctant mailman meets Klaus, a solitary toymaker living in the woods. After one toy is delivered, the children of Smeerenburg start to send letters to Klaus to receive more presents. Jasper and Klaus hatch a plan to bring toys to the entire community.

“Klaus” comes to us from Sergio Pablos, best known as co-creator of the “Despicable Me” series. Despite being best known for computer generated animation, Pablos is apparently a great lover of traditional animation. “Klaus” was his attempt to bring hand-drawn animation into the modern age. And the results are nothing short of spellbinding. “Klaus” often gives the impression of a painting that has sprung to life. There's a depth and vividness to the colors, the film glowing with natural-seeming light. The character animation is incredibly lively and detailed, even the background cast members looking expertly designed. Every frame of “Klaus” is a true work of art, a beautifully brought to life swirl of color and movement.

Sadly, its gorgeous visuals are about the only thing “Klaus” really has going for it. It's almost as if Pablos and his team wanted to compensate for “Klaus'” quasi-experimental look by making the script as bland as possible. Every beat of the plot is totally predictable. You know immediately that Jasper will discover the true meaning of friendship. That the school teacher-turned-fish-monger will become his love interest. Even Klaus' tragic backstory can be easily inferred. A plot twist involving a sack of presents is especially asinine. The film piles on the broad humor throughout. The warring factions in town produce lots of wacky slapstick, much of which is very overdone. Jasper's comedic comeuppance for being a jerk produces only sighs. There's even some regrettable needle drops on the soundtrack.

As a Santa Claus origin story, “Klaus” also offers few surprises. The film takes a realistic – in the sense that any children's cartoon can be “realistic” – approach to the legend. There's a tidy explanation for where Santa's reindeer come from, why he has a surplus of toys, his fondness for Christmas, and his tendency to sneak down chimneys. The cutest touch is how the idea of Santa flying through the sky in a magical sleigh comes to be, strictly through happenstance. Having the local Saami population form the basis for Santa's elves is even in questionable taste, though the tiny Saami girl that befriends Jasper is just about as cute as can be. Eventually, “Klaus” veers towards the magical, as you'd expect a story about Santa to. I wish the film thought up backstories for Klaus' superpowers. I guess what I'm saying is “Klaus” doesn't beat “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” at its own game.

“Klaus” doesn't just resemble an older Dreamworks movie in quality of its writing Its voice cast is loaded with well-known movie stars chosen for their name value. Jason Schwartzman is playing very to-type as Jasper, J.K. Simmons disappointingly underplays it as Santa, with Joan Cusack and Will Sasso overdoing it as the bad guys. It's a bummer that “Klaus” couldn't pair its gorgeous visuals with a touching or insightful script. I guess that shouldn't come as a surprise, considering how mediocre the “Despicable Me” movies are. Hopefully, for his next picture, the director can lend these impressive visuals with a story truly worth telling. “Klaus” is no modern holiday classic, worth seeing for its animation but quickly forgotten otherwise. [6/10]

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

As I've said in the past, the Muppets and Christmas are irrevocably intertwined in my mind. This is an association Jim Henson's company has hardly resisted, as his felt creations have appeared in countless holiday specials over the years. Nearly a full decade after “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together,” a new Muppet Christmas special would premiere on ABC. “A Muppet Family Christmas” has Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the gang surprising Fozzie's mom by stopping by unexpectedly at her country cabin for the holidays. They soon bring with them even more guests, crowding the house even more. The special's admittedly loose plot is mostly strung along over Kermit's concern for Miss Piggy, who is traveling to the cabin through a blizzard.

To Muppet fanatics, “A Muppet Family Christmas” is most valuable for being a crossover between the different Henson creations. Doc, the human host of “Fraggle Rock,” is also staying at Mama Fozzie Bear's cabin. Later, Kermit and Robin crawl inside a cave in the basement, meeting the rest of the Fraggles and introducing them to the idea of Christmas. The Sesame Street gang shows up half-way through the special. This leads to some highly amusing gags, where Burt and Ernie reveal they speak in educational exchanges all the time. Or Oscar the Grouch finding an unlikely alley in Rizzo the Rat. The Muppet Babies even appear, in live action, via a home movie from the gang's days-in-diapers. Though Henson provides a number of voices – which becomes very noticeable when everyone is interacting like this – he appears in the flesh near the end.

Though it lacks the celebrity guest stars you associate with the genre, “A Muppet Family Christmas” still largely functions as a variety special. Meaning there are lots of jokes and songs. Some of these gags work better than other. A reoccurring gag about the icy floor wears out its welcome quickly. However, Fozzie teaming up with a snowman, Statler and Woldorf's appearances, and the Christmas turkey trying to convince the Swedish Chief not to cook him got me to laugh. Most of the songs are holiday standards, naturally, with Muppet-ized lyrics. The Electric Mayhem putting their spin on “Jingle Bell Rock,” the Fraggles performing an original number about giving, and the closing medley – which includes songs from “A Christmas Together” and “The Christmas Toy” with the likes of “The Holly and the Ivy” – are the highlights.

In other words, “A Muppet Family Christmas” is required viewing for fans of these characters. The special has been released on home video. However, because of the conflicting rights over the various shows and songs, a number of sequence have been removed from the DVD. Luckily, the complete version circulates in okay quality around the internet, for you Muppet completest out there. I think it'll make a good edition to anyone's holiday movie marathon. [7/10]

Monday, December 2, 2019

Christmas 2019: December 2nd

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Occasionally, a movie comes along with a combination of premises that is simply irresistible. Last year, I started hearing about a new motion picture that was a Christmas-themed zombie musical. Holiday horror and horror musicals are underappreciated sub-genres on their own, while a combination of the two was practically unheard of. I was really hoping I'd get to “Anna and the Apocalypse” last December. However, the distributors passed over the same day in-theaters/VOD release common for indie horror flicks in favor of a wider theatrical release. A physical media release didn't even happen until earlier this year! So, a year later, I finally have my shot at seeing this cult favorite in-the-making.

Teenager Anna Shepherd has made plans to travel the world after graduation, against her father's wishes. Her Dad is overly protective of Anna, following her late mother's death. Anna's best friend John hides a crush on her, while their mutual friend Steph struggles to write an incisive school project against the wishes of a tyrannical principal. As Christmas approaches, the truly unexpected happens. A zombie outbreak occurs throughout the Scottish countryside. Now Anna and her friends must survive the plague of the undead flesh-munchers as they fight their way back to the school, where their parents are located. Plus, there's singing and dancing.

“Anna and the Apocalypse” clearly wouldn't exist without “Shaun of the Dead.” And not just because it's another zombie-comedy made in the U.K. In both movies, the zombie apocalypse functions as metaphor for the titular character growing and changing. Instead of depicting a man-child coming into maturity, “Anna and the Apocalypse” covers a group of teenagers breaking away from their families and finding their own way. If you didn't catch this, the opening musical number is literally called “Break Away.” Anna and her father come to an agreement, John's feelings are resolved, and Steph forges her own way. I'll admit, framing the zombie premise as a coming-of-age story is something I haven't seen before.

With these multi-hyphenated genre mash-ups, the films prefer one of the styles over the other. And this horror/musical emphasizes the music more than the horror. The New Wave-influenced songs are energetically performed. “Hollywood Ending,” detailing the characters' various dreams, is quite catchy. “Break Away” has a similar point but a more bombastic energy. “Turning My Life Around” is an upbeat number which elevates a sequence clearly paying homage to “Shaun,” where Anna and Josh navigated the post-zombie world totally unaware of what's happened. My favorite number is probably “Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now,” in which the school principal graduates to full-blown villain in a delightfully manic way. “Soldier at War,” a song highlighting a minor supporting character, and the Depache Mode-inspired “Human Voice” are among the film's less memorable numbers.

Perhaps the songs emerge as more memorable simply because there's been such a glut of zombie media in the last decade. It's not that the undead mayhem in “Anna” is uninspired. A sequence inside a bowling alley, in which zombies rampage through a ball pit and one's head insides up in the ball return machine, is pretty funny. Another moment, in which the heroic trio hide under an inflatable raft, escalates in some nicely ridiculous way. However, the gore effects aren't very inspired, the head-smashings and limb ripping coming off as rubbery. The zombie never feel like much of a threat, existing more as a neutral force on the sidelines, save for the few scenes where they are pushed to the forefront. John McPhail's direction is colorful but he doesn't show much competence for generating scares or tension.

I also wish “Anna and the Apocalypse” was a little heavier on the Christmas atmosphere. Yes, there are Santa and Snowman zombies and a weaponzied candy cane. However, aside from a few holiday-flavored songs (among the film's weakest), the December setting doesn't factor into the proceeding much. The cast is extremely likable, with Ella Hunt as Anna and Sarah Swire clearly having bright futures ahead of them. The film has already collected its share of fans. I imagine it'll become a regular presence in many horror and/or musical fans' yearly December watch-lists. I definitely enjoyed the movie but wish it balanced its zombie mayhem and pop star aspirations a little more evenly. [7/10]

X-Men: The Animated Series: Have Yourself a Morlock Little Christmas

As a kid, I found “X-Men: The Animated Series” to be pretty damn sophisticated. The show drew its character designs, and most of its story lines, directly from the comics. To my childhood brain, that certainly made the show seem darker, more nuanced, and serialized than most of the contemporary superhero cartoons. (The show kicked off a whole block of '90s Marvel cartoon, many of which I have found memories of.) Even though I remember “X-Men” being a pretty serious show, I recently discovered it still had a Christmas episode. Naturally, I had to include this in 2019's Christmas marathon.

“Have Yourself a Morlock Little Christmas” depicts Christmas Eve at the X-Mansion. Jubilee is excited to celebrate her first holiday with her new family, while Wolverine is eager to escape the festive cheer. He ends up going to the mall with Storm, where the Morlocks – mutants too ugly to live anywhere but underground – are caught robbing an ambulance. It turns out Leech, the youngest of the Morlocks, have fallen ill. His mutation made it impossible for him to be seen at a regular hospital, forcing the Morlocks to resort to stealing. Amid interpersonal drama, the X-Men decide to help Leech out.

Despite my childhood recollections, “X-Men: The Animated Series” doesn't exactly hold up. The animation is pretty damn choppy at times, the characters moving awkwardly through flatly colored backgrounds. There are lots of weird close-ups on faces and the various superpowers – such as one shape-shifting Morlock turning into an operating table – look very goofy. The writing, meanwhile, is as overheated as the animation is stiff. At some point, Storm won the right to command the Morlocks, much to the consternation of Callisto, the Morlocks' de-facto leader. The rivalry between the two is constantly referenced. Wolverine, meanwhile, agonizes considerably over whether or not he should try and help Leech. There's little action in this episode, so the focus is largely on the melodrama, which might not be what you'd expect from a superhero cartoon. (Or maybe it is, if you've actually ever read an “X-Men” comic.)

Somewhat unsurprisingly, “A Very Morlock Christmas” is more valuable for its camp value than anything else. The contrast between the superhero theatrics and the holly jolly setting is pretty amusing. While the others have their adventure, Jean Gray and Gambit argue in the kitchen about the Christmas dinner, an utterly ridiculous sight not helped by Gambit's odd tendency to refer to himself in the third person. Wolverine's intolerance for Christmas cheer is both in-character and fairly amusing. The episode's inevitable moral – where Jubilee learns to appreciate the season of giving with the Morlock's humble celebration – is about as maudlin as you can get. I suspect this episode is not highly regarded among “X-Men” fans but it made me laugh a couple times so that gives it value. [7/10]

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Christmas 2019: December 1st

Here we go again. Every December, I attempt to do a 25 day marathon of Christmas related movies and television. I do this in the hopes that my bah humbug heart will catch some Christmas cheer before the year is over. This frequently does not work, as my six week long Halloween marathon leaves me incredibly burned out and pretty much useless through the last two months of the year. In the past, I've started this journey just to choke a few weeks in. But, as the song goes, Christmas time is here. So, once again, I will attempt to pull off a month of holly jolly films and TV shows. Wish me luck. I will need it.

Remember the Night (1940)

As I've said in the past, outside of classic horror movies, I am not nearly as familiar with films of the 1930s and 1940s as I should be. Because I am a huge nerd with fucked-up priorities, I feel actual guilt over this. Luckily, Hollywood has been cranking out movies about or at least adjacent to Christmas since the silent days, leaving me lots of older films to fill my December with. Which brings me to “Remember the Night.” The film has two factors that attract fans of vintage cinema. It was written by the highly respected Preston Sturges and stars siren of the silver screen, Barbara Stanwyck. (Who I previously encounter in “Christmas in Connecticut.”) Sounds like a good choice to kick off the month with!

A few days before Christmas, Lee Leander is caught shoplifting. This is her third offense and she might be facing jail time. The prosecuting attorney is Jack Sargeant, who successfully convinces the jury to postpone the verdict until after the holiday is over. Feeling bad about Lee spending Christmas in a jail cell, he pays her bail. She accompanies him as he drives home to Indiana, with the agreement that he'll drop her off at her mom's house in Pennsylvania. But Lee's mom is an asshole, so she sticks with him as he visits with his own mom and family. As the New Year approaches, the two start to fall in love.

As in the previously reviewed “Christmas in July,” Preston Sturges' dialogue here has certain zip to it. This extends to the character names – as with a colorful bail bondsman named Fat Mike – on down. From early on, the banter is quick and razor sharp. Probably my favorite example of witty exchanges here is when Lee succinctly points out the difference between her and Jack, with the metaphor of stealing a loaf of bread when starving. Another highlight occurs when she sets a fire to escape a tight situation, Lee dismissing the desperate measure in a typical flippant manner. The film is full of wacky situations – such as the couple falling asleep in a cow field, being accosted by the trigger-happy owner the next morning – but it's that fast-paced dialogue that truly keeps this movie light and entertaining.

What elevates “Remember the Night” further is the surprisingly sincere romance at its center. Jack's interest in Lee is motivated by kindness, an emotion which soon turns to something more romantic in nature. The sexual tension between them is evident in that catty dialogue, to the point where neither the audience nor the characters are surprised when they start snogging during the Christmas party. Ultimately, “Remember the Night” points itself in even more important moral. Lee's mother rejects her daughter as the holiday approaches, because she's a judgmental bitch. Jck's family accepts her into their home, and their hearts, immediately. Because family, ultimately, is not who you are born with but who you choose. You don't have to spend time with someone if they make you hate yourself. That's an important message to hear, especially around Christmas.

Tying “Remember the Night” together is its lovable cast. Stanwyck is utterly delightful as Lee. She spits the razor-sharp dialogue with confidence and wit. She also displays a clear vulnerability, revealing the sensitive heart at the center of this thorny exterior. She plays off Fred MacMurray extremely well, who is also excellent as Jack. He brings a light-hearted energy to the part, approaching many every challenge with a smile. It's no wonder the two fall in love, as both are delightful. In the supporting cast, Sterling Holloway is immediately recognizable as Willie, the child-like handler on the ranch. Elizabeth Patterson is so sweet as Aunt Emma, in scenes when discussing the importance of acceptance with Lee over cooking pies.

By the way, “Remember the Night” has a good share of Christmas atmosphere. Its first shot is a snowy city street, with Santa ringing a bell on the corner. There's a tree decoration sequence, a New Year's party, and a big family dinner. In other words, it's an ideal fit to kick off a Christmas movie marathon with. The cast is excellent, the story is full of humor and heart, and the execution is competent. After enjoying this and “Christmas in July,” I guess I should definitely watch more Preston Sturges movie. [8/10]

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)

People just a few years older than me have fond memories of Pee-Wee Herman and his Saturday morning “Playhouse.” My older sister, for example, was a big fan. By the time I was old enough to notice, that unfortunate porn theater incident had already ended Pee-Wee's career as a child entertainer. I actually have way fonder memories of Paul Reubens: Weirdo Character Actor than of his alter-ego. However, the “Pee-Wee's Playhouse” Christmas special is such a beloved nugget of Gen-X holiday lore that I felt I had to give ti a chance. The plot, as you'd expect, is loose. It concerns Pee-Wee celebrating at his playhouse while preparing his ridiculously long wish list for Santa, many friends and special guests coming and going as the roughly hour-long runtime progresses. 

I always assumed “Pee-Wee's Playhouse” was one of those kid's show heavy on the yelling and frantic energy. And, yeah, there is some of that. I think most people have heard of the running gag where the word of day – “year” in this case – is greeted with manic screaming every time it's said. The Playhouse is full of all sorts of bizarre characters, some of which are quite aggressively strange or annoying. Such as a robot that has a verbal tic of chattering noise every time it talks. Or a grouchy ventriloquist dummy. However, I was surprised to find “Pee-Wee's Playhouse” fairly charming in its whimsical touches. Pee-Wee has the mind of a little child which is why he perceives everything – his chair, his globe, and even the floor – as being alive. The production design of the titular location is pretty great in general.

Over all, I was surprised by how amusingly bizarre “Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special” was. There's quite a bit of good-natured surrealism here. At one point, Pee-Wee leaps into his giant etch-a-sketch, runs into Magic Johnson, and gets chased by a cartoon polar bear. Among the show's special quests stars are Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, both of whom – in a delightfully mean-spirited joke – Pee-Wee cruelly forces to make Christmas cards for him. Dinah Shore calls Pee-Wee on his video phone and proceeds to sing an even longer and more torturous version of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The special somehow takes the worn-out joke about Christmas fruit cake and makes it funny by taking the gag to its most extreme and extended punchline. By far, the best joke in the special involves the reveal that the family of stop-motion dinosaurs that live inside the Playhouse walls are, in fact, Jewish.

Paul Reuben was obviously inspired by classic variety shows, a genre that's pretty much extinct these days, so he packs his special with guest starts, musical numbers, and other diversions. Among the most notable special guests are random appearances from Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah, Cher, and Little Richard. Charo, the Del Ruvio Triplets, k.d. lang, and Grace Jones contribute high-energy variation on several holiday standards. William Marshall, Blacula himself, brings an immense dignity to the King of Cartoons while Larry Fishburne is delightfully silly as Cowboy Curtis. There's the expected moral about giving and charity but it's handled in an amusingly flippant manner. I've got to say, “Christmas at Pee-Wee's Playhouse” – which is a proper Christmas special, as it aired in prime time back in 1988 – is as exactly much oddball fun as I had always heard. Did this show have a Halloween episode? [8/10]

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck (2019)

5. Captain Marvel

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe being the biggest pop cultural force of the last decade, every aspect of the universe has been discussed and analyzed. Especially criticized was the lack of diversity in the films, both in front of and behind the camera. Of the first twenty MCU films, eighteen were directed by white men. Of that number, exactly none of them top-billed a woman. That would change with “Captain Marvel.” Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden would be the latest directors plucked out of the world of independent film to helm a massive, superhero blockbuster. This gamble would pay off, as “Captain Marvel” would become another billion dollar grossing success for Marvel, though not without some controversy.

The film begins with Vers, an amnesic human woman with powerful plasma producing abilities, living on the alien home world of the Kree empire. She was drafted some time ago into the Kree a war against a shape-shifting race known as the Skrulls. Vers is captured by the Skrull, who probe her fractured memories. They are seeking a light-speed engine and Vers' memories might be the key to that. She escapes to Earth, in the mid-1990s. Both alien federations are pursuing her. Soon, the woman known as Carol Danvers is teaming up with an American secret agent named Nick Fury to rediscovers her past, her old family, and learn the truth about the Kree.

Carol Danvers is a character that has floated around Marvel comics since the sixties, passing through at least four superhero personas, her origins growing more convoluted and bizarre. (Until her re-branding as Captain Marvel, and subsequent new series, she wasn't even that popular.) Boden and Fleck's script – which they co-wrote with Geneva Robertson-Dworet and probably the MCU writer's room – smartly dispenses with most of that. Instead, they not-so-subtly rework Danver's origin story into a metaphor for gas-lighting. Unlike most superhero character arcs, where a hero learns more abilities as the film goes on, Carol is as powerful at the beginning of “Captain Marvel” as she is at the end. She is surrounded by men who tell her not to use her abilities, not to listen to her emotions. It's all part of a grander web of manipulation, spearheaded by a man that claims to have her best interest at heart but is only interested in controlling her. Obviously, this is a story that resonated with a lot of women and is certainly a clever take on a by-now routine story arc.

When it comes to superhero comics, I've always had a hard time getting into the cosmic stuff. I like far-out ideas and crazy aliens but the intergalactic politics have always made me yawn. “Captain Marvel's” first act is knee-deep in this stuff. The movie drops us right into Kree culture – some of whom look totally human, some with blue skin – from the first scene. It then leaps into the Kree/Skrull war from there, bounding through spy missions, shoot-outs, and Carol's capture. The script never expounds on Kree culture in any meaningful way. The most we see of their home world is a city scape and a space-train. The conflict with the Skrull is set-up via awkward exposition. Before we even have a chance to care about her, we are already following Carol on a daring escape.

It's a sluggish start. Once Carol reaches Earth, “Captain Marvel” picks up considerably speed. The decision to make the film a nineties period piece – aside from freeing the movie up from the rest of the Cinematic Universe continuity – adds a charm that differentiates it from other superhero flicks. The filmmakers dot the proceedings with easy nostalgic signifiers. Blockbuster Video and beepers are minor plot points, Radio Shack puts in a cameo appearance, and every single needle-drop is way too on the nose. Yet it worked one hundred percent on me. As a misbegotten nineties kid, these touches tickled me just right. Moreover, “Captain Marvel” catches that hard-to-define nineties quality. The chase scenes, flat desert landscapes, and government conspiracies within the film all seem abreast with the movies made around 1996.

Carrying us through both of the film's wildly different settings is Brie Larson. After her Oscar win for “Room,” Larson was pretty much immediately presumed to get the part of Carol Danvers. Certain qualities of Larson's are well suited tot he part. She has a wry smile that makes every smarmy one-liner soar. She also captures the character's determination – visualized during a montage that shows her standing up after getting knocked down throughout her life – and righteous angry. However, Larson lacks a certain ability to be an action hero. She has no physical poise during the fight scenes, her body language always being slightly stiff and off-putting. Anytime she has to ball her fists and shoot some laser beams from her hands, it always looks a little goofy.

Some of this fault doesn't lie with Larson. Fleck and Boden have never directed an action movie before that's pretty evident. The early fight scenes have the directors returning tot he shaky visual style they showed in their earliest films. While never incoherent, this approach does make a chase across a subway train or the fight between the Kree and the Skrulls on a grey alien world awfully uninteresting to watch. (They even throw in one of those rough, handheld zooms, though they were presumably created digitally.) In the second half, the action scenes begin to depend entirely on CGI visuals. Marvel movies usually bring a degree of flair to their CGI slug-fests but a scene of Carol tearing through Kree battleships with ease lack even that. It feels like zeros-and-ones in a way that's not as charming as Marvel's other computer-generated climaxes. Maybe it's just because Carol faces off with a collection of random ships, instead of a proper supervillain.

Ultimately, “Captain Marvel” works best when its a buddy movie between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. Since this is a younger, less experienced Fury, Jackson – digitally youthened in a seamless manner –gets to play a snarkier and more upbeat spymaster. The two interact in an effortlessly charming way. Jackson's stone walling proves an ideal deflection to Larson's smirk and sarcasm. A conversation in a road side bar, while toiling in a waiting room, or escaping the bad guys in a records vault all produce laughs and smiles. The two are great together and that charm keeps the entire movie afloat.

While I'm hardly one to believe that comic book movies should display utmost fidelity to the source material, “Captain Marvel” does make a somewhat questionable change to long-established Marvel lore. In the comics, the shape-shifting Skrulls are undeniably bad guys. In fact, they are among of the comic universe's most devious foes. “Captain Marvel” brings the Skrull to the screen with one huge difference: The Skrulls aren't so bad. Instead, they are victims of the Kree, innocents without a home world fleeing extermination across the galaxy. Much like “Iron Man 3's” Mandarin twist, this is a massive upheaval of comic nerd expectations that is a bit too clever for its own good. In the books, the Skrulls are bad and the Kree suck too. In the movie, the Skrulls are innocent victims and the Kree operate an amoral war machine. Would more complexity have been too much to ask?

Then again, Fleck and Boden's politics have never been subtle or cooked into their movies in a smooth fashion. This isn't “Half Nelson,” where characters directly explain philosophy details into the camera. However, in addition to its dissertation on gas lighting, “Captain Marvel” is also a story of refugees fleeing persecution only to be hounded in a new location. Though clearly written long before our current immigration crisis, it seems like “Captain Marvel” is reflecting our world as it is now. The Kree are an America-like empire, spreading violence across the galaxy in the pursuit of resources. The Skrull are persecuted everywhere they go. It's easy to see where this is coming from. The film also heavily codes Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau, her fighter pilot BFF, as possible lovers, if you needed anymore proof of the film's progressive politics. Overbearing, maybe, but it's better than the wishy washy, pseudo-Randian philosophy of the “Iron Man” series.

Setting the movie a decade before most of the rest of Marvel's cinematic output keeps “Captain Marvel” from being too bogged down by continuity. However, the film still has to include shout-outs to the wider MCU. Whether this is done organically or not is a matter of debate. “The Avenger's” Tesseract, one of those dang Infinity Stones, has a role in the story that could've been filled by any plot device. (Trying to mentally keep track of where all the Stones were over the decades proves distracting.) A young Philip Coulson has a bit part, showing his strong character even if his role could've been filled by anyone. Ronan the Accuers and Korath the Persuer re-appear, before their canonical deaths. Honestly, most of these call-backs amount to simple in-jokes. Such as the fate of Fury's eye or the way Carol contributes to the Avengers' team name.

The movie's sense of humor and the strong interaction between its cast members, its best qualities, carry all throughout its supporting cast. Ben Mendelsohn, returning from “Mississippi Grind,” appears as Talos, leader of the Skrulls. Mendelsohn could've just played another calculating villain. Instead, he makes Talos a comedic straight man with an amusingly matter-of-fact way of speaking. (A highlight is a conversation about the limits of Skrull shape-shifting.) The banter Larson has with Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau is sharp-witted while her relationship with Rambeau's daughter is especially adorable. Annette Benning is probably way overqualified for her role but her ability to cast a slightly edgy warmth couldn't be better utilized. Of course, among the film's best supporting cast member is Goose the Cat, a lovable feline who hides a laugh-out-loud secret.

The Marvel brand name is implicitly trusted by the general public now. Even if Joe Moviegoer didn't know Captain Marvel from that other Captain Marvel, the Marvel Studios logo guaranteed this would be a money-maker. The obvious outcry for action/adventure stories driven by women would further boost “Captain Marvel” into that upper echelon of box office money-makers. This being 2019, an incredibly stupid controversy had to follow, in which he-man woman haters objected to a rather innocuous observation Larson made on the press tour. While superhero movies once again becoming a touchstone in the culture wars can only make me sigh, this “protest” did nothing to affect the film's popularity. While it ranks as mid-tier Marvel – due to pacing issues and some irksome changes to the lore – for me, “Captain Marvel” was pretty clearly a big deal for a lot of people and that has value too. [Grade: B]

As was the case with my Peyton Reed retrospective, Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden's next project hasn't technically been announced yet. But it's pretty easy to guess. One assumes that the team is had at work on a sequel to “Captain Marvel,” which the highly secretive Marvel just hasn't officially announced yet. Your superhero franchise film doesn't make a billion dollars and not spawn a sequel.

Watching Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck go from tiny indie filmmakers to big budget directional superstars sure has been interesting. It's not a path I would've guessed if I saw “Half Nelson” back when it was new. It is interesting that many of their stylistic quirks and writing interests have been maintained throughout their entire career. I'll admit, aside from their cape movie, these guys don't really tell the kind of stories that get me passionate. My heart wasn't entirely in this Director Report Card. At the same time, most of their films are pretty good too. I am interested to see where they take Carol Danvers next, and where their careers advance after having such a success on their resumes.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Director Report Card: Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck (2014)

4. Mississippi Grind

When it comes to modern film fandom, no studio is more respected than A24. The distribution company has brought some of the most beloved indie dramas of the last few years to the masses. Considering their statuses as respected indie auteurs, it was probably inevitable that Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden would team-up with A24. After their brush with the mainstream, the duo would try their hand at a buddy comedy of sorts. However, “Mississippi Grind” would not be one of the break-through A24 movies. Instead, it became one of the films that went straight-to-Direct TV, the movie going largely ignored by everyone but the hardcore movie nerds. (Though it was well-received by those that did see it.)

Gerry likes to gamble, even though he's not very good at it. His addiction to cards, slots, the ponies, and games of chance led to the end of his marriage and an estrangement with his young daughter. One night, while out at a poker game, he meets another gambler named Curtis. Where Gerry is consistently downtrodden, Curtis is almost supernaturally lucky. The two become fast friends. The nomadic Curtis leaves town soon enough and Gerry – who is being pursued by loan sharks anyway – decides to follow him. The two travel down the Mississippi River, finding their opposing approach to gambling in conflict.

“Mississippi Grind” is apparently an extended homage to Robert Altman's “California Split,” a movie I've never seen. However, I have seen enough movies like it to get what Fleck and Boden were going for here. “Mississippi Grind” is clearly a throwback to an older style of moviemaking. It's a rambling sort of character study. There's a destination in mind but what's more important is how the two leads get to know each other, how their friendship evolves and how their personalities affect one another. It's a deliberately retro-feeling style, as even dramas are more focused on forward momentum than just hanging out these days.

With “It's Kind of a Funny Story,” Boden and Fleck told a more whimsical type of story, dealing with characters from a well-to-do world. With “Mississippi Grind,” the directors return to the kind of gritty intimacy that defined their first two features. Gerry inhabits a world of low-lives, screw-ups, drug addicts, and prostitutes. Many of the film's scenes take place in sleazy bars, poorly lit casinos, or partially empty dog tracks. This is not a movie about the glamorous world of high-stakes gambling. Instead, it' about the kind of real people – everyday thrill seekers and desperate folks – who actually hang out at your nearest casino or bar.

Despite its gritty settings, don't think “Mississippi Grind” is an overwhelmingly depressing film. In fact, it's pretty funny. This is primarily a buddy comedy. While driving to their destination, Curtis playfully picks at the gambling advice CD Gerry always has in his car player. Curtis is full of colorful stories, his lifetime of gambling adventures putting him in contact with all sorts of eccentric characters. This pays off fantastically when Gerry, badly in need of a pay day, tracks down one of the colorful figures Curtis talked about. Poor Gerry can't even get mugged correctly, as an attempted robbery has him non-seriously stabbed by an apathetic mugger.

Much like Dunne in “Half Nelson,” “Mississippi Grind” focuses in on a protagonist that keeps making mistakes. Gerry isn't a bad gambler, necessarily. While playing a poker game in a woman's den, he manages to win... Before he decides to keep going, loosing everything he won. This is not the only example. After a lucky win at the dog track, he insists on going for one more round, that screws both him and Curtis. Gerry isn't the kind of addict addicted to the thrill. Instead, he gambles because he can't help but feel that big win – that life-changing win – is just around the corner. That desire to reach that goal has him making desperate decisions, like stealing money from his wife or spending his last dollar on a slot machine.

Curtis doesn't have this problem. Curtis can walk into seemingly any situation and come out a winner. He can randomly choose a greyhound and have a winner. He can make a profit off a barroom game of darts or pool. He has a seemingly intuitive ability to always know what to do to win. Though their luck couldn't be more different, Gerry and Curtis quickly form a bond, both amazing at a recent rainbow. They laugh it up in a bar. Ultimately, Gerry and Curtis stand by each other, as seen when Curtis' VIP card is turned down at a hotel . Watching these two guys have a good time together is the primary joy of “Mississippi Grind” and certainly helps make its dreary settings bearable.

Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck's first two features both functioned as deconstructions of common subgenres. “Half Nelson” put a realistic spin on the inspirational teacher movie. “Sugar” riffed on the inspirational sports drama. “Mississippi Grind” is a road trip movie. Gerry and Curtis travel from Iowa down to New Orleans. Luckily, Boden and Fleck do not see fit to deconstruct the road movie. Granted, the guys don't see the iconic sights on their journey. Instead, they mostly hang out on a river boat or in cheesy bars and casinos. Yet the central premise of a subgenre – it's about the journey, not the destination – is maintained. And it all works out, because road movies are awesome and in no need fo a grim-dark reinvention.

Thankfully, there's something else “Mississippi Grind” isn't about. Though the characters are all gamblers and gambling motivates the entire story, this is thankfully not a movie about gambling. Much like how “Sugar” wasn't really a sports movie, the filmmakers simply use the dramatic tension inherent in the competition without bogging the viewer down in rules and strategy. That's good, as I understand the rules of gambling about as well as I understand sports. So we see Gerry and Curits play blackjack, poker, or craps, getting the general gist even if not the exact details  Wondering whether the winning hand will come up, if the dice will land correctly, is all we need to know.

The best moments throughout “Mississippi Grind” tend to be quieter moments of reflection. An absolute heart-breaking scene has Gerry bonding with a call-girl friend of Curtis. The two spend the night playing piano and talking about their lives. It's such a gentle moment, dripping with flirtatious energy – but more concerned with regrets – without anything as heavy as actual romance or sex. Later on, Curtis gets an equal moment of reflection when encountering his mom, a boozy singer in a bar, one of the rare times when he's put in his place. Ultimately, among the film's most important scene is when Curtis promises not to give up on Gerry, a sweet and bro-tastic scene that solidifies the friendship so central to the movie.

Ben Mendelsohn has made a decent career out of bringing his particularly dry and British wit to many undistinguished villain roles. Which makes seeing him as a fallible, lovable loser like Gerry a surprise. Mendelsohn acts as much with his body as his more-than-capable dry wit. It's even a plot point, as the film draws attention to his slouched posture early on. As much of a sad sack as Gerry is, there's also something unavoidably charming about him. He seems like he'd be fun to hang out with. For the most part, Mendelsohn is an utter delight as a guy with incredibly bad luck and an inability to learn from his mistakes.

Ryan Reynolds has ridden his gift for smarmy charm all the way to superhero superstardom. Before he became Deadpool as we know him, Reynolds played a more down-to-Earth smart-ass here. Yes, Curtis still has that Reynolds-esque tendency to say improbably clever dialogue. Yet it's in service of a more humane script. As much snarky dialogue as Reynolds gets to deliver, Curtis is still a fully formed character, a normal person with incredible luck and a unique outlook on life. This is a fantastic use of Reynolds' charm and a good look at why Hollywood made so many attempts at turning him into a genuine movie star before it really stuck. The guy has that quality, that ability to show an incredibly humanity while being hilarious and larger-than-life.

Boden and Fleck ditch the shaky-cam in favor of a less distracting style. They keep the tendency for on-the-nose soundtracks, this time powering the entire movie with a collection of (admittedly pretty great) classic blues songs. I think it's easily my favorite of the directing duo's films thus far. The movie proves more charming than “Half Nelson” and “Sugar,” while loosing none of the qualities that work in those movie's favor. (It's also way funnier than “It's Kind of a Funny Story.”) With two extremely likable lead performance and an ideally executed pacing, “Mississippi Grind” is an underseen gem absolutely worth seeking out. [Grade: B+]

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck (2010)

3. It's Kind of a Funny Story

It's a common path in Hollywood now. A first-time director rises out of nowhere with a rapturously received independent film. It rides a wave of hype, buzz, and positive reviews to some degree of mainstream award recognition. After this breakthrough, the director is suddenly fighting off offers from big studios and usually handle a prominent project of some sort. (Increasingly, it's a superhero movie but we'll get to that later...) After swinging back even further to their indie roots with “Sugar,” Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck would have their studio breakthrough with their third feature. “It's Kind of a Funny Story” was still technically an indie project, though it was based off a successful novel and distributed by a major studio, still qualifying as the directing duo's most high-profile project to this point.

Craig Gilner is sixteen years old and under a lot of stress. His dad is pressuring him to get into a prodigious school and he hasn't even started studying yet. His crush and his best friend are dating, actively flirting around him all the time. Among this mounting anxiety, Craig has started contemplating killing himself. Frightened by his own thoughts, he checks himself into a mental hospital. The terms of admittance says he has to stay throughout the week, even if Craig is immediately ready to change his mind. Over the next five days, he makes new friends and realizes some things about himself.

In the world of independent movies, there's a certain “type” movie fans can immediately recognize. They are comedy, frequently coming-of-age stories. They have a medium sized cast with lots of flashy supporting roles, revolving around a young protagonist trying to come out of his or her shell. These supporting characters are often excessively quirky, bringing lots of eccentric dialogue and wacky events with them. I call these the “indie quirk-fests.” They get scooped up by the studios from film festivals all the time, because occasionally a “Juno” or a “Little Miss Sunshine” will break through and become a big hit. Let me tell you, “It's Kind of a Funny Story” is one-hundred percent typical of this strain of cinema.

Yes, “It's Kind of a Funny Story” features a socially awkward teen hero, a manic pixie dream girl that changes his life forever, and a well-known comedian in a wise if highly eccentric mentor role. Yet this kind of story is told in the world of mental health. Our hero is deeply anxious, struggling with suicidal feelings and feelings of inadequacy. His hero has tried to kill himself multiple times before. The wacky comic relief characters in the background are suffering from serious mental maladies. Is it just me or is setting such a typical quirky comedy story in this kind of setting... Sort of trivializing mental illness? I'm sure Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wouldn't see it that way. But as someone who has struggled with anxiety, depression, OCD, and intrusive thoughts, I really don't appreciate the portrayals here.

Having said all that, Craig is not the worst protagonist I've seen in movies like this. The kid isn't annoying. In fact, I even found myself relating to him a few times. Much like Miguel Soto in “Sugar,” Craig is something of a perfectionist. He wants to please his parents but, mostly, he will be disappointed in himself he can't get into this nice school. Yet this desire to be the best goes hand-in-hand with a fear of failing spectacularly. That fear is so overwhelming that he never tries and his anxiety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a cycle of self-defeating perfectionism that I have gone through – still fight with, really – all the time. And “It's Kind of a Funny Story” earns points for depicting it fairly accurately.

If “It's Kind of a Funny Story” had simply focused on portraying this frantic mindset, I might have been a little more forgiving of it.(Even if it continues to play deeply sick people as figures of dehumanizingly quirky amusement... However, like so many indie quirk-fest, the film also has to be a love story. About entering the mental hospital, Craig means Noelle. The film hints at her backstory – we briefly see scars on her wrists – but we learn very little about her inner life. She is interested in Craig for loosely defined reasons, seemingly motivated to befriend him based on his kindness to another patient. And that's the basis of their entire relationship. You know why he falls in love with her. Craig's an awkward nerd and she's a hot girl paying attention to him. But why the hell does Noelle care about him? I might have an answer if the film bothered to develop her beyond the bare facts.

There are other moments that make me dislike “It's Kind of a Funny Story.” There's a few minor contrivances to the plot that bug me. If Noelle likes Craig for mystifying reasons, the audience is even more confused when his crush – improperly hot for what's suppose to be a normal teenage girl – throws herself at him. This proceeds another dramatic plot turn, where that attempted hook-up goes horribly wrong and Craig declares his love for this other girl, just when Noelle happens to be walking by. Oh, come on. I've got no patience for bullshit happenstance like that. It's not the only time the movie pulls something like this. Shoving the entire story into a week, forcing one epiphany after another to cross the cast, sure feels overly convenient.

To prove how cute, how overwhelmingly twee it is, “It's Kind of a Funny” story heads off on extended flights of fancy throughout its run time. The most gratuitous of these moments concerns Craig participating in music therapy. He gets talked into singing. Instead of showing him awkwardly mumbling his way through a song, what might've been a moment of honest exposure that strips away the bullshit, we get an elaborate fantasy sequence. We see Craig and his friends as glamorously rock stars belting out “Under Pressure.” This is far from the only time the film does this. Craig's voice over narration is often smarmy, often too cute for its own. His declaration of love with Noelle occurs before the city skyland turns into an animated postcard.

Occasionally, however, the film's digressions are mildly likable. During art therapy, Craig starts to draw maps. The film then leaps into that illustration, transitioning back through the past via a fly through an animated city. That was pretty cool shot. Occasionally, I do like some of Craig's extended fantasy spots. Such as one that sees him rising up through school and to the White House, with a stopover at MTV Cribs first. That follows a line of logic I can relate too. Generally speaking, these elements are too overdone, not genuine enough, for my taste.

“It's Kind of a Funny Story” is a lead role for Keir Gilchrist, a young actor that was best known for a lead role in “United States of Tara.” (I think the only other thing I've seen him in is “It Follows,” where he plays the kind of desperate best friend.) Gilchrist definitely doesn't overcome the limitations of a character like this. Craig's quirks still comprise most of his personality. However, Gilchrist goes a long way towards imbuing these wacky habits – the nervous patter, the extended fantasy sequences – with a deeper humanity. While most of the characters in the film are nothing but surface quirks, at least Craig comes to life as a more complex being. A lot of that is owed to Gilchrist, a somewhat bland but at least mildly interesting lead.

Gilchrist, of course, has no box office clout. The star attractions in the film were Zach Galifianakis, still running high off “The Hangover” movies at the time, and Emma Roberts, who Hollywood was still trying to make happen at the time. Galifianakis plays Bobby, the mentally ill mentor. Galifianakis' wackier touches as a comedy – which includes sneaking Craig out to play basketball here – have always had an undercurrent of sadness, of frailty, and that is put to good use here. Roberts, meanwhile, does have a certain likable energy about her. She brings an attitude to Noelle that makes the audience want to learn more about her, even if the script respond to that desire.

There's a number of other familiar faces in the cast. Craig's parents are played by Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan. It is disappointing that such familiar, likable presence are stuck in such minor roles. It's odd that Gaffigan, the very idea of a lovable oaf of a parent, is cast as a more strict father figure. Graham is cast too type as a warm and supportive mom, the film putting her in far too few scenes. Also wasted is Viola Davis as the doctor monitoring Craig's case. She's brought in to squint at Gilchrist a few times, deliver a line of wisdom, and then it's off to the next scene. I don't know why familiar faces and talented performers were shoved into nothing roles like this.

”It's Kind of a Funny Story” made some minor waves at the time of its release. Though not much of a box office success, the reviews were mildly positive. I was working in a video store when the film came out – meaning I saw it's trailer about a hundred times a day – and it proved to be a popular rental. Again, this was right after “The Hangover” came out and slapping Zach Galifianakis' face on something guaranteed a certain level of immediate success. As for the movie itself, it's not incompetent enough to be bad but I low-key dislike it, if that wasn't obvious. A topic like depression in teenagers deserve a less routine look than this. [Grade: C-]

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2019)

20. Nightmare Cinema

As I've commented on many times before, the horror anthology genre has undergone a serious revival in the last decade. The millennial wave of horror omnibus films are largely defined by gathering together a collection of indie filmmakers with one or two hits under their belt. These films are so common now that the idea has lost its novelty. At first, I was ready to dismiss “Nightmare Cinema” as just 2019's edition of the indie horror anthology... Until I realized it was “Masters of Horror: The Movie.” While Mick Garris' Showtime series never lived up to its potential, it was still a cult favorite. Garris has made several attempts to revive the premise, with “Nightmare Cinema” being the latest example. Garris gathered together four of his friends and colleagues – including “Masters of Horror” veteran Joe Dante – for five spooky tales, this time with a movie theater acting as the framing device.

We begin with “The Thing in the Woods.” Directed by Alejandro Brugués, of “Juan of the Dead” fame, it begins as a standard slasher story. A young woman is being chased through the woods by a murderer in a welding mask. She encounters several friends, all of whom are brutally dispatched by the masked killer. However, it's soon revealed that not everything is as it seems. Earlier in the weekend, this gathering of sexy college students noticed a strange meteorite falling from the sky, an event that indirectly led up to the bloodshed. (

As horror fans, we've certainly seen countless riffs on the slasher genre. Vampires and zombies are probably the only archetype deconstructed more. “The Thing in the Woods” at least has a clever twist on the premise. The reveal that there's a science fiction variation on the premise here, that the murders might even be justified, is unexpected. Brugués' direction is energetic, the camera being attached to a spinning sledge hammer. While the gore is elaborate, involving blow torching and face bashing, it often looks a little rubbery. The highly photogenic cast is largely blanks, which might actually be intentional.

The second episode is Joe Dante's contribution. “Mirari” revolves around Anna, a soon-to-be-married young woman. Anna is deeply self-conscious about a facial scar from a car accident. Her fiance David recommends plastic surgeon Dr. Mirari, who supposedly did a great job on his mom's recent improvement. Mirari keeps recommending more and more procedures to Anna. The girl, her body bandaged up after surgery, is prevented from looking in a mirror or calling anyone. Soon, it becomes evident that David is forcing his bride-to-be into something she neither expects nor wants.

If the presence of a heavily bandaged face and a surreal clinic didn't make it obvious, Joe Dante is paying homage to “The Twilight Zone” here. In some ways, “Mirari” operates fairly tensely. It's obvious to the audience that something ominous is happening at the plastic surgery office quickly enough. Anna's increasingly desperate attempts to escape are stifled quickly enough, in a way that just confirms the sinister suspicions. The segment is visually well assembled. The dream sequences are appropriately surreal. Cool, nighttime blues are utilized throughout the segment's second half, creating an atmospheric feeling.

However, “Mirari” ultimately leaves the audience feeling uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. Anna is ultimately a victim. She is being manipulated by her finance, who is pretty clearly a massive creepozoid. She is trapped in this hellish situation which only gets worst. Once the easily predicted twist ending arrives, her life is completely ruined. Yet the poor girl didn't actually do anythig wrong, besides love the wrong person. Why is the story punishing her so cruelly? That unnecessarily mean-spirited quality ultimately leaves the audience uncertain of how to feel about “Mirari.”

“Mashit” is directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, the madman behind “Versus,” “Godzilla: Final Wars,” and “The Midnight Meat Train.” (Garris always liked to invite an Asian filmmaker into “Masters of Horror” and Kitamura clearly fits that bill here.) The segment is set inside a Catholic school. A young student kills himself by leaping from the top of the building. The school girls begin to see disturbing visions and act strangely. Father Benedict and Sister Patricia, who are screwing, soon discover that the demon lord Mashit is behind these ghastly events. And that's when all Hell breaks loose.

Of all the filmmakers involved with “Nightmare Cinema,” Kitamura is the one whose stylistic touch is most evident. When a school girl is tossed head-over-heels in slow motion, there's no doubt about who directed this. The director's hyper-kinetic visual approach is widely seen all throughout the episode. There's quite a lot of spooky build-up in “Mashit,” involving the sudden appearance of a lava-skinned demon and the church setting being creepy. Kitamura eventually cuts loose wildly. “Mashit” quickly explodes into crazy action and wild gore as a sword-wielding priest battles a church full of demonically possessed school girls. A guitar-driven hard rock score from Aldo Shllaku powers this crazy action even further. Though clearly indebted to “Evil Dead 2” and “Night of the Demons,” Kitamura's contribution is highly entertaining.

The fourth installment is directed by David Slade, who previously made “Hard Candy” and “30 Days of Night.” (And, uh, one of the “Twilight” movies.) ”This Way to Egress” concerns Helen, who is stuck in a very unusual waiting room. Her two sons are there for an appointment which never seems to be coming. The people around her begin to look increasingly demonic. A black, mold-like substance is growing on all the surfaces. It soon becomes apparent that otherworldly forces are both operating around Helen and through her.

With ”This Way to Egress,” Slade wears his influences on its sleeve. A whispered-about and otherworldly conspiracy, an uncertain perception of reality, and the appearance of a bio-mechanical gun are clearly inspired by “Videodrome” and Cronenberg's work in general. The filthy industrial setting and black-and-white photography recall “Eraserhead.” Humans slowly morphing into inhuman creatures in a disturbing hospital setting is clearly taken from “Jacob's Ladder.” Slade combines these influences to create an unnerving, nightmarish tone... Which is good because, otherwise, “This Way to Egress” makes no sense at all. The characters are too thin to make this brief trip into surreal hell worthwhile for anything besides the creepy atmosphere.

“Nightmare Cinema” concludes with “Dead,” Mick Garris' latest directorial effort. Riley is a piano prodigy and his parents are very proud. After an impressive concert, the family car is hijacked. The mugger kills Riley's dad and shoots him. He flatlines on the operating table but is revived. This brush with death grants Riley the ability to see the spirits of the recently deceased. He's haunted by visions from the other side, wondering if his mom is also dead. Meanwhile, the killer who shot him once before sneaks into the hospital to finish the job he started.

Mick Garris has done a lot of work for television. At times, “Dead” feels a lot like pilot for a television series chopped down to fit into this anthology. It's the longest of “Nightmare Cinema's” segments. Its premise, of a teenager suddenly gaining the ability to see ghosts, could easily be the foundation for a TV show. Garris' script is often on the mawkish side. A character enters the film solely to be a source of exposition, just to exit suddenly. Faces appearing out of a white light to belch platitudes is, by far, the story's cheesiest touch. The climax is an awkward wrestling match with the bad guy. Having said that, I didn't totally hate “Dead” either. The hospital setting is sort of likably cozy. Not making the ghosts outright malevolent, so much as merely lost and scared, was a nice touch. Re-configuring “The Sixth Sense” into a detective show isn't the worst premise I've ever heard. It's a mildly entertaining

”Nightmare Cinema” is long for an anthology, running at two hours. Most of that runtime is devoted to the segments, leaving little room for a framing device. The scenes of Mickey Rourke, serving as our grim host in a theater that plays people visions of their deaths, aren't the most exciting anyway. Rumor has it that “Nightmare Cinema” was originally conceived as a TV show, meaning this really was supposed to be a new “Masters of Horror.” Maybe the next time Mick tries to resurrect this concept, it'll be as a streaming series. (“Nightmare Cinema” is streaming exclusively on Shudder, a likely home for such a hypothetical future project.) As a movie, it has enough decent or semi-decent segments to satisfy this not-to-discriminating horror fan, with Kitamura's tale being the highlight. [Grade: B-]

Director Report Card: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (2008)

2. Sugar

There sure are a lot of movies entitled “Sugar,” aren't there? When movie fans asked about the title, what are they referring to? Are they talking about the 2004 gay-themed drama? Perhaps they are discussing the 2013 indie drama about a traumatized, homeless teenager? Or maybe the micro-budget horror film from 2005, that seemingly only I remember, is the topic? There was even a movie with that title released this year, an autobiographical film from Ghanese singer KiDi. Not to mention quite a few shorts and documentary also carry that title. No, they are probably talking about the 2008 baseball drama, “Sugar,” as this is the only one directed by well-known writer/director duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Miguel Santos, nicknamed “Sugar,” is a nineteen year old black man living in the Dominican Republic. His family is poor and his community is impoverished but his talent as a baseball pitcher might be his ticket to a better life. His ability to throw a ball soon catches the attention of local talent scouts. Santos heads off to an American training camp, where he's groomed for a position on a minor league team. Santos initially has success, playing well, sending money back home and partying in his downtime. However, he's soon struggling with the pressures of being a semi-pro athlete, with an injury, a more talented rival, and his growing sense of isolation as an immigrant.

With the Oscar-nominated “Half Nelson” on their resume, you'd think Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden – she is technically making her feature debut here, getting a co-director credit – would move onto a bigger budget project. Instead, the follow-up to their break-through is even more of an independent film. There are no known actors in the cast. Most of the dialogue is in Spanish. The budget had to have been minuscule. The beginning is set in the real streets of the Dominican Republic while even the later scenes take us to the gritty parts of New York or the humble communities of small town America. The film shows the director team being even more committed to their style and interest.

More than anything else, “Sugar” is the story of an immigrant coming to America. Like many fish-out-of-water stories, there is a degree of comedy here. Santo and his friends discover the amenities of American life – like cheap booze, pay-per-view porn, and French toast – soon enough. After graduating to the A-league, Miguel ends up staying with a conservative Christian family in the mid-west. Their daughter's friends attempt to teach him about foosball or meatloaf. There are sweet moments too, such as when a kindly waitress teaches Miguel about the different English phrases for cooking an egg. Or when he throws himself on the mercy of the patriarch he lives with.

“Sugar,” however, is about a little more than that. While in his home country, Miguel is repeatedly told what a great thing coming to America will be. He wants to take care of his family, who are very poor. However, he soon starts to feel lonely and home sick. It can be hard to find people who even speak his language. A telling scene has him buying an expensive suit in an American store, only to notice the tag says “Made in the Dominican Republic.” He sees very little of himself in the world around him, in the new people he meets. He experiences bigotry for the first time. “Sugar” shows how young men in poor countries are promised one thing by the American Dream, only to receive something very different instead.

Much how “Half Nelson” was something of a deconstruction of the “inspirational teacher” movie, “Sugar” is providing a grittier, more grounded look at the “inspirational sports drama.” The movie isn't set in the glitzy world of Major League baseball. Instead, it takes place in the training camps, the sausage factory of the sports world. Santo has raw talent but it's not enough to overcome the pressures of the job. Friendships are broken up by the demands of being traded from team to team. Rivalries are less bitter than they are practical, everyone competing for the same job. The underdog doesn't blow away the competition and get an uplifting victory. Instead, he drops out all together. “Sugar” shows a more realistic side of a poor man having his life changed by the sports world.

What I found most compelling about “Sugar” was the exact reason why Miguel struggles in the minor leagues. He's something of a perfectionist. People have been telling him he's talented his entire life. His first serious game goes very well for him. Yet he sees how the other talented players around him are sent home, because of injuries or personal slip-ups. He starts to feel the pressure mount that, if he can keep up a consistently perfect standard, he'll be sent home too. People tell him he's still doing fine but he feels every little mistake is a huge flaw. Which makes him nervous. Which causes him to make more serious mistakes, until his career really is in jeopardy. It's a vicious cycle any perfectionist who also has anxiety can relate to far too well.

What's really surprising about “Sugar” is how it doesn't end after Miguel decides he can't handle the pressures of being a pro-athlete. Instead, the film continues to follow him on his new life. He shacks up in a sleazy hotel, works as a busboy in restaurant, and eventually makes new friends. This is the sort of slice-of-life naturalism that Boden and Fleck were also fascinated with in “Half Nelson.” It also shows the important lesson of how dreams can sometimes do with a revision. Miguel doesn't get what he thinks he wants but ends up being satisfied with his lot in life after all.

In “Half Nelson,” Fleck and Boden occasionally had character flat-out explain the themes of the story to the audience. “Sugar” is thankfully less didactic than that. However, it still features some awfully on-the-nose symbolism. Miguel's deceased dad was a carpenter. It's a career he thinks about sometimes too. At home, he tinkers with fixing an old table. Once in new York, he seeks out a carpenter as a mentor, a man who specializes in doors... Almost as if Miguel himself is opening a door to a new life. His desire to rebuild things – such as a wonky drawer – is clearly symbolic of his desire to rebuild the life he's build for himself.  It's pretty obvious but at least it's not directly described via dialogue.

Unsurprisingly, most of “Sugar's” cast is composed of non-professional actors making their screen debut. The film was the debut for Algenis Perez Soto, who plays Miguel. Soto has a raw quality to his acting, that makes him seem like a totally normal person. This is well suited to the scenes where Miguel is interacting with his new homeland, awkwardly attempting to learn English or flirt with a girl who doesn't even understand him. Soto is also a gifted physical performer. He says a lot with his body language, which is especially valuable during the ambiguous final shot of the film. Soto hasn't done too much acting since this, though Boden and Fleck did find room for him in “Captain Marvel.”

Another continuing trick of Boden and Fleck's is their overly gritty visual sense. Yes, I'm talking about the handheld, shaky cam shit. Luckily, it's not as overdone here as it was in “Half Nelson.” We still have scenes where the image shakes unnecessarily. Or the image roughly zooms in for no reason, like a slow pan on Soto's face during a crowd sequence. I get why the directors like this style. As it lends further on-the-ground naturalism to their gritty, grounded-in-reality stories. But I still sort of dislike this aesthetic in general. What's even more annoying is that other moments in “Sugar” are quite striking, like the way camera visually captures Miguel's growing unease during an attempt to take performance-enhancing drugs.

The movie's soundtrack is also a little too on-the-nose sometimes. There's not much in the way of music for most of the first half, some light scoring or local songs complementing mostly natural sound. Which is fitting for a story concerned with simple people in simple locations. However, after coming to America, popular songs appear in the film. TV on the Radio plays over a montage of the team's various victories. Later, the film actually uses that most overplayed of songs: Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah,” though at least its performed in Spanish. I do like the Moby cut that plays over the end credits, as it takes us out on a fittingly melancholy if sweeping final note.

Though it was produced by HBO Films, “Sugar” did get a theatrical release. The film was well received but didn't earn any Oscar nominations, like Fleck and Boden's first feature. “Sugar” doesn't have the emotional impact of that one either, though it's not for a lack of trying. In other ways, the film shows the filmmaker's easing into their own style a little more comfortably. It's a strong second feature and a generally likable movie. And that's coming from a guy who fucking hates baseball. [Grade: B]