CAPSULE: THIS IS ME… NOW (2024)

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<em>This Is Me… Now streams exclusively on Amazon Prime.

DIRECTED BY: Dave Meyers

FEATURING:

PLOT: “The Artist” searches for a soul mate while discussing her past with her therapist as the Zodiacal pantheon oversees her difficulties.

Still from This Is me... Now: A Love Story (2024)
This Is Me… Now: A Love Story (2024)

COMMENTS: Having little experience with Jennifer Lopez until watching this film, her, now, is all I have to work with. Fortunately for J-Lo, and director Dave Meyers, I’m a sucker for vanity projects, music videos, and random experiences. This Is Me… Now dances energetically atop a certain floor of competence, jerkily zapping with defiance, then (jerkily) tilting into romantic melancholy. Ladies and germs, what we have here is a semi-operatic music video feature, likely to please any fan of the artiste behind the songs and dances.

For those not particularly interested in Ms. Lopez or her music, there are still a cache of fun little flourishes to keep you amused over the hour-long experience. The biggest rests amongst the stars—whence comes all life, light, and hope, as might be declared by none other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, onscreen here as the Zodiacal sign of Taurus. No less impressive is , leading the team of star signs—proving she’s as fun and full as ever. (I’ll leave it you to check out the celebrity checklist for the other astrological persona, but it is a motley and… star-studded bunch.) , ever his woman’s fellow, dons a ridiculous hairpiece and a brash schmuckery as a nebulously right-wing TV personality. And I am told that Fat Joe is something of a heavy hitter, and his performance as Jennifer’s therapist makes me curious to explore his career further.

Perhaps more than any other film which has crossed my plate, This Is Me… Now plays to its audience; it is a loving gift from the singer-celebrity (evidenced in particular by her own personal outlay of some twenty million dollars to get it off the ground). From the opening steam-punk dystopian heart factory metaphor power ballad (gotta keep feeding petals into the core, lest that heart becomes broken), to the decent-to-impressive late era MTV-style set pieces (quirky-jerky dance routines featuring dozens), right through the closing maneuvers, This Is Me… Now delivers J-Lo on her own terms, and that was good (enough) for me.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Please allow me to introduce you to the shiny and ambitious and strange and ludicrous and trippy and occasionally fantastic ‘This Is Me … Now.'”–Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: STOPMOTION (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aisling Franciosi, Caoilinn Springall, Tom York, Stella Gonet, Therica Wilson-Read

PLOT: Ella struggles to complete her famous stop-motion animator mother’s final work after the woman is hospitalized; she abandons that story and starts another when she meets a creepy little girl who invents a fairy tale about a mysterious man “no one wants to meet.”

Still from STOPMOTION (2023)

COMMENTS: The painstaking nature of stop-motion animation—move a puppet a fraction of a millimeter, snap a picture, repeat for an hour until you’ve animated a full second—means that the form is usually relegated to short films. Just ask or what it takes to animate a full-length feature without a million-dollar team of animators backing you. So it comes as little surprise that celebrated short film stop-animator Robert Morgan decided to craft his debut feature as a hybrid film, a mostly live-action story enveloping small snippets of his animated passion. The subject is, naturally, the making of a stop motion movie, and the focus is on the madness inherent in this most laborious and solitary of artistic pursuits.

The film begins in hybridized fashion, with protagonist Ella (a deranged-looking Franciosi) seen in the flicker of a multicolored party strobe—her facial expressions chopped up into stop-motiony frames. Ella is working on an animated feature about a cute fuzzy cyclops (who foresees his own death) for her ailing (and domineering) mother—the daughter supplies the hands, the mom the imagination. Mom, indeed, calls Ella “puppet” (not “poppet”). When Mom leaves the picture, though, Ella flounders, searching for inspiration, until the arrival of a brunette moppet who might be the spitting image of Ella at eleven. Nightmares and hallucinations ensue as Ella abandons the cyclops story and pursues a new one, with new materials and a growing unhealthy obsessiveness.

Morgan’s animations are obviously the highlight, and they disappoint only in their limited screen time. The girl morbidly encourages Ella to use meat, bone, and mortician’s wax to fashion new puppets, which look like the distressed, putrescent protagonists we’re familiar with from shorts like “Bobby Yeah.” The main puppet’s face is decorated with red blotches, like excema scratched raw, and the boogeyman is covered in bleeding sores and patchy hair. The sound design is oppressive, full of screeches, clanks, thumps, and heavy footsteps. A black, egglike blob and icky procreative imagery feature prominently in the second half. The animated segments, delivered via a fairy tale structure that requires increasingly dreadful visits over the course of three nights, scores a spooky vibe. The violent, gory finale highlights some squirmy visuals, but represents quite the tonal shift away from the dread-based horror of the earlier segments.

In his director’s statement Morgan describes Stopmotion as a “psychological piece in the vein of classic Lynch, or Cronenberg,” and the specific films he cites make it appear like he studied this site’s canon for inspiration: Naked Lunch, Barton Fink, Black Swan, Santa Sangre, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE. All of that places the film firmly in our circle of interest. But as a psychological horror, Stopmotion delivers on horror, while coming up a bit short on the psychology. It’s about the madness of creativity, and traffics in concepts like self-doubt, the mystery of inspiration, Eros overcome by Thanatos, and obsession. But, powerful as these themes are, they ultimately don’t synergize in an enticing way. Stopmotion doesn’t add anything new to the portrait of the artist traumatized by their own work; there is no meaty psychological hook for Ella to dangle from. It’s admittedly style over substance, but the surplus of style makes up for a shortfall in substance. Morgan still has room to grow, and if he puts it all together someday, he’s shown the promise to create a masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a disappointing path, more than a bit dimestore Freud, hardly managing to reveal Ella’s fracturing psyche to us in convincing terms, and instead succeeding only in having us assume most of what we’re watching is simply Ella’s confused imagination. In the process, though, you do get a tantalizing primer in how modern stop-motion animation works, and how Morgan’s own physical process musters his greasy weirdness out of everyday substances.”–Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE KEEP (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Michael Mann

FEATURING: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: A Nazi regiment unwisely establishes a base inside the keep of a Romanian castle where an otherworldly beast has been imprisoned for the safety of humanity.

Still from The Keep (1983)

COMMENTS: Wanting to cleanse my palette after my last encounter with Nazis, I figured it would be fun to watch them get slaughtered by a supernatural force even more evil than themselves. What I forgot to reckon with was Michael Mann, a man who walks eagerly into grey spaces. To be clear, dead Nazis haven’t lost their appeal. It’s just that no one comes out of The Keep smelling like a rose. 

Mann has always been interested in the bad things that decent people do in defense of some greater good, usually accompanied by moody visuals and moodier music. In that sense, The Keep fits right into his CV. We’ve got pure bad guys in the form of a Nazi platoon that sets up camp in a Carpathian castle, but the forces aligned against them are a disparate bunch: Molasar, an ancient demon trapped behind silver crosses and a talisman; the amazingly named Glaeken Trismegestus, a kind of knight-errant tasked with ensuring Molasar never emerges from this dark prison; and Dr. Cuza, a Jewish academic sprung from a concentration camp to help the Nazis translate ancient languages, who decides that freeing Molasar will save his people. So our bad guys are plenty bad, but the enemy of our enemy might not be our friend.

The stage is set for a real philosophical showdown, but  Paramount was looking for a horror-thriller, and when the production went way over budget, the studio declined to provide additional funds. To complicate things further, the visual effects supervisor died two weeks into post-production, leaving behind no instruction and no means of accomplishing the effects-heavy finale Mann intended. Finally, Mann turned in a cut nearly three and a half hours long, promptly getting himself thrown off the project. The studio hacked off about ninety minutes and, following a terrible preview, applied classic Hollywood logic and shaved off another thirty. The final product is, predictably, disjointed and open-ended, with characters appearing and disappearing randomly, a significantly truncated romance, and the entire thing wrapping up in a flurry of anticlimax. (Amusingly, an entire battalion of Nazis is wiped out while we’re watching their commander in another room.) It’s hard to argue that a horror film the length of The Godfather Part II is a good idea, but the shortened version is sorely lacking in some of the most critical areas, such as suspense, or clear linear progression.

The elements that work best in The Keep are the ones that go gleefully beyond the pale. Electronica pioneers Tangerine Dream provide a wonderfully anachronistic score that works despite itself. The production design by John Box and the art direction of Alan Tomkins and Herbert Westbrook are suitably evocative and foreboding. And best of all, the acting is top-notch baroque insanity. Byrne is relentlessly nasty in classic Nazi fashion, positioned opposite the war-weary pragmatism that Prochnow brings over undiluted from Das Boot (1981). McKellen uses the full power of his stage-acting experience, bellowing in a bizarre American accent (reportedly at Mann’s instigation) that eventually becomes a John Huston impression. Watson makes no impression at all. And then, in the role of the enigmatic stranger who is engaged in a millennia-old battle against evil, there’s affable everyman Scott Glenn. He’s horribly miscast, but somehow he gets far entirely on the basis of the asynchrony. The story may not make sense, but at least everyone goes for it.

The best thing that The Keep has going for it is its spectacle, and that suffers from being visibly undercut, far from the poetic grandeur its auteur intended. It’s hard to say if the film Mann had in mind–a blend of arty philosophy and purple grandiosity –would have worked. But it’s clear from what remains that it would have lacked for neither.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Keep is a weird movie and I mean that in the best possible way. On the negative end of the spectrum, there are too many characters and the film is often muddled and slow-moving. However, if you stick with it, you will be rewarded with some rather fine monster-mashing and other assorted general nonsense.” Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum

(This movie was nominated for review by purplefig. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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