Everyone is feeling the effects of COVID-19 and the entertainment industry, in particular movie studios and theaters, have been dramatically affected. New releases from studios have been shelved and indefinitely postponed, which means as a film critic I have less new movies to review. In the ensuing weeks, and more likely months ahead, I will be continuing to review new films when I can, albeit many will likely be smaller indies unless Hollywood embraces Video on Demand. I’m also going to make a real effort to continue seeking out Ohio-made indies and providing reviews for them. I may do what I did for my huge 1999 in Rewind article and look back at my original teenage reviews and assess my current feelings on the movies and my old writing, this time for the year 2000. I’ll be playing catch-up on older classics that I’ve never seen, which always surprises people how many they are. I’ll be on the lookout for amazingly new so-bad-it’s-gotta-be-seen movies (have you seen Love on a Leash?). In short, I’m going to keep writing. I hope you keep reading.
Over 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 as of this writing. We here in the U.S. are four percent of the world’s population and yet account for twenty-percent of the world’s deaths. I lament that this number will only go higher over the next many months of the pandemic that has defined 2020. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger conducted interviews around the world with special cameras and protective measures to complete the first major documentary on the coronavirus outbreak. Totally Under Control (title taken directly from Trump’s early February response to COVID-19) is their collaborative effort, and it’s both a timely work of criticism and destined to be inevitably out-of-date in short order.
Given the constant deluge of news about the by-the-minute Trump administration mistakes and questionable calls, the question for a documentary like Totally Under Control is whether or not it provides more insights than simply keeping up with the shocking and dispiriting headlines. I would argue that Gibney’s first pass at recounting our still-living history of calamity offers the benefit of hindsight but also an immediacy or urgency, considering we are still months away from a presumable vaccine. The movie feels like what the first part of the COVID-19 mini-series would cover, focusing on those first few critical months of bungled government response from January to April. The abbreviated focus allows Gibney and his crew to zero in on what the early mistakes were and how we have been paying for them ever since. The collapsed time also allows for more get-able interview subjects, people who might not currently be serving in the administration who feel comfortable or compelled to go on the record with their accounts. There are some great interview subjects here that were plugged in from the beginning, sounding the alarm, and who can give the public a clear understanding of just how woefully equipped a deeply un-serious administration was to handle the most serious public health crisis in a century.
One of the more aggravating tragedies is that many of the thousands of COVID deaths could have been prevented if better steps had been taken early to contain its spread. Naturally, there’s always going to be clearer reflection when looking back on mistakes of the past, not knowing at the time that they were mistakes, but the Trump administration made a political calculus that would only exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus. Early on, the Trump administration’s guiding principle seemed to amount to stripping away anything and everything that the Obama administration had accomplished. It didn’t matter what it was, if Obama had built it, then Trump was motivated to tear it down. This included the pandemic response task force in 2018. This included ignoring the 70-page pandemic response playbook left behind. So when the early warnings appeared in December and January, the United States was already playing from behind. We could have been preparing with amping up production for necessary medical supplies and installing the infrastructure for a robust testing and tracing program; however, this all came into conflict with the other major political calculus that governed all of Trump’s decision-making. His mantra heading into 2020 and re-election was, simply, “Do no harm… to the economy.” Rather than take preventative measures or treat the virus as a danger, the Trump political apparatus was afraid acknowledging the threat so it would not spook the financial markets, a source of bragging for Trump to tout why the American people should re-elect him. When the CDC briefed government officials and media with updated predictions of normal life being uprooted, the markets responded negatively, and Trump fumed. From there, decisions were less about stopping the coronavirus and more about making everything appear like it was no big deal.
Totally Under Control keeps a running calendar of events to compare the U.S. response to South Korea, two countries that had their first official COVID infection on the same day. The Korean government had already taken preventative measures after the 2015 MERS scare to be ready if another frightening new contagion emerged. The politicians left the science to the scientists and followed their recommendations. The Korean people wore masks and were diligent about simple safety measures to stay safe. They had a system of contact tracing already installed. These moves are in sharp contrast to the American response, and while there would be some cultural roadblocks for Americans who consider themselves rugged individuals to submit themselves to a big data-harvesting consortium that contact tracing requires, we could have done so much better. In 1918, people wore masks because it made a real difference and saved lives. They took the Spanish flu epidemic seriously and they had fewer networks of knowledge at their disposal. Today, sadly, wearing a mask has become a political symbol and for many not wearing a mask has become a proud yet misguided act of defiance. Masks show consideration. Masks have been said to be even more effective at thwarting coronavirus spread than a vaccine. Masks work. The rest of the world, and South Korea, have showed what happens when you trust scientific recommendations. South Korea has less than 500 total COVID-19 deaths with a population of 52 million. Even if you multiply that figure by a generous seven to match the current U.S. population, that’s still only an estimated 3,500 total COVID-19 deaths during the same period.
The level of ineptitude is highlighted by two key interview subjects. Rick Bright was the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) from 2016 to 2020. He filed a whistle-blower complaint about the Trump administration applying undue pressure to approve hydroxychloroquine, an experimental treatment that showed no signs of helping COVID patients. There was no medical reason to eliminate safeguards and protocols but the administration wanted a ready-to-market cure, and Bright was horrified that they wanted to make it widely available and over the counter, which would surely lead a panicked populace to request it and endanger their health. Recounting his experiences even brings Bright to tears as he recounts the disregard for safety and dereliction of duty of these political appointees dictating science. He’s a sobering and thoughtful voice to have in the documentary and also one of the biggest names of someone who worked inside the Trump response team. Another intriguing subject is Max Kennedy, who served on Jared Kushner’s White House supply chain task force. Kennedy thought he was going to be running errands or support tasks for the task force. He didn’t realize he and the other volunteers would be the entire task force. They were left to their personal laptops and emails to cold-call companies and perform Google searches to find personal protection equipment (PPE). They had no experience, no coordination with other government bodies, and they were competing against the federal government for the exact same dwindling supplies. Kennedy is breaking the NDA he was forced to sign to reveal the full extent of the chaos and inadequacy that Kushner’s “expertise” brought installing a solution to a very real problem. Kennedy and Bright’s first-hand insider accounts are both harrowing and maddening.
When it appeared that the Trump administration wasn’t going to be able to contain COVID-19, that’s when they pivoted to shifting blame and responsibility onto the states. The Trump administration could have authorized the Defense Production Act to force companies to begin manufacturing very needed PPE, but they didn’t. They thought, as conservative dogma has preached for decades, that government is the problem and the private market will solve it all. The problem with this line of thinking is that there are certain powers the states do not have in comparison to the federal government. State governments cannot run past their budgets. State governments do not have the power to set up a national system of testing. State governments were forced into a 50-way fight for supplies and were vulnerable to capitalistic gouging. The states were then also competing with the federal government, which was driving up the bids for these supplies and then overpaying for the same supplies by many times over their cost. The states were left on their own to duke it out and any slip-ups or shortages were disparaged from afar by a Trump administration that wanted to look in charge but didn’t want the responsibility.
Totally Under Control is an essential documentary for our times but it also can’t help but feel like the beginning of an even bigger and more excoriating story. It’s frustratingly incomplete. It’s the opening chapter of the examination on the U.S. response to the coronavirus, and this story will likely only get more depressing and infuriating as the death toll rises and the regret of “what could have been” grows even more pressing with every week. Gibney and his fellow directors keep their movie pretty straightforward and efficient, and there is something powerful about putting all the relevant facts together into an easy to understand timeline and seeing all the dots connected. Gibney has always been blessed at his ability to artfully articulate a big picture with his films. Totally Under Control is a useful artifact for history and a denunciation of the early days when so much could have been so different if the United States had leaders that trusted science, didn’t dismantle key government bodies, took responsibility when the moment called upon rather than ducking leadership, and cared about more than their personal finances and standing. It’s only going to get worse from here, especially once we fully analyze all the important steps not taken.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Released October 6, 2000:
Rarely does a movie today affect you that when the end credits roll you’re left silent and unable to speak. Requiem for a Dream is an unforgettable and intensely harrowing experience. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Afterwards you’re left in disarray and unable to think straight for most of the day.
Requiem chronicles the lives of four individuals and their spiraling addictions and missed choices. Harry (Jared Leto) is a small time coke dealer along with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) who can’t help to taste their merchandise and eventually end up broke again. Harry has gotten into the habit of routinely pawning his elderly mother’s TV set for some quick cash to score with. This happens so often that the pawn broker has a special folder for Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her televison. Harry is in love with his more positioned girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). She’s given an annual allowance of money from her wealthy folks to spend in her own fashion, but she’s denied love or attention. It’s between these four main characters that we will go through hell with.
Ellen Burstyn shows her grace with age and utterly blows your mind with her jaw-dropping performance as the lonely and strung out Sarah. Sarah has no husband anymore or a son to look after. She is alone and old, and those are two bad ingredients. She lives in an apartment complex overlooking the decaying ruins of Coney Island. Sarah has a different addiction than her child, she is addicted to food and is overweight. One day she mistakes a random junk phone call as her ticket to appear on television. She daydreams about gliding across the stage in her red dress that she doesn’t be able to properly fill anymore. With her elderly peers aflutter she tries her best to stick to a diet to fit into her slender dress. When the temptation becomes overwhelming she consults a friend’s doctor for some special “pills” to suppress her appetite.
Harry and Tyrone are embarking on their own dealing dreams to eventually move up the ladder and score some pure coke. Marion and Harry experience their love through simultaneous shoot-ups that space them out and turn them into romantic philosophers. Harry speaks of great dreams he has and the yearning to be something. Tyrone is haunted by thoughts of himself as a child and disappointing his sweetly loving mother who was proud of her son no matter what.
The film starts off in the summer and we are in the good times for all four characters. Harry and Tyrone are successful and racking up profits. Sarah has an unusual amount of energy through her prescribed pills and feels good about herself when she sees actual results as the pounds begin to melt away. Marion dances in her love of Harry and is ambitious with plans for her own design store. Things never are as good as they are again. Fall rolls along and Tyrone and Harry lose their money and lose their ability to secure drugs to sell. Sarah is noticing her pills are not having the same effect they were earlier and decides to ignore guidelines and take them like M&Ms. Marion starts to lash out at Harry’s ineptness at scoring and begins to tear at their relationship. She gets pushed to the brink to score that she resorts to the practice of using her body to secure what she needs. This isn’t even the beginning of how dour and horrible events will become for these four.
One of the strengths of Reqiuem is the treatment of these characters. The film shows sympathy for them and their situations but never condone them. Harry and Sarah are a family that have much love between them they just don’t know how to express it. When Harry discovers his mother is on essentially speed when he pays her a visit he’s left a shattered and crying mess. Only an injection into his veins in that cab ride saves him from his emotions. The relationship between Harry and Marion is initially seen as puppy love or people brought together through a love of drugs, but there are moments where you see the true beauty they have. In the end when Harry is out of state and dramatically in the need of hospitalization he calls Marion just as she’s doing her make-up for a “special” get-together. In a hushed tone she asks when he will be coming home, to which he responds in a mix of pain that it will be soon. She then so sincerely and beautifully asks if he can come back today – to which through an array of tears he agrees. Her sincerity and emotion in this sequence is a powerful glimpse at the love that does exist between the two of them. The second time I watched this film I started crying at this moment.
Burstyn is the stand-out star and if she doesn’t at LEAST get an Oscar nomination then that is the most unjust crime of them all. It’s been some time since her roles in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore but she still shines like a true gem. She magnificently portrays Sarah’s descent into madness and chemical dependency and leaves us with a chilling and haunting figure. Leto and Connelly show that they aren’t merely pretty faces and deliver their best performances of their lives. Both show incredible warmth and emotion.
Requiem was directed and adapted for the screen by Darren Aronofsky who gave us the head trip that was Pi. Here he uses camera trickery like speed up and slowed paces to show Sarah’s journey through her drugs. Other items include cameras mounted on the actors, split screens, and hyper edits to show the process of every drug shoot-up. His camera moves and tricks are never out of place though, as many gimmicky video director’s are. Each effect has a specific purpose. Aronofsky brilliantly uses a scene where Leto and Connelly are lying in bed besides one another but split screen to show the closeness they can strive but the distance that still exists. While each talks we see shots of the other’s hand carefully caress the other’s body. It’s a scene that’s as powerful as it it thematically romantic.
The tragedy of this is this film has been rated NC-17 by the MPAA and of course anyone who sees it knows the exact scene. The film is being released unrated by Artisan because NC-17 is a commercial kiss of death. The shame is this movie needs to be seen. Make it mandatory in schools. DARE isn’t working but this film will. No one with an urge to use drugs will have that same urge after seeing this harrowing film.
Nate’s Grade: A+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Requiem for a Dream was a seminal event for me. It floored me when I originally saw it during the fateful fall of 2000. I can still vividly recall wandering out into the daylight after the movie and feeling like a zombie, just left to walk aimlessly and mumble to myself. I remember my friend Kat Lewis and I were unable to even articulate sentences other than, “Wow,” and, “Ooof,” for like an hour as we processed the drug-fueled descent into madness and hell. It was a movie that struck me dumb and left a mark. I became a lifelong fan of writer/director Darren Aronofsky afterwards and haven’t been disappointed with his movies yet (his 2014 biblical epic Noah is criminally underrated). At the end of 2009, I declared it the second-best film of the decade. Requiem for a Dream is the kind of movie you can admire for its craft and crushing emotional impact but also one you may never want to watch a second time. I haven’t gone back to it for at least 15 years for that same reason, the hesitation to get back into the morass and experience the tumultuous tumble all over again. Except when I did sit and re-watch it for my twenty-year review, I was amazed how many moments felt strikingly familiar. I was anticipated specific actor inflections (“I’m lonely. I’m ollllld”), gestures, and even sound cues. It was a strange experience because it was like re-awakening dormant memories I had papered over. I thought I had forgotten the movie but, in reality, I must have watched it enough in those early 2000s days to commit so much to memory. I was afraid to dive back because of the depressing subject matter that I expected to rightfully wreck me. Instead I experienced a different sort of awakening, and that was my question whether the movie’s highs might be over inflated and whether the younger version of myself was dazzled by a movie with more evident problems.
This is not a subtle movie in the slightest, not in subject matter, form, or style, and I’m sure that was part of what 18-year-old me so valued. It’s a movie dripping with style and wild imagination with how best to visualize the elation and instability of drug abuse. The editing by Jay Rabinowitz (8 Mile, The Tree of Life) is abundantly hyperactive, amassing over 2,000 cuts over the course of only 95 minutes (an average “non-Michael Bay” film running the same length has maybe 700 edits). It is all deliberately overwhelming to convey the frenetic energy of the junkie, and the repetition of edits and structures creates visual routines that Aronofsky then escalates or deconstructs brilliantly, using the language of film to immerse the viewer in this world and blend our senses together into a rapturous contact high. It’s not hard to see the inspiration for Edgar Wright’s own hyper-kinetic visual style here. The entire movie becomes a visceral reflection of the characters’ physiological state. The photography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man) can be alienating, disquieting, but also vibrantly alive and excitedly inventive. This is the first feature film I can recall that used Steadycam cameras and attached them to the actors so that as they moved through their world they remained our stable focal point. It’s such a great and unsettling convergence of perspective. We are attached to the actor close-up. The musical score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon) is instantly iconic thanks to its sense of foreboding and the central haunting theme from the Kronos Quartet that was used in a thousand trailers afterwards because it’s that gob-smackingly, recognizably brilliant. These talented men were the essential wingmen for Aronofsky to achieve his beautifully horrible vision.
The 90s indie scene and well into the early 2000s was an audacious time that pushed the limits of film style, reshaping our sensibilities of what movies could accomplish, and Aronofsky is a world-caliber stylist. After two low-budget indie films, it’s clear why Hollywood came knocking and offered the man many high-profile titles like rebooting the inactive Batman franchise. There are entire complicated setups devoted to capturing single shots, and there are so many stylish choices that come flying that part of the appeal of the movie is simply lying in wait for what Aronofsky will deliver next, like a magician that keeps you asking for the next trick and the next trick. Some highlights include Sara (Ellen Burstyn) being taunted by her fridge and the hunger pangs she feels, including a delusion where the household appliance comes alive like a monster from an early Peter Jackson horror flick. The use of split-screen is stunning to convey coordination and also disconnect. There’s a lovely scene where Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and Harry (Jared Leto) stare at one another, their fingertips stroking different portions of their bodies, and the editing jumps around from close-up inserts to their slightly disjointed alignment face-to-face. It’s both sensual and romantic. They’re close but also far away. This is the kind of move that attaches a camera to a bungee cord and throws it off the rooftop just for a couple second shot of free fall. It’s the kind of movie that seems to test every visual and audio setting of cinema. I admire the sheer gusto of Aronofsky as a filmmaker and his drive to push himself and his story to the limit.
However, at a super-charged 95 minutes before end credits, Requiem for a Dream is just too much. Its sledgehammer approach to drama had an odd effect on me as a 38-year-old versus than as an 18-year-old. My younger self was dazzled and left profoundly affected and devastated. My current self felt empathy for the suffering of the characters but I wasn’t emotionally connecting with them in the same way I did back in 2000. After some reflection, I think this is because the movie is just trying so hard that it feels like it’s speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, all capital-D drama, that it has its own numbing effect. Things do get considerably worse for our quartet of characters as they go through hell, but because the pacing is so amped, speeding along to get to its next fix, it doesn’t ever let the movie breathe and linger before hitting you again. It’s so fast-paced that the tone becomes more overtly theatrical, and I found myself less able to connect with the characters on a deeper and meaningful level. The limits of characterization were really felt with my recent re-watch, and the love story of Harry and Marion, which felt tragic for me in the early 2000s, now feels empty. Maybe that was the point and it took me decades to see it through, that the two of them are caught under the spell of infatuation but cannot fully grow together from a co-dependent relationship built around self-destruction. Or maybe they’re just underwritten tragic bohemians. The only character that really gets worthy consideration and nuance is Sara. If the movie had slowed down, or even been 20-30 minutes longer, I think it would have more room to make its drama felt in a way that didn’t feel so anxious to the point of bordering on desperation. There are points where Requiem for a Dream feels like an overblown indie version of an after-school special on drugs.
The real heart of the movie is with Burstyn who delivers a career-best performance (she lost the Best Actress Oscar that year to Julia Roberts). Sara Goldfarb is the kind of person everyone might know, an older retiree who feels overlooked, afraid of pushing too hard against a son she can’t control, and someone who wants to feel special one more time in her life. She doesn’t see herself as an addict and the movie portrays her struggle as being analogous to the cocaine and heroin abuse of the other users. Sugar, caffeine, starch, red meat, all common items that can be just as addictive to the brain and body, and Sara’s struggles to lose weight are relatable and take on a horrifying transformation after she starts using prescription drugs as a quick solution. Burstyn is the definition of heartbreaking here and that’s even before she starts popping pills. She delivers one hell of a monologue about her sad state of needing something, anything to cling onto to give her life a glimmer of needed hope. It was the moment that made me instantly recognize the levels of sadness we’re working with. I enjoyed the little burst of happiness she felt when the other neighborhood ladies admired her for her chance of being on television. for her, this was everything. Burstyn goes through a physical transformation, from padded body suits to emaciated and sweat-stained (this is a very very sweaty movie; you can practically taste the grime coating the actors). She’s unrecognizable by the end. Burstyn is so devastatingly good as her character literally loses her mind, becoming one of those crazy people on the street. You feel such a reservoir of grief knowing what drugs have done to demolish this woman’s identity and transmute her into a living phantom.
The social commentary isn’t prevalent, beyond the universality of personal addiction, but it has one major critique and it’s the indifference of the system to those in need. Three of these characters are living through poverty and limited means of self-sufficiency. Marion has a trust fund but has to jump through hoops to maintain it, including at different points selling her body. When Sara visits her doctor to inquire about possible medicine, he never looks at her once and quickly writes her a prescription. When she’s admitted to a psychiatric ward, the orderlies barely even view her as a human being and threaten her with physical harm if she will not swallow her food. The ward doctor can clearly tell she’s not of sound mind but gets her to “sign” her permission for dangerous, experimental electroshock therapy. These are bureaucrats, professionals, and people of means that simply don’t care. The institutions of this country are geared to let people down, to slip between the cracks, and the supports are insufficient. In this regard, Requiem for a Dream is a condemnation for the system and its lack of real compassion.
The closing montage of degradation is so gut-punching, so expertly edited together for maximum symmetry, and so disturbing that I can completely understand if nobody would ever want to watch Requiem for a Dream again. Early on, while re-watching this movie alone, I thought, “My girlfriend would really be intrigued by this and appreciate the style and verve,” and then by the end I reconsidered whether or not it all might be too much to endure. You feel a little dirty by the time it’s all over. I think this time, in 2020 as opposed to 2000, it was too much for me because I was feeling less attachment to the characters and more removed from their drama because everything was so operatic and going by so fast. The movie still has so much technical and artistic ambition to drop my rating too low, but this is not the near-perfect A+ movie I highly regarded in my youth. This is not the second-best films of the 2000s. It’s still a good movie and one that will be felt and remembered long after. It’s hard to shake off its effect which are still felt even if you have difficulty engaging with the people beyond a general level of human empathy. My original review consisted of mostly reciting the plot, an aspect of my reviews I’ve tried to steer away from. I hate reviews that are 80 percent plot synopsis and then only a paragraph or two of critical analysis and deliberation. Requiem for a Dream is still a powerful and immersive movie that masterfully uses the full gamut of film tricks as its disposal. While it might not be a personally-defining movie for me any longer as an adult, it still was for years in my youth, and while it shattered me and left me a shambling mess, it also made me realize just what movies can do.
Re-View Grade: B+
After a long and bittersweet relationship, I think it’s finally time for me to part ways with Dinesh D’Souza. The conservative author, pundit, and director of intellectually dishonest and slimy documentaries has given me so much to unpack over the years. D’Souza reigns unopposed as one of the worst filmmakers, let alone an incompetent propagandist, and has ruled my annual Worst Films of the Year lists (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018). Seriously, if it was an even year, you could expect a D’Souza doc to have a slot already in preparation on my list. Not even Friedberg and Seltzer have that many dishonorable mentions. He rose to fame as the “reasonable critic” of President Obama but if you watched his films, you’d know D’Souza’s assertions were anything but reasonable. As I concluded with 2018’s Death of a Nation: “He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. It is people like D’Souza that have led the way for the coronation of Donald Trump, and it should be people like D’Souza who are put to blame when that experiment crumbles.” That is why, dear reader, I think it is finally time for me to step away from the trough of righteous outrage and be done with the disingenuous D’Souza as a filmmaker deserving of even one iota of passing thought. I can only hope with the 2020 election on the near horizon, that America will likewise put to bed the man in the Oval Office and, by extension, D’Souza’s relevancy. But let’s dive in, one last time America, into the bad faith arguments, armchair psychology, racist projection, historical revisionism, crippling persecution complex, fear mongering, and endless shots of D’Souza wandering the sights while looking so contemplative with pursed-lipped, faux concern. It’s Trump Card, one of the worst films of 2020, and hopefully the last D’Souza film for me for the remainder of my days.
I think the opening scene is fittingly indicative of D’Souza’s blatantly fraudulent arguments and willful ignorance. It’s a recreation of an interrogation from George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is an interesting choice here considering he was a journalist (strike one), liberal author (strike two) and anti-fascist (strike three), but the general associations of the novel are so ingrained that it becomes a stand-in for any sort of Big Brother state critique. Orwell’s classic story follows an authoritarian government that tells people what to think, to not trust their eyes and ears but simply the proclamations of the State. Where D’Souza goes amazingly off the rails is when he tries to purport that it’s the Democrats who are the evil Big Brother at work trying to brainwash good, honest, God-loving Trump voters into turning against objective reality and swallowing the lies of Dear Leader. Just contemplate that appraisal. In the face of Donald Trump, a man who LITERALLY told his supporters not to listen to their eyes and ears and only to him, a man who has been documented lying over 20,000 times since coming into office, including such obvious and absurd statements like having the biggest inaugural crowd in 2017 or whether it was raining, a man who constantly distorts reality to his petty whims, and D’Souza says it’s really the Democrats who are the dangerous brainwashers. This staggering misreading of Orwell’s political commentary would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic and facetious. This telling anecdote perfectly sums up the lazy rhetoric of D’Souza.
It’s hard not to wonder what the larger thesis is here. D’Souza has never exactly been a filmmaker of scholarly heft but his prior films at least presented a through line to hold onto. I thought Trump Card was going to be a conservative case against socialism but D’Souza can’t fully commit 90 minutes to that cause, and so the movie becomes yet another slipshod attack on any and all familiar targets of conservative agita. We’re told socialism is bad, capitalism is good, and through selective examples it’s reconfirmed. Never mind the socialism of Scandinavia, let’s focus on the failed state of Venezuela while ignoring its history of colonialism. We’re told Democrats hate all capitalism, but D’Souza once again conflates free market capitalism and crony capitalism, a sociopathic system unchecked by regulation and rampant with corruption and abuse. We’re told that China is bad, though they’ve introduced features of capitalism so now they’re maybe not as bad, but they gave us COVID19, so they’re still bad, I guess. We’re told the protesters of Hong Kong who want transparency, reforms, and democracy are good, but Black Lives Matters is a cesspool of “thugs” and anarchists without a just cause of reform. We’re told “antifa” didn’t oppose Nazis in Germany but the “center-left,” which makes no sense whatsoever. We’re told Democrats can’t get enough of late-term abortion, when that’s not even a thing. We’re told climate change can’t be that big of a deal because Joe Biden has a beach house so, ergo, he must not worry about rising coastlines. We’re told that the early response to COVID19 was a failure of socialism, when it was the federal government’s cowardly and calculated hands-off approach that turned the purchase and distribution of life-saving medical supplies into a feeding frenzy of capitalistic excess, pitting state against state for scraps.
Amazingly, D’Souza praises Donald Trump as a symbol of capitalism, a man born into wealth, who inflated his assets to get out of taxes, who went bankrupt four times, whose own charity was shut down and declared an illegal racket to line his family’s pockets, who regularly stiffed his contractors, who has been hounded by lawsuits, and who slapped his name on any rickety scheme he could profit. Again, D’Souza has stupendously rear-ended into an insight that he intended to disregard. Donald Trump is a neon orange symbol for the farcical excess of crony capitalism.
One of the weirder detours is when D’Souza decries “identity politics” when he’s been steeped in this stuff since his first movie. He lambastes Democrats for, essentially, having an inclusive voting base with diverse interests. Republicans like to still cling to the idea of their party being a “big tent,” but from a demographic standpoint, they are shrinking and only gotten whiter, older, and more male. It’s more the party of one very specific kind of America. Some of D’Souza’s taunts are simply snide and juvenile, like deriding young people for “their pronouns” and the idea of being gay now becoming “an ideology” (you know, like being heterosexual is an “ideology”). In one breath D’Souza doesn’t want “identity to define anyone” but ignores that the Republican Party has become a cult of personality rejecting any contrary thinking. Their 2020 party platform was merely one page and amounted to: “Whatever Trump says.” Choosing not to recognize our natural differences is dishonest. As a white man, my experiences are going to be markedly different than a black woman, and acknowledging this isn’t some sign of weakness or pandering, it’s merely a recognition that our differences are not trivial. It’s similar when people say “I don’t see color” as a misplaced virtuous sign of how liberal-minded they are.
The spurious interview subjects are prone to making wild accusations, aided by D’Souza’s famous leading style where he practically recites the words he wants to hear. A former radical Muslim says he challenges anyone to find a jihadist that would vote for Donald Trump (counterpoint: The Taliban has actually endorsed Trump for 2020). This same man calls Rep. Ilhan Omar as “ISIS in lipstick” without any supporting evidence. The interview subjects are not exactly compelling experts. Why is Isaiah Washington, the man infamously fired from Grey’s Anatomy for using homophobic slurs, an expert on Hollywood oppression? Why is D’Souza’s own daughter and wife, each with a book ready to be peddled, experts on anything? Did D’Souza not have any other relatives he could call on to become instant world affairs experts? Some of these people are well-meaning and with a perspective that merits consideration like a grieving father from the Parkland school shooting, but others are laughable on their face for being included. Larry Sinclair swears he smoked crack and performed oral sex on Obama (“He came back for seconds”), and D’Souza intones that this “allegation” (repeatedly disproven with no evidence) deserves the same level of attention as Stormy Daniels with Trump. Never mind that Trump’s affair wasn’t a scandal because of his moral failing (a thrice-married man known for womanizing) but because of the financial fraud of covering it up before the 2016 election, which sent Trump’s own attorney and personal fixer, Michael Cohen, to jail. Even if the crack-smoking Obama BJ guy is right, and he’s definitely definitely not, who cares if Obama had a gay experience before he was elected president? I guess the association itself is supposed to be unseemly, but it’s D’Souza’s inclusion of such a baseless smear, the unchallenged details of which garners the film its PG-13 rating, as a means to revile this audience and stoke confirmation bias about the mainstream media that’s really unseemly.
D’Souza is all-in on the big kooky Deep State conspiracy to entangle Donald Trump’s presidency, never mind that an impulsive businessman who prefers chaos needs help to falter. I could barely keep up with the barrage of names and dates and accusations, trying to connect the dots with a messy conspiratorial plate of spaghetti. Once they reach the silly Ukraine accusations of impropriety with Joe Biden, the same talking points that the Kremlin parrots, the same groundless stuff that Trump got impeached over in 2019, I started zoning out. D’Souza champions Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos (both pleaded guilty) and Roger Stone (convicted by a jury) as victims of an abusive surveillance state. He lets Papadopoulos and his wife dramatically revise his criminal history, re-imaging himself as a martyr who was forced to speak against Trump by a vindictive FBI. And yet multiple Justice Department and Congressional investigations over the origins of the Russia probe have reaffirmed, repeatedly, conclusively, even when run by Republican Senators, that the FBI investigation was warranted and correct in its conclusions. Donald Trump doesn’t need anyone but himself to get into trouble. No conspiracy is necessary for a prenuptial screw-up.
I’m all but certain that D’Souza had to radically retool Trump Card as the year progressed. This is the latest any of his election-timed documentaries has ever come out; he usually prefers the cushy position of mid-to-late summer releases. My working theory is that he was heavily planning a documentary about the evils of socialism with a Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for 2020 as its focus on where the Democrats are taking the country. It’s much harder to paint lifelong centrist Joe Biden as a dangerous radical, and it’s equally hard to say the crazy leftwing radicals are taking over the country when they couldn’t even win the party nomination. Then an early trailer for Trump Card over the summer was constituted entirely by footage of rioters, burning buildings, broken windows, and the presumption that D’Souza’s film would focus on the dangers of a growing protest movement that summer. He still gets some hits in but the widespread protests for police reform and racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have not been the source for civilization being upended. I’m genuinely surprised D’Souza didn’t feature more of the ongoing battles with the unmarked private army sent to harass and beat Portland protesters but that might have harmed his message that Biden will lead to civil unrest when the images of civil unrest are happening live in Donald Trump’s America. Trump Card feels overwhelmingly like it’s coasting and that D’Souza is falling back on old arguments, old foes, and old tricks. D’Souza can never get enough of Abraham Lincoln re-enactors, gauzy stock footage of sunsets and wheat fields, and his wife singing renditions of public domain patriotic songs. After five movies, it just all feels so stale, so tired, and so inept and lazy, even for its own select audience. “President Trump reminds me why I first came to America,” says D’Souza early in the film, drawing a deep belly laugh from me. I feel about D’Souza’s oeuvre of terrible, shameless documentaries the same I feel about Trump as a president: exhausted by it all. I’m ready for both to go away for good.
Nate’s Grade: F
Spontaneous is a movie that grabbed my attention immediately, made me laugh quickly, and then made me fall in love over the course of its explosive 100 minutes. The more I think back about this bizarre little movie, based on the YA novel by Aaron Starmer, the more affection I have for it and its messy accomplishments. Writer/director Brian Duffield has been one of the most exciting screenwriters for years, penning highly inventive stories that have a distinct, vivacious comedic voice that leaps off the page and smacks you across the face with how good it is, and then you ask for more (check out The Babysitter for the closest representation of what a Duffield screenplay delivers; skip the sequel though). This is Duffield’s debut as a director and I feel like he’s a natural fit for the quirky, blood-soaked material. Spontaneous is a dark comedy that can also make you feel something because it doesn’t simply treat its characters as disposable punchlines.
So the senior class of Covington High School has a serious problem. They’re spontaneously exploding. Nobody knows why, nobody knows who will be next, and even after a government quarantine, the answers aren’t any clearer. Mara (Katherine Langford) just wants to live to grow into a badass older lady who lives on the beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Her dreams of a life after graduation might never come true. Dylan (Charlie Plummer) introduces himself to Mara and they begin a tender courtship, falling in love during a precarious time where either of them could explode and soak the other in gore and viscera. Can these two crazy kids make it and grow up when their own bodies might betray their fleeting happiness?
Almost instantaneously I was drawn into the romance between Mara and Dylan, and I enjoyed deeply how each helps to shape the other, finding a sincere connection in the most extreme and unexpected of circumstances. Their budding romance dances with tragedy and dread as we worry over the fate of our lovers; surely, with this horrific premise, they won’t end happily ever after, or could they? Every time another student exploded, I winced. I laughed a few times, I’ll admit, because the context can become darkly hilarious and absurd, but it’s also a natural human reflex to relieve tension. Each one of these kids is a potential suicide bomber and they don’t know it. It’s sudden and something that you, even as a viewer, will never get used to. What you will do is start to dread who is next and whether that explosion sound was someone you liked. With an omnipresence of tragedy, it pushes the characters to make the most of their potentially short lives and that brings a greater significance to their next steps, the little attempts to “feel like an adult,” to reach for their desires, and to declare who they are while they are still standing to do so. It takes the coming-of-age setup and deftly dials up the emotional stakes.
Make no mistake though, Spontaneous is an uproariously funny movie. We’re primarily seeing the world from the perspective of Mara and her narration and occasional fourth-wall breaks. There are some fun asides where other characters take over narration duties, but this is chiefly her movie and she’s delightfully odd, prickly, and worthy of our attention. Duffield’s screenplay is brimming with wit and the conversational banter flows with such a confident cadence, all while not being overly mellifluous and self-satisfied. I adored just spending time with the characters because I was anticipating what they would say and do next. The social satire is present but not as substantial as I would have thought. The film trades in familiar stereotypes we’ve come to associate with high school movies, yet it can take some interesting detours, like when the football team cheers in support about their fellow player for coming out as gay. This is a high school movie mixed with a horror movie, where a big party to cut loose could become the latest crime scene. Most of the adults are simply scared and don’t know what to do, and that helpless vulnerability extends outward and keeps going. Just because you may be older doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. I cackled plenty from the physical humor, slapstick gross-out gags, but when Duffield wanted to be serious, you better believe I shut my trap and pulled up the blanket.
I think it’s worth acknowledging, and I don’t consider this a real spoiler, that the cause of the spontaneous combustion is never resolved. There is no explanation, and if that’s a deal-breaker for you then I think you’re prioritizing the wrong parts of what Spontaneous is offering. It doesn’t really matter why it’s happening because the movie isn’t a scientific mystery. As much as it might seem bizarre to declare, this is far more than the “kids blown into bloody bits” movie. It’s not about what is happening per se but how it emotionally affects the characters. The unknown bodily explosions could serve as a gory metaphor for modern-day threats of school shooters, terrorism, or even our current pandemic (pick your metaphor, anything really works). Students don’t know who will be next, when their time will be up, and an anxious pall hangs over their day-to-day lives as they trudge onward trying to regain a sense of normalcy during a troubling and uncertain time of numbing trauma. That’s really the core of the movie, the response to inexplicable trauma. Some characters maintain a blasé, nihilistic attitude, questioning whether their minute remaining time has value. Others look at the random threat of exploding as a motivator to overcome the obstacles that kept them from achieving their goals, ignoring social hang-ups and personal misgivings. It’s the proverbial kick that Dylan needs to finally talk to the girl he’s been crushing on. He elects to live with his remaining time on this planet, no matter how brief, and elects to be happy, which is about one of the bravest things a person can do. That’s why the combustible student body doesn’t need an explanation, and to be fair what possible explanation would ever have been truly satisfying (“Oh, we all just ate too many carbs. Huh.”)?
If she hadn’t already established herself from Netflix’s somber soap 13 Reasons Why, this would have been a star-making role for Langford (Knives Out). She’s captivating from her first moment onscreen when she discusses the mundane details of her day at school right before the girl in front of her explodes. Her sardonic and spiky attitude permeates the movie and gives the film an energetic jolt, amplified by Duffield’s stylish flourishes that reminded me at points of Edgar Wright with how playful and involved the visual transitions could get. Our leading lady is a force of nature, and after enough time, you can understand why Tess wants to be her bestie, why Dylan would fall in love with her, and why other students would be afraid of Mara. There are moments where Langford can be silly and diverting, like dressing in mourning over the 2016 election, and others where she feels like she’s harnessing the totality of youthful feminine rage (I loved a late declarative statement directed at our current president) to be a symbol. The “same old” just isn’t going to cut it when the stakes are this high. Langford isn’t just the too-cool gal spitting pithy insults from a safe distance. There’s some heavy-duty existential drama here that she carries while through the prism of her eccentric teenager’s attitude. Her romance with Plummer (All the Money in the World) is sweet and affecting and feels entirely genuine.
Sticky, sweet, and wickedly funny, Spontaneous is obsessed with death, the uncertainty of knowing when your time is up, and yet I came away feeling ultimately uplifted and moved. There are some jolting moments, both funny and heart-breaking, and Duffield wants you to take the time to feel the full experience of being young and angry and hopeful and anxious and in love and feeling weird. In a disastrous year of worldwide calamities, Spontaneous is a bright spot, and given the bloody premise, that should tell you everything you need to know about the year 2020. This is a delightful, heartfelt, and surprisingly mature teen drama that also happens to have people bursting like balloons. Duffield even touches upon the profound at points, which is hard to do with any filmmaker, let alone one playing with these crazy genre elements. Spontaneous is a coming-of-age drama with equal parts ache and warmth, gallows humor and personal insight. Find this movie, devote 100 minutes of your time, and wear a poncho if necessary.
Nate’s Grade: A
Take Attack the Block and mix with The Lost Boys and you get a perfectly enjoyable B- kind of fun B-movie about a group of Bronx tweens combating blood-suckers gentrifying their neighborhood, and vampires too. It’s a pleasant experience that hankers back to enjoyable 80s ensembles and it maintains a sweetness without being sappy and an edge that feels appropriate for its age-range without getting too heavy or too simplistic. We follow our core characters as they investigate the would-be vampires, uncover their real estate schemes for the neighborhood, and then plan how best to thwart them. It’s a reliable formula but it works. I enjoyed Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island) as the vampire middleman, and I enjoyed how his own character arc as a subservient villain is tied into another teen’s arc about not following in the steps of his criminal older brother and rejecting people who only want to use you. That’s smart writing, finding room to draw parallels and connect the personal to the thematic. The lead kids all have their own personalities and problems and I enjoyed spending time with them as they bonded, bickered, and bandied together as a team. Their chemistry made them feel like real friends. The horror doesn’t really ever approach being scary or intense; when the vampires are in full teeth-baring mode, they seem more like the goofy, cheesy, cloaked figures from the TV soap Dark Shadows. It also feels like the movie runs a bit out of steam as it carries on into its final attack/assault on the vampire’s nest. Still, Vampires vs. The Bronx is a funny and light-hearted 90 minutes with likeable characters and an enjoyably relaxed supernatural caper. It’s not going to be too deep but you can tell the filmmakers care about these characters, the film’s genre influences, and telling an accessible adventure to kids.
Nate’s Grade: B-
A new horror movie was filmed around Columbus, Ohio by a fledgling studio, Genre Labs, and a group of filmmakers who have made other successful Ohio thrillers and is now available for digital viewing on multiple platforms. Evil Takes Root is the most impressive looking and sounding Ohio indie I have seen yet. I mean this in all sincerity when I say it “looks like a real movie.” Even the poster art looks snazzy.
Dr. Thane Noles (Sean Carrigan) is still mourning the loss of his wife Mandy (Constance Brenneman) from mysterious circumstances (vague voice mail, hanging from a tree, black eyes, etc.). His daughter Sarah (Stevie Lynn Jones) is struggling with her grief and befriends a girl, Christina (Reagan Belhorn), going through a similar loss. Christina is desperate to bring her mother back and is doing the bidding of a supernatural presence to make this wish come true. The result is that Sarah becomes the vessel for this evil spirit, a Baitbat, a mythological figure from Philippines’ culture. Felix Fojas (Nicholas Gonzalez) is back in town to investigate the death of Mandy, the woman he still loves after an affair many years ago. Felix is a professor and a big believer in the supernatural, and he strongly believes evil is present and busy in Ohio.
The production is glowing with professionalism that we associate with larger-budget studio ventures. Sure, you still slightly sense its lower budget in how much bang for your buck we get onscreen, but there are more than enough moments that impressed me from the technical aspects of moviemaking. The sound design is sensational. This has often been the biggest hindrance with local indies, and wow what a difference a professional sound design team can have on a horror movie. The creeping and scratchy noises of the Baitbat and its demonic intonations are unsettling and worthy of a few jumps. A great sound design team can goose any moment into being scarier. The spooky set pieces on their own weren’t imaginative or innovative but the sound design and photography elevated them. On the other side, this is a great looking movie, even with the drained color wash I usually dislike. Director and co-writer Chris W. Freeman (Sorority Party Massacre) knows how to make a horror movie with plenty of pleasing visual compositions by cinematographer Roy Rossovich (Union Furnace). Freeman is ready for a bigger stage, folks. There are a few instances of sweeping camera movements that made me go, “Whoa.” One involves a chase scene in the woods where naked witches run from their bonfire into the dark of the woods to kill an interloper, and the camera moves over the terrain with smooth velocity, and the way the fire illuminated the bodies as they went from one light source to another is simply stunning to watch. If it wasn’t for the topless women, I would expect a shot like that to be in the trailer. The focus levels, the way the camera movements enhance the frame and tension, even the use of a rain machine for mood, it’s all superbly impressive. The editing by Jason Heinrich and Jamie Marsh is great as well and makes the movie feel even more indistinguishable from Hollywood genre fare.
That impressive level of professionalism doesn’t extend to the story, sadly. Evil Takes Root is a very generic story told with very generic characters. I kept waiting for little moments to round them out, little moments to make me think differently about a character, to bring their conflicts into a new focus or coalesce their themes into the obstacles they’re confronting. I was simply looking for more personality than the five stages of grief at work. I can tell you what the characters do, as well as their larger plot designations, but I can’t tell you about who they are as people. There really isn’t one thing terribly interesting that any character does onscreen. They go about the discovery of the supernatural haunting, and then it’s concluded in a way that is anticlimactic in how easy it seems to be resolved. I read on another review that, according to the director’s commentary, that the movie underwent a troubled production and worked to fit footage that was shot many years apart. In that regard, it feels like a consistent product. I can’t see any obvious seams that show I’m watching a movie with significant scheduling gaps. Congratulations. But it also feels like any other small-scale Hollywood genre horror thriller, something like 2009’s The Unborn. Do you remember The Unborn? Do you remember it actually co-starred Gary Oldman? All that technical acumen put toward a mediocre story overstuffed with redundant characters (more on that below) and it’s a shame. The spooky set pieces are too short-lived and lack anything particularly memorable as well. Too much about this movie makes it burdensome to attempt to remember because it’s skating on generic and familiar tropes without leaving its stamp.
This is disappointing considering I haven’t really seen too many American horror movies tackle the mythology of the Philippines. There must be plenty of fun choices to select for a big screen fright fest and for a majority of Western viewers, it would be a new kind of monster. I desperately wanted to learn more about the Baitbat and what made this creature unique. However, we don’t even know what this malevolent creature is until literally the last ten minutes, and I have no idea why the filmmakers held that from the audience for so long. The Baitbat is the lone thing to better help separate this movie from the glut of other possession/demon movies, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t make it more of a feature and try and tap into that potential and history. The viewer needs to know specific rules related to this spirit and it’s only a hasty exposition drop at the very end where we learn what the spirit is and what it wants. Imagine The Exorcist if you never knew what was going on with Regan until the last ten minutes. The Baitbat is our chief antagonist. We need to know more and earlier in order to make the movie more interesting. The tree root-tenatcle design of the creature is creepy and lends itself well to low-light silhouettes, which makes sense why it was chosen for a cost-conscious production. Other wicked cool Philippines monsters deserving of horror spotlights include a manananggal, a creature that separates its torso to fly, and a tikbalang, a creature with the head of a horse, the body of a man, and the feet of a horse.
There is a shocking amount of redundancy in this story best exemplified by the glut of characters. We have two grieving fathers raising teenage girls, we have two men who loved the same woman who was killed in the opening scene, we have two spiritual figures trying to combat evil possession, we have two teenage girls struggling with their loss of their mothers, we even have three authority figures (doctor, cop, pastor) all inserting themselves into this strange case. There’s so much crossover with these characters and their comparative stories that I’m quite surprised the filmmakers didn’t do some serious collapsing to better prune their narrative. If you’re going to have such character redundancy, you would think you’d highlight their parallel journeys as well as whatever can separate them. This is done to some extent but the differences are usually superficially one-note and never really affect the plot. Take for instance the commonality between Felix and Dr. Thane Noles. Felix was the “other man” in an affair and never lost his feelings for Mandy, though she lost hers for him. Felix blames himself for Mandy’s death but he’s still hung up on her after nine years since their tryst. A smart screenplay would really dive into this character dynamic, two men who shared the love of the same woman, but each should be able to provide insight into creating a bigger picture of this woman. The kind of woman she was with Felix should be different than who she was with her husband, not necessarily better but different. This would then provide a bridge for both men to find a level of understanding through these trying circumstances, not bonding per se but each discovering a little more about the woman they loved, getting to learn something new in her absence. Unfortunately, the film leaves all this drama unfulfilled, using the shared love as merely an excuse why Felix sticks around and why Dr. Noles doesn’t quite like him. Why do we need two spiritual warriors too except for maybe some sort of Exorcist homage? Make these character points matter more.
The same scrutiny could be applied to both daughters as well. Why do we need both girls vying for screen time and going through the paces of the same story? Because of the juggling, they drop out for long stretches of the movie’s 95 minutes, like right after Sarah gets possessed. You would think that lost time experience, as well as her involvement in a murder, would be an enticing thing to further explore. You would think a spirit taking over her body and getting more oppressive would be a natural escalation with urgency to watch. We’d witness Sarah freak out as she wakes up from more and more shocking behavior. It’s an easy story because it makes sense, watching our possessed schoolgirl lose her mind and body. However, Evil Takes Root only tags in Sarah when it wants to, and this means her ongoing development as a demon vessel is curiously left underdeveloped. In contrast, Christina is immediately the more interesting character because she has a hearing disability and a lingering resentment over her father. Christina is even willing to explore with dark arts to bring her mother back from the dead. Dear reader, I ask you why can these two characters not simply be combined? If one girl is stepping into the supernatural, why not have her as the own affected? Why do her actions need to be carried out on a different character who has a similar back-story but who happens to not personally involve the supernatural to try and bring her dead mom back? Why have Sarah volunteer at a hearing-impaired school when we could just follow Christina at that same school from the point of view of someone who is already hearing impaired? These are the central relationships and characters and yet they could have been streamlined or retooled for more concise and developed drama.
Evil Takes Root is a horror movie that makes me feel stuck in the middle of praise and shrugging. It looks and sounds like a professional movie with real technical acumen, but it’s also a lot of effort to tell a deeply generic story with deeply generic characters and no standout set pieces. The sound design, editing, cinematography, and spindly special effects are impressive and seamlessly blended together. The monster needed more screen time. Nobody should be ashamed to have this movie on their resume, though the screenwriters (the director and the producer) might not feel that same degree of pride. Perhaps the mediocre story is a result of the production problems trying to make dispirit pieces come together into a meaningful and cogent whole. I cannot say. Whatever the reasons, Evil Takes Root is a very good-looking yet methodically generic horror movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I’m shocked this isn’t the pilot for a new series, and maybe it one day will serve as such, because Enola Holmes is such a sprightly, effervescent, enjoyable rehash of the classic sleuth but this time from the girl power point of view of a younger sister. Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) shines as the headstrong, quirky, loquacious Enola Holmes setting off on her own adventure to find her missing mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and to push against her older brothers Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and their perceptions of what is appropriate for a lady. The best moments are when Brown gets to showcase her pluck and grit, proving presumptions wrong, and winning fans along the way. There is nothing new about this kind of movie where a young woman fights against sexism and proves herself capable and heroic. It’s a tried-and-true formula that works because, with enough polish, an underdog is always going to draw in the audience to watch them triumph over their doubters. Add a dash of feminism to boot and bake as necessary (not a joke on feminism, mind you). The actual plot is secondary to the situational mishaps and character bickering, which is good because there isn’t really a mystery to uncover. Enola gets pulled into protecting a young royal on the run from a wealthy family benefactor that wants to make sure he doesn’t live to collect his inheritance. Their interaction adopts a screwball romance sort of tone, which provides Brown ample opportunity to be sunny, exuberant, and overall delightful, a side rarely seen as the somber, alienated Eleven. I enjoyed the stylistic asides and visual inserts to better showcase Enola’s hyperactive thinking and sleuthing, borrowing a page from the new Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock TV series to visualize the processes of rapid-fire thought in a pleasing and amusing manner. Cavill is perhaps the most dashing Sherlock put to screen and provides a suitable establishment stand-in of accepted masculinity and intelligence that serves as contrast for what Enola is pushing against. Given that almost all the main players are attached to ongoing Netflix series (The Witcher, The Crown) I feel like we should expect more adventures down the line with the irascible Enola Holmes, and with a bubbly Brown seizing the mantle, that’s fine by me.
Nate’s Grade: B
Can a fairy tale have a dark undertone below all the bubbly whimsy? Hell, the Grimm tales were barbaric before they became homogenized, sanitized, and finally Disneytized. Nurse Betty presents a modern day fairy tale with the strike of reality always below it — the strike of darkness and disappointment. Fairy tales are an escape from this, but what if one creates her own fairy tale and chooses to believe in it over the drab reality she presides in?
Neil LaBute, the director of the incessantly dark In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, collects together a whimsical modern day fable with a top-notch cast. Yes, to those fans of earlier LaBute offeriengs his name doesn’t seem synonymous with whimsical comedy – but in this flick LaBute cuts his teeth in the mainstream and earns his stripes if ever.
Baby-voiced and rosy-cheeked Renee Zellweger plays our heroine in diner worker and soap opera fanatic Betty. Betty finds solace from her life featuring a sleazy spouse, played with marvelous flair by Aaron Eckhart, in her favorite soap opera. When her louche of a hubby isn’t wiping his hands on the kitchen curtains or banging his secretary he tries proposing drug deals for shady characters. A recent drug peddling snafu sets him up to an ominous encounter with hitmen team Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. Through a jarring scene of violence Betty’s husband is left brutally murdered and the only witness is Betty herself. The event causes Betty to slip into a fractured psychological state where she believes the world of her soap opera is alive and real with herself a vital character. She hops in one of her dead hubby’s used cars and drives off toward California to meet the doctor/soap star of her dreams in Greg Kinnear.
Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock mistake Betty for a criminal mastermind and believe her to have taken the drugs and run. They embark on their own mad dash to capture her and finish the job they were paid to complete. Along the way Betty encounters many people that are at first confused but ultimately charmed by this delusional dame. Through a series of events she meets up with the eternally smarmy Kinnear and begins to learn what happens when a fantasy is corrupted by the disappointment of reality. Allison Janey has a small part as a network executive that shines strong, and Crispin “McFly” Glovin is just nice to see in a film again. He doesn’t seem to age though. Maybe he has that Dick Clark disease.
The flow of Betty is well paced and a smart mix between drama, whimsy, and dark humor. Overlooking some sudden bursts of violence bookend the film it comes across as a sweet yet intelligent satire and fable. Betty is looking for her Prince Charming but will later learn that she doesn’t need one, that she is the fairy tale happy ending inside her.
The acting of Nurse Betty is never in danger of flat-lining. Zelwegger is a lovable and good-natured heroine. Freeman is a strong and deceptively hilarious actor along side a caustic yet down-to-earth Rock. And I make an outgoing question if there is an actor alive out there that can do smarm better than Kinnear — I think not.
Nurse Betty is a wonderful surprise. Check into your local theater, take one showing, and call me in the morning. You’ll be glad you did.
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I was high on Nurse Betty in 2000 declaring it a modern-day fable with a darker undercurrent equivalent to that of the Grimms and their mixture of the everyday and extraordinary. In reality, Nurse Betty couldn’t feel more like a holdover of the 1990s indie scene where it might have been an unwritten rule that after Pulp Fiction every indie film had to have a subplot involving quippy hitmen (consider it the equivalent of every 1980s comedy having a mafia subplot for some unexplained reason). It feels engineered from a different era, and because of this, I’m sad to say that Nurse Betty hasn’t aged as well as I hoped. It’s not a bad movie but it feels more dated and peculiar, both in design and also unintentionally with its mishmashing tones that were more enticing twenty years ago.
The premise of Nurse Betty sounds like two movies smashed together. The movie is almost split evenly among its two storylines. We have Betty (Renee Zellweger) as the put-upon wife in Kansas dreaming of a better life, and maybe a better husband, who then has a mental breakdown and travels cross-country believing she’s in a real-life soap opera. Following suit is a pair of hitmen (Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock) who bicker and track her down, having their own cross-country road trip and getting on each other’s nerves. The problem with the screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg is that these two competing stories could have existed on their own and probably would have been the better for it. It’s revealed late in the movie that Rock is the son of Freeman, and by that time of the reveal it doesn’t do much other than serve as a hasty attempt at a twist ending and to better push the fatalism of Freeman’s character, Charlie. However, if we knew from early on that this was a father-son hit team, think of the fun family squabbles and opportunities to present character development through these unique circumstances. It’s a father trying to train his son in his many years honed killing targets and not questioning why. You could tell a really quirky, compelling, and engaging family story through this dark comedy vehicle. Instead, the father-son hitmen are simply playing catch-up with Betty. Charlie becomes substantially less interesting the more obsessed with Betty he becomes because his character change is never really explained. Even he is unable to articulate why this one woman has entranced him. He stops being the scary, proud, and imposing figure who killed Betty’s husband and becomes a doddering, foolishly love-struck old man that loses his edge. Again, that arc could work but the screenplay essentially nullifies him as a threat and as a multi-dimensional character. If both of these dangerous men had driven off into their own movie, they and we would have better benefited.
The Betty half is the more entertaining portion because it’s more unpredictable and because Betty is, at her heart, a sweet human being who is looking for her dream. It doesn’t take much to emotionally identify with her mistreated character who seeks an outlet for her life’s disappointments. Her mental break produces a sizeable degree of nervous laughter whenever she encounters someone new who is taking her at literal face value. Should we be laughing at her? Should we be pitying her? Should we be worrying about her having reality crush her hopes? The movie doesn’t seem to be holding up Betty for cheap mockery, which is a relief considering the quantity of her mental illness and trauma leading her into increasingly comical scenarios. The baffled misunderstandings can supply amusement but it’s more waiting to see how Betty responds to adversity and waiting for reality to hit with crushing force, eventually snapping her back. It’s waiting for the realization, but until then you can enjoy Betty’s blissful delusion like a sitcom character being hit over the head and thinking they’re somebody new. The movie takes on a new level of entertainment when she meets the man of her desires, Dr. David (Greg Kinnear), actually the actor George in real-life, and he doesn’t reject her but becomes fascinated with her. He’s impressed by her level of commitment to Method acting, so he assumes, and is curious how far she can keep things going. Betty also seems to bring back George’s passion for acting, which has waned over years of playing the same over-the-top plot machinations of daytime television. That’s such a better storytelling choice than having her dream man push her away immediately for being outwardly crazy.
The winning feature of Nurse Betty is the relentless positivity and daffy, perky performance of Zellweger as our dream-seeker. She always has a smile and go-get-‘em attitude that makes her compelling to watch and also easy to root for, whether or not she ever comes out of her mental break. Her sunny demeanor in the face of medical horror and confused authority figures is reliably charming. Zellweger never plays like the joke should be on Betty. Often it boomerangs, like when her L.A. roommate wants to dash Betty’s dream by introducing her to the real George, but instead of disaster they walk off to spend the rest of the fancy soiree together. Zellweger is the best reason to step into Nurse Betty and her portrayal of mental illness is not meant for ridicule. After Nurse Betty, Zellweger went on a tear, getting three Oscar nominations in three years, and a win for 2003’s Cold Mountain, before disappearing from Hollywood to re-emerge with a different face.
The jumbled tones proved more amusing to me twenty years ago but now they feel sloppy and poorly integrated, hence why it feels like two separate movies inelegantly melded together. The violence can be jarring and too serious for a movie that also attempts goofball whimsy. It feels like Nurse Betty was assembled with all the loose, leftover bits of irony from the 90s indie scene. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge movie that feels like it was green-lit based upon as many of its discordant elements all appearing under the name of one movie. Soap operas. Housewives. Mental illness! Road trips! Hitmen! Oh my! The soap opera jokes and industry satire feel pretty dated and must have been stale even by the time the film was released twenty years ago. There are points watching Nurse Betty where you feel like it went shopping for its quirk and bought it whole sale.
Director Neil LaBute was a fascinating choice considering his prior work writing and directing very misanthropic small-scale ensemble dramas like 1997’s In the Company of Men where two toxic men set out to ruin an innocent deaf woman to punish the female gender they feel has done them wrong. This seemed like an odd fit but was a preview to LaBute’s attempts at being a journeyman mid-range director, helming the stunningly bad 2006’s Wicker Man remake as well as completely forgettable studio fare like Lakeview Terrace and the Death at a Funeral remake. LaBute has since found a home writing and directing in television, including writing 15 episodes of the SyFy Channel series, Van Helsing, which well and truly confounded me to learn. The man who was responsible for dark, David Mamet-esque plays about the searing depths of human depravity and toxic masculinity was writing low-budget vampire cable television. To be fair I haven’t watched a single episode so perhaps his prior writing experiences really added something to the tale of Vanessa Helsing kicking ass in a vampire-dominated future. Actually, I take it all back because that sounds like a fun show.
Nurse Betty is a dark comedy that surprises as often as it may frustrate, spinning two different stories on a collision course that would have benefited from a trial separation. It’s one of the first re-review films that has lost some of its magic for me. In 2000, this movie felt a lot more daring and hipper and I gave it credit for the inclusion of so many off-kilter elements. Nowadays, I need more from a movie than simply including unexpected elements. It has to make the most of them, incorporate them in meaningful and challenging ways, and justify their tonal integration. Reading over my original review twenty years ago, I cringe about how uncritical it proves to be. I clearly enjoyed the movie but couldn’t say much more than bad puns and obvious allusions (did you know fairy tales could be, get this, dark and unnerving?). This is not one of my finer film reviews and I won’t cut my 18-year-old self any slack because I’ve been impressed by the insights and writing style of my younger me before. I will hold my past self to higher standards, thank me.
Re-Review Grade: B-
It’s a Korean zombie movie but the lean survival storytelling of #Alive could be universal. We follow one man during the outbreak of a zombie plague. He’s stuck in his apartment several floors above the ground and watches from on high, safe but trapped and on his own for food and other life-saving necessities. The movie is very easy to follow and is practically wordless for long stretches, relying upon clear and concise visual storytelling to be able to follow one man’s plight under the worst of circumstances. There is an easy pleasure about watching a character in a tough spot think their way through step-by-step. It worked with that beautiful middle hour of Cast Away and it works here with #Alive. Eventually, he befriends a woman across the courtyard and they rely upon one another from afar as partners in survival. The last third of the movie is much less interesting as characters make a big decision and it feels like a mundane episode of The Walking Dead, one of those middle of the season episodes. It’s not a bad sequence of events but it’s just not as interesting as the survival story beforehand. It becomes more like any other zombie movie. There isn’t anything terribly unique about #Alive except for its contained thriller perspective, so when the movie jettisons that, it can’t help but feel like it’s losing whatever helped make it compelling for so long. I went in thinking it was going to be more satirical, especially from its poster of our protagonist leaning off his balcony to hold a selfie stick, but any social satire is so slight too be fairly non-existent. If you’re a zombie fan or a fan of contained thrillers with high-concepts, then #Alive is a thrilling, enjoyable, and relatively satisfying 90 minutes. It may be derivative but that doesn’t mean that filmmakers with a specific vision and the creative ingenuity to see it through can’t make old stories worthwhile again.
Nate’s Grade: B
Antebellum was originally supposed to come out in the spring and yet it only feels even more relevant today in the wake of months of protests over police brutality, the removal of Confederate monuments, and whether or not black Americans can attain justice in an imperfect system. Antebellum has also been flagged with overly negative reviews and accusations of being just another movie that exploits the horror of slavery for cheap thrills. After having seen the movie, I feel perplexed that so many of my critical brethren could not connect with the film and its finer points on the world we lived in and the world we live in today, inextricably linked.
Eden (Janelle Monae) is an enslaved woman surviving on an eighteenth-century Southern plantation run by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and the mistress of the land, Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Then there’s Veronica (Monae) who looks identical to Eden and lives in modern-day. She’s an author and academic speaker on social oppression and politics. How these two women are related, as well as past and present, will be revealed over the course of 100 minutes.
Antebellum is divided almost equally into 30-minute thirds, and it’s the structure that helps to aid in its mystery while also stiffling its larger implications. The first third is watching a plantation and the horrors of slavery; however, there are clues that something strange is happening. Little touches, character responses, a tattoo that seems too eerily modern. From there, we jump forward to the next third with what appears to be the same Eden, this time as a featured academic author. From here, if your mind is similar to mine, you’re attempting to bridge this connection and uncover how the past and present have become entwined. Is Veronica experiencing a deeply felt dream? Is it time travel? That was my guess before starting the film based upon the advertisement. I thought it was going to be a story about horrible racists from America’s past kidnapping black Americans to enslave. It’s a sci-fi angle that can make the material feel fresh, as there are more things to say other than the obvious and profound statements that “Slavery was terrible,” and, “It should never be forgotten or mitigated of its horror.” I also think it would serve as a rebuttal to those who ignorantly argue, “It was so long ago, why does it still matter? Get over it.” The past, in that instance, is literally ensnaring the present and forcing citizens to relive generational trauma. It’s that final third where Antebellum reveals what it really has been all along, and it’s a surprise but it also makes sense in the world that its meant to represent, leaning into a contemptible degree of human avarice that reminded me of HBO’s Westworld. It’s a fitting revelation and, as one would expect, the final third charges into an emotional catharsis as we watch Eden/Veronica fight for her freedom at last.
However, and this is a word I can already tell I’m going back to repeatedly to qualify my reservations, once the Big Reveal is known I wish we could have spent far more time dwelling in the implications of what exactly it means. I won’t spoil what exactly that reveal is but it’s definitely something that has plenty of social and political commentary and a reflection of our modern times and the injustices that have only been further highlighted this year. It’s such an interesting angle that I almost wish the filmmakers had re-prioritized their movie. Rather than structuring to best serve a mystery with a Shyamalan-style twist, it could have had its Act Two break be its inciting incident, revealing its twist as the starting point for the real terror. As a viewer, while I enjoyed the mystery and portentous mood of the movie, it presents a potent storytelling avenue that is far more compelling than the first two-thirds, but by then it’s too late. It works as context for the behavior and setting we’ve seen, both past and present, but Antebellum strangely suffers from trying to be too clever when a more straightforward version could have better tapped into its full dramatic and political commentary potential.
I was intrigued early on and came away genuinely impressed with the technical skills of debut writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The photography is often stunning and that goes for their visual compositions as well as their specific camera movements. The opening scene involves a tracking shot that starts from the front of the plantation facade, and that’s the best word, all prim and proper and beatific in appearance, before swooping behind and into the slave quarters to see the ugly reality behind that illusion. I didn’t feel like the filmmakers were simply using the backdrop of slavery as cheap genre exploitation. I felt their intentions were good. The horror of slavery isn’t downplayed but it’s also not overtly recreated just to add an easy splash of violence or terror. The movie relies more on implications, like Eden sleeping next to the plantation owner every night or an enslaved man finding his wife’s necklace in a charnel house among a scattering of ashes. The implication of the larger horror is there without having to be explicit. I’m reminded of the abrasively negative condemnations of Netflix’s Cuties insofar as people seemed to be missing obvious artistic intent. These are challenging and uncomfortable movies but movies with something to say, and Antebellum is not just a simple rehash of slavery tropes to turn black people’s historical suffering into slapdash slasher pulp.
Monae (Hidden Figures) is strong throughout and continues to build her case as a leading lady. She must register her fear in subtle ways without going into larger histrionics, but she maintains a quiet strength that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Her time spent in the present, as the author calling out aging racist ideology, is bold and confidant and serves as a counterpoint to the woman we’ve experienced on the plantation. We know that woman is still inside Eden. Monae has a late scene set in slow-motion, with the music swelling, that simultaneously feels badass, uplifting, and like an American Valkyrie blazing against unchecked Confederate revisionism.
Antebellum is better than its reputation and offers more from an artistic standpoint than hitting the same points and rehashing the same traumas of the past. It’s a movie built around its mystery when I feel like it had much more it could have said with restructuring and more time spent after its final explanations. As a mysterious thriller, it’s tasteful, thematically involving, and technically impressive. It doesn’t even use the N-word once, which could be decried by some as unrealistic but also a sign of the filmmakers’ good faith to not merely use a shameful historical legacy for base titillation. It works as a thriller with more on its mind. However, and this is my last usage of that word, it’s that mind I was more intrigued by. Antebellum is a B-movie with A-level ambitions but a story structure that keeps it stuck as a well-polished B-movie.
Nate’s Grade: B