In the wake of COVID-19, some changes…

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.

The Hunt (2020)

hunt_ver2Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.

A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.

c7f31a20-4d03-11ea-9bfd-a9714bb423baI was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.

I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.

However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.

11hunt-superJumbo-v2Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.

Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.

106072660-1565465049545the-hunt-gal-1-5d407ec97db7c-1croppedThe Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.

Nate’s Grade: B

Brahms: The Boy II (2020)

I mostly enjoyed the creepy thrills of 2016’s The Boy, where a young woman is hired by a wealthy old couple to watch their son who just happens to be a doll named Brahms who may or may not be alive. It built an atmosphere with patience until the very end where it definitively revealed the doll was not alive at all. Zoom ahead several years and now we have the awkwardly titled Brahms: The Boy II (why? why is the sequel status slated for the subtitle?) and it completely negates the previous movie. Surprise, that doll that was only a doll in the first movie is now a real supernatural presence who infects others and can move on its own. I don’t consider this a significant spoiler merely because returning director William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside) tips his hand so early into the movie’s 86 minutes. Because you know the doll is definitely alive now the rest of the movie becomes a tedious game of waiting for the adults to finally catch on, which makes the viewer impatient and also saps the dread out of scenes. This is the first movie I can recall where a person screams in front of a stationary doll and it’s treated like a jump scare. Katie Holmes (Logan Lucky) does her best as the matriarch of a family suffering some serious psychological trauma after being the victims of a home invasion. She and her husband see the Brahms doll as a working conduit for their son to better process his trauma. He’s even begun talking again, and also supposedly drawing very murderous pictures and saying how Brahms is angry. There’s an interesting story somewhere in here about a family using a creepy doll as an unorthodox means of PTSD therapy, but The Boy II is just such a lackluster horror movie. We know the doll is alive yet all the things we’re supposed to worry about are absent the doll’s immediate vicinity. Even as it gets more and more blatant, including a finale that reveals what Brahms looks like behind his mask (did you even think there was a “behind”?), the movie fails to make you care about anything that’s happening. It’s sluggish, silly, and stale. Even if you were a marginal fan of the first one, I would advise skipping Brahms. I wonder if there will be a The Boy III that completely undoes the sequel, the Rise of Skywalker to The Boy II‘s Last Jedi. Never thought I’d write that sentence.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Minus One (2010)

As I’ve been looking into more Ohio independent films to highlight and review, I had several in local filmmaking circles recommend me the 2010 drama Minus One (currently available on Amazon Prime). It’s a war drama filmed entirely in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an example of what can be done when indie filmmaking accentuates the most important parts of storytelling, ones that do not require Hollywood budgets. It’s a heartfelt drama and one that is easy to plug right into.

A trio of National Reserve soldiers have been given the call that they are to report for duty. In three days, they will be transported overseas and onto a base in Iraq. David (Jon Osbeck) is a career veteran and in charge of rounding up the other guys in town. James (Roger Bailey) is a 30-something veteran still trying to build a family. Robert (Remy Brommer) is a young student whose days were about playing video games with his pals and sneaking time in with his girlfriend. The three men try and put their lives in order before they leave and face the possibility of not returning.

Minus One is the kind of meaty drama that can be done on a shoestring budget, which makes it a smart play for indie filmmakers because the drama and characters are what sustain it. There’s something immediate and engaging about a group of men spending their last few days before shipping out. It’s a situation that feels like grieving, the uncertainty and anxiety hanging on everyone’s faces. Will this person ever return home to me? Will things ever be the same? It’s a premise that forces confrontations and that naturally leads to drama and catharsis. The trio of characters all have personal relationships that will need to be touched upon before their departures, although James really gets the short end dramatically. He’s scared about going back for another tour but his wife is supportive and loving and they’ll see it through. James seems to serve more as a contrasting data point in between the character chart, the middle ground between the novice (Robert) and the strong-but-silent veteran (David). The situation demands introspection, reflection, and the conflict of action versus inaction. Will you make amends while able? Will you continue to drift away from those who were at one time so crucial? Will you take ownership over your own faults and the pain you may have caused others? By starting at this point, each scene becomes a learning opportunity for the viewer, trying to deduce connections between established characters and new supporting faces, as well as getting a fuller sense of their daily lives through habits and breaks from routine. Not every scene does this, and there are some scenes that just restate the same learned info, but as a whole Minus One is a well-constructed drama that puts the emphasis on character and conflict and patience. It takes its time to fill in the blanks.

Each character is taking stock of their life and what this moment means, but they’re also taking stock of how it affects the people around them in their lives. Robert being called into service effectively ends his relationship with his girlfriend, and the both of them know it during a party. His mind is preoccupied and she gets up to leave, remarking she has an exam in the morning. You can tell Robert is a little hurt by this reality, wanting to soak up the time they have remaining before he’s gone, and then accepts that reality, that he’s already gone. She says goodbye, hugs him, and they hold onto one another, and what’s unsaid seems to be understood by both parties. This is more than a nightly goodbye. They both know it’s the end and must move on. David is also trying to make right with his ex-wife and little daughter, trying to fix one small thing, one achievable act of kindness, one point that can be fondly remembered, by fixing the broken front porch swing. As his ex-wife relays, David has been a family man in name more than deed, failing to fulfill promises and being present for his loved ones. The duties of the job took their toll. This is a small town and losing three of its own to the war effort will have repercussions. Especially during trying times, it’s clear that our lives and actions can extend far beyond us.

Osbeck (Dark Waters, The Public) has the most challenging role given that he is the most hardened to the call of duty. He delivers a finely textured and weathered performance with enough glints to hint at reserved pools of emotion, from regret with his ex-wife and a lingering ember of hope, to resigned acceptance and gratitude to the many familiar faces in town. Watch the guy talk to his daughter and try not to get a sense of how good Osbeck is at bringing this character to life. His isn’t a showy performance and often underplays the scenes, which feels more appropriate for the role. Bailey and Brommer (Speak) do fine jobs especially when they’re pitted against each other. Both men are fearful but dealing with it in different manners, which puts them at odds. Robert is ignoring the certainty and changes, trying to parrot the Army’s slogans and racist terminology for the enemy overseas as a means of covering up for his gnawing fear. He’s gung-ho for war, and this greatly irritates James, who knows better than to blithely celebrate war as if it was glamorous. I wish their blowup could have gone on longer and cracked both characters open even further.

Other acting standouts include Jennifer Schaaf (Heather’s Painting) as David’s ex-wife who is trying to navigate her complicated feelings of sympathy and personal boundaries, Jane Mowder (The Street Where We Live) as Robert’s mom, especially during the scene where she has to process the news her son is shipping out, Misti Patrella (Classholes) as the grieving widow who has turned to the bottle and has a shared history with David, and the irreplaceable Ralph Scott (Bong of the Living Dead) as the small-town police chief who provides a much-needed wry sense of levity. He has such a natural way of inhabiting a character. Scott is so prevalent in Ohio-produced indie filmmaking that I assume if he’s not in the film he must have been holding the camera somewhere.

There is one significant misstep for the movie and it literally comes in the closing minute. I’ll dance around spoilers to keep things kosher. The film ends as you would expect with our trio being driven out of town and heading to the airport for their international travel (this should not be a spoiler). We’re then treated to post-script text informing us what happened to the three soldiers once they reached Iraq. Firstly, it’s not necessary to give resolution when so much of the story exists in the uncertainty of what will happen next. It feels like ending 12 Angry Men with a post-script that said, “Oh, the kid was really guilty the whole time.” It goes against the thematic emphasis of the preceding story. We don’t need a resolution because these men are representative of the United States soldier as a whole, so it’s better left open-ended. The other drawback is that this post-script covers some pretty major dramatic changes, and to do so in a handful of words in the close is inherently anticlimactic and unsatisfying and a bit clunky. If this was going to be the conclusion to certain characters, then learning about it this manner was not the right choice.  Better to have kept things ambiguous and open-ended than serve up developments this way.

This impulse also surfaces during one of the movie’s most dramatic points, a nearly six-minute monologue by David about his time overseas and a checkpoint that went badly. We begin the moment on Osbeck’s face recounting the painful memory, and then the movie haphazardly cuts back into flashback of the event as narrated. This decision seems like a reasonable one, visualizing the traumatic experience, but it takes away from the moment. It interrupts the focus on Osbeck’s performance where the viewer is studying him for the slightest changes. It’s a strong monologue and the emphasis should be on Osbeck’s face alone. Another reason why this choice doesn’t work is the reality of doubling the Middle East in Columbus, Ohio. This requires a stylistic choice that amounts to “ghost trails” in editing software (think “drunk vision”). It’s being used to signify the past but it’s also being used to cover up the environmental differences. Even with this effect, the forest of the checkpoint still stands out as incongruous. I do think a flashback could have strengthened this moment but it needed to be very judicious. The point of the monologue isn’t how he and his friend got into trouble, it’s about his friend’s sacrifice he blames himself over, which means the emphasis needs to be on his friend. David describes seeing his expression in that final moment, an understanding of his inevitable demise, and that is exactly what should have been the flashback focus. All you needed was a closeup of the man’s face, fixed, emoting every damn thing he can before a flash wipes away the memory. That way the emphasis is on the performance and gets rid of production replication shortfalls.

Minus One is a fairly simple story told in a straight-forward manner. The emphasis is on the relatable characters, the simmering conflicts and the personal revelations of each coming to terms with how their lives will be changing, and the uncertainty that they must come to terms with. This is a story that has been told before, both in film and simply a lived experience of millions, and it will continue to be told afterwards because, at its core, it’s a universal story. It’s saying goodbye to a loved one and coming to terms with responsibility and sacrifice. Yet, Osbeck, serving as writer and co-director with Marc Wiskemann (Holding Patterns), doesn’t rest on making these men symbols (admittedly some of the three have more depth than others). It does no disservice to say Minus One feels like a competent made-for-TV movie; from a technical standpoint, the visual compositions and shots are very standard, placing the focus on the actors and giving them space, and material, to deliver, and they generally do. It’s a small movie about big things and I enjoyed the little touches that better rounded out the world, like David revealing, with a delightful smirk, the secret to how he always gets the daily trivia question correct at his local coffee shop. It’s those small touches that give Minus One a personality. I disagree with the very ending and how it impacts the overall resonance of the movie but it doesn’t sabotage the whole experience. Minus One is a somber, reflective, and touching little homespun drama with plenty of sincerity and heart to spare.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Guns Akimbo (2020)

Imagine waking up one day and having real-working handguns bolted into your hands. That’s the wild premise to Guns Akimbo (akimbo means, in this context, “flung out haphazardly”), a frenetic action comedy that never takes itself too seriously. Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is a computer programmer who takes it upon himself to harass online trolls. One of these trolls, the proprietor behind the death match game show Schism, takes it personally. He drugs Miles and has his cartoonish goons give him the gun-hands. He’s the latest contestant on Schism, and the top-ranked assassin Nix (Samara Weaving) has been selected as his competition. Miles has to fend for his life, while not arousing panic or the police, and he can’t even open a door.

It’s a bonkers, proudly juvenile action comedy that starts off at a breakneck speed and rarely lets up, and there’s a good reason for that – Guns Akimbo is a lot of flash and little else. It’s a movie that’s constantly in your face with its stylistic tricks, crass humor, wanton violence, and bizarre touches, and for a decent portion of the movie it kept me entertained. The rush of colors, movement, and profane insanity can be enjoyed on a certain level that doesn’t require much in the way of thinking. If you need a turn-off-your-brain action comedy, Guns Akimbo can work on that level, but if you think a little more the illusion begins to dissolve. I start to question the reality of this world, which seems more akin to something from The Purge but lacks the satirical through line of the Purge franchise. The satire of Guns Akimbo feels tacked on and often forced, much like the setup of its premise. There’s really nothing about firearms or gun culture covered, which seems bizarre considering the premise. The “troll culture” aspect of the movie is barely covered, setting it up as a straw-man argument to lambaste the general indifference to human suffering. We never really return to it except for brief moments to score easy points. Miles is a troll to trolls, and they get so incensed that they go to extreme lengths for vengeance from… being trolled? Is this to imply how fragile online trolls are as people? The world of the movie seems to acknowledge its Running Man-style online death game shows but the rest of the world goes on normally without commenting. It feels like someone just dropped in a fantastic element into the normal world and nobody acknowledges it as such. I thought maybe at the end it would turn on the Schism viewers but no. They’re basically like those five or six audience faces we jump around for reaction shots, like in The Truman Show. The satire of the movie feels more like a superficial finish.

From the first sequence of stylized violence on, I made a note of how overly edited the action was. It wasn’t quite to the hyper-edits of Michal Bay’s kaleidoscopic realm but it was noticeable and made it harder for the action to be understood and appreciated. You get the premise of the scenarios, two cars chasing after one another and firing, but it’s presented in such a blizzard of images, sounds, and colors that it’s more the impression of the scene rather than a development. This impression was always present when we watch Nix storm through a drug den and lay waste to every armed goon inside. Here is a scenario where all I want is some stylized violence and fun fight choreography, but what I got was more of the same incomprehensible jumble. Nix shoots. Bullets hit skulls. Blood splatters. The camera is constantly zooming, or careening, or flipping upside down, and after a while I just gave up and accepted it’s all only impression-based. It’s about the immediate energy and not what’s actually happening onscreen. I wasn’t going to get any interesting fight choreography. I wasn’t going to get any memorable bits of crazy action. It was like a junkier version of Wanted, with a super-powered player running through a level and clearing over-matched opponents. Without more, the same action can get boring. The same happens in a junkyard clash between gangs. The only action sequence with a satisfying development was a car chase where Nix attacks with the spinning wheel of her motorcycle. Guns Akimbo has decided to overwhelm your senses to distract from its action restrictions.

As a crazy comedy, Guns Akimbo is more successful and fun. I found the physical comedy to be a consistent and enjoyable source of entertainment. While the action might get boring, watching Miles simply deal with the logistics of his gun-bolted hands made me laugh and cringe constantly. How does one go to the bathroom with gun-hands? Put on their pants? Open a door? Drive a car? It’s a dose of slapstick that doesn’t have to dip into edgy material in order to make its mark. Radcliffe is genuinely fun to watch during these sequences, as it plays to his strengths of melding awkward clumsiness and nervous high-strung energy. Thankfully Radcliffe is set for life thanks to the Harry Potter movies because he has consistently chosen really weird and interesting film roles, almost to the point where his presence in a (non-studio) movie is enough to guarantee a watch. He brought stunning humanity to a farting corpse in 2016’s Swiss Army Man and gave a tour-de-force physical performance. He’s an actor who commits no matter how silly the role, and it’s a delight to watch him try and make sense of the escalating madness around him with his unique physical disability. I was enjoying even the smaller moments like Miles’ difficulty hiding his alarming ailment with transparent lies or his interaction with a mentally ill homeless man (a scene-stealing Rhys Darby).

As the movie kept going, I felt my interest growing and that was because of the increased presence of Weaving as Nix, who is clearly the star of this crazy movie. Weaving should have been a Hollywood star after Netflix’s The Babysitter, and she was just as wonderful as the heroine in last year’s Ready or Not. Her character isn’t exactly much more than a murder pinup, a comic character come to life. She’s nearly unrecognizable in her punk rock assassin attire, including literal bullet teeth. She’s all nihilist attitude and clunky one-liners (“Suck my clit” needs some work). She has a tragic back-story that sets her up for vengeance and that’s all that’s needed from what could be a completely interchangeable back-story. It only serves as a needed character motivation point, one that is more compelling even in its shallow nature than Miles, who is on the run for his life but really is about trying to save his ex-girlfriend (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who serves mainly as a damsel in distress for the last act. While I enjoyed Radcliffe as a performer, this is Weaving’s movie from the moment she struts into the frame. Her charisma pops off the screen even as her character is criminally blasé. She’s the kind of character that will pick up a dismembered middle finger just to give someone the gesture. Nix is more so a collection of weird and hip and sexy tics than an interesting character, but it’s Weaving and her jubilant, dangerous degree of fun that makes the character a scrubby version of Harley Quinn.

Guns Akimbo is like tasty junk food that can satisfy a very specific cinematic craving but you know, even as you’re consuming it, that this won’t be anything special. I wish the film had gone further in any direction, whether it was with the comedy, whether it was with more finely choreographed action, or whether it was in more outlandish set pieces like in 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up. If you want to be a crazy cartoon, be a crazy cartoon. Give me even more characters like Nix and over-the-top violence that does something different besides geysers of head shot wounds. Guns Akimbo might work as a lesser Crank movie. This movie seems either to be too satisfied with itself or knowingly hiding its shortcomings with energy, edits, and attitude. I can’t tell which. Guns Akimbo is easy on the brain and maybe a little too easy on itself. My 13-year-old self would have loved this movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Emma. (2020)

If you’re going to see a Jane Austen movie, chances are you already know what you’re signing up for. This new edition of Emma. (with extra punctuation at no charge) feels like a slightly more arch version, given a dose of the stilted whimsy of Wes Anderson. It’s only a dash but it’s definitely enough to set the movie apart from its more austere brethren, which will either make it a fresh and reinvigorating take on the material for an audience or a quirky misfire not playing to the strengths of its source material. I fall somewhere in the middle, as I’m not the biggest fan of Austen’s comedic voice but appreciate her point of view and the way she can drop you into these very specific, very rarefied world of class, privilege, and ignorance. The movie’s pacing is quite slack and the scene-to-scene urgency can seem a bit in doubt, which works with the more arch portrayal but also makes the movie feel very long and borderline tedious at parts. The technical asides of Emma. are impressive, with the glorious costuming and art direction transporting an audience back to that early pastoral 19th century time period. Ana Taylor-Joy (Glass) is a sprightly choice as the titular matchmaker and her best moments are when she embraces the extremes, whether it’s being haughty, awkward, contentious, or the occasional dose of slapstick. She navigates the complicated minefield of others affections, trying to stay above it, while finding herself drawn to the free-spirited Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn), who is the only reason this movie is rated PG thanks to a brief flash of rear nudity. Mia Goth (Suspiria) is winning as a demure women feeling the highs and lows of love thanks to Emma’s friendly intervention. It is such an amusing change of pace for Goth, often performing as a sexpot. The real standout are the comic actors doing the most with their supporting turns. Bill Nighy (Detective Pikachu) is highly amusing as the fussy hypochondriac father and Miranda Hart (Spy) is a welcomed presence as the oblivious, constantly nattering Miss Bates. It’s Emma’s show, though, and Taylor-Joy is an enjoyable lead surrounded by an exquisitely manufactured world of old. If you’re an Austen fan, Emma. is worth a watch. If you’re not, this won’t exactly be the movie that brings you over into the fanbase.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Way Back (2020)

Not to be confused with 2013’s The Way Way Back, or 2010’s The Way Back about Gulag survivors, this movie entitled The Way Back is about Ben Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach, and it’s thoroughly fine. We follow Jack (Affleck) as he tries to get his life back on track following the death of a child and the end of his marriage. His alma mater needs a new coach and the former high school basketball star might have found a job that could lead him to be a better version of himself. There’s nothing inherently bad in director Gavin O’Connor’s drama. The acting is pretty good, the docu-drama style gives it a credible sense of realism, and the movie doesn’t downplay the destructive pull of addiction. The problem is that it never feels like it goes deep enough in any aspect. I feel like I just watched a by-the-numbers sports drama attached to a by-the-numbers addiction drama. I kept waiting for more insights with the characters, but the story kept falling back on “dead child” as the explanation for everything. I kept waiting for the characters to distinguish themselves with personalities, but the team to the assistant coaches to Jack’s own ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) are left underdeveloped and more as stand-ins for approving or disapproving figures. There’s plenty of dramatic potential here and it feels like The Way Back doesn’t have the courage or nuance to keep going. I was thinking back to McFarland U.S.A. and how great that movie opened up its world, its community, its culture, getting to know the different characters and their needs, pressures, and hopes. I was absorbed by that movie and with The Way Back I was left mostly unmoved. Affleck (Justice League) is delivering a good performance that touches upon his own challenges with alcohol. He’s the reason to see the movie, but there isn’t much else to warrant your attention. It’s competently made and refrains from getting mawkish, which is something considering how easy it could given the susceptible subject matter. I was just left relatively unmoved because I was kept from emotionally connecting with these people and getting to know and care about their lives from this story. It’s no The Accountant.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Onward (2020)

In a modern fantasy suburbia, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) have been gifted with a magic staff from their long-departed father. Barley was only a young child when their father died, and Ian never knew him, and now both are granted an opportunity via magic to bring their dear old man back for one more day. The magic spell is interrupted and, as a result, only one half of their father is brought back to life, the lower half, chiefly his legs. The boys must travel on an epic quest in order to bring the rest of their father back to life before all of him disappears again.

Onward is the first time Pixar has ventured into a fantasy realm and the mixture of the modern with the high-fantasy setting allows for some fun juxtaposition. The teenage worries about fitting in, testing your boundaries, and finding out your sense of self can be very relatable, even in a world of trolls and elves. I enjoyed the combative and compassionate brotherly dynamic between Ian and Barley, and Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) and Pratt (Avengers: Endgame) are terrific together and really do feel like feuding family members. Their high energy performances translate well to animation. The Pixar creative team does enough to provide little distinguishing character touches for both, enough to provide some extra shading so they don’t quite feel like cartoon versions of their more famous Marvel counterparts. Ian is all awkward and lacking in confidence whereas Barley is overloaded with self-confidence and an unshakable sense of arrested development. I enjoyed the small number of memories relating to their father that Barley holds onto, and I enjoyed how Ian listens to a brief, ordinary test recording of his father on a cassette tape and creates a dialogue between father and son. It’s such a sweet moment that also demonstrates Ian’s ache. I enjoyed how the screenplay connects the external to the internal, namely the obstacles on this quest to the personal trials for Ian and Barley. It allows more meaningful payoffs and more rewarding character growth for our duo. I enjoyed spending time with both boys and was glad their quest was more about them than magical ephemera.

Amazingly, what works best in this movie is its emotional core, which sounds slightly bizarre considering it’s a road trip with a pair of legs. As Onward progresses and settles down with its better honed second half, it puts more emphasis on the relationship between the brothers, their hopes and worries for one another, their sacrifices and shames, and ultimately it becomes a movie about two boys trying to find closure with the memory of their dearly departed dad. The genuine emotion of the brothers is enough to pave over most of the undeveloped elements of the world and storytelling (more on that below). I would have thought, going in, that Onward would present a so-so story with an intriguing world of possibility. I’m surprised that my experience was the exact opposite. The story and central relationships are what kept me going, and it’s what ultimately earned some teary eyed responses from me late in the movie. The topic of seeking closure is a personal one for me and something I value highly, so it was very easy for me to plug my own yearning and vulnerability into these characters. They’re going through all this dangerous trouble not just to see their departed father one last time but also to say goodbye, and that got me big time. It gave the entire movie a new weight that I wasn’t expecting. Who wouldn’t want another chance to tell a loved one how much they miss and appreciate them?

The whole concept of being stuck with a loved one’s lower torso allowed me many moments of contemplation. First, I wondered what their father must be going through to only experience the world through his legs. It felt limited. How do you communicate to others? The film finds its ways. How do you express emotions simply from a pair of disembodied legs? The film finds its ways. As Ian and Barley drag him along on a zipline leash, I kept thinking about the dad. What is he thinking in this moment? Is he waiting for some kind of comforting confirmation from his sons to tell him where he is and what is happening? I kept thinking how confused he must be. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t ever emphasize the potential hell of this half-existence. He’s presented often as a figure of comic relief, especially as his upper torso pile of clothes sloshes around and tumbles off. In a way, the pair of legs reminded me of the visual metaphor of the floating house in 2009’s Up, the manifestation of the protagonist’s heavy grief. They’re tethered to this half-formed memory of their father, unable to fully interact with him and let him go. I was worried that Onward was going to be the Pixar equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s and it is not.

There are some issues with the movie, nothing major, but enough to make it feel under developed, especially in comparison to the Pixar movies of past. The imagination is there, however, the world-building of this fantasy world is decidedly lacking. There are some cute asides like unicorns as the equivalent of trash-eating raccoons, but as a whole the fantasy world feels underdeveloped to its full potential. There’s a significant story point where the current world has forgotten its magic roots thanks to the ease of technology and its inoculating effects, which seems like a pretty straightforward message for our own lazy world. Again, though, Onward doesn’t dig deeper into this theme or what it could mean for the larger mythology of its own world and its history and the rules governing its magical creatures. I started to wonder whether Pixar could just have set this story anywhere.

Likewise, the supporting characters don’t amount to much and feel like leftovers from earlier drafts where they had richer involvement. The ongoing subplot with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teaming up with the fabled beast-turned small business owner Manticore (Octavia Spencer) offered little other than occasional exposition. The Manticore is supposed to best represent how the new world has traded its culture and history for comforts and safety, but it’s not clearly realized and integrated. My pal Ben Bailey reflected that the Manticore seemed like a one-scene character that the filmmakers didn’t want to drop, and so she was stretched through the rest of the film to diminished returns. The last act has a sudden and arbitrary monster to defeat that feels like the kind of thing expected in these sorts of movies, which is a rarity for Pixar and thus a slight disappointment.

Lastly, much of the humor just doesn’t work. The jokes can be stale, safe, or one-note, like a team of very tiny pixie bikers. It’s often silly without exactly being clever. There’s more fleeting visual humor with the incongruous nature of fantasy in a modern setting. There’s less slapstick than you would think considering one of the main characters lacks a torso. I chuckled a few times but, much like the fantasy setting, felt the humor was kept at an superficial level of thought.

Onward isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s a solid mid-tier entry, an enjoyable adventure with a resonant emotional core that makes me forgive many of the film’s other aspects that don’t quite work. The brothers are the best part, their interactions are the most interesting, and their heartfelt journey and hopeful desire for closure is what ultimately left me emotionally satisfied. The jokes and world and supporting characters don’t feel as developed, but it hits with its core relationship and its emotional center, so Onward works where it counts the most with its storytelling. Mid-tier Pixar is much like mid-tier pizza — still satisfying and better than a lot of other options.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Invisible Man (2020)

Does everyone remember the Dark Universe, the attempted relaunch of classic Universal monsters that were going to be played by the likes of Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp? It’s okay if you do not, though the stars got paid regardless. It was all going to be kicked off with Tom Cruise in 2017’s The Mummy, and one under-performing movie later the entire cinematic universe was discarded by spooked studio bosses. But IP will only stay dormant for so long, and so we have a new attempt to relaunch the same horror figures that first terrified audiences almost 90 years ago. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has a long career in genre filmmaking, having started the Saw and Insidious franchises with James Wan, but it was 2018’s bloody action indie Upgrade that really showed what he could do as a director. He was tapped by powerhouse studio Blumhouse to breathe life into those dusty old monsters, going the route of lower budget genre horror rather than blockbuster action spectacles. The Invisible Man is an immediately gripping movie, excellent in its craft, and proof Whannell should be given the remaining monsters to shepherd.

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) has recently run away from her long-time abusive boyfriend, Adrian (House on Haunted Hill’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Just as she’s taking comfort in friends and her sister, Adrian takes his own life and lists Cecilia as the sole beneficiary, but there’s a catch. She must undergo a psych evaluation and be cleared. Cecilia is ready to move on with her life and start over but she can’t shake the feeling that Adrian might not be dead after all and is still watching her.

Whannell has grown as a genre filmmaker and has delivered a scary movie that is confident, crafty, and jarringly effective. From the intense opening sequence, I was generally riveted from start to finish. The shots that Whannell chooses to communicate geography and distance so effectively allow the audience to simmer in the tension of the moment. Whannell’s visual compositions are clean and smart. Another sign how well he builds an atmosphere of unease is that I began to dread the empty space in the camera frame. Could there be an invisible man hiding somewhere? Could some small visual movement tip off the presence of the attacker? Much like A Quiet Place taught an audience to fear the faintest of noise, The Invisible Man teaches its audience to fear open space. It places the viewer in the same anxious, paranoid headspace as Cecilia. It’s also a very economical decision for a horror filmmaker, training your audience to fear what they don’t see. And there is a lot more in a movie that is not seen. The suspense set pieces are so well drawn and varied yet they all follow that old school horror model of establishing the setting, the rules, and just winding things up and letting them go, squeezing the moment for maximum anxiety. It’s reminiscent of the finer points of another old school horror homage, The Conjuring franchise. At its most elemental, horror is the dread of what will happen next to characters we care about, and The Invisible Man succeeds wildly by placing an engaging character in shrewdly designed traps.

I jumped even during its jump scares and that happens so rarely for me. The jump scares don’t feel cheap either, which is even more impressive. They’re clever little visual bursts of sudden spooks, and they feel just as well developed as the other scary set pieces, complimenting the nervous tension and compounding it rather than detracting. There is one moment that happens so fast, that is so unexpected, that I was literally blinking for several seconds trying to determine if what I was watching was actually transpiring. It was so shocking that I was trying to keep up, and yet, like the other decisions, it didn’t feel cheap. I’m convinced this one “ohmygod” buzz-worthy moment will go down in modern horror history, being discussed in the same vein as the speeding bus in the first Final Destination film. I have this level of praise even for the jump scares.

The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse that Cecilia endures, nor does it exploit her pain and suffering for tacky thrills. This is a socially relevant reinterpretation of the source material. The movie examines toxic masculinity and gaslighting but with a supernatural sci-fi spin, but it never loses the grounding in the relatable plight of its protagonist. Cecilia is a character that has suffered trauma that she cannot fully even process, so that even when she’s on her own, she’s still discovering the depth of how exactly this very bad man has reshaped her perception and fears. We don’t need to see Adrian explicitly abuse Cecilia to understand the impact of his toxic relationship. Within minutes, Whannell has already told us enough with how terrified and cautious she is when making her late-night escape from the bed of her sleeping monster. Her all-consuming fear is enough to fill us in. This is a woman who is taking a big risk because she feels her life depends upon it. Later, nobody believes her fantastic claims about her ex still haunting her and posing a threat, convincing her it’s all in her head, and some of them questioning whether the abuse was made up as well. The correlations with domestic violence and gaslighting are obvious, yes, but this dramatic territory is given knowing sympathy and consideration from Whannell. It’s not something tacked on simply to feel bad for our heroine, or to feel relevant with headlines of monstrous man accounting for years of monstrous actions preying upon women. It’s a complete reinvention of a classic to suit our times as well as taking advantage of what that classic source offers. This is how you can adapt stories we’ve seen dozens of times to feel fresh.

Much of the film rests upon Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is truly fantastic. We’re living in an exciting new era where horror movies have reclaimed their social relevance, and they are providing talented actresses to unleash Oscar-caliber performances (Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Ana Taylor-Joy in The Witch). The role requires Moss to demonstrate much through a series of emotional breakdowns. It’s not just getting glassy-eyed and looking scared. Cecilia is a survivor struggling to regain her security while also being heard, and her breaking points of sanity and desperation cannot be one-note. Moss is no stranger to enduring the indignity of condescending men from her TV roles, and she was beautifully unhinged in a memorable moment from Us. She’s the perfect actress to take Whannell’s character and give credence to her vulnerability, uncertainty, and inner strength.

The movie isn’t perfect but it accomplishes a clear majority of its artistic aims with confidence and style. It’s too long at over two hours. I’m glad Whannell doesn’t waste too much time whether or not Cecilia believes her bad man has gone invisible. The supporting characters are a bit underwritten and utilized primarily as Sympathetic Figures Turning to Concerned Figures and then as Potential Targets. This extends to the relationship between Adrian and his brother (Michael Dorman). There has to be more that could have been explored there, especially as it relates to Cecilia. The musical score is heavy on loud, ominous tones and rumbling interference. The special effects are sparingly used, and the invisible suit was initially a design that made me shake my head. In practice, it actually looks pretty interesting and threatening. There is one misstep that feels glaring. Before the end of the movie, there have been a few “hey what about… ?” instances, but they were easy to put out of mind. Whannell drops one major announcement late in the movie but seems to gloss over the extra leverage it provides Cecilia, and her inability to capitalize on this turn of events seems odd considering her antipathy for her attacker as well as the weakness that she can exploit.

As I walked out of my screening for The Invisible Man, I kept reviewing just how many different moments, elements, sequences, and choices added up to a thoroughly suspenseful, satisfying, and entertaining trip at the movies. Whannell has a natural feel for genre horror as well as how to treat it in an elevated manner where it can say real things about real issues while also doing a real good job of making you really anxious. Intense from the first moment onward, this is a streamlined, finely honed horror movie for our modern age. Even the jump scares work! This is already turning into a promising year for indie horror, and The Invisible Man is the first great film of the new year and the new decade.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Lodge (2020)

The Lodge is a patient, methodical, and unsettling horror movie that establishes an eerie atmosphere, pushes the viewer to question what is going on, and then, upon finally revealing its last secret, sits back and lets the real horror play out to sickening effect. This is from the same writing/directing team behind 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, and you’ll start to wonder whether or not Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz really dislike children. The movie had me on edge early with a sudden jolt of violence, and I felt uneasy from there to the bleak ending. It’s about a father (Richard Armitage) taking his two children for a holiday retreat with his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), the person the kids blame for breaking up their parents’ marriage. She wants to get to know them and bond but the kids are having none of that. To make matters worse, the kids discover that Grace is the lone survivor of a religious suicide cult. Once at the family lodge in the snowy woods, strange events and messages torment Grace and the kids until they question where they are, what may have happened to them, and if there is an escape. The first act is the family in the wake of trauma and the children viewing Grace as the interloper worthy of their scorn. The second act becomes an existential horror movie that questions whether there has been a shift into the supernatural or divine. The last act reveals what’s really been going on and it’s the consequences of bad choices. The ending trajectory feels fated from the earlier setups, so when everything is falling apart, the danger feels incredibly real. I was so anxious during the ending sequences that I was holding my breath and covering my face. I didn’t know how far this movie would go, and while it pulls back at the very end, the implications are clear even if they aren’t explicit onscreen. Keough (Logan Lucky) plays a character with real depth as a woman trying to reclaim her life from deep-seated trauma, and when events spin out of control, that trauma resurfaces and starts to take over her thinking, placing her on autopilot, which then pushes the film into the realm of tragedy. She’s fabulous and impressively restrained as her character mines layers of self-doubt, bone-deep teachings, and shock. The atmosphere of the film is very fitting for the setting, chilly and isolated and dread-filled. The camera movements are often very deliberate to draw out tension and uncertainty. It all comes together for a very creepy little movie that gets under your skin. The Lodge is not going to be an audience-friendly outing due to its pacing and ending, but consider it an A24 horror film that somehow got away under a different studio.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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