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.

Locked Down (2021)

I’m already starting to dread the inevitable onslaught of movies and fictional narratives tackling the COVID crisis, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to be truly inviting for me. After the near year of pandemic fatigue, I can’t see myself wanting to relive the experience through my media. Naturally, this is partially because of how fresh everything is. Years down the road I may hold a different opinion and find COVID-19 stories more engaging. I’m sure there will be worthy ones to explore with the best storytellers that movies and television can afford. Right now, I’m not looking forward to the rom-coms about couples being forced together, or forced apart, and I’m not looking forward to the zombie movies that seem all too obvious in commentary. It is with this context that I watched the new 2021 movie Locked Down with wary curiosity. It was filmed during the quarantine in London over 18 days. It stars big actors, has a director and writer who have worked on highly esteemed projects, and it’s the first big project to feature the pandemic while we’re still in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. It has temporary notoriety but is it any good?

Linda (Anne Hathaway) and her husband Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are stuck at home like everyone else in London thanks to COVID-19. He’s struggling for work and she’s struggling with the mental weight of her job and the impending knowledge her friends and co-workers will soon be laid off by Linda herself. The couple is also heading for a divorce, though they’re keeping that quiet from concerned family members checking in. Paxton’s sense of self is falling apart, and the rebellious biker who got into one unfortunate bar fight long ago seems to be fading. Now he doesn’t know what he’ll be and he’s forced to sell his prized motorcycle. Linda gets the idea to pull off a jewelry heist that she and Paxton have an unique opportunity for. Could it be the thing that makes them feel excited again? Could it bring them back together?

Locked Down has some significant tonal shifts but more so in ambition than execution, because at its core its really a talky, mumblecore relationship drama, but one that I found a little too lax and shapeless and ponderous to jibe with. Screenwriter Steven Knight can be a tremendous writer. He’s written Eastern Promises, Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, and created Peaky Blinders. He knows plot, he knows character, he knows structure. This, though, doesn’t feel so much like it was a script needing to be told as it was an experiment in could they make a movie about the pandemic and film it during the pandemic. The heist elements are rather haphazard and ultimately mean little to the overall storyline, merely serving as an instrument to reconcile our couple and force them to rely upon one another for a shared triumph (this shouldn’t be a spoiler). I think your overall view of Locked Down will depend upon your opinion of how the heist elements are handled. If it seemed like the start of something more exciting, more engaging, then you’ll be disappointed. If you didn’t care about the particulars of a heist during COVID times, and you didn’t want a more purely genre plot device to take over from the character-driven relationship drama,then you might be more charitable. For me, I love heist movies and the formula is ready-made for payoffs and entertainment. However, I also enjoy character-driven relationship dramas but I just wasn’t connecting with this one.

The characters of Paxton and Linda felt too overly written for me and lacking the more intriguing nuances that I find in the best of observational mumblecore cinema. To be fair, being overly written is not an indictment in itself. Quentin Tarantino characters are overly written and we love them. Viewers love big characters that demand your attention and equipped with monologues that we wish we could recite when life’s challenges afforded us the opportunity to wax poetic. The central agreement we have with characters, whether they’re realistically drawn or idiosyncratic or cartoonish, is that they need to at least be interesting. You need to want to spend time with the characters.

With Locked Down, I was getting as restless as the onscreen couple. I didn’t find them interesting because the same character notes were being hit over and over with little variation. The monologues, while having moments of life and personality, didn’t provide me greater insight at minute 80 than they did at minute 40. The experience felt like watching actors workshop characters and looking for extra meanings that seemed to be elusive. Listening to these characters talk more should make them more interesting, make them more personable, and make them more complex, right? While they uncork some well written asides, they’re each just rubbing the same nub of an identity crisis. The pacing also made the repetitive portions feel even longer. The metaphor of what Paxton’s motorcycle represents is so overblown and simplified. After spending so much time listening to these two bicker and argue in the same rooms, I was hoping for the heist as a needed escape, something that could finally serve to motivate the characters out of their pity parties and force them into a new conflict. I needed something, anything more to hold my waning attention. Alas, I finished Locked Down in the same patient, pursed-lip stupor as it began. These characters did not deserve this much extra breathing room.

I like Hathaway (Colossal) and Ejiofar (12 Years a Slave). Watching them leap into what is essentially a two-hander filmed play sounds like a good bet for entertainment, especially with a writer with the credentials of Knight (we’ll ignore the outlandishly bonkers 2019 Serenity). Hathaway and Ejiofor are good together too. They have a spark that works, her anxiousness melding well with his dismissive pessimism. Again, the characters they’re portraying aren’t poorly written. There just isn’t enough polished material for them. That’s why each feels like they’re grasping to discover the character like it’s being formed in the moment. The entire movie feels like an overextended improv workshop everyone involved is developing in the moment. Good mumblecore movies can make you feel like a fly-on-the-wall with real people, but these characters are so overly written that an improv feeling doesn’t so much replicate the recognizable rhythms of life as it does an ungainly acting class in search of more direction and discretion. There are some other celebrity appearances in the form of Zoom cameos, and that’s something I’m not looking forward to with the incoming COVID movies, the ugly selfie aesthetic prevalence.

Locked Down feels more like an experiment to see if the filmmakers could make a movie under such unique and trying circumstances.  It feels more like an acting exercise in need of more development and a little more vitality. There are fleeting moments that seem to tap into a universal despair and uncertainty many of us have wrestled with during our COVID isolation, but then the movie will just as likely throw in a hidden patch of poppies in a garden and a joke about nobody seeming to recognize the name Edgar Allen Poe. I watched Locked Down over the course of two nights, and mt girlfriend and I literally had forgotten we watched the first hour until coming across it again and going, “Oh yeah, we need to finish that after all.” I feel like that sums up the movie well. Within a day, I had already forgotten it, and that was before I even finished the full movie. They made a movie during COVID. Now make better ones in the future.

Nate’s Grade: C

Collective (2020)

I already know the idea of watching a Romanian documentary is going to be a challenge for many, and that’s before I mention its core subject of government reforms, but this really is one of the best films of the year and worth your valuable time. Collective begins with a heavy metal band’s pyrotechnics catching fire at a club in 2015 (the title of the film), and from there the aftermath leads to journalists uncovering mismanaged hospitals, corrupt government officials, cozy relationships between big business and the mob, and preventable calamities. Collective is at turns fascinating, horrifying, dispiriting, aggravating, and always passionately compelling as a document of real-world journalism at the highest stages of moral righteousness.

I’m surprised that the filmmakers managed to get such extraordinary access during such a tumultuous time. This is not a documentary where the experts talk to the camera with the distance of time, where the leading players recount their perspectives and contributions. You’re side-by-side with them in the moment as the news is being broken and challenged. It’s am amazing example of being at the right place and the right time, and then midway through the filmmakers get even more critical access. The health minister is forced to resign and a new, younger one is appointed in his stead. Vlad Voiculescu is determined to learn why mistakes have happened and to correct them. He’s uncovering just how deep the rot goes in the layers of Romanian governmental bureaucracy, and he’s invited the Collective cameras to follow him and his staff. He really seemed determined to make lasting change, and their conversations have a deep-sigh quality of realizing how normalized corruption has become. Going back and forth between the journalists uncovering the broadening extent of the corruption, and the government health officials trying to enact meaningful reforms and regulations, it’s like a good movie just reached greatness and you have the privilege to watch different sides of the crusade.

I thought the movie was initially going to be about the fire at the Collective club but it keeps transforming and metastasizing into something bigger and more damning. Early on, there is footage from within the club that terrible night and it is horrifying. We already know the fire and ensuing panic to escape lead to 27 people dying. The initial stunned reactions build and build as the fire spreads, covering the ceiling like a glowing blanket of death. It’s one of the scariest moments of footage I’ve ever seen. People died because the fire exits didn’t exist, because there was no system of safety inspections. The fire, very metaphorically, starts small but will become something far more widespread. The survivors of the fire should have been protected by the nation’s hospitals and medical care, and yet so many more died because of the consequences of corruption. The journalist team uncovers dilution of disinfectants, meaning the hospitals are awash in powerfully resistant bacteria. The hospital managers claimed otherwise and the initial minister of health pushes back, saying these same managers tested their disinfectants and they were up to code. From there it just grows and grows, as more people in the nation’s hospital system come forward to confess abuses and coverups and kickbacks to a thriving mob presence. There are suicides that sure look like murders later in this movie and I was not expecting that from its opening.

The filmmaking is very forceful without being strident, very political without being preachy, and it’s always moving forward even when it’s constantly looking at the faults of the past. Director Alexander Nanau (Toto and His Sisters, The Prince of Nothingwood) lets the story and events do the talking, and we never break from the verité approach. A person is never directly talking to the camera, there are never any info-graphics or visual inserts. The editing is precise, and every scene gives you exactly what you need, though sometimes it might take a little while to understand the full context of the scene and the leap in time from the prior scene. The movie is 110 minutes and it feels like it’s sprinting because there is so much to cover. It doesn’t make the movie feel like it’s spread too thin, or we’re missing important deliberation and context, but it does require a viewer to stay more active to jump from moment to moment. Those 110 minutes are a clear indictment and examination on corruption and government negligence, but it lets the totality of the details and the horrors convey its message rather than overt appeals.

It’s in the concluding ten minutes that perhaps Collective reaches its most depressing and most damning point (there will be spoilers going forward with this paragraph). For the second half of the film, we’ve been following our crusading new health minister try and shake up a corrupt system and install real reforms that will improve the lives of the Romanian citizens. It’s inspiring and makes you go, “Ah, at least there are still good men in the world capable of enacting good when they are summoned to a level of power and authority.” It looks like he’s actually making real changes because there are many forces pushing against his dismantling of the status quo. Those that benefit from the graft and corruption of the old system, including criminal elements deeply entwined in the country’s infrastructure, push back through their media allies, and broadcasting personalities start questioning whether the health minister is being controlled by foreign influence. It’s familiar to those who have watched the outer reaches of conservative media over the past few decades (Romania’s own Fox News?), and it’s the same kind of slimy, nationalistic, and xenophobic rhetoric meant to alarm and distract. An election is looming in the coming weeks and our new health minister says the regulations can only be implemented if his party, the Socialist Democrats, retain power. Then they don’t. They lose by a lot. Like a historical loss. It was 2016, where nationalistic, anti-immigration forces swept into government across the world, and Collective ends on the depressing note without any silver lining of resolution. The hospital appoints a manager who is “legally unable to manage a hospital.” Just like that, all the hard work to break free from the intransigence has ended in a historical rebuke of the party literally trying to preserve life (“Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown”).

Collective is an inspiring, crushing, and compelling document of corruption, incompetence, and the difficulty of trying to turn around a system too content on not doing more. The journalistic access is stunning and the movie is quietly powerful as we follow diligent politicians and reporters putting in the hard work of trying to make a difference and expose rampant maleficence. By the end, the good guys have taken some significant lumps, though I’ve since read that Vlad is back in the Romanian government again as the minister of health. What does this say about the crusaders for reform? To me, it says it’s a lot easier to go backwards once any reform is met with opposition from those who stand to benefit from a broken system continuing to remain broken. It’s all too easy to fall back on the status quo even when it’s deeply problematic because it’s “what the people know,” but that doesn’t make it good. Change is a powerful force, but it’s still worth fighting for, even if powerful forces of the world manage to unfairly delay that change. Collective is a movie everyone should watch if they want to become a journalist or work in government, and it should be on a shortlist of 2020 films to see for everyone else too.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Beanpole (2020)

Deeply depressing but empathetic to a fault, Beanpole might just be the most artistically uncomfortable movie of the year. It’s a Russian film set in Leningrad one year after World War II and the consequences of that awful conflict. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), our “beanpole,” fought in the war until her PTSD got too bad; she literally freezes in place like a statue when triggered. She’s working in a hospital and looking after her best friend’s child when tragedy strikes. That friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), desperately wants another child but cannot get pregnant. She pressures Iya to become her surrogate womb, and Iya feels so guilty that she agrees. From there, Beanpole chronicles the pain of not just these women but a pall that hangs over the nation, as people try to return to a normal that begs questioning whether it ever existed. It’s about hurt people lashing out and hurting others, some intentional and some unintentional. A coerced sex scene (a.k.a. rape) between Iya, a blackmailed but kindly middle-aged doctor, and Masha is immediately troublesome and yet thanks to the careful consideration of co-writer/director Kantemir Balagov, you can understand the motivation that lead each to being there. Masha is setup as the villain of the second half, knowingly guilting and pressuring Iya, taking away her agency, bullying her, and then there’s an extended scene toward the end where Masha meets the wealthy parents of her fledgling boyfriend. She reveals the lengths she would go to survive life during wartime as a woman soldier in a predominantly male encampment. It might not be enough to reverse your stance on her as a person but it definitely complicates your understanding. The whole movie is about people doing what they need to in an unjust world to survive. Beanpole opens up into a larger mosaic of condemnation about how women are treated by society, and each member of this tale is a victim in their own way, with their own story and own past and own demons, even the cruel ones. Beanpole has a gorgeous use of color, a deliberative sense of pacing, and outstanding acting that feels completely natural. It’s also, as mentioned, super depressing and hard for me to fathom many that will be eager to be this uncomfortable. For those courageous enough, you might find a beauty in the dignity of these women navigating post-war trauma and resilience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)

Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary but it’s a hard movie to describe because, at its core, it’s the use of art to memorialize a man, to process grief on personal terms, and as a love letter from a daughter to a father. Kirsten Johnston (Cameraperson) records her life caring for her ailing 85-year-old father. Dick is a former therapist, a widower, and starting to go through the early stages of Alzheimer’s and coming to terms with his new limitations. Kirsten is a camera operator who has worked on documentaries for over thirty years, so she turns the lens on her father and the two of them enact a series of wacky fake deaths, starring Dick himself (until the stuntmen take over), as father and daughter work to make a movie celebrating life while they still can together.

First things first, Dick Johnson is just the sweetest man. Spending time with him is a treat and watching him smile with like his whole face just made me feel happy. I enjoyed learning just what a good person he was and what he’s meant to his friends, family, and colleagues, but he’s just so pleasant and nice and compassionate that you feel the love his daughter intends you to understand. That’s the overwhelming feeling from this quirky documentary. Dick has such love for his daughter and is willing to humor her silly morbid scenarios confronting his death. Kirsten has loved this man for so long and already lost one parent to Alzheimer’s and now must go through it again. She’s using the medium she feels most capable and comfortable with, photography and moviemaking, to celebrate her father and his unheralded life of being a good man coming to an end. My heart ached for him when he breaks into tears articulating what relinquishing his ability to drive means for him and his sense of independence, looking ahead. Kirsten highlights some of the more unusual details about her father for this movie-within-a-movie, creating sequences that shed light on his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist and his insecurity over how his feet appear. It’s insightful aspects that better round out this man, like his ability to start conversations with strangers, or his knack of being able to fall asleep anywhere as long as he can prop his feet up. For Kirsten, recording these moments while her father is still lucid is a matter of documenting him while he can still recognize himself. She laments the minuscule amount of footage she has of her mother before her death. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake with her father, so why not also make him a movie star if she can? Watching Dick Johnson is Dead is to feel overcome with her adoration for this remarkably ordinary and good man.

The movie also serves as a strange way to take control over something inevitable yet unknowable. Dick Johnson is going to die, as we all will, but he will very likely die before his physical body expires. His mind will deteriorate, and he’ll stop being Dick Johnson. I wondered early why the movie kept resorting to slapstick with the many possible deaths of Dick onscreen. It’s more than a bit morbid for a daughter to direct her own father dying again and again in a variety of wild and bloody and violent accidents. I can understand many viewers being put off by this, worrying that Dick is being exploited, and at least finding it all to be in bad taste. I tried to assess why this element was so essential to the production. I suppose it functions as a gimmick that can help it get more attention and a larger audience considering the film lacks a hard-charging topic, unique insider access, or a headline-grabbing name or artistic approach. However, as I continued with the movie, I concluded that Kirsten Johnson is inflicting all manner of over-the-top goofy deaths and violent mayhem upon her beloved father as a means of processing her looming grief. She’s trying to reclaim a sense of control and offering that same ownership to her father. They aren’t running from his death but are embracing it, laughing at it, and doing it their way. The documentary is an artifact of love and a filmmaker using art to comprehend her grief.

The Seventh Day Adventist adherence presents an interesting dynamic to explore when discussing a spiritual afterlife. This smaller Christian denomination believes that the worthy will return to heaven but only after Jesus returns to Earth to kick-start the whole Armageddon deal. Until that fateful day, the dead will lay in their graves and wait for however long it takes. I had never heard about this before. Many religions are about delayed gratification, the reward coming upon the conclusion of Earthly existence, and these people believe the wait extends even beyond death. A lifetime and then some of waiting would shape very patient people like Dick. The great fear of an Adventist, we’re told, is to be one of the ones left behind, and it’s easy to see the parallels with losing one’s sense of identity through the creeping fog of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, strict Adventists also don’t approve of dancing. In a fantasy sequence engineered by Kirsten, Dick gets to dance in heaven with his wife again and knowing all these details gives the moment, which can be immediately silly on a surface-level, its own sense of poignancy and reverence.

The only thing that holds the movie back is that late into its 90 minutes I feel like it gets too manipulative and meta for its own good. There’s an emotional climax and then the movie reveals some key details that can make you feel a little bamboozled. It’s not enough to sacrifice all the emotional investment and artistic gains that came before but it’s just a few steps too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely happy with the overall ending, but I didn’t care for being jerked around.

Dick Johnson is Dead is a peculiar, funny, heartwarming, and experimental documentary. It reminded me in some ways of 2012’s The Act of Killing where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer finds old men who participated in Indonesian genocide in the 1960s to re-enact their crimes but playing their victims and through the surreal prism of a film production. Except this movie is far more personal and far more affirming; it’s very much a love letter to a wonderful man. You feel the intimacy of this family relationship and I felt privileged just to be let in and share these moments, the ordinary ones, the reflective ones, the emotional ones, the silly ones. This is an affecting documentary using its very form and function to use art to make sense of pain. It’s currently available on Netflix streaming and I would highly encourage you to relax, kick your feet up like Dick, and watch one of the best and strangest movies of 2020.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Pieces of a Woman (2020)

More an acting exercise than a fully developed movie, Pieces of a Woman is a punishing experience for the audience as much as the actors onscreen. The entire first 30 minutes is comprised of watching a home birth in an extended long take, which doesn’t so much immerse you in the situation as beg the question of, “How’d they do that?” The sequence concludes with a rushed delivery and an asphyxiated child, and then we cut to the title screen. From there, it’s 90 minutes of what agonizing grief does to this family. Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) plays the mother and she doesn’t want to let go but also feels uncomfortable that their flustered midwife is being charged with negligent homicide. Her boyfriend (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to maintain their relationship and move past their shared tragedy. Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) is a domineering presence and wants the boyfriend gone and the midwife in jail. It’s all very well acted and Kirby does a fine job dredging up pure emotional devastation. The problem is that Pieces of a Woman has seemed to confuse drama with plot. There are many dramatic moments that occur but they don’t really provide greater insight into the main characters who are, at their core from that half-hour mark onward, broken people coming to terms with their response to the unimaginable. It seems paradoxical because the concept of a grieving family, angry and looking to blame someone, a relationship splintered where each party is potentially having an affair to feel something diverting, mother-daughter head-butting, it all seems like foundational elements of compelling drama. The problem is that we don’t ever get progression with the characters and their emotional states from these very dramatic events. They’re suffering, they’re unhappy, they’re numb to the pain yet carrying on, but are they interesting? Are we getting more of a sense over who they are or how they’ve changed? I would argue no. The movie feels locked into stagnation. I think a major stumbling block was spending so much time establishing a realistic birthing sequence opening, aided by a roving and unblinking camera, when the same information could have been covered in the first ten minutes and not first 30. It’s excessive and repetitive, but then so are the 90 minutes that follow that wallow in unchecked misery. It’s an approach that can take some of the devastation out of the horrific. Pieces of a Woman will be available on Netflix streaming starting tomorrow and despite its artistic merits and good acting I can’t exactly argue that it’s worth enduring the pain over.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Black Bear (2020)

What an intriguing little movie Black Bear turns out to be that inspires so much interpretation and dissection. I spent time reading through different interpretations on Reddit about writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s (Always Shine) surreal indie, each one providing new insights and connections. It all just made me realize even further how intriguing and rare a movie like Black Bear can be, an accessible puzzle that still works outside of the guise of sifting the pieces for larger meaning.

Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a director who is looking to rebound her career. She takes a retreat to a bed and breakfast out in the woods run by a husband and wife Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). There’s a lot of tension between these two and perhaps some unwanted romantic advances toward Allison. Then the movie changes, and now Allison is an actress in a movie filming at the same cabin in the woods. Gabe is now her director and her husband, and Blair is now the co-star that she suspects is having an affair, both with her real husband and the husband character in the movie they are making. Things get a little weird from there.

There are really three primary stories here: 1) Allison sitting on the dock and then trying to write, 2) Allison coming into the realm of a dysfunctional married couple and adding extra jealousy and combustion, and 3) Allison is starring in an independent film that appears loosely connected to the second story, and this time she is being manipulated by her director/husband into thinking he is having an affair in order to add more realism to her screen performance. From there, the movie invites you to build your own connections from its many surreal parallels that fold onto one another begging for discussion. Is the second story what really happened in real-life to Allison and then the third story is the film version of these events, with the roles swapped for greater personal anguish? Is the third segment what really happened in real life and, in her anguish, she has projected her hard feelings into her own movie version of her torment, achieving a delayed vengeance? Are both segments mere fictional accounts from Allison in the first segment struggling through serious writer’s block? Dear reader, I cannot say because any of the interpretations I have cited, and many more, would be valid with enough careful corroborating evidence. I was delighted to read new takes. Part of the movie’s fun becomes building the meaning and finding more hidden clues after you’re done with it.

The second story plays like an identifiable mumblecore indie and one of the most awkward dinners you’d never want to be part of. Allison becomes the catalyst that pushes the husband and wife to open up their mounting disagreements and simmering conflicts with one another. He’s feeling like he’s compromised too much as an artist who still wants to be considered an artist, so he seeks a solidarity with their guest. She wants to bring a dash of reality to Gabe’s sense of self, which includes pushing him to adapt rather than holding onto a version of himself that no longer fits. Blair also seeks solidarity from a fellow woman to call out Gabe’s questionable viewpoints where he says life was simpler and perhaps better when gender norms were rigid. The night starts out amenable but ratchets up the discomfort moment by moment, opening up the characters and their histories and looking for allies through a cross-section of confrontation. We’re put in Allison’s position and different people might find fault with either husband or wife. Allison seems to enjoy being contrarian, admitting she was even lying about key points just to get or stifle a reaction from the others. As the night wears on, you worry mistakes will be made.

The third story is about twice as long and has multiple times the participants. Whereas the first film is a tightly wound threesome, this new story involves a small family of indie filmmakers. You start to notice repetitions and your mind begins to form potential connectivity. Allison is now starring in a movie directed by her husband, Gabe, who is carefully constructing a cruel ruse that he is engaging in an onset affair with her co-star, Blair. In the previous story, Allison was the interloper and thought to be the homewrecker, and now in this tale Allison and Blair have swapped positions. Gabe’s rationale is that he is pushing his wife to give the best performance of her career, where her powerful emotions will feed the role of the jealous wife breaking down. It’s blatant manipulation and again I was growing in fear that this was going to build to something calamitous and that a misunderstanding could have tragic, possible fatal results. The third story calls into question the complicity of artists when it comes to abusive behavior. Everyone benefits from Allison delivering a headline-grabbing comeback performance, their careers get a boost, and yet the torment she goes through is undeniable and it sure doesn’t feel justified for the sake of art.

Despite an amusing and diverse ensemble of the film crew, this is really a three-person movie and Plaza (Child’s Play) is the constant. For those saying Plaza will only be able to play some variation on her famous sarcastic, detached persona, I happily invite you to watch Black Bear because she is capable of so much more. The second story, the mumblecore version, is playing upon the kind of role we’re used to seeing from Plaza, which I must think the filmmakers anticipate. That’s why the next version either deconstructs it or perhaps contrasts it. With the third version, Plaza digs deep and unleashes some startling dramatic outbursts, enough that the crew feel entirely uncomfortable and perhaps a little guilty over how far things have gone. There are moments with Allison breaking down that reminded me of like Gena Rowlands in a John Cassavetes movie. There’s an extra meta layer to the performance where if you argue Plaza is going bigger than she should, well perhaps that is her portraying an actress who is modeling her breakdown after depictions in movies and award-caliber movies. Had I watched Black Bear mere hours before I handed in my critics’ nominations, I would have found a place for Plaza on my shortlist.

I invite you to watch Black Bear and join the discussion. It’s well written and engaging from moment-to-moment, so even if you don’t care about larger textual connections you can still enjoy yourself watching interesting characters simmer and explode. If your mind does enjoy rearranging the building blocks into more meanings, then the movie becomes even more fun. It’s also just a great showcase that proves Plaza is more than an actress stuck playing snide comedic roles. Seek out Black Bear, read other interpretations, and then craft your own.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Wrong Missy (2020)

I knew by the end of 2020, as I was trying to assess the highest highs and lowest lows of cinema, that I was destined to come back around to Netflix’s The Wrong Missy. The Adam Sandler-produced sex comedy looked quite abysmal from its trailer so I knew I’d have to watch this eventually. I tried putting it off for months, and I used it as an incentive for me to try and watch Kelly Reichardt’s well-regarded indie, First Cow. I have disliked every ponderous, monotonous, meandering Reichardt movie I have watched, and despite the critical acclaim, I knew I needed more motivation to keep me going. I told myself if I couldn’t last 30 minutes into First Cow, I’d punish myself and finally watch The Wrong Missy. Well, my feelings for Kelly Reichardt movies proved to be the same and I left First Cow after 30 plot-less, boring minutes. The Wrong Missy is a special kind of bad where it feels like an endurance test to punish you for expecting anything beyond having an unpleasant person screaming in your face for an hour. This isn’t just an obnoxious comedy but an aggressively obnoxious comedy, one that wants to push the envelope with edgy situations and crazy characters but instead just wholly depresses.

Tim (David Spade) is an insurance adjuster still reeling from his former fiancé (Sarah Chalke) abruptly dumping him for a work colleague. Tim goes out on a blind date with Missy (Lauren Lapkus) and it’s a complete disaster. He then encounters Melissa (Molly Sims) at the airport and they share a meet-cute and seem to have the start of something romantic sparking. Tim has a work retreat in Hawaii and he intends to invite Melissa but, instead, invited the infamous Missy. Now Tim has to pretend Missy is the desirable Melissa he’s been bragging about and to tame her wilder impulsive behavior so that he can make a better impression with the big boss.

The Wrong Missy teeters into offensively bad with its questionable content but its biggest artistic miscalculation is that it dials the Missy character up into a horrifying cartoon psychopath that nobody would want to send a second with, and then it tries to say we should fall in love with her like Spade’s character eventually does for some inexplicable reason beyond Stockholm syndrome. The difficulty with making the oddball character lovable is knowing how odd to make them, to establish a baseline of what is normal and what is beyond the pale. The Wrong Missy goes wrong almost immediately with the introductory first date. It’s not just a bad date or one where Missy is too weird; she is categorically insane and truly scary. At one point she brandishes a machete and follows Tim into the bathroom. There’s also so much yelling. So much. Some people don’t have off switches but Missy doesn’t even have a dial to turn down. From the very start, Missy is repellent. There is no salvation here. Any person who encounters her should run for their lives in the other direction. People should be alerting the police. She already is brandishing a knife and has threatened others onscreen. She is a danger to all.

The key problem with the screenplay’s conceit of its mix-up is that Missy is so repellent, and the first date not just bad but legendarily mortifying, that it makes no sense whatsoever that Tim would still have Missy’s contact information in his phone. He would have deleted her completely to try and forget that night ever happened. I too have been lax about getting around to trimming my social media friends and phone contacts, but if I underwent the first date that Tim had, the first thing I would do with a woman that ensured a hospital visit was delete her very presence on my phone and block any means of her contacting me again. This is the fallout of the broad miscalculation in intensity. By making Missy so powerfully obnoxious and the date so horrendous, the next part plot-wise becomes harder to believe. It’s harder to believe Tim would even attempt to go along with this ruse rather than tell Missy to go back home on her own. If he considers her such a liability, what does he have to gain from prolonging the risk by keeping her around? I know the reason is to eventually fall in love with her, but what did he have to lose by immediately jettisoning her once he discovered she was, in fact, the wrong Missy? Nothing.

Much of the humor is just patently gross. I expect a sex comedy to feature bad taste but it’s another matter when the movie feels like it’s trying to so hard to make you uncomfortable, and failing that, The Wrong Missy will just resort to being obnoxious and loud. Take for instance when Tim wakes up on the plane ride to find Missy furiously jerking him off below a blanket. He did not consent to this while conscious let alone when he was unconscious. Imagine if the genders were reversed and a woman woke up with a man’s hand under her pants and he had been doing something without consent while she was asleep or unconscious? We would be horrified and we should still be, and yet this scene is played for laughs. Missy also hypnotizes Tim’s boss into retching whenever he hears a co-worker’s name, so there’s even more questionable consent issues with Missy wreaking havoc on the lives of others. There’s also a sequence late in the film where Missy suggests a threesome between her, Tim, and Tim’s former fiancé. This moment is meant to convey the growing connection between Tim and Missy, and emphasize him moving on from his lingering breakup. This is covered by the fiancé character getting repeatedly hit in her head while Tim and Missy are oblivious to her very existence. It’s just uncomfortable and not funny, especially since it’s the same bad joke over and over. It’s the same with Missy, who often just blurts out something profane, crude, and loathsome. She has a screechy voice she calls “Hellstar” that is neither charming nor funny. I feel like the filmmakers were trying to test an audience into what they might accept under the false pretense of tolerance because Missy is a woman (“Would you not laugh at an obnoxious dude, huh?”) and therefore it would be sexist to call her out for her bad behavior. The problem is that Missy is barely a recognizable human.

Spade (The Do Over) just seems far too old for this kind of movie. He’s 56 years old now and this part is better suited for someone twenty years younger. He’s on smarm autopilot, which is hard to distinguish between playing to his deadpan strengths and him just being bored. Lapkus (Jurassic World) is a comedian I’ve enjoyed from her many TV appearances from Orange is the New Black to Crashing. The only reason for this movie to exist is as a comedy vehicle for her, and she is fully unrestrained and in your face. It’s hard for me to fathom enjoying her character but I suppose there can be points of entertainment just watching the actress go full-out for the majority of the movie. It’s a big, broad, physical performance, though the energy level peters out in the second half as the movie attempts to make her a more acceptable romantic option. I don’t fault Lapkus but I couldn’t stand her grating performance played to the hilt and stuck on repeat.

I think the fact that Sandler’s wife Jackie plays a prominent supporting character (consistently in a bikini) likely tells you all that you need to know about The Wrong Missy’s production. It’s another one of the Happy Madison excuses for Sandler and his pals to have an extended vacation, this time in Hawaii. Sandler’s kids even make cameos as tourists that Missy, naturally, screams at. When you’re using a movie production as a glorified vacation, things like story and character and emotional investment and payoffs tend to fall by the wayside. The director, Tyler Spindel, served as a second-unit director on several Sandler productions from the 2010s. I doubt without the intervention of Sandler that David Spade would still be top-lining romantic comedies in 2020. Lauren Lapkus deserves better and a real star-making vehicle for her to display her physical comedy talents. The Wrong Missy is wrong in about every way a comedy can go and it’s, easily, one of the worst films of 2020.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Witches (2020)

Rare is the Hollywood movie where the biggest question afterwards is simply, “What in the world were all these talented people thinking?” Why did Robert Zemeckis want to remake The Witches after a perfectly good and eerie 1990 movie starring Anjelica Huston? Why did the screenplay adjust the action to be set during a segregationist South without any added social commentary? What exactly is Anne Hathaway, as the lead witch, even doing with an accent that sounds like she’s blindly jumping from nationality to nationality? In one second she’s Hungarian, in another she’s Scottish, in another she’s Swedish. What was with this bizarre character design for the witches that gives them dinosaur talons and one-toed clog feet and, most off-putting, extended mouths visible with slits along the sides that they don’t even bother concealing? Why does the movie keep making fun of the chubby kid at every opportunity for being chubby? Why, even in life-and-death stakes, is the chubby kid unable to stop himself from losing all willpower around food? Why does Octavia Spencer’s grandmother character sound almost exactly like a rambling Grandpa Simpson when she’s just given enough room (“So I had an onion on my belt, as it was the style of the time…”)? How could a screenplay, that includes the likes of Oscar-winner Guilermo del Toro, include lines like, “That’s the thing about snow — it’s slippery”? I was groaning throughout this movie and just beside myself trying to make sense of the inexplicable creative decision-making on display. I also felt embarrassed for Hathaway, an actress I have enjoyed and find to be quite accomplished, who is just inhaling every piece of scenery that is not bolted down on set. It’s such a crazily misconceived performance of theatrical bombast that I felt like Zemeckis had done Hathaway wrong. This is a big hot mess of a movie and it’s so joyless.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)/ Unpregnant (2020)

Abortion is one of the most hot-button cultural issues even almost 50 years after the landmark legal case made the procedure legal in the United States. Two 2020 movies elected to normalize the topic of abortion as a healthcare option but through very different approaches.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always plays out like a horror movie but not just with the hard-hitting reality of abortion access for many in this country, it’s also a horror movie about being a teenage girl in modern America. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is 17 years old, a budding musician, and about 18 weeks pregnant with the baby of her abusive boyfriend. She’s living in small-town Pennsylvania and the closest clinic that will treat her and not require parental permission and notification is in New York City. Her best friend, Skyler (Talia Ryder), steals a stash of cash from their supermarket job and books bus tickets to the big city. They travel on their own without informing their parents. However, the two girls must run around the city to jump through bureaucratic hoops while their dwindling money supply makes their options more desperate.

The movie is steeped in realism, which at different points comes across as an indictment on the burdens placed upon young women, but it’s also an understated case that wants to preach through its actions rather than any hokey soap box moments. Writer/director Eliza Hitman keeps things simple and to the bone for her narrative. We follow Autumn sneak out and try and get an abortion, only to have to wait longer and longer, with no place to stay overnight in a city she and her friend are unfamiliar with. I was fearing for both Autumn and Skyler as their stay increased and their money supply decreased. Just about every man depicted onscreen has an ulterior motive. Autumn’s boyfriend is controlling and abusive (inspiring a song Autumn performs for a school talent show in the opening scene). The supermarket boss insists on kissing the girls’ hands when they turn in their registers at the end of their shift. The creepy guy on the bus clearly has his sights set on Skyler. The guy on the subway just starts masturbating while staring at them. Being alone, far from home, and limited in means and transportation, you feel an overwhelming dread that something bad is going to happen to these two girls and it will be at the hands of men. They are victimized in small ways and large throughout their very existence. This dread does not go away until the very end of the movie. Skyler walks away to make some risky choices to earn needed money, and it’s not exaggerated but you do worry you may never see her again. Surely, many will reflect, it shouldn’t be this arduous for women to seek legal medical procedures, and when mostly-male legislators create extra burdens, it pushes desperate people into danger. At no point does anyone opine about body autonomy or anything overtly political. However, the movie’s entire function is to demonstrate these undue burdens.

Flanigan has been getting serious Oscar buzz for her performance and deservedly so. Autumn is definitely intended to be a relatable representation for many women going through similar struggles. Much of the performance relies upon her guarded acting through a veil of emotional detachment. She’s been ground down by her small town, by her family, by her abusive boyfriend and his jerk friends, and this can make her seem like a numb zombie at points. Autumn isn’t, though, she’s just trying to stay afloat from trauma and anxiety eating away at her. Flanigan has a quiet strength to her that keeps you pinned to the screen. She does have one standout scene that I’m sure would be her Oscar clip. At one New York clinic, an employee runs through a standard questionnaire (where the film gets its title from) and hits upon whether Autumn has been coerced into sex she didn’t want to have, and that’s when the emotions of Flanigan’s performance break through, her eyes welling with tears, her inability to answer while still answering. The off-screen employee recognizes the confirmations and responds with adept compassion. With that you also can glean how many times this clinic employee has heard these same gut-wrenching responses.

Beyond being a dread-filled horror movie of discomfort, Never Rarely Sometimes Always also becomes an unexpectedly touching movie about the great lengths that friends will go for one another. While there aren’t extensive conversations about how much they love one another, the actions speak for themselves, much like the rest of the understated movie. It’s Skyler who takes the lead in putting together this journey, keeping track of their progress, and eventually doing what needs to be done to gain money to go home. Both Skyler and Autumn support one another and rely upon one another and will go the extra mile for one another. A hand held tightly can be all the confirmation we need of their love and friendship during the most trying of times.

Unpregnant is easily the more entertaining and light-hearted of the 2020 abortion movies, using a raucous road trip of misadventures to reform the friendship of two high school girls. While applying a lighter touch (it is, after all, titled Unpregnant) it doesn’t trivialize the experiences of those making these choices. Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is 17 years old, the valedictorian, and 6 weeks pregnant, Her lousy X-Games-aspiring boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) thinks it means they’re meant to be together forever. Veronica is mortified and certain she’s not ready to be a mother, let alone having Kevin’s baby. She’s afraid to tell her parents, her snooty friends at school, and so the only ally she can find is the outcast Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a former friend with access to a working car. They must travel from Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico to find the nearest state and clinic without first requiring parental permission and notification.

Unpregnant is very much a road trip movie with the assorted mishaps along the way pushing the two teens together and reminiscing about how close they used to be as friends until going down separate paths in high school. Naturally, the formula calls for them to each confront their own personal demons, assert themselves, and reconcile, and it happens at regular pit stops, but that doesn’t mean that Unpregnant isn’t satisfying just because you suspect where it’s going. The overall comedic tone takes you off guard, at least it did for me, and it happens immediately. We’re used to movies where abortion is a central storyline being heavy and depressing (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), and when they do go for some degree of comedy, it’s usually quite dark (HBO’s Girls) or satirical (Citizen Ruth). Unpregnant lets you know right from its peppy start that it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to find humor in the awkwardness. It’s also okay to assess choices relating to an unplanned pregnancy without the stigma of shame or guilt. The movie doesn’t downplay the character’s dilemma, but instead of the conflict being whether she will keep the baby or not, the crux of conflict is, much like Never Rarely Always Sometimes, on equitable access to abortion services. Whereas that Sundance drama overwhelms with dedication to its real-life hardships and hurdles, Unpregnant chooses to take on these same hurdles with incredulous defiance and an F-you attitude that still feels political but aligned with its tone.

All road trips are dependent upon the co-pilots, and Unpregnant is an infectiously enjoyable experience spending time with Veronica and Bailey bantering and ultimately reconnecting. They are fun, and despite the circumstances that make this movie’s plot, they still find ways to have fun with one another. There’s an easy affection for one another that warms your heart. They clearly care about one another and watching them reunite and grow in their admiration for one another makes me like them even more. With any road trip movie, you must enjoy the people you’re stuck with. I appreciated both making amends of their past, why they fell out as friends, and what moments shaped each into being the headstrong woman they are today. Bailey uses this opportunity to try and reconnect with her absentee father. Veronica uses it to test her boundaries of what she felt needed sacrificing to stay on her master plan of academic success. Their kinship reminded me of Booksmart. The chemistry is so good, the dialogue snappy without being self-conscious, and the big dramatic moments nicely felt without being cloying, that Richardson (Split) and Ferreira (TV’s Euphoria) really feel like amusing best friends.

As per road trip comedy rules, we go from place to place getting into new hijinks. I appreciated that the mishaps don’t derail the light-hearted tone and direction even when they get broad. The girls become potential criminals when Bailey confesses their getaway vehicle might belong to her mom’s boyfriend and she might not have gotten his permission. This raises the stakes while still keeping things fun and feisty. A pit stop in Texas turns into a suspense thriller parody as the girls discover the kindly couple giving them a ride might be religious zealots who won’t let them leave. This leads to a wacky chase scene that ends in a hasty faked death and trying to jump onto a speeding train like “old timey hobos.” There’s also a running gag where Kevin keeps resurfacing, not exactly taking no for an answer, and arguing his nice guy credentials that aren’t being as respected as he deems necessary. For those worrying out there, Unpregnant does not condemn all men in this heightened universe or look upon them with dark suspicion.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that Veronica does, in fact, get to her appointment and have an abortion. I also think its noteworthy how this is portrayed and its aftermath. She’s lead through the different steps of the procedure with the calm instruction from an empathetic nurse, they don’t sensationalize any of the medical realities, and afterwards Veronica comes back home and has a heart-to-heart with her mother who, while admitting she would not make the same choice, still emphatically confirms her love for her daughter. Veronica also admits that she feels like she should feel bad or ashamed or guilty and she doesn’t. She feels relieved, she feels deep down that she made the right call. Never Rarely Sometimes Always covers this same ground with level-headed clarity but I think there’s something extra appreciative for Unpregnant. Between the two, this is going to be the more widely viewed film. Its very ambition is to be a crowd-pleasing road trip comedy built upon the bond of female friendship. I would expect an indie drama to try and normalize abortion, but it’s another thing when a light-hearted and readily accessible comedy (it’s PG-13!) has the sensitivity to normalize abortion. Many viewers will find this approach refreshing and helpful. The topic of abortion should never be made flippant but it doesn’t need to be a condemnation of inevitable ruination and regret either.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a hard-hitting drama that’s understated, realistic, compelling, but also a little too numbing. It’s quite artistic and empathetic and yet it can also be quite grueling to endure. I was wincing when Autumn felt the need to batter her own pregnant stomach. It’s more than effective but also sometimes its understatement can be a hindrance. On the complete other end of the tone spectrum is Unpregnant, a funny and entertaining road trip that doesn’t dismiss the certainty of its female characters and their choices. Both movies are worthy of being viewed and will leave an impression and could change some hearts and minds on the subject of abortion if those same people are willing to listen. I just found one film to be more generally entertaining.

Nate’s Grades:

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: B

Unpregnant: B+

Sound of Metal (2020)

I don’t think I’ve better empathized with hearing loss and deafness than with Sound of Metal, a moving and observant drama about a heavy metal drummer quickly losing his sense of hearing. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) plays Ruben, a former junkie who is four years sober and worried about losing his girlfriend/band mate (Olivia Cooke) with his recent diagnosis. He’s attending a treatment center meant to cater to a deaf community and transition others into this community. Ruben is defiant, depressed, angry, all the stages you can imagine with grief. The movie is at its best during its quiet and contemplative moments where we empathize with the terror and alienation of Ruben. When he first joins the center, we don’t get subtitles for the many signed conversations between members. It’s only after Ruben learns ASL, integrates into the community, and opens himself up to the program that we too get to be knowledgeable. The sound design is exceptionally utilized to illustrate Ruben’s changing perspective, and some later choices with it might make you long for the peacefulness of silence. The movie is exquisitely thoughtful and considerate while maintaining a subtle, character-driven approach that keeps things from wallowing in self-pity. For many of the deaf, hearing loss isn’t seen as a disability but a community with its own culture and quality of life. It’s understandable that Ruben is focused on loss but the movie doesn’t dwell in loss, more so transformation and acceptance. Ahmed is fabulous in the lead role which requires him to rely primarily upon non-verbal expression for extended periods. His eyes are his best vessel for communicating Ruben’s emotional state, and Ahmed is sensational. Paul Raci is also great as the leader of the treatment center and the responsibility and generosity he feels to those in his care. Sound of Metal is an immersive, sensitive, authentic and poignant drama with an Oscar-caliber lead performance and a depth of compassion for the many people of the deaf community.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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