Dolittle (2020)

Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.

Nate’s Grade: C+

She’s Just a Shadow (2019)

Film is a powerful medium but it’s also one where it seems an infinite number of people are ready and willing to debase themselves just to be part of a production, just like there seems to be an infinite amount of people ready and willing to use their perch as filmmaker to exploit, particularly, young women that normally wouldn’t give them the time of day. I don’t dislike exploitation cinema on its face. I enjoy crazy movies, bad movies, and movies replete with sex, drugs, and violence as much as the next guy. The problem is when the exploitation is for its own shallow sake. Such is the case with the repellent She’s Just a Shadow from writer/director/producer Adam Sherman, whose scuzzy aim seems to be a lower-rent Harmony Korine, who is a lower-rent Larry Clark, all face down in the trough of skeevy exploitation cinema runoff. This may be the kind of movie only a disaffected 12-year-old kid would love but you wouldn’t want to get to know that child.

Set amid the glamour and grime of Tokyo, we follow Irene (Tao Okamoto, The Wolverine), who informs us in her opening narration, “It was kind of confusing how I took over the black market and sex trade of the whole city.” So, off to a good start. She’s married to Red Hot (Kentez Asaka) who is looking to gain new turf for his drug empire and stomp the competition, which happens to be a grade school friend of Irene’s that causes him intense jealousy. Gaven (J-pop star Kihiro) is tired of his rich gangster playboy life and torn between his feelings for two prostitutes, Tanya (Karuka Abe, Kiss Me First) and Beth (Mercedes Maxwell, Marfa Girl). He wants to run away with Tanya but just can’t leave his cushy lifestyle. Really, the plot of this movie is: whatever character does copious amount of some drug while naked women cavort in foreground or background. Plus there’s a serial killer. That’s it.

The opening sequence sets the tone for this repulsive TWO-HOUR experience. A woman is hogtied, naked, and laid onto train tracks. Her abductor records her panicked muffled cries as one of Japan’s bullet trains approaches. Yes, it’s a twenty-first century film where a villain straps women to railroad tracks. However, that’s not edgy enough, so the abductor proceeds to masturbate to the woman’s terror and climaxes on her, which we see, before she gets smacked by a train. It’s a gross, sleazy, and gratuitous opening, and it sets the tone for a movie that never challenges itself to be anything more than the world’s most boring exploitation film.

You can clearly see Sherman’s interests in exploitation film staples and Japanese culture, but getting to play with your kinks and getting dozens of women naked does not a movie make. It feels like I’m watching some strange and off-putting project that’s a combination of a rambling, incoherent student film and personal pornography. I’m a red-blooded heterosexual male who enjoys nudity but She’s Just a Shadow is excessive to the point of boredom. The movie is almost two hours and I can literally count on my two hands the number of minutes that did not include some naked woman. Scene to scene, naked women will just bounce around, or sometimes they just lay around while other characters talk, serving as literal scene decorations. There’s a big glitter orgy and visuals of writhing, tawny nude bodies. There’s a full-frontal photo shoot that just goes on and on. There are multiple trips to a strip club. The gang of prostitutes are dressed in chunky Alice in Wonderland-style Gothic dresses and wigs and jewels glued to their faces. I looked it up and several of the minor Japanese actresses are real porn stars (no judgement). The objectification of the women is just so overpowering. It’s not that you can’t tell a compelling story with sex workers as the primary stars/perspectives. Sherman has not provided them the material because they aren’t characters; they’re barely people (more on that below) in this realm. They’re disposable fetish figurines meant for posing. This is like some horny teenage boy’s fantasy of having enough power to get a bunch of women to frolic to his specific demands. I counted the number of actresses listed under “prostitute” in the end credits and it’s 32!

Exploitation movies trade in base behavior, memorably outrageous characters, and fans celebrate them for it, but they still need to provide an entry point for an audience. She’s Just a Shadow is trying so hard to be edgy in every scene that it reeks of tragic desperation. It’s unrepentantly misogynistic and trashy and ugly and cruel for its own stupid sake. There are no characters of interest, no recognizable people to follow and empathize with, and Sherman’s idea of a Strong Woman amounts to an abused woman forced to do awful things to fit in or rise above awful people. Crime movies and exploitation cinema is rife with immoral characters but the filmmakers know well enough to make them worth watching. With She’s Just a Shadow, one of the biggest character’s entire arc is that he keeps saying, “Man, I can’t party anymore.” He has a life of empty luxury and he says he can’t handle it any longer, and yet he stays. The lead characters are supposed to be ferocious criminal leaders but they act like self-involved morons or cartoons. They have (nick?) names like Red Hot, Knockout, and the competing gangster, Blue Sky. There is one moment that is so incomprehensible in its insane nihilism that I was gob smacked. In the span of ten seconds, a character roundhouse kicks a kid in a wheelchair across his face, then punts his dog over a fence, and then gets plowed into by a speeding truck. If you needed confirmation, here it is that Sherman has contempt for his unfortunate characters.

The heavy-handed nihilism is so tiresome and is its only trick. Sherman is forced to resort to repetitive shock theatrics to jolt life into his movie because it’s such a floundering story. There’s one scene where Tanya is eating an ice cream cone, digresses about how her drunk father was so poor he could not even afford an ice cream cone, then discusses how she was possibly molested and raped by that same father, and now he’s dead, mom too, and then she smears the vanilla ice creams over her face and asks, “Will you lick the ice cream off my face?” Then there are close-ups of Gavin’s tongue lapping every morsel. What the hell is this scene even doing?

The lingering serial killer is the biggest symptom of this diseased thinking. The “Train Track Killer” is seen murdering a half a dozen naked women in his signature over-the-top style, and why do we need to see this half a dozen times? Are we gaining any further insights about this man? The police can’t seem to determine the identity of the culprit, but in this universe not a single train employee or passenger records evidence of a weird man standing beside a dead body. The serial killer poses as a cop but most of his screen time is spent spying on Irene’s prostitutes, and hacking into their electronic devices, and masturbating furiously. I suppose there’s a mystery of whom he is, not that his identity matters, but it does matter to Irene and her girls who are at risk. Halfway through the movie, Irene knows who this guy is and… she… does… nothing. Why? Eventually, at the very end of the movie, she does take a stand, but why didn’t she take the initiative an hour earlier? There are more women dead because she chose not to act. The “Train Track Killer” adds nothing of genuine value to this story. He’s a slipshod antagonist kept along the periphery, called upon to do something horrible at random times, yet his actions have no impact on the characters he targets. Under Sherman’s guise, the women are all disposable. This is a stupid character that has nothing to do except provide work for the newscasters (who report with the same microphone and obliviously within feet of speeding trains). Let this terrible man’s spiteful ejaculation in the opening scene serve as a metaphor for the entire enterprise.

She’s Just a Shadow has so many bizarre, ineffective, and pathetic examples of headache-inducing dialogue that I had to assemble my favorites. I asked my friends on social media what the best-worst example of dialogue is, and by a close margin they went with the first selection. The candidates for Worst Line of Movie Dialogue of 2019 are the following:

1) “Women! No matter how human they seem, they are just shadows. But on the other hand, aren’t we all?”

2) “This sandwich is cold and raw AND SO ARE YOU!” *hangs up phone*

3) “There’s two kinds of love: strawberry love and Twinkie love. A Twinkie can sit there for decades and still be sweet. A strawberry is juicy and sweet but if you leave it out it will rot in just a couple of days.”
“Only a prostitute would say that.”

4) “Everything goes away in the end. Love goes away in the middle.”
“Love is a thing with feathers.”

5) “You’re a man whore. A prosti-dude.”

The production has some merit when it comes to its Grand Guignol primary-color drenched photography, but anything of technical value is quickly extinguished by Sherman’s unrestrained penchant for gratuity. Even if you enjoy some of the visual arrangements, there will be scenes where it feels like they were running out of time and just threw a camera onto a tripod and got the first take. Even if you like some of the style, Sherman will indulge to the point of self-parody. There’s one moment where Irene’s girl gang and a rival gang standoff and Sherman has 14 seconds of shots of characters just drawing their guns (I actually counted) and no seconds of watching the actual shootout (the camera frustratingly pans away to hear the off-screen gunfire). Let that be an example of Sherman’s predilections and priorities, featuring women posturing in his fetish gear but, when it comes time for there to be stakes and story significance, the movie cowardly retreats. I haven’t even talked about the numerous other awkward moments. Red Hot rapes Irene twice, once after spanking her/beating her with a laptop, and a second time after stabbing her in the thigh. Gaven badgers a dying and profusely bleeding prostitute (it’s like the floor is painted in gory gallons) about whether or not she can see God in her final moments, and she requests a kiss that is followed through with a string of bloody saliva between their lips. The earlier shot didn’t even have this string of saliva, but then Sherman shows another take immediately after, because he definitely wants this string of saliva seen and processed. It means something. Or nothing.

To say She’s Just a Shadow is in bad taste or a waste of anyone’s time is an obvious understatement. This is a bottom-scraping bad time of a movie, soaked in various bodily fluids, gruesome for the sake of being cool, smothered by its wanton excess, and supported by one-dimensional ideas of characters that are really just opposable bodies miming the exploitation influences for Sherman. He feels disdain for all of these characters but especially the women who are fetishized, objectified, abused and harassed, and made to sadistically suffer. I felt bad for every person, especially the women, involved in what feels like Sherman’s student film project where he gets to tickle every personal fetish he’s ever had. Even watching the stream of flesh and violence grows utterly tiresome without variance or reasons. At one point, a call girl stumbles into a double suicide, blood splattered against the walls, and seems to be talking directly to the audience when she huffs, “This is the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.” You said it, sister.

Nate’s Grade: D

Underwater (2020)

It may be rather derivative but Underwater is a solid genre thriller that is streamlined to deliver an enjoyable 90-minute ride. You start off right in the middle of conflict, as we follow a group of undersea scientists and workers trying to escape from a deep sea drilling station under attack. The movie is atmospheric and effective because that deep underwater is basically like pitch black night. As they stumble from one clearly defined and varied set piece to another, the movie plays into the elemental fear of the dark, coupled with a rising claustrophobia. Kristen Stewart is genuinely terrific as a steely action leading lady and the other supporting roles, rounded out by the likes of Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, John Gallgher Jr., and Jessica Henwick, create a cast of characters that I was rooting for even if they aren’t exactly fleshed out. It’s a trade-off. More time could have been spent finding room for added characterization and history, but when we know the majority of these people are slated to die from monsters, it feels like the movie made the better choice to jump into the thick of things. Yes, this is a monster movie, as the drilling potentially unsettled an unknown species, and their creature design is nice and creepy. There’s a wonderful moment where a hungry monster swallows a person whole, like a snake unhinging its jaw to consume an antelope. In Act Three, Underwater gets even bigger in its scope of the threat, and I won’t spoil the circumstances but, suffice to say, it approached epic. For a PG-13 monster thriller released in January, the usual dumping ground of studio losers, this is a far better movie and a far more entertaining experience than you would be lead to believe. It’s nothing spellbinding but there should always be room for smart, effective B-movies performed with grit and acuity. It looks like it was based on an anime, from the setup to the monsters to especially the design of the heavy undersea suits that look like mech armor, but no. This is an original film. Well, it’s an original story building off the foundation of other movies, mostly from James Cameron. Underwater is a slickly made, tense, atmospheric little thriller that is worth the dive.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Like a Boss (2020)

There’s little else as energy-zapping as a comedy fumbling for its funny, and that summarizes the disappointing Like a Boss, which is far from being boss-like. Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne star as best friends who own a makeup company together and Salma Hayek is the rich CEO who wants to buy their company and drive them apart. That’s about the story because the movie feels like it was one of those imrpov-heavy vehicles designed for the likes of a Melissa McCarthy where the scenes are barely sketched in with the assumption that the performers will discover something funny in the moment on the day of filming. Except this never happened. Like a Boss constantly feels straining, groping, struggling for any comedy from scene to scene. There isn’t one interesting comic dynamic or a set piece that felt really smartly set up and developed. There aren’t even that many set pieces outside a sequence where the ladies eat ghost peppers and cannot handle the heat. There’s one part where they destroy a drone and have to hide it. Nothing comes from this. There’s one part where the ladies are smoking a joint and it falls into a baby’s crib, and you’re waiting for the escalation, but that’s it. Nothing of consequence happens. Mostly the movie is so desperately grasping for whatever it can find to be funny, and every actor feels like they’re in a different movie. I started mentally checking out halfway through. I chuckled a few times but my dispirited sighs outnumbered them. I like Haddish. I like Byrne. I like Hayek. I like director Miguel Arteta (an unexpected Beatriz at Dinner reunion). I like that this is an R-rated comedy aimed at empowering women. The problem is it still needs to be funny. The best friends forever say how much they love one another but they’re also explaining all of their problems and solutions in exposition-heavy vomit sessions to assist the audience (“I know you’ve always have trust issues because of your mothers, and…”). For the scary boss antagonist, Hayek’s character is weirdly impotent and too easily foiled, including being upstaged at her own company’s launch party and deciding to do nothing to stop her usurpation. Like a Boss is a limp and flailing comedy that just made me sad.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Countdown (2019)

I have history with Countdown. Nothing personally with this movie written and directed by Justin Dec but because of the concept, a killer countdown ticking down to a specific person’s ultimate demise. In 2015, a screenwriting pal of mine Joe Marino and I were developing a TV series pitch for… a mystery involving a website counting down to the specific second of specific people’s deaths. We even called it… “Countdown.” Our pitch, which we presented to a producer and, as far as I know, never got further than that, would have opened bigger and bigger, starting with a mysterious slasher killer on a college campus that opens up to, eventually, a self-aware machine arranging life-and-death judgements and manipulating technology to see it through. I still have the pitch document and, if I do say so, it’s not bad. I don’t hold any suspicion with Dec and the filmmakers behind this version of Countdown. Anyone can independently come up with the same high-concept premise, it’s just funny to me the similarities between the two. It’s also unfortunate because, after having seen this 2019 Countdown, that there won’t be any other versions of this worthwhile premise.

Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail) is a nurse who is still coming to terms with her mother’s tragic death, her feelings of guilt over the accident that caused it, and being harassed by her boss (Peter Facinelli). Her younger sister downloads a new cool app that predicts when a user will die. It’s only a countdown timer and some people get ninety years and others get three days. Quinn tries deleting the app, even buying a new phone, but it cannot be stopped, and she’s now having strange visions and meeting up with other users who fear the app’s threats are very real.

There’s a reason Countdown almost kind of works. The premise has power. It’s a modern mash-up of The Ring and Final Destination, with a technological trap that curses the user like The Ring and then as the seconds tick closer it becomes a paranoid guessing game of what could befall the victim, much like the sneaky appeal of the Destination movies. This is all evident in the film’s opening eight-minute prologue, which is actually, genuinely a good watch. Had Countdown merely consisted of this opening segment, it could have been an enjoyable short film. It establishes its premise, some degree of rules, then simmers in the dread, and produces a few solid creepy moments and a clever conclusion that signals what Plan A had been for the victim’s demise. It’s got enough punch and dread that I could see it performing well on a fest circuit.

The problem comes when the movie tries to arrange a reasonable explanation for all the supernatural spookery. The mystery of the unknown, a haunted app, is going to be better than uncovering the secrets behind the app and its “terms of agreement.” The mystery behind the app is less interesting to watch than the question of how a character is going to die, which is why this would work better in a smaller time frame like as a short where it plays its trick once. The killer app cites breach in agreement terms if users “alter their acceptance of fate.” It’s legally vague but could basically apply to any time any person cancels plans (an introvert’s worst nightmare come true). This is a silly notion because why is a magical phone app so particular about plans? Then there’s the moment where we get the specs on the data for this app and it’s… bigger than expected (“Like a whole season of Game of Thrones on your phone”). I guess that’s slightly unexpected but who cares? It’s little things like this that start to break down the internal logic of the movie’s menace and Countdown was better off when it didn’t have to support a feature.

The movie starts to crack when it tosses in subplots to fulfill a feature-length running time. Again, this premise could sustain a movie (and even a series) but when the conclusion is simply that the app is demonic and uses divine evil powers, then any sense of mystery about the particulars around it feels like jogging in place. What does it matter when the app can justify any action, counter action, or outlandish scenario because of its demonic nature? Our characters gang together with the belief they can somehow break the curse if they beat the counter by one second, but why would they have any sense this could work and with a supernatural presence that can just change the rules? When you’re dealing with, you know, evil demons, they’re not trustworthy. This explanation means that whatever happens can change at any time just because. It makes it feel like all of the untangled mysteries and the determination to beat the system through some assumed understanding of agreed-upon rules as unsatisfying detours.

The most egregious subplot happens to be a very serious case of sexual harassment and assault by Quinn’s boss. This feels entirely out of place for “scary phone app” movie, and it very much feels grafted on by some studio executive who thought they would make their movie more relevant with the changing times. Like some exec said, “Hey, throw in some of that Me Too stuff. That will show we care. Bring in the women. It’s a very real problem.” I understand that the filmmakers wanted to present a villain who could be conquered in the place of an unknowably powerful demonic entity. It feels monumentally tacky to awkwardly cram in a real story of sexual assault as a questionable means of making the film more topical.

I think there’s an interesting story potential of people, knowing the exact second of their death, using it as a motivator good and bad. Perhaps it motivates them to quit their job and finally tackle a long list of personal goals, ask that one girl out, write that novel as some sort of legacy. Or perhaps it motivates them to live a life free of consequences and to take vengeance against others knowing full well their remaining years have been cut short. There could be an entire group of people who view themselves almost as spiritual warriors who have been blessed with foresight so they run roughshod over society’s rules. There could be lots of interesting sociological and psychological areas this degree of foreknowledge could provide, so it feels a little reductive to simply have it be a demonic curse that nobody thinks much more about.

After appearing on numerous Worst of the Year lists, a countdown in its own right, I was expecting Countdown to be an awful, intelligence-insulting experience. I didn’t hate this. In fact, I think it’s rather competently directed with some effectively eerie moments for a PG-13 horror movie. I enjoyed the TWO comic relief characters, a sarcastic and unscrupulous phone salesman (Tom Segura) and a nerdy priest who is eager to help (P.J. Byrne). I thought the opening eight minutes could have served as a complete short film that would have gotten attention. The film even presents some interesting ideas and complications with its premise. It’s not a good movie, especially with its lackluster conclusions to a lackluster mystery, but it’s not really a bad movie either. It’s 85 minutes of a killer premise but lacking necessary development to keep the interest level high, which is why the jump scares with grabby, clammy demon hands pop up. Countdown isn’t bad as much as it’s more disappointing, a premise that could have been so much more.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson (2020)

As soon as I read about the director of The Haunting of Sharon Tate’s follow-up movie, I knew it was destined for a spot on my worst of 2020 list. This filmmaker wasn’t exactly presenting nuanced and sympathetic portraits of famous dead celebrities, and instead was exploiting their fame and their famous demises for cheap genre thrills. The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson was always destined to be a bad movie with these people involved with these intentions. This sleazy thriller is rife with bad decisions, bad faith, and victim blaming to its very nasty core.

Nicole Brown (Mena Suvari) is trying to start her life over after divorcing her famous husband, O.J. Simpson (Gene Freeman). She meets a painter named Glen (Nick Stahl) and invites him to paint her home, to make it more her new sanctuary. Except Glen is a disturbed drifter who will eventually be known as the Casanova Killer who had murdered many blonde women. From there, Glen stalks Nicole and terrorizes her to her very end. Sigh.

The very nature of its premise alleviates the guilt from Nicole’s abusive, controlling husband. Oh sure, the movie still says O.J. is dangerous and jealous and protected by his personal relationships with many of the local law enforcement, but this is mitigated by the very act of using O.J.’s own half-baked alibi assertion from the infamous cash-grab hypothetical literary tome, “If I Did It.” In this highly disingenuous “hypothetical,” O.J. says he might have met a friend named “Charlie” and it was “Charlie” who did the killing and O.J. says he was simply blacking out that night as an unexpected accomplice. First off, the very nature of this book is disgusting, but the fact that this movie uses it as a foundation to posit an alternative theory that lessens O.J.’s blood-stained culpability is like re-telling the Ted Bundy’s account where a frisky and mischievous friend was really the one consuming people. What exactly is the purpose of presenting this alternative theory, which is predicated on the flimsiest of even a whisper of evidence; Glen Rogers’ brother says that mentally disturbed Glen once told him he killed Nicole Brown. That’s it. Add Glen talking to a voice in his head, a dark impulse he calls “Charlie,” and that’s the only connective tissue the movie provides for this new theory.

The entire inclusion of this “Could it be someone else?” theory is for crass sensationalism. Because if the filmmakers were trying to do anything beyond gaining craven attention, they would present a more compelling relationship between Nicole and Glen. The portrayal makes Nicole look like the biggest moron and the movie seems to flirt with the insidious idea that she might have invited her murder onto herself. First, she meets Glen in her neighbor’s driveway, having never seen him before, and invites him into her home and offers him a job, and all of this is miraculously before she even knows the man’s last name, an address, or references. He makes a shifty statement about past work experience being “here and there” and she hires him. The next time we see them together they’re already sleeping together. It feels like I was watching character assassinating propaganda, especially recalling O.J.’s crazed accusations of Nicole sleeping with every many she could find because, to him, she must be a whore. In one of the more wince-inducing moments, Nicole admits to her therapists that she misses the sex with her abusive ex-husband. Any feminism points the filmmakers thought they were providing by showcasing Nicole’s terror and resolve in starting a life away from O.J. just get sabotaged again and again by moments like this. Because Nicole isn’t a person to these filmmakers, she’s a marketable victim who was too stupid to understand how dangerous multiple men were.

There’s also a problem structurally with The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson because she discovers Glen’s unhinged side very quickly. There’s no prolonged buildup of piecing things together. There is half a movie left, which means the filmmakers have an awful lot of time to kill before the actual killings. There’s a drawn-out sequence where Nicole is shopping with the Kardashians (you better believe there are Kardashian kid cameos!) at a nearly empty mall and she sees Glen stalking her. The sequence just keeps going on and on until she’s now stalking him. It’s a sequence that fulfills little we didn’t already know about Glen as a dangerous man. This is further emphasized in unnecessary ways by showing him picking up a doomed woman at a dive bar (literally called “Sinners and Saints” – sigh) and suffocating her, setting her car on fire, and presumably leaving behind plenty of physical evidence like fingerprints. It’s a gratuitous sequence where we get to watch another woman get murdered before our special murder victim gets her showcase. There’s even a shockingly superfluous nightmare sequence that literally rips off the imagery from A Nightmare on Elm Street where Nicole is battling some invisible poltergeist that drags her up a wall and onto the ceiling. It’s filling time, which the movies does even after it finally meets its titular action. There’s a whole two minutes or so of watching a dog walker creep upon the Brentwood crime scene as if we already didn’t know what happened, so where is the suspense? Then the movie fills time even more blatantly by relying on a clip package of real-life TV news from the murders, the Bronco chase, the trial, O.J.’s acquittal, and then portions of his interview for “If I Did It.” It’s literally a clip show to get across that all-important 80-minute feature-length threshold. Watching this abysmal movie, it’s clear that the filmmakers had no real intention of presenting a story and were just presenting the most baseless historical “what if.”

The dialogue in this movie can be wretchedly obvious and trolling for forced profundity with heavily applied and snide dramatic irony. This occurred in the director’s previous film, using the audience’s knowledge of Sharon Tate’s eventual slaying to force a sense of literal and figurative premonition to use as dread. This was at its worse with her awful visions but it also translated to her many heavy-handed pontifications on whether she was fated. With this new film, Nicole is basically looking dead-eyed into the audience after every one of these lines. That includes an admission, “I worry he’s going to murder me and get away with it,” and that’s only five minutes into the movie. I would estimate twenty percent of Nicole’s dialogue in the movie is her contemplations that O.J. will be the literal death of her, like chiding a dismissive L.A.P.D. officer for eventual guilt about not intervening when he had an opportunity. These moments are meant to make Nicole Brown seem more tragic but why does she need any benefit of extra tragedy for empathy?

Look at this wig!

I chiefly pity Suvari (American Beauty). She likely thought she was doing the real Nicole Brown a service by portraying a woman who was trying to work up her courage to push back against her abuser. She probably thought these moments were humanizing Nicole, presenting a more recognizable face beyond the splashy tabloid headlines (see, she has difficulty working a home alarm system too!). I need to believe that Suvari felt she was doing some service because her name is listed as an executive producer, and I would hate to think she was onboard with the more wrongheaded and sleazy aspects of the film becoming a misguided reality. Suvari seems adrift for most of the movie, perhaps the weight of all that dramatic irony crushing her down. However, she doesn’t seem as adrift as Taryn Manning (Orange is the New Black) as a boozed-up cartoon of Nicole’s friend, Faye Resnick. She snorts cocaine. She tries to seduce Nicole at one point, referring to past trysts (more propaganda?). She has a remarkable helmet of a giant blonde wig that looks like it’s crushing her tiny neck. It’s a performance that seems too off-kilter that it almost reminded me of some of the acting I’ve witnessed in The Room. Then there’s Stahl (Sin City) who just acts like a sketchy guy from his first moment onscreen. It makes it hard to believe that Nicole would, after her interactions with O.J., so obliviously accept this new man into her home and into her bed. Then there’s Agnes Bruckner (Love and Chocolate) as a jaw-clenching Kris Kardashian, a character who probably should have just been removed entirely.

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson might not be as offensively bad as The Haunting of Sharon Tate, but even that declaration is not exculpatory. This is still a terribly written, terribly directed, and terribly made movie based on a terrible premise. Even if the filmmakers wanted to tell a compelling alternate theory to the much-publicized Trial of the Century, it sure doesn’t look like they had any interest other than grabbing their own attention-seeking headlines. There is no thought put into any part of this movie outside of its outrageous premise. At least we’re spared having to relive Nicole’s bloody death through several gross fake-out premonitions like Sharon Tate. The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson wants to position its lead heroine as a tragic figure, but she was already a tragic figure, and it definitely doesn’t earn the artistic right to play Nicole’s real-life 911 calls where she frantically begs for help from her enraged husband. You don’t get to present a feature film that says O.J. didn’t do it and then play her real 911 calls of abuse from O.J. It’s a stark reminder of the resolute bad faith of the people involved in this lousy production. Beware famous dead celebrities, because even the grave can’t protect you from director Daniel Farrand’s gross revisionism for profit.

Nate’s Grade: D

Queen & Slim (2019)

It’s been a couple weeks since I watched Queen & Slim and I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s billed as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, and while that description is technically apt, it’s more a frighteningly relevant thriller about police brutality, the skewed criminal justice system, and the hairpin-turning horror of daily life as a black person in America. A first date between Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) goes awry when they’re pulled over by a racist trigger-happy cop and, in the ensuring struggle, Slim shoots and kills the officer in self-defense. They go on the run trying to escape one setup after another, all the while during this hellish ordeal the characters are growing closer out of reliance and a budding sense of romance. This is a powerfully intense movie with several supremely suspenseful sequences where I worried deeply whether or not the titular pair would be found out, could escape out of a jam, and all the while the authorities are getting closer and closer. They become folk heroes for a community familiar with the oppressive day-to-day of always being seen as a suspect, as “up to no good,” as presumed guilty and dangerous. There are a couple questionable moments later in the film involving the pair as inspiration where I wish the film had perhaps been a little less ambiguous over what I’m supposed to draw. The screenplay by Lena Waithe (The Chi, Boomerang) is cannily crafted with a strong sense of how to develop its premise, deepen it with larger themes, and throw organic obstacles at the characters. I was impressed with how quickly the movie would crank up the tension of a moment, but these thriller aspects never felt cheap or superfluous. The characters do not get lost to the overall plotting machinations and the performances from Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are terrific. Director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure, the soon-to-be release Y comic adaptation) has such an affecting manner with her camera and, in particular, the moody lighting that can express a range of feelings from anxiety or sensuality. The ending of this tale might be expected but that doesn’t take away any of its inordinate power, an ending that has stayed with me and shaken me for days. Queen & Slim is a character-driven chase film that manages to also touch upon powerful social themes, taking a mythic story and making it personal, relevant, and, in a new manner, timeless.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Gorgeously shot and beautifully realized, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels like a sacred hymn to a city, a past, a wayward love that is just aching with feeling. The Sundance-winning indie has such an immediate and invigorating sense of lyricism. Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) talks about the meaning his family home has, the same home he hasn’t been living in for a decade but has been returning to touch it up and hopefully take it back. Debut filmmaker Joe Talbot has created a movie on the edge of the surreal where everything feel heightened, more emotional, like a religious experience, without puncturing its core dramatic reality. We touch upon a lot of issues and themes, from gentrification and reclaiming one’s past for pride, to the identities we choose to inhabit, to friendship and the love/hate relationship one can have with their home, and each of these pulsates with meaning and fervent feeling. In many ways, this film reminds me of If Beale Street Could Talk, not just because it’s an ensemble of African-American working class figures, but because there’s a bittersweet tenderness that taps into the profound and universal that reminds me of the kind of knowing, compassionate voice of author James Baldwin. I was often spellbound by this movie, enraptured by its transporting musical score by Emile Mosseri (the best score of the year), awestruck by its dynamic photography by Adam Newport-Berra, smiling from its presentation of bizarre comic flourishes, characters with genuine personality and peculiarities, and charmed by the overall picture the movie was lovingly constructing of a personal San Francisco bursting with meaning. If there is a slight drawback it’s that too many characters remain more as sketches than fully fleshed-out beings, and too much plot emphasis is placed upon whether of not Jimme’s grandfather really built their family home as he ardently holds true. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a cinematic hymn of love to the emotional stability we designate for our homes. It’s a lovely, beautiful, deeply felt movie that washes over you in waves and is an artistic triumph for Fails, Talbot, and every set of hands that toiled on this uniquely personal ode.

Nate’s Grade: A-

6 Underground (2019)/ Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.

The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.

6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.

6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.

There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.

Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.

At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).

Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.

When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.

I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.

The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.

6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.

Nate’s Grades:

6 Underground: C-

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A

Little Women (2019)

By my count, this is approximately the 182nd version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War sisterhood. There must be something universal about the trials of the March sisters and their struggles for independence, agency, love, and happy endings on their own turns. Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Oscar nominations for Lady Bird, has given Little Women a decidedly modern spin. The story flashes back and forth between past and present, sometimes in consecutive shots, and feels full of authentic youthful energy. It’s also the first adaptation I’ve watched that has fixed the problem of Amy (Florence Pugh, affecting), widely regarded as the least liked sister. Through Gerwig’s telling, she becomes a self-determined woman, just like Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who recognizes the social trappings holding her back but chooses to do her best within this unfair system rather than rage against it. It’s like an empathetic reclamation for this often reviled character. The enjoyment of Little Women is how vibrant and different each of the March sisters is and how an audience can see degrees of one’s self in each little woman. Jo is by all accounts our lead and her struggle to be a successful writer pushes her against conventions of the era. There is an invented and very amusing bookend where Jo bickers with a blowhard male publisher (Tracy Letts) about “women’s melodrama.” It’s a meta commentary on Alcott’s book herself, especially with the helping of marriages and happy endings by story’s end. Ronan is a force of nature in the film and sweeps up everyone around her with charm. Meryl Streep is supremely amusing as an older rich aunt bemoaning the girls won’t get anywhere without marrying a wealthy man. The limited options for a working-class family are given great consideration, but it’s really a movie that seems to pulsate with the exciting feelings of being young, having the world stretch out before you, and chasing your dream, rain or shine. It’s also gorgeously shot and feels so assured from Gerwig as a solo director. There are a few detractions for this new 2019 Little Women, the biggest being how confusing it can get with its melded chronologies. If this is your first exposure to Alcott’s story, I fear you’ll get lost more than a few times trying to keep everything in order. The love story with lovesick pretty boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) feels tacked on even though it’s a feature of the novel. This newly structured, reinvigorated, charming remake of a literary classic feels definitely of the period and of today. It’s the first Little Women adaptation that made me realize how timeless this story really can feel in the right hands. It may be the 182nd version but it might be the best one yet.

Nate’s Grade: B+

%d bloggers like this: