Monthly Archives: November 2018
Technically the eighth movie in a franchise spanning five different decades, I think every ticket buyer knows exactly what they are getting with Creed II. It’s more of the same formula that’s been packing in audiences because it works. Once again Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of the legendary Apollo Creed, climbs high, only to be brought low by a challenger, the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. Once more he finds himself with something to prove, a personal score to settle that blinds him as a fighter. I was able to predict every major plot beat from early on, and that’s beside the point. Creed II is at its peak performance when it offers small, well-developed character moments to go along with the training montages and boxing beat downs. Spending more time with the characters is where this movie elevates itself from the formula. There’s a potently dramatic subplot where Adonis’s wife, played by Tessa Thompson, worries that she may have past down her degenerative hearing loss their newborn child. There’s a wordless scene of looks that explains everything over the course of an auditory test, and it’s gut wrenching. I wasn’t expecting the film to humanize the villains as well. Ivan has been living in shame since his loss to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), cast out by the elites of his society, and his own wife walked out on him and his son. They both see this opportunity as a way to prove something to the woman who abandoned them and the country that turned its back. It’s not just a scene either; the Russians (Ukrainians?) get the second biggest storyline of the movie. It made it so that I was genuinely having mixed emotions during the climactic bout, not wanting either side to really lose. That’s solid writing, movie. The performances are uniformly strong (even Lundgren!) and the emotions build and build until it crescendos. Creed II likely won’t be the last in the franchise, and even though I can predict the sequel already, as long as the filmmakers find room to meaningfully flesh out these enjoyable and winning characters, I’m game.
Nate’s Grade: B
Conservative documentary filmmaker, and modern-day snake oil salesman, Dinesh D’Souza is, for all intents and purposes, stuck. His series of “alternative fact” disingenuous documentaries stretching back to 2012 have lambasted a cavalcade of conservative political targets, many of them grossly exaggerated, relying upon a core audience of ticket-buyers who were essentially looking for a vaguely academic cover for their crackpot theories that would otherwise bring them scorn at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Then in November of 2016 Donald Trump miraculously won the presidency and the Republican Party now controlled both houses of Congress. D’Souza no longer had “anti-colonialist with daddy issues” Obama or “Saul Alinsky demonic disciple” Hillary Clinton to kick around any longer. D’Souza’s last documentary, 2016’s Hillary’s America, barely even touched upon Trump, possibly because even D’Souza thought Trump was not destined to see the Oval Office unless part of a public tour.
D’Souza used to represent the loony fringe, but now a member of that conspiracy-minded, anti-intellectual underbelly has ascended all the way to the presidency. D’Souza’s debased theories aren’t just parroted by the trolls of the Internet any longer, the president now repeats them verbatim. In an unexpected manner, D’Souza had catapulted to being mainstream, and now I don’t think he knows what to do with himself, his platform of agitation against the powers that be trying to reshape the “real America,” and his future as a huckster. With Republicans presently in charge of the government, whom will D’Souza complain is thwarting the “real patriots” (I apologize, I’m going to go through a year’s supply of air quotes with this review, I can already sense it) from making American great again? His latest pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-documentary Death of a Nation portends his struggle (a subtle reference? You be the judge, dear reader).
Donald Trump is president of the United States. This is an inescapable fact. But even with all that executive power he seems to be stymied by the threat of radical liberalism, or so argues D’Souza. The Democrats are aligned with none other than Hitler (oh, we’ll be getting to that claim later) and they are poised to lead this country into ruin. “How do nations die?” D’Souza solemnly intones, as is his custom for his voice over narration. “Tell a lie big enough, and tell it frequently enough, and it will be believed.” Astonishingly, he’s using that old Hitler claim NOT to refer to a president who has, as of this review’s writing, lied over 6,500 times since his 2017 inauguration according to the running record by The Washington Post, a.k.a. “fake news.” Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, D’Souza attempts to recycle a flawed thesis from his other alarmist movies about how the Democratic Party is destroying the foundations of the country, conveniently ignoring their minority status and most of objective reality.
Once again, D’Souza falls back to a crooked mirror of historical distortion in an attempt to defend racism, xenophobia, and general incompetence, this time connected to that of President Trump. For D’Souza, it’s not Trump who is racist, but the Democrats are the real racists. It’s not Trump who is sexist, but the Democrats are the real sexists. He trotted out this “nuh uh” line of defense with Hillary’s America where he shoddily sought to recast 150 years of historical policy to declare the Democrats the real racists. With his new film, D’Souza doubles down on the same flimsy claims that he stripped free of supportive context, you know, like the fact that both parties were racist for decades because your average American just so happened to be racist. D’Souza declares that the party of Lincoln is still the one black voters should be supporting, blithely ignoring more pertinent examples of policy for the last fifty years. D’Souza’s rhetorical contortions are strained to the breaking point and amount to him saying African-Americans should support the GOP because Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and Woodrow Wilson was racist. What’s the better track record for civil rights, the last 50 years or the middle of the nineteenth century? D’Souza even denies the existence of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” despite the fact that we have LITERAL audio recordings of Nixon and aides discussing this strategy in detail and by name. Too often the only way to believe much of D’Souza’s flaccid arguments is by performing your own homemade lobotomy.
D’Souza ties himself into knots trying to mitigate the racism of our current Commander in Chief, a man who called Nazis “very fine people,” has re-tweeted anti-Semitic tweets, who frequently refers to Hispanic immigrants and asylum-seekers as an “invasion,” refers to African and Caribbean countries as “shit holes,” and consistently goes after African-American critics in much more personal terms, castigating their intelligence, referring to them as “dogs,” and all the things a not-so racist person probably would refrain from doing. “We knew we weren’t electing a choir boy,” D’Souza intones, his feeble attempt to hand wave away all the personal failings and possible criminal activities of the president. It’s the same broad excuse that the White House press office has exhorted, that in electing Trump as president that the voters (never mind it wasn’t a majority of voters) have declared their general apathy to any number of scandals that arise (“Look, the voters made their voice known when they elected Trump and don’t care how many babies he eats on live television…”). You can’t separate the two; you can’t approve the policies but disapprove of the man. You can’t choose to ignore who he fundamentally is, which is likely why D’Souza ignores as much of Trump’s actual words and deeds as possible.
The epitome of D’Souza’s slimy, bad faith arguments, and a fuller picture at the depths he will lower himself, is when he directly declares that Adolf Hitler was really a liberal. Wow. That’s bold. Ignore Hitler’s antisemitism, anti-communist, anti-homosexual actions, castigation of foreigners as evil and stealing work from “real proud Germans,” rescinding of personal liberties, an independent press, and checks and balances, and his general anti-democratic policies, you still have a man whose ideology was built upon white supremacy and a racist belief in genetic superiority. Does that sound more like Bernie Sanders or like Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Charlottesville rally where, according to our president, “very fine people” chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and ultimately killed a woman protesting their presence? D’Souza interviews white nationalist/neo-Nazi, Richard Spencer, and D’Souza even tries to somehow label him and the “Unite the Right” marchers of Charlottesville as liberals. They are self-described Nazis!
I would ordinarily chalk up D’Souza’s slimy re-litigation of labels as another sign of his moral repugnance and move along, but this is deserving of additional attention. This isn’t just academic. We have a genuine spike in hate crimes targeting Jewish citizens, most recently a Pittsburgh synagogue where a man murdered a dozen under the belief that Jews, with the thanks of conservative boogeyman George Soros, were funding the migrant caravan (“invasion”). This is but one example of a mentally distraught, angry, and dangerous individual resorting to violence having been fed on a stream of twisted lies and racist rhetoric meant to agitate and divide. It was only a month ago that explosives were sent throughout the mail with the attempt to eliminate Trump’s perceived enemies. D’Souza and his ilk are not simply harmless kooks bilking a willing audience in search of some veneer of prestige for its baser inclinations. This stuff is serious now. When elevated to the platform presented through Trump’s presidency, these words can have serious consequences. I’m not applying a one-to-one system of blame, as every person is responsible for his or her own direct actions. However, D’Souza is knowingly stoking fires and accelerating resentment within his core, secluded audience. When D’Souza plays fast and loose with the history around Hitler, at turns mitigating the man’s actions as well as smearing modern-day political figures with the hackiest guilt-by-association tactics, he is doing the work of the white nationalists for them.
It makes it harder to watch and merely criticize Death of a Nation as a work of film. I could critique its poor production values, insistence on including footage of D’Souza walking around important locations and looking forlorn, as well as its corny insistence on stock footage meant to represent a beer ad’s rendition of what constitutes America. I could rightfully complain that once again D’Souza brings things to a halt so he can showcase his wife singing. I could make fun of the stodgy dramatic recreations. I could write an entire essay on the logical fallacy and open insult of comparing Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, let alone smashing their faces together as the key poster art. I could laugh at D’Souza crediting himself as playing some small part for electing Trump. I could complain of D’Souza’s tortured, leaning style with interview subjects, desperately trying to coax them into saying the hidden phrase he’s in search of. The careful way he handles Spencer is bizarre, as if he didn’t want to upset the white nationalists who might buy tickets. The technical merits of this movie are beyond the point, not that there was much merit to them to begin with. It’s all about his fallacious arguments.
A funny thing happened weeks before the release of this movie in the summer of 2018. President Trump officially pardoned Dinesh D’Souza for his federal campaign finance crimes, sparing him a felonious record (though the rub is to accept a pardon one must accept guilt too). Is it possible that this entire film project was conceived as a means of flattering Trump and working forward the possibility of a pardon for its filmmaker? After three movies of disingenuous gambits, I wouldn’t put anything past D’Souza. He is, after all, the same man whose 1995 book declared the end of racism yet he routinely tweets racist missives (try and find some innocent meaning in his reference to Obama as a “grown up Trayvon”). Death of a Nation is what D’Souza plans to do with his mighty megaphone, and it turns out it’s blame others and fall back on the same old bromides for his reactionary base. I’m sure in two more years he’ll be fired up again to warn us all about the dire threat not re-electing Trump will pose to our nation, but hopefully by that time the nation will have tuned him out for good.
Nate’s Grade: F
Border is a hard movie to describe without giving away key parts of its plot. Ostensibly this Swedish film is about Tina, a customs agent with a genetic deformity who can literally smell fear. She’s bedeviled by another man, Vore, who looks to have the same genetic deformity she has, which unleashes a flurry of gnawing questions over whether the two have some deeper connection, who might be her real family, and whether this genetic deformity is really what she’s been lead to believe. The movie is from the writer of Let the Right One In and takes a very macabre and understated look into a fairy tale realm bleeding into our own world. The movie is mostly grounded and benefits greatly from its lead actress, Eva Melander, who gives a rousing, nuanced performance under heavy prosthetic makeup. Tonally, it feels like the darker impulses, which can get extremely disturbing, are at odds with some of the other competing storylines, like her gradual self-awakening and the potential romance with Vore. Nothing will prepare you for how weird things will get including an awkward sex scene that defies belief. Border holds out a bit too long with its pertinent information, delaying the mystery without enough clues to tease things out in a satisfying manner. Afterwards, the remaining reveals reflect more on the cruel depths of Vore and less with Tina’s response. It makes an uncomfortable direction feel like it’s meant more as provocation. Ultimately I think I needed more from the story and characters to better meet out the aims of its genre-defying vision. It’s definitely a different movie and will register for those looking for dark, adult fairy tales.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.
Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?
It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.
The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.
Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.
The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.
The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.
The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.
Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.
Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.
Nate’s Grade: B+
When they adjusted the Hobbit movies so there was going to be three instead of two, it required some very noticeable padding and filler material to meet out that requirement. The second Fantastic Beasts film (of a planned five film series, expanded from a trilogy) feels exactly that way, a mostly table-setting movie with more incidents than plot, a few pertinent revelations, and not much in the manner of resolution. The second Fantastic Beasts does improve on its predecessor in several regards. It introduces a formidable villain that’s well played by Johnny Depp. It introduces a compelling younger version of Albus Dumbledore that’s played by the dashing Jude Law. It also finds more purpose for its hero, the shy magical zookeeper Newt (Eddie Redmayne), as the series inches closer to a wizards-vs-wizards world war. Things take a turn for the darker; within the First Act, a baby is murdered. They didn’t even do that in the new Halloween. The larger world building of Beasts, written by author J.K. Rowling for the screen and directed by longtime stalwart David Yates, has been its biggest draw. The supporting characters are back, though not everyone has much to do. Rowling is improving as a screenwriter but she still has trouble executing exposition-heavy scenes, resorting to sequence after sequence of characters prattling on. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of consequence until the very end, so we endure characters running through underdeveloped and contrived storylines. One of these involves Katherine Waterston mistakenly believing Newt is engaged (his brother is) and somehow, despite having access to magic let alone other forms of media, never findings out the easy truth. It’s stuff like that that show me Rowling was struggling to find material for every character to push them forward on this now extended journey. Crimes of Gindelwald is an overall step in the right direction for the prequel series even if this individual movie has trouble standing on its own magical merits.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.
Nate’s Grade: B
I cannot overstate how much I simply hate this movie’s title, Blue My Mind. It bothers me so much. I have an antipathy toward puns as humor in general, but to name your movie a pun is a startlingly bad decision. Who let this happen? Who let a horror movie, without any sense of humor, have a pun-laden title? Whoever did this should be fired, and if it’s writer/director Lisa Bruhlmann, then she should have her final grade revoked (the finished film served as her thesis work for her film school). Blue My Mind is another in the burgeoning sub-genre of pubescent transformative features. The Canadians struck rich gory glory with the Ginger Snaps series where young women turned into werewolves. This Swiss movie replaces the werewolf story with a mermaid, which brings to mind an unsettling re-creation of Splash as bizarre body horror. It’s too bad that Blue My Mind feels like the first draft of its freaky concept and proves ultimately unsatisfying.
Mia (Luna Wedler) is 15 years old, the new girl at a new school, and anxious to fit in with the cool kids, chiefly the mean queen Gianna (Zoe Pastelle Holthuizen). Mia is also undergoing some very radical changes. She’s craving salt water, eating the fish out of her parent’s fish tank, and noticing that her toes are starting to merge together with webbing. She’s confused and angry and desperate to hide her secret from her friends and family.
In a movie built upon the concept of girl-turns-into-mermaid, you would think there would be a lot of creepy and fascinating body horror episodes. It would be the primary conflict and primary secret. For far too long with Blue My Mind, the mermaid transformation is kept as an afterthought to a docu-drama approach to rebellious adolescence more akin to a Thirteen than David Cronenberg. Horror has long been parlayed as a metaphor for the strange and confusing time of puberty, having one’s body morph and change against your will, feeling like an outsider, a freak. The coming-of-age model also works as a vehicle for some unconventional urges, as demonstrated as recently as last year in the visceral French horror film Raw, about a young woman finding her sense of self awaken with cannibalistic desires. Both Raw and Blue My Mind (the title still makes me hurt on the inside) function as sexual awakenings linked to monstrous appetites, both literal and figurative, that the women don’t know how to control or if they should even attempt to. The genre dabbing is what separates both movies from their ilk. This is what makes Blue My Mind all the more frustrating because the mermaid aspects are poorly integrated until the final 20 minutes, and even then it’s sadly too late. It’s like the filmmakers decided that their one unique element wasn’t so special after all.
The majority of this movie is Mia acting out to try and fit in with her new pals. They smoke, they skip school, they shoplift; they’re your classic bad influences that a typical bourgeois family would disapprove. Mia’s parents don’t understand why she’s acting out and what has happened to their little girl. There’s some tension over whether Mia is their biological child considering what she’s undergoing. This curiosity pushes Mia to investigate her family’s history but it too is left incomplete, another dangling interesting idea unattended. A solid hour of this movie is simply Mia sneaking behind her parents back, experimenting with her new friends, and testing her boundaries. It’s effective, though there are moments that hint at something more that’s never developed, like her sexual predilections that take on an extreme variety. There’s a scene where the girls trade choking each other out for an oxygen-deprived euphoric high. If I was being generous, I’d say it was connected to Mia learning to enjoy not breathing through her lungs and setting up a transformation for gills. But I’m not that generous. It comes across as a dangerous kink that tempts Mia but then is forgotten. Much of this hour hinges on the audience caring about the relationship forming between Mia and Gianna, and I couldn’t because I think the film was too indecisive on what Gianna represented. She’s not a terribly complex character but what does she mean to Mia? Is she a genuine friend, a figure of sexual desire, a cautionary tale, a rival? Blue My Mind seems to emphasize a sexual awakening for Mia and attaches Gianna as the recipient of those confused feelings. If these two were meant to serve as the key for audience empathy, we needed more scenes with them developing as characters rather than repeating rote rebellious teen hijinks.
When Bruhlmann does focus on the mermaid transformation, the film is inherently fascinating and consequently aggravating, as you imagine what a better version of this premise could have afforded. There is some wonderful makeup prosthetics to reveal Mia’s skin peeling from her legs, leaving behind shiny black gamines that reminded me of Under the Skin. When the boys catch a glimpse of her hidden physical afflictions, they assume she has some STD and slut shame her. She takes scissors and personally slices the membranes fusing her toes together, and I had to cover my eyes it was so squirm inducing. The final transformation is a bit underwhelming until you remember that this was a student film that managed to get an international release. The technical specs are very professional, especially the sun-dappled cinematography by Gabriel Lobos. Bruhlmann captures the internal feelings of her characters very well in a visual medium, relying upon Wedler to do a lot of heavy lifting that the screenplay refuses to perform. You feel her revulsion with herself and yearning for connectivity, something universal for every teenager struggling to claim their sense of self in an indifferent world. Fortunately Wedler is an impressive young actress that might break your heart, if only her character was allowed to open up to the audience better. It’s a movie that toys with ideas, moods, and purpose.
Blue My Mind is a story about a young girl turning into a mermaid against her will and the movie decides that this is a secondary story element. The implementation of metaphor in horror is a common storytelling device to communicate the horrors of the everyday. Throw in the coming-of-age self-discovery angle, as well as a sexual awakening, and it’s tailor-made for some strange transformations that excite and terrify the protagonist. It’s just that Blue My Mind takes its metaphor a little too absentmindedly. By putting the mermaid body horror in the background rather than the driving force, the film mistakes our interest and pushes forward a group of characters not ready to handle that level of scrutiny. I feel like Blue My Mind wastes the potential of its premise and the acumen of its actors. This movie could have been better and instead it settles for the familiar even amidst the weird and fantastic. Blue My Mind isn’t as bad as its painful title but it certainly won’t blue you away.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international best-selling trilogy that gave way to three hit Swedish movies, one Hollywood remake that netted a Best Actress nomination, and millions in worldwide revenue. The problem was that its author, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004, before the publication of any of the original novels. The property was too valuable to simply collect dust and thus a new author came aboard to tell further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the pint-sized Gothic avenger. A new set of novels began being published in 2015, and after David Fincher’s 2011 version underperformed at the box-office, it seemed expected to reboot the franchise with a new big screen story that had yet to be adapted. In steps a new director, a new dragon-tattooed lady for The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Unfortunately, my fears have come true and the eventual reckoning has happened: they have made Lisbeth Salander boring.
Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is thrown into another criminal conspiracy with shadowy forces at play. A network of high-powered assassins, known as “spiders,” has stolen a dangerous technology that will allow the user control of nuclear arsenals. Lisbeth is hired to retrieve this tech, betrayed, and then on the run from Swedish authorities, professional killers, a dogged NSA operative (Laketih Stanfield), and the head of this cabal, Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049), her long lost sister Lisbeth left behind years ago.
In her first 2010 outing, Salander was presented as a complex, emotionally withdrawn figure, eminently capable but flawed, hurt, and looking to punish others from her fraught history with terrible men. Strip away all the Gothic trinkets and camouflage, her assertions of identity, and she’s still a deeply intriguing human being. However, even the latter Swedish films started veering in this more derivative direction. As I wrote presciently with the second Swedish Dragon Tattoo movie back in 2010: “We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.” With Spider’s Web, Lisbeth Salander has become a Gothic Jason Bourne spy figure, and as anyone who has seen the Bourne movies can attest, he’s the most boring character in his own movies, which is why he needs to be kept constantly on the move and hunted. He’s only interesting when he’s getting out of jams, and Lisbeth is now sadly in that realm.
Lisbeth has been reduced to her most essential, and most superficial, characteristics, which also go for the film as a whole. The Dragon Tattoo series began as a twisty investigative procedural with a litany of suspects and dark secrets worth killing over. From there, the Swedish films turned Lisbeth into an indestructible Terminator capable of getting the drop on anyone and axe-fighting oversized men. The Swedish series began more grounded as a mystery/thriller and suddenly, and regrettably, transformed into a preposterous Hollywood-style action-thriller, following the edict of bigger being better. That same mentality has carried over past Larsson’s contributions, and now Lisbeth has become an action superhero and the series has become trashy fun, high-calorie junk food, a safe excursion to a seedy underbelly. The Girl in the Spider’s Web still provides a consistent degree of entertainment, but it’s not playing at a higher level, content to hand-wave away its story for cool chases and fights. It’s the kind of movie where, to escape an encroaching fireball, Lisbeth dives into a bathtub of water. It makes for a visually interesting shot but it’s pretty cliché 90s action movie stuff. Director Fede Alvarez has a slick handle with visuals and evidenced real talent at sustaining and developing tension with 2016’s Don’t Breathe. He has obvious visual talent. There are some engaging fights, like a close-quarter struggle in a bathroom, and some nifty chase scenes, like a motorcycle chase over a frozen lake. I would have liked even more action if Spider’s Web was going to brush aside narrative and moral complexity for stylish set pieces.
The story of The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like a lukewarm repackaging of spy clichés, and the film does little to make any of it feel important or relevant. There’s a super powerful technology that everyone wants, which falls into the wrong hands, and now it’s about retrieving this device and saving the world. That’s like the plot of just about every James Bond movie. It’s a formula, but where Spider’s Web missteps are that it doesn’t add anything else to this staid foundation. There are scenes but it’s usually about this group going after this group, or this group now going after this group, and without wider relevance it becomes redundant plot placeholders, something meant to distract long enough to get our characters from Point A to Point B. With a mystery, there’s a natural momentum that builds as the case builds coherency and the investigation focuses the direction. With action thriller mode, Spider’s Web just has a bunch of guys that occasionally interact until the movie needs some of them dead. This model by itself can work but it requires concerted effort, and that just isn’t present here.
The most interesting aspect of Spider’s Web is the further examination on Salander’s troubled upbringing, this time introducing a sister that has been plotting vengeance. Salander is, first and foremost, the selling point of this franchise; she is, after all, the titular girl with that particular tattoo. She is what separates this from any other paperback thriller. The Swedish sequels opened up her past traumas with her Soviet-defected father. He was the Big Bad Man behind the scenes trying to institutionalize and neutralize her. While skirting into the above-stated dangerous territory, the Swedish sequels still knew that Lisbeth Salander’s complicated history was the real mystery the audience craved, and it set up a series of antagonists ready to be foiled for years-in-the-making payback. I don’t really know how the events of Spider’s Web gibe with the overall series. I had to look up whether the evil father in the opening was the same evil father in the other films (both are listed as Alexander Zalachenko, so I think so). But the established history has Lisbeth committed after trying to set dear old dad on fire to save her abused mother. I don’t see how any of that is likely if she escapes her father’s clutches as a pre-teen and is supposedly on the run. The secret Salander sister revelation also impacts little. She was the one left behind, whose continued abuse and degradation are strongly referenced. It doesn’t feel like Lisbeth harbors great guilt over leaving her sister behind. During their final face-to-face, Camilla actually poses a worthy question: “Why did the woman who hurts men who hurt women never come back and save her own abused sister?” Because this storyline is flagrantly underdeveloped, the evil sister angle is a cheap twist. There’s nothing to the Camilla character, so she serves as a symbol of shame, and yet the movie doesn’t seem to capitalize on this in the slightest, which is a puzzling disservice.
Foy (Netflix’s The Crown, First Man) is having a big year for herself but feels slightly miscast. She never really gets an opportunity to show off her range, which is a byproduct of the streamlined, reductionist screenplay emphasizing bare plot mechanics. She is missing the intensity or fire that we’ve seen in prior Salanders, breakout-star Noomi Rapace and the Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara. When Foy tries for glower you see the effort. She’s more grumpy than tortured, like maybe she skipped a meal. Even with the requisite piercings, tattoos, and black leather wardrobe, Foy seems a bit too clean-cut for the part. Personal admission: Foy with her sharp bangs, saucer-eyes, facial shape, and Gothic accessories, looks remarkably like an ex-girlfriend of mine from the early 2000s. That was something that kept sneaking into my mind throughout the film, which made the experience a tad stranger as if I was imagining an ex engaged in action heroics. Even excusing that personal connection, Foy ranks a distant third place for the Girls With.
The new Dragon Tattoo movie will likely also be its last. I can’t imagine fans getting too much pleasure out of a streamlined, underdeveloped spy thriller that sands away the edge and complexity of its characters for rote action movie chases. It’s not a bad movie and it does carry moments of excitement and entertainment, but it’s also become a standard Hollywood thriller, no different than a dozen other high-tech, junky hacker thrillers. The Girl in the Spider’s Web gets caught in its own formulaic web. If Lisbeth Salander has been transformed into a standard action hero, then we don’t deserve more adventures.
Nate’s Grade: C
The second go at a twenty-first century feature-length Grinch movie is a thoroughly, spectacularly bland movie. This mediocre enterprise barely stretches to feature length at 86 minutes and it lacks the charm of the original Dr. Seuss cartoon. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green recluse with his three-sizes-too-small heart set on stealing the Christmas celebration of others. That’s great casting, but why is he settling for his Doctor Strange-style American voice? The man has such a natural, rich, velvety voice. Another miscue is the fact that this Grinch isn’t really feared by the people of Whoville. He lives just outside of ton and isn’t really that mean. He’s less a villain and more just a grumpy sad guy who has to over explain everything for the audience to understand (“I thought stealing Christmas would make me feel better, but really I was running from myself…”). This movie is brightly colored and nicely animated but it’s strictly just for little kids. The lessons are pretty simplistic. The characters are mostly annoying, precocious, or mute. The humor is mostly slapstick. There is nothing to engage bigger thinkers. This Grinch movie actually made me start re-evaluating the 2000 Ron Howard version, which at least tried something and had an enjoyably hammy Jim Carrey performance with some creepy good makeup prosthetics, and I didn’t even like that movie. The new animated Grinch film is inoffensively lackluster. At best it’s a disposable 90 minutes to distract easily distractible children and give mom and dad time for a nap.
Nate’s Grade: C