Monthly Archives: February 2020

The Invisible Man (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Lodge (2020)

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

Nate’s Grade: B+

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

When the first footage of a live-action Sonic was unleashed, it became the Internet’s new nightmare, until the Cats trailer was released. The strange, unsettling design made the classic Sega speedster just creepy to behold, and you could count his baby teeth in his human mouth. The producers did something unheard of in response to the onslaught of negative criticism — they listened. They redesigned the character to be more akin to a familiar 3D model from the games and delayed the movie several months in order to accommodate the special effects time crunch. The new and improved Sonic the Hedgehog movie benefits immensely from this redesign, though I routinely kept imagining what the original nightmare-inducing design would look like at different points in the film (a side-by-side DVD special feature, eh?). This is a kids movie very much geared toward that audience but I was mostly charmed by the inclusion of Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) into our world. He’s paired with a straight-laced small-town cop (James Marsden) and given a road trip to retrieve his portal-creating magic rings. Jim Carrey plays Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist hired by the U.S. military to find and capture the alien responsible for the mysterious power surges. Carrey’s unrestrained, intense physical performance is a nostalgic delight for 90s kids who grew up on his rubber-faced silliness, and he often made me laugh through sheer force of personality alone. However, I appreciated that the screenplay actually shows effort. There are sly, unexpected jokes that didn’t have to be there and yet the filmmakers didn’t rest on their laurels. I enjoyed the buddy dynamic between Sonic and Marsden and the more mawkish moments didn’t make me gag. It’s not anything groundbreaking or operating on higher levels of sophistication like Pixar, but it’s a generally enjoyable and brisk experience that’s colorful, fun, and accessible to Sonic fans and non-fans alike. Perhaps this will signal a new age where studios are more beholden to the demands of a noisy fanbase, and perhaps that’s not exactly the best thing moving forward for art. But it worked in this instance. The fans won.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Street Where We Live (2019)

I was fortunate enough to actually hear co-writer/director John Whitney and co-writer/star Dino Tripodis discuss their hardscrabble indie drama, The Street Where We Live. It’s an Ohio indie that was filmed over the course of several weekends from the fall of 2015 to the summer of 2016, had its festival run throughout 2017-2018, and became available for the general public to watch via Amazon Prime in 2019. I was lucky to hear both men talk about their experiences making this movie on a small budget under a constrained time frame, as well as their hopes for it, paying homage in particular to the hard-working mothers that both men credit for their upbringing.

We follow Mary (Kristina Kopf), a recently unemployed factory worker, struggling to stop her family’s descent into greater financial ruin. Her children, Jamie (Katie Stottlemire) and Thomas (Dylan Koski), are trying to hide the shame of their living conditions, though it’s getting harder. Things go from bad to worse as this family tries to regain their stability.

The film does a very good job of communicating the vulnerability and struggle of poverty as well as how susceptible a majority of people living on the fringes are. As has been said, many Americans are simply two paychecks away from disaster; in a survey, a majority of Americans would be unable to pay for a sudden expense of $400, meaning most Americans lack even that amount when it comes to personal savings. That day-to-day anxiety of simply getting by, of persevering and not prospering, is best expressed by the layers of sad, quiet resignation that hang on lead actress Kopf’s face. Hers is a performance steeped in quiet suffering (more on that later) and her fight for dignity and opportunity. This isn’t a very dialogue-driven movie and instead is more like one long sigh slowly eliminating all breath. One calamity leads to another in a succession of setbacks, and it’s clear to understand just how difficult it is to reset your life when that chasm seems more insurmountable by the day. You don’t have enough money to pay electricity leads to not enough money to pay for rent, leads to living in your car and washing in the bathrooms of gas stations, leads to having your car towed, leads to an impound that expects even more money if it cannot be immediately paid, and all the while that deficit grows and grows. The Street Where We Live is at its best when it’s opening up about the slippery slope of poverty and how it’s not some choice, not the result of trenchant laziness, but just bad timing, bad luck, and limited opportunities. In that way, the film works extremely well as an empathy project to convey the toll of poverty on the human condition and one’s hope.

Much like the mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas, the observational little details and natural give-and-take are what help give the movie its sense of authenticity. This feels like a world where Whitney and his crew are well versed and can supply exacting insights. There are a few devastating moments in the movie, one of them being how out-of-touch a person can feel in a quickly changing marketplace. Mary has held her factory job for years and is applying for, what she has been told, is a simple secretarial position in an office, something she feels she can at least keep up with even if her typing skills are mediocre. Instead, she’s pummeled with questions of technical insurance jargon, and each one further shatter the idea that a “simple secretarial” job is within reach for Mary. Her sinking realization that this job is closed to her is such a hard moment to watch and Kopf, once again, plays it tragically and beautifully. It’s a small sucker punch of a moment, and from here she’s fighting even to get underpaid dish washing gigs. There are some aspects that are stretched a bit in order to maintain the family’s tragic desperation (one would think Mary wouldn’t have to venture all the way out of the state to contend for a paying job). It’s excusable because we’re meant to feel the crushing uncertainty of a character struggling with what is the best of her limited bad options. The only aspect of The Street Where We Live that didn’t feel realistic was the seconds before the factory workforce was about to find out their jobs were all gone, because I have to think everyone was suspecting the worst and wouldn’t be so amped for noisy chit-chat prior to the news.

The acting is another component that helps compliment the movie’s valued sense of reality. The Street Where We Live and its success hinges on two fulcrums: 1) its everyday realism, and 2) Kopf. The characters feel very recognizable and the performances rely on subtlety more than histrionics. More is gained by watching the pained expressions of ordinary people than listening to a character explode in a well-polished monologue about the hardships of living in poverty. There are a few emotional outbursts but they’re saved for the end, and even these moments are crafted to better maintain that well-earned sense of cinema verité.

Much of the film’s impact is reliant upon Kopf (Constraint, Axe Giant) and the micro-expressions that cross her face. Hers is a role about suffering in silence, her weathered gaze its own shattering scream, and you study her to see how she’s coping with each new added indignity. A terrific moment is when Mary is trying to square a very personal, moral-crossing decision she made for the greater good of her family only to have a cruel man use his small amount of power to further wound. You feel how powerless this woman is and while you want her to punch the creep, there will be no release. You want the “movie moment” where she can upstage her tormentor but it won’t happen. Kopf has long been a staple of Ohio indies and there’s a very good reason why. Tripodis (Bottom Feeders) has an immediate well-worn charm that’s heartwarming. One of the best scenes in the movie is his character Ben and Mary sharing a small moment of compassion after hours of hunting for recyclables to turn in for meager money. This moment is so naturally written, with their interplay feeling relaxed, natural, and organic, that I instantly wanted more. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls, My Friend Dahmer) has begun to branch out into bigger movies and her burgeoning talent is clear to witness. She follows Kopf’s lead and works in underplayed tones to great effect. Koski gets the least to do as Thomas, like him strumming his father’s guitar is all that is needed to communicate his longing to connect to his past. There are also small roles and cameos from other central Ohio indie faces like Ralph Scott (After), Daniel Alan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Heather Caldwell (After), and Richard Napoli (After), and several others.

If there is one thing holding back the film from achieving a greater level of success and viewer engagement, it’s that the characters are defined entirely by their ongoing suffering. I call it the Lars von Trier School of Storytelling (not that it’s only associated to the Danish sadist) where you establish a character that takes the slings and arrows of their society, but this props up a protagonist as more of a symbol/metaphor/martyr than a human being. This approach can still work when given a major theme that is complex enough to take on the extra brunt of attention. However, this approach can also make the protagonist feel less active, more reactionary, and also less complex. If you were deconstructing Mary as a character, I know very little about her as a person. I know she had a job for many years. I know she lost her husband. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable asking others for help. I know she’s willing to make sacrifices for her children. Internally, I don’t know much about her, nor do I know much about her personality, interests, flaws, quirks, the things that make people more fleshed out, nuanced, and appealing. Mary certainly serves a purpose and she voices this in the film’s very last scene as Whitney unleashes his thesis statement about how our society should be better with its inherent social promises. For some, this will be a minor quibble and for others it will be, in essence, a cap for their empathy levels.

The Street Where We Live is an affecting and honest little movie about the everyday hardships many people face when their lives are suddenly in free fall. It’s a potent drama packed with small, telling details that better create a world that feels lived-in, compassionate, and authentic. The acting is mostly sharp and anchored by a standout performance from Kristina Kopf. The technical details are pretty solid overall for a movie made for less than $13,000 and under the start-stop circumstances that the filmmakers had available. The cinematography and editing can feel like there wasn’t much in the way of additional options, but the look of the movie, muted greys and rusty browns, adds to the overall dreary tone. It’s a sparse film in execution but that’s because it doesn’t need bells and whistles and fancy camera setups to make its story felt. It’s a deeply empathetic movie that could open some hearts about the struggles of others. It’s so easy to fall down and much harder to get back up without a support system. The movie might be hitting repeated points without enhanced characterization but it still hits its marks. The Street Where We Live is the kind of movie where its small budget can actually be a plus, not just in forcing creative ingenuity from the filmmakers but also in lending a blue-collar validity. It’s a story that resonates because of its universal themes and lessons in empathy, and it’s worth watching to see what a group of well-meaning artists can do when inspired to do good.

Nate’s Grade: B

Downhill (2020)/ Force Majeure (2014)

I’ve been meaning to watch 2014’s Force Majeure for some time but it was one of those movies that just fell behind and got trapped by the ever-increasing backlog of “to see” films. Then I discovered that there was to be an American remake by the Oscar-winning writing team behind The Descendants and I decided now would be a good time to go back to Force Majeure. But I purposely chose not to watch the Swedish original until after having watched the American remake, Downhill, to delay prejudicing myself. Both movies have value as cringe comedies prodding fragile masculinity, though the Swedish import runs more with the cascading consequences and the English remake plays more broadly with its big stars.

Both movies follow families on skiing vacations where the father (Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas, Will Ferrell as Pete) abandon their wives (Lisa Loven Kongdli as Ebba, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie) and children when an approaching avalanche looks to be imminently deadly. It proves to be harmless but the scare it created was very real, and the damage to this family is also very real. In their dire moment of need, as death looked increasingly possible, this family watched its patriarch run away to save himself (and not before grabbing his phone). The father denies running away, finding his own slippery slope of excuses to pretend and convince his family that everything is still the same.

Downhill takes the very specific tone of the Swedish original by writer/director Ruben Ostlund (The Square) and plays it safer and more broadly. There’s an added context of the ski lodge being a couple’s resort with the idea of horny and available alternatives just a slope away for fun. The movie is practically throwing a more traditionally “manly” and virile romantic candidate at Billie and it’s so obvious and immediate that it reminded me of the sexy yoga instructor from 2009’s Couples Retreat, another movie that involved a holiday retreat with two camps, one more family-friendly and another more hedonistic. It feels too convenient and crass to immediately present our heroine with prime cheating options and have her question her own fidelity. In Force Majeure, one of the best and most awkward moments occurs when Tomas tries to portray himself as an equal victim to his own shortcomings as a man. He lists several faults, including infidelity, that don’t phase his wife, which implies she is well aware of this man’s flaws. It’s such a pathetic moment of emotional manipulation that incredulous laughter is the only natural response, and the movie makes the viewer stay in that uncomfortable squirm. Tomas lays on the floor wailing like a child, which then triggers his children to come out and lay upon their weeping father and then admonish their mother to follow their supportive lead. It’s a hilarious moment and borne from the organic developments tied to character relationships. In Downhill, by contrast, we get stuff like the sexy ski instructor and a really horny, handsy lodge lady (Miranda Otto, in thick accent).

That’s not to say the remake doesn’t find effective ways to make the most of its American infusion. There’s a scene where Pete and Billie are complaining to the ski lodge staff because someone must account for their perceived injury. The moment doesn’t go as they hoped and the security head (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) refuses to apologize or admit any wrong. He points out all the warnings that the American couple somehow missed, and this only causes Billie to grow in her impotent agitation. It’s a moment that plays to the ugly American stereotype of self-absorption and the insistence to be heard. This scene would not have worked with the Force Majeure characters at all. Billie is a more interesting character and given more ambiguity and flaws than Ebba, who is often the perplexed voice of the audience. There are adaptation changes and new jokes that work for Downhill but more often it doesn’t explore the comic avenues open to it (hashtag jokes… really?). The best jokes are frequently holdovers.

Something I enjoyed exclusively about Force Majeure was how it widened its scope to include the contagious nature of questioning masculine assumptions. The supporting characters have more significance than in Downhill. Tomas’ friend, Mats (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), begins as an awkward lifeline trying to offer meager supportive explanations to his beleaguered friend’s cowardice (“You ran away so that you could come back and dig everyone out, right?”) and then he too is negatively affected. His much younger girlfriend begins to look at him differently and with suspicion, wondering if he too would disappoint when under a similar life-threatening scenario. She questions whether it’s simply a generational divide and an older generation (Mats) just doesn’t feel as brave and selfless. This eats away at Mats and wreaks havoc with his relationship. You too might consider how well you really know your loved ones and how you might respond as well. It’s such a wonderful what-if scenario to apply to one’s self. This contagious nature of doubt makes the story feel that much more interesting when one man’s failings can spiral outward and ensnare others. This deepened the dark comedy and provided interesting and complimentary side characters. With Downhill, we don’t really get any other characters on the same level of consideration as our main couple, Pete and Billie.

The children actually play a bigger role in Downhill as the relationship between the sons and their father is on the brink. They see him decidedly different and Pete spends time trying to regain their favor and trust and, naturally, failing. With Force Majeure, the children are kept on the sidelines and they’re more worried that mom and dad may be doomed to a divorce rather than being upset or disappointed with their father. Downhill clearly aligns the sons with their mother and has Billie call upon them to provide corroborating testimony to her account in one deliciously awkward extended moment. It’s one area where Downhill bests its source material but again that’s because it also dramatically scales down the importance of supporting adults.

Ferrell (Holmes & Watson) and Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) are such an enjoyable comedy pairing and work together smoothly for Downhill’s broader aims. The Swedish actors are far more subdued, understated, and dry, dissolving into playing mundane, regular folk. You’re not going to get that with Ferrell especially. His big screen buffoon tendencies play well for Pete’s blustery self-deluded narcissism, but he lacks the bite for the destructive self-pity that emboldened Kuhnke. Ferrell’s performance is more restrained than you might assume but he still doesn’t feel like the right fit for the character and where he needs to go. He never stops being seen as Ferrell. Louis-Dreyfus is such a pro and is able to navigate the bleaker comedy with great precision. Her shaken monologue retelling the avalanche incident and pausing on “… to die, I guess” had me rolling.

Downhill is over 30 minutes shorter and yet it feels stretched thin, circling the same comic points, which can make the film feel frustratingly smaller in scope and ambition. The endings are different and come across a similar message over never knowing how a person may respond in the middle of danger. Force Majeure concludes with a scenario that allows its wounded males to save some honor and the women to question their own responses, a paradigm shift of gender expectations. The triumphant recapturing of masculinity builds to its own satirical breaking point, ready to laugh at Tomas feeling like a ridiculous John Wane-style cowboy. In contrast, the American ending doesn’t feel as rich or as earned as its predecessor.

Downhill is an accessible and funny remake that has some smart deviations from its source material to deliver its own version, and sometimes it feels like the filmmakers want to make a much more mainstream comedy. The tonal identity issues sap the comedic and dramatic momentum of the story, which can make the overall film frustrating and unsatisfying at times while you wait for it to settle. Then its 85 minutes are over and it’s done. Force Majeure, on the other hand, is the most confident, strident, and awkward viewing, not to mention longer viewing at two hours in length. It’s actually too long and with a few segments that could be trimmed or removed entirely (drone flying, the first set of friends, getting lost in a snowy fog). There’s even a running joke where the gag is simply that the ski lifts and moving sidewalks are just super slow. The movie takes its understated, dry comic sensibility even to its relaxed sense of pacing. Both movies are funny and emphasize different aspects of the premise of the consequences of cowardice. I likely would have enjoyed Downhill less had I seen Force Majeure first but it’s still a decent American remake for something that was so calculating and exact in tone, a laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t play like a comedy. Still, co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Way Way Back) have enough skill and polished instinct that even a less sophisticated, more obvious version of Force Majeure is still entertaining enough. It might lack some of the edge of the original but Downhill is an agreeable comedy of disagreeable decisions.

Nate’s Grades:

Force Majeure: B+

Downhill: B-

The Photograph (2020)

The Photograph is a romantic drama that is unfortunately tethered to three very uninteresting lead characters. They all have potential; a journalist (Lakeith Stanfield) getting closer to a story than he anticipated, a woman (Issa Rae) learning more about her artistic, ambitious, and self-involved mother (Chante Adams) after her death. The problem is that these characters all feel trapped in boxes, confined, and the personal growth onscreen is minimal. Sure, we still get the boy-meets-girl and boy-loses-girl paces expected but there’s precious little depth given to these people. It feels like writer/director Stella Meghie (Everything Everything) should be mining more insights and revelations from this mother/daughter re-examination, but by the end we haven’t learned anything we didn’t already know in the first thirty minutes. It’s a strange experience because even as things are, on paper, moving forward, the movie feels stagnant. This is also a byproduct of the nascent chemistry between Stanfield and Rae, two genial, good-looking people that just don’t have that spark or urgency when they’re comfortably close. It’s a movie that seems to stay in the same languid gear throughout the movie, even as the couple is progressively getting closer. It’s a competently made movie with good actors but my mind kept wandering and wondering what a full movie following the mother chasing her dreams might resemble, or a full movie following Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) and his adorable family, the character who entertained me the most. The story elements are here for an engaging and potent romantic drama but the mix feels undercooked and stale.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Birds of Prey (2020)

Not really a Birds of Prey movie, not really a Suicide Squad sequel (see you in 2021), this is really more of a Harley Quinn solo spinoff that’s fun, colorful, bonkers, edgy, and a smile-inducing delight… when Margot Robbie is onscreen as Harley. Robbie is a charming, hyperactive live wire that commands your attention, and giving her the reigns of the storytelling, quite literally in some Deadpool-esque meta storytelling tweaks, is the best decision the filmmakers make. I enjoyed the frivolity, visuals, and narrative trickery, but I noticed something whenever Harley took a powder off screen. None of the other supporting characters are that interesting. I don’t know anything about Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco), the plot device that everyone is after because of the prized diamond she swallowed. She’s more attitude than person. There’s also Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who doesn’t do much and has a super power she doesn’t use until the end. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) provides the police angle and references to cop movie cliches (a hat on a hat). Huntress (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead) is almost a self-parody as the young girl growing up to be an elite assassin to avenger her murdered family and the movie treats her like an also-ran. The only other person of interest is the villain, Roman Sionis a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), because the performance is campy while also being menacing. Birds of Prey suffers absent Robbie because its additional pieces cannot carry the movie on their own. The vacuum of charisma is too noticeable. The fight choreography is impressive and with plenty of longer takes to fully appreciate the cool moves. I enjoyed how every action sequence was different from the last and director Cathy Yan makes excellent use of her environments; a police lock-up is a fantastic place for an action scene with all the evidence/props to utilize. A romp inside a fun house also keeps things fresh even though the goons never bring guns to their big fight. Birds of Prey works very hard with quirk and narrative shuffling, and it feels like a decided attempt to dazzle as well as distract, because there’s not much to this movie. It’s style and personality over substance, and that’s fine, but it does make the second half feel a bit like coming down from a sugar rush. I know there will be plenty that celebrate a group of strong women taking ownership of their own stories and fighting together against toxic men. I know there will be plenty of my friends that love this movie. For me, it was an enjoyable experience that made me realize just how much I enjoy Robbie as an actress, as this character, and when given extra room to roam with an R-rating. Birds of Prey is the kind of tasty junk food you just crave from the cinema every now and then, but without Robbie it’s decidedly less flavorful.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Assistant (2020)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman serving as an assistant to a high-profile film and TV producer, the kind of man with plenty of pull within the industry. She’s the first one into the production office and the last one out at night. Little by little, a larger picture forms of her temperamental, vindictive, and lecherous boss, especially as young women seeking to get ahead in the entertainment world as carted before him like sacrificial offerings. What will she do when the offending evidence becomes too much to ignore?

Where The Assistant lost me was in its lack or urgency with its storytelling. This is the slowest of slow burns, and it’s understandable, to a point, why this approach is the more realistic path. We’re watching the decades of inertia that make anyone standing up to harassment and abuse very difficult to find any traction or credibility. It’s much easier to just shrug it off, say “that’s just the way this awful man is,” laugh it off like some of his peers, ignore it like others, or compartmentalize, justifying your complicity as symptomatic of just how the industry works. I was waiting for the slow reveals to finally form a picture for our protagonist and push her into action, a desire to do something or say something about what she can no longer ignore or assist. The movie gets us to this point and, in its best scene, smacks her down for even seeking out this oversight. From there, the movie just becomes another repeat of what happened before, with more clues about the bad behavior of Jane’s boss, but it’s more of the same and then it just ends. I think writer/director Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet) was going for ongoing ambiguity whether or not Jane ultimately decides to leave her entry-level position or swallows her moral turpitude. However, there is a frustrating difference between an ending that is openly ambiguous and one that feels incomplete and lacking. After everything I went through, a little more definition by the end could have made the slog of work details more palatable.

This subject is bursting with pertinent urgency and social commentary and I feel like this movie is just missing so many important things to say and do in the name of misplaced indie understatement. Understatement can be fitting as an approach to real-life dilemmas but The Assistant is understated to its unfortunate detriment, traversing from subtlety into somnolence. More time is spent establishing the mundane details of Jane’s office duties than the harassment and protection afforded to her boss. I was expecting to collect little telling details, like the male assistants’ patterned ease of composing “apology e-mails” for whatever indignation the boss feels, but we’re absent a certain momentum throughout. The first thirty minutes is packed with moments like Jane making coffee, Jane tidying an office, Jane getting food, Jane answering phones, Jane microwaving a cheap dinner. We never see her at home from the moment she leaves in the opening of the film. It’s like the movie is saying she lives at the office or must if she is to get ahead in a broken system of people using people. The people passing through are superficial to us, never more than pretty faces, or important names coming and going on the peripheral. I was feeling crushed by the obsessive details of this work routine. I expected to establish a pattern, establish a baseline, and then move from there, forcing change or at least reflection. The mundane details are meant to convey the soul-crushing nature of Jane’s job, being on the bottom of an industry she’s desperate to break into, and how un-glamorous the life of the little people can be. But she’s also a gatekeeper of sorts for the line of future victims encountering her bad boss. There’s a degree of culpability there, and it’s never fully explored because of how underplayed every moment and every scene comes across, choosing mundanity over drama. I would not begrudge any viewer if they tuned out The Assistant after the first half hour of work.

There is a noticeable feeling of dread and discomfort in the movie, but without variation or escalation it feels almost like a horror movie where we’re stuck with the person on the other wall of the action just briefly overhearing things. Imagine Rosemary’s Baby but if you were one of the neighbors just wondering what was going on. There’s an important message here and the point of view of an up-and-coming young woman as the assistant to a Harvey Weisntein-esque monster and her moral quandary of how far to ignore and how much she is willing to suffer is great. That’s a terrific, dramatically urgent starting point, and yet The Assistant is too muted and padded. There’s a remarkably thin amount of drama during these 85 minutes, with the more intriguing and disturbing action kept in the realm of innuendo and suspicion. It makes the final movie feel like the real movie is on the fringes of what we’re seeing and we just need to nudge back to the drama.

There is one fantastic scene in The Assistant and it happens at the end of Act Two, and that’s when Jane finally seeks out the HR rep, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen). You sense just how much she wants to say but how much she feels the need to still be guarded, so minute by minute she tries a few more scant details, all that’s needed to limit her vulnerability and exposure. Wilcock seems like he might just take her words seriously, and then he interrupts to answer a phone call, and it’s an obnoxiously unimportant call and his behavior merges into just “one of the guys.” From there, he turns the heat on Jane, laying out her circumstantial claims and questioning what her future plans are and if this is the best course of action to see those plans through. It’s the company line sort of pressure and you feel Jane retreat within herself as soon as this potential ally becomes just another cog in a system to enable abusers. Garner (Ozark) is never better than in this scene, where the understated nature of the film, and her performance, really hits the hardest. It’s the quiet resignation and heartbreaking realization that the system is designed to protect itself. I wish the concluding twenty minutes had more of the drama that this scene points to as its direction.

The Assistant had a lot of things going for it as a queasy indie drama and it’s still well acted with searing details and a strong sense of authenticity. I feel like that authenticity, however, gets in the way of telling a more compelling and affecting story. I’m here to see the pressure, torment, and decision-making of a young woman put in an unenviable position, and what I was given was an hour of office tasks and eavesdropping. It’s got its moments but it left me wanting more.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Confined (2019)

The first thing you need to know about the Ohio indie Confined is that, according to its IMDB page, its budget was $2,500. That number changes everything about how you gauge the success level of this indie thriller, or maybe it shouldn’t. The very fact that these people made a movie and delivered it to a medium that is widely available with Amazon Prime, that itself could be considered a victory among indie filmmaking, especially if the initial investment is as low as the reported budget. That’s a victory for a filmmaker, but it’s not exactly enough for the viewer. Just because a group of people made a movie doesn’t mean it’s automatically worth the time of the viewer to watch it. There are certain technical elements that you’ll have to be very charitable about more than likely, and Confined suffers from certain deficits in lighting, editing, and aspects that a more robust budget could have afforded. If harsh shadows and an intermittent sound mix is going to be a deal-breaker for a viewer, this movie will be rejected before given a chance on its story and execution. I think that’s the best way to gauge the success of the project, namely the entertainment value that it offers, because creativity is not really budget dependent. A writer does not need a certain dollar figure to tell a compelling story, and any filmmaker can have excusable lapses in technical merits as long as I’m glued to the story. That’s why movies such as Clerks (27K) and El Mariachi (5K) and Primer (7K) and Paranormal Activity (11K) were able to make a splash and give their filmmakers careers. Creativity trumps all else, and if you have a high-concept, thrilling experiment, a strong cinematic voice, or a fearless energy that becomes infectious, much will and can be forgiven with shortcomings.

Shot around Cincinnati and released in 2019, we follow a married couple, Donnie (John French) and Sara Jeter (Caitlin Drance), who are accosted by an angry man, Noah (Chris Dettone), who accuses them of being responsible for the death of his wife from an opening car accident. Noah kidnaps Sara and sends a threatening message to her husband that he has one week to find her. He must “play by the rules” of Noah’s game or there will be dire consequences. Donnie cannot go to the police so he seeks out assistance from his brother to uncover who Noah is and capable of.

The problem with Confined is that at its core it’s really indistinguishable from any other mediocre genre thriller that doesn’t exercise your thinking muscles. Given the budget limitations, starting with a cat-and-mouse game is a smart way that can get around the inability to include larger set pieces. The trick is going to hinge upon whether or not the movie creates a realm of believability that counters the encroaching and nagging doubts from its limited means. Confined disappointingly errs by rolling with the conventions and clichés of schlock thrillers rather than rising above them. Because of this determination, it makes Confined feel like a less-polished version of a mundane thriller. I think the premise has promise but its overall execution proves too lacking to save the final film.

Confined never truly recovers from its handling of its super genius villain, Noah. At no point did I feel like this guy was really scary or threatening. Dettone (Fury: Redux) is fine as an actor but he’s not exactly imposing as a skinny, scruffy dude. Perhaps he was modeled after Heath Ledger’s Joker, a criminal mastermind who always out-thinks his opponents and laughs at their physical strength advantage being neutralized through his cunning. He says he always has a plan and he’s always one step ahead, but I never fully believed Noah because he never seems menacing. It was a mistake introducing him as a hectoring restaurant waiter needling Donnie and Sara. That’s not exactly a position that strikes fear, even after he tells off his manager who then comps the meal. He sneaks into their vehicle and chloroforms Sara first, lightly punching Donnie, who seems to lack any urgency whatsoever watching a strange man drug his wife. He then gets drugged after. That’s another mistake. Noah takes his time drugging both parties and they just let him. Throughout the movie, characters talk a big game of how devious and manipulative Noah is, even his history of getting dismissed from the FBI, but we lack compelling evidence onscreen. I mean he repeatedly goes back to this storage locker area and leaves the locker open and minimally guarded. He says he has contingencies for contingencies, but he then has people murdered in broad daylight in public and seems to not cover his tracks at all if somebody like Donnie could follow. There’s also the overly generous timetable of rescue (7 days) and the general vague nature of his “rules.” Holding people for up to a week brings about logistic questions, like bathrooms, water, etc. Now times that by three because he’s kidnapped three victims (who never plot together for insurrection). As a would-be Machiavellian villain, Noah leaves a lot to be desired and so much is on him.

Confined could have significantly benefited by re-framing its perspective, so instead of Donnie having to save his wife, it was Sara having to save her husband. That’s because midway through the movie, writer/director William Chaffin (Streets of Syndicate, Devil’s Point) reveals that Donnie had an affair. He says he regrets it, and we’re never given much information to contradict that, but it becomes a cudgel that our villain uses to berate Donnie over whether he really loves his wife after all. However, the more dynamic version would flip the scenario and place Sara, an attorney, into this unlikely position of having to save her husband. It would prove even more devious if Noah was then unloading new revelations about her husband that paint him in an unfavorable light, like an ongoing affair with another woman. Then as her investigation got closer, and as time was winding down, she would be processing whether or not she really knew who her husband was, what is forgivable, and whether or not he deserved her intervention. It’s an immediately more dramatic and personal perspective for the lead of a movie rather than Donnie’s supposed redemption. It’s the smarter route to go on a low-budget thriller needing to stake its place with a point of interest that could hook an audience to keep watching for the entire 78-minute running time. There is a four-minute scene where a man looks at photographs and arranges them. Four minutes!

The assorted supporting characters don’t seem to know what they’re doing in this movie. There is a plurality of characters that greet Donnie with a pointed gun, which further strains the credibility level. The additional hostages and their related family members are useless to the story and simply disposable bodies to kill before Sara’s time is up. Donnie’s brother is a glorified exposition device and a strangely motivated figure after a later twist. That’s another factor where Confined seems born from the ilk of direct-to-DVD thrillers, forcing twists for shocking purposes but not providing enough material for them to be really felt. There are a few relatively surprising deaths but because the characters are disposable, underwritten, or simply oblique, it becomes less shocking and more shrug-inducing because what else was going to happen to these people? The final twist feels too forced and yet also wholly predictable. For the movie to have one final memorable moment, there will be a betrayal, but it doesn’t feel earned with what transpires. The ingredients are there to set it up where it feels like an organic development, but under this version of the story, this final twist feels like a final gasp to imitate mediocre thrillers to its end.

Confined is the work of several hard-working individuals and it can be enjoyed in some capacity as a low-budget imitation of the kind of movies you’d see starring, say, C. Thomas Howell or some guy who starred in a Universal Soldier sequel who isn’t Michael Jai-White (Black Dynamite forever!). There is nothing wrong with fun genre thrillers that aim to be nothing more than fun genre thrillers, and this can be accomplished on any budget, even one as tiny as $2,500. It all depends on the storytelling and maximizing the intrigue and development to mask any limitations of budget and technical know-how. If you can’t forgive the technical issues, you’ll never accept whatever charms that Confined has to offer, but the storytelling choices limit the entertainment takeaways. The villain is too unconvincing and powerful without being clever or terribly memorable, the choice of lead perspective feels limited and with a better and more personally compelling figure right there for the choosing, the supporting characters feel unimportant, the story often resorts to telling rather than showing, and the twists are often forced and without larger impact given the underwritten characterization. Would a bigger, more professional budget have solved any of these lagging creative issues? Maybe. Maybe not. Confined is currently available for viewing on Amazon Prime and that itself is its earned victory.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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