Monthly Archives: April 2020
The new Netflix action movie Extraction is based on a graphic novel, co-authored by the Russo brothers, starring Thor himself Chris Hemsworth, and directed by longtime stunt choreographer Sam Hargrave. It has quite a pedigree, and after the wild success of the John Wick series, I’m genuinely excited to see what kind of action stuntmen-turned-directors can unleash. The best thing Extraction has going for it is its brutal, fluid, and immersive action sequences, including an extended sequence meant to convey a single take of relentless intensity. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing this movie has going for it. The plot is very formulaic, with Hemsworth being brought in to retrieve a high-value target and then being betrayed, having to go on the run to protect the son of an imprisoned Indian mob boss. Hemsworth’s character is also haunted from personal tragedy and reluctant to get back into the fight, yet this final stand could allow him a late attempt at redemption for a lifetime of bloodshed. What I’ve just described could be a hundred other movies, minus the particulars of the Indian mob boss. The characters never really pop, even Hemsworth. The kid he’s tasked with saving never seems to get a moment to shine, to present a personality, or even a sense of growth or toughness. He might as well be a low-grade A.I. in a video game escort mission. The relationships don’t seem to matter. When it’s pumping, the action has an immediate appeal and Hemsworth acquits himself nicely with the more complicated fight choreography and stunts. As I kept watching, something didn’t quite feel right, and then it came to me. This movie doesn’t work from a tone standpoint. The John Wick-style action, glorifying in the fun and gory nature of slick violence done smoothly, conflicts with the setting and wider story of Extraction, namely the poverty-drenched streets of Bangladesh with child assassins thrown into duty by villainous gang leaders. It feels like you dropped John Wick into the searing reality of City of God, and the two styles of violence, and their larger social implications, do not really mix without uncomfortable consequences. It doesn’t help that so many of the characters just seem blank and replaceable. If you can ignore those misgivings, Extraction can offer some enticing thrills and above-average fight choreography.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Among Them was described in its advertising as “Tarantino meets Bad Times at the El Royale,” and ignoring the fact that Bad Times is itself a colorful Tarantino-styled homage, what I was really reminded of was Waiting for Godot. For those unfamiliar with Samuel Beckett’s existential play, it follows two gentlemen who do nothing much more than waiting for a man named Godot who never shows up. They get involved in philosophical discussions, and many have intuited that Godot is a representation of God, to Beckett’s dismay, but it’s really a two-act play that involves a whole lot of waiting and the question over why. This is the extent of Among Them’s 90-minute total – a lot of waiting and a lot of questions over why bother.
Two bank robbers, Mick (Dan Liebman) and Harry (Jonathan Thomson), are hiding out in a motel room off the coast. Their bank heist has gone wrong and they’re awaiting the proper papers to escape overseas under new identities. They also discover a woman, bound and gagged, inside the trunk of their getaway car assigned to them from their bosses. Syd (Evalena Marie) could be a liability and they need to make sure she doesn’t get them caught.
The problem with the screenplay by director Kevin James Barry (Serena and the Ratts) and co-star Marie (Dark Haul) is that it has conflated being vague with the idea of being mysterious. There’s far too little going on in this story and far too little that makes much sense. Our criminal duo is following instructions to lie low at a motel. That’s it. They don’t really know who they’re working for, what those plans might include, and so they wait for some unknown source to finally give them their new passports to escape from the police. Being kept in the dark with your characters can be a benefit for storytelling because you are forced to think things through at the character’s level, which works nicely for paranoia thrillers and mysteries. However, when you don’t put in the necessary work, it just makes the story feel unfinished and pointlessly protracted.
I can clearly see the Tarantino elements that the filmmakers attach to Among Them, the bank robbers hiding after a job gone wrong, the kidnapped character becoming part of the team, the motel that might not be all that it appears to be, but these are just elements. What’s desperately missing from Among Them is the intricate plotting and superb characterization one comes to expect from a QT joint. If we’re going to be stuck with these characters in a confined setting, then we need either intriguing developments or engaging personalities that draw us in. Well, considering the story involves characters just waiting around a motel room and seeing weird ghostly visions, plot development isn’t going to be the winner. This is really where Among Them creates an artistic ceiling for itself with its bland characters who we’re stuck hanging around with. Neither Mick nor Harry are charismatic, interesting, or even that dangerous. There aren’t even that many differences between them. If you’re keeping characters cooped up, it would be smart to have some sort of interpersonal conflict that threatens to boil over and ruin things. Think about From Dusk ‘til Dawn and Tarantino’s character and his creepy fixation on an underage hostage, or the different agendas in Bad Times. Just because the characters are seemingly losing their minds doesn’t replace dynamic and necessary characterization.
This brings me to the character of Syd, whom I do not understand at all. She’s discovered in the trunk of a car that was designated for our bank robbers. You would naturally think this woman either means something important enough to be captured or presents an intriguing enigma. This is another consequence of keeping everything so overwhelmingly vague. The characters don’t seem too bothered to learn more about her and why she was placed in the trunk of their car, which just seems like a criminal lack of curiosity on their part. Even worse, Syd doesn’t seem too interested herself why she ended up in somebody’s trunk. I figured she would want to run away at the first opportunity, but she doesn’t, and instead just hangs around with the guys, eagerly volunteering to help on their “spy missions.” If her perspective was going to be off kilter, then this could have opened up the character more, making her a wildcard who could take things too far, perhaps provide a dangerous threat to the characters achieving their goal, something. The fact that a bound stranger is gifted to them and they don’t have to thwart her from escaping feels bizarrely wasted. Why even bother with this scenario if nothing is to be done with it after twenty minutes?
Among Them fills its meandering runtime with unexplained supernatural imagery and dream sequences, which don’t so much convey the unique emotional trauma of the characters as it does serve up conventional spooky imagery and pad the running time. I held on waiting to see if there would be a viable explanation for everything, and I was left waiting unfulfilled, much like the main characters. I think the filmmakers were trying to get the audience to doubt what they watched, and show the characters are descending into madness, but it also doesn’t quite work. There isn’t an escalation for them. They don’t seem more unbound as things progress. These eerie visions don’t lead them to make drastic choices, though the movie comes close. Therefore, it just feels like a supernatural presence is messing around with people in a vague and unsatisfying manner because it, too, must be bored. It feels like weird things are happening to goose up a narrative that doesn’t have enough conflict or engaging characters.
From a production standpoint, Among Them looks relatively solid for a low-budget thriller. Having a limited location works for an indie production and the director seems to use every part of his space to keep things from getting visually dull. The acting is overall decent with the standout being Marie as a frightened victim who becomes the most interesting character among the three. Another actor worthy of note is Michael Reed (Chupacabra Territory) as the creepy motel clerk who is, from the get-go, clearly hiding something nefarious about his intentions.
Among Them is a fairly pedestrian thriller that had potential to be something more but is trapped by a stunning lack of imagination and intrigue. There are questions to be had and mysteries to be uncovered, but the subsequent supernatural twists and turns amount to distractions. The screenplay is absent memorable characters with complexity, conflict, and even colorful personalities to make spending all this free time with them something other than a chore. I never really knew what was happening and the characters didn’t seem too eager to find out either. Among Them is more a listless experience than a painful one, a tale that doesn’t ever seem to get started despite some surefire story elements just sitting there. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a disappointing 90s indie crime version of Waiting for Godot, then Among Them is chief among them.
Nate’s Grade: D+
As for my Ohio indies round-up, Another Version of You (available on Amazon Prime) was recommended to me, and even though it was filmed in Tennessee I want to contort to consider it an Ohio-related project. One of the producers, Ryan Hartsock, seems to hail from Ohio. One of the supporting actresses, Brittany Belland, grew up in Cincinnati and attended Ohio State. It even features a cameo from famous Ohio State Heisman Trophy-winning running back Eddie George. For these reasons, I’m considering Another Version of You (formerly titled Other Versions of You) as Ohio-adjacent. I want to consider it Ohio-related because it’s very entertaining and well made. Another Version of You is a delightful and imaginative little gem of a movie that is proof positive how concept and the right people are how you make a standout lower-budget indie.
Diggsy Ellston (Kristopher Wente) is heartbroken. His longtime friend and secret crush, Suzette (Sara Antonio), has just gotten married to another man. Daphne (Belland) tries her best to remind her brother that there are more fish in the proverbial sea. Then at the bar a mysterious stranger (George) takes pity on him and gifts Diggsy a magic key that fits any lock and opens doors to parallel worlds. Diggsy is skeptical but curious. He uses the key and steps out into a brave new universe, and he decides to keep going until he can find a Suzette for him.
I’m a sucker for time travel and parallel universe stories because they involve so many playful possibilities and imagination and don’t need huge special effects or expansive sets. You can tell a fascinating time travel/parallel world tale with a single apartment building. It’s all dependent upon the ingenuity of the storyteller and I’ve always loved the sheer open possibility inherent (I’ve written my own time travel and parallel world screenplays). I had a lot of hope with Another Version of You simply based upon the premise, and after the first fifteen minutes, I was finding myself smitten. There were several segments in the first hour where I was urging the movie to take a new turn, to follow through on an advantageous dramatic development, and then it dived right in and I pumped my fist and celebrated. Writer/director Motke Dapp (The Many Monsters of Sadness) must have been secretly plugged into my brain, waiting for my anticipation, and then ready to reap my mental high-fives. The twists and turns kept me glued to the movie and then something began to rise inside me I haven’t experienced during my viewing of most local movies, and that was, to paraphrase the dearly missed President Obama, the audacity of hope. I felt like I had something special blooming before me on my TV. While it doesn’t quite nail the ending (more on that later), I was highly entertained throughout this swoon-worthy concoction of romance, destiny, science fiction, and dramatic left turns.
Naturally, having an unlimited access to parallel worlds invites plenty of questions about rules, so it’s understandable that the different realms we hop between aren’t all that different. It’s not like a Rick and Morty episode where in one world the Nazis won World War II (why is this always to go-to for parallel worlds/alternative timelines?) or in another world dinosaurs never died out and evolved into humanoids. It’s okay to be limited, so every time Diggsy moves from one universe to another, he inevitably runs into the same faces from his familiar life even if he’s overseas in Iceland. Given the breezy rom-com tone, I thought this was a smart move, like that no matter the world the characters are anchored to one another. I will say there was room for further comedy and exploration with the differences in universes (Will Smith not passing on The Matrix), but since it’s about core character relationships, focusing on the people and less the new worlds guarantees the best audience investment. The different worlds themselves are almost inconsequential. It’s about who the people are in these spaces and how that reflects on Diggsy.
That doesn’t mean that Another Version of You lacks a strong sense of the implications of its rules. From the get-go, there is no set number of universes, which means the chances of Diggsy returning to his own universe seem near impossible. I thought about his sister at home being distraught that her brother was lost to her. While the movie doesn’t dwell on this reality, it doesn’t remove it. There are some real unsettling consequences to this power. There are people that Diggsy runs into that get trapped in other parallel worlds, absent the ability to escape. Again, sometimes it’s played for laughs but other times it’s played for tragedy. What happens when you’re a refugee from another world and there’s already one of you occupying your spot? I wondered if Another Version of You would go into even darker territory, reminiscent of the final season of the brilliant TV series Mr. Robot, where the transplanted Diggsy accidentally, or intentionally, murders the native Diggsy so there is only one version present. I thought about him trying to pay for anything in these worlds. Would his prime universe credit card even work? Otherwise he seemed destined to run out of on-hand cash soon. This perspective isn’t ever really explored in great detail, and that’s fine, but my mind kept bouncing to intriguing implications and dangers from the premise.
One of the hardest hitting moments relates to the best part of the movie, and that’s the magnetic and talented actress Brittany Belland (The Sleeper, Clowntergeist). Early on she’s a winning and warm presence, but then her reappearance once the universe-hopping occurs complicates things. This universe Daphne has lost her brother and she’s overwhelmed to see him magically back. When he talks about leaving, she fights to keep him, breaking down and arguing the pain of losing Diggsy and then having this amazing opportunity to have him back in her life, to tell him all that she never had the chance to say to her departed brother. It’s a moment of stunningly felt acting from Belland who doesn’t go over-the-top with her performance. I was thrilled when her character stayed in the story longer and found her own version of a happy ending; the movie got better once Diggsy had an out-of-state partner. After having seen this Daphne at an emotionally distraught low point, it was very pleasing to watch her have fun, get flirty, and beam that incandescent smile. Belland can do heavy scenes. She could do light-hearted fizzy scenes. She could do it all. Belland reminded me at turns of Lake Bell or Carrie Coon; she felt like a real discovery, like I was watching someone excitingly new who had the versatility to make it big. I felt like I had found a future star. Then I saw the movie dedicated to Belland, and I was confused. I looked it up and quite sadly learned that Belland passed away in late 2018. I never knew this woman and I legit felt like I was in some degree of mourning. A pall came over me. I’m making a point of watching as many of her available performances as I can. She was so good, dear reader. I mean it.
The other actresses are also notable highlights, particularly Antonio (The Reason, Christmas at Graceland) who gets the most versatility in the cast. She’s the object of Diggsy’s desire so just about every pit stop in every universe involves some version of Suzette appearing. Antonio demonstrates real impressive range; this whole movie could be her acting reel for any future part. She gets to play the manic pixie dream girl on crack cartoon version of Suzette, a sultry and aggressive version of Suzette, a sunny and domestic version, a terminally ill and wizened version of Suzette, and the romantic drama version, the one who would top-line a movie, a slightly awkward, vulnerable but undeniably appealing version. She’s great. Another surprise is C.J. Perry (Pitch Perfect) as a cafe worker named Gwyneth who comes into Diggsy’s orbit. Perry is best known to WWE fans as “Lana,” a world I’m generally ignorant of. She has a natural charisma and presence and, in another world, I could have seen her finding her footing in a world of features than a ring.
This is also one of the best looking lower-budget indies I’ve ever watched. The cinematography by Micah Simms is chock full of vibrant color and visual arrangements that feel ready-made for postcard replication. Even the opening segment caught my attention, as we go from a bride and groom being whisked away in their car only to reveal Diggsy drinking away his disappointment as the car drives out of the frame. That is sharp and direct and impactful visual storytelling. I knew I was in good hands already. I can see why Dapp works in commercials. He has a dynamic feel for putting together pleasing visual arrangements that don’t become self-consciously arty. The compositions with foreground and background can be blessed. The interior sets are impeccably designed and dressed to provide personality and, later, contrasts. For a movie mostly told from a series of rooms, Simms and Dapp choose different locales prudently to avoid redundancy. The footage from Iceland and its unique landscapes is refreshing. It’s not like there’s a glut of overly stylized camera movements. The film’s sense of style is not a creative trap that dooms many indie productions, boxing them in. It’s twee without being overbearingly so. I don’t recall even much in the way of camera movements. Dapp knows how to frame, light, and color a scene and doesn’t need to rub it in your face. I was impressed from the opening wedding march to the last shot. I will completely be in this man’s camp for his next film project and, if there’s a crowdfunding campaign, I would gladly contribute. Dapp has a clear understanding of how to tell a story visually and how to get the best from his skilled actors.
The story keeps moving forward with such intrigue and playfulness, cleverly tapping into its potential for exploration and complication, that I was worried whether or not the ending could keep up. The last act isn’t disappointing by any means but it lacks that same heightened level of promise the first hour exuded. It’s a central reason why Another Version of You is so tantalizingly close to total greatness: the character of Diggsy just isn’t terribly interesting. Early on, our introduction is that he’s lovesick over his crush getting married. When we cut to the requisite flashback of his regret, the moment he could have opened up to her about how he really feels, I felt very little for Suzette and Diggsy being together. They didn’t feel like a couple that I would root for. They didn’t even feel like close friends in that flashback. It was a misfire for the character as far as making me board his mission. He literally leaves his friends and family to chase after a universe where he can get his ideal version of his girl. Even forgetting that, there are several universes he discovers where he and Suzette are even together romantically but there are factors Diggsy doesn’t want. In one universe, Suzette has a child, in another she’s pregnant, with the indication it’s Diggsy’s baby, and the guy skedaddles hastily out the door (“I didn’t sign up for kids.”). I thought maybe the film would relay a commentary about Diggsy’s sense of possession of a Suzette like in 2012’s Ruby Sparks, an underrated and disturbing movie about the negative lengths of trying to manufacture and own/entrap one’s idealized mate. Nope.
The compound effect of the first act makes Diggsy seem overly selfish and a bit of a douche. I was never sold on wanting to see him get this girl, and as a result I wasn’t really interested in any of his relationships. Diggsy, as a character, is very opaque, his identity caught up in chasing after his dream of a woman. He’s even told, from one of those versions of that woman, that his idea of her may not even exist. That’s a good lesson but Diggsy seems stubbornly slow to learn. Kristopher Wente (Legal Action, Hour of Lead) does fine work in the role but Diggsy is too often more a reactive vehicle for the audience’s otherworldly exploration.
Whimsical, exceedingly cute, heartfelt without being cloying, and surprisingly dark at points, Another Version of You is close to everything I could want from its clever, budget-friendly premise. I don’t want to make it seem like this movie is cheap. It’s a sunny and could measure up with any general Hollywood indie in technical accomplishments. This is an easy movie to get sucked into and it doesn’t take long to get running. It reminded me of The Adjustment Bureau (a personal fave, and an inspiration for my own time travel script too) and About Time. The storytelling here just flat-out works, more so with the supporting characters and the intricate and playful possibilities, best demonstrated with the character of Daphne and the excellent Belland. I was getting really excited as the movie kept going, following through with its fun potential. Clearly Dapp has thought through his film, but I honestly could have even used another 20-30 minutes to maximize the emotional investment in the lead character and his lovesick cause. This is one of the best indies I’ve had the pleasure of watching as I started my critical Ohio indie odyssey (even though it was filmed in Tennessee). I advise lovers of brainy rom-coms and human-scale sci-fi to check out Another Version of You. It’s a true keeper.
Nate’s Grade: B+
What better time to Netflix and chill than when the state is demanding it? I recently watched The Platform, a Spanish sci-fi flick steeped in mystery and metaphor. Get ready for what could be dubbed “a vertical Snowpiercer.”
Goreng (Ivan Massague) wakes up in what looks like an endless stone tenement building. There are two people per floor and a large hole in the middle of the room. The food arrives via a descending platform that begins as a feast. Each floor has two minutes to eat, cannot hoard any food, and will have to subsist off what those above them left behind. Goreng’s floormate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) is one month away from being released from his time. He also might be losing his mind and definitely resorted to cannibalism before. Goreng has to decide what lines he’s willing to cross in order to survive and also to protect others.
The metaphors for The Platform are very heavy-handed and obvious but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective in their blunt force. It’s a literal dystopian tower of human beings with the lower floors eating off the spoils of those residing above them. There’s only so much to go around but charity isn’t on the mind of too many of the residents. Better to feed when you get an opportunity than worry about who comes after you. Goreng asks about trying to talk to the neighbors above and below and this notion is scoffed at by his floormate. The people above will not talk to them because, simply, they are beneath them. The ones below Goreng and Trimagasi? Who cares, they’re beneath and thus inferior. Trimagasi takes a wine bottle and smashes it rather than let the men below him have it. Why perform this spiteful action? “It’s what’s been done to me,” he says without irony. I’m reminded of the reticence some have about easing student debt and other penalties; “I had to suffer, so why should these people not have to suffer the same?” The disregard seems to fluctuate depending upon how close one becomes to the prized top floor. Every month the inhabitants will randomly change floors, so someone who was closer to the top must now reconcile with being lower, and the food only goes so many floors before it’s picked clean. This perspective of being on the bottom doesn’t so much alter behavior as engenders a ravenous sense of “get what you can when able” to pervade. The people so many floors down will simply never even be granted the opportunity to eat unless those above change their consumption habits and sense of empathy. Nobody even knows how far down the floors go. 150? 250? More? Where is the proverbial bottom?
The story is kept in a vague explanation but that doesn’t stop the fun. We enter with Goreng and learn as he does what this place does to its people. He learns the rules of this new reality which is part dystopian prison, part game, part experiment. The stated utility of such a place is rather hard to fathom, so it’s best that screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero keep the action confined to simply exploring the world within the vertical structure. There are a handful of flashbacks showing the interview process to enter the facility (Trimagasi is shocked to learn his floormate volunteered to enter such a place) but they are brief and could have been excised. This is one of those sci-fi conceits like Cube where the location is the story and simply learning more about how the day-to-day operates, its rules of functioning, its punishments, and the dangers is where the real draw of the story comes from. With the monthly reallocation, the movie keeps things interesting by dramatically changing Goreng’s standing. Just as it feels like he’s understanding his surroundings, they change, and force him into a new dilemma. When he’s stuck on a far lower floor one month, will he resort to cannibalism to survive? When he’s high above, will he use his fleeting power to enforce some social justice on the floors below, ensuring that lower floors get an opportunity to dine by rationing the food? Each new placement keeps things interesting and challenging for our protagonist, which is what good sci-fi should do.
Because of its general vague nature, The Platform relies more upon the strength of its ideas, metaphors, and discovery than on its structure for answers. There really isn’t an ending here. There is an end but it’s more symbolic and implicit than definitive, which makes sense considering that the preceding 94 minutes is running off metaphor and mystery primarily. The last act becomes either a foolish or brave attempt to make a difference despite the unique conditions of the location. The characters have theories and rumors, as well as a nagging suspicion that something has gone wrong from the original design, but they don’t know like the rest of the audience whether or not change is even possible from above. The ending is pretty open-ended and left to interpretation whether or not this attempt would even be recognized. Do the people who engineered this whole experiment/prison really care? It can spark discussion with friends but it’s also a development that might leave as many viewers unsatisfied by the lack of substantial answers or anything that can be viewed as definitive. Much like Cube, the space just carries on with more bodies and that invites sequel potential as well as a feeling of inertia that could also frustrate.
It’s a very limited space to work with but director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia has style to spare. The general claustrophobic setting is played to fine effect but the bizarre touches are what makes the movie feel almost like it was ripped from the world of anime. The floating table, so affectionately adorned with fine foods and platters, is such a startling central image. The red-light late-nights conditioned me to be on edge because of the danger of the flying platform returning. The gore is sporadic but very effective at ratcheting up the suspense or horror. There’s also the subtle visual comedy of discovering as we travel from floor-to-floor the personal items each inhabitant has brought with them for their extended stay. I loved the absurd nature of some of them, like a surfboard or a child’s inflatable pool. Why would people bring these items?
I’m glad Netflix is able to bring small, strange, foreign movies like The Platform to, arguably, the biggest audience platform in the world. It’s an easy movie to plug into because there is much to unpack and learn. I was never bored throughout its brisk 94 minutes. Even as the movie’s metaphors are heavy-handed, the movie doesn’t become so in execution. It’s operating on a pure level of discovery and rejecting the status quo. There is plenty of room to score easy connections with its thematic interpretations but the movie still just works even as a collection of vignettes in a very strange setting. It’s not in the same level of ambition as Snowpiercer but I’d place it on par with the byzantine Cube series. The Platform is an enjoyable movie that may not be rich in much than its themes and mystery, but during our national time of need, 94 minutes of well-executed weird can be just enough to satisfy the soul.
Nate’s Grade: B
I like Blake Lively as an actress. I like spy thrillers. I think Reed Moreno has real talent as one of the signature directors of TV’s Handmaid Tale series. So where did The Rhythm Section go wrong, besides its clunky title (it’s a reference to different parts of the body working together like an orchestra so…. yeah)? I think it’s because the movie, based on a book by Mark Burnell, is stuck in a tonal middle ground between spy escapism and spy realism, and it doesn’t quite work. The movie is filmed with the herky-jerky docu-drama camera movements of a Paul Greengrass Bourne flick, which when done well creates a visceral sense of immersion, but here it just creates an unstable atmosphere that makes it hard to settle on what is important. The story has Lively as Stephanie, whose family died in an airplane crash that may have been a terrorist bombing. She is trained by former MI6 agent Jude Law and then sets off on a messy path of vengeance tracking down the suspected perpetrators. Stephanie’s actually really terrible as a killer and it makes for an amusing, and confusing, batch of run-ins, as Lively’s character is far more vulnerable than the famous names of spy fiction. It should make the missions and fights more exciting but The Rhythm Section is drained of most excitement. It’s so suffocating and dreary. The characters aren’t well developed or even given memorable personalities. Stephanie, once she is set off on her mission, fails to grow as a character or, really, as an assassin. It makes the entire movie feel hard to engage with emotionally or intellectually. There are some interesting moments of combat or suspense but nothing that carries over into a sustained sequence. A car chase shot entirely within Stephanie’s vehicle should be exciting but it just felt underdeveloped too. The plot is packed with needless flashbacks and obtuse to the point I had to read a Wikipedia summary after the movie was over. It’s not fun spy hi-jinks with interesting characters to draw our appeal, and it’s not really a twisty John le Carre thriller (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) that’s dense in its plotting, character ambiguities, and the realities of actual spycraft. It’s just a non-invigorating mystery with blandly developed action and suspense sequences, when you can make out what’s going on, and very minimal characterization. It’s a thoroughly mediocre bore.
Nate’s Grade: C
I wasn’t expecting to become a defender of Blumhouse’s much-reviled remake of 1970s TV staple, Fantasy Island (it currently has a 7% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but this year has been defined by surprises. I’m not going to say that this is a good movie but turning a cheesy TV drama into a horror thriller that might as well take place on the magical island from Lost, I have to admit that’s a daring approach and it almost works. Michael Pena is miscast as a villainous Mr. Roarke who invites a group of strangers to a beatific island resort to have their fantasies come true be they hedonistic (wild parties with sexy guys and gals) or vengeance (Lucy Hale getting even against a high school bully) or regret (Maggie Q saying yes to a proposal and starting a new life). At first the fantasies seem too good to be true and then the darker reality comes forward, forcing many characters on the run. I was very happy that the filmmakers, the same creative team behind the equally-reviled Truth or Dare, present the proceedings as being clearly supernatural and stick with it. I was expecting some hackneyed explanation of how it was all a show, or a simulation, or some kind of televised event for the rich to gamble upon, but the movie stays supernatural to the end as if it is the Lost island with its weird secrets. Because of that scenario, even when the rules of the island and the final scheme comes to light as to whose fantasy all of this pertains to, it’s a forgivable level of convolution. There were moments I even had fun, mostly just seeing how crazy and far away from the source material everything can get. It felt like if someone was ordered to remake The Love Boat and came up with Ghost Ship. It’s just fun how different it can go. I didn’t care for any of the characters outside of Maggie Q, who gets the best acting showcase as a woman with many regrets who is trying to ignore her misgivings. Hale seems to be playing a character ported from the Spring Breakers universe (what a dreadful thought). Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) appears as a grizzled veteran of the island. Even when things aren’t working, like black-eyed zombies or much of the comedy, I wasn’t ever bored. How crazy would things get next? How would they tie this all together? Fantasy Island is not the horrible experience critics claimed earlier this year. It’s not a great movie but it works as silly escapism, and during a time of pandemic-initiated quarantine, a little silly escapism might just be what you need for a couple of hours.
Nate’s Grade: C+
As far as Ohio indies go, Mock & Roll might have one of the smartest creative approaches. It’s a mockumentary following the mishaps of a Columbus, Ohio band trying to make it big. Director/co-writer/editor Ben Bacharach-White (Jimmie Van Zant’s American DeTour) and his cast and crew make good use of limited resources, blessed casting, but the movie could have been even more had it devoted more attention to its comedy writing and doc tricks.
We follow the band Liberty Mean, with lead singer Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), guitarist Rick (Chris Wolfe), bass player Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), and drummer Bun (Andrew Yackel). They are a parody band that sticks to only one source, parodying the songs from the rock band The Black Owls. Their mission is to put together an album, gather enough fans, and take the South by Southwest Festival by storm. Robin’s brother, Sully (William Scarborough), is documenting the band and their wacky hijinks as they play punk bars, try crowdfunding, undergo drug trials, stumble into the underground world of art dealing, and land in jail.
Mock & Roll is an amiable experience and one comparison became so fundamentally clear to me that afterwards it’s all I could envision. This movie feels exactly like a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel live-action tween series. I know that may sound like a complaint but it’s not intended as one. The comparison just became so obvious to me that I was amused throughout to see the finished film hold to this creative endeavor, whether intentional or unintentional (I’m guessing unintentional). The exuberant energy level of the performers, the comedy scene writing that has specific beginnings and ends, the episodic nature of plot, the “let’s put on a show with our friends” mentality, the wacky hijinks, the direct communication with the camera, it felt like an extended collection of episodes for iCarly or Wizards of Waverly Place or Hannah Montana. Again, I do not intend this as a criticism, but the style and delivery of storytelling, as well as the genial likability of its cast, made me draw this comparison.
The best thing this mockumentary has going for it is its spirited cast who go beyond their limited characters. The difference maker in mockumentaries is characterization. The Christopher Guest mock docs (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) don’t have revolutionary storytelling but rely upon seasoned actors to really dig in deep with their unique characters, so that no matter the situation, something will spring out of the interaction and response to conflict. The characters in Mock & Roll are scant. The one with the most outward personality is Rick, puffing his chest out with bravado and swagger. The other two male characters, Tom and Bun, are working on the same note, basically deadpan absurdity. They’ll wax philosophical or bizarre at any moment. Robin, unfortunately, seems to be the straight-man role to center the rest of the group.
While these roles limit what comedy styles are available in the different vignettes, the performers go above and beyond and make the movie enjoyable. Wolfe (Where Are You, Bobby Browning?) is a standout as Rick and his voice reminded me of T.J. Miller. He has a natural charisma but also can easily channel a grinning doofus, which gives him the widest comedy berth. I would happily watch Wolfe in other movies and think he has a bright future in comedy. I would hire him. Yackle (False Flag) appears to be the best improviser on the set, able to pull wonderfully bizarre details from thin air and deliver them with understated care. His riff about Beethoven being deaf, and also blind, and having wooden hands, and that’s what made him great got a solid laugh from me. Jarernpone (Dark Iris) has a similar acting technique except it’s unloading deep philosophy without breaking a sweat, also performed at an understated rate, where the comedy best resides. Bhanja is a welcomed presence among the boys and I wish she had been given more to do. She shows promise and an engaging personality even in limited form. There are two supporting players of note, Scarborough (The Incredible Jake Parker) as Robin’s mostly unseen documentarian brother Sully, and Ohio superstar KateLynn Newberry (Dark Iris, Widow’s Point) as Rick’s girlfriend tasked with building a crowdfunding campaign for the band. Both are enjoyable to the point I wish they had been onscreen more often. Newberry has such a great nonplussed frustration with the band’s self-deluded antics.
The episodic nature works for Mock & Roll until it simply doesn’t. At 77 minutes long pre-end credits, the movie feels far more like a collection of scenes than as a film narrative with a recognizable three-act structure. The vignettes don’t last longer than maybe eight minutes, which is another reason why they feel like anecdotal segments of a 22-minute TV episode. There is an advantage where if I’m not engaged in one scenario, and many are hit-or-miss, I know that another is coming up (after these commercial breaks). A disadvantage, however, is that nothing feels like it builds off the previous actions of the story. You could rearrange any of the first hour and would only impact the overall plot minimally (a reference to a crowdfunding campaign here and there). The episodic nature robs the movie from feeling like its plotting matters or builds to needed payoffs and running gags that make it more satisfying to watch than, say, a collection of unrelated skits.
Then in the last quarter of the film it becomes a prolonged segment that transforms into a baffling Boogie Nights homage. The gang get involved in art theft transportation (a miss), and then it happens again with a criminal art smuggler Dante (Brian Bowman, Dark Iris). This entire segment feels like the Wonderland/Rahad Jackson sequence late in Boogie Nights. Bowman is meant to be Alfred Molina in an open bathrobe, wavering between inebriated and dangerous. The plot beats follow the sequence and even some of the dialogue exchanges are similar. So the question arises, naturally, why even bother? The segment isn’t funny and doesn’t seem designed to be funny. Throwing the characters into an increasingly uncomfortable scenario that presents more and more danger could produce some great cringe-worthy moments of awkward comedy. This doesn’t happen. It just keeps going and it’s the only segment that actually builds off the events of previous segments, and I wanted it all to just go away. It’s too long, too turgid, and doesn’t have nearly enough construction in its comedy to justify the jaunt into criminality. The ending is also so flippant that it feels like it could all have been removed for the impact it has. If you’re going to break the formula established for an hour, it better be worth the excursion.
This transitions into some of Mock & Roll’s design flaws that keep it from being a stronger movie. The fact that the central band is a parody band of The Black Owls will mean next to nothing to an audience, the far majority who do not know whether The Black Owls are a real band or not. They are real but a quick check on Spotify shows they haven’t exactly crossed a listening threshold, so when the Liberty Mean band members talk about the band’s real songs, we won’t know the reference points. We don’t know the reference so we can’t appreciate the parodies, and the performances of Liberty Mean are fleeting, and many don’t even allow us to hear the parody songs themselves. If this was the given reality, Mock & Roll would have been better to just have them parody a silly fake band, or a band that everyone in the audience would be familiar with, rather than settling on a local rock band that allowed their music to be given featured placement. The idea of Liberty Mean as a parody band, and the nature of parody, also feels sadly underutilized. I was hoping the movie would go into a direction where one of the band members splits off, forms their own band, but it’s a parody band of Liberty Mean, so a warped parody of a parody.
There are many fun possibilities for comedy with a parody band (a rival band nemesis, per se) but the comic shenanigans that Liberty Mean encounters are lackluster. The comedy segments are one-idea concepts that fail to develop and surprise as they go. The band plays at a punk bar and everyone seems to make a big deal out of this like it’s a grave offense, but the audience doesn’t understand why this would be any different. We’re not graced with any unsavory “punk bar patrons,” or specifics beyond that the acoustics might not be as precise. The band agrees to take part in an experimental drug experiment and the results are boring. They get high, they see hallucinations, but it’s nothing terribly interesting or different than you would expect. I’m starting to loathe drug tripping sequences in comedy because too many assume characters acting stoned is funny enough. There is also a lack of editing used for comedy potential with Mock & Roll. Watch The Office, or any other faux doc series, and an added benefit is that edits are part of its intention, so a quick cut or an inserted interview line allows a dense layering of jokes. Or at least the opportunity. Strangely, none of the band members are ever filmed individually for their takes. There are many comic and storytelling options through mockumentary that aren’t used.
Mock & Roll is a smartly modest film that coasts on the good will of its exuberant cast. Crafting a mockumentary approach for a fictional band is a clever way to make an indie film that can stand out with limited resources. The technical attributes are solid, especially the sound, though there are occasional questions like whether what we’re seeing is meant to be doc footage or simply reality, because when Sully is the only cameraman, who else is filming when he’s in the shot? The good nature of the movie is enough to warrant the time spent with an agreeable cast that seem to be having a good deal of fun. The episodic pacing works to keep things moving; however, it also makes the events interchangeable and lacking stakes. The comedy writing is often underdeveloped and reliant upon the performers to do most of the heavy lifting. It is breezy, genial, and fun, thanks to a cast that has great chemistry. I could see further adventures for Liberty Mean but would prefer a new creative approach. Mock & Roll could have been weirder, wilder, or simply better written and make better use of its documentary format.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Bloodshot is the kind of junky sci-fi action movie you might have seen in the 90s before The Matrix, the kind of thing that an X-Files episode would have covered, probably with a better sense of storytelling. Based on a Valiant comic book, and reportedly the first step in a hopeful Valiant Cinematic Universe (oh boy), Vin Diesel stars as dead soldier given new life thanks to tiny nanites living in his blood that magically repair his body, making him nigh invincible. He gets vengeance on the man who killed his wife or so he believes, as Diesel’s memory is wiped after every successful kill and re-implanted with new memories of a new identity of his wife’s murderer. The movie plays this as a big twist even though it was central in the trailer and advertising, and despite the fact that it seems too convoluted a path for a science project in the billions, it’s pretty predictable. That’s the problem with Bloodshot is that it’s a two-hour action movie that feels like it’s going through the motions, built upon the spare parts of other better movies, and heading in one direction that’s too telegraphed. The action is over-edited and under developed, with first-time director Dave Wilson (an esteemed director of video game cut scenes and promo trailers) getting lost in the “cool stuff” of his world, little gizmos and side characters rounding out Diesel’s super-powered teammates and later opponents. You can feel that certain visual compositions are here just to look cool for a trailer. I was looking for the super-powered action sequences to be a major source of fun with this one and they left me shrugging. There’s one CGI-heavy fight scene down 50 stories of elevator shaft that has some moments to it, but as a whole Bloodshoot feels bloodless with its excitement. The appearance of Diesel being rebuilt by the wispy nanites reminded me of Apocalypse’s weird sand powers in X-Men: Apocalypse. Having its main character essentially be invulnerable takes the stakes out of his fights, which means even more thinking needs to go into the action design to maximize this effect. The final confrontation between Diesel and his tormentor (Guy Pearce, making a home for himself as this kind of character) has a clean and clever resolution I appreciated, but it was a long slog to get to something clever in construction and execution here. If you’re looking for a pretty straightforward action movie that you won’t have to burden much thought with, you could do worse than Bloodshot. This also has Eiza Gonzalez in another movie where she plays a CGI-augmented version of herself (Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen), so there’s that too. At this rate, I don’t think we’re going to be getting that Valiant Cinematic Universe if this is the inauspicious kickoff.
Nate’s Grade: C
I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.
Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.
As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.
Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.
This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.
The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.
The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.
I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.
Nate’s Grade: C