Monthly Archives: July 2020
At its core, The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a low-budget horror movie stuck between two paths of entertainment and sadly reaching neither. It could have been a genuinely good horror movie, one where its concept begets creative ingenuity, like a Lights Out or Final Destination, where the set pieces are well developed, the characters are interesting and meaningful, and there are pertinent themes linked to character to make the horror more immediate and impactful. Or it could have gone a completely different route and declared itself a schlocky horror movie, owning a trashy flair of fun while doling out exploitation elements of sex and violence to provide the prurient thrills of genre satisfaction. Unfortunately, Lilith Ratchet isn’t good enough to be legitimately good and it’s not knowingly bad enough to be particularly entertaining. It’s just another disappointing low-budget horror movie with too little thought given to its story and characters and horror sequences.
A group of friends steal a shrunken head belonging to the notorious Lilith Ratchet, a Civil War-era woman who murdered her cheating husband with an axe and was then killed herself. She would curse anyone who would say her name and attached nursery rhyme. Alice (KateLynn Newberry) and her pals offer the famous head to popular paranormal radio host, Hunter Perry (Rob Jaeger). He broadcasts from a dance club for a special Halloween show and brings in volunteers for a game of hot potato with the shrunken head (again, this is designed for an auditory medium, which doesn’t seem wise). The evil spirit roams the Earth, striking down in order those who held her shrunken head, and Alice scrambles for a potential way out.
Here’s an example that hits both areas I cited above as it concerns that middle ground between well-developed horror and schlocky camp (mild spoilers I guess). Our first Lilith Ratchet victim, after the prologue, is abruptly run over by a car. This news does not reach his girlfriend, Lauren (Brianna Burke), until Alice delivers it in person, which seems beyond bizarre to me. Side note: cell phones do not seem to really exist in this universe. They do appear every so often, but when it comes to reaching others during times of crisis, or distributing key information, nobody picks up their phone to dial or text. They instead wait to hear face-to-face, and that consistent delay of communication breaks the tenuous reality of the movie. Writer/director Eddie Lengyel (Scarred, Mother Krampus 2) might as well have set the film during the 1980s or beforehand if modern technology matters so minimally. These characters are still talking about a popular radio show; not a viral podcast but, an alternative radio show. It doesn’t quite feel of today.
Back to my example, Lauren is informed her boyfriend has died. She retreats indoors to take a long bubble bath. She doesn’t exactly seem too broken up after her immediate response but hey we all grieve in different ways. Now, considering we’re dealing with a supernatural presence, why not take the form of the dead boyfriend? This would make the encounter more personal; the spirit could dig into Lauren’s suffering and perhaps any feelings of guilt, it would be an opportunity to open her more up as a character before her inevitable death, and it would simply be more interesting. Sadly, the film doesn’t go this route. Instead, she lounges in her bathwater and oblivious to the Big Scary Lady walking around the room. Then she’s violently pulled into the water and released, and this happens maybe four times. I don’t know about you but if I’m being yanked by a malevolent spirit in my bathtub, I’m getting out of that tub quick. Lauren leisurely tries to catch her breath. So, if we weren’t going with the more character-focused and developed death, then we should go for something memorable or truly horrifying. Instead, we get a woman being pulled under her bathwater and it happens three to four times. It’s not interesting and it becomes repetitious to the point of unintentional comedy. It’s also a bathing kill that veers away from T&A or anything too tawdry, which means it fails to register either as effective, engaging traditional horror and as schlocky, fun, campy horror. It just made me think of the obvious homage to Nightmare on Elm Street and then it didn’t offer anything more.
Even with its low budget, that didn’t consign The Curse of Lilith Ratchet to certain doom. The problems begin early when it comes to establishing its universe and its rules in a way that feels consistent and credible. The script requires plenty of sloppy exposition and a questionable structure of this information. We should know the rules of Lilith Ratchet early to play along. It isn’t until over an hour into the movie where the characters even piece things together. There are also scenes that have no need to exist or their placement is questionable. Do we need a scene where the characters chat with a local shop owner who warns them about his open “not for sale” display? If we cut that scene, then it presents the characters as more devious when they explain how they obtained the shrunken head. When we do get the Lilith Ratchet back-story, we get it twice, first when Hunter is presented with the shrunken head and then second on his paranormal radio broadcast. Why not condense this into one experience? Why not even open with the back-story, then pull back and reveal him on his radio broadcast, and then from there have the characters on his doorstep with the shrunken head, knowing from the broadcast he was a fan? That’s a cleaner structure. There is a weird plurality of scenes of people consoling Dylan (Roger Conners), but it’s always someone informing you after-the-fact about relationships. I didn’t know he was best friends with a murder victim, and now everyone on the street wants to console him like he’s an unofficial mayor of the city. It’s storytelling that’s trying to fill you in on significance after it matters. If you’re going to be late giving us information to understand the characters’ emotional states, don’t bother.
As a horror movie, there are too many moments that are expected. It feels like we’re running through the motions to include certain moments because they’re expected. The opening prologue introduces a threat and some mild gore, but the massacre of this sorority doesn’t have any larger ramifications for the entire story. We see some of the dead girls, which means that Lilith Ratchet can indeed take the form of the dead, but they don’t act too suspiciously. It’s simply a quick visual cue for the audience not to trust these onscreen women. If she can take this form, I wish she had done it more often, especially as people started getting dispatched. The opening also has what might be the funniest moment in the entire film. One of our sorority girls sees the evil spirit, runs upstairs, hides in her bathroom without locking the door, climbs into the shower as a meager form of protection, and this is even funnier because the shower is a clear glass door. I don’t know what she was expecting hiding behind a completely transparent cover in an accessible room. Are we supposed to ridicule this person? I don’t get the sense anything is done for laughs. Likewise, there’s a preponderance of jump scares in place of cleverly designed set pieces of terror. There’s nothing tailored toward Lilith Racthet’s personal history to make it her feel more than a generic haunt.
The real star of the movie is Lilith Ratchet and the actress behind the spirit, Crissy Kolarik (Mother Krampus 2). It’s rare for a horror movie to not just create a spooky creature but to even create an affecting silhouette, something easily identified and quickly felt. Lilith Ratchet is a great looking creation. She’s in a flowing Gothic gown, her clawed fingernails stretched at her sides, her Victorian era hairstyle and pale face. It’s a creepy image and Kolarik has a really strong sense of poise and presence as she patiently stalks the sets, enough that I was reminded of The Nun, another immediately creepy specter with a clearly identifiable silhouette. The backlit moments that highlight Lilith’s shape also have an unsettling impact. I wish that this evil spirit had a more interesting story to utilize this actress and setup. While the movie never calls for her to do anything terrible different, Kolarik excels at being the big bad boo and glaring menacingly.
Under its DVD release title, American Poltergeist: The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a bit misleading considering she’s not a poltergeist. Or a demon. Or much of a ghost really. She’s kind of a walking idea, a version of the Bloody Mary urban legend. This lack of clarity and personal alignment is symptomatic of the movie as a whole. It’s certainly not a bad looking movie for its reported $15,000 budget. It has professional lighting that establishes a mood and solid makeup and gore effects, and even the score can have its draw. The acting is acceptable even with characters absent goals, dimension, or general points of interest. I have seen far worse movies with far bigger budgets. What I’m getting at is that The Curse of Lilith Ratchet had effective and appealing technical merits and a capable cast that could convey dismay and confusion. It had a starting foundation that could have delivered had they been given a good and interesting story. Alas, the screenplay feels too unfocused, sloppy, overcrowded, and lacking in direction and escalation and personal stakes beyond the obvious. We’re talking about stuff like an extended sequence of hot potato with a shrunken head for a radio show. If you’re not going to make smartly designed scary sequences, then perhaps try your hand at making a campy, gory, silly, knowing movie. The tongue-in-cheek version of this movie could have been a blast. The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a middling horror movie that just comes and goes, leaving little impression other than a lingering sense that somehow it should have been better.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Dave Franco’s directorial debut showed me more promise than I’ve ever seen in big brother James Franco’s many, many directorial outings. The younger Franco also co-wrote The Rental with mumblecore/indie horror mainstay Joe Swanberg (Netflix’s Easy), and the movie is at its best when it feels like a really tense relationship drama with some creepy overtures for good measure. Two couples (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie, Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White) are renting a beautiful ocean-side cabin for the weekend. There’s a palpable tension early on as Vand’s character, a woman of Middle Eastern descent, challenges the homeowner why he chose to deny her bid over her white male co-worker. From there you quickly understand that she and Dan Steven’s character have a dangerous sexual attraction to one another and, after a drug-fueled night, circle each other hungrily and inevitably. I felt nervous simply waiting for them to cheat, and when they do, it sets the rest of the movie in motion because the evidence of their infidelity is what provides such an intriguing dimension of personal stakes. They discover a hidden camera in the shower head but it also means they are reluctant to go to the police because what if that proof is subsequently revealed? This delicious turn causes one half of our couples to conspire together and keep secrets from their significant others, and The Rental has a crafty and effective unease to it as the characters get more frantic, paranoid, and confrontational. There’s a solid hour of good material here with the relationship drama taking center stage in a creepy surveillance thriller setting. Franco also shows solid promise as a visual stylist. His ability to create an uncomfortable atmosphere of dread while maintaining pleasing, cleanly composed visuals is impressive. It reminded me at times of an Ari Aster A24 horror movie (Hereditary, Midsommar). Alas, it’s the last fifteen minutes that do The Rental in as it succumbs into being a boring slasher movie with a boring, and vague, killer. It fits with the parameters of the story being told but it’s the most boring and underwritten aspect, falling entirely on the mere iconography of slasher cinema to serve as external escalation. It’s a bit of a disappointment of an ending after such a promising and personal start. I definitely think Dave Franco shows promise as a filmmaker and a genre director who doesn’t sacrifice character for empty atmosphere, which is my most common complaint for much of atmospheric gonzo indie horror (see: Mandy, Neon Demon). At under 90 minutes, the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome and has enough juicy tension and drama to warrant at least one viewing. Hopefully, Dave Franco steps behind the camera again and hopefully he will write a better ending too.
Nate’s Grade: B
Sometimes when watching a movie I will get disappointed because I sense a path not taken that should have been, an intriguing premise that hasn’t fully been developed, and I get sad that the movie I’m watching isn’t really the best version of its potential story. Call it the Black Mirror Syndrome (oh, hot take). I felt this same assessment while watching two small indie films recently released on demand, one horror and one science fiction. Each has its own artistic merits and each I felt wasn’t the best version of itself.
The Beach House follows a twenty-something couple on a beach side retreat. They have problems in their relationship, there’s an older couple who arrive at the same house, and after awhile the film essentially becomes The Color Out of Space, an atmospheric horror movie about humans dealing with a biological unknown. Something from the sea is coming out, via mist or jellyfish or… something, and it’s affecting human psychology and physiology. The Beach House is far too vague for its own good and takes far too long getting its story moving. I started falling asleep at several points, so my attention was not exactly rapt. It ends in an expected downbeat manner but without greater explanation or even theories about what is happening, and there’s just not enough story and drama present to fill that void. The characters come across a subdivision of beach homes mysteriously absent any neighbors. It reminded me of a Stephen King story beginning, an environment where something bad has transpired and the new characters have to figure it out. As far as creepy atmosphere goes, it’s fine, and there are moments of unnerving body horror, like a protracted sequence where our heroine fishes out a jellyfish tentacle inside her wounded foot. Still, the general obtuse nature of the entire enterprise, and the underdeveloped characters we’re stuck with, made this feel like a disappointment for all but the most desperate for atmospheric horror.
Archive follows one scientist (Theo James) trying to replicate his dead wife Jules (Stacy Martin) into a physical robotic form. She died in a car accident but he was able to save her consciousness onto a server available to consumers, but it will fray over time and only delays her inevitable passing, so he’s toiling away at a remote mountainous lab to create a new host to download her into. He’s gone through two different robots, each more complicated and more representational of Jules’ full brain; the first (J1) is like a box with legs and has the capacity of a child, the second robot (J2) is more like a teenager and reminiscent of the robot from I Am Mother, and the the third one (J3), under construction, looks the most human and will contain the full brain activity and hopefully the full Jules. Archive is fine and goes just about where you would expect, with exception to a last-minute twist that doesn’t make any sense. You can pick apart why it doesn’t work but I guess they wanted something shocking. The problem is that this movie needed to be told from a different lead perspective. Rather than being told from the scientist’s point of view as he doggedly tries to save the woman he loves, Archive should have been told from the second robot’s perspective. J2 looks at what her master is doing with the third, seeing the time and attention he’s putting into her, making her more feminine, and J2 feels pangs of jealousy and loneliness. She pleads for her master to make her better, asks why she isn’t good enough, and wants to be better while he essentially strips her for parts for her replacement. I felt so much for this second robot and her sad plight with a cold, selfish, oblivious creator. If Archive had been told from J2’s perspective, it could have been something special. She is going through a wealth of emotions, desiring to be all the things her creator projects onto his latest project, and she feels like she is failing him. When Archive focuses on its robots it’s at its best, and when it goes back to its human trying to avoid losing his wife one last time, it becomes too ordinary. It does have some commendable production values and special effects for a lower budget indie. I wish the movie could have been rewritten from the start and given us the superior dramatic perspective to serve as our guide.
The Beach House: C
I strongly urge everyone out there if ever given the opportunity to see this movie. Do not confuse Chicken Run as a “kids only” affair while you yourself sneak into something “better.” This movie is easily the best movie of this lackluster summer of commercial perpetual bile, and possibly one of the better if not best films of the year. It’s no secret I have an affinity for animation and the claymation choices of directors Nick Park and Peter Lord, of Wallace and Gromit fame, give the characters real emotion. I can just look at one of the chickens in the eye and feel emotion that I couldn’t get seeing many Hollywood films. The cinematography and animation is lush, vibrant, and breathtakingly beautiful. The story is fresh, wonderfully hilarious, and even touching. The voice artists are terrific, with Miranda Richardson pulling out as my favorite for her delightfully vile Mrs. Tweedy. Treat yourself to one of the very few decent movies this summer and see the incredible fun of Chicken Run, and if you still feel conflicted it has Mel Gibson in it. And if you still feel bad you can say you got lost on your way to the restroom.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’ve been a fan of animation since I was young, and stop-motion animation has its own unique and impressive charms. While it has been smoothed out with recent high-profile Laika entries (ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings), there’s a distinct un-reality to stop-motion animation, a stutter-stop to the movements and its physical details that can place it in a beguiling middle-ground between fantasy and reality. I know thousands of hands toil many thousands of hours with every hand-drawn and CGI animated film, but seeing a literal canvas of three-dimensional physical proportions and knowing, with every second, that a person individually moved this figure bit by infinitesimal bit to provide movement, it gives me awe. It’s one of the reasons why 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my all-time favorite movies, plus its top-shelf soundtrack by Danny Elfman at the peak of his talents (I wore out my cassette tape listening to the soundtrack so often). The Aardman production team became famous from the success of their Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit shorts, but it wasn’t until 2000 that they tackled their first feature film. I saw Chicken Run in theaters three times that summer. I was so taken with the imagination, humor, storytelling, and efficiency of it, that I kept returning for more. Checking back in twenty years after that initial release, it’s still an effortlessly enjoyable comic caper.
This is an all-ages comedy that asks what if you remade The Great Escape but from the perspective of poultry. It’s a prison break movie that takes its stakes seriously but can still find room for goofy humor and a little romance. The screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick, working off the story by directors Peter Lord and Nick Park, is minus any fat. Everything in the script sets up the characters, their distinct personalities, goals, stakes, and complications, especially once our main characters of Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) and Rocky (Mel Gibson) are at cross-purposes; he only wants to think of himself and she can only think about saving everyone. He’s hiding the secret of his limitations; she sees him as the answer to their plight, and they’re both growing closer to one another as their time to escape dwindles. Every character is responsive to the action of the others, so the repercussions of the escape attempts lead to the villains escalating their plans. Instead of seeing the chickens as egg providers and meat when they can no longer produce eggs, now they are all expendable and meat is the top Tweedy Farm meal ticket. There’s a clear connection between all the plot beats that is deeply satisfying. Chicken Run is only 85 minutes long and it doesn’t waste a moment to make you smile and tell a good story.
I laughed several times, especially with the daffy Babs (“Are we going on holiday?”), and also the ingenuity of the slapstick. There’s a sequence going inside the machinations of a pie-making machine that is wonderfully developed with great obstacles leading to great slapstick. There’s one stretch where Ginger and Rocky find themselves inside a giant lit oven and they have to race out by leaping from pie to pie. Ginger is fleet and gets ahead, but Rocky tumbles into one pie after another, which is already good slapstick paired with an exciting scenario. Then it cuts to an overhead shot and you see that Rocky has somehow managed to trip and fall in every pie in the oven. It’s small comic touches like that where the Aardman team excel with their funny.
This is also a deceptively visually impressive movie. The Aardman design, the big eyes and buck teeth, seems underdeveloped to a layman but Chicken Run is a beautifully made movie. The stop-motion animation is professional and fluid, but it’s the degree of camera movement and visual enhancement that wowed me. There are long camera pans between human-sized characters and chicken-sized characters. There are visual gags that pop, especially during its thrilling finale when the chickens build their own flying contraption to escape. Mrs. Tweedy (an amazingly wicked Miranda Richardson) is hanging by a cord of lights, smashes through a billboard advertising her pies, and her face is replaced with the smiling billboard version a second before she rips it apart to reveal her frenzied homicidal expression. The use of montage in the opening to establish the many failed escape attempts by Ginger and her solitary confinement punishment is fantastic. Even just keeping the scale between the humans and dogs and chickens is an impressive feat as a physical production. The color palette can be, understandably, a bit muddy, but the imagination on display on a micro and macro level is thoroughly entertaining.
The vocal cast perform excellently. In my original review, I cited the inclusion of Gibson as a reason to encourage animation-wary moviegoers to see Chicken Run. In the ensuing twenty years, Gibson is definitely not seen in the same light thanks to his anti-Semitic and misogynist rantings. I can understand not wanting to watch this gem of a movie simply because you don’t want to listen to the man’s voice. I get it, but if you can overlook the man’s failings, his performance is lively, brash, and all the character requires. Sawalha (TV’s Absolutely Fabulous) is a plucky and expressive lead and gives a real heart to the movie. Ginger could easily escape but she’s determined to save all her peers even if they don’t appreciate her help. In 2020, Netflix announced they were producing a sequel to Chicken Run, and they also announced they are replacing Sawalha as the voice of Ginger. This deeply hurt her and the stated reason was that she sounded too old now. Sawalha recorded herself reading the same lines from twenty years ago, and she sounds identical to her 2000-circa self (listen for yourself), at least to my ears. Ginger just won’t be the same without her.
This was also one year before the Academy created the Best Animated Film Award, which would go onto 2001’s Shrek. I’m convinced if this award had been established one year earlier that Chicken Run would have been its very worthy inaugural recipient. Other animated films released in 2000 that might have contended: The Emperor’s New Groove, The Road to El Dorado, Titan A.E., Sinbad, and France’s Princes and Princesses. It seems bizarre today but there wasn’t a single wide-release CGI animated movie from Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, or Nickelodeon. This was the last-year it was predominantly hand-drawn animation, which I do miss dearly.
Looking back on my brief review in 2000, I cannot recall why I had such antipathy for the major studio releases that summer. Gladiator was a success, though Mission: Impossible 2, Gone in 60 Seconds, Shaft, Titan A.E., Me, Myself & Irene, and The Perfect Storm disappointed me. Plus, there was the cataclysmic misfire Battlefield Earth. Whatever the case, Chicken Run was a breath of fresh air for my 18-year-old self that summer season. My younger self felt more compelled to argue that animation was not merely a medium for children, a stigma I believe has been significantly chipped away over the decades, especially with the publicity of Pixar. The Academy Award also gave the field a long-overdue honor and boost to the public. Aardman has released several movies after Chicken Run, including the absolutely delightful 2012 Pirates: Band of Misfits, which I highly recommend for all ages. I love animation and filmmakers that take advantage of the overwhelming possibilities the medium affords. My A grade stands. Chicken Run is just as enjoyable today. It might not be an all-timer of animation but it’s 85 minutes wonderfully spent.
Re-View Grade: A
Dear reader, I already know what your first question is regarding the title of this low-budget, schlocky comedy, and yes, there actually was a first Killer Raccoons movie. Back in 2005, writer/director Travis Irvine and his pals made Coons! Night of the Bandits of the Night for only $5,000 and their slasher killer was a team of trash-eating, nocturnal mammals with a bad rap. It got a small DVD release from Troma Studios and would be considered a success by any modest standards of genre filmmaking. For whatever reason, Irvine decided he had more raccoon-related mayhem to indulge and got his friends back together to make a sequel 15 years later. Filmed throughout Ohio in 2018, the end result is Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark (it seems in the ensuring decade, somebody wised up about not having “coons” as a title). As with other Ohio-based indies, I do happen to know several people involved in this local production but I will be doing my best to write an objective, bias-free review of… a killer raccoons movie. That might be one of the most absurd sentences I’ve ever written in my years as a film critic.
Ty Smallwood (Yang Miller) has just gotten out of prison after the events of the first film. He’s looking to start a new life, prefers to go by Casey, and has plenty of people unable to recognize him (it’s a different actor from the first film). Casey is meeting Darlene (Evelyn Troutman), the little sister of one of the women killed at that fateful campsite 15 years ago. They’ll better get to know one another over one long train ride home for the holidays. Ranger Rick Danger (Mitch Rose, also a different actor) has other plans. He and the other surviving members of the summer camp have hijacked the train with help from raccoons wielding automatic weapons. Ranger Danger plans on holding the nation’s government hostage (the mayor of their small town is now the Secretary of Defense) with a super phallic death laser satellite operated in space by trained raccoons (why? Who cares?). Casey teams up with a steward, Double A (Ervin Ross), and they go car-to-car trying to rescue passengers, evade armed raccoons, and thwart Danger’s evil catastrophic plans.
Somebody actually went and made a schlocky beat-for-beat parody of 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and I have yet to process whether this is a commendable act of unusual comedy obsession or simply a folly with no real appeal but to the smallest of fringe audiences. The Under Siege sequel was another Die–Hard-in-a-place setup happening miraculously again (this time on a train!) with Steven Seagal as its leaden lead, so devoting the plot structure to reminding people about the existence of this movie and its many low-points seems, in some sense, like the kind of hyper-specific meta ironic comedy you’d find in an Adult Swim special. In my own comedy writing, I rekindled an old TV series from the 90s that was unceremoniously cancelled after eight episodes (The 100 Lives of Captain Black Jack Savage), leaving its 100-countdown mission unfinished and dangling in my mind until I wrote my own conclusion. Re-examining some forgotten relic of personal pop-culture, especially something built around silly and stupid, is a fine starting point for a comedy riff. However, the expectation is that more will be done than serving as a reminder of that inspiration. If you’re simply re-creating the beats of the source to completion then what exactly is the point? Nobody needs a crummier version of an already crummy movie. That’s where Killer Raccoons 2 goes awry. It’s so committed to recreating Under Siege 2, including exact character roles, names, and many dialogue repetitions, that you could have removed the killer raccoons completely. I even started watching Under Siege 2 again for this review simply to determine if the pixelated spy camera nudity used in the opening to demonstrate the satellite’s telephoto prowess was exactly the same stock footage used in the actual movie (they are separate people; you’re welcome, world). Killer Raccoons 2 is more an inexplicably fixated parody than a goofy killer animal comedy, and that is a major letdown of imagination.
Let me give you an example of the disappointing complacency of too much of the comedy. The hijackers (all sporting an eye-patch, a stylish motif I did enjoy) are trying to find Darlene among the passengers since they now know she has value with her relationship to Casey. Darlene says she’ll adopt a disguise and she literally arranges a strand of hair to lay across her face like a fake mustache. Now this is a silly, obviously transparent disguise but it shouldn’t be the end of the joke. A better extension would be since we expect it to be so flimsy that it somehow works and the hijackers cannot tell the difference. Then the hair strand could drop and the hijacker would express immediate confusion and alarm, only for Darlene to place it back in place, and the hijacker’s worry replaced yet again (“There was another woman just here.”). It’s one idea but it’s an idea, building off subverting expectations and then developing the setup to build into something more. The problem with Killer Raccoons 2 is that there aren’t any real comic set pieces, no really well-structured scenarios that can make you smile from their very inception about what will transpire. The closest is an improvised fight with whatever household kitchen items are available, at one point pitting waffle maker against waffle maker. Much of the humor is so obvious that the obvious nature is itself the joke, like the chintzy special effects, bad wigs, and copious amount of penis jokes (the deadly satellite is named the “PEN-15”). However, there’s a fine line between an obvious joke being funny and the filmmakers pointing it out. There are too many times where characters literally explain jokes or point out the absurdities.
This is a 96-minute comedy when, in all honesty, it could have even been pared down to 80 minutes. The pacing can feel slack and many confrontations can stretch on, circling the same obvious joke. Even moments that work, like the improvised fight, go on too long and without sustained energy. There are way too many plot beats from Under Siege 2 distilled here (the Seagal movie is only a couple minutes longer). There are too many characters involved in the action too. I’m shocked how much effort Irvine has gone to in order to bring characters and story points from the original into this unexpected sequel. It’s been 15 years so I can’t imagine there was much demand for fidelity to not just Killer Raccoons 1 but also Under Siege 2. The most useless character is a painfully protracted cameo by the likes of aging porn star Ron Jeremy. I understand the appeal from a marketing standpoint of having a celebrity “name,” but the movie would have been better served with Jeremy making his contractual appearance and then hastily departing. The movie’s humor dies a tragic death every strained second he is regrettably onscreen.
As a hit-or-miss comedy, there are moments that had me genuinely laughing, mostly because of the exuberance of its go-for-broke cast. There were repetitions that would occasionally make me giggle, like referring to Darlene’s “dead sister he lost his virginity to,” or the emphasis on “for real dead for real” with characters always surviving insane mishaps through two movies. There are the occasional moments were a sudden escalation in violence against the raccoons got me to laugh. When the film is being silly, it has a charm where the goofiness and cheap budget enhance the entertainment value (“While this spoon appears to be harmless, it’s actually really super-hot”). Take for instance Ranger Danger furiously typing in the air but with no keyboard present. The sight itself is good enough to earn a quick goofy smile, but if the movie were to comment upon it, then the joke would just seem ruined. It’s that character that, by far, brought me the most laughter. The character of Ranger Danger is a twangy hoot chiefly because of the comic timing and impressive gusto of debut actor Mitch Rose. He takes okay jokes and adds such professional polish that got me to laugh out loud (“A gazillion dollars?” “I just… look, I made up a number”). Several of his line deliveries are pure wonders (everything about the golden VHS tape he so reveres), and he’s the kind of capable comic actor that could be the anchor of a bigger vehicle. Somebody get this man more work in the funny industry, pronto. Yang Miller (Huckleberry) is also deserving of praise by playing his self-serious loner hero so serious that he’s oblivious to his own ineptitude.
I don’t have to over-complicate this. By its overly verbose title alone, you’ll know if you have any interest in Killer Raccoons 2: Dark Christmas in the Dark. It’s a goofy comedy that’s proudly low-budget, lowbrow, and low on ambition. It’s a sequel to a movie nobody likely saw, religiously parodying an action movie that hardly anyone remembers, and it’s filled with little raccoon puppets that could have easily been ditched for what they add to the overall comedy. I’m a little shocked there aren’t more tasteless exploitation elements present, like gratuitous nudity, over-the-top gore, and more envelope-pushing crude humor. Killers Raccoons 2 feels decidedly juvenile but not quite transgressive. It’s not going to be a great experience but the hits might outnumber the misses, especially if your sense of humor is attuned to the likes of schlocky Troma movies, Conan O’Brien, and late-night Adult Swim. It’s that combination of trash and irony that can prove blithely appealing, though I wish Irvine had put more effort into his comedy compositions. It feels weird to lament what could have been with a title like Killer Raccoons 2, but this just could have been funnier. A strange side note is that Irvine ran as the libertarian candidate for governor in Ohio in 2018. There’s a lazy joke to be had about him running the government the way he makes his movies, but I’m not going to stoop to that level. That’s for Killer Raccoons 3.
Nate’s Grade: C
Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?
The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.
Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.
What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.
The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.
The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.
Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
As Russell Crowe famously barked, “Are you not entertained?’ It was hard to argue in 2000 and it still holds true to this day. Gladiator was a big-budget throwback to the swords-and-sandals epics of old Hollywood. It was a box-office hit, made Crowe a star, and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. My own elderly grandmother loved it so much that she saw it three times in a theater that summer, which was practically unheard of in her later years (she also, inexplicably, loved the 1999 Mummy movie). It was a millennial DVD staple. I can recall everyone on my freshman dorm hall owning it and hearing it on regular rotation. As studio projects were getting bigger with more reliance on CGI, Gladiator felt like a refreshing reminder on how powerful old stories can be with some modern-day polish. Re-watching Gladiator twenty years later, it still resonates thanks to its tried-and-true formula of underdog vengeance.
We all love a good story where we follow a wronged party seek to right those wrongs, plus we all love a good underdog tale, and given the pomp and circumstance of the gladiatorial arena, it’s easy to see how this movie was engineered to be a success from the page. This isn’t a particularly new story. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus mined the same territory with an even bigger scope, both in politics and in war, and there have been many movies covering the same history around the rise of Commodus, like 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Two Gladiators. We’ve seen this kind of story before even in this setting but that doesn’t matter. The familiarity with a story isn’t a hindrance if the filmmakers take their story seriously and make an audience care about its characters. It all comes down to execution. As long as the filmmakers don’t get complacent and take that formula familiarity for granted, old stories can have the same power they had for decades because, deep down, cooked in their structure, they just work.
Gladiator gives us everything we need to know by the conclusion of its first act, introducing us to Maximus, showing his leadership and loyalty, giving us the strained father-son relationship with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the expectations of the son of his ascendancy, the regrets of the father and hope for a return to a Republic, the reluctance of Maximus to be more than a general of Rome, and finally after the murder of the old emperor, a decisive choice for Maximus that challenges his morals and responsibility. From there, screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (The Aviator), and William Nicholson (Les Miserables) put our hero and villain on parallel tracks heading for a collision. Maximus rises through the ranks of gladiators and builds a name for himself, getting called to the major leagues of bloodsport, and Commodus schemes to have his old enemy killed with increasingly dangerous trials in the Coliseum. It’s a natural progression and escalation, which makes the storytelling satisfying as it carries on. Gladiator never had a finished script when they began filming, which has become more common with big budget tentpoles with daunting release dates and rarely does this work out well. However, this is the exception (the screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar). It should be stated that the events of Gladiator pay very little to the actual history but fidelity is not necessary to telling a compelling story (the real-life Commodus rose to power after dear old dad died from plague). Use what you need, I say.
Ridley Scott was on an artistic hot streak during the start of the twenty-first century, directing three movies within one and a half years of release and earning two Oscar nominations. He wanted to veer Gladiator away from anything too cheesy of older swords-and-sandals epics, as reported. This isn’t about homoerotic wrestling with men in unitards (in Jerry Seinfeld voice: not that there’s anything wrong with that) and instead about the grit and superficial glory of Rome. The opening battle in Germania is meant to show Maximus in action but it also shows just how overpowering the Roman Empire was during this time period. They just massacre the remaining German tribe, and there’s a reason we don’t focus on battle strategy and instead on the chaos. The conclusion of the battle is a shaky camera mess of bodies and flames and dark shapes. It’s a bloody mess and not something to be glorified. Maximus is tired. His men are tired. Even Marcus Aurelius is tired of his decade-long conquering of a map, adding little inches to an already gargantuan territory. When is it all enough? When is war a self-perpetuating quagmire?
This same dismissive view over conquest and glory carries throughout. When Maximus becomes a slave, he must play the blood-thirsty appetites of the crowd to reach his goals. He disdains the theater of combat, the delaying of strikes simply to draw out the drama of two men fighting to the death. Later, these same venal interests of the mob form a protection for Maximus. He’s too popular to just be assassinated because the Roman people just love watching how he slays opponents. There’s an implicit condemnation of popular entertainment built around the suffering of others. Scott has a purpose for his depictions of violence, and you could even make the argument he is drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of the Coliseum and modern-day moviegoers screaming for violence. What are the human costs for this entertainment? It’s not explicitly stated, and some might even say this level of commentary for a movie awash in bloodshed makes any such condemnation hollow or hypocritical. Maybe. The violence feels like it has weight even when it can border on feeling like a video game stage with enemies to clear.
Crowe (The Nice Guys) was already making a name for himself as a rugged character actor in movies like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but it was Gladiator that made him a Hollywood leading man, a title that he always seems to have felt uncomfortable with. Crowe wasn’t the first choice of Scott and the filmmakers (Mel Gibson turned Maximus down saying he was too old), but it’s hard to imagine another person in the role now. Crowe has a commanding presence in the film, an immediate magnetism, that you understand why men would follow him into hell. That flinty intensity plays into the action movie strengths, but there’s also a reflective side to the man, a sense of humor that can be surprising and rewarding. There’s more to Maximus than avenging his wife and child, and Crowe brings shades of complexity to an instantly iconic role. He finds the tired soul of Maximus when he could have simply been a kickass killing machine. Between Crowe’s three Best Actor nominations in a row from 1999-2001, I think he won for the wrong performance. It’s a shame Crowe hasn’t been nominated since, which seems downright absurd. People have forgotten what an amazing actor Crowe can be, singing voice notwithstanding (I need a sequel to Master and Commander please and thank you).
This was also a breakout role for Joaquin Phoenix (Her), who has risen to become one of the most celebrated and chameleon-like actors of his generation. The character of Commodus is your classic example of an entitled child who doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He’s a sniveling villain prone to temper tantrums (“I am vexed. I am very vexed”). Much like his co-star, Phoenix finds layers to the character rather than resting on a stock villain characterization. He’s really the jealous son who envies the preference and love given to Maximus, first from his father, then from his widowed sister (Connie Nielsen), and then from the Roman people. He whines that they love Maximus in a way he will never deserve. It’s hard not to even see a Trumpian psychology to Commodus, a man not equipped for the position of power he occupies who longs for adulation he hasn’t earned. You can hate the man, but you might also feel sorry for him despite yourself. When he wants to be pompous, he can be hilarious (I adored his quick reaction shots to the theatrical combat). When he wants to be creepy, he can be terrifying. You can even see some of the broken pieces here that Phoenix would masterfully use to compose his Oscar-winning Joker performance.
The supporting cast was gifted with great old actors getting one last victory lap. Richard Harris was so stately and grandfatherly that it got him the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. It also served as a great sendoff for Oliver Reed (Oliver!) as Proximo, the selfish, trash-talking former gladiator turned gladiator trainer. Reed died months into the production and before he had wrapped his part, requiring extensive reworking from the screenwriters (Logan was on set for much of the production to cater to the immediate day-to-day story needs). Scott used a body double and parlayed visual effects to recreate Reed’s face, much like what 1994’s The Crow was forced to do after the unfortunate death of its star, Brandon Lee. I kept looking for what moments would be Reed and what moments would be the CGI-enabled Reed double, and it was harder to determine than I thought, so nice job visual effects team. Reed had a reputation of being a carousing reprobate, so having a final performance that allowed him to tap into those old impulses plus the regrets of older age was a wonderful final match.
The other big takeaway upon my twenty-year re-watch was how recognizable and stirring Hans Zimmer’s famous score was, which lost the Oscar that year to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that seems insane to me. Zimmer has been in a class all his own since the 90s with classic, instantly hum-able scores for True Romance, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from his theme for Gladiator. The score greatly adds to the excitement and majesty of the movie and can prove transporting by itself.
A truly bizarre post-script is the story of how the studio tried to develop a sequel. Gladiator was hugely successful but any sequel presented problems. Given the death of its star, following another character makes the most sense, and yet that’s not the direction the screenplay took. Eventually, the sequel to Gladiator was going to follow the ghost of Maximus as it travels through time including to modern-day. Just take a moment and dream of what could have been. Alas, we’ll likely never get time-traveling ghost Maximus now and we simply don’t deserve it as a society.
Reviewing my original film critique from 2000, I feel that my 18-year-old self was more entranced with making snappy, pithy blurbs than going into further detail on my analysis. My early reviews were far more declarative, saying something was good or bad and giving some detail but not dwelling on going deeper into the examination. This line, “The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp,” makes me cringe a little because it’s just trying too hard to be casually clever. I do enjoy the Mena Suvari rose petal joke. Still, I celebrated that a studio movie could emphasize its story first and foremost and my observations are still valid. I’m all but certain the only reason I knew who Steve Reeves was back then was because of his many appearances via Mystery Science Theater 3000 covering his cheesy swords-and-sandals films of old that Ridley Scott was so eager to avoid recreating (“Do you like films about gladiators?”)
Because the movie does so much so well, with some exceptional, it’s hard for me to rate Gladiator any lower than my initial grade of an A-, so that’s where I’m keeping it twenty years later. I think the national conversation has cooled on Gladiator, forgotten it because it wasn’t quite as audacious as other examples of early 2000s films, but it sets out to tell a familiar story on a big canvas and deserves its plaudits for somehow pulling it all off with style and gravity. It would be flippant to say Gladiator still slays the competition but it’s still mighty entertaining.
Re-View Grade: A-
I am a sucker for a clever time travel tale, or parallel universes, a sci-fi story where the creative ingenuity is front and center, and Palm Springs is a delightful new rom-com bursting with imagination. By this rate, most audiences should be familiar with the time loop formula, from comedy classic Groundhog Day to Source Code to Edge of Tomorrow to Netflix’s audacious series, Russian Doll. It’s a creative conceit that rests on building patterns and subverting expectations, allowing a writer an unparalleled opportunity to retell a story, pulling at the edges and getting to answer an assembly of “But what if?” questions. It builds out its world and makes it feel richer and more intricate, all the little stories and characters that might have been missed had there only been a single avenue. It requires a creative storyteller with a big imagination for details, but when done correctly, the time loop movie can be a wealth of satisfying payoffs and intriguing detours. Palm Springs deserves to be added to that list of hallowed time loop movies.
It’s the day of the wedding for Sarah’s (Cristin Milioti) sister. There’s one wedding guest that seems to stand out. Nyles (Andy Samberg) seems prescient on the dance floor, has a prepared speech that earns tears, and strolls through the reception like he owns it. Sarah becomes smitten with him and, against her better judgment, follows him into a mysterious glowing cave. She wakes up in her bed and relives the wedding day again, learning she too is now trapped in that 24-hour loop with Nyles. He laments that she followed him, having once encouraged another person to join him in the world of no tomorrows (a rueful Roy, played by J.K. Simmons). But with a partner, the many days have a new relevance, and Nyles and Sarah depend on each other, but is there a chance that they can escape or are they doomed to perform the Electric Slide forever?
Right away, you can tell that writer Andy Siara (TV’s Lodge 49) has given his story tremendous thought, and the fun of it is watching our main characters go through the process of discovery while learning more about each. The rules of the universe are straightforward; whether death or sleep, they will wake up back that fateful wedding morning. Nyles has felt trapped for so long and the prospect of another companion going through his same purgatory fills him with guilt, but he cannot help feeling a new purpose when he finds a partner for this weird world. Initially she’s looking for an escape, but then she opens up to the possibility to a life permanently on pause, without consequences, and how freeing this can be. Then the appeal dampens as we come to understand why this day is a personally painful one for Sarah and why she would be desperate to live another day, any other day. When she drops out for a solid stretch in the second half, you miss her just as much as Nyles and better realize what a great team they made. Palm Springs has plenty of fun with the possibilities (Nyles requests a quick death over a long drive to “beat the traffic”) but it doesn’t lose sight over why we should care about these people. It doesn’t really matter how the time loop began or whatever theory will end the loop. It’s the central relationship that will ultimately provide the emotional anchor, and it’s because of that attention that by the conclusion of Palm Springs I felt uplifted, buoyant, and happy (a mid-credits scene thankfully answers the one lose thread, providing an even more welcomed conclusion).
Make no mistake, this is a funny movie and I laughed often. Samberg (TV’s Brooklyn 99) and Milioti (Black Mirror) are terrific together and genuinely seem to enjoy one another. They have a combustible spark to them that reminded me of older screwball comedies. Having a willing partner allows Nyles to cater to different impulses but also pushes him to re-examine his perspective when he has someone new who sees the excitement in their unique position. However, except for Roy and his long drive from Irvine, they are hopelessly alone, unable to move forward, and the question arises can there be anything of significance without consequences? The screenplay has a natural dark streak with its humor, so even when things get heavy with existential quandaries, it doesn’t stop the movie from being smart and enjoyable. There are so many wonderful little payoffs, little running gags, and larger payoffs to be had with the time loop formula. It also hooks an audience by watching a character fail, and fail, and fail, only to succeed. Palm Springs is a romantic comedy that can be funny, romantic, and make me care.
Debut director Max Barbakow keeps the pacing swift and has fun playing with bold primary colors across the desert setting. The tone of the movie is delicate as it can go into silly revelry, like a surprise coordinated dance routine and a wedding outburst involving a bomb, into yearning romance, into heartfelt pathos, and then even the occasional stomach punch. For as rightfully beloved as Groundhog Day is, there’s nothing that comes close to feeling like an emotional gut punch. With Palm Springs, the time loop is given its sci-fi examination, the comedy is given is full exploration, but it’s the characters that matter most, and Barbakow prioritizes the right feelings at the right times. By the end, you feel sweetly fulfilled by these 90 charming minutes.
At first, I wondered why the Roy character was included except as a cautionary tale why Nyles would not want to rope someone else into his purgatory. But then as we visited with the older man, I realized, as he does, that he’s meant to symbolize the change in perspective (mild spoilers to follow). The family that he couldn’t stand before his loop-life has now become his personal oasis. He’s grown in appreciation and love of his family bonds. He is the example for Nyles about how one can personally grow and change when given dedication and enough time to see it through. It’s a nice moment, and while Simmons (Whiplash) is always wildly entertaining when he’s bulldozing over others, giving Roy a poignant sendoff made me feel like he was a much more integral character and his earned wisdom was its own special reward.
Palm Springs is a great detox of movie, with enough sunny comedy and winning romance to make you smile and enough tortured existential drama to provide substance. Everyone involved, from the writer to the director to the cast, is having a blast and it’s fun to join in the good times. When it comes to time loop cinema, Palm Springs is a respite of entertainment and smartly developed and richly realized execution. Find it on Hulu and kick back.
Nate’s Grade: A-
What do you do with an action movie where the action is actually the least interesting part? The new Netflix film, The Old Guard, is based on a comic book series by Greg Rucka (Whiteout) about a mercenary squad staffed with immortals through the ages. Lead by Charlie Theron, whose character Andy traces back to at least the Medieval period, leads the team and sees promise in their newest recruit, Nile (Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), a U.S. soldier who is shocked to discover she can come back to life. It’s through this new recruit that we get an introduction to the hidden world of immortals and their hidden history, and it’s these flashbacks that I found the most entertaining aspect of the entire two-hour movie. Watching Theron swing a Viking battle axe is a lot more fun than watching her stalk corridors with a gun. There’s also some great little moments that show an attention to developing the characters and their psychology. Andy has a centuries-old love that was trapped in a suit of armor and thrown into the sea. Besides the fact that drowning is horrifying, imagine dying, then reviving, and then drowning again and again, every few minutes, for an eternity. Wow that is a new level of horrifying. Each of the characters has an interesting history and some degree of dimension, and it’s these soul-searching conversations that I enjoyed the most as they discuss the costs of living forever. However, it’s not quite forever, because immortal heroes have an obvious problem about holding stakes, so at some point the immortals will lose their healing ability, though they don’t know when. It’s something, but it feels more arbitrary, and the super smarmy pharma CEO villain (Harry Melling) is a non-starter as a threat. The action sequences almost feel like a chore, like the filmmakers are checking boxes instead of using them to advance the plot in meaningful and exciting ways. The action isn’t bad but just mundane, lacking memorable set pieces or engaging complications. Even their use of taking punishment is under-utilized in the design. Simply put, a movie with this kind of premise and with Theron as your lead should be more exciting. I loved Mad Max: Fury Road. I loved watching Theron lay waste to goons and gangsters in 2017’s Atomic Blonde, a movie built around her physical capabilities and smartly constructed action set pieces. However, the action we get with The Old Guard lacks the same transformative ability and fight choreography. It’s just thoroughly fine, at best, and I kept wondering if they were saving themselves for a big finish. Sorry to disappoint, it’s just more office hallways with limited gunplay. The energy level is lacking and the music choice throughout the film affects this as well, with the same kind of downer tracks playing again and again. I would rather have spent these two hours listening to the immortal stories around a campfire.
Nate’s Grade: C
It starts with an accusation from a child during a playdate. Natasha, the four-year-old daughter of Emily (Matilda Ridgway) and Danny (Mark Leonard Winter), has a very serious accusation against the older nine-year-old son of Bek (Geraldine Hakewill) and Joel (Tom Wren). They’re neighbors, friends, and both sides are certain they can work things out like agreeable adults. Danny and Emily feel only right to be upfront about the accusation and ask to send the son to counseling. Joel and Bek are wary of this getting into the news (Joel is a local politician) and want the allegation withdrawn. Natasha says it happened. The boys say it did not. Over the course of one very long day, writer/director Michael Betham will push both couples to the brink.
Disclosure (not to be confused with another 2020 movie by the exact same name) plays out for 80 minutes like a play, locking us in one location with four characters growing increasingly hostile to one another. It’s an uncomfortable movie because it traps you in that squirming discomfort of hard conversations and high-pressure tactics to relent or capitulate on ethics. It’s important that we never really know the full truth of what actually happened between the children. We have what four-year-old Natasha has said happened, we have the denials from the older boys, who are older but still children themselves, and we have two sets of parents trying to make sense of some pretty startling behavior. Bek is convinced her own children could never commit something so heinous, and therefore Natasha must be confused or lying. She argues the children were too young to understand what her account alleges. Emily is convinced because of her daughter’s youth that she must be telling the truth, because why else would she concoct this harmful account? Each gets dug in from their perspective and only becomes more hardline. Bek reveals a startling secret of her own, being a victim of sexual grooming and manipulation in her youth, and this confounds Emily even more, asking why Bek doesn’t then believe the word of the victim here? These discussions begin in a civil manner that begins at surface-level neighborly pleasantries, but once the central conflict emerges and the opposing resolutions are debated, you start to wonder whether you are watching people at their extremes or whether you are watching the characters as they really are at heart.
This is a patiently paced movie with every scene feeling like its own mini-movie or individual play, often a two-hander, and I was rapt with attention each time to see how the tension escalated. The couples think they can resolve matters, that they can convince the other side to the merits of their perspective and they can be persuaded to come over to their thinking. Naturally, this doesn’t happen. Given the seriousness of the alleged act, it brings out a ferocious defensive side, contemplating how far each member of each couple is willing to go to protect their children. It’s not like they get into a knife fight or anything that breaks the tonal reality of the scenario, but there is a clear moment where we have a divide between heroes and villains. That designation is a little flippant as nobody is portrayed in a strictly villainous manner; however, there are obvious moral missteps late in the movie that rely upon power plays and leverage. Bek and Joel have so much more immediate power between the couples and they’re not afraid to inflict it. They come over unannounced, catching Emily and Danny relaxing naked in their pool, vulnerable, embarrassed, and already discombobulated. Danny is eager to smooth things over and find a middle-ground because he loves his wife, and daughter naturally, but also because he doesn’t want to lose a prime career opportunity of working on a book with Joel. Eventually, the wealthier couple will use their wealth and influence to maximum pressure, even if they lament how much more they have to lose if the details of the allegation became public. For them, they have more at stake and Emily and Danny should be more reasonable and accommodating to their requests.
Eventually, there is a turning point where Disclosure goes from uncomfortably ambiguous to picking a side. A character clearly goes into the wrong, and at first you believe this transgression is to defend their child, but as it continues you begin to wonder whether or not it’s simply to “win” the argument and push aside a larger introspection over what this accusation personally means for this family. It made me loathe the character although it makes them more interesting and complicated. Ultimately, you will never know what happened with the children and the ending is somewhat unsatisfying because we end in a stalemate. I was genuinely hoping the movie would keep going for another 15-20 minutes to advance the plot and tensions further, but I understand the principle of Betham leaving on a point of disagreement and ruin and leaving the characters wanting. There are words and actions that will be highly unlikely to be taken back. They must deal with it all.
Thankfully, the performances are universally strong to match the intensity of the story. It’s the women that make the biggest impact. Hakewill (The Pretend One) begins with the impression of Bek being an entitled rich wife who is used to getting what she wants, and over the course of those fractious 80 minutes, she proves how much this is merely an act. In fact, her own troubled marriage and past are in conflict with this veneer. Hakewill has several moments of barely-veiled rage that can be chilling but also heartbreaking. Ridgway (Book Week) is the face that many viewers will adopt as their own, meaning her perspective of treating her daughter’s accusation as credible and demanding response. She feels betrayed by her supposed friends, ambushed and wounded, and that she needs to remind her own husband to support their side of the argument. Ridgway is terrific as she tries to process her righteousness and disappointment over how everything spins out of control. The husbands are able in supporting positions, especially Wren (Winners & Losers) who uses a chummy sense of empathy as a shield he’ll drop at a moment’s notice. Winter (Escape from Pretoria) has the least to do simply of the players because his character attempts to be the most active peacemaker in the group.
Disclosure could have serviced as a stage play and the adaption wouldn’t have been too challenging but I’m glad Betham made this for the medium of film. I’m glad I got to see the subtle expressions of great actors trying to keep their cool, trying to stomach their resentment, and trying to force their opposition to retreat. It’s a pugilistic match where each side is convinced that they’re in the right or, in the wake of contrary evidence, that they have enough worth fighting for to be declared the winners. Characters keep saying they just want to think “about the children” and what’s best for them, but nobody seems to be on the same page about what that means. This isn’t an easy film to watch and given the thin line of sexual violence versus sexual exploration, as well as the question of how old a child can recognize their actions, it made me quite uncomfortable throughout, but I was always intrigued with where it would go next. Disclosure is a small Australian film that is available for streaming rentals and while it’s not going to be the most fun 80-some minutes of your day, it will definitely make you think.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As an Ohio-based film critic seeking out Ohio-based indies to provide professional reviews for, I had to be asked whether I knew Nicholas Bushman, and the name was completely foreign to me. Bushman was born in Columbus, dropped out of school at 16 to make movies, and has four features and counting to his name. His IMDB bio even declares, “Bushman has announced himself as one of the most promising voices outside of the Hollywood establishment.” Take that, anybody making movies in New York City. I kid but I was excited to discover a new Ohio filmmaker who has found a level of success on his own terms. I watched his 2015 thriller Union Furnace because it was filmed in southern Ohio, and parts of Columbus, and also because my girlfriend’s mother knew some people linked to the movie and had a DVD copy available. It’s a low-budget, scuzzy little thriller that forces the viewer to ask how far they would go for a buck.
Cody (Mike Dwyer, co-writer with Bushman) is a car thief whose life is spiraling out of control. He comes across a mysterious stranger (Seth Hammond as “Lion Mask”) with a tempting proposition that could solve his money woes. Cody agrees to enter into an underground series of betting games. He’s blindfolded, taken to a woodsy location, and finds himself competing with seven other strangers (this includes Keith Freaking David). They’re trapped, staring down a crowd of creepy mask-wearing gamblers, and the implied threat only one will survive.
There are three clear paths to do a movie like Union Furnace: 1) deliver characters worth rooting for through these trials and tribulations or at least characters with secrets who might not be as they seem, 2) deliver really fiendish and degrading games and tests that a viewer can think alongside and imagine what they would do if given a terrible choice of terrible options, and 3) slowly unravel a mystery of who is responsible for the games and what their motivations are. It’s even further disappointing that Union Furnace doesn’t really do any of these. Let’s go path-by-path and analyze where the film’s storytelling shortcomings hamper its development.
It’s really hard to find any interesting character to emotionally engage with here. Perhaps they’re meant to be kept at a surface-level to adopt the perspective of our lead, Cody, as he too is trying to figure out who these people/competitors are over the course of one hellish night. If that’s the case, which I think is cop-out reasoning, then we need more careful attention given to Cody as our protagonist. He’s the main character of the film and the only person we follow before the fateful games, and it feels like he has material that could be utilized to make him a better formed character. He’s in debt, he’s stealing cars from church parking lots, he’s been in trouble before, and he might have a drug addiction. That’s a fine beginning for a desperate character, but what does it add to the overall narrative once the games actually begin? Sadly, too little. I was waiting for the games to have an ironic personal connection to the struggles of Cody, like maybe something relating to renewing an addiction that would make him question his limits. I suppose you could be overly generous and say Cody wanting the money for himself and then thinking of others is a character arc, but that’s too broad and unearned because of the lackluster supporting characters. Too many of these characters get whisked away too quickly to make much of an overall impression. Not having any character to really root for, or emotionally connect with, is a miscalculation considering the other miscalculations in narrative construction.
We’ve seen low-budget thrillers and horror films with similar premises, like Would You Rather and Cheap Thrills and even Saw, that present the audience with a garish game to play along. It’s part of the appeal of these kinds of movies, envisioning yourself onscreen and what you’d do. Take the simple games of Would You Rather that involve harming yourself or harming another person, taking an awful punishment as-is or the potential mystery option that could be worse. Those kinds of scenarios allow for characters to open up for an audience, show us who is selfish, who is squeamish, what their personal morals and ethics can be when tested. The games need to be conversation-starters above all else, and that’s where Union Furnace misses. I looked at the running time and an entire HOUR passes before any of the seven games crosses into being something truly intriguing or stomach-churning. For the majority of the running time, the games are obtuse versions of what feel like childhood schoolyard games. The first game is literally playing a board game. There’s also a game of who cannot speak and even musical chairs. It’s not like these simple games have been given a sharper edge, like the chairs in musical chairs each have a knife propping out from the seat, so lunging and fighting for that coveted seat could turn very precarious (actually, maybe I will write that musical chairs horror film after all). There’s a level of obfuscation that also harms the sinister impact of the games. Some of them are unclear exactly what the contestants should even be aiming for. A late one seems to involve forced sexual contact, and it’s played in a restrained manner out of taste, but by leaving it so unclear it actually minimalizes the impact of its degradation. These games are fairly lame.
And lastly we have the revelations pertaining to our mask-wearing organizers and their betters, and I hope you’re also ready to be disappointed. The ringleader in the lion mask lacks a strong personality or menace to be truly memorable or to keep our attention as a nefarious emcee. Besides Cody, we spend the most time with Lion Mask but do we gain anything? The dialogue is obtuse and later conversations between Cody and Lion Mask feel like they’re holding two separate conversations, talking past one another than learning from the other. Take lines like, “You wandered wide the primrose path and found friends in Night Alley and Circus Surprise City” and, “You know, people are critical because they want to get something off their chest, because they want to put something in their heart.” Huh? There’s not exactly anything that forms into a specific point of view for this character that helps to drive his actions. He’s more or less just a performer revving up his crowd of gamblers. I was hoping we might get more of a history behind the organization and its rumors of traveling from economically distressed small-town to the next small-town, like a deranged carnival sideshow. There isn’t enough here to justify being this vague. The sense of discovering as it pertains to identity and mission are unimportant. I suppose there can be power in the idea of your neighbors possibly being behind dime store Halloween masks, ready and waiting to bet on your life if given the opportunity, but the dramatic potential is much higher if you actually do something with that rather than keep the organization vague.
Being a low-budget thriller, Union Furnace does have technical merits worth bragging about. It’s a professional-looking movie and has some of the best sound I’ve heard from an indie production, which is usually a cumbersome handicap to many smaller movies. The filmmakers use their limitations to their advantage in artistic ways. I was expecting a limited location thriller but the grimy basement-esque dwelling adds a really effective discomfort for everything. The cinematography by Roy Rossovich (Evil Takes Root) makes smart use of lighting to make everything feel even more seemly, so exposed lights, high contrasts, and neon colors bathe the actors, making them feel like they’re in a 1990s music video (Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” came to mind) or a snuff film of the same wallpapered era. This is smart artistic collaboration and taking a potential negative, a lower budget, and finding creative ways to make it more a strength. As a director, Bushman is pretty solid all around. He has a fine command of visual compositions and building mood through select bizarre imagery. There’s a moment where a woman in a flesh-colored mask sings a rendition of the national anthem, and it’s so weird and off-putting that I wished Bushman gave us even more bizarre moments like this. Even just watching the trailers for his other films, I can tell Bushman is a natural director. I’d be curious to watch his other movies like his follow-up Stranger in the Dunes, filmed in North Carolina as a gift for his crew who braved the sub-freezing temps for Union Furnace.
The performances are decent but David (Cloud Atlas) is clearly the titan here. Even getting an actor of David’s caliber for something this low-budget in Ohio is an amazing accomplishment. Watching David command the screen is exciting in such a smaller role; I figured either he was going to die very quickly or go a long way, but I didn’t initially know which. He has a few strong angry outbursts where he feels he’s reached his limit and how much nonsense he’s willing to tolerate. He has an instant magnetism that the other actors simply don’t have (to be fair, he is Keith David). Dwyer (Future Lies), in only his second onscreen acting credit, does a serviceable job as the lead actor, especially at conveying the resignation of his character’s doomed thoughts suffocating him. Katie Keene (Clowntown) was another standout as a single-mother who gets some of the worst of the games. Her shell-shocked horror is some of the most quietly affecting moments.
On the DVD extras, Bushman reveals that he and Dwyer only spent two weeks writing the screenplay for Union Furnace, and I honestly can say they needed more time. I kept waiting for something more, a turn, a twist, taking it to their oppressors, revealing some hidden personal depth that had been lying in plain sight, just something more than what felt so remorselessly rote. If the movie was going for straight nihilism, then the games needed to be fiercer and from the start. If we were meant to engage with the characters, then we needed more time seeing how these games are affecting them other than paranoia and bluster. If the movie was going for a mystery, then the wrong things were kept in secret, like understanding the expectations for the games. If you’re a fan of seedy, low-budget thrillers you may find enough enjoyment from Union Furnace and its technical merits, plus the presence of the great Keith David. I’ll be curious to investigate the other movies of Nicholas Bushman. As a director, I think he’s showcasing skill and potential. As a writer, I’m less sure of that. Still, the man is making his own movies on his own terms and he’s cranking them out every couple of years. He’s making this a career, and I hope that he can continue doing so, as well as hopefully re-evaluating what’s best for a story.
Nate’s Grade: C