Monthly Archives: October 2020

Moondance (2020)

I didn’t even plan on writing this review. I knew of the indie musical Moondance because I was familiar with several crew members who worked on the $500,000 project and watching their pictures on social media, but when I discovered it had been filmed entirely outside the state of Ohio, primarily in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I decided to exclude it from my mission to professionally review Ohio-made indies. As of this writing, it was available on the website Tubi for free with ads, so I started it on a whim to show my girlfriend what I had intended to watch, and then I kept watching, and then I didn’t want to continue but I felt compelled to, and now I feel compelled to dissect this movie as best as I can, even with its tangential connection to the Ohio indie film scene. Moondance is a confounding experience for a lover of big screen musicals because it’s a musical that doesn’t really want to be a musical, a comedy that doesn’t know how to do comedy, and a drifting drama bereft of characters to root for and reasons to cheer.

The story is familiar. We have our boy, in this instance Oscar (Jonah Robinson), a composer suffering writer’s block, and he meets our girl, Abby (Carolyn Rabbers), a dancer. Oscar is instantly smitten and tries tracking Abby down, while his “best friend” Pat (Sam Jones) schemes with his very David Rose-esque assistant Sean (Brandon Stewart) to have her for his own. In between these shenanigans, Cooper Flannigan (credited as “Self”) appears to be a hipster friend of Oscar but also the god of this universe as he routinely breaks the fourth wall and is played by the actual writer/director.

I have to give credit for anyone having the gumption to try and create a low-budget musical. That’s a tall creative order and unfortunately Moondance can’t quite match its toe-tapping ambitions. There are only four songs in the entire musical before the end credits (I’ll get to those later). By the 45-minute mark, I had only experienced one legitimate song-and-dance number and I was wondering if the reality of this movie had simply abandoned being a musical. There are a couple additional dance numbers as one would expect with Abby being a dancer, some set to performances from musicians, but for the first hour there are only two honest-to-goodness moments where characters break out into song. Why is there no opening musical number that introduces the different characters and their different perspectives, stations, plights, goals? That would be an economical way to establish the world and its players. There seems to be real hesitancy onscreen with embracing its musical identity. The musical numbers are meant to give us insight into the characters who can’t help but blurt out their feelings, and yet during the requisite boy-and-girl-on-the-outs part, there is no musical number. There isn’t even a musical number for their growing affection for one another. We’re missing a love theme, and for a romance-heavy musical that’s meant to evoke the feeling of Old Hollywood, that seems like a massive oversight.

The staging and performance of the musical numbers, when they do appear, can also be underwhelming and counter-productive. From a choreography standpoint, much more emphasis is placed on the background players including a superfluous “intermission” dance. There is one number where the key characters do little more than literally ride a bicycle in a circle, and I would argue this is the best number in the film. There is more dancing than singing and that seems the primary reason why Rabbers was chosen as the lead female role. She certainly has talent as a dancer. As a singer is another matter. I feel unkind even articulating this but for a musical it needs to be said: Moondance would have been better off dubbing Rabbers. Her singing voice is just not there. I don’t see any harm to the production if the filmmakers had dubbed her singing. Another issue is that Abby’s dancing feels a bit too chaotic and chaotically edited. There’s a moment of sorrow where she dances out her feelings, but the choreography isn’t conveying the emotions of the scene any differently than a previous dance for us to compare with, and the editing isn’t helping, until it concludes with her pounding a wall in frustration and falling into a crumple on the floor. The camera could have locked onto her face, so as she moved and performed the emphasis was on her emotional state and what the dancing signifies. Whether it’s the lackluster songs, singing, and the nascent choreography that needs to communicate more personality for the big players, Moondance stumbles as a musical.

From a comedy standpoint, let me focus on one small scene that I think exemplifies the pitfalls of comedy construction that Moondance suffers from throughout. We start a scene with Oscar and Cooper at an ice-skating rink watching a curling team practice. Oscar opens the scene by declaring, “22 dance studios!” to tell us he has struck out trying to find Abby, and then for good measure he repeats the line to better establish his bafflement. “What am I supposed to do now?” he asks Cooper, who asks whether Oscar has considered the possibility his dream girl doesn’t exist. “No, I haven’t considered the possibility she doesn’t exist,” Oscar replies, weirdly echoing the exact wording just to hammer this home for the audience. He sees Cooper distracted, sighs, and says, “I’m going to go to the bathroom, or the parking lot or… something.” He then leaves and then Cooper addresses the camera and informs us on the mechanics of the sport of curling. This will never come up again in the entire movie. So, dear reader, let’s deconstruct this scene. It begins with Oscar stating his futility. He repeats his line twice. His friend offers no help, makes a reference to Oscar’s mental state, not a joke but a reference, to which Oscar simply repeats the assertion rather than supply a joke response or anything that can be constituted a response. Because of this, Cooper has nothing funny to build off from, so he asks a simple “what next” and rather than supply a joke that showcases Oscar’s pitiful state, he offers two suggestions, neither of them funny, then doesn’t even provide a third suggestion, instead giving up and not even following the age-old comedy rule of three. From there, Cooper informs us about something that will not matter and is not funny. Why does this scene even need to exist if even the characters can’t be bothered to come up with jokes?

I was dumbstruck by the ineffectual comedy throughout Moondance. This is the kind of movie that has characters devise a stakeout and disguise themselves in bear costumes for no reason. Do they do anything in these costumes? No. The joke, I assume, is that they’re in funny costumes. This is akin to a character walking into a room with a silly hat, and the director saying, “Hey you, look at this comical hat being worn. Isn’t it so unlike normal hats? A normal person would never wear a hat like this. What a cut-up to wear this hat. Are they going to do anything differently because of this hat? Well, no, but what a silly hat, right? Please laugh.” Just stopping at this conception and doing nothing else is not comedy. There need to be setups, payoffs, subversion, running jokes, subversion of running jokes, something, anything. There is a stark sense of desperation throughout Moondance when it comes to its sense of humor. Take for instance a dinner where the group is hob-knobbing but then the girls meet below the table to share their real thoughts under the excuse of retrieving a fallen fork. Why not repeat this setup, making it more outlandish and obvious as you go? Why not present one perception, above table, of the girls, and one below where they are their true selves and confessing distaste? There are moments where it feels like the writer/director just had little grasp on humor and lost track of opportunities. The jokes are rarely accessible; it feels like you’ve entered into a private conversation and are left to put the pieces together. Sean is definitely slotted as “comic relief” but he feels overexposed. I was confused what his relationship was supposed to be with Pat. Is he the assistant, lover, or friend? Eventually I learned that he was Pat’s brother, but why did I have to fight so hard to understand this fact? The writing doesn’t make it easy for the audience to follow along, and this extends to its comedy writing. The fourth wall breaks are tone-breaking but, again, not funny. They feel included just as a fun way to include the crew in the movie, which, again, feels like a private party indulgence. The comedy of Moondance is primarily dormant. It’s over-compensating a lack of funny on the page by asking its actors to dial up their performances, so all the unfunny dialogue and antics now just seem like they’re being performed by crazy people on illicit substances.

If this movie was going for satire, I think it missed it by a wide margin. I don’t know why we have a character with godlike powers and this is treated like a lame party trick. Why not refocus the entire movie from this perspective and have Cooper be the god of a rom-com musical universe, and he’s the only one who knows he’s in a movie, and he’s pulling out every stop to get his chosen guy and chosen girl to get their big happy ending. That way it would play upon our knowledge of genre tropes and bring something fresh, while utilizing the fourth wall breaks as essentially strategy planning and introducing a team of helpers that would see through his efforts. Instead, we get the jovial character of Cooper who strolls around and offers few insights into the nature of romance or the nature of romance movies and our association of them. He feels like a magic hobo. I sense the homage to the Old Hollywood musicals and the big band accompaniment for all those jazz hands and hoofing, but it’s more intention than actuality. It’s going through the motions, and without enjoyable characters and an engaging story, it’s an homage that ends up empty.

My final criticism might be the one that made it the hardest for me to embrace Moondance, and this is how aggressively unlikable nearly all of the characters come across. In a romantic musical, you can have less than stellar singing, dancing, and even songs but your audience needs to care about the people onscreen. You need to feel the desire for them to get together, find their happiness, and at a basic level, you have to enjoy spending time with your core group of characters. Otherwise you’re stuck, and dear reader, stuck is what I felt with these people. I never cared about Abby and Oscar getting together because I never found them to be remotely interesting. Oscar is a bland protagonist. The only thing we know about him is that he writes symphonies. He immediately becomes obsessed with Abby to the point that, even before he ever speaks his first word to her, he declares Abby “his girl” in a creepy act of possession. He’s in love with her but cannot explain why. Would have been perfect for a song there to articulate his new feelings, right? We know even less about Abby. She’s a dancer and wants to save an old dance studio, but anything else? Well during a scene where she lunches with a friend, she has a giant burger as her meal. Does she eat it? No, but just being seen with this pound-plus of beef is meant to do the work the screenplay hasn’t and imbue useful characterization. She’s not some prim “just east a salad” kind of girl, oh no, give her a honking burger. To my best estimation, Abby and Oscar go on two dates (one of which she apparently has harassed a waiter, and this is supposed to be endearing?) so when they part ways before Act Three, this short-lived breakup doesn’t exactly feel as earth-shattering as the characters try to convince us. We’re simply not invested. Rabbers and Robinson (Jack Jonah) don’t have strong chemistry together but it’s not their fault. The script gave them nothing to work with and no points of characterization to better define them as people or make either of them interesting to watch.

The character of Pat is pompous and entitled and I don’t know how anyone would remotely take his involvement in what is angled as a love triangle with any seriousness. He is a terrible character and a terrible person and he just seems to exist in a daydream of privilege. What does he do all day? He buys expensive paintings for his… Rubens parties (again, another point of accessibility made challenging for the audience when this is referenced without context and it took my third stab at understanding what it meant to gain clarity). Later in the film, he monologues to his paintings before setting them ablaze, and it’s played like the mental break of a serial killer, and it’s so tonally off to induce whiplash. Pat’s the cartoonish fop character that would be presented as the rich buffoonish bad boyfriend in any other movie, and yet here he’s supposed to be the best friend to Oscar, yet we see no behavior that communicates their close personal relationship. This is a trenchant problem throughout Moondance, the screenplay constantly having to tell you of something rather than show you. It’s like watching characters thrown into an improv game and grasp for any fragile means of escape from scene to scene.

With all of these words spent in constructive critique, it might seem like Moondance is without notable artistic merit and that is not the case. The photography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is well lit and at its best when it has plenty of movement to give a sense of energy that is usually flagging from the page and performances. The smoky jazz number makes fun interplay with shadow to better establish an evocative mood. The musical productions are heavy with big band sounds and brass instruments, enough so that I started wondering if anyone has done a ska indie original musical. The opening segment involves a band performing in a studio space and it was a pleasant experience to set a tone. The musical performances are solid. The musical compositions are competent if unmemorable. I don’t know why the production didn’t just fully go the jukebox musical route with local artists if we were only getting four original songs (though the titular “Moondance” song lyrics were a bit childish, reminding me of the Hokey Pokey). Hey, they got TV’s Adam Conover (Adam Ruins Everything) to be a brief narrator, a role that seems even less necessary when Cooper is breaking the fourth wall repeatedly as a would-be guide for the audience since he’s already our stand-in god.

Moondance ends on a two musical numbers, the first a kind of curtain call on a theater stage that allows every character, including the dry cleaner guy, to get a sendoff and also break the fourth wall. Afterwards, Cooper addresses the audience and acts as emcee through the various departments and crew members who worked on the movie, with the camera moving in and out of rooms with an impressively agile tracking shot, and ending on several spirited dances, one of which serves as the still image on the Tubi page. The problem is that this is, easily, the most involved musical number and it’s reserved for the end credits. I can imagine Cooper and the filmmakers thought they were ending on a high note to say a fun goodbye to their audience, but by reserving it for the end credits that roll over the scene, it makes it harder to read the credits that are spaced so far apart and it makes it harder to pay attention to the song and dance because of the rolling credits. Why not go split-screen? For me, this sums up the misapplied application of Moondance and its throwback ambitions. It’s not whimsical. It’s not charming. It’s not funny at all. There aren’t characters to care about. The musical numbers are too few and far between. The potential hook to separate this, its satirical behind-the-scenes god at play in a musical world, is not incorporated in a vital and clever manner. Moondance is a strange passion project because it’s hard to feel any passion for this story and characters. It pains me to be as blunt as I am but there are too many issues to go ignored. I wish everyone with the production good luck in the future. This will stand as an artifact of bewilderment for me. See it for yourself on Tubi and whether it casts a bewitching spell on you, dear reader, or leaves you just as confused and disappointed.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Dancer in the Dark (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 6, 2000:

Lars von Trier’s latest shaky video opus is likely the most unique movie going experience you’ll have all year. Dancer in the Dark is a clever, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful tale of sorrow and redemption. Dancer stars Iceland’s version of Madonna in the elfin Bjork. She plays Selma, quite possibly the nicest but also most stubborn person in the world. She’s an immigrant in 1960s America working long and odd hours to ensure that she can raise enough money for her son. You see Selma is slowly going blind but continuing to work so she can make sure her son will not have to suffer the same inherited illness. So she works late on heavy industrial machinery causing accidents as her condition worsens all to stop her son’s genetic curse she will give to him. Selma’s escape has always been musicals. In life she hears music in unusual places and visualizes life stopping to burst out into a vibrant fully choreographed musical number. Selma’s life continues to degenerate along with her vision as events pile on worse and worse until they all come crashing together.

Dancer in the Dark is no picnic in the park. The movie is haunting but incredibly depressing. Lars von Trier’s previous film (Breaking the Waves) was another wrenching drama with good people going through rough times with no fraction of light at any end of a tunnel. His jerky handheld video work is back capturing the life of Selma and seemingly framing it in a more realistic sense. The video images are edited to look like a documentary and the whole feel is one of raw power. You aren’t merely watching a film, it’s like you are in it witnessing the actions from the sidelines. The escapist musical numbers are shot in glorious still film to contrast the drab realism of video. The colors are bright, the faces are happy, and the cinematography is a wonder to envision.

Bjork soars and delivers what should be an Oscar-caliber performance. I never knew the queen of alt-rock had such emotive powers. Selma’s innocence is keenly expressed in Bjork and her glassy eyes. Her love for her son is no more evident then all the suffering and tragedy she goes through. All of the suffering and tragedy could be avoided – except her son would not be helped.

The ensemble around Bjork work fantastic magic as well. Peter Stormare is a sad figure trying to just get a glimpse of Selma’s attention. David Morse is a down-and-out policeman who is Selma’s landlord and in need of some cash. He’s afraid to tell his bourgeois wife they’ve run empty with money. Catherine Deneuve turns in the brightest supporting performance as Selma’s co-worker and friend Kathy. She’s torn between trying to stop Selma from continuing on her acts that could cause her harm and helping her along her determination. A great scene as example of her care for Selma is when the two of them are in a theater watching an old Hollywood musical. At this point Selma is completely blind and can’t see what’s going on, so Kathy takes Selma’s palm and dances her fingers in correlation with the actions on screen to Selma’s delight. A simple scene yet so elegant and beautiful.

Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful piece of original film making that gives us the escape of hope and the crush of despair. Selma’s love of musicals and their role in life is perfect symbolism for discussion. Dancer will leave you with a distinct feeling by the end credits. Whether it’s sorrow or bewilderment Dancer in the Dark is a film not to miss.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I knew going back to my first Lars von Trier film was not going to be a pleasant experience, and oh what an understatement that turned out to be. von Trier has compared himself to a Nazi, his intense methods have driven his actors to the brink, including Dancer in the Dark’s Bjork who swore off the entire profession of acting after her experiences working with him. I am not surprised by this response because his movies have famously followed a formula of a woman being tortured by men, by society, by forces outsider her control, and then she suffers for two hours and dies, a victim of the cruelty of the universe. Repeat. It’s a formula that I’ve since grown weary of and after 2018’s The House That Jack Built I contemplated not watching another von Trier movie again. He just can’t help himself and his nihilistic, heavy-handed impulses handicap his genuine artistic abilities and the merits of his storytelling. Back in 2000, it all felt relatively new. von Trier was the biggest name of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish collective of filmmakers who swore to adhere to digital video and other aesthetic rules to better replicate reality as it was, ripping away the glossy artifice of Hollywood fantasy. von Trier was subversive, provocative, and exciting, and since then I’ve broken free from the von Trier spell. I was questioning whether I would share Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark with my girlfriend, who had seen neither, and in hindsight I’m glad I picked Requiem instead (think about that, yikes).

Dancer in the Dark is a powerful experience and one that is unfortunately smothered by von Trier’s heavy hand. It’s easy to root for Selma (Bjork), a Czech transplant in small-town 1960s America (the movie was filmed in Sweden because von Trier is afraid to fly). She already has so much going against her: 1) she’s a woman, 2) she’s an immigrant, 3) she’s poor, 4) she’s suffering from a degenerative disease that will rob her of her sight. Even worse, her son will suffer the same fate unless Selma raises enough money for an operation. She takes on extra work at her factory, even if she’s not exactly qualified, and she’s a hopeful yet stubborn woman who says what she means, earning friends who will champion her. She’s also a lover of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, as they presented an escape to her as a little girl growing up in poverty. America was the land of opportunity, where everyone dances all the time, sings their hearts out, and gets the girl or the guy by the conclusion of the finale. That dichotomy, between reality and fantasy, and all the cultural and psychological commentary within, is the strongest aspect of the film and a peak of ambition that von Trier never really got close to again with his later punishing dramaturgy. The first musical number doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the movie, and by that time we have had our heroine, her plight, and the first markers of a looming tragedy efficiently established.

Jeff (Peter Stormare), a lovesick co-worker who shows up every day to maybe drive Selma home, cannot understand musicals, saying people just burst out into song and how unrealistic this is, and Selma agrees, but for her it’s wonderful. She hears music in the world around her and it gives her life, especially as her vision deteriorates. As injustice after injustice falls upon her, Selma uses extravagant musicals as an escape, where everyone is a friend waiting to jump into the number and work together. A common refrain she sings is “there’s always someone to catch me,” referencing the choreography of musicals where the dancers frolic together but it’s also her request to the universe for a little help, for someone to catch her when she stumbles and provide that level support a woman of her means and background lacked in this landscape. The musical numbers staged by von Trier have a chaotic energy to them, assembled from dozens and dozens of sporadically placed cameras. They feel like a burst of imagination while keeping an improvisational feel; less drilled than managed. The first musical number “Cvalda” is a delirious daydream where Selma imagines the various sounds of the work machines creating a percussive symphony and she’s a Mary Poppins conductor. After Bill (David Morse) dies, she retreats to “Scatterheart” to make sense of her actions, with her son telling her she only did what she had to do and Bill rising from the dead to beg her forgiveness. When she’s in solitary confinement and can’t hear any sound, Selma goes into despair. She shouts the lyrics to selections from The Sound of Music to bring music back into her isolated world. Even on her march to execution, Selma copes by turning the “107 Steps” to the noose into a song. Her last words are her singing her final goodbyes to her off-screen son, so until the end musicals were how this woman chose to compensate for the rotten luck of her life. And oh boy was it ever rotten.

There’s one scene in the second half begging for symbolic unpacking where Selma is in the middle of her trial and the prosecution calls a famous Czech film actor and dancer to the stage. It’s none other than Oscar-winning theater legend Joel Grey (Cabaret) and his character doesn’t know who Selma is, even though she told the court she had been sending money to him (she listed her son’s account for his operation under a pseudonym to not risk it being derailed). This famous actor starred in movies in her native Czechoslovakia and crossed over to American cinema. He was an idol for young Selma and another figure to encapsulate the promise of America. Then as he’s testifying on the stand is when Selma drifts back into another rendition of “In the Musicals” and Grey joins her in tapping, and he confesses, “I didn’t mind it at all / That you were having a ball / at my musicals / And I was always there to catch you.” He understands and empathizes. This scene alone is just packed with so many layers of metaphor and projection and symbolic subtext and commentary and you could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on its myriad meanings. At its best, that’s Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier is using the language of musicals to subvert their form, to lay commentary on the un-reality is a rejection of the cruelty of real life, of finding order in disorder, finding community amid a nest of selfish vipers competing for dominance. It’s when von Trier uses our understanding of musicals to really make us think about the associations and contradictions that makes this movie a stirring and sometimes sensational experience.

Alas, the artistry is seriously wounded by von Trier’s heavy-handed approach to all drama. This has become even more pronounced after where von Trier has obliterated the entire world (2011’s Melancholia) and ruined a four-hour movie with a last-second dumb joke of an ending (2014’s two-part Nymphomaniac). Subtlety is not one of the tools von Trier prefers to dabble with. It’s a shame because he’s a natural storyteller when it comes to establishing vulnerable characters in fraught scenarios and slowly raising the temperature, organically transforming allies into enemies and friends into abusers. This is done very well in 2004’s Dogville as well, a movie I would argue both plays into and succeeds his tortured-woman formula of drama and political allegory. I would say Dogville is his second-best film precisely because I was expecting another unrelentingly unjust ending for another anguished woman. However, where a lighter touch could accomplish his points, von Trier instead brings out a bazooka. Selma’s deadly encounter with Bill happens at the halfway point in the film. From there there’s still another 65 minutes of her suffering to drag out to preposterous proportions. We go through the trial, her cross-examination, her willfully keeping secrets that will only make her look guilty to maintain a promise to a dead man, and then there’s her visitations in jail, her appeal, her rejection of her appeal because the costs will empty the fund’s for her son’s operation, the realization of her impending execution, the march to the execution, her being bound to a board because she cannot stand straight because she’s so scared, her rejection of the hood, her last song while she waits for the governor’s call, and then her abrupt death. There were several points where I was just pleading, “Enough already,” because it was so thoroughly exhausting.

Selma is served to be a martyr of an unjust system that looked suspiciously on immigrants, and Selma elects to accept her fate because anything less would endanger losing what she has set up for her son’s well-being. This woman takes all this punishment and that’s the story, America. That’s the story of America, America. That’s what von Trier is getting at, but the 140-minute movie is so overdone and so drawn out to obsess over the wrongs inflicted on this poor woman that it unintentionally blunts the message. The second half becomes a passion play where we watch our poor Selma elect to accept tragedy and self-sacrifice and endure all the injustices. It’s harrowing and upsetting but would still be so if we didn’t spend half of the movie dwelling on a litany of examples of her fated misery. I’m sure others will argue the crushing nature of the injustice is meant to convey for the viewer the feeling of aggravation and outrage. I would agree that outrage is sought, but when von Trier doesn’t let up, it tilts into overwrought self-parody.

Dancer in the Dark resonates as strongly as it does because Bjork gives every ounce of herself in this performance. She was originally just going to write songs but von Trier chased her for a year to convince her to also star as the lead. There are moments of awkwardness where it feels like maybe she’s confused in the scene with what her lines are supposed to be, but then her lack of polish is revealed for its true strength. It’s a deeply, deeply felt performance, stunning in how raw and empathetic she gets, subsuming herself into the character and her tribulations. You don’t see the craft so much here as you do sheer, undiluted passion and ferocious naturalism. She doesn’t hold anything back and gives the best performance in any von Trier movie. In my mind, she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year but this was not the case; she was only nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen It All”) where she wore her famous swan dress that became a go-to punchline. She was, and continues to be, an eclectic artist and a really weird person, but man could she be a tremendous actress given the right circumstances. It’s a shame that von Trier’s sadistic directing style lead her to quit the entire profession.

Looking back on my original review, I remember seeing Dancer in the Dark with my freshman pal Kat Lewis, who was just the biggest Bjork fan you could find in all of Ohio in 2000. We were both floored by the movie, and Bjork, and cited it as uniformly brilliant. With twenty years of distance, I can say some of the ironic commentary of undercutting musical escapism feels too easy now, seeking credit for daring to ask, “Hey, what if musicals weren’t so happy, huh?” It’s still a worthwhile subversion to explore but simply presenting it as a subversion isn’t enough for a satisfying thematic focus. It’s funny that the moments that stood out to me as an 18-year-old, like Catherine Deneuve dancing her fingers on Selma’s palm to communicate the onscreen dance routine she can no longer see, are the same ones that stood out to me as a 38-year-old. Good writing will still make itself known and felt. There’s plenty to admire and, paradoxically, enjoy about such a depressing movie, but von Trier’s inability to self-edit and hold back his condemnation of humanity is what truly oppresses his movie.

Re-View Grade: B

Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)/ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

Two new movies have been released for streaming, both coincidentally starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and both are highly political, one by design and the other through fortuitous circumstances of history regrettably repeating itself, and both are simultaneously everything you would expect from their creative forces and worth watching in our tumultuous times.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a courtroom drama depicting the injustices applied to a dispirit group of anti-war activists who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The various men of different backgrounds and affiliations had their reasons for being there to protest, whether it was building public support to end the Vietnam War, to gain personal publicity, or to get laid, and tensions mounted inside and out the group as the police plan to send a message, harassed protesters, and in one amazingly prescient moment, remove their badges and name tags to then inflict state-sanctioned violence. This is an Aaron Sorkin movie through and through, and his second offering as a director after 2017’s Molly’s Game, and the best thing about the Oscar-winning wordsmith is that watching one of his movies feels like you’ve just downloaded a complete syllabus. The sheer audacious density of information can be overwhelming, but when Sorkin is able to get into his well-established rhythms, the actors feel like wonderful pieces in an orchestra playing to its peak. The real-life story of the activists has plenty of juicy drama and intriguing characters and intra-group conflicts breaking open, mostly between the divided poles of political leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and counter-culture prankster Abbie Hoffman (Cohen). Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul Mateen, HBO’s Watchmen) could have gotten his own movie and suffers many of the worst indignities as a member of the Black Panthers who was grafted onto the case in order to make the rest of the indicted men seem scarier by association. The consistent interference by the trial judge (Frank Langella) is shocking. It’s so transparently biased, racist, and unprofessional that I have to believe that many of these anecdotes actually happened because otherwise they seem so absurdly prejudicial that nobody would believe this happened. For a movie with such a sizeable cast of trial litigants, lawyers on both sides, friends and family, and maybe every police officer in Chicago, it’s impressive that Sorkin is able to provide so many with great Sorkin moments, meaning those grandstanding speeches, cutting one-liners, and intensive cross-examination. Not everyone is on the same level of importance. Several of the Chicago 7 are merely bodies on screen, two of the guys serve as little more than a quip-peddling Greek chorus. You sense there’s more being left out to fit into a crammed yet tidy narrative that plays to our demands for satisfying character arcs, reconciliation, and a morally stirring final stand. As a director, Sorkin doesn’t distinguish himself but he lets his meaty script and the performances of his actors get all the attention. The editing, like in Molly’s Game, can be a bit jumpy but it’s to serve the sheer size of information being downloaded during the 129 minutes. The political parallels for today are remarkable and a condemnation of our modern times. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an invigorating and, at points, exhausting film going experience that can feel like a retro, overstuffed special episode of The West Wing. It’s everything you should expect and want in an Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama, so if you’re already in that anxious camp then this Netflix original will be preaching to the overly verbose choir.

Secretly filmed over the past year, Sacha Baron Cohen reprises his outlandish Borat character to once again lampoon people’s not-so-hidden prejudices, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny, which seem to have only gotten worse since the first Borat movie in 2006. The flimsy story follows international journalist Borat returning to America to help improve the standing of his home nation Kazakhstan by offering his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to the Trump administration. It’s really just a platform for Cohen to adopt a series of disguises (his Borat is too recognizable) and dupe some rubes while exploiting their ignorance and patience. Much of the entertainment comes from the cringe-inducing interactions of how far Cohen and Bakalova will go, marveling at their improvisational skills and also dreading what lines they might cross next. I was laughing fairly consistently, though the schitck naturally won’t be as funny the second time around, even with a 14-year gap in movies. I was really impressed by Bakalova and her own commitment and quick-thinking, keeping pace with a pro like Cohen and really stealing the show because Borat can’t go out in public as before. There are some outrageous moments that work, like Cohen imitating a country singer leading an anti-masking crowd into a singalong with ridiculous verses, and some that simply don’t, like an ongoing stretch where Bakalova explains the appeal of masturbation to a gaggle of deadly silent Republican ladies. Sometimes the comedy seems so broadly caricatured that it’s questionable whether its helpful or harmful, especially the anti-Semitic tropes that Cohen embraces as means of satire. Saying something outrageous to an outraged or shocked party isn’t quite enough. When compiling these hidden camera comedies, they thrive on the oxygen given to them by the targets of the prank. If they don’t really engage, it can feel a bit tired and desperate. I’d say the ratio of hits-to-misses is about half and half but the movie has enough big moments to keep fans happy. The most notorious moment has already been widely disseminated through social media and serves as the climax of the movie, strangely both as the high-point of pranks with big names but also as the emotional catharsis. Tutar poses as a foreign journalist and interviews Trump surrogate Rudy “America’s mayor” Giuliani, who drinks, goes into a hotel bedroom alone with Bakalova, and then lays on the bed while slipping his hand down his pants (like a gentleman does). Borat realizes he doesn’t want to offer his daughter to this creepy, sleazy man and rescues her because he truly does care about her. Borat 2, or Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, takes a scattershot approach to satire and squarely aims at the science-denying MAGA crowd celebrating the excesses of their leader (who doesn’t sound that different from Borat, come to think of it). It might be more admirable in intent than execution but the new Borat can provide a few belly laughs and a more than a few groans as Cohen attempts to make American funny again.

Nate’s Grades:

Trial of the Chicago 7: B+

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: B-

Love and Monsters (2020)

Imaginative, quirky, and monstrously fun, Love and Monsters is a winning sci-fi monster movie and more evidence to the unique amusements provided in full from a Brian Duffield (Spontaneous, The Babysitter) story. In the near future, after blowing up a world-threatening asteroid, the ensuing chemical debris causes many lizards and insects to grow to world-threatening sizes, killing a majority of the population, and forcing the survivors to live underground in vaults. Our hero is Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a very Jessie Eisenberg-esque guy who isn’t so good at survival skills in this new world. His group looks at him like he’s a helpless kid who can’t defend himself. Joel discovers that his teenage crush, the girl he’s been writing letters to, is alive and he pledges to make the 80-mile trip on the surface to reunite with her. The resulting journey can be episodic but each section is impactful, each monster encounter is different and contributes to a fuller understanding to the world, and the character arc finds ways to surprise you, like when it acknowledges that Joel’s foolhardy romantic gesture is exactly that, him not fully accepting how the world has changed both he and the object of his desire. That sparkling creative voice of Duffield’s is alive and well throughout. His worlds feel well thought out, lived in, crazy but with purpose, and his characters are often teenagers with pointed attitude but they feel like characters rather than mouthpieces for overt stylized dialogue and pithy banter. O’Brien (The Maze Runner) is an interesting choice and gets to be far more neurotic and physically comedic than I’ve ever seen him. He’s an underdog that’s easy to root for. There are moments of wonder, moments of unexpected empathy, moments of suspense and terror, and plenty of moments of comic bemusement in the face of this crazy world. Joel befriends a very Woody Harreslon-esque father (Michael Rooker) with an adopted daughter in tow (the Zombieland character dynamics are pretty apparent but not a major detraction) and they form an enjoyable fractured family to help Joel become a better survivalist. I loved a small moment with a beaten down robot helper that manages to be sentimental as well as subverting sentimentality. The conclusion feels like a Walking Dead episode but it brings together many of the dangling storylines and proves satisfying for the character’s arc, a better understanding of the creatures in this world, and for Joel’s sense of self and community. The special effects are amazing for a movie that shockingly only had a tiny $28 million budget. Love and Monsters is a movie that makes the most of its time and money to tell a bigger story but one with enough wit, heart, and personality to draw you in and leave you happy for more post-apocalyptic monster adventures. All hail Duffield, king of spry and accessible quirk within the Hollywood system.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Totally Under Control (2020)

Over 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 as of this writing. We here in the U.S. are four percent of the world’s population and yet account for twenty-percent of the world’s deaths. I lament that this number will only go higher over the next many months of the pandemic that has defined 2020. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger conducted interviews around the world with special cameras and protective measures to complete the first major documentary on the coronavirus outbreak. Totally Under Control (title taken directly from Trump’s early February response to COVID-19) is their collaborative effort, and it’s both a timely work of criticism and destined to be inevitably out-of-date in short order.

Given the constant deluge of news about the by-the-minute Trump administration mistakes and questionable calls, the question for a documentary like Totally Under Control is whether or not it provides more insights than simply keeping up with the shocking and dispiriting headlines. I would argue that Gibney’s first pass at recounting our still-living history of calamity offers the benefit of hindsight but also an immediacy or urgency, considering we are still months away from a presumable vaccine. The movie feels like what the first part of the COVID-19 mini-series would cover, focusing on those first few critical months of bungled government response from January to April. The abbreviated focus allows Gibney and his crew to zero in on what the early mistakes were and how we have been paying for them ever since. The collapsed time also allows for more get-able interview subjects, people who might not currently be serving in the administration who feel comfortable or compelled to go on the record with their accounts. There are some great interview subjects here that were plugged in from the beginning, sounding the alarm, and who can give the public a clear understanding of just how woefully equipped a deeply un-serious administration was to handle the most serious public health crisis in a century.

One of the more aggravating tragedies is that many of the thousands of COVID deaths could have been prevented if better steps had been taken early to contain its spread. Naturally, there’s always going to be clearer reflection when looking back on mistakes of the past, not knowing at the time that they were mistakes, but the Trump administration made a political calculus that would only exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus. Early on, the Trump administration’s guiding principle seemed to amount to stripping away anything and everything that the Obama administration had accomplished. It didn’t matter what it was, if Obama had built it, then Trump was motivated to tear it down. This included the pandemic response task force in 2018. This included ignoring the 70-page pandemic response playbook left behind. So when the early warnings appeared in December and January, the United States was already playing from behind. We could have been preparing with amping up production for necessary medical supplies and installing the infrastructure for a robust testing and tracing program; however, this all came into conflict with the other major political calculus that governed all of Trump’s decision-making. His mantra heading into 2020 and re-election was, simply, “Do no harm… to the economy.” Rather than take preventative measures or treat the virus as a danger, the Trump political apparatus was afraid acknowledging the threat so it would not spook the financial markets, a source of bragging for Trump to tout why the American people should re-elect him. When the CDC briefed government officials and media with updated predictions of normal life being uprooted, the markets responded negatively, and Trump fumed. From there, decisions were less about stopping the coronavirus and more about making everything appear like it was no big deal.

Totally Under Control keeps a running calendar of events to compare the U.S. response to South Korea, two countries that had their first official COVID infection on the same day. The Korean government had already taken preventative measures after the 2015 MERS scare to be ready if another frightening new contagion emerged. The politicians left the science to the scientists and followed their recommendations. The Korean people wore masks and were diligent about simple safety measures to stay safe. They had a system of contact tracing already installed. These moves are in sharp contrast to the American response, and while there would be some cultural roadblocks for Americans who consider themselves rugged individuals to submit themselves to a big data-harvesting consortium that contact tracing requires, we could have done so much better. In 1918, people wore masks because it made a real difference and saved lives. They took the Spanish flu epidemic seriously and they had fewer networks of knowledge at their disposal. Today, sadly, wearing a mask has become a political symbol and for many not wearing a mask has become a proud yet misguided act of defiance. Masks show consideration. Masks have been said to be even more effective at thwarting coronavirus spread than a vaccine. Masks work. The rest of the world, and South Korea, have showed what happens when you trust scientific recommendations. South Korea has less than 500 total COVID-19 deaths with a population of 52 million. Even if you multiply that figure by a generous seven to match the current U.S. population, that’s still only an estimated 3,500 total COVID-19 deaths during the same period.

The level of ineptitude is highlighted by two key interview subjects. Rick Bright was the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) from 2016 to 2020. He filed a whistle-blower complaint about the Trump administration applying undue pressure to approve hydroxychloroquine, an experimental treatment that showed no signs of helping COVID patients. There was no medical reason to eliminate safeguards and protocols but the administration wanted a ready-to-market cure, and Bright was horrified that they wanted to make it widely available and over the counter, which would surely lead a panicked populace to request it and endanger their health. Recounting his experiences even brings Bright to tears as he recounts the disregard for safety and dereliction of duty of these political appointees dictating science. He’s a sobering and thoughtful voice to have in the documentary and also one of the biggest names of someone who worked inside the Trump response team. Another intriguing subject is Max Kennedy, who served on Jared Kushner’s White House supply chain task force. Kennedy thought he was going to be running errands or support tasks for the task force. He didn’t realize he and the other volunteers would be the entire task force. They were left to their personal laptops and emails to cold-call companies and perform Google searches to find personal protection equipment (PPE). They had no experience, no coordination with other government bodies, and they were competing against the federal government for the exact same dwindling supplies. Kennedy is breaking the NDA he was forced to sign to reveal the full extent of the chaos and inadequacy that Kushner’s “expertise” brought installing a solution to a very real problem. Kennedy and Bright’s first-hand insider accounts are both harrowing and maddening.

When it appeared that the Trump administration wasn’t going to be able to contain COVID-19, that’s when they pivoted to shifting blame and responsibility onto the states. The Trump administration could have authorized the Defense Production Act to force companies to begin manufacturing very needed PPE, but they didn’t. They thought, as conservative dogma has preached for decades, that government is the problem and the private market will solve it all. The problem with this line of thinking is that there are certain powers the states do not have in comparison to the federal government. State governments cannot run past their budgets. State governments do not have the power to set up a national system of testing. State governments were forced into a 50-way fight for supplies and were vulnerable to capitalistic gouging. The states were then also competing with the federal government, which was driving up the bids for these supplies and then overpaying for the same supplies by many times over their cost. The states were left on their own to duke it out and any slip-ups or shortages were disparaged from afar by a Trump administration that wanted to look in charge but didn’t want the responsibility.

Totally Under Control is an essential documentary for our times but it also can’t help but feel like the beginning of an even bigger and more excoriating story. It’s frustratingly incomplete. It’s the opening chapter of the examination on the U.S. response to the coronavirus, and this story will likely only get more depressing and infuriating as the death toll rises and the regret of “what could have been” grows even more pressing with every week. Gibney and his fellow directors keep their movie pretty straightforward and efficient, and there is something powerful about putting all the relevant facts together into an easy to understand timeline and seeing all the dots connected. Gibney has always been blessed at his ability to artfully articulate a big picture with his films. Totally Under Control is a useful artifact for history and a denunciation of the early days when so much could have been so different if the United States had leaders that trusted science, didn’t dismantle key government bodies, took responsibility when the moment called upon rather than ducking leadership, and cared about more than their personal finances and standing. It’s only going to get worse from here, especially once we fully analyze all the important steps not taken.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Requiem for a Dream (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released October 6, 2000:

Rarely does a movie today affect you that when the end credits roll you’re left silent and unable to speak. Requiem for a Dream is an unforgettable and intensely harrowing experience. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Afterwards you’re left in disarray and unable to think straight for most of the day.

Requiem chronicles the lives of four individuals and their spiraling addictions and missed choices. Harry (Jared Leto) is a small time coke dealer along with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) who can’t help to taste their merchandise and eventually end up broke again. Harry has gotten into the habit of routinely pawning his elderly mother’s TV set for some quick cash to score with. This happens so often that the pawn broker has a special folder for Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her televison. Harry is in love with his more positioned girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). She’s given an annual allowance of money from her wealthy folks to spend in her own fashion, but she’s denied love or attention. It’s between these four main characters that we will go through hell with.

Ellen Burstyn shows her grace with age and utterly blows your mind with her jaw-dropping performance as the lonely and strung out Sarah. Sarah has no husband anymore or a son to look after. She is alone and old, and those are two bad ingredients. She lives in an apartment complex overlooking the decaying ruins of Coney Island. Sarah has a different addiction than her child, she is addicted to food and is overweight. One day she mistakes a random junk phone call as her ticket to appear on television. She daydreams about gliding across the stage in her red dress that she doesn’t be able to properly fill anymore. With her elderly peers aflutter she tries her best to stick to a diet to fit into her slender dress. When the temptation becomes overwhelming she consults a friend’s doctor for some special “pills” to suppress her appetite.

Harry and Tyrone are embarking on their own dealing dreams to eventually move up the ladder and score some pure coke. Marion and Harry experience their love through simultaneous shoot-ups that space them out and turn them into romantic philosophers. Harry speaks of great dreams he has and the yearning to be something. Tyrone is haunted by thoughts of himself as a child and disappointing his sweetly loving mother who was proud of her son no matter what.

The film starts off in the summer and we are in the good times for all four characters. Harry and Tyrone are successful and racking up profits. Sarah has an unusual amount of energy through her prescribed pills and feels good about herself when she sees actual results as the pounds begin to melt away. Marion dances in her love of Harry and is ambitious with plans for her own design store. Things never are as good as they are again. Fall rolls along and Tyrone and Harry lose their money and lose their ability to secure drugs to sell. Sarah is noticing her pills are not having the same effect they were earlier and decides to ignore guidelines and take them like M&Ms. Marion starts to lash out at Harry’s ineptness at scoring and begins to tear at their relationship. She gets pushed to the brink to score that she resorts to the practice of using her body to secure what she needs. This isn’t even the beginning of how dour and horrible events will become for these four.

One of the strengths of Reqiuem is the treatment of these characters. The film shows sympathy for them and their situations but never condone them. Harry and Sarah are a family that have much love between them they just don’t know how to express it. When Harry discovers his mother is on essentially speed when he pays her a visit he’s left a shattered and crying mess. Only an injection into his veins in that cab ride saves him from his emotions. The relationship between Harry and Marion is initially seen as puppy love or people brought together through a love of drugs, but there are moments where you see the true beauty they have. In the end when Harry is out of state and dramatically in the need of hospitalization he calls Marion just as she’s doing her make-up for a “special” get-together. In a hushed tone she asks when he will be coming home, to which he responds in a mix of pain that it will be soon. She then so sincerely and beautifully asks if he can come back today – to which through an array of tears he agrees. Her sincerity and emotion in this sequence is a powerful glimpse at the love that does exist between the two of them. The second time I watched this film I started crying at this moment.

Burstyn is the stand-out star and if she doesn’t at LEAST get an Oscar nomination then that is the most unjust crime of them all. It’s been some time since her roles in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore but she still shines like a true gem. She magnificently portrays Sarah’s descent into madness and chemical dependency and leaves us with a chilling and haunting figure. Leto and Connelly show that they aren’t merely pretty faces and deliver their best performances of their lives. Both show incredible warmth and emotion.

Requiem was directed and adapted for the screen by Darren Aronofsky who gave us the head trip that was Pi. Here he uses camera trickery like speed up and slowed paces to show Sarah’s journey through her drugs. Other items include cameras mounted on the actors, split screens, and hyper edits to show the process of every drug shoot-up. His camera moves and tricks are never out of place though, as many gimmicky video director’s are. Each effect has a specific purpose. Aronofsky brilliantly uses a scene where Leto and Connelly are lying in bed besides one another but split screen to show the closeness they can strive but the distance that still exists. While each talks we see shots of the other’s hand carefully caress the other’s body. It’s a scene that’s as powerful as it it thematically romantic.

The tragedy of this is this film has been rated NC-17 by the MPAA and of course anyone who sees it knows the exact scene. The film is being released unrated by Artisan because NC-17 is a commercial kiss of death. The shame is this movie needs to be seen. Make it mandatory in schools. DARE isn’t working but this film will. No one with an urge to use drugs will have that same urge after seeing this harrowing film.

Nate’s Grade: A+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Requiem for a Dream was a seminal event for me. It floored me when I originally saw it during the fateful fall of 2000. I can still vividly recall wandering out into the daylight after the movie and feeling like a zombie, just left to walk aimlessly and mumble to myself. I remember my friend Kat Lewis and I were unable to even articulate sentences other than, “Wow,” and, “Ooof,” for like an hour as we processed the drug-fueled descent into madness and hell. It was a movie that struck me dumb and left a mark. I became a lifelong fan of writer/director Darren Aronofsky afterwards and haven’t been disappointed with his movies yet (his 2014 biblical epic Noah is criminally underrated). At the end of 2009, I declared it the second-best film of the decade. Requiem for a Dream is the kind of movie you can admire for its craft and crushing emotional impact but also one you may never want to watch a second time. I haven’t gone back to it for at least 15 years for that same reason, the hesitation to get back into the morass and experience the tumultuous tumble all over again. Except when I did sit and re-watch it for my twenty-year review, I was amazed how many moments felt strikingly familiar. I was anticipated specific actor inflections (“I’m lonely. I’m ollllld”), gestures, and even sound cues. It was a strange experience because it was like re-awakening dormant memories I had papered over. I thought I had forgotten the movie but, in reality, I must have watched it enough in those early 2000s days to commit so much to memory. I was afraid to dive back because of the depressing subject matter that I expected to rightfully wreck me. Instead I experienced a different sort of awakening, and that was my question whether the movie’s highs might be over inflated and whether the younger version of myself was dazzled by a movie with more evident problems.

This is not a subtle movie in the slightest, not in subject matter, form, or style, and I’m sure that was part of what 18-year-old me so valued. It’s a movie dripping with style and wild imagination with how best to visualize the elation and instability of drug abuse. The editing by Jay Rabinowitz (8 Mile, The Tree of Life) is abundantly hyperactive, amassing over 2,000 cuts over the course of only 95 minutes (an average “non-Michael Bay” film running the same length has maybe 700 edits). It is all deliberately overwhelming to convey the frenetic energy of the junkie, and the repetition of edits and structures creates visual routines that Aronofsky then escalates or deconstructs brilliantly, using the language of film to immerse the viewer in this world and blend our senses together into a rapturous contact high. It’s not hard to see the inspiration for Edgar Wright’s own hyper-kinetic visual style here. The entire movie becomes a visceral reflection of the characters’ physiological state. The photography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man) can be alienating, disquieting, but also vibrantly alive and excitedly inventive. This is the first feature film I can recall that used Steadycam cameras and attached them to the actors so that as they moved through their world they remained our stable focal point. It’s such a great and unsettling convergence of perspective. We are attached to the actor close-up. The musical score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon) is instantly iconic thanks to its sense of foreboding and the central haunting theme from the Kronos Quartet that was used in a thousand trailers afterwards because it’s that gob-smackingly, recognizably brilliant. These talented men were the essential wingmen for Aronofsky to achieve his beautifully horrible vision.

The 90s indie scene and well into the early 2000s was an audacious time that pushed the limits of film style, reshaping our sensibilities of what movies could accomplish, and Aronofsky is a world-caliber stylist. After two low-budget indie films, it’s clear why Hollywood came knocking and offered the man many high-profile titles like rebooting the inactive Batman franchise. There are entire complicated setups devoted to capturing single shots, and there are so many stylish choices that come flying that part of the appeal of the movie is simply lying in wait for what Aronofsky will deliver next, like a magician that keeps you asking for the next trick and the next trick. Some highlights include Sara (Ellen Burstyn) being taunted by her fridge and the hunger pangs she feels, including a delusion where the household appliance comes alive like a monster from an early Peter Jackson horror flick. The use of split-screen is stunning to convey coordination and also disconnect. There’s a lovely scene where Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and Harry (Jared Leto) stare at one another, their fingertips stroking different portions of their bodies, and the editing jumps around from close-up inserts to their slightly disjointed alignment face-to-face. It’s both sensual and romantic. They’re close but also far away. This is the kind of move that attaches a camera to a bungee cord and throws it off the rooftop just for a couple second shot of free fall. It’s the kind of movie that seems to test every visual and audio setting of cinema. I admire the sheer gusto of Aronofsky as a filmmaker and his drive to push himself and his story to the limit.

However, at a super-charged 95 minutes before end credits, Requiem for a Dream is just too much. Its sledgehammer approach to drama had an odd effect on me as a 38-year-old versus than as an 18-year-old. My younger self was dazzled and left profoundly affected and devastated. My current self felt empathy for the suffering of the characters but I wasn’t emotionally connecting with them in the same way I did back in 2000. After some reflection, I think this is because the movie is just trying so hard that it feels like it’s speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, all capital-D drama, that it has its own numbing effect. Things do get considerably worse for our quartet of characters as they go through hell, but because the pacing is so amped, speeding along to get to its next fix, it doesn’t ever let the movie breathe and linger before hitting you again. It’s so fast-paced that the tone becomes more overtly theatrical, and I found myself less able to connect with the characters on a deeper and meaningful level. The limits of characterization were really felt with my recent re-watch, and the love story of Harry and Marion, which felt tragic for me in the early 2000s, now feels empty. Maybe that was the point and it took me decades to see it through, that the two of them are caught under the spell of infatuation but cannot fully grow together from a co-dependent relationship built around self-destruction. Or maybe they’re just underwritten tragic bohemians. The only character that really gets worthy consideration and nuance is Sara. If the movie had slowed down, or even been 20-30 minutes longer, I think it would have more room to make its drama felt in a way that didn’t feel so anxious to the point of bordering on desperation. There are points where Requiem for a Dream feels like an overblown indie version of an after-school special on drugs.

The real heart of the movie is with Burstyn who delivers a career-best performance (she lost the Best Actress Oscar that year to Julia Roberts). Sara Goldfarb is the kind of person everyone might know, an older retiree who feels overlooked, afraid of pushing too hard against a son she can’t control, and someone who wants to feel special one more time in her life. She doesn’t see herself as an addict and the movie portrays her struggle as being analogous to the cocaine and heroin abuse of the other users. Sugar, caffeine, starch, red meat, all common items that can be just as addictive to the brain and body, and Sara’s struggles to lose weight are relatable and take on a horrifying transformation after she starts using prescription drugs as a quick solution. Burstyn is the definition of heartbreaking here and that’s even before she starts popping pills. She delivers one hell of a monologue about her sad state of needing something, anything to cling onto to give her life a glimmer of needed hope. It was the moment that made me instantly recognize the levels of sadness we’re working with. I enjoyed the little burst of happiness she felt when the other neighborhood ladies admired her for her chance of being on television. for her, this was everything. Burstyn goes through a physical transformation, from padded body suits to emaciated and sweat-stained (this is a very very sweaty movie; you can practically taste the grime coating the actors). She’s unrecognizable by the end. Burstyn is so devastatingly good as her character literally loses her mind, becoming one of those crazy people on the street. You feel such a reservoir of grief knowing what drugs have done to demolish this woman’s identity and transmute her into a living phantom.

The social commentary isn’t prevalent, beyond the universality of personal addiction, but it has one major critique and it’s the indifference of the system to those in need. Three of these characters are living through poverty and limited means of self-sufficiency. Marion has a trust fund but has to jump through hoops to maintain it, including at different points selling her body. When Sara visits her doctor to inquire about possible medicine, he never looks at her once and quickly writes her a prescription. When she’s admitted to a psychiatric ward, the orderlies barely even view her as a human being and threaten her with physical harm if she will not swallow her food. The ward doctor can clearly tell she’s not of sound mind but gets her to “sign” her permission for dangerous, experimental electroshock therapy. These are bureaucrats, professionals, and people of means that simply don’t care. The institutions of this country are geared to let people down, to slip between the cracks, and the supports are insufficient. In this regard, Requiem for a Dream is a condemnation for the system and its lack of real compassion.

The closing montage of degradation is so gut-punching, so expertly edited together for maximum symmetry, and so disturbing that I can completely understand if nobody would ever want to watch Requiem for a Dream again. Early on, while re-watching this movie alone, I thought, “My girlfriend would really be intrigued by this and appreciate the style and verve,” and then by the end I reconsidered whether or not it all might be too much to endure. You feel a little dirty by the time it’s all over. I think this time, in 2020 as opposed to 2000, it was too much for me because I was feeling less attachment to the characters and more removed from their drama because everything was so operatic and going by so fast. The movie still has so much technical and artistic ambition to drop my rating too low, but this is not the near-perfect A+ movie I highly regarded in my youth. This is not the second-best films of the 2000s. It’s still a good movie and one that will be felt and remembered long after. It’s hard to shake off its effect which are still felt even if you have difficulty engaging with the people beyond a general level of human empathy. My original review consisted of mostly reciting the plot, an aspect of my reviews I’ve tried to steer away from. I hate reviews that are 80 percent plot synopsis and then only a paragraph or two of critical analysis and deliberation. Requiem for a Dream is still a powerful and immersive movie that masterfully uses the full gamut of film tricks as its disposal. While it might not be a personally-defining movie for me any longer as an adult, it still was for years in my youth, and while it shattered me and left me a shambling mess, it also made me realize just what movies can do.

Re-View Grade: B+

Trump Card (2020)

After a long and bittersweet relationship, I think it’s finally time for me to part ways with Dinesh D’Souza. The conservative author, pundit, and director of intellectually dishonest and slimy documentaries has given me so much to unpack over the years. D’Souza reigns unopposed as one of the worst filmmakers, let alone an incompetent propagandist, and has ruled my annual Worst Films of the Year lists (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018). Seriously, if it was an even year, you could expect a D’Souza doc to have a slot already in preparation on my list. Not even Friedberg and Seltzer have that many dishonorable mentions. He rose to fame as the “reasonable critic” of President Obama but if you watched his films, you’d know D’Souza’s assertions were anything but reasonable. As I concluded with 2018’s Death of a Nation: “He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. It is people like D’Souza that have led the way for the coronation of Donald Trump, and it should be people like D’Souza who are put to blame when that experiment crumbles.” That is why, dear reader, I think it is finally time for me to step away from the trough of righteous outrage and be done with the disingenuous D’Souza as a filmmaker deserving of even one iota of passing thought. I can only hope with the 2020 election on the near horizon, that America will likewise put to bed the man in the Oval Office and, by extension, D’Souza’s relevancy. But let’s dive in, one last time America, into the bad faith arguments, armchair psychology, racist projection, historical revisionism, crippling persecution complex, fear mongering, and endless shots of D’Souza wandering the sights while looking so contemplative with pursed-lipped, faux concern. It’s Trump Card, one of the worst films of 2020, and hopefully the last D’Souza film for me for the remainder of my days.

I think the opening scene is fittingly indicative of D’Souza’s blatantly fraudulent arguments and willful ignorance. It’s a recreation of an interrogation from George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is an interesting choice here considering he was a journalist (strike one), liberal author (strike two) and anti-fascist (strike three), but the general associations of the novel are so ingrained that it becomes a stand-in for any sort of Big Brother state critique. Orwell’s classic story follows an authoritarian government that tells people what to think, to not trust their eyes and ears but simply the proclamations of the State. Where D’Souza goes amazingly off the rails is when he tries to purport that it’s the Democrats who are the evil Big Brother at work trying to brainwash good, honest, God-loving Trump voters into turning against objective reality and swallowing the lies of Dear Leader. Just contemplate that appraisal. In the face of Donald Trump, a man who LITERALLY told his supporters not to listen to their eyes and ears and only to him, a man who has been documented lying over 20,000 times since coming into office, including such obvious and absurd statements like having the biggest inaugural crowd in 2017 or whether it was raining, a man who constantly distorts reality to his petty whims, and D’Souza says it’s really the Democrats who are the dangerous brainwashers. This staggering misreading of Orwell’s political commentary would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic and facetious. This telling anecdote perfectly sums up the lazy rhetoric of D’Souza.

It’s hard not to wonder what the larger thesis is here. D’Souza has never exactly been a filmmaker of scholarly heft but his prior films at least presented a through line to hold onto. I thought Trump Card was going to be a conservative case against socialism but D’Souza can’t fully commit 90 minutes to that cause, and so the movie becomes yet another slipshod attack on any and all familiar targets of conservative agita. We’re told socialism is bad, capitalism is good, and through selective examples it’s reconfirmed. Never mind the socialism of Scandinavia, let’s focus on the failed state of Venezuela while ignoring its history of colonialism. We’re told Democrats hate all capitalism, but D’Souza once again conflates free market capitalism and crony capitalism, a sociopathic system unchecked by regulation and rampant with corruption and abuse. We’re told that China is bad, though they’ve introduced features of capitalism so now they’re maybe not as bad, but they gave us COVID19, so they’re still bad, I guess. We’re told the protesters of Hong Kong who want transparency, reforms, and democracy are good, but Black Lives Matters is a cesspool of “thugs” and anarchists without a just cause of reform. We’re told “antifa” didn’t oppose Nazis in Germany but the “center-left,” which makes no sense whatsoever. We’re told Democrats can’t get enough of late-term abortion, when that’s not even a thing. We’re told climate change can’t be that big of a deal because Joe Biden has a beach house so, ergo, he must not worry about rising coastlines. We’re told that the early response to COVID19 was a failure of socialism, when it was the federal government’s cowardly and calculated hands-off approach that turned the purchase and distribution of life-saving medical supplies into a feeding frenzy of capitalistic excess, pitting state against state for scraps.

Amazingly, D’Souza praises Donald Trump as a symbol of capitalism, a man born into wealth, who inflated his assets to get out of taxes, who went bankrupt four times, whose own charity was shut down and declared an illegal racket to line his family’s pockets, who regularly stiffed his contractors, who has been hounded by lawsuits, and who slapped his name on any rickety scheme he could profit. Again, D’Souza has stupendously rear-ended into an insight that he intended to disregard. Donald Trump is a neon orange symbol for the farcical excess of crony capitalism.

One of the weirder detours is when D’Souza decries “identity politics” when he’s been steeped in this stuff since his first movie. He lambastes Democrats for, essentially, having an inclusive voting base with diverse interests. Republicans like to still cling to the idea of their party being a “big tent,” but from a demographic standpoint, they are shrinking and only gotten whiter, older, and more male. It’s more the party of one very specific kind of America. Some of D’Souza’s taunts are simply snide and juvenile, like deriding young people for “their pronouns” and the idea of being gay now becoming “an ideology” (you know, like being heterosexual is an “ideology”). In one breath D’Souza doesn’t want “identity to define anyone” but ignores that the Republican Party has become a cult of personality rejecting any contrary thinking. Their 2020 party platform was merely one page and amounted to: “Whatever Trump says.” Choosing not to recognize our natural differences is dishonest. As a white man, my experiences are going to be markedly different than a black woman, and acknowledging this isn’t some sign of weakness or pandering, it’s merely a recognition that our differences are not trivial. It’s similar when people say “I don’t see color” as a misplaced virtuous sign of how liberal-minded they are.

The spurious interview subjects are prone to making wild accusations, aided by D’Souza’s famous leading style where he practically recites the words he wants to hear. A former radical Muslim says he challenges anyone to find a jihadist that would vote for Donald Trump (counterpoint: The Taliban has actually endorsed Trump for 2020). This same man calls Rep. Ilhan Omar as “ISIS in lipstick” without any supporting evidence. The interview subjects are not exactly compelling experts. Why is Isaiah Washington, the man infamously fired from Grey’s Anatomy for using homophobic slurs, an expert on Hollywood oppression? Why is D’Souza’s own daughter and wife, each with a book ready to be peddled, experts on anything? Did D’Souza not have any other relatives he could call on to become instant world affairs experts? Some of these people are well-meaning and with a perspective that merits consideration like a grieving father from the Parkland school shooting, but others are laughable on their face for being included. Larry Sinclair swears he smoked crack and performed oral sex on Obama (“He came back for seconds”), and D’Souza intones that this “allegation” (repeatedly disproven with no evidence) deserves the same level of attention as Stormy Daniels with Trump. Never mind that Trump’s affair wasn’t a scandal because of his moral failing (a thrice-married man known for womanizing) but because of the financial fraud of covering it up before the 2016 election, which sent Trump’s own attorney and personal fixer, Michael Cohen, to jail. Even if the crack-smoking Obama BJ guy is right, and he’s definitely definitely not, who cares if Obama had a gay experience before he was elected president? I guess the association itself is supposed to be unseemly, but it’s D’Souza’s inclusion of such a baseless smear, the unchallenged details of which garners the film its PG-13 rating, as a means to revile this audience and stoke confirmation bias about the mainstream media that’s really unseemly.

D’Souza is all-in on the big kooky Deep State conspiracy to entangle Donald Trump’s presidency, never mind that an impulsive businessman who prefers chaos needs help to falter. I could barely keep up with the barrage of names and dates and accusations, trying to connect the dots with a messy conspiratorial plate of spaghetti. Once they reach the silly Ukraine accusations of impropriety with Joe Biden, the same talking points that the Kremlin parrots, the same groundless stuff that Trump got impeached over in 2019, I started zoning out. D’Souza champions Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos (both pleaded guilty) and Roger Stone (convicted by a jury) as victims of an abusive surveillance state. He lets Papadopoulos and his wife dramatically revise his criminal history, re-imaging himself as a martyr who was forced to speak against Trump by a vindictive FBI. And yet multiple Justice Department and Congressional investigations over the origins of the Russia probe have reaffirmed, repeatedly, conclusively, even when run by Republican Senators, that the FBI investigation was warranted and correct in its conclusions. Donald Trump doesn’t need anyone but himself to get into trouble. No conspiracy is necessary for a perennial screw-up.

I’m all but certain that D’Souza had to radically retool Trump Card as the year progressed. This is the latest any of his election-timed documentaries has ever come out; he usually prefers the cushy position of mid-to-late summer releases. My working theory is that he was heavily planning a documentary about the evils of socialism with a Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee for 2020 as its focus on where the Democrats are taking the country. It’s much harder to paint lifelong centrist Joe Biden as a dangerous radical, and it’s equally hard to say the crazy leftwing radicals are taking over the country when they couldn’t even win the party nomination. Then an early trailer for Trump Card over the summer was constituted entirely by footage of rioters, burning buildings, broken windows, and the presumption that D’Souza’s film would focus on the dangers of a growing protest movement that summer. He still gets some hits in but the widespread protests for police reform and racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have not been the source for civilization being upended. I’m genuinely surprised D’Souza didn’t feature more of the ongoing battles with the unmarked private army sent to harass and beat Portland protesters but that might have harmed his message that Biden will lead to civil unrest when the images of civil unrest are happening live in Donald Trump’s America. Trump Card feels overwhelmingly like it’s coasting and that D’Souza is falling back on old arguments, old foes, and old tricks. D’Souza can never get enough of Abraham Lincoln re-enactors, gauzy stock footage of sunsets and wheat fields, and his wife singing renditions of public domain patriotic songs. After five movies, it just all feels so stale, so tired, and so inept and lazy, even for its own select audience. “President Trump reminds me why I first came to America,” says D’Souza early in the film, drawing a deep belly laugh from me. I feel about D’Souza’s oeuvre of terrible, shameless documentaries the same I feel about Trump as a president: exhausted by it all. I’m ready for both to go away for good.

Nate’s Grade: F

Spontaneous (2020)

Spontaneous is a movie that grabbed my attention immediately, made me laugh quickly, and then made me fall in love over the course of its explosive 100 minutes. The more I think back about this bizarre little movie, based on the YA novel by Aaron Starmer, the more affection I have for it and its messy accomplishments. Writer/director Brian Duffield has been one of the most exciting screenwriters for years, penning highly inventive stories that have a distinct, vivacious comedic voice that leaps off the page and smacks you across the face with how good it is, and then you ask for more (check out The Babysitter for the closest representation of what a Duffield screenplay delivers; skip the sequel though). This is Duffield’s debut as a director and I feel like he’s a natural fit for the quirky, blood-soaked material. Spontaneous is a dark comedy that can also make you feel something because it doesn’t simply treat its characters as disposable punchlines.

So the senior class of Covington High School has a serious problem. They’re spontaneously exploding. Nobody knows why, nobody knows who will be next, and even after a government quarantine, the answers aren’t any clearer. Mara (Katherine Langford) just wants to live to grow into a badass older lady who lives on the beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Her dreams of a life after graduation might never come true. Dylan (Charlie Plummer) introduces himself to Mara and they begin a tender courtship, falling in love during a precarious time where either of them could explode and soak the other in gore and viscera. Can these two crazy kids make it and grow up when their own bodies might betray their fleeting happiness?

Almost instantaneously I was drawn into the romance between Mara and Dylan, and I enjoyed deeply how each helps to shape the other, finding a sincere connection in the most extreme and unexpected of circumstances. Their budding romance dances with tragedy and dread as we worry over the fate of our lovers; surely, with this horrific premise, they won’t end happily ever after, or could they? Every time another student exploded, I winced. I laughed a few times, I’ll admit, because the context can become darkly hilarious and absurd, but it’s also a natural human reflex to relieve tension. Each one of these kids is a potential suicide bomber and they don’t know it. It’s sudden and something that you, even as a viewer, will never get used to. What you will do is start to dread who is next and whether that explosion sound was someone you liked. With an omnipresence of tragedy, it pushes the characters to make the most of their potentially short lives and that brings a greater significance to their next steps, the little attempts to “feel like an adult,” to reach for their desires, and to declare who they are while they are still standing to do so. It takes the coming-of-age setup and deftly dials up the emotional stakes.

Make no mistake though, Spontaneous is an uproariously funny movie. We’re primarily seeing the world from the perspective of Mara and her narration and occasional fourth-wall breaks. There are some fun asides where other characters take over narration duties, but this is chiefly her movie and she’s delightfully odd, prickly, and worthy of our attention. Duffield’s screenplay is brimming with wit and the conversational banter flows with such a confident cadence, all while not being overly mellifluous and self-satisfied. I adored just spending time with the characters because I was anticipating what they would say and do next. The social satire is present but not as substantial as I would have thought. The film trades in familiar stereotypes we’ve come to associate with high school movies, yet it can take some interesting detours, like when the football team cheers in support about their fellow player for coming out as gay. This is a high school movie mixed with a horror movie, where a big party to cut loose could become the latest crime scene. Most of the adults are simply scared and don’t know what to do, and that helpless vulnerability extends outward and keeps going. Just because you may be older doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. I cackled plenty from the physical humor, slapstick gross-out gags, but when Duffield wanted to be serious, you better believe I shut my trap and pulled up the blanket.

I think it’s worth acknowledging, and I don’t consider this a real spoiler, that the cause of the spontaneous combustion is never resolved. There is no explanation, and if that’s a deal-breaker for you then I think you’re prioritizing the wrong parts of what Spontaneous is offering. It doesn’t really matter why it’s happening because the movie isn’t a scientific mystery. As much as it might seem bizarre to declare, this is far more than the “kids blown into bloody bits” movie. It’s not about what is happening per se but how it emotionally affects the characters. The unknown bodily explosions could serve as a gory metaphor for modern-day threats of school shooters, terrorism, or even our current pandemic (pick your metaphor, anything really works). Students don’t know who will be next, when their time will be up, and an anxious pall hangs over their day-to-day lives as they trudge onward trying to regain a sense of normalcy during a troubling and uncertain time of numbing trauma. That’s really the core of the movie, the response to inexplicable trauma. Some characters maintain a blasé, nihilistic attitude, questioning whether their minute remaining time has value. Others look at the random threat of exploding as a motivator to overcome the obstacles that kept them from achieving their goals, ignoring social hang-ups and personal misgivings. It’s the proverbial kick that Dylan needs to finally talk to the girl he’s been crushing on. He elects to live with his remaining time on this planet, no matter how brief, and elects to be happy, which is about one of the bravest things a person can do. That’s why the combustible student body doesn’t need an explanation, and to be fair what possible explanation would ever have been truly satisfying (“Oh, we all just ate too many carbs. Huh.”)?

If she hadn’t already established herself from Netflix’s somber soap 13 Reasons Why, this would have been a star-making role for Langford (Knives Out). She’s captivating from her first moment onscreen when she discusses the mundane details of her day at school right before the girl in front of her explodes. Her sardonic and spiky attitude permeates the movie and gives the film an energetic jolt, amplified by Duffield’s stylish flourishes that reminded me at points of Edgar Wright with how playful and involved the visual transitions could get. Our leading lady is a force of nature, and after enough time, you can understand why Tess wants to be her bestie, why Dylan would fall in love with her, and why other students would be afraid of Mara. There are moments where Langford can be silly and diverting, like dressing in mourning over the 2016 election, and others where she feels like she’s harnessing the totality of youthful feminine rage (I loved a late declarative statement directed at our current president) to be a symbol. The “same old” just isn’t going to cut it when the stakes are this high. Langford isn’t just the too-cool gal spitting pithy insults from a safe distance. There’s some heavy-duty existential drama here that she carries while through the prism of her eccentric teenager’s attitude. Her romance with Plummer (All the Money in the World) is sweet and affecting and feels entirely genuine.

Sticky, sweet, and wickedly funny, Spontaneous is obsessed with death, the uncertainty of knowing when your time is up, and yet I came away feeling ultimately uplifted and moved. There are some jolting moments, both funny and heart-breaking, and Duffield wants you to take the time to feel the full experience of being young and angry and hopeful and anxious and in love and feeling weird. In a disastrous year of worldwide calamities, Spontaneous is a bright spot, and given the bloody premise, that should tell you everything you need to know about the year 2020. This is a delightful, heartfelt, and surprisingly mature teen drama that also happens to have people bursting like balloons. Duffield even touches upon the profound at points, which is hard to do with any filmmaker, let alone one playing with these crazy genre elements. Spontaneous is a coming-of-age drama with equal parts ache and warmth, gallows humor and personal insight. Find this movie, devote 100 minutes of your time, and wear a poncho if necessary.

Nate’s Grade: A

Vampires vs. The Bronx (2020)

Take Attack the Block and mix with The Lost Boys and you get a perfectly enjoyable B- kind of fun B-movie about a group of Bronx tweens combating blood-suckers gentrifying their neighborhood, and vampires too. It’s a pleasant experience that hankers back to enjoyable 80s ensembles and it maintains a sweetness without being sappy and an edge that feels appropriate for its age-range without getting too heavy or too simplistic. We follow our core characters as they investigate the would-be vampires, uncover their real estate schemes for the neighborhood, and then plan how best to thwart them. It’s a reliable formula but it works. I enjoyed Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island) as the vampire middleman, and I enjoyed how his own character arc as a subservient villain is tied into another teen’s arc about not following in the steps of his criminal older brother and rejecting people who only want to use you. That’s smart writing, finding room to draw parallels and connect the personal to the thematic. The lead kids all have their own personalities and problems and I enjoyed spending time with them as they bonded, bickered, and bandied together as a team. Their chemistry made them feel like real friends. The horror doesn’t really ever approach being scary or intense; when the vampires are in full teeth-baring mode, they seem more like the goofy, cheesy, cloaked figures from the TV soap Dark Shadows. It also feels like the movie runs a bit out of steam as it carries on into its final attack/assault on the vampire’s nest. Still, Vampires vs. The Bronx is a funny and light-hearted 90 minutes with likeable characters and an enjoyably relaxed supernatural caper. It’s not going to be too deep but you can tell the filmmakers care about these characters, the film’s genre influences, and telling an accessible adventure to kids.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Evil Takes Root (2020)

A new horror movie was filmed around Columbus, Ohio by a fledgling studio, Genre Labs, and a group of filmmakers who have made other successful Ohio thrillers and is now available for digital viewing on multiple platforms. Evil Takes Root is the most impressive looking and sounding Ohio indie I have seen yet. I mean this in all sincerity when I say it “looks like a real movie.” Even the poster art looks snazzy.

Dr. Thane Noles (Sean Carrigan) is still mourning the loss of his wife Mandy (Constance Brenneman) from mysterious circumstances (vague voice mail, hanging from a tree, black eyes, etc.). His daughter Sarah (Stevie Lynn Jones) is struggling with her grief and befriends a girl, Christina (Reagan Belhorn), going through a similar loss. Christina is desperate to bring her mother back and is doing the bidding of a supernatural presence to make this wish come true. The result is that Sarah becomes the vessel for this evil spirit, a Baitbat, a mythological figure from Philippines’ culture. Felix Fojas (Nicholas Gonzalez) is back in town to investigate the death of Mandy, the woman he still loves after an affair many years ago. Felix is a professor and a big believer in the supernatural, and he strongly believes evil is present and busy in Ohio.

The production is glowing with professionalism that we associate with larger-budget studio ventures. Sure, you still slightly sense its lower budget in how much bang for your buck we get onscreen, but there are more than enough moments that impressed me from the technical aspects of moviemaking. The sound design is sensational. This has often been the biggest hindrance with local indies, and wow what a difference a professional sound design team can have on a horror movie. The creeping and scratchy noises of the Baitbat and its demonic intonations are unsettling and worthy of a few jumps. A great sound design team can goose any moment into being scarier. The spooky set pieces on their own weren’t imaginative or innovative but the sound design and photography elevated them. On the other side, this is a great looking movie, even with the drained color wash I usually dislike. Director and co-writer Chris W. Freeman (Sorority Party Massacre) knows how to make a horror movie with plenty of pleasing visual compositions by cinematographer Roy Rossovich (Union Furnace). Freeman is ready for a bigger stage, folks. There are a few instances of sweeping camera movements that made me go, “Whoa.” One involves a chase scene in the woods where naked witches run from their bonfire into the dark of the woods to kill an interloper, and the camera moves over the terrain with smooth velocity, and the way the fire illuminated the bodies as they went from one light source to another is simply stunning to watch. If it wasn’t for the topless women, I would expect a shot like that to be in the trailer. The focus levels, the way the camera movements enhance the frame and tension, even the use of a rain machine for mood, it’s all superbly impressive. The editing by Jason Heinrich and Jamie Marsh is great as well and makes the movie feel even more indistinguishable from Hollywood genre fare.

That impressive level of professionalism doesn’t extend to the story, sadly. Evil Takes Root is a very generic story told with very generic characters. I kept waiting for little moments to round them out, little moments to make me think differently about a character, to bring their conflicts into a new focus or coalesce their themes into the obstacles they’re confronting. I was simply looking for more personality than the five stages of grief at work. I can tell you what the characters do, as well as their larger plot designations, but I can’t tell you about who they are as people. There really isn’t one thing terribly interesting that any character does onscreen. They go about the discovery of the supernatural haunting, and then it’s concluded in a way that is anticlimactic in how easy it seems to be resolved. I read on another review that, according to the director’s commentary, that the movie underwent a troubled production and worked to fit footage that was shot many years apart. In that regard, it feels like a consistent product. I can’t see any obvious seams that show I’m watching a movie with significant scheduling gaps. Congratulations. But it also feels like any other small-scale Hollywood genre horror thriller, something like 2009’s The Unborn. Do you remember The Unborn? Do you remember it actually co-starred Gary Oldman? All that technical acumen put toward a mediocre story overstuffed with redundant characters (more on that below) and it’s a shame. The spooky set pieces are too short-lived and lack anything particularly memorable as well. Too much about this movie makes it burdensome to attempt to remember because it’s skating on generic and familiar tropes without leaving its stamp.

This is disappointing considering I haven’t really seen too many American horror movies tackle the mythology of the Philippines. There must be plenty of fun choices to select for a big screen fright fest and for a majority of Western viewers, it would be a new kind of monster. I desperately wanted to learn more about the Baitbat and what made this creature unique. However, we don’t even know what this malevolent creature is until literally the last ten minutes, and I have no idea why the filmmakers held that from the audience for so long. The Baitbat is the lone thing to better help separate this movie from the glut of other possession/demon movies, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t make it more of a feature and try and tap into that potential and history. The viewer needs to know specific rules related to this spirit and it’s only a hasty exposition drop at the very end where we learn what the spirit is and what it wants. Imagine The Exorcist if you never knew what was going on with Regan until the last ten minutes. The Baitbat is our chief antagonist. We need to know more and earlier in order to make the movie more interesting. The tree root-tenatcle design of the creature is creepy and lends itself well to low-light silhouettes, which makes sense why it was chosen for a cost-conscious production. Other wicked cool Philippines monsters deserving of horror spotlights include a manananggal, a creature that separates its torso to fly, and a tikbalang, a creature with the head of a horse, the body of a man, and the feet of a horse.

There is a shocking amount of redundancy in this story best exemplified by the glut of characters. We have two grieving fathers raising teenage girls, we have two men who loved the same woman who was killed in the opening scene, we have two spiritual figures trying to combat evil possession, we have two teenage girls struggling with their loss of their mothers, we even have three authority figures (doctor, cop, pastor) all inserting themselves into this strange case. There’s so much crossover with these characters and their comparative stories that I’m quite surprised the filmmakers didn’t do some serious collapsing to better prune their narrative. If you’re going to have such character redundancy, you would think you’d highlight their parallel journeys as well as whatever can separate them. This is done to some extent but the differences are usually superficially one-note and never really affect the plot. Take for instance the commonality between Felix and Dr. Thane Noles. Felix was the “other man” in an affair and never lost his feelings for Mandy, though she lost hers for him. Felix blames himself for Mandy’s death but he’s still hung up on her after nine years since their tryst. A smart screenplay would really dive into this character dynamic, two men who shared the love of the same woman, but each should be able to provide insight into creating a bigger picture of this woman. The kind of woman she was with Felix should be different than who she was with her husband, not necessarily better but different. This would then provide a bridge for both men to find a level of understanding through these trying circumstances, not bonding per se but each discovering a little more about the woman they loved, getting to learn something new in her absence. Unfortunately, the film leaves all this drama unfulfilled, using the shared love as merely an excuse why Felix sticks around and why Dr. Noles doesn’t quite like him. Why do we need two spiritual warriors too except for maybe some sort of Exorcist homage? Make these character points matter more.

The same scrutiny could be applied to both daughters as well. Why do we need both girls vying for screen time and going through the paces of the same story? Because of the juggling, they drop out for long stretches of the movie’s 95 minutes, like right after Sarah gets possessed. You would think that lost time experience, as well as her involvement in a murder, would be an enticing thing to further explore. You would think a spirit taking over her body and getting more oppressive would be a natural escalation with urgency to watch. We’d witness Sarah freak out as she wakes up from more and more shocking behavior. It’s an easy story because it makes sense, watching our possessed schoolgirl lose her mind and body. However, Evil Takes Root only tags in Sarah when it wants to, and this means her ongoing development as a demon vessel is curiously left underdeveloped. In contrast, Christina is immediately the more interesting character because she has a hearing disability and a lingering resentment over her father. Christina is even willing to explore with dark arts to bring her mother back from the dead. Dear reader, I ask you why can these two characters not simply be combined? If one girl is stepping into the supernatural, why not have her as the own affected? Why do her actions need to be carried out on a different character who has a similar back-story but who happens to not personally involve the supernatural to try and bring her dead mom back? Why have Sarah volunteer at a hearing-impaired school when we could just follow Christina at that same school from the point of view of someone who is already hearing impaired? These are the central relationships and characters and yet they could have been streamlined or retooled for more concise and developed drama.

Evil Takes Root is a horror movie that makes me feel stuck in the middle of praise and shrugging. It looks and sounds like a professional movie with real technical acumen, but it’s also a lot of effort to tell a deeply generic story with deeply generic characters and no standout set pieces. The sound design, editing, cinematography, and spindly special effects are impressive and seamlessly blended together. The monster needed more screen time. Nobody should be ashamed to have this movie on their resume, though the screenwriters (the director and the producer) might not feel that same degree of pride. Perhaps the mediocre story is a result of the production problems trying to make dispirit pieces come together into a meaningful and cogent whole. I cannot say. Whatever the reasons, Evil Takes Root is a very good-looking yet methodically generic horror movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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