Monthly Archives: June 2021
William X. Lee is an Ohio filmmaker who has found credible success on his own terms and over decades, a fact that deserves celebration. The writer/director knows the business of filmmaking as a genre specialist and has even become an adjunct professor of film at two different universities. With his many years on the fringes of the indie business, I expect Lee has a lot of wisdom about the particulars of the industry and finding a market that is welcoming to content that can be messier in execution. His latest movie in pre-production is called Bulletproof Jesus and, sight unseen, I legitimately love that title with my every fiber. His 2020 film, Black Wolf, literally involves a 58-year-old man having to track down and kill his high school bullies, all of whom miraculously grew up to become terrorists. That sounds hilarious. I believe Lee’s personal story is compelling and acknowledge that genre filmmaking could use more voices and visions from under served perspectives. However, the results on film show indifference or even disdain for accessible storytelling and entertainment value. Black Mamba is a 2019 supernatural action revenge available on Tubi, as many of Lee’s films currently are for free, and it’s indicative of the man’s sense of style and storytelling, both of which I have plenty to talk about in excrutiating detail.
Kyiera Stone (Angela D. Williams) was killed by local criminals. She’s brought back to life by angels who give her a second chance to exact revenge. Kyiera is pitted against an endless assembly line of villains that all want to return Kyiera to her state of decay.
I may sound like a scold, but it is near inexcusable that this movie is two hours long. Far be it from me to instruct a creative how much time they need to tell their story, but you have to think about an audience when you intend a platform for your efforts. What is going to keep someone glued to that screen and justify their investment in every one of your minutes? This is the kind of movie that can barely creak over the 80-minute feature-length finish line, and to push forward to two hours is excessive without an engaging story that needs that extra room to grow.
There is no real plot to speak of beyond our main character coming back to life to wreck vengeance. The movie is patterned after Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself patterned over hundreds of genre movies, but it’s like Lee said, “Well, why stop with five bad guys to overcome when you can have 100!” Black Mamba (also the code name for the lead in Kill Bill) is stuffed to the breaking point with villainous characters and some of them are even being introduced with ten minutes left. The critical hit involves like a half dozen bad guys, and then there are more bad guys, and then hell is introducing its own bad guys, and then there’s like a fighting champion from hell, and witches, and I stopped caring because every scene played out exactly the same. The settings may vary, the person might be different, though with a cast list of rogues as long as this one good luck keeping them straight, but the scene plays out exactly the same. Some evil character gets the jump on Kyiera and within a minute she will kill them. That’s it. That’s all there ever is in these confrontations, many of which are hilariously short-lived. At no point will you fear or doubt Kyiera because she never seems to be in danger of losing. It makes the entire two hours extremely boring and repetitive. It also makes the majority of its two hours expendable. Rare is a two-hour movie where I could legitimately say that you could cut it down by 90 minutes, and yet that is the case with Black Mamba. It’s a movie of treading water.
Some of this could be mitigated by providing characters with big personalities, memorable flaws or quirks, or even interesting killing utensils, but Black Mamba feels more like a ramshackle improv fest where actors are entering scenes as “characters” with props or costumes they just assembled off-screen. I love genre movies and I love the way characters can be written for genre. Watch the TV series Justified because it is a masterclass in writing for character. Every character, even the bit-part villain of the week, is written with a distinct voice, an identifiable trait, an angle, something to make them stand out and feel more like a flesh-and-blood person in the stylized, hard-boiled universe of the show. The movie’s extended running time could have devoted scenes to showing why we should fear certain characters, their killing techniques that we would then anticipate seeing how they are applied to our heroine. Think of every movie you can with crazy killers and you see them apply their killer skills early because that’s how you get to fear them. Just being told, “so and so is deadly,” without seeing them in action is dull. In Black Mamba, often characters are over explaining things for the sake of the audience or seeming to narrate what is happening on screen. The dialogue is filled with profanity because it feels like nobody knew what else to say from scene to scene. There aren’t any tense exchanges and showdowns or clashes of viewpoints. It’s all just yelling, boasts, and non-clever insults.
The story doesn’t make much sense. There are angels that bring back Kyiera because it’s “not her time,” but then they want to use her in a celestial war? Was she lied to by the higher authorities in order to manipulate into an ongoing and endless war between heaven and hell? Is this a high-concept version of Munich and Kyiera is being used to perpetuate endless conflict regardless over culpability? No, well at least I doubt it. The larger workings beyond our heroine are left vague and seemingly shifting. The first thirty minutes could have been consolidated to ten to introduce the premise of Kyiera dying and being resurrected, but then there’s nary a section that couldn’t be consolidated, like the litany of interchangeable supporting characters.
Halfway through the movie, we suddenly jump to hell and it doesn’t really alter the direction of the story but only provides more witnesses to commentate on the action. This is where Esmerelda comes in. She’s the queen of hell and played by Dawna Lee Heising, a 65-year-old actress who got her (un-credited) start as a stripper in Blade Runner and has a long list of campy T&A roles in low-budget genre fare. She feels like the production’s big “get” and so she gets a lot of unnecessary screen time. The character is annoying and the entire addition of hell as an environment feels tacked-on. I thought I knew who the big bad final boss was, and then hell is introduced with its own cadre of damned killers, and I didn’t know who the final boss should be. There’s no feeling of a direct line for Kyiera’s goals. Think again to Kill Bill as a prominent example. She had a small list, each name crossed off brought her closer to her biggest target, but each became harder to accomplish and more personally reverent as she climbed the ladder of revenge. There was a feeling of progression and payoff as The Bride worked through her bloody vengeance. With Black Mamba, she’s inundated with one face after another, but you never feel progression because the movie only feels like it’s stuck in a Sisyphean loop of disposable foes. The structure of this movie doesn’t have the groundwork to provide forward momentum.
The first thing you’ll notice about Black Mamba right away is the choice to up the contrast so high that it may hurt your eyes at time. There are times where the color contrast is so extreme that it obfuscates what is happening on screen. You’ll see faces disappear into shadow in a room, and not in a way that feels intentionally ominous, and every time a character is driving outside it looks like an atomic bomb is going off in the background. It’s chiefly a distraction and an ugly one and one that feels like it was done to make the footage look more like a grungy grindhouse movie of old. Going for a specific visual aesthetic is a fine marker, but when it harms the clarity of what is happening then maybe it’s worth revisiting. There are simple things that could have been done to better orient the viewer. The color contrasts and color palette could have better been paired with specific locations so that the audience knows exactly where they were or whose story they were following, much like in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. We even literally have the denizens of hell as one frequent setting, so why not crank the contrast high and more fiery in colors, favoring oranges and reds, and then go for a cooler color palette for action on Earth? Or even have a section that isn’t contrasted to death? It’s a stylistic choice that grates severely.
I would be forgiving of some of the obvious technical limitations for a low-budget indie aiming for the feel of other classic low-budget indies, except that, reportedly, Black Mamba had a budget of $250,000. When I read that I burst out in incredulous laughter. Maybe it was a decimal error, or maybe Lee was very generous and paid his sizeable cast and minimal crew handsomely, or maybe there are other reasons why a quarter of a million dollars does not, in the slightest, look to have been translated onto the finished product. Where did all that money actually go?
I’ve been watching enough micro-budget indies in my pursuit of reviewing homegrown cinema that I feel more adept at better gauging a potential budget. There are locations to consider, though Black Mamba seems to reuse a lot of empty warehouses, alleyways, and church parking lots, and there is action to consider, though Black Mamba uses a lot of plug-in special effects and limited fight choreography, and there are actors to consider, which Black Mamba has in excess, and there is the general professionalism of the look and sound of the movie, which Black Mamba is definitely lacking. There are persistent sound issues (the louder yelling is so screechy and high-pitched that I had to cover my ears) and there is a dearth of editing coverage. Apart from the fight scenes, it feels like every scene was designed with one shot in mind to connect directly to the next. This can make things awkward in conversations that would flow better with alternate angles rather than one person with their back to the camera or in extreme close-up. I geuss it just didn’t matter or they didn’t have the time, and yet with the budget being reportedly a quarter of a million dollars? This movie feels far more like a $10,000 budget indie than $250,000. To be blunt, I have watched movies with budgets under $15,000 look and sound much better than this quarter-million-dollar movie.
I thought about watching other Lee original movies available on Tubi but I only watched about 15 minutes each of 2017’s Six Feet Below Hell, 2016’s King Killer, and 2008’s Kill Every Last One. I don’t think I could take watching all of these movies even for objective review purposes, each of which appears to have the same faults and high contrast value as Black Mamba (one of those films is an astounding 133 minutes long!). While designed to be sold, these movies do not feel designed to actually be watched and enjoyed. There are no real characters to fall in love with, conflicts to draw intrigue, or well-developed plots to thrill and surprise. These movies feel like empty product to line an endless array of schlock DVD shelves.
This brings me to my final complaint registered at Black Mamba. More than halfway through the movie, yet another character is introduced, this time a formidable fighting champ from hell. Upon hearing the man’s name, the queen of hell falls onto the floor and begins gyrating in pleasure, moaning the man’s name and declaring him to be an amazing god among men. This character is played by none other than… the writer/director himself. I almost walked away from the movie at that point. It’s difficult to critique something like Black Mamba. The people involved don’t seem to have any aspirations that what they were making was serious, and yet maybe they should have taken it more seriously. Because of the punishing two-hour length, because of the repetitive and stretched thin plot, because of the over population of unmemorable and disposable characters, because of the technical flaws that still persist after a decade of filmmaking, because of the lack of accessibility for providing an engaging story and characters for an outside audience, and because of its reportedly sizeable budget, I regret to deliver my first failing grade for an Ohio-made indie. I wish Mr. Lee and his team well but this is assuredly a case where if you’ve seen one of the man’s movies, you’ve seen every one of the man’s movies, and unless you were in these movies, you shouldn’t watch them even for irony.
Nate’s Grade: F
Famed standup comic Iliza Shlesinger had money, a rabid following from several popular Netflix specials, and a boyfriend who went to Yale, was a successful hedge fund manager, and a sweet guy, or so she believed. In real life, Shlesinger was victim to a man who wormed his way into her life and lied about every significant facet of his own life in order to impress. The true-life experience of Schlesinger was her inspiration to write her first screenplay, the “mostly true” Good on Paper. In the Netflix original comedy, Shlesinger plays a fictionalized version of herself, Andrea, a standup comedian who meets Dennis (Ryan Hansen) on an airplane. They form a friendship and he clearly wants more but she’s just not that into him. That doesn’t deter Dennis, who keeps nipping at her heels, and after he tearfully reveals his mother diagnosed with cancer, Andrea decides to give the “nice guy” a chance as a boyfriend. However, his fibs and excuses add up and test the resolve of Andrea, who questions who Dennis really is.
Where Good on Paper gets good is blowing up the manipulations of the “nice guy” persona that certain men cling to as a shield. There is a contingent of men out there in the dating world that dismissively view the disinterest of select women as a failing not on them but with the women, who just cannot grasp what how much these “nice guys” have to offer. They hold to the adage that “nice guys finish last” as a resentment builder, but it really comes down to this persona being one more version of toxic masculinity. The so-called “nice guys” will never view themselves by those terms, but they’re just as toxic because they proliferate an unhealthy sense of entitlement with their obsessions. Being the nice guy friend to a woman isn’t good enough, and her friendship seemingly isn’t reward enough, no, she must also give of her body if the “nice guy” requests, or so the expectation prevails. The phony “nice guy” accumulates emotional leverage to manipulate and guilt his object of desire and waits. This is gross behavior and I haven’t really seen this blown up before in a romantic comedy setting, so it was a welcomed source of comedy and commentary from Good on Paper. Dennis is a slimeball who uses points of sympathy and charm as pressure points with his targets. For him, it’s about living up to an imaginary standard, a version of himself he thinks others would better respect, and yet had he put in actual effort in self-improvement, chances are somebody out there could have accepted and even been attracted to him on his own terms. But he doesn’t want to put in that level of effort.
The casting of Hansen is also quite helpful because the audience is trying to see the natural charm hidden under the bad greasy haircut, bad fake teeth, and dad bod. Early on, Andrea says she was not physically attracted to Dennis, and this is emphasized by him slipping into a hot tub with his shirtless, untoned body right in her disinterested face. Hansen hasn’t gone full Method and gained weight; his face is cut off for the only shirtless scene, meaning it’s a literal dad bod body double for the actor. Hansen is best known in lunkheaded comic relief roles from TV’s Veronica Mars and Party Down. He has a natural goofy appeal and the casting utilizes this as a weapon. Dennis himself isn’t super charming or super funny, but he’s just funny or charming enough to draft off the actor’s own natural assets that you could understand why a woman like Andrea might find his company interesting. Hansen is great as an oily salesman constantly in flux, and when his elaborate cover stories are jeopardized is when the actor is at his funniest. His pathetic flailing and side-stepping of inconvenient facts pushes the actor to squirm, and since we know he’s the source of such discomfort for our heroine, watching him contort and squirm is gratifying.
The movie picks up once the lies from Dennis start to converge and multiple, or at least once Andrea begins her personal investigation. The movie’s best scenes are those shared between Shlesinger and her freidn played by Margaret Cho (Drop Dead Diva) as they feed on one another’s nervous energy and wild flights of imagination. The comradery between them has a lively and familial energy and it’s at these moments where the movie really embraces its own chaotic energy. Uncovering the truth about Dennis, and the depths of his deceptions, allows for a steady stream of reveals and payoffs. It’s enough to make me wish the movie spent less time on Dennis’ kooky roommates and a subplot with a rival actress whose seemingly blessed career infuriates and frustrates Andrea and more as a buddy movie between Shlesinger and Cho as bumbling detectives.
I do wish that Shlesinger had pushed further into the realm of farce. The mistaken identity/cover story routine is ready made for extra laughs from going bigger and broader. The movie is at its funniest when it embraces its sitcom setup and rides it for absurdity, like when Dennis is forced to keep adjusting his lies in the presence of Andrea’s friends, some of whom actually went to Yale and know enough to contradict his cover. There are points where it feels like the central premise is being stretched thin because it’s not fully going into the extra machinations and complications of farce. This is evident with a third act that feels misplaced and suddenly too serious, with some gross-out injuries that the proceeding comedy had not prepared us for tonally. There is even a courtroom battle that concludes with a cutaway from the verdict being read to a character explaining what happened. If this was going to be the way of resolving the big climax, why include it? And why include characters literally explaining things offhand in catch-up mode when Shlesinger has already written her stand-up interludes AND her voice over as direct devices? I think perhaps this story was so personal for Shlesinger that she didn’t want to depart too far from the facts of her experiences. As is, it’s definitely an intriguing story and has been featured in her stand-up routines, but as a feature film, Good on Paper could have benefited from some additional jolts of ridiculous comedy.
Good on Paper is good for 90 minutes of amusement and some decent chuckles. Shlesinger’s character is in her mid-30s and trying to stake out a successful career as a credible actress, and the real-life Shlesinger is trying to do the same so she wrote herself an acting showcase denied to her by other projects. Shlesinger feels like a ready replacement for the kinds of roles I would have associated with Katherine Heigl at the height of her rom-com run, if she wants it. She has a down-to-earth quality that makes her engaging and obvious comic timing. Her dramatic turns also relatively stick, though this might be the fortuitous alignment of her personal experiences directly translating into the role. I do wish Good on Paper had given a little more attention to filling out its story, punching up its comedy, and maybe pushing everything deeper as at times it can feel like an over-extended anecdote. It’s good enough for a light comedy and serves as a cautionary tale about dating in the digital age.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Every so often I’ll watch a movie and be really intrigued or hopeful with the premise, something that really grabs my imagination, and then that hope crashes and burns in disappointment of a story that never fully takes advantage of all the tantalizing possibilities of its start. In short, I say, “That movie didn’t deserve its premise.” That’s the first thing I thought about after watching Netflix’s new apocalyptic thriller, Awake, where humanity is suddenly incapable of going to sleep. There’s an engrossing drama about the psychological descent and a potent political thriller about the destabilizing of civilization once people are unable to get their forty winks. The premise peculates with such promise, and for it to become yet another end times road trip, hewing so closely to a solidifying formula, is like trapping everyone in a (bird) box.
Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is a former soldier, recovering addict, and current security guard who is also selling opioids on the side to make ends meet. One day, people are no longer able to sleep, everyone except her young daughter. Jill rescues her two children, gets into a car, and drives off for a far off scientific research base where a scientist (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) studying sleep might have the knowledge of how to solve this worldwide mystery.
I think most people have dealt with the effects of sleep deprivation at some point in their life, especially if they have ever had a newborn child. The subject matter is very relatable. I had a bout of insomnia years ago where I was averaging less than two hours of sleep for weeks, and it was the worst physical endurance I’ve gone through in my, admittedly privileged, existence. I felt like a zombie, barely able to function, my head forever fuzzy, and I lost all desire to eat and had to compel my body to consume food I knew it needed for fuel. I even purchased the Ensure nutritional drinks. It was a miserable time and I was even getting a minimal amount of sleep rather than none whatsoever. I’ve had rough sleep certain nights and feel like I’m running on fumes for the rest of my workday. It takes far more time to bounce back from bad sleep, and I’m wondering if I’ll ever actually get consistently restful sleep again for the rest of my life. With all of that stated, Awake should be an easy movie to plug right into and relate to the deterioration. However, it’s so unclear and clumsy in its depictions of the world. It’s unclear until the very very end how long the world has gone without sleep, and so we run into examples that seem to paint two different pictures of our apocalyptic environment: overplaying and underplaying.
At times, Awake is overplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. At points, it feels like society has broken down so completely and over a confusing timeline. There are run-ins with a group of elderly naked people just standing around and acting serene, a prison where the inmates walk out for unspecified reasons involving the guards, and a church that has already gone full-borne cult crazy by thinking that sacrificing the little girl who can sleep means they’ll be able to share in her slumber. The movie didn’t establish these people as crazy religious fundamentalists, so this sudden bloodthirsty turn feels like a leap. Even in 2007’s The Mist, the trapped townspeople gave into the corrupting influence of the religious bigot over time and distress. It reminded me of another Netflix apocalyptic, parental road movie, 2019’s The Silence, where it seemed like it was mere hours before a select group of people started cutting their tongues out and declaring they needed to kidnap women for the purpose of re-population. I suppose some people are just looking for the first good excuse to indulge their baser impulses, but then explore more of this feature with meaningful characters that will matter when they break bad. I think the movie would have greatly benefited from a clear timeline, some helpful titles keeping up with the clock, things like “50 Hours In,” and the premise could have been revised to be a slow evaporation of sleep rather than a strict cut-off. Maybe people are only able to get two hours a night, then one hour, then 30 minutes, and people are freaking out because they know it’s getting less. Let society have some measure of reconciling with the totality of what is to come.
At times, Awake is also paradoxically underplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. For the majority of the movie, our characters aren’t really acting differently even though they have been awake for multiple days. This is what also made me so confused. How much time has passed if nobody seems to be making a big deal about it? The slips in reaction time and awareness don’t really feel integrated until the chaotic conclusion. The family comes across the wreckage of an airplane and make no big deal of it. For that matter, if we’re establishing that sleep deprivation is causing planes to fall from the sky, I think there should be thousands of these crash sites dotting the landscape, unless the airlines have wised up and decided to ground their pilots because they’re afraid of potential post-post-apocalyptic class action lawsuits. Travels with Jill become too leisurely for everything that is going on (note to self: pitch an Anthony Bourdain-style travelogue during an apocalyptic social breakdown and tasting the new culinary delicacies). She senses that she will die and needs to train her children to survive in this new world without her. However, if only her daughter can sleep, then presumably only she will be left alive in due time and it’s less about fending for herself against other people and more how to live off the land. There’s an existential and more poetic, prosaic version of Awake where Jill is trying to cram years and years of parenting into a precious couple of days, where she also tries to secure a fortified hiding place for her daughter to wait out the rest of humanity dying off before she can come out like a hibernating animal. For Jill, its about securing her child’s survival rather than reversing this plague that is dooming humanity. There’s a stronger movie that could have been made had Awake been more personal and more serious rather than schlocky and muddled.
The movie does have a few moments of bizarre effect or risible tension, but these moments are few and far between and director/co-writer Mark Raso (Kodachrome) is very transparent about his genre influences. There’s a roadside checkpoint where a group of armed people try and break inside Jill’s vehicle and pull her and anyone else out the windows. The car is still driving as the assault goes on and the camera remains inside the vehicle while rotating around the interior as the attack plays out in a real-time long take. If you’ve seen the sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men, then this description should already be ringing a few bells of recognition. It’s not that Raso cannot pay homage to the sci-fi inspirations of his tale, but when you draw direct comparisons by emulating very specific artistic choices done by superior filmmakers, you’re inviting a negative impression. A standoff between Jill and an increasing exodus of prisoners had a queasy anxiousness to it because the movie lets the scene build with direct, immediate stakes. There’s a similar scene where Jill is hiding in a garage from voices, but the stakes don’t translate as well because our knowledge of who the other men are is limited. She could just sit in a corner and wait. The plane wreckage scene is impressively designed, and there are a few genuinely surprising moments, like the crowd of naked old people, to keep things curious, but Awake too often settles again and again for the most formulaic and least interesting creative path.
If this all sounds a lot like Netflix’s Bird Box, then congrats, because you’ve likely caught onto the reason this movie exists. Both movies feature an unexplained worldwide phenomenon that results in the breakdown of society where mobs and cults have formed, and both movies feature a single mother trying to lead her two children, one boy and one girl, through the hazards of the road so they can reach a supposed secure place where authority figures will have answers, and both movies feature a normal facet of human existence that, once removed, is making people go crazy and mess with their perception. Both of the movies also provide plum roles for high-profile actresses. Rodriguez (Miss Bala) is a compelling actress who has shined in lighter, rom-com material (Jane the Virgin), in quirky character-driven indies (Kajillionaire), and in somber existential horror (Annihilation). She has the tools to be great. Awake did not give her enough. There are a couple of scenes, late, of her starting to lose her bearings, and it’s here that I wished the filmmakers had realized that showing the effects of this cataclysm would be best than underplaying or overplaying the deprivation. Awake is an apocalyptic road trip that will bore more than excite and frustrate more than engage. Who knew sleeplessness was such a snooze?
Nate’s Grade: C-
A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.
In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.
It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.
David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.
There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.
It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.
I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.
The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.
A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There are two aspects that people remember vividly about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and that’s the fascinating collaboration of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time and its much-debated and much-derided extended ending. Before we get into either, though, a fun fact about its very helpful title for Luddites. Originally the title was only going to be A.I. but the studio found that test audiences were confused by the two-word abbreviation and several clueless souls thought it was the number one and not the capital letter “I.” The studio didn’t want their high-concept meeting of cinematic masters to be confused with a popular steak sauce.
In the realm of cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick rise to the top for their artistic ambitions, innovations, versatility, and great influence on future generations, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a uniquely shared sensibility. Kubrick’s films are known for his detached, mercurial perspective, flawless technical execution, leisurely pacing, and a pessimistic or cynical view of humanity. Spielberg’s films are known for their blockbuster populism, grand imagination and whimsy, as well as the director’s softer, squishier, and more sentimental view of humanity. It almost feels like a mixture of oil and water with their contradictory sensibilities. And yet Kubrick and Spielberg developed A.I. for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Kubrick optioned the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt that Spielberg was a better fit for director in the mid-1980s, but Spielberg kept trying to convince Kubrick to direct. Both took on other projects and kept kicking A.I. down the road, also because Kubrick was dissatisfied with the state of special effects to conceive his “lifelike” robot boy. Kubrick died in early 1999 and Spielberg elected to finally helm A.I. and finish their creative partnership. He went back to the original 90-page treatment Kubrick developed with sci-fi novelist Ian Watson and wrote the final screenplay, Spielberg’s first screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and his only one since 2001). I view the final movie as a labor of love as Spielberg’s ode to Kubrick and his parting gift to his fallen friend.
Watching A.I. again, it is a recognizable Kubrick movie but through the lens of Spielberg’s camera and budget. In some ways, it feels like Spielberg’s two-hour-plus homage to his departed mentor. The movie moves gradually and gracefully and, with a few delicate turns, could just as easily be viewed as a horror movie than anything overtly cloying or maudlin. The opening 45 minutes introduces a family whose child is comatose with some mystery illness and the likelihood he may never return to them. The husband (Sam Robards) is gifted with a shiny new robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), as a trial from his big tech boss (William Hurt) who wants to see if he can make a robot child who will love unconditionally. The early scenes with David integrating into the family play like a horror movie, with the intruder inside the family unit, and David’s offhand mimicry of trying to fit in can make you shudder. All it would take is an ominous score under the scenes and they play completely differently. One scene, which is played as an ice breaker, is when David, studying his parents at the dinner table, breaks out into loud cackling laughter. It triggers his parents to laugh alongside him, but it’s so weird and sudden and creepy. David’s non-blinking, ever-eager presence is off-putting and creepy and Monica (Frances O’Connor), the mother, is rightfully horrified and insulted by having a “replacement child.” However, her emotional neediness steadily whittles away her resistance and she elects to have David imprint. This is a no-turning-back serious decision, having David imprint eternal love and adoration onto her, and if she or her husband were to change their minds, David cannot be reprogrammed. He would need to be disassembled. With this family, David is more or less a house pet kept around for adoration and then discarded when he no longer serves the same comforting alternative. Once the couple’s biological child reawakens, it’s not long before jealousy and misunderstanding lead David to being ditched on the side of the road as an act of “mercy.”
From there, the movie becomes much more episodic with David and less interesting. The Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) addition furthers the story in a thematic sense and less so in plot. Gigolo Joe is a robotic lover on command, and framed for murder, and just as disposable and mistreated as David. From a plot standpoint, David’s odyssey is to seek out the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, a book his mother read to him, and to wish to become a real boy and be finally accepted as his mother’s legitimate son. Thematically, David’s real odyssey is to understand that human beings are cruel masters. In short, people suck in this universe and they don’t get any better.
People, or “orga” as they refer to organic life, are mean and indifferent to artificial life, viewing the realistic mechanical beings, or “mecha” as they are referred to, as little more than disposable toys. Despite its cheery happy ending (and I will definitely be getting to that), the movie is awash in Kubrick’s trademark pessimism. Early on, David is stabbed by another boy just to test his pain defense system. David is only spared destruction from the Flesh Fair, a traveling circus where ticket-buyers enjoy the spectacle of robot torture, because the blood-thirsty audience thinks he’s too uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be confused whether he is actually a robot considering that the adult models look just as realistic. He’s not like a super advanced model, he’s just the first robot kid, but applying the same torture spectacle to a crying robot child is too much for the fairgoers. However, this emergent reprieve might be short-lived once these same people become morally inured to the presence of robot kids after they flood the consumer market. Once the “newness” wears off, he’ll be viewed just as cruelly as the other older models also pleading for their pitiful mecha lives.
The tragedy of David is that he can never truly be real but he’ll never realize it. His personal journey takes him all over the nation and into the depth of the rising oceans, and it’s all to fulfill a wish from a benevolent make-believe surrogate mother. His programming traps David into seeing the world as a child, so no matter how old his circuits might be, he’ll always maintain a childish view of the world and its inhabitants. He’ll never age physically but he’ll also never mature or grow emotionally. Because of those limitations, he’s stuck seeing his mother in a halo of goodness that the actual woman doesn’t deserve. Monica felt like she was being helpful by ditching David before returning him to his makers, but this boy is not equipped to survive in the adult world let alone the human world. He cannot understand people and relationships outside the limited confines of a child. So to David, he doesn’t see the cowardice and emotional withdrawal of his mother. She knew the consequences of imprinting but she wanted to feel the unconditional love of a child again and when that got too inconvenient she abandoned him. Their relationship is completely one-sided with David always giving and his mother only taking. David’s goal is to be accepted by a woman who will never accept him and care for him like her organic child. She will never view David as hers no matter how hard David loves her. He cannot recognize this toxic usury relationship because he’ll never have any conception of that. David is trying to be loved by people undeserving of his earnest efforts and unflinching affections.
Let’s finally tackle that controversial ending, shall we? The natural ending comes at about two hours in, with David in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean and pleading with a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island to make him a real boy. He keeps whispering again and again to her, and the camera pulls out, his pleading getting fainter and fainter. The vessel is trapped under the water, so he’ll likely live out the rest of his battery life hopefully, and hopelessly, asking for his wish. It feels deeply Kubrickian and a fitting end for a tragic and unsparing movie about human cruelty and our lack of empathy. It’s also, in its own way, slightly optimistic. Because David is so fixated, he’ll spend the rest of his existence in anticipation of his dream possibly being granted with the next request. He has no real concept of time so hundreds of years can feel like seconds. Everything about this moment screams the natural ending, and then, oh and then, it keeps going, and the ensuring twenty additional minutes try and force a sentimental ending that does not work or fit with the two hours of movie prior. Two thousand years into the future, David is rescued by advanced robots (I thought they were aliens, and likely you will too) who finally grant his wish thanks to some convenient DNA of his two-thousand-year dead mother. These advanced robots can bring the dead back to life except they will only last one day, so David will have one last day to share with his mother before she passes back into the dark. However, David’s conception of his mother isn’t the actual woman, so his rose-colored glasses distortion means he gets a final goodbye from not just a clone but one attuned to his vision. It’s false, and the fact that the movie tries to convince you it’s a happy ending feels wrong. Also, the world of 4124 still has the World Trade Center because A.I. was released three months before the attacks on September 11th. It’s just another reminder of how wrong the epilogue feels.
This extended epilogue desperately tries to attach the treacly sentimentality that was absent from the rest of A.I., which is why many critics felt it was Spielberg asserting himself. Apparently, we were all wrong. According to an interview with Variety in 2002, the opening 45 minutes is taken word-for-word from Kubrick’s outline and the extended ending, including the misplaced happy every after, is also strictly from Kubrick’s original treatment. It was Kubrick who went all-in on the Pinocchio references and parallels. Even the walking teddy bear was his idea. Watson said, “Those scenes were exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what he wanted, filmed faithfully by Spielberg.” The middle portion was Spielberg’s greatest writing contribution, otherwise known as the darkest moments in the movie like the Flesh Fair and robot hunts. The movie is much more sexual than I associate with Spielberg. There has been sex in Spielberg’s past films, but it’s usually played as frothy fun desire with cheeky womanizers (Catch Me If You Can) or as a transaction with unspoken demands (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple). Then again, when Spielberg really leaned into a sex scene, we got the awkward and thematically clunky “climax” of Munich. With A.I., the perverse nature of humanity is another layer that reflects how awful these people are to the wide array or robots being mistreated, abused, and assaulted on an hourly basis in perpetuity.
Twenty years later, the movie still relatively holds up well and is good, not great. It’s more a fascinating collaboration between two cinematic giants, and the fun is recognizing the different elements and themes and attributing them (wrongly) to their respective creator. The special effects are still impressive and lifelike even by 2021 standards. Even though the movie is set in 2124, so over 100 years into the far-flung future, everyone still dresses and looks like they’re from the familiar twentieth century (maybe it’s retro fashion?). It’s a slightly distracting technical element for a movie otherwise supremely polished. There is a heavy emphasis on visual reflections and refractions of David in his family home, exploring the wavering identity and conceptions of this robo kid. Spielberg’s direction feels in keeping with Kubrick’s personal style and sensibility. A.I. is a labor of love for Spielberg to honor Kubrick, and he went another step further with the 2018 adaptation of Ready Player One where one of the missions was exploring a virtual reality recreation of the famous Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In my original 2001 review, I took the same level of umbrage with the miscalculated ending as I do in 2021. In the many years since its release, A.I. has been my go-to example of a movie that didn’t know where to properly end. As a result, it’s still a fascinating if frustrating experience on the verge of greatness.
Re-View Grade: B
Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Weeks ago, I listened to the original Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway recording for In the Heights, the first major musical by multi-hyphenate artistic virtuoso, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I had never heard the music before and I found that, over the course of a couple hours, little of it stuck with me. There were a handful of tracks where I thought it was nice but nothing grabbed me the way that Hamilton’s soundtrack did from the very start. Because of that musical dip, my expectations lowered slightly for the long-anticipated movie musical of In the Heights. Well, dear reader, let me say what a monumental world of difference seeing the songs in their proper context, with character relationships, and the able performances of the actors can do for making the music come alive. In the Heights is an exuberantly joyous experience, one brimming with energy and good vibes and a warm-hearted welcome that serves as the best argument movie theaters can have to come back and experience the pleasures of the big screen with your friends and family.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a twenty-something bodega owner in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and dreaming about returning to his home in the Dominican Republic. His young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps him stock the shelves and keep the family business going. We follow the many faces of the neighborhood, like Abuela (Olga Merediz), who has helped raise everyone as a sweetly matronly figure, Nina (Leslie Grace), returning home from her first year at Stanford as the “girl who made something of herself,” Benny (Corey Hawkins) who was in a relationship with Nina and is looking to work his way up as a cab dispatcher, Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who is moving her popular salon into another neighborhood, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who dreams of relocating into Manhattan’s fashion district. Usnavi has been nursing a crush over Vanessa for ages, but will he finally make a move before leaving the country for good to return to the Caribbean?
This is such a positive and overwhelmingly optimistic story that it becomes infectious, a pleasing balm to sooth all that ails you. It’s very easy to get swept away in the enthusiasm and energy of the movie, enough so that after the exemplary opening number setting up our characters, our setting, and our relationships and goals, people in my theater actually clapped, and I almost felt like joining them. In the Heights succeeds through how relatable and specific it comes across, lovingly showcasing the diverse population of Washington Heights and the community that feels at home here. It’s built upon the celebration of its specific, Latin-American heritage and culture but the movie is also constructed to be so accessible and welcoming to others to learn and join in. The themes and conflicts of these people have specific touchstones to their community, like the threat of deportation and the encroachment of gentrification taking away their neighborhood, but the inner conflicts like feeling the pressure to succeed and questioning whether your dreams are practical are worries that anyone regardless of ethnic background can relate to. In the Heights finds that sweet spot where it’s reverential to its own cultural background and open for anyone.
Naturally, in a musical, much of the appeal will live or die depending upon the quality of the music and the vitality of the performances. With In the Heights, the music and lyrics are quite good and the presentation is phenomenal. If you’re a fan of Hamilton, and if you have ears I assume you would be, it’s fun to listen to the early seeds that would become the signature sound for Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are similar salsa/merengue melodies and hip-hop-infused syncopations that will be familiar to the legions of Hamilton fans, including some rhymes (“Eyes on the horizon” among others). In many ways it’s like watching a junior thesis project of a genius. The opening number does a fantastic job of table setting as well as bringing the audience into this world and getting us excited for more. Usnavi, and Ramos especially, takes full control of our attention and command of the world with fast-paced delivery and extra charisma. There are more bouncy, humorous tunes like “No Me Diga” set in a salon replete with literal bobbing weaves, more traditional Broadway ballads like “Breathe” about a character expressing her doubts and guilt, and the Cole Porter-esque smooth jazz of our young lovers dancing and declaring their affection for one another like “When the Sun Goes Down.”
But the best moments are the ones that open up the big space and bring the whole community of Washington Heights into the mix. The electricity of the opening number is rekindled in “96,000” where a trip to the local pool turns into a jumping jamboree where everyone dreams about what they would do with a winning lottery ticket sold at Usnavi’s bodega. It allows each character an opportunity to share their dream and what is important to them, providing each person a platform to be more defined. It also taps into that bubbling optimism that permeates the entire movie. The grand finale also has the same effect as characters sing their hearts out about lessons learned and wisdom gained and, thanks to the medium of film, it provides a happy ever after resolution that was unavailable on stage. Miranda is excellent at weaving musical themes to come back into multi-harmonic convergences and crescendos, and it all comes to a rousing and uplifting conclusion.
Another concern about big screen musicals is whether they can translate to the visual landscape of cinema, whether they can escape the trappings of the stage, and In the Heights is exactly how musicals should be filmed. Director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) got his filmmaking start with the Step Up dance franchise and knows, whatever the film, how to keep things moving swiftly and full of vivacious energy. Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, In the Heights doesn’t feel like it has any noticeable down time. The filmmaking choices adapt with the needs and intents of the songs, so when we have a fast-paced multi-part song and dance, the editing adopts this speed, and when we have large ensembles the cinematography widens to take in the expansive group choreography. When things need to slow down and become more intimate, Chu’s camera adopts to this and relies on longer tracking shots and close to medium shots. The pool choreography in “96,000” is splashy fun and lively and very colorful, and the quick visual cues and edits of “In the Heights” incorporates the neighborhood into the music to make New York City feel like a living participant. Chu’s direction takes full advantage of what film can offer but still makes the viewer feel the same intimacy and vibrancy of live theater.
There are two standout movie moments. The first is the song “Paciencia Y Fe” that does so much symbolic heavy lifting about the immigrant experience, discrimination, and the long struggle for personal dignity, that it made me tear up by the end for a character that, only moments before the empathetic expose, was a nominally nice old lady. The other is “When the Sun Goes Down” between Benny and Nina, which begins with them gazing out a fire escape and takes a magical turn into dancing along the walls of their building like Spider-Man. That transitional moment, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, is the only real magical realism in the show, so Chu has been saving it up for his big moment. The dance is beautiful to behold, and the perspective has an Inception-style spin that alters their balance and perspective of what is up. It’s a beautiful movie moment, captured in long takes, and reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s fanciful fantasias.
Ramos (A Star is Born) played John Laurens in the initial stage show of Hamilton, and its filmed production on Disney Plus, and now he gets his own starring vehicle. He is tremendous as Usnavi, convincingly laid back and charming while also being amusingly anxious around his crush. The awkward romantic fumbles are adorable. Ramos’ singing and skill with the flow of rap lyrics is impressive, but he’s also providing a performance first and worrying about the singing second, not that he should be worried on that front. Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) surprised me with the range of his singing, and he’s such a pleasant presence to have along. Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx) is hilarious at times, like when he’s adopting a macho voice to ask Vanessa adult questions, but he can also break your heart like when he reveals his own legal vulnerability. His poolside solo is also a delightful interjection about what his own rap skills comprise. Merediz (Godmothered) is the only holdover from the original stage show and she is so captivating in her signature number that it’s easy to understand why she was nominated for a Tony Award. There are so many amusing and enjoyable supporting characters populated by familiar faces, like the women of the salon (Rent’s Ruben-Vega, Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz, and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) providing comic relief and a playful attitude, Jimmy Smits as the noble father giving of himself for his daughter’s future, and Miranda and Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson as dueling sweet treat vendors vying for summer supremacy. You’ll enjoy your time in Washington Heights thanks to these fine folks.
It’s unfair to directly compare In the Heights to Hamilton, like looking at an artist’s portfolio and complaining it isn’t quite up to the standards of Da Vinci, but one area where In the Heights does come up short is the depth of its characterization. The film exudes good vibes as it skips over topical and important political issues with an optimism that might, arguably, borderline on naivete. This feels almost like the opposite-minded compliment to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, another tale of a New York City block one very hot day. The characters are kept at a genial level of interest that makes them enough to feel for and root for, but they’re not exactly deep portrayals with complex conflicts. All the characters have a singularly defined personal conflict that can be resolved by the end, and the lessons about learning to listen to others, appreciate family and self, and find home where you feel it are not exactly revolutionary or complex. Again, this stuff works, and I understand why the story needs characters that have lesser complexity and definition to fulfill the different levels of life. It’s just when compared to the depth of the real people of Hamilton where you realize that maybe the colorful characters of Washington Heights are held to a lesser standard and simply not as multi-dimensional.
In the Heights is a joyous experience that I think I’ll enjoy more upon re-watching and listening to the soundtrack over the summer months. I can completely understand why people fell in love with this musical upon its initial release and touring, and I can also acknowledge that it’s clearly an earlier artistic steppingstone to greater later achievements for Miranda. That’s not to take anything away from the pleasures of this particular story, these particular characters, and especially these particular songs. In the Heights is a lively and welcoming musical experience that carries a deep affection for its cultural roots and invitation for others to join that celebration. It’s powerfully optimistic that it’s so easy to be swept away and smile with its charms and uplift. In the Heights takes advantage of its cinematic opportunities, the charisma and energy of the talented cast, and the soaring and lovely melodies and catchy rhymes from Miranda. In the Heights is a great way to kick off a return to a summer season at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-
The cast and crew of Infinite were taken by surprise when their corporate overlords decided to shuttle the big-budget action movie to its fledgling streaming service, Paramount Plus. Fortunately for me, I had just purchased a yearlong subscription plan because I wanted to watch Bar Rescue whenever I pleased, so I was one of the lucky ones to gain access to this first “Paramount Plus Original Movie” as it quietly premiered. It might be for the best after all. Infinite is a high-concept action movie by committee that feels so lacking in just about every critical department.
Evan McCauley (Wahlberg) is a man suffering from schizophrenia, or so he believes. He has strange visions in his head from past historical time periods and he instinctively knows how to forge a samurai sword. He’s interrogated by Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who recognizes Evan as an ancient foe that he has fought through multiple past lives. Bathurst wants to kill Evan before he can remember who he is and stop Bathurst’s evil scheme. Evan is rescued by Mora (Sophie Cookson, Kingsman) who informs him that he is one of the Believers, a group of immortals who get reincarnated after each death. They’re waging a secret war against the Nihilists, lead by Bathurst, who want to obliterate the world rather than be reborn into it again. Evan must relearn his many pasts and help the Believers recover a hidden doomsday weapon his past self hid.
You’d be forgiven if you thought you had watched Infinite before, perhaps in a past life, because it’s so highly derivative. The story runs on two very well-worn tracks of science fiction storytelling, the Chosen One plot and the Secret War plot. You’ve seen variations on both in plenty of familiar sci-fi action movies, comic books, and the central pillars for countless Young Adult titles. Think about being told this statement: “Your ordinary life has been merely an elaborate cover, and you’re no ordinary person but secretly a powerful and important [fill in the blank] and there’s been a war going on in the shadows between [fill in the blanks] and you’re the key to solving this ages-old conflict.” I bet many of you can already think of similar titles that apply. There’s Harry Potter and Highlander and The Matrix and the Assassin’s Creed series and even more specific examples like Wanted, where it too features a sexy woman rescuing our lead in a sexy car and fending off bad guys while she informs him of his secret true calling. Even Ejiofor was in a strikingly similar movie just last year, 2020’s The Old Guard. It’s all so vaguely familiar at every moment that you’ll question whether it’s all built from spare parts.
Then there’s the added reincarnation angle, where people have amazing skills that they never knew they possessed (The Matrix, Wanted) and souls going from host body to host body (Cloud Atlas). In fact, David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, essentially wrote this very story in his 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks. In that novel, we learn that there are two factions of immortals who are reborn after every death, one group that preys upon the souls of mankind and another trying to defend the innocents. That book explores a lot more in the realm of identity (characters are reborn in different genders and races), time, and purpose than with Infinite, which settles for a recycled B-movie doomsday plot that even video games are getting tired of now. If past lives and reincarnation is just another disposable gimmick for super powered beings duking it out over a cataclysmic MacGuffin, then why bother with the existential possibility of the premise?
For a movie that takes so much time to spit out clunky exposition, Infinite is fairly incoherent and, occasionally, self-defeating. When you’re entering any new territory, there’s going to be a learning curve. Imagine how Neo learned about his misconception of reality, the war and history with the machines, and his capabilities he was opening himself up to. Exposition is best done in portions equally spaced out and tied to action, so our characters can learn through doing and failing and then succeeding. With the gimmick of past lives, it could open up such intrigue and possibility about human potential as well as the difficulty of these immortals finding one another across the globe for centuries, restarting with every rebirth (a fact explored in The Bone Clocks). It also would lend itself to characters being reckless with action movie stunts because, at worst, they die and take a twenty-year or so timeout before getting back into the action. Nothing of real interest happens with the past lives gimmick. The movie treats it as a shortcut to give its characters superpowers, and by tapping into those memories, now they have all these crazy super abilities that no mortal could accomplish in merely a single lifetime (sorry Bruce Lee). Imagine if in The Matrix, instead of Neo learning and training that they just uploaded everything into a Chosen One 3.0 security patch they downloaded (yes, he downloads skills, but we see the process demonstrated as visual progression). It’s boring to watch. The movie even could have explored more about these past lives, experiences, and lessons learned rather than in kaleidoscopic flashbacks. For the entire premise, Infinite seems so strangely limited in scope.
Then there’s the plot device that destroys the scheme of the villains. The Nihilists are tired of the eternity of being reborn and stuck with the accumulation of their memories. Bathurst says when he begins anew in the womb, he is a fully cogent adult brain and it’s nine months of torture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the only interesting component in the entire movie that relates to the reincarnation premise. The Nihilists want to destroy all life so then they can never be reborn again, though this still seems theoretical. They have also developed a special device that will store a person’s consciousness onto a computer hard drive or microchip, supposedly stopping that consciousness from being reintegrated into a new host body. If this is the case, why isn’t Bathurst and his Nihilist fellows taking advantage of this? They’ve already developed a solution that works and doesn’t involve the destruction of all life on the planet. I don’t even know why Infinite introduces this absurd plot mechanic considering the damage it does. I guess it was an attempt to raise the stakes with immortals where death isn’t permanent, but for the purposes of the movie, a death means they are taken out of this present fight for the fate of the world. The stakes are still there. The implications are also nebulous, as they talk about souls as currency but can human souls be downloaded onto a portable technological deice? This entire plot device is silly in conception and even worse in execution, with big swirly bullets that also glow as they zip along.
Wahlberg (Spenser Confidential) is on autopilot for the entire movie. He’s laconic and nonplussed and without any hint of humor or fun to be had. His under-performance is compensated by the overacting of Ejiofor (Doctor Strange) in a disastrous dynamic that reminded me of the 2011 Oscar hosting performance by the tandem of James Franco (under performing) and Anne Hathaway (over performing). At least Ejiofor is holding my attention with his high energy level and a maniacal glee that reminded me of James Bond villains. The problem is that nobody else is delivering this same arch level of camp. Everyone else in the cast is trying to play things so icy cool and nonchalant, and it just makes all the characters feel like boring robots.
And yet all of this could be forgiven if Infinite had some memorable and exceptionally exciting or well-developed set pieces to entertain. Much can be excused or mitigated if an action movie delivers upon its action. Alas, Infinite cannot escape the orbital decay of its lack of imagination. The derivative nature extends to the action, which consists of a series of rote chases and gunfights. There is one sequence that had promise for the scale of its destruction, a car chase through the different floors and levels of a police building. It’s viscerally entertaining to watch all of the many things gets smashed while raising the question just how fragile concrete walls are constructed to be in downtown metropolitan architecture. This is also the moment that Evan is brought into the new world, which means it’s all downhill from here. Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) is an action genre veteran and can be counted on for some degree of style to jazz up the proceedings, but he can only do so much with sequences lacking points of interest and tension. Infinite would play better as campy nonsense, but it won’t acknowledge this identity.
Given how derivative everything appears, it’s surprising Infinite is based on an original work, the self-published 2009 novel The Reincartionist Papers by D. Eric Maikranz. The author offered his readers ten percent of his advance for whoever helped get him to sell the film rights to Hollywood (true to his word, Maikranz paid out in 2019). Already, this is more entertaining to me than anything provided in the 106 plodding and incoherent minutes of Infinite as a movie. The high-concept premise is reduced to a lazy shortcut for superpowers for a group of know-it-alls trying to act cool and strut while delivering exposition by the truckload. The action is stifled, the characters are dull, and the world feels so sprawling but without needed definition. This could have been any combination of Chosen One and Secret War story elements. What about Harry Potter battling the bullet-curving killers from Wanted? Or what about Neo facing off against the ancient society of werewolves and vampires in sleek lather catsuits? Or an immortal special ops crew that must track down other immortals before they can do lasting harm? This mix-and-match formula belies how truly interchangeable the story elements are with Infinite. It closes on voice over by Wahlberg that genuinely made me guffaw. Looking to the future, he says, literally, “Well the possibilities are… infinite.” For this hopeful film franchise, I strongly doubt that.
Nate’s Grade: C-
In the time I have spent making a concerted effort at reviewing Ohio-made indie movies, I have yet to watch one that amazed me and earned an A-grade. There are several that are enjoyable, others admirable for their technical professionalism, and many that have glaring factors beyond limited budgets that hold back whatever the intended artistic intent was. I was excited with genuine hope for Holler, a small movie shot entirely in Jackson, Ohio and following the lives of a struggling band of small-town metal scrappers looking to survive. It’s the debut feature from writer/director Nicole Riegel (based upon her 2016 short film of the same name) and has recognizable TV actors involved like Jessica Barden (End of the F***ing World), Pamela Adlon (Better Things), Austen Amelio (Dwight from The Walking Dead) and Becky Ann Baker (Girls, Freaks and Geeks). It’s even getting a wide release nationwide through IFC Films, who graciously provided me a screener link. If any movie felt like it was going to breakthrough and become the first truly outstanding Ohio indie, this seemed like a major possibility. Unfortunately, Holler doesn’t merit hollering.
Ruth (Barden) is a high school senior in a small southern Ohio town wracked by poverty, factory closures, and the aftereffects of the opioid epidemic. Her mother (Adlon) is serving time in prison for her drug offenses when she should be in a treatment center. Her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) is resigned that he’ll work himself to nothing, but he wants a better life for his bright sister and submitted her college application. Ruth and her brother join Hank (Amelio), a local scrapper who offers extra work for side projects stripping the parts from closed buildings.
While watching Holler, I noticed my heart was sinking because, even with all this professionalism and authenticity on board, I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in, and then I noticed an hour had passed and I realized, “Oh, this is the movie.” I have seen this artistic calculation with indie movies before and articulated it succinctly with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild: “sacrificing story to the altar of realism.” This feels like a very authentic movie as far as its hardscrabble details about how impoverished people in small towns eke out a life on the peripheral of society. I know people have been pushed to the brink because of desperation, whether economic or psychotropic or beyond, and that scrapping can be a dangerous and competitive landscape to make a few bucks. When you’re struggling to get by, it’s all about what can lighten that struggle. If stripping the copper wire out of an abandoned building is more profitable, and less time-consuming, than bagging aluminum cans all over town, then it seems like a natural attraction to those with limited options. However, Holler feels less like a movie with a story needing to be told than a stark setting with an impression to leave.
The characters are too interchangeable and one-dimensional here to really invest in beyond general well-wishing. These small-town Ohioans have been hit hard by circumstances and as I was watching I wanted them to find some degree of happiness or improvement by the end, but that was because they were simply people in need and I am an empathetic creature and not because of their personal stories or characterization. It would be the same as if I had watched 90 minutes of a lost puppy trying to find shelter and then, at long last, that puppy got to sleep inside a coffee shop. I’m happy, and relieved on a general level, but am I personally invested in this specific animal and this specific story? Could it have been any living being at all?
The characters of Holler are far too generalized where they keep repeating that same nub of characterization they’ve been given. The entire dynamic seems to be a universe of characters who exist to try and convince Ruth that she is better than everyone and deserves to leave. In an early scene, we watch Ruth sit down and write an essay for a friend to use as her own homework. It’s an early indication that Ruth is smart and not fulfilling her potential. It’s not her homework she’s completing but a friend’s and for money, money she initially refuses from pride. Unfortunately, the movie forgets to continue moments like this to provide further insights. Ruth is too often a walking cipher, taking in her dilapidated surroundings with alternating pensive and glum stares. She is more a symbol than a character, meant to serve as a face of those held back by economic anxieties and limited opportunities. Her mother is a symbol of the wreckage of the opioid crisis and how it has decimated rural communities. Her brother is a symbol of generational sacrifice. These characters don’t have complicated internal drama or intriguing contradictions or anything beyond the surface description because they’re designed to be specific voices meant to convey a Greek chorus of opinion. They’re sides of conversations made flesh rather than interesting or complex people. I wanted to become attached to Ruth’s plight especially as she embarks on performing more dangerous tasks for money with her scrap crew, but you never feel any real added danger or for that matter any real change. When Ruth is out scrapping in the middle of the night, the movie treats it no differently. When Ruth finally makes her decision about her life, it doesn’t feel like the culmination of her emotional journey and more so the character finally accepting the pleas of others over the course of 85 minutes.
The obvious artistic comparison point for Holler is 2010’s Winter’s Bone, another movie that explored in unflinching detail the degenerative disease of systemic poverty. Once again, we follow a young woman trying to provide for her broken family in the wake of a parental drug addiction and trying to stay one step ahead of debt collectors and eviction. Another artistic influence seems to be 1970’s Wanda, an indie featuring a housewife walking away from the malaise of her life in small-town coal country Pennsylvania. The difference with both chief artistic influences is that they had, quite simply, movies to tell with their big screen canvas. With Winter’s Bone, there’s an urgency where the protagonist has to find her absent father in short order to save her family home but also because he has made some very scary meth dealers very angry, so the way to save her family is literally to turn over the man who abandoned them to ruin. There’s a strong sense of personal stakes, there’s a ticking clock, and the themes tie into the emotional journey of our main character. With Wanda, the main character is the one abandoning her husband and children and she takes refuge with a bank robber on the run. With each of those descriptions, you can see the movie there, the reason why this story deserves your time.
With Holler, I kept waiting for some turn or escalation or something to draw out the movie. The movie feels stuck in an expository gear I would associate with Act One territory and then it ends. I really thought more would be made of the illegal scrapping-for-money angle and whether this would present our lead character with increasingly fraught choices over her well-being. I thought maybe her descent into the criminal side of desperation would force more confrontations or consequences. Maybe there would be another crew that didn’t take too kindly to an entrepreneur muscling in on their hard-won turf. Maybe she would have to hide her injuries as she got more reckless. Maybe she’d even risk getting caught by the law and serving time in prison. Anything to offer insight into this less known world of scrapping. I regret to say that the angle that gives this low-budget indie its very hook could have been replaced with any other arbitrary plot element. Ruth could have been finding lost dogs or stealing cars or selling her bath water to perverts on the Internet. The circumstances of her personal choices are so generalized and don’t produce enough direct cause-effect relationships. The events fail to feel meaningful. The solution to Ruth’s dilemma also seems as generalized – go to college. What is she going to study? Does she have a career in mind? Does she even have personal interests? She rejects one teacher’s recommendation to avoid a crushing load of student debt and to learn a skill and work up, so then what is she going to do with tens of thousands of dollars in debt attached to her name? I understand that education is aspirational and one of the few things in life that, once gained, cannot be taken away, and I champion education as a person working within that sphere. However, “get out of economic desperation by just going to college” seems naively simplistic.
Holler is admirable for its grit and empathetic with the struggles of its people. It’s professionally made with a strong score by Gene Beck (Cowboys), all mournful strings applied to lived-in details that feel authentic to the region and these inhabitants. Even the angle of scrapping-for-money seems ripe for exploration to separate this little movie from the pack of poverty pictures. It’s the storytelling that cannot live up to the good intentions of those involved. The characters are too one-note, symbolic, and disposable, and the story elements are likewise too interchangeable and lacking in meaningful connections. It’s a small-town girl who must decide to leave home to take on massive student debt (happy ending?). Anything that happens in the prior 85 minutes feels like variations on the same point being made repeatedly and without nuance or complication or contrast. It feels less like a movie and more like an expanded short absent the substance to justify its expansion. I think Riegel has promise as a filmmaker and I hope more attention goes to her characters and plot for future projects. I must continue to wait once again for that elusive Ohio-made amazing indie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Three movies in, plus four spinoff films and more on the way, and The Conjuring franchise is losing some of its luster. The original director, James Wan, is still involved in an advisory capacity but his absence is felt in the director’s chair, not that The Devil Made Me Do It is poorly directed by Michael Chaves (Curse of La Llorona), but it’s starting to feel stale. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) are a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators traveling the country and solving 1970s/80s mysteries. This third entry feels the most like an expanded episode from a TV series, like X-Files, and maybe that’s because of its inherently procedural nature. The Warrens are defending a young man accused of murder but who says, as the subtitle describes, that he is not guilty by reason of demonic possession. From there, the Warrens are investigating to prove the demon exists and then trace its demonic history. The scares are low although the intensity feels cranked just as high; there are lots of scenes of gale force winds, shattered windows, characters yelling, and loud music. I miss the perfectly executed Old School horror sequences that were the hallmark of the earlier movies. It set up its rules, wound up the scene, and you just squirmed in anticipation. This franchise has never been revolutionary but more an expertly polished and honed tension machine. However, when the calibrations are off, then the franchise has even less going for it. There are some interesting ideas and elements, like Lorraine (Farmiga) being able to see from the eyes of the demonic killer, but the franchise feels more repetitive and stalled, with multiple exorcisms and Ed (Wilson)’s health being a motivating factor for his wife to prevent, again. The supporting characters are bland or broad and the mystery itself isn’t that interesting, nor is the ultimate villain. In the realm of Conjuring as weekly TV show formula, this feels like an acceptable middle episode with the expectations that they can improve the next week. The “based on true cases” selling point is also starting to grate in light of the reality that a man blamed his own actions on the devil and these controversial people sought to exonerate a murderer. The real-life version is morally abhorrent. The junky horror version can work as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If the other Conjuring movies were gourmet entries, then this is more the fast food version. It may still satisfy fans but it’s definitely not as well made and with questionable ingredients.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I don’t think I’ll be shocking any readers when I disclose that this Cruella doesn’t kill a single dog in her new movie. I hope I didn’t ruin the experience for anyone hoping for mass puppy slaughter. I figured Disney was going to go this route as they developed a villain biopic for Cruella DeVil, a woman obsessed with making coats from the skin of dalmatians. How exactly does one make a character like that sympathetic? Well by essentially making her a fan fiction version of Cruella DeVil and providing an even more dislikable antagonist to root against. The question then arises does this really count as a villain biopic when the character is so reconstructed? It follows the blueprint of 2014’s Maleficent where it posits that the story we’ve been told has been a matter of misunderstandings and smear campaigns from the Powers That Be. Cruella isn’t a puppy murderer. Now she’s a school outcast, plucky orphan with her own motley crew, and up-and-coming avant garde fashion designer looking to get her big break.
It presents her as an underdog on several fronts and with a back-story that might go down in history for its reclamation. Minor spoilers ahead, considering it’s early in the movie, but Cruella’s mother was literally killed by dalmatians pushing her off a cliff. The blunt re-imagining might even draw titters of laughter as the movie says, “Here’s the real reason she dislikes dogs.” However, even this tragic revision doesn’t make this Cruella hate dogs. There’s even a cute pooch on her team. This is a Cruella that’s not so cuddly but not unlovable either. She’s presented as a scrappy underdog with a punky attitude and whether this works will depend on your adherence to what a Disney villain biopic should be. Personally, I had no fidelity to the character of Cruella DeVil so I didn’t care. I wanted an entertaining movie with a strong lead performance from Emma Stone, and that’s what I got.
Set in 1970s London, Estella (Stone) is a lonely girl born brilliant but tempered by an uncaring society. After the dalmatian-assisted murder of her mother, Estella and her pals are meeting out their days with small-time grifts and cons. Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and her boys manage to get her an entry level job at a department store. Her experimental window display gets the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a sharp-tongued and formidable fashionista that makes the world tremble. Estella adopts the identity of “Cruella,” with her natural half-black and half-white hair, to upstage the Baroness, draw publicity for her own unique fashion creations, as well as enact vengeance and retrieve her mother’s missing necklace/family heirloom stolen by the Baroness, as if you needed even more reasons to dislike this lady.
Cruella in many ways feels like The Devil Wears Prada mixed with a superhero origin tale. The Estella/Cruella dynamic is played like a secret identity, wherein she adopts one to achieve a personal goal and becomes seduced by the freedom the alternate identity has to offer. The first half plays quite like Prada, with our fashion upstart working her way up the chain, gaining attention for her insights and designs while fighting against a system meant to squash new ideas. The character of the Baroness is very clearly patterned after Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and the command she wielded in her influential position atop the established fashion industry. At first, Estella wants to gain her approval and become a protégé, and then she wants to topple her, crush her, and it becomes a matter of how far she will go, with characters saying variations on, “You’ve changed. It used to be Estella, now it’s only Cruella.” Even The Devil Wears Prada featured a similar character descent for its protagonist. Except the question never seems too in doubt with Cruella because the character of Cruella is less a person succumbing and fraying, like the Oscar-winning 2019 Joker prequel, and more a tale of self-actualization and empowerment. That’s why it feels more like a superhero origin and less like the Joker’s origin. She’s becoming more confidant, more assertive, and more accepting of her true nature.
Under the direction of Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), Cruella feels like a colorful, sprightly caper, something with more attitude and dark humor than I would have believed capable of being forged from the Mouse House with their own intellectual properties. This could have easily been a cash grab but Gillespie and his team of screenwriters, including one of the writers from 2018’s The Favourite, decides to take that big Disney checkbook and have fun with it. This movie reminded me of a PG-friendly version of 2020’s Birds of Prey for adolescents. It’s got slapstick, schemes, contraptions, narrative shuffling, charming and weird characters, and a lot of visual style and attitude to spare. Above all else, this is a fun movie, and one that assembles set pieces and mini-goals that lead to enjoyable payoffs. There’s a funny big heist as the mid-point but it doesn’t go according to plan, as so we watch as Estella and her team have to adapt and get out of a series of escalating traps. The rivalry between Cruella and the Baroness leads to some gaga dress designs I’m certain will get Oscar attention in due time. There’s plenty of life simply coursing through this movie from the actors to the visuals to the extensive music library. Even when the movie is overstaying its welcome (this could have easily been trimmed down by 15 minutes) the movie still finds ways to keep you entertaining and pleased.
Chief among those reasons is Stone (La La Land) as our star. She’s honed her British accent after her Oscar-nominated performance from The Favourite and it’s easy to see a straight-line from that cunning social climber to this new role. Stone finds the right mix of camp and pathos to make the character work. She’s no exaggerated cartoon but she needs a certain energy level to keep you charged. She’s no mousy heroine but a powerful force looking for the right armor that fits. Stone might not be playing the Cruella DeVil of the 1961 cartoon but she’s playing a version of the character that is more capable of carrying a two-hour-plus movie. Special consideration should be paid out to Paul Walter Hauser, who was so memorably dimwitted in I, Tonya, and portrays Horace, a similarly dimwitted member of Cruella’s crew. The man knows what he’s doing when he’s given these roles and it’s easy to see why he keeps getting more.
The amount of needle-drop music cues in this movie puts 2016’s Suicide Squad to shame. I was amazed how that movie could literally go from song-to-song with barely a gap, sometimes only using mere seconds to make its sonic case. The Cruella soundtrack is wall-to-wall music selections, many from the 1960s and 1970s rock and punk scene, and it’s another holdover from I, Tonya that Gillespie has brought with him. The over reliance can become distracting in itself because of the sheer volume of musical selections, many of which can be exceedingly literal (you better believe, yet again, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is called in). It’s a sign of just how powerful the Disney brand can be as I’m sure a huge chunk of the movie’s budget went toward getting all these dozens and dozens of music clearances. If you consider it like a kid’s introduction to classic rock songs, it’s excusable, but the number of songs can also be distracting.
Whether you consider Cruella a faithful or radical reinterpretation of the Disney villain, the live-action showcase is a star vehicle for its shining star. Stone is captivating and having a grand time in her fabulous fashions, and the movie makes it easy to feel her highs as well. It’s not exactly a great movie as many of its supporting characters are underwritten or overly convenient, and its question over the madness and identity of its heroine is more theory than practice, but Gillespie and his team have decided to make Cruella a fun movie, and to that end they have succeeded. It’s colorful, breezy, punky, funny, and consistently amusing, with outlandish set pieces, outlandish characters, and outlandish escapes. Yes, the mom-killed-by-dalmatians tragic back-story might elicit its own howls of bafflement, but the movie doesn’t belabor it for extra ironic impact. Cruella (or Cruella Lite, if you will) is an entertaining reinterpretation that knows what to scuttle to work on its own terms. Whether those alterations are too drastic or defang the character are up to you, but I’d rather watch a kinder, softer, yet still prickly Cruella than one skinning dogs.
Nate’s Grade: B