Monthly Archives: February 2022
What are we doing here? This new Netflix Texas Chainsaw Massacre is part reboot and part distant sequel to the 1974 original, even bringing back sole survivor Sally Hardesty to get her very grizzled Jamie Lee Curtis-in-Halloween 2018 vengeance. There are a lot of bad sequels and remakes in this franchise’s history, blinked out of existence here with this ret-con, so keep your expectations pretty low. This is a 75-minute movie with a wisp of a plot, so much so that it doesn’t even wait until the twenty-minute mark for the conveyor belt of carnage to begin. I suppose that can be a virtue for genre audiences. This is a decidedly gory and crunchy horror movie, gleefully splashing in entrails and jump scares rather than taking the time to develop something more. If we’re upholding the original’s timeline, then this Leatherface is in his mid-seventies. We need fun slasher movies too (I enjoyed the fifth Scream), but this one just feels spiteful and creatively hollow. I don’t really even understand the premise, that a group of political activists are literally buying or auctioning a ghost town to turn it into a gentrified, liberal mecca in the Texas desert. Young liberals are removing racist Texans from their homes and Fyre Fest-chasing Zoomers are invading? What? Then there’s our Final Girl who herself is the survivor of a school shooting and working through her trauma, and flashbacks, to regain her control by literally learning to arm herself. Oh no. Elise Fisher (Eighth Grade), you deserve so much better. It’s fast-paced. It’s exceedingly bloody. It’s over quickly. I guess there are ways this new Texas Chainsaw Massacre could have been worse but there’s even more ways it could have been better.
Nate’s Grade: C
When informed that her feature film debut was receiving shrieks of laughter during advanced screenings for critics, Britney Spears said she was glad because she never likes the same films the critics do. Well Ms. Not That Innocent, the truth hurts; you’re not a girl, not yet an actress. Crossroads is really the filmic adventures of Britney Spears and her ever-present navel. The navel should get second billing, but alas, we do not live in a society of equality for navels.
The film opens up with three 10-year-old best friends burying a box of wishes and dreams and promising to be bestest friends forever and ever. They make a pact to come back and dig up the box on the night of their high school graduation. Flash to the present and the word “bestest” isn’t what it used to be. Lucy (Britney Spears) has become the virginal nerd preparing to give her speech as valedictorian. Kit (Zoe Saldana) has become the haughty popular snob, obsessed over getting married ever since she got her first Bridal Barbie. Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant and become the trailer trash girl that everyone sees fit to remind her of. Despite their growth apart they all do come together to reopen their box of dreams. Mimi informs the others that she plans to head to California to audition for a record deal in an open contest. Kit decides to use this opportunity to check up on her boyfriend at UCLA who has been strangely evasive. Lucy complains that by having her nose in a book her entire high school experience she never got to go to a football game or even “hang out.” Somewhere a small violin is playing. She decides to jump at this chance and possibly see her mother in Arizona, who ran out on Lucy and her father (Dan Akroyd) when she was only three. The wheels of their adventure are provided by guitar-playing mystery Ben (Anson Mount). He pilots them on their travels to the Pacific coast, though the girls think he might have killed someone, but oh well.
Crossroads is filled to the brim with every imaginable road trip cliché. The girls “open up” after getting drunk, have a scuffle in a bar, reap in the sights of nature, and perhaps create some sparks of romance with their hunky heartthrob of a driver. The car also inevitably breaks down and the girls have to find a way to scrape some quick cash together. They enter in a karaoke contest and Britney proceeds to sing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” with her two gal pals providing backup. But no, this isn’t the last time you’ll hear Ms. Brit sing. In an effort to pad as well as become a showcase for its star, Crossroads gives us many scenes of the girls just singing to the radio. Besides Jett, Shania Twain’s “Man I Feel Like a Woman” and Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” are also on the chopping block. You’ll also be accosted by the movie’s single “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” several times, including one scene where Poet Britney is asked to share her poem and it ends up being the song’s lyrics.
Saldana (Center Stage) is not given much, as the attention is always centered on Britney, so she merely comes off like a token conceited character. Only Taryn Manning (crazy/beautiful) comes away with a little dignity. She gives Mimi a lot more heart than should be there and shows some honest reflections for her character. She also, coincidentally enough, looks like a dead ringer for Joan Jett with her black bangs.
Crossroads is nothing but a star vanity project for Spears, with some not-so-subliminal Pepsi product placement here and there. This was not a script looking for a lead; this was something Britney’s management team suited for her, and Crossroads is perfectly suited for Britney. It allows for many ogling periods of booty shaking. The majority of the film’s drama doesn’t even concern her, and when she does have to act, her scenes are cut short to help her when the real drama unfolds. The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes.
Crossroads moves along on gratuitous skin shots of Spears half-naked body every 20 minutes until it reaches its torture chamber of a final act. In this very melodramatic period we get abandonment, date rape, infidelity, and even a miscarriage in one of the film’s most shameless plot devices. Of course none of these horrors matter, especially a psychologically damaging miscarriage, because Britney has to get to her BIG audition in order to perform, yep you guessed it, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” She also has to wear what looks like kitchen drapes while she sings.
You’ll walk out of the theater wondering many things. Why does Britney wear pink in EVERY single scene she’s in? There’s even one scene where she changes from a pink top to another pink top and is FOLDING a third pink top into a suitcase. Are we to believe that Akroyd and Spears share some kind of genetics? In what high school would Britney be considered a nerd?
Hopefully Crossroads will be the pop princess’ last foray into film, but I strongly doubt this is the last we’ve seen of Britney Spears. Crossroads is a terrible girl-power trip. Only Spears’ target demographic will enjoy this melodramatic mess. Truly, the two largest groups that will see this film are adolescent girls and creepy older men who fawn after adolescent girls. Crossroads is exactly everything you’d expect.
Nate’s Grade: F
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’ve been waiting for this mea culpa for twenty years. In 2002, I saw Britney Spears’ movie debut, Crossroads, opening weekend with some friends with the chief purpose of seeing how bad it would be and tearing it to shreds for my collegiate newspaper. I graded it an F and sharpened my knives to eviscerate the star vanity project and everything it supposedly represented, eventually declaring it the worst film of 2002. Many years later, I have to wonder just exactly what was I so upset about with a middling road trip drama? What made this movie more deserving of a critical take-down than any other movie of that year? Had Spears not been its star, I doubt I would have expelled as much vitriol. So then the big question becomes, what did Britney Spears do to deserve so much ire from the 19-year-old version of myself? After some further reflection, I think I have some answers, and I’m glad I’ve had some significant growing up since then. I think it comes down to a personal animus blinding me as a critic, and this is something I’ve tried to push through and shed as I’ve gotten older and hopefully more experienced at evaluating art.
Flashback to the mid-to-late 1990s, and it was a golden time for fans of alternative rock, such as myself, bands that were cutting edge, audacious, and reaping the commercial rewards as well. MTV was filled with bizarre and exciting music videos from eclectic artists that were given an elevated platform. I grew my sense of self through my burgeoning musical taste, enveloping myself in the sounds of the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Tori Amos, and many more. And then the pop infusion began in 1997 with Hanson and really exploded with the emergence of the boy band craze and young pop stars like Spears and Christina Aguilera and others. Suddenly the music I was accustomed to, the music that to me was built on artistic integrity and depth, was being pushed aside for music that felt shallow and inferior, driven by exploiting the clean-cut physical beauty of the performers as compensation for substance. My younger self felt irritated that the music I considered to be genuine and revelatory was supplanted by bubblegum pop ditties. In my sophomore year of high school, for a Canterbury Tales group assignment, I co-wrote an epic quest for a strange band of characters to go to a Hanson concert and kill the three mop-headed brothers (I also had the collective pre-teen audience rise up and retaliate, killing our band of heroes). Looking back, there’s nothing new about any of this. Music has gone through many spells where pretty pop stars have coasted because of their looks and sex appeal. For whatever reasons, it felt personable, like an attack, and that is such a misplaced assessment on the winds of popularity.
I’ve tried to eliminate anything that feels like a personal attack from my film criticism, because at the end of the day it’s just a movie, and whether or not it works for me, and it may work for others, it’s still only a movie. It’s not like the filmmakers personally robbed me of anything other than my time, and as my friends will often chide me, I chose to watch these movies I knew would be almost certainly dubious entertainment options. I’ve re-read several past film reviews and winced as I found myself resorting to low blows or critiques about body appearance. My review of 2008’s The Hottie and the Nottie (for the record: not a good movie) was a glorified take-down of Paris Hilton and everything she supposedly represented, a prized vapidity. I deleted heavy portions of it, especially those shaming Hilton for her promiscuity. It made me ashamed. As I’ve grown, I’ve tried to focus solely on the art and story of each movie. If the performance was weak, it’s just a reflection of a bad performance and not a bad person deserving of some sort of misplaced score-settling by yet another angry random guy on the Internet.
That brings me back to the star of Crossroads, Britney Spears, who in the ensuing decades had the culture rally to her back as well as re-evaluate the treatment of the paparazzi-heavy targets of the 2000s. She was celebrated for her sexuality and demonized for it as well, again not exactly new in the realm of media. After so many years under the harsh scrutiny of the public spotlight, in 2007, Spears shaved her head, attacked a paparazzi car, and checked in for much-needed mental help, and in doing so essentially signed her life away for the next 14 years to her father, who had the final say over her finances and tour commitments and even whether or not Spears could have an IUD removed. She was finally released from her conservatorship after a groundswell of public support in 2021. She’s released many more albums, had a long-standing residency in Las Vegas, and has even talked about turning her struggle for agency into a big screen movie.
Crossroads is an odd concoction because of how many people went on to have robust careers. Chief among them is the credited screenwriter Shonda Rhimes who would become one of the preeminent TV power producers of the twenty-first century with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Bridgerton. Fans of Rhimes’ adult soaps might find recognizable traces of her plotting with the overly melodramatic third act of Crossroads. This was also one of the earliest movies for Zoe Saldana, an integral part of THREE high-profile, highly successful sci-fi series, Avatar (where she has blue skin), Guardians of the Galaxy (where she has green skin), and the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (natural skin). She was also in the first Pirates of the Caribbean just a year after Crossroads. Then there’s Taryn Manning who found memorable parts in 8 Mile, Hustle and Flow, before redefining her career as the memorable, and dental-deficient, Pensatucky on Orange is the New Black. Anson Mount would later go on to prominence in TV series like Hell on Wheels and Star Trek Discovery (less so Marvel’s Inhumans). Apparently many of the other actors in Crossroads agreed to sign on just to meet Spears, like Dan Akroyd, Kim Catrall, and Justin Long. Even Mount was hesitant until the urging of none other than Robert DeNiro, who read lines with Mount from the Crossroads script during their downtime on 2002’s City by the Sea (DeNiro reed Britney’s lines, which makes me wonder what he could have done in the lead).
Reading back over my original 2002 review, I actually think most if not all the criticisms of the movie still land. The movie is rife with road trip cliches. The third act is indeed a torture chamber that really tilts the drama into overdrive, though smartly places the workload on the abilities of Saldana and Manning. There is definitely an unsettling preoccupation with Spears’ sexuality with the film. I wrote, “The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes,” and I can’t disagree. It’s an uncomfortable watch at points, not because anything on screen is so salacious or ribald (Spears in fact insisted on her character’s use of profanity to be stricken to maintain her image) but because of what it thinks its audience wants. I suppose there were thousands of teenage girls looking to someone famous like Britney Spears for inspiration, and the lesson of waiting until you feel comfortable with a partner, and it’s your choice, is worthy, but the primacy emphasis on Spears’ body feels wrong.
My concluding line in my review was meant to summarize my stance, indicating that Crossroads is “exactly what you expect it to be,” and in 2002 I guess that meant the worst of the worst. In 2022, that just means a familiar, formulaic road trip movie with lots of melodrama. Yes, it’s a star vehicle for Spears’ acting career and there are many opportunities for singing, but that doesn’t make it any worse than any other mediocre drama aimed at a teenage demographic. And in 2022, I can say that I appreciate the pop music of the 90s. There were some real top-notch ear worms there and they still stand up to this day, easily hum-able when they reappear on radio. Spears and her ilk did not get the full credit they deserve during their reign. Crossroads is, to excuse a forced metaphor, a sort of crossroads for myself as a critic, something I’ve tried to improve upon as I got older. Movies are good and bad. Their intentions might even be noble or prurient or purely driven by money, but they’re still only movies and not personal attacks. I’m sorry Ms. Spears for unfairly maligning you, your acting ability, and your movie. Crossroads is easily not the worst movie of 2002. It’s merely mediocre at best and undeserving of antipathy.
Re-View Grade: C
I was unaware of the horror movie Entropy until the production sought me out to review their movie. It was filmed in Ohio for a minimal budget over the course of six days and nights during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. I think it’s admirable that, as things were shutting down and lives were thrown out of balance, that this small group of filmmakers banded together and made something creative with that unexpected down time. The final ten minutes of credits includes behind the scenes video of the special effects process and it looks like everyone was enjoying themselves with this project to keep their minds off the pandemic. As a finished film, however, Entropy leaves a lot to be desired even as a low-budget, lowered expectations chiller thriller.
Abby (Miranda Nieman) hates her girlfriend Miranda’s (Hayley Sunshine, and what a fabulous name) friends. She used to be part of a self-improvement group that some have labeled a cult. Miranda pressures Abby to come to dinner and meet these people and understand they’re not so bad. Also at this friendly dinner is Scott (Scott Hale), their former leader, who has come back from his time overseas with stories of horror. Is he to be believed? Is he dangerous? And how far out of the pull of this group is Miranda and should Abby begin planning her escape?
While the movie is labeled as that feature-film-qualifying metric of 80 minutes, in reality it’s 70 minutes, and even within that minimal running time there is plenty of padding and dead air. I have found this fault with many of the Ohio indies I’ve seen, and it’s essentially a case of not having enough material to fulfill the demands of a feature length running time. Director/co-writer Kameron Hale and his fellow co-writer, producer, and brother Scott Hale, have made several horror short films, and it’s easy to see how Entropy likely started as a short script that the brothers thought could expand into a larger story. There just isn’t enough material here as presented although it had the potential for further exploration. The idea of finding out your lover is formerly in a cult has some nice juicy character reverberations, which would make anyone second-guess things. The premise of a cult leader returning from his mystical and mysterious sojourn is also rife with potential for a horror movie. From a strict psychological thriller level, over the course of one very disconcerting dinner, he could be re-consolidating power, and Abby could slowly understand the dawning threat that her girlfriend is succumbing to, like an addict plunging once more into the self-destructive behaviors of their past. From a body horror standpoint, you can use the returned guru as the bringer of otherworldly terror. Something supernatural could have hitched a ride and taken over him, and now it wants more flesh. There are ideas that, with careful plotting and characterization, could sustain a feature film. Entropy doesn’t quite do that, so that’s why we get situations like three minutes of sustained driving or three minutes walking through the woods that’s meant to be moody but is really just padding.
The movie’s small budget becomes a handicap at parts but what really harms the movie is the sloppy, clunky manner in how the story establishes its needed points. Characters will often speak in a “Hey, you remember when…?”-style of artificial conversation for the benefit of informing the audience of things they would naturally likely already know. Every movie needs exposition to better orient an audience, but the trick of the writer is to mask it as much as possible. It’s stuff like, “Don’t you guys hate Scott? Wasn’t he in a cult?” and, “I thought you were wrapped up in the medical scene like the rest of them. Cody said he’s seen you at the hospital a lot.” With each of those lines, you can tell where the screenplay wants to go for info, but it’s so clunky and lacking the opportunity to shed light about the character doing the speaking. Writing for characters is not something that automatically improves with a higher budget, so one way a low-budget indie can make its mark is through its writing of people, making them intriguing, memorable, and drawing us in. With a cult of people in pain, there should be potential there. Unfortunately, the characters are kept as walking-talking expository devices. I didn’t even realize Abby had cancer and I think the movie was expecting me to know upfront (the cancer diagnosis is in the plot description supplied by the production). Early on she’s in her bathroom crying, and she refers to “whatever’s growing inside me,” and I thought she was pregnant, which brings its own follow-up questions for a lesbian relationship. It is not until 26 minutes into the movie when the word “cancer” is actually spoken via text: “I have ovarian cancer. I need to go home.” She then texts, “My vagina is literally killing me” twice, and I chuckled (also, a possible misuse of “literally”). Other lines of dialogue I found to be tin-eared yet memorable include, “I’ll go to the party but I won’t go to a pity party,” and, in reference to Abby’s ovarian cancer, “If anyone’s gonna understand what’s going on inside you, it’s gonna be them, and me, if you’d let me,” and, “I was drugging the drinks but not like you think. The drinks were already drugged, and I was drugging them to counteract the drugs,” and my favorite toward the very end, “I don’t know where the fuck this basement came from but I guess it’s part of the house now.”
You can see the better version of this movie, one that strips away much of the exposition-heavy and dawdling first half hour. Rather than being told upfront that Abby is sick, or at least being told with a lack of clarity, let’s let this be a much later revelation. The same with Miranda’s relationship to being in a cult. It would have been more interesting and creepier for Miranda to have withheld this vital background and for Abby to realize over the course of one long awkward dinner. Likewise, the dinner setting could have been a great showcase for Scott to demonstrate his manipulative Svengali tendencies. The dinner could be a reunion of friends Miranda hadn’t seen since college rather than her best friends; best friends, I might add, that have not been told anything about the girl she has been dating for over three months. The fear of thinking you really know someone but they’ve been hiding key parts of themselves, and who they may actually be under the surface, is a universal plight. That way the truth comes out piece by piece and we are placed in Abby’s shoes, the outsider to this gathering and trying to understand. It’s a dynamic that would have played to a low-budget production and put emphasis on the character writing and performances as the night descends into Rosemary’s Baby “who are these people?” territory.
When Entropy does go all-in on its Lovecraftian body horror in the final twenty minutes, it’s certainly a leap ahead in entertainment. The lighting favors lots of indigo and purple, which reminded me of 2020’s Color Out of Space, a surefire artistic influence here. The body horror is gross and slimy and the practical effects, while limited, are designed to be more impressionable and shape-defining, triggering our innate sense that something is very wrong. It’s during this wild stretch that the movie tries to do too much with its remaining time (while still padding things out, of course) and by then it’s too late. The lack of clarity in the writing with the characters at the beginning resurfaces and now we have a lack of clarity about what is happening. While Lovecraftian horror often features imperceptible qualities of terror, the story feels more purposely vague out of convenience than a grand design of the unknowable.
At only 70 minutes of movie length, I can’t say that Entropy is an easy watch. My patience was grinding down with all the tedium and padding. Fans of micro-budget horror movies and especially with a taste for the lurid and wild machinations of body horror could be entertained, though it’s a long wait to get to the gory goods. That protracted setup should establish the characters, their dilemma, and most importantly, our interest in what is happening so that when everything goes crazy that we care about what happens next. The characterization, plotting, and dialogue are disappointing and stilted. The acting is pretty limited all around, and that may be another reason why the script didn’t become a tense chamber piece. I found Hale as the cult leader to be the best actor of the bunch. I credit the filmmakers with striving to make something, working together during such fraught times, and succeeding in getting a level of distribution through the prolific Gravitas Ventures. However, next time, and I hope for the Hale brothers there is a next time, that they work just as hard on creating the core elements that will make people care about what dastardly thing happens next to the people in their story, and maybe get an outside set of eyes to read their script for clarity.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Marry Me has a premise that is so silly that it feels like it would be the setup of a fake movie within some other movie universe, something depicting the creative lunacy of Hollywood for easy satirical laughter. But no it’s real. Based upon a graphic novel by Bobby Crosby of the same name, Jennifer Lopez plays music superstar Kat. She’s a best-selling and provocative performer and her latest single, “Marry Me,” is ruling the charts. She co-wrote the track with her fiance, and the two plan to marry live during one of her stage shows. Then news leaks that her fiance has been cheating on her with her assistant. Kat is stunned and as she’s still processing her hurt feelings onstage she spots a “Marry Me” sign in the audience, held up by Charlie (Owen Wilson), an ordinary math teacher and single father. She agrees to marry him on the spot, and Charlie is rushed onstage and the two tie the knot. Now, what to do and can they make this actually work?
Think of Marry Me as Notting Hill but where it starts at the level of international fame for romantic coupling. I found the premise to this movie, at first glance, to be absolutely preposterous. I was hoping that the movie wasn’t going to spend so much time worrying how to legitimize this silly impulsive marriage between two complete strangers. Fortunately, from their first “I do” onward the pair doesn’t really view their subsequent “relationship” as more than a publicity stunt. He’ll get more attention for his school and causes that are important to him. She’ll get a run of media attention and allow her to rebrand herself in the wake of her history of cheating louses. I was happy that the movie, at least early, doesn’t try to make this spontaneous union credible. Kat wonders, “Hey, maybe something so crazy just might work,” and of course we know it magically will, but at least they’re not panicking about how they just got married and how they are going to make this relationship work when they could as easily get annulled and got about their separate lives again. So from there, Marry Me follows the path of having these two fake lovebirds become real lovebirds over the course of their shared time.
We know it’s all going to work out, their romantic fate is sealed, but the process needs to still feel organic and earned, and that’s where I found Marry Me to be unsatisfying. Rom-coms will live and breathe depending upon their quotient of cute moments to swoon moments, ultimately winning you over and desiring the coupling. This movie already starts with the couple together, at least in a legal sense, but they don’t know one another and have no immediate feelings for one another, so the movie is like any other rom-com. They have to fall in love for real now, almost like an arranged marriage. However, I found the interactions between Kat and Charlie to be far chummier than passionate or romantic. Lopez and Wilson have zero chemistry together. There is no heat between these two. He’s too laconic and she’s too pressing. As the movie progressed, I could believe they were becoming friends. He got her to be more self-reliant, and she pushed him outside his moderate comfort zones with social media and self-promotion. They’re better friends but I felt nothing romantic between them and that’s a pretty big problem. In fact, that’s the biggest problem in a romantic comedy. If I walk away feeling like the leads would be better friends than lovers, then you haven’t put in the work, and that’s the case here.
We associate fun and cute moments from rom-coms, amusing scenarios that force our couple to work together or wacky situations where they learn more about the other in a new setting, and Marry Me feels too unimaginative here as well. This is another vital area for the development of the relationship to feel genuine, and simply just for audience enjoyment. The three screenwriters are unable to take the Notting Hill-dynamic of an ordinary person thrust into an unwanted, elevated level of fame and scrutiny and do anything with it. Charlie’s life never feels too disrupted from before; his casual public walks with Kat do not have dozens of paparazzi hounding them, annoying fans inserting themselves into his personal life, envious family members and exes coming back into the picture for attention, or even Charlie’s past being litigated by the media. His new life feels strangely absent the surreal touches we would expect and want from this plucked-from-obscurity setup.
The script assembles the standard rom-com tropes without anything more personable to make it feel meaningful to this story and these characters and their conflicts. Charlie asks Kat to come to the school dance, and this sounds like it has potential to be fun, but it never goes further than the mere idea. She’s there, the kids are flummoxed and naturally starstruck, and she sings a song to them. That’s it. When the third act comes calling, we’re left impatiently for the resolutions to hit their predictable end points. We know that the bad ex will still be the bad ex, we know that the big decision about whether to go to the fancy music industry gig or the humble Mathlete championship is no struggle, and we know the valiant efforts to travel back in time will be crossed at the exact moment desired. Marry Me disappoints because it squanders its unique or alluring plot elements and too often settles for resuscitating stale genre tropes.
Marry Me feels almost out of time, like an early 2000s rom-com star vehicle for Wilson (Loki) and Lopez (Hustlers). Both actors are in their 50s now, and ostensibly playing characters in their 40s, but the movie treats them like they might as well be in their late 20s. He’s divorced with a pre-teen daughter and she’s had multiple high-profile marriages, but so much more could have been articulated, especially about a 40-something woman trying to keep her perch in an industry always looking to replace aging superstars with the next young pretty thing available. This perspective gets the occasional mention, but that conflict feels mysteriously ignored, like even approaching the idea would be insulting rather than establishing an intriguing new level of self-reflection and potential connection for these two middle-aged characters. A big screen rom-com with characters in their 40s, or beyond, is such a rare find, let alone having one of those characters in the shallow field of entertainment. Ignoring this opportunity is confusing.
While the writing and chemistry is lacking in Marry Me, the two stars are still enjoyable to watch. I didn’t believe their romantic union but I believed that they genuinely enjoyed hanging around one another. So while Marry Me doesn’t work as the story of two people miraculously falling in love under contrived circumstances, it can work as the story of a burgeoning friendship of unlikely friends. If you think of it from that angle, the movie is a lot more agreeable and entertaining to watch over the course of its 110 minutes. Lopez and Wilson are still charming leads, and the movie never gets too serious or overwhelming to actively dislike. It’s ultimately a middle-of-the-road rom-com, low-key enough to coast on the appeal of its stars but absent anything to make the characters and their romance feel personable and meaningful. It’s no different than something you might see on cable in the middle of an afternoon. You can do worse than Marry Me as far as formulaic rom-coms go, but you could certainly do better, and I advise you dear reader, in your rom-coms as well as your relationships, not to settle for less.
Nate’s Grade: C
Part COVID character study, part Blow Out murder conspiracy, and part corporate thriller, Kimi is a lean 90-minute thriller that doesn’t overstay its welcome even as it’s constantly morphing. Kimi is the Siri./Alexa-esque personal A.I. assistant device found in millions of consumer homes. Angela (Zoe Kravitz) is an agoraphobic Seattle tech worker who clears the Kimi user problems, and one day she overhears a recording of a woman being murdered, the same woman who accuses the Kimi CEO of assault. The first half of the movie is establishing the crippling anxiety and welcomed routines for Angela as well as the geography of her home, a point that will be more important in the final act. Kravitz is good but too much time is spent analyzing the captured audio and getting her ready to leave. From there, she ventures outside to report the crime, and that’s when powerful people try and abduct or kill her. The movie is brisk and has a constant nervous energy to it, never better than when Angela meets with her shady corporate HR rep (Rita Wilson). However, these killer corporate goons committing don’t seem as scary efficient like in Michael Clayton, so mundanely proficient at ending lives. These guys are more bumbling goons, which takes some of the threat away, though I still relished Angela getting the better of her attackers. For so much buildup about Angela’s terror of the outside world, I was expecting more obstacles relating to her personal agoraphobic fears, but these concerns are dropped too easily once she’s running away from scary bad guys. It’s a thriller that doesn’t exactly transcend its influences and inspirations, but there should still be room for well-made, derivative B-movie thrillers that still know how to entertain. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer David Koepp are genre veterans so even a lesser effort will be effortlessly better than most. Kimi is a narrow but enjoyable thriller that had some room for improvement but still satisfies.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s easy to see the appeal of contained thrillers from a production standpoint, but I’ve always found them to be a fun, crafty thought exercise that I’ve often enjoyed playing along. I’ll rename them “survival thrillers” because I think that’s truer to what they encounter, whether it’s in a small, contained environment or whether they are simply a victim of unique circumstances. I enjoy watching a character analyze and attack a problem and find workable solutions. There’s a natural vehicle for satisfaction there, whether it’s Matt Damon learning how to farm on Mars, or Ryan Reynolds being buried alive in a coffin, or a group of teenagers stuck on a ski lift. It’s a fun scenario to try and solve, especially in the relative comfort of your own home. Given their success and general low-cost nature, it was only a matter of time before these kinds of thrillers would dominate indie direct-to-streaming cinema. I guess then I shouldn’t be that surprised the Christian movie market would want in too. Shut In is the first original film distributed by The Daily Wire, the subscription run by conservative political wunderkind Ben “debate me!” Shapiro. Shut In began as a 2019 Black List script, the list of the most liked unproduced screenplays, and at one point Jason Bateman was going to direct. From there, it’s now Ben Shapiro’s Godsploitation thriller, and it has its own virtues and sins.
Jessica Nash (Rainey Qualley) is doing her best with some of the worst circumstances. She’s got two young children, one still an infant, and scraping by for money. She’s a recovering meth addict and has inherited her grandmother’s home that she’s looking to sell. As she’s cleaning up the premises, she accidentally locks herself inside a pantry. Making matters worse is that her meth-addict ex-boyfriend Rob (Jake Horrowitz) and his no-good pedophile pal Sammy (Vincent Gallo) come around looking for a score. Jessica must use her wits, strength, and fortitude to escape the pantry, keep the dangerous men away from her children, and also reject the temptation of indulging in drugs as an escape for her mounting troubles.
From the vantage point of a survival thriller, Shut In makes more under its circumstances that I would have assumed but also, strangely, less with the personal stakes. Whenever developing a problem-solution story structure, you need to make sure the dots connect and there’s a natural progression of events. You’re stuck in a room, now what? Jessica benefits because she has a helper on the outside; however, that person is only a young child, and therefore unreliable and unable to firmly grasp multi-step instructions. This also allowed me to channel the main character’s frustrations as well, especially when she was asking her kid to find things like tools to better claw away at the door and floor. This gives her an outlet but another challenge as well because the child becomes a point of vulnerability. When Sammy comes back into the picture, his presence is immediately the priority, and Jessica needs to neutralize him or make sure he cannot reach her daughter on the other side of the door. Screenwriter Melanie Toast seems to understand that the predicament she devises runs into natural end points, so she throws in extra escalations, which then become the next challenge. It’s self-aware scripting, but it also runs the risk of the challenges feeling not as challenging and the movie feeling more episodic.
The most confounding plot point was how underplayed the drug addiction angle is. It’s part of her overall tragic past, and the movie hints about past sexual trauma as well to further haunt our lead’s dark “before time,” but we don’t ever really feel her trouble with staying clean. It’s more like the drugs represent her former life, the one with her ex who is still in the thrall of meth. We could have used maybe even a monologue of Jessica talking about the pull of drugs, how important they were to her before, and how she never liked the persons he was, perhaps the shame she feels for the things she had down previously for drugs, and her intent at redemption, all to the audience of the child she’s meaning to do better by. There’s an entire character arc worth of detail that can be unleashed to really provide better depth. When her ex tosses his three grams of meth into the pantry, it’s meant to be a significant temptation, but the movie never really plays this as a sufficient challenge. It would be as if the guy just tossed in a small packet of laundry powder for how much personal attention it’s given. There was a short moment where it looks like, with all hope lost, that Jessica might succumb, but for the far, far majority of the running time, this drug temptation is underplayed. If this Jessica wasn’t going to struggle over using drugs again, why not just have her toss them down the sink? It’s a curious mitigated plot point for something that seems more significant than presented.
This is also directed by D.J. Caruso, a man who was making big-budget Hollywood action movies in the early 2010s like Eagle Eye and I Am Number Four. This is likely the lowest budget Caruso has ever worked with, but he doesn’t make the movie feel visually dull. There’s way too much imagery with apples though, including apples rotting at their core (you get it?) and eventually Jessica peeling the brown from an apple and saying the rest is still plenty good (you get it?). It feels like the apple was a lazy visual symbol meant to appeal to its, presumably, more Christian-affiliated target audience (“You see, the apple… means… temptation”). The tension can be finely attuned especially when we’re trapped in the pantry with Jessica and having to rely upon the sound design to understand the looming threats. I wish Caruso had pulled back at more points. Later, Sammy holds Jessica’s kid hostage with a knife to her little throat, promising to kill her, while everyone is screaming so loudly that it almost feels like we’ve landed in farce. The exploitation thriller elements feel in conflict with the lighter Christian elements. The God parts feel almost tacked on, especially when Jessica doesn’t reveal anything about her own faith. Looking at a hanging cross and deciding not to do drugs does not count as sufficient integration.
This is also Vincent Gallo’s first film role in ten years. for a period in the late 1990s, Gallo was the toast of the indie film scene and then he burnt through all that collective good will (also credit The Brown Bunny making people question those earlier accolades). I’ll credit Gallo acting like a believable creep and a snarling threat. He’s the best actor in the movie, and he delivers enough in this do-nothing part that makes me wish he would act more often. Qualley (sister to Margaret Qualley, also the daughter of Andie MacDowell) is fine, though her Southern accent seems to get the better of her at parts. Her performance is more physical than emotional.
Shut In is a small movie likely intended for a small audience while it drafts off the genre formula of larger, more polished survival thrillers. It goes through stretches where it relatively works, stripped down to its bare genre essentials, and then moments where I wish more was going on viscerally and intellectually. That’s where the movie needed to open up its protagonist more substantially, give more consideration to her internal struggles rather than keeping everything strictly externalized. Her drug addiction and the immediate proximity of drugs needed to be much more a trial of will. If you’re stuck with characters in a confined space, you need to either use that time to make the character more intriguing and compelling or keep the obstacles coming. Shut In transitions with new obstacles to overcome, but it still doesn’t feel like enough for this 89-minute movie. It’s an acceptable genre entry but had more potential with its lead character and with its thrills. It settles too often, and there’s nothing godly about settling when you could have been an even mightier movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In 2015, I was completely on board with a Kingsman franchise. Based upon the Mark Millar comics, the film was a hip, transgressive, action-packed, and refreshingly modern remix of stale spy thriller tropes. It also followed a satisfying snobs vs. slobs class conflict and a My Fair Lady-stye personal transformation of street kid to suave secret agent. In short, I loved it, and I said co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn used big studio budgets smarter than any other blockbuster filmmaker. Flash forward to 2017, and the Kingsman sequel started to show cracks in my resolute faith in Vaughn, and now with the long-delayed Kingsman prequel, I just don’t know if I care any more about this universe. It feels like the appeal of the franchise has been stamped out by its inferior additions. This one chronicles the origins of the Kingsman tailors/secret agency, a question nobody was really asking. It’s the beginnings of World War I, and a comical cadre of super villains, such as Mata Hari, Rasputin, and future assassin Gavrilo Princip, is meeting to plot doom and destruction and goad the world’s powers into war (in a goofy but appreciated comical touch, Tom Hollander plays the leaders of England, Germany, and Russia). Ralph Fiennes plays Orlando Oxford, a pacifist leading a special team trying to thwart the drumbeats of war by taking out the shadow brokers. The Kingsman movies were known for its attitude and cheekily crossing the line from time to time, but that willful perversity seems so desperate with this new movie. During the Rasputin mission, the disheveled madman literally stuffs an entire pie into his face, tongues Oxford’s wound on his upper thigh, and lasciviously promises more to come for him and Oxford’s adult son. The sequence is almost astonishing in poor taste and grotesque, and it just seems to go on forever. And yet, thanks to the sheer audacious energy of Rhys Ifans as the pansexual cleric, this actually might be the best or at least most entertaining part of the 130-minute movie. The problem is that The King’s Man doesn’t know whether it wants to commit to being a ribald loose retelling of history or a serious war drama. It’s hard to square Rasputin cracking wise and sword fighting to the 1812 Overture and an interminable 20-minute tonal detour that seriously examines the horrors of trench warfare. It jumps from silly comic book violence to grisly reality. That entire episode is then washed away with a joyless climax that feels like a deflated video game compound assault. I’ll credit Vaughn for dashes of style, like sword-fighting from the P.O.V. of the swords, but this movie feels too all over the place in tone, in ideas, in execution and lacking a dynamic anchor. Fiennes is a dry and dashing leading man, though I was having flashbacks of his 1998 Avengers misfire at points. It’s a story that doesn’t really accentuate the knowledge base of future Kingsman, and it’s lacking a sustained sense of fun and invention. It needed more banter, more subversion, more over-the-top and less formulaic plot turns. In my review of The Golden Circle, I concluded with, “It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.” That day has sadly arrived, ladies and gentlemen.
Nate’s Grade: C
Jon Sherman has been a film professor at Kenyon College in Ohio since 2010. He has sought to build up the Columbus, Ohio film community and has often guest lectured at various film screenings held in central Ohio. Sherman has some personal experience with Hollywood, writing and directing his 1996 breakout indie rom-com Breathing Room (starring Dan Futterman!), and then given an even bigger stage with the 2002 rom-com I’m with Lucy (with Monica Potter!). He may be an academic but that filmmaking itch never really goes away, and so that brings us to another Sherman rom-com, 2022’s They/Them/Us, which is available to be viewed nationally through digital release. It’s a charming, offbeat romance with a sweet sensibility and an unexpected kink.
Charlie (Joey Slotnick) is a middle-aged man starting his life over. He’s re-entered the dating scene after a recent divorce, he splits custody of his two teenage children with their mother, and the only job he could find as a film professor is at a conservative Christian university. Lisa (Amy Hargreaves) is a woman in her forties, a successful artist with full custody of her two children, one of whom has recently identified as non-binary (preferring “they/them” pronouns, hence the title). They meet online, have their first date, and are immediately smitten, enough so that Lisa bends her rules about not getting too attached too soon. Charlie and Lisa decide to combine their clans into one modern blended family, and the reunification is a messy and awkward process.
Given Sherman’s background as a film professor, you would hope that if anyone, when given the opportunity to make a feature film, could rise to the occasion, it should be somebody whose career rests upon the analysis of what makes movies work best. They/Them/Us succeeds as a relatively light-hearted rom-com and family drama with several nice moments. It’s hard to quantify, but you know better writing when you witness it, how characters interact and how witty the exchanges are and how much characterization they impart. Typically, a lesser writer will overstay their welcome or begin a scene before the importance. This can also be done to add unique character details, but often it’s a writer not knowing when to start and when to leave, a trait I’ve experienced so many times with Ohio-made indies. With Sherman’s scene writing, everything is to the point and moving, imparting the most important info or character detail, then chugging along. Early on, we establish Charlie as a man struggling to parent two surly teenagers and find someone special online. The fact that in the opening seconds he seems to be messaging two women who have BDSM kinks in their profile should be telling. After Charlie admonishes Danny for smoking pot in his house, he snatches the kid’s bong and runs upstairs, pacing and unsure of what to do next as his breathing calms and he focuses his attention to the bong in hand. Cut to Charlie smoking the bong to relax. It’s a quick, smart detail that demonstrates Charlie’s uncertainty on how to be the stable authority figure with his own dismissive children.
They/Them/Us is also a charming and sex positive romance between two middle-aged divorcees, a subject that rarely gets such big screen attention. The movie touches upon the challenges of modern dating when you’re not just dating a single individual but a person with attachments, about starting over later and finding a new life that will make appropriate space for you. Selecting a common dinner option can be its own minefield. It’s a perspective worthy of more attention by Hollywood. Beyond that angle, the movie is also surprisingly kinky for a “family comedy.” While unrated, They/Them/Us still exists in a more PG-13-friendly universe so it’s rather gentle when it explores the BDSM urges of Lisa. The movie is refreshingly free of judgements though has more than a few grand jokes drawn from Charlie’s squeamishness. He tries to throw himself into a more aggressive role, and Lisa asks him to pull her hair harder, and he says, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m a feminist.” I laughed out loud at that one. Another time, Charlie is attempting to spank Lisa and he keeps hesitating, finally admitting that it keeps bringing up unwanted and uncomfortable memories of spanking his unruly son as a child, something he still feels guilty over. In time, Charlie seeks out advice and instruction on how to be a better BDSM participant, and his educational process is a bit obvious, with more than a few easy gags (no pun intended), but it’s still one borne from a desire to better understand and fulfill his partner. It’s a sweet romance.
Slotnick (Twister, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) has been a staple of TV and movies for decades, a reliable “that guy” with overly neurotic tendencies. He’s a terrific put-upon dad and his age has only added more authenticity to Charlie’s harried struggle. He’s got a warmth to him that is easily conveyed during his brighter, kinder moments, and he’s also got a wellspring of awkward, cringe-inducing comedy as a middle-aged dad trying too hard to connect with a brood of teenagers and often flailing. When he’s genuinely happy, Slotnick genuinely wins you over. I think the vague details about Charlie’s dismissal from his previous professor job are a mistake. We’re told by his ex-wife, who inexplicably is still trying to get him back for the sake of the children, that a coed sent Charlie inappropriate texts. That topic is way too big not to clarify, and it’s also strange that Sherman and co-writer and partner Melissa Vogley Woods never come back to this as a conflict with his new relationship. It also seems like a natural point of conflict for keeping his new position at the Christian college and yet it’s glossed over (the resolution over that is laughably too tidy and convenient but keeping with the low stakes).
Hargreaves (13 Reasons Why, Homeland) is very enjoyable as the more experienced and confident half of this blended relationship. Lisa knows what she likes and is not ashamed, and she’s patient with Charlie as he attempts to reach her on her level. Hargreaves has a fun spirit to her that doesn’t veer into exploitation. It would be easy for Sherman to just write her as a fetish object for Charlie, but Lisa comes across as a real woman with her own desires and doubts and questions. There’s a scene where Lisa and Charlie are talking after their less-than-stellar first date with the combined family unit, and Lisa’s children are impatiently waiting by the locked car. “Come one, mom,” they whine. “You have the keys.” In mid-sentence, Hargreaves just hurls the car keys to her children and then continues her conversation with Charlie without missing a beat. It’s a defiant, petulant, lovely moment that keys the audience into her devotion to Charlie and her own character. I adored it.
Lexie Bean, as Maddie, and Jack Steiner as Danny, are both acting breakthroughs. Both of the actors are so natural and with a great poise and presence. Steiner has minimal acting experience but could easily headline a movie with the sly charisma and comic timing he displays. He even finds a way to enliven one of the least funny segments in comedies, the drug trip. Bean has notable, obvious talent that I regret that They/Them/Us doesn’t draw more upon.
There is one significant critique I do have with They/Them/Us and that’s that this all feels like a far better fit for a television series than as a single film. Rare do I come across a story engine that seems like it has the output to keep going, but that’s what we have here. There are three significant storylines that all would have benefited with far more time and development that a wider field of narrative writing would afford: 1) at its core, this is a story about a blended family and all the troubles and revelations and connections that come from two established families suddenly sharing spaces and lives, 2) Charlie working at a conservative Christian university and having to awkwardly pose as devout while hiding his true feelings, and 3) it’s a BDSM rom-com.
Taken as a whole, it’s easy to see how those storylines could form the backbone of a series-long narrative. Charlie’s facade at work could get more and more complex to carry on, and as his secret gets discovered, more desperate. He could also experiment more with wanting to become sexually adventurous for his partner. There could even be the question over whether he was having an affair when he was really just getting one-on-one instruction with a helpful dominatrix to educate himself. That might sound like a generic sitcom contrivance, but the script makes plenty of these kinds of conflicts and too-easy resolutions. When Maddie refuses to eat, Charlie sits with them, and within literal seconds Maddie is confessing a teacher is deliberately misgendering them and it hurts. Charlie’s solution is to get donuts, and it’s during his exchange with the drive-thru intercom that he makes a heartfelt stand about Maddie being non-binary and preferred pronouns, and then it’s like we’ve wrapped up that conflict in a bow. It’s so absurdly quick, and these characters have not had a conversation together before this, that we’ve seen, so its resolution feels so abrupt as to be arbitrary. That’s where a TV series would allow these characters and their inter-family drama to really take shape. An entire episode could be devoted to Charlie trying, and awkwardly failing, to bond with Maddie, finding a small triumph at the end that would feel better earned. This goes especially in the last twenty minutes when Danny’s drug problems get way too serious for the film’s tone. For most of its running time, They/Them/Her has such a low-stakes sense about all of its family drama, keeping things light and loose. It can’t quite make that leap to melodrama that encapsulates the end of the movie, a transition that doesn’t feel properly established.
When you’re dealing with human relationships, and with the battleground that a blended family would present, then squeezing everything into a measly 90 minutes feels like a disservice. At one point, Charlie and Lisa ask if they’re rushing things, going too fast, and they agree to move in together at the twenty-minute mark, but it’s almost like an admission to the audience about the movie. Everything is moving just too fast. We need the time to slow down, to really luxuriate in the awkwardness and unexpected connections, and the kind of narrative berths where each character can feel more fleshed out and less defined by a single note of distinction (the Non-Binary child, the Drug Problem child, the Sarcastic child, the Blame Shifter, etc.). I still enjoyed these characters and their interactions, but I would have enjoyed them even more with a larger scope to appreciate the depth and eccentricities of each person.
They/Them/Us is a rather wholesome movie that doesn’t feel like it’s talking down to its audience, judging its characters punitively, or overly sugar-coating their personal dilemmas. It’s not a particularly challenging movie but Sherman and his cohorts know what kind of movie they want to make. It’s technically proficient, assuredly low-budget but still professional in presentation. I often enjoyed the musical score by David Carbonara (Mad Men – what a get this guy was). While some subplots and conflicts are so swiftly and conveniently handled, the core of this charming movie remains its fractious, funny, and all too human relationships. When my biggest complaint stems from wanting more, more of these people, more of their adjustments and misunderstandings and triumphs, and more comic possibilities from a larger time frame of stories, then you’ve done something right with your 90 minutes of movie and clearly not everyone can accomplish even that.
Nate’s Grade: B
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) falls under the category of CODA, a Child Of a Deaf Adult. Her mother (Marlee Matlin) and father (Tony Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, and she is the only member of her household with the ability to hear. She’s balancing working for her family on their fishing trawler, maintaining good grades in school, and possibly pursuing scholarships to enroll at a music and fine arts college for singing. Ruby’s music teacher agrees to train her because he believes in her potential, but Ruby has to worry that her dream is something that cannot be shared with the people she loves most, and how would they all get on without her?
The framework of CODA is familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age story or family drama, but it’s the conviction and strength of character and sheer force of empathy that makes this movie a standout film for 2021. It’s based upon a 2014 French film, The Family Beller, and follows many of the same beats from other sentimental family dramas about sticking out in your family and society, chasing your dream, often in conflict with your family’s expectations, gaining that sense of inner strength and resolve, and mending differences in perspective with hard-fought and well-earned wisdom. It’s familiar, but that doesn’t mean under the right set of hands that it cannot still be resonant and emotionally gratifying. I do not hold the familiar formula against CODA, even as the family’s goal and her personal goal come into direct conflict in sometimes forced manners. That’s because the movie does an excellent job of establishing these people as characters, establishing the family dynamic as fraught but loving, and establishing a conflict that is direct and clear as far a major point of separation.
Ruby isn’t just the only member of her family who can hear, she’s also their vital lifeline to the outside world. She’s looked upon as the family interpreter, a position they cannot afford to pay for someone else’s services so the duties and responsibilities fall upon her. That’s so much pressure to bear for one teenage girl, knowing that she’s the link between her family’s poverty-treading existence and possibly breaking free into a larger hearing community. She feels ostracized and awkward within her own family and outside of her own family. To the rest of the school, she’s that “deaf family girl,” and it’s remarked that when she began high school she had an accent reminiscent of what deaf people can sound like, a point that her peers cruelly imitate. She worries she will forever be defined by her family’s disability even if she doesn’t share it. However, within her family, she feels ostracized because she’s different. She wonders if her mother wishes that she too were deaf, and during a heartfelt late-night talk, mom actually admits that upon her daughter’s birth she did feel disappointment when Ruby had hearing. While she knows sign language and has grown up with these loving figures, she’ll still always be the one who’s different, the one who hears the insults her family cannot.
The film does a remarkable effort about contextualizing Ruby’s fears and frustrations of being held captive in two different worlds, neither feeling fully accepted or whole, and that’s why her embarking on a personal dream that her family can never fully appreciate feels so significant. Part of Ruby might feel that singing is selfish, especially if it means limiting her family’s upward mobility by eliminating their unpaid interpreter, but it’s the thing that makes her most happy, a special gift that her family will be excluded from. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the movie where Ruby’s father asks her to sing to him, and he puts his hands along her shoulders and neck to feel the vibrations, and his awed and tear-stricken face is so moving, as he so desperately wants to indulge too in the beauty of his daughter’s voice. While occasionally the film goes overboard pounding these two conflicting paths into forced collision (family vs. self), the movie is personal with its big problems and personal with its big triumphs, making it transcend the trappings of formula.
Writer/director Sian Heder got her start on Orange is the New Black, and that TV series’ hallmark has been its enormous sense of empathy for its diverse characters. This is evident in Heder’s screenplay and her observational, detail-rich simple storytelling that immerses you in this world, so even while you recognize more familiar made-for-TV plot turns, the genuine authenticity makes the movie feel like its own unique story. Heder’s direction is delicate and places the attention squarely on her performers. There is one stylistic move late in the film when Ruby’s family comes to her choir recital in support. They look around for cues when to applaud, and their minds wander as they sign about other menial topics like grocery lists, and you understand why once Heder drops you into their perspective. For a minute, the sound disappears, and you’re left studying facial expressions for cues like them. While we can imagine being deaf, it’s another matter to experience it and try and understand.
The acting is another laudable merit for CODA. I personally want three Oscar nominations for this clan, Jones (Locke & Key) for Best Actress, Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) for Best Supporting Actress, and Kotsur (Wild Prairie Rose) for Best Supporting Actor. Over the course of nine months, Jones learned American Sign Language and how to sing, which is surprising because I would have said she has a natural talent with singing. Her performance, as well as Matlin and Kotsur, feel so real, so nuanced, and so natural, like we’ve plucked these people from real life and given them this platform. It’s the best credit you can give an actor, when they seemingly disappear into the character, and the character feels like a fully breathing, flesh-and-blood person. Even the small supporting roles are well cast, well acted, and contribute to the overall authenticity of the movie. Unlike the 2014 French original movie, all of the deaf members of the family are portrayed by actual deaf actors as well.
CODA was a sensation at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, with Apple Films buying the rights for $25 million dollars, and it’s easy to see why because it’s such a satisfying, enriching crowd-pleaser and legit tear-jerker. There were several points that had me tearing up, and then fully crying, because I was so emotionally engaged with the family, their struggles, and their triumphs and outpouring of love. You might be able to see where the movie is headed because its template is familiar and formulaic, but it’s the execution, the attention to detail, and the level of observational attention that elevates CODA and makes it so winning and so heartwarming.
Nate’s Grade: A
I’ve now watched both versions of Nightmare Alley, the 1947 movie and the 2021 Guillermo del Toro remake, and I guess I just shrug at both. Based upon the 1946 novel by Lindsay Gresham, we follow an ambitious yet troubled man, Stanton (Bradley Cooper), who finds refuge in a traveling carnival, mentors as a phony mentalist, and then uses his skills of manipulation to fleece the rich and privileged while possibly losing his own soul in the process. I kept watching this 150-minute movie and waiting for it to get better, to hit another level, and I had to keep asking, “Why isn’t this playing better for me?” It’s del Toro, an early twentieth-century freak show, a dashing of film noir, and a star-studded cast (Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn), and all those enticing elements should coalesce into something special and dark and adult and transporting, like del Toro’s 2017 Best Picture-winning Shape of Water. However, for me it just feels so turgid and overly melodramatic. I wish the movie had stayed with the traveling carnival and the colorful weirdos that it ditches halfway through. I think it’s because the movie plays to your exact expectations. You expect it to be beautifully composed, and it is, with a flair for the grotesque, a del Toro specialty, and the beats of its film noir-heavy story with femme fatale and double crosses comes across so predictably but minus substantial depth to compensate. I kept waiting for the themes to deepen, to be a better reflection of ourselves, but it’s one man’s circular downfall that doesn’t play too tragic because he’s already an unrepentant scoundrel. Cooper also just seems too old for the part, especially when everyone refers to him as a “young chap.” You might not see a better looking movie from 2021. The cinematography, production design, costumes, and stylish panache that del Toro trades in are all present and glorious to behold. I just wish I could get more from Nightmare Alley besides an admiration for its framing and less about what is happening to the characters within such doting artistry.
Nate’s Grade: B-