Monthly Archives: June 2022

Spiderhead (2022)

Before writing this film review I sat down and read George Sanders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” published by The New Yorker in 2010 and available to be read here. It would probably a better use of your time than watching the Netflix movie adaptation, and it surely won’t take 90 minutes, though that’s an assumption on my part. The story follows Jeff (Miles Teller), a prisoner who is undergoing experimental drug trials for a lighter sentence. Chris Hemsworth is miscast as the sunny, smarmy head of the drug trials, mostly featuring a drug that induces extreme feelings of desire and love and attachment. The movie is simply too predictable once you acknowledge the plot elements of secret drug trials and tests of loyalty and emotions. You’ll likely foresee the movie’s big reveals far before the screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, 6 Underground) reaches the obvious ploys for twists to turn Sanders’ more introspective, nuanced, and psychological story into a rah-rah formula sci-fi action movie. The first act is relatively promising and close to its source material, but the intriguing and philosophical questions about human connections, guilt, compliance, free will, and corporate hegemony are brushed aside for a silly series of action scenes, brawls, and big escapes. Mostly, I found Spiderhead to be dull because it was too predictable and because it didn’t have much more to say than any over-extended Black Mirror episode. It’s a passable sci-fi allegory that’s light on allegory and settles for being another anesthetizing streaming byproduct.

Nate’s Grade: C

Crimes of the Future (2022)

David Cronenberg returns to the thing David Cronenberg is best known for. It’s been twenty-plus years since the director has gone back to his body horror roots, and Crimes of the Future is certainly a gross gross movie. If that’s what you’re hoping for, then the discomfort and bizarre sexual analogies might be a selling point for you. For me, I just felt nauseated without an interesting core to keep my mind from drifting away. In the future, people have evolved (?) pain tolerance and infection rates, so our protagonist Saul (Viggo Mortsensen) turns surgery into public performance as his assistant/lover (Lea Seydoux) removes the vestigial organs his body produces. Kirsten Stewart’s antsy, horny character states that “surgery is the new sex,” and you’ll get plenty of parallels as we watch person after person get all squirmy while being cut open. My problem with the movie is that there isn’t anything beyond the shock value. The commentarry about body experimentation as a form of sensuality feels trite and more an opening for weird moments, like when Saul gets a zipper installed across his pelvis and his assistant decides to open it and somehow pleasure this… pouch? There’s a hint of an interesting movie here. Saul is being asked to serve as a confidential informant for the government hunting down an extremist group trying to kick-start evolution so that children will be able to consume plastics. That would have put our main character into a discovery role for this world that would have provided more than shock value. The movie begins, literally, with a child being suffocated by his mother, so that sets the tone as to where Cronenberg is headed. Crimes of the Future is essentially a geek show of a movie absent meaningful social/sexual commentary and interesting characters. It’s more a movie of pliable body parts.

Nate’s Grade: C

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)/ Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

I was taken immediately and repeatedly by the many charms and intriguing personal details of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (hence referred to as Leo Grande for the sake of my typing). This little indie played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is primarily two people in one hotel room talking for the entirety of its 97-minute run time, and oh how early I was enraptured. This is a small-scale but laser-focused character-driven drama with edges of comedy and romance. It’s sex positive, very mature and tasteful given its subject matter, and the general awkwardness of watching two strangers combat sexual and personal hang-ups and vulnerabilities melted away thanks to the deftly superior acting, writing, and directing of those involved.

Emma Thompson plays Nancy Stokes (not her real name), a retired school teacher who worked for a parochial institution and taught Christian religion. Her husband has died and she reveals that, over the course of their thirty years together, she has never truly known physical pleasure. She seeks to change that by hiring a professional sex worker, Leo Grande (not his real name), played by Daryl McCormack. We will chart Nancy’s sexual awakening over four intimate encounters.

What stood out immediately to me was how well developed the story unfolds at such a natural pace. I’ve watched more than a few indies that simply don’t know what to do with their premise, that feel like they’re biding time to get to feature-length, and some that are likewise constrained to single or minimal locations but fail to secure the most essential need: providing a reason for the audience to care. Whether a movie takes place in one room or a hundred rooms, you have to make the time spent meaningful whether through compelling characters or a story that keeps you engaged and waiting for more. You need to connect to the characters or be intrigued by the revelations to come, and Leo Grande does both immediately. Its setup is rife with drama and conflict, two people navigating their relationship to physical intimacy, two people who have never met until now for a transactional evening. There are obvious, natural personal conflicts to be explored here, with the novice out of their depth in many senses. There are also plenty of intriguing possibilities, because as these two get to know one another so too are we getting to know each and getting glimpses of who each of them are outside of this room. Both people are putting on fronts of some sorts, trying to settle into a performance of who they could be, and peeling away the layers of this subterfuge becomes even more intimate and engaging. Writer Katy Brand, known for outrageous British sketch comedy, skillfully maps out the story so that each conversational stop, detour, and ramp-up feels organically composed. It takes a great writer to keep your attention from a movie about two people talking, and Brand is that good. The contrast between our characters and intimacy, from forced to unlocked, keep us glued intently.

I also think there’s an interesting generational character study here, though the film doesn’t ever make any grand pronouncements about the symbolic representation of its heroine. Nancy is over 60 and at a point where she’s used to compliments with the added qualifier of “for her age.” When she discusses her sexual history with her husband, it’s almost like a confession that she’s been unable to get off her chest for decades, an acknowledgement of her disappointment and longing. Her husband was the kind of man who would lie in bed, roll on top, and then a minute later roll off, mission accomplished (no wonder this woman has never experienced an orgasm). Talking through this embarrassment, it brings Nancy to tears, realizing she’s lived so much of her life without accessing physical pleasure, a joyful repose that so many others seem to revel in. This bold step, hiring a sex worker online, is her making a leap outside of her comfort zone, and the subsequent return engagements give her new opportunities that have eclipsed her for so long.

In essence, this is woman who feels like she’s playing catch-up. Her character is from a generation where women didn’t make as much of a fuss about reciprocal pleasure. Her view of her aging body is one of general shame. She will repeatedly say she has no idea what she’s doing. Nancy feels like she’s been missing out for so long and wants what has been denied to her. However, she also has her own personal sexual hang-ups she’s pushing through, with decades of religious upbringing and enforcing moral codes with her students and their wardrobe choices. All of it adds up as far as her view on sex and her body. Leo asks her if she just wanted sex why not find a man in a pub and go from there, and she curtly says she doesn’t want an old man, an old man that will simply be another version of her husband, another disappointment in a lifetime of unrealized intimacy; she decidedly wants a young man. She’s indulging in her desire and a young man best represents a promise of sexual fulfillment (and she definitely doesn’t have any teacher/student fantasy, she will let you know). I think there are many more Nancy’s in the world, older women who soldiered through their lives, carrying the burdens of others while sacrificing their own pleasure, and are now at point in their lives where they are hearing more about body positivity, about female pleasure, and about being worthy of physical intimacy on their own terms and desires. Nancy is a character having a delayed sexual re-awakening; in her confession with Leo, she details her first impulse of desire when she was 17, a feeling that she hasn’t experienced as surely for the decades hence. While being a unique and well-rounded character, Nancy also serves as a representative of an older generation and perspective coming into conflict and revelation with a modern sense of intimacy and self.

Leo Grande is a smooth and charming man but one who doesn’t feel oily or like he’s obnoxiously masculine. With McCormack’s kind eyes and soothing Irish balm of a voice, it’s easy to see how this man could set others at ease. But then you also have to remember that Leo Grande is not who this man really is; it’s a character he’s playing, and as Nancy opens herself up to this man, she’s looking for him to do the same, for them to share something more special than a simple client-professional relationship. The more that Nancy pushes and pries, the more that Leo himself is pushed outside his own comfort zone. Leo is willing to talk about some things, like his frayed relationship with his mother, a point of unity with Nancy and her adult children, and his cover story of being away and working on an oil rig, an outlandish excuse that makes Nancy and eventually Leo break into laughter. By the nature of this character dynamic, Leo must be the more confident and assured participant to better contrast with Nancy’s personal and cultural insecurities. He’s the pro and she’s the novice. However, that doesn’t mean emotionally he’s as self-assured and without regret. Listening to these two characters bounce off one another and come in and out of intimate contact is fully entertaining.

I hope that Thompson (Cruella) gets nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal. She’s in just about every second of the movie and so much of it hinges upon her baring herself, physically and emotionally, to this man and us, the tacit observers. It’s a performance of radical self-love in so far as Nancy is reclaiming her body as a point of pride rather than as one of shame. In some ways, she’s shedding her past sins, easy judgement on the mores of others and their bodies. Thompson goes through such a wide range of emotion and gets to play so many different revealing sides to this woman putting herself in a most unfamiliar position. It’s Nancy coming to terms with her own disappointments, misgivings, and hypocrisy, and Thompson is splendid at every moment. She gives so much life to this character without sacrificing her complexity or occasional coldness. By the end, when her character hits her arc’s climax, it feels like a journey fully earned.

Another 2022 Sundance indie, this recipient of the Audience Award and a plum Apple Plus streaming spotlight, feels less smooth despite its title. Cha Cha Real Smooth is from writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, the twenty-five-year-old up-and-coming filmmaker best known for 2020’s Shithouse, a talky and introspective movie about older teens trying to gravitate with the adult world they feel ill-equipped to handle. While I found some promise with Raiff’s naturalistic dialogue, I found the lead characters to be too dull to really care about. Enter Cha Cha (which will also, henceforth, be how I refer to the title) which benefits from deploying more recognizable rom-com and indie movie plot mechanics. Working from a more familiar movie template, it actually helps Raiff better temper his writing and focus his story. While I enjoyed the movie overall, I would say it still has not won me over to the charms of Raiff just yet.

Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad who is still very much trying to figure out his life. He knows he doesn’t like his mother’s (Leslie Mann) new husband (Brad Garrett). He also doesn’t like his job working at a mall food court. He’s also not happy that his ex-girlfriend broke things off before leaving for Barcelona. He’s struggling to plan his “what comes next” when he stumbles into a job being a “party starter” after his enthusiastic chaperoning of a local bar mitzvah. Soon the neighbors are all seeking Andrew’s party-starting ability to make their next bar or bot mitzvah a fun time. Andrew becomes attached to a thirty-something single mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and he autistic teen, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), he persuades onto the dance floor to loosen up. Domino is intrigued by the younger man and asks him to babysit Lola, especially since the two have bonded and earned a trust. Andrew doesn’t know whether Domino is feeling the same level of attraction but someone who would not be happy is her fiancé, Joseph (Raul Castillo).

You spend a lot of time with Raiff as the lead, so your ultimate determination on Cha Cha will hinge on your perception of Andrew and as Raiff as a performer. He’s got an easy smile and his enthusiasm can be endearing at points, like he’s incapable of being still in thought. I found the scenes where he encourages little kids to be cute and easy to enjoy. He’s an infectious presence when he’s dealing with children. However, when Andrew is dealing with adults or people his own age, he seems to be out of his depths with arrested development. He’s rude and pissy with his stepfather for no real discernible reason given. He’s fairly thick-headed about romantic ideals about following his girlfriend to Spain, who declines his grand offer. Andrew’s uncertainty about charting his own path is a familiar story, and Raiff takes advantage of the overall coming-of-age blanket of tropes. The problem is that too many of them feel easily discarded. The only characters that seem to matter in Cha Cha are Andrew and Domino. Even Andrew’s younger brother (Evan Assante), who loves his big brother so much that he is constantly asking for advice on romancing a girl he likes, and the kid even cries at the prospect of his brother moving out of his room, is just another underwritten foil like Andrew’s mother, always supportive, and stepfather, always wary, and friend-with-benefits girl, always… there? These characters are meant to be reflections of our main character, serving to make him look charming or sincere or naïve or deluded but always serving Andrew. This can work in screenwriting but it helps if the characters don’t feel so obviously cultivated to make our hero look good.

I did find the central will-they-won’t-they relationship between Andrew and Domino to actually be entertaining. Much of this helps from Johnson sliding into a role that definitely fits her skill set. The role doesn’t even seem too different from her struggling thirty-something mother in The Lost Daughter. In the last few years, I have grown as a fan of Johnson with strong supporting turns in Bad Times at the El Royale, Peanut Butter Falcon, and as a dying mother in Our Friend. In each one of these roles, there is an inherent melancholy to her that she so effectively radiates. She has certainly broken free from the long shadow of the Fifty Shades franchise. Much of Domino feels from the point of view of a young man projecting onto her, and I think that is also Raiff’s larger thematic point. In Shithouse, a significant plot development is when Raiff’s central character has a different interpretation of a sexual encounter. He bombards the young woman with eager texts and is carried away with making an attachment, whereas she did not view their college hookup on the same terms. Although, this hard wisdom is undercut at the end of Shithouse by this same lady relenting and saying, “Yeah, okay, I’ll be your girlfriend.” To Andrew, Domino is a wounded soul looking for a rescue and he’s her dutiful man in shining armor. From his perspective, she is crying out for kind attention and support that he feels is being neglected. The learning curve for Andrew is that Domino can distinguish between a person who excites her and a person she can see herself settling down with. Their age discrepancy is never really addressed until the very end, though Johnson herself is only 32 years old, which doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap though Domino’s age is kept purposely vague. I would have preferred the movie being told from her perspective as she had the most interesting role. Johnson and Raiff have an easy-going chemistry, with his overeager charmer meshing with her subdued, glassy-eyed, taking-it-all-in openness. She makes him feel a little more excited, but ultimately, that may not be as important as other more practical concerns.

This leads to what seems like the lesson of Cha Cha, because for a movie that seems to operate on a powerful level of irony-free sincerity, the big life lesson it seems to impart is that becoming an adult is one about accepting compromise and disappointment. Sure, that’s an important lesson, to adapt as well as process personal reflections, but with Raiff’s movie, Domino’s lesson seems to be she’s accepted that her fiancé doesn’t make her feel all the things that young Andrew does but he will provide stability for her and her daughter and that means more at this point. I cannot say whether the movie is asserting that Dakota’s reasons are mature and something Andrew will come to understand in time when he gets a little older or whether we’re supposed to see her as someone willfully forgoing her personal happiness to settle for something less and that, to Raiff, is what adulthood means, settling for less. The way that writer/director Raiff could have shore his thematic intentions would be with the supporting characters, seeing this larger nugget of wisdom reflected in his own mother’s relationship with the stepdad who Andrew could attempt to understand better rather than view with contempt. This is where underwriting the supporting characters can also undermine the artistic aims of your movie. It appears like Raif, at 22, is saying that growing up means essentially giving up on some level, which is a strangely pessimistic lesson for a movie that trades in such earnestness and sunny go-go positivity.

I sound more negative with Cha Cha Real Smooth than I’m intending. It’s a relatively breezy movie to watch with fun exchanges, solid jokes, and characters that I found amusing and some of them even engaging. It has its charms and sweetness and I can completely understand falling under Raiff’s spell. This is definitely a step in the right direction for Raiff as a filmmaker after his 2020 debut, and I think he’s going to continue to grow and tell these personal, highly verbose little indie dramas with big feelings where whomever Cooper Raiff portrays learns some life lesson, likely from his interaction with the person of the opposite sex he desires. As such, every Raiff movie from here on out seems likely to rest upon your feelings about him. With Cha Cha, the sequences between Andrew and Domino or Lola were my favorite, so the film mostly worked.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Cha Cha Real Smooth are both fine examples of indie filmmaking supporting distinct voices adding their stamp on the larger contours of the romantic comedy genre. Leo Grande is a grand example of character writing and it’s even poignant and a little sexy. It’s extremely tasteful and nuanced and even empowering for an entire movie about two strangers meeting in a hotel room for sex. Cha Cha is a fun and formulaic coming-of-age movie and with Dakota Johnson hitting her stride with a winning character with pools of depth. There are some writing and thematic shortcomings but it’s still a charming experience. Both movies can definitely brighten your mood and generate their share of smiles for 100 minutes.

Nate’s Grades:

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: A-

Cha Cha Real Smooth: B-

Father of the Bride (2022)

Those familiar with the 1991 Steve Martin movie, or the 1950 original with Spencer Tracy, or even the 1949 novel by Edward Streeter, who was born in 1891, will understand that Father of the Bride is an old story that can still be relatable with new wrinkles and details. The core elements of the story, about the stress and chaos of wedding planning, or the pressure and patience of family, are still present with this new version where Andy Garcia and Gloria Estefan star as the parents of the bride (Adria Arjona). Garcia is a first-generation Cuban-American, a successful Floridian architect about celebrating old traditions, and a bridezilla of epic proportions terrorizing every soul in Miami. He is an awful person, holding to outdated and cringe-inducing misogyny and at several points making demands that because he is the father of the bride, he will be dictating exactly how his daughter’s wedding will proceed no matter the objections from the bride. Even when the groom’s wealthy Mexican family comes into the picture, neutralizing his power of the purse, Garcia’s bad dad just gets even more pushy and prissy. Ultimately, of course, he sees the error of his ways, the opulent wedding is nixed for something more spur of the moment combining traditions old and new, and everyone seems to get along by the end as one big happy family. I liked the added subplot of Garcia and Estefan hiding the fact that they are getting a divorce, which provides farcical potential. However, some of the subplots feel lightly developed, especially the other daughter being tasked with making all the bridal dresses for her sister. She wants to be a designer but cannot get a break, and yet the final reveal of the wedding gown is absent any drama, taking away from the relationship between the two sisters. Same with a friend who may or may not be queer and vibing for the bride’s sister. It’s strange that the two daughters get underdeveloped when they’re so essential to the wedding, and especially considering the movie is practically two hours long. I wish the filmmakers had trimmed some of the redundant “Andy Garcia is awful” moments and given more time to other supporting players. Father of the Bride is a chuckler of a movie, never netting bigger laughs but providing a few chuckles and smiles here and there. It’s a pleasant movie to watch, though I don’t think Garcia’s tyrannical father has earned his epiphany and forgiveness by the end. Given a Hispanic spin, the personal details and cultural authenticity allows an old story to feel fresh or at least fresher.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Terror Trips (2022)/ Isolated (2022)

Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.

I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.

It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).

So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.

So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.

I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.

From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.

With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?

At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”

As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.

For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.

Grades:

Terror Trips: C-

Isolated: C

Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)

I have only watched the first movie, released in 2019, and know precious little about this widely successful BBC television series detailing the rich aristocrats and their plucky servants, so take my assessment with a whole serving tray of salt. The first Downton Abbey movie served as an epilogue for the series, providing extra resolution to several characters and coupling up others to provide a happy ending. Then it was wildly successful (a worldwide gross of almost $200 million) and so creator/writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) got to come upon with yet another epilogue, this time finding even more happy endings and couplings for the those left out from the first cinematic victory lap. As someone new to this world, I was amused by its understated wit, puffery and pomp, and class conscious dramatics, plus it had a killer cast, most notably Maggie Smith as the tart-tongued Dowager Countess. The second cinematic offering is mostly more of the same, splitting the cast in two locations. One half are inspecting a picturesque villa in the south of France left to the Dowager, to the buttoned-up surprise of her son who questions what relationship his mother had with the former owner. The other half are stationed at the Downton estate while a Hollywood film crew decamps to make a movie. The inclusion of the movie-within-a-movie allows for some dishy moments, starstruck characters, and opportunities for a few Downton residents to make their mark in the pictures. These scenes are fun and provide some interesting conflict as the production has to quickly adapt from being a silent movie to one of them newfound all-the-rage talkies (with a lead actress better suited without sound). It’s a fluffy side story but allows many characters to shine. While the movie is mostly low-key and charming, much like its first big screen effort, by the end there might be some real tears, especially if you’ve been with these characters from the start. If you’re a Downton fan, you’ll eat this all up. I did have two questions that lingered: 1) where is this baby that was the entire story line for Edith in the first movie?, and 2) where in the world is Lady Mary’s husband (Matthew Goode) by the end when he should definitely be in attendance? My pitch for Downtown Abbey 3: Stiff Upper Lip begins with Lady Mary divorcing her racecar-obsessed hubby and moving to Hollywood for a new adventure.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Other Side of Darkness (2022)

Adam Deierling is a native Ohioan who spent ten years in the hustle and bustle of the L.A. film scene before relocating back to the Buckeye State in 2008. He has since focused on wedding videography and short films and spoken that his goal was to get a professional feature film off the ground locally, an admirable goal, and he wanted to create a family-friendly adventure film that could inspire others. That result is The Other Side of Darkness, written and directed by Deierling and filmed entirely in Ohio and West Virginia. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t know what to do with its major plot elements and feels a bit too lost by its own creative indecision.

Taylor Jo (Maggie Callahan), a.k.a. TJ is turning sixteen soon and eager to leave her small Ohio town. She works in her foster father’s auto shop and hates it and the direction of her life. Then one day she gets a mysterious note in the mail with a key that leads to an old Jeep. Turns out, the Jeep belonged to her biological mother and the note is from her still-living grandfather, Jack (Scott C. Davis). She hops in her new car, her best friend Hannah (Olivia Billings) and her cute brother Patrick (Drake Tobias) come along for the ride, and they head out to meet gramps. However, he might not be all that he seems, and a looming threat emerges that might cause the power system to go down, and then who can these beleaguered teens trust in these troubled times?

The Other Side of Darkness is like several different scripts stitched together, none of them richly developed or integrated to the other, which makes for an unfulfilling and tedious experience. Each of the half hours feels like a different movie. The first 30 minutes establishes the small-town life for TJ and her desire to escape, especially her predator of a foster parent. Then the next 30 minutes is about TJ and her friends going on a road trip to West Virginia to meet her biological grandpa and for TJ to learn more about her departed mother. Then the next 30 minutes is a mystery of whether or not the grandparent is who he says he is and discovering the terrain. Then the final 30 minutes is an action thriller to thwart homegrown terrorists. Each of these sections goes on far longer than it needs to, each of them presents very little sustained character development, and each of them feels adrift when compared to the other section. In the barest sense, these sections have a tenuous cause-effect relationship; however, the difference is whether the narrative feels like it’s actually building from scene-to-scene or just biding its time. I don’t know why we need a full half-hour to establish how awful TJ’s life is, especially throwing in the topic of sexual molestation, a serious subject that feels shoddily mishandled. The hook of this movie is the idea of our power system falling. Even the tagline says, “Who will you become when the power fails?” Well fear not, dear reader, because, spoiler alert, you’ll never have to wonder because the power grid doesn’t go down at all. The marketing sure looks like it’s going to be about people surviving in a world without power, with society possibly breaking down, but in reality, it’s about stopping two yokels from blowing up their local power station. That’s right, it’s not some far-reaching conspiracy that would trigger the crumbling of America’s interconnected infrastructure like the downfall of the Death Star. Nope. So, even if they blew up this lone power station, the power company would just come out and restore power. For a movie literally called The Other Side of Darkness and playing up a powerless world of survival, the actual employment of these big plot elements is strangely myopic and half-hearted.

Perhaps the title is in reference to the personal journey of our protagonist and her self-discovery, and I’ll humor this charitable interpretation and explain why this still doesn’t work. TJ’s story feels like it should have the right material to be engaging and even inspiring. The first part of the movie establishes her attitude, her plight, and eventually her escape via mysterious family member. This sets us off on her to discover her birth family and perhaps a little more of herself. When she meets her grandfather, he has one teary-eyed monologue, and then the rest feels like everyone is just dithering around and waiting for instructions on what to do. Grandpa gives TJ taped recordings her mother made with the intention of her daughter to one day listen. I don’t understand why this plot element was not explored far more in depth. This is her direct line of communication with her mother, her ability to hear her voice, listen to her singing, and emotionally connect with a woman who has long since departed her life. I also don’t understand why TJ isn’t interrogating her grandfather non-stop about her mother and father, or even simply bonding with dear old grandad and he her. It feels like right after everyone establishes their identities, the characters are just aimlessly hanging around loitering. In one early scene, it looks like Hannah and her brother are asleep on the couch behind TJ as she talks to grandad for the first time. I was mistaken because Hannah then moves, so she’s not asleep but she looks transparently bored (I’m sorry this family reunion couldn’t be more exciting for you). The writing for the characters keeps their conversations very surface-level. Every person is flat-out telling each other what they feel, who they are, what their personal journeys constitute. It’s a clunky, inauthentic manner of speaking that shows the writer’s too obvious hand.

Another factor that keeps me emotionally distant from the movie is how little it makes use of its near two-hour running time. There are long stretches that resemble a glorified car commercial. TJ, Hannah, and her brother go riding along and the music rises in celebratory volume and then things just keep going from there. With the drone shots of the car passing along a dusty trail, the interior shots of the characters laughing and smiling maniacally, and the attached camera angles to show the wheels flying across the muddy roads, all you’d need is to slap “Life is a Highway” and some ad copy at the bottom and it would be indistinguishable from any glossy car commercial. Why does this bother me? It’s because the movie is unmistakably filling time, dragging out its plot with extended sequences of transportation. There are numerous sequences of people walking from Point A to Point B, especially trouncing through the woods, and rather than see one sequence of a character walking to establish distance, we get four or five. This is all at the expense of storytelling and character, and that’s what I chafe at. Let’s take as another example the best friend character Hannah. In the first 30 minutes, the film establishes her as TJ’s only friend and a supportive outlet, enough so that she agrees to come along when TJ wants to track her out-of-state grandfather. Hannah and her brother spend what appears to be days away from home and I kept wondering what their parents would be doing, whether they would be calling the police, especially since Hannah cannot get cell service. This plot point bothered me for two reasons: 1) why can’t Hannah just travel in the car to reach an area where she has service, and 2) why does Hannah even need to be here at all? At least her brother becomes an underdeveloped romantic interest for TJ. Hannah’s role is inconsequential. And, again, all of these dawdling decisions are at the expense of the dramatic potential of the plot, of a granddaughter learning about her mother and bonding with her grandfather for the first time. Once the movie reunites its characters, it feels so shiftless and waiting for delayed instruction.

From a technical standpoint, The Other Side of Darkness is low-budget but has a nice sheen of professionalism for a $15,000 budget. I have seen movies with ten to twenty times that budget that don’t look as good as this. The cinematography by co-producer Vinny Sisson is crisp and with satisfying visual compositions. The acting is generally competent. Nobody will astound but nobody took me out of the movie with a bad performance. I thought Davis (Chosen, Between the Walls) has a warm and weathered presence that improved the role. Callahan reminded me of Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland, I Still Believe). Billings reminded me of Sarah Yarkin (2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I can only imagine what these people could have done with a superior screenplay that allowed them the material and space to really dive into their character dilemmas with nuance and emotional authenticity. The one technical aspect that needed some curtailing is the overzealous musical score by Niklas Wempe. The score is everywhere and never subtle; it is loud, in your face, and trumpeting what is happening onscreen, pushing moments into unintended levels of farce, like people walking through the woods now feel like they must be running for their lives when the reality of the circumstances is nowhere near as urgent. The musical score is so intrusive and old fashioned that it reminded me of 1940s moviemaking.

At almost two hours long, The Other Side of Darkness is a frustrating viewing experience. It’s not the movie it advertises itself as delivering. Just looking at that poster, you might surmise a post-social breakdown thriller like The Trigger Effect, or maybe even a nostalgic 80s adventure like The Goonies. You would be let down by either genre expectation. Sadly, the movie cannot live up to its own dramatic premise of a family reunion between grandfather and granddaughter sharing their common link, a deceased loved one they can relive with the other. It’s bizarre to watch a movie with such potent storytelling elements and seeming so indifferent to them or confused what should be done. This feels like a first draft of a screenplay, where characters are just expositing their direct feelings and desires, unencumbered by subtext. Too often the movie just has its characters milling about, and at two hours in length this is inexcusable. The power outage thriller concept feels almost entirely tacked on to provide more of a marketable angle. It’s shockingly underdeveloped and relatively unimportant in the film’s grand scheme of human drama. Often with first-time filmmakers also dabbling in their screenwriting, I find the stories that would have sufficed as short films expanded into feature-length but not given the attention for the adaptation to succeed. The Other Side of Darkness proves that Deierling has the technical chops to make the most with a micro-budget. I just hope his next feature takes more time to really establish what it wants to be and how best to develop and achieve these goals. The Other Side of Darkness is a little too much in the dark.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Mr. Deeds (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released June 28, 2002:

Adam Sandler seems like the reason they created the “no shirt no shoes” policy for restaurants. His niche is playing the lovable goodhearted goofball that triumphs over the pretentious jackass and somehow wins the heart of the fawning one-dimensional love interest. Sandler appeals to the masses as our nation’s greatest warm-hearted simpleton. He’s the Jimmy Stewart of slobbery. So why mess with that? Well for starters, if you want entertainment anymore you might want to.

Mr. Deeds, Sandler’s latest idiot opus, is disastrously, even tragically unfunny. In the film Sandler stars as the only known heir of a multi-billionaire media mogul. Longfellow Deeds (Sandler) is a simple New Hampshire pizza delivery boy who treats people with respect and kindness. However, the mantra ““cruel to be kind”” must be alive and well because Sandler mercilessly beats people to about an inch of their life throughout ‘Mr. Deeds’ for brutish comic effect.

Peter Gallagher and his monstrous eyebrows serve as the stand-in villain. He’s a greedy tycoon who wants the Deeds fortune all to himself. Gallagher actually plays his part well and seems to at least have some fun with the broad comedy role. Winona Ryder, on the other hand, does not. Ryder has never proven she can handle any comedy other than black, and slapstick just ain’’t her thing. She painfully goes from scene to scene clueless as a tabloid journalist hiding her identity so she can get the scoop on Deeds, only to fall madly in love with him.

The film has some glimmers of comedy, mostly from its supporting cast including John Turturro as a very sneaky Spanish butler. It’’s nice to see Turturro in something this high profile and get some recognition this journeyman deserves. There’’s also a really funny cameo served up by a former tennis giant himself known for his boorish temperament. Steve Buscemi should be charged with grand theft movie because his three minutes on screen as the “crazy-eyed” local are funnier than anything with Sandler onscreen.

The movie becomes far too redundant of Sandler’’s other comedies to the point where seeing former stars like Rob Schneider in his ‘Big Daddy’ character is somehow supposed to be funny. This kind of stuff is strewn throughout the film. It feels like everyone’’s going through the motions. Now I’’m not a total Sandler basher, because I do believe the man can be funny when worked right. ‘Billy Madison’ is still hysterical to me upon every viewing and I do get some fun watching ‘The Wedding Singer’, but ‘Mr. Deeds’ is sub-par Sandler –even for Sandler.

I’’m sure most of the people buying tickets for this have no idea that the concept is based upon the Frank Capra film starring Gary Cooper. But what good is Gary Cooper? He didn’’t write cutesy greeting cards or save a litter of kittens from a raging inferno like Sandler’’s Deeds. In the end, this mostly laugh-free comedy is short on imagination, energy, and entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Adam Sandler became his own industry. The Saturday Night Live funnyman became a movie favorite starting in 1995’s Billy Madison, still my favorite of the early Sandler era, finding the right balance of stupid, irony, absurdity, and crass humor. His ribald comedy albums were must-owns for any teenager in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, he had accumulated a team of collaborators of directors (Steve Brill, Frank Coraci, Dennis Dugan) and writers (Tim Herlihy, Fred Wolf, Steve Koren) who would churn out comedies on a near yearly basis. From 1998-2015, Sandler starred in 20 movies that can be deemed Sandler vehicles, a soft-spoken schlub with a heart of gold who is prone to explosions of violence and seems endlessly underestimated or misunderstood by a larger world of condescending, out-of-touch elites. There is a wild spectrum of quality during this period, and as the years progressed Sandler began to transform from the slovenly goofball provocateur to the laid-back, wisecracking family man trying to convince non-believers of his righteous old-fashioned wisdom. His once outsider status had calcified into a sentimental, middle-aged “these kids today don’t get it” laziness. Many of his later movies felt like glorified excuses for his family and friends to take extended vacations around the world. Since 2016, Sandler has migrated his slob squad to Netflix and continued his usual schtick to lesser publicity. The only time Sandler seems to have broken through since he hit that late 2000s plateau is his occasional dramatic performance, like 2019’s intense and gritty Uncut Gems. He’ll even star in a basketball drama for Netflix this month (Hustle). The real reason I picked Mr. Deeds to re-watch for this month was so I could better compare and contrast for a later re-watching of 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler’s first dramatic acting revelation thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson. As for Sandler’s take on Frank Capra, it never overcomes his trademark laziness.

The story of Mr. Deeds began as a heartwarming tale about a small-town man whisked away to the big city who provides a little small-town good charm to those in need. 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Actor for Gary Cooper, Best Picture, which it lost to The Great Ziegfeld, and Capra winning the Oscar for Best Director. It’s a well-regarded and wholesome movie that champions many of the major themes prevalent in Capra’s popular filmography. To take this starting point and say, “what if we made Adam Sandler the star and he just assaults people before convincing people to follow their dreams?” The problem with Mr. Deeds is that everything comes at great ease for our protagonist, who is never asked to change or think differently; no, it is the world that needs to change and be a little more like Longfellow Deeds (Sandler). He’s a humble man-of-the-people who will literally carry the elderly on his back to help them cross the street. The New York City natives just view him as a small-town rube but he’ll convince them all that his simple ways are the real way to live. Except if you watch this movie and think, “I need to pattern myself after that guy,” then you are either wholly susceptible to the slightest influence or you’re looking for an excuse to hurt others with impunity. Mr. Deeds regularly beats the crap out of people who he feels have crossed a line. His newfound riches essentially inoculate him from any consequences (as is the American way). I guess the slapstick is supposed to be riotous but it just made me uncomfortable and bored. Apparently, when Sandler tackled Allen Covert to the ground to beat him silly, Covert really did hit his head against the pavement and went unconscious for a minute. The entire concept of the movie rests upon Deeds being a likeable fellow others wish to emulate, but under the guise of Sandler-ification, he comes across as the kind of guy you’d walk across the street to avoid.

Let me use one example to highlight the failure of the Deeds character. He’s in a fancy restaurant and is hailed over by a gathering of rich elites who want to hobnob with the newest moneyman. For whatever reason, their suck-up turns into broad insults, which is confusing considering how many of them are financially dependent on his company. As they yuk it up in sycophantic laughter, Deeds shakes his head and says, “You all invited me here so you could look down on me. Well, let me tell you that here you may all laugh at me, but down in Mandrake Falls we would laugh at you all.” Examine that for just a little bit longer, dear reader. He’s not saying that the good people of his hometown would act better than these big city folk, accepting others for who they are and being welcoming and sincere. No, he’s saying if they were in Mandrake Falls, they would be laughed at and made fun of for being all different. It’s less a declaration that his small-town way of life is better and more wholesome and more a confessed threat if they ever found themselves in the minority. I think Sandler and company thought they had their hero on a moral high ground, but this line proves otherwise, and then he just physically assaults them all too.

The comedy is predictable and lackluster, and the longer the movie went the further I sank into a general state of apathy. The poems by Mr. Deeds are supposed to be lame, so I guess the comedy is just how bad they are? That just sounds like excuse-making, though thankfully it’s just one trifling example and not much is hinged upon Deed’s greeting card dream. Much of the movie revolves around the budding romance with an undercover reporter, Babe (Winona Ryder), who comes to love the man for some reason unknown to anyone observing. It becomes a bit of a screwball comedy with her attempts to keep her cover, but by the end she’s meant to serve as the audience surrogate and convince us that this man was worth our investment. The only parts of Mr. Deeds that made me smile or come close to laughing were the absurd supporting characters getting little moments. I loved Steve Buscemi, who became a Sandler regular, as a crazy-eyed town weirdo spouting bon mots like, “Time heals all wounds… except these crazy eyes.” I enjoyed John Turturro’s commitment to his sneaky yet helpful Spanish butler. I enjoyed the John McEnroe cameo and night on the town indulging their boorish behavior. I enjoyed watching Jared Harris go broad comedy as an obnoxious newsman. The actor has such innate, weathered pathos to him that I cannot even recall ever seeing him in another comedic role. I liked Eric Avari (The Mummy) as the second-in-command guy who chums it up with Deeds. I enjoyed moments that didn’t involve Sandler or Rider, but those are the two main stars, so time away from them was fleeting though appreciated. The general unfunny nature didn’t offend me like some other bad comedies, but it sapped whatever care and energy I had for the movie.

In the realm of Sandler cinema, Mr. Deeds is on the lower end. It’s not among the worst of his worst. It’s passable to watch if you’re just skimming for the occasional comedy nugget. I didn’t feel insulted but I was also coming to this movie with decades of hindsight of the Sandler cinematic universe, able to discern his more prominent themes and cliches and reflexes. I’ve never watched the 1936 Capra movie though I’m curious to do so now for the simple reason of seeing just how far away Sandler’s version veers. They also turned the Mr. Deeds story into one season of a 1970 TV series starring Monte Markham (Captain Don Thorpe on Baywatch!). There’s something inherently engaging about a moral person placed in a new environment and how the environment changes to that person rather than the other way around. It’s essentially the plot of WALL-E, one of my favorite movies. It works. Except with Sandler’s version, the filmmakers were on Sandler autopilot, a condition he rarely broke free from (Drew Barrymore collabs seem to be the exception). From here, the Sandler movies got lazier and stodgier and more sentimental yet also phonier. I haven’t watched a Sandler-lead comedy since 2016’s The Ridiculous Six, his first Netflix release. I genuinely wish he would stick to more dramas. He has real acting strength, first explored in Punch-Drunk Love (you can’t get here soon enough), and I’m hoping I’ll only better appreciate that movie having re-watched a shining example of what Paul Thomas Anderson was aiming to deconstruct.

As for my earlier review in 2002, it’s entirely accurate. Everything I said still applies, even the C-minus grade. You could charitably say Mr. Deeds was where the Sandler formula became fully entrenched. It was a big hit ($170 million worldwide) and vindication after Sandler attempted something truly weird and different that flopped (2001’s Little Nicky). You can see the gears turning, and so the next decade-plus brought us more of the same Sandler schtick. For one of the most dangerous comics, he became safe and sated and all too happy to pack it in for mass appeal. Consider this otherwise forgettable movie a footnote in the arc of Sandler’s comedy oeuvre, and that’s about it. Mr. Deeds is just as shrug-worthy in 2022 as it was back in 2002.

Re-View Grade: C-

Dual (2022)

Imagine a world where anyone can create a clone, a perfect, or almost perfect, copy of yourself so that after you’re gone your family will never have to theoretically lose you? That’s the premise of Dual, an indie that played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is now available online. Sarah (Karen Gillan) is generally miserable with her life. She doesn’t return her needy mother’s phone calls and texts. She’d rather watch porn than talk with her distant boyfriend. She’s also leaving disconcerting blood stains on her bed sheets. Turns out Sarah has a rare and incurable illness, and so she is eligible for the Replacement Program, an opportunity to get her own clone. She is gifted a clone (also Gillan), a reported exact replica except for eye color (the company offers a five percent discount for the defect). Sarah takes her doppelganger home and attempts to teach her about her life and how best to fit in. It’s not long that the Sarah clone has her own ideas about what her life could be. However, when Sarah’s terminal diagnosis improves, she intends to abort her clone. The clone triggers a legal clause that says that the ultimate decision over who gets to live as the only Sarah will be a televised duel to the death in exactly one year’s time.

Dual is a puzzling movie. I haven’t watched writer/director Riley Stearn’s other movies, notably 2019’s The Art of Self Defense, though I’ve read Dual is in keeping with his exaggerated, deadpan style, but to me it feels very much like an attempt to recreate a Yorgos Lanthimos world. Lanthimos is most famous for films like The Lobster and was even nominated for Best Director for 2018’s The Favourite. Lanthimos is excellent as creating these worlds that are reflections of our own but detached, deadpan, aloof, and irregular. The world of The Lobster is bizarre as a means of satirizing our social values when it comes to romantic relationships. In that world, if you cannot find a suitable mate within a period of probation, you will be transformed into an animal of your choosing. That world is bizarre in its very inception but there’s a reason that Lanthimos makes use of his stilted, stylized dialogue, to better reflect the absurdities of our culture. With Dual, the world never feels that wholly separate from our own and actually a little under-explored. The fact that society has cloning is woefully underutilized. What else does this mean about our concept of self, identity, legacy? What about clones that abandon their intended families? What about clones that murder their originals before their court-arranged duels? What about people that cheat the system and get more than one clone? What about a clone getting a clone? As the movie progressed, I kept feeling the unmistakable pull of wanting this story to be told straight and without the hip ironic posturing (I suppose that’s Swan Song, a 2021 movie I have yet to watch on Apple Plus). It just felt like there was so much more intriguing dramatic potential to be had here playing things straight, a woman facing her impending mortality, getting a “replacement you” and finding her not sticking to the script, endangering her fragile sense of preservation, and then the crisis of your friends and family preferring the clone over her. That’s some juicy stuff, but it all gets downplayed thanks to Stearn’s selected tone.

It would be one thing if Dual was hilarious with its cracked mirror approach but I just found little to actually laugh about. There are a few moments that I did chuckle, like Sarah and Trent (Aaron Paul) providing a play-by-play of their slow-motion brawl and the consequences of their amassed injuries, and the doctor that informs Sarah about her tragic diagnosis are the most well realized moments with tone (“This is why most doctors are depressed”). The bone dry, matter-of-fact style of speaking is too often the only joke. Just because characters are speaking in a detached manner does not mean you can skip over the same tenets of comedy construction. Lanthimos doesn’t just rest on his characters talking in a manner that is unexpected. There’s genuine work to make them seem of their weird world. The characters in Dual just seem like hyperactive, overly literal irritants. Often, they’ll just keep speaking about a subject and the joke is the length of the details. The Sarah duplicate doesn’t know how to drive, and as she watches her original, she remarks, “Oh, and I suppose you turn the big wheel left and the car goes left. Turn the big wheel right and the car goes right. Easy enough.” I suppose the joke is that she describes two pointless examples? Even the scenes with the doctor, which I laughed at, suffer from Stearns overwriting his dialogue exchanges. It’s not enough for the doctor to make an absurd, Kafkaesque remark, but the character must circle back and underline this over and over. The overall feeling is tiresome. There’s one example of what Dual could have been, where Trent suggests to Sarah during her money problems that she might provide “other means of payment.” The movie then cuts to them both dancing and Trent remarks, “Thank you for the hip-hop dance instruction. I’ve always wanted to learn but was too nervous.” That joke works. It’s a subversion that doesn’t overstay. I wish Stearns had pulled back and trusted his audience to get the joke without his incessant redirection of comic emphasis.

The real reason to watch Dual is for the dueling Gillan performances. She gets to play two same-but-different versions of a character, and she really shines in the subtle differences she takes advantage of. I enjoyed the passive aggression of the clone re-examining the faults of her original, and I enjoyed how quickly she was interrogating her original while making casual, catty judgements. Paul (Breaking Bad) is also enjoyable but only appears in the second half of the movie and is underutilized. Stearns seems drawn to the mentor-pupil relationship dynamic (The Art of Self Defense) and the interaction between Paul and Gillan is a regular highlight of the movie. The actors generally elevate the material even as Stearns restricts the acting tools they can rely upon.

I’m sure there will be viewers that will genuinely enjoy the distaff comedy and pathos of Dual. There’s a clear artistic vision here by Stearns, it just didn’t fully gel for me because I felt the choices of tone and plot limited what could have been a far more emotionally engaging and intellectually fascinating story. The comedy too often settled on being quirky and too often it reminded you of this by circling and re-circling the same joke for diminished returns. Dual is not a bad movie, more a frustrating experience, one with big ideas and talent in front of the camera and behind, but it could have used more shaping and tone calibration to be its best version of itself. As it stands, it’s a fittingly amusing dark comedy with two solid performances from Gillan, and that could be enough for many to justify a 90-minute investment. For me, it felt too much like Lanthimos lite.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Uncharted (2022)

The successful Uncharted series (2007-2016) are some of the most movie-ready video games for big screen adaptation. While playing the globe-trotting, puzzle-solving, treasure-hunting action-adventures, it feels very much like you’re already in the middle of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The game was in development for so long that the producers have finally ditched Nathan Fillion, the celebrity doppelganger in look and attitude of the game’s swashbuckling protagonist Nathan Drake, and resorted to everyone’s favorite web-slinger Tom Holland as a younger version of the hero. He’s a brainy bartender who is looking for some hidden Magellan treasure, and maybe his missing older brother too, and is aided by Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), an Army vet with a shared goal of retrieving the gold before his rival, wealthy industrialist Santiago (Antonio Banderas). It’s a race against time and while it doesn’t reinvent the action-adventure wheel, Uncharted is a perfectly diverting piece of entertainment. The banter is fun between Holland and Wahlberg, the action set pieces are brisk, and the third act in particularly is just a showstopper of big action bravado. The visuals are eye-grabbing and the action sequences are inventive and exciting. That’s what Uncharted gets the most right, that sense of fun the games have built into their core, while keeping things moving smoothly with colorful characters and large-scale action. You’ve seen some combination of this movie before, but even genre masterpieces are built from their influences, so being derivative is not a fatal flaw as long as the filmmakers get the essentials of storytelling and action cinema right, and they do here. The world of video game movies is already one where the bar is fairly low for quality, but it seems like Hollywood has started raising its game, like with the new Tomb Raider, Detective Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the upcoming Last of Us prestige HBO series. Count Uncharted as the Saturday morning popcorn spectacle that knows exactly how to deliver a good time in only 105 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: B

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