Monthly Archives: August 2022
Within two movies, and most likely just with his first in 2017, Jordan Peele catapulted himself as a brand name in the world of horror. At this point, you’ll see a Peele horror movie sight unseen because you know what you’re getting is going to be a unique experience. There are plenty of modern horror directors that have built a rabid fandom, like Ari Aster or James Wan, but nobody seems to be given the same platform as Peele has earned at this juncture. The writer/director has become what M. Night Shyamalan used to exhibit, the director whose creative visions were each highly anticipated event movies. Nope is Peele’s first foray into science fiction territory and the results are messy, disturbing, and, at points, astounding.
The Haywood family ranch has been involved in the motion picture industry since its very beginning. One of the first film images, a black man astride a horse, was the great-great-great grandfather of Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya). The brother and sister are trying to save the family ranch after the untimely and strange passing of their father (Keith David) who was felled by debris falling from the sky. Their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is spinning his notoriety as a child actor into a Western theme park attraction. Ricky’s claim to fame was being one of two survivors of a 1990s sitcom where the trained chimpanzee, who in the context of the show was his adopted sibling, snapped and went on a killing spree. Emerald and Otis Jr. begin to suspect that there is a real unidentified flying object hanging over their land, so they set out to capture living proof and become rich and famous. The alien, hiding in an unmoving cloud over the course of six months, has other plans and intends to assert its claim on the Haywood territory.
Peele is proving himself more and more as a major director of genre spectacle and vision. Each of his three directorial efforts will hit people differently; I think they’ve incrementally gotten a little sloppier in the writing department, but Peele is only growing stronger as a visual stylist and orchestrator of big screen spookery. There is a grandeur to the visual arrangements, owing as much to the expansive language of Westerns and the awe of early Steven Spielberg. I wish I had seen the movie in IMAX as Peele intended, since he went to all the trouble of planning specific sequences for the grand IMAX cameras. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping and stirring in horror and wonder. A literal rain of blood and viscera and expelled non-organic items is a striking image. Even the unnatural way that helpless people are thrown off the ground can be jolting and primal. There’s a claustrophobic interior sequence of desperate people that really conveys the terror of the doomed. A big addition to the eerie atmosphere is the brilliant sound design. The otherworldly-ness of the alien encounters is heightened by a really in-depth sound design that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. Even the sound of rain, and its distance, can be an indicator of the proximity of danger. There are also the distant sounds of horrible screams circling through the clouds high above, and it’s a deeply unsettling design trick that works every time. Even when the movie wasn’t quite as engaging from a narrative or thematic standpoint, Nope is always engaging on a simple delivery system of spectacle. The way Peele distributes his visual clues and keys, sometimes literally, always provides something for an audience to anticipate.
I was also starting to grow impatient from Peele’s coy narrative games. The plot moves in frustrating starts and stops, teasing an intriguing development or proffering a question and then skipping backwards, denying the viewer a sense of gathering momentum. There’s a toying sense of teasing out how far he can go before an audience gets too impatient and quits. Much of the first half also takes place during night or sequences of sustained darkness, which can definitely play into the the fear of what could be in those shadows, but it makes for a fitfully frustrating experience when you’re trying to unravel a science fiction mystery. I kept wondering how all these pieces were going to come together, especially the ongoing subplot about this killer chimpanzee, but I had faith in Peele (mostly). That faith was rewarded but I’ll admit for the first hour I was wondering if Peele was too evasive for his own good.
Nope begins as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then transitions into Jaws and stays there, and it was during the second half that my interest magnified exponentially. It’s around the hour mark that the movie finally puts all its cards on the table and declares what it is and what the remaining movie is going to be about. All the stutter steps and vagaries are cast aside, and the movie finally shifts into its grand entertainment of a group of humans learning about an overwhelming and unusual threat and plotting their unorthodox plan of attack. I’ll still try and play around spoilers without getting too deep into specifics. It’s a great relief when Peele no longer has to tease his threads and mysteries and can at last be open and let the conflicting components come together. The annoyances I felt in the first half melted away, and I was satisfied as the movie picked up a genuine momentum and smartly tied in many prior plot elements for the bigger picture, like the inflatable tube men, old timey picture-taking souvenir machines, and even the very vague almost carwash-esque imagery from the opening credits. The second half of the movie is more fun because it’s a big hunt and it allows our characters to make use of what they have learned to form conclusions and strategic moves and adjustments. It’s characters making smart decisions. It’s a scenario that finally allows Peele to finally play with all the setups he’s spent an hour cheekily hiding around.
While the climax is great, and the movie gets consistently better, I don’t feel like all of its many thematic ties come together. Being a Jordan Peele horror movie, we’re now expecting there to be extra layers of social-political commentary and allegories. The back-story for Ricky as a child actor is given a lot of attention and screen time for a two-hour movie, and I don’t know if what it adds up to is equal to the time it was given. Thematically, you can make some speculative reaching about the exploitation of animals for spectacle, about underestimating and not respecting nature, and even setting up for later tragedy, but it all seems less meaningfully integrated than any other Peele movies’ elevated subplots. With the Ricky back-story, there is even a literal anticipation of a literal shoe to drop, which seems so obvious as a visual metaphor but I cannot link it directly with what follows. I can keep digging and find connections but it requires far more effort than Peele’s other works of horror. The family history of working for Hollywood as horse wranglers feels underdeveloped. There are also rules that it establishes that Peele isn’t fully consistent (just don’t look?) that left me questioning. I figured that colonialism would be an obvious parallel with invading aliens (H.G. Welles even made use of the analogy 120 years ago), but maybe that was too obvious territory for someone like Peele. My friend Ben had a crazy early theory that the aliens themselves would resemble horses and thus they were returning to free their equine brothers and sisters from human exploitation. I guess I’ll go ahead and spoil you, dear reader, that this does not happen in any shape with Nope.
I’d rank Nope the third best Jordan Peele horror venture, and while it clearly makes use of science fiction concepts and its rich iconography, it’s still very firmly a movie rooted in horror, the horror of the unknown, the horror of being small and helpless, the horror of being left behind. Not all of Nope’s many ambitions quite land, and the themes feel a bit more jumbled or underdeveloped, but I want Jordan Peele to continue making the movies he wants on his terms. Not every one is going to hit exactly the same for me, or for any viewer, but we’re all better when unique artists like Peele are given the latitude and support to bring their personal visions to the big screen. As long as he’s still achieving a baseline of quality, something that befell the middle Shyamalan period, then I say swing away and let’s see where you’ll take us all next, Jordan Peele.
Nate’s Grade: B
Orphan: First Kill (2022)
This is such a strange movie. The original Orphan, released in 2009, was an otherwise forgettable killer kid movie with a memorable twist: little Esther (Isabelle Furhman) wasn’t a child but a 30-something woman with a hormonal disorder (supposedly inspired by a true story). What do you do with a prequel when the young actress is now a grown woman and the audience knows the big twist from the start? The first answer is use a body double, have the other actors wear platform shoes or step on boxes, and forced perspective with some de-aging CGI sprinkled over Furhman’s adult face. That’s a whole lot of effort, albeit practical and less costly, to make a prequel without much going on. We follow young Leena as she escapes from an Estonian mental asylum and poses as a missing child from an American couple (Julia Stiles, Rossif Sutherland) who adopt her and bring her back to the States. It’s here where little “Esther” must keep up the illusion, with the mother already gathering her suspicion but not wanting to trouble her husband. For the first hour of this 100-minute movie, I was quite bored and the movie was relatively listless. There were some kills but it all felt like simply going through the motions, especially already knowing her secret and not being emotionally invested in whether her new identity would be maintained. And then the movie makes a sudden turn, one I’ll spoil right now because I think it makes the film actually watchable, where the mother confesses she knows Esther is not her missing daughter, is an adult woman, and then both of the women in this dysfunctional nuclear family are trying to undermine and kill one another while vying for the favor of the father/husband. It took an hour of sequel/prequel drift, but here First Kill (there are many after her first) finally delivers something new to do after sitting for an hour rehashing the original twist. I wish the screenplay had gotten here even earlier and veered into wicked black comedy. It definitely feels like the movie wants you to laugh at the escalating battle between fake daughter and fake mother. I laughed out loud over a scene with slippery dentures. There’s no real reason for this movie in 2022, especially with all the extra work to make it plausible, but I wish the filmmakers had just embraced all its goofy implausibility.
Nate’s Grade: C
Bullet Train (2022)/ The Princess (2022)
Bullet Train and The Princess are two recent releases that could serve as a double feature for all they have in common. Both movies prioritize fun above all else, both of them feature stylized violence and bloodshed, both of them have a perverse sense of humor, and both of them feature young actress Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Wish Upon), coincidentally playing the listed roles of Prince and The Princess. What more do you need for this combo? If you are a fan of Bullet Train, you’ll likely be a fan of The Princess, and vice versa, because both of them are exactly as advertised. They’re wild, whimsically violent, but succeed with nimble action construction, bizarre and engaging characters, and high energy that sparks fun escapist entertainment.
Bullet Train is set almost entirely on a speeding bullet train in Tokyo, and we follow a group of hired killers, mercenaries, and generally nasty people all sharing one very fast locomotive. “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) is a reformed hitman who only takes snatch-and-grab gigs as he’s trying to better himself with therapy and meditation. He’s meant to grab a briefcase of money and get off the train. Naturally, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Onboard the train are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Hill) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have the briefcase in their possession along with the prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a scary Yakuza boss known as “The White Death.” Also on board is Kimura (Andrew Koji) seeking to find the person responsible for pushing his child off a rooftop, Prince (Joey King) using her diminutive stature to trick unsuspecting men, the Wolf (Bad Bunny) seeking out the person responsible for the death of his bride, and several other masked killers looking to up the ante. Characters will clash, many will die, and “The White Death” will be appeased by the end, coming to collect a blood debt from all.
Bullet Train was, blissfully, everything I was needing it to be. It’s a universe familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino and especially Guy Ritchie, with colorful and threatening characters with large personalities and quirks colliding in unexpected and violent ways. I’ve seen so many Tarantino knock-offs, and Tarantino knock-off knock-offs, so I appreciate when someone is able to understand what it takes to succeed on this unique playing field. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street: 1978) knows how to sharpen the kind of off-the-cuff banter that makes these movies excel, with space given for the characters to make a sizable impression. There needs to be time to get to know them, their quirks and faults, and then send them all running at one another at cross-purposes, interacting in fun ways that lend to one character screwing something up for another. There’s about a dozen characters dropped upon us, and just about everyone gets a flashback or introduction set piece, sometimes more, sometimes extensions of previous flashbacks, sometimes extensions from alternate perspectives. Part of the fun is just seeing how the different characters relate to one another, so there is a period of time where the mask has to eventually drop, and the reveal needs to be worthwhile. It’s a lot, and Bullet Train gleefully trades in excess upon excess all in the name of chasing after a good time, and if you connect on its zany and breezy wavelength of reckless violence and dark humor, then you shall be happy for the ride.
The movie is constantly reshuffling and transforming, allowing it to hyperextend into whatever shape it necessitates before contorting back to its next phase. This malleability makes the movie far more responsive, sometimes overlapping, and it provides an extra level of energy. It’s reminiscent of Snatch, my favorite of the Ricthie cockney crime capers, where the story zigged and zagged through linear time, providing answers to different stacked questions. I won’t say the characters are as distinct as Snatch, but Olkewicz takes his time to introduce each with relish. Pitt may be the marketable star of the movie, at least as far as advertising is concerned, but it’s really much more of an ensemble, and one anchored by Lemon and Tangerine. Their droll, snappy banter really cements their long-term relationship almost like a screwball romance. They end up becoming, strangely, the heart of the movie, if one were to suggest a movie with an entire wedding party vomiting their guts to death had a beating heart. Their exact connection and genuine affection for one another, even when they’re driving one another mad, is one of the film’s many surprises as it zooms ahead. There are fun cameos, and some unexpected abrupt deaths, but Bullet Train works because of the entertainment of the kooky killer characters. I enjoyed that one character’s obsession, namely likening people to Thomas the Tank Engine avatars, has a personal connection but actually leads to some ironic turns. Not every set-up has the best payoff (Chekov’s toilet snake comes to shockingly little) or resolution (why wasn’t the snooping conductor thrown back in or given a revelation?) but with so many characters criss-crossing, so many goofy asides and cul-de-sacs, and so much bloody mayhem, there’s a steady stream of fun, satisfying payoffs and retribution until the mid-credits sequence.
To me, the water bottle symbolizes Bullet Train at its best and worst. After two hours of multiple characters and their out-of-order flashbacks shuffling for dominance, we get an inanimate object with its own flashback. It’s a goofy and superfluous addition, as the water bottle has served as a plot device but has served its ultimate plot purpose already, so seeing its entire history offers no new information that the audience didn’t already have. However, what it does is show the movie from the perspective of this bottle, and many sequences are reframed from the bottle’s rigid point of view. It made me think about how after they got their shot setups, someone on staff would then call out, “Okay, we need the water bottle POV shot now,” and they would film that. I appreciate the effort for something this fleeting and silly. They didn’t need to put in this flashback or this level of attention to an object that ultimately just gets thrown at a guy’s head. However, it’s the misdirect, the ridiculous inclusion on top of the others, and the ramping of energy that made me smile, even as little else came out of it. I appreciated the showmanship. For me, this is emblematic of the movie as a whole, an overload of style and energy just for the fleeting hell of it.
Under the direction of David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), the action is as fun and energetic as the colorful characters. Leitch has become one of the best modern directors of action movies. The hand-to-hand combat is refreshing and makes use of close quarter combat demands. I enjoyed that the two participants in a fight are trying to sneak in quick moves without getting caught by an older lady who demands quiet in the quiet train car. I enjoyed the zany flashback where Tangerine and Lemon recount to the camera and dispute the number of men killed on a previous job. With a character cursed with bad luck, it provides opportunities to have fun with accidents and bad timing, which Leitch works into different action set-ups and setbacks. Even when the movie literally goes off the rails and becomes a big cartoon, Leitch finds ways to marry the big tone in such a manner that the ridiculous doesn’t prove off-putting. When characters are swinging samurai swords in slow-mo, while a Japanese version of “Holding Out For a Hero” is pumping on the soundtrack, I just sat back and soaked up the deliciously disposable fun times.
The plot of The Princess is as straightforward as Bullet Train is knotty. The Princess (Joey King) of a fantasy kingdom is chained at the very top of a castle tower. Her captor, Julius (Dominic Cooper), has imprisoned her family and plans to wed the princess and become king. The princess, however, has other plans. Thanks to her martial arts and weapon training, she breaks free and becomes a one-woman wrecking crew as she descends the tower floors to freedom.
I was genuinely surprised at how well developed and exciting the action sequences were. The Princess shares more in common with The Raid than anything by the Grimms. The script by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton follows the model of a video game; every new floor is a literal new level with a new boss or new objective to be achieved to advance to the next level. The simplicity of the premise is refreshing, and the movie doesn’t waste any time ramping things up. Blood is shed within the first few minutes and it doesn’t let up. What I really appreciated was how well constructed each new action set piece was. There’s variety and specification that challenges our heroine, who is powerful but still not all-powerful and bereft of vulnerability. Each new encounter forces our protagonist to think through a different application of skills. There’s a situation that involves overpowering a larger and stronger man, a situation trying to wound a fully armored man, a situation battling two men, then even more, a situation with men charging into the battle and having to escape to a safer environment, a situation where she has to swing along the outside of the castle to enter a different room, a situation involving stealth, and many others, but each requires something different and thus each proves to flesh out our main character and her capabilities and problem-solving acumen. It’s always a pleasure to watch smart people overcome challenges in fun and smart ways, and The Princess has this formula down. I was worried the movie might get repetitive with its video game level design, but each new challenge is an opportunity to dazzle and enlighten us about our John Wick-esque fighter.
That’s probably the best comparison, the John Wick franchise, because it’s a series of movies that is defined by the thrills of its fight choreography and action set pieces. That’s it. The world has some interesting flourishes but the draw is the fight scenes and the pleasure of watching professionals operating at such a high level and with demonstrations that allow us to better immerse and appreciate the artistry of the fighting. And it’s good here. The impressive choreography has a really nice A-to-B propulsion, with each move connecting to the next to tell its own story of countermoves and adjustment. I really appreciated how the specific geography of each location is incorporated into the action, whether that be as a hindrance or an assistance to the fighting. It makes the sequences more meaningful and better developed. It’s also a movie that understands that if you give your villains specialized weapons, they better use them in fun or nasty ways. If all you’re looking for is imaginative, bloody, and brutal fighting, The Princess delivers it all. Credit also to King for throwing herself completely into the role. She effortlessly executes complicated fight moves and swordplay during long takes. You can tell she’s having a blast being a badass. Think of The Princess like a feminist version of The Raid or an upside-down version of Dredd (“Instead of fighting up, this character fights her way… down.”).
The Princess could have made more social statements but its very conceit is a feminist reworking of outdated fantasy tropes, so I don’t mind that it’s a streamlined action movie with a blunt yet obvious point. The familiar story tells us that these damsels in distress are the maidens in need of rescuing (“Sorry, our princess is in another castle” and the like), so just having the princess be her own champion is a simple yet satisfying subversion. This is an action movie and less one on politics; however, it’s a movie that cannot help from being political because it’s upsetting the expected social norms, that women are docile and weaker and at the whims of men. The Princess isn’t breaking new ground here. There have been plenty of movies that re-contextualized the feminine roles of old legends and folk tales and made them more capable and strong and fierce. That doesn’t mean there’s any less enjoyment watching our princess take down one leering man after another. It’s the appeal of the underdog who makes men pay dearly for underestimating her. These repeated interactions and bloody comeuppance speak about as well as necessary for this kind of movie. I doubt things would have radically improved if one of the characters broke into a treatise on the misapplication of gender roles. It’s a woman beating the stuffing out of creepy and lascivious misogynists. For this movie, that’s more than enough to keep me watching.
Where The Princess starts to lose itself is once it shifts into its final act and abandons its formula. I can understand wanting to shake things up so the viewer doesn’t get lulled into complacency, but because the sequences were, beforehand, varied, my interest was not lagging. During this final stretch, the titular princess leads a squad to take down the baddies, and the movie becomes any other number of similar fantasy action movies. The enjoyable fight choreography is still present, but it feels like a rush to clear everything in comparison to the methodical floor-by-floor clearing from before. I wish the filmmakers had merely held steady with their plot rather than throwing things out and relying upon a grand team-up revolutionary raid. There’s also a sudden shift that throws out the rationale for keeping the princess alive. The bad guy just shrugs and says, “Forget it, I’ll find a replacement,” and it feels too arbitrary of an escalation. If he could do this, why was he so insistent for the first hour that she not be killed? It’s not a bad ending or one that ruins the movie but it’s definitely a downshift from the action excitement highs from before.
The Princess and Bullet Train are both frantic, over-the-top, cartoonishly violent, while still understanding how to effectively sell their escapist mayhem. We need to be dazzled by the action sequences and have them be meaningful (check), we need weird and interesting characters that we want to root for or watch bumble onscreen (check), we need payoffs that feel rewarding (check), we need an onslaught of style and attitude (check), and we need, above all else, fun and surprises (check). Neither of these movies is going to qualify as one of the best movies of the year. That’s just not the kind of experience either is shooting for. However, they may be some of the best fun you have with movies for 2022, and in a world in short order of fun, that’s plenty.
Bullet Train: B
The Princess: B
Social Media Monster (2022)
In the age of social media, the concept of a troll is a constant, a person who lives to torment and provoke strong outrages. These proverbial bomb throwers live to antagonize, and Ohio filmmaker Peter John Ross (Horrors of War) has a personal relationship with one, a 40-something wannabe activist and filmmaker, but what he’s most known for is his ever-expanding litany of harassment and reality-defying martyrdom status. Social Media Monster is a new documentary that gives the man his platform, though likely not as he would request. Ross specifically explores the relatively recent interactions between his troll and the bemused citizens of St. Joseph, Missouri (population: 75,000) as he caused general chaos, discord, and confusion throughout 2018.
The biggest boon for Ross, as a filmmaker, and we, as viewers, is that there is no shortage of recordings of its troll. For whatever reason, he recorded himself extensively, likely exemplifying his narcissistic personality and desire to be famous, and the fruits of those loquacious labors are an amazing resource for the movie. To have your subject offer to dictate all their thinking, quite often contradicting earlier statements, makes the job of the filmmaker so much easier. Your subject is providing their own insights and contrasts. I’m curious what his reported documentary on being homeless in America could offer. This troll isn’t a wholly fascinating figure alone, but his victim complex can serve as a microcosm of others that present challenges to a larger society, people fueled entirely by grievance even when they have none to speak of because someone must be to blame and it won’t be them. He appears so eager to be deemed special, to be seen as a hero, someone fighting the good fight. He’s bounced from being a journalist to an activist to a documentary filmmaker, and at one point a Wagyu steak salesman, and is still searching for whatever magic combination will give him what he’s seeking, respect and sense of importance. In another light, this could be the stuff of tragedy, but he is too much of an incessant antagonist to feel lasting sympathy for. He spent the day bombarding one guy on social media who just reached out to ask if he was simply okay (the movie brings receipts for all the profane and incensed texts and messages). He’s targeting real people, making real threats, and leading to real distress, and amazingly, he’s recording himself doing and discussing much of it. Social Media Monster has an intriguing mystery man of a central subject that happens to want this very spotlight, so in some ways it’s a perfect match.
The troll appears a troubled individual, the kind we might hold up for mockery and dismiss in the past but now we see all-too often lashing out. The entire 90 minutes feels like the unsettling biopic of a man before he went on a violent rampage. He mentions having bipolar disorder, among several other possible mental diagnoses, and he is clearly harassing and threatening many individuals who unfortunately cross his path. Even those who are allies can quickly become the latest villain in an ongoing nebulous conspiracy of the world seemingly in unison fighting to thwart his noble endeavors. Mentally unstable loners with easy access to money and weapons, and simmering grievances that will never cool over, are too often dismissed by law enforcement when they happen to be white guys. This troll could be yet another example of the danger of dismissal, and Ross argues that his troll has been getting away with his misdeeds for so long that it has emboldened him into more egregious actions. The man has made literal terrorist threats about attacking nuclear facilities and police officers. It’s hard to imagine someone getting away with these same threats if they just happened to be, oh I don’t know, Muslim or black (especially a black Muslim).
Why then is he seen as more an irritant than a credible threat? Beyond obvious implicit racial bias, I think it’s because the bulk of his harassment happens to be online, and the world of online discourse is one law enforcement would rather ignore. Just look at the inconsistent application of revenge porn laws to protect victims from abusers. It feels like nobody wants to intervene because he is considered a keyboard warrior, a nuisance the equivalent of some guy yelling on a street corner. That’s a risky judgment. Hope it doesn’t look foolish later.
Social Media Monster knows that its subject is its strongest selling point, so Ross keeps things tied to his access to the St. Joseph locals and their strange stories. Not all of these are of equal footing, but the movie has so much ammunition and doesn’t dwell on any singular anecdote too long, so you just have to be patient and a new development will unfurl shortly. The interviews are direct and generally punchy, with many all too happy to expound on their strange interactions with this unknowable individual. I loved every time the impressively bearded local city councilman was able to speak again. Between the candid interviews, the copious amount of existing footage, and no shortage of bizarre anecdotes of bizarre behavior, Social Media Monster is a movie that I wished was longer and larger in scope. I’m used to documentaries tackling a larger macro subject through an example that we follow in more specific detail, but Ross avoids making any significant social pronouncements. It almost feels like the title is a bit misleading.
This is one of the few times that a post-credit scene actually made me reflect differently on the film beforehand, let alone with an Ohio-made indie release. After the relatively short closing credits there’s a stream of clips cut together showing that targets extended beyond the incidents we have spent 90 minutes documenting. He harassed a writer on Modern Family, the Cartoon Network, Megadeth, Dr. Phil, local news reporters, and activists including Erin Freakin’ Brockovich. All these incidents will be explored in… Social Media Monster: The Series, and as soon as that promise was made, I deflated a little. The movie ends up becoming an extended pilot for the ongoing weekly adventures of this troll and his trail of confused victims.
My biggest complaint of Social Media Monster is the constrained nature of its scope, keeping almost exclusively to a one-year period of concentrated harassment on the citizens of St. Joseph in 2018. The director has a pre-existing relationship with this troll going back a decade, and yet it is strangely kept to a minimum in the film. I kept wanting the movie to break free of its closed focus, especially with the question of who is this man and charting his own actual history. The story behind where he got all his money is anticlimactic and needing more inquiry. We’re told about past disagreements like his contention that Adult Swim ripped off his proposed short-form TV concept/pitch for the Cartoon Network. We even see a brief clip of this, and oh I wanted more on this strange odyssey. I wanted to know more about these other crazy incidents rather than going into even more granular detail with the same residents of St. Joseph, and at the very end, the movie reveals that it could have done exactly that but elected not to. The movie was hoarding its other titillating non-St. Joseph anecdotes and interviews and evidence to lead into a TV series. It made me feel cheated out of the better movie that was being held captive to leverage interest into a sequel series.
Social Media Monster is a fun and often funny 90 minutes with a preposterous subject that is all too eager to provide his own tools for public scrutiny and mockery. The movie barely scratches the surface on who this man is, beyond of course as an unstoppable troll. There is more to be had here especially with the wealth of material available to Ross and his crew. For the sense of a documentary film, I wish Ross had taken full advantage of that cinematic wealth at his disposal.
Nate’s Grade: B
S1mone (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released August 23, 2002:
Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit. His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).
Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.
Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.
Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.
There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.
When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.
As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?
It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I cannot stand movie titles that try and force numbers into the place of letters. Don’t be Fant4stick, be Fantastic Four. Don’t be Thir13en Ghosts, be Thirteen Ghosts. Don’t be L4yer Cak3, be Layer Cake. Even one of my favorite movies of all time, Se7en, is guilty of this. I hate the implication of how you’re intended to say the new forced titled (Examples: Fant-Four-Stick, L-Four-Yer Cak-Three, Se-Seven-En). I find this all to be annoying, and I refuse to type S1mone as it was originally entitled, with a one replacing the “I” and a zero replacing the “O.” You get one number, that’s it, because it’s all my power to only do that much. End of re-view preface.
I thought going back to 2002’s S1mone could be interesting considering it was about cutting-edge technology possibly replacing actors and revolutionizing the film industry. Around 2001, with advancing special effects starting to touch the possibility of photo realism, this seemed like a possible turning point. Writer/director Andrew Niccol even considered using an all-digital actress for the title role of his industry satire after viewing footage of 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. He eventually decided against it, and we’re all the better for it because imagine re-watching this movie with twenty-year-old technology that fools the entire world into thinking Simone is real (cue teenage snickering). The character was played by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts and her identity was kept a big secret around the time of the movie to keep the illusion that S1mone was cutting-edge technology. It’s ultimately proof that the real thing, whether that’s practical in-camera effects or even live actors, will always age better and have a place in moviemaking. As I said revisiting Final Fantasy: “Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.” But hey, Roberts and Niccol have been married since 2002 and have two children together, so at least something came out of S1mone besides a title that causes me pain to type.
The big problem I have with S1mone, besides its title spelling, is that its satire with no bite, and its chosen point of view is actually the villain. First, this movie just isn’t funny. I was more charitable when I originally reviewed it back in 2002 but I didn’t laugh once throughout the near two hours. It weirdly feels absent much in the way of social commentary. Simone is an instant star and everyone falls in love with her. There’s a beginning entry into commentary when her creator, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), attempts to sully her image but only proves to make her more popular, but then that’s it. There’s a goofy, near-farcical quality to Taransky trying to hide the pretend nature of the world’s most desired actor. He even drives a car while operating a mannequin to provide cover. If Niccol wanted to really push this angle, there would be considerably more challenges for Taransky to maintain his illusion, getting more and more outrageous like steam building to a blowup. It’s not that this doesn’t happen but that Niccol’s screenplay makes it so absurdly easy for Taransky. He dictates that Simone wishes for her privacy and occasionally leaves behind some detritus of human life and that’s all it takes to establish a convincing existence. Nobody challenges him, at least not in a serious manner, which negates the conflicts and possible comedy of keeping the farce. Everything comes so easily and it makes the ensuring comedy barely explored if evident.
Another major drawback is that Taransky is the villain but the movie thinks otherwise. He’s sick and tired of the demands of actors. He has his complaints about working within the contradictory Hollywood studio system, but his major gripe is with working with actors. When the possibility of a photo-realistic replacement that will do whatever he says is offered, he snatches it. It’s because Viktor doesn’t view actors as people, and he feels the need to control and not to collaborate. He’s an artist with a capital-A but it’s the actors with their unwieldy egos, of course. It’s even more nefarious when you add an icky layer of misogyny to his actions. He wants a young woman who will do anything and everything he demands for his pictures. When the studio boss questions the extensive level of nudity for his next movie, Taransky says Simone will do it without hesitation because that’s what the role requires to accomplish his true vision. All he wants is a living doll to respond to his button-pushing without reserve or complaint. He wants an actor, and especially a woman of conventional attraction, to do his every selfish bidding.
At no point does the movie present our hero’s actions as being questionable or possessive. For him, all actors should just be replaced with ones and zeroes that will do whatever he wants, even nudity, and his perspective is strangely rewarded given Simone’s instant success within the industry. She literally ties with herself for the Best Actress Oscar. There may be a satirical commentary available about how quickly the public falls in love with their oblivious perception of celebrity, and how little they actually know the person behind the headlines, much like all celebrities of old and new, but the thematic work isn’t there. I kept waiting for Viktor to earn his delayed comeuppance, humility, or at least learn something of value, but through this misadventure he’s able to relaunch his career and even get his ex-wife back, so hooray?
This is also a peculiar outlier for Niccol as both a screenwriter and a director. He favors high-concept sci-fi scenarios, like 1997’s genetic have/have nots allegory, Gattaca, or 1998’s reality TV gone to its extremes drama, The Truman Show. 2005’s Lord of War is a powerful and slickly stylish condemnation on the global impact of arms dealers and gun trafficking and the bloody footprint of capitalism. S1mone is the lightest movie of the man’s career. Maybe he wanted a break from working on high-concept studio releases. 2011’s disappointing In Time likely lead him to a safer studio territory of adapting and directing 2013’s The Host based upon the YA novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. I didn’t even know that Niccol has made two other movies since, 2014’s Good Kill and 2018’s Anon on Netflix. He’s listed as being the screenwriter for a 2027 Monopoly adaptation, so that could be a thing. Niccol is the kind of storyteller I want more often, a man with clear visions and ideas, but S1mone proves that he’s best suited for headier realms. Comedy is not the best fit for this man’s talents (I think we’re supposed to laugh at the very image of Pacino applying lipstick to kiss autograph photos).
Is there anything of entertainment value here? There are ideas that could work with more attention and development. I liked the team of Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as investigators tracking down the pieces that don’t quite add up about Simone. I think there was a real opportunity to deconstruct the star-system of Hollywood and have Taransky finally able to launch his true artistic pursuits that had previously been denied without Simone’s attachment. Perhaps the movie just narrows completely to the window of Taransky making his dream project while maintaining his deep secret. Perhaps even make the movie a mockumentary, like the documentary camera crew has discovered this amazing fact and are promised continued access as long as they can help keep the secret for like two years, enough for the director to see his vision through and then use this as his swan song. Then the movie becomes focused on the mishaps and chaotic complications of getting one project off the ground while having asides that can tweak the egos of actors and producers and studio suits eager to work with the next big thing. I think that would have been an improvement over a movie where an aging director gets his groove back by fooling the world and suffers next to nothing in the process. The climax is low stakes just like the rest of the movie because the protagonist gets everything he desires with minimal effort. S1mone is an intriguing idea of movie that suffers from misapplication, under development, and a bad protagonist to celebrate and reward.
My initial review in 2002 was too kind. There’s too little below these ones and zeroes to count.
Re-View Grade: C-
Licorice Pizza (2021)
It took me many months but I’ve finally watched the last of the 2021 Best Picture nominees, and now I can safely say, I just don’t understand all the love for Licorice Pizza. It’s writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Phantom Thread, Boogie Nights) nostalgic L.A. hangout movie, but the axiom of hangout movies is that they only really work if you actually want to hang out with the participants. I’m not certain I needed or wanted to watch either of our lead characters navigate the curious bounds of their possible romantic entanglement. Alana Haim plays Alana, an under-achieving 25-year-old looking to better define herself, and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in five prior PTA movies, plays an over-achieving 15-year-old that is in a hurry to grow up and conquer the adult world. He’s crushing on her, she’s flattered but says it’s not appropriate, and over two hours we watch a series of meandering episodic adventures that test their will-they-won’t-they determination. I found Haim’s character to be generally unlikable and, worse, uninteresting. She’s petulant, needling, prone to jealousy but also clearly likes the attention but doesn’t know how far to test it. Hoffman’s character, based in part on Tom Hanks’ childhood friend and producing partner Gary Goetzman, is like a human puppy dog, so overwhelming and sunny and anxious to be liked, but I can’t see any more depth to him or her. They’re just kind of annoying and maybe that’s the point about looking back. I don’t see the larger thesis or theme in many of Anderson’s small and unfunny asides. He’s trying so delicately to recreate a feeling of time and place of early 1970s Los Angeles, but the movie doesn’t succeed in answering why anyone else should really care about this personal PTA slice of nostalgia. The best part of the movie, by far, is the segment where Bradley Cooper plays the lascivious and self-absorbed hairdresser-turned-producer John Peters. Too many of the other misadventures feel like table anecdotes brought to overextended life with technical pizazz and minimal emotional accessibility. Licorice Pizza left me cold and unfulfilled.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Prey is the kind of Predator movie I have been clamoring for years to make. The franchise was in some major need of a mojo rejuvenation, and instead of constantly repeating the same stories to lesser and lesser effect (see: 2018’s sloppy release), the filmmakers finally saw the obvious and exciting answer. By placing the Predator into different points and places in world history, the producers have finally tapped into the creative potential of the equation of [cultural warriors] vs. alien bounty hunter. Each new movie allows a new selling point jumping from famous warrior to famous warrior. Imagine samurai versus the Predator, or Crusaders versus the Predator, or Vikings versus the Predator, or a Wild West showdown against the Predator. It would be like an intergalactic Deadliest Warrior franchise. It’s a super advanced alien species, so why can’t we establish that they’ve been flying to Earth for centuries for their recreational sport? Each movie can establish a larger mythology, but it also just supplies the fun of seeing history’s greatest warriors and different settings and cultures versus a powerful alien monster. Prey is the best Predator sequel, by far, and arguably as entertaining and engaging as the 1987 original.
In 1719, we follow a tribe of Comanche in the Northern Great Plains. Naru (Amber Midthunder) wants to be a respected warrior like her big brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who cautions her about the weight of responsibility. She discovers strange tracks and is convinced that their tribe is not safe from a new predator. How little does she know how right she is.
Within minutes, Prey had me. I’ve seen complaints that the first half is slow, but I think people are discounting the time needed to establish the ordinary baseline life of this community, their relationships and conflicts and goals and hopes, before introducing the change agent. That takes time if you want to be able to understand this different life but also if you want to really connect with the characters. The first half provides the foundation for the second half to run with and have bloody mayhem that counts as more than surface-level entertainment. The best compliment I could provide for screenwriter Patrick Aison (plus director Dan Trachtenberg) is that had the Predator never beamed down, I still would have found the story to be interesting. The details are rich and build an authentic picture of life 300 years ago before European colonists would completely upend indigenous life. The Predator series, at its core, has been a nativist underdog tale, where the primitive people of Earth have battled against the technologically superior alien warrior. The dynamic makes it easy to root for the Earthly heroes, but it’s even easier when you have a protagonist like Naru, fighting for respect as a woman already. The character is shown as headstrong but capable, and her mistakes provide opportunities for her to learn and better strategize later. I genuinely gasped when certain indigenous characters died. I’ve never had an emotional response to any Predator film.
The reveal of the Predator is cautiously handled, with the big guy taking time to explore his own surroundings. I enjoyed that this Predator also isn’t as advanced as his more modern ilk. He wears an intimidating alien skull mask and has more limited, though still high-tech, weaponry. I also enjoyed that this Predator feels like he has more of a personality. It’s not just a mirthless tall guy in a thick suit. The actor, Dane DiLiegro, is still providing a tactile, physical performance, and he has moments that reveal the cruelty of this alien but also its volatile temper, which is kind of hilarious. He encounters the wildlife and goes from snake to bear to man, right up the food chain, but some of his more violent kills demonstrate an almost petulant attitude. This is a Predator that doesn’t quite have it all together, and it makes the eventual battle with the Comanche feel like a conflict that has two sides that are worthy but also with their vulnerabilities. It makes the final showdown more interesting. It also allows us to take perverse pleasure in the big guy mowing down a team of predatory French fur trappers that imprison Naru and use her as bait. Oh boy, the gory comeuppance is fun.
The action sequences are smoothly handled by Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) who favors verisimilitude without sacrificing the visual artifice. The photography is gorgeous, and the emphasis on natural light and environments add so much the overall authenticity. Trachtenberg also knows what visual style will work best with which moments. There’s one scene where Naru sneaks back into the trapper camp and her vengeful fury is portrayed in a breathless long take to make the moment even more intense and enjoyable to appreciate the beat-by-beat fight choreography. The scenes with the Predator stalking in the fog play with claustrophobic suspense. The action has a very pleasing sense of construction that clearly presents the pieces that are needed for the scene-to-scene goals, and then the characters will adapt as necessary through organic complications. This is just good action construction, and Trachtenberg fields each like an expert.
Another fun addition with Prey is that they filmed it with two audio tracks, an English-language track and one fully in the Comanche language. It’s not the most necessary option since most viewers will likely simply watch it in English, or not know about the alternative until after watching, such as myself, but it’s an impressive addition that can make the movie even more immersive and authentic and generally considerate of another culture and language.
Now, with all my points of praise for Prey, why oh why did Disney shunt this movie straight to its secondary streaming arm with Hulu? After the Fox merger, I understand that the Mouse House doesn’t quite see the same level of value in every Fox property not named X-Men or Avatar. This was restarting a franchise that still has some life in it, but even more than that, this is a good movie with plenty of artistic acumen that would have played splendidly on a big screen and an excellent sound system to really sell every fleshy slice and alien gurgle. It seems preposterous to me that a new Predator movie, let alone an actually great one, is denied theatrical release. I know the domestic box-office is still not what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. I understand that Fox’s leftovers don’t have the same sexy appeal to the new bosses. It just puzzles me that nobody thought that they would make money off of Prey, which has proven to be a big hit on Hulu with critics and fans (ignoring cranky misogynists questioning the physical ability of women). Prey is a great action movie built upon solid characters and patient, clear plot and action development. When it comes to gore, I wish it wasn’t as heavily CGI and a more memorably gruesome, but that’s my only real criticism of what is fundamentally a fun and exciting movie. Give me more like Prey.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Lightyear (2022)/ Luck (2022)
After two years and three movies sent straight to Disney’s burgeoning streaming service, Pixar returns with a theatrical movie that taps back to the very beginnings of this storied storytelling company. We’re told, via opening text, that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie and thus the reason he was so excited to bring home a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story. However, if this is Andy’s “favorite movie,” then this kid needs to be exposed to more movies. It’s an acceptable sci-fi story about Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) learning the value of others and that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. He’s a space ranger stranded on an alien world. Every time he attempts to restart their fuel system, it jumps him forward in time four years, and soon enough he’s a man out of time and those stranded have built a colony civilization over 100 years. There’s a band of misfits, who aren’t terribly funny, and some laser fights and action sequences, which aren’t terribly exciting, and the third act twist is predictable. The animation is top-notch, but the storytelling is definitely a few notches below infinity and beyond. What astounds me is that Andy could watch this movie and want a Buzz toy instead of the real breakout, the robotic cat Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) who is wonderfully droll. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and desiring owning another character above this delightful supporting character. This movie makes me think a little less of Andy as a discerning arbiter of pop-culture zeitgeist. Lightyear is fine as escapist entertainment but too facile and inessential to the Toy Story universe.
Luck is the first animated feature from Skydance, a production company that entered the animated realm by hiring former Pixar head John Lasseter as their chief creative executive. In some ways, Luck feels reminiscent of early Pixar movies, exploring the “secret life of” those in charge of dictating the forces of luck. The problem with Luck is that it is overwritten and overburdened with world building that crushes the emotional core. We follow a young woman aging out of the foster system and she’s been besieged with bad luck all her life. She follows a talking cat and discovers a hidden world where workers mine luck crystals and have lucky pennies as portal generators and there’s a dragon, for some reason, as the CEO of Good Luck, and to get back home she needs to team up with the cat to find a thing, but to find that thing they need to go to a place, but to go to that place they need to – and you get it. The plot is overworked with a chain of tasks that explain more of this world’s mechanics without connecting to the emotional journey of the character, like in 2015’s Inside Out. I was amazed that this woman lacks even a shred of bitterness about her own trenchant bad luck. There’s a nice message about accepting the bad with the good in life, and how both are opportunities for growth, but I kept wondering why our hero didn’t once lash out at those responsible. I’m also a little hesitant about using whether a little girl will be stood up by her potential new foster family as the stakes of completing the good luck reset goal. That seems pretty heavy for wackiness. The animation isn’t quite at the level of Pixar, or the best of Dreamworks, but it’s colorful and bright even if lacking more advanced lighting and texture. Luck lacks enough gravitas and development to really appeal to adults but it’s also probably too busy and convoluted to entertain small kids.
River Road (2022)
I was asked to review River Road by an Ohio producer, although he is the lone Ohio connection and it was filmed in British Columbia, so it doesn’t exactly count as an official Ohio indie. It’s written and directed by Rob Willey, a Canadian commercial and music video director with one previous feature credit, 2016’s Dark Cove, a horror thriller with a budget of only $25,000. Willey is definitely a talented visual stylist, that much is apparent from watching clips of his shorts or the trailers for his movies. He sure makes a pretty picture. My issue with River Road as a drama is that the plot, characterization, and structure felt not nearly on par with the alluring visuals.
Travis (Cody Kearsley, Daybreak) is a Vancouver guitarist living a wild life of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. He meets Zoe (Lexi Redman) at his journaling spot while he’s luxuriating at a friend’s home on the eponymous River Road. She’s an American visiting a friend and over the course of a party they hook up in more ways than one. Zoe’s cocaine ends up being heroin and now both become inexorably tied together, two addicts sinking lower and relying upon one another for support. Travis empties his bank account, sells his belongings, including his prized guitar, and then considers increasingly risky crime to be able to afford more drugs. This brings him and Zoe to their most dangerous option: robbing local drug lord, Fresno (Steven Roberts), and making a very bad man a very clear enemy who will want very real and violent vengeance.
In short, I found these characters to be insufferable. This is billed as a crime movie but it’s really more of an addiction narrative following the descent of two people into more desperate and self-destructive behavior. As an addiction narrative, it’s best to start with some tangible semblance of what the “before times” are like so we have a baseline to contrast with the damaging effects of drug abuse. If we followed a story about a deranged homeless man with alcoholism who suddenly started using crack, that’s not enough of a dramatic contrast to effect much added drama and tension. This is the first error of River Road. Our introduction to Travis is that he’s a traveling hedonist, playing in a rock band and going through women like water. He has a montage about “getting clean” after the band’s last tour but this literally lasts minutes before he’s right back to snorting cocaine at the local parties (maybe we have different definitions of “clean”). With Zoe, we have one meet-cute first encounter, and then she’s already at the same party snorting cocaine and introducing Travis to heroin. This all happens fifteen minutes into the movie, so not enough time to effectively establish a “before” phase, but Willey errs by failing to give us more to either Travis or Zoe as characters. They were vague before and now, for the next hour, they will be defined by the depths of their addiction. However, I was never emotionally engaged with either of them so I found much of their rather redundant wallowing to be tedious and, shocking, failing to provide further needed characterization.
My engagement was also hampered by much of the clunky and inauthentic dialogue. When people speak, you don’t really feel like you’re learning much about them; it’s like empty air unless they’re directly expositing what is, by all other means, unclear. Travis says, via helpful future narration, that he never met someone “so alive” like Zoe and he was won over by her sense of humor. I shook my head and wondered where the evidence for this was, because the previous twenty minutes did not establish either of these aspects. The dialogue often falls into being redundant or exceedingly expository. We’re told Zoe has a great sense of humor, but where did we see it? We’re told this romance was electric, but where did we see it? The conclusions are being dictated to us rather than shared and earned. And then paradoxically we’re given scenes where characters will talk in circles but just hit the same note into oblivion. I found every scene with music producer Cash Dirty (Sunee Dhaliwal) to be excruciatingly long and unnecessary. I think he’s supposed to be “comic relief” but he’s just a more verbose version of most of the men, trading in the same levels of hedonism and casual misogyny. The big villain likes to keep taking but it’s the same improv note with too much time to fill. I’ve seen this kind of haphazard writing before in other indies that confuse “authenticity” with uninteresting and bland dialogue.
If you’re making an addiction movie you chiefly go one of two tonal routes: tragedy or immersion. Naturally, you can combine the two like Requiem for a Dream, but usually a filmmaker wants you to feel an emotional connection or a vicarious immersion with an overload of style. So, if you’re falling short from a characterization standpoint you can at least provide a satisfying array of style to bring to haunting visual and auditory life what the addiction process is like. I suppose one could argue that depictions of addiction without even the attempted integrity of characters and drama is simply cheap exploitation, and that can be true. With River Road, the characters don’t cut it to supply the tragedy. It’s just not there. I think it was another screenwriting error to provide not one but two framing devices, Travis and Zoe each narrating from the future when they’ve both gotten some form of treatment or help. I understand why this would be appealing to Willey because you can immediately plug into a scene of the past and cut to the character literally explaining, via voice over, what they were thinking at any moment. The problem with this is that the insight of these future narrators is pretty deficient. We don’t need future Zoe to tell us such obvious statements like “once you’re high there is no pain, there are no worries.” I think we understood that through the serene expressions on their faces, plus the general nature of drugs. They’re appealing for a reason. The other problem is that having both of our participants in this doomed love story as future storytellers means they won’t die. It eases some of the tension of its more fraught Act Three when they begin their dangerous decisions.
There’s also a misplaced twist at the one-hour mark that I find absolutely self-defeating, but to explain further will require some spoilers, so if you want to remain pure dear reader, skip to the next paragraph. From the fifteen-minute mark until the one-hour mark, we’re beset with redundant scenes of Zoe and Travis getting high, wandering around, being happy, and then being mopey during their withdrawal times, which shockingly don’t take up more time. It’s awkward to watch Travis mess up recording his guitar part for a song, and this is one of the few instances where we at least get a semblance of personal before/after contrast, but how many stagnant scenes do we need of people getting high, then begging people for money, then getting high again? This descent into debauchery doesn’t feel like we’ve regressed too far. Then at the one-hour mark the twist detonates that Zoe… actually knew about Travis when she saw his band perform in New York City. She stalked him online and followed him and planned her “chance meeting,” and my response was to merely shrug. So what? What does this twist do for the narrative? They were addicted to heroin before the first act was finished, so what does her being a stalker change with their current addiction crisis? After he demands she leave, Zoe comes back, and it’s as if this weird twist never happened for all its minimal impact. Travis does get to scream that Zoe hooked him on heroin on purpose, to try and control him, but, again, this is not evident with what we’ve seen onscreen. Also again, what does it matter? They’re stuck now. The manipulative woman trope, added onto the crazy groupie trope, is tacky, though I don’t know if we’re supposed to adopt Travis’ assessment when he learns the real truth. If this twist were going to be effective, we needed a lot more work done with Zoe’s characterization, with more time spent establishing a clear persona before the drugs became the dominant force. As it’s written, the twist plays like, “Hey, that vague girl who got addicted to drugs really quickly had maybe some other motives while she was vague.” You can’t earn that Gone Girl-style twist without putting in the proper time and effort for the rug pulling to genuinely upend the viewer.
From a technical standpoint, River Road is a slick-looking movie with moody, neon-drenched cinematography and an atmospheric and evocative film score, both done by Willey (he also edited and produced too). There are some fantastic visual compositions here and that’s where I think Willey has his true passion. The movie makes extensive use of montage where you can tell the shot composition and arrangement and editing are just much more ambitious. It almost feels like the drug montages and time lapse montages were what Willey enjoyed making the most. In contrast, the scenes of characters talking have less appealing composition, often relying upon a stifling shot-reverse shot rhythm where each person is left in a single shot. After a while, the discerning viewer can start to categorize the scenes that Willey prioritized more. Every filmmaker invariably does this to some degree; it’s just more apparent with River Road. The drug use sequences are entrancing, like the first taste of heroin leading to Zoe and Travis losing one another in the cosmos with snow falling on them being overlapped. I’m surprised we don’t have more visual sequences trying to convey the highs. Much of the scenes after this initial jolt are watching people close their eyes and nod in contentment. The editing in the montages is also smooth and seamlessly melting from shot to shot with ease. There are other scenes where the editing gets less prioritized as well. A scene where Zoe is laying perpendicular across Travis’ stomach kept cutting at sharp forty-five-degree angles that it ruined the flow of the scene. Likewise, a climactic foot chase is hampered from edits where the proximity is hard to judge. We needed more shots of Person A being seen with Person B. Without, or without clear markers to denote progression of the chase, it’s a jumble of frantic images without forming an important visual continuity.
River Road is a production where I would recommend just about every element with one big exception, the storytelling. I don’t blame the technicians nor the actors. It’s the screenplay that doesn’t know what to do with its 85 minutes, the wasted and redundant characterization, and the shrug-worthy climax (why do I care about an ultimate showdown between the big bad dealer and the guy who Travis works with at the gym?) that mitigate the other shining qualities. I think Willey is a filmmaker with some serious chops but maybe defer on the screenwriting next time.
Nate’s Grade: C
Not Okay (2022)
I don’t really know what writer/director Quinn Shepherd (Blame) was trying to say with Not Okay. It’s supposedly a jet black comedy about social media celebrity and FOMO, and the lead character Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) is definitely a callous hanger-on wanting to taste fame by gloming onto real-life tragedy, but the tonal inconsistency hamstrings the cohesion of the message and the overall entertainment value. The film begins well, establishing Danni as selfish and clueless, with some sharp lines like her feeling she missed out on a big millennial formative experience of 9/11 and asking, “Can tone deaf be a brand?’ She fakes being in Paris to impress a douchey vaping influencer (Dylan O’Brien) and during this time terrorists bomb the French capital. Sensing an opportunity, Danni pretends to be a victim and she is given a voice, a platform, and sympathy from strangers. Halfway through, however, the movie transitions into something more earnest by introducing a real survivor of trauma, Rowan (Mia Isaac), a school shooting survivor who advocates for political reforms. Until this character, everyone is the movie has been a stereotype, pastiche, or easy send-up, and now the movie wants us to take it seriously, and the satire just atrophies. You can either go one of two ways with a concept like this: satirize some aspect of our shallow society in go-for-broke style like World’s Greatest Dad, or turn it into a personal thriller of how far will she go to maintain the lie and will she be caught like Shattered Glass. Not Okay tries to do both and in doing so the accrued tonal dissonance causes both approaches to suffer. I don’t care whether she’ll get caught because she’s not interesting as a person because she’s made to be an avatar of attention-seeking validation, and also it’s easy to disprove her illusion. I am not laughing because the movie drops being a comedy for much of the second half and its satirical points are fairly broad and already been done in better movies. The problem is that Shepherd doesn’t own the unlikability of her protagonist. She wants her to learn a lesson and be affected by her harmful actions. The end has a blunt message about white saviors co-opting the voice and spotlight from genuine suffering of people of color, and in a smarter movie it would resonate more. However, with Not Okay, it’s just another example that all human suffering can be co-opted to make obvious insights appear more meaningful to the right audience.
Nate’s Grade: C+
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