Author Archives: natezoebl

The Whale (2022)

Much has been written about Brendan Fraser’s comeback role and the mountain of prosthetics he was buried under to portray a self-loathing 600-pound man in director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The concern was that the movie would stigmatize overweight people as disgusting and treat fatness like a moral indictment, condemning their lifestyles as slovenly and doomed to misery. I watched the film ready to cringe at a moment’s notice with the hyped portrayal that earned such livid and divisive reactions. I found The Whale to be deeply empathetic but I’m uncertain about whether or not it was fully compassionate, and it’s that artistic distinction that I’m trying to square as I analyze Aronofsky’s melodramatic yet flawed character study.

Charlie (Fraser) is a morbidly obese English teacher who keeps his camera off during his online classes. The closest relationships he has is with his nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), who checks on him regularly with alarm and concern, as she’s also the sister of Charlie’s deceased partner. The movie chronicles one eventful week in Charlie’s life as he tries to make the most of his dwindling time and reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).

For me, Charlie is less a clinical case of what being morbidly obese can do to a person and he’s more a case study of self-destruction. In 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, Nicholas Cage won an Oscar playing a man determined to drink himself to death over the course of one eventful weekend in Vegas, and I saw more parallels with his character and Charlie, a man who turned to eating as his source of grief that then became his vehicle for self-destruction. The movie is not casting judgment that all fat people, even those approaching the size of Charlie, are destined for eternal loneliness or crying out for help. However, this specific man is using his increasing weight as a form of suicide. This facet makes Charlie interesting but also increasingly confounding as well. He seems genuinely remorseful about the time he’s missed from his now-teen daughter’s life. He’s saved up his life’s money and plans to give it to her, but I kept wondering why, exactly, he had to die for this? He won’t take care of himself because any medical cost could take away from the handsome sum he plans to leave, in full, to Ellie. He apologizes for being absent but seems unable to see an alternative where he can be present. After so many years apart, maybe she would actually prefer having her dad back in her life? Charlie stubbornly holds to an all-or-nothing ideal, like some kind of fumbling romantic gesture, but he doesn’t have to die for his daughter to live her best life. She doesn’t even get a say. It’s his inability to see through this false choice he’s determined is the best outcome that makes the character frustrating. He only views his death, and I’m sure the insurance to go with it, as his biggest reward that he can offer his estranged daughter, and that makes it even more frustrating at the very end, where he’s trying to prove something to her but is also likely traumatizing her for life. That love he proclaims so readily for his daughter seems questionable when he prefers a misguidedly noble demise to getting to know her and allowing her to choose for herself. The character seems so frustratingly myopic about his own life and its value only being its end.

Complicating this matter is the reality that Ellie is, quite clearly, a horrible person. She’s angry at the world and trained her ire on her absentee father, who she believes left her and her mom to pursue an illicit affair with one of his male students (the reality is a bit more complicated). She is well and truly awful. Ellie insults her father repeatedly. She yells that she wants him to die and that she would be better off. She agrees to spend time with him for a hefty price. She even takes pictures of him and posts them online for social media derision. She’s detestable, and yet the screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter (Baskets), adapted from his play, wants me to yearn for a hopeful father/daughter reconciliation. There isn’t a hidden pool of depth with this character, a brilliance that we know just needs to be nurtured and that Ellie can tap back into. She’s just the unrepentant worst. I think The Whale errs by placing so much of its dramatic foundation on this pairing. It made me question why this man is literally killing himself for this bratty teen. The late reveal for Charlie’s essay that he often quotes like a religious mantra is obvious and still doesn’t open up Ellie as a character. There’s a brief tear-stricken moment at the end that I guess is meant to represent Ellie with her guard down, but I didn’t buy it, and I found her to be a thinly written archetype that is unwinnable. She’s more of a plot device to motivate a redemption arc. Maybe the point is she’s undeserving of her father’s graceful overtures but I guess that’s parenting, folks.

Charlie says he’s always been a bigger guy but his weight got away from him after the loss of his partner, and it’s this unfathomable grief that caused Charlie to go on feeding binges. He sought comfort in the immediate appeal of food, and plenty of people can relate to stress eating or eating their feelings when times are turbulent. I don’t think the movie is setting Charlie up as a cautionary tale to avoid. Charlie’s grief is tied to religious intolerance and its own trauma. He opened himself to another person and then had his new sliver of happiness dashed away directly related to a religious intolerant mindset that his partner was unable to break free from. He’s a victim who saw no way out including a heavenly reward supposedly denied to him. It’s not this dead man’s fault that he was raised in a diseased environment that viewed his own identity as an illness, and it’s not worth blaming this man for being unable to break free from this mentality. It’s the intolerance that has contributed to Charlie’s weight gain and his fatalistic sense of self. Heartbroken, Charlie has retreated from the world, and it’s the guise of spiritual salvation that proves alluring to the determined young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Jurassic World). He sees the flesh as the prison for the soul, and he tries to sell Charlie on a salvation that asserts itself as liberation from his body, which the young man views with horror. Charlie doesn’t want the spiritual guidance, especially from the same community that poisoned the mind of his late partner. Like the Ellie character, I don’t think we gain much with this storyline and the amount of time that the screenplay gives Thomas. I guess we’re meant to see him as another wayward soul trying to live authentically, but he’s another underwritten archetype given misplaced emphasis.

The best reason to sit through The Whale are the performances from Fraser and Chau. We’ve never seen Fraser in a movie quite like this, a man best known for broad slapstick comedies (George of the Jungle, Furry Vengeance) or dashing action-adventure movies (The Mummy films), and he’s great. His performance is less mannered than you would assume for an actor undergoing such a physical transformation. In fact, his vocal range makes Charlie often sound anesthetized, like he’s already given up moving out of a comfortable yet limited range of emotional output. It’s kind of heartbreaking but he’s also got a gentle heart that chooses to see the best in people, even when they might not be there. Fraser is compelling in every moment and disappears into the role of Charlie. His best scene partner is Chau (The Menu), and the movie is at its best when they’re sharing the screen. Liz is the closest friend Charlie has, and they have a shared special kind of pain relating to the loss of Liz’s brother. She’s also enabling his self-destructive impulses and is devastated that Charlie is accepting a doomed fate rather than letting her take him to a costly hospital. Chau is heartbreaking as you feel her fear and guilt, afraid of losing another person so dear to her but also severing another connection to her brother.

The Whale is an experience that makes me wonder about its best artistic intentions. Even the title of the movie feels like a glancing blow; what other analogy are you supposed to make other than Charlie as our very own Moby Dick? The critical essay he keeps reciting takes a sympathetic view of the marine animal and posits the fruitless efforts of those who wish to cruelly hunt it down and how this will not provide personal fulfillment (it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who represents who in this dramatic dynamic). It’s also the least distinguishable Aronofsky film of his provocative career, confined to a single location and devoid of the director’s usual vision and verve. It feels like a challenge in restraint for Aronofsky, almost like he’s approaching theater and just wanting to get transfixed by the dramatic surges of the actor’s interactions. I found the central character to be interesting but confounding, not that human beings are ever so clearly understandable in every facet of their being. I don’t think the supporting characters really added much, with the exception of Hong Chau, and I wish the daughter plot had been scrapped. But if you’re sitting down to watch The Whale, you’re doing so to experience Fraser’s career-best performance where he reveals layers to his acting that you never knew were possible. He can still lean into his innate generous spirit and charm to get you to root for Charlie to find some peace. For Fraser alone, The Whale is worth watching and might open some hearts.

Nate’s Grade: B-

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The surprise surge of the Oscar season is a German-language remake of the 1929 Best Picture winner, and after watching all 140 minutes, it’s easy to see how it would have made such an impact with modern  Academy voters. All Quiet on the Western Front is still a relevant story even more than 100 years after its events. It’s a shattering anti-war movie that continuously and furiously reminds you what a terrible waste of life that four-year battle over meters of territory turned out to be, claiming over 17 million casualties. I’ve read the 1928 German novel by Erich Remarque and the new movie is faithful in spirit and still breathes new life into an old story. We follow idealistic young men eager to experience the glory of war and quickly learn that the horror of modern combat isn’t so glorious. There are sequences in this movie that are stunning, like following the history of a coat from being lifted off a dead soldier in the muck, to being reworked at a seamstress station, to being commissioned to a new recruit who questions why someone else’s name is in his jacket. It’s a simple yet evocative moment that sells the despairing reality. The movie doesn’t skimp on carnage as well, as long stretches will often play out like a horror movie where you’ll fear the monsters awaiting in the smoke and that nowhere is safe for long. And yet, where the movie hits the hardest isn’t depicting the trenchant terror but with the little pieces of humanity that shine through the darkness. There’s a small moment in a crater shared by two enemies where one of them is dying, and these final moments of recognizing the same beleaguered helpless and frightened humanity of “their enemy” are poignant. Make no mistake, All Quiet is a condemnation on the systems of war where old pompous generals send young men to needlessly die for outdated and absurd reasons like the concept of “maintaining national honor.” A significant new subplot involves Daniel Bruhl (Captain America: Civil War) as a representative of the German government trying to negotiate an armistice when the French representatives are looking for punishment. It allows us to take a larger view of the politics that doomed so many and laying the foundation for so many more doomed lives. The ending of this movie is a nihilist gut punch. The production values are impressive and elevate the artistry of every moment. The sound design is terrific, the cinematography is alternatingly beautiful and horrifying, and the production design is startlingly detailed and authentic; it’s easy to see how this movie could have earned nine Oscar nominations. All Quiet on the Western Front is a warning, a eulogy, and a powerful reminder that even older stories can still be relevant and resonant.

Nate’s Grade: B+

M3GAN (2023)

It’s early January, typically a dumping ground for the unwanted leftovers of Hollywood studios, but an unexpected meme queen has emerged in the form of M3GAN. The latest hit from Blumhouse is styled as a horror-comedy and from the same writer as 2021’s Malignant, which was a delightfully gonzo horror movie that only got more absurdly entertaining the crazier it went. My hopes for M3GAN were confirmed early as I laughed within seconds of the movie. There isn’t much in the way of genuine scares as a PG-13 chiller, so M3GAN leans into the knowingly awkward camp comedy. An advanced robot is given to an orphan to test-drive and the little robot forms a strong attachment that cannot be broken even by bloodshed. It’s a crazy killer doll movie combined with a crazy killer robot movie as well as a corporate satire. When the little robot literally bursts out into song to help cheer up her human counterpart, there’s nothing to do but laugh and acknowledge this is what the filmmakers wanted in response. It’s a fun movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome but needed a little more crazy or a little more biting satire to really satisfy. I was hoping for a more Malignant-style escalation of crazy and was left wanting. Still, it’s a goofy horror comedy that just wants to have fun with the uncanny valley of your expectations.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Outfit (2022)

What a disarmingly suspenseful movie this was. The Outfit flew under the radar when it was released in the early months of 2022, but it deserves better and is genuinely one of the best films of that year. It’s structured much like a stage play, based in one location with a group of characters under great duress. Set in 1956 Chicago, the movie takes place entirely within the tailor shop of Leonard (Mark Rylance), an expat from Britain’s famed Savoy Road who has a special arrangement with local gangsters. He lets them use his shop for their business and doesn’t ask questions. Then one fateful night a job goes wrong and the surviving criminals hide out in the shop, suspecting one among them is a traitor. Written and directed by Graham Moore (Oscar-winner for 2014’s The Imitation Game), the movie is an ever-shifting game of constant suspense, with new characters coming into the fray and with every person holding their own secrets. I was impressed with how the movie kept upending my expectations while holding onto clarity, as each new combination of characters onscreen meant a different dynamic of who knows what and what angle they’re gunning for. Rylance is our anchor of this shifting game and it’s an open question whether he is hapless victim or manipulative schemer. The writing is so sharp and the ensemble are so refined each in their role (Dylan O’Brien, Zoey Deutch, Simon Russell Beale) that you ignore the rather pedestrian direction by Moore. This little movie is such a sly surprise that can pack a wallop while keeping you entertained and duly satisfied by the end. The Outfit is is a well-made yet familiar story but told with pristine craftsmanship.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Skinamarink (2023)

Before going any further, let me acknowledge that this movie was, in all likelihood, never going to be my thing, so take everything I write next with caution and context. Skinamarink is the latest indie horror sensation and it’s easy to root for. It was made for a pittance, roughly $15,000, and filmed entirely in writer/director Kyle Edward Ball’s family home in Edmonton, Canada, and after being accidentally leaked online in its entirety in late 2022, the movie became a stalwart of TikTok and the talk of indie horror fans, enough so that it earned a nationwide theatrical release based upon its word-of-mouth buzz. This guy had an idea, shot it himself and for extremely little, and now horror fans across the country can gather and watch this man’s efforts. That’s commendable. Ball is living out a filmmaker’s dream, and I congratulate the man on being able to conceive a micro-horror concept that could connect with so many eager horror fans. I hope he rides this wave and is able to make even more movies while still holding to his creative terms. However, Skinamarink was too experimental an experience for me. It’s like having someone describe their nightmare for you in tedious, clinical detail when you’d really like to do anything else. I kept waiting and waiting for anything to materialize. I was just left waiting and bored.

This is less of a plot or character-driven movie and more one of those horror movies meant to exist on a subconscious dream logic parallel, tapping into something primal. The environment is very limited. We’re stuck inside a home at night for the entire duration of the movie, ostensibly following or adopting the perspectives of two children who wake up in the middle of the night. Something is wrong with their parents, and it sure sounds like there’s another more sinister presence in the home preying upon all of them. We hear noises coming from just out of reach. We see feet and heads but never the faces of people. An old TV continuously blares public domain cartoons that echo through the home. There are some Legos on the floor. Sometimes the doors and windows, and even a toilet, will disappear. Nobody tries to use a phone or leave the house. I was hoping over the 100 minutes that some grander design would reveal itself. Alas, if it did reveal itself, my patience had already been exhausted and so was my brain trying to make sense.

This kind of minimalist tone poem movie is just not for me. I was hopeful that eventually the different mysterious pieces might start forming a more cogent picture of what was happening, or even an understanding of the new rules within this enclosed nightmare universe, but it never materialized. Because nothing really adds up with Skinamarink you could have rearranged any scene without having a deleterious effect. There is no structure, no discovery, nothing to warrant this movie being 100 minutes when ten would have given the same artistic impression. It feels like one of those movies that someone else would watch in another movie that was cursed, a la The Ring. Imagine watching the strange imagery of The Ring cursed video but for two hours. Wouldn’t that grow tiresome? There were some moments that unnerved me, like a rare extended scene of dad imploring the child to look under the bed, and the occasional non-sequitur hushed morsel of dialogue that can creep you out (“That’s why I took her mouth away”). I feel like the entire movie is a giant ASMR experience and would be best watched alone, in the dead of night, and with headphones on for a fully immersive sound design. The movie’s lo-fi style applies to its soundtrack as well, which is constant with hisses and pops like an old record. It’s effective but, like everything else in the movie, becomes less effective or interesting upon its excessive repetition. 

I was reminded of Terrence Malick, another filmmaker whose artistic output doesn’t appeal to me. As I wrote for 2005’s The New World: “[Malick] doesn’t so much involve a plot as he does a large open space for his characters to pontificate about the world around them, mostly through whispery voice over. Malick fans will take in his artistic capture of sight and sound, but the rest of us out there will be scratching our heads, that is, when we’re not falling asleep. Seriously, how do you edit something like this? How does Malick know that THIS shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to be slotted here, while this OTHER shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to definitely come later? Malick is a stubborn mystery.” I kept thinking these exact same critical thoughts throughout Skinamarink: how does one even approach editing a movie like this? How do you put this shot of a door at minute 43 but reserve this other shot of a door for minute 56? Because the movie doesn’t build or alter its approach, it feels punishingly monotonous. We’re seeing the same rooms from the same angles, the same TV, the same Legos, and the occasional whisper or growl of dialogue. I guess the repetition could contribute to a growing sense of dread or an inability to escape, and for some I’m sure the movie had that effect. For me, I couldn’t connect on its liminal wavelength. 

I think the filmmaker was reasonably trying to recreate a relatable childish nightmare, waking up and sensing something is wrong, the adults cannot help you, or are missing themselves, and there’s no escape to be had as you try to wake up. The lo-fi inventiveness on a very limited budget is admirable, but for me, it would have been just as effective as a clips package. Actually, the entire movie is a glorified clips package, because one scene rarely if ever connects to the following scene, or one shot connecting to the next consecutive shot, so it feels like an endless fuzzy loop. I watched one of Ball’s videos on his YouTube channel, a resource that proved to be his inspiration for the movie, and it was a one-minute short labeled as a nightmare and it consisted of opening one door and pushing inside only to be met with another door, and then the whole thing repeats for a full minute. The point is easy enough to grasp, the futility and helplessness, and even at a minute in length, the video is pushing the bounds of its thin concept to a breaking point. I feel like Skinamarink is the same thing, a concept pushed beyond its breaking point without additional intrigue or substance. I congratulate Kyle Edward Ball and his minimal crew for making a shoestring budget horror hit. It’s just too experimental and lacking narrative traction and substance to be a hit with me. 

Nate’s Grade: C-

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is, surprisingly, genuinely great. No kidding. It’s very very good. It’s been eleven years since the first Puss in Boots spinoff, and that itself was seven years after the character was introduced in 2004’s Shrek 2, and there hasn’t been a Shrek movie since the franchise-killing Forever After in 2010. I would have assumed that Dreamworks had just moved on from this character in the ensuing years, especially as How to Train Your Dragon became their big new commercial franchise, until they too ran that into the ground with 2019’s disappointing third film. I had little expectations of greatness once I heard there was a new Puss in Boots feature, even after I started hearing the growing critical consensus. Early in, only mere minutes, I realized that a Puss in Boots sequel was one of the best movies of 2022 and an exciting and heartfelt sequel that proves that with the right artists and storytellers, any old character can still have vibrant relevance. It’s a children’s movie that can appeal to everyone.

Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) is a famous adventurer, sword fighter, and lover of women, but he’s also nearing the end of a long journey. He’s used up his eight lives and is now on his ninth and last, and to escape Death, he sets out on a quest to retrieve a fallen star that will grant one person a wish. It just so happens there are a lot of other characters in this fairy tale kingdom that want to get there too.

It is amazing how hard this movie goes. In its opening sequence, it establishes its bold artistic style that enlivens every second onscreen, it establishes its caliber of exciting action that feels akin to wild comic books and anime, and an emphasis on mortality that provides a sense of danger and emotional foundation for what could have been just another shoddy animated sequel drafting off brand recognition. Let’s just focus on the animation style to begin with. I was expecting the same old CGI that has dominated the world of animation for twenty years, but The Last Wish has been clearly inspired by the greatness of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. There is a distinct 2D edge given to the designs, accenting the imagery, and during bouts of action they will lower the frame frate, making the movements much more stark and pronounced. Add to this a lovely, painterly watercolor visual style, more emphasis on the overall impression than finite definition, and the movie is a consistent feast for the eyes. There are stylized sequences that communicate fear and desperation, as well as sequences that exemplify the kinetic movement of superhuman action, smartly altering its visual appearance to better serve whatever emotion it wants you to feel. I hope more and more animation companies continue this magical hybrid of CGI and traditional animation techniques, as also seen in 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines. It’s a great step forward combining the old and the new into a stylized look that allows the creators to make the best of both animation worlds.

The action is also satisfying and surprisingly well developed. The opening sequence involves Puss awakening a giant behemoth and it made me think of the exaggerated and intense action of anime series with giant kaiju monsters like in Attack on Titan. The camera will freely circle and zoom around the theater of action, heightened with exaggerated motion lines and split screens and POV swaps. I also love that the filmmakers understand the inherent qualities of what makes for good action, incorporating the personality of the characters into the situations, providing organic consequences, tailoring to the geography, and providing clear mini-goals. After introducing the secondary antagonist of greedy Jack Horner (John Mulaney), as well as Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Coleman, Samson Kayo) “crimin’” gang, the movie transforms into a delightful and unexpected fantasy version of Midnight Run. There are multiple groups racing against one another to a destination, all the while jostling for supremacy and bumbling into one another’s way. It makes for a fun series of events as every group has their own reasons for gaining the wishing star. Because of this, their behavior feels in-character and the cross-purpose motivation allows for fun combinations of characters getting in the way of one another and utilizing the specifics of their fantasy character details. There was a midpoint sequence combining all sides in a colorful brawl, including unicorn horns exploding into confetti upon contact, and I just felt a surge of pure incandescent joy.

In yet another of the movie’s pleasant surprises, it has one of the best villains of the year as it deals with the concept of mortality with actual nuance. The main antagonist is literally Death itself, personified as a red-eyed, grinning bounty hunter wolf and voiced by Narcos’ Pablo Escobar, Wagner Moura with a menacing purr. This Wolf is after Puss because he’s now on his last life and the Wolf is personally offended at the idea of having multiple lives. Their first encounter makes Puss feel fear for perhaps the first time in his nine lives. In a morbidly amusing montage, we zip through Puss’ previous eight lives and specifically the moments leading to their comical end. He’s flippant with an unchecked ego, and Death seriously humbles him, being the first to ever land a blade on Puss in Boots, a detail he’d been bragging about even in song. From here, Puss is deathly afraid and the hairs of his body will stick up whenever he suspects the return of the Wolf, who certainly enjoys terrorizing his targets with an ominous whistle to announce his presence. So at a moment’s notice, the crazy and colorful hijinks can stop from hearing that familiar yet eerie whistle. In some ways, it’s a family-friendly depiction of working through trauma. The larger theme is Puss acknowledging his moral shortcomings with his many lives, the time wasted on frivolity and ego, and making the most of the time he has left. The need to re-up his lives is a fine starting motivation based upon fear, personified as trying to literally escape the scary wolf, but it’s also what makes Puss confront his own behavior and want to change as well as hold himself accountable.

The heartfelt portion of the movie is its emphasis on found families, and it was done so well that I actually teared up at points. Yes, dear reader, Puss in Boots 2 had me on the verge of tears more than once. Goldilocks is the leader of her gang of squabbling thieves, but she still views herself as an orphan first, whereas the bears view her as an equal and valued member of the family and crime gang. Even her character arc comes to a poignant conclusion where she realizes that her real family isn’t the one she comes from but the one who makes her feel that she belongs. This theme is also demonstrated with little Perrito (Harvey Guillen, What We Do in the Shadows TV series) as the adorable and undying optimist puppy sidekick. His selfless vantage point contrasts with Puss, and greatly annoys him, but Perrito also has his own goal. He wants to be a comfort dog, and one of the sweetest moments of the movie involves him helping Puss come back from a traumatic response through a shared moment. Even typing these words makes me tear up. The screenplay knows how to develop characters that can grow as friends and family and the drama is directly connected to well-honed characters and thoughtful story without being overly sentimental and maudlin, a slippery slope to doom many child-friendly animated efforts with messages.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish does everything well. It’s funny and colorful and exciting and meaningful and heartfelt and everything you would want in any movie, let alone one featuring a talking cat swashbuckler in tiny boots. No matter your mixed feelings on Dreamworks animated movies, or their iffy sequels, or even children’s movies as a whole, I whole-heartedly recommend that everyone give this magical movie a fighting chance. The animation is gorgeous and vibrant and colorful, the vocal performances are terrific, the action is fun and well-developed, and the themes and character arcs have substance to provide meaningful layers and emotional heft. This is superior entertainment and all in about 90-some minutes. While I’d slot it below Guillermo del Toro’s masterful stop-motion Pinocchio, this is a wonderful movie and one of the best to ever bear the Dreamworks mantle. It’s the 2022 sequel you never knew that you needed but will be oh so happy that it rightly does.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Corsage (2022)

Corsage aims to loosen the stuffy costume drama with a dose of feminist upheaval and irreverence, but ultimately I felt like I was spending my time with a bored woman trying and failing to conquer her boredom. After turning 40, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) has a midlife crisis. She’s been renowned for her beauty, as that was her primary function for her husband the Emperor (Florian Teichmeister, an actor literally on trial for child pornography), and has become obsessed with her weight. Every person she meets seems to remark that she’s much thinner than her paintings. Now that she’s beyond her child-rearing age, she is languishing with how to spend her copious amounts of time in fabulous luxury. She goes horseback riding. She visits her cousin, and tries to have an affair with him. She gets to experiment with an early film camera. She gets prescribed morphine for her melancholy. She visits wounded soldiers and women locked away in sanitariums. She even gets a tattoo on vacation with her best friend. I thought the movie was going to be either more of an expose on yet another woman suffering from the oppression of her gilded cage, and Corsage glances at this topic, or a fictional account of a rebellious woman pushing against the patriarchal powers that be. The movie doesn’t really feature either approach. There aren’t enough tweaks to its genre to qualify as satire. It’s a character study of a supremely bored wealthy woman missing out on any passion in her life, whether that’s from lovers or political causes or even good company. Krieps (Phantom Thread) is the best reason to keep watching, but as the movie chugged along, it felt like I was watching a depressed character go through the motions looking for anything to possibly spark joy. The movie felt rather rudderless and I don’t feel like the totality of the scenes added up to a multi-dimensional portrait of our lead. I wish the movie had more attitude or more irreverence or even reverence, something to stir the nascent passions of those watching and waiting for more.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Argentina 1985 (2022)

How does one adjudicate a country’s own nightmare and find justice? That was the situation Argentina found itself in after returning to a democratic state following seven years under a military junta that kidnapped, tortured, interrogated, and killed thousands of its own citizens in the guise of “stopping radical communists.” Argentina 1985 gives you its setting in the title but it’s really about the chief prosecutor (Ricardo Darin) trying to hold the top generals accountable for their crimes against humanity. There is a lot riding on this case and plenty going against him, including near-constant death threats for he and his supportive family. There are some very harrowing personal accounts in the movie, but it’s set up almost like an underdog courtroom drama conceived by Aaron Sorkin, and much is made about putting together the young hotshot team and seizing the day. The movie is swiftly paced for being over two hours and has notable comic relief to keep things from getting too overwhelmingly gloomy given the subject matter. However, Argentina 1985 never loses its focus on making the powerful account for their sins. It’s a rousing courtroom drama with piercing details, engrossing human stories, and the temerity of history. In the light of rising authoritarian movements around the world and even in the U.S., this movie has even more urgent political relevancy about making sure the crimes of government officials are accounted for and that justice is served. It’s a testament to the heroism of everyday citizens and it makes for an invigorating drama that doesn’t lose sight of the big picture amidst the plethora of procedural details.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Purple Hearts (2022)

When Netflix’s small-scale romantic drama Purple Hearts debuted during the summer of 2022, it over-performed and proved more popular than other much more high-profile Netflix releases at that same time, namely the headline-grabbing, and very bad, 365 Days franchise. Purple Hearts styles itself as a would-be Nicholas Sparks novel dripping with sudsy sentimentality and enemies-to-lovers swoon, but it’s really more an indictment of the “both sides” false equivalency befalling our modern political discourse, and in trying to find a safe middle, the movie ends up failing to hold one character accountable at all while forcing the other to completely bend over backwards for a moral and ethical re-education.

Cassie (Sofia Carson) works at a California dive bar and dreams about being a singer. She also suffers from diabetes and cannot afford her life-saving medicine. Luke (Nicholas Galtizine) is an enlisted soldier about to leave for his first tour of duty in Iraq. They can’t stand each other and yet both agree to enter into a fraudulent relationship and get married for the military benefits. Then Luke comes home early to recover from an injury, and he and his phony wife have to play pretend to keep their benefits and keep Luke out of the cross-hairs of being dishonorably discharged. Can these two crazy kids with opposing political views actually fall in love for real?

The title isn’t just a reference to the military award given to the wounded, it’s also an indication of the movie’s attempted ideology, that this red conservative boy and this blue city gal can come together and find harmony. For the first hour, this idea is drilled into the viewer’s head, that these two are an example of the polarization of modern American politics and neither is willing to cede an inch. Except that’s not true at all, especially as the movie plays out. The premise almost sounds like a comedic farce that probably would have been more entertaining. This isn’t a story about two people butting heads and then finding common ground and learning the error of misconception. Let me give you some examples, dear reader, how Purple Hearts is not a “meet in the middle” romance and more of an unhealthy erasure of a vocal woman’s ideals.

Each person has an impetus for getting into this sham marriage. Cassie cannot afford her insulin with no health care. Luke has little money and owes an old friend/drug dealer he’s trying to leave behind. First off, these scenarios are not equal. Cassie’s is an indictment on our broken health-care system that pushes so many to the margins of desperation. It’s also an indictment on the price-gouging of insulin, which according to the Mayo Clinic costs ten times more in the United States than “any other developed nation,” and on unchecked corporate greed. Cassie’s dilemma speaks to the vulnerable underclass being ignored. Now take Luke, who vaguely owes some money for vague reasons to his former dealer. It’s a reminder of Luke’s past as an addict. However, this threatening dealer is the only reminder of his past addiction; Luke doesn’t struggle with temptation or relapsing, even after he gets seriously injured in the line of duty. His struggles are not on the same level as Cassie, and maybe that’s because the military has saved Luke. His own father was ready to disown his rebellious boy but when Cassie informs dear angry dad about his son’s enlistment, he softens and invites her inside his home to speak. By this standard, it’s even more curious why Luke is still in debt to his former friend. He’s already gone through his basic training, he’s already heading overseas, so surely he would already have some benefits of being in the military and possibly pay off his dealer (I looked up boot camp pay and it varies but it’s also pretty minimal). Also, his problem is a one-time payment away from resolve whereas hers is a lifetime of need. I’m admittedly coming at this from an outsider, but one of these people seems to have problems that are social ails, and currently dealing with a medical crisis, and the other is past his crisis and would likely be well suited to resolve his scenario.

Now let’s speak about what each of them gives up through this relationship. They take turns trading insults, Luke calling her a “snowflake” and denigrating her mother being an “illegal,” while Cassie insults Luke for being “blindly obedient,” which is kind of expected in the military. After they are sham married and go out with Luke’s squad, one of his peers makes a toast about going over to Iraq and “hunt me some Arabs.” Cassie looks appalled but says nothing. This friend of Luke’s then pointedly asks if Cassie has a problem with him, and she very reasonably says she has a problem with his racism and conflating all Arabs as one monolithic group to target, and this guy sneers and mocks her about using pronouns. After a couple more heated misogynistic comments, Luke intervenes… by asking Cassie to sit down and shut up. Excuse me? She was uncomfortable from an outburst of racism, was mocked for this, while also bearing the insult the idea of simply empathy with pronouns, and then she’s the problem? This scene is indicative of the movie’s entire approach to the political divide. It serves up easy points by playing upon stereotypes of how liberals are perceived (Cassie didn’t even know the U.S. was still in Iraq), and its lazy insults against liberals are even weaker and more strained (pronouns… really?). It all lays the foundation for what is Cassie’s transformation, for her to realize the error of her ways, and accept Luke on his own terms. Except this admission is never given to her as well. He doesn’t accept her until she starts to adopt his way of thinking, and writes songs about the brave sacrifices of those serving, a perspective I guess she never could have come to on her ignorant own.

As I was watching Purple Hearts, I kept thinking how disposable the entire first hour was, which sets up our couple, their warring viewpoints, and their marriage of convenience. It’s at the hour mark where the real movie begins, with Luke coming home injured and forcing the couple to see one another in a new light. I thought about how the movie could have opened with Cassie getting a phone call about her husband and his injury, then meeting him at the hospital and the great ironic turn that could have registered as we find out for the first time that this happy union is only transactional. This is where the drama really starts, and the proceeding hour is just back-story that could have been supplied throughout in small scenes or dialogue. The crux of the movie is how these characters are meant to change the more time they spend with one another. The first hour is about them meeting and then Luke going overseas into combat. It’s easy to keep up a ruse when the other person is half a world away. When he returns, that’s where the real challenge begins, and that’s where I feel the movie should have begun. I’m also a bit shocked how unimportant Luke’s injury is in the grand scheme of things. He recuperates fairly fast and it shockingly doesn’t force him to reconsider himself through the new physical challenge. It’s as if the injury is merely a plot device to excuse him from active combat. It’s quite disappointing that being physically disabled doesn’t allow Luke needed personal reflection, rethinking his prioritization on his strength and value as a warrior, the version of himself he remodeled to escape a life of addiction. The final hour needed to be expanded for better character development, and both sides of this romance needed introspection for it to be rewarding.

The other miss of the movie is with the absent chemistry of its leads. Carson is best known as the “other girl” from the Disney Channel tween Descendants franchise, and she ably sings throughout the movie, which feels positioned as her re-introduction to older audiences and perhaps a platform for her own songwriting. The songs that Cassie finds viral success are genuinely… fine. They all sound a bit like the same, though even when the song plays as a ballad, Carson is jumping around the stage, kicking her legs, and swinging her arms in wild whirlwinds like it’s a rocker. The tonal dissonance is unintentionally funny. Galitzine (Cinderella) really gets the short end. I’ve seen him sing convincingly, be charming, and in Purple Hearts he’s just six feet of condescension. His character is an angry glare as a person. Even when he’s re-learning to use his legs, the character doesn’t come across as humbled, only more irritated by the inconvenience. These two never develop a palpable spark, so given the insufficient characterization and lack of romantic grounding, the disinterest is instead palpable.

If you’re an easy sucker for pretty people falling in love under sunset-dabbled skies and set to gentle music, I’m sure Purple Hearts will work its would-be charms. I found the characters to be annoying, the structure to be lopsided and in need of jettisoning the first half, and the overall treatment of an outspoken woman calling out racism and misogyny as a problem needing fixing as disappointing and unfair. There are so many plot elements here that could have made this a more compelling drama, like Luke’s past with drug addiction, surely something that could have been a dangerous return with his recovery from injury necessitating pain killers. It’s a movie reportedly about sacrifice but the way I saw it only one character undergoes change to satisfy their romantic partner, and in turn the audience. Purple Hearts is a misguided romance that never goes beyond its thin stereotypes and one-sided demands.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Decision to Leave (2022)

Imagine crossing a classic film noir detective story with some unrequited romance heavy with yearning, like In the Mood for Love, and that’s the combo you get with director Park Chan-wook’s newest, Decision to Leave. In Busan, a straight-laced detective (Park Hae-il, The Host) is investigating an older government official who fell to death from a mountain peak. He suspects that the man’s wife, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei, Lust, Caution), a much younger Chinese immigrant, might have something to do with the death, and so the detective gets closer and closer to his suspect, blurring the lines of the investigation and his own personal desires. It sounds like familiar genre territory, and it can be, but director Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Oldboy) is the X-factor, and quite simply, he shoots the hell out of this movie. There are some jaw-dropping shot selections and camera arrangements here to cherish. The movie is less interested in its sordid murder mystery details and more the possible relationship between its two magnetic poles, made even more complicated by the detective already being married, though only spending the weekends at home. There is a stormy swell of will-they-won’t-they sexual tension in constant churn, and it adds a dour sense of melancholy to the entire movie. There’s a time jump two-thirds of the way through the movie that is slightly aggravating, because it’s like starting over and repeating the mystery catch-up but with less time, making the details of this new case even less meaningful than earlier. Decision to Leave ends on a strong downbeat that feels appropriate given the mood of the preceding two-plus hours. I don’t think the characters are as textured as they could be, part of this is being jostled around by the non-linear storytelling and artistic tricks of Chan-wook. I think the movie generally favors mood and flirts with wanting to be seen a tragic romance worthy of Hitchcock, though I don’t think it fully gets there. So much of the movie is about probing whether or not the feelings are real between these two, whether she’s toying with him or he just wants to complete the unfinished assignment (the dynamic reminded me of Luther and Alice in the BBC series Luther). Decision to Leave feels like a solid film noir mystery, elevated by A-level directing talent, and then missing its ambitious grasp with its lilting love story that feels a little too subdued and understated to really smolder.

Nate’s Grade: B

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