Author Archives: natezoebl
People have been fascinated by Princess Diana since her storybook ascent from ordinary woman to being princess of England. Her 1981 wedding was watched by over 750 million people worldwide. It seemed like a dream come true, a childhood wish to be chosen from obscurity by a prince and elevated into a privileged world of wealth and power. Except Diana Spencer’s real experiences were far from a dream. Prince Charles continued seeing his real beloved, Camilla Parker Bowles, a divorced woman that the royal family had (allegedly) forbidden Charles from marrying. Diana pushed back against the overbearing influence of her powerful in-laws until her tragic end in 1997 fleeing from paparazzi in pursuit. She was a figure of fascination, idealization, and pity, and the question always remained how well anyone ever truly knew this woman on her terms.
Enter Chilean director Pablo Larrain, best known for 2016’s Jackie, which attempted to untangle another complicated woman in conflict with the ownership of her image and identity. Spencer is Lorrain’s latest is prime Oscar-bait as Kristen Stewart (Happiest Season) slips into playing the people’s princess during a fictionalized Christmas retreat with the royal family.
If you’re familiar with Jackie, and it’s a great movie that I would recommend, then Spencer feels very similar in subject and approach. I had to go back to my review of Jackie and I was stunned at how applicable several points of the review were for Spencer as well: “We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the facade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really?”
Wow is that still ever apt talking about Diana, a woman who is told to compartmentalize herself, to present one version of her to the public, the ravenous masses that all wanted a piece of her, and all have their own idealized version of her as princess, and another in private. The question arises how Diana can approach privacy inside her gilded cage. She’s living a life in the public sphere as a figurehead for a country’s monarchy, the mother of potential kings, and intense scrutiny both outside and within. The royals are formulated on tradition and ceremony and notably control. Things have always been this way and they’ll continue to be this way because they’ve always been this way. Diana’s life is micromanaged to an absurd degree, including which outfits she is to wear on which occasions, how much lead time is needed for family dinners, and even forcing Diana onto an archaic scale to be weighed before and after the holidays, because weight gain bespeaks a happy holiday in their opinion. Even before the royal family literally sews her bedroom curtains shut, denying Diana even a glimpse of the outside world they fear, you can relate to how much this people’s princess could feel like she was locked away in a tower.
The movie becomes a psychological ghost story of sorts, a woman stumbling through the rarefied halls of history and struggling to reclaim her own identity that she feels is slipping away until she cannot even recognize herself. The royals are extremely image conscious and any break from their rules is seen as a reflection of the crown and thus a repudiation of their influence. Diana is punished for having the audacity to change her dress in front of her bedroom window, never mind that the royal estate is vast. This is seen as careless attention-seeking, like Diana is courting the paparazzi to capture glimpses of her undressing. Her marriage to Charles is unhappy and coasting on ceremony and her adoration of her two children. Charles accuses her lateness as being a sign of Diana possibly having an affair. Never mind that Charles has been callously obvious about his own affair to the point that he even purchased his wife and mistress the same pearl necklace. Diana decides to wear the pearls in defiance, proving to Charles and his family that she doesn’t care and will hold her head high, but at dinner, the pearls become radioactive to her and she fumbles to rip them off, like they’re singing her skin. Diana’s options are small here and the performative gestures of defiance remind me of those period piece romances where flitting glances and a touch of fingers constitute romantic advances. For Diana, choosing to wear a different dress is rebellion. Keeping her curtains open is rebellion. Asking that her young son not go on a family hunt and kill pheasants is rebellion. It’s about recognizing the small acts and their symbolic meaning.
This is also a story of a woman’s declining mental and physical health. Her marriage was crumbling, she was resentful of the pressure of a family that would likely view her as an uncouth outsider undeserving of her attention and consideration. There was not a level of support for Diana, and besides her own children, her only real allies appear to be those representing the help at the massive Norfolk estate. Her best ally in the movie is Maggie (Sally Hawkins), a woman responsible for helping Diana dress herself. Maggie is her lone confidant, and when she is suddenly dismissed and replaced, Diana feels unmoored and betrayed when Charles tells her that Maggie said Diana was “cracking up.” Diana is also suffering from an eating disorder and self-harming and, given the constant pressure on her to perform and all the power she has lost in her position, it makes sense that she would lash out for some semblance of control, over her body, over something tangible and her own. The biggest flight of fancy is that Diana sees none other than Anne Boleyn traipsing the halls and staring back at her in sympathy, nodding at their common ground as scapegoats for philandering husbands.
While some have blanched at Stewart portraying Diana, I found the role to play to her strengths and she delivers a very good performance deserving of awards merit. Much of Diana as a character is internalized, communicated through layers of micro-emotions and gestures. She was private, guarded, and suspicious, not to mention going through tremendous mental strain, and this plays to Stewart’s ability to resemble much through her subtle expressions of discomfort. Her accent is near flawless and the performance feels deeply empathetic without amounting to a bland impersonation. Stewart feels like she’s barely holding it together as a woman going from one indignity to another, wanting to scream silently in every vacant room. Her speaking is very tremulous, almost as if she’s unsure of whether it’s safe to say every additional syllable. She’s most relaxed and warm during the moments with her children, which clearly have a curative and nourishing effect on Diana. The movie is about finding the actual person beneath the headlines, and from an outsider’s perspective it might be impossible. The empathetic script by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) and the measured, evocative performance from Stewart reclaim a woman often portrayed as a saint or martyr.
The technical direction in the movie is outstanding, though very reminiscent in approach to Jackie. Lorrain prefers to tether his camera to his lead character, often seeing the encroaching spaces from Diana’s height and perspective, walking from room to room, and letting the studious and ornate production design provide the atmosphere of walking through, and against, thousands of years of history and tradition. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is somber and eerie when it’s emphasizing cellos and strings and confused me when the brassy horn section came in, making me feel uncomfortable by the discordant musical elements.
Spencer is a movie where every technical element is in service of a lead performance, and not all of Lorrain’s artistic choices seem to connect as smoothly. He’s already given himself an immersive, impressionistic template to start with that allows for plenty of artistic room, and the movie is filled with quiet moments and metaphors that can be unpacked by some and skipped over by others. The ongoing thread of Diana wanting to return to her boarded-up childhood home is something that feels like it’s meant to be much more meaningful than how it ultimately plays out. There are other symbols through, like a scarecrow or the biography of Ann Boleyn or Diana, during what I assume is a feverish dream, consuming the pearls of her necklace in bold defiance. I found Spencer to be an enjoyable though opaque character study with enough space and consideration to dig through the layers. It feels like a spiritual sister to Jackie but I was not captivated by Spencer like I was with Jackie, a movie that stayed with me for days. I can appreciate the nuance and artistry at play with Spencer but the movie can also feel at points like watching Princess Diana’s sad vacation video.
Nate’s Grade: B
Netflix’s tick, tick… BOOM! is a cause celebre that has attracted none other than the likes of Lin Manuel-Miranda. This is Miranda’s directorial debut, which Netflix won in a bidding war, and it’s filled to the brim with Broadway legends and theater titans who all want to rally to the cause of bringing alive the other show of Jonathan Larson’s tragically short career. Larson would go on to create the hit musical Rent but died before it opened to the public, succumbing to a sudden aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the tremendous success of Rent and that legacy is the emotional substance of tick, tick… BOOM!, if you happen to know about it. The story, and consequently the movie, feel like a lob to the insulated world of theater aficionados. The movie is semi-autobiographical about Larson (Andrew Garfield) on the verge of turning 30 in New York City in 1990 without achieving his big artistic dreams. He’s been toiling with a satirical sci-fi musical opus for years and is close to finishing it for a make-or-break presentation. The movie is based on Larson’s one-man show detailing his creative process and being young and hungry in New York in the early 90s. It was moderately successful and paved the way for Rent, but it was further adapted in 2001 into a three-person show, which has expanded even further with the film. The songs, written and composed by Larson, are enjoyable but none of them really stand out. I may have liked the least substantial one the best where Larson sings about his distaste at serving brunch patrons in a parody of Stephen Sondheim’s Sundays in the Park with George. The sequence is also wall-to-wall with Broadway cameos. I could not better emotionally connect with the movie. It hangs with looming tragedy of Larson’s surprise death, only five years away, as he wants to do something great with his life and make artistic waves. I think if you removed that added dramatic irony of tragedy, it’s watching a young artist struggle in the theater scene and hold onto his vision, integrity, and friendships, something we’ve seen but benefits with the verve of perosnality. As a story, it’s fallen into a trap where the struggles can be quite relatable to aspiring creatives and also not specific enough to greatly care about Larson as a character onscreen. Garfield sings well and is perfectly charming. Miranda proves apt with the language of film to translate from the confines of the stage. The entire project feels suffused with admiration and good intentions. tick, tick… BOOM! is a labor of love from many theater professionals. It’s an amusing but emotionally limited musical experience. Still, with this much talent, heart, and good will, it’s worth watching for no other reason to see what Miranda and his theater brethren can do together when trying to celebrate one of their own.
Nate’s Grade: B
Angelo Thomas is an impressive young filmmaker. At his college, the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, the man was able to make a $50,000 feature film, 2020’s The Incredible Jake Parker, the first undergraduate film in over 30 years. Now he’s right back with another feature, the documentary project DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition, illuminating the story of artist Felicia DeRosa, a CCAD grad and professor who lived most of her life as a man before accepting herself and coming out as trans at the age of 43. The 65-minute documentary is nicely polished and deeply empathetic and worth an hour of your time to learn more about DeRosa’s harrowing and inspirational life.
The biggest question any documentary must ask itself is whether there is a story here that can support a deeper dive. I suppose this same question should be given to fictional narratives, can it support a film, but documentaries are limited by the experiences of their subjects. Fortunately, with DeRosa, there is plenty to talk about and the hour running time feels more than enough time to sincerely cover one woman’s journey of self-discovery and an evolving love story where two people recognized they were better together no matter the changes. DeRosa is a natural gabber and quite capable of compellingly retelling her story with bittersweet personal insights and wisdom. She’s an easy person to sit in front of a camera and just say, “Go.” It also helps that the production has access to what must have been hours upon hours of DeRosa’s home recordings. She was prolific in documenting her feelings and anxieties at different points. It’s a wealth of resources for the documentary to be able to immediately supply DeRosa at different points of her life’s journey articulating her struggles and anxieties in the moment. It reminded me a bit of the documentary Val, extensively using Val Kilmer’s home movies enough so that it credited him with cinematography. DeRosa is all over the movie and to our benefit.
As expected, much of the movie examines individual and societal views on gender identity, a subject that is simultaneously becoming more normalized and scandalized. As more and more trans people discuss their personal journeys of discovery and acceptance, our media and arts are helping to build compassion and understanding. At the same time, as gay rights have become more acceptable across the political spectrum, the new focal point for conservative hysteria and political opportunism has shifted to trans rights. No longer is the thought of two gay people getting married the boogeyman for fundamentalist outrage; now it’s the entire idea of trans people using restrooms and playing sports and more or less existing in a public manner. DeRosa’s own experiences may be similar to many who grow up closeted in households and have to pretend to be someone they are not. There is a social good to hearing more stories of those marginalized from our society and finding their strength and advocacy to inspire others to keep pushing forward.
I expected DeRosa’s mother to be disapproving. Upon discovering her young son playing dress up in feminine clothing, DeRosa’s mother went into a frenzy and kept beating her child. As tragic as this setback is, it’s not uncommon. However, DeRosa’s experiences with her mother become even more gut-wrenching when she reveals how, at the age of 13, her mother raped her while remarking how similar they looked like their father. I had to walk out of the room after this awful revelation and pause the movie. It’s heavy and head-spinning and would send anyone into a depressive spiral. I completely understand the reluctance to dig further without seeming to exploit DeRosa’s sexual trauma for inflated drama. That’s the challenge for any documentary filmmaker. How far do you push your subjects and when do you cross a moral line? DeRosa shares therapeutic letters she has written directed to her mother, and years later it’s still a tangle of complicated emotions to process. DeRosa’s mother is left behind as a topic, fittingly, as DeRosa ventures into independence. She gets news that her mother is on death’s door, and DeRosa is the one who must decide whether to pull the plug and end her mother’s life. That’s all kinds of messed up.
Another aspect of the documentary that stands out is how much compassion and empathy it builds from the complicated relationship with DeRosa’s wife. Gwen comes from a conservative Christian upbringing and her early relationship with her husband is supportive; they’re clearly each other’s person as they’ve only been apart for twenty minutes in the past eighteen years. Hearing from Gwen’s side is more than simply checking in on how the dutiful wife is dealing with her husband’s identity. I recall 2015’s The Danish Girl that seemed to elevate the grieving perspective of the “poor yet supportive wife” over the turmoil of the one actually going through the gender reassignment surgery for the first time in modern history (and lead to Oscar victory for Alicia Vikander). It was intended to be a considerate and compassionate ploy, but the counterbalance also made it so this perspective was the dominant one, a cis gendered heterosexual spouse who couldn’t quite understand but stood by her man as he chose to outwardly transition to a woman. With this documentary, the inclusion of Gwen enlarges the story and she’s by far the best secondary voice to provide insight for DeRosa. She also knows her story is supplemental but also important. She’s supportive of her wife and acknowledges her own questions and processing, but through this journey it’s allowed her to personally reflect upon her own queer identity. Felicia and Gwen, while not filmed together in interviews, are eminently loving of one another, and to watch them speak about one another is a reflection of grace.
As far as documentaries go, this one is professionally packaged for only having a meager budget of $8,000. It’s sharply edited and with a multi-camera setup for its interviews that allows more dynamic visuals and coverage opportunities. The music is sparse but appropriate, and the editing is smooth as it incorporates personal photos and extensive home video recordings to better give voice to the idea or feeling in that moment. This is assembled like a professional documentary and the interview subjects, while only limited to two people, have plenty to say and are engagingly laid back. I wish the movie was a little longer, but as a documentary, an hour’s length of content seems more fitting in our age of endless streaming docus-series. I’m impressed with Thomas’ finesse at going from fictional narrative filmmaking to documentary filmmaking. He proves a natural for the material. DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition is a confirmation that Thomas can adapt his talents to his subjects and aims with skill and compassion. DeRosa is an agreeable hour of your time and proves another sign than Thomas is artistically thriving.
Nate’s Grade: B
King Richard confounds me and also doesn’t. I can understand what the point was and shrug my shoulders at its choice of narrative perspective. It’s a hagiography that settles on audience foreknowledge to alleviate any tension, or sustained interest, and at its core is a contradiction of a man deserving scrutiny but served up for celebration. As my pal Michael Galusick put it, “I can’t believe there’s a movie about the rise to greatness for the Williams sisters [Venus and Serena], and it’s centered around their dad.” King Richard is an awards-season hopeful, produced by the Williams sisters, and a questionable biopic with a questionable perspective aimed at telling the hidden story behind the meteoric success of two of the greatest tennis stars of all time.
In the late 1980s, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is working all night as a security guard and spending his mornings to train his two pre-teen daughters, Venus and Serena, in tennis. Richard is convinced they will be superstars, that he and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis, Lovecraft Country) will be rich and move from their Compton, California neighborhood. Richard gets beaten by local gangs, studies tennis magazines and instructors, and tries to get his girls formal training from professionals while holding them back to his demands. He has a plan, he repeatedly tells others, for their success, and nothing will dissuade him from it.
Firstly, we finally get a movie about the Williams sisters and their dominant rise through the world of tennis, and the movie is almost entirely centered upon their demanding father and his vigilant bordering on abusive training regimen? Richard is meant to be a contradiction and had the movie explored his contradictions in full this could have been an illuminating character study and warts-and-all biopic. However, it’s a movie that fully relies on every viewer’s implicit understanding of the great success of the Williams sisters, so the entire movie serves as a two-hour-plus “I told you so” to Richard’s doubters. Silly neighbor, questioning whether forcing his daughters to perform for hours in the pouring rain constitutes child endangerment. Silly wife, questioning why Richard has insisted his family move into the neighborhood of Compton to better raise his children through adversity and still complain about the dangers that Compton presents and that his daughters must rise above to leave and make something of themselves. Silly tennis coaches, questioning Richard, a man who has no tennis background himself, for demanding his sideline coaching be prioritized over the professionals. Silly “tennis parents,” the kinds that Richard says should be shot, even though he behaves the same way. Silly Williams children, feeling that their demands will be heard and acknowledged as far as their own personal paths and that the other Williams sisters will earn a similar level of attention and affection. Silly sports agents, for being skeptical about this man who says he had a 70-page “plan” for athletic success before his kids were even born and preaching that his unorthodox methods, including paying neighborhood kids to harass and intimidate his girls while they played, would be proven correct. Because, I suppose, it all worked out because Venus and Serena had tremendous success and were inspirations to millions of young African American kids who could finally see themselves in a sport that was privileged and exclusive for generations. He was right, so all of his unorthodox, crazy, dubious methods must have worked, so intuits the movie. It’s less because Venus and Serena have talent and skills and more that their dad worked really really hard and suffered.
With the involvement of the Williams sisters, King Richard only ever goes so far when it comes to critical analysis of its title character. He is certainly presented as a dedicated, hard-working dreamer, but his eccentricities and self-aggrandizing get sanitized as “tough father” when that toughness can cross over into obsession and abuse. It’s like watching 2014’s Whiplash but turned into a feel-good inspirational tale for the ages. At least Whiplash explored the harm of obsession and the pessimistic belief system that whatever it takes to a achieve greatness is excusable. With King Richard, the movie is not at all critical of this ethos. Oh sure, there are points where Brandy Williams speaks up with measured irritation at her husband making rash decisions, excluding the involvement and contributions of others to see his great plan through, and these moments are easily the best in the movie. Finally, someone is pressing this man on his methods and making him confront himself and his flaws. But then Brandy blends back into the background until another half hour goes by and the movie needs to tap her services again. This is the same woman, by the way, who in real life Richard hid her birth control pills in order to back her into a pregnancy and begin his master plan. That’s real. That happened. Same with intentionally keeping his children in Compton so they would learn adversity (tragic side note: one of his older daughters, Yetunde, died in 2003 near a gang house in Compton). And also the fact that Richard walked out on his previous family before Brandy, leaving behind five children all under the age of eight. When he speaks in the movie about always being there for his girls, unlike his father who ran out on him, it rings hollow with the full unflattering context.
The movie seems to adopt Richard’s belief that if he didn’t push so hard for so long, while also withholding them from the tennis juniors circuit, denying them matches for three years, then perhaps they too would have burnt out and gone down a similar path as young superstar Jennifer Capriati. Except Venus’ first breakout success is because of her own insistence and Richard finally, at long last, acquiescing to the choices being made by his own daughters. Who knows, maybe she would have had success even earlier and not burnt out? It’s just as plausible considering that Richard’s regimen included forcing the girls to earn all As in high school on top of rigorous training. I think this detail is meant to make Richard seem like he values their education on par with their sports performances, but it reads to me as another high-pressure burden he’s beset upon his beleaguered daughters to meet his personal definition of success.
Again, if the movie portrayed this man in a more honest approach, questioning his methods and bringing light to his inherent contradictions, holding people to standards he was unable to hold to himself, taking credit solely for the success of the hard-working women in his family, then the movie would have been an intriguing and revelatory character drama. It would have justified shifting the perspective from Serena and Venus to Richard. But the script by Zach Baylin is too uninterested about those interesting details and contradictions. It knows Serena and Venus succeed so it all becomes a long journey of people doubting him only to be proven wrong. The movie feels more than enough like it reaches its emotional climax, father acceding to daughter as she approaches the big stage, and then there is twenty more minutes of tennis action. Why do we need a drawn-out tennis match at this point? The montage of real-life footage of tennis championships achieves the same emotional effect. If the decision was to finally dwell in the excellence and tenacity of Venus as an athlete cutting loose, then why does director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, Monsters and Men) keep favoring other people’s perspectives during the climactic debut match? We keep cutting back to Richard watching, or those in the crowd, or a squat TV screen monitor. I understand the nature of editing coverage, but if this is celebrating Venus’ moment and handing over the baton to her, then why not give her our full focus rather than repeated check-ins on Richard basking in the ascendant triumph of his hard work?
Anyway, if you can take King Richard on its own terms, maybe it will prove fitfully entertaining and inspirational as it follows its formula to the bitter end. It’s received widespread critical praise especially for Smith’s humbled performance. I think Smith is perfectly good, but I also think his inherent charisma, and a generation of audience good will, project onto the character to more excuse Richard’s questionable actions. It would be like watching Tom Hanks portray Jeffry Dahmer; you might not condone all his actions but, come one, that’s American treasure Tom Hanks eating human flesh there. As a sports movie or a father/daughter movie, certain fans of those features might plug into the emotional beats of a feel-good universe and ignore the problematic parts. Maybe we’ll get a story of Venus or Serena from their own perspective, one that sees their father in less flattering terms. In the meantime, King Richard is a feel-good biopic that made me feel bad the more facts I uncovered, and its hero worship of a, at best, complicated man without adequate hesitation made me feel like this was a gift from the Williams sisters for their dear old dad’s ego and legacy.
Nate’s Grade: C
What can one expect from the 80-minute live-action feature film of a children’s book series that was about a giant red dog? While ostensibly made for little kids, like those strictly under ten, Clifford the Big Red Dog (not to be confused with the equally alarming Clifford) is banal entertainment that’s inoffensive as long as you don’t have a deep personal attachment to the best-selling source material. It’s your standard children’s fantasy come alive with a giant dog that needs to be cared for as well as kept a secret. There are rambunctious moments of quelling the dog, mischievous moments of chasing the dog, and frantic moments of running away from a gene-splicing tech guru (Tony Hale). And oh, you bet there is scatological humor. We got dog farts. We got dog butt humor. We got dog pee. We got dog poop, at least in reference though thankfully never seen. I don’t know why we needed an added story of a little girl struggling to fit in at middle school with preppy, mean girls. I guess because a big red dog is also struggling to fit in? For that matter, the movie never returns to the opening scene of Clifford’s dog family being taken from him (a baffling and sad opening). There’s a more charming, heartfelt movie somewhere in here, akin to a Paddington where the central character changes those around them for the better, but our little New York City neighborhood is strictly in a more plastic and safe world. There are a few jokes that slipped past and made me laugh, so it’s not all a loss. Clifford doesn’t pretend to be anything more or less than its meagerly stated goals, and it’s a serviceable family film as long as your little ones have a low threshold for realistic-looking CGI dogs.
Nate’s Grade: C, for Clifford
One cannot talk about No Time to Die without talking about finality. I’ll try and dance around significant spoilers but the movie by design is meant to serve as the capper to the Daniel Craig era filling out the world’s favorite martini-drinking British secret agent. I thought that 2015’s Spectre was the swan song for Craig as it brought back a famous franchise villain Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) made the man Bond’s secret half-brother, and it tried to explain how every bad thing that seemed to befall Bond was the machinations of an evil conspiracy, and then it literally ends with Bond driving into the sunset in his classic car with his girl (Lea Seydoux) by his side. It felt like the end, and it felt very much like everyone was just done and tired. And then the Bond producers wanted one more shot, or more likely one more lucrative franchise entry, to send an even older, battle-tested Craig on his way. I was wary of another Spectre-like entry, one that was tying back to the elements of decades-old for empty homage. Does anyone really care that the villain is meant to be Blofeld who means next to nothing to audiences in this era? After watching all 160 minutes of the longest Bond on record, for an actor who has portrayed 007 for 15 years, I have to say that No Time to Die is a terrific action movie and a welcomed second chance at a sendoff for the modern era of Bond that has gone through great artistic rebirth.
Bond’s cozy retirement is short-lived. Spectre agents have found him and Madeleine (Seydoux) and now Bond is forced to ship off his love for her safety. Years later, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) is determined to take down the last vestiges of the Spectre organization, the same group responsible for murdering his family. Bond is recruited by the newest 007 agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), to help MI-6 locate a kidnapped scientist with a powerful nanobot poison that can be genetically targeted to a specific person. Bond agrees especially once he realizes that Safn and his dangerous organization are targeting Madeleine, who has a big surprise of her own.
As an action movie, I will argue that No Time to Die is better than 2012’s Skyfall, the Bond film that is widely seen as the high point of Craig’s tenure but one I find overrated. Director and co-screenwriter Cary Fukunaga, the second director ever given a writing credit for a Bond film, has crafted a beautiful movie with a real sense on how to showcase the majesty and suspense. Nothing will likely rival the superb cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins on Skyfall, but this movie gets as close as you can get. It’s a remarkably beautiful looking movie. I mean that not just in the exotic locales and scenic vistas but simply in its depiction of action. The visual arrangements are noticeably several levels higher in quality, elegantly composed and lit to make each scene so pleasing to the eyes even before the information of the scene translates. Fukunaga (True Detective) frames the action in clear shots and clean edits so the audience is oriented with every shot and each patient edit point. For an era that began by trying to adopt the Paul Greengrass-style of docu-drama edits popularized with the Bourne sequels, it’s quite a welcomed change. I appreciate that action directors have creatively gone more in a direction of longer takes, wider shots, and a conscious effort to showcase the ingenuity and skills of its action choreography. Let us enjoy watching the masters of action operate at their highest level. Fukunaga understands this, and while the action might not be the best in the series, it is lovingly orchestrated and displayed.
There is a delightful mid-movie set piece that deserves its own attention mainly because of how actress Ana de Armas (Knives Out, Blade Runner 2049) steals the show. She plays Paloma, a CIA agent working in coordination with Bond, and the two of them wreak havoc across a Cuban neighborhood while wearing their finest evening wear. She immediately leaves a favorable impression and struts her stuff while operating heavy machinery with confidence. This part feels the most aided by co-screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s contributions. Craig personally requested that Waller-Bridge, best known for award-winning TV like Fleabag and the first season of Killing Eve, come aboard and help polish the script, including characterization and dialogue. This sequence feels the most in keeping with her past spy thriller work and penchant for strong female characters who are meant to take the lead. de Armas is so memorable, and her segment so self-contained, that it feels like a backdoor spinoff to set up her own character’s franchise, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to watch.
If you thought Spectre was getting convoluted with how it tried to bend over backwards to explain how one man and one villainous conspiracy were manipulating all of Bond’s many miseries and setbacks, well then things are going to get even worse for you to keep up with. I’ll credit returning screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have been with the storied franchise even before Craig’s 2006 debut, with attempting to make the continuity matter for a franchise that often throws up its hands at continued emotional stakes. By stretching backwards with ret-cons and added flashbacks, every new Bond movie tries to better evaluate the previous ones including the poorer movies, like Spectre and 2008’s Quantum of Solace. It’s like saying, “Hey, you didn’t like those bad guys in that movie? Well, these are the real bad guys,” or, “Well, maybe you didn’t like them, but their heinous actions gave rise to these new bad guys.” However, a consequence of continuing to add further and further clandestine machinations, and spiraling consequence from those machinations, is that Bond has now become a tangled web that is more convoluted without offering much in the way of payoff. I don’t think much more is gained introducing a new villain saying, “It was me all along,” when we don’t have an established relationship or interest with these new villains. Imagine introducing the Emperor back in Episode 9 of Star Wars and saying he was secretly behind everything… oh wait.
There are also benefits to this approach and No Time to Die crafts a sendoff unlike any other final entry for a Bond actor. This is a franchise going back sixty years, but the 007 brand has endured because no one actor is bigger than the brand. The franchise is regularly resetting with each new addition. The hyperbolic bombast and tongue-in-cheek frivolity of the Pierce Brosnan years (1995-2002) was replaced with a more grounded, gritty, and psychologically wounded Bond, made even more so by giving him personal attachments and then taking them away. I would argue this decade-plus with Craig (2006-2021) has involved the most mature and personal movies of the franchise;s history. It’s fitting then for the final film to pay service to that elevated take on the character. If you’re treating the secret spy as more of a person than a suit and a gun and a wisecrack, then that character deserves an ending that stays true to prioritizing more human elements of the character. To that end, No Time to Die works as a final sendoff, and I feel pretty confidant saying Craig is officially done now.
After a year and a half of delays from COVID, as well as its parent company, MGM, being bought for billions by Amazon, we finally have the final Bond movie in Daniel Craig’s successful run, and it’s a worthy finale for an era of the franchise becoming relevant again. I don’t know if that many people are emotionally attached to the character, likely more so just the nostalgia and the franchise, but if ever you were going to tear up from a James Bond thriller, this would be the one. It’s an exceptionally strong visual caper, with smooth and steady direction from Fukunaga, and while overly long and convoluted and a dull villain, it comes together for a worthy and celebratory conclusion that stands with the best of Bond. I’ll still cite 2006’s Casino Royale as the best Craig Bond, and one of the best ever, but No Time to Die is a solid second-place entry, and it does what few other Bonds ever could: fitting finality. Until, naturally, the popular series inevitably reboots with the next handsome leading man sipping a signature vodka martini (shaken, not stirred).
Nate’s Grade: B+
After watching so many nominal Ohio-made indies, it’s a welcomed surprise to come across one that falls into the category of an “almost” movie, and by that I mean one with clear ambition and talent that almost fully works as a legit movie without any lingering qualifiers. Double Walker, filmed partially in Columbus and now given a national digital release, comes so tantalizingly close to being a full recommendation without hesitation. I can see what it’s going for, and with a little more careful development and clarity I think it would have achieved all of its genre-busting goals.
Sylvie Mix plays Ghost, a young woman who appears in a white nightgown in the woods. Who is she? What does she want? She is escorted by a young man into his home, disrobes, and then murders him. We come to learn that this adult woman is the ghost of a deceased child, and she’s chosen to walk the Earth as a spirit to seek vengeance. She’s only able to be seen by believers and sinners, though technically every person is a sinner unless there is an unspecified threshold to pass. The Ghost makes a friend, visits with her grieving parents, and reevaluates what it means to be human.
The first thing to know about this movie is that it is only 65 minutes long, short of the 80 minutes typically seen as the minimum expectation for a theatrical release. It’s not that far from meeting that goal, though the airy nature of the movie also makes it feel already stretched out. The other thing you should know about the movie is that you could describe it as Promising Young Woman meets The Crow, an avenging angel targeting the bad men responsible for her death, except tonally it’s not really a hard-hitting revenge thriller. It has those elements where our Ghost is stalking her very bad men, luring them into positions of vulnerability, and striking back for justice, but the movie seems more aligned in tone with something more ponderous and poetic like 2017’s A Ghost Story (though absent ten minutes of Rooney Mara eating a pie – thus fulfilling my obligation to mention this dumbfounding cinematic moment whenever I have the opportunity, you’re welcome).
For those people looking for sundry exploitation thrills, seized by the striking central image of its poster, you may be left checking your watch, but I found this middle ground between thriller and art film to be an interesting space for Double Walker to inhabit. The screenplay drops you into its bizarre scenario and unfolds slowly, which I think worked to the film’s potent atmosphere. You don’t really know what’s going on or what the character relationships are like. At first you see a grieving family, and next we cut to a man discovering a pale woman who seems lost in the woods. She comes across ethereal and mysterious. Then there is a murder, and from there we’re trying to identify the character connections and back-story, which comes across at a gentle yet assured pace that trusts the audience to put the different pieces together to form a whole. This works well except for an ending that comes across as too confusing, muddling an already convoluted system of supernatural rules that the movie seems to be undercutting, unless the whole thing is presented as a hopeful but passing dream, and if that’s the ending then I’m going to be quite disappointed. Still, this is a movie at its core more interested with the question over being human, being remembered, and personal identity than as a blood-soaked revenge thriller.
Again, it has its moments of blood, but there’s a somber tone poem quality to the movie that elevates its ambitions and also ties down its ultimate execution. Director and co-screenwriter Colin West is using the structure of an exploitation film to do more than deliver sleazy thrills. He devotes much more time to watching our Ghost character adjust to life as a spirit. The Ghost is the same spirit as the little girl we saw being eulogized in the opening. This presents some awkwardness for the character and the viewer. For the character, she’s gone from the mind of a child to being in the body of an adult, and it’s not determined whether this adult body is what she would have eventually grown into being or whether it’s just a default model. This allows for an even more curious performance as a character that feels alien in their own skin but also fascinated by that change in perspective, like Scarlet Johansson in Under the Skin. I understand the Ghost studying her adult body with curiosity. However, for the viewer, the numerous nude scenes can make you uncomfortable with the understanding that this is a little girl transported into the body of an adult and she is using her sexuality to lure men to their perverted doom. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to this connotation, and “using her sexuality” seems like an overstatement as she’s simply a woman being present with predatory men. I will say the nude scenes are tastefully portrayed where the camera doesn’t feel like it’s going to painful lengths to feature flesh. I was about to accuse the movie of possibly being skeevy with its plurality of nude scenes (does the Ghost need to run out into the woods in the buff?) when I noticed that Mix is also the producer and co-screenwriter. I assume she approved of her depiction.
Because of her newfound identity, and separation from most living beings, Double Walker presents a main character who is trying to form connections but cannot. The Ghost tries to console her grieving mother but is unable to be seen or felt by her. She does meet a kind man (Jacob Rice) at a movie theater who helps her out and who is not looking to take advantage of her. He shares his family’s home movies, which is a slightly strange thing to do so soon with a nearly mute stranger, and compares the images captured on film like ghosts, crystalized memories of people no longer with us. I have thought of this comparison myself and will morbidly watch background extras in old movies and think, “Here they are, alive once more, but likely gone for some time.” The direct connection of ghosts and memory allows the movie another layer to provide additional meaning. However, Double Walker feels more like a stretched out short film than a fleshed-out feature. With a few extra wrinkles and plot development, this could have readily afforded a larger story. Later on, the Ghost makes a rash decision and an innocent is harmed in her path to vengeance. I think that’s an interesting direction and questions the righteousness of her cause, while at the same time the script finds a personal way to make that mistake even more grueling. Again, the script really could have gone into this consequence and pushed the character into more inner turmoil, to question the cost of her mission, and to question her perception of human life. There are areas where the movie could have gone into further deliberation, but they feel short-changed. Double Walker is settled being the extra long version of the movie it presents in its first act.
This is a very professional looking and sounding movie and probably has the best photography of any Ohio-made indie I’ve watched yet. West also served as his director of photography, and his eye for visuals is crisp and pleasing. The use of light, shadow, foreground and background, composition, movement, it was very deliberate as well as being artistic in a way that didn’t feel like it was overly self-indulgent. West achieves an artistry without making it flashy, and that’s even harder to accomplish. The score and sound design are also polished as well. When the Ghost is luring a victim, the eerie sound is reminiscent of metallic scraping to elicit unease. The costuming keeps our Ghost in white outfits, noting her innocence but also visually connecting you to the associated color of traditional spirits (an also, maybe, A Ghost Story). It makes her standout on the screen. Speaking of that, Mix (Poser) is a natural actor. She has a presence to her and ably communicates the curiosity and otherworldly nature of her character’s dilemma. She doesn’t talk much, nobody really does in this movie, but there’s a melancholy to her that feels more pained than forced. The other actors do well with their minor roles, including other Ohio actors I’ve covered before like Justin Rose (False Flag) and Ralph Scott (Constraint) playing bad men who become ghostly prey.
By the end of Double Walker, I was left feeling almost satisfied, one of those film experiences where you can see the better movie just on the peripheral, the one that was so close. As it stands, it’s an arty and contemplative movie that uses the exploitation formula as a vehicle to explore more existential questions. I wish the movie had developed the story more from the potential on display, and what potential is on display. The filmmakers here feel like they are headed for great things. West has already filmed another movie he wrote, Linoleum, starring Jim Gaffigan and Tony Shalhoub about a science teacher who always wanted to be an astronaut and builds his own rocket ship in his garage. That sounds amazing and it has big names to fill out the cast. I’m rooting for West. This guy has the talent and ability to be a rising indie director and can do Ohio proud. Double Walker could end up being the flawed but promising start to a burgeoning film career. It’s worth watching but be warned that it might not be the movie you anticipate at first glance.
Nate’s Grade: B
Whatever feelings you may have had for 2018’s Venom, I imagine they will only be magnified with the sequel, Let There Be Carnage, where it appears that the filmmakers took the goofy, campy elements from the original and magnified them exponentially. This is a silly, dumb movie that seems almost too aware of its existence as a silly, dumb movie; it reminded me of what a Roger Corman movie might feel like as a modern-day superhero blockbuster. This movie is ridiculous, and that will either be its major selling point of its point of condemnation. I was not a fan of the 2018 predecessor but I found myself enjoying the goofier aspects of Tom Hardy’s performance as journalist Eddie Brock after he shares his body with an alien symbiotic goo. This time we have a second alien symbiotic goo, which is actually what the villain of the first movie was, but this time it’s red and extra trendril-y! The appeal for any viewer is going to be the bonkers buddy film at its core, Eddie Brock and his living id personified as the Venom alien that keeps asking to be allowed to eat people. The movie is almost sitcom-level in it’s portrayal of the two butting heads and going their separate ways to prove they don’t need the other only to learn they were really meant to be. There are some comedic moments that just keep doubling down on silly jokes at the expense of everything else, like the “Not you, Father, you, father” bit that actually made me laugh out loud. Under the guise of actor-turned-director Andy Serkis (Mowgli), the movie is simply a broad cartoon that manages to walk a line between good-bad and laughably bad. It doesn’t always keep that balance but it’s sure entertaining to watch its goofball energy and it’s only a merciful 90 minutes long (almost one half of Eternals). I can’t really tell if everyone attached to the movie is trying hard or really just goofing off on the company’s dime. Regardless, if you were not a fan of Venom before, this movie won’t convince you there’s a compelling character or universe here. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is pitifully wasted as Eddie’s ex-girlfriend. The accents are terrible all around. The new villain is a scenery-chewing serial killing dullard and then transforms into a goop monster. The love story with Woody Harrelson (Zombieland) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight) made me think if someone combined Natural Born Killers with X-Men but short-changed us on both counts. What works in this movie is what worked for me in the previous film, but now all elements feel more in alignment with the goofy energy of star-producer-and-credited-“story by”-writer Hardy. I don’t know if this franchise will ever qualify as traditionally good no matter how successful it proves to be. Maybe what the people really want is a screwball comedy with Hardy mugging alongside a wise-cracking, homicidal alien goo suit. Bon appetite, fans of expensive trash.
Nate’s Grade: C
Chloe Zhao is the biggest name Marvel has gotten yet for its cinematic universe (MCU). Sure, they’ve had major directing names before like Kenneth Branagh and Ryan Coogler, and successful populist genre filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon and Shane Black, and quirky auteurs like James Gunn and Taika Watiti. However, Zhao is the first Academy Award-winning director to jump into the Marvel sandbox. Zhao seems like an odd fit for something as mainstream and successful as the MCU, but she was excited to tell a big story with the biggest studio operating in Hollywood. Eternals (no “The”) is just as much about the question over what it means to be human as Zhao’s Best Picture-winning Nomadland, and it’s a lot easier to watch with one hundred percent less Frances McDormand pooping in a bucket in her van (granted, she did win an Oscar for that performance). Eternals has received the lowest critical rating of any MCU film in its thirteen-year history and I’m trying to figure out why.
Thousands of years ago, the Eternals were created by the Celestials, powerful beings that are responsible for birthing new galaxies into the universe. The Eternals were sent to protect the inhabitants of Earth from the Deviants, terrifying tendril-heavy monsters that will consume and overrun a world. The Eternals are instructed by their masters not to intervene in human conflicts; only to intervene to save them from Deviants. Now that the last Deviant has been dead for over 500 years, the Eternals have settled into comfortable lives among present-day humans. Then the Deviants return, evolving with added powers and posing a new threat to humanity and the Eternals, but the real threat might be outside the confines of Earth.
Eternals feels like a different kind of Marvel movie in that stretches feel like it’s a Stanley Kubrick movie, or a Terrence Malick movie, or a DC movie. The plot structure and tone even reminded me of Watchmen. Don’t get me wrong, the standard Marvel elements are recognizable, but this is a much slower, more methodical, more cerebral, and more challenging movie that really feels like a distillation of Zhao’s humanist indie naturalism and the crazy cosmos from Jack Kirby’s trippy source material. I can understand why some people would find this movie to be boring and poorly paced. There are extensive flashbacks and setup. It definitely doesn’t need to be a staggering 157 minutes long, second only to the three-plus hours of Endgame. Granted the movie is introducing a dozen characters, their relationships, their powers, their histories, as well as a new history for the universe that doesn’t relate to anything that came before it. There are assorted references to Thanos and the events of Endgame, bringing half the population back, but this is more a standalone movie that can serve as an introduction for those less well-versed in two dozen movies’ previously on’s. I knew going into Eternals it was going to be slow, and I knew several friends that outright hated it, but I think pacing is more to its benefit and detriment. The scenes feel like Denis Villenueve (Dune) is pacing them, where moments are given more time to breathe and where characters are given space to reflect and absorb. Like a Villenueve film, Zhao wants her audience to take in the grandeur of the moment, but she also wants the characters to be able to take in the drama of their circumstances. Some people will find it all too boring, and while there were points that could be trimmed, I was enjoying myself because of the attention to character perspectives that are given precedence over splashy beat-‘em-ups.
I was drawn in by the character reveals, their conflicts, and the time Zhao allows to examine their emotional and philosophical states. Look, it’s still a big, action-packed Marvel movie with plenty of monster fights and a world-saving cataclysm climax, and while those are agreeably executed, I was more taken by letting the characters pontificate on their problems. There’s Sprite (Lia McHugh), an eternally looking child who can never live an adult life she craves. There’s Druid (Barry Keoghan), a man with the power to control the minds of all humans on Earth but is explicitly instructed to remain hands-off with their conflicts. He is severely torn and emotionally wrecked over watching them slaughter one another and knowing he has the power to intervene and resolve genocide, prejudice, and poverty. That’s the eternal question over why a loving God seemingly chooses to be hands-off, all rolled into one character. There’s Thena (Angelina Jolie), a legendary warrior of physical renown but whose mental state is fracturing and who poses a potential lethal threat to her family. There’s her partner, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who would rather watch over his love as she suffers and potentially declines than have her lose her identity and erase herself. There’s Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who only wants to help the humans with his technological skills but regrets his contributions and declares humans as unworthy of their keep after Hiroshima. Then there’s a reveal halfway through the Eternals that loads a needs-of-the-many sacrificial debate that positions different characters on different sides of the divide for the final act. I enjoyed that even the villains are presented with their rationale and are tortured over their choices they deem to be necessary for the greater good.
I’ve written a lengthy paragraph all on the meaty character conflicts, and none of them revolve around the goal to gather a magic item or learn a special power. I didn’t mind Zhao’s movie taking its sweet time to allow these conflicts and struggles to be felt because they were evocative, and Zhao’s storytelling shines when she focuses on the noble and often tragic struggles of people being complicated, contradictory, and confusing. Even the big dumb beasts evolve and have a perspective that has an understandable complaint. The final confrontation doesn’t come down to a giant sky beam and an endless army of disposable CGI brutes. It rests upon character conflicts and a romance that spans thousands of years where empathy is the secret weapon. Early on, you think it’s going to be a love triangle, and the movie just teleports out of that trope. I found myself more invested in the ending, even if I could already predict the conclusion. I was more interested in what the conflict was doing to the Eternals as a family fracturing under the weight of their destinies and the consequences of defiance. The film ends on a cliffhanger with significant fallout, and I don’t know how the rest of the MCU is going to square what we learned and accomplished here. This seems in sharp contrast to everything down the road.
Eternals is also an often beautiful-looking movie with Zhao’s penchant for natural landscapes and magic hour lighting. The editing and photography feel nicely matched and allow the viewer to really soak up the natural splendor and the impact of the battles. The action is kept at a human level with the camera tethered to the characters even when in flight. There is the occasionally eye-opening shot of a landscape, or Zhao’s use of visual framing, or the special effects revelations that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s certainly not the most breezy, action-packed movie in Marvel’s lengthy canon of blockbusters, but it’s not devoid of spectacle.
So then why has Eternals scored so low with film critics and a significant portion of general audiences? Some wonder if the level of diversity and inclusivity of the movie is a factor; we have many non-white characters including a deaf character and a gay male character in a committed relationship, with a genuine and loving onscreen kiss no less (your turn, Star Wars franchise), and that seems like a trigger point for certain fans that grumble about “woke culture.” I’m sure for some that’s a factor. I think the length will be a factor too. I think the elevated emphasis on emotional stakes and philosophical conflicts might be another factor. This doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie that has come before. It’s much more comfortable with silences, with patience, and with cerebral matters (again, not to say the dozens of other MCU entries were absent these). This one is just different, encompassing the directing style and humanist attentions of Zhao and looking at a far larger scope of drama than toppling one super-powered being. I saw this in theaters with my girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter and her friend and they both said they enjoyed it, so I won’t say it’s too mature or impenetrable for younger viewers. Eternals might be too boring for some, too long, and too different, but I was happy to endure it all.
Nate’s Grade: B
Gary Jones is no stranger to schlock. The writer and director’s feature debut was 1994’s Mosquito about killer mosquitos that have fed on the blood of dying aliens. His filmography also includes such amusing titles as Crocodile 2: Death Swamp, Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cove, Planet Raptor, and 2013’s Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan, which was filmed in Ohio and featured several actors that have appeared in other Ohio indies I’ve reviewed, like Dan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Kristina Kopf (The Street Where We Live), and Thomas Downey (Evil Takes Root). Jones knows his schlock. Escape from Death Block 13 is the man’s ode to the prison escape thrillers of the 1970s, and it even stars a lead actor who looks remarkably like Charles Bronson. I hoped that Death Block 13 was going to be the good kind of low-budget indie, the one that swerves into its schlocky genre trappings and limitations. However, too many of its creative limitations felt more notable, from limited actors, the limited location shoot, and especially the limited plot development for payoffs and action goodness.
Mick (Robert Bronzi) is a recent immigrant trying to set right his brother’s fate. He visits his dead brother’s boss, Renda (Nicholas Turturro), and demands the money cheated from his brother. Renda’s goons rough up Mick, and in the scuffle, Mick shoots a gun in defense and he’s the one arrested and charged with attempted murder. Inside the deadly prison, life is rough that the guards will let the prisoners fight to grievous harm because they have bets on who will win. Mick becomes a favorite of Warden Jack (Debbie Scaletta) who pressures him to go along and assist with her lucrative smuggling business of guns and drugs. Mick refuses and makes himself a target. He’ll need to adjust to life behind bars, stand up to the bullies, and plot his escape with the secret tunnels located under the grounds of the prison.
The question arises how far a Charles Bronson lookalike can get you as far as entertainment value, and that’s going to be a question for the soul of every viewer. The movie feels like it was a Cannon production, where the poster and title were the selling point and the rest, well we’ll get to that when we need to. The central image of a man that looks like Charles Bronson, holding a gun, looking grimaced, with a title about a prison break, it all feels meant to target a certain audience’s favorable memories of Bronson and his own popular action filmography. Low-budget exploitation genre movies have been made for less, so it’s not a damnable sin, but it sure means that the movie’s transparent intention to rest on its familiar elements needs to be overcome with story, characters, and most importantly, memorable action and ridiculous moments to satiate an audience’s genre appetites. Escape from Death Block 13 mostly gets there when the escape part happens, but beforehand, it’s a sloppy action movie that can test your patience because there are too many reminders of its own scaled-down shortcomings.
Chief among them is casting Bronzi as the lead. It feels like the mere casting of this Hungarian acrobat, stuntman, and Judo player, as per his bio, was the starting and ending point for his character. He’s an immigrant looking to avenge his brother and immediately gets thrown into the middle of a conflict as everyone seems to be incorrectly judging him (subtle commentary on the audience expectations?) based on his appearance. The gang thinks he’s up to no good, the other prisoners and the warden think he’s a troublemaker, and the law thinks he could be their missing piece and assist to bring down the corrupt warden. It could almost be self-parody the way every new batch of characters project an identity onto this blank hulk of a man. I think even Bronzi is leaning into this helpful projection and association with Charles Bronson. His real name is Charles Kovacs, but Bronzi sure sounds closer to Bronson. He also starred in Once Upon a Time in Deadwood, working to associate Bronson’s Once Upon a Time in the West, as well as the HBO Western series, and Death Kiss, working to associate Bronson’s Death Wish. Again, congrats to Bronzi for finding himself a career as a Charles Bronson stand-in. I look forward to the man’s continued career of kind of reminding people of the departed Bronson.
However, Bronzi is not a terribly good actor. His line readings are resolutely stiff, and his accent is thick, so it can be hard to understand what he’s saying with his flat affect. There’s one joke where he makes fun of another prisoner for not understanding his accent, but I didn’t quite understand the joke because I was having trouble with his vocal articulation. To the man’s credit he definitely has a presence and can convincingly strike an intimidating pose. He’s comfortable with the fight choreography though it’s nothing too complex to be strenuous. His emotional acting range and vocal delivery is another matter. I think the limited nature of Bronzi’s ability forced the filmmakers to minimize the number of lines and dramatic scenes for his character, thus making him even less distinct and relying more on his passing impression.
I legitimately think the movie could have been improved had everyone been dubbed. Bronzi is not the only actor of limited range in the movie, he’s just the one with the most screen time. There are many supporting actors who were clearly hired for their physical prowess rather than thespian abilities. These actors would say lines and it would make me giggle at points. There are other actors who take one note, like the police officer in an interrogation scene trying to go full intense exasperation mode, and then deliver every line in this narrow acting space. It’s moments like this where the movie feels destined to willfully drift into unintentional self-parody. I think having a purposely dubbed audio track would provide two benefits: 1) it would allow better vocal actors to lift some of the lackluster performances, and 2) it would further cement the movie’s silly schlock factor and give the audience permission to laugh along with. The best actor in the entire movie is the prison doctor and just for the one scene where he dies. After being injected with a deadly dosage, he goes into cardiac arrest and the actor is so dedicated, so over-the-top, and so prolonged in his death throes that I had to celebrate the man’s gumption. Here was a guy who took what was handed to him and found a way to make it delightful. I wish every actor was on this same tonal wavelength of good-bad rather than just dull-bad.
Once the titular escape happens, the movie jolts to a new life, enough so that I wish we could have gotten things moving faster. The last twenty minutes of the movie is replete with chaotic violence and over-the-top blood shots. The action is adequately choreographed and fast-paced enough to offer several different set pieces and cross-action to keep your attention. It’s all over the place, it’s more whole-heartedly schlocky, and the frantic pacing is a definite bonus. The problem is that as a prison break movie there wasn’t really any definite reasons why the characters had to wait until this late moment to stage their escape. Usually, these kinds of movies introduce the system of the prison so we understand the routines so that they can then be exploited, like a con or a heist job. We need to know the particular steps for the payoff to feel rewarding. Otherwise, like in Death Block 13, it just feels arbitrary. The evil warden doesn’t come across as too formidable. The guards are not too formidable. These people are not the smartest criminals in the world of smuggling. And the inmates could have banded together at any point and easily overthrown this weak power dynamic. Even the heavy-duty Gatling gun attached to the lookout tower isn’t too hard to overcome. The obstacles are vague or weak, thus making it feel like the big escape could have happened as soon as Mick was thrown into this pokey.
The movie was filmed in the Mansfield Reformatory, the same famously depicted in 1994’s Shawshank Redemption, but at points it sure doesn’t feel that way. I don’t know the exact budget-conscious decisions of the production or the shortcuts they had to work through, but there are several sequences inside and outside the prison that are obviously green screen. It made me start to meticulously examine the visuals and see if it was indeed the famous penitentiary or some other set meant to be stitched together through the power of editing. It’s possible the movie had a very limited availability to shoot inside the prison, so they took extensive pictures to recreate as a more convenient green screen background. I’m uncertain. The green screen work isn’t bad by any means but pretty obvious to the eye and limits the potential visual arrangements for staging the action, which can often resort to shot-reverse shot redundancy.
If the rest of the movie was like its concluding act, I would be recommending Escape from Death Block 13 to fans of low-budget schlocky action and fans of Charles Bronson. It’s strange to think part of the major appeal of this movie is that it stars a guy who strongly resembles another guy that was in movies decades ago that people mostly remember liking. The general association of other, better movies seems to be much of the creative backbone of this movie. The story isn’t packed with careful setups and payoffs, built upon a foundation of obstacles and mini-goals that need to be accomplished before the big escape finish. It relies too heavily on cliched genre moments, like multiple prison yard fights, and the riot ends in a hostage negotiation that could have been its own movie itself rather than a pat conclusion. The movie is weighed down by the acting limitations of its lead who looks the part but fails to do much more on screen. It’s an action movie that, even with caveats and understanding of its limits, manages to disappoint. I wish this had been crazier, or better plotted, or filled with more colorful and arresting characters, or bigger villains, or anything really. It’s an action movie that feels like the ghosts of other, better action movies starring a man who might as well be the living ghost of Charles Bronson.
Nate’s Grade: C