Category Archives: 2018 Movies

Mandy (2018)

Mandy is a gonzo, psychotropic mood piece that will infuriate some, test others, and delight a select audience that responds enthusiastically to atmospheric indulgences. Set in the 1980s, because of course it’s the 80s, a logger (Nicolas Cage) and his titluar girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have a bad run-in with a small cult. Their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), declares that the god of the universe told him he is entitled to everything, and he picks Mandy. Bad things transpire and Cage is left for dead. He sets off on a quest for vengeance against the cult and a fetish-clad biker gang they employ as muscle, and in the process he might be going insane.

So what kind of movie is Mandy? There really isn’t a plot here so much as an immersive experience of fever dream imagery with a loving yet detached nod to its cultural influences from the 1980s, heavy metal music videos, Heavy Metal magazines, heavy metal album covers (sensing a trend?). There is the bare bones of a plot here, a revenge formula, but it’s really more about the moments and the feelings that writer/director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is trying to communicate through the screen. He’s another disciple of the Terrence Malick/Nicolas Winding Refn School of Filmmaking, ditching the story details for a visually immersive and hallucinatory sensory experience. The problem with these kinds of movies is that you either check into that wavelength or you don’t. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, as all movies either engage or disengage, but because the story and characters are so minimalist, the opportunities to click with the material rely entirely upon the moody atmosphere and creative execution.

Mandy is overwhelmingly a campy revenge thriller that celebrates the unique Cage-ness of Nicolas Cage’s more unhinged, bizarre performances. This is a movie that asks Cage to go the full Cage, and that can be a beautiful thing. There’s a knowing campiness to the whole exercise that doesn’t feel condescending. It’s not making fun of the onscreen antics so much as it is celebrating the artful absurdity. This is the kind of movie where there’s a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel and it’s awesome. This is the kind of movie where every patch of woods has a blast of fog to make it feel like a dark fairy tale. It’s the kind of movie where the practical gore effects are stomach churning and memorable. It’s the kind of movie where Cage lights his cigarette from the fire of a decapitated head. It’s a movie where Cage goes on a journey where he transcends into the mythic. He is no mere mortal by the end; he is the mythic figure of vengeance. The man doesn’t just find his foes to foil; he has to first construct his own metallic scythe straight out of a fantasy adventure. Cage is fully aligned with the bizarre and eerie primal nature of the film. His crazed intensity is matched perfectly with the overwrought atmosphere and villains. There are moments where his bug-eyed stare or maniacal laughter will give you chills. He has one sequence that’s petty much non-stop screaming on a toilet as he tries to process shocking grief. It’s a performance that asks Cage to be unrestrained and tightly coiled at parts, relying more on physicality and intense looks than dialogue. For fans of the ironic and sublimely weird Nicolas Cage, Mandy should be a deranged delight to hoot and holler.

However, there’s really no entry point for a viewer if they do not celebrate the campy, gonzo, detached atmospherics of the film. Walking out of Mandy, I told my friends that it needed 20 percent more plot and 20 percent less movie. There’s no reason this movie needs to be over to hours long, especially with its threadbare plot. It takes far too long to get going, with the cult attacking Cage and his girlfriend at the one-hour mark. The second half has improved pacing but still takes its sweet time too. Cosmatos seems to favor a dreamy sense of pacing, so instead of, say, ten seconds of watching Cage’s pained reaction, we’ll get 30 seconds. The self-indulgence has a way of making the artful intent redundant. Did we need those extra 20 seconds to really feel the full artistry? Or, perhaps, could Cosmatos have used all the extra time saved from collectively trimming the excess moments and diversions to better develop the characters and story? The other problem with diverting the majority of the attention to atmospherics is that the eventual comeuppance of the cult lacks a full sense of satisfaction. If we don’t get to really know the cult members then we won’t feel the rush of catharsis when they are dispatched. I talked about this very topic with my review for Peppermint, another revenge thriller with inherent structural problems that mitigated audience payoffs. The revenge formula is a simple thing and engineered to deliver payoffs. Here are two September releases that fumble that formula, although Mandy places less importance upon it. Most of these cult members are given a look, at best, which makes them interchangeable and disposable. Jeremiah Sand is an intriguing, hilarious, pathetic creature, and so the final showdown proves satisfying and somewhat revelatory, as his ego-driven bluster transitions quickly to pleading and bargaining and abject fear. It’s a fitfully climactic moment but did we need two hours to get here? There’s a better 90-minute movie trapped inside here, subsumed and suffocated by Cosmatos’ love affair with his influences and indulgences.

This is also sadly the last score from composer Johann Johannsson, who passed away in February of this year. He was an eclectic creative voice whose musical abilities were diverse. He could create a thundering score that felt like an incoming army, like with Sicario, or a soaring melody that could lift your spirits, like his Oscar-winning score for Theory of Everything. With Mandy, Johannsson relies upon those 80s metal influences and produces a sonic landscape fitting for Cosmatos. The score is kept at a rumble that accentuates the nightmarish qualities of the visuals. To the end, Johannsson sought unconventional methods to give voice to his movies.

Mandy is a crazy, dreamy, moody movie heavy on brooding atmosphere and light on story and characters. If you can hop on its wavelength, Mandy will prove to be a gonzo good time. If you can’t, it’s going to be overly reverential to its cultural influences and laboriously long. I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not a fan of most Refn movies because I feel like they fall into the trap of emphasizing pretty yet hollow imagery. The ideas don’t tend to go as deep as the filmmakers think they do, and I grow restless for more. Mandy needed more time spent giving greater shape to its world and narrative. This criticism may sound unfair given the nature of the film (do you ask for the details of a dream?) but I feel dismissing its lack of substance is a step too far. Mandy is essentially a dream with hazy plotting, vivid imagery, and intense feelings, but it can wash away upon waking. I left my theater torn over the movie, wanting to celebrate its artistic vision and weirdness while also wishing there was more weirdness and more of a vision.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Advertisements

The Nun (2018)

It’s amazing to me that The Conjuring series has become a literal billion-dollar franchise and in only four cost-effective movies. Rare is the film franchise that births spin-offs so readily, but The Conjuring has already introduced two Annabelle movies, one Nun film, and an upcoming Crooked Man feature. It’s almost as if any supernatural creature given a minor spotlight in the James Wan-produced series is destined for greater things. It’s like the Conjuring universe is a pipeline to stardom for America’s next big malevolent demon. I’m thinking the Conjuring 3 could spend 30 seconds on some tall tale about a haunted plunger and it would be spun off into its own franchise within a year, tops. The Nun is the fifth film in the series, the second spin-off film, and probably the movie with the least amount of narrative substance given its starting material. It’s a mixture of old horror staples and exorcism mumbo-jumbo, and it’s also not half bad.

In 1950s Romania, a small abbey is being haunted by an evil presence that had been confined behind a door that ominously warned, “God ends here.” A nun has committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is called by the Vatican to investigate the strange happenings. He teams up with a local nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a traveling merchant Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who first discovered the dead nun’s body. The sisters inside the abbey are behaving oddly and it’s not long before our characters realize they’re trapped in the abbey with something wicked looking for a human host to escape.

There’s not really much to the plot of The Nun so the emphasis comes in the realm of atmosphere, unsettling visuals, and unnerving set pieces. The investigative process with our priest and nun-in-training doesn’t amount to many revelations, and the information won’t be new for the audience considering this specific demon Valak has been seen in two other Conjuring-related movies now (maybe three?). It becomes a haunted house thriller and, like the earlier and much ballyhooed Hereditary, a movie of moments. So your mileage will vary depending upon how affected you are by the atmospherics and imagery. With The Nun, I felt like the visuals were built upon more rigorous Catholic religious iconography and a foundation of decades of accumulated exorcism film imagery. Plus the very design of the titular nun is just super unsettling by itself, let alone placed in a spooky setting with spooky lighting. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) finds visually pleasing and distressing imagery that he emphasizes for better effect, like a team of faceless nuns standing in formation, or a tormented boy with a snake that slithers out of his screaming mouth. It’s not subtle in the slightest but credit for not relying upon an inordinate number of jump scares for its chief spooks. In the realm of schlocky horror, The Nun is actually a little restrained when it isn’t being ridiculous, but it’s the kind of ridiculous that makes you laugh and anticipate the next scene rather than check your watch. Again, your mileage will vary, but I enjoyed the theatrics and imagery more than the overrated Hereditary.

This brings me to the biggest head-scratcher in the movie that would have seemed designed to ensure audience investment. I had no idea Taissa Farmiga (TV’s American Horror Story) was going to be in this movie let alone the co-lead of the movie. As soon as I saw her face I leaned forward, newly intrigued. My working assumption was that the younger Farmiga was going to be the prequel version of the character played by her older sister, Vera Farmiga (yes, they’re sisters and not mother/daughter). Suddenly this made her character that much more interesting and created a direct connection from the events of the nuns to the larger Conjuring universe, providing a back-story for the Warrens to lean upon. It also allowed me to transfer my feelings for the character onto Taissa Farmiga, making me care far more about her well-being as she creeped around dimly lit corners than if she had been any other woman in a habit in a bad place. The fact that The Nun had so effectively hidden Taissa Farmiga’s presence from the marketing made it feel like an intentional surprise, something to let the audience know the filmmakers weren’t skating by. It raised my opinion of the movie and my enjoyment from scene-to-scene.

And then I found out Taissa Farmiga’s Sister Irene is a separate character from Lorraine Warren. Huh? Of all the young actresses in the world to select, choosing the literal younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who looks strikingly similar, feels far too intentional to be coincidental. Why isn’t she just the younger version of Lorraine Warren, setting her up for a life of hunting the supernatural after this formative experience? She’s even presented as a nun in training and not a full-fledged bride of Christ. Even the decades in age difference would add up. It’s not like you’re playing that close to the facts of the case when it concerns the Warrens who, by modern accounts, are considered frauds by many. Come on, James Wan. Come on Conjuring universe. What are you doing here? The solution was right within reach and you deliberately ignored it.

The Nun is a moderately entertaining movie subsisting on strong production design, exorcism iconography, and solid performances from capable actors. It’s not really more than the sum of its parts but, for me, there were enough effectively creepy moments and punchy images that won me over by the end of its 96 minutes. If you’re a fan of the Conjuring series, or particularly demonic possession/exorcism movies, then you’ll likely find enough entertainment to be had, even if the filmmakers absurdly decide not to have Taissa Farmiga play the younger version of an already established central character. Was this a late-in-the-game rewrite to absolve her of her connection to Vera Farmiga? I’m happy for anyone connected to the production to contact me and clear this up (after my surprising conversation with a key creative on Sherlock Gnomes, I’ll just start openly asking for clarifying correspondence from Hollywood filmmakers now). The Nun in essence does just enough to be silly or scary when needed and possibly worth a watch for horror fans. Now about that haunted toilet plunger. I may have a pitch ready if you’re open to it, James Wan. After all, what’s scarier than a broken toilet?

Nate’s Grade: C+

Peppermint (2018)

I invite all my readers to re-watch the trailer for Peppermint and apply this simple listening test. It opens with Jennifer Garner repeating the precious nursery rhyme claim about her daughter’s virtues. She has “love in her heart, snow in her eyes,” and the final claim, “peppermint in her blood.” At least I’m certain it’s got to be “blood,” because the first time I watched this trailer and my ears got a hold of that line, it genuinely sounded like Garner was saying “peppermint in her butt.” This flummoxed me and even more so that they would name the movie after this. Try it yourself and see what you hear, then listen for the other word (it’s like the new yanny/laurel aural conundrum). If I concentrate on either interpretation, I can hear it. Regardless of whether this “butt” vs. “blood” mystery can ever be resolved, the filmmakers decided to cut the entire verbal exchange from the finished version, leaving no reason for Peppermint to be called Peppermint other than the daughter’s passing affinity for the ice cream flavor. As asinine and odd as this whole endeavor reads for you, this might actually be the best part of Peppermint, a rote and tiresome action exercise that does too little too often and squanders the resources of a perfectly game Garner.

Our heroine, Riley North (Garner), started as mild-mannered mom and bank teller. Then one day Latinx gang members brazenly gun down her husband and child. A corrupt legal system lets the killers go free and Riley disappears for five years. When she returns, she’s become a ninja trained in an array of weapons. She takes her one-woman crusade against the gang, the cartel, and the corrupt judges and lawyers who serve them, while the police, lead by John Gallagher Jr., try and stop her from going too far and becoming the very monster that she’s been fighting to protect others from.

This is basically another Death Wish-style grisly revenge thriller when, as a true sign of how repeated this formula has become, we already even had a literal Death Wish remake with Bruce Willis earlier in 2018. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the lurid revenge fantasy, but they require more effort than Peppermint is willing to provide if they’re to rise above the litany of direct-to-DVD drivel. I’m in no way against this kind of movie, or direct-to-DVD action entities, but it all comes down to development and execution, and that’s where Peppermint slips up, having peaked at the idea stage. Clearly this was sold to film executives as a “lady Punisher or Taken” and it’s from the director of the first Taken, Pierre Morel. Garner was kicking (peppermint) butt and taking names for years on TV’s Alias. Why not? The problem is that there’s so little thought put to the characters, the plot, the action, and even the structure of basic payoffs. Here’s a telling example. The three gang members responsible for killing Riley’s family are themselves killed around the 45-minute mark, and they’re killed off-screen in a terribly anti-climactic and abrupt plot move robbing the viewer of any sort of emotional punch watching our heroine gain her years-in-the-making vengeance. Think this over. The only characters we’re really rooting for her to topple, to watch them be punished on screen for their misdeeds, and it’s off-screen. This isn’t No Country for Old Men here; it’s barely the eightieth rendition of Death Wish.

Garner’s character is too opaque to be that interesting. She’s allowed to vacillate between Grieving and Angry but that’s the extent of her depth. We never really get a sense of what’s going on with her, how her actions are affecting her. She’s not even that interesting as an action lead. There’s no real glimpse of a personality here. She’s more a weapon poised to her next target, with little down time between. Garner gets into toned fighting shape and has a flinty, F-you vibe and it all feels wasted on creatively lacking fight choreography. Riley becomes a social media avenger and this is about as much commentary or depth the film affords her. Because we squandered the catharsis of seeing the guilty gang members get their just rewards, the movie has to manufacture more disposable Latinx criminals, like they put out a casting call for characters they forgot they were going to need. From a structural standpoint, you never get a great sense of where Peppermint is going after that 45-minute mark. It just opens on one location after another and we watch Riley wreck havoc on personality-free bad guys we never got a chance to know and loathe. It starts to feel like a series of mundane video game stages to be cleared.

Many of the shortcomings can be forgiven if the action delivers, and it simply cannot. It’s one bland fistfight and shootout after another. There isn’t a sequence I can remember that stands out. There are moments, punctuations of vicious violence that has a brusque, darkly comic accentuation. There’s nothing remotely John Wick, or Atomic Blonde, when it comes to the fight choreography. The geography is too rarely taken into account and there are few organic complications. This is flabbergasting when you remember that Morel also directed the vividly kinetic French action movie District B13. The editing here also feels very choppy, taking more away from Garner’s physical skills having their showcase. One of the great moments of 2017 was the brutal and brutally long tracking shot following Charlize Theron’s super spy pummeling men through her growing fatigue. It was a sequence designed to showcase the choreography and the actress’ refined skills. What constitutes Riley North’s own “particular set of skills”? There’s nothing especially clever about how she dispatches with the bad guys. Her path to vengeance comes across as too easy. She’s able to torch an entire piñata warehouse of gang members like a cheap… piñata. The easy victories and lazy action development are the final reminders that this is a rote genre paycheck and little more.

Whether the peppermint was in her daughter’s blood, her butt, or any other personal cavity, it’s a terrible title for an R-rated action movie and reeks of the forced sweet/nasty irony I think the filmmakers, or marketing team, want to employ by having a woman as their Charles Bronson-styled deliverer of death and destruction (what, a woman as a killer?). The action is forgettable, the characters are barely one-dimensional clichés, and Garner deserves better. She’s 47 years old and as spry and captivating as ever. Give her an Atomic Blonde of her own. Peppermint isn’t it. If your expectations are generous, you may find just enough to keep your interest with Peppermint. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Little Stranger (2018)

If you’re a fan of slow burning Gothic horror, the kind where characters wander slowly inside ornate and empty houses investigating various noises, then The Little Stranger is the movie for you. It’s about a laconic doctor (Domhnall Gleeson) inserting himself in the lives of a wealthy family who has fallen on hard times, their once glorious estate left to wither in post-WWII Britain. The family is convinced the spirit of a dead little girl haunts their estate and has its ghostly sights set on destroying the last vestiges of their bloodline. It’s a ghost story by design but the supernatural elements get placed on pause for long stretches. The rest of the movie is a restrained romance between the doctor and the introverted and awkward lady of the house, played by Ruth Wilson (TV’s The Affair). In reality, the doctor is more infatuated with the house than the people inside, fondly recalling his early obsession from childhood. It’s easy to see why. The house, and its exquisite production design, is enchanting. At points it feels like the movie has to remember that it’s a ghost story or a mystery as it shifts narrative tracks. The Little Stranger is a movie simmering in eerie atmosphere and is pristinely directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), a man proving how readily he can adapt his artistic style. For a good hour, I was on board with the movie and enjoyed its patient, controlled buildup. It’s practically the opposite of the more visceral horror set pieces we’ve become accustomed to. By the end, I was unsure whether the somewhat ambiguous ending justified the time and path taken to get there. If you don’t have a healthy love of Poe-styled Gothic horror, you’ll likely be restless as you watch understated, refined, restrained British family going through understated, refined, restrained drama.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Operation Finale (2018)

Operation Finale is one of those kinds of movies that is just good enough to make me wish it had been better. It’s based on the true story of an Israeli team of spies that located Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), one of Hitler’s lieutenants who authored The Final Solution. He’s been hiding in Argentina for years and giving public lectures, which isn’t helpful with keeping a low profile. Oscar Isaac (The Last Jedi) leads the Israeli spies as they plot to kidnap Eichmann, get him to admit his guilt for the Holocaust in writing, and smuggle him out of the country and to Israel to stand trail for the deaths of millions. This story should be exciting, it should be fascinating, it should be compelling, and for stretches it can be, but Operation Finale errs in capturing Eichmann too quickly. The majority of the film is the spy team holding him in a secret location and interrogating him, while the surprisingly Nazi-coddling police force of Argentina hunts for their location. I’m assuming the filmmakers were accurately telling the true story, but you start to question why the spies are taking their sweet time. Why not get on a boat as soon as possible and sail to another country to fly away, one less friendly to former Nazis? There aren’t really any set pieces where their cover might be blown. It’s mostly Isaac talking with Kingsley, and while their conversations are entertaining, it’s yet another preview of a better movie that we’re never going to have delivered. The film lacks enough urgency. The characterization is too limited and the supporting characters are more faces than people; Melanie Laurent essentially plays The Woman Spy. Operation Finale should have either spent more time on the specifics and complications of nabbing Eichamann, presenting a challenge, or it could have accentuated the debate between Isaac and Kingsley over the nature of culpability, rationalization, guilt, and vengeance. There’s probably a really good Nazi-hunting mini-series or Nazi-debating play in here. Either way, the actual finished film is well made, well acted, and well intentioned but also dramatically lacking.

Nate Grade: C+

First Reformed (2018)/ You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that’s because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that’s unexpected but that doesn’t make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films.

In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man’s stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice.

Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn’t own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He’s friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he’ll come around to her. She’s a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller’s small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the “gift shop church” for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It’s like he’s trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It’s around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church.

I’ll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this “new him” has come from the sins of “old him.” I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That’s not really First Reformed at all. First off, it’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you’re still invested by then, you’ll be along for the rest of the film. However, it’s not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God’s kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen.

I’ll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It’s setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader’s slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We’re prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader’s ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader’s movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie.

First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It’s an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It’s a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It’s his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There’s really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.

You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames’ novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He’s hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation.

The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson’s The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We’re expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We’re expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That’s not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren’t so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard “reap what you sow” adage.

Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I’m trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn’t fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that’s knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it’s rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn’t celebrate its violence. There’s a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it’s a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, “Why would seeing all that be cathartic?”

For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world.

There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It’s these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney’s overly solemn The American. It’s not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe’s tortured past and troubled future, there’s a necessary sense of hope. You don’t know what will happen next but you’re not resigned to retrograde nihilism.

Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they’ve been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It’s enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan “erotic thriller” The Canyons. These are two movies that aren’t exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed.

Nate’s Grades:

First Reformed: A-

You Were Never Really Here: B

Beautifully Broken (2018)

Written by a staggering six credited writers, the faith-based movie Beautifully Broken is a well-meaning dramatic exercise that hopefully opens some hearts and minds to the refugee experience. Its message, for the most part, is worthy and empathetic. Reportedly based on a true story, we follow three families: 1) a Rwandan family that escapes the 1994 genocide, is trapped in the bureaucracy of the refugee system, and whose husband tries to make a new life in Tennessee for his family, 2) A Rwandan man who helped the previous family and has been imprisoned ever since, denied watching his own daughter grow into a teenager, 3) a wealthy Tennessee family struggles to cope with their rebellious teenage daughter, ignorant to the rape that changed her life. Can you guess which of these three storylines just isn’t as interesting as the others and yet is the one we inexplicably get the most time with? If you guessed “rich white people,” collect your prize. Beautifully Broken feels like an entire season of soap operas crammed into 108 minutes. The drama is so pitched but also strangely abbreviated, quick to resolution a few scenes later. It reminded me of those “previously on” clip packages before TV episodes. The characters are lacking recognizable dimension. They feel entirely too much like parts, meant to be happy, sad, and grateful, but rarely human. It makes for a dramatic feature that feels very inauthentic even when dealing with heavy issues like genocide, imprisonment, and sexual violence. Weirdly, the movie cannot even bring itself to utter the word “rape.” The film also feels written by people with a very selective sense of teenagers; some of the signs that the teen is on a wayward path that alarms mom and dad include her listening to rock music, locking her room for privacy, and, worst of all, not having an interest in horseback riding any longer. There’s a laughable subplot involving a bad boyfriend that seems like the most preposterous court case I’ve ever seen on film. Beautifully Broken examines the healing power of forgiveness and connection in a way that asks for compassion and understanding the immigrant experience. It even closes with a plea to sponsor a refugee to the U.S. Rarely do movies peak with their end credits. It just so happens that Beautifully Broken, a well-meaning but tedious tale, is that movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Happytime Murders (2018)

The Happytime Murders asks one question on repeat: is something inherently funny just because a puppet does it? As I feared from the marketing, this is strictly a one-joke movie, and that joke being the entire concept of puppets behaving badly.

In a world where puppets and humans live side-by-side, Private Investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is investigating a series of grisly murders targeting the stars of a popular children’s sitcom. His ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), is forced to work with Phillips as the bodies and felt pile up. Together they trace the killer amid seedy drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, and criminals, all of them puppets.

For a depressing majority of the running time, the jokes are simply puppets swearing or puppets being randy. Very rarely will there be more thought given to the gags and setups. This reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted wherein too much of the comedy was centered on a teddy bear doing things we don’t normally associate a teddy bear doing. A puppet simply dropping an F-bomb is not a joke, just as a random person dropping an F-bomb is not a joke without some degree of setup and/or context. A puppet smoking is not funny on its own. A puppet drinking is not funny on its own. This is lazy writing that falls back on its surface-level shock value to compensate for the paucity of actual comedy. Too many jokes fizzle on screen, drawing at best the occasional generous chuckle. While you’re watching The Happytime Murders, you’re quite conscious of the fact that it should be funnier. You can feel the desperation on screen and the disappointment. I kept thinking, “Why did they settle for that joke? Why aren’t they doing more with the possibilities of their premise? Oh great, now it’s a joke about balls.” An R-rated puppet cop movie starring Melissa McCarthy should not be this uninspired.

Let’s tackle one scene emblematic of the film’s best assets and its shortcomings. Early in the first act, our puppet P.I. visits a puppet porn store/theater/film set. As soon as he enters, the curtain is pulled back and we see an octopus vigorously milking a cow’s udders, milky geysers freely spraying everywhere amid giddy cries. It’s a memorable visual with obvious sexual connotations and it’s one of the better moments to convey some degree of thought as far as developing the world of puppets. But then the scene just keeps going without any new development or complication. And then it keeps going. And then you realize that the filmmakers tapped out with the visual and had nothing else. The sequence at the porn store/theater/film set keeps sliding in more debauchery, especially with clips from an array of fetish films, a notable example being a fireman whipped by a Dalmatian dominatrix. Then in short order it becomes a murder scene and the fluff flies everywhere. Once again it becomes readily apparent how poorly handled the development process was with this film. There are puppets fighting, puppets doing drugs, puppets even having sex, but are there comic scenarios here? Infrequently. Without better crafting, the shock value naturally loses its impact and then the film gives up. It’s front loaded with the most memorable transgressions, and then it settles into a fairly mediocre cop movie that you have to remind yourself is a comedy because… puppets?

Instead, what the viewer gets is pretty much a standard cop movie with some film noir elements emphasized as reference. There is some half-hearted commentary about discrimination against puppets and how they’re seen as second-class citizens (like Bright). This too is dropped after the first act and the movie settles into a second-rate potboiler. If you remove the presence of puppets, too many scenes don’t even present humor. It’s more a cop movie than it is a comedy, and that realization perplexed and disappointed me. The lazy, crude sexual humor is a crutch they return to, though with diminished returns, as another attempt to jolt the lagging movie to life. It’s a tedious affair where the imagination feels capped. You’ll likely be reminded, as I was constantly, of the brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which tackled film noir tropes and cross-human integration. The difference is that Roger Rabbit thoroughly thought out its characters, plot, world, and satire, and I consider it to be one of the best-written films of all time. With The Happytime Murders, it has to resort to a Basic Instinct legs-crossing gag twice in 2018. This movie desperately needed a few more drafts from better skilled comedy writers to have more entertaining jokes than “puppet does non-puppet stuff.”

McCarthy (Life of the Party) is drifting on autopilot, desperately looking for ways to make this enterprise funnier. Her improv intuition runs into conflict with the simple nature that puppeteering demands a lot of preparation, so there are less off-script riffs. This is your standard brash, profane, ball-busting McCarthy performance we’ve gotten to know but there’s not a character here. Even in the realm of simplistic cop movie tropes, she’s still never more than the irritable partner who develops a begrudging respect. There is one interesting aspect to her character that the film does so little with. In a flashback, we see that she was critically injured in the line of duty and had to have an emergency puppet liver donation. The only thing ever done with this is the allowance that McCarthy is now able to snort puppet drugs that would ordinarily kill humans. That is it. There’s not even a joke related to this fact. It’s another example of the film’s deficiency of creativity.

The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie that has far too little imagination. The lewd vulgarity gets boring and becomes indicative of the lazy writing all around, the mere appearance of anything naughty meant to goose the audience into thinking they’re watching something really transgressive and provocative. The novelty wears off pretty quickly. Maya Rudolph as a cheerful secretary and the behind-the-scenes end credits were the best parts. What they’re really watching is a mediocre cop movie strung together with the flimsiest of genre tropes and a scant chuckle. Without better comedic writing and setups, you’re stuck with the story, and that’s not a good decision. This is a witless movie that doesn’t deserve its premise and is a waste of everyone’s time. At my preview screening, I could hear a child’s voice behind me and thought, “Oh my, a parent actually brought their child to see this movie? Did they not know?” That child never should have been in that theater, and not because of the raunchy content, but because that child deserved a better movie experience from their parent, a figure of trust.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy mix of familiar 90s romantic comedy cliches and tropes but now with an all-Asian cast and Asian culture given a dignified spotlight. Thanks to the strides in representation, it makes the familiar feel fresh again. This is a very Pretty Woman princess fantasy story of an ordinary woman, Rachel Chu (the great Constance Wu) falling in love with a rich man who then whisks her away to his rich family home out of country and introduces her to the world of the cloistered elites, ex-girlfriends, and hangers-on and their disapproval. Much of the conflict hinges on her feeling accepted by her man’s scowling, scary mother played by the formidable Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The two-hour running time mostly consists of a lot of blandly nice people. I think enough of these supporting characters could have been consolidated or eliminated to give more space to characters that matter. The film reminded me, in some regards, of the 50 Shades series where we jump from scene to scene to celebrate the extravagance of an elite lifestyle of luxury. It’s intended to alienate Rachel and contrast with her humble, hard-working, honest sensibilities, but after two or three of these, I don’t think it’s quite having that effect. Wu (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is a charming, loveable lead, and the film has fun, colorful characters played by Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover trilogy), who amazingly doesn’t overstay his welcome. The production design and costumes are sensational and might even get some Oscar attention. Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly formulaic but pleasant enough movie, and the fact that an all-Asian cast rom-com is slotted as a summer movie is a positive sign. The end results are a fizzy fantasy repackaged but still entertaining and without a sense of pandering.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Meg (2018)

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws cemented the concept of a Hollywood blockbuster, sharks have been synonymous with the summer movie season. Just last year a small-scale indie thriller, 47 Meters Down, was a breakout hit with a planned sequel on the way (they ignored my obviously brilliant suggestion of naming it 48 Meters Down, thus proving each additional entry would move the depths a measurable increment of peril). People love them some killer shark movies and the bigger the better. Well it doesn’t get much bigger than The Meg, a movie with a monstrous prehistoric Megalodon shark approaching 75 feet long (that’s one half of 47 Meters Down, if you think about it). The Meg has enough awareness, payoffs, and fun to stay afloat and be a better B-movie.

Deep under the Mariana Trench, a team of deep-sea scientists has discovered a new habitat previously cut off by man. From here emerges the Megalodon, a ferocious predator that has no earthly competition. The team seeks out the help of Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a one-man rescue squad who had a run-in with The Meg in his tragic past. The science team must rescue its trapped members, track and evaluate the shark, and prevent the ancient beast from feasting on the locals in the South China Sea.

This is a big stupid shark movie about a big stupid shark, and The Meg provides enough fun to at least warrant one trip out into the water. It’s a monster movie that follows a well-worn formula of discovery, containment, escalation, and then all-out large-scale disaster. I appreciated that the succession of events followed enough of a logistical cause/effect relationship that allows the audience to better suspend disbelief and stay within the movie’s agreeable wavelength of campy thrills. This is the kind of movie that introduces a family of whales only to mercilessly kill them off screen as passing shark food. It’s the kind of movie that knows we want to watch Statham punch sharks in the face. There’s genuinely more shark action than I was expecting and the action sequences have been given consideration to maximize their popcorn thrills. I am used to recent shark movies that hinge on the threat of the shark as an aquatic Boogeyman, on the peripheral and always threatening to return. With The Meg, once the shark is loose it’s a constant presence and persistent problem. There is one moment where our hero has to shoot a tracking device into its dorsal fin. He has to get close while also not disturbing the water and calling attention to himself. It’s a well-engineered and developed suspense sequence that takes advantage of the fun possibilities at play. There are more moments like this that exemplify a degree of thinking and development than sloppy, slapdash CGI mayhem.

This is a major co-production with China and it’s easy to tell. It’s a $130 million Hollywood hybrid with an inclusive cast, global danger, and the havoc wrought on the human population this time are Chinese beach dwellers running in panic. The co-lead is Chinese star Bingbing Li (Transformers: Age of Extinction) who is set up by literally every character to be the romantic interest to the dashing Statham. Even the man’s ex-wife is on the same mission, trying to hook these two up. Statham banging this single mom is the key to bridging these two market forces together, apparently.

Speaking of the man in question, Statham (The Fate and the Furious) is dependable and irony-proof no matter the absurd film scenario. He provides the audience a reliable anchor amidst the genre silliness, plus gratuitous shirtless beefcake shots. He can say the most ridiculous lines of dialogue with a straight face and make you believe it. He’s also great with children. Some of his best moments are his interactions with little Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), the young daughter of Li’s character. Statham is so charming and natural around children, and he’s able to coax instant chemistry with a child actor. Why hasn’t somebody given Statham a Rock-style family vehicle where he acts alongside a precocious group of kids? What if he’s an over-the-hill action star helping a group of kids make their own amateur movie? What if he’s an ex-special forces agent-turned-birthday party magician trying to fish out a hidden target? What if he’s a retired movie star trying to coach a pair of kids how to get their parents back together? I never knew I wanted this.

There’s enough of a knowing awareness that let me know the filmmakers understood the goofy kind of movie they were making. It’s not exactly turning to the camera and winking but it feels like it’s nodding at you, asking you to play along. This is exemplified in Rainn Wilson’s (TV’s The Office) character Morris, the outspoken billionaire who founded the whole science station. He’s general comic relief in a movie about a giant shark because The Meg doesn’t treat the shark as comic. After discovering the creature, the science team is ready to take things slowly and cautiously, and Morris flatly screams that we have no time for slow here. When Jonas jumps into the water to take on the shark, it’s Morris exclaiming how awesome it is. The best example is when one of the lead scientists takes a moment to bemoan the overreach of science in a “what have we done?” speech, and Morris just throws up his hands and walks away grumbling, disinterested in listening to any self-serious yammering. Morris kept amusing me because we were repeatedly alike in our commentary and requests for this film experience.

Even with scaled-down expectations, The Meg is still a monster movie that probably needed to be campier or more frightening to be a better movie (I gave the same diagnosis to Krampus). It’s a fun film that understands what a genre audience wants, though it could have pushed further and found ways to subvert those expectations or given us more mayhem. This isn’t a tiresome so-bad-it’s-good-but-it’s-still-bad genre wankfest like the tacky Sharknado movies. It’s also not the delightful, campy, gory B-movie that is Deep Blue Sea. It’s a monster movie that has a sense of amusement and doesn’t waste time pretending to be too serious even when the professorial characters are given to lament. It achieves a middle zone that satisfies enough of your cravings but not fully hitting them.

Not quite as enjoyably dumb as the earlier Rampage, The Meg is still a relatively silly, splashy monster movie with solid thrills, action development, and a good sense of what its core audience demands and how to go about fulfilling that promise. Statham and company plow ahead through the genre shenanigans and make it out the other end bloody yet unscathed. My biggest criticism is that I wanted more; more camp, more carnage, more knowing nods, the kind I got in abundance in last year’s gloriously entertaining Kong: Skull Island. It gave me enough of a tantalizing preview of the better movie it could have become. Still, The Meg is a slice of summer escapism that gave me enough thrills, laughs, and satisfaction to leave me wanting more but mostly content with what I ultimately got.

Nate’s Grade: B-

%d bloggers like this: