Category Archives: 2020 Movies

Verotika (2020)

Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig loved the heavy metal aesthetic of big breasted ladies, fetish outfits, hulking monsters, and splashy gore, enough so that he started his own comic line in the 90s, Verotik (a portmanteau of “violence” and “erotic,” and yes that’s the explanation). They even adapted one of his comics, Grub Girl, into a 2006 adult movie, and I pulled this synopsis directly from Wikipedia: “One of the victims of the radiation is a sex worker whose scarred body is taken to a laboratory, where she wakes up while being sexually abused by a pair of necrophilic scientists, whom she kills on account of having given her ‘the worst f*** of my life.’ Grub Girl adjusts to being a zombie and returns to being a sex worker, discovering that being undead is advantageous to her career, as she is immune to disease and nearly impervious to pain.” Yikes. Anyway, Danzig took three of his comic tales and packaged them together into a low-rent horror anthology movie dubbed Verotika. Unfortunately, the final product is nothing short of one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life. It is stunningly, exceptionally terrible in all facets.

I was left dumbstruck by the level of incompetence over the course of 89 ponderous minutes of awful. This goes beyond Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen into downright Ed Woodian territory of ineptitude. I couldn’t turn away because I was trying to simply process everything I was seeing onscreen, to boldly attempt to understand so many choices made by Danzig as a filmmaker and storyteller. He serves as writer, director, and co-cinematographer. The finished film is not the so-bad-it’s-good derisive highs of Wiseau and Breen’s bemoaned catalogue of misfires. This is more just a slack-jawed “what were they thinking?” stupefied curiosity of an After Last Season (the worst film of the first 2000s decade, a movie so bad its small distributor asked theaters to burn their prints rather than ship them back). It’s not fun but baffling. It’s not silly but lecherous to the point of misogyny and discomfort. At no point are you transported to the weird imagination of an avant garde artist but instead you’re beset by huge lapses in filmmaking basics and a dearth of recognizable plot. With Verotika, there are no stories, only story premises that go nowhere and nowhere slow. While only 89 minutes long, it might be the most joyless, turgid, pointless 89 minutes I have experienced since After Last Season made an MRI machine out of paper print-outs.

Allow me, dear reader, to describe for you the very opening minutes of Verotika, and please also understand that it only gets worse from there. The first segment is called “The Albino Spider of Dajette,” and it’s set inexplicably in France, which hamstrings every actor with a regrettable Pepe LePew accent that makes the segment even more ridiculous. Danzig could have spared his actors, who were clearly not capable of replicating French accents, the embarrassment but no. The opening minutes involve a busty woman, Dajette (Ashley Wisdom, porn actress), performing oral sex on a guy. He excitedly attempts to lift up her shirt, much to her chagrin, and is shocked to find that Dajette has eyeballs where her nipples should be. Yes, you read that correctly, she has literal eye nipples. The man leaves in horror and Dajette huffs dejectedly, “Not again.” These eye nipples will never amount to anything important, which is so confounding. Why include them? Her eye nipples cry a tear, which rolls down her breast and lands on a CGI spider, which then grows into a giant albino spider-man (Scotch Hopkins) with two working arms. This evil spider-man only comes out when Dajette is asleep, though she’s not sleeping now, so? He has a thirst for murder and sex and tells a prostitute he wants to rape her in the ass and then kill her. Her nonchalant response made me stare in amazement: “Ass f*** is my specialty.” Reader, I have described for you only the first few minutes of this entire segment. What is going on here?

The rest of this tale becomes repetitious as the spider-creature stalks and snaps more women’s necks, earning the moniker the “Neck Snapper” from the French media (imagine the strained pronunciation as “Nyek Snauhpah”). Dajette wanders around to stay awake, and this includes entering an adult film theater where the patrons conspire to gang rape her as soon as she nods off. She also enters a café where someone else’s cup is already waiting for her. Seconds later, a waiter asks if she wants any refills (“refeeelz”), and she declines and pays… for someone else’s cup of coffee? Here’s a prime example of the filmmaking shortcomings of Danzig. It would have been incredibly, stupidly easy to improve this scene simply by starting with Dajette at the table. By combining two shots of her walking along the street and then a shot of her indoors, still wearing her coat, and walking to a table, you are communicating an approximation of time. She has had no time to order her own coffee. All he had to do was start with her already seated and we could assume the cup was ordered off screen and before the edit. Verotika is replete with preventable bad decisions.

Astonishingly, this segment is actually the best of the movie and each only gets demonstrably worse and more pointless. “Change of Face” is a clear homage/rip-off to 1960’s Eyes Without a Face as we follow a stripper/serial killer known only as “Mystery Girl” (Rachel Allig) as she slices off the faces of beautiful women to wear as her own. Our killer wears the faces of her victims to cover her own scarred visage while she strips for her customers. Considering she wears a mask to cover her face anyway while she dances, the face-removals seem gratuitous. If you’re looking for any clear motivation for this killer, even the simplest explanations, then you’ll only be further disappointed. Again, it would be so stupidly easy for Danzig to characterize the “Mystery Girl” as murderously jealous of the beauty denied to her, or present some insecurity that her stripping career and income will be shuttered if she cannot fix her face. Anything would have worked. Instead we simply get an absence of thought and development; this segment is taxed with several minutes of watching women lackadaisically walk around a stripper pole. It feels like Danzig had access to a strip club set for a day and was determined to use everything he shot. The epilogue of this segment even involves more lackadaisical dancing around a pole. The only thing that enlivens this segment is the acting of Sean Kanan as the detective tracking down the murderer. He talks like he’s trying to imitate Batman’s gruff voice and his chit-chat is blasé to the point of anti-comedy ironic perfection. “There’s your motive. They wanted a face,” he says. His big break in the case is finding a business card at the crime scene. Why would a stripper have a business card and why would this man assume she must be the killer? That would be like finding a carton of milk at a crime scene and declaring that the milkman was your top suspect.

The final segment is the most pointless of them all and feels like it should be visual accompaniment for talking heads on a History Channel special about Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious 16th century Hungarian noble who would bathe in the blood of virgins to stay young and vibrant. “Drukija Contessa of Blood” stars Alice Tate (Snowbound) as a woman who rubs blood on her face and body. That is literally the plot for thirty minutes. She slices some helpless women’s necks. She luxuriates in a bath. She rides a horse. She decapitates a runaway. She eats a woman’s heart while that victim inexplicably still writhes in agony well after the fact. There isn’t even the faintest hint of a plot here or characters. You would think we would follow one of the imprisoned women as she plots an escape. Once again, it feels like Danzig had access to certain elements that he was going to make sure got their overexposed spotlight. We watch Drukija stare into a mirror and make poses for several minutes. We watch Drukija sit in her creepy skeleton-lined bathtub for several minutes. We watch her ride a horse for minutes on end. At no point does Danzig offer a reason for the audience to care about anything happening on screen. The cruelty just becomes boring and as gratuitous as any other unfortunate moment in this unfortunate movie. The whole segment feels like watching a bored model on a cosplay photo shoot.

The fundamental lack of story, characters, conflict drives me nuts, but the movie fails just as badly on its technical merits. I can excuse some lapses in filmmaking from a continuity standpoint as long as they are not glaring to rip me out of the movie. Anyone that nitpicks the placement of bed sheets from shot-to-shot rather than emotional engagement and narrative drive is simply watching movies wrong. However, Verotika is complicit in making the kind of goofs and mistakes you’d associate with a schlocky student films and not a (gasp) million-dollar horror movie. Danzig favors ending every scene in a fade out, and I’m not exaggerating when I say “every.” It’s like he doesn’t know when to end his own scenes (more on that below). There are specific limitations in the makeup and production design, but then why feature camera angles and lighting that expose those limitations? Things like the crotch of the spider-man being blown wide open and visible on camera or a superfluous CGI floor Drunkija struts over. There are a proliferation of lens flares, which I think Danzig feels are “arty,” and they do provide a brief respite from the very grimy, over exposed photography that can be dispiriting. Even with a million dollars, this movie looks depressingly cheap. Then there are sloppy mistakes nobody bothered to correct. The neon “café” sign that Dajette enters is above the café window, not over it, and facing inward, which means no potential customer from the outside would get the benefit of the sign. Murder victims are extremely unmotivated to get away from their eventual killers. Certain physical confrontations are so confusingly staged that character geography will alter in a flash like a scene was missing. A shaken police officer laments “if the press finds out about this” about the THIRTEENTH murder victim. I think the cat’s out of the bag, fella. Why do we need an Elvira-styled host (Kayden Kross, porn actress) making bad puns to introduce segments?

As a director, Danzig leaves his actors adrift with awkwardly non-existent guidance. It becomes readily apparent that Danzig was afraid to call cut too soon because many shots will linger on long after the point has passed, leaving actors to fidget or look around, waiting to be told the take was over. Sometimes this involves literal minutes of an actor doing something repetitious while the camera will zoom in and out continually. There are moments where the camera will duck around, unclear about what it’s meant to frame, looking for its subject or composition like a documentary filmmaker on the spot. Every actor suffers from this and shots and scenes have that uncomfortable feeling of dragging on haphazardly, missing the rhythm of film narratives. I bet you could shave those extraneous seconds off every scene and trim 15 minutes total. As a result of actors given bad material, nascent characterization when evident, funny accents, and little to no direction, there are plenty of actors struggling to perform whatever they’re intending.

Even as a low-budget sleazy exploitation film, Verotika cannot even succeed by that metric. The gore effects are few and far between and Danzig likes to linger over what he can get, much like other elements. If he bought the makeup for one girl to be skinned faceless, you’re going to see that effect a dozen times. When the Contessa is chomping on a heart, the proportions are so out of scale that it dulls the impact of what is a fairly good prosthetic otherwise. Even when it comes to gratuitous sex and nudity, the movie seems oddly inept. During the interminable stripping scenes of “Change of Face,” the women don’t actually strip while they lethargically spin around their poles. The women on display are more fetishized as murder victims than they are as sex objects. Why include eye nipples and then do nothing with them? Where did they come from? Is this a genetic thing? Did Dajette’s mother have eye nipples and nurse her from them? My pal Ben Bailey came up with a better storyline with “eye nipples” on the spot, gifting them laser powers and a thematic angle about striking back against handsy men who won’t respect consent. Boom, right there, a better use of weird exploitation elements and he was only joking around.

With every conceivable level of filmmaking and storytelling, Verotika shows that Danzig is not remotely ready for the big screen. The paltry story is kept at premise-level, there’s a decided lack of characterization and stakes and intrigue, lots of repetition, and shaky direction that leaves actors astray with over-extended scenes. Even as an exploitation movie, you will be sorely disappointed. As a hopeful heir apparent to the so-bad-it’s-good club, Verotika is not the next The Room. Not even close. It’s bad and inept and boring and flabbergasting but it lacks the bewildering appeal of the best of the so-bad-it’s-good crew. It lacks a sense of sincerity. I doubt Danzig thought he was making great art or even something cool. It feels like he took a music video concept and bloated it to bursting (Danzig’s music is a constant background presence). Danzig actually has another movie scheduled for release this year, Death Rider in the House of Vampires, starring Devon Sawa, Julian Sands, and Danny Trejo. I can only hope he’s learned from this baptism by fire (and blood) and surrounds himself with professionals who can carry the burden when he falters.

Nate’s Grade: F

The Lovebirds (2020)

The tepid advertising for The Lovebirds gave me little motivation to see the movie. Even with the same director and star of The Big Sick, it just did not look funny with its trailer, so it was already gearing up to be mentally banished to a “see it eventually” field that might never be fulfilled. Then after COVID-19, it was bought by Netflix and now I had easy access to a brand-new 2020 movie previously targeted for a wide theatrical release. I watched The Lovebirds the day it debuted and was pleasantly surprised to notice just how much I was laughing early on, and that laughter continued throughout the movie’s entire running time. Kumail Nanjiani (Stuber) and Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) have a winning chemistry but they’re even better when they’re at odds, and the movie smartly frames the on-the-lamb misadventure during their dissolution as a couple. Through the harrowing events, we get a fuller picture of why their relationship didn’t work out, the issues each has, and why it might just work out over the course of some rather outlandish events trying to clear their names for murder. I found more to like in the riffs and weird diversions the movie would find itself circling, where an observational joke or offbeat moment could extend and find new life. The comedy set pieces are fine, though an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy is a bit lazy without going into more humor on the group and their stuffy rules. I wish there were more meaningful and colorful supporting characters but the emphasis is on our main couple. I found myself smiling and nodding along and being taken by the low-key charms of a brisk comedy that didn’t ask much more of me than to have a good time with some appealing actors. It’s not The Big Sick but it’s not a big bomb either. On Netflix streaming, The Lovebirds is a perfectly enjoyable 100 minutes to stretch out to and chuckle to yourself and think back on how the abysmal advertising really undersold the funny.

Nate’s Grade: B

Valley Girl (2020)

valley_girlIf you’re a big fan of 80s music and looking to congenially pass 90 minutes, I suppose you could watch the new musical Valley Girl as it whisks you away on a cloud of simple nostalgia. That’s the word for this movie. Everything is very simple, from the stock characterizations, to the boy-meets-girl romance, to even the performance of the dozens of popular 80s songs, which are reworked into being blander vanilla versions that reminded me of what Kids Bop does to music. We follow a titular valley girl (Jessica Rothe, so great in the Happy Death Day franchise) as she falls for a punk rocker (Josh Whitehouse, struggling in the singing department) from the wrong side of the tracks. The romance is very familiar as are their trials of stepping outside their individual comfort zones for the other person. The big problem with Valley Girl is that the first half feels like it’s at warp speed; nary a minute goes by without a song-and-dance number barreling onto the screen. The second half, in contrast, has only a handful of these numbers and tries to expand the characters but by that point it’s too late. I don’t care about them. Since it’s a jukebox musical, the songs should be selected to provide better insights into the characters’ emotional states, but too often they feel superfluous and clunky. “Hey Mickey” introduces our selfish jock (Logan Paul of YouTube infamy) at a pep rally. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is about having fun on the beach. “Boys Don’t Cry” about dealing with being sad. It’s that kind of application. There’s a frame device where an older mom (Alicia Silverstone) is recounting her 80s experiences to her teenage daughter, and this could have provided a satirical and clever development, allowing the recounted experiences to blend into fantasy and her hazy memory. Valley Girl isn’t a bad movie, just one lacking significant purpose outside nostalgia and cleaning out a big music clearance account. If watching watered down 80s hits sounds like your thing, then party to the max, man.

Nate’s Grade: C

Gretel & Hansel (2020)

I feel bad for select audiences that went into Gretel & Hansel expecting a cheap thriller because what they really get is an atmospheric art movie that, even at a mere 80 minutes, moves at a very placid pace. Director Osgood “Oz” Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) takes the bones of the classic Grimm fairy tale and presents it as a feminist retelling of outcasts coming into their own feminine power and the costs of giving over to that power. The titular siblings are cast out by their mother after Gretel refuses to be a maid for a creepy older man very interested in hr “maidenhood.” They stumble upon the dwelling of an older outcast and she supplies plenty of food, but where exactly is it coming from? Gretel experiences strange dreams that portend to a witchy power of her own making, but she’s scared about what she may become and what may befall her brother, who the older woman deems Gretel’s “poison.” The story is a bit strained but the movie is visually luscious to watch. The photography and production design are exceptional and greatly lend the movie a transporting atmosphere that, coupled with its stodgy pacing, creates the sensation of experiencing a waking dream. The camera uses a lot of stark wide angles and centered compositions to heighten a sense of unreality. My favorite moments were the older Witch (Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact) was coaching Gretel on her inherent power and the sacrifices necessary for her to achieve her potential. She advises “trusting the darkness,” which sounds ominous enough. Because of the general familiarity with the fairy tale, the movie gets more leeway to fill its time with fantasy diversions and a slow build of horror revealing the disturbing process of how the feasts of food become prepared. It almost feels like the movie is reaching a breaking point with how lagging that pacing is, but then it generally gets back on track with a new revelation or complication. Gretel & Hansel is an enjoyably moody, stylish, equally beautiful and unsettling movie that’s heavy on grim and light on plot.

Nate’s Grade: B

Capone (2020)

In 2012, after the found footage superhero movie Chronicle became a surprise smash, director Josh Trank was at the top of Hollywood’s hot new director list. Within three years, he was a pariah. The production behind 2015’s Fantastic Four was so troubled and fraught with reshoots, creative clashes, and secret edits that Trank was labeled as a malcontent who couldn’t be trusted with the big tentpoles. He was unceremoniously dumped by Star Wars and seemed to become the latest casualty of an industry that eats its own promising wunderkinds. I’d highly advise people read a very illuminating in-depth article from Polygon on Trank’s troubles and triumphs, including his insights on where Fantastic Four went awry. Trank spent years honing his next script, an Al Capone biopic of his late years, and waiting for star Tom Hardy to be available. Some critics have called Trank’s comeback movie a self-indulgent, surreal, campy mess, and indeed while I was watching I had visions of Mommie Dearest. However, that wasn’t a bad thing, at least for me. I cannot call Capone an unqualified success but I appreciated the bizarre lengths Trank goes to make a biopic that mocks and tears away the mystique of its macho idol.

Capone (Hardy), or “Fonze” as he’s referred to primarily, has been released from his prison sentence for tax evasion and living the rest of his days on his Florida estate. He’s suffering dementia from the effects of neurosyphilis, a condition he contracted as a teenager. His wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), tries her best to keep him from harming himself or others. The F.B.I. is still listening, still watching, and newspaper reporters are still hiding along the bushes. Capone struggles to keep his mind from being completely lost but will lose, dying at age 47.

First off, I think Trank’s initial creative approach is a genius way to explore a biographical film, running through the major points of a subject’s life in a hallucinatory, non-linear fashion that mixes fantasy and reality. From that standpoint alone, Capone is never boring because it can quite literally go anywhere as Capone retreats further and further into his fraying mind. That’s such a visually stimulating way of telling a story while also presenting a chaotic impression of a character’s perception, locking us into an empathetic experience with an unreliable guidepost. I think that alone makes Capone worthwhile, as does Hardy’s go-for-broke performance (more on that later). It’s a weird fever dream of a movie, constantly shifting between past and present, fantasy and reality, and I think this perspective adds much to the film’s appeal and ambition. One second the man is sitting down with FBI agents and the next he’s wandering a ballroom to go onstage with Louis Armstrong for a New Year’s Eve duet. It gets pretty crazy and that’s good.

I was wondering if Trank would glorify his title subject. I only had to wait for the first twenty minutes where Al Capone literally craps himself twice for my answer. This is not Capone at the height of his fearsome power where he ruled the Chicago ganglands; this is a decrepit, doddering middle-aged man, equally helpless and reckless, unable or unwilling to even control his bowels. He is rotten from the inside out, a vile human being whose own filth is leaking out to smother him. Gangster cinema has often glamorized the mafia and criminals as unorthodox folk heroes, like in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and the more recent Public Enemies in 2009. So, with all of that said, I enjoyed that Trank took a legendary figure of the criminal underworld and totally undercut his machismo power. He strips away the romantic notions of the man’s life. This isn’t the man on the pulpy radio dramas, this is a guy who craps the bed. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman got plenty of acclaim for spending its final half-hour showing where a lifetime of crime leads its elderly protagonist, a sad, lonely life without any lasting personal benefit. Trank takes that much-heralded final half-hour and turns it into an entire 100-minute movie. I wish more movies would do this to deserving subjects.

The biggest draw of the film is Hardy (Venom, The Revenant) who never met a film role he couldn’t grumble, mumble, growl, or unleash a funny voice for. To say he is committed does not to do the man justice. He is not only chewing scenery; he is rapidly inhaling it. He is playing to the cheap seats with this role, bloodshot eyes bulging out of his head with thousand-yard stares of confusion and paranoia. He’s barely intelligible at times, and that’s before he has a stroke that further impairs his ability to communicate. He can also be hard to recognize under layers of pock-faced makeup. The acting-with-a-capital-A style is so enthralling but perhaps not for the exact intended reasons. It’s fascinating to watch a highly respected, Academy Award-nominated actor just indulge every over-the-top impulse and tic, where each small decision feels like generating the question, “Really, you went with that choice?” The batty performance brought to mind Faye Dunaway’s breathtaking performance in 1981’s so-bad-it’s-good Mommie Dearest as Joan Crawford (she thought she was going to in awards for that performance!). It’s a level of camp with no earthly reservation, and it’s rare to see from such a famous actor, and I was spellbound. If you enjoyed Mommie Dearest for its unintentional camp hilarity, then Capone might be just for you.

While at turns confounding and fascinating, Capone falls short when it comes to examining the inner life of its title character. I assumed with the conceit of losing touch with reality that Capone would be experiencing some reckoning over his past misdeeds, and this happens to a very mild, opaque degree. There are some supporting characters that turn out to be, surprise, ghosts that Capone had killed in his past. But they stop there, failing to provide an opportunity for Capone to feel remorse and they don’t even push him on being guilty. You would think a man with a sizeable list of dead people he’s responsible for would be haunted by more ghosts from the past, forcing him to reconcile his idea of himself with his tortured deeds. Capone is also seeing images of a young boy that is meant to represent his poor youthful upbringing, but he doesn’t interact with this past representation other than look uncomfortable in his presence. The movie desperately needed more introspection with this man examining his sins and legacy and validations. A bad man coming to terms with the end and what it means has great dramatic potential. A bad man who bumbles around his luxurious home, sees some ghosts, and continues bumbling has less so. That’s where Trank’s screenplay really falters because it doesn’t push harder. Capone is too caught up in upending the image of Al Capone rather than digging deeper into the man himself and his inherent end-of-life drama.

The supporting characters also do little to offer alternative sides to better know Capone. His long-suffering wife is nicely played by Cardellini (Green Book), brought to tears watching her strong man waste away, calling her an angel one minute and forgetting her face the next, but we don’t learn more about the central figure through her. He started poor. Got power. Now he’s incompetent (and incontinent). That’s it. There’s room for more here than a man physically and mentally falling apart. What about the other people in his life? What about plans for succession from those who spent their lives in his service? There’s even a storyline of a lovechild trying to get in contact with him and the movie miraculously does nothing with this abandoned son to add further dimension and insight.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t laughing throughout Capone, though I think Trank is intending some degree of mockery with his biopic that plumbs the depths of the strange and grotesque. There’s a guy who gets stabbed in the neck maybe 50 literal times. There’s Capone shooting alligators, convinced they’re conspiring to munch on his testicles. There’s Capone applauding and singing along to The Wizard of Oz and arguing for the sake of the Cowardly Lion. There’s an ongoing subplot about different supporting characters trying to somehow sift the location of Capone’s hidden millions from his broken mind like a treasure hunt. There’s an entire sequence where Capone, with carrot-as-cigar in mouth, marches around firing a golden tommy gun while his saggy adult diaper droops around his waistline. In short, there’s more than enough material here to enjoy on a strictly ridiculous, pulpy, heightened to the point of breaking campy variety. Hardy is fully unrestrained, for better and worse, but he’s always watchable, as I would say of the film itself. Even if it feels ultimately superficial and underdeveloped, Trank’s Capone is a mess of bad taste about a bad man going through some bad times and it just might be the good kind of bad.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Wendy (2020)

I was not a big fan of writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first movie, 2012’s indie darling and surprise Oscar contender, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some choice highlights from my mixed review include: “This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message…. [it] offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register… This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but, as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing.” So as you can see, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken that Zeitlin took eight years for his follow-up, Wendy, a loose reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story. It has many of the same flaws as Beasts and not enough of its few virtues, which means Wendy is its own lost movie experience.

We follow a group of children from a working-class diner waitress in small-town Louisiana. They watch the trains speed by on the neighboring tracks and dream of far-off adventures. Wendy (Devin France) and her two younger twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naqui) sneak off one night onto a passing train and meet Peter (Yashua Mack), a boy who promises to guide them to a magical island where they will never grow old as long as they believe in Mother, the spirit of the island and embodied as a giant glowing fish. Wendy enjoys the freedom but worries if she’ll ever see her mother again and if this extended excursion is worth that level of sacrifice.

Maybe I’m just going through Peter Pan fatigue or maybe this latest variation on the mythology of J.M. Barrie just failed to provide any really thorough message, theme, or entry point of interest for me. Wendy seems to be going for whimsy and flights of fancy, once again attaching its perspective to that of children escaping into the realm of fantasy as a means of avoiding the hardships of their impoverished lives and what it means to be a working stiff (one child in the opening runs away at the prospect of becoming “a mop and broom man”). It’s meant to be diverting but it’s never really that exciting or involving, tapping into a wellspring of awe. There’s a beautifully idyllic island and a volcano, and of course our magic fish, but there aren’t nearly enough genuine magical elements to convey that desired whimsy. The freedom of a life without adults seems less free when there’s less to do. Much of the movie feels closer to The Florida Project where a group of poor kids are playing around junk to keep from being bored. This Neverland universe feels very limited as far as what can be done. They run around, they pretend, there are even some decrepit buildings, but what else? There isn’t really a society here in concert with our lost children and former lost children. It’s a pretty empty island retreat.

Perhaps that was Zeitlin’s goal, to strip away the romanticized notions we attach to forever staying young, chasing the fleeting feeling of the past while ignoring the present and adulthood, but this more critical theme doesn’t come across thoroughly either. There is one interesting aspect of the island’s unexplained magic and that is the older adults are former lost boys and girls who lost faith in Mother, thus activating their advanced aging and expulsion from Peter’s posse. I like the idea that the future villainous pirates of a Neverland are former lost boys; it gives an interesting personal dynamic for Peter. These adults, though, want to go back to being young again and they are convinced that killing Mother will achieve this, and it doesn’t go as planned. The deconstruction of fantasy with real violence doesn’t work because the consequences aren’t at the same level of realism. A child, in an effort to avoid growing old, makes a drastic decision, but the brushed-off aftermath makes the insertion of the harsher violence feel perfunctory. Peter is portrayed as an idealist leader one moment and ignorant and selfish the next, even with Wendy scolding him that there’s nothing wrong with growing up and becoming an adult, despite the mixed message of the former lost boys. The movie concludes with a goofy sing-a-long for magic resolution purposes that is played so earnestly that it makes it hard for me to believe Zeitlin was intending to be too critical of his magical world.

Is Wendy about rejecting adulthood or the unavoidable perils of rejecting adulthood? I cannot say because the themes are so muddled with such a precious lack of significant storytelling content. Once again, a Zeitlin film feels like an improvised series of redundant scenes, where we watch kids play fight, we watch kids yell at one another, we watch kids run, we watch kids swim, all with headache-inducing handheld camerawork, but do we get to know these kids on a deeper level where they feel like people rather than figures? The plot of Wendy, written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is very unclear about the rules of its magical world, which makes for a hard time to understand why anything is really happening. It also makes the movie less fun to experience because we don’t get to play along with the discovery of a fantasy world, its new parameters, and how we can develop and complicate them (not that there’s really much to discover; Neverland gets old quickly). This is definitely a movie that’s meant to convey more in feeling and inference, so the plot beats are very inconsequential outside of a few key movements. I didn’t find myself caring about any of the kids and their general well-being, even after they take it upon themselves to make some rash medical decisions. Wendy is our best realized character as she at least seems conflicted about the appeal and consequences of staying young indefinitely. The others are easily replaceable.

Wendy isn’t a bad movie and it’s clearly a very personally designed project from Zeitlin given the years of preparation. It has consistently gorgeous photography by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, the first film production shot on location on Montserrat island, and the score by Dan Romer (Maniac, Atypical) excels at the big swooning, churning melodies that crescendo into triumphant bliss. But even these positive technical qualities can only distract you momentarily from the missing center of Wendy, the story and characters and themes and discernible messages. I’m not asking for my entertainment to spoon-feed me what to think and feel from my art, but having a consistent message, or even an accessible entry point to decode and debate the art would help, as would engaging characters and a plot that felt more meaningful than just another disposable color to blend into a murky abstract mess of childhood whimsy, magic realism, and coming-of-age themes. A little of Wendy goes a long way, and two hours gets quite tedious. I just cannot foresee people falling under the spell of this movie. I wrote that Beasts had “half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register,” and this much is also true with Wendy. I also wrote that Beasts was “an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing,” and this much is also true with Wendy. Maybe I’m just not the right fit for a Benh Zeitlin film. This is two hours of kids running around on an island without supervision and the occasional Peter Pan element thrown in. Maybe that sounds like a grand retreat as a viewer but it made me happy to be an adult and leave.

Nate’s Grade: C

My Spy (2020)

This was a movie that intrigued me because of the number of release delays and because, by the trailers, it just looked like it was going to be fairly bad. It’s not actually bad, simply mediocre family fare (with an extra dose of Cardi B. swearing in song repeatedly). It’s Dave Bautista trying on the Kindergarten Cop formula, and the plot is pretty much what you would expect, with Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) having to watch a family and befriending the little daughter in danger, schooling her in the ways of spycraft before having to be rescued during the big finale. As far as children’s films go, it’s pretty standard and inoffensive stuff. It coasts on Bautista and the little girl (Chloe Coleman) having a fun chemistry that rises above the obvious and under-developed comedy set pieces. However, there are flashes that point to what My Spy could have been, a more spy and satirical tweak of spy hijinks and action movie cliches. The little girl wants to learn how to be a spy action hero, so she asks about walking away with her back to an explosion and trying out other tropes. She even sizes up all the “tragic backstory” options for Bautista’s character we expect. The finale even involves throwing a grenade into a burning oil truck just to achieve an explosion worthy of walking away from. These little moments are enough to convince me there was a superior draft of this script before it was dulled and softened in the rewrite process for mass consumption. It’s not going to be a great film experience but as formulas go, Bautista plus precocious kid is winning enough to satisfy for 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: C

Extraction (2020)

The new Netflix action movie Extraction is based on a graphic novel, co-authored by the Russo brothers, starring Thor himself Chris Hemsworth, and directed by longtime stunt choreographer Sam Hargrave. It has quite a pedigree, and after the wild success of the John Wick series, I’m genuinely excited to see what kind of action stuntmen-turned-directors can unleash. The best thing Extraction has going for it is its brutal, fluid, and immersive action sequences, including an extended sequence meant to convey a single take of relentless intensity. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing this movie has going for it. The plot is very formulaic, with Hemsworth being brought in to retrieve a high-value target and then being betrayed, having to go on the run to protect the son of an imprisoned Indian mob boss. Hemsworth’s character is also haunted from personal tragedy and reluctant to get back into the fight, yet this final stand could allow him a late attempt at redemption for a lifetime of bloodshed. What I’ve just described could be a hundred other movies, minus the particulars of the Indian mob boss. The characters never really pop, even Hemsworth. The kid he’s tasked with saving never seems to get a moment to shine, to present a personality, or even a sense of growth or toughness. He might as well be a low-grade A.I. in a video game escort mission. The relationships don’t seem to matter. When it’s pumping, the action has an immediate appeal and Hemsworth acquits himself nicely with the more complicated fight choreography and stunts. As I kept watching, something didn’t quite feel right, and then it came to me. This movie doesn’t work from a tone standpoint. The John Wick-style action, glorifying in the fun and gory nature of slick violence done smoothly, conflicts with the setting and wider story of Extraction, namely the poverty-drenched streets of Bangladesh with child assassins thrown into duty by villainous gang leaders. It feels like you dropped John Wick into the searing reality of City of God, and the two styles of violence, and their larger social implications, do not really mix without uncomfortable consequences. It doesn’t help that so many of the characters just seem blank and replaceable. If you can ignore those misgivings, Extraction can offer some enticing thrills and above-average fight choreography.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Rhythm Section (2020)

I like Blake Lively as an actress. I like spy thrillers. I think Reed Moreno has real talent as one of the signature directors of TV’s Handmaid Tale series. So where did The Rhythm Section go wrong, besides its clunky title (it’s a reference to different parts of the body working together like an orchestra so…. yeah)? I think it’s because the movie, based on a book by Mark Burnell, is stuck in a tonal middle ground between spy escapism and spy realism, and it doesn’t quite work. The movie is filmed with the herky-jerky docu-drama camera movements of a Paul Greengrass Bourne flick, which when done well creates a visceral sense of immersion, but here it just creates an unstable atmosphere that makes it hard to settle on what is important. The story has Lively as Stephanie, whose family died in an airplane crash that may have been a terrorist bombing. She is trained by former MI6 agent Jude Law and then sets off on a messy path of vengeance tracking down the suspected perpetrators. Stephanie’s actually really terrible as a killer and it makes for an amusing, and confusing, batch of run-ins, as Lively’s character is far more vulnerable than the famous names of spy fiction. It should make the missions and fights more exciting but The Rhythm Section is drained of most excitement. It’s so suffocating and dreary. The characters aren’t well developed or even given memorable personalities. Stephanie, once she is set off on her mission, fails to grow as a character or, really, as an assassin. It makes the entire movie feel hard to engage with emotionally or intellectually. There are some interesting moments of combat or suspense but nothing that carries over into a sustained sequence. A car chase shot entirely within Stephanie’s vehicle should be exciting but it just felt underdeveloped too. The plot is packed with needless flashbacks and obtuse to the point I had to read a Wikipedia summary after the movie was over. It’s not fun spy hi-jinks with interesting characters to draw our appeal, and it’s not really a twisty John le Carre thriller (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) that’s dense in its plotting, character ambiguities, and the realities of actual spycraft. It’s just a non-invigorating mystery with blandly developed action and suspense sequences, when you can make out what’s going on, and very minimal characterization. It’s a thoroughly mediocre bore.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fantasy Island (2020)

I wasn’t expecting to become a defender of Blumhouse’s much-reviled remake of 1970s TV staple, Fantasy Island (it currently has a 7% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but this year has been defined by surprises. I’m not going to say that this is a good movie but turning a cheesy TV drama into a horror thriller that might as well take place on the magical island from Lost, I have to admit that’s a daring approach and it almost works. Michael Pena is miscast as a villainous Mr. Roarke who invites a group of strangers to a beatific island resort to have their fantasies come true be they hedonistic (wild parties with sexy guys and gals) or vengeance (Lucy Hale getting even against a high school bully) or regret (Maggie Q saying yes to a proposal and starting a new life). At first the fantasies seem too good to be true and then the darker reality comes forward, forcing many characters on the run. I was very happy that the filmmakers, the same creative team behind the equally-reviled Truth or Dare, present the proceedings as being clearly supernatural and stick with it. I was expecting some hackneyed explanation of how it was all a show, or a simulation, or some kind of televised event for the rich to gamble upon, but the movie stays supernatural to the end as if it is the Lost island with its weird secrets. Because of that scenario, even when the rules of the island and the final scheme comes to light as to whose fantasy all of this pertains to, it’s a forgivable level of convolution. There were moments I even had fun, mostly just seeing how crazy and far away from the source material everything can get. It felt like if someone was ordered to remake The Love Boat and came up with Ghost Ship. It’s just fun how different it can go. I didn’t care for any of the characters outside of Maggie Q, who gets the best acting showcase as a woman with many regrets who is trying to ignore her misgivings. Hale seems to be playing a character ported from the Spring Breakers universe (what a dreadful thought). Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) appears as a grizzled veteran of the island. Even when things aren’t working, like black-eyed zombies or much of the comedy, I wasn’t ever bored. How crazy would things get next? How would they tie this all together? Fantasy Island is not the horrible experience critics claimed earlier this year. It’s not a great movie but it works as silly escapism, and during a time of pandemic-initiated quarantine, a little silly escapism might just be what you need for a couple of hours.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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