Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.
We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.
In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.
Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.
Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.
The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.
There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As I’ve been tackling more Ohio-made indies recently, I’ve gotten to know local filmmakers and started having films suggested for me by people within he local film industry, and as I’ve watched more and more that do not work, I’ve begun to dread writing these reviews. Nobody wants to be the killjoy after so many people have sacrificed time and money to bring a movie to life. It’s hard work. Ride or Die is a low-budget indie written and directed and edited by Aly Hardt (Lilith) and filmed in Cincinnati. It’s currently available on Amazon streaming but I wouldn’t advise a casual viewing. It’s confused and meandering and hard to process what is happening frequently without attachment to compelling characters.
Ashley (Vanessa Allen) is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her bestie, Mandy (Hannah Brooks). When a boyfriend mistreats Mandy, that’s when Ashley takes matters into her own hands. She kills an abusive (ex?)boyfriend (Raavian Rehman) and the witness, a girl he was dating called Lemonade (Celeste Blandon) too. Ashley hides the bodies and learns shocking secrets from Mandy that make her reconsider everything she knew about her BFF.
Ride or Die could support a hasty drinking game because scene-to-scene you have no idea what to expect. That can be a bonus if your tone allows for it like a mystery that keeps you upended or a wacky comedy, and for a short period of time I thought that this indie was headed in a black comedy direction. After our protagonist has killed two people within ten minutes, she’s beset by another interloper, a woman who works at a café delivering food (without a car?) and needing a ride. Ashley, who has just stashed bodies in her trunk, reluctantly agrees to help, and as this new woman is yammering away about any topic that enters her brain, I started to wonder if this was what the rest of the movie would be like, a series of outrageous pile-ups that result from the opening murder, becoming harder and harder to cover-up. Nope. After this scene, and the “comedy” of mistaking the blood on Ashley’s fingertips as a sign of her menstruation (“It must be a bad period. I just finished mine.”), we will never see this self-involved whipped cream-loving woman again, and we will never really cover the tone of intentional comedy again short of a no-nonsense Uber driver. Ride or Die wobbles severely from tone to tone, never settling down, and feeling inauthentic whatever the current tonal footing featured. As things were getting serious, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something ridiculous would happen to ruin it. As things were crazy, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something self-serious and disjointed would happen to ruin it. If you’re expecting constant tonal self-sabotage, then you won’t be disappointed with the results of this wildly messy 76-minute experiment. Tone switches can work, even serious to darkly funny as demonstrated so skillfully in Promising Young Woman. This movie just can’t manage the abrupt shifts.
The worst part for me was how these tonal shifts and creative decision-making harmed the thematic implications around domestic violence. There are serious subjects at play with Ride or Die and I don’t want to say that humor cannot be found in even the most uncomfortable of topics. It just requires a deft touch, a touch sorely lacking from this movie. In the first TEN MINUTES alone, we endure watching Mandy get assaulted by her bad boyfriend, Ashley gets assaulted by her bad father or step-father (Chris Dettone, Confiend), and then Ashley murders two people, one of whom admits to being a victim of rape from high school before inexplicably falling head-over-heels for Ashley. The first three women introduced onscreen are all victims of sexual abuse. It’s a lot to handle, and I was worried this path was going to continue and every female character introduced would have their own story, not because this would be unlikely from a statistical standpoint of unreported assaults but because it would possibly approach self-parody through blunt overuse.
However, the good intentions of highlighting the struggle to reclaim your identity after sexual abuse is seriously compromised by a late revelation (spoilers to follow, you are warned). After getting drunk, Mandy reveals that she really appreciated the ferocity of protection from her bestie, so she would lie about past abuse from past boyfriends so that Ashley would “take care of her.” She even admits to giving herself the black eye she sports for most of the movie. In a post-Me Too era where victims are fighting to be heard, it’s morally queasy to have a main character falsify numerous assaults for attention. Any good feelings I had for this movie vanished after that point. I don’t know if Mandy fully understood what Ashley would do in response but she had to pick up some disconcerting theory considering all these people went mysteriously absent after Mandy’s accusations. Either her selfish ignorance has led to all these supposedly innocent people being harmed and/or killed or she knew what the consequences would be and set them up for deadly retribution. Whatever the scenario, Mandy is an irredeemably bad person and I couldn’t care about her whatsoever, not that the prior development meaningfully rounded her out. This happens at the halfway mark and the movie cannot sustain itself with 40 minutes after to spend. For a movie that features so many victims of sexual abuse dealing with the long-term effects, it seems very irresponsible to go this route while also trying to treat the topic with reverence.
Another ongoing problem that really tears apart Ride or Die is that there are so many moments that well and truly make no sense. The entire character of Lemonade is getting her own paragraph of confusion. Why does Lemonade respond at all like she does? Ashley has a gun against her head and threatening her if she doesn’t forget her face, providing an out, and Lemonade chooses this moment to come onto her attacker (“What if I don’t want to forget your face?” she coos). I accepted her confessing her own abuse as a means of eliciting sympathy from her attacker, but to get a horny case of Stockholm syndrome instantaneously is beyond bizarre. The kiss triggers Ashley to think about her father (or stepfather) and she kills Lemonade. This scene made me scream “what?” to my TV screen for several prolonged utterances. The entire Lemonade character makes no sense to me. Ashley is haunted by Lemonade’s pale ghost because, we’re told much later, she was her first innocent she killed. However, this confession is occurring directly after she learns about Mandy’s secret, meaning this is entirely false. Maybe beforehand she thought she was an innocent, fine, but why does this woman who spent exactly two minutes on camera before being killed merit such attention? Lemonade then becomes a personification of Ashley’s guilt or self-destruction, or maybe she is a ghost and looking for payback, either would be credible here. I laughed when ghost Lemonade brings it to Ashley’s attention that driving around in the stolen car of the person she may have just killed might not be the best decision. In this moment, the literal ghost trying to murder Ashley is also trying to be the voice of reason, because inexplicably Ashley needs to go dancing and find herself a companion at this exact moment. “I need this for me,” she says, trying to guilt the ghost whose job it is to guilt her. What is going on?
I kept expecting there to be, you know, consequences for the trail of bodies, but apparently the police in this universe can’t be bothered to investigate crimes with scads of physical evidence. I guess no detective has bothered to put together the coincidental nature of all of the men who Mandy goes on dates with or forms relationships with winding up missing. No worried family member? No nosy neighbor? If Ashley were like a professional at murder and body disposal, maybe I’d give her more leeway because she’s demonstrated that she knows what she’s doing after a wealth of experience. This is not the case. She chooses to store the dead bodies in her home, and not buried in the yard but in an accessible space where it’s only a matter of time before the smell spreads. The conflict of covering up the dead bodies feels resolved far too easily and without necessary tension. Because of this, the girl time spent between Mandy and Ashley can become insufferable and filled with awkward dialogue exchanges like, “Why don’t you ever talk about why your parents left you behind?” and, “Maybe this question’s more for me because I don’t know how to deal with losing my mom, and I know it’s not the same thing, but when my mom died, I was just crushed. I mean, your parents might as well be dead with what happened.” Characters explain things they obviously would already know with their years of BFF-ing, like asking to talk about your happiest childhood memory, which happens to be when they first met. The inauthentic, overly expositional dialogue is often a bad sign that a screenplay needs a few more drafts of work.
So much of this movie is built upon a friendship we’re repeatedly told is super close, but they interact less like friends who have known one another since the fourth grade and more like sorority sisters who have shared the same floor for a couple of weeks. The writing just isn’t there to sustain anything character-centric with Ride or Die, which is why the characters seem to flip flop at random in frustrating and annoying ways, when they too aren’t being frustrating and annoying. It’s a clear case of being told relationship importance and bonds rather than witnessing them. There are no real supporting characters. The off-screen grandmother is always heard and never seen and a one-joke character where the joke was never even funny. There are propagators of trauma, like the bad men of the past, and there are victims, like the all-purpose ghost, but it’s the story of these two women and they are so boring together even with repeated murder and cover-ups.
Ride or Die is unlikely to win over any fans who aren’t already personally connected with the indie production. There are definite technical limitations given the budget was only $16,000. The sets never seem to feel lived in. The dialogue often sounds like it was dubbed over. The music drones on and on and at a volume that needs to be dialed back. The acting is flat across the board, with Allen (Girl/Girl Scene) sounding overwhelmingly monotone no matter the intensity of the scene. Scrolling through the end credits, I noticed the same names appearing over and over. Most everyone on this crew worked four or five jobs to see Ride or Die get made. That’s commendable, but I have to ask what about this story deserved all their hard work and dedication? It’s the script that sinks this movie. We get stuff like a ten-second “in media res” opening when we simply get caught up within eight minutes. That’s not how that should work. Likewise, why even bother with a three months earlier/three months later timeline that only muddles things? Was it Ashley’s stepfather or father who committed her abuse? The movie needs clarity but it really needs a driving plot to tie things together. The confusing fantasies, the wildly fluctuating characters and tone, the meandering plot, the overwrought dramatic elements, it all starts to coalesce into a sporadically baffling example of modern camp. I hope everyone involved enjoyed working on this. I don’t think many others will find much to enjoy on the merits of its storytelling and execution. Unfortunately, it’s best left in the rear view.
Nate’s Grade: D
Reader, I love time loop movies and their very playful nature of storytelling that allows for plenty of payoffs and creativity and inherent pathos of being stuck reliving life experiences. Palm Springs was my second favorite movie of 2020, so how soon am I ready for yet another time loop romantic comedy, this time from a very Young Adult perspective and with an overly precious title? The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is very much a time loop formula by heavy amounts of YA twee whimsy and worldly lessons. It’s charming, witty, predictable, and maybe a little too content, much like its central characters, to meander when there was more meaning to explore.
17-year-old Mark (Kyle Allen) lives in a small town and is stuck in a time loop living the same day over and over. He argues with his younger sister, rolls his eyes at his out-of-work father’s Civil War novel he’s devoted to writing, and skateboarding around town and skipping school. His buddy Henry is stuck on the same video game level, his mom leaves for work before he wakes up, and every night his father tries to talk to Mark about what he wants to do with a future that he will never see. Then Mark meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton) who appears to be aware of the same loop. Now he has a partner and together they have fun being mischievous in a world where people are eternally asleep and unaware, a world without larger consequence.
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is an immediately entertaining movie that glides by on charm and cuteness before bringing the heavier emotional catharsis we know is coming. Kyle’s daily routine is reminiscent of the beginning of Palm Springs (for fairness, I’ll try to refrain from making comparisons at every turn) where we see the breadth of the man’s knowledge and implication of how long he’s had to accrue this god-like understanding of timed events. It’s fun to watch Mark push a man out of the way before getting pooped on by a bird, or catch a falling book in the library, or know the answer before a person can even ask their question. The movie takes a while to fully get going but it keeps entertaining you in the meantime with these pleasant quirks. This is indicative throughout the movie. Even when the plot is just coasting, screenwriter Lev Grossman (adapting from his own short story) keeps things swift and entertaining. There’s a montage of Mark getting awful haircuts and sending pictures to Margaret, and then lamenting maybe they can meet up the next day instead once his hair resets. The script is packed with quick-witted jokes and fun visuals that it can return to for elevated and imaginative payoffs. Each side character has their own sustained loop and checking in on each is a reminder that they all have their own little universe of struggle and desire and despair. It’s one of those benefits of time loop movies; they are like getting 32 flavors of stories in one delicious 90-minute serving.
Just like Palm Springs (I lied), the big plot change comes with the discovery of a partner also re-living the same day in infinity. From there, the story becomes a very standard YA romance but set in an extraordinary setting. Margaret doesn’t qualify as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but she is more blunt, assertive, and seeking out a deeper meaning for their shared purgatory. She’s not the quirky free spirit we associate with the type. She’s more goal-oriented and literal than Mark, and she even takes on teaching him algebra. Once the love interest is introduced, the movie starts a countdown clock for how long it will take for a romance to kindle. Mark is clearly lonely and we see his failed attempt to spark up a potential romance with another girl who will forever be trapped in, at best, a first date mentality. You can’t build a relationship when everyone else only has 24 hours unless it’s like Before Sunrise. Margaret expresses a deep reluctance about anything going beyond the platonic, especially if she and Mark are the only two humans in this “temporal anomaly” for a potential eternity. Just imagine a failed relationship with a co-worker and having to uncomfortably mingle at the same job for years. Mark, being the headstrong young lad in a YA drama, is certain he can win her over in the long run and that his feelings must be true and therefore honored. Since the movie is being told from his perspective, his yearning is given primacy and it makes for an uncomfortable arc.
But it’s the last act of the movie where the larger emotional connection takes root and where the actual life lessons are to be had. This is not a movie about stopping to enjoy the little things in life that otherwise might go ignored. That element is present, and the subsequent scavenger hunt across town to catalogue all the cute little moments of humanity and nature dominates Act Two. It’s a cute little premise and something we’ve seen in countless other YA tales, finding the hidden beauty right under our noses in our lives. The message is clear and fine, but it’s what takes place toward the end where The Map of Tiny Perfect Things takes off from its YA orbital decay of preciousness. If you’ve watched enough movies, you should likely start to guess where Margaret disappears every day after six o’clock and what secrets she may be hiding. I won’t spoil what is revealed but I was waiting for Mark to wise up as quickly as I did. He does, and the movie takes on a transformation toward the end that changes perspective, weight, and even provides a little subversion on the previous male gaze that was our primary filter. The end provides a satisfying enough conclusion that examines the nature of grief and processing. The way the secret design of this universe is discovered is slight and ridiculous, but it doesn’t take away from the movie successfully landing the most difficult part of its emotional journey.
It also helps that both of our leads have great chemistry and are genuinely likeable. Allen (All My Life) has a laid-back presence that fits nicely with the genial vibes of the movie. He’s funny without being obnoxious and emotive without being melodramatic. He starts off sardonic and flip but becomes more earnest as his character learns to stop and listen and invest in others. Newton (Freaky) is enjoyably no-nonsense without being prickly. Margaret is a character with layers and ultimately, you’ll wish the movie had been retold from her point of view from the very beginning. There’s a reason for this, but there’s much more depth and sadness to Margaret. Still, even just hanging out with them as they observe the day, share their stories and discoveries, and pop-culture-heavy banter back and forth is entertaining because the writing and acting carry the day.
What holds The Map of Tiny Perfect Things back is that it never really goes into larger questions of self, identity, and the existential conundrum of at once being the center of a universe with limitless time and being unable to move forward. It feels a bit too content to stay on a lower level and dust off many familiar YA tropes to have a diverting good time. That’s fine, though in direct comparison to something like Palm Springs (my apologies), it can feel lacking. Think about Mark’s inability to see his mother again and how that unique circumstance forms its own loss. More attention to these details would have been preferred than on-the-nose pop-culture references and deep cuts for hipster points. It’s a good cheerful time with plenty of wry amusement and some well-earned emotions, but it also feels a little too content to simply hang around and follow the YA map for programmed spiritual affirmation. It manages to subvert the quirky-girl-shows-guy-how-to-carpe-his-diem formula, but that’s not before devoting plenty of time walking the same walk for a little longer than needed. If you’re a fan of time loop parables, YA stories, or unconventional rom-coms, check out The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and then, maybe, if you haven’t already, also Palm Springs.
Nate’s Grade: B
Luc Besson sci-fi opera by way of South Korea, the unfortunately named Space Sweepers is a wonderful surprise of a movie that could unfairly get lost amid the glut of Netflix. It’s immediately engaging and filled with intriguing world-building. In 2093, Earth is a garbage dump and the rich (and primarily white people) have migrated to an orbiting space station that needs protecting from space debris. That’s where the space sweepers come into play, ragtag teams competing to claim space junk to sell back to The Company, though never able to escape their crushing debt. The Company is looking to colonize Mars and put more effort into making it habitable than salvaging Earth. A little girl might be the key to a flourishing Mars or resurgent Earth. She finds her way into the custody of a colorful group of malcontents, each with a clearly defined personality, motivation, and character arc, including the snippy robot who likes to harpoon ships in space. Spending time with this world and these characters is such an enjoyable experience because it just uncovers more and more layers to the hefty world-building and history. The story itself isn’t revolutionary, and the villain is a megalomaniacal CEO (Richard Armitage), and you’ll fully anticipate that the same space scrappers that want to sell off this little girl will eventually grow close to her and will be willing to die for her. The plot itself, at least in broad strokes, might be familiar, but it’s the level of detail and imagination and especially execution that sets Space Sweepers apart. I enjoyed how diverse the depiction of this future was, where people from different languages would simply speak their native tongues and be perfectly understood thanks to in-ear translators. The action sequences are exiting and visually immersive. I’ve never seen a harpoon in space battles before. It feels like a living anime moment. The special effects are consistently impressive. The set designs are large and lived-in. The small details all manage to add up, and small character moments still resonate, like one character’s constant loss of his shoes for greater sacrifices or a robot that feels seen for the first time as they are. A late twist had me nearly applauding for the emotional impact it altered with a big standard doomsday scenario. It’s a supremely fun and imaginative setting, enough that I thought it would have sustained a whole series on Netflix. I was happy it was a movie, though, because then I got all the payoffs and climaxes in one slightly two-hour setting. I’m impressed every year at the sheer high quality of the genre movies that South Korean filmmakers have been delivering. I highly advise fans of frothy, fun sci-fi like The Fifth Element to find this movie on Netflix and give it a watch. It’s a surprise treat and proof positive that old concepts can still shine with the right effort and careful development.
Nate’s Grade: A-
A straight shot of infectious silliness, Barb and Star is a delightfully daffy comedy that is so pleasant and knowingly goofy, without being annoyingly self-conscious, that it flies by on that elevated level of artistic irony that few films seem capable of mastering. Written by its lead actresses, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the movie follows two talky and cheerful best friends traveling to Florida for fun and frivolity and finding themselves in the middle of a ridiculous spy adventure with a James Bond-level villain and scheme. Barb and Star is ridiculous from beginning to end and also ridiculously funny. I was laughing consistently and had a smile plastered on my face for the majority of the running time. It’s so unabashedly silly and light-hearted and while it doesn’t talk down to its audience it also never takes itself too serious either. It’s high-grade fluff, but if you’re a fan of the sublimely silly kind of comedy from the likes of David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together) then you’ll find plenty to enjoy. The consistency of this very narrow and congenial tone, while maintaining an ironic wavelength that is so specific, and so easy to miss, is just an impressive comedy accomplishment. I was tickled by a plurality of musical numbers, including one by Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) pining for his supervillain boss (also played by Wiig) who is clearly just not into him. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is colorful, cheerful, and unabashedly goofy and so finely executed that I never needed it to be anything more.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I didn’t even know Music existed until a couple weeks ago. The musical was nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Comedy or Musical, and a passion project for the pop singer Sia. She wrote, directed, and cast her music video muse, Maddie Ziegler, as the titular figure Music and filmed back in 2017. Then I read about the backlash from the autism community for the film’s portrayal of autism and I became more intrigued. Currently, Music rates even lower on Rotten Tomatoes than Cats, and the reviews have been equally as baffling and unkind. Sia has responded defensively on social media to her film’s critics, and the brewing controversy has given the movie a fascinating rubberneck quality of, “You have to see this.” It is with that morbid curiosity that I sat and watched Sia’s Music, a movie awash in misguided decisions.
Music (Ziegler) is a teenager living in Los Angeles who is severely autistic and in need of care. She needs eggs in the morning, insists on a walk around the neighborhood, loves dogs, and has her headphones on to shield her from being overwhelmed by exterior noise. Music escapes into elaborate fantasies where she dances along to soaring pop songs. Her grandmother dies early and the only living relative is Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering drug addict who doesn’t want to play mom to her demanding younger sister. Eventually, Zu begins to see her sister differently and bonds with her neighbor, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), who teaches boxing classes to the neighborhood youth. Zu is getting her life straightened out and learning responsibility, though she might ultimately still decide Music is too much for even her.
Let’s tackle the biggest issue of contention, the film’s portrayal of autism. Ziegler is not autistic or, to my knowledge, neurodivergent. This fact alone doesn’t necessarily mean the movie was doomed to insincere failure. It may well become the norm that neurodivergent actors play neurodivergent characters, much as it seems has happened with trans characters and firmly established for ethnicity. However, I think much of the response to a person outside of a community portraying that community comes from the intent and the depiction. Are they coming from a good place? Are they trying to portray this life in an honest fashion? And is the portrayal harmful, derogatory, or trading in negative stereotypes? With Music, I have no doubt that Sia was coming from a good place. She has spoken about the autobiographical elements of the movie and basing the character of Music on someone that she knew personally. I know there are people like Music on the autism spectrum. It’s a spectrum for a reason. The problem comes with the depiction of a person this severely autistic from an outsider. I’ll explain in a comparison.
In 2001’s I Am Sam, Sean Penn played a mentally challenged man fighting for custody rights. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. In the film, Sam had a group of friends, all of whom were similarly mentally challenged, and some of them were played by actors who were genuinely living with that same condition and others were played by actors only pretending. It was very apparent who was who, and it made the entire movie feel uncomfortable because it felt like the real people were being caricatured in literal proximity. It didn’t feel right, and I can’t imagine twenty years later that filmmakers would make that same choice. On the other hand, with the Netflix series Atypical, the lead character is played by a neurotypical actor but the portrayal of a character on the spectrum is done with great empathy and consideration, with an outreach toward those within the autism community. Intent and depiction are the keys.
The onscreen depiction of autism in Music is pretty galling and potentially harmful for those within the community. It’s all negative stereotypes. Ziegler is constantly contorting her body, making silly putty faces, side-eye glances, hitting herself in the head, and playing to the most abrasive and controversial cliches of those living with autism. She can barely mutter more than a few words, usually in imitation. Because this is the depiction of the character, having a neurotypical actor in this role can feel plenty insulting to many viewers. Music is less a character and presented more as a burden because of her needs and challenges. She gets Zu into trouble and lashes out in public. At no point does Music come across as more than an assembly of tics and ugly stereotypes.
It’s not just that the depiction in unflattering, as all characters do not need to be unerring shining examples for their individual communities, it’s that the movie doesn’t bother to give her any inner life. There are a few of passing comments about how Music sees the world, like a savant too pure to take in all the majesty at once, but these are merely gestures. The biggest opportunity into the mind of the character would have been through the numerous musical numbers but these are, by far, the most confusing artistic choice by Sia. I was expecting the musical numbers to provide insight with Music, to give voice to a character who has trouble communicating. Someone would ask how she was feeling and we’d zoom into her mind and the singing would be her way of expressing that answer or her complicated emotions about any topic. The use of singing and music would be her voice. Alas, this doesn’t happen at all. Like at all. This is shocking to me and the movie never really recovers from this misstep. The musicals are confusing because they often seem to be from the perspective of Zu instead and communicating her own struggles. Is Music just imagining her own sister’s inner turmoil through dance? There are also musical numbers devoted to exploring Ebo’s inner turmoil. That means two other characters are given primacy over Music in her own personal imaginary musical interludes.
What is the point of the musical numbers then, besides squeezing in ten or so Sia music videos into a dramatic narrative that doesn’t appear to be connected to them? The music videos themselves are very reminiscent of Sia’s recent output, largely single takes and bursting with bright pastel colors and goofy costumes that look like a children’s TV show. The dancing is interpretative, which means a lot of emphasis through the body movement and facial expressions, and you may find it slightly lacking or perhaps too goofy that it takes away from the emotional content or attempted investment. I enjoy musicals and I even like the approach, in theory, that Sia would have been articulating, shedding light on a personal experience that re-sees the world as a more whimsical, wholesome, and friendly environment. This approach succeeded in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, where Bjork’s love of old musicals shaped the way she chose to escape from the world and highlighted the discrepancies between fantasy and reality. That’s not what Music does or even attempts to do. You could remove the musical numbers completely or just serve them on their own. The only direct story connection comes with a side character, a Chinese teenager who is pushed into being a boxer by his belligerent father. He secretly wants to be a dancer. In his lone appearance in the musical numbers, he gets to indulge in his dream and dance and sing (or lip synch) and it has emotional resonance because it’s an expression of his inner desires and the longing is felt. Why is this one supporting character, who could have easily been removed entirely from the narrative, the only one that fits with the approach to the musical interludes providing actual insight? As far as the quality of music, it sounds very much like Sia’s pop ditties and there are a couple winners. “Together” has a buoyant bounce and swooping, cheerful melodic hook that is hard to resist.
Hudson (Bride Wars) is the real main character of the movie and her struggle with responsibility is a familiar arc, from screw-up on the margins to matured adult with goals and a found family. She’s an trying to stay clean though she’s really just looking to skip out on life and enjoy a permanent vacation in Costa Rica. This is even her stated goal after inheriting the guardianship over Music. There are plans late to transfer her sister into a group home but this deliberation isn’t really given the attention it’s due, in fact I don’t think I can recall even the mention of it prior to the potential move-in day. The character of Zu is completely stock, a neo-hippie wild child that needs to learn to slow down and accept responsibility. I don’t know what that looks like because for most of the movie she’s just having her sister tag along while Ebo explains things about autism in a delicate fashion (including physical restraints, which have met with plenty of disagreements from the autism community who cite the danger they pose). You would think Zu might have a better handle on this stuff, or that her grandmother would have been more helpful with that instruction book she left behind for the care of Music. This is more a movie about a recovering addict getting her life together and bearing with her burdensome younger sister. Seriously, the character of Music could have been a coat rack for all the impact and agency displayed. Hudson does an admirable job with what she’s given even if grungy and strung out are hard for such a naturally sunny and charming actress more prone to breezy rom-coms. Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) is wasted as the kindly neighbor harboring a secret and mending a broken heart. At least he gets to sing too.
While watching Music, I kept thinking of an obvious creative choice that would have sidestepped a majority of the mushrooming controversy and spared Sia. Why not just make the character of Music someone with a different condition? Why not make her suffer from post-traumatic stress, or an anxiety disorder, something keeping her form living the life she desires and communicating all that goes on inside her person? Automatically, it eliminates the controversy over the negative depiction of autistic stereotypes from a neurotypical actress and it makes the character more a central figure in her own story that can be developed and examined. Frankly, in 2021, we don’t need portrayals like Music to better understand life with autism. This kind of movie might have been met more charitably in the 1990s but now it’s instantly problematic, and I feel like much could have been avoided by removing the autistic aspect to Music’s character, especially since it does so little to the story other than create havoc and challenge. Beyond that, Music falters because the many musical sequences fail to tie back to the characters in meaningful ways. I’m confused over the shifting perspective as well. From a technical standpoint, the movie looks and sounds like a professional movie with a polished Sia soundtrack. However, it’s the poor thinking behind these decisions that dooms the project. While it’s no Cats-level disaster, at least nobody was living with human-feline creatures at home. Music is not a good movie but it’s the kind of rare artistic flop that might be worth viewing just for its audacious missteps, like 2018’s Welcome to Marwen. I don’t think we’ll be getting a second feature film from Sia any time soon.
Nate’s Grade: C
I wanted to love Willy’s Wonderland. It’s easy to see the pitch: Nicolas Cage in Five Nights at Freddy’s. That sounds like everything you would need for a gonzo movie experience with, hopefully, an unrestrained Cage. The problem with Willy’s Wonderland is that it seems to have peaked at its inception. I’ll credit the creature designs of the many killer animatronic animals inhabited by the spirits of a dead Satanic cult demanding sacrifice. They’re chintzy and creepy and effective in their Chuck E. Cheese/Freddy’s reference points. However, the movie clearly appears to be out of ideas pretty early. Cage plays a janitor hoodwinked into working overnight at the abandoned pizza parlor and he doesn’t say a word for the entire movie. For those looking for the splendidly crazy moments that can define Nicolas Cage performances, I think you’ll be slightly disappointed. The character has a few quirks, like his surprisingly ironclad work ethic, but the character is just as underwritten, absent personality, and replaceable as any of the killer robots. For a movie where Cage fights a bunch of bloodthirsty robots, it starts to get a little boring because of the narrative redundancy. Toppling one robot after another feels too easy and the specific set pieces are unmemorable. There are a slew of highly annoying teenagers that stumble in so there are more victims to be terrorized. In one moment, these teens will denounce doing stupid acts and the unreasonable risk, and then the next minute they’re splitting up to go have sex in the scary birthday room or murder and not keeping their distance from the murder robots they know are alive and murderous. If the movie was more satirical, I might even give the filmmakers credit for the dumb teenagers reverting to form regardless of obvious circumstances. My disappointment is that what you get with any ten-minute segment of the movie is generally the same thing you’ll get with any other portion. It’s a lot of the same. Is that consistency or a lack of development and imagination? The movie still presents some degree of fun because that premise is enough to at least hold your attention if you’re a fan of horror, Cageisms, and movie kitsch. However, Willy’s Wonderland could have used more drafts and variety to really tap into the sheer gonzo potential of its ridiculous pitch.
Nate’s Grade: C
Indie drama The Turn Out frustrated me because I got excited by its premise and thought, “Here might be the first truly great Ohio indie I’ve watched for review,” and alas it let me down. It’s not a bad movie but it has such promising storytelling elements and to see them misused feels like a bigger regret than if the movie had never even had those important building blocks.
Jeff (James J. Gagne Jr.), a.k.a. “Crowbar,” is a hard-living truck driver also addicted to crack. He’s got a teen daughter, Amanda (Katie Stotllemire), and an exasperated wife, Kelly (Heather Caldwell), back home in southern Ohio. Crowbar is no stranger to the prostitutes that call truck stops their corner, but one young lady makes him reconsider his assumptions. He learns that Neveah (Regina Westerviller) is still in high school as well as in his own daughter’s class, and this revelation makes him contemplate whether he should get involved and help her.
Let’s take the central story of Crowbar and his relationship to the teenage prostitute, Neveah. If I were to tell you the movie was about a truck driver addicted to drugs who wrestles with what to do when he stumbles upon the reality of sex trafficking connected to truck stops, your mind already starts putting that movie together with clear arcs. It becomes something like a modern-day Western, where Crowbar is a man of the road, a contemporary high-plains drifter, and he makes the decision to reject his isolation in order to help this one girl. I asked my girlfriend, after describing the basic premise, what kind of relationship that Crowbar would have with his own teenaged daughter. “Oh, it’s got to be bad or non-existent, right?” she commented. You would think that but nope. He actually has a great relationship with his daughter, who is constantly trying to call and talk with dear old dad. See, if his relationship was poor and perhaps he had even elected to a life on the road rather than being a present father, this would force the character to confront his own life choices and legacies and see Neveah as a surrogate daughter he can save. You could argue it’s cliché and been portrayed in other neo-Westerns, but it works. The same confusion applies to Crowbar’s relationship with his wife. Our introduction to her is with the local police imposing a restraining order, which nobody throughout the movie takes seriously. The daughter frequently breaks it. The uncle who admonishes Crowbar about the restraining order will then enable Crowbar to break it to see his daughter at choir practice. He even meets up with his wife in a bar to reminisce about their relationship, which means even she is breaking her own restraining order. If everyone is going to be this flippant then why even bother with including it? A strained relationship between husband and wife can be communicated through other means. These are the kind of things that pecked away at the consistency, coherency, and natural dramatic potential.
As it stands, I don’t really know what the motivation is for Crowbar throughout The Turn Out. What is his motivation for getting better? He already has a positive relationship with his daughter and apparently a workable relationship with her mother, and that’s while he’s smoking crack. He is already in a good place with the people that he cares about, so now what? You could say his motivation is to save this girl he comes into contact with through chance, but this is hard to argue as well considering the amount of time he takes to take fledgling steps to intervene. For a solid hour of the 74-minute movie (pre-end credits), Crowbar meets with Neveah and even visits her home but her situation isn’t any different from the start. It should be obvious that her family knows about her and is supporting her prostitution or forcing her to turn tricks. Even that description is a disservice because it’s not like Neveah has much of a choice in these matters. She’s a victim too, and the fact that our protagonist just kind of hangs around until the very end when the bad people get even more obvious about being bad, it questions his thinking. Why does he take so long to call the police? Is it because of his own personal fear of getting caught as a drug user? Well, that could be avoided with an anonymous tip. When he eventually elects to kick his drug habit, your guess is as good as mine why this is the moment for him. It feels too arbitrary, like any of these events could have happened earlier as they lack direct cause-effect connectivity.
It takes far too long for Crowbar to actually assert himself and try and make a difference but we’re absent the inner turmoil to justify the delay. I think there was a character arc here where Crowbar had to reconcile with his own contribution to a culture that has allowed truck stop prostitution to flourish. He’s partaken with these woman (all adults, mind you, but did they start as adults?) and he even argues, “They make good money.” His own guilt could be a worthy exploration but it takes a vision of his daughter in a predator’s van and the entreaty of child prostitution to finally shake him from his doldrums, and then the movie is pretty much over (again, only 74 minutes total). Otherwise, it feels like we spend a lot of redundant time watching the man drift through his life, smoking plenty of crack, and occasionally running into Neveah and conversing with her. There are points that prove he’s changing, like brandishing his fellow drivers over the CB radio for their gross demeaning chatter, and he even gets that Big Movie Moment of Symbolic Torment, sitting in a shower. The problem with The Turn Out is that these momentary glimpses don’t feel consistent enough to matter. As a character, Crowbar is too dependent on his substance abuse as a defining characteristic, and yet it feels less like a burden or addiction to the man and more like a hobby to pass the time. It doesn’t feel consequential.
Again, the storytelling possibility was right there within reach, with his decision to save this young woman as the Act One break and not the climax of a relatively short movie. Then Act Two would have been them bonding and finding parallels and a genuine surrogate father-daughter affection over the course of a long road trip as Crowbar attempts to return her to the last vestige of her family that she left. Then, upon leaving her with this family in Act Three, Crowbar learns it’s just not as easy as that and that Neveah’s family might not be icky sex traffickers but they’re not helpful, and so he helps her set up an independent life and realizes he must now return home to mend his own relationship with the daughter he has left behind. Amanda should want nothing to do with her father rather than try and call him every chance she gets. Crowbar has nothing really to repair on this front, and the daughter is portrayed as a fawning fan who only jogs, tries to call dad, and sings in the choir. The same shrift characterization is given to every supporting player. Neveah wants to be an artist. She goes out looking for johns as a means of protecting her younger sister. That’s all we get as far as her inner life. It seems like a disservice to make this character so blank. I don’t understand Crowbar’s wife at all. I don’t understand why Amanda jealously cyber bullies Neveah because she sees her in a diner one time with her father, especially when dad hasn’t been playing favorites. I don’t understand why Crowbar seems to only be at the same local truck stop despite the nature of his job taking him all over.
The acting is a highlight of the movie and Gagne Jr. (When Skies Are Gray) delivers a convincing, lived-in performance. The very look of his hangdog face is enough to communicate what the screenplay doesn’t, the past years weighing on him, the accumulation of good times coming due. He’s also simply just got a great face for the part. He has some moments that test his resolve and I wish he had even more to push his acting prowess further. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls) has plenty of talent which is why I wish her character had some actual anguish to her relationship with her father. Caldwell (After) likewise gives a solidly conflicted performance that made me wish she factored more into Crowbar’s interaction and turmoil. My favorite actors ended up the one-scene characters that provided a dose of vibrant local color, the tweakers and addicts and vagabonds, the diner owners, the other truckers, the people that feel genuinely authentic and well chosen. Unfortunately, I was not as big a fan of Westerviller in her debut film role. I can’t tell if her performance is very monotone and inexpressive because of the actress’ limited range or as a directing note from director Pearl Gluck (Divan) to convey the numbness that Neveah felt. Either way, it presents a dilemma as her relationship is the most essential.
From a technical standpoint, The Turn Out is a very professional looking and sounding movie. The usual sound design headaches I find with local low-budget indies are nowhere to be found here, and the frequent introspective, country-styled songs by Chris Rattie add a really nice impression that makes the whole enterprise feels accomplished. The reported $200,000 budget might be the highest of all the Ohio indies I’ve reviewed. There are some beautiful shots from the cinematography of Stephen Balhut, Jon Coy, and Daniel Garee, especially at sunset and twilight. The look of the movie is rich with details, like the run-down stores, and the dilapidated Rust Belt small towns providing a broader sense of economic desperation. I was expecting the movie to tap into its own Hillbilly Elegy-style social commentary on the decline of the American worker through the reality of this truck stop and the women who work it. Gluck handles her directorial duties with sensitivity but without flinching from harsh truths either.
It may sound like I’m more negative than intended with The Turn Out, and this is merely because I’m disappointed by the squandered potential. A truck driver deciding to do right and help a young girl, the victim of sex trafficking, has so much dramatic potential it hurts. Even if you wanted to avoid a more traditional thriller route, this could have been a powerful character study of two lonely, hurt souls finding a comfort with one another over a long journey and being able to start a healing process to pick up the pieces of their lives. It would be the kind of character examination that thrives in indie film, and from a topic I cannot recall other movies touching, namely the rings of prostitution trapping women along truck stops. I’m sure everyone involved was coming from a good place and wanting to highlight and not exploit the reality of sex trafficking. Gluck even based her script on her extensive research with trafficking survivors. Alas, the storytelling miscues and dawdling pacing make the movie feel like an overextended news article. This is still a decent movie with authentic details, good intentions, and solid acting with some exceptions. However, it’s the screenwriting shortcomings that drag down The Turn Out from its real potential and turn it into a message in search of a stronger narrative.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Black Panthers in Chicago and was only 21 years old when he was murdered in 1969 by federal agents. Judas and the Black Messiah is about Hampton and his life in political activism cut short, but it’s also another tragedy, one far less known. Bill O’Neal was a federal informant who was manipulated into betraying Hampton to the FBI and ultimately setting up the man’s execution. Both men are given consideration and brought to life by great actors, Laketih Stanfield as O’Neal and Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. O’Neal is tasked with getting into the trusted inner circle of Hampton and the Black Panthers without blowing his cover, or else he’ll be going to jail for years on potentially pending charges. The FBI agent in charge (Jesse Plemons) is under pressure by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and this all provides even more pressure onto O’Neal, who is a pawn of the higher-ups who only care about neutralizing the growing power of the Black Panthers. The film plays out similar to an undercover mob movie, like The Departed, and much of the drama follows whether O’Neal will get caught, how he will navigate the tenuous territory he is in, and the paranoia of being in danger at all times and from multiple sides if he succeeds or fails. I appreciated the attention given to O’Neal and the consideration that he too is another victim. He is eager to succeed and thinks he might use his service as an introduction into the Bureau for legit work, but he also very much wants to be accepted by the Panthers because he agrees with their philosophies and is looking for a community that welcomes him and provides a sense of direction. If I had a complaint, it is simply that we get a lot more Judas here than we do the Black Messiah. It feels like we’re getting a rather simplified summation of Hampton and scrubbing clean some of his personal leanings (having him identity as a socialist rather than a Marxist) that would make him more controversial. By all definitions, Hampton was executed by agents of the state to pacify institutionally racist fears about powerful and gun-owning black Americans, but putting so much emphasis of the story on the man who betrayed him creates an imbalance in presentation and risks mitigating the depth of Hampton. After Hampton returns from prison, the movement he’s been so heavily involved with seems to dissolve onscreen, focusing solely on setting up our deadly climax. He is seen as a martyr first and foremost. There are two extended shootouts in the second half that don’t feel at all in keeping with the first half of the movie. Kaluuya (Get Out) is electric in public and awkward and sweet in private with his beloved girlfriend. It hints at much more that could have been explored away from his fiery public persona. Stanfield (Knives Out) has the more multi-dimensional role and yet even given the grand Shakespearean tragic proportions of his position, I can’t help but feel like O’Neal feels a tad underdeveloped. There’s a subtle ambiguity that follows his character’s motivations but many of his moments revolve around whether he will be accepted, fool someone, or get caught. There are greater questions of whether the mask he wears is real. The characterization gets a little lost because of the nature of the subterfuge. This movie is over two hours but has the potential to be an epic tragedy and could have sustained a limited series of storytelling. As it is, it’s a tense and powerful movie with great acting and an ending that will rightfully outrage and disquiet. Judas and the Black Messiah is stirring but I feel like it had lost potential by transposing its story and conflicts into two hours and with two central underwritten figures of tragedy. It’s quite good but man this could have been amazing.
Nate’s Grade: B+