False Flag (2019)

Imagine the U.S. government is rounding up citizens, detaining them, and robbing them of their rights with the idea of installing a system of fear and compliance. No, it’s not the news on abuses of power via unchecked bodies like ICE, this is the plot of False Flag, a low-budget found footage action movie that happened to film in Ohio and is now widely available online as well as being carried on your friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart shelf. I congratulate them on getting their movie out there to the masses. The finished film has some narrative and execution issues but can still be an enjoyable experience, especially for genre fans of military thrillers. Strap in.

We open with a fringe conspiracy host as the frame story, telling his audience what they’re about to see is real footage compiled together to indict the U.S. government. In the small Ohio town of Madison, brothers Mark (Sean Mount) and Ash (Justin Rose) are feuding with old grievances and new, including Mark getting married to Stephanie (Olivia Vadnais). Ash has brought along his YouTube-eager pal Donny (Andrew Yackel), who is obsessed with recording everything for his fledgling channel. Then all of a sudden there is a high-pitched shriek, military vehicles roll into town, and citizens and protestors alike are rounded up and beaten. Ash, Stephanie, and Donny seek shelter with a conspiracy journalist (Jennifer Andrada) and some local militiamen armed and ready to combat what they viewed as the eventual tyrannical government takeover. Over the course of one long night, our people try and escape and get their story told.

Before I go into further detail on some of the shortcomings of False Flag, allow me to highlight its positive aspects. This is a pretty good-looking movie for being a low-budget action thriller, and the cinematography has a nice color balance to many scenes. A race through a maze of school hallways at night is made all the moodier by the professional aesthetic, and many of the action scenes are pretty solid and staged well. The larger riot sequences and chaos that erupts are coordinated well with the background action giving way to whatever blocking our main characters need. The use of the military vehicles also helps lend to the credence of the “it could happen even here” reality. The acting overall is pretty solid without a bad performance. Surprisingly enough, writer/director Aaron Garrett (Foxcatcher) gives one of the more memorable performances as a local mechanic by day and would-be Rambo when called upon. The movie gets markedly more entertaining when he comes into the picture and is able to even the odds. He has a smoothness to his performance that grabs your attention. Yackel (Swamp Thing) has a pleasant presence and a squirrely demeanor that can be endearing. Andrada (Macabre Manor) stands out early as the on-location correspondent for the Alex Jones fringe TV show. She has an affectation that makes her talk very directly, quoting often, but it counts as a viable personality and a pointed perspective that helps butt up against others.

False Flag is the kind of movie that seems like its intended audience are the doomsday preppers and gun hoarders that envision themselves as a Hollywood action star waiting for the eventual government tyranny to give them their time in the spotlight. This premise can be done with skill but absent that it feels like a misguided wish fulfillment that encourages radical thinking in fringe people. I’m not saying the movie is irresponsible. I’m saying that False Flag exists in the same kind of universe of a “Jade Helm” takeover, where it only makes sense for the people who already think along these lines. At one point one character asks a prepper what’s in it for the government to perform its false flag operation, and he responds, “Global totalitarianism.” What does that even mean? Are the police acting in conjunction with the military? Have the military infiltrated the ranks of small-town police officers? It’s rather nebulous. All we know is that someone is taking over for vague reasons and there doesn’t seem to be enough of them.

Eventually it’s theorized that the government is doing this in a small-town to blame on terrorists and justify further military action. But… why is any of that necessary? The United States public has already accepted the idea of going after terrorists, especially on foreign soil and in the age of drone warfare. The U.S. military doesn’t need more public support to go after this already targeted target. If it’s to blame political activists as domestic terrorists, then this plan sure is sloppy. Nobody in Madison we see attempts to call for help, post their recordings, or even watch TV until seemingly hours after the start of the martial law, which is insane. It takes away from the seriousness if characters aren’t immediately trying to make outside connections. When the characters break into a school where prisoners are being detained in a cage (very reminiscent of our current concentration camps along the border) and there are NO GUARDS whatsoever in this room to watch. This is one incompetent government takeover. There is one moment that I had to stop the film and walk around my home because it simply astonished me (some spoilers to follow). The characters cut open a chain-link fence keeping people inside their detention cage… and the other people… stay put. I guess they realized what an important moment this would be to reunite the brothers and didn’t want to ruin it for the cameras. These people act with no urgency when they can flee, and I am still reeling from this moment.

The very ending tries to flip the script but by that point it feels too late and too confusing. I’m at a greater loss what the whole operation was for, who benefited, and who was playing along. There’s some ire toward media manipulation but it feels too late to switch gears with who the recipient of the film’s condemnation is going to be. There’s a five-minute epilogue that throws everything in doubt and leaves you questioning what you saw, but I don’t know what the supposed agendas are and who is playing who and why. Good luck.

The dialogue is pretty plain, which is fine, but its use of exposition is heavy and rather inarticulate. Exposition is a tricky issue because any writer needs to make it as invisible as possible and think about what is essential and when it can unfold to the audience in a hopefully natural manner. There are easy ways around this like the ole answering machine message that fills in the blanks. Here is a sample from about a half hour into False Flag after the first big riot with police:

Stephanie: “…So your mom’s a doctor?”

Little Girl: “Yeah, so, she’s not home that much. But it’s okay I guess.”

Stephanie: “What about your dad?”

Little Girl: “John… I don’t know. He works for the government as a translator or something like that. He and my mom split up while I was young. We were actually on our way to DC to meet him before all this.”

Stephanie: “Sorry.”

Little Girl: “Don’t be.”

Stephanie: “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Little Girl: “Nope.”

Stephanie: “Must be tough being alone all the time.”

Little Girl: “Not really. I grew up pretty fast.”

Stephanie: “I can see that. You’re a pretty strong girl. How long have you lived in Madison?”

Little Girl: “I know you feel like you have some responsibility to keep me safe or keep my mind off what happened but you don’t. I can take care of myself.”

This example stunned me with how transparent the exposition was, which forced characters to speak like they were more machines built to espouse helpful context. Real people do not blab everything about themselves in case someone may be watching who doesn’t know the key parts of their background. Real people do not talk like every moment is a job interview. The problem with False Flag is that there are too many scenes likes the one above, where characters vomit out the necessary info in such a transparently clunky way that it further breaks the film’s reality.

The found footage conceit provides more problems that are not addressed. Firstly, the nature of found footage means there has been a hidden editor and this is all the more relevant because the showcase for this footage is the Alex Jones-style show, which means someone has intended for it to be broadcast for an audience. This brings up the same questions of why the mysterious editor elected to install a narrative. Why is it important to set up these people like they are characters when the important parts, the government’s supposed false flag entry, is the big deal? Furthermore, why is this mysterious editor splicing in flashbacks from an earlier recording of the two brothers running around in a park? This was cleverly done in 2008’s Cloverfield but that’s because it was taped over a previously existing recording, allowing for the good times of a former relationship to sneak in for contrast. But if the intent is the broadcast and to highlight government abuse, why has the mysterious editor chosen again to bend toward a narrative?

Then there are things that simply break the reality of the found footage conceit, enough that they took me out of the movie and I had to start cataloguing them. The general idea is that we have Donny with a handheld camera and Ash with a body camera attached to his ear like a Bluetooth device, but you better believe every scene has the characters adequately framed, which means Ash is awfully cognizant of how he needs to turn and tilt his head in order to get a workable camera angle from his vantage point. When the camera gets passed to other characters, why do they continue recording? Ignoring even that since the movie needs it to carry on, there are moments that shatter the illusion of found footage, like one of those park flashbacks where we see Mark run into a clearing to help his brother and he sets the camera down not on the ground but on… something. When we saw him running there was no rocks, no trees, nothing to be seen, which means I have no idea what this camera is resting on. The most egregious is a conversation where the camera literally racks focus as the woman is talking. She doesn’t move out of her position and it happens even before she turns around, as if the camera KNEW the attention should be on the people in the distance who Donny was referring to. If you’re going to go the found footage route, things like this cannot crop up.

As far as low-budget action thrillers go, False Flag can sate your moderately checked expectations. It provides some thrills and with a professional presentation and uniformly solid acting. The story is pretty threadbare and the found footage conceit feels too minimally thought through, serving a larger point that ultimately is muddled by its rushed and twisty delivery. I think this premise and even the found footage approach could have been a dynamite combination, but it required a bit more development and consideration. False Flag is not a bad movie and I admire much of its technical grit but it is pretty standard thriller stuff, which means it’s hard for it to distinguish itself against the glut of other low-budget direct-to-DVD action lining the catalogues of streaming and shelves.

Nate’s Grade: C

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The Farewell (2019)

This was a wonderful movie that just warmed my heart while holding to a beautiful melancholy. That is such a rare combination, and at its heights, The Farewell made me think it could have been plucked from the halcyon days of 90s indie cinema. The strange-but-true story follows an extended Chinese-American family that discovers its beloved Nai Nai (grandmother) back in China has terminal cancer. The family has elected not to tell her the devastating news and will reunite under the auspices of a grandchild hastily getting married (they’ve dated for only 3 months). Our protagonist is Billie (Awkwafina), a struggling New Yorker who disagrees with her family’s deception. Her extended family is convinced she won’t be able to keep her emotions in check, and so every scene plays with a great deal of subtext, as just about every character holds the burden of keeping a secret that deeply pains them. It makes for some pretty emotional moments, as different characters hold more meaning to their words and would-be goodbyes, but the movie is ultimately rather uplifting and winning. The matriarch of all this attention, played by Shuzhen Zao, is a bossy, compassionate, and deeply lovable old woman who welcomes her family’s return. I smiled every time she affectionately referred to Billi as “stupid child” and after a while noticed my eyes were getting glassy. Awkwafini, in her first stab at dramatic acting, nicely sells her tumult with an understated grace. The characterization achieved by writer/director Lulu Wang (the real-life Billie) is generous and honest, providing worthwhile moments to the larger family and giving them perspectives so while there is conflict nothing ever gets too preachy or stagy. Speaking of that, Wang films many of her scenes with an almost static camera, allowing the scene to unfold in front of us as if we’ve dropped in on these people’s lives. The film is about 80% Chinese subtitles but the story is really universal and deserves to be seen and celebrated. The Farewell is a terrific antidote to the summer blockbuster season and it left me thrilled to find a small little movie that could remind you again of the powerful pleasures of simple, sharply written storytelling (also stay tuned for the twist ending of the year in the credits).

Nate’s Grade: A

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

It took nine movies but we can now put the Fast and Furious franchise to rest, and that’s because we now have Hobbs & Shaw, the spinoff that took the best parts of the franchise and ran away. What started as a film about underground street racing in 2001 has morphed into an over-the-top superhero spectacle where their superhuman power is being really good with cars, as well as not adhering to any laws of physics. Now they’ve cordoned off The Rock and Jason Statham, attached the director of Atomic Blonde and give me Idris Elba as the villain, who openly proclaims himself to be “black Superman.” Why do we ever need to go back to Vin Diesel and his pit crew ever again? Hobbs & Shaw is a big blast of action overkill fun. It’s not without its flaws and limitations but it’s exactly what it set out to be.

Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is trying to enjoy some rest and relaxation with his daughter but the world isn’t going to be save itself. He’s recruited to team up with the wily Deckard Shaw (Statham) to recover a missing sample of a super virus that can be programmed to kill anyone on the planet. The key is finding MIA MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), accused of killing her team and absconding with the virus. She also happens to be Shaw’s estranged sister. The real villain is a super mercenary Brixton (Elba) who is engineered to be a superior killing machine. His mysterious employer wants to recruit Hobbs and Shaw to the cause, but in the event of their refusal, death is always an option. The Shaw family reunion makes the majority of the movie a three-person chase film that ultimately pushes Hobbs to go back home to the Samoan family he left behind decades ago and they haven’t forgotten their prodigal son.

Once again, the main draw of a Fast and Furious movie are the eye-popping action set pieces, and Hobbs & Shaw has its fair share of excitement and satisfaction. There are a couple standouts, notably a climactic helicopter face-off involving a chain of racing vehicles and the concept of lift, but really none of the action will displace the top moments from this increasingly insane franchise. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) doesn’t have any signature moments that stun like that extended, fatigued fight sequence in Atomic Blonde, but he definitely taps into the moment-to-moment fun and absurdity. A chase down the side of a building is not remotely realistic, but with Leitch there’s an added sense of comedy by making it another contest between Hobbs and Shaw. That macho posturing can liven up an already enjoyable scene and give it a personal edge that ties into the charisma of the stars. So even when the action is cooking at a lower level, focusing on that charisma elevates the sequence. The action pumps at a constant pace with plenty of explosions, tumbles, and powerful fists. The movie follows the latter Fast and Furious mold by not even trying to resemble reality. When Brixton’s super hands-free motorcycle acts more like a living Transformer, it doesn’t matter because the movie isn’t building a reality where something like that would seem like an exaggeration. I laughed more at moments like that and smiled rather than scoffing at its disconnect from crafting some kind of baseline sense of reality.

I will say the action beats could be shaved down, especially as the movie teeters to 135 minutes long. It’s not exactly the kind of action cinema like Mission: Impossible where the set pieces are so brilliantly constructed with organic complications. These aren’t quite at the level of spectacle or immersion of a Fury Road or even the Justin Lin-era of Furious land. There are few sequences that couldn’t be pared down because often the beats are the same beats just with more of them. I wished there had been a greater variety of action sequences or at least an interesting series of complications, the lifeblood of great action movies. There are a few standout moments with larger-than-life imagery but mostly the action has a very same-y quality that can feel repetitive. That’s where the comedic perspectives can help. A hallway fight is enjoyable but lacks impressive fight choreography, but what saves the scene is the comedic exasperation at the end for Shaw and again tying it to the ongoing competition with Hobbs.

Beyond the explosive action, the real draw is the cast and they are overloaded with charisma. There’s a reason somebody at Universal decided to slice off these two characters because they are clearly the only characters many people ever cared about, because both actors have an innate charm that pops off the screen. Watching the two of them butt heads and trade insults and glares is an ongoing pleasure. It reminds one how big personalities can effortlessly carry big Hollywood action movies when you have the right stars together. They do form their own sort of combative bond and understanding by the end, but one wonders if their banter will get old if it doesn’t evolve over the inevitably commissioned assembly of sequels. The Rock and Statham get some big laughs and hearty entertainment squaring off and working together for even bigger destructive power.

Kirby (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is a terrific addition as a strong-willed, kickass heroine first and a potential love interest for Hobbs second, which amusingly upsets Shaw. Kirby has an above-it-all air to her that makes her seem like a natural match as a sister to Statham. Elba (Molly’s Game) is settling into a groove as a go-to heavy (Star Trek Beyond, The Jungle Book) and even while threatening a global pandemic he can’t help but be smooth and charming. This is the best cast ever assembled for a Fast and Furious movie, and you throw in unexpected comedy cameos, Helen Mirren, and an extended Samoan family, and the movie begins to stake out its own claims on a world separate from Diesel’s boring “family.”

Hobbs & Shaw is a combination of 80s action movie attitude, 90s bombast, and 2010s outrageous set pieces, lead by two of the more charming men Hollywood has at its punching-kicking disposal. That’s actually a pretty good word, “disposal,” because the movie is designed as nothing more than a breezy two hours at the movies with your biggest tub of popcorn. Of course the studio has larger plans and envisions it as a way to keep the Fast and Furious franchise alive and diversified. Hobbs & Shaw has little more on its mind than giving its audience a good time, and it easily achieves that aim. I may not feel the need to watch Fast and Furious movies again like I do other action franchises that provide more emotional investment, practical stuntwork, and structural brilliance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t happily consume the next entry. As long as The Rock and Statham are in place and feeling good, so too will the eventual audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Huckleberry (2019)

As I’ve been more involved in my local film scene, I’ve gotten to know and befriend many good people and creatives that are following their dreams. My long-standing belief is that any movie is a miracle given the enormous undertaking and collaboration it requires, especially if it’s through the often arcane and contradictory gatekeepers of the studio system in Hollywood. Fortunately, writers and directors just gather what resources they can and make their movies on their own terms rather than waiting. I’ve found that these projects could benefit from sincere and respectful film reviews, and that’s something I can actually contribute to. As with other Ohio film projects, I do happen to know a few people involved in key areas with the movie Huckleberry (currently available for free on Amazon Prime, folks), but I promise to be as objective as possible with any constructive criticism and discussion. It’s an intriguing 77-minute feature with an admirable presentation, good acting, and some plotting missteps that hold it back from hitting its full potential.

In Ohio 1999, Huckleberry “Huck” (Daniel Fisher-Goldman) is trans and living as a man, with the occasional hormone shot via the Internet. He’s living with a foster brother (Yang Miller), aggravating various neighbors and authority figures with his attitude, and not-so-secretly crushing hard on his friend Jolene (Sarah Ulstrup). The problem is she already has a boyfriend, an abusive drug-addict named Clint (Justin Rose) who Huck cannot stand. One night it’s too much for Huck to bear, and he takes it upon himself to provide a reckoning for Clint. However, this confrontation doesn’t quite go as planned and an “unknown attacker” gets back at Huck.

The story of a hero pulled into the spiderweb of a wronged woman in need of protecting is the setup of many an indie thriller and classic Hollywood noir. It’s the scenario of the character getting in over their head and learning that their preconceived notions of the world were naïve. Huckleberry borrows elements from that familiar setup. The direction of the story is very much tied to the lengths Huck will go to protect and/or win over his crush, Jolene. You think this will ultimately create a series of spiraling events that get worse and worse, but that’s also not quite what happens.

Huck is our plucky protagonist unafraid of much, including kissing his crush as his school video project (under different circumstances this act, and his insistence on sharing it to the class knowing Jolene’s potential discomfort, might come across more as creepy). The story does a fine job of establishing a one-sided relationship between Huck and Jolene. She does care for her friend but she’s clearly hesitant about anything beyond platonic, but she doesn’t use Huck’s obvious feelings for overt scheming. It would be easy to have her slide into femme fatale territory and manipulate Huck to take out Clint, but that doesn’t happen. Huck, seeing himself the champion, takes it upon himself to target Clint, and this unrequested intervention actually upsets Jolene and harms Huck’s relationship with her. That was a nice development. By choosing to have Huck incapacitated for a decent portion of the film, Jolene steps into the spotlight. The change in her character is a tad rushed, having to get to a place where she welcomes Huck’s white knight compulsions, but I feel writer/director Roger Hill (Flying Paper) has put together sufficient reasons why she would make her final decision.

This is a low-budget movie that doesn’t feel like a low-budget movie thanks to the admirable professionalism of its presentation and the occasionally stirring cinematography. There were a few moments that made me go, “Wow,” which is exceptionally rare for low-budget films. The photography by Jon Coy (The Turn Out) is gorgeous and makes a painterly use of light. The sets are impeccably chosen as well, making fantastic use of the decaying parts of small-town Ohio to provide a sense of ambience and time and place. There are some judicious shot selections as well, often tethering the camera to a moving object like a car. There’s one shot I thought was really well done where the camera is attached to a shopping cart and we watch Huck place different items inside, each contributing to a bigger, sinister purchasing picture of what lies ahead.

Another sterling facet of Huckleberry is the acting overall. Ulstrup (The Dance of Amal) is a future star waiting to happen. There are several moments that live or die depending upon her line delivery, and she always succeeds, elevating the scene. A tearful confessional late in the movie had me spellbound. She comes across as so natural from scene-to-scene, whether it’s her awkward uncertainty of what to do with her friend’s feelings for her or the hurt and self-loathing she swallows in her abusive relationship. Ulstrup is excellent at hiding the affectations of acting and digging into her character. Fisher-Golden (The Emma Agenda) has an interesting presence and can definitely play to his character’s strengths of know-it-all condescension and coiled anger. The actor’s best moments are when he’s trying to contain the emotions that will spill out. Rose (Super Dark Times) does a fine job conveying a grungy, desperate lowlife who probably knows he’s never going to be cut for a better life than the one he’s eking out. Rose could have gone on autopilot as the “creepy abusive boyfriend” role, but he establishes a, for lack of better word, integrity to the character that reminded me of the better character actors. I could see Scoot McNary (Argo) in this part, and that’s a fine comparison. I want to single out one performer for making the most of it. Consider the No Small Parts Award to Dennis Lee Delaney (Departure), who plays the school principal who clearly has contempt for Huckleberry, referring to him by his feminine birth name. Again, it’s the kind of role that could be a caricature, but Delaney underplays the scene, bringing a greater sense of realism and disdain. At the end of his one scene, I found myself congratulating the actor and hoping casting directors would see this.

Where the movie miscalculates is once Huck is attacked by an unknown assailant. The aftermath takes up maybe a half hour and far too long, which puts the main character in the penalty box and relies upon the established supporting characters to carry the film. This can’t quite work because the supporting cast, with the exception of Jolene, have just existed to serve the protagonist. They don’t feel like they have a real inner life of their own. This makes it even more challenging when the narrative transforms into a “who dunnit?” mystery. The obvious first suspect is Clint, but the movie telegraphs he is not the perpetrator and makes you suspect everyone else, so we’ll get scenes of people acting mysteriously vague and peculiar to keep up the air of mystery. When a character responds to the news of Huck awakening with a look of worry, is that person the culprit? When another character ominously alerts someone that Huck has awoken, it plays like a warning, but ultimately most of these are misdirects. The narrative cannot sustain this extended guessing game because we haven’t gotten to know the supporting characters to the point that we may suspect them. When the eventual culprit is revealed, I literally said seconds before, “Wait, who is this character?” The reveal lacks the impact needed for a mystery because the eventual culprit was so incidental as to be forgotten. Once revealed, I felt like Huckleberry found some renewed life, because now this person had a secret to keep and would they be caught? How far would they go to keep it? If the film were going that route, I would reveal the perpetrator with no mystery early to better luxuriate in that tension of the consequences of this violent act. However, the emphasized mystery doesn’t allow for that, so it places the film in an awkward holding area with characters unable to carry the narrative burden.

There are a few problems with setting the movie in 1999 and one of them is the treatment of being a trans high school student, an important dramatic aspect that doesn’t feel fully explored. Early on, when the movie establishes that our lead character is a trans man, it got my attention a little more, as this is not a perspective often showcased in movies during this time period. I thought it would be a way to make a neo-noir thriller or coming-of-age indie fresh. The problem is that nobody in this Ohio rust belt high school views Huckleberry being trans as any big deal. The only push-back comes from his principal during their hostile meeting. That perspective might work in 2019, after greater trans representation and general cultural understanding, but it feels inauthentic to a Midwestern world of twenty years ago. As somebody who was in high school in the 90s, in Ohio, I can say that any trans student living openly as they felt comfortable would have met some degree of resistance, name-calling, and bullying. The fact that everyone in this high school is so accommodating and understanding is remarkable and remarkably unrealistic.

This also opens up the question over why the filmmakers elected to have Huck be a trans man at all. It doesn’t affect the story in any significant way, beyond maybe one neighbor’s added fury when catching his teen daughter intimate with “another girl.” I suppose you could make the argument that Huck is trying to stake his claim on his identity, on this town, and doesn’t care what people think, but does the character need to be trans to convey this? You could also argue just having the lead character be trans is a positive for diversity and simply having better representation, and that’s true. Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that the story had this really interesting perspective and as executed it feels too peripheral. Huck could just have easily been a cis lesbian and achieved the same effect, or even just been a straight cis male. If you’re going to make your protagonist a figure from a marginalized minority group, often the target of bullying and worse, it feels like a narrative disservice to not make that perspective known. This is a very general analogy, but imagine telling the story of an African-American WWII soldier integrated in the armed services and having every person be oblivious to their race and the potential conflict.

Huckleberry clipped along nicely and had many attributes that I admired, from the crisp photography, professional use of visuals and locations to enhance the story and mood, and the overall good acting. The story is only lesser because there are certain choices that don’t feel as best capitalized, from the main character being trans to the inclusion and overlong attention on a mystery that feels like a diversion at best. Also at no point does any character explain why Huckleberry wants to be called Huckleberry, which seems like a moment tailor-made for 90s-centric indie cinema. The story elements were there for an even more engaging, compelling, and unnerving story but it can’t quite maximize that potential. As a result, Huckleberry is an enjoyable and sincere little movie that was knocking on the door of being great. It’s worth your 77 minutes and I think it points toward bigger and even better things for Hill and Ulstrup in particular.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

High Life (2019)

The one movie more of my friends have cited as their favorite of 2019, besides Avengers, is a small little indie that left theaters as quickly as it arrived. High Life is a challenging, provocative science-fiction movie by French director Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), making her English-language debut. High Life is set in the deep of space with a crew made up of prisoners serving life sentences. We follow Monte (Robert Pattinson) along with a baby and we’re left to determine how they got here. The following two hours will explore the hazards of space, the fragility of man, and the weirdness of French people.

I knew I was in troubled territory when the movie spends a whopping 18 minutes (18!) to set up that Pattinson is alone in space with a baby and everyone else on his crew is dead. I understand establishing a mood, a day-to-day sense of the grunt work operations this guy has to do to stay alive, but this is simply excessive latitude to convey the same information. It was a bad indication of what was to come.

Fortunately, the movie picks up as we transition into the flashback of life with the crew and the growing anxiety and tensions that would seal their doom. I was waiting for some taut tension. We know they’re all prisoners serving life sentences so I also expected some combustibility with them trapped, together, for years on end, and subjected to strange experiments. I expected some prisoners to lose their minds into madness and others to be distraught and others to be excitable. What I wasn’t expecting was that everybody would simply be masturbating the whole time or raping each other. There’s a hard turn into explicit sexuality and the movie starts to resemble a more insidious soft-core flick. There’s a masturbation room though its overall importance escapes me. Juliette Binoche’s character is performing fertility experiments and has her eyes set on a specific DNA combination. This leads to some bizarre and almost unintentionally hilarious moments where she stalks the halls with syringes of sperm. The psycho-sexual aspect of the movie feels like it should be more important but Denis doesn’t seem to be articulating its importance, only using it as an excuse for characters to act on their carnality as if this is commentary on the human condition alone and without context. “Sex is the only freedom,” she says, as if this is a unique observation.

I suppose there’s the concept that these people have been disposed of by larger society, jettisoned out of the solar system in the name of scientific discovery but perhaps just as a means of cleaning out Earth’s prison population. These people are all atoning for something, or so we’re told, and you would think the existential solitude and knowledge that they will likely never see Earth again would be a prime starting point for some really interesting and introspective examinations on these people, their conceptions of themselves, and their actions and place in the universe. We get little glimpses of this but mostly the other characters are kept at an unreachable distance; they’re strangers to the audience, so when they start being dispatched one-by-one the emotional response is simply that of indifference. Another character we never got much of a sense of is gone. Oh well.

The characterization by Denis and her four other co-writers (five people wrote this!) keeps everyone underdeveloped with the exception of our protagonist, who seems to be the model for the character journey the movie was setting up. He’s trying to live a life free from urges but ultimately comes into care of a little baby. Their father/daughter survival could be the stuff of great drama that pushes his character into uncharted realms. Unfortunately, once Denis has killed off everyone the movie zips ahead to the baby now as a teenager and then it abruptly ends in what seems like a suicidal confrontation of oblivion that could have just as likely happened at any point. It feels only so much an ending because there are credits afterwards.

This is going to be much more metaphorical and subtextual science fiction, so I was waiting for the eventual themes to emerge, and I just kept waiting. The first 18 minutes is watching Pattinson play take-your-daughter-to-work-day on the space ship. The next hour is almost a mad scientist drama with a bunch of expendable characters meeting unfortunate ends. There’s also a lot of sexual violence here. Once we get caught up in the timeline, the last twenty minutes is pretty mundane until one final fateful decision that we established earlier is the physical equivalent of suicide. That’s about it. It feels like pieces of more meaningful ideas and conversations are left as scattered detritus, demanding that an audience not just put the pieces together but also project their own meaning onto that puzzle. I don’t mind a movie that makes me work but there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being empty and vague. I don’t know what Denis and her movie is trying to say and it’s generally hard to follow when we don’t get to know people and situations before jumping around in time. There’s definitely a vision here, but to what?

High Life often looks gorgeous, with large swaths bathed in moody lighting and artfully styled shot compositions. A masturbatory “dance” into something dream-like feels like what would happen if David Lynch tried his hand at erotica. The performances are rather blank as if Denis had precious little to explain about their characters. There’s a stretch where they’re all highly sedated as well, which only makes them seem like slightly sleepier versions of who we have seen up to this point. Pattinson has really impressed me with his recent indie output working with eclectic artists, especially his live wire performance in 2017’s Good Time as a hapless criminal trying to get out of an increasing mess. Pattinson burrows into his character’s monastic aim in an attempt to tap into something deeper. It just isn’t there, so he looks longingly at the stars, thinks furtively about his past, and goes through his routine. These people too often feel like vacant shells of human beings, zombies walking the corridors in habit. The only other actor worth noting is Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) who gives it her all, especially during a masturbatory sequence that reminded me of a riding bull. Get ready for lots of extreme closeups of her pubic bone as well.

High Life feels like Annihilation in space but even lacking that movie’s attuned sense of purpose about mankind’s relationship with nature and its general indifference to us. It fails to come together for me into something more cohesive or engaging or just even understandable. This is operating more on a metaphorical level than a hard science level, though the asides with black holes are depicted with intelligence. Mostly I was watching the movie and I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in. There’s a dispirited collection of ideas and images and a general lack of hurry to get around to saying little with clarity. It’s frustrating because the movie has so much potential with its premise and setting and different narrative pieces, but ultimately it feels too lost in space when it comes to larger meaning and substance.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Lion King (2019)

Ever since the run-up of Disney’s live-action remakes, I’ve been predicting what would happen with the newer films, and it all seems to be coming true. The problem with Disney remaking hit animated movies from the 80s and 90s is that there hasn’t been enough distance. The immediate audience is going to demand their nostalgia exactly as they remember it, and they will not be happy with anything less. It’s not like a scenario where the original movies could be improved upon, like 2016’s beautifully tender Pete’s Dragon. What these live-action remakes offer is an uglier, inferior version of an animated classic. There’s no reason for most of them to exist. They won’t be different; they won’t be interesting. It’s a sludgy, auto-tuned cash grab that shows no end in sight. Before this year, I did not expect Tim Burton’s Dumbo to be the best of the three 2019 Disney live-action remakes, but here we are. I guess the concept of Disney eating its own tail with these live-action remakes is symbolic of the studio “circle of life,” and the perfect segue way to The Lion King, a remake missing the wonder and magic of the 1994 original.

King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones again) rules over an African prairie and preparing his young son Simba (JD Mcrary and Donald Glover as an adult) for his eventual rule. Mufasa’s scornful brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conspires to have Mufasa killed and Simba banished. Blaming himself for his father’s death, Simba runs away and finds kinship with a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumba (Seth Rogen). They preach a carefree life of “no worries.” This new life is interrupted when Nala (Beyoncé Knowles), Simba’s childhood friend, returns seeking help to remove Scar from the throne. Simba must confront his fate and treacherous uncle and bring balance back to his ailing homeland.

The biggest appeal of director Jon Favreau’s Lion King remake is the stunning special effects. It’s been ten years since James Cameron brought to life a photo realistic alien world that dazzled audiences, and the advances have only made the professional fakery more startling. This movie was completely “filmed” inside a computer. Every single shot, every blade of grass, every pebble, every photo realistic morsel onscreen is the result of digital wizards. In 2016’s The Jungle Book, there were still some physical elements filmed, chief among them the human boy, but now it’s all done away. The remake looks like an HD nature documentary. One could question the use of the technology, $250 million to recreate what ordinary cameras on location could achieve, but I’ll choose to congratulate Disney and Favreau on the remarkable technical achievement. The Jungle Book was a big leap forward and The Lion King is that next step. However, the special effects are ultimately the only selling point. Come see how real it all looks, kids. The rest of the remake left me feeling unmoved and occasionally perplexed.

This is an almost exact shot-for-shot recreation of the original movie. It made me think of Gus van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake and why anyone would go to this much trouble to make a copy. You’ll feel a tingle of recognition with different shots and scenes and then that feeling will transition to disappointment and lastly resignation. It’s the same, just not as good.

So what exactly is different with the live-action Lion King of 2019? Very very little. Despite totaling a half hour more movie, it really only has one added incidental Beyoncé song, a small character beat where Timon and Pumba explain their philosophy on more fatalistic terms, an explanation how Nala left the pride lands, and more poop and fart jokes. The filmmakers have added realism in appearance but also added more scatological humor, which seems like an odd combination. There is a literal plot point attached to giraffe poop. Instead of a whispery feather, petal, whatever finding its way to the baboon Rafiki to let him know Simba is still alive, now we watch the life of a tuft of fur as it travels from creature to creature, at one point being consumed on a leaf by a giraffe. The next image is a ball of poop being rolled by a beetle with our tell-tale tuft of lion fur. I guess it’s more emblematic of the whole “circle of life” theme, but I didn’t think Disney was going to literalize the poop aspect. The new Beyoncé song is fairly bland and unmemorable. That’s it, dear reader. Lion King 2019 is 95 percent identical to Lion King 1994 in plot, and yet the original writers do not earn a screenwriting credit thanks to arcane animation writing guild rules, and that is madness. It’s their story, it’s their characters, and it’s almost entirely their dialogue, and to not have their names rightfully credited where they belong is wrong.

There are some definite drawbacks to that photo realism as well. When lions and other animals are photo realistic, they have facial structures that don’t exactly emote, so it looks like all the animals often just have their jaws wired shut. You’ll listen to the vocal actors go through a range of emotions and watch these plain, unmoved faces that you start to wonder if maybe all of the dialogue should have just been voice over. As soon as I saw Mufasa speaking, I was immediately shaken by the image and longed for the expression of the animation. I never got over it and it made me feel removed from the film, even more so. This is the trade off of realism; animals don’t actually speak, you know. Another trade off is that the film becomes much more intense especially for younger kids. I would not recommend parents take the littlelest ones to this movie because now, instead of watching a traditionally animated band of characters brawl, you’re watching realistic lions and hyenas scrape, claw, and hurl one another to their deaths. If kids were traumatized by parts of the original movie, I can only imagine the nightmares that await. Strangely, the photo realism also mitigates the film’s sense of scope and impact. The stampede sequence feels far less dangerous because the camera doesn’t pull back that far, showing a massive herd from a distance. Subsequently the sequence loses some of its urgency. Then there’s also simply identifying who may be who when those fights come, because you’re trying to pick out realistic animals instead of distinct creatures with specific character designs.

The aspects you enjoyed with the 1994 Lion King will still be enjoyable, even if they suffer in direct comparison. Hans Zimmer’s score is still magnificent. The songs are still catchy, though some of the arrangements are a bit under-cooked, like the speak-sung “Be Prepared.” The song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” occurs absurdly early in the Simbla/Nala reunion and takes place in the sunny afternoon. So much for “tonight” (the famous Nala “bedroom eyes” moment is also quite diminished from a real lion’s face). The jokes are still funny because they were funny the first time. The things that worked the first time will still work to some degree, even if the presentation leaves something to desire. Several of the vocal artists just sound flat, especially Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) who comes across so blasé. I missed the casual menace of Jeremy Irons. The best vocal performances belong to Eichner (Difficult People) and Rogen (Long Shot), maybe because they’re already broad personalities, or maybe because they felt the most comfortable to occasionally steer away from the original script, finding small room to roam. Florence Kasumba (Black Panther) also delivers a snarling and effective performance as one of the hyena leaders, Shenzi. They’re the only vocal performances that fare well in competition.

I need to defend the art of animated films. There is nothing wrong with animated films simply because they are animated. A live-action version is not better simply because it’s more “real.” I hear this same argument when it comes to making a live-action anime. Animation is a wonderful medium and has a magic all its own that often live-action cannot emulate. The animated Lion King is beautiful with bold colors, strong visual compositions, and emotive characters with specific designs. The live-action Lion King is missing much of that, at least when it’s not recreating exact shots from its predecessor. I don’t know who this movie is going to appeal to. Parents will be better off just playing the original for their children at home. Die-hard fans of The Lion King might enjoy seeing their favorite story told with plenty of cutting-edge special effects magic. I would have been happier had the filmmakers attempted something like Julie Taymor’s transformative and ground-breaking Broadway show. I would have been happier had they just recorded the Broadway show. The new Lion King is a lesser version of the 1994 movie, plain and simple, and if that’s enough for you, then have at it. For me, these Disney live-action remakes are making me feel as dead in the eyes as a photo realistic lion.

Nate’s Grade: C

Sword of Trust (2019)

Writer/director Lynn Shelton is a filmmaker that has a habit of flying under the radar with her wonderful entries in the fly-on-the-wall hipster mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas. The hilariously awkward Humpday punctuated insecure masculinity and was on my Top Ten list for 2009, and 2012’s Your Sister’s Sister was another laser-like focus on characters trying to deal with a lifetime of relationship secrets coming out. Both of those movies have been remade as French films too, with Humpday becoming 2012’s Do Not Disturb and Your Sister’s Sister becoming 2015’s Half Sister, Full Love (which sounds more like a porn title to my ears). Sword of Trust is one part mumblecore drama, one part screwball comedy, and a bit of a lovely, shambly mess.

Mel (Marc Maron) owns and operates a pawn shop in a small Alabama town. He’s used to losers and lowlifes and junkies coming through and giving their sad stories. Enter Cynthia (Jullian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), a gay couple looking to make the most of a strange inheritance. Cynthia’s grandfather gave her a Union sword and a story that says this sword is proof that the South did not lose the Civil War after all… somehow. The trio, along with Mel’s dimwitted shop employee Nathaniel (John Bass), hatch a scheme to try and con an underground Confederate memorabilia group for all its worth.

The real draw of Sword of Trust is the low-key comic sensibilities of the cast. As I wrote previously in my review for Your Sister’s Sister: “There’s a tremendous naturalistic ease the film exudes, with the actors so familiar with one another that they truly feel like family. When I have well developed characters, and actors who seem so knowledgeable of their character’s tics and flaws and secrets and smallest details, I could honestly listen to them talk for hours.” Sword of Trust (written by Shelton and Michael Patrick O’Brien) probably ranks a distant third in the three Shelton-directed movies I’ve seen, but her skills and care are still evident in characterization and empathy.

Maron has matured into an impressive dramatic actor thanks to Netflix’s wonderful wrestling series GLOW. He has a natural sad sack aura to him, as well as a brittle fuse that’s in danger of being set off at any moment. The character of Mel seems tailor-made for him, and I wouldn’t put it past Shelton that it was (she directed several episodes of GLOW as well as Maron’s 2017 comedy special). He’s the biggest mystery of the movie and we get hints early on in a disarmingly dramatic moment when his ex-girlfriend Deidre (Shelton herself) tries getting collateral so she can secure a job. She professes that he knows “she’s good for it,” and that this time will be different, and the way the two of them seem to circle a larger conversation, one filled with hurt and heartache, is a masterful example in writing subtlety and subtext. We’ll have their personal connections revealed later in the movie, but this scene serves as a tantalizing clue that there’s more to this movie than a group of oddballs in a pawn shop. It’s the first stab at drama and it’s quite effective, and Shelton can be one hell of an actress too. She leaves an impression as a character you want to get back to, and sadly the movie keeps her at a distance as we learn more.

The rest of the movie doesn’t quite tap into this vein (more on that below) but the agreeable camaraderie of the characters is a major selling point. Mumblecore movies are typically character-driven and small observational movies that lean on broken people navigating their way through the world, pushing forward onto greater emotional growth by the closing credits. If you’re not a fan of these kinds of movies, then Sword of Trust might still prove appealing based upon the broader comedy elements and the wackiness that can come at a moment’s notice, like when a man at gunpoint instructs each hostage to dance in a different bizarre style. Otherwise, Sword of Trust is a movie that ambles along on its own gentle wavelengths, buoyed by the performances and interactions of its core cast. There’s an uneasy alliance between the foursome. Primarily this is with Maron and Bell’s characters, the two most significant players. Bell (22 Jump Street) is enjoyably sunny and awkward as a woman trying to make the best of a bad inheritance. It’s the most dramatic and restrained I’ve ever seen Bell, best known for loud-mouthed, course comic supporting roles. Watkins (Casual) is more a force to push her girlfriend into further action, and Bass (Baywatch) is kept as the goofball meant for easy ridicule as a symbol of preferential ignorance. He’s never more than a quick punchline, especially as he tries explaining his scientifically strained flat Earth beliefs.

They’re an enjoyable group and watching them bicker, jostle for leverage, and ultimately work as a team for common cause it sweetly entertaining. Everyone is trying to make the best of an unexpected situation, with each playing their part to try and capitalize on this strange money-making scheme. A lengthy conversation in the back of a truck bounces from character to character, each revealing further layers they feel comfortable now sharing. It’s the kind of enjoyable character beats that the mumblecore genre is known for, crafting relatable, interesting, flawed characters and watching them play off one another. There’s also plenty of comedy because of how the characters are drawn, like when Mel insists that an attacker stole his own screwdriver to use as a threatening weapon. This small comedic beat grows and grows as it almost consumes Mel so that even when that harried situation clears up he has to know whether or not it really was his own screwdriver. That’s a sly comedy beat connected to character. Shetlon’s film has an improvised feel but honed to a script that provides a necessary degree of discipline.

Despite the amiability of the cast and the comedic potential of the premise, Sword of Trust doesn’t really rise above being a pleasant if minor hang-out picture. I feel like if it was ultimately about the characters then we needed a few more scenes where they can grow, be challenged, or simply share their conflicts and histories. If it’s going to be more a wacky send-up of willfully ignorant conspiracy theorists and anti-intellectuals, then I feel like the final act needed more complications and examination. Shelton’s movie settles into a middle ground trying to have the wacky sitcom shenanigans and the heartfelt, modest mumblecore character beats. It doesn’t feel like either side is fully utilized and explored to its best version. I enjoyed the characters and found the movie getting better as they opened up, especially Maron’s curmudgeonly lead with a guarded past. I also laughed some big laughs at the wacky hijinks of a dysfunctional gang working together to con a group of Confederate  revisionists. There are moments that point toward the more studio-friendly, concept-driven version of this movie, like when the gang creates a cover story of them being romantic couples. In Shelton’s film this is a momentary gag and then it’s left behind, also because it occurs so late into the movie. You can see where the escalation of misunderstandings and trouble could make the film a broader comedy. You can also see the avenues where the characters eschew the broad comedy for more intimate, revealing conversations. The resulting film is enjoyable and solid, but I think it would have been better if it had chosen its preferred tone.

Sword of Trust (my fingers keep wanting to type Sword of Truth) is definitely a lesser but still enjoyable film for Shelton and her ensemble. It’s stuck in a pleasant but diverting hangout zone when it could have been more observational or broader and wackier. I was hoping for more of a send-up of the fringes who cling to rumors and disbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, whether it’s that the South legitimately lost the war or that the Earth is indeed round. Sword of Trust benefits from a group of actors who can smartly handle improv scenarios while still keeping things true to character. It’s an enjoyable 90 minutes just hanging out with these people, even if the film feels like it’s losing some of its momentum as it veers into its third act. While not as polished, there’s still enough to enjoy and recommend with Shelton’s latest, and she’s a storyteller that deserves an adoring audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Cadia: The World Within (2019)

Cadia: The World Within (pronounced Kuh-Dee-uh) is a fantasy film that was made in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio and directed by an alumnus of my own college. 24-year-old Cedric Gegel (The Coroner’s Assistant) wrote and directed Cadia, which was inspired by a story he was making up to entertain 12-year-old triplets backstage during a theater show. He spent years revising and elaborating that tale and elected to make it a big screen adventure, and starring those same triplets in starring roles. He even attracted known actors like Corbin Bernson and one of the two Harry Potter twins. I attended the special Capital University screening before Cadia begins hitting festivals and seeking distribution. As I have in the past, I happen to know several people that were involved in this production, primarily behind the camera, and I promise to try and be as objective as possible in this review.

Three teenagers are dealing with the recent loss of their mother. Renee (Carly Sells), David (Keegan Sells), and Matthew (Tanner Sells) are now living with their Aunt Alice (Nicky Buggs) and their Grandpa George (Bernson). One day, a magic set of stones takes the kids to another world, Cadia, where they meet Elza (John Wells) shortly after escaping a monster. They learn there are dueling factions in this realm, and Tannion (James Phelps) wants one of the siblings to tap into an elemental power supply to rewrite the cosmos for the better.

I’m going to caution that this review will likely sound more negative than I intend. I want to be supportive of local filmmakers and encourage their efforts, and any movie by itself is something of a miracle considering the countless people who work in tandem to bring together a vision. The people behind Cadia seem like genuinely sweet and thoughtful individuals who cared about the movie they were making. I wish them all well. However, it does nobody good to avoid constructive criticism where it’s warranted, because ignoring problems is unhelpful. The characters of Cadia might even agree with that sentiment. So, dear reader, let’s dive into what doesn’t quite work here and keeps Cadia from being more than the sum total of its many influences and good intentions. Much of the faults chiefly come down to the writing.

Fantasy stories are tricky because they need to be transporting but also accessible, otherwise they will feel like they’re being made up on the spot or like a private story that wasn’t intended for a wider audience (Lady in the Water, anyone?). With Cadia, the influences are easy to pick up on (Narnia, Harry Potter, Peter Pan, the Bible) but the rules and understanding of this new world feel too murky and unclear. It’s a magic world with… warring factions that are at war because… power? I never understood who just about anyone was and what their purpose served beyond allegiances. It’s too vague and the world feels too small and undeveloped, making it feel less a new world and more like a weekend excursion. What is the relationship between this family and the history of Cadia exactly as it comes to Grandpa George? Did this world come into existence with George telling the story and thus linking it to this particular family and giving them larger importance, or did it exist on its own? Why do some people have powers and what are the extents of those powers, the limitations, the costs of those powers? Is dead mom alive in this world or simply a ghost? Are there more potential ghosts? What started the factions? There are teleporting stones but are they direct portals or can they be manipulated? It feels like this should be of greater importance just from a novelty of how they can be clever (and cheap to execute). There’s one malevolent monster witnessed but otherwise it’s just a bunch of people hanging out in the woods. Too many of the too many characters are just sitting around, seemingly like they’re waiting for something to do. Cadia operates on a level that assumes you know what is happening or find this new world intriguing, but as a viewer it feels like you’re missing vital critical info to make that happen.

Fantasy world building is essential because the new world has to be teeming with interesting life and details, the stuff a viewer could immerse themselves within. Barring that, the fantasy details can be shaped and pruned to serve the thematic journey of a character, externalizing the internal. I thought Cadia was going here. It kind of does and kind of doesn’t. The central trio are dealing with their grief over their late mother, except when the movie doesn’t need them to. I thought the world of Cadia would present itself as symbol for the grief and anger of a character, luring him or her as temptation to reverse course and save dear dead mom, and therefore we would learn a lesson about healing and about facing loss. This element is present, yes, but “element” is the proper term; it’s not a theme or anything larger in plotting, it’s merely there as needed like any other sudden magic power that goes without explanation or question. Overall, the fantasy world just felt under developed in detail and scope.

I was hoping for the thematic personalization because there’s a general lack of urgency when it comes to any looming sense of danger. For being transported to a new world, these kids take it all in amazing stride. Even after a long-clawed monster chases after them, the kids are so casual and nonplussed the next scene even as they have just barely eluded this monster. Nobody seems in a hurry to return home. We’re constantly told of warring factions but the only outward danger felt is from this one monster, and even when the kids are close their fear seems fleeting. The characters they encounter don’t present (immediate) danger, which makes the film feel rather loping and without conflict and danger. It’s lacking potent stakes. What’s stopping these kids from returning? What’s stopping anyone from anything? The world of Cadia is too plain and safe, which coupled with its undeveloped nature, only makes things less interesting. If the world doesn’t present interest, it can at least present a palpable threat, and Cadia does not.

Another miscue that hampers the stakes is that the film keeps cutting back and forth between the kids in Cadia and the adults on Earth. Why? Do we really need to see Aunt Alice having coffee with her friend while the kids are lost in a new realm? Do we really need two check-ins with Grandpa George to literally watch him put together a puzzle? Cutting away from the discovery of the magic world to watch characters do mundane things back home is detrimental to pacing and establishing a growing threat. Can it be much of a threat if the kids seem chill and we cut back to puzzle formation? Without a threat, without an interesting setting, and without a personalization toward one of the main characters, Cadia feels like a less-than-magical retreat.

The characters also suffer from both being underwritten and simply having far too many of them. The main trio of real-life triplets are left as archetypes; there’s the more introverted one (The Nerd), the more rebellious, aggressive one (The Jock), and the… girl (The Girl). Seriously, that’s her characterization. The other brothers get starting points on a scale to grow from but her characterization is simply not being the things her brothers are, and also being a girl. It’s not like the characters are running away from confronting the hard truth of death and Cadia will allow them to better process their grief, like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants. Other characters talk more about their mother than the actual children of that mother mourning that mother. It’s difficult for me to go much further in describing the characters because once they travel to the fantasy realm their characterization gets put on hold as they encounter a slew of dull new people.

There are several scenes where we introduce a group of new, personality-free characters. That’s the other necessity with fantasy, writing larger, expressive, and memorable characters. There’s a Lost Boys-esque group of centuries-old Cadia dwellers, but this group could have been one person, could have been twelve, because there aren’t differentiated characters within, only actors fulfilling space in the frame. This isn’t the fault of the actors. They just weren’t given material to work with. A way to establish a memorable character is through a memorable entrance or at least with significant contrasts. Cadia has trouble with this even as it presents characters on opposite sides of its vague conflict that is eventually resolved through platitudes about love that could have been reached at any time prior to the characters’ fortuitous arrivals. The narrative feels polluted with extraneous characters that exist for no other reason than to squeeze another actor onscreen. Characters should have a purpose for their inclusion and the narrative shouldn’t be more or less the same without their involvement. With Cadia, you could eliminate 80% of the characters and still tell this story. Do we need a lady in the river? Do we need two untrustworthy schemers to tempt the kids? Is the cousin needed? When the big fight arrives, with side-versus-side, your guess is as good as mine who they are, why they are important, and what they’re even doing here.

The dialogue is also heavily expository, where characters are tasked with asking questions or making statements so that the audience will know critical points of information. Characters talk in inauthentic manners, the kind of stuff that seems like they know an audience is watching. “I know you’re having a hard time dealing with mom’s death,” sort of thing. Or you’ll have characters talk so point-of-fact, like this exchange: “Who’s good and bad?” and then, “Well that depends on who ‘you’ is. Good and bad depends.” It’s pretty on-the-nose, but even ignoring that, the two sentences in response are redundant, conveying the same idea. Naturally exposition is going to be needed when establishing an alternate, living world, but when it feels like characters are going from person to person to only digest info because the plot demands it, then it feels less like a film narrative and more of a museum display guiding you to the next exhibit.

The acting is a high-point for the movie. The triplets all handle their first big screen acting job reasonably well and demonstrate future promise. My favorite was probably Carly Sells as Renee, which is even more impressive considering she has the least amount of material to work with of the three. She has a particular sense of poise that lends to better imbuing life to her character. Keegan Sells is at his best in the beginning as he’s internalizing his grief and frustrations. Tanner Sells has a nonchalance to much of the world, which can be funny. Bernson is a lovable grump that doesn’t feel too off from his father figure in TV’s Psych. He doesn’t have much to do in the film but he’s a welcome presence who feels glad to be there. Phelps (Harry Potter) and Wells (Piranha Sharks) do a fine job as the resident schemers, concealing their intentions. Brittany Picard (Alan and the Fullness of Time) had a nice ethereal charm even in brief moments as the departed mother Maggie. Why wasn’t she in more? If mom is potentially alive, or at least corporeal in Cadia, why isn’t that a narrative resource to be tapped for further drama especially as it pertains to acknowledging loss? I was most impressed by Buggs (Powers) who was the one immediately processing the emotions of grief. She sells her scenes with subtlety and grace. Another pleasant standout was Grace Kelly (Kill Mamba Kill!) as Jade, the school guidance counselor. She has a presence that grabs you, and the fact that she’s a Marine athlete makes me yearn for her to have a starring action vehicle that can show off a full range of her capabilities. She’s a breakout star waiting to happen, so somebody make it happen.

The technical merits are pretty agreeable for being a low-budget feature, but there are a couple aspects that I think take away from the overall achievement. The cinematography is very limited in how it presents the scenes, which follows the pattern of master and then shot-reverse shot. There are very long running takes with a swooping Steadicam that centers the action. It can be impressive at points but at other points, as the scene carries on without variation, I began to wonder if this was continuing because, frankly, that was all they had to work with. The editing can also be curious with certain choices. There’s a scene where Aunt Alice runs out of the coffee shop, having learned of the children’s disappearance. Instead of the scene ending there, the moment holds for another four or five seconds on Jade’s reaction, which is fine considering later revelations. But even after that we hold on the scene and a waitress comes to ask about taking away the coffee cups, and Jade says, “Yes, you can take them.” Why was any of that necessary? The scene just carries on awkwardly after its import has literally left the building. During the family dinner, the camera circles around the table for a full minute while they gab and reach for the food. Did we need a full minute of them vamping while eating? Is this included simply because they wanted to maximize the amount of Bernson screen time they could? The costumes are pretty standard fantasy garb except when they’re not. During the big showdown, there are characters dressed in flowing robes and tunics, and then there are others just in ordinary clothes. There’s one woman in like a polka-dot skirt and it just directly draws your eye. This incongruity almost made me chuckle, and then polka-dot skirt lady is given prominence in the fight too. It’s unfair to be too critical on any technical limitations of a low-budget film as long as they don’t impede the vision and intent of the filmmakers, but these decisions occasionally took me out of the movie.

I honestly feel conflicted about writing this review because I knew it was going to have some significant criticisms. It’s genuinely impressive that a film like Cadia: The World Within got made, attracted known actors, and pulled it all off on a low budget with many artists who were eager to sink their teeth into a bigger project. I definitely think there is an audience for Cadia and that there will be plenty of people that genuinely enjoy the movie on its own terms. Afterwards, at the screening, one such fan asked about the possibility of a sequel (Gegel respectfully demurred). For me, the fantasy world felt diminished, opaque, and too often as ordinary as the “normal world.” The characters are kept at an archetypal level, or are superfluous additions, and the plot seems to lack urgency, propulsion, or needed steps to tap into larger emotions and themes or intrigue. It felt like watching a bunch of people having fun with make believe and putting on a show, and they just happened to have larger names involved in the fun. Cadia is a family fantasy that might play well for its intended audience but unfortunately is a fantasy that feels less than magical.

Nate’s Grade: C

Stuber (2019)

The problem with the alchemy of action comedies is that once the action starts too often they forget to be comedies. Stuber (a portmanteau of our title character and “Uber”) follows the exploits of Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) as a passive, awkward, insecure retail employee and Uber driver and his newest fare, Vic (Dave Bautista), an aggressive police officer who just had Lasik eye surgery. The opposites-attract setup is a comedy staple and Nanjiani (The Big Sick) and Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) are well chosen for their roles. The problem with the movie is that only one of them gets to do or say anything funny. Nanjiani is entrusted with all the film’s humor, relegated to his riffing while under duress or sardonic detachment. I laughed here and there but Stuber is missing inspired set pieces and larger payoffs. Too many of the jokes seem obvious or lazy. There’s one genuine gut-busting gag involving a can of propane in a high-speed chase, but this seems like the only application of tweaking action movie cliches. There are some disposable storylines about finding a mole in the police department, tracking down a Very Bad Guy (one of The Raid actors, curiously kept from doing martial arts after the opening segment), Stu telling his unrequited love how he feels, and Vic making it on time to appear to his adult daughter’s art gallery show. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the enjoyable oil-water chemistry between the two male leads. The majority of the jokes occur just from their frantic interactions, enough so that I wish the exterior storylines had been shaved away. The film’s tone is too uneven, and when in doubt it falls upon action beats over comedy beats, and some times the violence is just a bit too harsh for the material. It can kill the good vibes quickly. This is more Pineapple Express to me than 21 Jump Street, and while I don’t regret having watched Stuber, it’s a movie that is hardly deserving of a five-star rating. Three stars, at best.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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