Constraint (2019) [PART TWO]

Please read PART ONE if you have yet to as I try and better articulate my questions over this Columbus, Ohio indie and its confounding creative decision-making. Dear reader, I am going to take you live through this very intellectual and artistic assessment as I continue to watch Constraint.

The main plot revolves around Oracabessa (Brooklyn Sabino Smith), a young cellist, who becomes entangled in a web of human traffickers, led by Tuco (Ralph Scott).

I am now 45 minutes into the movie and screamed, “What?” to my screen. Oracabessa (Brooklyn Sabino Smith) is once again playing cello for a ballet class and the instructor doesn’t like the musical selection. She requests Wagner, and Oracabessa says she won’t. The instructor is animated and agitated and demands to know why she can’t play the composer. “I didn’t say I couldn’t play it. I won’t,” she replies. Why? Is this going to be like some character moment like in La La Land where Ryan Gosling gets fired for refusing to play the holiday music his boss asks for as dining accompaniment? I would think refusing to play what a client was requesting could cease in you getting more work from that client. And considering this one ballet class is the only thing we’ve watched her do for money, I wouldn’t be too pushy.

Oracabessa sees Tuco walking along the street again which begs the question of how protected does this guy think he is? She follows him but the ensuing tailing sequence goes through a blender of edits so it more implies the chase than allows it to establish. She then joins the college professor, and Derick, and others at a hookah bar to translate a French speaker. “What about having your own racial identity?” Why does this scene exist in a story about sex trafficking? Is the professor Oracabessa’s sister? Why was this never established earlier? There’s now a discussion over whether or not Jewish people should be defined by the Holocaust and its impact and it’s like a family dinner squabble, still with the omnipresent ADR dialogue, and I’m starting to lean into the arbitrary madness of Constraint as it further infects me.

We transition back to the life of Tuco, our beleaguered sex trafficker. He kills a guy for being late to a drug deal and I cannot say but this might have been Oracabessa’s brother from the previous family dinner scene. Tuco has his kidnapped women line up in their underwear so they can be “inspected” by his superior. He warns them not to “embarrass him,” though I have no idea how that would be achieved. And then the women start stripping off their clothes and the camera angles are PURPOSELY AIMED to highlight their full-frontal nudity, even one side view that captures all three women’s breasts in a row while cutting off their heads. That’s when I stood out of my chair, cursed this movie out loud, and paced around the room in building anger.

Nudity in film by itself doesn’t have to be sexual or gratuitous, but this nudity is meant for titillation, framed for this purpose, and to squeeze this into the context of sex trafficking, a very depressing and all-too-real reality for many, I felt extremely grossed out. The scene doesn’t need visible nudity to feel the distress and vulnerability of the captured women. I love exploitation movies as entertainment, and have even supported a few financially, but story context and tone are key. The women of this moment are there to be objectified and the camera objectifies them too. You know how I know how these actresses felt about this scene? None of their last names can be found in the film’s credits, so I don’t think they were too happy to have their full names associated.

We now transition to another new perspective, this time Nicolas’ parents (Dino Tripodis and Kristina Kopf, The Street Where We Live). “He experimented with something exotic,” the father says, and I don’t know if this implies that dad is racist for thinking “black” equals “exotic.” This entire scene feels even more student film-esque than the rest, with the editing choices and the characters dancing around critiques of domesticity and parenting. The wide angles that suddenly cut to extreme close-ups of faces, the jump cuts, and ADR sound design, it’s all starting to make this feel like a foreign film that’s trying to be New Wave arty. “You didn’t even leave your son with the hopeful illusion that maybe his parents were in love at one time,” mom says. The dialogue in this movie feels like it was written by an A.I. at many points. Nicolas later confronts dad who is apparently out on a date with another woman, and he does so with his mom in tow. “My whole life, the one thing you’ve been good at, is making people cry,” Nicolas bemoans. The wide shots showcase a bar/restaurant with nobody else in attendance, again another mistake with revealing the limitations of filmmaking. Now the scene is suddenly in black and white, so is this an established flashback? If the whole thing was a flashback for Nicolas then why wasn’t it all coded in black and white? Wait, then Nicolas’ own voice over narration is coming in while dad is talking in the present. We then pull into a flashback of Nicolas telling the story of meeting his divorced father in the park to Oracabessa, so we witnessed a flashback-within-a-flashback for a side character. “What would you say is the most devastating thing to happen in your life?” he asks Oracabessa. Sheesh, if this is your pillow talk no wonder she dumped you, dude. There’s now a flashback 23 years to Jamaica with Oracabessa’s biological father. There’s an ongoing streak of whispered poetic voice over from Terrence Malick films. What movie am I watching now? I can’t keep up with the shifting perspectives and visual vocabulary that keeps being broken so flagrantly and randomly.

Folks, the erratic edits have not gotten any better and a conversation will randomly jump from four different camera positions from line to line to completely obliterate flow.

Derick and Nicolas are fighting over Oracabessa, who doesn’t want either of them, and then Oracabessa is playing at a big recital, and again I have to remind myself this is supposed to be a movie about sex trafficking but it’s playing like some small-town ensemble piece (why else do the same people keep running into each other in a city of over a million?) but like a Christopher Guest mockumentary (Waiting for Guffman) played straight. Why does Tuco even attend this recital?! Oracabessa follows him and the chase has several nice camera angles for a low-budget indie, and it’s also edited in a way that maintains the suspense and is readable for the audience, going from better selected angles to convey the progression of the chase and Oracabessa following closely. The music, however, is way too overwrought and we watch Tuco go into a restaurant, eat, and then leave with Oracabessa following again. Why did we need a pitstop? She didn’t even go inside.

Tuco finally ambushes Oracabessa and runs her over, which triggers a flashback of her son (?) she confessed she lost (in the flashback with Nicolas) being run over in the past. The way the scene plays doesn’t make it seem like she was witness to this event for recollection. Nope, it’s just a kid that Oracabessa’s father ran over while she was a child, which explains why she could recall this moment but also makes it too confusing for an audience to adjust to what is being thrown at us without context as it plays. It wasn’t even in black and white, which is the established code for flashback. A drunk driver then plows into Tuco’s car, which smashes into Tuco, finally killing him and setting Ralph Scott (Minus One) free from the earthly bonds of this movie. Oracabessa takes his I.D., gun, and sets off, presumably, on a path of righteous vengeance as she… wanders into the woods, but what do I know?

So this one woman had her father run over a child, abandon her, then she lost a child of her own, and has been stalked by human traffickers. This is getting into telenovela territory of melodrama. And so ends PART TWO of my real-time review of Constraint.

Constraint (2019) [PART ONE]

A most unusual thing happened when I was watching the Ohio-made indie Constraint on Amazon Prime; I was so bewildered by the filmmaking choices that I had to stop and begin writing my thoughts immediately on the movie even as it continued playing. This is a rarity, a movie that causes such confusion that I feel compelled to articulate my thoughts in the moment rather than, as I normally do, assessing them upon completion. I wasn’t expecting any of this. Constraint has a very serious subject, sex trafficking, and filmed in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, which has itself a very serious problem with sex trafficking networks. It starred familiar faces from my other Ohio indie viewings of recent. But then within only three minutes, I had to pause at several points, walk around my room muttering questions to myself, and couldn’t go much further in the movie without repeating this process. So, dear reader, I am going to take you live through this very intellectual and artistic assessment as I continue to watch Constraint.

The plot revolves around Oracabessa (Brooklyn Sabino Smith), a young cellist, who becomes entangled in a web of human traffickers, led by Tuco (Ralph Scott). Other characters will come and go into her orbit but Oracabessa is our guiding point.

Within minutes, I was already starting to question decisions, or practical limitations, exhibited by writer/director/editor/cinematogpraher Richard A. Nelson (The Endangered). Even the opening credits are strange with listing an assistant director before blocks of cast names and then zipping by in a blink as to render their inclusion seemingly moot. Then there was the realization that all of the dialogue sounded like it had been ADR, meaning recorded later and indoors. Not just outdoors scenes, which can be notorious for wind and auxiliary noise, but also indoor settings. Honestly, it made me immediately think of the notorious Mystery Science Theater 3000 high point/low point, Manos: The Hands of Fate, a movie from 1966 where every line of dialogue was recorded after filming and, what sounds like, in a bathroom, and sometimes with one actor providing both voices to a conversation of two characters. Immediately, my mind starts going into formulating some kind of explanation why this might be, what could have led to this, and I’ll fully admit to striking some of my criticisms if they vanish later in the film.

The editing choices can be jarring and forced me to stop the movie at several points. An early scene, at the four-and-a-half-minute mark, has our lead Oracabessa visiting her boyfriend, Nicolas (Aaron Geib). The camera moves to a wide angle as they settle at a kitchen table. Within seconds there are two jump cuts but they eliminate mere seconds or fractions of seconds of footage. Then there’s a quick cut to an exterior of the apartment, presumably to “clear the edit” and allow a passage of time or at least a new camera angle. Nope, we come right back to the same shot. Why? Why not just start with the shot from after the exterior cut of her passing her drink to him? Why did the previous moments need to be seen? What then follows is a close-up of the food, fully prepared, and the boyfriend has his line entirely off screen. This is the stilted dialogue that follows:

Him: “It’s a peace offering? What are we, at war?”

Her: “Man and woman in any kind of relationship are always at war. It’s just a matter of what degree.”

She then passes by him and it jump cuts (same camera angle) to him responding, then it pans over to her at the other end of a doorway, and then after her line it literally cuts back to his position on the doorway (same camera angle) to walk over to her. What? Why not just pan both ways? She responds and then we have ANOTHER JUMP CUT (SAME CAMERA ANGLE) and then ANOTHER JUMP CUT (YOU GET IT) of her a step forward walking past him, and then ANOTHER JUMP CUT (YOU KNOW IT) of him looking off screen at her. The camera angle then changes, mercifully, to a medium shot (with her head cut off) of her pulling off her ring followed by a different medium shot (with her head now visible) of her placing it atop a bookshelf. We then cut back to the EXACT SAME previous shot of the guy still looking off screen in response. There’s a couple more cuts as she leaves and then the movie jumps into a bizarre montage of images as she’s riding on her moped with a fixed handlebar-POV shot, a closeup in slow motion, and black and white inserts of her presumably as a child.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have no idea what to tell you beyond watch the segment (5:30-6:30) for yourself and join in my mounting alarm and confusion. Even if the production was stuck with minimal camera setups, why jump so haphazardly from moment to moment with jump cuts? Why use pans so sparingly when they could keep an audience in the moment? If the point of the scene is to impart a distance, a lack of engagement in this couple’s relationship, the staging and editing could have better communicated this without resorting to off-putting decisions.

The next moment of curiosity occurs seconds later as Oracabessa attends a very sparsely populated college lecture (I literally counted 12 people in a hall that likely seats 200). Again, the noticeable ADR sound, again the annoying jump cuts, and again confusing choices about the staging of the scene. The professor is arguing over reparations and there’s a moment where it cuts to a black and white still image of the professor and then cuts back to her talking. Is this an Oliver Stone movie? A (white male) college student protests he shouldn’t have to pay for his ancestors’ bad deeds and gets into a fight with another student, but the majority of the crowd shots are taken from one very wide angle. When the students confront one another, the camera doesn’t move, doesn’t get us closer, and they just occupy a small portion of our screen, which then cuts to another exterior shot and back to the same interior angle again. I’ll accept that the professor, and the older man monitoring her teaching, were filmed at a separate time and cut to look together with the crowd of students. I get scheduling shortfalls, but why make it all the more apparent to your viewer? Why film in a way that highlights how empty the space of this lecture hall is? Why shoot with such static angles? And why again do we get so much weird edits that break up the flow of the scene? Reader, I am only eight minutes in.

I just counted six edits and three different camera angles just to capture Oracabessa copying a paper on a copy machine. It’s a twelve-second scene which raises the question why multiple camera angles were needed to simply convey she copies something and why we needed twelve seconds on this task. I am just completely bewildered by the editing choices of this.

Credit where its due, the investigation scene of Oracabessa looking through old microfilm at the library on missing person reports is the place where jump cuts and rapid edits are beneficial. The black and white flashback is confusing though whether it constitutes the events that actually happened, seeing a young woman and little boy somehow separately being stalked by an unseen driver in a car regardless of the fact that they’re walking in opposite directions, or whether it’s Oracabessa’s imagination playing out over what might have taken place.

The movie then seems to transition its protagonist, switching to Alice (Maya Sayre), the mother of the missing boy, who is identified via a subtitle at the bottom as if this was a documentary subject. She seems to be sitting in a coffee shop with a stack of missing fliers and… signing them? I don’t know. There are more quick cuts of things like a closeup of a teacup and then Alice sitting alone at a park. The trees all around her have missing posters of her son tacked on, which starts to beg the question of why put it on twelve trees in close vicinity to one another unless Alice has an endless supply of disposable money for unlimited copies or really hates trees. She is literally posting the same flier within mere feet of one another.

Here, finally, is an example I can praise for its filmmaking choices. Alice is postering the neighborhood when the bad trafficker Tuco then pulls up to her in his car and says, “Oh, your son is missing?” As he asks about her circumstances, the camera hangs on Sayre (One Dollar) to deliver the moment with her performance and it works. It works because the camera allows us to stay in the scene and because of the trust in the actors. She’s heartbroken but still unable to fully articulate her grief, and it’s a beautifully acted moment of desperation. She even looks like Jessica Chastain in certain angles, especially profile. When Tuco walks up to her, the camera angle remains the same but to the benefit of the scene this time, as his size towers over her, dwarfing her, his head cut out of the frame, his arm thrown around her shoulder, providing potential comfort or potential constraint, and we already fear for her safety. She invites him into her home and they have a nice talk, with Alice lamenting how people are no longer kind. The irony seems to be building, and finally Constraint feels like a movie with purpose.

This is legitimately a good scene as Tuco vacillates over what to do with Alice. Her dubbing him a gentleman seems to dial up his sense of shame and he leaves for another room where we see him take out his gun and then put it back. Will his compromised sense of morality win out? Even the clipped framing helps this case by placing the emphasis on Scott’s hands and the gun. Their conversation lingers and the camera continues running, and that’s how to drive tension. Unfortunately, her horny desperation to get him to stay and the weird song that plays in the background as if they were trapped in an elevator undermine the scene’s suspense.

More bizarre editing choices as the scene of Tuco talking with a crony literally jumps from a super wide shot to a closer shot as they trade lines. It makes me think of the Sesame Street bit where Elmo demonstrates near and far. After several more erratic edits, the film leaps to a shot of Tuco waiting in his car, but it’s being filmed from an angle where a pole or pillar is obscuring his very face from being seen on camera. Why choose an obstructed view of this? Even more baffling, a minute later the movie indicates Oracabessa is observing Tuco kidnap another young woman and throw her in his car and drive off. And. Oracabessa. Does. Nothing. Not even call the police, try and yell back and create attention, even jot down a license plate number. Perhaps she wasn’t literally viewing this spectacle, but when you cut to her walking in what looks like the same setting as this is going down, then you’re going to convey this interpretation to your audience.

A stranger who has been hardcore eyeballing Oracabessa as she played cello for some little ballet dancers stops her on the street. He compliments her playing and then leans a hand out and says, “May I?” and then bizarrely strokes the side of her face. “Your face is flawless,” he says in an accent that invites imitation, all while gripping her face. “It is like glass. Like caramel-colored glass.” Why is she allowing this creeper to continue doing this? This is even before he says he’s a music school bigwig and think she has real talent. Does this woman have any sense of self-preservation? The characterization for her doesn’t make any sense from scene to scene.

There’s another flashback where she recognizes Callie (Jennifer Ann Hickey), the female partner for Tuco, and that she had the missing boy beside her in the same car Tuco was driving. Again, is she imagining this and trying to connect mental dots (it’s played in a kind of black and white) or did this happen, which means that yet again she should have recognized Tuco as he was abducting a new girl in front of her. Then I laughed out loud when the camera does a sudden zoom into Tuco’s car followed by a close-up of Callie turning to face the camera and glaring. I thought Tarantino’s Kill Bill music was going to commence. Does Callie somehow recognize Oracabessa too? She starts running away, and again this is an opportunity for Oracabessa to call the police or write down Tuco’s license plate number, and she does nothing, eventually fleeing herself.

The editing proceeds as follows: Oracabessa is on the run. We hear a classical music piece to note the tension. We then see Tuco’s car trailing Oracabessa. Inside Tuco’s car, the same classical music piece is playing but noticeably softer, trying to imply the music is diagetic to the car radio? Then we cut to a hand on an acoustic guitar and a young woman singing at a party, which also seems kind of like an attention-grabbing thing to do unless the party is centered upon your performance. It’s only revealed later that Oracabessa is at this party. The same professor from earlier asks to dance with Oracabessa and literally holds her hands and barely sways, like a child’s idea of what slow dancing would be. This same professor then admits to inviting Oracabessa’s ex Nicolas and then says to dance with her. All of this is the same shot too. Nicolas then hovers over Oracabessa, butts into her dance, and then they awkwardly stand next to one another without saying a word for thirty seconds, and then the other dancee comes back. What?

The movie jumps perspective again, this time following the ex Nicolas, who goes home and sits on the bed he and Oracabessa used to occupy. There’s a post-coital flashback, which features Smith nude, and I felt protective of the actress, like she shouldn’t have to get naked for this. There’s even more stilted dialogue between the pair:

Him: “In every great love affair, you gotta have a nickname. Yeah, I gotta come up with a nickname for you.”

Her: “I detest nicknames. They’re arbitrary.”
Him: “Naw, your birth name is given before your personality has time to develop. A nickname is usually based on a personal trait.”

Her: “It’s an intimate thing naming a person.”
Him: “Well… I think you’re a… ‘Saffron.’’

Her: “Why Saffron?”

Him: “It’s got a malevolous ring to it. And you with your angular edges. I gotta name you something pleasant, right?”

Oh my God, people do not talk like this, at least the people of Earth. This scene could have been cute and a snapshot of their better times as a couple but now it just makes whatever they had feel even more bizarre. The dialogue is very unnatural throughout Constraint and reminiscent of something I would find in a Neil Breen movie, and it pains me to make that comparison.

Another guy, Derrick (Kenyatta Foster), is also interested in Oracabessa and having a flashback of falling for her, and why am I seeing any of this? Her anecdote about “sympathetic vibrations” from a cello is actually a well written aside that she can explain her dating goals with, but it’s hobbled by the guy just leering over her: “I can give that to you baby, you just have to see.” He goes for the kiss and she consents, which makes me question whether she cheated on her now-ex-boyfriend or what the timeline was for this, or even whether this might just be in his head. I do like that it cuts from him kissing Oracabessa to him kissing the professor, and he’s clearly not into her. That’s an honest-to-God clever editing choice and better conveys the character’s response.

So many jump cuts, so much day-for-night shooting, so many confusing geographies, so many quick exterior shots after spending time indoors just to cut back to the same indoors, and now even more nudity from our lead actress with a gratuitous shower scene. This woman deserves better.

Tuco has somehow tracked her though we have no idea how and hidden in her closet. Instead of killing her when she was in the shower, to avoid the Psycho homage I suppose, he waits until she’s performing her cello. They fight and she beats him with her cello and uses the bow like a riding crop. Yet she doesn’t call the police after nearly being stabbed by an intruder, when the assailant’s weapon is still there, as well as his blood, for physical evidence. Tuco comes back but she has a few intimidating dudes standing around as a posse. Then we cut to ballet! Why? Is the threat over? Why does this guy even see Oracabessa as a threat considering she’s never reported him? How did he find out where she lived? Her apartment looks like the interior of a school. How is any of this adding up to the larger narrative? I am just so lost with the creative choices here.

I’m actually going to turn this review into a multi-part series to make it more digestible for you, dear reader, so thus concludes PART ONE. Read PART TWO.

Extraction (2020)

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

Nate’s Grade: B-

Among Them (2019)

Among Them was described in its advertising as “Tarantino meets Bad Times at the El Royale,” and ignoring the fact that Bad Times is itself a colorful Tarantino-styled homage, what I was really reminded of was Waiting for Godot. For those unfamiliar with Samuel Beckett’s existential play, it follows two gentlemen who do nothing much more than waiting for a man named Godot who never shows up. They get involved in philosophical discussions, and many have intuited that Godot is a representation of God, to Beckett’s dismay, but it’s really a two-act play that involves a whole lot of waiting and the question over why. This is the extent of Among Them’s 90-minute total – a lot of waiting and a lot of questions over why bother.

Two bank robbers, Mick (Dan Liebman) and Harry (Jonathan Thomson), are hiding out in a motel room off the coast. Their bank heist has gone wrong and they’re awaiting the proper papers to escape overseas under new identities. They also discover a woman, bound and gagged, inside the trunk of their getaway car assigned to them from their bosses. Syd (Evalena Marie) could be a liability and they need to make sure she doesn’t get them caught.

The problem with the screenplay by director Kevin James Barry (Serena and the Ratts) and co-star Marie (Dark Haul) is that it has conflated being vague with the idea of being mysterious. There’s far too little going on in this story and far too little that makes much sense. Our criminal duo is following instructions to lie low at a motel. That’s it. They don’t really know who they’re working for, what those plans might include, and so they wait for some unknown source to finally give them their new passports to escape from the police. Being kept in the dark with your characters can be a benefit for storytelling because you are forced to think things through at the character’s level, which works nicely for paranoia thrillers and mysteries. However, when you don’t put in the necessary work, it just makes the story feel unfinished and pointlessly protracted.

I can clearly see the Tarantino elements that the filmmakers attach to Among Them, the bank robbers hiding after a job gone wrong, the kidnapped character becoming part of the team, the motel that might not be all that it appears to be, but these are just elements. What’s desperately missing from Among Them is the intricate plotting and superb characterization one comes to expect from a QT joint. If we’re going to be stuck with these characters in a confined setting, then we need either intriguing developments or engaging personalities that draw us in. Well, considering the story involves characters just waiting around a motel room and seeing weird ghostly visions, plot development isn’t going to be the winner. This is really where Among Them creates an artistic ceiling for itself with its bland characters who we’re stuck hanging around with. Neither Mick nor Harry are charismatic, interesting, or even that dangerous. There aren’t even that many differences between them. If you’re keeping characters cooped up, it would be smart to have some sort of interpersonal conflict that threatens to boil over and ruin things. Think about From Dusk ‘til Dawn and Tarantino’s character and his creepy fixation on an underage hostage, or the different agendas in Bad Times. Just because the characters are seemingly losing their minds doesn’t replace dynamic and necessary characterization.

This brings me to the character of Syd, whom I do not understand at all. She’s discovered in the trunk of a car that was designated for our bank robbers. You would naturally think this woman either means something important enough to be captured or presents an intriguing enigma. This is another consequence of keeping everything so overwhelmingly vague. The characters don’t seem too bothered to learn more about her and why she was placed in the trunk of their car, which just seems like a criminal lack of curiosity on their part. Even worse, Syd doesn’t seem too interested herself why she ended up in somebody’s trunk. I figured she would want to run away at the first opportunity, but she doesn’t, and instead just hangs around with the guys, eagerly volunteering to help on their “spy missions.” If her perspective was going to be off kilter, then this could have opened up the character more, making her a wildcard who could take things too far, perhaps provide a dangerous threat to the characters achieving their goal, something. The fact that a bound stranger is gifted to them and they don’t have to thwart her from escaping feels bizarrely wasted. Why even bother with this scenario if nothing is to be done with it after twenty minutes?

Among Them fills its meandering runtime with unexplained supernatural imagery and dream sequences, which don’t so much convey the unique emotional trauma of the characters as it does serve up conventional spooky imagery and pad the running time. I held on waiting to see if there would be a viable explanation for everything, and I was left waiting unfulfilled, much like the main characters. I think the filmmakers were trying to get the audience to doubt what they watched, and show the characters are descending into madness, but it also doesn’t quite work. There isn’t an escalation for them. They don’t seem more unbound as things progress. These eerie visions don’t lead them to make drastic choices, though the movie comes close. Therefore, it just feels like a supernatural presence is messing around with people in a vague and unsatisfying manner because it, too, must be bored. It feels like weird things are happening to goose up a narrative that doesn’t have enough conflict or engaging characters.

From a production standpoint, Among Them looks relatively solid for a low-budget thriller. Having a limited location works for an indie production and the director seems to use every part of his space to keep things from getting visually dull. The acting is overall decent with the standout being Marie as a frightened victim who becomes the most interesting character among the three. Another actor worthy of note is Michael Reed (Chupacabra Territory) as the creepy motel clerk who is, from the get-go, clearly hiding something nefarious about his intentions.

Among Them is a fairly pedestrian thriller that had potential to be something more but is trapped by a stunning lack of imagination and intrigue. There are questions to be had and mysteries to be uncovered, but the subsequent supernatural twists and turns amount to distractions. The screenplay is absent memorable characters with complexity, conflict, and even colorful personalities to make spending all this free time with them something other than a chore. I never really knew what was happening and the characters didn’t seem too eager to find out either. Among Them is more a listless experience than a painful one, a tale that doesn’t ever seem to get started despite some surefire story elements just sitting there. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a disappointing 90s indie crime version of Waiting for Godot, then Among Them is chief among them.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Another Version of You (2019)

As for my Ohio indies round-up, Another Version of You (available on Amazon Prime) was recommended to me, and even though it was filmed in Tennessee I want to contort to consider it an Ohio-related project. One of the producers, Ryan Hartsock, seems to hail from Ohio. One of the supporting actresses, Brittany Belland, grew up in Cincinnati and attended Ohio State. It even features a cameo from famous Ohio State Heisman Trophy-winning running back Eddie George. For these reasons, I’m considering Another Version of You (formerly titled Other Versions of You) as Ohio-adjacent. I want to consider it Ohio-related because it’s very entertaining and well made. Another Version of You is a delightful and imaginative little gem of a movie that is proof positive how concept and the right people are how you make a standout lower-budget indie.

Diggsy Ellston (Kristopher Wente) is heartbroken. His longtime friend and secret crush, Suzette (Sara Antonio), has just gotten married to another man. Daphne (Belland) tries her best to remind her brother that there are more fish in the proverbial sea. Then at the bar a mysterious stranger (George) takes pity on him and gifts Diggsy a magic key that fits any lock and opens doors to parallel worlds. Diggsy is skeptical but curious. He uses the key and steps out into a brave new universe, and he decides to keep going until he can find a Suzette for him.

I’m a sucker for time travel and parallel universe stories because they involve so many playful possibilities and imagination and don’t need huge special effects or expansive sets. You can tell a fascinating time travel/parallel world tale with a single apartment building. It’s all dependent upon the ingenuity of the storyteller and I’ve always loved the sheer open possibility inherent (I’ve written my own time travel and parallel world screenplays). I had a lot of hope with Another Version of You simply based upon the premise, and after the first fifteen minutes, I was finding myself smitten. There were several segments in the first hour where I was urging the movie to take a new turn, to follow through on an advantageous dramatic development, and then it dived right in and I pumped my fist and celebrated. Writer/director Motke Dapp (The Many Monsters of Sadness) must have been secretly plugged into my brain, waiting for my anticipation, and then ready to reap my mental high-fives. The twists and turns kept me glued to the movie and then something began to rise inside me I haven’t experienced during my viewing of most local movies, and that was, to paraphrase the dearly missed President Obama, the audacity of hope. I felt like I had something special blooming before me on my TV. While it doesn’t quite nail the ending (more on that later), I was highly entertained throughout this swoon-worthy concoction of romance, destiny, science fiction, and dramatic left turns.

Naturally, having an unlimited access to parallel worlds invites plenty of questions about rules, so it’s understandable that the different realms we hop between aren’t all that different. It’s not like a Rick and Morty episode where in one world the Nazis won World War II (why is this always to go-to for parallel worlds/alternative timelines?) or in another world dinosaurs never died out and evolved into humanoids. It’s okay to be limited, so every time Diggsy moves from one universe to another, he inevitably runs into the same faces from his familiar life even if he’s overseas in Iceland. Given the breezy rom-com tone, I thought this was a smart move, like that no matter the world the characters are anchored to one another. I will say there was room for further comedy and exploration with the differences in universes (Will Smith not passing on The Matrix), but since it’s about core character relationships, focusing on the people and less the new worlds guarantees the best audience investment. The different worlds themselves are almost inconsequential. It’s about who the people are in these spaces and how that reflects on Diggsy.

That doesn’t mean that Another Version of You lacks a strong sense of the implications of its rules. From the get-go, there is no set number of universes, which means the chances of Diggsy returning to his own universe seem near impossible. I thought about his sister at home being distraught that her brother was lost to her. While the movie doesn’t dwell on this reality, it doesn’t remove it. There are some real unsettling consequences to this power. There are people that Diggsy runs into that get trapped in other parallel worlds, absent the ability to escape. Again, sometimes it’s played for laughs but other times it’s played for tragedy. What happens when you’re a refugee from another world and there’s already one of you occupying your spot? I wondered if Another Version of You would go into even darker territory, reminiscent of the final season of the brilliant TV series Mr. Robot, where the transplanted Diggsy accidentally, or intentionally, murders the native Diggsy so there is only one version present. I thought about him trying to pay for anything in these worlds. Would his prime universe credit card even work? Otherwise he seemed destined to run out of on-hand cash soon. This perspective isn’t ever really explored in great detail, and that’s fine, but my mind kept bouncing to intriguing implications and dangers from the premise.

One of the hardest hitting moments relates to the best part of the movie, and that’s the magnetic and talented actress Brittany Belland (The Sleeper, Clowntergeist). Early on she’s a winning and warm presence, but then her reappearance once the universe-hopping occurs complicates things. This universe Daphne has lost her brother and she’s overwhelmed to see him magically back. When he talks about leaving, she fights to keep him, breaking down and arguing the pain of losing Diggsy and then having this amazing opportunity to have him back in her life, to tell him all that she never had the chance to say to her departed brother. It’s a moment of stunningly felt acting from Belland who doesn’t go over-the-top with her performance. I was thrilled when her character stayed in the story longer and found her own version of a happy ending; the movie got better once Diggsy had an out-of-state partner. After having seen this Daphne at an emotionally distraught low point, it was very pleasing to watch her have fun, get flirty, and beam that incandescent smile. Belland can do heavy scenes. She could do light-hearted fizzy scenes. She could do it all. Belland reminded me at turns of Lake Bell or Carrie Coon; she felt like a real discovery, like I was watching someone excitingly new who had the versatility to make it big. I felt like I had found a future star. Then I saw the movie dedicated to Belland, and I was confused. I looked it up and quite sadly learned that Belland passed away in late 2018. I never knew this woman and I legit felt like I was in some degree of mourning. A pall came over me. I’m making a point of watching as many of her available performances as I can. She was so good, dear reader. I mean it.

The other actresses are also notable highlights, particularly Antonio (The Reason, Christmas at Graceland) who gets the most versatility in the cast. She’s the object of Diggsy’s desire so just about every pit stop in every universe involves some version of Suzette appearing. Antonio demonstrates real impressive range; this whole movie could be her acting reel for any future part. She gets to play the manic pixie dream girl on crack cartoon version of Suzette, a sultry and aggressive version of Suzette, a sunny and domestic version, a terminally ill and wizened version of Suzette, and the romantic drama version, the one who would top-line a movie, a slightly awkward, vulnerable but undeniably appealing version. She’s great. Another surprise is C.J. Perry (Pitch Perfect) as a cafe worker named Gwyneth who comes into Diggsy’s orbit. Perry is best known to WWE fans as “Lana,” a world I’m generally ignorant of. She has a natural charisma and presence and, in another world, I could have seen her finding her footing in a world of features than a ring.

This is also one of the best looking lower-budget indies I’ve ever watched. The cinematography by Micah Simms is chock full of vibrant color and visual arrangements that feel ready-made for postcard replication. Even the opening segment caught my attention, as we go from a bride and groom being whisked away in their car only to reveal Diggsy drinking away his disappointment as the car drives out of the frame. That is sharp and direct and impactful visual storytelling. I knew I was in good hands already. I can see why Dapp works in commercials. He has a dynamic feel for putting together pleasing visual arrangements that don’t become self-consciously arty. The compositions with foreground and background can be blessed. The interior sets are impeccably designed and dressed to provide personality and, later, contrasts. For a movie mostly told from a series of rooms, Simms and Dapp choose different locales prudently to avoid redundancy. The footage from Iceland and its unique landscapes is refreshing. It’s not like there’s a glut of overly stylized camera movements. The film’s sense of style is not a creative trap that dooms many indie productions, boxing them in. It’s twee without being overbearingly so. I don’t recall even much in the way of camera movements. Dapp knows how to frame, light, and color a scene and doesn’t need to rub it in your face. I was impressed from the opening wedding march to the last shot. I will completely be in this man’s camp for his next film project and, if there’s a crowdfunding campaign, I would gladly contribute. Dapp has a clear understanding of how to tell a story visually and how to get the best from his skilled actors.

The story keeps moving forward with such intrigue and playfulness, cleverly tapping into its potential for exploration and complication, that I was worried whether or not the ending could keep up. The last act isn’t disappointing by any means but it lacks that same heightened level of promise the first hour exuded. It’s a central reason why Another Version of You is so tantalizingly close to total greatness: the character of Diggsy just isn’t terribly interesting. Early on, our introduction is that he’s lovesick over his crush getting married. When we cut to the requisite flashback of his regret, the moment he could have opened up to her about how he really feels, I felt very little for Suzette and Diggsy being together. They didn’t feel like a couple that I would root for. They didn’t even feel like close friends in that flashback. It was a misfire for the character as far as making me board his mission. He literally leaves his friends and family to chase after a universe where he can get his ideal version of his girl. Even forgetting that, there are several universes he discovers where he and Suzette are even together romantically but there are factors Diggsy doesn’t want. In one universe, Suzette has a child, in another she’s pregnant, with the indication it’s Diggsy’s baby, and the guy skedaddles hastily out the door (“I didn’t sign up for kids.”). I thought maybe the film would relay a commentary about Diggsy’s sense of possession of a Suzette like in 2012’s Ruby Sparks, an underrated and disturbing movie about the negative lengths of trying to manufacture and own/entrap one’s idealized mate. Nope.

The compound effect of the first act makes Diggsy seem overly selfish and a bit of a douche. I was never sold on wanting to see him get this girl, and as a result I wasn’t really interested in any of his relationships. Diggsy, as a character, is very opaque, his identity caught up in chasing after his dream of a woman. He’s even told, from one of those versions of that woman, that his idea of her may not even exist. That’s a good lesson but Diggsy seems stubbornly slow to learn. Kristopher Wente (Legal Action, Hour of Lead) does fine work in the role but Diggsy is too often more a reactive vehicle for the audience’s otherworldly exploration.

Whimsical, exceedingly cute, heartfelt without being cloying, and surprisingly dark at points, Another Version of You is close to everything I could want from its clever, budget-friendly premise. I don’t want to make it seem like this movie is cheap. It’s a sunny and could measure up with any general Hollywood indie in technical accomplishments. This is an easy movie to get sucked into and it doesn’t take long to get running. It reminded me of The Adjustment Bureau (a personal fave, and an inspiration for my own time travel script too) and About Time. The storytelling here just flat-out works, more so with the supporting characters and the intricate and playful possibilities, best demonstrated with the character of Daphne and the excellent Belland. I was getting really excited as the movie kept going, following through with its fun potential. Clearly Dapp has thought through his film, but I honestly could have even used another 20-30 minutes to maximize the emotional investment in the lead character and his lovesick cause. This is one of the best indies I’ve had the pleasure of watching as I started my critical Ohio indie odyssey (even though it was filmed in Tennessee). I advise lovers of brainy rom-coms and human-scale sci-fi to check out Another Version of You. It’s a true keeper.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Platform (2019)

What better time to Netflix and chill than when the state is demanding it? I recently watched The Platform, a Spanish sci-fi flick steeped in mystery and metaphor. Get ready for what could be dubbed “a vertical Snowpiercer.”

Goreng (Ivan Massague) wakes up in what looks like an endless stone tenement building. There are two people per floor and a large hole in the middle of the room. The food arrives via a descending platform that begins as a feast. Each floor has two minutes to eat, cannot hoard any food, and will have to subsist off what those above them left behind. Goreng’s floormate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) is one month away from being released from his time. He also might be losing his mind and definitely resorted to cannibalism before. Goreng has to decide what lines he’s willing to cross in order to survive and also to protect others.

The metaphors for The Platform are very heavy-handed and obvious but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective in their blunt force. It’s a literal dystopian tower of human beings with the lower floors eating off the spoils of those residing above them. There’s only so much to go around but charity isn’t on the mind of too many of the residents. Better to feed when you get an opportunity than worry about who comes after you. Goreng asks about trying to talk to the neighbors above and below and this notion is scoffed at by his floormate. The people above will not talk to them because, simply, they are beneath them. The ones below Goreng and Trimagasi? Who cares, they’re beneath and thus inferior. Trimagasi takes a wine bottle and smashes it rather than let the men below him have it. Why perform this spiteful action? “It’s what’s been done to me,” he says without irony. I’m reminded of the reticence some have about easing student debt and other penalties; “I had to suffer, so why should these people not have to suffer the same?” The disregard seems to fluctuate depending upon how close one becomes to the prized top floor. Every month the inhabitants will randomly change floors, so someone who was closer to the top must now reconcile with being lower, and the food only goes so many floors before it’s picked clean. This perspective of being on the bottom doesn’t so much alter behavior as engenders a ravenous sense of “get what you can when able” to pervade. The people so many floors down will simply never even be granted the opportunity to eat unless those above change their consumption habits and sense of empathy. Nobody even knows how far down the floors go. 150? 250? More? Where is the proverbial bottom?

The story is kept in a vague explanation but that doesn’t stop the fun. We enter with Goreng and learn as he does what this place does to its people. He learns the rules of this new reality which is part dystopian prison, part game, part experiment. The stated utility of such a place is rather hard to fathom, so it’s best that screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero keep the action confined to simply exploring the world within the vertical structure. There are a handful of flashbacks showing the interview process to enter the facility (Trimagasi is shocked to learn his floormate volunteered to enter such a place) but they are brief and could have been excised. This is one of those sci-fi conceits like Cube where the location is the story and simply learning more about how the day-to-day operates, its rules of functioning, its punishments, and the dangers is where the real draw of the story comes from. With the monthly reallocation, the movie keeps things interesting by dramatically changing Goreng’s standing. Just as it feels like he’s understanding his surroundings, they change, and force him into a new dilemma. When he’s stuck on a far lower floor one month, will he resort to cannibalism to survive? When he’s high above, will he use his fleeting power to enforce some social justice on the floors below, ensuring that lower floors get an opportunity to dine by rationing the food? Each new placement keeps things interesting and challenging for our protagonist, which is what good sci-fi should do.

Because of its general vague nature, The Platform relies more upon the strength of its ideas, metaphors, and discovery than on its structure for answers. There really isn’t an ending here. There is an end but it’s more symbolic and implicit than definitive, which makes sense considering that the preceding 94 minutes is running off metaphor and mystery primarily. The last act becomes either a foolish or brave attempt to make a difference despite the unique conditions of the location. The characters have theories and rumors, as well as a nagging suspicion that something has gone wrong from the original design, but they don’t know like the rest of the audience whether or not change is even possible from above. The ending is pretty open-ended and left to interpretation whether or not this attempt would even be recognized. Do the people who engineered this whole experiment/prison really care? It can spark discussion with friends but it’s also a development that might leave as many viewers unsatisfied by the lack of substantial answers or anything that can be viewed as definitive. Much like Cube, the space just carries on with more bodies and that invites sequel potential as well as a feeling of inertia that could also frustrate.

It’s a very limited space to work with but director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia has style to spare. The general claustrophobic setting is played to fine effect but the bizarre touches are what makes the movie feel almost like it was ripped from the world of anime. The floating table, so affectionately adorned with fine foods and platters, is such a startling central image. The red-light late-nights conditioned me to be on edge because of the danger of the flying platform returning. The gore is sporadic but very effective at ratcheting up the suspense or horror. There’s also the subtle visual comedy of discovering as we travel from floor-to-floor the personal items each inhabitant has brought with them for their extended stay. I loved the absurd nature of some of them, like a surfboard or a child’s inflatable pool. Why would people bring these items?

I’m glad Netflix is able to bring small, strange, foreign movies like The Platform to, arguably, the biggest audience platform in the world. It’s an easy movie to plug into because there is much to unpack and learn. I was never bored throughout its brisk 94 minutes. Even as the movie’s metaphors are heavy-handed, the movie doesn’t become so in execution. It’s operating on a pure level of discovery and rejecting the status quo. There is plenty of room to score easy connections with its thematic interpretations but the movie still just works even as a collection of vignettes in a very strange setting. It’s not in the same level of ambition as Snowpiercer but I’d place it on par with the byzantine Cube series. The Platform is an enjoyable movie that may not be rich in much than its themes and mystery, but during our national time of need, 94 minutes of well-executed weird can be just enough to satisfy the soul.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Rhythm Section (2020)

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

Nate’s Grade: C

Fantasy Island (2020)

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

Nate’s Grade: C+

Mock & Roll (2019)

As far as Ohio indies go, Mock & Roll might have one of the smartest creative approaches. It’s a mockumentary following the mishaps of a Columbus, Ohio band trying to make it big. Director/co-writer/editor Ben Bacharach-White (Jimmie Van Zant’s American DeTour) and his cast and crew make good use of limited resources, blessed casting, but the movie could have been even more had it devoted more attention to its comedy writing and doc tricks.

We follow the band Liberty Mean, with lead singer Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), guitarist Rick (Chris Wolfe), bass player Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), and drummer Bun (Andrew Yackel). They are a parody band that sticks to only one source, parodying the songs from the rock band The Black Owls. Their mission is to put together an album, gather enough fans, and take the South by Southwest Festival by storm. Robin’s brother, Sully (William Scarborough), is documenting the band and their wacky hijinks as they play punk bars, try crowdfunding, undergo drug trials, stumble into the underground world of art dealing, and land in jail.

Mock & Roll is an amiable experience and one comparison became so fundamentally clear to me that afterwards it’s all I could envision. This movie feels exactly like a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel live-action tween series. I know that may sound like a complaint but it’s not intended as one. The comparison just became so obvious to me that I was amused throughout to see the finished film hold to this creative endeavor, whether intentional or unintentional (I’m guessing unintentional). The exuberant energy level of the performers, the comedy scene writing that has specific beginnings and ends, the episodic nature of plot, the “let’s put on a show with our friends” mentality, the wacky hijinks, the direct communication with the camera, it felt like an extended collection of episodes for iCarly or Wizards of Waverly Place or Hannah Montana. Again, I do not intend this as a criticism, but the style and delivery of storytelling, as well as the genial likability of its cast, made me draw this comparison.

The best thing this mockumentary has going for it is its spirited cast who go beyond their limited characters. The difference maker in mockumentaries is characterization. The Christopher Guest mock docs (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) don’t have revolutionary storytelling but rely upon seasoned actors to really dig in deep with their unique characters, so that no matter the situation, something will spring out of the interaction and response to conflict. The characters in Mock & Roll are scant. The one with the most outward personality is Rick, puffing his chest out with bravado and swagger. The other two male characters, Tom and Bun, are working on the same note, basically deadpan absurdity. They’ll wax philosophical or bizarre at any moment. Robin, unfortunately, seems to be the straight-man role to center the rest of the group.

While these roles limit what comedy styles are available in the different vignettes, the performers go above and beyond and make the movie enjoyable. Wolfe (Where Are You, Bobby Browning?) is a standout as Rick and his voice reminded me of T.J. Miller. He has a natural charisma but also can easily channel a grinning doofus, which gives him the widest comedy berth. I would happily watch Wolfe in other movies and think he has a bright future in comedy. I would hire him. Yackle (False Flag) appears to be the best improviser on the set, able to pull wonderfully bizarre details from thin air and deliver them with understated care. His riff about Beethoven being deaf, and also blind, and having wooden hands, and that’s what made him great got a solid laugh from me. Jarernpone (Dark Iris) has a similar acting technique except it’s unloading deep philosophy without breaking a sweat, also performed at an understated rate, where the comedy best resides. Bhanja is a welcomed presence among the boys and I wish she had been given more to do. She shows promise and an engaging personality even in limited form. There are two supporting players of note, Scarborough (The Incredible Jake Parker) as Robin’s mostly unseen documentarian brother Sully, and Ohio superstar KateLynn Newberry (Dark Iris, Widow’s Point) as Rick’s girlfriend tasked with building a crowdfunding campaign for the band. Both are enjoyable to the point I wish they had been onscreen more often. Newberry has such a great nonplussed frustration with the band’s self-deluded antics.

The episodic nature works for Mock & Roll until it simply doesn’t. At 77 minutes long pre-end credits, the movie feels far more like a collection of scenes than as a film narrative with a recognizable three-act structure. The vignettes don’t last longer than maybe eight minutes, which is another reason why they feel like anecdotal segments of a 22-minute TV episode. There is an advantage where if I’m not engaged in one scenario, and many are hit-or-miss, I know that another is coming up (after these commercial breaks). A disadvantage, however, is that nothing feels like it builds off the previous actions of the story. You could rearrange any of the first hour and would only impact the overall plot minimally (a reference to a crowdfunding campaign here and there). The episodic nature robs the movie from feeling like its plotting matters or builds to needed payoffs and running gags that make it more satisfying to watch than, say, a collection of unrelated skits.

Then in the last quarter of the film it becomes a prolonged segment that transforms into a baffling Boogie Nights homage. The gang get involved in art theft transportation (a miss), and then it happens again with a criminal art smuggler Dante (Brian Bowman, Dark Iris). This entire segment feels like the Wonderland/Rahad Jackson sequence late in Boogie Nights. Bowman is meant to be Alfred Molina in an open bathrobe, wavering between inebriated and dangerous. The plot beats follow the sequence and even some of the dialogue exchanges are similar. So the question arises, naturally, why even bother? The segment isn’t funny and doesn’t seem designed to be funny. Throwing the characters into an increasingly uncomfortable scenario that presents more and more danger could produce some great cringe-worthy moments of awkward comedy. This doesn’t happen. It just keeps going and it’s the only segment that actually builds off the events of previous segments, and I wanted it all to just go away. It’s too long, too turgid, and doesn’t have nearly enough construction in its comedy to justify the jaunt into criminality. The ending is also so flippant that it feels like it could all have been removed for the impact it has. If you’re going to break the formula established for an hour, it better be worth the excursion.

This transitions into some of Mock & Roll’s design flaws that keep it from being a stronger movie. The fact that the central band is a parody band of The Black Owls will mean next to nothing to an audience, the far majority who do not know whether The Black Owls are a real band or not. They are real but a quick check on Spotify shows they haven’t exactly crossed a listening threshold, so when the Liberty Mean band members talk about the band’s real songs, we won’t know the reference points. We don’t know the reference so we can’t appreciate the parodies, and the performances of Liberty Mean are fleeting, and many don’t even allow us to hear the parody songs themselves. If this was the given reality, Mock & Roll would have been better to just have them parody a silly fake band, or a band that everyone in the audience would be familiar with, rather than settling on a local rock band that allowed their music to be given featured placement. The idea of Liberty Mean as a parody band, and the nature of parody, also feels sadly underutilized. I was hoping the movie would go into a direction where one of the band members splits off, forms their own band, but it’s a parody band of Liberty Mean, so a warped parody of a parody.

There are many fun possibilities for comedy with a parody band (a rival band nemesis, per se) but the comic shenanigans that Liberty Mean encounters are lackluster. The comedy segments are one-idea concepts that fail to develop and surprise as they go. The band plays at a punk bar and everyone seems to make a big deal out of this like it’s a grave offense, but the audience doesn’t understand why this would be any different. We’re not graced with any unsavory “punk bar patrons,” or specifics beyond that the acoustics might not be as precise. The band agrees to take part in an experimental drug experiment and the results are boring. They get high, they see hallucinations, but it’s nothing terribly interesting or different than you would expect. I’m starting to loathe drug tripping sequences in comedy because too many assume characters acting stoned is funny enough. There is also a lack of editing used for comedy potential with Mock & Roll. Watch The Office, or any other faux doc series, and an added benefit is that edits are part of its intention, so a quick cut or an inserted interview line allows a dense layering of jokes. Or at least the opportunity. Strangely, none of the band members are ever filmed individually for their takes. There are many comic and storytelling options through mockumentary that aren’t used.

Mock & Roll is a smartly modest film that coasts on the good will of its exuberant cast. Crafting a mockumentary approach for a fictional band is a clever way to make an indie film that can stand out with limited resources. The technical attributes are solid, especially the sound, though there are occasional questions like whether what we’re seeing is meant to be doc footage or simply reality, because when Sully is the only cameraman, who else is filming when he’s in the shot? The good nature of the movie is enough to warrant the time spent with an agreeable cast that seem to be having a good deal of fun. The episodic pacing works to keep things moving; however, it also makes the events interchangeable and lacking stakes. The comedy writing is often underdeveloped and reliant upon the performers to do most of the heavy lifting. It is breezy, genial, and fun, thanks to a cast that has great chemistry. I could see further adventures for Liberty Mean but would prefer a new creative approach. Mock & Roll could have been weirder, wilder, or simply better written and make better use of its documentary format.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Bloodshot (2020)

Bloodshot is the kind of junky sci-fi action movie you might have seen in the 90s before The Matrix, the kind of thing that an X-Files episode would have covered, probably with a better sense of storytelling. Based on a Valiant comic book, and reportedly the first step in a hopeful Valiant Cinematic Universe (oh boy), Vin Diesel stars as dead soldier given new life thanks to tiny nanites living in his blood that magically repair his body, making him nigh invincible. He gets vengeance on the man who killed his wife or so he believes, as Diesel’s memory is wiped after every successful kill and re-implanted with new memories of a new identity of his wife’s murderer. The movie plays this as a big twist even though it was central in the trailer and advertising, and despite the fact that it seems too convoluted a path for a science project in the billions, it’s pretty predictable. That’s the problem with Bloodshot is that it’s a two-hour action movie that feels like it’s going through the motions, built upon the spare parts of other better movies, and heading in one direction that’s too telegraphed. The action is over-edited and under developed, with first-time director Dave Wilson (an esteemed director of video game cut scenes and promo trailers) getting lost in the “cool stuff” of his world, little gizmos and side characters rounding out Diesel’s super-powered teammates and later opponents. You can feel that certain visual compositions are here just to look cool for a trailer. I was looking for the super-powered action sequences to be a major source of fun with this one and they left me shrugging. There’s one CGI-heavy fight scene down 50 stories of elevator shaft that has some moments to it, but as a whole Bloodshoot feels bloodless with its excitement. The appearance of Diesel being rebuilt by the wispy nanites reminded me of Apocalypse’s weird sand powers in X-Men: Apocalypse. Having its main character essentially be invulnerable takes the stakes out of his fights, which means even more thinking needs to go into the action design to maximize this effect. The final confrontation between Diesel and his tormentor (Guy Pearce, making a home for himself as this kind of character) has a clean and clever resolution I appreciated, but it was a long slog to get to something clever in construction and execution here. If you’re looking for a pretty straightforward action movie that you won’t have to burden much thought with, you could do worse than Bloodshot. This also has Eiza Gonzalez in another movie where she plays a CGI-augmented version of herself (Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen), so there’s that too. At this rate, I don’t think we’re going to be getting that Valiant Cinematic Universe if this is the inauspicious kickoff.

Nate’s Grade: C

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