It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.
What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.
Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.
I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.
As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.
First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.
Nate;s Grade: B-
Sony does not have a sterling track record of late when it comes to their superheroes. After the dismal response to 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony reached out to the creative team at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to better guide their flagship property. A solution was worked out wherein the MCU would essentially make a Spider-Man movie and borrow the character for their own films and Sony would reap the profits, and it worked wonderfully with 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Now Sony seems to be falling into a similar trap, getting ahead of themselves with an itch to build a larger superhero universe of properties. Venom is a fan favorite Spider-Man villain, so to give the guy his own movie even without Spider-Man is already a risk. The ensuing Venom solo film is a big gooey mess of a movie that needed to decide whether it was going to be scary, funny, goofy, serious, PG-13 or R-rated, or good or bad.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative reporter who has relocated from New York to San Francisco. He’s got a cushy job, a loving fiancé (Michelle Williams), and he loses it all thanks to his ego and drive to uncover the secret experiments of a wealthy Elon Musk-esque business magnate, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Then Eddie discovers the secret of Drake’s lab, an alien symbiotic substance that crashed on Earth. It bonds with Eddie and appears in his head as a guttural voice egging him into bad behavior and the hopeful munching of heads and bodily organs. Eddie must learn to work with his new partner to thwart Drake and another alien symbiote with plans for world domination.
Venom struggles to separate itself from the plethora of superhero films out there and forge an identity of its own, unfortunately without Spider-Man and the larger Marvel world. It’s even in the tagline: “The world has enough superheroes.” If this is the anti-superhero movie it can’t pull that far apart. The set-up was there for something potentially different. Venom could have been the villain instead of merely an anti-hero, with Eddie Brock wrestling with his inner demons in a way that evoked the classic tortured duality of Jekyll and Hyde. I think that approach certainly would have brought out more from director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad). Instead the filmmakers assert that their goo-laden superhero is a bit edgier, a bit looser with the ethics of justifiable homicide when it comes to snacks, and to make it certain they employ a clear-cut villain who has even less compunctions so as to make Venom look better in comparison. This is a pretty lazy anti-hero archetype that follows the superhero formula to the core. If the Venom symbiosis was presenting problems in Eddie’s life, or presented a lethal force that tempted him to the dark side that needed to be tamed or at least withheld, that would be one thing, but it’s the same-old tool for empowerment. Thanks to the Venom alien, Eddie is able to stand up to bad guys he shrunk from before. Thanks to the Venom alien, Eddie is able to be a better reporter and reactive citizen. Hooray. For a movie that advertised there were too many superheroes, they just flatly rolled out another.
The major problem with Venom is that nobody seems to be on the same page as to what kind of movie they are making. Firstly, Tom Hardy seems to think he’s making his own version of Jim Carrey’s The Mask, hamming it up to great comic effect, stuttering and sloshing his way from scene to scene. This movie would be vastly less interesting if it was not for Hardy and his committed performance of borderline Nicolas Cage-style nuttiness. The film became that much more entertaining once Venom and Eddie were bonded and Hardy had to reconcile the back-and-forth in his head and in public. There are moments that I’m almost convinced the movie is asking its audience to laugh at it and Hardy rather than with it, like when he takes a dip into a lobster tank to cool off. It made me think of All of Me but with an alien parasite. The buddy comedy aspect and interaction was a highlight. The movie is better when it either embraces its goofy elements or at least pretends not to be as serious. The serious version of this movie seems to infect most of the supporting players, notably Williams and Ahmed. Poor Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is another underrated love interest, and in the one scene where she does have agency and power, she immediately gives it back over to Eddie. Ahmed (Rogue One) just looks lost, going from overblown monologue to confusing monologue, making it hard to grasp what his motivations are from scene to scene. Is it space exploration, conquering, or saving the Earth? There’s a part at the end confrontation where Ahmed and Hardy are literally fighting one-on-one and it’s hilariously mismatched. There’s no way a tiny guy like Ahmed would be able to contend with Hardy in a fistfight. That’s the more unbelievable moment yet.
The story has many shortcomings and logical constraints that exist for sloppy stalling purposes. Take for instance the opening scene where a U.S. space shuttle crashes back to Earth and lands in Malaysia (have the people of Malaysia suffered enough downed aircraft?). One of the four alien symbiotes escapes and latches onto an EMT worker, taking control of her body. We then flash forward six months and Drake’s company is testing the symbiotes and having poor results, losing all but one that bonds with Eddie Brock. Why even have four of these things? Why have two to eventually die off-screen when one would do? But really why have any of this setup? The Bad Guy Symbiote is effectively stranded in Malaysia for six months until it figures out that little white girls are the ticket to slipping past airport security guards (and I guess stupid secret lab guards as well). Why not have the breakaway symbiote be the Venom one? Why even have the means of their arrival crash in Malaysia if they’re all just winding up in San Francisco anyway? The only logical answer is the filmmakers wanted the Big Bad sidelined long enough to set up more plot, but it’s so sloppy. The same can be said about how Eddie eventually ends up face-to-face with his special symbiote. Jenny Slate’s (Gifted) scientist character is to sneak Eddie into the lab, without her supervision of where to specifically go, and for him to… take pictures of the suffering test patients? Why does she need an intermediary to take pictures? Why can’t she do this and then submit them to Eddie? If she fears that the tests are as dangerous, why does she let Eddie stumble around? When the bad guys initially give chase they use flying drones as their killer weapons. I figured they would use these aerial machines to fire at Eddie as he speeds away on his motorcycle, but no, instead they use them as kamikaze bombs. How is that effective? Why do the good people of San Francisco seem to shrug at a series of bombs going off around their city? This is pretty much the definition of modern terrorism. How about when the Venom symbiote goo is separated from Eddie and he’s taken away, and the symbiote has to escape from a hospital and it has a choice of small dog or human being as its escape vehicle… and it chooses the small yappy dog. The movie is littered with these kinds of head-scratchers and leaves the overwhelming impression that much of this story and ensuing production was thrown together in the most haphazard fashion.
The action and special effects are also pretty messy and lackluster. The Venom alien goop just looks like Hardy is constantly dripping black paint. The effects do not look drastically improved from when we first caught glimpse of a big screen Venom in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 (though no candy corn fangs). There’s a lengthy attack sequence between Venom and an entire squad of SWAT officers that takes place in the haze of a teargas cloud. It’s meant to evoke a sense of horror as Venom pops up randomly, except it just makes everything too chaotic to maintain interest. Too many sequences take place at night to obfuscate the special effects work. The final act is the worst part as Venom faces down another symbiotic goo-monster, and it ends up being a clash between a black-skinned goo monster and a grey-skinned goo monster outdoors at night with quick camera edits. Good luck trying to comprehend what is happening on the screen. It’s such a bleh villain as well, just a bigger slightly more evil version of Venom, and its world-dominating plan involve bringing the other symbiotes to Earth, which will take, by my calculations, at least a few decades, at best, of space travel time. It’s one last noisy, dumb moment in a movie filled with loud and dumb moments to pass the time.
I still can’t find a straight answer whether Venom was initially filmed as a PG-13 film or as an R-rated movie and re-edited into a safer, more commercial PG-13 form. In its current incarnation, I don’t think an R-rating would have added much more to it, but that’s because the film doesn’t feel like it was conceived as an R-rated property. That’s a shame considering it features an alien creature that eats people’s heads. There is one scene where Venom eats a mugger’s head and the next scene he reverts back to Eddie Brock, and we see Eddie leave the shop in clear sight. The dead body of his headless victim is curiously missing even though it should be in full view. What happened? Also, what happens to the shop owner who is now witness to this traumatic event? Are the police or insurance agents going to believe her tale about an alien monster biting the head off a man whose body was left in her business? Is anyone going to want to shop there again once word spreads that a guy had his head removed? The Venom movie we get doesn’t earn this scene and it doesn’t get to wave away the scrutiny it invites.
Venom is a mediocre superhero movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It says it doesn’t want to be a superhero film, but it falls under the same plot trappings. It seems like it’s a silly comedy, but then it asks you to take it seriously. It seems like a serious action thriller, but then it has a goo-covered anti-hero say, without a hint of irony, that it’s “time to save the world.” Then there’s the painfully on-the-nose post-credits scene meant to bait the audience into interest in future sequels (stop doing this, Hollywood). This is a sloppy movie on all levels. The saving grace is Hardy’s dedicated, ridiculous, tic-heavy performance, which at least smoothed over the rough patches at various points for my enjoyment. Otherwise, the best part of the Venom movie is a three-minute clip for the animated Spider-Man movie Sony is scheduled to release in December. Those delightful three minutes are better than anything else Venom has to offer in its slapdash, goo-filled tonal mishmash. Check out the underrated genre gem Upgrade instead, the superior Venom.
Nate’s Grade: C-
There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.
Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.
This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.
Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.
This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.
With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.
Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?
A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.
A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Does muckraking filmmaker Michael Moore even matter anymore? That’s the question in the wake of the tepid opening of his newest documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9, a spiritual sequel to 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which impressively grossed over $110 dollars (the next highest grossing doc is about $80 million away). Moore has been a loud progressive voice, a champion of the little guy, a provocative and some might argue deceptive filmmaker for three solid decades, but have we simply tuned him out? His last two movies (Where to Invade Next, Capitalism: A Love Story) have done middling business and he seemed to have lost a step. If anything can animate the Moore of old, it should be the stunning ascendancy of President Donald J. Trump.
I was expecting a take-down of our 45th president, but Moore doesn’t really go in for an extended catalogue of the mounting scandals, setbacks, and prevarications of the Trump Administration. It would be hard to keep up with the 27/7 news cycle that seems to fly from one Trump scandal or offensive statement to the next, creating an endless loop of scandals and headlines that can inure the public to negative attention (Trump is certainly counting on this as he games his base to disbelieve any and all negative coverage as “fake news”). By its a nature, a documentary takes a lot of time to fashion, and if Moore had simply made a two-hour catalogue of Trump outrage, it would have been instantly dated (he does sneak in some Helsinki footage of Trump cowing to Putin’s version of events). To be clear, Moore criticizes Trump and his cronies for the lasting damage he feels they are inflicting upon democracy and civility, but this Fahrenheit sequel is really all about the American people, namely those who have grown apathetic or too complacent in the notion that society will be safe and sound without direct and responsive action. There’s a renewed passion here that was solely absent in the last few Moore documentaries.
Moore states that Trump is not an isolated incident but a symptom of bad actors unchallenged for too long. This includes the media and especially the Democratic Party, including the Clintons and President Obama. There is more time actually spent railing against the shortcomings and decision-making of Democrats than there is on the Republicans. Lest you think Moore is blaming anyone and everyone for the rise of Trump, he even points the finger at himself and his own complacency. He regrets the times he could have stood up and challenged Trump, like on Roseanne’s daytime talk show in the 90s, or to his mouthpieces, like when he’s chummy with Kellyanne Conway on election eve. Back when Trump was still a Democrat, Jared Kushner was a producer on Moore’s 2007 doc, Sicko, which was also amazingly distributed by Steve Bannon’s company. Moore argues he too fell into the trap of complacency, of assuming Hillary was going to win comfortably, that a self-serving, unqualified candidate such as Trump would never be elected president, that the sensible American people would set things right. Moore’s film relives the slow, sickening realization of that fateful night by first crafting a montage of incredulous voices promising Trump had no chance (in a two-person race), and then he veers from the upbeat Clinton election party, complete with vaulted glass ceiling waiting to be ceremonially shattered. As the night wears on and tears give way, the glass ceiling would remain intact. It’s a painful moment to relive for any person hoping for the alternative, and Moore wants his audience to remember that shocked, stomach-churning feeling so it can be prevented in the future.
Moore’s thesis is that the only hope for our society pulling out of its tailspin is for new blood to be injected into politics and government. The resulting two-plus-hours seems to throw a lot of anecdotes and selective statistics at the wall to see what sticks. We jump from a teacher’s strike in West Virginia, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she canvasses before her upset in New York’s 14th district, to the Parkland High School students staging their own resistance movement for gun control, to the Flint water crisis. It makes for a somewhat haphazard documentary because it feels more like its parts than the sum, losing a sense of momentum. Fahrenheit 9/11 had the Iraq War to act as a narrative focal point, and it was timely and tangible and raw. Fahrenheit 11/9 is missing that central drive, which is why it feels like it’s too episodic. Thankfully his stunts and fitful attempts at humor, usually Moore’s weakest aptitude, are kept to a minimum so as not to further dilute the urgency of his message. His best section on Flint could have been an entire movie unto itself.
Moore’s personal connections to Flint, Michigan run deep and he has featured the city in every documentary going back to his first daring film, 1989’s Roger and Me. It feels like this beleaguered city can never catch a break. The government switched its local water supplies in 2015 and effectively gave every child in Flint lead poisoning, a condition that literally alters DNA and the DNA of future generations. This will affect the children of the children of Flint. It’s that insidious and tragic. The corrosive water pipes were a result of opportunistic greed, of trying to create a new pipeline for donors to Michigan governor Rick Snyder. It’s here that Moore sends up Snyder as a pre-Trump data point, a businessman with no experience elected to public office who took extra powers, blessed hand-picked emergency managers to circumvent local electoral choices, eschewed checks and balances, and installed cronies and crooked business partners into office. Snyder and his government knew about the lead poisoning for months and did nothing, and then they tried covering it up by telling doctors to doctor the numbers. It’s this segment of the film that feels most impassioned, most excoriating, and most impactful. If these elected leaders could knowingly poison a generation of children for profit, it could happen to you next. It’s here that Moore serves up his biggest criticism of Obama, who visited Flint after the water crisis gained national attention after months of suffering. He performs a stunt, which he swears was not a stunt, where he drinks a glass of Flint tap water to help his parched throat. You can feel the pained anguish of the Flint locals as one of their heroes, a man who was supposed to be a different politician, a man of the people, looks like another disingenuous politician.
But of course there is still time to ridicule Trump and his narcissistic tendencies. Moore argues that Trump has been hiding in plain sight the whole time and we’ve just ignored all his bad behavior and warning signs. There’s a searing montage of Trump’s gross obsession with how attractive his daughter Ivanka is, from talking about her future breasts as a little baby, to saying on a talk show that if she wasn’t his daughter he could see them dating. If you’re going to vomit during this screening, it will be here. Trump’s open admiration of dictators and strong men (he has said more positive things about Kim Jong-Un than John McCain) and his disdain for independent law and order, democratic norms, and American moral standing leads Moore to one apocalyptic conclusion. He warns that when, not if, some kind of terrorist attack happens and Trump demands new powers to combat this new reality, we will have willingly given away our democracy to a dilettante. Moore talks about shying away from direct Trump-as-Hitler comparisons but then throws up his hands in defeat and employs a few talking heads to make the connections more concrete. He even uses Trump rally audio and plays it over a Hitler speech, which was the funniest moment for me because of the bizarre dissonance (Trump is a much worse speaker). There will be people that tune out specifically because of the Hitler comparisons, deeming Moore an alarmist, which the man might agree with. He’s trying to sound an alarm to wake everyone up out of complacency, to get out and vote, to run for office, and to be more involved in their government so that it’s more representative of the 330 million people rather than an elite cadre of special interests with vast outputs of capital.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is a call to action to Moore’s ever-decreasing audience. It’s emotionally affecting and persuasive at points but it’s also too scattershot and lacking momentum, especially after Moore makes the conscious decision to keep Trump as a background presence, the latest malignant symptom of an apathetic voting public. Moore’s central argument is that too many of us, himself included, became complacent and now our democracy is in peril from a wannabe tyrant who doesn’t care about inflicting lasting collateral damage. If our country ever needed Moore, it would be now, but his time might have already passed as an influencer. The last time Moore was breaking through into the cultural conversation was with Sicko in 2007, years before the formation of the ACA. Since then we’ve seen the rise of social media, YouTube, and the instant commentaries of media old and new, all trying to one-up one another in expediency and exclusivity. Is Moore just another member of the old guard he laments has become obsolete? Fahrenheit 11/9 is better than I thought it would be but it still left me wanting more of Moore. But if his message is anything, don’t count out Moore and the American people just yet, because with the right push, it can all come roaring back.
Nate’s Grade: B
Assassination Nation is an explicitly potent and timely Movie of the Moment; it’s a modern “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for the Age of Trump, exposing the fissures in our society, primarily the elements that prey upon, police, and punish women. The film is brimming with female rage that you may leave shaking. It’s a movie that wants to grab you and scream its message in your face, and that will be off-putting to several, but the overall experience was so stimulating, so ambitious, so affecting, and so emotionally cathartic, that I wanted to howl back, now championing this audacious movie to whomever might listen. This is one of 2018’s best movies and most vital statements.
In Salem, four teenagers have become the most hated people in town. An anonymous hacker has been stealing people’s private information, correspondence, and intimate pictures and uploading it for the public to digest. The town has gone mad with this feeding frenzy of new info and open secrets, leading to suicides, retribution, and murder. Lily (Odessa Young, a strong debut that reminded me of Olivia Cooke) and her BFF posse, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra), become the main suspects and the town turns on them, looking for some good old fashioned vigilante justice.
The film is messy and chaotic but these are not the usual detriments; it is exploding with things it wants to say about the hypocrisy and nastiness of our modern era. Early on Lily remarks to the audience, “I read this quote from a writer once who said 10 percent of the population are cruel, and 10 percent are merciful, and the other 80 percent can be swayed in either direction. I’m sure that writer has never seen 4chan or Twitter.” At the end of the day, Assassination Nation will not allow its audience to take comfort even as it transforms into a female revenge thriller. Here is a movie that grabs you forcefully and says, “This is who we are now so what are you gonna do about it, huh?”
When Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling wrote “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” he was critiquing the veneer of civilization we clung onto through our “good manners,” yet with the right pressure points we could just as easily turn on our fellow man with suspicion. The divisions in our current political climate often feel unable to be bridged; how does one reconcile a middle ground between one side that views gay people, trans people, women, people of color, and immigrants as human beings deserving of rights and protections and another side that laments the Way It Used to Be? There was one tense moment at gunpoint where a character that had previously led a literal lynch mob says, through convenient tears, that he’s sorry. Oh, he’s sorry he almost murdered an innocent classmate? Are there some decisions, some votes that you just can’t erase with a “sorry”? When people are willing to drop all pretenses of humanity for tribal allegiance, then perhaps those people don’t get away with an apology for their grievous harm. As the hacking begins, it’s initially pinpointed coming from a Russian IP address, and I wondered if maybe writer/director Sam Levinson (son of Barry) was making an additional comment about how easily these divisions can be exploited by an outside actor, as they were with the Russian propaganda missions of 2016 (and beyond). There’s another culprit responsible for the dissemination and the eventual explanation for a motive is a pitch-perfect end note demonstrating the destructive nature of casual cruelty.
The breakdowns in the Salem society stem from a deluge of secrets being unleashed and consumed without abandon. Everyone feels exposed, naked, some of them quite literally considering the treasure trove of hacked pictures, again drawing comparisons to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence getting their intimate personal pictures broadcast. The expectations of privacy are malleable in a digital age of consumption, where the wider public is insatiable to know and see everything no matter the violation. The ravenous consumption of intimate secrets then foments into a mindless mob in need of blood. It’s the social media horde that has to find a new victim to point the outrage machine at. This is best demonstrated by the school’s principal (Colman Domingo), an early victim of the hacker. Included on his cell phone’s gallery are nine pictures of his young daughter in the bathtub. Ready to take down another target, the community demands that the educator resign despite his pleas that they are innocent pictures but the crowd argues that all nudity is the same and therefore sexualized, especially when it depicts females. He’s dubbed a pedophile and a child molester and every horrific term. He’s pressured by the school board to resign and he faces down his hostile, accusatory crowd. I was so taken with this storyline and the personal anguish this man was going through that I wish we had gotten more time and appearances with him as a significant supporting character (this refrain will be referenced again). It’s these early moments that made me think of the Salem of Arthur Miller’s play, a bluntly obvious comparison point for a painfully blunt movie.
The world of Assassination Nation is deadly to women. It’s the kind of movie where male entitlement can turn a street harasser into a would-be murderer, which dredges up memories of Mollie Tibbetts, killed by a man who refused to accept that she didn’t have to talk with him or acknowledge him while she was out jogging. The teen girls are pressured to be sexual beings by those who want to commoditize their bodies, and then they are puritanically demonized when these actions become public knowledge. I kept finding relevant correlations with so many moments and themes throughout the film, and I imagine many others will do the same. That is one of the charms of a movie bursting with so many things to say; each person may be challenged or affected by something different. The satire is unsparing and darkly comic but when it needs to be serious and disturbing, Assassination Nation can switch tones with ease. You’ll be laughing at some violence, cringing at other examples, and possibly cheering by the end as just deserts are served. Having a multitude of tones and messages doesn’t detract from the overall impact; it just means there are more storytelling avenues to chase and different emotions to elicit.
Take for instance a scene that occurs after the end of the movie. We watch an African-American marching band lead by a lead female performer with a baton. They stomp in unison through the smoldering remains of a suburban neighborhood and play a brassy rendition of pop scion Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” It’s a song about youthful revelry but also a declaration of independence from the oppressive expectations of others (“It’s our party, we can say what we want/ It’s our party, we can kiss who we want”). Can this moment relate to the idea that a younger generation must keep marching onward in the face of tragedy after tragedy, that the racism and misogyny and mass shootings won’t stop, that we’re a constant shuffling funeral march in the unmovable face of broken politics? Is there reference to the expectation of African-Americans to perform through horrifying adversity for the entertainment of a white audience? Is this a celebration or elegy? It’s a strangely beautiful coda that left me thinking even more, and if something that happens even after the end credits can stay with me, you know you have a worthy work of art.
This is a movie that affected me deeply as a drama and, as it changes gears, a suspense thriller. There are some extended assault and torture sequences that will test the comfort level of every viewer. There is a healthy exploitation streak that runs through the film, but I found it far more meaningful than say the recent gonzo art flick earning overzealous critical raves, Mandy. Levinson’s camera will adopt the male gaze that imprisons these teen girls with close-ups of gyrating movement and pouty stares. Some will characterize these moments as Levinson muddying his message by indulging in the same objectification he has been criticizing. I can understand that analysis but I think it goes deeper. I think the camera is adopting the objectification of the world and Levinson is asking us how we feel now that we’ve gotten to know many of these women. Are they so easily disposable once you widen the lens and see them as vulnerable, sympathetic, and relatable human beings?
The final act delves into full-on exploitation vengeance thriller and becomes a feminist rallying cry against the wider array of misogyny poisoning society. I imagine future generations will memorize Lily’s final speech to the American public with the same degree of awed reverence as college-aged males do for Tyler Durden (a movie where its target audience missed the satire). It would be glib to simply dismiss Assassination Nation as an opportunistic RiotGrrrl response to the Me Too movement. This is a primal cry against the Age of Trump and feels like the first great film in response to our 45th president and all that his ascension has wrought.
When the film does go into thriller mode, Levinson proves surprisingly adept. There is an extended tracking shot that swoops from window to window, floor to floor as we slowly watch a home invasion in progress, and it’s exceptionally taut. The camerawork by cinematographer Marcel Rev (White God) is remarkably fluid, floating around its subjects in glides like the camera is serving as the eye of god. There’s a mesmerizing quality to the visuals that transcends the array of genres the film effortlessly hops between. One minute you’re caught up with the arresting, upside down camerawork leading to an explosion of violence, and the next you’re taken with a surreal depiction of suburbia. The music selection is also on fire with choice tracks by K. Flay, Bishop Briggs, Joywave, Bams Courtney, Gracie Mitchell, Billie Ellish, and others. It alternates between guttural and polished, angry and contemplative, but it screams as loud as the film itself. I’ll be surprised if I come across a better contemporary soundtrack to a 2018 movie.
If there is a niggling detraction for the movie it’s that we could have used more time spent rounding out the supporting characters. Besides Lily and Bex, the other girls are more defined by their relationships and proximity to our protagonist. I wanted them to open up more as characters. I also wanted even more catharsis by the end of the movie. After almost two hours of rampant misogyny and subjugation, I could have used even more lingering vengeance as the girls defended themselves from their attackers. Still, my biggest regret with Assassination Nation is that I didn’t spend more time with the supporting characters and their individual personalities and trials. I just wanted more.
Bristling with anger and feminine agency, Assassination Nation is a warning shot, a rallying cry, and a daring artistic statement about the role of women in response to the rise of Trump and his cronies. It’s not subtle but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. It’s blunt and extreme because our times are blunt and extreme, it’s messy because our news cycles are messy, desperate to cover a cascade of catastrophes and scandals, it’s using the language and imagery of exploitation cinema because that is too often the lens with which women are viewed in modern society, as achievements to unlock, as trophies to be won, and as a product for mass consumption. Levinson has put together a movie that has a possibility of being a seminal film, of being a touchstone of the resistance to the Trump Era and all that it stands for, but at its core it opens up with excoriating detail the pressure and punishment women must persevere through on a daily basis as targets of patriarchal entitlement and the dangerously fragile egos of dangerous men. In the recent weeks we’ve watched a possible Supreme Court nominee who might have committed multiple acts of sexual assault, and the response has been to “plow ahead” and appoint the man for a lifetime position ruling on the legality of women’s rights without further inquiry or investigation. The film feels even more charged, relevant, and prophetic with each new allegation of wrongdoing being hand-waved away as mistaken identity, boys-will-be-boys moral relativism (more like rapists-will-be-rapists), and the same kind of nonsense that women have been subjected to since the original Salem and well beyond that. For every woman fed up with the status quo, Assassination Nation is your movie, and for every man whom needs a feminist lesson with an extra dose of Purge-style bloodletting and vengeance, here is a brazen and affecting statement. Assassination Nation is the movie of the moment and it’s a knockout.
Nate’s Grade: A
Who could have guessed that splatterhouse horror director Eli Roth (Hostel, The Green Inferno) was the right candidate to helm a children’s movie that hearkens back to the 90s era of Disney Channel? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a whimsical and enjoyable family movie that is definitely made primarily for those under the age of twelve. It features a young boy (Owen Vaccaro) going to live with his uncle (Jack Black) who is a warlock and where the neighbor (Cate Blanchett) is a witch. He learns magic, self-confidence, and the legend of the hidden clock that may or may not trigger a doomsday. The 1950s house itself and its magical elements is practically another character in the movie and there’s a cheerful sense of discovery throughout, with a dog-like armchair, a topiary griffin, and a stained glass window that keeps changing. The school scenes could have been trimmed entirely, especially when you consider our main kid had enough motivation to try and bring his departed mom back to life. He didn’t need to impress a bully at school because he wanted a friend. Black (Jumanji 2) is charming as ever and a natural with children. The visuals are colorful and fun. The signature weird and icky details Roth adds made me smile, like pumpkins that vomit pumpkin guts as a weapon. Kyle Maclachlin (TV’s Twin Peaks) plays an evil wizard who wants to end the world after seeing the horrors of the Holocaust. That’s a dark implication for a “children’s movie,” and I appreciate that the film allows for the existence of darkness, which also includes unvarnished appearances of the occult and a red-eyed demon. How about that? The House with a Clock in Its Walls is an entertaining fantasy adventure for families whose kids like to tip-toe into spooky material but aren’t quite ready yet for the harder edged PG-13 scares.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s been 31 years since the first Predator strutted its camouflaged self onto the big screen and bedeviled Arnold Schwarzenegger and company. Since then the dreadlock-sporting intergalactic sportsman has become a familiar vaginal face to movie audiences around the world. One of those company deaths in the original movie was none other than Shane Black, years before the writer/director became a bankable Hollywood commodity. Black is going back home to revive the dormant franchise with The Predator, a big-budget sequel/reboot that aims for the stars and falls far, far too short.
An alien spaceship belonging to a rogue Predator crashes on Earth, scattering important debris. Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is a black ops sniper and the only surviving member of his team who happened to be on site when the ship crashed. The government says he’s crazy and transfers him onto a bus filled with other mentally disturbed military vets who call themselves “the Loonies” (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera). A tough-talking government agent, Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), seeks out a biological specialist, Dr. Brackett (Olivia Munn), to examine their interstellar prize. At the secret lab, the Predator breaks free, Dr. Brackett chases after the specimen, and she teams up with the “Loonies” to track down the alien. After his initial Predator encounter, Quinn mailed the alien helmet and other evidence to his son, Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with autism who cracks the alien code and becomes the target of a Predator, a Super Predator, and the government.
The Predator is a supremely messy movie, often feeling like two separate screenplays inelegantly stitched together, one a big bloody action thriller, the other a winky Shane Black vehicle with a cavalier, macabre sense of humor. It doesn’t quite work because the movie can’t fully settle on a tone, or a direction, and thus it keeps providing glimpses of the many versions of the kind of movie it could have been instead. I’ll openly admit to being a Shane Black fan when he embraces his sly instincts, command of genre, and ribald wit (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a modern comic masterpiece; The Nice Guys is… pretty good), so the Black touches were my favorite part especially because they stood out the most. I enjoyed the characters entering into scene-breaking asides, like Dr. Brackett questioning why the alien would be named a “predator” given its behavior is more akin to a hunter or a fisherman, and Traeger shrugging, “Yeah, well, we took a vote and ‘predator’ was cooler. Right guys?” Or when a character is being held at tranquilizer gunpoint and mocks the danger, only to be tranqued point blank in the eye, killing him. Or a bully suddenly getting drilled by the defense mechanisms of the Predator helmet and murdered. It’s these moments that kept me most entertained, demonstrating Black’s unique voice that can take genre filmmaking within a studio sphere and turn it on its head with a devilish grin. If The Predator had been more a Shane Black vehicle than a Shane Black studio reboot, then perhaps the final product would have risen above the mediocrity that sinks it.
Much of that mediocrity comes from the middling plotting, mostly after the first act. For a solid half hour, I think Black has something promising, having set up the various characters and gotten them to intersect and go on the run together as a merry band of outlaws and amateur alien hunters. Once the “Loonies” break free with Dr. Brackett is where the movie loses its sense of direction. The plot just stumbles from one set piece to another, rarely with good reason. One minute they’re running away from a Predator creature and the next they run into an apparently unlocked high school building rather than flee in cars and RVs. Most of the plot movement follows little Rory, first reaching him before the bad men do, then rescuing him from Predator dogs, and Predator, and then he’s kidnapped by the bad guys, then he’s hunted by the Super Predator and I’m tired. This kid is a spectrum-walking, spectrum-talking plot device (more on that below). It feels decidedly odd to have a super sniper paired with a renegade group of mentally disturbed and dangerous military castoffs and instead of them primarily hunting and killing a space alien they are rescuing a little boy with special needs. It would be like having a Tarantino rouges gallery teaming up to teach a child how to read. It feels like a misapplication of the character dynamics onscreen, which again gets to my central criticism of the final film feeling too much like separate movies in conflict. The studio elements (supportive yet feisty ex-wife, autistic savant, Predator dogs) feel too obvious.
The action is serviceable with a few dandy practical gore effects. There’s a nasty, visceral quality of the action that proudly wears its R-rating as a badge of honor, as a PG-13 Predator movie would be a disservice to the universe’s most fearsome hunter (the first Alien vs. Predator was PG-13; I suppose acid and florescent blood are less traumatic to be seen gushing from hacked limbs?). The action gets a lot more boring once the Super Predator is introduced, an eleven-foot all-CGI monstrosity that needed a bit more work. Beforehand the Predator is a combination of makeup and practical effects, allowing longer interaction with its environment. I enjoyed the Predator breaking out of the lab. I did not enjoy the team taking on the Super Predator at night in the middle of the woods because it decided to go… sporting. Seriously, the second-to-last action set piece has the flimsiest formation. Rather than accomplish its mission, the Super Predator invites all the humans to one more game, though the alien acknowledges that “McKenna” is their only true champion. It devolves to jump scares in the spooky woods, but hey, at least characters can start being eliminated (some of them so abruptly that it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exit). There are touches throughout the action that keep things lively before ultimately succumbing yet again to the freefall of the project’s creative dissonance.
The actors are enjoyable but I felt bad they weren’t given more. Holbrook (Logan) is consistently upstaged by his eccentric band of compatriots, but only Jane, Key, and Rhodes get any personality. The other guys are just kind of there. I don’t think I laughed once at Key’s (Netflix’s Friends from College) many, many wisecracks. The Tourette’s syndrome tic given to Jane (TV’s The Expanse) is rarely funny, and yet Black goes back to it again and again (the adolescent kid behind me in my theater thought every profanity was the funniest thing ever committed to film). The actors glide by on Black’s signature macho, cocksure style, clinging to every new quip like a lifeline. Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) has a few fun, feisty moments but is still basically featured as The Girl. Tremblay (Wonder) is making me rethink my evaluation of him after Room. The best actor in the movie, by far, is Brown (Black Panther) who has a malevolent charm that connects most fluidly with Black’s sensibilities. Even his self-satisfied laughter made me laugh.
We need to talk about the film’s views on autism (there will be some spoilers in this paragraph, so skip ahead if desired). Rory McKenna is of that kind of Hollywood Autism, the kind we see on TV (The Good Doctor) or of classic movies (Rain Man). It’s the designation of autism as a gateway to super powers (never mind that having savant abilities only impacts ten percent at best). Whatever, it’s an unrealistic depiction in an age of better, more nuanced depictions of mental health and disabilities. Where The Predator gets crazy is when Dr. Brackett offers this nugget: “You know many people think autism is just the next step in human evolution.” No. Nobody thinks this. As someone who has worked extensively with children with autism, this is not a thing. I’m not saying by any rationale that those with autism are lesser by any means but they’re no more the next stage in human evolution than any other condition. Ask a person with autism if they feel like the next stage in human evolution, like an X-Men mutant. What makes matters worse is that Black confirms this strange notion when the Super Predator, surprise surprise, was most impressed with Rory McKenna and not his big bad dad. The Super Predator plans to take the kid back to, presumably, harvest his autism DNA so the future predators will… know how to fly their spaceships that they already know how to fly? I don’t know.
The Predator is part sequel, part reboot, part Shane Black genre riff, part muscular R-rated action movie, part chase movie, and part Hollywood mishmash. Apparently the film underwent extensive reshoots as well, retooling the entire third act, which seems obvious in hindsight and only magnifies the disconnect between the central story elements. Shane Black’s signature elements are but glimmers of what could have been. It needed to be more of a genre send-up of 80s-action farce, or a more straight-up action movie, or something where the plot generally made sense and had characters we liked. Was Shane Black playing a joke on the studio? The Predator will probably be most known for editing out a real-life sexual predator, or from its dreadlocked alien dog being domesticated after getting shot in the head, or its depiction of autism, or anything that isn’t really the entertainment level of a mediocre rehash. Check out Predators instead.
Nate’s Grade: C
Mandy is a gonzo, psychotropic mood piece that will infuriate some, test others, and delight a select audience that responds enthusiastically to atmospheric indulgences. Set in the 1980s, because of course it’s the 80s, a logger (Nicolas Cage) and his titluar girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have a bad run-in with a small cult. Their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), declares that the god of the universe told him he is entitled to everything, and he picks Mandy. Bad things transpire and Cage is left for dead. He sets off on a quest for vengeance against the cult and a fetish-clad biker gang they employ as muscle, and in the process he might be going insane.
So what kind of movie is Mandy? There really isn’t a plot here so much as an immersive experience of fever dream imagery with a loving yet detached nod to its cultural influences from the 1980s, heavy metal music videos, Heavy Metal magazines, heavy metal album covers (sensing a trend?). There is the bare bones of a plot here, a revenge formula, but it’s really more about the moments and the feelings that writer/director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is trying to communicate through the screen. He’s another disciple of the Terrence Malick/Nicolas Winding Refn School of Filmmaking, ditching the story details for a visually immersive and hallucinatory sensory experience. The problem with these kinds of movies is that you either check into that wavelength or you don’t. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, as all movies either engage or disengage, but because the story and characters are so minimalist, the opportunities to click with the material rely entirely upon the moody atmosphere and creative execution.
Mandy is overwhelmingly a campy revenge thriller that celebrates the unique Cage-ness of Nicolas Cage’s more unhinged, bizarre performances. This is a movie that asks Cage to go the full Cage, and that can be a beautiful thing. There’s a knowing campiness to the whole exercise that doesn’t feel condescending. It’s not making fun of the onscreen antics so much as it is celebrating the artful absurdity. This is the kind of movie where there’s a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel and it’s awesome. This is the kind of movie where every patch of woods has a blast of fog to make it feel like a dark fairy tale. It’s the kind of movie where the practical gore effects are stomach churning and memorable. It’s the kind of movie where Cage lights his cigarette from the fire of a decapitated head. It’s a movie where Cage goes on a journey where he transcends into the mythic. He is no mere mortal by the end; he is the mythic figure of vengeance. The man doesn’t just find his foes to foil; he has to first construct his own metallic scythe straight out of a fantasy adventure. Cage is fully aligned with the bizarre and eerie primal nature of the film. His crazed intensity is matched perfectly with the overwrought atmosphere and villains. There are moments where his bug-eyed stare or maniacal laughter will give you chills. He has one sequence that’s petty much non-stop screaming on a toilet as he tries to process shocking grief. It’s a performance that asks Cage to be unrestrained and tightly coiled at parts, relying more on physicality and intense looks than dialogue. For fans of the ironic and sublimely weird Nicolas Cage, Mandy should be a deranged delight to hoot and holler.
However, there’s really no entry point for a viewer if they do not celebrate the campy, gonzo, detached atmospherics of the film. Walking out of Mandy, I told my friends that it needed 20 percent more plot and 20 percent less movie. There’s no reason this movie needs to be over to hours long, especially with its threadbare plot. It takes far too long to get going, with the cult attacking Cage and his girlfriend at the one-hour mark. The second half has improved pacing but still takes its sweet time too. Cosmatos seems to favor a dreamy sense of pacing, so instead of, say, ten seconds of watching Cage’s pained reaction, we’ll get 30 seconds. The self-indulgence has a way of making the artful intent redundant. Did we need those extra 20 seconds to really feel the full artistry? Or, perhaps, could Cosmatos have used all the extra time saved from collectively trimming the excess moments and diversions to better develop the characters and story? The other problem with diverting the majority of the attention to atmospherics is that the eventual comeuppance of the cult lacks a full sense of satisfaction. If we don’t get to really know the cult members then we won’t feel the rush of catharsis when they are dispatched. I talked about this very topic with my review for Peppermint, another revenge thriller with inherent structural problems that mitigated audience payoffs. The revenge formula is a simple thing and engineered to deliver payoffs. Here are two September releases that fumble that formula, although Mandy places less importance upon it. Most of these cult members are given a look, at best, which makes them interchangeable and disposable. Jeremiah Sand is an intriguing, hilarious, pathetic creature, and so the final showdown proves satisfying and somewhat revelatory, as his ego-driven bluster transitions quickly to pleading and bargaining and abject fear. It’s a fitfully climactic moment but did we need two hours to get here? There’s a better 90-minute movie trapped inside here, subsumed and suffocated by Cosmatos’ love affair with his influences and indulgences.
This is also sadly the last score from composer Johann Johannsson, who passed away in February of this year. He was an eclectic creative voice whose musical abilities were diverse. He could create a thundering score that felt like an incoming army, like with Sicario, or a soaring melody that could lift your spirits, like his Oscar-winning score for Theory of Everything. With Mandy, Johannsson relies upon those 80s metal influences and produces a sonic landscape fitting for Cosmatos. The score is kept at a rumble that accentuates the nightmarish qualities of the visuals. To the end, Johannsson sought unconventional methods to give voice to his movies.
Mandy is a crazy, dreamy, moody movie heavy on brooding atmosphere and light on story and characters. If you can hop on its wavelength, Mandy will prove to be a gonzo good time. If you can’t, it’s going to be overly reverential to its cultural influences and laboriously long. I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not a fan of most Refn movies because I feel like they fall into the trap of emphasizing pretty yet hollow imagery. The ideas don’t tend to go as deep as the filmmakers think they do, and I grow restless for more. Mandy needed more time spent giving greater shape to its world and narrative. This criticism may sound unfair given the nature of the film (do you ask for the details of a dream?) but I feel dismissing its lack of substance is a step too far. Mandy is essentially a dream with hazy plotting, vivid imagery, and intense feelings, but it can wash away upon waking. I left my theater torn over the movie, wanting to celebrate its artistic vision and weirdness while also wishing there was more weirdness and more of a vision.
Nate’s Grade: B-