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6 Underground (2019)/ Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.

The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.

6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.

6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.

There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.

Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.

At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).

Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.

When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.

I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.

The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.

6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.

Nate’s Grades:

6 Underground: C-

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A

1917 (2019)

We all know what the immediate appeal for 1917 is and that is its bravura gimmick of making the entire two hours appear as if it is one long, unbroken film take. Long tracking shots have famously been used in films before, like Goodfellas and Atonement, and entire movies have been filmed through the illusion of a single take, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Russian Ark to Best Picture-winner Birdman. The difference between those one-take movies and 1917 is that none of them were a war movie that takes place primarily outdoors in very real elements. The sheer technical audacity of the feat demands that it be see on the big screen when able. It’s like a cinematic magic trick, allowing you to sit in awe at the sheer ambition and technical wizardry of the filmmakers and continue muttering, “How did they do that?” When done right, it can reawaken that magical feel of watching something impressively new, but is there any more than a gimmick?

It’s 1917 and two ordinary British soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a.k.a. “Tommen” from Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with a life-saving mission. A military unit is walking into a trap, and if they do not deliver this dire message in mere hours, hundreds of men will die, including Blake’s older brother. They have only hours before the fateful attack is launched and must traverse into enemy territory that may not be as deserted as they have been lead to believe.

Whatever else you think about 1917, it is worth watching simply to witness the awe-inspiring technical vision from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty). The sheer scope of this movie is overwhelming when it comes to the logistics of being able to keep the camera roaming, which will go from handheld to crane to swooping lines above. It feels alive with that vitality of theater, knowing that if something were to go wrong that everyone would just adjust and move onward. When you see someone tip-toeing along the edge of a bridge, that’s them doing so. When you watch someone diving for cover, it’s really happening, and Mendes wants you to know. It brings an interesting verité feel to something that must have been planned within an inch of its existence. But was it? Did the actors meet the exact same blocking marks every take? Were the clouds aligned just so each time? I’m willing to credit legendary cinematographer Roger Deakens (Blade Runner 2047) with extra plaudits not just for arranging all the logistics of the busy camerawork but for finding pleasing visual compositions on the spot, using what was available. He deserves all the awards because this movie is nothing but brilliant photography and production design. A segment where we run through the ruins of a French village at night, with German flares providing momentary bursts of visible light above, is astounding. I think about the meticulous precision of the camerawork, the timing of the lighting cues, the practice of the actors and story decision to run in darkness and hide for cover in light, the pursuers giving chase, and it just makes my head hurt from all the daunting coordination. It might be dismissively viewed as a WWII video game and the characters as the avatars we urge onward, and I don’t disagree. I found the entire enterprise to be deeply immersive, visceral, and thrilling in its stunning sense of verisimilitude.

However, I’ll admit, dear reader, that I was growing bored by the first ten minutes or so, and I even admit that this was in some part by design. Given its proximity to being in real time (the trek we are told should take 6 hours) it means early on there is a lot of walking. Before we venture out into No Man’s Land, it feels like we’re just watching people walk and walk and walk through the lengthy English trenches. It can become a bit repetitive and your mind may wander, but there is a rationale for this from Mendes and company. It communicates what the geography of battle and day-to-day life was like for the soldiers, to go from one supposedly safe section, snaking round and round to the front lines, noting the distance but also, in practical terms, how close life and death were from one another. It’s also a recognition of the reality of trench warfare and you can stop and think, “Wow, the production actually built this entire miles-long trench,” but then you can just as easily transition to, “Wow, people really dug in and built these structures back in 1912.” The long walk serves as the confirmation not just of a top-notch film production but also of the hardened reality of a soldier bogged down in a trench for months. The First Act is essentially them walking to the front line, crossing over into No Man’s Land, and approaching the German trench on the other side. On paper, that doesn’t sound like too much in the way of story events, but it’s our introduction as an audience into the life that these soldiers experienced. Each crater, each corpse strewn on the battlefield, it helps paint a larger picture of the unseen stories leading to this moment. It’s a very real equivalent of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, and the long walk better cements in our minds just how daunting this trial will be, especially since every step after the trench is fraught with danger.

I figured that 1917 was going to be more about its gimmick and that the characters would suffer under the weight of this setup, and it’s true that they could be sharper, but 1917 succeeds in ways that I found Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk lacking. By focusing primarily on two characters and hinging success or failure on them alone, the film does a better job of providing me a personal entry point into the larger conflict. I have someone I can follow from the start, and that’s not just because the camera is confined to their immediate orbit. About halfway through, the movie makes a turn that really ups the stakes as well as my emotional involvement in a way that I never felt during 2017’s Dunkirk, which felt too removed with its interchangeable, faceless characters. With Dunkirk, it was a race against time but this was muddled by its non-linear, time-hopping structure. It’s a race against time but you were given three different sets of time that would crash into one another. It was too clever to feel the urgency. With 1917, it’s streamlined to the essential (get to point A before X time) and the urgency is alive in every moment. Not only do our characters not know what they’ll discover past the German lines, if they deviate too long, they may well arrive too late to stop a doomed attack. I assumed our characters would persevere, but as the film carried on, and the setbacks mounted, I began to doubt. Would this be another Gallipoli scenario of pointless death at the behest of arrogance, stubbornness, and bad information? By the end I didn’t know and that gnawing uncertainty provided a tremendous spark of tension.

It can be episodic, it can feel more like a gimmick than a movie, but 1917 is a prime example of why we go to the movies. We go to be dazzled and transported through the magic and marvels of expert craftsmen and to throw ourselves into the complicated, messy, intriguing world of strangers that we get to cheer for, laugh with, and possibly cry over. The technical accomplishments will be heralded for years and studied long after. It’s a technical feat but, thankfully, the movie is more than merely its magic act. The human drama becomes personalized, universal, and engaging. There are several moments meant to breathe, including one gorgeous moment in hiding with a Frenchwoman and a baby that is beautiful in its cross-language connection on a human level. The suspense can be overwhelming and I was rocking back and forth whether or not characters would be caught, seen, or make it out alive, always remembering the stakes of failure. Watching 1917 is like holding your breath for two hours and then exhaling at long last upon the end credits. I feel that there are enough resonating elements that provide substance for the movie to stand on its own merits but it will forever be known for its long, coordinated feature-length tracking shot. Even if that is its lasting legacy, 1917 is still a thrilling and immersive achievement in filmmaking ambition.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

In 2017, there was a great disturbance in the Force when Star Wars Episode 9 director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was unceremoniously jettisoned. He had spent over a year developing a script for the concluding film in this new Star Wars trilogy (he’s still listed in the credits for story) and I guess the producers must have had some strong feelings. Trevorrow was out and J.J. Abrams returned to close out the saga he had kicked off with 2015’s The Force Awakens. It felt like a safe choice, the return of an artist best known for dabbling in other people’s established worlds. 2017’s The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out), was, to say the least, divisive with the fanbase. It made sense to jump back in with Abrams who had delivered a fun, lively kickstart that made box-office records. Surely Abrams and his army of magicians would steer the franchise into safe territory and provide a satisfying ending to the character he created?

Note: I promise to keep this review free of significant spoilers beyond some minor plot points. If you want to avoid reading anything further until after having seen the film, I understand.

The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and well and offering a fleet of planet-destroying starships if Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will kill Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s trying to uncover hidden clues about her parentage and still believes she can reform Kylo from the dark side. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are chasing after a series of artifacts to find the secret location for the Emperor’s secret planet and rebuild the fledgling resistance. Kylo and Rey are headed for a final confrontation to determine whether they turn to the light side or the dark side.

It is with a heavy heart that I feel like I have to admit that there wasn’t a single storytelling choice that I enjoyed in The Rise of Skywalker. It feels like Abrams and company were in a mad panic after the divisiveness of The Last Jedi and retreated to the safety of nostalgia and fan expectations. This feels like the producers made a list of fan demands and then acceded to them. It certainly feels like an overblown course correction, let alone discarding major changes and characters from Episode 8. Now fan service in itself is not a negative; there is such a thing as good fan service and bad service. The difference is that bad fan service relies heavily on pandering and reference points, leaving an audience unchallenged, and that certainly feels like Episode 9, a movie ever beholden to its calcifying past. My anecdotal evidence already tells me that many fans will love this movie, more than likely the same contingent that found such stinging fault in Episode 8, and I don’t wish them ill. I’m happy for them. For me, Episode 9 is a mess of bad plotting, rushed pacing, truncated character arcs, useless cameos, and a reheated Return of the Jedi climax that was as boring as it was exhausting and dispiriting. It’s supposed to be an end to this new trilogy, and a trilogy of trilogies, but the backwards-looking franchise will never be done paying homage to its cherished past while it eats its own tail until it vomits. This movie is so eager to please as many fans as possible that it feels like an anxious hostage.

I think it was a major mistake for The Emperor to come back into play this late. The very reappearance already cheapens the sacrifice Darth Vader made in Return of the Jedi, and it begs the question what has this evil old man been doing for three decades? Has he just been hanging around his completely empty rock planet sitting on his uncomfortable rock throne? Abrams throws some haphazard lip service that Palpatine was really behind everything, we just never knew it, but that feels cheap. It’s like in 2015’s Spectre when Christoph Waltz emerges and says, “Hey James Bond, while you’ve never met me until this moment, I’m responsible for every bad thing that happened in your life, not those other bad guys, and I just didn’t feel like saying anything.” It wasn’t a satisfying plot development then and it isn’t now. The “boss’ boss” manipulating in the shadows is simply an aggravating shell game. If Palpatine lived even after the second Death Star exploded, then what’s to say if he can ever be defeated? Even if he is toppled in Episode 9, what’s stopping him from being resurrected in Episode 12 to serve as another quick excuse for a major villain? This decision to bring him back to life also taps into a further reverence for bloodlines that The Last Jedi was valiantly fighting against. Star Wars may take place in a different galaxy but it frustratingly feels like only three families populate it. The Last Jedi proposed that you didn’t have to come from select magic bloodlines to be somebody important, that your past was irrelevant, and now Abrams and company sharply reverse course, hugging the concept of the Chosen One until it bursts. It feels creatively starved.

Too much of the movie’s 142-minute run time was devoted to hasty, convoluted plotting that served little else than to fill time. By the concluding movie in a trilogy, there should be no moments left to fill time, nor should we really be introducing new worthless side characters rather than using the people we’ve already established. The first 90 minutes of this movie could be condensed to “get a thing to get a thing.” It’s one superfluous obstacle after another, one item to gain another, that reminded me of video game fetch quests. Even worse, none of it felt like setbacks or difficulties because the movie was rushing through every sequence. If we have to rush through to cover four abbreviated action set pieces, why can’t we consolidate to two really good and developed action set pieces instead? A great way to make your movie forgettable is to cram it full of disposable plotting and short action sequences that never take off. I kind of liked one lightsaber battle along the surf of the ruins of a Death Star (of course there has to be another Death Star!) but that was it for the action. There wasn’t anything onscreen that even came close to replicating the thrills or suspense from Episodes 7 and 8. I felt more suspense in The Last Jedi for Rose’s doomed sister than I did for anyone in Rise of Skywalker. There was space where Abrams and company could have expanded and developed important themes and given characters room to grow, but the pacing feels so breathless in order to distract from the hasty plot retreats.

Characters feel like they zapped to the end of their character arcs because that was what was expected, but why they reached these milestones feels arbitrary from a plotting standpoint. It reminded me of, I’m heartbroken to even say, the final season of Game of Thrones; fans didn’t object on their face to character destinations but the journey to reach these points felt like it was missing key moments to serve as connection. Why redemption now? Why tempted by the dark side now? It plays more like Abrams said, “Well, we ran out of time folks, so let’s skip to the end.” Looking back on the trilogy, it was clearly Rey and Kylo’s story first and foremost, but the supporting characters ultimately feel abandoned and wasted. Finn had a great perspective, a Stormtrooper who defects, but that unique position is cast aside by introducing a new side character that serves no purpose other than to remind you that Abrams must have really not liked Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran). Seriously, Rose is sidelined to study monitors. Abrams tapped an old Lost alum, Dominic Monaghan, for this thankless duty, so why can’t Rose at least be the sidekick? We don’t need another new sidekick this late. Poe is another wasted character. He learns greater responsibility and teamwork in Last Jedi, but he’s really just a Han Solo stand-in, the rakish rogue quick with a quip. Episode 9 gives him an old flame but not much in the way of additional characterization. He feels the same from his first scene in Episode 7. Oh, and all the forced cameos Episode 9 makes time for feels almost like a Star Wars reunion special. That’s including the awkward use of existing General Leia footage to cobble together something for her. I’m wishing more and more that it was Leia that went badass kamikaze in Episode 8 as her exit.

At every point, the movie seemed determined to undercut itself when it came to themes, when it came to character growth, and when it especially came to sacrifices and stakes. There are four fake outs when it comes to deaths. What’s the point of sacrifices when it can just be reversed with little explanation? What’s the point of learning when the Force can just serve as a magic hand-wave solution for anything you need? There are some pretty remarkable leaps in what exactly the Force can do in Episode 9. The Rise of Skywalker even resets some pretty inane things, like Kylo Ren gluing his smashed helmet back together or a certain character getting a long-overdue medal for valor. The themes Abrams works with are extremely broad and lack the questioning of the inerrancy of the Jedi order from Episode 8. It’s also confusing when the theme is that your destiny is not written by your station when the movie repeatedly elevates the mythic at the expense of the nuance and human. It’s like saying your past doesn’t dictate your future while slavishly venerating the past at the expense of the present story.

Given the budget, talent involved, and Abrams’ natural pedigree for blockbuster filmmaking, Rise of Skywalker still has moments of grand spectacle and fun. The actors are still enjoyable to watch and Adam Driver (Marriage Story) is the definite MVP of this new trilogy. His character is, by far, the most interesting and the one that goes on the biggest emotional roller coaster. Abrams slides in some rather pleasing visual compositions. The score by John Williams serves as kind of a greatest hit collection of his many themes over the course of the 40-year saga. The denouement feels right, even if I quibble with the final line spoken. There are things to like, plenty, and I know many fans will find even more, but the good is trounced by the mistakes and miscalculations which just happen to be the really big stuff (plot, resolutions, characterization, action development, structure, payoffs, etc). Abrams himself has joked that he’s really good at starting stories and not so great at finishing them, so maybe choosing to have Episode 9 function as a conclusion not just to three movies but to three times three was overburdening.

I’ve seen it twice now and given some time to think it over, and I think I’ll declare Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as my least favorite of the nine core movies. I know these are inflammatory words, and for an easily-inflamed fanbase, but my level of disappointment is immense. I’ve enjoyed both of the previous Star Wars saga installments but I wasn’t quite expecting this. I groaned throughout the movie more than I laughed. Even the much-derided Phantom Menace had less at stake, and that’s why I hold the disappointment of Rise of Skywalker as the more grievous of the two. It had much to accomplish and much to payoff and its missteps cast a shadow over the previous movies. It also reconfirms for me my worry that there will only be a small world for Star Wars, a set of pre-approved parameters that creatives must adhere within, taking the same pieces and delivering variations of the same story. There are definite ideas that could work here with Episode 9, but the rushed pacing, inconsequential plot filler and side characters, and its use of nostalgia as a heat shield (look at that cameo please!) doom its execution. As much as Abrams wants to reject destiny, his Star Wars are still driven by a devotion to destiny. We won’t be getting another Star Wars for several years until 2022 and I think that’s a good thing (also without the Thrones writing team now too). The producers need some distance to determine where to go next. I just hope they understand they have an awfully big universe of untapped stories at their disposal and a wealth of eager storytellers with fresh ideas. Star Wars will always be Star Wars but it can also be much more if it wanted to be.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

Think of this action-comedy sequel as the enjoyable DLC to 2017’s main campaign. The Next Level feels rather familiar as it dishes up slight variations on what made the 2017 Jumanji reboot so enjoyable, namely a game cast ready to be silly and physical, fun and flourishing action set pieces, and a clever satire of video game mechanics. The excuse to get the gang back together one year after events from the first film is flimsy, but I didn’t care because I enjoyed these characters and especially the actors playing their in-video game avatars. The twist this time is a body swap that involves two elderly men (Danny DeVito, Danny Glover) joining the mix, allowing The Rock to do his best… old Jewish man impression? It certainly doesn’t come across like DeVito, as funny voices isn’t exactly a specialty for The Rock, but it hardly matters. There’s still more worlds to explore, new obstacles/levels to be tackled, and with the body-swap mechanic, a fun switch-up for the main actors to portray a variety of characters inhabiting their bodies. I was extremely happy that the film rejected recycling jokes from its predecessor. It would have been very lazy (a.k.a. lazy) to simply go back to a few funny wells that worked the first time, but every time the film brings back an element from the first adventure it builds off of it rather than rehash a reference point. Once again Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame) steals the show. The humor isn’t as gut-busting or satisfying as the previous incarnation but part of that is because we now know what to expect from this renewed franchise, and The Next Level manages to deliver what a fan would request while finding enough variations and tweaks to make it feel like its own movie, even if it won’t live up to the high standard of entertainment that came before it. If you were a fan of 2017’s Welcome to the Jungle, I’m confident you’ll walk away relatively satisfied and smiling from The Next Level. However, chart this as another movie that ends with a preview of a sequel that I wish I had seen instead of the movie I got (stay tuned through the immediate end credits). Jumanji: The Next Level is a worthy sequel to one of the more fun, clever, and visually inventive action-comedy franchises. As long as they can maintain this level of quality, I’ll happily pre-order the next edition.

Nate’s Grade: B

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Where exactly did this go so wrong? The rebooted Charlie’s Angels is based on a property that the general public has little investment in 2019 and it seems like nobody was aching for another movie. The early 2000s Angels movies were fun and had some big names attached and it was the debut for music video director McG, a guy who knew his way around visual decadence. I think the first wrong step was hiring Elizabeth Banks to both write and direct. Banks has been a highly successful actress and recently directed Pitch Perfect 2, but a fizzy spy thriller is another matter entirely, and the end results of the new Angels doesn’t help. Scene to scene, timing and shot selections just feel off, and there’s one sequence I’ll use as an example of the whole. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) is chasing after a bad guy. He’s in a car and she’s on a horse. You would naturally think, given that dynamic, you’d want to showcase the speed and fluidity of the horse with wider shots, the horse getting closer, and yet the camera jumbles between awkward close-ups, clumsily edited together, sapping all energy from the action and making me wonder if there were logistics challenges to cut around. The action is so lackluster but the story is also needlessly convoluted and unclear, with things meant to be revelations that I thought were obvious, and things that the movie thought were explained that were very much inexplicable. Sabina and Jane (Ella Balsinka) just assume Elana (Naomi Scott), a tech engineer roped into an adventure, will just pick up on things without explanation. They leave her a package of mints that aren’t really mints but she, and we, don’t know what they’re for. The rules are unclear and there are so few setups and payoffs. At no point does the movie give me anything to grab onto, whether it’s a interesting set piece, a villain with a colorful personality, or some surprise turn. This is a very thoroughly bland movie that seems to serve its empowerment message above all else, sacrificing action, comedy, and good plotting along the way to beat the drum. I’m on Banks’ side here, but there were moments that just made me roll my eyes with how heavy-handed the “girls can do it too” message was, like a montage of women across the world doing things like science and sports and friendship; it felt like I was watching a hacky campaign commercial. I will say there is a refreshing lack of male gaze even as the Angels are dressing up in sexy outfits to entrance weak men. The cast is the real highlight and they have a charming chemistry together, enough that given a stronger script or a more adept director I could envision this trio really succeeding. The end credits present Elana going through a series of Kingsman-style trials to enter Angel Academy, and that’s when I yelled, “This is the movie I should have been seeing! Angel Academy!” The 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot is a wash. The humor is strained, the high-tech gadgets and spy set pieces are so haphazard, the plot is convoluted without being intriguing, and there just isn’t a feel for the genre material from Banks as its leading creative vision. It doesn’t fail because it’s too woke, or whatever the self-pittying Men Rights Activists of Twitter claim, but because it didn’t know how to be the movie it wanted to be. Turns out everyone can do mediocrity.

Nate’s Grade: C-

21 Bridges (2019)

21 Bridges would have been a more interesting movie if it had simply been a conversation between the police detective, Andre David (Chadwick Boseman), and the mayor of New York City as he proposes shuttling all twenty-one bridges leading out of Manhattan to catch a pair of cop killers. My pal Ben Bailey surmised it should go with the mayor flatly refusing and telling them they should use actual police investigative work to catch the criminals, like all casework, instead. It’s not like Manhattan houses millions of people with deep subway networks and somebody could remain unseen for some time, or the fact that there are more ways off an island than bridges. This concept doesn’t even factor into the story in a meaningful way; the police could have just as easily used the bridges as checkpoints for the difference it makes. This eliminates the ticking clock factor. Another miscalculation was splitting so much of the narrative between the two sides, Andre and the cops doing the hunting, and the criminals trying to run away. I’m not emotionally invested in these guys escaping, and it doesn’t ratchet tension as the cops get closer. If anything it alleviates tension as I know we’re closer to them being captured. The shootouts, foot chases, car chases, and machismo barking are all serviceable from director Brian Kirk, a veteran of television. It’s fine if this is a genre you enjoy but there isn’t anything new in 21 Bridges, or anything new that works, to open up that entertainment for anyone else. It’s entirely predictable every step of the way, enough that I was correctly guessing the real villains before the movie even started. The actors all do respectable work. It’s all competent from top to bottom, but it’s in service for a forgettable by-the-numbers cop thriller. I have to believe the original script for this was something more daring, perhaps opening up Andre’s character and his reputation as a “cop killer killer” and what effects that has had on him. He really shouldn’t be the hero. He should be the guy who comes to learn his culpability in being part of a corrupt system of justice, pushing him toward an anti-hero reclamation arc. What we get isn’t even close to that level of character exploration, so I must believe 21 Bridges was noted to death by studio exec mismanagement. Otherwise what did the star of Black Panther and the directors of Avengers: Endgame see in this story that urgently had to be told on the big screen? It feels like some relic from the 90s that would have starred Wesley Snipes and absent any modern commentary on the role of a police state in urban communities. Alas, you get what you get with 21 Bridges, which could have been 18 Bridges, but some exec must have said, “No, that’s not enough bridges. But 30 is too many. Gentlemen, were gonna stay up all night if we have to in order to solve this number-of-bridges conundrum.” If you have a soft spot for this kind of thriller, you might find some fleeting moments of entertainment. Everyone else can look away.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

By general consensus, it’s been 28 years since the world had a truly great Terminator sequel. What has been so challenging for filmmakers to continue this franchise? The absence of creator James Cameron is obvious, as it’s hard to find anybody with the blockbuster acumen to fill that empty director’s chair. I submit that I think it’s because the Terminator franchise is, at its core, a very limited franchise of stories (I never saw the short-run TV series starring Lena Headey as Sarah Connor). It’s about a killer robot after its target. That’s it. There’s some time travel jazz thrown in but that’s never been given tremendous contemplation, especially 2015’s brain-hurting alternative timeline reboot, Terminator: Genisys (with Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor). Now comes another attempt to revitalize this dormant franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate and this time they’re not just bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger but also the original Sarah Connor as well, Linda Hamilton. The early trailers and ads did not exactly give me much optimism. It looked like the same. Another killer Terminator. Another good Terminator. I saw little to earn enthusiasm. Then the positive reviews poured in. I’m here to report that Dark Fate is the best of the sequels, a satisfying mix of action, character, and world building, but I’m also ready to let this series go away into its own dark fate.

Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has been hunting down different Terminators for the last twenty years. Her path crosses with Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican autoworker who happens to be a very big deal to a future human resistance against future angry machines. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a future soldier sent back through time and given enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. She is to serve as protector for Dani, though Sarah seems to feel she has a claim to that position as well. Together the women will try and outrun a new Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and seek shelter from an unlikely ally, a retired and reformed Terminator (Schwarzenegger).

The Terminator franchise has been one built upon chase scenes, trying to escape a nigh unstoppable being and find refuge while it lasts. Because of that and a generally simplistic “save X to prevent future Y” goal, the franchise can often be reduced to a series of successful or unsuccessful set pieces, and as the movies continued the characterization flattened out, replaced by an influx of humor (Terminator 3), grimness (Terminator 4), or confusion (Terminator 5). What made the Cameron movies special was his magical ability to apply character to action, pushing everything forward so that every set piece felt naturally developed, with organic complications and mini-goals relating to the arcs and needs of the people on screen. The action in Dark Fate gets closest to that Cameron gold standard with some engaging sequences of big screen violence but tailoring it better to specific location and character dynamics. When Grace first rescues Dani, it’s at the factory where, oh great irony, machines are replacing human workers. The machinery of this factory floor gets utilized for the rough and tumble activity. There’s a mid-air collision that goes through a series of stages as things get worse and worse, including an extended sequence of zero gravity fisticuffs that is extremely fun to watch. The action is solid throughout.

Thankfully, the strong action under director Tim Miller (Deadpool) is aided by the storytelling core of three strong women. Arnold doesn’t even come back into the picture until much later. Each of these women has a different style to her, a different personality, and a different goal, whether it’s killing all Terminators first, spare the future leader at all costs, or looking for a sane middle ground that keeps everyone alive. It’s refreshing to watch the franchise return to its roots of strong female lead characters being given the reigns. The screenplay by David S. Goyer (Batman vs. Superman), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Justin Rhodes puts the spotlight where it belongs and tweaks some of the politics of old; Dani is derisively told by Sarah that it’s a woman’s womb that presents the biggest threat to the system, as they share the notoriety of being mothers of future male saviors. There’s a level of polish given to the characters that I appreciated, providing room to have them butt heads in a manner that felt genuine. There are some significant differences that makes this trio interesting but also satisfying when they work together for their common survival. The general mystery around the back-story of our genetically-enhanced human being Grace was a plus rather than another blank slate robot bodyguard.

Hamilton is back and so is Arnold, though he was also pretty central in 2015’s failed alternate timeline reboot. Fortunately for the audience, Dark Fate actually gives them things that matter. Both are given characters going through a sense of loss and rediscovery, working together to rid the world of a common evil, one out of vengeance and duty and the other out of penance. The interplay between them is rich in dramatic potential, as is the prospect of a Terminator model that wants to be moral without having its programming fiddled with by some enterprising human. This is a Terminator that wants to change and adhere to a code of ethics and principles. That’s interesting, and adding layers of personal animus just makes it more interesting. The screenplay lets the characters have enough little grace notes, smaller moments to breathe and remind you that these action stars were also more fleshed-out characters once long ago. I’m not going to say there’s some great lost play somewhere in a Terminator movie, but I was very appreciative of some of the smaller, more contemplative moments that dwelt on accountability and redemption. It’s not just all apocalyptic doom and gloom, there can be room to explore mature characterization too.

Another aspect I was not expecting was how politically relevant Dark Fate would become with the U.S. immigration crisis. Our heroes are traveling north via a caravan of immigrants, and for a while it felt like I was watching Sin Nombre but with killer robots. Then they have to sneak across the border and are captured and placed in crowded detention centers. There’s an entire jail break sequence with Terminators in an ICE-style prison. The evil Terminator makes use of the government surveillance network to track the other characters on their trek along the border, using the machinations of a police state to hunt down these fugitives. There’s not much in the way of commentary to be afforded beyond the simple empathy of watching other human beings struggle for a better life and being treated as less than human by an indifferent bureaucracy. There’s even a mixed-race blended family that serves as a focal point of a change of conscience. There’s a refreshing amount of diversity. I wish the movie had gone even further or staked more with commentary but I also suppose there’s a reason that none of this was seen in advertisements. I suppose the Dark Fate filmmakers didn’t want to turn away the dollars of any sensitive conservative ticket-buyers.

I have some general questions not so much for this movie, though they do apply, but for the Terminator franchise as a whole, and I figure I should address these as a separate section:

1) Why does the future only ever send one killer Terminator robot at once? If the goal is to kill one special target and it seems one Terminator keeps getting foiled, why not send more than one to accomplish the mission? Maybe there’s some technological limitation of time travel where only one machine can be sent at a time and there needs to be sufficient time to recharge. If you’re machines, you got time, and the way time travel works, it would not matter when robots were sent, just that they are arriving at the same date. I began to envision what this might look like and started composing a comedy sketch in my head where a classic Terminator T-100 knocks on a door, asks about seeing John Connor, and then an old landlord says, “Oh, he sure is popular today, come on in.” It’s here where the T-100 would come inside and be seated in a room with other Terminator robots throughout the ages. What would then proceed would be an argument among the many Terminators over who deserved to be the one to kill John Connor. One would say they were transplanted 30 years prior and had been waiting diligently until this moment in time, another would argue they are the most advanced, newer model and would have the best likelihood of success, and another would argue they had gotten the closest to him, etc. I’m sure someone may have already had this same idea but it amused me highly.

2) We’ve had shape-shifting Terminators since the first sequel in 1991 and there hasn’t been too much variance on them after. The problem is once we enter into the liquid metal, body-reshaping era, there doesn’t seem like there’s much more advancements to be had. The Terminator in the third film could also do some technical wizardry. The fifth one made use of nanobots, I think. I’ve tried to forget much of Terminator: Genisys, including the spelling of the subtitle. With Dark Fate, we get a new Terminator who can… have its metal skeleton jump out of its body… and serve as a duplicate? I don’t really know whether once the skeleton leaves if the “body” is more vulnerable or whether there are limitations. It’s unclear world building. Also, there are tentacle-enhanced Terminator robots seen in the future that would be deadlier. Regardless, none of these updates are as big a leap as the T-100 to the T-1000 and its shape-shifting. You have a master hunter that can take on any face, so why does it keep settling on the same face even after its targets know who they should be running from? Why do the shape-shifting Terminators not adopt a host of disguises in order to get closer to their prey? If I knew one face in the crowd to run away from, I would think my predator would not want to keep that face. I can understand from a filmmaking standpoint why you’d want a default look so the audience knows which character is which visually. I feel like these killer robots are undervaluing the shape-shifting.

3) Why do the Terminators have to work harder, not smarter? You have one target, usually, to murder to wipe out futures, so why take any chances with one assassin limited by their bipedal arms and legs? Why not send a thousand drones to blow up one human from the sky? Why not place a reward on the Dark Web and see how long it might take? Or, even better, why not send a robot with a nuclear bomb in its chest? That way all the Terminator needs to do is get its target in slight visibility and boom. It’s not like the machines seem to be worried about collateral damage.

4) No matter how many Judgment Days are averted, it seems like there will always be another down the line, so is mankind just biding its time before an eventual robot apocalypse? In the timeline of Dark Fate, mankind eventually creates a new A.I. that eventually attacks its human overlords, and it’s a new albeit delayed Judgment Day. Does this mean that the franchise is locked into an endless cycle of repetition, where victory just means postponement? A central theme throughout the series is “making your own fate,” the rejection of destiny, and the fluidity of personal choice and agency, and if the movie says, “Eh, human beings will keep making the same mistake over and over no matter how many interventions,” doesn’t that conflict?

I’m sure there are more questions for the Terminator franchise to be had but I’ll leave it at those. Dark Fate is the most accomplished of the Terminator sequels, post-T2, but this is still one franchise that feels low on creativity and interest. The prospect of another Terminator movie doesn’t fill me with any palpable degree of excitement. Even with this sequel that serves as yet another reboot, I’m not excited for further adventures. If there’s another movie, I’ll see it but mostly out of a sense of obligation. If this was the last we saw any of the original Terminator characters, it works as a fitting sendoff and as satisfying an ending as any before. What started as a special sci-fi series with one of the greatest action sequels of all time has become just another franchise on the decline with a fading brand name that studios keep picking at every few years, reassembling with new pieces that they hope might convince audiences there’s still vitality. Dark Fate is a perfectly good action movie with more thought and polish then I anticipated, finding legitimate reasons for bringing back its stars of old and giving them meaningful things to do. I had a good time with the movie but feel like this is one franchise that is ready for a merciful termination.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Gemini Man (2019)

Gemini Man is one of those scripts that has been kicked around for decades in Hollywood. At one point Clint Eastwood was attached to be the old and young versions of an elite hitman, which goes to show you how long it’s been in development hell. Part of this delay was getting the technology to a point that it could effectively achieve de-aging an A-list actor, but here’s a thought I’m going to offer for free, as I usually do – why not try makeup? Surely you can find another actor who looks close to your lead and can have practical makeup applied? Or why not have that same actor’s own son play the younger version of him? Or, and here’s an even more daring idea, why not just have a different actor, period? If the premise is a younger clone, who’s to say why that younger clone would appear exactly like an exact representation of the older version. What if younger clone had an accident? Anyway, nobody listened to me and Gemini Man waited and waited, finally landing Will Smith playing two versions of himself thanks to CGI magic. Is the finished film worth the decades of toil and waiting to finally make this vision come alive?

Henry Brogan (Smith) is an elite hired assassin for the government and on the verge of retirement. His handlers (Clive Owen) have misgivings about tying up loose ends and send an assassin to take out Brogan. It just happens to be –wait for it– a clone of himself at 25! Now Brogan must team up with a pair of underwritten government agents (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong) to battle his younger self once and for all.

This movie feels like a dozen screenplays stitched together with every other third scene missing. You can feel the full, tortured, decades-long development process and how it has become an impenetrable force that weighs down the eventual movie and squanders whatever potential its premise could have provided. There is a movie here, that’s for sure. An older hitman confronting a clone of his younger self could make for an excellent personal reckoning as well as present a unique situation where the mature man is trying to outsmart the younger, stronger version of himself. Gemini Man doesn’t seem to know what to do with this concept at all. Why not have the clone of Henry Brogan (I hate this name) respond differently than the old man expects? Because while he’s made of the same genetic material, this younger version doesn’t have the same formative experiences and could have a very different psychology than older Henry, never mind the fact that older Henry has an additional 20-30 years of experiences to make him who he is. That alone could tackle the nature vs. nurture argument in a way that could still be entertaining and surprising. Or the movie could embrace the killing machine nature it veers to later, where our villain talks about selective editing to eliminate pesky things like morality and the ability to feel pain from his highly suggestible super soldiers. If this is even in question, why are we even dealing with clones who might rebel against their requested missions? If you can specifically select DNA abilities, then why is one man’s genetic code even that necessary? Why not make a super soldier that’s part raptor? I’ve never seen a movie before where that went wrong. I don’t even know why we need clone killers in the age of inexpensive drones.

The easiest thing the movie could have done is treat the younger clone as a metaphor for his troubled past he needs to confront. Early into the film, Henry talks about his distaste for seeing his reflection because, you see in a very subtle gesture, he doesn’t want to see the Man He Has Become. Yet, if this were the case, I feel like the movie needed to do a lot more legwork to establish how haunted he has become. He feels like a standard, charming Will Smith hero and less a man tearing up hotel rooms because of his nightmares and more the kind of guy hanging out with shady rich dudes on yachts. The movie even messes up the easiest angle to take, the bad man confronting the literal representation of his bad past and trying to come to terms with his legacy. Gemini Man pays some lip service to this notion but it’s so poorly executed. There’s an almost laughable moment where Henry unloads like a two-minute monologue explaining who his clone is, you know, on the inside, that goes uninterrupted. The movie attaches a strangely paternal father/son relationship for Henry and the clone, where he’s trying to get the young man to sit up straight and fly right in the world of hired killing. It makes for some truly awkward scenes where the two men act like they have a more potent relationship than they should. Just because the older Henry is technically his dad doesn’t mean the clone should feel any sense of fidelity to the old man. Think back on 2012’s Looper. Those weren’t even clones but the past selves murdering their older selves. If you’re being hired to kill, I don’t think an absentee “father” is going to be the one to break through to your underdeveloped moral code.

Somebody had to direct this movie but did it have to be Ang Lee? The man has given us some of the most intimate, impressive, and ground-breaking cinema of the last decade, from Crouching Tiger to Brokeback Mountain to Life of Pi. This feels like it could have been directed by anyone, except for a few quirks that seem entirely Lee’s. Much like Lee’s last movie, 2016’s gone-in-a-flash war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he filmed this movie at 120 frames per second (industry standard is 24 frames per second). When Peter Jackson released the first Hobbit films, there was a special presentation of them at 48 frames per second, and there were positives and negatives but it never caught on with the public, which is why the last Hobbit movie didn’t even come with the option of the higher frame rate shows. The extra frames take away that dreamlike fluidity we’re accustomed to but do wonders for the immersive nature of the presentation, and I found myself enjoying The Hobbit at 48 frames, even if everyone acted overly caffeinated. When Billy Lynn was coming out, there was only a small handful of theaters even capable of presenting it at the intended 120 frames, which begs the question I have with Gemini Man as well, namely what is the point? What is the point of filming a movie at a frame rate that nobody will ever see? That’s like filming a movie in sepia but it only works if people squint and a super projector plays it onto a special screen. Why bother at that rate? Is this for posterity, and Lee’s sitting back like, “Oh, when we finally get those 120-frame rate super TVs around 2030, you better believe the first movies everybody is gonna buy will be Billy Lynn and Gemini Man.” The higher frame rate feels like the gimmick Lee needed to get out of bed.

For the record, the movie does look brighter than I think it normally would but I didn’t find the visuals to be any more immersive. There is a slight smoothing to the depth of field but this can also play havoc during the action sequences with old and young Henry. Their movements can go by really quickly but in an awkward unreality, like early 2000s where CGI people would slide into action sequences to mixed results (see: The Matrix sequels with the CGI person brawls). The de-aging special effects are the highlight of the movie. The young Will Smith looks remarkably like the 90s super star we remember. Even more impressive is the level of nuance that the animators, and Smith, are able to imbue in his performance. There’s a real subtlety to the eyes that makes the figure feel startlingly real at times. The effects don’t always work well under all circumstances but it’s a worthy technological advance for an eerie process.

Even the action feels recycled from a dozen other, better movies. I wish there was more to keep my attention in Gemini Man like some solid action set pieces, but the final product just sort of goes through the motions in every sense. There is one sequence that might prove memorable for its action but it might be for the wrong reasons. A motorcycle chase starts out partially exciting in Columbia as younger Henry zooms after older Henry. There’s even a fun shot that follows the movement of the bike from a fixed perspective, though this moment was wildly oversold to me in other film reviews (it lasts a total of 20 seconds, people). Later, older Henry is knocked off his bike and the younger clone tries to fight him… with his own motorcycle. Like he tries to sweep the leg with the bike, seemingly kick and punch him with the vehicle, and it’s so weird and specific that I started to chuckle and wonder if the clone was just very particular about his gamesmanship or was just fooling around. Other than that tiny morsel, it’s two hours of rather boring fist fights and gun battles without any real thought given to mini-goals, organic complications, geography, or other essentials that provide the lifeblood of viable action movies.

What does Gemini Man have to offer the discerning moviegoer? Not much. It’s built on the parts of other movies, Will Smith’s past and present charisma, and the idiosyncratic interests of a talented director who definitely seems to be slumming it with this generic, predictable material. I still want to emphasize that the premise could afford a really exciting, contemplative, and engaging action movie, but it needed better writing, better direction, better action, better characters, old and new, and better, well everything now that I think about it. If you’re a gigantic Will Smith fan you might get a kick out of seeing two Big Willie Styles on screen (or more?) as a novelty. The final film just feels so lifelessly inert, bled of anything interesting beyond its core premise. And yet, dear reader, the people sitting in my row clapped when it was over, and no, it was not some rebellious ironic act. Maybe you can find enough to enjoy with Gemini Man if you set your expectations extremely low, but then maybe you and I deserve better movies than this.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Dark Iris (2018)

i71 Films is a small collective of filmmakers that came out of nowhere in 2016 for the Columbus, Ohio 48 Hour Film Festival, a yearly timed filmmaking competition, and won several awards. They’ve been flying ever since, and the fact that within two years of essentially being a collective they had a full movie out and available on services like Amazon Prime is ridiculously impressive and inspiring. This is a company that can hustle like few others. They have several other projects in development and I doubt we’ll see them fade from the film community any time soon with the momentum they’re building. With that said, I peeked into their first feature, 2018’s Dark Iris, whose cover looks like something out from the Underworld universe. The description made me think I was in for a Matrix-like sci-fi action thriller of meta-human combat. It’s a genre thriller that doesn’t fully seem comfortable with being a genre thriller, downplaying the elements that would separate it from the pack, and falling back on rote characters, rote action, and rote twists. It’s proof that i71 can make a disposable action movie, but disposable is not necessarily the same as good.

Iris Black (KateLynn Newberry) is a waitress with a bad boyfriend, a creepy boss, and a mysterious woman (Rebekah Hart Franklin) stalking her who may or may not be her long-lost sister. People around her keep winding up dead in ritualistic murders that she seems to know nothing about. The FBI (Marylee Osbourne, Jose W. Byers) begins looking into the unassuming barista that might be more than she seems. Little do any of them know that a secret government program named the Hyde Project gifted 13 individuals with advanced DNA and embedded technology that made them superior hunters. It also made them killers with killer urges. A pair of MI6 agents (Kyle Hotz, Jesi Jensen) is tracking down the living super soldiers and killing them one-by-one, and they believe Iris is their last target.

Look at all these characters fighting our literal lead (in far right) for literal space.

Dark Iris could instantly improve by pruning its overpopulated cast and narrowing its focus. There are far too many characters to keep track of without being given better identifying characteristics. We have Agent Fry, Agent Roman, Agent Dillion, Agent Mooney, Agent Lee, Agent Lance, Agent Adams, two MI6 agents, their boss, his underlings including Simone who has more pictures on the IMDB page than either lead actress, Iris’ friend and fellow put-upon waitress, Iris’ friend’s mom, Iris’s bad boyfriend and bad boss, a coroner, and a team of masked mercenaries, and all of these people are introduced within twenty minutes. That’s before a hilariously gun-toting reverend shows up too. I challenge anyone who watches Dark Iris to tell me what characters were named what and what they can recall about identifying characteristics for those characters beyond physical distinctions (this guy had glasses). Yes you can argue that these characters are not the main characters, with the exception of the MI6 agents figuring prominently, and therefore not necessary for character development or personalities to stand out, but if that was the case then why do we have so many of them eating away at the time that could be spent on the characters that actually do matter? There is a glut of unimportant characters jostling for positioning in this movie. It feels like something I’ve seen in some other local films and that’s the excuse to squeeze in friends and family into a project. The characters aren’t as important as simply cramming your pals into your movie. When you have masked mercenaries or characters intending to do little else but feature as extras, this can work. Every movie needs its background players. But when these needless side characters begin to overcrowd the movie, and literally overcrowding tightly shot location scenes at that, then you have a story problem.

The question begins to arise whose movie this actually is with the split attention, and I fully believe Dark Iris would have worked better if it was almost completely from Ms. Black’s perspective. A bunch of FBI agents picking up clues aren’t as interesting as a woman who is under investigation and begins to doubt her own sanity. By re-framing the entire film perspective to its heroine, Dark Iris would instantly have more mystery and shave away plenty of unnecessary information and characters. Her point of the story is the emotional core but also the most interesting perspective, because without extraneous side characters filling in exposition at every turn, the audience would be learning just as its heroine does, trying to piece together the clues or what is happening and who they could trust. It would also be a better move because Newberry and Franklin (Code 207, A Wicked Breed) are two of the best actors in the film. From a storytelling standpoint, refocusing to have Iris as the driving perspective better personalizes the film and gives it more emotional punch via a distressed woman whose life is falling apart. You’re not going to feel an emotional connection or loss for the dozen FBI characters and vague villains meeting in the shadows. You will feel for an ordinary woman who is going through hell.

Simply put, if you don’t have a lead character that you care about in a world of crazy killers, then it feels like the impetus was to make your own version of Wanted or any late-night action clone that confused style for substance, preening for perception. And if that’s the way you want to go, with a collection of killers, then we need people who have personalities that pop. I’m not saying they need to be broad Batman villains but it would help if more attention was made to consider how to make them full characters rather than Human Holders of Guns. Just because you slap a Russian accent onto one character doesn’t mean she now has a distinctive personality. The better way of doing this is to link characters to theme when possible. If this character represents a specific point of view, then you can better tailor them to that perspective, so that each character can represent something different. Dark Iris suffers because it’s not devoting enough time to the character with the most dramatic potential and it’s not devoting time to making its other supporting characters stand out or connect more meaningfully.

Much of the world-building of this story in the opening text amounts to nothing. We have super assassins with super biology mixed with super computers who then have super urges to kill because they feel like gods. The most we get from this is a lackluster fight scene and some easily duped people who are decidedly less than super. If you’re providing this sort of starting point, there should be some appeal to the dark side, the idea that embracing what makes you special is to fully live, coaxing our nervous heroine who doesn’t feel like she can become who she was born to be if it means succumbing to her baser impulses. There should be characters who present different points of view, who demonstrate the highs of their powers, and act as a temptation for Iris, but Dark Iris has none of this. The entire opening could be rewritten as, “A group of genetic experiments were created, then released, and now the government is looking to clean up its mistakes by eliminating the last living evidence of the project.” Boom, I just saved you multiple screens of text. One would think they would bring back the doctor who created the 13 super killers who then disappeared, but nope. There’s no reason for the science fiction elements to even be here if they are just going to be so readily forgotten and inconsequential.

The action, when it does happen, can be pretty underwhelming. I was willing to forgive the low budget if the filmmakers utilized ingenuity to their advantage. There’s a cat-and-mouse moment in a church, where one character is hiding behind pews, and I was thinking the movie would make use of drawing out the suspense, making smart choices with its shot selections to play with the distance, using sound as a useful tool to maximize suspense. None of this happens. Instead the character pops up and starts firing. Much of the action consists of two people at opposite ends firing guns at one another. The action isn’t tailored to locations or character skills and lacks organic complications to change things up. When the movie does focus on its fight choreography, the camera is so close to the action and the editing is jumbled that it’s hard to even understand what is going on. There was one moment where two people were fighting in the background and somebody got stabbed to death, but I only knew this because of an additional “stab/dying” sound effect that communicated what the scene by itself left vague. If you have the time to showcase a fight, wouldn’t you want to devote a shot for the audience to savor one character triumphing over another, especially if it’s good guy versus bad guy?

I have a theory to possibly explain the slapdash nature of the action and I think it amounts to simply running out of time. The production for Dark Iris has professional lighting (occasionally overdone with certain looks, like a set of window blinds that must be behind the brightest Bat signal) and cinematography. However, I started noticing that many of the scenes consisted of a lot of only two angles alternating, like the filmmakers only had enough time for two shot setups and had to forgo more coverage. There are dramatic reveals that made me wish I had a closer shot on a person’s face to watch their response, or some awkwardly framed angles that made me wish the characters moved to different blocking or there were more options how to visually compose this specific scene. It feels like they only had so many selections to use because they ran out of time. There are more shots and coverage of people arming themselves for battle than typically the battle itself; that equation should be reversed. If the production knew it was limited with its time and locations, I feel like there are clever workarounds, namely thinking through the stakes of each action scene, what its goal is, how to throw in new challenges, and how it can relate to the personal journey of the good guys and reveal the skills of the bad guys. Action doesn’t have to be just a bunch of people repeatedly firing guns and moving to a new spot to repeat the process.

The best pic I could find for Newberry for Dark Iris (2018).

The biggest asset Dark Iris has is its cast and there are three standouts. Newberry (Widow’s Point, Notes from Melanie) is a tremendous talent who provides a great emotional anchor for the story. She’s nervous and alarmed and confused by much of the movie and Newberry sells every scene in a manner that feels appropriate and even natural despite the unnatural circumstances. She draws your attention immediately and creates a connection even when her character’s purposely left in the dark. Another reason I wanted Dark Iris to re-calibrate is because I can see that Newberry has so much more she can offer as an actress, so it would behoove the movie to give her even more challenges. Newberry has risen to prominence in such a short amount of time in the Ohio indie film scene and with good cause. Look out for her name, folks, because she’s going to be famous and deservedly so. A real surprise was Hotz (The Penitent Thief, Operation Dunkirk) who, while not given material to separate himself from the pack, does so thanks to the innate charisma and presence of the actor. He has a weariness to him that tempers his scenes of violence and contemplation. He’s deserving of his own starring action vehicle. And finally, we have Dan Nye (Harvest Lake, Bong of the Living Dead) who wins the award for doing the most with the least. He’s just another one of those many FBI agents, but he becomes the much-needed comic relief. He has a few offhand lines that made me chuckle, but he also gets a big hero’s sendoff, which is strangely played as a dramatic high-point for a character that doesn’t really earn that emotional curtain call. Nye has a fun nonplussed nature to him and little asides that can elevate more mundane moments.

Dark Iris is the first film from i71 Films, and it’s impressively assembled with professional-looking technical aspects and some damn good actors, as well as a story that has plenty of exciting elements, from super spies to special powers to serial killers to psychological disassociation. It’s got the potential to be a fun action thriller to showcase the skills of this up-and-coming production team, but unfortunately Dark Iris cannot fully tap that larger potential. It’s too cluttered with interchangeable characters, the focus needed to be tighter, the action needed to be more distinguishable and given more consideration, the mystery is a bit predictable (the movie is called “Dark Iris” after all and the tagline says she has a “dark secret”), and the story of who is doing what is kept rather vague or undeveloped, as if the filmmakers themselves are silently acknowledging that the story is in service of just making a slick product. The pieces were there; a woman who can’t trust her own senses and memory, a group of elite killers who could tempt her into their amoral lifestyle, a chance at cool and memorable anti-heroes and rogues. The production doesn’t have the desire to embrace exploitation film elements, so we’re left with cool parts of a story that never quite assemble together into a satisfying and engaging whole. Dark Iris serves as proof that i71 Films has unbelievable hustle and determination. I hope their future endeavors also employ more attention to storytelling and making the best use of their available resources.

Nate’s Grade: C-

False Flag (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie: “…So your mom’s a doctor?”

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

Stephanie: “What about your dad?”

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

Stephanie: “Sorry.”

Little Girl: “Don’t be.”

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

Little Girl: “Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: C

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