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Promising Young Woman (2020)

“I’m a gentleman,” says a man at his bachelor party, trying to bashfully turn down any sexual antics with the women paid to entertain him and his friends for one boozy night. He’s also trying to indicate he’s “not like those other guys” and genuinely respects women. He gets it. “Well,” says the woman in the shiny fetish outfit, “I’ll have you know in my experiences that ‘gentlemen’ can often be the worst.” This line summarizes Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller in a post-Me Too era that is unsparing to all those who would proudly say, “Well, I support women.”

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) was the top of her class at med school. Then her best friend was sexually assaulted at a party while she was inebriated, which allows the university to paint her as guilty and the accused as blameless (“What do you expect when you get drunk?” kind of victim-shaming). Years later, Cassandra has never been the same. She poses as a drunk at clubs and waits for her knight in shining armor to take her home, and often these modern men of chivalry prove to be creeps looking to take advantage of women and in needing of some harsh medicine.

This is a movie that walks a fine line to stay out of the shadow of becoming just another exploitation film with a higher gloss. I was yelling at the screen early about the choices men were making with susceptible women in their care. Admittedly, it plays upon that icky genre and taps into our inherent feelings associated with it as well as vengeance thrillers, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (TV’s Killing Eve) smartly subverts our expectations and loyalties. We want Cassandra to achieve her righteous vengeance regardless of the moral or psychological effect it has upon her because vengeance is satisfying. We want to see bad people who have escaped punishment suffer, but Fennell challenges the audience to see how far we’re willing to go for this goal. There are moments where it appears that Cassandra is going to go the extra step to antagonize her targets, and this might involve facilitating other innocent women into potential danger. It’s a sharp turn that asks the audience how badly they want to hold onto that righteous sense of indignation. Do all ends justify the means? Now I won’t confirm whether or not Cassandra follows through for the sake of spoilers but this is one very knowing movie about how to make its audience uncomfortable. Obviously, dealing with the subject of sexual assault and predatory men, it should be uncomfortable because of the nature of the subject, but Fennell has a wicked sense of when to twist her audience into knots. She doesn’t let anyone off the hook easily and that includes her heroine and those close to her. Nobody looks clean here. It makes for a truly surprising experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective.

One early scene stood out to me and let me know that Promising Young Woman was going to have more on its mind than bloodshed. Cassandra is walking home from a night out in her same soiled clothing and eating a sloppy hotdog with ketchup running down her body. A group of construction workers watch her and begin yelling from across the street, harassing her with unwanted sexual advances while they yuk it up. Cassandra stops, turns her head, and simply stares them down. She doesn’t glare at them or shout at them; all she does is look in silence. The workers get quiet very fast and then after several seconds they become angry and defensive, uncomfortable from her attention, and they walk away insulting her. Didn’t they want her attention? Weren’t they boasting? By merely drawing her focus onto these men and making them mildly reflective of their behavior they became uncomfortable and elected to leave. This scene only plays out for like twenty seconds and yet it serves as a symbol for what Fennell has planned with the rest of her thriller. She is going to take what you want and make you re-examine it with a fresh perspective that might just make you rather uneasy and disgusted with yourself.

The first half of the movie establishes a routine that explains what Cassandra has been doing since dropping out of med school. She’s never been able to move on from the trauma of her past and so she seeks out new potential perpetrators to inflict pain upon or scare straight through tests. By the second incident, we adjust to her formula and lie in wait for Cassandra to strike back. She’s the smartest person in the room and it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch her enact her plans. This avenging angel routine runs into a roadblock when she reunites with a friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon. They share a meet cute that involves Ryan drinking a coffee that Cassandra has spit into as a declarative sign of his interest (trust me, I’m making it sound far creepier than it plays onscreen). They go on several dates and have a palpable romantic chemistry together. This is aided by Fennell’s excellent dialogue, which can be cutting when it needs to and also supremely charming when it wants to be. It’s a peculiar rom-com but on its own terms, including unashamedly reclaiming a forgettable Paris Hilton pop song with full sincerity. At this point, Promising Young Woman is sizing up a choice between following vengeance and following romance. It’s a formulaic fork in the road and Fennell completely understands this, as she’s also testing the audience how much they are willing to sacrifice to see Cassandra check off her guilty names. This storyline doesn’t feel like a cheap alternative either. I liked Ryan and Cassandra together. However, Fennell stays true to her poison-tipped plans and this storyline becomes another chapter in her larger thesis on the condemnation of “boys will be boys” rationalization.

There is another scene worthy of being hailed because it goes against your and the character’s expectations (some spoilers). Cassandra tracks down the lawyer responsible for defending the university and discrediting her friend once she came forward with her rape accusation. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is this man and he’s quite antsy because he has been waiting for months for a visitor he anticipated would inevitably arrive. He’s been let go from his firm after having what they refer to as a “psychotic break” and what he refers to as a crisis of conscience. He’s made a career over sliming victims’ reputations, a fact he confesses has been made infinitely easier by modern technology. “We used to have to go digging through the trash,” he says, “But now all we need is one picture on Facebook of the girl at a party and you’ve got jury doubt.” Cassandra is taken aback by how eager this man is, not for absolution which he believes he will never earn, but to be punished. It’s not like a weird fetish but a genuine accounting of what he feels he deserves. It’s a short scene but it challenges Cassandra and the audience about the potential of redemption and forgiveness. This is what she wants after all, people to account for their part in the injustice that happened to her friend and to make amends for their guilt.

Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Mulligan has been an enchanting and empathetic actress since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, the source of her lone Oscar nomination. I’ve never seen her quite like this before. She has a natural sad-eyed expression, which made her perfect for Daisy Buchannan in the new Great Gatsby. With this role, she’s taken those natural sad-cute instincts and carved them out and replaced it with bile. Mulligan gets to play multiple false versions of Cassandra as she adopts disguises and personas to dupe her prey. This also makes the viewer subconsciously question which version they see is the real Cassandra. Is it a distortion upon a distortion? How well can we ever get to know this woman? I think Mulligan is most deserving of her second Academy Award nomination for this bracing, incendiary turn.

This is Fennell’s directorial debut and it will not be her last time in the director’s chair. Her command of pace and visuals can be sneaky good, framing figures to squeeze in potent symbolism as well as ratchet up tension and discomfort. The visuals can also be comedic poetry, like the opening images of men in khakis gyrating and thrusting on a dance floor. She also demonstrates supreme restraint where needed. The sexual assaults of past and present are never visualized but they are not mitigated either. She also has a tremendous ear for music. This soundtrack is sensational from the club bangers to the old timey country ditties. It feels as exceptionally selected as any Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. The score by Anthony Willis is deeply emotive with its use of strings and cello. They deliver a cello cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s as if the filmmakers made this choice specifically for me.

If there is one slight downside, I’d have to say many of the supporting characters are under developed. There are plenty of famous faces in this enterprise, like Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but most of them are deposed for a scene and then vanish. It starts to feel like a series of guest appearances from actors as they’re passing through town. Alison Brie (Happiest Season) has a longer and slightly more nuanced part as a former college friend who betrayed Cassandra when she needed her most. This character, along with Birtton’s school dean, illustrate that just because you happen to be a woman does not automatically mean you will be a helpful ally. I view it less as a snide “girls can be bad too” equivalency and more an indication just how insidious and prevalent rape culture can be and condition people into gross excuse-making complacency. I will say that it was nice to have Clancy Brown play a normal dad role and he was sweet too.

Beware, men of the world, the next time you size up a pretty young thing who looks meek and helpless. Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”

Nate’s Grade: A-

Ready or Not (2019)

Ready or Not is like the twisted lovechild of the home invasion thriller You’re Next and the meta-horror funhouse that is Cabin in the Woods, and it’s a total blast. This is no game.

Grace (Samara Weaving) is marrying into a rich family of socialites, famous for their family’s history with board games. Grace’s husband is reluctant about his bride joining the family he had walked away from for years. There is one big tradition: every new member of the family has to play a game upon their wedding night, dating back to the great grandfather who founded the family company through a chance encounter. Grace pulls a random card that says hide and seek, and that’s the game they must play. She’s bemused at being enlisted into a child’s game but little does she know that the family is arming themselves to find and murder her. They fear that if they cannot kill her before dawn, they will all be doomed thanks to an old curse.

The movie is entertaining from beginning to glorious ending thanks to finely developing its unorthodox premise and staying consistent tonally, whether it’s dark humor or tension. This is a very funny movie. In fact, I laughed more and harder during this film than I have with movies sold as comedies. It’s not afraid to spin its macabre premise for fun, but it impressively doesn’t lose sight of character and scenario along the way. That means that the screenwriters are deriving their humor from the absurdity of their situations and finding organic wellsprings of comic relief. The humor doesn’t detract from the danger of the moment while also enlivening the rest of the movie. The incredulity of the situation leads to some wonderfully ironic moments, like one relative studying YouTube videos for how to operate a crossbow, someone looking up on Google whether or not deals with the devil are real, and a running gag of the estate’s maids meeting horrible accidental deaths. And then there’s the ending, which finds a wonderful way to essentially have its cake and eat it too. I won’t spoil it but the ending to Ready or Not is a fist-pumping, cheering, clapping, highly memorable closer, and one of the best endings in years. It’s one of those endings you can’t wait to talk about with others.

All of the various family members have little notes to play and character beats that provide a more realized glimpse into their histories and the family dynamics than I would have anticipated. It made me feel like the filmmakers had given great consideration to even the smallest of details in what is, at its core, a murderous version of a children’s game. There’s the wife to Adam Brody’s character who is all-in on whatever it takes to maintain this family because she hints at what kind of horrible life predated her new life here. Then there’s the patriarch of the family who is all about ceremony and staying true to the rules until he has to experience the smallest challenge and wants to use whatever cheats he can at his disposal, arguing that great grandfather would use security cameras too if he could and why should they be penalized for simply playing the game in a more technologically advanced era. He’s just another rich douchebag who drops his pretenses the moment something isn’t handed to him. The characters are varied so that you can never feel relief when anyone is in a room, and that even includes the children, who seem destined to become new participants in this cycle.

Even with its tongue-in-cheek humor and premise, there is a lot of clever thinking put into Ready or Not. There are plenty of setups that connect to later payoffs, including that amazing finish. The screenplay by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy thinks things through step-by-step so that it’s always ahead of the audience. If any of us found ourselves in this scenario, we would likely try and escape as quickly as possible to an outside refuge. They provide an explanation for that hurdle. Then when Grace finds a way out, the screenplay finds a logical yet clever way to curtail that escape. There is a gruesome sequence where Grace suffers a specific injury and then has to pull herself out of a bad situation, and the movie sets up a gnarly out that connects to that injury, and I sat with baited breath just waiting for the puzzle pieces to connect, and Ready or Not has several moments like this. It’s a fun movie because while it doesn’t take itself that seriously it’s very serious about its storytelling and structure.

Weaving deserved to be an A-list actress after her star-making performance in Netflix’s The Babysitter. This woman is so magnetic and so great at roles that require a tightrope of tone; she sizzled as the darkly advantageous yet lovable babysitter in that other movie, and with Ready of Not she’s our increasingly baffled heroine just trying to make sense of the insanity. The audience gravitates toward Grace pretty quickly as a grounded woman who seems genuine about her desire to have the family that she never formed as a foster child. There’s a latent tenacity that emerges from Grace as she pushes herself through one survival scenario after another. Unlike the similarly themed You’re Next, Grace is not some secret badass raised by crafty survivalists. She’s a normal person thrust into a very abnormal situation, and her responses stay reasonable and formidable when called upon. She is our center for the fun and she makes a winning heroine, and Weaving is so good at the heavy moments, the gross moments, the sly moments, that she deserves to have great material handed to her because she is ready, Hollywood.

Ready or Not is a sneaky, nasty, delightfully dark little movie that left me hooting, hollering, squirming, and grinning with satisfaction. It’s a late summer surprise that delivers everything I was hoping for and has great, delicious fun with its humor and violence. It’s smartly paced, smartly structured, with supporting characters that leave a mark as well as thematic questions over culpability and group think. This is the kind of movie I wish Hollywood was making more of, with screenwriters that can take a premise and write the best possible version of that and with the best possible ending. Any misgivings I have for this movie are small quibbles, like maybe more specific payoffs linked to onscreen deaths, but even that would detract from later events and payoffs, so even my quibbles can be excused. Ready or Not deserves to be seen with a raucous crowd that will appreciate it to its full extent. I look forward to the Twister-heavy sequel.

Nate’s Grade: A

Yoga Hosers (2016)

yogahosers_27x40_onesheet_c5_finalKevin Smith has been a filmmaker who has flouted expectations. When people didn’t think the Clerks guy could make a religious thriller, he did it. When people said a movie about a man being transformed into a walrus creature was undoable, he did it. I was a moderate fan of Tusk, that man-as-walrus-as-Frankenstein movie that started as a joke premise from Smith’s popular podcast and then given strange cinematic life. Yoga Hosers is the second part in Smith’s “True North” trilogy of Canadian-set horror films. I wasn’t expecting much with Yoga Hosers and I felt like I got even less than that.

Colleen Collete (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) are bored clerks at a Winnipeg convenience store. Their world is turned upside down when an attractive senior boy invites them to a “grade 12” party. Too bad they have to work, though even when on the clock the girls hardly work, instead preferring to jam in the back storage room as a fledging rock band. The girls have bigger threats than unruly customers. They’ll have to battle bad Satanists, forgotten Canadian Nazis, and tiny bratwurst men who leak sauerkraut when smashed. What’s a Canuck to do?

yoga-hosers-1280x720The two areas that have always been the hallmarks of a Kevin Smith movie, his idiosyncratic characterization and ribald humor, are both strangely absent and desperately needed. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I turned to my friend and confided, “I think I hate these girls already.” It’s somewhat ironic that Smith has gone back again to the bored convenience store clerks as the platform for his heroes. Where Dante and Randall were railing against pop-culture, adult responsibility, and a society that constantly made them feel inferior for their menial occupations, these girls aren’t railing against anything. If anything they’re retreating from the world, their noses constantly glued to their smart phones and social media. The excursions with youth culture feel rather inauthentic. The teen dialogue lacks comic snap and repeats phrases too often that it feels like set-up for T-shirt slogans (“Basic!”). Smith is far from his territory of dick and fart jokes and esoteric pop-culture detours. We’re introduced to many new characters with a slam edit of an Instagram-like cover page accompanied by an irritatingly chirpy 8-bit score. The intro graphics appear so quickly as to have little impact other than annoyance. The lead characters have no engaging personalities. They have an infatuation with older, cute boys, a love of yoga, a general attitude against authority, and a common level of self-involvement, but they’re not characters. They’re goofy but rarely are they grounded or better developed. One girl is daft and the other girl is… less daft. I’m not expecting these characters to have depth considering this is a movie with one-foot tall killer bratwurst Nazis, but some degree of personality is demanded. It’s the bare minimum.

Smith’s millennial satire is fairly toothless, which sadly is much like the comedy of Yoga Hosers. I hope you like puns and jokes about how funny Canadian accents are. The Colleens say “soory aboot that” and isn’t that hilarious? How about a convenience store called “Eh-2-Zed”? How about a yogi whose name is Yogi Bayer? How about an off-brand version of Lucky Charms called Pucky Charms? Why are there so many freaking puns? Then there’s the re-emergence of Johnny Depp’s wacky Quebec investigator, Guy Lapointe, allowing Depp to indulge his tendency for prosthetics and heavy accents. The shticky Lapointe character absolutely derailed Tusk and whatever unsettling momentum had been built, but he feels far more at home in the goofy world of Yoga Hosers. I might even say his presence is one of the highlights, as once more Depp gets to sink his teeth into all the Peter Sellers physical comedy tics he’s been holding back.

There’s just not enough comedy to go around here. There are goofy elements that crash into one another, like the Brat-Zis and a gigantic Goalie Golem, but it feels very much like Smith is just throwing a lot of dispirit elements together and expecting cohesion. He might even be expecting the audience to be satiated just in seeing something “different.” While Red State and Tusk were films that had sharp tonal shifts, Yoga Hosers never really settles into the silly supernatural teen comedy it desires to be. I laughed here and there but it was mostly attributed to Smith letting his more capable comic actors go off on tangents, like Justin Long’s yogi with his unorthodox poses. Ralph Garman, Smith podcast regular, shows up late as a Nazi who prefers to discuss his plans via celebrity impressions, a talent of Garman’s. It’s the kind of “hell, why not?” plotting that dominates the movie and makes you wonder if there ever was a finished script.

yoga-hosers-johnny-deppI doubt any version of this story would have materialized if it wasn’t starring the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, and I don’t have a huge issue with this. Nepotism has been a core function of Hollywood for over a hundred years, and if Smith wants to create a vehicle for his daughter, by all means. The two young ladies have a pleasant chemistry and are believable BFFs. Their back-and-forth will occasionally elevate the jokes, like their insistent yet limited Batman impressions. Harley Quinn Smith has an enjoyable mugging quality that shows she’s studied her expressions from the school of Silent Bob. Her companion, Lily-Rose Depp, may be the real breakout. She’s the more consistent actor and the stronger anchor for the film. Even when the dialogue lets her down she still infuses a notable energy into her performance. There’s an emerging talent under the surface that looks ready for discovery, and perhaps the French film Planetarium with Natalie Portman will make others take notice. I get the impression that Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp are proud papas and just wanted to have fun together as a family. Consider the movie the equivalent of a quirky sweet 16 birthday party.

Yoga Hosers is a movie for a very select group of people, perhaps only Smith’s immediate family, friends, and most ardent of podcast listeners. I doubt that’s me. I’ve been a Smith fan since my own teens. His was one of the cinematic voices that awoke my own sense of what movies could be. I miss the caustic wit that separated Smith from the indie pack. The man was one of the few writers who could spin crass vulgarity into Shakespearean gold. He was a writing talent that many emulated but few could reproduce. Smith’s whip-smart comic perspective has always been his biggest cinematic draw, but with Yoga Hosers it feels decidedly neutered and wound down. I know he has gone on record saying he’s making the movies he wants to make without interference, but it doesn’t feel like the same Smith. Admittedly, a filmmaker in his early 20s is going to have a different perspective and creative impulses than a husband and father in his mid 40s. This apparently means that Smith has veered away from his conversational comedies and button-pushing topics and bought fully into genre filmmaking, mixing a pastiche of horror elements and varying tones. As an artist he doesn’t owe me or any other fan anything. Yoga Hosers might be a one-off, a love letter to his teen daughter and her bestie, or it could portend what is to come. Kevin Smith is making movies for himself at this point in his career. If you feel left out in that equation, like me, that’s okay. We can always go back and watch Clerks again. From my viewpoint, it feels like Smith is voluntarily erasing what made him a unique cinematic voice and choosing to disappear into the benign morass of schlocky genre filmmaking.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

1800It’s the end of the world as we know it and I oddly felt fine… which is not a good sign for your apocalyptic movie. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a peculiar thing, all right. It takes place in the last three weeks of the human race. And lest you think the film wimps out on the promise of its title, think again. I was bemused for the first forty minutes, where writer/director Lorene Scafaria indulges in a series of one-scene vignettes of how humanity comes to terms with the certainty of annihilation. There’s an adult party where people joyfully try heroin, a hit man-for-hire service to bring back some of the mystery of death, and a restaurant where all the workers are spaced out on Ecstasy. I found each of these moments to be funny and a well though-out extension of the premise. But then the film’s diversions give way to the rom-com of our main characters, played by Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as your standard manic pixie girl. And the more time I spent with them the more I found myself not getting engaged. My emotional empathy was kept to a minimum; they’re nice people and all but I didn’t find them that interesting. The resulting movie feels like one of the weakest avenues given the premise. I credit Scafaria for not wimping out in the end, but as these characters faced oblivion together, I felt little emotional stirrings in my chest.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Scream 4 (2011)

What do you do when your satiric self-aware take on pop culture becomes the MO for a generation? Back in 1996, Scream was a breath of fresh air by sending up dusty horror staples and having highly literate characters, with exceptional vocabularies, deconstruct genre elements while ironically falling victim to them as well. In 2011, Scream 4, an obvious paycheck grab, is showing its age. After a rather nifty series of opening fake-outs, which gave me hope that returning writer Kevin Williamson was going to finely skewer the conventions of horror since Scream last went dormant in 2000, but sadly this is not the case. “New decade, new rules,” one character says, but it’s all so much of the same. People run, they get stabbed, only the locations are truly different. There are a few witty jabs about the obsession with reboots and remakes, and Williamson does secretly work a crafty symmetry to the first film as far as characters go. The body count is much higher but the scare quotient is low. And then brining back the original cast (Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox) seems like a waste if they cede almost all screen time to a bunch of fresh-faced high school kids who were learning to walk when Campbell was learning to run for her life. The satirical elements feel so lazy; if you’re going to introduce technology-obsessed characters and the narcissism of social media, then do something with it. Don’t introduce an element like a webcam and then barely use it. The scares are about as flimsy as the commentary. The reveal of the killer(s) is stupid enough, as is the cracked motivation, but the ending just piles one absurdity onto another. It doesn’t know when to stop, and Scream 4 flirts with some daring possibilities to wrap up its bloodshed. Scream 4 is a drifting vehicle, wasting potential at every opportunity. The weight of all those red herrings, genre riffs, ironic twists, and self-aware characters has gotten to be too much. The Scream franchise has morphed into what it once parodied.

Nate’s Grade: C

Cop Out (2010)

As an avid Kevin Smith fan, it pains me to say this but Cop Out might be one of the least funny movies of the year. Sure it made me chuckle here and there, but mostly I sat staring slack-jawed, yawning, and wondering how this movie went so completely wrong. Smith is known without exception as a talent behind the typewriter, not the camera. He’s an ingeniously crass playwright in a filmmaker’s body. To hire Smith solely as director/visual storyteller is like hiring Picasso to mow your lawn — not the best use of his talents. To Smith’s credit, the film has a much stronger visual pulse than anything he’s ever committed to celluloid before, however, it still only looks like a marginal, mediocre Hollywood movie. Is that considered a success? The movie wants to parody the buddy cop action films of the 1980s. One of the more amusing additions is that Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun) fashions a brand new 80s style synth and guitar styled score. It’s the best and funniest part of the movie. Cop Out spends an inordinate amount of time and attention to a tortuous plot that nobody should care about. Another miscalculation is that the tone never really settles and often Smith and company attempt a light touch when it comes to parody, which makes the film just look like an incompetent retread of 80s action movies. Just because we’re familiar with stuff doesn’t mean it can be funny without comment. The movie looks even shabbier in comparison with Will Ferrell’s similarly aimed The Other Guys, a far more winning and funnier venture. I wanted to laugh; I strained to find something to appreciate, which was especially hard as the movie tilts more toward action in the final 20 minutes. The slack pacing, lame dialogue, poor chemistry between lead cops Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan (who just comes off as an unfunny idiot with a loudspeaker for a mouth), disjointed tonality, and ill-conceived comic setups (car chase in a cemetery leads to? nothing? Morgan chases a suspect while he wears a cell phone costume … *crickets*) all take their toll and make me seriously question what drew the interest of so many, otherwise, talented people. Smith got hours of stories after shooting a small role alongside Willis for Die Hard 4. I hope Smith can justify this load with a few more hours of entertaining and juvenile stories for his road shows and podcasts. If that sounds like a faint attempt to find a silver lining for what is otherwise a tremendously botched comedy, then let it be seen as such.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Something of an unholy mess, Jennifer’s Body doesn’t have enough comedy to be funny and doesn’t have enough scares to be frightening. And yet the movie might have worked (heavy emphasis on the “might”) had someone completely rewritten the dialogue. Diablo Cody’s hallmark hyper-verbal, hipster dialogue runs at odds with the horror elements, undermining the finished product. Curses like “cheese and crackers” and calling each other names like “Monostat” and “Vagisil” are actually the high-point. This is just a big, swinging whiff for Cody’s wordsmith abilities. There are just some painful, wince-inducing lines that land with a thud. The film follows a strange story structure, placing the reveal of how Jennifer became what she is in the middle of the movie. By this point, we’ve seen her devour too many boys to see her as anything other than a monster. If the scene played out in a linear fashion, we may have actually felt sympathy for her as a scared, relatable girl, and her appetites might come across as some kind of cosmic justice. But it doesn’t work that way thanks to the scene order. Somewhere inside the body of this movie is a quasi-feminist reworking of the horror genre, but really the movie just seems like another genre fantasy byproduct that treats the ladies as walking meat. What does two girls kissing for an extended period of time have to do with female empowerment? The biggest surprise is that Megan Fox is actually kind of good as the demonic object of desire. Who would have thought that Fox would be the best thing in a movie written by an Oscar winner and directed by a Sundance Award winner?

Nate’s Grade: C

In the Land of Women (2007)

Nepotism is about as prevalent in Hollywood as venereal diseases. Plenty of people get their foot in the door because they just so happen to share genetic material with successful filmmakers. It happens all the time in the world of business, and movies rake in the cash, so the Kasdan clan isn’t any exception to the rule. Papa Lawrence has a storied pedigree. He’s responsible for Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist, and two, count ’em, two Star Wars movies (the good ones). His oldest son Jake has directed Zero Effect and Orange County. Now younger son Jon Kasdan is taking the leap into the family business with In the Land of Women.

Carter (Adam Brody) is a Los Angeles writer for soft-core pornography. He?s just been dumped by an up and coming Spanish actress (Elena Anaya). He feels lost and comes up with a plan that will help inspire him to write his serious novel that’s been gestating for ten years. He heads out to a small Michigan suburb to live with his crabby hypochondriac grandmother (Olympia Dukakis). Across the street is a glum family. Sarah (Meg Ryan) is coping with raising a family and undergoing chemotherapy for the lump in her breast. Her teen daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart) is full of angst and hates her mom. Carter inserts himself into the family’s life and may just heal longstanding wounds.

In the Land of Women is a strange experience because it feels like the entire movie is cobbled together by subplots. There doesn’t seem to be a strong central storyline, a strong central character, or any real connective tissue. You start to feel the lack of direction and discipline from Kasdan. The characters are all underdeveloped when they aren’t behaving in unbelievable manners. This is another drama where the characters take long strolls and wax introspectively about their life, spelling everything out with rare clarity to strangers. This would be more permissible had the film presented any other avenue for character development. Ryan gets the sick mom storyline, Stewart gets the awkward and angry teen storyline, and Dukakis gets the crazy grandma storyline. It may be a land of women but these aren’t very well constructed women, and I’m uncertain what exactly Carter has learned from this supposedly life-changing experience. He met some women, he listened; in fact, I think that’s where the film takes its first wrong turn. Carter is a self-described great listener, so guess what happens when he meets women who have bottled up their secrets and true feelings? Yep, he listens. And we watch him listen for most of the movie. This allows characters to unload dramatic monologues that do the major work for characterization, but it still keeps our main character, the traveler to the titular land of women, as nothing more than a low-key cipher. He’s a handsome couch for the female characters to unwind. When Carter is typing his Big Serious Novel I’m clueless as to how he has changed as a person and how he reached his point of enlightenment.

I get the unmistakable feeling that Kasdan is really trying to make his own Garden State. This is another story of personal maturation and it takes places with a visit home to a simpler life with comic oddballs. He’s taken the elements that made Garden State click, including a hip and frequently heard soundtrack, but Kasdan must have missed the part where Garden State benefits from strong, likeable characters and a plot. Just like Carter, Kasdan is striving for something grandiose to say about the world, but the end results are no better, and no worse, than something you could catch on a nondescript cable channel. The movie is stuffed with familiar moments, like the bustling teen party, the precocious teen wise beyond her years, the feeble love triangles, and the asshole jock boyfriend. The handful of new wrinkles that Kasdan does explore is easily forgotten; Carter’s job deserves far more discussion. When the Hollywood life butts back in Kasdan doesn’t push the juxtaposition as hard as he should, so Carter’s troubles feel puny, especially compared with cancer. In the Land of Women has some touching moments to it and an occasional wise bit of dialogue, and they stand out amongst an otherwise underwhelming panorama.

In the Land of Women reaches its awkward peaks when it treats Carter?s mother-daughter interaction like two choices for romance. Carter is supposed to be 25, making him about 20 years younger than mom and 10 years older than daughter. In my book, that’s an “ick” on both accounts. Carter gets to smooch both women (hell, one of the kisses is the poster) and the audience gets to squirm both times. Our sense of guilt is alleviated by multiple characters telling us that Sarah’s father is having an affair, so then it shouldn’t matter if she finds understanding and warmth in the arms of a young emo pup. But what makes these sidesteps so awful is how clumsy and meaningless they prove to be.

The acting in the movie is well done. Brody is apt for a romantic comedy leading man. He’s got oodles of laid back charisma and a winning sense of humor that made him the breakout star of a prime time soap. He’s affable and enjoyable to watch, but his relaxed acting style doesn’t help an undefined character. Stewart is a wonderfully natural actress and largely communicates with her gangly physicality. She has the teen contempt down perfect and looks like an average teenager, which compounds how icky it seems to see her kiss Carter. Ryan hasn’t been onscreen in 3 years, and to tell the truth, I kind of missed her. She gets some standard emotional scenes as an afflicted, underappreciated mother and sells them well.

Jon Kasdan’s filmmaking debut isn’t going to do much to redefine his artistic image other than that of a lucky genetic benefactor. In the Land of Women is earnest and well acted, but the movie is just far too underdeveloped and shapeless to succeed. The film is a collection of non-starting subplots and familiar elements; you just feel that the movie needs a kick in the ass to get on track. The soundtrack is pleasant, the production is competently made, but the story is ultimately lacking and underwhelming. The land of women and men deserves better.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Thank You for Smoking (2006)

As soon as I saw a trailer for Thank You for Smoking I was in love. I found the book for cheap and read it with months to spare before the film reached my local theater. Admittedly, my expectations were high because the book was wonderful, and Thank You for Smoking as a movie is equally wonderful and a very good film adaptation.

This is a wickedly funny satire that skewers all sides in the political debate about Big Tobacco, and the film doesn’t take a stand, which is refreshing. It has a firm grip on its humor and gleefully gives its finger to political correctness. There?s a lunch group called the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) squad where reps for Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, of course, argue over whose product is harder to spin. It’s likely the snort-because-you-can’t-believe-they-said-that movie of the year. The tar-black humor in Thank You for Smoking rolls off so casually. This is a comedy that respects the intelligence of its audience and doesn’t dumb down its barbs or its satire. Aaron Eckhart was born to play the role of Nick Naylor, tobacco’s master spin artist and public charlatan. Naylor is conniving, slippery, and yet immensely likable not in spite of these traits but because of them. Eckhart is downright charming and you can see how he could dupe a nation, even if he’s only doing it for the challenge. Thank You for Smoking has one of the finest assembled casts in a long time, and every member fires on all cylinders. This is a film brimming with confidence and it’s evident with every frame. You almost might feel guilty for wanting to capture a contact buzz from how polished, assured and witty the flick is.

I never thought I’d say so but it sure looks like adapter/director Jason Reitman has a far more promising future right now than his dad, Ivan. Jason, the son, keeps the movie brisk, packed with characters, subplots, jokes, and a visual whimsy. This is a terrific adaptation of a terrific book, and Reitman really hones in on the mechanics of debate and lobbyist practices with aplomb. A scene where Nick teaches his adoring son the tricks of debate with ice cream is outstanding. Thank You for Smoking crackles with dialogue to die for, like Nick’s boss BR (J.K. Simmons) saying, “We sell cigarettes. They’re cool, and addictive, and available — the job is practically done for us.” My only complaints with the film, besides that it’s too short at just 90 minutes, is the manufactured danger seems a bit too slight and too easily overcome. Nick quite simply vanquishes whatever threat his reporter sex buddy Heather (Katie Holmes) posed. Otherwise, Thank You for Smoking is a superb movie all around and there’s no reason you shouldn’t see it. Take the hit.

Nate’s Grade: A

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

The new action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith sure seems to be in the headlines a lot. Most from tabloids trying to connect Angelina Jolie as the catalyst for why Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have filed for divorce. You can’t walk past a checkout counter without being screamed at by 15 magazine covers. Too bad the actual movie seems to be forgotten in the process. That’s a shame because Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one terrifically fun summer ride that you don’t want to get off of (kind of like Jolie and/or Pitt, depending upon which way you swing).

Things aren’t so peachy for the Smiths (Jolie and Pitt). They met and married in Columbia amid a flurry of action but now it seems like their lives have become quite mundane as husband and wife. Life at work, though, is quite the opposite. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are hiding a whopper of a secret — that they’re hired assassins. They’ve both been hired to take out the same mark (Adam Brody) and accidentally discover each other’s true identity. Of course both spies are now compromised so they’re assigned to bump off their spouse. And you thought your marriage was murder. Mr. and Mrs. Smith combat their real feelings and put the spark back into their marriage by trying to kill each other, the little taught alternative in marriage counseling courses.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith has a vibrant sex appeal to it. Pitt and Jolie are extraordinarily beautiful people, no question, but they also have sizzling chemistry. The looks they give could ignite the screen. Even when they’re at each other’s throats you like them and hope for the best. The stars’ sex appeal and the film’s off kilter tone collides in fun ways. A knockout, drag-out fight between husband and wife turns into foreplay that literally brings the house down. The most unbelievable aspect of the movie is the idea that these gorgeous people would grow sexually tired with one another.

The leads are terrific and terrific together. Jolie has finally found the right role for her. She’s the perfect balance between tough and sexy. She could very easily kick my ass and look good doing it. Originally Nicole Kidman was going to play Mrs. Smith before scheduling conflicts put the kibosh on that. I can not see Kidman working. I’m not afraid of Kidman, but with Jolie I’d do whatever she says. Jolie has a real kick in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the audience can feel it too. It also helps that she looks absolutely magnificent. Finally, her beauty and wildness are put to excellent use. I’ve always thought Pitt got a bad rap as an actor for being pretty. Sure, he’s built like a Greek God (and played one in Troy) but this man can act. People seem to forget he was nominated for an Oscar for Twelve Monkeys. Pitt exudes a natural calm and always seems a smirk away from getting out of anything. These traits serve him well as a smooth criminal. Even when he’s whacking people with a golf club he seems easygoing.

The tone needs to be very specific for Mr. and Mrs. Smith to work. I mean, one false step and husband and wife revitalizing their marriage by trying to kill each other turns from funny to horrifying. Mrs. and Mrs. Smith walks that delicate line but nails the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone needed to make this movie soar. When you boil it down, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is essentially a modern day screwball romance. Instead of sparring with witticisms they spar with heavy-duty weaponry (I can only imagine what Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn could have done with knives and bazookas).

After Mr. and Mrs. Smith find out the true identities of their spouses, they both know it’s kill-or-be-killed. Both tread very carefully and are highly suspicious that any little thing, like a glass of wine, a trip to the bathroom, could be the trigger to their demise. Now, if the tone weren’t exactly perfect, this sequence would seem overly silly or overly cruel. Instead, the sequence comes across as being very funny. Pitt and Jolie nail the casual awkwardness as they test one another. Even the ending of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is laugh-out-loud perfect with the film’s vibe. I will go so far to say it’s the greatest ending line for a film since 1959’s Some Like it Hot.

It seems that if you want your action done right, you call Doug Liman to be director. Liman, as he did with 2002’s stellar The Bourne Identity, can craft highly imaginative, stylish, and playful action sequences that are low on pesky CGI and high on thrills. He makes sure the audience can witness every balletic move of his orchestration. He’s likes his fireballs big, though not Michael Bay the-sun-is-exploding big. If you want an inventive use of ordinary objects, Liman’s your man. There’s a fabulous car chase that utilizes a mini-van in surprising and gleeful ways. While dodging bullets and bad guys, Mr. Smith slides the vehicle’s doors open on both sides. When a bad guy jumps into the car, he grabs the baddie and swings him out the other side in one continuous motion.

This isn’t a movie to take too seriously. Yes, the plot is pretty goofy at turns and the Smiths seem nigh invincible. Yes, the bad guys are all terrible shots. Yes, it would be unlikely for the Smiths to take out 100 or so armed men surrounding them. Yes, it seems like the resolution would be cloudy because they’d still be wanted as husband and wife assassins. Yes, Brody is wearing a Fight Club T-shirt. None of this matters. Of course a world of super spies and gadgets is going to be goofy, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith never winks at the camera. This is one romantic comedy with a macabre edge and a devilish sense of humor. I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the big blast of fun I’ve been waiting Hollywood to deliver all year. The action sequences are inventive, exciting, and quite sexy. Seeing the two hottest people on the planet (Thora Birch excluded, obviously) kiss, fight, shoot each other, and blow stuff up is entertainment in itself, but the chemistry between Jolie and Pitt is in the five-alarm area. This will not be a movie for everyone. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about married assassins who do kill people and get off on trying to kill each other. But for people who like their summer ventures to have a little malevolent glee, Mr. and Mrs. Smith will hit the right note. I can only hope for the eventual sequel – Mr. and Mrs. Smith Go to Washington. Imagine that potential filibuster sequence and try not to smile. You can’t!

Nate’s Grade: A-

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