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The Wager (2020)

The Wager is a gob smacking example about the utmost significance of screenplay structure and a lesson for others to learn and avoid. I was beside myself with frustration from this 90-minute movie available on Amazon streaming, occasionally yelling at my TV screen, but mostly I was dumbfounded by the storytelling choices. The wager of the title, which is also prominently noted in the synopsis attached for the film, doesn’t even occur until 78 minutes in. That’s right, you don’t get the hook of the movie until the very end. This astounds me. The Wager is an Ohio-made faith-based indie that generally bored me and occasionally made me guffaw or scream in bafflement. I’d wager unless you’re already among the faithful flock, you’re going to be unmoved and more than a little mystified by this tone-deaf drama.

Bruce (Ty Shelton) is a young man abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. He gets into trouble at school and eventually gets plunged into a life of crime against his will. As an adult (Jim Gloyd), he’s strung out on drugs and resorting to petty robbery to find his scores. His childhood friend Suzy (Stephanie Haff) runs into him at a casino and offers spiritual outreach, but Bruce wants nothing to do with God. That is until an angel enters his life with a big bet about reliving Bruce’s tortured past with a new perspective.

If you’re going to present a Christian spin on the classic It’s a Wonderful Life formula, having a guardian angel intervene in a person’s life to show them a highlight reel of memories and what could have been, why wait until there’s only ten or so minutes left in your entire movie? Once Bruce does review his tortured life, it includes scenes we’ve already seen, including his birth, which begs the question why we needed to see these moments twice. It’s not like what came before this celestial review needed 78 minutes of undivided attention. For the first 15 minutes, all that happens is that an abused woman gives birth, drops the baby on the doorstep of the police, and the officers call social services. Did we need that to take up 15 minutes? From there we witness young Bruce getting in trouble at school and then being kidnapped (oh, there will definitely be more on this later) and living life as a drug dealer. We spend an hour establishing Bruce’s life as being awful, from child to adult, and it’s repetitive and deflating. How many scenes do we need to see of Bruce sleeping on the ground or shooting up drugs or being pushed around? Not only could the far, far majority of this plotting have been condensed considerably, it would have been more impactful to watch Bruce reflect on his experiences by re-living them rather than dwelling in the extended misery that made me wonder if this was going to be a modern-day passion play. Truly, imagine It’s a Wonderful Life but we spent an hour of watching George Bailey haggle over business practices with Mr. Potter. This central screenwriting miscue is just so catastrophic to the entertainment factor.

We could have easily established adult Bruce being a troubled man and the people of his past having difficulty recognizing the man they thought they knew from the movie’s start. This would establish that bad things have happened, and he could hint at more that he doesn’t want to reveal, and then the end of your first act could be him hitting rock bottom and getting his angelic intervention. We don’t need more than 20-25 minutes to establish how crummy this man’s life is. When given an hour, it just becomes too crushing and risks undercutting the message of personal redemption. Learning with the character about his life’s hardships would be more engaging with him having to come face-to-face with the them and his guardian angel partner. It also allows us to not have to be dependent on chronology and jump around to the major events we need to best define Bruce. This obvious structure makes so much sense that I am shocked the filmmakers missed out. Having an angelic guide would also force the character into conversation and confrontation and potential reflection, giving us better insight into the man than simply watching the events on our own without commentary. Simply put, you shouldn’t name your movie after a key plot event that happens in the last 15 minutes unless you’re a disaster movie and the Big One is finally striking.

The mistakes in plot structure also harm the overall slack pacing. The pacing is practically nonexistent for long portions. The energy level is so subdued that I thought I might just fall asleep. The camera movements will often utilize long takes and slow pans with minimal cuts, which just makes the lack of energy that much more palpable. So many dialogue exchanges sound like people are just reanimated zombies, and so much dialogue feels needlessly expositional. People talk in that phony way where they’re constantly repeating what the other person says but turning it into a question. It’s an inauthentic way of conversing that reminded me of Neil Breen’s silly films. Take these examples of poor onscreen conversations and see what I’m talking about:

“I have no clue what we’re going to do in Science today.”

“Me neither. I guess we’ll find out soon.”

“You’re right. See you there.”

Wow, did we need to be privy for that vital information? Or how about:

“I know you have your troubles, but I know you.”

“No, you don’t. That’s just how I act around you. I don’t think you know.”

“Just stop. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make excuses rather than accepting yourself for who you really are.”

Isn’t writing better when characters just blurt out another person’s internal dilemma for the audience? Or:

“He asked me for Herb’s Garage.”

“Oh yeah. I remember that place.”

“We all did. So, I didn’t expect a thing.”

We needed less time with scenes like these, where it feels like characters are detached and drifting with excess time to fill. There’s one long hallway exchange between a young Bruce and Suzy that lasts over a minute of chit-chat that feels like they’re just reading off the script. The performances have that rushed feeling, of sentences starting immediately after the next, but lacking an energy level that would justify the delivery. Simply put, when two or more characters are sitting down and talking, you might as well go get a refill or hit the bathroom. The chances will be good they will still be in that same sedate conversation and you will have missed little. This is why the structural choice to spend 78 MINUTES OF MOVIE on establishment scenes is so maddening, because writer/producer/co-star Gloyd did not have the material to cover the time.

Let’s get into what I think is the most egregious portion of The Wager and that is the lengthy middle where Bruce gets kidnapped and coerced into a life of crime. I thought we were headed for some Oliver Twist territory and we’d watch Bruce’s struggles over the pressure to commit criminal acts he was uncomfortable doing, maybe even while he schemed to escape. First off, the fact that the criminals are stereotypical depictions of black males made me sigh. I also was confounded why they placed so much emphasis on kidnapping teenagers and runaways to serve as drug dealers. When you have access to money and power, you have people that will come to you for opportunities (you’re a job creator). You don’t need to kidnap children and hold them hostage to sell your wares, especially having to worry whether they will run away or whether someone will recognize them as missing. It’s stupid risk. Considering these men just sit in the car and watch young Bruce make his first street corner deal, it’s not like they’re being terribly conspicuous.

And then there’s the undetermined time jump, which is revealed during one of those static camera angle montages. It’s a nice surprise; however, it means that Bruce has been sleeping on this same dirty mattress in the same room for, like, twenty or thirty years (also none of the items on the shelves moved in that same time, meaning Bruce never touched a thing in his living quarters or he is very, very particular about where things should go). The same crime bosses are still alive and in their same position of leadership. Bruce is now played by Gloyd in a horrendous looking ratty wig and I needed to know desperately how much time has passed. Gloyd definitely looks to be in his 40s, and this significant jump in time raises so many irksome questions. The police haven’t found adult Bruce in 30 years but the same officer who found him as a baby, who is still alive and working as a security officer, can recognize him on the spot? How old are these same criminal leaders then, and Bruce hasn’t ascended higher up the organization than street dealer? If we’re jumping that far ahead, wouldn’t it make more sense for Bruce to be the new leader, letting us know he has been molded under the negative influence of his captors? If he’s just going to be a drug-addicted adult then why do we need to jump so far ahead in time? The answer, it seems, is so that the writer/producer can have a starring role. That’s fine, but we could have done more structurally to maximize the drama rather than dwelling in redundant misery.

Let’s analyze the spiritual message at the heart of The Wager. Bruce’s life is pretty bad. He’s in and out of foster homes, gets abducted and held hostage as a criminal lackey, becomes addicted to drugs and desperate, and then homeless and contemplating suicide. He’s had, by all accounts, a hard go of things. He’s understandably resentful about the forces he feels have conspired to lock him into agony, so when other characters raise the notion of a loving God that has his back and watches over him, Bruce scoffs and views his life as refutation. There’s even a nature versus nurture argument to be had. In fact, the first time Bruce went to Suzy’s church was when he was abducted. The cop character tells Bruce he’s been praying for him since the moment they first crossed paths, but considering what Bruce has endured, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of prayer. Now obviously Bruce will conclude with accepting the love of God and finding a greater purpose with his life, but why did we need to wait so long? The end is never going to be in doubt with a Christian-themed indie any more than whether or not James Bond will get out of his latest scrape. That’s why refocusing the structure onto Bruce having to confront an angel over his feelings of abandonment from God would be far more dynamic, powerful, and I’ll say it, even Christian than the message as presented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith and credentials of the filmmakers. I’m saying the way they go about telling their story makes the overall message less believably impactful.

The acting in The Wager is typically rather flat, given that energy-sapping direction that makes each scene feel twice as long. However, there is one actor I want to single out and that’s Cameron Arnett (Overcomer) as the unfortunately named Gabe Angelus (get it?). Arnett reappears in different roles, my favorite being a batty homeless man that helps out Bruce from time to time. In that moment, Arnett is so believable and arguably natural even while playing a highly mannered character. He immediately drew my attention and I remarked, “Here’s a good actor.” As for the other thespians, it’s hard for me to tell whether they just didn’t get the material to showcase their skills or whether those skills are in need of polishing. I know KateLynn Newberry (Widow’s Point, Dark Iris) as the queen of Ohio indies, and she’s pretty much wasted as a doting wife who lives to ask her husband what he wants for dinner. Fun fact: one of the crime lords is played by former Columbus resident and famous boxer James “Buster” Douglas.

With The Wager, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Obvious dramatic setups seem to be sorely missed, a structural reformatting was in dire need to maximize the hook, because without that it’s like watching one poor man spiral and suffer for an entire feature-length film. It feels like overwrought overkill. Do we need a half-hour of a guy slinging drugs and sticking needles in his arm, without any supporting characters to interact with, or can this information be conveyed with practiced brevity? I am amazed at so many choices that left me scratching my head. The movie ends with our guardian angel staring into the screen and laughing maniacally for several prolonged seconds, even over the cut to black. What? This is the kind of behavior we associate with evil beings. Why do we need a flashback of a young girl running out the door when the adult version could have just relayed this event in words? I know Christian movie audiences aren’t exactly the most discerning audiences, prioritizing message over storytelling and technical achievement, but the decisions that the filmmakers make impair that faithful message. You don’t make an It’s a Wonderful Life story and just reserve it for the last 15 minutes. I advise select people to watch The Wager simply to learn what not to do with the importance of screenwriting structure. That’s its ultimate cautionary tale.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Hillbilly Elegy (2020)/ Feels Good Man (2020)

Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.

The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.

Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.

Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.

The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.

I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.

Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.

Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.

Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.

This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.

The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.

I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.

So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.

Nate’s Grades:

Hillbilly Elegy: C-

Feels Good Man: B

Darkest Edge (2020)

My pal Ben Bailey hates me reviewing Ohio-produced indie films. To be fair, he doesn’t have anything against the idea of providing critical and professional analysis to local filmmakers on their cinematic offerings. What he laments is how mediocre many of the finished projects end up being and how, in his view, it’s establishing a negative impression that Ohio movies suck. Truth be told, I haven’t found that one Ohio-made indie that has completely floored me. I’ve found several that I enjoyed and others that had elements to be proud about. The thriller Darkest Edge was filmed throughout Ohio and Kentucky and features Ohio talent in front and behind the camera. It’s the feature debut for director Naim David and screenwriter Joe Gribble. It’s a movie that aims beyond its own restricted reach but proves one of the less successful thrillers I’ve seen.

Mark (Christopher Rowley) is a Chicago journalist who is still reeling from his sister’s suicide. He’s on the verge of divorce and never seeing his daughter again, never mind his obsessive drinking. He’s given one final assignment, the closing of a notorious mental asylum in Dayton, Ohio, the very place that his departed sister spent time within. Ellen (Jocelyn Jae Tanis) is his assistant who insists upon being his camera operator. The two travel to Dayton and investigate the asylum, interview wary doctors, and Mark unlocks memories and secrets of his past.

Why is this thing in the middle of the screen?

Where this movie runs most adrift is with mood and execution. Look at that poster at the top of the review, check out the description of the plot setup, even judging by the spooky yet unmemorable title (I kept thinking “Dark Edge,” “Dark Corners,” “Darkest Corner” in my head). Even the tagline says, “Deep shadows lie at the darkest edge of the mind.” All of this is setting you, the viewer, to expect a creepy psychological thriller in a creepy asylum and for creepy things to happen. There have been horror movies that have been little more than watching wayward characters haplessly explore a haunted old locale, uncovering its secrets and perhaps its residents, living or dead. This simple plot setup can work as long as the filmmakers can execute their intended mood with aplomb. Unfortunately, Darkest Edge makes a critically fatal error in choosing its creepy locations. To put it simply, this soon-to-be-closing sanitarium is not scary looking in the slightest. The outside looks like a high school building from the 1960s. The inside looks very non-intimidating. There are doors labeled with pieces of paper and an accessible exit door literally within feet of “patient rooms.” While watching, my girlfriend pointed out this very problematic design flaw for a mental institution and I was aghast with that slip-up. The inside of this asylum is also practically abandoned. It’s supposed to be closing soon but there’s still supposed to be patients, evidenced by our characters randomly walking around the facility and finding doors obviously locked. This sense of emptiness will be a prolific problem with the movie (more on that later), but the asylum could have always been closed down and emptied already upon investigation. Another killer error is that almost the entire movie takes place during the day, which only further hampers the scare factor of this already ordinary looking building. It’s like watching people explore an office park and finding nothing. If Darkest Edge was going to hinge so much over a singular creepy location, oh is this place a big miss.

With the location not exactly hitting the intended mood, I held hope that the central mystery tying to the protagonist’s memory, his occasional alcohol-induced blackouts, and hazy memories of this particular asylum could generate the intrigue that the setting was not. Mark is torn over the suicide of his sister, he’s been drinking so heavily he reeks at work, and this asylum might be the very same one that his sister was held at during both of their youths. Surely there has to be a dark secret afoot, or we’re being set up for some last-minute twist. I started guessing what the twist would be within ten minutes, because Darkest Edge seemed overwhelmingly like the kind of thriller that would roll out a last-minute twist. I thought maybe Mark’s daughter was really dead. My most outlandish, hacky guess was that Mark was really still in the asylum and that everything outside was a figment of his fevered imagination. Admittedly, that would have been an awful ending but it would have tapped into the psychological thriller context of its genre. There isn’t really any sort of mind-bending twist here. There is a revelation but, shockingly, the movie goes down a sentimental route that feels unearned and tonally ill-suited for the prior 75 minutes. It’s such a curious ending and goes against the very setup of this kind of movie. You’re expecting the story to end in a dark, desolate, traumatic place. If you want catharsis, you got to put in the work as a storyteller.

Unfortunately, a word I seem to find myself using often here, Darkest Edge doesn’t provide a compelling personal mystery for the audience. Mark is a boring character. He’s troubled and haunted in a general sense but the screenplay doesn’t give us anything too specific. Yes, his sister kills herself and he feels some guilt over this, but the entire movie doesn’t provide insight into the sister character or their relationship. If he’s so hard up over her death, you don’t feel why. He’s a sloppy drunk, and if you made a drinking game where you took a drink every time you saw Mark drinking, or holding a bottle, then you would black out just like Mark. It’s his lone defining characteristic and it is given again and again and again. Strangely, Mark will black out and find himself transported to distant locations, like thirty miles away from where he was (the movie, weirdly, makes sure we know the mile distances between specific Ohio cities). You would expect this would be a clue about some larger context, a deeper meaning for the torment plaguing our protagonist. Well your guess is as good as mine because ultimately those blackout long-distance travels don’t get clarified at all. For Mark to function as a character, he needs more specifics, especially when it comes to a trauma. He needs a specific fear or tragedy that haunts him and resurfaces with his trip to the asylum. We get what appear to be flashback snippets of a little boy exploring the interior of the asylum (apparently it was also just as easy to wander back then too). It’s all too vague and poorly explained, forcing the viewer to extrapolate connections and meaning. By providing a specific trigger and goal at the start, a viewer could watch Mark journey through his trauma rather than having to guess at it and its implications. I assume this was designed to make Mark’s personal history more enigmatic, but mystery only really works when you’re invested; otherwise it’s just obtuse, and that’s what we have here with Mark and Darkest Edge.

The reality of Darkest Edge is hard to take seriously, and part of this is affected by the limitations of the low budget and certain filmmaking choices that accentuate those. Just because a movie has a low budget doesn’t mean it can’t succeed or utilize a clever creative ingenuity to tell its story and entertain. If you want to tell a creepy story about exploring a creepy location, choose a genuinely creepy location, and shoot it during night time to build an effective atmosphere. Use shadows to your advantage and play up the worry of what may be around the corner next. Build that sense of compounding dread. Walking ordinary hallways during daylight hours is not making your movie scary unless people are encountering weird events or threatening folk, neither of which happens here. There are some doctors hiding extreme methods but these methods are questionably vindicated by the end. There needs to be a clear threat and for the far, far majority of Darkest Edge there isn’t and this results in the movie feeling meandering.

The technical elements can be distracting and disappointing. The fuzzy sound design is a noticeable shortcoming, often dampening from shot-to-shot. The extreme lack of background noise is unmistakable and makes the movie feel like it was filmed in a space capsule. This, coupled with the lack of background activity and extras, makes the movie feel borderline like a Twilight Zone episode where there are only five or six people left on Earth. The limits of the reported $7500 budget are also felt with the shot selections; frequently a scene will just bounce between two set shots, locked into a plodding shot-reverse shot rhythm. There are dramatic moments that are kept at a distance when a closer shot was begging to showcase the actor’s emotive powers. It leaves an impression that the production was pressed for time to get editorial coverage, and it feels like actors were often filmed at different times and cut together for conversations. There is very limited lighting overall and the photography quality is also a step removed, so why not make this entirely a found footage film? That would have allowed the limitations of the production to be an acceptable part of the presentation. The music is also far too loud at points, drowning out the dialogue, and far too generic without establishing a sense of foreboding. I kept scratching my head at the artistic choices, which routinely magnified the budget shortfalls rather than making decisions that would better compensate instead.

The acting is mostly fine especially since the actors haven’t been given much to work with. The characters are boring and have one trait they get to rub down to its nub. Rowley (Primordial) has a beaten down, hangdog expression that works well. Most of the times he’s either playing hungover or short-tempered, and without a stronger personality, it’s easy to start mentally checking out with his character. Tanis (Lilith, Cinestudy) delivers a performance that manages to mingle ambition, naivete, and a barely concealed contempt for her colleague. She had so much more potential to explore and I wish we spent more time with Ellen rather than watching Mark get drunk for the twentieth time. Anthony Panzeca (Dodging the Bullet) plays an orderly at the asylum and makes a warm impression. His performance is the closest to unveiling charm in a cast regularly acting confounded or irritable. There’s a Dayton journalist that is such a confusing character for me. She buddies up with Mark by opening up her archives of news collections on the asylum. She then asks Mark what he’s found… in her own news archives? Shouldn’t she already be familiar with what she has?

Darkest Edge is not the movie the poster, tagline, or even setup proclaim it to be. It’s not really a thriller, let alone an accessible psychological thriller, and it’s not really a horror movie. It should be creepy given the setting and its supposedly sordid history, but too much of this movie is kept vague and obtuse, failing to give the audience a reason for watching. The characters aren’t that interesting or complex or compelling and their traumas are kept too unspecified to engage. If it was going to focus on the mental torment and troubled history of a troubled man, the script needed to make him more dimensional and his issues more central to the events unfurling. Tone-wise the movie doesn’t work or build a sense of momentum. It’s hard to make a scary thriller/horror movie when nobody looks like they’re scared, and that’s for good reason considering the settings are more mundane and plainer than skin-crawling and disturbing. I feel bad saying so but Darkest Edge is really a boring jaunt along empty hallways. Even if you’re an overly generous fan of this sub-genre, there is little to engage with during the padded 80 minutes. The most frightening aspect isn’t the haunted asylum but botching a go-to scary setting.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Ava (2020)

avaThe movie Ava was never meant to have this title. The spy thriller was beset with trouble when the original director, Mathew Newton, dropped off the project after domestic abuse accusations resurfaced. Jessica Chastain, serving as star and as producer, reached out to her Help director Tate Taylor to come aboard and helm the project. Even with that upheaval, the movie went through production under the title of Eve, the name of Chastain’s character. Every person refers to her by this name throughout the movie, and it wasn’t until after the film was complete that some studio executive said, “What if her name was Ava instead?” The filmmakers then had to re-record every line of dialogue referencing her name to replace with this new identity. I cannot fathom a reason for doing so unless some exec really had a thing for that name or it was a concerted move to further distance themselves from Newton, who also wrote the screenplay. Just like that, Eve becomes Ava, and suddenly it’s a whole new creative project. Too bad they didn’t go further because whatever you call it, Ava is a fairly lackluster genre exercise for all involved.

Ava (Chastain) is a former soldier who was discharged from the Army and battled an addiction to drugs and alcohol. She’s gotten better and found a job that suits her, namely killing people for hire. Her fatherly handler (John Malkovich) tells her the marks, she dispatches them, and then collects the payouts. She assumes the men on her kill list are specimens of evil but begins to have her doubts, enough so that Simon (Colin Farrell) sends agents to snuff Ava out.

ava-trailerThere’s very little presented in Ava you haven’t seen in any litany of other spy thrillers before except with this pedigree of cast. I kept questioning  why all these actors had agreed to be part of this project. The characters aren’t exactly complex or original. The scenarios aren’t exactly intricate or subversive. The action isn’t exactly well choreographed or well shot. The movie isn’t even that long at 95 minutes or so. The screenplay by Newton is unremarkable in every way, no different than any direct-to-DVD genre entry. I could just as readily see, say, Kristanna Loken (BloodRayne) filling the role of Ava than I could an actress as accomplished and in-demand as Chastain. That nagging question of what made a generic spy thriller so appealing will never be answered, because Ava offers little to a viewer already steeped in genre thrillers. It’s more of the same, just with A-list talent voluntarily “slumming it” as underwritten archetypes.

By no means am I against genre movies as a whole. I love genre movies. They can be some of the most entertaining and exciting film experiences, and under the right guidance, they can be thoroughly compelling and rewarding and even enlightening. Plus they’re just fun. Matt Damon resurrected his career as Jason Bourne. If Ava was trying to do something along those lines, re-calibrate the spy movie as a jangly, nerve-wracking thriller grounded in realism, that would have been something. Or if the movie had embraced its genre tropes knowingly, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, it could have been an over-the-top hoot. Instead, Ava just presents the same tropes without any sense of self-awareness. Ava really feels like an imitation of one of the lesser Luc Besson (The Professional, La Femme Nikita) action thrillers, or maybe one of those Besson imitations of a Besson work (3 Days to Kill). It’s going through the motions of motions.

ava-trailer-1140x641The domestic side of Ava’s life feels like a messy soap opera intruding onto a spy thriller, bordering into farce though without the awareness. Ava’s father died while she was out murdering others, and her sister Judy (Jess Wexler) hasn’t forgotten. Ava’s ex-fiancé, Michael (Common), is also now dating Judy. Michael is also struggling with his own gambling addiction and the debts he owes to local loan shark, Toni (Joan Chen), who has bad blood with Ava. Then there’s Ava’s mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), who has gone in and out of the hospital for heart problems and wants her family to get along. As you might assess, for a 90-minute movie, there is way too much going on there to keep checking in with. Every time we gain more understanding of the people in Ava’s life, the more ridiculous her life seems to evolve, and remember she also is a recovering addict who is wavering over the possibility of relapse. That’s a lot of capital D drama but the screenplay lacks the follow-through to make it matter. It feels like Newton just keeps piling on the complications rather than developing and twisting them. There’s one genuinely strong moment when Bobbi has a sit-down with her daughter and warns her about the costs of being honest and expresses her content to luxuriate in the lie of Ava’s cover story of a career. As Ava contemplates having an affair with her ex, her sister’s boyfriend, you may start to forget that you’re watching a movie about a trained assassin.

Taylor (The Girl on the Train) shows just as much affinity for directing spy thrillers as directing horror with last year’s Ma. It’s not a good fit, folks. Taylor lacks the innate ability to stage action in a pleasing and exciting manner. The fight choreography is mundane and there is no scenario that develops and transforms with complications. The final confrontation is literally a limping slow-walk foot chase that will draw more unintended laughter than suspense, especially as it keeps going and going and I questioned the character walking speed. There is one standout moment and it’s a knock-out, drag-out fight between Ava and Simon that breaks just about every stick of furniture in a hotel room. Both are left bleeding and bruised and fatigued. It’s nothing exceptional in choreography but the sustained duration is what makes it stand apart. I’ll grant Taylor some leeway considering he was a late hire for a project already moving forward. However, with the results of Ava as a finished film, I wouldn’t advise hiring Taylor for any other action movies.

AVA-PHOTO-2Chastain (It Chapter 2) is of course a strong anchor. She taps into some of that ferocious power she had with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, and I would have loved to see her kick all sorts of ass in a spy thriller worthy of her talent. Even something like 2012’s Haywire, which was built to showcase the raw fighting skills of MMA-fighter-turned-actress, Gina Carano, or 2017’s Atomic Blonde, which was expanded upon due to the balletic precision and capability of Charlize Theron. We needed something more for Ava. Chastain kicks and punches and stalks the grounds with her cold badass stares, but she could be doing so much more. The soapier plot elements betray her. At one point, she’s crying, laughing, holding a bottle and contemplating putting a gun to her head. It’s just so much that, again, it points to farce but can’t quite tonally commit.

I’m trying to fathom the reason anyone should watch Ava. It’s short. It’s got talented actors. It’s not offensive in any technical or storytelling regard. If you had 95 minutes to waste, you most certainly could do worse. But there’s nothing that separates this spy thriller from any other mundane, mediocre, cliché genre exercise. What about this script excited Chastain to produce and make sure the world could have the opportunity to see this story? Maybe it was her commercial gambit to tell more meaningful indies later, like when Michael Fassbender produced Assassins’ Creed. I’ll never know the full appeal. Maybe it all just sounded a lot better when her name was Eve.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Way Back (2020)

Not to be confused with 2013’s The Way Way Back, or 2010’s The Way Back about Gulag survivors, this movie entitled The Way Back is about Ben Affleck as an alcoholic basketball coach, and it’s thoroughly fine. We follow Jack (Affleck) as he tries to get his life back on track following the death of a child and the end of his marriage. His alma mater needs a new coach and the former high school basketball star might have found a job that could lead him to be a better version of himself. There’s nothing inherently bad in director Gavin O’Connor’s drama. The acting is pretty good, the docu-drama style gives it a credible sense of realism, and the movie doesn’t downplay the destructive pull of addiction. The problem is that it never feels like it goes deep enough in any aspect. I feel like I just watched a by-the-numbers sports drama attached to a by-the-numbers addiction drama. I kept waiting for more insights with the characters, but the story kept falling back on “dead child” as the explanation for everything. I kept waiting for the characters to distinguish themselves with personalities, but the team to the assistant coaches to Jack’s own ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) are left underdeveloped and more as stand-ins for approving or disapproving figures. There’s plenty of dramatic potential here and it feels like The Way Back doesn’t have the courage or nuance to keep going. I was thinking back to McFarland U.S.A. and how great that movie opened up its world, its community, its culture, getting to know the different characters and their needs, pressures, and hopes. I was absorbed by that movie and with The Way Back I was left mostly unmoved. Affleck (Justice League) is delivering a good performance that touches upon his own challenges with alcohol. He’s the reason to see the movie, but there isn’t much else to warrant your attention. It’s competently made and refrains from getting mawkish, which is something considering how easy it could given the susceptible subject matter. I was just left relatively unmoved because I was kept from emotionally connecting with these people and getting to know and care about their lives from this story. It’s no The Accountant.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Honey Boy (2019)

Honey Boy may be one of the most fascinating movies before you even watch a single second. It’s begging for an intensely ambitious psychological analysis as Shia LaBeouf lays bare his soul in an act of art as therapeutic device. He wrote the screenplay of a very autobiographical tale of a young child actor (nick-named “Honey Boy” by his father) hitting new levels of fame and his abrasive, abusive, and very controlling father, an alcoholic entertainer that relishes his son’s growing success and also resents his accomplishments. That alone would have made Honey Boy an interesting film experience, but LaBeouf goes the extra mile, as he does, and he literally plays the father character, putting him in the position of bringing to life the hurtful authority figure and thinking from his skewed perspective. It makes every moment LaBeouf is onscreen deeply fascinating and deserving of a deep dive to unpack the layers of personal meaning for the man. LaBeouf is also startling and terrific as the self-destructive and self-determined father, a man who finds slights in the slightest but can also be very encouraging of his son’s dreams. Seriously, every moment he is onscreen is suffused with layers of artistic meaning for what it represents in the story, its relationship to LaBeouf the person, and what LaBeouf the son is discovering while playing his father. It becomes a cathartic exercise that also could prove to be literal empathy. The problem with Honey Boy is that it feels more like that dramatic exercise than an actual story; the secondary storyline with the adult protagonist, played by Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), hardly provides much significance. He’s going through rehab and dealing with his unresolved feelings and addictions, but it’s more a framing device than a story itself or a worthwhile contrast to provide helpful details. The movie would just have been fine without it. However, there isn’t really a development of a plot as there is a general repetition of the relationship, namely the complicated and fractious father/son relationship. We spend a lot of time at this motel. We spend a lot of time with father speaking to son. I think a clear majority of the lines are spoken by LaBeouf. It’s always fascinating, with the exception of a misfire of a young romance that seems to float by more on yearning, but after a while I started to notice it felt like we were getting more of the same. We weren’t generating new insights into the characters and how they might change. Is this movie an act of forgiving his father or understanding him? I don’t know, but I’d happily debate Honey Boy with a pal over a beer for the next hour. It’s an inherently intriguing movie loaded with subtext that has its own subtext, a touch of the surreal from documentary filmmaker Alma Har’el, and powerful acting from LaBeouf. It can also feel like more of the same after the first hour. It’s a movie you need to see but it’s ultimately more LaBeouf opening up his intensive therapy role-play than it is a fully-formed movie. James Franco must watch this movie and weep.

Nate’s Grade: B

Uncut Gems (2019)

Uncut Gems is like having a panic attack. It’s frantic, unpredictable, exhausting, anxious, paranoid, visceral, and I still don’t know if I can say I actually enjoyed the actual movie. I can admire it and its effectiveness at putting the viewer in the world of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a middle-aged jeweler that owes money to every shady human in New York City, though I don’t know if I want to step back into this mucky world of crime, losers, and lowlifes. It’s 2012, and Howard has procured a rare gemstone from Ethiopia and considers this his big score, which is important considering he keeps taking on more debts to pay off the last debts to angry, violent men. Basketball star Kevin Garnett, playing himself surprisingly well, visits the shop and is obsessed with the gem and the mythic power he feels it offers him. Howard agrees to allow the NBA star to borrow the gem, and from there Uncut Gems is a nonstop descent into chaos, with creditors, auction houses, family members, mistresses, and every goon in the tri-state area colliding with Howard as he spins desperate deals, escapes, and anything he can to attain that big score. The Safdie brothers, a writing/directing pair, made a big splash with 2017’s gloriously thrilling Good Time, a movie that was as brilliantly streamlined and direct as this new one is deliberately sloppy. It feels like one plot event crashing into another, with characters speaking over one another, a throbbing score constantly in your ear, and with claustrophobic camerawork and grimy lighting. You feel like you’re experiencing the constant rush of anxiety of Howard, and it’s very potent, but the movie can also feel repetitive. There’s so much happening all the time that it can feel less like things are escalating worse than things are just still happening. There are stellar sequences, in particular the later act with an auction and pulling off an escape leading to a very complicated high-risk-high-reward bet, but the movie’s sloppiness and overlapping nature also makes it feel smothering. Sandler is superb as an adrenaline junkie seeking his next fix, a self-destructive gambler who knows he can never be satisfied. With Sandler’s able assist, Howard has an offbeat charm that makes you listen when you should be punching him in the nose. Without Sandler and his live-wire performance, you probably wouldn’t care what happens to this mess of a man. Julia Fox plays Howard’s mistress and she’s a real discovery. This is her film debut and it certainly won’t be her last. She’s more than a pretty face and finds a screwball sweetness to her relationship with her boss, enough so that you think she may actually love Howard for real, in her own way. Uncut Gems is also shockingly unsentimental about its characters and what befalls them. You may laugh, you may gasp, but you’ll be surprised one way or another. The Safdie brothers continue to solidify themselves as some of the most exciting filmmakers working in the thriller genre. I’ll still prefer Good Time and a scuzzy Robert Pattinson to a scuzzy, bruised, beaten, and always-smiling Sandler, but Uncut Gems is two hours of collective adrenaline spikes.

Nate’s Grade: B

Doctor Sleep (2019)

Mike Flanagan has taken the mantle from Frank Darabont and become the best film adapter of Stephen King’s stories. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining but it’s a sequel to Kubrick’s movie version, which King notoriously hated for its alterations. We follow an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as he struggles with addiction in the wake of his family’s tragedy linked to the Overlook Hotel. He starts a new life for himself as a hospice worker, aiding the elderly into a peaceful demise (where he earns the titular nickname), and he takes it upon himself to mentor a young girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who has the same “shining” powers that he has. Trouble is others are looking for these same gifted few, namely Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her gang of traveling undead mutant vampire people feeding off the “steam” or life force of the super-powered they kill. They’re after Abra and her abilities so Danny must rescue her and eventually head back to the source of all his nightmares. This is a relatively solid sequel that has enough intrigue and suspense to cover over the dull parts. It takes too long to get going and then finishes things up too quickly, especially with a climax at the reawakened Overlook that is beginning to hit a groove with nasty ghostly suspense. It felt like I was watching Stephen King’s X-Men with his assortment of super powered people banding together and tracking each other down. The gypsy-like caravan of villains are pretty disposable and lacking strong personality or menace. Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is fun to watch even if she doesn’t feel that threatening. The rules and limitations feel vaguely defined and refined. The nods to the original Shining are selective and bring their own degree of power, as does seeing different actors portray these famous characters in flashback. Flanagan has reverence for both King’s source material and the beloved 1980 film, and bridging the two is a source of enjoyment. The characterization overall is pretty slack and there aren’t much in the way of genuine scares. It’s creepy, it’s occasionally atmospheric, and it’s also really long and drawn out, clocking in at 151 minutes, which is even longer than Kubrick’s movie. It’s an epilogue that gets by on the emotional investment and resolution it provides for Danny while setting up a larger universe of super “shining” psychics. If you don’t care about one, there’s at least some degree of the other to prove entertaining albeit also being underdeveloped. Doctor Sleep (a wasted title) is a workable balance between two masters of horror.

Nate’s Grade: B

Rocketman (2019)

It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?

Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.

I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.

The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.

The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?

There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.

The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.

The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.

With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?

Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.

Nate’s Grade: B+

A Star is Born (2018)

There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.

Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.

This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.

Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.

This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.

With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.

Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?

A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.

A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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