Have you ever watched a movie that felt like it was created by soulless robots? That was the overwhelming feeling I had with Ghosted, a supposed “romantic” “comedy” and spy thriller debuting on Apple Plus with big stars and a big budget and lacking anything that feels recognizably human. 2023 has been a year of exciting and precarious technological advances, and the emergence of A.I.-assisted chat and performative generators, from art to stories, is a Pandora’s Box that will not go away, especially for an industry looking to cut corners wherever possible to save a buck. Super producer Joe Russo has bleakly predicted it’s only a matter of time before studios lean into A.I. programs to help them write bankable screenplays. When that dark day arrives, if we haven’t already crossed that Rubicon, I imagine those A.I. ghostwritten scripts will feel a lot like Ghosted, a movie that feels like it was constructed from imperfect observers.
It all begins when boy meets girl at a farmer’s market. Cole (Chris Evans) refuses to sell a potted plant to Sadie (Ana de Armas) because her job keeps her away for up to months at a time. He cannot, in good conscience, sell this woman a plant he knows will be neglected. From there, they spend a whirlwind first date getting to know one another in and out of the bedroom. Then Sadie never returns Cole’s messages and calls again. He frets that he’s yet another modern dating victim of being ghosted when strange men kidnap him and ask him scary questions about things he has no clue about. He’s rescued from this interrogation by none other than a gun-toting Sadie. She reveals she’s really a secret C.I.A. agent and somehow her enemies have mistaken Cole for “The Tax Man,” a dangerous and mysterious assassin that’s actually Sadie. Now they’re on the run and Cole has to learn the ropes of spy business or else, and maybe he can get a second date while he’s at it.
The premise alone is a workable high-concept we’ve seen comedy variations of before, from Charade to Knight and Day to The Spy Who Dumped Me (remember that movie, anyone?). It’s the perspective of the novice being plunged into the chaotic and overwhelming world of spy-craft and having to rapidly adjust to a world they thought was just the stuff of movies and beach reads. It’s the kind of story that pokes fun at spy movies while embracing them as well, and it posits what would happen if one of us normies ever accidentally found ourselves in this high-stakes world. Where Ghosted doesn’t work is that the characters are both awful versions of the Novice and the Expert. There’s a slight amusement watching Evans plays out of his depth in action contexts, running counter to a decade of Marvel heroics, but this is short-lived. He eventually begins to be a capable partner for Sadie as she learns to trust another, which is the most expected and basic character arc for each of these people. However, Sadie is also boring, and even when the truth about her profession is revealed, it doesn’t make her that much more interesting. I was already doubtful when we opened with her talking to her therapist over her car’s phone and this was the first scene. She’s been slotted as Killing Machine with Trust Issues, and he’s been slotted as Too Afraid to Seek His Dreams, and so their conclusions are predictable and bland. There’s even a lack of a technique that Sadie teaches Cole that comes into play at a pivotal moment. That’s the most basic thing and they miss that.
There is also a notable absence of chemistry between the leads. While de Armas and Evans have co-starred in two prior films, they were opposed in 2019’s Knives Out and 2022’s The Grey Man. Actor chemistry is one of those ineffable qualities that you can tell pretty quickly whether it’s evident or lacking, and within minutes of the tortured house plant meet-cute, I sensed a gaping black hole of palpable chemistry. It’s even more obnoxious when MULTIPLE characters in MULTIPLE scenes implore the two to “get a room” because their supposed sexual tension is off the charts. Sure thing, movie.
Another quality that becomes very apparent is how forced everything in Ghosted feels. The romance feels forced but the comedy especially feels forced. The four screenwriters include the writers behind the Deadpool, Zombieland, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and recent Jumanji movies, so we know these credited writers have a keen understanding of comedy. It makes the results on screen all the more mystifying and disappointing. The jokes generally feel off (“He expected a hottie not Mata Hari,” womp womp), the rhythm and tone feel a little too much, too forced, like the actors are desperately trying to compensate. It comes across like they were instructed to speak at a more fast-paced and clipped rate to attempt to emulate screwball comedy patter, but the material isn’t there to match the hyperactive verbal presentation. The music is also another factor in trying to better compensate. It’s trying to provide a jaunty, breezy energy level that isn’t sustained in the movie by its comedy, action, or romance. The number of needle drop song selections can also be insufferable and dumbfounding. The characters will start a gun fight and then “My Sharona” will crank up or, even more inexplicably, “Uptown Funk.” The relentless fallback of familiar pop and rock ditties intruding over the action doesn’t so much elevate the moment as make you realize just what would be missing without the song. I’m all for the clever use of music to jazz up a scene, but the final action sequence shouldn’t have to rely on Bruno Mars for any nascent fun.
There are a handful of moments and ideas here that could have worked in a better movie. I enjoyed a stretch in the middle where Sadie and Cole are ambushed by one bounty hunter with an absurd name after another, and each is a cameo from a familiar face and each gets dispatched swiftly. The movie also takes pains to make fun of Cole’s smothering qualities, including his snapping a picture of Sadie while she slept in his arms post-coitus and unaware. I wish this line of criticism would pick up more momentum but there’s only so much heat that Cole will take when he still needs to be the handsome and appealing lead. I also liked the idea of a villain, played by Adrien Brody like his copy of the screenplay didn’t have a single joke inside it, who is simply trying not to be revealed to be incompetent. I think there was especially more room to mine with the confusion over which character was the infamous Tax Man. The assumption that it must be a man could have opened up a broader and interesting subplot over sexist gender assumptions, with nobody believing that a g-g-g-girl could be such an accomplished trained killer (alas, the “girls can do it too” message seems to be all the movie offers in response).
Ghosted is not a good action movie, as it’s poorly sourced and edited, it’s not a good comedy, as the jokes are iffy and delivered in such an exaggerated and clunky manner, and it’s not a good romance, with two bland and under-developed genre character cliches portrayed by two actors who have a startling lack of chemistry together. The music is obnoxious and trying to compensate for the flagging energy level and forced comedy, the movie runs too long at almost two hours, and director Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman) has no feel for action or romance. It’s the comedy that made me most depressed, as no character talked like a semblance of a real human being, nor was their fast-paced, quippy dialogue truly zingy and entertaining. t was like watching a desperate person try and prove they are not, in fact desperate, but with every word only proving more and more their desperation. I’m sure some people out there will find this movie passably breezy or charming or at least inoffensive for two hours of inattention. It all felt so forced and inauthentic and tired to me. It’s best to just ghost this film in real life.
Nate’s Grade: C-
After receiving such blistering and excoriating responses, I went into writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde with great trepidation. The near-three-hour biopic on the iconic Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating since 2011’s Killer Joe, and as such, there’s a natural curiosity factor to any movie receiving such hostile reactions. Fans and critics have called the movie exploitative, navel-gazing, misogynistic, and redundant misery porn. One critic even said Blonde was “the worst movie Netflix has ever made.” I was a major fan of Dominik’s verbosely titled 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and less so 2012’s Killing Them Softly, though I recognized sparing artistic merit. It’s been ten years since Dominik has directed a movie, so surely Blonde, based upon the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, had to have some merit beyond all its hype and criticism, right? Well, no. I processed my general disgust for Dominik’s three-hour slow-mo car crash. This movie is so stupendously misguided and cruel and filled with bizarre, outlandish, and maddening artistic decisions. For my movie review, I felt I needed to break my standard formula, so I decided to give voice to my analysis and criticisms by writing a pretend conversation between Dominik and a stand-in for the Netflix production. Enjoy, dear reader, and beware.
Andrew Dominick sits in front of the desk of a very concerned Netflix Producer, who fidgets uncomfortably in his seat and shuffles papers in his hands.
Netflix Producer: So, thanks, Andrew for making time for this meeting. We’ve seen your full movie and we have some… well, concerns.
Andrew Dominik: That’s life, man. You can’t tell stories without risk. Break a few eggs.
Netflix Producer: Yes, sure, but, well, I guess one of our biggest questions is why did you need almost three hours to devote entirely to the lengthy suffering of Marilyn Monroe? This is supposed to be a biopic, but all we get, scene after scene, to a fault, is a moment of Marilyn being abused, or crying, or being generally exploited. It’s… a lot to take in, Andrew.
Andrew Dominik: Hey man, that was her life. She was this glamorous star, but behind the glamor is a lot more dirt and grime. Everyone wanted to be her, and I wanted to show the world how wrong that would be. This is a woman who was desired by the world and she was still a victim in the Old Hollywood system, which was a rape factory. I was just being honest, man.
Netflix Producer: I get that principle, but it really feels like the only version of Marilyn we get in this movie is the role of a long-suffering victim. It’s practically a passion play: The Passion of Marilyn Monroe. You’re cheapening her real-life suffering by making it so redundant to the point of self-parody, and also, if you were so concerned about creating an honest portrayal of what this woman went through, then why are you also making things up to add to her legitimate suffering?
Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean? I adapted the book.
Netflix Producer: Yes, but you do know that Oates’ book is explicitly fictitious, right? It’s made up. Marilyn never had a throuple relationship with Charlie Chaplain Jr. and Edward G Robinson Jr. Marilyn had a positive relationship with her mother. Even worse, you’re adding fictitious suffering, like her relationship with her mother, or Marilyn being raped during an audition.
Andrew Dominik: Yeah, that might never have happened, but the rape represents the-
Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there. You should refrain from sentences that include the phrase, “The rape represents [blank].” We don’t need literal sexual violence, of which we return to time and again, to stand in for a larger thematic message. Also, it’s quite disingenuous to add extra traumatic experiences when you’re purporting to tell this woman’s real trauma and conflict.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, then.
Netflix Producer: No, not really, but, okay, Andrew, can you tell me any personable impression you get of Marilyn from this movie? And-and you cannot say “victim.”
Netflix Producer: …Yes?
Andrew Dominik: Sexy?
Netflix Producer: Okay, sex symbol for nearly 60 years after her death, sure. What else?
Andrew Dominik: She was…. Um…. Uh… Can I look this up on my phone?
Netflix Producer: See, Andrew, this is our problem-
Andrew Dominik: Oh, she has daddy issues! There. That.
Netflix Producer: And for an hour you have her referring to all the men in her life as “daddy,” which is very uncomfortable especially when those men are literally abusing her.
Andrew Dominik: But, y’see, she calls ‘em all “daddy” because she has-
Netflix Producer: Oh, we get it. Thank you. You have 160 minutes and you keep hitting the same point over and over, bludgeoning the viewer into submission. It’s more than a bit gratuitous, especially when you factor that you’re adding even more trauma.
Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean by “gratuitous?”
Netflix Producer: I have prepared several examples. For starters, it might be a bit much within the first twenty minutes of your movie to subject your audience to a mother trying to drown her child in the bathtub and Marilyn being sexually assaulted at one of her first auditions.
Andrew Dominik: Okay. Okay. I get that.
Netflix Producer: Then there’s the ghastly POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina, which by God happens twice, and both times it’s during forced abortions. Did we really need that queasy angle that is literally invading her body against her will to accomplish what exactly?
Andrew Dominik: The purpose of any true artist is to go deeper-
Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there again. It’s just bad taste, Andrew. Also, speaking of bad taste, maybe we don’t need the entire sequence where JFK rapes her and then hires government goons to abduct her and force Marilyn into an abortion. And then, on top of all that, she hears the pleas of her first aborted fetus calling back to her. Yikes. Can you at any point step outside of your position, Andrew, and realize how shockingly gratuitous all of that can be?
Andrew Dominik: It’s all designed to separate the person from the icon. Marilyn Monroe never really existed beyond the fantasies of the public, man. It’s about bringing back her humanity.
Netflix Producer: Separating the legend from the person would be a natural artistic angle, but that means spending time establishing the person, building her up through multiple dimensions, multiple opportunities to flesh her out. You only spend time seeing her as a victim, that is when we’re not meant to partake in the same sexualization of her that you seem to be criticizing. I mean the 1996 HBO TV movie managed by having two different actresses portray her, with Naomi Judd as Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn. That literalized the differences and even had Marilyn converse with her former persona as a plot device. You have none of that.
Andrew Dominik: I might not have that, but my movie has a cross dissolve that goes from Marilyn getting banged to the literal crest line of Niagara Falls.
Netflix Producer: I don’t think that really makes up for a lack of character substance.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.
Netflix Producer: You really can’t keep using that as a defense.
Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.
Netflix Producer: Your horror show of relentless trauma and bad taste might undercut your stated goal of humanizing this woman. She’s not a character but a symbol of abject suffering, a martyr, and you increase her suffering, and sometimes in grating, absurdly grotesque ways. Do you even care about this woman? You’ve devoted three hours to reanimating her as a powerless punching bag.
Andrew Dominik: Well, I did say Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about “well-dressed whores” and that Blonde is “just another movie about Marilyn Monroe. And there will be others.” I also said that the most important part of her life was that she killed herself.
Netflix Producer: Exactly. That makes us question whether you have the passion and sensitivity for this project. Why does this movie even have to be NC-17? Will your three hour torture chamber be bereft of meaning if the audience doesn’t see two inner vaginal camera angles?
Andrew Dominik: How dare you even question my artistic integrity. If you remove those shots, you might as well be removing the soul of this movie. Why even tell this story?
Netflix Producer: Yes, why indeed?
Andrew Dominik: It’s meant to be disorienting.
Netflix Producer: Congrats.
The Netflix producer leans back in his chair and releases an extended, wearying sigh.
Andrew Dominik: So… after everything…. Are you going to make me cut anything?
Netflix Producer: Please. We’re so hungry for Oscar recognition, we don’t care. Go for it.
I want to cite de Armas’ (The Gray Man) performance as one of the few attributes to the movie. It’s hard to watch this woman suffer and cry in literally every scene, but I also just felt so sad for not just her character but for de Armas as an actress herself. She shouldn’t have to endure everything that she does to play this character. She is undercut by Dominik’s artistic antics and avarice at every turn, like the story jumping around incoherently so every scene fails to build upon one another. There is no genuine character exploration to be found here. It’s a cycle of suffering, and the movie wants to rub your nose in the exploitation of Monroe while simultaneously exploiting her. De Armas deserves better. Marilyn Monroe deserves better. Every viewer deserves better. Spare yourself three awful hours of pointless suffering in the name of misapplied art.
Nate’s Grade: F
The Gray Man (2022)
Two movies removed from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’m starting to wonder if the brotherly directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo are absent their own vision. Cherry was an exhausting and annoying experience overloaded with self-conscious stylistic choices that dominated the movie and squeezed it from its dramatic potential. Now we have The Gray Man, based upon the 2009 book by a former Tom Clancy writing collaborator, and it looks indistinguishable from any other big-budget spy thriller. It feels like The Russos doing their version of Michael Bay doing his version of the Jason Bourne series. It’s an expensive movie for Netflix, in the range of $200 million, and it just made me think about 2019’s Six Underground, their $200 million collaboration with Bay where he had creative freedom to make the most bombastic, hyper masculine, and tedious movie of his career. If you’re going to devote a fifth of a billion dollars for a Michael Bay-esque action movie, you might as well hire the real deal again. The Gray Man is a passable action movie, especially in its middle, but it’s wholly derivative and coasting off your memories of better spy thrillers and better characters.
The titular “Gray Man” is a super-secret Sierra agent given the code name Six (Ryan Gosling). He’s been the government’s indispensable tool for taking out bad guy and keeping the world safe for 18 years, working time off his prison sentence. Then it all goes wrong when, of course, his callous boss (Rege-Jean Page, Bridgerton) demands he “take the shot” even if it means the death of an innocent child in the process. Six declines, the covert assignment becomes much messier, and he learns that his target was a former agent from the sane secret Sierra cabal. The dying man gives Six a MacGuffin necklace that the big bad boss really wants. Six goes on the run, with the help of some allies like another agent (Ana de Armas) and his retired handler (Billy Bob Thornton), and the CIA sends every professional killer to get their man. This includes the mustachioed Llyod Hansen (Chris Evans), a ruthless private mercenary who brags about being kicked out of the C.I.A. academy for his lack of ethics and impulse control issues.
If you’re just looking for an action vehicle that provides enough bang and sizzle, The Gray Man can suffice. I’ll champion the highlights first before equivocating on them. There’s a recognizable blockbuster elan to the movie with enough energy to keep your attention. There is a significant uptick in the middle that gave me a false sense of hope that The Gray Man had transformed into a better movie. Again, this occurs well into an hour into a slightly under two-hour movie, but credit where its due, there is a nicely developed sequence of substantial action. For being a spy thriller, a majority of the movie takes place in and around Berlin. Six is handcuffed by German police to a park bench in the middle of an open square. Lloyd sends in vans of powerfully-armed goons that take out the police and then set their sights on Six. He’s trapped to the bench but still mobile, to a point, but he’s also unarmed. Watching the character react to these limitations and adapt is greatly pleasing. This is the stuff of good action cinema; supermen get boring without having to overcome legitimate obstacles and/or mini-goals. He’s able to escape and thwart his attackers and hides in a tram. This then becomes the next level of our action, and he has to utilize close-quarter combat to tease out his new attackers. And then a speeding truck with a rocket launcher shows up. And then de Armas shows up with a sports car for Six to try and leap into. And then both of those vehicles do battle while Six climbs atop the speeding tram and uses the reflection in a passing building to line up his shot to take out a goon inside the train underneath his feet. This entire middle action set piece is top-notch. It’s exciting, stylish without being too derivative, and there’s a clear set of cause-effect escalation. This is good action writing, and it’s a shame that this is also the peak with still 40 minutes left.
The beginning and closing of The Gray Man blunt whatever enjoyment I could gather. The film is oddly structured and uneven from reliable screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Avengers: Endgame). The opening scene watching Thornton recruit Gosling in his jail cell seems completely superfluous as something that could have been explained in passing, or needed no setup, but it’s at least short. There’s also a lengthy flashback in the middle of the movie that sets up Six’s allegiance to Thornton’s niece (Julia Butters, the little girl from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) as he babysits and saves her from kidnappers. Again, I don’t think we needed to have a set up why our protagonist would deign to save a child, but even if the movie wants to add more emotional heft to their relationship, why drop this in the middle of the movie? Why not even have this open the movie instead of the jailhouse recruitment? I like their scenes together. It reminded me of 2016’s underrated The Nice Guys. It’s just not enough to hang onto because there is no heart to this film; it is all quips and speed and flagging genre imitation. Just re-read the plot description. The genre cliches are all there, and we even have the old chestnut where the villain monologues that they and the hero are not so different.
There’s also a questionable series of shorter flashbacks of Six as a kid surviving his abusive father’s rigorous “training,” including burning a kid’s arm with a cigarette lighter or dunking his head underwater. Again, I doubt we needed to visualize these scenes when Six could have explained his traumatic upbringing with Gosling’s acting. I was worried, and I’m still not dissuaded, that The Gray Man was establishing the parental abuse as having trained Six for these unique circumstances, that dear old bad dad somehow saved his adult son’s life. Do we need a flashback of his dad holding his head underwater to convey that Six, as his head is held underwater by Lloyd, does not like this? It reminded me of 2017’s Split when Shyamalan questionably had his character survive her captor because he recognized that she too had been abused. Did her trauma save her? The needless jumping around in time feels like The Gray Man attempting to be cleverer, or perhaps aping more of the genre expectations from an action movie of this size. The finale also lacks either the emotional catharsis or action climax that can serve as a satisfying conclusion. The last act is a compound assault set piece but it’s really just a series of interconnected gunfights and explosions. The mini-goals and engaging cause-effect escalation from before is absent.
There are a few commendable moments or choices among the blockbuster cruise control. I enjoyed that this was not just a Knives Out reunion between de Armas and a villainous Evans but it was also a Blade Runner 2049 reunion between de Armas and Gosling. I think de Armas deserves her own spy vehicle, especially after being one of the highlights of 2021’s No Time to Die (granted, it helps having Phoebe Waller-Bridge writing your character). I liked a hand-to-hand combat scene where Six utilized flares both to obscure his presence as well as an offensive weapon. Evans is fun to watch as a preening peacock of a villain, though there’s so little to his character beyond a bad mustache and smarmy attitude. There are some decent drone shots, though the dipping of the camera makes them feel more like point of view aerial assault shots. The Russos really, really like their drone shots in this movie (how much of the budget did this suck up?). However, the drone shots just made me think of the better drone shots from 2021’s Ambulance, Michael Bay’s newest movie, and it further cemented The Gray Man feeling like a clunky combination of other movies and artists. If you’ve seen any espionage action movie of the last ten years, you’ve seen enough to recognize all the key pieces of The Gray Man, and while its competent enough to satisfy the most forgiving of genre fans, it’s really just more empty noise.
Nate’s Grade: C
Deep Water (2022)
Whatever happened to the steamy Hollywood erotic thriller? This adult genre used to dominate theaters, especially during the 1980s and 90s (Basic Instinct was the highest grossing movie of 1992). With the rise of the Internet and a plethora of personal options, many people don’t feel like they need to go to the movies in order to feel some heat. I’m sure more international movies are picking up this American slack, but there has been a real dearth of the erotic thriller (I’ll theorize why later) and this corresponds with the absence of director Adrian Lyne, one of the kings of the erotic drama. Lyne is responsible for Fatal Attraction, Nine and a Half Weeks, Indecent Proposal, Flashdance, and 2002’s Unfaithful, which happened to be the director’s last movie. Yes, it’s been twenty whole years since Lyne made another movie, and his newest is mining the territory of old, but Deep Water sure does feel dated and not worth the extended wait.
Melinda (Ana de Armas) and Vic (Ben Affleck) have a special understanding with their marriage. She sleeps with other men while he allows it and feels jealous about it. Vic jokes about killing one of his wife’s former lovers, and when the man winds up dead, he becomes the police’s first suspect.
I have a theory why these movies have become less and less over the ensuing years, and it mainly comes down to the fact that it’s hard to do well. Erotic thrillers are easy to fall into camp, or being overwrought, and they skirt the line between exploitation and enjoyably trashy. It’s meant to be tantalizing but that usually just amounts to repurposing the same familiar male gaze compositions. There gets to be a same-y feel to many of them, enough that there was an erotic thriller spoof in the 1990s, the decade where just about every genre got its spoof movie. It feels like the same ogling of feminine beauty we’ve been getting for decades, the same heavy breathing, the same blue-tinted lighting, the same lip biting, the same arched backs, etc. It’s also a delicate line between arty eroticism and smut (see: Fifty Shades franchise), and that can also be very personally subjective.
Beyond that, I think this subgenre has also suffered in the light of the recent MeToo movement, wherein Hollywood has, reportedly, taken a closer look at its depiction of women. That doesn’t mean things are magically better today, but it does speak to the general culture becoming more conscious of sexual harassment and problematic portrayals, and the erotic thriller genre is built upon the bedrock of dangerous, sexy, experimental, loose women as problematic. I’m not saying these movies can’t be enjoyed on some level, but I think most audiences find them more sleazy than steamy, and I think the heavy male gaze and gratuitous nature of a majority of the movies, as well as the substandard scripting, lead to that dismal conclusion.
With all that being said, Deep Water mostly flounders because it’s just so contrived and boring. This is one of those movies where characters continually make dumb or aggravating decisions because the plot requires them to. I routinely said, “Why is [Character X] doing [stupid thing]?” and there was never a really supportive answer. The very premise of the movie is flawed. Vic and Melinda have an open marriage and apparently the whole town knows this, but this open relationship is built upon placating Melinda. She doesn’t want to have any intimacy with her husband and seeks out the company of other men. Vic is less an understanding party and more a jealous husband, proving this decision to be one-sided. Vic isn’t helping his wife find her next lover, he’s stewing in the corner and glowering at the newest man. As a starting point for a relationship drama, this is fine, but the screenplay has to offer a valid reason why this character would agree to these terms. What is keeping this marriage alive while he suffers in stern silence? The answer is even less. Vic agrees to let his wife sleep with other men so they won’t get divorced. That’s it. Is this the nineteenth century? Would being divorced be so scandalous? This is preposterous reasoning for prolonging this character’s obvious discomfort and turmoil.
The other question, never answered, is why Vic would want to keep Melinda. Of course de Armas (No Time to Die) is an attractive woman, and everyone in this movie’s comically absurd small universe seems to be infatuated with her, but for what reason? At no point in the film’s 110 minutes does Melinda come across as charming, or intriguing, or even remotely interesting. That’s because she’s not a real character here but a trophy, a prize for men to covet. She’s also clearly understanding what torment she is causing her husband or she is the most oblivious person on the planet, which could also be true because the characterization on display isn’t exactly human. She seems to enjoy teasing her husband and cutting off their attempts at physical intimacy, which then leads to sad bike rides or angry bike rides. Look, there is a comical amount of bicycle usage in this movie, including one car chase that had me laughing out loud. Regardless, Melinda is portrayed as a lousy human being but, even more criminal, she is a boring character. In short, it’s a mystery why Affleck’s glum character would continue his marriage to this awful person.
Another frustrating choice is its lopsided structure. The first half is rather boring and repetitive, as we watch man after man come into the picture only to be scared off by Vic, who gloats that he killed one of Melinda’s last lovers. First off, this character has actually gone missing, so why would any character, no matter how self-destructive they can be, publicly joke about this on multiple occasions, enough so that every member of this gossipy community can recollect? It’s revealed later that this character is indeed found dead, and Vic becomes an immediate suspect because of course he would be, even without his “bad joke.” The problem is that the movie spends far too long playing this silly game of whether or not Vic is the killer when only two possible outcomes can emerge. Either he is the killer and we’ve been wasting time leading to an obvious conclusion, or he is not the killer and not enough work has been put in to present an alternate scenario that could be credible. The movie makes a definite choice in that matter (I’ll detail in a spoiler paragraph below) and I couldn’t help thinking it was the wrong choice. The question over Vic’s culpability is not enough to sustain this movie.
And now let’s delve into spoilers, so if you wish to remain pure and virtuous, well you should skip this movie entirely, but you can also skip to the next paragraph. The question over whether Vic is guilty can be a bit confusing because there are flashes throughout the first half that you cannot determine whether they are Vic imagining killing these suitors or Vic remembering killing these suitors. The police force of this town must be the worst because Vic is a terrible murderer. Yes, dear reader, he really is killing all of his wife’s lovers, which would seem to obviously implicate him as far as what these men all have in common. He’s also bad at leaving behind evidence and hiding corpses in shallow bodies of water (the title is its own joke). If this was the eventual reveal, the movie spends far too much time getting here without any significant doubt beforehand. There are no alternate suspects presented. If it was going to be Vic the entire time, this is a turn that’s best to be revealed as the Act One break, not late in Act Three. This doesn’t work as a final reveal but more as an early development, and then we would follow the character as he bumbles his way through covering up his crimes, only getting into bigger and bigger trouble. Then it becomes more of a farce, but it at least has a more pleasing plot structure of watching a character try and get out of their own danger rather than the audience being ignorant.
So is there a real reason to dive into Deep Water? Not really, even if you’re a fan of the woe begotten genre of erotic thrillers. It exists in one of those hilariously bourgeoisie universes where everyone is having these unrealistic house parties where dopey rich people canoodle all the time, white win in hand, and snipe at one another like it’s catty Regency England. What are Lil’ Rel and Tracy Letts doing here? The characters are just flat-out dull and frustrating to watch, and not even in a somewhat fun sexual tension kind of way. Affleck and de Armas carried on a relationship after this movie but you’d be hard-pressed to wonder why over the course of 110 minutes of exasperated edging. The structure of this movie is all wrong, which makes it feel so boring, and contrived, and repetitive, and if you’re looking for something smoldering or sexy, well it’s the same old same old, and even that is in shocking short supply. Deep Water works best as a movie to yell at in confusion. It’s also further proof about why the erotic thriller is mostly an artifact of the past and why it should likely remain so. There is nothing deep about this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C-
No Time to Die (2021)
One cannot talk about No Time to Die without talking about finality. I’ll try and dance around significant spoilers but the movie by design is meant to serve as the capper to the Daniel Craig era filling out the world’s favorite martini-drinking British secret agent. I thought that 2015’s Spectre was the swan song for Craig as it brought back a famous franchise villain Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) made the man Bond’s secret half-brother, and it tried to explain how every bad thing that seemed to befall Bond was the machinations of an evil conspiracy, and then it literally ends with Bond driving into the sunset in his classic car with his girl (Lea Seydoux) by his side. It felt like the end, and it felt very much like everyone was just done and tired. And then the Bond producers wanted one more shot, or more likely one more lucrative franchise entry, to send an even older, battle-tested Craig on his way. I was wary of another Spectre-like entry, one that was tying back to the elements of decades-old for empty homage. Does anyone really care that the villain is meant to be Blofeld who means next to nothing to audiences in this era? After watching all 160 minutes of the longest Bond on record, for an actor who has portrayed 007 for 15 years, I have to say that No Time to Die is a terrific action movie and a welcomed second chance at a sendoff for the modern era of Bond that has gone through great artistic rebirth.
Bond’s cozy retirement is short-lived. Spectre agents have found him and Madeleine (Seydoux) and now Bond is forced to ship off his love for her safety. Years later, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) is determined to take down the last vestiges of the Spectre organization, the same group responsible for murdering his family. Bond is recruited by the newest 007 agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), to help MI-6 locate a kidnapped scientist with a powerful nanobot poison that can be genetically targeted to a specific person. Bond agrees especially once he realizes that Safn and his dangerous organization are targeting Madeleine, who has a big surprise of her own.
As an action movie, I will argue that No Time to Die is better than 2012’s Skyfall, the Bond film that is widely seen as the high point of Craig’s tenure but one I find overrated. Director and co-screenwriter Cary Fukunaga, the second director ever given a writing credit for a Bond film, has crafted a beautiful movie with a real sense on how to showcase the majesty and suspense. Nothing will likely rival the superb cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins on Skyfall, but this movie gets as close as you can get. It’s a remarkably beautiful looking movie. I mean that not just in the exotic locales and scenic vistas but simply in its depiction of action. The visual arrangements are noticeably several levels higher in quality, elegantly composed and lit to make each scene so pleasing to the eyes even before the information of the scene translates. Fukunaga (True Detective) frames the action in clear shots and clean edits so the audience is oriented with every shot and each patient edit point. For an era that began by trying to adopt the Paul Greengrass-style of docu-drama edits popularized with the Bourne sequels, it’s quite a welcomed change. I appreciate that action directors have creatively gone more in a direction of longer takes, wider shots, and a conscious effort to showcase the ingenuity and skills of its action choreography. Let us enjoy watching the masters of action operate at their highest level. Fukunaga understands this, and while the action might not be the best in the series, it is lovingly orchestrated and displayed.
There is a delightful mid-movie set piece that deserves its own attention mainly because of how actress Ana de Armas (Knives Out, Blade Runner 2049) steals the show. She plays Paloma, a CIA agent working in coordination with Bond, and the two of them wreak havoc across a Cuban neighborhood while wearing their finest evening wear. She immediately leaves a favorable impression and struts her stuff while operating heavy machinery with confidence. This part feels the most aided by co-screenwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s contributions. Craig personally requested that Waller-Bridge, best known for award-winning TV like Fleabag and the first season of Killing Eve, come aboard and help polish the script, including characterization and dialogue. This sequence feels the most in keeping with her past spy thriller work and penchant for strong female characters who are meant to take the lead. de Armas is so memorable, and her segment so self-contained, that it feels like a backdoor spinoff to set up her own character’s franchise, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to watch.
If you thought Spectre was getting convoluted with how it tried to bend over backwards to explain how one man and one villainous conspiracy were manipulating all of Bond’s many miseries and setbacks, well then things are going to get even worse for you to keep up with. I’ll credit returning screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have been with the storied franchise even before Craig’s 2006 debut, with attempting to make the continuity matter for a franchise that often throws up its hands at continued emotional stakes. By stretching backwards with ret-cons and added flashbacks, every new Bond movie tries to better evaluate the previous ones including the poorer movies, like Spectre and 2008’s Quantum of Solace. It’s like saying, “Hey, you didn’t like those bad guys in that movie? Well, these are the real bad guys,” or, “Well, maybe you didn’t like them, but their heinous actions gave rise to these new bad guys.” However, a consequence of continuing to add further and further clandestine machinations, and spiraling consequence from those machinations, is that Bond has now become a tangled web that is more convoluted without offering much in the way of payoff. I don’t think much more is gained introducing a new villain saying, “It was me all along,” when we don’t have an established relationship or interest with these new villains. Imagine introducing the Emperor back in Episode 9 of Star Wars and saying he was secretly behind everything… oh wait.
There are also benefits to this approach and No Time to Die crafts a sendoff unlike any other final entry for a Bond actor. This is a franchise going back sixty years, but the 007 brand has endured because no one actor is bigger than the brand. The franchise is regularly resetting with each new addition. The hyperbolic bombast and tongue-in-cheek frivolity of the Pierce Brosnan years (1995-2002) was replaced with a more grounded, gritty, and psychologically wounded Bond, made even more so by giving him personal attachments and then taking them away. I would argue this decade-plus with Craig (2006-2021) has involved the most mature and personal movies of the franchise;s history. It’s fitting then for the final film to pay service to that elevated take on the character. If you’re treating the secret spy as more of a person than a suit and a gun and a wisecrack, then that character deserves an ending that stays true to prioritizing more human elements of the character. To that end, No Time to Die works as a final sendoff, and I feel pretty confidant saying Craig is officially done now.
After a year and a half of delays from COVID, as well as its parent company, MGM, being bought for billions by Amazon, we finally have the final Bond movie in Daniel Craig’s successful run, and it’s a worthy finale for an era of the franchise becoming relevant again. I don’t know if that many people are emotionally attached to the character, likely more so just the nostalgia and the franchise, but if ever you were going to tear up from a James Bond thriller, this would be the one. It’s an exceptionally strong visual caper, with smooth and steady direction from Fukunaga, and while overly long and convoluted and a dull villain, it comes together for a worthy and celebratory conclusion that stands with the best of Bond. I’ll still cite 2006’s Casino Royale as the best Craig Bond, and one of the best ever, but No Time to Die is a solid second-place entry, and it does what few other Bonds ever could: fitting finality. Until, naturally, the popular series inevitably reboots with the next handsome leading man sipping a signature vodka martini (shaken, not stirred).
Nate’s Grade: B+
Knives Out (2019)
Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who likes to dabble across genres and put his high-concept stamp on them. His debut film, 2006’s Brick, was a moody noir-flavored mystery set in a modern high school. His next film, 2009’s The Brothers Bloom, was a whimsical con artist movie with cons-within-cons, and then Looper took time travel and twisted it into knots. From there the man was tapped to not only direct a new Star Wars movie but write one, and 2017’s The Last Jedi proved so divisive that Russia literally created robotic accounts to exploit raw feelings to better sow discord among Americans and undermine democracy. Johnson must have needed a detox from that galaxy far far away, and Knives Out is his version of an Agatha Christie-styled parlor mystery. Once again Johnson has taken an older genre, subverted its form, and made it his own in a way that feels reverent while also fresh, fun, and thoroughly entertaining.
Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a world-renowned mystery writer with a publishing empire in the millions. Then on the night of his birthday party, Harlan is found dead and every family member is a suspect. Could it be Marta Cabreara (Ana de Armas), the nurse who was last seen taking care of the old man? Could it be the daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), eager to get out of her marriage to a cheating husband (Don Johnson, having a moment this fall)? Could it be the son Walt (Michael Shannon) who was going to lose his position of power in control of the family publishing empire? Could it be grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) who didn’t show up on time for the party but showed up early for the will reading? The local police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is doing his best to navigate the many suspects. And then there’s the famed private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), hired by an unknown benefactor to discover foul play, who interrogates each family member, investigates the corners of the estate, and uncovers the truth.
Knives Out is an incredibly fun movie to watch fly by for its extended 130-minute running time. The guessing game is enjoyable and there is a plethora of suspects and red herrings. Johnson is clearly a fan of the genre and doing his best to send it up in his own way while still staying true to its roots. Just look at the silly, Dickensian names and you can tell Johnson is enjoying himself (there’s a character named “Ransom”). The mystery is clever but it becomes something more than a whodunnit (more on that below) and that’s when Knives Out becomes special. Johnson has been repeatedly accused of being too clever by half, looking to produce some meta gymnastics to subvert audience expectations but to what end? This was an issue with the very end of Brothers Bloom and many had this same complaint with The Last Jedi. It’s not enough to subvert expectations if the alternative isn’t as compelling. Still, the choices that Johnson makes with Knives Out best serve to improve the emotional involvement in the story. That quality seems like a rarity when it comes to murder mysteries, because it’s all about solving the crime and not necessarily how it affects the people on a more human level. It’s a problem to be solved, an equation on the board, and the process eliminates the variables systematically. Except with Knives Out, Johnson opens up the central figure of Marta in such a way that she becomes a symbolic figure for the immigrant experience in this country, fighting for dignity and recognition. The political commentary isn’t deep, and some of the shots feel a little cheap, but where Johnson succeeds is treating Marta as an empathetic stand-in for an often-invisible class.
A half-hour or so into the proceedings, Johnson makes a very conscious choice that changes how we understand the mystery and especially how we’re involved. I’ll be careful about spoilers but suffice to say we get some very crucial information that makes us look at the murder differently. For the first act it feels like it’s heading into a whodunnit with our clan of suspicious relatives, but it does something else, and I would argue something better. The problem with an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit is that the film is structured toward solving one central mystery and other important dramatic elements can fall by the wayside. Once you know who the killer is, was the journey to unmask them worth the twists and turns? Johnson instead lets the audience in on crucial information so that Knives Out alters, and the “who” is less important than how this information affects our relationship with a set of characters. It becomes less who is the killer and more will this culprit get caught and how will they beat the encroaching investigation. It transforms the entire structure, where instead of everything leading to one reveal, now it becomes a series of mini-panics and scrambles to stay ahead of a trap. This made me that much more personally involved and Johnson doubled the dramatic irony and tension of scenes. It becomes more a series of obfuscation where we’re involved, remembering what clues might be the ones that ultimately prove too inescapable. There is a downside to this approach, letting out some big reveals early also serves to downplay the vast majority of the supporting players. These people are all given motives and suspicions early on, but once Johnson unloads his twists too many of these same characters just fade into the background, their story use extinguished.
Another cheerful aspect of Knives Out is simply how much fun its cast is having, none more so than Craig (Spectre). I never really gave much thought to Craig as a comedic actor until 2017’s Logan Lucky, where he seemed to be unleashed, digging full bore into a charming and kooky supporting character, and it was downright joyful to watch him cut it up onscreen. He’s given such serious, macho roles but he really excels in the right comedic role, and he just has the time of his life playing Blanc. His southern-fried accent, penchant for theatricality, and garrulous nature all contribute to both tweak the idea of the clever inspector while playing into those clichés as well, steering into the fun we have with them. There were several moments I was left breathlessly cackling because of how Craig was delivering his lines with such relish. His explanation of the mystery being “a donut hole inside a donut hole” might be one of the best film scenes of the year. It also helps that Blanc has an affectionate working relationship with Marta, the heart of our movie, which makes this eccentric even more endearing to the audience. Just as Kenneth Branagh is continuing the adventures of his mustachioed private eye, I would happily watch another murder mystery featuring Blanc if Rian Johnson felt so inclined (pretty please).
The other actors do fine work even if many of them end up being underwritten figures either meant to be threatening suspects or cartoonish buffoons. Armas (Blade Runner 2047) is the lead actress and often the contrast for our rich elites and their out-of-touch perspectives; she’s the sounding board for their pettiness, acrimony, entitlement, and thinly-veiled racism. Armas just shines in the role as this figure who routinely makes the right choice even when it costs her. She’s a relatable, hard-working, kind character trying to keep her moral bearing in this high-stakes contest. Evans (Avengers: Endgame) is enjoyably smug and a welcome force to antagonize and puncture the egos of his fellow family members. Shannon (The Current War) has his effective moments of conveying menace and being laughably impotent. Every other actor does good work but too many of them barely make a blip. I forgot Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel and Oates) was in this movie from scene to scene. It’s a big cast so the goal is to make the most of their moments, and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, though some are far more broad.
Knives Out is a fun experience and further proof that when Rian Johnson really sets his mind on a certain genre, good and clever entertainments sprout. I want this man to tell the stories that excite him because there are still many more genres that could use the Rian Johnson stamp.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
It’s confession time, dear reader. I do not love Blade Runner. In fact I find it to be overrated and then some. I’ll freely admit that it’s been an extremely influential science fiction work and its noir-soaked depiction of a cyber punk future has been the starting point for cinematic storytelling in that vein for decades. It’s got merits but I find the real merits to be its amazing use of production design, special effects, and the establishment of an overall atmosphere. It has some big ideas, yes, but it doesn’t know what to do with them, neglecting them for a slapdash story with some so-so acting. Rutger Hauer’s soulful yet doomed replicant should have been our central perspective. I wish I enjoyed the film more but I cannot attach myself without nagging reservation, and that’s not even accounting Ridley Scott’s numerous re-edits and the harebrained idea to imply that Harrison Ford was really a replicant after all even though that runs counter to the logic and themes of the film and Scott had to splice in unused unicorn footage from a movie he shot years later, thus proving this new twist ending was never part of anyone’s original story conceit. Anyway, what I’m saying is that the 1982 Blade Runner was not going to be an impossible hurdle to clear as far as I was concerned. The sequel 35 years in the making, Blade Runner 2049, is a better and more accomplished film experience and film story than the original, and it’s also one of the best, most visionary movies of the year.
Set in 2049, replicants have been shuttered and replaced with a new breed of android slave labor controlled by the enigmatic Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). He’s after a very special kind of replicant, one that will lead to even greater success, allowing mankind to reach further out into the stars. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner who finds himself looking for this same special kind of replicant. He must find it before Niander does and K’s journey of self takes him right to the doorstep of retired blade runner, Deckard (Ford).
Apologies for the frustratingly vague plot synopsis above, but I’m trying to keep things as relatively spoiler-free as possible because I think that will improve the overall viewing experience. In an age where trailers and TV advertisements tell us everything about a movie in a zealous attempt to get our butts in seats, I was genuinely surprised at significant plot beats the 2049 advertising had successfully and deliberately kept under wraps. There are intriguing plot turns and character moments that I want to leave the reader to discover on their own. It will be worth the wait.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) has created a filmgoing experience that immerses you in feeling. Every set, every little corner, every minor character goes toward enriching this world and making it feel real, like we’re just dropping in for a visit. He builds off the iconography from Scott in the first film and creates a future that is hypnotic and eerily beautiful, aided by the greatest living cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Seriously, if Deakins finally doesn’t win his long overdue Oscar for this, then the Academy is just never going to favor him. The visual landscapes of this movie are jaw dropping and the use of lighting is gorgeous. There’s a late sequence set in an irradiated Las Vegas where an orange fog hovers over the empty landscape of earthly pleasures. There’s a hiding sequence that takes place in a casino showroom, with holographic dancers and even Elvis fritzing in and out, static movements and bursts of sound that make for a dream-like encounter. Another wonderful hypnotic sequence is a threesome between K, a prostitute, and a virtual intelligence (V.I.) named Joi (Ana de Armas). Reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her, the sequence has one woman literally folded over another as hands caress, mouths kiss, and the whole sequence has an alluring disconnect during the acts of physical intimacy. This is a gorgeous movie to simply take in and appreciate the sumptuous visual brilliance. Villeneuve has quickly become one of the best big screen visual artists we have today.
What separates 2049 and makes it better than the original is that here is a film that takes big ideas and knows what to do with them. This is an intelligent film that finds time to develop its ideas and to linger with them. This is a long movie (2 hours 43 minutes, the longest film so far of 2017) and one that many will decry as boring. That’s because Villeneuve and screenwriters Michael Green (Alien: Covenant) and Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner) commit to allowing the movie time to breathe, and scenes can take on an elegant life of their own becoming something of stunning power. Take for instance a scene where K visits the woman in charge of creating the false memories for replicants. Because of an autoimmune disorder, her life is behind glass, but she gets to create her own world to thrive in, and we watch her fine-tune the memory of a child’s birthday party while K asks her questions over her work. He has questions over the validity of memories, and this opens up a deep discussion over the concept of self, authenticity, and ownership over memory, all while still being character-based. It’s lovely. It’s like somebody saw the potential of the original Blade Runner and added the missing poetry.
2049 is driven by a central mystery but it’s also an exciting action movie. The sequences are few and far between but when they do happen they too luxuriate in the extra ordinary. The way the replicants are able to move again brings up that visual disconnect that can be so pleasing. A replicant-on-replicant fight is like a sci-fi superhero brawl. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks is our chief antagonist, Niander’s muscle on the outside. She might not have the languid magnetism of Daryl Hannah or playful philosophy of Hauer but she more than makes for a memorable and impressive physical force. The action and chase sequences are minimal, but when they do pop up Villeneuve doesn’t put the rest of the movie on pause. The characters are still important, the story is still important, and Deakins’ visual arrangements are still vastly important. 2049 is a movie at its best when it’s still and meditative, savoring the moment, but it can also quicken your pulse when called.
Gosling (La La Land) is uniquely suited for this character, another in the legacy of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. His taciturn nature is essential to his character. This is a man going from day to day. His only emotional attachment is to Joi, the V.I. projection, and even that relationship is called into question knowing she is a product meant to serve. This relationship is given a healthy dose of ambiguity so that an audience never fully knows whether Joi genuinely cares or is just following the dictates of her programming. Gosling provides a quiet yet impactful turn as a man searching for answers. In the opening scene, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2) plays an older replicant that K must “retire.” Bautista says the difference between them is one of faith, as he has seen a miracle, and this allows him to believe in something greater. This opening interaction lays the foundation for K’s character arc, as he searches for his own faith. It’s not necessarily a spiritual faith per se but definitely a belief in a renewed hope.
Another aspect lovingly recreated is the trance-inducing synth score from Vangelis, this time cranked up all the way to eleven by composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Walfisch (It). It comes in like waves, blaring loudly to the point that you swear you can hear the theater’s speakers rattling. It’s omnipresent and oppressive and it’s so freaking loud. I challenge anybody to fall asleep in the theater and actually stay asleep.
Blade Runner 2049 is one of those rare sequels that not only justify its existence but also improve upon its predecessor (again, not the biggest fan of Scott’s movie). It’s reverent to the older film and its film legacy while still charting a path all its own that it can stand upon. It takes a far more interesting narrative perspective to jump forward, possibly serving as a corrective to the original. I was fully engaged from the start as it challenged and entertained me to its concluding image of snowfall (oh no, spoilers!). This is a long movie but your patience pays off and then some. This is a deeper dive into the themes of author Phillip K. Dick and a better development of them. See it on as big a screen as possible, make sure to get your bathroom visits out of the way before it starts, and prepare for your eardrums to bleed from Zimmer’s blaring tones. Villeneuve has created a thoughtful, mature, exciting, and absorbing work of art that will stand the test of time. It won’t be as monumentally influential as the original Blade Runner but it is the better movie, and right now, in 2017, that’s a much more important factor for me as a viewer.
Nate’s Grade: A
War Dogs (2016)
As I watched War Dogs, the darkly comic true-life story of war graft, gunrunning, and bro-tastic bravado, I kept wishing to copy and paste other characters into what was an interesting plot. A pair of neophytes was awarded military arms contracts from the Pentagon during the Iraq War, and their schemes to skirt U.S. laws to import guns across borders, illegal and faulty munitions, and uneasily work as a go-between with a client (Bradley Cooper) on the U.S. terrorism watch list are filled with perplexing yet juicy details. The biggest problem is that the two main characters, played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, are so powerfully archetypal to the point of unrelenting blandness. We have the naïve everyman pulled into a life of big bucks, big risk, and big power only to have it all come crashing down. Hill’s character is the loud, uncouth part we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-nominated actor, and I defy anyone to tell me anything about Teller’s character other than occupation and his relationship to other people. These parts are so thinly drawn that I didn’t care about them once they finally got into deep trouble. I believe that director/co-writer Todd Phillips, he of The Hangover series, has the right qualifications to make a flinty neo-noir thriller, but War Dogs is more his half-hearted version of a glib Scorsese movie, or a David O. Russell version of a Scorsese movie. The voice over narration is dull and doesn’t help illuminate Teller’s character at all, and the other stylistic flourishes, from pointless inter-titles to a non-linear plot, add up to very little. Half of the movie’s scant jokes are the ongoing sound of Hill’s off-putting wheeze of a laugh. I’m not kidding, after an hour the movie still treats his laugh like it’s a potent punchline. There is entertainment value to be gleaned from War Dogs chiefly from its larger-then-life story and the intriguing, shadowy world of war profiteers. It’s a movie that made me wish I had read the magazine article it’s based upon instead, which would have also been shorter.
Nate’s Grade: C
Knock Knock (2015)/ The Green Inferno (2015)
Whatever happened to Eli Roth as a director? In 2003, I watched Cabin Fever and was instantly smitten with the twisted new talent on the horror scene. His sense of humor reminded me of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson before they went Hollywood from their splatterfest beginnings. He directed two movies after, Hostel and its sequel, and while I found Part Two to be underwhelming in execution, I was quite a fan of the original Hostel. It further cemented that it felt like Roth was going places. Most of those places were as an actor or a producer. Roth has acted in more movies (two Quentin Tarantino flicks) than he’s directed since 2007’s Hostel: Part Two. His name was attached to and then departed other projects, notably an adaptation of Stephen King’s Cell, and then it felt like he just vanished altogether. Roth has re-emerged with two films bearing his name as director, The Green Inferno, which premiered in 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival, and Knock Knock. After having watched both movies in one day I can say neither was worth the wait.
Knock Knock concerns Evan (Keanu Reeves), an architect, a former world-famous DJ (?), and family man. His wife and children have left for the weekend so that dear old dad can finally get some work done. Then one rainy evening a knock knock comes upon his chamber door. Two soaked coeds, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), politely ask if they can dry off inside. They’re supposed to meet at a friend’s house and have gotten lost. Evan is hospitable to a fault and indulges with them in conversation. The girls are flirty and very interested in a sexual dalliance with Evan, and finally he gives in. The next night Evan is ready to move on and pretend like nothing happened. However, Genesis and Bel are refusing to leave, and they have a design to punish and humiliate Evan for his martial indiscretion.
The premise is a mixture of Fatal Attraction and a home invasion movie, and there is potential here for a slowly escalating thriller or a comically degenerating farce that surprises with its dips into darkness, like 2013’s Cheap Thrills. Alas, Knock Knock is an unbalanced and unintentionally funny morality play that is so poorly executed, ham-fisted, and awkwardly developed that it’s more horrifying mess than horror. The first act of the film is a bit overwrought with making sure the audience knows exactly what kind of temptation trap Evan is falling under. Every line has an innuenduous ring, every flirtatious line an extended second of awkward eye contact, and every innocuous moment begins to feel like the forgotten detail in one of those absurd Letters to Penthouse fantasies (“You’ll never believe what happened to me…”). You can see the better film that has been crushed to death under the rush to make something tawdry, complete with both girls soaping up their bodies in a joint shower and then jointly pleasuring Evan to eliminate the last of his denials. If you felt the slowly escalating sexual tension, the desire, and yearning, and then weighing the consequences, the movie would have been a far more compelling moral dilemma and character piece. Instead, the girls are over-the-top in their seduction routines and once Evan gives in it all gets even worse. It’s not so much relatable or an interesting ethical conflict as it is the in-between scenes for a soft-core porn biding its time. For what it’s worth, the gratuitous nudity is a bit shrift.
At no point do Genesis or Bel feel like actual human beings; they are unhinged one-dimensional lascivious cartoons with ridiculous and guffaw-inducing motivation. As soon as the morning comes, Genesis and Bel have transformed from seductive and coy young adults to infantilized and highly sexualized bratty teenagers. Our reintroduction involves both ladies filling the kitchen with breakfast supplies and throwing food around, laughing obnoxiously, and practically bouncing off the walls. Their initial adversarial one-upsmanship includes mooning Evan while he’s on a Skype call and drawing penises on his wife’s art. When a concerned neighbor stops by I was hoping for something a little more serious and dangerous, but they can’t even do that, which is what makes their late turn into would-be murderers to be completely unbelievable and forced. It’s so forced that Reeve’s sputtering monologue of incredulity pretty much sums up the point of view of any rational viewer. They play dress up and appear to have some psychosexual daddy issues, possibly resulting from childhood abuse or molestation, but at no point do they come across as a credible menace. Then there’s the concluding justification for their acts of retribution and it’s so lame and uninspired and a cop-out that you wish Roth had committed to the direction the film had been steering toward.
That’s the biggest failing of Knock Knock is that it could have worked as a thriller if Roth and co-writer Nicolas Lopez (Aftershock) had fully developed their scenario. There’s a fine story of events spinning out of control as one man gets in over his head trying to cover up his indiscretion. Evan doesn’t really grapple with his guilt because everything is manifested as an external threat. He becomes a literal hostage to his guests but they don’t ever turn the screws in a manner that belies a plan or even a sharper point. The first act should have been setting up storylines that would further complicate this hostage scenario with people dropping by and more opportunities to be caught. Rather than playing as a slow-boil hostage thriller or a be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality play, Knock Knock more approaches a failed farce. The film even lacks any visual polish or carefully constructed set piece to stand out from the bargain bin of cheap horror thrillers, and Chile does not convincingly double for California either.
Roth has been a filmmaker who found dark and creative ways to mix humor into his horror, but Knock Knock is one where his signature humor doesn’t feel intended. First off, the behavior of Genesis and Bel is wildly over-the-top, screechy, and just insufferable. Izzo and Armas are way too broad and way too unhinged without any sense of mooring from Roth as a director. It’s just not fun to watch. Their batty babydoll shtick isn’t funny or sexy or dangerous. The tone cannot find a balance or commitment. There are lines of dialogue that are howlers and then there are moments that are played without the right sense of pacing or delivery and they can transform something inane into something dreadfully funny. It’s hard to describe in words but Reeves’ strident yet flat delivery of “I’m a happily married man” after being bamboozled by two naked and nubile young women is hilarity in itself. Then there’s the final scene (spoiler alert) that rests upon a struggle to eliminate a damning social media post. The resulting action and Reeves’ resultant scream to the heavens left me doubling over with laughter, more so because this is part of the misguided climax to a misguided movie. Suffice to say the moments that seemed intended to be comedic fall flat and the ones that are not, at least in their primary and secondary purpose, are the ones that produce hearty derisive laughter.
At least Roth’s other 2015 release knows exactly what it wants to be, which is a stomach-churning gore-fest homage to one of cinema’s most notorious movies, Cannibal Holocaust. From an early college lecture about female genital mutilation, you know exactly where Roth is leading this story. Unlike Knock Knock, you get a sense of Roth’s passion for the material here, and while much of that material is the systematic exposure of other people’s guts, it’s at least treated with the right amount of horror and dread. In grand slasher tradition, our poorly developed characters are but bodies to be sacrificed for our sickening amusement, but at least this is where Roth comes alive with creativity. The plot is fairly bare-bones: a group of activists from a liberal arts college travel to the Amazon jungle to protest the local government tearing down acres of forest that rightfully belong to native communities. After having successfully staged their protest, the activists’ plane goes down in the jungle and the cannibalistic natives collect the survivors and do what they do best. While it takes a bit too long without layering in mystery or essential plot, or even ironic counterpoints to fold back upon, once the students meet the hungry villagers, the movie becomes everything it was intended to be, one gory torture sequence after another. There are some memorably gross and uncomfortable moments. Similar to Roth’s Hostel, sometimes the threat of torture is worse than a grisly death. When the practices of female circumcision come roaring back as a plot point, you won’t be able to stop squirming in your seat in appropriate trepidation of what’s next.
The Green Inferno might prioritize its colorful slaughter but at least Roth puts something approaching a survival story in play to fill in the gaps. The first human sacrifice is so methodical that it serves as a grandly grotesque statement to better motivate the other survivors. Izzo (Roth’s wife) appears as the movie’s version of the Final Girl, so we’re anticipating that she’ll be able to escape somehow. The villagers keep our characters locked in cages and slowly we get a greater sense of their routines and eating habits. There’s a clever use of marijuana to purposely drug their captors. While there is an overwhelming sense of doom and futility, partially just by knowing what kind of movie this is, I’ll credit Roth that the movie doesn’t feel repulsively nihilistic. It may feel genuinely repulsive for other reasons, but you still hold onto a small glimmer of hope that at least some of these college students might maybe make it out alive. Maybe.
There’s also the elephant in the room when it comes to the cultural depiction of a bunch of savages feasting upon primarily white Americans. It’s certainly not an enlightened or nuanced analysis of another culture and it brings to mind some rather ignorant and racist imagery of old where the “backwards natives” were seen as dangerous and uncivilized villains more in common with wild animals than human beings. The villagers in the movie are all bathed in a blood-red skin dye as if they were to be recognized as devils and otherworldly demons. I can’t fathom that a village of this size comes across enough wayward humans to keep itself nourished. It’s hard to get a read on what commentary Roth has in mind. Is he playing into xenophobia or is he sending up the ignorance of the college activists who think getting to the front page of Reddit is a major accomplishment? I can’t tell and this indecision on Roth’s part doesn’t help the movie. It’s easy in slasher cinema to root for the charismatic killer to mow down our gullible and dumb teenagers, but it’s also easy to find a survivor to root for against all odds. I can’t tell which side Roth was more interested in highlighting the plight of. The ending doesn’t clarify this either.
By no means am I saying that The Green Inferno is a conventionally enjoyable movie, but if you’re a gore hound looking to slurp up your next bloody feast, then this might hit the spot. It’s an uncomfortable and too often tedious film, and some of the character setbacks just seem mean-spirited or unnecessary, like a character literally defecating in a corner for what feels like a solid minute with Farrelly Brothers sound effects (even the natives point and laugh). This is not a pleasant filmgoing experience, nor is it particularly articulate with its social commentary, but the thing that The Green Inferno accomplishes is in its sense of grisly purpose. It’s not groundbreaking or even particularly artistic but for its select audience of horror aficionados, I feel like there is enough to merit watching. Unlike Knock Knock, which doesn’t know who its audience is, The Green Inferno knows all too well, beholden to their bloodlusts, and thus too limited to attract wider appeal. Then again any film that can be thematically linked to Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t exactly going to be targeting the masses. After a long drought behind the camera, these two releases have shown me that Roth’s interests have become a bit more base, his skills a bit more ramshackle, and his sick sense of humor a bit more misapplied. After Cabin Fever and Hostel, I had high hopes that Roth would follow in his mentor Tarantino’s footsteps and rise above genre trappings as an artist. With news that Roth will produce a Cabin Fever remake for 2016, well I think my hopes for the man have gone up in smoke.
Knock Knock: D
Green Inferno: C
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