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The Lovebirds (2020)

The tepid advertising for The Lovebirds gave me little motivation to see the movie. Even with the same director and star of The Big Sick, it just did not look funny with its trailer, so it was already gearing up to be mentally banished to a “see it eventually” field that might never be fulfilled. Then after COVID-19, it was bought by Netflix and now I had easy access to a brand-new 2020 movie previously targeted for a wide theatrical release. I watched The Lovebirds the day it debuted and was pleasantly surprised to notice just how much I was laughing early on, and that laughter continued throughout the movie’s entire running time. Kumail Nanjiani (Stuber) and Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) have a winning chemistry but they’re even better when they’re at odds, and the movie smartly frames the on-the-lamb misadventure during their dissolution as a couple. Through the harrowing events, we get a fuller picture of why their relationship didn’t work out, the issues each has, and why it might just work out over the course of some rather outlandish events trying to clear their names for murder. I found more to like in the riffs and weird diversions the movie would find itself circling, where an observational joke or offbeat moment could extend and find new life. The comedy set pieces are fine, though an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy is a bit lazy without going into more humor on the group and their stuffy rules. I wish there were more meaningful and colorful supporting characters but the emphasis is on our main couple. I found myself smiling and nodding along and being taken by the low-key charms of a brisk comedy that didn’t ask much more of me than to have a good time with some appealing actors. It’s not The Big Sick but it’s not a big bomb either. On Netflix streaming, The Lovebirds is a perfectly enjoyable 100 minutes to stretch out to and chuckle to yourself and think back on how the abysmal advertising really undersold the funny.

Nate’s Grade: B

Down to You (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released January 8, 2000:

The latest sacrifice to almighty gods that are the teenage market with wide pockets arrives and proves not only is the teen comedy dying, it is having its grave danced upon. And with eight inch heels worn by the fiend known as Down To You.

Want an old-fashioned love story? Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl again, and boy gets girl. Pretty old and pretty much nothing more to Down to You, minus the addition of two porn stars and a nymphomaniac. The story is the same well-beaten path where they keep the leads as far away from each other and just let ’em loose at the end. Everyone hugs and we can all go home. Geez, I’ve seen more substance in a bag of fat-free potato chips.

The movie is very uninteresting and rather pointless as it drones on. Freddie Prinze Jr. can smile all he wants to but I’ll still never believe he’s a down on his luck college coed. At least he’s out of high school in this one. Everything in this movie has a recycled feel to it, so much so that some environmentalist group should confiscate this entire movie. People, it’s that bad. Imagine every cliché, expanded character stereotype, redundant joke, and you still have no idea how bad this script is. What the writer/director believes is quirky and cute falls closer to annoying and irresponsible.

The rest of the actors are faceless unknowns that you might as well search for on the back of a milk carton. Julia Stiles and Freddie Prinze Jr. have zero chemistry between them and are either bickering or blushing in embarrassment. Doesn’t sound like a good relationship worth a dozen flashbacks to me. Stiles at least puts forth an effort but Prinze just runs through the motions of another teen flick for his resume and comes off as nothing more than a mannequin with a goofy grin.

I stand and make a plea; please for the love of God end this Hollywood fascination with high school romantic comedies. It might have been cute to start out with but this trend has run its course. The only way the madness of teen romantic comedies will end is if the teens themselves stop supporting them. Wise up America. Take action! If this comedy is supposed to be about the school of life I’d say it overslept its class.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ve been wondering for years if maybe, just maybe, I was too hard on the forgettable rom-com, Down to You. Not that it was a great movie but maybe the 17-year-old version of myself at that time in my senior year of high school had an axe to grind against blandly popular art. I can recall vividly how incensed I felt as a teenager growing up in the 90s with the rise of pop music like Britney Spears and Hanson and boy bands, the idea that these fleeting confections were somehow squeezing out the spaces for the bands and artists that I felt were more deserving of attention, alternative rock bands that were formidable for me, like Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. I can feel that intensity in my derogatory use of the term “teenybopper” to describe art that was made for mass appeal. Now, decades hence, I look back at my younger self and wonder why I got so upset about people liking art that didn’t appeal to me and why I felt such a passionate intensity to take down the art I personally disliked. Who cares? You don’t like Taylor Swift’s music? Fine, but what does it matter if others happen to like it? I can appreciate the pop stylings of Ms. Spears and the boy bands of yore. I’ve learned through time not to take offense that people just have different tastes (unless people enjoy the Friedberg-Seltzer “comedies,” because that is all the judgement I need).

That’s why I was wondering whether Down to You was a victim of my teenage animus and might, upon retrospect, perhaps be a better movie than I gave it fair credit for back in 2000, the dawn of a new century. Dear reader, I am here to inform you that, having recently re-watched this Freddie Prince Jr.-Julia Stiles romance, that Down to You is even worse than my teenage-self had warned.

For starters, this movie rings astoundingly inauthentic with every moment. It was written and directed by Kris Isacsson (Husband for Hire) who was close to thirty years old when Down to You was released but it feels like a 50-year-old was trying to replicate the speaking patterns of hip young twenty-somethings and flailing badly. Every word of dialogue just has that unshakable feeling of being off, or bring cringe-worthy, or failing to articulate the rhythms of youth. It’s not even in the Kevin Williamson-Dawson’s Creek style of hyper-verbal, overly clever youth that never existed except in television writers’ rooms. It’s not even entertaining in-authenticity.

These college students sound interchangeable from their older parents; one pompous thespian friend (Zak Orth, channeling Orson Welles) feels completely transported from another movie. He has a test where he challenges Al to drink out of two cups, one representing true love and the other representing illusion. I did not understand the point of this game. I assume it was like Three Card Monty and he had to pick the right one after watching it be shuffled, but that’s just proving Al can follow a cup. This moment is played like some grave insight and it makes no sense. Even more than that, the behavior of the “kids being kids” can be downright cringe-inducing. Imogen will turn on music and walk around lip synching to the adoration of any crowd, but it just feels so awkward to watch, and it happens multiple times. Rosario Dawson (Men in Black II) is a one-note “hippie” friend who makes lame drug jokes. Selma Blair (Hellboy) is an active porn star and an active student at the school but is just a vampy attempt to tempt our male lead. He even keeps naughty pictures of Blair under his bed even after he’s dating Imogen. There’s also Ashton Kutcher (The Butterfly Effect) as an obtuse artist. Every character feels phony and bereft of charm and wit.

Romantic comedies live and die on two things: 1) your level of amusement in the characters, and 2) the chemistry of the lead characters. Down to You regrettably whiffs on both accounts. These are very boring characters and even by the end of the movie we know very little about them. Al says he wants to be a chef but we never see him do any cooking on his own, which seems like quite an oversight for a budding relationship. She’s an aspiring artist and we at least see her paint and describe why she likes art. Isacsson employs a Woody Allen-esque device where both participants break the fourth wall from the future to talk about their relationship ups and downs. You would think this framing device would allow for better insights and you’d be wrong. At one point, Imogen leaves for France for three or more months for an internship. You would think this would provide a difficult period for boyfriend and girlfriend to adjust and maintain intimacy, perhaps throwing some question over whether they’re fully invested. One minute later, she’s back and this entire excursion has meant nothing to their relationship. Why even include it?

Their coupledom feels as inorganic as everything else, and this is magnified by the powerful lack of chemistry between Prinze Jr. (She’s All That) and Stiles (The Bourne Identity). You don’t feel any urge compelling Al and Imogen to get together because they seem like chummy friends at best. When they have sex for the first time, three months into their collegiate relationship, the camera slowly lingers over their faces and uncomfortably frames their dispassionate and awkward kissing far too long. I defy anyone to watch that scene and argue that these two people have a spark of chemistry. I even hate their names. “Imogen” feels like it’s trying too hard and “Al” not hard enough. With the poor character writing, bad plotting and development, and no palpable chemistry, it makes Down to You feel like a painfully confounding experience lacking romance and comedy.

I was amazed at Isacsson’s sense of scene building and how wrong many of the endings come across. A scene, when well written, should serve as its own mini-movie with a beginning, middle, and end, and hopefully some conflict to explore. In a comedy, the conclusions of scenes would end on an upturn or a downturn but it’s also a good idea for there to be a discernible punchline the previous moment was leading up to. There’s one scene where Al’s roommate (Shawn Hatosy), a peculiar presence throughout that never knows what to do in any given moment, is drunk at a party and talking to an inflatable gorilla wearing a brassier. Al grabs the gorilla away and his inebriated roommate whimpers. That’s it. The generally off nature to all the writing is compounded in the comedy writing, which is compounded in its lazy or non-existent punchlines.

The worst example is when Al literally drinks a bottle of Imogen’s shampoo in a misguided suicide attempt. This is the thing I’ll always remember this absurd movie for. Al has his stomach pumped and undergoes a psychological review in the hospital, where he argues he was testing himself to see if he “needed the shampoo” and turns out he still did. This reckless act of self-destruction should provide more insights and changes to our male lead and those around him; he did, after all, attempt to end his life over being distraught from an ex-girlfriend. Al shrugs and it’s forgotten. What was the purpose of doing something this weird and harmful if it wasn’t going to matter in the bigger picture? Don’t transform a suicide attempt into a quirky anecdote for a non-dark comedy. This is what Down to You feels like as a whole, a series of contrived anecdotes crashing against one another.

There is one lone saving grace for this entire enterprise and that’s Henry Winkler (so brilliant on HBO’s Barry) as Al’s father, a famous TV chef who has an exciting idea for a reality TV show. He’s modeling it after Cops, that stalwart of 90s television, but it would be called Chefs. It would feature a traveling truck of chefs that would come to a stranger’s home, prepare a delicious meal, and teach the family how to do it themselves. Not only does that sound like a great idea for a TV show in 2000, I’m positive some show has run with this concept and had great success since. I would have rather watched the movie from Winkler’s point of view trying to get this show on the air and dealing with a son who drinks shampoo as a cry for help.

Looking back on my original review in 2000, I was wincing at how many joke-slams I was attempting at the film’s expense. Look, Down to You is still a bad movie but I didn’t need to add lines like, “I’ve seen more substance in a bag of fat-free potato chips,” and, “if this comedy is about the school of life I’d say it overslept its class.” This was still less than a year into my pursuit of critically reviewing movies, so I think I was forcing ready-made blurb-tendencies. My critical charges were on par but failed to go into more detail and seemed too general, which is why I wondered if my charges were colored by my teenage biases at the time. Given the time and distance, Down to You feels even more phony and confusing to watch as an adult. I was muttering to myself and my girlfriend while re-watching it and trying to understand the distaff storytelling choices. It’s flabbergasting and dated and even worse than I remembered. Down to You might be the nadir of the teen comedy movement from the early 2000s. I will never have to see this again. So, future me reading these words, heed this warning – stay away. Stay far away.

Re-Review Grade: D

My Spy (2020)

This was a movie that intrigued me because of the number of release delays and because, by the trailers, it just looked like it was going to be fairly bad. It’s not actually bad, simply mediocre family fare (with an extra dose of Cardi B. swearing in song repeatedly). It’s Dave Bautista trying on the Kindergarten Cop formula, and the plot is pretty much what you would expect, with Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) having to watch a family and befriending the little daughter in danger, schooling her in the ways of spycraft before having to be rescued during the big finale. As far as children’s films go, it’s pretty standard and inoffensive stuff. It coasts on Bautista and the little girl (Chloe Coleman) having a fun chemistry that rises above the obvious and under-developed comedy set pieces. However, there are flashes that point to what My Spy could have been, a more spy and satirical tweak of spy hijinks and action movie cliches. The little girl wants to learn how to be a spy action hero, so she asks about walking away with her back to an explosion and trying out other tropes. She even sizes up all the “tragic backstory” options for Bautista’s character we expect. The finale even involves throwing a grenade into a burning oil truck just to achieve an explosion worthy of walking away from. These little moments are enough to convince me there was a superior draft of this script before it was dulled and softened in the rewrite process for mass consumption. It’s not going to be a great film experience but as formulas go, Bautista plus precocious kid is winning enough to satisfy for 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: C

Mock & Roll (2019)

As far as Ohio indies go, Mock & Roll might have one of the smartest creative approaches. It’s a mockumentary following the mishaps of a Columbus, Ohio band trying to make it big. Director/co-writer/editor Ben Bacharach-White (Jimmie Van Zant’s American DeTour) and his cast and crew make good use of limited resources, blessed casting, but the movie could have been even more had it devoted more attention to its comedy writing and doc tricks.

We follow the band Liberty Mean, with lead singer Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), guitarist Rick (Chris Wolfe), bass player Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), and drummer Bun (Andrew Yackel). They are a parody band that sticks to only one source, parodying the songs from the rock band The Black Owls. Their mission is to put together an album, gather enough fans, and take the South by Southwest Festival by storm. Robin’s brother, Sully (William Scarborough), is documenting the band and their wacky hijinks as they play punk bars, try crowdfunding, undergo drug trials, stumble into the underground world of art dealing, and land in jail.

Mock & Roll is an amiable experience and one comparison became so fundamentally clear to me that afterwards it’s all I could envision. This movie feels exactly like a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel live-action tween series. I know that may sound like a complaint but it’s not intended as one. The comparison just became so obvious to me that I was amused throughout to see the finished film hold to this creative endeavor, whether intentional or unintentional (I’m guessing unintentional). The exuberant energy level of the performers, the comedy scene writing that has specific beginnings and ends, the episodic nature of plot, the “let’s put on a show with our friends” mentality, the wacky hijinks, the direct communication with the camera, it felt like an extended collection of episodes for iCarly or Wizards of Waverly Place or Hannah Montana. Again, I do not intend this as a criticism, but the style and delivery of storytelling, as well as the genial likability of its cast, made me draw this comparison.

The best thing this mockumentary has going for it is its spirited cast who go beyond their limited characters. The difference maker in mockumentaries is characterization. The Christopher Guest mock docs (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) don’t have revolutionary storytelling but rely upon seasoned actors to really dig in deep with their unique characters, so that no matter the situation, something will spring out of the interaction and response to conflict. The characters in Mock & Roll are scant. The one with the most outward personality is Rick, puffing his chest out with bravado and swagger. The other two male characters, Tom and Bun, are working on the same note, basically deadpan absurdity. They’ll wax philosophical or bizarre at any moment. Robin, unfortunately, seems to be the straight-man role to center the rest of the group.

While these roles limit what comedy styles are available in the different vignettes, the performers go above and beyond and make the movie enjoyable. Wolfe (Where Are You, Bobby Browning?) is a standout as Rick and his voice reminded me of T.J. Miller. He has a natural charisma but also can easily channel a grinning doofus, which gives him the widest comedy berth. I would happily watch Wolfe in other movies and think he has a bright future in comedy. I would hire him. Yackle (False Flag) appears to be the best improviser on the set, able to pull wonderfully bizarre details from thin air and deliver them with understated care. His riff about Beethoven being deaf, and also blind, and having wooden hands, and that’s what made him great got a solid laugh from me. Jarernpone (Dark Iris) has a similar acting technique except it’s unloading deep philosophy without breaking a sweat, also performed at an understated rate, where the comedy best resides. Bhanja is a welcomed presence among the boys and I wish she had been given more to do. She shows promise and an engaging personality even in limited form. There are two supporting players of note, Scarborough (The Incredible Jake Parker) as Robin’s mostly unseen documentarian brother Sully, and Ohio superstar KateLynn Newberry (Dark Iris, Widow’s Point) as Rick’s girlfriend tasked with building a crowdfunding campaign for the band. Both are enjoyable to the point I wish they had been onscreen more often. Newberry has such a great nonplussed frustration with the band’s self-deluded antics.

The episodic nature works for Mock & Roll until it simply doesn’t. At 77 minutes long pre-end credits, the movie feels far more like a collection of scenes than as a film narrative with a recognizable three-act structure. The vignettes don’t last longer than maybe eight minutes, which is another reason why they feel like anecdotal segments of a 22-minute TV episode. There is an advantage where if I’m not engaged in one scenario, and many are hit-or-miss, I know that another is coming up (after these commercial breaks). A disadvantage, however, is that nothing feels like it builds off the previous actions of the story. You could rearrange any of the first hour and would only impact the overall plot minimally (a reference to a crowdfunding campaign here and there). The episodic nature robs the movie from feeling like its plotting matters or builds to needed payoffs and running gags that make it more satisfying to watch than, say, a collection of unrelated skits.

Then in the last quarter of the film it becomes a prolonged segment that transforms into a baffling Boogie Nights homage. The gang get involved in art theft transportation (a miss), and then it happens again with a criminal art smuggler Dante (Brian Bowman, Dark Iris). This entire segment feels like the Wonderland/Rahad Jackson sequence late in Boogie Nights. Bowman is meant to be Alfred Molina in an open bathrobe, wavering between inebriated and dangerous. The plot beats follow the sequence and even some of the dialogue exchanges are similar. So the question arises, naturally, why even bother? The segment isn’t funny and doesn’t seem designed to be funny. Throwing the characters into an increasingly uncomfortable scenario that presents more and more danger could produce some great cringe-worthy moments of awkward comedy. This doesn’t happen. It just keeps going and it’s the only segment that actually builds off the events of previous segments, and I wanted it all to just go away. It’s too long, too turgid, and doesn’t have nearly enough construction in its comedy to justify the jaunt into criminality. The ending is also so flippant that it feels like it could all have been removed for the impact it has. If you’re going to break the formula established for an hour, it better be worth the excursion.

This transitions into some of Mock & Roll’s design flaws that keep it from being a stronger movie. The fact that the central band is a parody band of The Black Owls will mean next to nothing to an audience, the far majority who do not know whether The Black Owls are a real band or not. They are real but a quick check on Spotify shows they haven’t exactly crossed a listening threshold, so when the Liberty Mean band members talk about the band’s real songs, we won’t know the reference points. We don’t know the reference so we can’t appreciate the parodies, and the performances of Liberty Mean are fleeting, and many don’t even allow us to hear the parody songs themselves. If this was the given reality, Mock & Roll would have been better to just have them parody a silly fake band, or a band that everyone in the audience would be familiar with, rather than settling on a local rock band that allowed their music to be given featured placement. The idea of Liberty Mean as a parody band, and the nature of parody, also feels sadly underutilized. I was hoping the movie would go into a direction where one of the band members splits off, forms their own band, but it’s a parody band of Liberty Mean, so a warped parody of a parody.

There are many fun possibilities for comedy with a parody band (a rival band nemesis, per se) but the comic shenanigans that Liberty Mean encounters are lackluster. The comedy segments are one-idea concepts that fail to develop and surprise as they go. The band plays at a punk bar and everyone seems to make a big deal out of this like it’s a grave offense, but the audience doesn’t understand why this would be any different. We’re not graced with any unsavory “punk bar patrons,” or specifics beyond that the acoustics might not be as precise. The band agrees to take part in an experimental drug experiment and the results are boring. They get high, they see hallucinations, but it’s nothing terribly interesting or different than you would expect. I’m starting to loathe drug tripping sequences in comedy because too many assume characters acting stoned is funny enough. There is also a lack of editing used for comedy potential with Mock & Roll. Watch The Office, or any other faux doc series, and an added benefit is that edits are part of its intention, so a quick cut or an inserted interview line allows a dense layering of jokes. Or at least the opportunity. Strangely, none of the band members are ever filmed individually for their takes. There are many comic and storytelling options through mockumentary that aren’t used.

Mock & Roll is a smartly modest film that coasts on the good will of its exuberant cast. Crafting a mockumentary approach for a fictional band is a clever way to make an indie film that can stand out with limited resources. The technical attributes are solid, especially the sound, though there are occasional questions like whether what we’re seeing is meant to be doc footage or simply reality, because when Sully is the only cameraman, who else is filming when he’s in the shot? The good nature of the movie is enough to warrant the time spent with an agreeable cast that seem to be having a good deal of fun. The episodic pacing works to keep things moving; however, it also makes the events interchangeable and lacking stakes. The comedy writing is often underdeveloped and reliant upon the performers to do most of the heavy lifting. It is breezy, genial, and fun, thanks to a cast that has great chemistry. I could see further adventures for Liberty Mean but would prefer a new creative approach. Mock & Roll could have been weirder, wilder, or simply better written and make better use of its documentary format.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Guns Akimbo (2020)

Imagine waking up one day and having real-working handguns bolted into your hands. That’s the wild premise to Guns Akimbo (akimbo means, in this context, “flung out haphazardly”), a frenetic action comedy that never takes itself too seriously. Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is a computer programmer who takes it upon himself to harass online trolls. One of these trolls, the proprietor behind the death match game show Schism, takes it personally. He drugs Miles and has his cartoonish goons give him the gun-hands. He’s the latest contestant on Schism, and the top-ranked assassin Nix (Samara Weaving) has been selected as his competition. Miles has to fend for his life, while not arousing panic or the police, and he can’t even open a door.

It’s a bonkers, proudly juvenile action comedy that starts off at a breakneck speed and rarely lets up, and there’s a good reason for that – Guns Akimbo is a lot of flash and little else. It’s a movie that’s constantly in your face with its stylistic tricks, crass humor, wanton violence, and bizarre touches, and for a decent portion of the movie it kept me entertained. The rush of colors, movement, and profane insanity can be enjoyed on a certain level that doesn’t require much in the way of thinking. If you need a turn-off-your-brain action comedy, Guns Akimbo can work on that level, but if you think a little more the illusion begins to dissolve. I start to question the reality of this world, which seems more akin to something from The Purge but lacks the satirical through line of the Purge franchise. The satire of Guns Akimbo feels tacked on and often forced, much like the setup of its premise. There’s really nothing about firearms or gun culture covered, which seems bizarre considering the premise. The “troll culture” aspect of the movie is barely covered, setting it up as a straw-man argument to lambaste the general indifference to human suffering. We never really return to it except for brief moments to score easy points. Miles is a troll to trolls, and they get so incensed that they go to extreme lengths for vengeance from… being trolled? Is this to imply how fragile online trolls are as people? The world of the movie seems to acknowledge its Running Man-style online death game shows but the rest of the world goes on normally without commenting. It feels like someone just dropped in a fantastic element into the normal world and nobody acknowledges it as such. I thought maybe at the end it would turn on the Schism viewers but no. They’re basically like those five or six audience faces we jump around for reaction shots, like in The Truman Show. The satire of the movie feels more like a superficial finish.

From the first sequence of stylized violence on, I made a note of how overly edited the action was. It wasn’t quite to the hyper-edits of Michal Bay’s kaleidoscopic realm but it was noticeable and made it harder for the action to be understood and appreciated. You get the premise of the scenarios, two cars chasing after one another and firing, but it’s presented in such a blizzard of images, sounds, and colors that it’s more the impression of the scene rather than a development. This impression was always present when we watch Nix storm through a drug den and lay waste to every armed goon inside. Here is a scenario where all I want is some stylized violence and fun fight choreography, but what I got was more of the same incomprehensible jumble. Nix shoots. Bullets hit skulls. Blood splatters. The camera is constantly zooming, or careening, or flipping upside down, and after a while I just gave up and accepted it’s all only impression-based. It’s about the immediate energy and not what’s actually happening onscreen. I wasn’t going to get any interesting fight choreography. I wasn’t going to get any memorable bits of crazy action. It was like a junkier version of Wanted, with a super-powered player running through a level and clearing over-matched opponents. Without more, the same action can get boring. The same happens in a junkyard clash between gangs. The only action sequence with a satisfying development was a car chase where Nix attacks with the spinning wheel of her motorcycle. Guns Akimbo has decided to overwhelm your senses to distract from its action restrictions.

As a crazy comedy, Guns Akimbo is more successful and fun. I found the physical comedy to be a consistent and enjoyable source of entertainment. While the action might get boring, watching Miles simply deal with the logistics of his gun-bolted hands made me laugh and cringe constantly. How does one go to the bathroom with gun-hands? Put on their pants? Open a door? Drive a car? It’s a dose of slapstick that doesn’t have to dip into edgy material in order to make its mark. Radcliffe is genuinely fun to watch during these sequences, as it plays to his strengths of melding awkward clumsiness and nervous high-strung energy. Thankfully Radcliffe is set for life thanks to the Harry Potter movies because he has consistently chosen really weird and interesting film roles, almost to the point where his presence in a (non-studio) movie is enough to guarantee a watch. He brought stunning humanity to a farting corpse in 2016’s Swiss Army Man and gave a tour-de-force physical performance. He’s an actor who commits no matter how silly the role, and it’s a delight to watch him try and make sense of the escalating madness around him with his unique physical disability. I was enjoying even the smaller moments like Miles’ difficulty hiding his alarming ailment with transparent lies or his interaction with a mentally ill homeless man (a scene-stealing Rhys Darby).

As the movie kept going, I felt my interest growing and that was because of the increased presence of Weaving as Nix, who is clearly the star of this crazy movie. Weaving should have been a Hollywood star after Netflix’s The Babysitter, and she was just as wonderful as the heroine in last year’s Ready or Not. Her character isn’t exactly much more than a murder pinup, a comic character come to life. She’s nearly unrecognizable in her punk rock assassin attire, including literal bullet teeth. She’s all nihilist attitude and clunky one-liners (“Suck my clit” needs some work). She has a tragic back-story that sets her up for vengeance and that’s all that’s needed from what could be a completely interchangeable back-story. It only serves as a needed character motivation point, one that is more compelling even in its shallow nature than Miles, who is on the run for his life but really is about trying to save his ex-girlfriend (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who serves mainly as a damsel in distress for the last act. While I enjoyed Radcliffe as a performer, this is Weaving’s movie from the moment she struts into the frame. Her charisma pops off the screen even as her character is criminally blasé. She’s the kind of character that will pick up a dismembered middle finger just to give someone the gesture. Nix is more so a collection of weird and hip and sexy tics than an interesting character, but it’s Weaving and her jubilant, dangerous degree of fun that makes the character a scrubby version of Harley Quinn.

Guns Akimbo is like tasty junk food that can satisfy a very specific cinematic craving but you know, even as you’re consuming it, that this won’t be anything special. I wish the film had gone further in any direction, whether it was with the comedy, whether it was with more finely choreographed action, or whether it was in more outlandish set pieces like in 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up. If you want to be a crazy cartoon, be a crazy cartoon. Give me even more characters like Nix and over-the-top violence that does something different besides geysers of head shot wounds. Guns Akimbo might work as a lesser Crank movie. This movie seems either to be too satisfied with itself or knowingly hiding its shortcomings with energy, edits, and attitude. I can’t tell which. Guns Akimbo is easy on the brain and maybe a little too easy on itself. My 13-year-old self would have loved this movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Onward (2020)

In a modern fantasy suburbia, Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) have been gifted with a magic staff from their long-departed father. Barley was only a young child when their father died, and Ian never knew him, and now both are granted an opportunity via magic to bring their dear old man back for one more day. The magic spell is interrupted and, as a result, only one half of their father is brought back to life, the lower half, chiefly his legs. The boys must travel on an epic quest in order to bring the rest of their father back to life before all of him disappears again.

Onward is the first time Pixar has ventured into a fantasy realm and the mixture of the modern with the high-fantasy setting allows for some fun juxtaposition. The teenage worries about fitting in, testing your boundaries, and finding out your sense of self can be very relatable, even in a world of trolls and elves. I enjoyed the combative and compassionate brotherly dynamic between Ian and Barley, and Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) and Pratt (Avengers: Endgame) are terrific together and really do feel like feuding family members. Their high energy performances translate well to animation. The Pixar creative team does enough to provide little distinguishing character touches for both, enough to provide some extra shading so they don’t quite feel like cartoon versions of their more famous Marvel counterparts. Ian is all awkward and lacking in confidence whereas Barley is overloaded with self-confidence and an unshakable sense of arrested development. I enjoyed the small number of memories relating to their father that Barley holds onto, and I enjoyed how Ian listens to a brief, ordinary test recording of his father on a cassette tape and creates a dialogue between father and son. It’s such a sweet moment that also demonstrates Ian’s ache. I enjoyed how the screenplay connects the external to the internal, namely the obstacles on this quest to the personal trials for Ian and Barley. It allows more meaningful payoffs and more rewarding character growth for our duo. I enjoyed spending time with both boys and was glad their quest was more about them than magical ephemera.

Amazingly, what works best in this movie is its emotional core, which sounds slightly bizarre considering it’s a road trip with a pair of legs. As Onward progresses and settles down with its better honed second half, it puts more emphasis on the relationship between the brothers, their hopes and worries for one another, their sacrifices and shames, and ultimately it becomes a movie about two boys trying to find closure with the memory of their dearly departed dad. The genuine emotion of the brothers is enough to pave over most of the undeveloped elements of the world and storytelling (more on that below). I would have thought, going in, that Onward would present a so-so story with an intriguing world of possibility. I’m surprised that my experience was the exact opposite. The story and central relationships are what kept me going, and it’s what ultimately earned some teary eyed responses from me late in the movie. The topic of seeking closure is a personal one for me and something I value highly, so it was very easy for me to plug my own yearning and vulnerability into these characters. They’re going through all this dangerous trouble not just to see their departed father one last time but also to say goodbye, and that got me big time. It gave the entire movie a new weight that I wasn’t expecting. Who wouldn’t want another chance to tell a loved one how much they miss and appreciate them?

The whole concept of being stuck with a loved one’s lower torso allowed me many moments of contemplation. First, I wondered what their father must be going through to only experience the world through his legs. It felt limited. How do you communicate to others? The film finds its ways. How do you express emotions simply from a pair of disembodied legs? The film finds its ways. As Ian and Barley drag him along on a zipline leash, I kept thinking about the dad. What is he thinking in this moment? Is he waiting for some kind of comforting confirmation from his sons to tell him where he is and what is happening? I kept thinking how confused he must be. To the filmmakers’ credit, they don’t ever emphasize the potential hell of this half-existence. He’s presented often as a figure of comic relief, especially as his upper torso pile of clothes sloshes around and tumbles off. In a way, the pair of legs reminded me of the visual metaphor of the floating house in 2009’s Up, the manifestation of the protagonist’s heavy grief. They’re tethered to this half-formed memory of their father, unable to fully interact with him and let him go. I was worried that Onward was going to be the Pixar equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s and it is not.

There are some issues with the movie, nothing major, but enough to make it feel under developed, especially in comparison to the Pixar movies of past. The imagination is there, however, the world-building of this fantasy world is decidedly lacking. There are some cute asides like unicorns as the equivalent of trash-eating raccoons, but as a whole the fantasy world feels underdeveloped to its full potential. There’s a significant story point where the current world has forgotten its magic roots thanks to the ease of technology and its inoculating effects, which seems like a pretty straightforward message for our own lazy world. Again, though, Onward doesn’t dig deeper into this theme or what it could mean for the larger mythology of its own world and its history and the rules governing its magical creatures. I started to wonder whether Pixar could just have set this story anywhere.

Likewise, the supporting characters don’t amount to much and feel like leftovers from earlier drafts where they had richer involvement. The ongoing subplot with their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) teaming up with the fabled beast-turned small business owner Manticore (Octavia Spencer) offered little other than occasional exposition. The Manticore is supposed to best represent how the new world has traded its culture and history for comforts and safety, but it’s not clearly realized and integrated. My pal Ben Bailey reflected that the Manticore seemed like a one-scene character that the filmmakers didn’t want to drop, and so she was stretched through the rest of the film to diminished returns. The last act has a sudden and arbitrary monster to defeat that feels like the kind of thing expected in these sorts of movies, which is a rarity for Pixar and thus a slight disappointment.

Lastly, much of the humor just doesn’t work. The jokes can be stale, safe, or one-note, like a team of very tiny pixie bikers. It’s often silly without exactly being clever. There’s more fleeting visual humor with the incongruous nature of fantasy in a modern setting. There’s less slapstick than you would think considering one of the main characters lacks a torso. I chuckled a few times but, much like the fantasy setting, felt the humor was kept at an superficial level of thought.

Onward isn’t top-tier Pixar but it’s a solid mid-tier entry, an enjoyable adventure with a resonant emotional core that makes me forgive many of the film’s other aspects that don’t quite work. The brothers are the best part, their interactions are the most interesting, and their heartfelt journey and hopeful desire for closure is what ultimately left me emotionally satisfied. The jokes and world and supporting characters don’t feel as developed, but it hits with its core relationship and its emotional center, so Onward works where it counts the most with its storytelling. Mid-tier Pixar is much like mid-tier pizza — still satisfying and better than a lot of other options.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Gentlemen (2020)

I’ve been hoping, wishing, praying for Guy Ritchie to return back to his screwball Cockney crime pictures of his splashy beginning, but the further and further I get from 2001’s Snatch, the more I think it’s a luxuriously madcap exception. The Gentlemen is a closer return to form than 2008’s RocknRolla, but it’s still a long way off from early Ritchie. The recognizable elements are there, from the convoluted story with twists and turns, the non-linear storytelling lapping and overlapping itself, the comical brushes with sudden violence, the colorful array of criminal characters, and a sense of style that seems all over the place. We follow Matthew McConaughey as a marijuana titan looking to get out of the business, though there are threats old, new, and “just business” that are trying to take his empire from him before his exit. The biggest problem with The Gentlemen is how clever it feels like it needs to be and how few characters there are to find interesting. Snatch, by contrast, forever contrast, was practically a Dick Tracy rogues gallery of all its memorable and unpredictable characters. These feel pretty rote, even our heroes, and the minority characters get even shorter shrift. The plot is also more complicated than it needs to be with an extended meta-textual layer of a lecherous Hugh Grant tabloid journalist pitching the story like it was a movie (irony: it is a movie!). It took maybe 45 minutes before I felt like the story was finally picking up momentum and stakes, and by the end, it felt like Ritchie was just extending his story with another twist and wrap-up, and then another twist and wrap-up, like the outer edges of the movie cannot be contained and somehow it’s still even going. It’s like Ritchie doesn’t know when to walk away from his own party. Because of these things the pacing is wonky and there are more than a few tedious stretches. Colin Farrell has some amusing moments but should have been the main character as a boxing trainer who takes a shine to try and reform local hoodlums. McConaughey’s character is too boring and always wins too easily, which makes him more boring. The Gentlemen is a C-level rendition of Ritchie’s best material, and Snatch only shines even brighter with each new miss.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dolittle (2020)

Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Like a Boss (2020)

There’s little else as energy-zapping as a comedy fumbling for its funny, and that summarizes the disappointing Like a Boss, which is far from being boss-like. Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne star as best friends who own a makeup company together and Salma Hayek is the rich CEO who wants to buy their company and drive them apart. That’s about the story because the movie feels like it was one of those imrpov-heavy vehicles designed for the likes of a Melissa McCarthy where the scenes are barely sketched in with the assumption that the performers will discover something funny in the moment on the day of filming. Except this never happened. Like a Boss constantly feels straining, groping, struggling for any comedy from scene to scene. There isn’t one interesting comic dynamic or a set piece that felt really smartly set up and developed. There aren’t even that many set pieces outside a sequence where the ladies eat ghost peppers and cannot handle the heat. There’s one part where they destroy a drone and have to hide it. Nothing comes from this. There’s one part where the ladies are smoking a joint and it falls into a baby’s crib, and you’re waiting for the escalation, but that’s it. Nothing of consequence happens. Mostly the movie is so desperately grasping for whatever it can find to be funny, and every actor feels like they’re in a different movie. I started mentally checking out halfway through. I chuckled a few times but my dispirited sighs outnumbered them. I like Haddish. I like Byrne. I like Hayek. I like director Miguel Arteta (an unexpected Beatriz at Dinner reunion). I like that this is an R-rated comedy aimed at empowering women. The problem is it still needs to be funny. The best friends forever say how much they love one another but they’re also explaining all of their problems and solutions in exposition-heavy vomit sessions to assist the audience (“I know you’ve always have trust issues because of your mothers, and…”). For the scary boss antagonist, Hayek’s character is weirdly impotent and too easily foiled, including being upstaged at her own company’s launch party and deciding to do nothing to stop her usurpation. Like a Boss is a limp and flailing comedy that just made me sad.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Gorgeously shot and beautifully realized, The Last Black Man in San Francisco feels like a sacred hymn to a city, a past, a wayward love that is just aching with feeling. The Sundance-winning indie has such an immediate and invigorating sense of lyricism. Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) talks about the meaning his family home has, the same home he hasn’t been living in for a decade but has been returning to touch it up and hopefully take it back. Debut filmmaker Joe Talbot has created a movie on the edge of the surreal where everything feel heightened, more emotional, like a religious experience, without puncturing its core dramatic reality. We touch upon a lot of issues and themes, from gentrification and reclaiming one’s past for pride, to the identities we choose to inhabit, to friendship and the love/hate relationship one can have with their home, and each of these pulsates with meaning and fervent feeling. In many ways, this film reminds me of If Beale Street Could Talk, not just because it’s an ensemble of African-American working class figures, but because there’s a bittersweet tenderness that taps into the profound and universal that reminds me of the kind of knowing, compassionate voice of author James Baldwin. I was often spellbound by this movie, enraptured by its transporting musical score by Emile Mosseri (the best score of the year), awestruck by its dynamic photography by Adam Newport-Berra, smiling from its presentation of bizarre comic flourishes, characters with genuine personality and peculiarities, and charmed by the overall picture the movie was lovingly constructing of a personal San Francisco bursting with meaning. If there is a slight drawback it’s that too many characters remain more as sketches than fully fleshed-out beings, and too much plot emphasis is placed upon whether of not Jimme’s grandfather really built their family home as he ardently holds true. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a cinematic hymn of love to the emotional stability we designate for our homes. It’s a lovely, beautiful, deeply felt movie that washes over you in waves and is an artistic triumph for Fails, Talbot, and every set of hands that toiled on this uniquely personal ode.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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