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Thunder Force (2021)

I feel like we were just here a matter of months ago, another aimless Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle written and directed by her husband and chief enabler, Ben Falcone. With Thunder Force, McCarthy becomes an accidental superhero and that premise should be enough with this star to power a silly and amusing 90 minutes of entertainment. Once again it’s a dispiriting comedy that feels like it’s just sitting around and waiting for the performers to find something funny in their scenes and family-friendly improv ramblings. The energy of this movie is completely slack, and scenes feel adrift, lacking proper direction or purpose. The whole movie feels gassed and grasping. It takes 45 minutes for McCarthy to train to be a hero and sometimes there just aren’t jokes. Take one instance where McCarthy literally throws a bus, a point strangely referred to multiple times earlier as a setup for this long-desired moment, and then under Falcone’s uninspired direction we don’t even see the messy results. We don’t even see the bus crashing into, like, an orphanage or something that would provide an actual punchline. The comedy malpractice can be staggering. It’s the kind of movie that resorts to characterization where everything is clumsily reported to us, like, “You’ve always been this way since…” The chemistry between McCarthy and Octavia Spencer (The Witches) is lukewarm at best for these longtime friends. The buddy comedy doesn’t even seem like it was developed beyond its initial pitch. The shining light of this movie is easily Jason Bateman (Ozark), who plays a crab-armed mutant criminal that becomes an improbable romantic suitor for McCarthy’s character. If there is anything that made me laugh, it was related to this character (and an ordinary henchman named Andrew who may or may not be targeted as the next to get killed by his evil boss played by Bobby Cannavale). I even loved the simple image of Bateman crab walking off screen with his arms in the air. The sheer weirdness is enough to make you realize what potential could have been tapped with this super premise and with McCarthy, who can be so charming and disarming when she gives into her odd impulses. Just give me a full movie where a middle-aged superwoman tries to make a relationship with a crab-man super villain work. I wish that Thunder Force had more courage to chase its weird rather than settle, time and again, as an action comedy that is middling with its action and middling with its comedy. I think I had more fun with 2020’s Super Intelligence, another mediocre Falcone collaboration.

Nate’s Grade: C

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released April 20, 2001:

The beauty of Tom Green (if you’ll call it such) works in the realm of television. His bizarre humor and meddling nuisance on the streets worked in a “Can’t believe he’s doing this” way. He thrives in this environment where he can wreck havoc amongst the unknowing. Take him out of this environment into a scripted venture where people are acting against him, and the reality is killed along with why it was funny in the first place. It’s not so much funny that Tom Green can hump dead animals on camera, it’s funny that he’ll do it in front of bystanders.

As it stands, Freddy Got Fingered is plot-less. It is basically Green doing one weird and bizarre antic after another with little relation to anything. It’s basically a meandering mess, almost like an abstract artist’s work if that artist were insane. Freddy Got Fingered is Green’s attempt at cinematic gross-out stardom. Sure, he does things that would be considered in poor taste but they are scripted and lose their appeal. Green guts an animal and wears its skin like a poncho, he bites the umbilical cord, he even eroticizes a horse and aids in its… release. But all the charm is gone when it’s Green just doing zany things in a closed environment. What is the fun of seeing people do scripted reactions to Green’s antics? He needs to be in the real world, he needs to piss people off, he NEEDS reality. A movie will do no justice to Tom Green and this one surely does not.

Nate’s Grade: F

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Freddy Got Fingered was comedian Tom Green’s only movie that he ever wrote and/or directed. It was his only starring vehicle after several relatively memorable supporting roles in 2000 movies like Charlie’s Angels and Road Trip. It was the most creative freedom and the biggest budget that the absurdist provocateur who began on Canadian public access and became an MTV star would ever earn. When it was released in the spring of 2001, Green was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly with the headline, “The New King of Comedy.” It all feels like another world, like a half-remembered memory, like looking at an old photo of yourself in a hairstyle that makes you cringe today, and you say, “Oh yeah, that was a popular thing… for some godforsaken reason.” In some ways, Green trail-blazed the idiosyncratic, anti-humor brand of fringe comedy that found a welcomed cult following from Adult Swim and Internet culture. He seems ahead of his time in some ways and yet also completely out of time today. It’s hard to imagine a comedian like Green having the same sort of zeitgeist-tapping reach he had during his MTV talk show where he would test the patience of strangers and harass his saintly parents. His shtick was being weird and confrontational and reminded people of the legendary Andy Kaufman (I too question whether Kaufman could thrive in today’s irony-saturated new media environment). Green was unabashedly different and during the turn of the century felt potentially exciting and new, and then he quickly wore out his welcome when we all realized there wasn’t really a joke behind the joke. Sometimes a guy yelling the same word repeatedly is just an unfunny lunatic who shouldn’t be given a preposterous $14 million dollar budget to splurge.

Judging by the critical reception of Freddy Got Fingered, you would think Green had committed a cinematic hate crime. Roger Ebert wrote, “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.” Variety wrote, “One of the most brutally awful comedies to ever emerge from a major studio.” The Washington Post called it a “horror film.” The New York Post claimed it qualified as “cruel and unusual punishment.” The most wincing take came from The Austin Chronicle, which wrote, “Green, who looks like a chinless, hollow-eyed pederast at the best of times, is simply out of his league here.” It won five Razzie Awards including Worst Film, Worst Actor, and Worst Director, all of which Green appeared in person to accept, where he then delivered a kazoo performance so long that they literally had to pull him off the stage. The fact that Freddy Got Fingered has developed a mild cult following in the years since and been hailed as a Dada-esque experimental comedy. Some have theorized that it was all one big joke on the studio. I don’t know. That reclamation seems like projection for larger meaning that Green typically eschews. I cannot tell if he is deliberately trying to make a good bad movie or a bad good movie. Either way, twenty years later, Freddy Got Fingered is the same regrettably noxious and obnoxious experiment it was back in 2001.

It’s hard to classify the 87 odd minutes as a movie. It’s relatively plot-less and hung together on the flimsy premise of 28-year-old man-child Gord (Green) wanting to become an animator with his cartoons. There’s nothing that would be classified as characterization or arcs. In fact, very little has relevance beyond the immediacy. It’s a movie of inconsequential ephemera. Comedies are built upon subversion but also the reliable setup-payoff development. There are some running jokes here, notably a small child who continuously gets viciously hurt. I don’t exactly know what the joke is here because the suffering is so accentuated, like the kid spitting a mouthful of blood. There’s another character, a friend of Gord’s, who has the exact same running joke, where he too keeps suffering calamitous injuries, and that’s all he provides. Why have two supporting characters who only serve to be butts of the exact same kind of joke? It’s redundant. The closest thing the film has to a character arc literally involves Gord beginning the movie, at minute seven mind you, by masturbating a horse, and it concludes with Gord masturbating an elephant. He did transition to a larger animal to manually masturbate over the course of those 87 arduous minutes.

No one was expecting anything resembling high art for Green’s filmmaking debut, but one would hope for more than a vapid gross-out vomitorium. I’ve written it several times before but there’s a distinct difference between gross-out and gross-out humor. Take that opening moment where Gord literally leaps out of his car to run over to a horse and touch its wobbling member. He excitedly shakes it and screams, “Look at me now, daddy,” but his father, played by Emmy and Oscar-nominated actor Rip Torn (Men in Black, The Larry Sanders Show), is nowhere. What is the joke here? What is the context for this to be funny rather than off-putting? What is the context for humor when Gord skins a dead deer and wears its pelt, gyrating on the ground and muttering to himself? What is the context for humor where Gord delivers a woman’s baby, bites the umbilical cord with his own teeth, swings the newborn baby around the room, and then tapes the umbilical cord to his own belly and when his date finds it he says, offhandedly, “It’s just for fun”? For much of the protracted, punishing runtime, there simply are not jokes. There are bizarre antics that might make you retch or cover your eyes but there aren’t actual jokes. Seeing Gord dressed in a scuba outfit in the shower isn’t a joke. Seeing Gord dress his clothes backwards and repeatedly hum, “The backwards man,” isn’t a joke. Seeing Gord wave a sausage around his own genitals isn’t a joke. Having the female love interest, Betty (Marissa Coughlin), plead with Gord to violently strike her paralyzed legs with a bamboo rod until she climaxes isn’t a joke. These are ideas, at best, and lacking any suitable comedic legwork. It’s like a Mad Libs scenario that wasn’t completed. It feels like Green might be aware of his own comedy shortcomings so he just structured his movie with tiresome and nauseating asides.

Gord is also a thoroughly repulsive human being. He is the villain of this dreadful movie, the cause of mass suffering and annoyance for every lost soul stuck in the purgatory of interacting with this cretin. I don’t know Green’s level of self-awareness with anything he does. Does he view the character of Gord as a lovable underdog seeking out his dreams? Does he view Gord as a hero in a world of compromise and conformity? Gord is a despicable human being that only lives to torment and harass those around him. The very beginning of the movie Gord’s family warmly greets him, gives him a new car, and wish him well as he heads to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams. What a bunch of irredeemable assholes, right? His father is Gord’s biggest antagonist throughout and yet you feel the old man is justified in his reoccurring anger and disappointment. His son is a dangerous lunatic. At one point, Gord blithely accuses his father of molesting his adult brother Freddy (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and, for whatever reason, the state takes this man’s word as gospel (this is where the title even comes from). The brother is thrown into foster care, his mother leaves his father, and this is never resolved. The story wants to have a late father-son reconciliation, right after the father is literally blasted with elephant semen, and is the joke that something so inconceivable is even being attempted under the ridiculous circumstances? I found myself often sympathizing with the father and with Torn the actor, both of whom had to put up with so much nonsense. He’s the persistent foil for Gord and Green’s persistent madness and watching him pull his pants down and scream at his son to live up to his words and assault him just made me feel sad. This whole movie made me feel depressed for everyone onscreen and for the many indie movies that could have been birthed from Green’s $14 million budget. When the executives read the finished script, if there was an actual script, what exactly won their approval? Was it the torrential elephant semen?

Freddie Got Fingered is less a movie than an endurance test. If you considered yourself a nominal fan of Green’s TV antics, maybe there was some appeal. If you’re a fan of the bizarre, maybe there was some appeal. If you’re a fan of an artist possibly sticking it to his studio bosses, maybe there was some appeal. I didn’t see the appeal in 2001 and I still don’t see the appeal to this day. My initial review was more charitable for a film that eventually earned my Worst of the Year title. Back in my teenage days, I was a fan of Green and even taped his show on MTV. I enjoyed the awkward discomfort he forced upon others in his interviews and pranks, but when you place that in a scripted realm, it just becomes excess upon excess, finding new ways to sink to new bottoms. I think it was only a matter of time for Green’s merry prankster shtick to grow tired. Repeating a word 100 times doesn’t seem to make it funnier (Family Guy seems to have taken the wrong notes). One interview with Martin Short just amounted to Green putting bacon strips on his head. Watch enough of the man in his element and you begin to realize the emperor has no clothes. There isn’t really a point to anything, and if that’s the point, in a torturous Dada explanation, then why even bother making any art at all? Freddie Got Fingered is no unfairly maligned, misunderstood masterpiece, no daring act of performance art. It’s unparalleled self-indulgence from an artist that had nothing to say and nothing to do even at the height of his career.

Re-View Grade: F

Plug: Check out the “Saturday Night Jive” podcast, recorded in 2015, where my pals Ben and George try and make any sense of this movie. It’s a good listen, much funnier than Green’s movie, and I agreed with all major points.

Slaxx (2020)

You would imagine a movie about a possessed pair of pants would be outrageously entertaining, and yet the Canadian horror comedy Slaxx is too stretched out and made from conflicting material. This movie needed to be more… something; more ridiculous, more exploitative, more gory and over-the-top, more satirical. It feels like a lost Tales From the Crypt episode that is over-extended and repeating the same points and carnage over and over. The haunted pants are unleashing a trail of vengeance against a department store’s employees one long night before a social media star makes an special live appearance. The kills are bloody without being very memorable or clever given the unique circumstances of the monster. Much of the gore is done off-screen as well, denying one more potential point of appeal for a movie that is supposed to be crazy. I found the movie and its social commentary to be rather tame and limited, which meant I was watching the same annoying, one-note joke supporting characters repeat the same abrasive activities and points. It got so redundant, and without really outrageous kills, that I just became bored as the movie dithered. The jeans are haunted by the victims of overseas child labor, and the serious points about labor exploitation are undercut by the goofy asides, like the pants dancing a Bollywood jig from unseen puppeteers (the highlight of the movie). By the time it concludes at the 70-minute mark, Slaxx feels like it’s been creatively gasping for some time. It’s not scary. It’s not really funny. It’s not gross. It’s not crazy enough. It’s just a killer jeans movie that could have been condensed down into an entertaining short film of fifteen minutes max. As a feature, Slaxx is slack.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)

Reader, I love time loop movies and their very playful nature of storytelling that allows for plenty of payoffs and creativity and inherent pathos of being stuck reliving life experiences. Palm Springs was my second favorite movie of 2020, so how soon am I ready for yet another time loop romantic comedy, this time from a very Young Adult perspective and with an overly precious title? The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is very much a time loop formula by heavy amounts of YA twee whimsy and worldly lessons. It’s charming, witty, predictable, and maybe a little too content, much like its central characters, to meander when there was more meaning to explore.

17-year-old Mark (Kyle Allen) lives in a small town and is stuck in a time loop living the same day over and over. He argues with his younger sister, rolls his eyes at his out-of-work father’s Civil War novel he’s devoted to writing, and skateboarding around town and skipping school. His buddy Henry is stuck on the same video game level, his mom leaves for work before he wakes up, and every night his father tries to talk to Mark about what he wants to do with a future that he will never see. Then Mark meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton) who appears to be aware of the same loop. Now he has a partner and together they have fun being mischievous in a world where people are eternally asleep and unaware, a world without larger consequence.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is an immediately entertaining movie that glides by on charm and cuteness before bringing the heavier emotional catharsis we know is coming. Kyle’s daily routine is reminiscent of the beginning of Palm Springs (for fairness, I’ll try to refrain from making comparisons at every turn) where we see the breadth of the man’s knowledge and implication of how long he’s had to accrue this god-like understanding of timed events. It’s fun to watch Mark push a man out of the way before getting pooped on by a bird, or catch a falling book in the library, or know the answer before a person can even ask their question. The movie takes a while to fully get going but it keeps entertaining you in the meantime with these pleasant quirks. This is indicative throughout the movie. Even when the plot is just coasting, screenwriter Lev Grossman (adapting from his own short story) keeps things swift and entertaining. There’s a montage of Mark getting awful haircuts and sending pictures to Margaret, and then lamenting maybe they can meet up the next day instead once his hair resets. The script is packed with quick-witted jokes and fun visuals that it can return to for elevated and imaginative payoffs. Each side character has their own sustained loop and checking in on each is a reminder that they all have their own little universe of struggle and desire and despair. It’s one of those benefits of time loop movies; they are like getting 32 flavors of stories in one delicious 90-minute serving.

Just like Palm Springs (I lied), the big plot change comes with the discovery of a partner also re-living the same day in infinity. From there, the story becomes a very standard YA romance but set in an extraordinary setting. Margaret doesn’t qualify as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but she is more blunt, assertive, and seeking out a deeper meaning for their shared purgatory. She’s not the quirky free spirit we associate with the type. She’s more goal-oriented and literal than Mark, and she even takes on teaching him algebra. Once the love interest is introduced, the movie starts a countdown clock for how long it will take for a romance to kindle. Mark is clearly lonely and we see his failed attempt to spark up a potential romance with another girl who will forever be trapped in, at best, a first date mentality. You can’t build a relationship when everyone else only has 24 hours unless it’s like Before Sunrise. Margaret expresses a deep reluctance about anything going beyond the platonic, especially if she and Mark are the only two humans in this “temporal anomaly” for a potential eternity. Just imagine a failed relationship with a co-worker and having to uncomfortably mingle at the same job for years. Mark, being the headstrong young lad in a YA drama, is certain he can win her over in the long run and that his feelings must be true and therefore honored. Since the movie is being told from his perspective, his yearning is given primacy and it makes for an uncomfortable arc.

But it’s the last act of the movie where the larger emotional connection takes root and where the actual life lessons are to be had. This is not a movie about stopping to enjoy the little things in life that otherwise might go ignored. That element is present, and the subsequent scavenger hunt across town to catalogue all the cute little moments of humanity and nature dominates Act Two. It’s a cute little premise and something we’ve seen in countless other YA tales, finding the hidden beauty right under our noses in our lives. The message is clear and fine, but it’s what takes place toward the end where The Map of Tiny Perfect Things takes off from its YA orbital decay of preciousness. If you’ve watched enough movies, you should likely start to guess where Margaret disappears every day after six o’clock and what secrets she may be hiding. I won’t spoil what is revealed but I was waiting for Mark to wise up as quickly as I did. He does, and the movie takes on a transformation toward the end that changes perspective, weight, and even provides a little subversion on the previous male gaze that was our primary filter. The end provides a satisfying enough conclusion that examines the nature of grief and processing. The way the secret design of this universe is discovered is slight and ridiculous, but it doesn’t take away from the movie successfully landing the most difficult part of its emotional journey.

It also helps that both of our leads have great chemistry and are genuinely likeable. Allen (All My Life) has a laid-back presence that fits nicely with the genial vibes of the movie. He’s funny without being obnoxious and emotive without being melodramatic. He starts off sardonic and flip but becomes more earnest as his character learns to stop and listen and invest in others. Newton (Freaky) is enjoyably no-nonsense without being prickly. Margaret is a character with layers and ultimately, you’ll wish the movie had been retold from her point of view from the very beginning. There’s a reason for this, but there’s much more depth and sadness to Margaret. Still, even just hanging out with them as they observe the day, share their stories and discoveries, and pop-culture-heavy banter back and forth is entertaining because the writing and acting carry the day.

What holds The Map of Tiny Perfect Things back is that it never really goes into larger questions of self, identity, and the existential conundrum of at once being the center of a universe with limitless time and being unable to move forward. It feels a bit too content to stay on a lower level and dust off many familiar YA tropes to have a diverting good time. That’s fine, though in direct comparison to something like Palm Springs (my apologies), it can feel lacking. Think about Mark’s inability to see his mother again and how that unique circumstance forms its own loss. More attention to these details would have been preferred than on-the-nose pop-culture references and deep cuts for hipster points. It’s a good cheerful time with plenty of wry amusement and some well-earned emotions, but it also feels a little too content to simply hang around and follow the YA map for programmed spiritual affirmation. It manages to subvert the quirky-girl-shows-guy-how-to-carpe-his-diem formula, but that’s not before devoting plenty of time walking the same walk for a little longer than needed. If you’re a fan of time loop parables, YA stories, or unconventional rom-coms, check out The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and then, maybe, if you haven’t already, also Palm Springs.

Nate’s Grade: B

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

A straight shot of infectious silliness, Barb and Star is a delightfully daffy comedy that is so pleasant and knowingly goofy, without being annoyingly self-conscious, that it flies by on that elevated level of artistic irony that few films seem capable of mastering. Written by its lead actresses, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the movie follows two talky and cheerful best friends traveling to Florida for fun and frivolity and finding themselves in the middle of a ridiculous spy adventure with a James Bond-level villain and scheme. Barb and Star is ridiculous from beginning to end and also ridiculously funny. I was laughing consistently and had a smile plastered on my face for the majority of the running time. It’s so unabashedly silly and light-hearted and while it doesn’t talk down to its audience it also never takes itself too serious either. It’s high-grade fluff, but if you’re a fan of the sublimely silly kind of comedy from the likes of David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together) then you’ll find plenty to enjoy. The consistency of this very narrow and congenial tone, while maintaining an ironic wavelength that is so specific, and so easy to miss, is just an impressive comedy accomplishment. I was tickled by a plurality of musical numbers, including one by Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) pining for his supervillain boss (also played by Wiig) who is clearly just not into him. Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is colorful, cheerful, and unabashedly goofy and so finely executed that I never needed it to be anything more.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

I wanted to love Willy’s Wonderland. It’s easy to see the pitch: Nicolas Cage in Five Nights at Freddy’s. That sounds like everything you would need for a gonzo movie experience with, hopefully, an unrestrained Cage. The problem with Willy’s Wonderland is that it seems to have peaked at its inception. I’ll credit the creature designs of the many killer animatronic animals inhabited by the spirits of a dead Satanic cult demanding sacrifice. They’re chintzy and creepy and effective in their Chuck E. Cheese/Freddy’s reference points. However, the movie clearly appears to be out of ideas pretty early. Cage plays a janitor hoodwinked into working overnight at the abandoned pizza parlor and he doesn’t say a word for the entire movie. For those looking for the splendidly crazy moments that can define Nicolas Cage performances, I think you’ll be slightly disappointed. The character has a few quirks, like his surprisingly ironclad work ethic, but the character is just as underwritten, absent personality, and replaceable as any of the killer robots. For a movie where Cage fights a bunch of bloodthirsty robots, it starts to get a little boring because of the narrative redundancy. Toppling one robot after another feels too easy and the specific set pieces are unmemorable. There are a slew of highly annoying teenagers that stumble in so there are more victims to be terrorized. In one moment, these teens will denounce doing stupid acts and the unreasonable risk, and then the next minute they’re splitting up to go have sex in the scary birthday room or murder and not keeping their distance from the murder robots they know are alive and murderous. If the movie was more satirical, I might even give the filmmakers credit for the dumb teenagers reverting to form regardless of obvious circumstances. My disappointment is that what you get with any ten-minute segment of the movie is generally the same thing you’ll get with any other portion. It’s a lot of the same. Is that consistency or a lack of development and imagination? The movie still presents some degree of fun because that premise is enough to at least hold your attention if you’re a fan of horror, Cageisms, and movie kitsch. However, Willy’s Wonderland could have used more drafts and variety to really tap into the sheer gonzo potential of its ridiculous pitch.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Witches (2020)

Rare is the Hollywood movie where the biggest question afterwards is simply, “What in the world were all these talented people thinking?” Why did Robert Zemeckis want to remake The Witches after a perfectly good and eerie 1990 movie starring Anjelica Huston? Why did the screenplay adjust the action to be set during a segregationist South without any added social commentary? What exactly is Anne Hathaway, as the lead witch, even doing with an accent that sounds like she’s blindly jumping from nationality to nationality? In one second she’s Hungarian, in another she’s Scottish, in another she’s Swedish. What was with this bizarre character design for the witches that gives them dinosaur talons and one-toed clog feet and, most off-putting, extended mouths visible with slits along the sides that they don’t even bother concealing? Why does the movie keep making fun of the chubby kid at every opportunity for being chubby? Why, even in life-and-death stakes, is the chubby kid unable to stop himself from losing all willpower around food? Why does Octavia Spencer’s grandmother character sound almost exactly like a rambling Grandpa Simpson when she’s just given enough room (“So I had an onion on my belt, as it was the style of the time…”)? How could a screenplay, that includes the likes of Oscar-winner Guilermo del Toro, include lines like, “That’s the thing about snow — it’s slippery”? I was groaning throughout this movie and just beside myself trying to make sense of the inexplicable creative decision-making on display. I also felt embarrassed for Hathaway, an actress I have enjoyed and find to be quite accomplished, who is just inhaling every piece of scenery that is not bolted down on set. It’s such a crazily misconceived performance of theatrical bombast that I felt like Zemeckis had done Hathaway wrong. This is a big hot mess of a movie and it’s so joyless.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)/ Unpregnant (2020)

Abortion is one of the most hot-button cultural issues even almost 50 years after the landmark legal case made the procedure legal in the United States. Two 2020 movies elected to normalize the topic of abortion as a healthcare option but through very different approaches.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always plays out like a horror movie but not just with the hard-hitting reality of abortion access for many in this country, it’s also a horror movie about being a teenage girl in modern America. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is 17 years old, a budding musician, and about 18 weeks pregnant with the baby of her abusive boyfriend. She’s living in small-town Pennsylvania and the closest clinic that will treat her and not require parental permission and notification is in New York City. Her best friend, Skyler (Talia Ryder), steals a stash of cash from their supermarket job and books bus tickets to the big city. They travel on their own without informing their parents. However, the two girls must run around the city to jump through bureaucratic hoops while their dwindling money supply makes their options more desperate.

The movie is steeped in realism, which at different points comes across as an indictment on the burdens placed upon young women, but it’s also an understated case that wants to preach through its actions rather than any hokey soap box moments. Writer/director Eliza Hitman keeps things simple and to the bone for her narrative. We follow Autumn sneak out and try and get an abortion, only to have to wait longer and longer, with no place to stay overnight in a city she and her friend are unfamiliar with. I was fearing for both Autumn and Skyler as their stay increased and their money supply decreased. Just about every man depicted onscreen has an ulterior motive. Autumn’s boyfriend is controlling and abusive (inspiring a song Autumn performs for a school talent show in the opening scene). The supermarket boss insists on kissing the girls’ hands when they turn in their registers at the end of their shift. The creepy guy on the bus clearly has his sights set on Skyler. The guy on the subway just starts masturbating while staring at them. Being alone, far from home, and limited in means and transportation, you feel an overwhelming dread that something bad is going to happen to these two girls and it will be at the hands of men. They are victimized in small ways and large throughout their very existence. This dread does not go away until the very end of the movie. Skyler walks away to make some risky choices to earn needed money, and it’s not exaggerated but you do worry you may never see her again. Surely, many will reflect, it shouldn’t be this arduous for women to seek legal medical procedures, and when mostly-male legislators create extra burdens, it pushes desperate people into danger. At no point does anyone opine about body autonomy or anything overtly political. However, the movie’s entire function is to demonstrate these undue burdens.

Flanigan has been getting serious Oscar buzz for her performance and deservedly so. Autumn is definitely intended to be a relatable representation for many women going through similar struggles. Much of the performance relies upon her guarded acting through a veil of emotional detachment. She’s been ground down by her small town, by her family, by her abusive boyfriend and his jerk friends, and this can make her seem like a numb zombie at points. Autumn isn’t, though, she’s just trying to stay afloat from trauma and anxiety eating away at her. Flanigan has a quiet strength to her that keeps you pinned to the screen. She does have one standout scene that I’m sure would be her Oscar clip. At one New York clinic, an employee runs through a standard questionnaire (where the film gets its title from) and hits upon whether Autumn has been coerced into sex she didn’t want to have, and that’s when the emotions of Flanigan’s performance break through, her eyes welling with tears, her inability to answer while still answering. The off-screen employee recognizes the confirmations and responds with adept compassion. With that you also can glean how many times this clinic employee has heard these same gut-wrenching responses.

Beyond being a dread-filled horror movie of discomfort, Never Rarely Sometimes Always also becomes an unexpectedly touching movie about the great lengths that friends will go for one another. While there aren’t extensive conversations about how much they love one another, the actions speak for themselves, much like the rest of the understated movie. It’s Skyler who takes the lead in putting together this journey, keeping track of their progress, and eventually doing what needs to be done to gain money to go home. Both Skyler and Autumn support one another and rely upon one another and will go the extra mile for one another. A hand held tightly can be all the confirmation we need of their love and friendship during the most trying of times.

Unpregnant is easily the more entertaining and light-hearted of the 2020 abortion movies, using a raucous road trip of misadventures to reform the friendship of two high school girls. While applying a lighter touch (it is, after all, titled Unpregnant) it doesn’t trivialize the experiences of those making these choices. Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is 17 years old, the valedictorian, and 6 weeks pregnant, Her lousy X-Games-aspiring boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) thinks it means they’re meant to be together forever. Veronica is mortified and certain she’s not ready to be a mother, let alone having Kevin’s baby. She’s afraid to tell her parents, her snooty friends at school, and so the only ally she can find is the outcast Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a former friend with access to a working car. They must travel from Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico to find the nearest state and clinic without first requiring parental permission and notification.

Unpregnant is very much a road trip movie with the assorted mishaps along the way pushing the two teens together and reminiscing about how close they used to be as friends until going down separate paths in high school. Naturally, the formula calls for them to each confront their own personal demons, assert themselves, and reconcile, and it happens at regular pit stops, but that doesn’t mean that Unpregnant isn’t satisfying just because you suspect where it’s going. The overall comedic tone takes you off guard, at least it did for me, and it happens immediately. We’re used to movies where abortion is a central storyline being heavy and depressing (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), and when they do go for some degree of comedy, it’s usually quite dark (HBO’s Girls) or satirical (Citizen Ruth). Unpregnant lets you know right from its peppy start that it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to find humor in the awkwardness. It’s also okay to assess choices relating to an unplanned pregnancy without the stigma of shame or guilt. The movie doesn’t downplay the character’s dilemma, but instead of the conflict being whether she will keep the baby or not, the crux of conflict is, much like Never Rarely Always Sometimes, on equitable access to abortion services. Whereas that Sundance drama overwhelms with dedication to its real-life hardships and hurdles, Unpregnant chooses to take on these same hurdles with incredulous defiance and an F-you attitude that still feels political but aligned with its tone.

All road trips are dependent upon the co-pilots, and Unpregnant is an infectiously enjoyable experience spending time with Veronica and Bailey bantering and ultimately reconnecting. They are fun, and despite the circumstances that make this movie’s plot, they still find ways to have fun with one another. There’s an easy affection for one another that warms your heart. They clearly care about one another and watching them reunite and grow in their admiration for one another makes me like them even more. With any road trip movie, you must enjoy the people you’re stuck with. I appreciated both making amends of their past, why they fell out as friends, and what moments shaped each into being the headstrong woman they are today. Bailey uses this opportunity to try and reconnect with her absentee father. Veronica uses it to test her boundaries of what she felt needed sacrificing to stay on her master plan of academic success. Their kinship reminded me of Booksmart. The chemistry is so good, the dialogue snappy without being self-conscious, and the big dramatic moments nicely felt without being cloying, that Richardson (Split) and Ferreira (TV’s Euphoria) really feel like amusing best friends.

As per road trip comedy rules, we go from place to place getting into new hijinks. I appreciated that the mishaps don’t derail the light-hearted tone and direction even when they get broad. The girls become potential criminals when Bailey confesses their getaway vehicle might belong to her mom’s boyfriend and she might not have gotten his permission. This raises the stakes while still keeping things fun and feisty. A pit stop in Texas turns into a suspense thriller parody as the girls discover the kindly couple giving them a ride might be religious zealots who won’t let them leave. This leads to a wacky chase scene that ends in a hasty faked death and trying to jump onto a speeding train like “old timey hobos.” There’s also a running gag where Kevin keeps resurfacing, not exactly taking no for an answer, and arguing his nice guy credentials that aren’t being as respected as he deems necessary. For those worrying out there, Unpregnant does not condemn all men in this heightened universe or look upon them with dark suspicion.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that Veronica does, in fact, get to her appointment and have an abortion. I also think its noteworthy how this is portrayed and its aftermath. She’s lead through the different steps of the procedure with the calm instruction from an empathetic nurse, they don’t sensationalize any of the medical realities, and afterwards Veronica comes back home and has a heart-to-heart with her mother who, while admitting she would not make the same choice, still emphatically confirms her love for her daughter. Veronica also admits that she feels like she should feel bad or ashamed or guilty and she doesn’t. She feels relieved, she feels deep down that she made the right call. Never Rarely Sometimes Always covers this same ground with level-headed clarity but I think there’s something extra appreciative for Unpregnant. Between the two, this is going to be the more widely viewed film. Its very ambition is to be a crowd-pleasing road trip comedy built upon the bond of female friendship. I would expect an indie drama to try and normalize abortion, but it’s another thing when a light-hearted and readily accessible comedy (it’s PG-13!) has the sensitivity to normalize abortion. Many viewers will find this approach refreshing and helpful. The topic of abortion should never be made flippant but it doesn’t need to be a condemnation of inevitable ruination and regret either.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a hard-hitting drama that’s understated, realistic, compelling, but also a little too numbing. It’s quite artistic and empathetic and yet it can also be quite grueling to endure. I was wincing when Autumn felt the need to batter her own pregnant stomach. It’s more than effective but also sometimes its understatement can be a hindrance. On the complete other end of the tone spectrum is Unpregnant, a funny and entertaining road trip that doesn’t dismiss the certainty of its female characters and their choices. Both movies are worthy of being viewed and will leave an impression and could change some hearts and minds on the subject of abortion if those same people are willing to listen. I just found one film to be more generally entertaining.

Nate’s Grades:

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: B

Unpregnant: B+

Soul (2020)

I needed to watch Soul twice before I fully processed how I felt about it. Pixar’s latest animated wonder follows a New York City music teacher named Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who goes into a coma right before his big break playing for a jazz legend. He’s transformed into a cuddly little blue tuft of cloud creature and informed his soul is ready for The Great Beyond. In a nod to Heaven Can Wait, Joe indignantly fights his way back to Earth to reclaim a life he felt was just now getting on track. His ticket back to Earth is through mentoring a surly, pessimistic young soul 22 (Tina Fey) that nobody seems able to reach, even Mother Theresa. Early on, there are two very clear realizations. First, Soul is beautiful to look at and very weird and art deco with its character designs in its spiritual realms. Second, the world building and rules of this special world are quite convoluted. Unlike Inside Out where you were dropped into a new world and all the parts added up with a sense of logic, the spirit world and especially the process of how baby souls become what they are seems hazy and arbitrary and not fully articulated. This confusing world building also includes the idea of people “being in the zone,” lost souls wandering the land as lumbering monsters, and a traveling group of mystics that can meditate their way into this higher plane of existence. That’s even before a second act trip back to Earth that reminded me of Brave and leaned into slapstick and comical misunderstandings. There is a soul guardian on the hunt for Joe to keep things back in order, though the consequences of a soul count being out of whack are never explained. I thought this antagonist character was going to amount to much more but is mostly forgotten. Where Soul succeeds is with its heart about people trying to find their spark, that special something that lifts their spirits and makes them who they are, and I think it’s an important lesson that it’s not the same as a purpose. The comedy banter between Foxx and Fey is solid and there are some funny sequences and a few gags that impressed for going the extra mile. I was interested from the opening moments but I cannot say I was terribly emotionally invested. Part of this is because the movie swiftly runs through so much world building and rule-setting in 90 minutes, partly because the character of Joe is a bit close-minded in how he designates success, and partly because the young character of 22 feels more like a sidekick than a developed supporting role. The musical score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is highly original and evocative. It was providing an emotional resonance and wonder I found missing at other points in the film. It feels very ethereal and propulsive and just new and exciting. The climactic track “Earthbound” feels so stirring and emotional and light. It’s my favorite film score of the year. Soul is a fun and imaginative movie that has some wrinkles with its world building, characterization, and delayed emotional investment, but even a second-tier Pixar movie means it’s still one of the better movies you’ll see for 2020.

Nate’s Grade: B

Freaky (2020)

A body swap movie set in a slasher universe, Freaky is a fun and gory romp that still feels like it could have been even more entertaining with the possibility of its premise. A masked serial killer (Vince Vaughn) stabs a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) with a magic Mayan knife and they swap places and must learn to cope in their new bodies and roles. The teen-in-adult body is wonderfully played by Vaughn, who seems to be really enjoying himself with a silly role that pushes him outside his smooth-talking leading man roles. He might be playing up the girlishness and higher-pitched voice but his energy level is high and provides plenty of entertainment with the absurdity. There are a few inspired moments developed from the crazy premise, like when Vaughn has a heart-to-heart with his/her mother at work, able to offer insight into the daughter she feels she is failing, and the mother becomes romantically intrigued by this mysterious man. There is a first kiss sequence in the backseat of a car that is so awkward but owns its outrageous quality. I wish the movie from co-writer/director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) made better use of its fruitful premise. There are so many more bizarre scenarios that could be gleaned here, especially if the masked serial killer had more of a personality. Clearly modeled after the silent stalkers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, this makes the film feel too one-sided with ideas. Sure the teenage girl is now to be feared, dresses sharper, and kills her high school annoyances, but it doesn’t make for much of a creative cat-and-mouse game when it comes to outsmarting the original owner of this new body. I will also champion the gory kill scenes as above average in their conception and execution. It’s really over-the-top and memorable and I wish there had been even more wild splatter. Freaky is a decidedly fun movie from the Blumhouse assembly line but I can’t help wishing it was a little bit funnier, a little bit weirder, and little bit more imaginative. The parts were there to make this hilarious and brilliantly creative, and settling for chuckles and disposable entertainment feels like a nagging compromise.

Nate’s Grade: B

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