The reason we typically watch crime/action movies is for the slick style, the gonzo action, and the over-the-top characters cutting loose in the most violent of manners. We watch these movies to capture that whiff of cool, something flashy and entertaining with its eye-popping combo of sight and sound. Think Snatch, and Drive, and Atomic Blonde, and what appears to be the upcoming James Gunn Suicide Squad sequel. By these standards of stylized violence and colorful anti-heroes, Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake falls too flat to be duly satisfying.
Sam (Karen Gillan) is a hired killer working for the secretive order, The Firm. Her handler (Paul Giamatti) has accidentally assigned her the son of a commanding mobster who now demands vengeance. Her lone way to keep the protection of her employers is to kill a man who robbed them, which she does, but then regrets her actions. The troubled man had stolen the money to pay the kidnappers ransoming his daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam decides to get involved and save this girl, and in doing so loses protection. The scornful mobster sends teams of goons to track Sam and kill her, forcing her to find refuge with her absentee mother (Lena Headey).
The problem with playing in this stylized sandbox is having little to back up the attitude and style. Admittedly, those two aspects go far in a sub-genre dominated by appearances, but if you just have tough-looking shells of characters posturing and acting tough, it doesn’t matter how much style you dump onto the screen, it will only distract for only so long. The characters in Gunpowder Milkshake are so powerfully bland and all adhere to the same lone character trait. They’re all glib and badass and brusque and smug and fairly boring. It’s like somebody took the John Wick universe of clandestine killers and copied and pasted the same default personality.
If everyone is super cool, and super deadly, and super nonchalant, then you need to put even more work into making the characters stand apart. They’ll need specific quirks, competing goals, faults and obsessions, some key nub of characterization even if its superficial (a guy with one eye he’s insecure about it, etc.). With Gunpowder Milkshake, there’s nothing to work with. The screenwriters made this so much harder on themselves. I guess we’re merely supposed to be won over by the casting and the imagery of these bad ladies holding powerful weaponry. The protagonist is boring. She is the familiar hired killer who grows an inconvenient conscience. That’s an acceptable starting point but the moral growth is hindered when her young charge, the little girl that forces her paradigm shift, wants to be her apprentice to learn to kill people. The fraught mother/daughter relationship resorts to a lot of “I didn’t want this life for you,” “It’s the only life I’ve known” roundabout conversations, and neither furthers our understanding of either side.
With all that being said, there are moments of bloody fun that can be enjoyed. There’s a middle portion of the movie that gave me hope the film had transformed. At one point, Sam is indisposed and unable to use her arms, which dangle without any muscle control. She’s about to be beset by angry if bruised bad guys and must plan what to do. The resulting clash is a burst of creative choreography and an excellent demonstration of Sam’s resourcefulness and drive. Watching her dispatch a dozen armed men so indifferently, always knowing where and when to turn and dodge is not nearly as entertaining or engaging as watching her struggle and solve a problem. This sequence is extended and makes clever use of its location and the elements that would be available. Then we go a step further, as Sam and her youngster must drive a car to flee except the uncontrollable arm problem persists. Sam will pump the pedals and give directions while Emily sits on her lap and turns the steering wheel. This made me excited. We had organic complications and potential solutions that involved both characters having to rely upon one another. That is solid screenwriting and finding a way to spice up an ordinary parking garage chase sequence. By the end of this sequence, my hopes started to dwindle because Sam reverted to her earlier super cool, impervious version. She knew every exact move to make, and the small-scale car chase started losing my interest even with the extra driving dynamic. I wish the filmmakers could analyze how these sequences differed to better harness that creative surge.
The concluding act of Gunpowder Milkshake is a deluge of false climaxes and waves of bad guys that never pose any discernible threat. It all feels too repetitive and like a video game. This group of people need to be killed, and then this next group of people need to be killed, and then this next next group of people need to be killed, and I just started getting bored. There is the occasional fun burst of violence and style, but the enemies are stock and dispensable, so it doesn’t feel like it matters what the numbers are. Whether it’s a dozen or a thousand, nothing really seems to matter because our super team of badass women will never be stopped. If you’re going to establish the protagonists as so far ahead of their competition, then work needs to be done to provide another outlet for audience interest. Use that time to explore the peculiarities of the cracked-universe world, like in the John Wick franchise. Use that time to meaningfully push the characters toward personal confrontations with one another. Alas, it’s all slapdash style with the same dead-eyed cool stare from start to finish (with the noted exception above). The entire final act could have been five minutes or fifty. It’s filler violence until the director tires out.
The cast is blameless and eminently watchable. I’ve been a fan of Gillan’s since her early Doctor Who days, and it’s been fun to watch her come into her own with the major spotlight afforded from franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. She’s more than capable of kicking ass and looking cool doing so but this is the thinnest of characters. Once Sam chooses to put her safety at risk to save an innocent girl, it’s the end of her character growth. I suppose you can argue everything she does from there further proves the lengths she will go to solidify this important choice. Gillan deserves a worthy star vehicle. It’s fun to watch Angela Bassett, Michell Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Headey push back with a grin against the misogyny of the overconfident wicked men who wish to do them harm. I wish they were better integrated into the world to have more significance other than as old allies who double as a weapons depot. There’s only so many guns-in-books jokes you can have before it too feels overdone.
For fans of stylized violence, there may be enough cooking with Gunpowder Milkshake to meet out its near two-hour investment. The neon-infused, candy-colored production design and cinematography can enliven moments. The actors are fun to watch. Some of the fighting is brutally choreographed and cleverly executed, like the sequence where Gillan has no control over her arms. It’s got slow-mo violence set to wailing pop music tracks. If you’re looking for a pretty movie with some style, then it might be enough. If, however, you’re looking for a movie with interesting characters with memorable personalities, well-developed action with variance, and a story with a nice array of twists and turns and payoffs, then maybe look elsewhere.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Despite an expensive redo into the editing bay for the supersized Justice League 2.0, this is director Zack Snyder’s first movie in four years and the aftermath of his family tragedy, and it’s the first with that sweet sweet Netflix money. Army of the Dead has an easy concept that seems silly as well as questionable why we haven’t seen this kind of movie before. The world loves zombies movies. The world loves heist movies. Why have we waited until 2021, in the year of our Lord, for a zombie heist flick? Our long drought is finally over and Netflix has answered our collective prayers. When I watch a movie described as “zombie Vegas heist” then I know what I’m hoping for, chiefly a fun, goofy, and well-developed action thriller, and that’s what Army of the Dead provides.
Las Vegas is ground zero for a zombie outbreak. The U.S. government has cordoned off the Vegas strip and contained the zombie virus. The president plans to drop a nuclear bomb and eradicate the zombie plague once and for all. That means there’s still time for one last score. A wealthy businessman wants to hire Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a crack team to break into a casino vault and steal $200 million before everything gets nuked. Scott gathers a crew of Zombie War vets, specialists, a guide to sneak them into the quarantine zone, and his estranged adult daughter who watched dad out mom down after she became a zombie. Together they’ll venture into certain danger to hit a jackpot.
It’s easily Snyder’s most laid back and straightforwardly enjoyable movie since his debut feature, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake. It’s a movie that knows what we’re here for and provides a colorful band of characters with big personalities and over-the-top bloody violence. I can’t say that I genuinely cared about whether anyone lived or died in the movie, as many are so disposable that I forgot they were in the group, but I missed their presence when the time came to say goodbye. I enjoyed that two characters as outwardly different as Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) could become best bros, and their chummy dynamic became one of my favorite aspects of the movie. The actual heist component of the movie amounts to less than the perilous journey to get to the giant vault, and the exaggerated booby traps reminded me of Indiana Jones temples. It was just the right splash of ridiculous to make me laugh. This is a movie designed to simply push the right buttons for a schlocky good time. Its opening montage sets the tone with famous Vegas staples falling victim to zombie mayhem. Early on, it’s Snyder assuring you that he’s not taking anything too seriously and that neither should you. There are moments where Snyder just throws out nonsense just to mess with the viewer, like a scene where Vanderohe theorizes that the skeletal corpses might actually be them and they are trapped in a loop, complete with matching edits to link up their clothing and jewelry to make you wonder. I turned to my girlfriend in disbelief; could this actually be happening? It doesn’t at all, but just the fact that Snyder devoted time for this throwaway sci-fi head fake amused me. I almost wished Snyder had given us more of these throwaway joke exit ramps. At one point, a character gets locked in a vault, and I hoped for a brief moment Snyder would frame the film like it’s suddenly evolved into the zombie’s own Ocean 11, where now the zombies need to put together a crack zombie team to break into the vault for some delicious brains. I appreciate that Army of the Dead prioritizes entertainment on all of its fronts.
Snyder and company have also put more deliberation into their world building. Most zombie movies just present a wasteland of the undead, a sea of hands and teeth that serve as a swarming obstacle but without any more thought. In Army of the Dead, the movie presents the beginning of a zombie civilization with a hierarchy. There are zombie alphas and zombie drones and the potential for zombie babies, maybe, but there is the beginning of something we fully do not understand. It reminded me a lot of the 2007 I Am Legend. I liked that the zombies weren’t as dumb as we often see them, and I also liked that the movie presented the possibility of the zombies being open to collaboration. In order to travel through the territory, the zombies demand a payment from the traveling parties, and this understanding and begrudging truce makes these creatures far more interesting than an army of drooling brutes. I liked that even the leader has learned he should be protecting his head from projectiles. There are some solidly constructed suspense sequences here, like where the team has to slowly creep through rooms filled with “hibernating” zombies, taking great pains not to touch them as they pass. It’s immediately accessible and different, as well as working with further world building. I also appreciated that one character who was left for dead went down fighting like a champion. It almost becomes a joke just how far this character keeps fighting, like they’re pushing against being just another disposable stock character in a genre movie. It’s impressive. The action set pieces are fun and well developed and make use of the different expertise from our assorted heist team.
As a zombie movie, the violence is impressively gory and fun in its visceral splatter effects. With one big exception, there is a clear emphasis on practical effects and physical makeup prosthetics. The zombies at their different states of decay look great, as do their alpha higher-ups, enough to distinguish an easily recognizable class system that also portends further analysis. The deaths can also be gruesomely entertaining. Watching the sticky expertise of the gore wizards makes it even more perversely pleasurable and it’s often played for dark laughs. Two characters having to clear through the smashed remains of a smooshed zombie is gross and grossly funny. While I acknowledge that the recreation of a desolate and desiccated Las Vegas strip is an obvious computer effect, the major CGI addition to the movie is the zombie tiger (that used to belong to Siegfried and Roy) and it doesn’t look terribly great. Part of this is how unnatural it’s destined to fatefully appear, but the zombie horses looked great, though that was a practical costume placed upon a real horse. At least Snyder and company recognize that if you introduce a zombie tiger, you better guarantee it eats somebody and somebody we really don’t like so we can fully enjoy the experience.
There are a few issues that detract from the overall enjoyment of Snyder’s escapist entertainment. When the movie goes sentimental between daddy and daughter, it doesn’t really gibe with the rest of the film. I’m not upset that the movie ever attempted an emotional core to ground our investment in these characters, but there’s a reason you don’t see a tearful heart-to-heart in heist movies, let alone in movies with undead Elvises. I found the daughter character to be a nuisance. She falls under that character mold of the person who insists on tagging along to fulfill some personal goal and who inevitably gets people killed for no reason. The daughter’s goal is to rescue this one stubborn lady who ventured into the zombie quarantine, but this comes to nothing and, infuriatingly, gets many of our group killed trying to save her. Had she never tagged along, many of these people could have better survived, especially since her “expertise” did not save the day at any juncture. Therefore, her very presence was a net negative to the group, which helped drag down my opinion of the whole father-daughter drama.
I also found the overall style of the photography to be distracting. Working for the first time as his own director of photography in a movie, pitting himself in the middle of the action and manning his own camera, Snyder is more directly involved in making sure you see what he wants. However, he utilizes a very shallow depth of field, which obliterates much of the background as a blur. This can work in moments of suspense where seeing beyond waves of zombies can make them feel immense and overwhelming, but when it’s everything including people standing shoulder-to-shoulder exchanging exposition in a warehouse? Not as helpful. This singular focus, or limited focus, can get annoying and feel like an artifice that Snyder simply cannot let go of. It feels like the cameras got stuck on this mode and the filmmakers just said, “Oh well.” While Snyder has deigned that color shall exist in this movie (unlike in Justice League), the color palate is still drained and resembling an overused Instagram filter that cannot be undone.
As a side note, originally this movie featured comedian Chris D’Elia as the helicopter pilot of the crew and then Netflix spent millions to digitally erase and replace him with comedian Tig Notaro after it was revealed D’Elia was the latest in a long line of sexual abusers in Hollywood. Notaro filmed all her scenes sans one in front of a green screen and if you never were told otherwise you wouldn’t have known. Bravo to Snyder and company for going the All the Money in the World route and replacing a creep with a beloved actor that should have been hired in the first place. Notaro, it must be said, is also sarcastically great in the film. Her scene where she openly discusses arranging for their corporate babysitter to get axed is a highlight.
Netflix has big plans for Army of the Dead. A prequel starring the Dieter character, and directed by the actor playing him, has already been filmed, and an animated series is also in the works. The studio sees this franchise as a creative well they want to tap dry, and I’m sure the movie will prove popular on the streaming giant and only lead to further network expansion. I think Snyder feels somewhat liberated by making his first movie without superheroes in a decade. He’s always been a first-class visual stylist but his command of narrative and character can be sketchy, hence 2011’s woefully miscalculated “feminist” passion project, Sucker Punch. I think Snyder is best when he keeps things lighter, sillier, schlockier, and absent larger themes and messages meant to make people think deeper about the human condition. Being a filmmaker who understands they work best in the land of shallow blockbusters isn’t some acceptance of limitation or failure. It’s an acknowledgement of where one’s skill set best matches up. I don’t begrudge Snyder as a filmmaker, though I question whether his interpretation of superheroes can escape the shadow of his love for Objectivist philosophy. I think it’s no coincidence that his two best movies, and least problematic, are both his zombie action movies. So bring me more of the Army of the Dead universe. Bring me more Zack Snyder at the helm. It keeps him busy, it keeps me entertained, and it keeps him away from making more four-hour long superhero movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s a time loop action movie where Frank Grillo (The Purge: Anarchy) plays a special forces agent going through one long, hellish, bullet-heavy day of violence on repeat. As with other time loop movies, the joy is watching the many different iterations and building from previous excursions and finding the fun detours to discover with the many “what if” scenarios at play. Boss Level is simply fun and disposable entertainment. We watch Grillo strut through the day with amazing clairvoyance and annoyance as he does over and over again, with a team of flashy Smokin’ Aces-esque super assassins chasing him down through the day to score the big hit. The story is rather generic with Grillo learning to take responsibility for being a father, with a generic villain played by Mel Gibson and a generic damsel-in-distress ex-wife played by Naomi Watts. The appeal is Grillo and his gruff charm as well as the darkly comic violence and the creative ingenuity of Grillo dying over and over and then persevering. The action, while definitely scaled down through its lower budget, is filled with fast cars, explosions, gun fights, and pulpy over-the-top deaths to really make the movie feel like perhaps the best video game adaptation even if it was never a video game. The biggest drawback is that this movie is packed, wall-to-wall, with excessive and grating voice over where Grillo’s character will explain EVERYTHING on screen and I just wanted him to shut up. It’s not like his constant verbal commentary is really adding anything; he’s not exactly a character with a strong personality. I am not kidding when I say that 90 percent of this voice over could be eliminated entirely. Imagine being stuck beside an annoying and ceaselessly chatty neighbor in a theater and having that intrusion drown out the experience of the movie, and that’s how prevalent and irritable the constant voice over can be. Seriously, there’s more voice over than dialogue here. Otherwise, Boss Level is a suitably stylish, slick, and action-packed B movie with enough flair and imagination to fill up 90 minutes of entertainment. Three time loop movies in under one year makes me wonder what genre will next be explored. Get ready for the medical drama time loop, the courtroom thriller time loop, and maybe even the disaster movie time loop. Whatever they may be, they guarantee at least a watch from me.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Canadian quintet Astron-6 is a production company that specializes in practical horror effects to delight the eyes and churn the stomachs. In 2011, they decided to make their own films and released Manborg, a hilarious if sketchy and stretched-out horror-comedy replete with loving references to 1980s culture and movies. Their crazy, low-budget schlocky efforts have developed a following, and they earned extra credibility when they played things gravely serious and terrifying in 2016’s The Void. Now writer/director Steven Kostanski (one-fifth of Astron-6) has delivered Psycho Goreman, and this is what happens when gonzo, genre filmmakers are working at the top of their chintzy, delightfully deranged capability. The results are highly entertaining with equal parts great, good, and bad-good, and lovers of silly, schlock cinema will be in high heaven.
Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) is a little girl used to bullying her big brother Luke (Owen Myre) and generally getting her way. She and her brother discover a gem hidden in their backyard and it just so happens to connect to a powerful and murderous alien monster, the self-described “Archduke of Nightmares,” named by Mimi as Psycho Goreman (Matthew Ninaber), or PG for short. The creature was imprisoned by a galactic council who feared that unleashed he might conquer the universe in fire and blood. Unfortunately for PG, he’s at the mercy of Mimi, who can command him thanks to her ownership of that magic gem. For her, PG is her greatest new friend and play partner and woe unto thee anyone who tries to take PG away from her.
The movie feels like a cleverly constructed episode of Rick and Morty where a crazy idea is given unusual consideration and development and layers of humor and ridiculousness are uncovered so that the whole enterprise impresses. The basic premise is what if a brat had the power to control a monster, and while the movie pretends like life lessons will be learned or earned (“humans are the real monsters” is so trite that it’s an obvious put-upon), the movie also never downplays how much of a terror the little girl can be. It might be an easy joke but it’s still a good one, the fact that the universe shouldn’t fear this hideous monster but really this mean little girl is a fact that many parents will nod along with. The movie does some effort to redeem her, if that’s really important to you, but it also doesn’t soften her rough edges and her impudence. She is a brat, and she will inflict pain on others, and the fact that she has awesome power makes her a scary being the entire universe should really be quaking over.
The enjoyable fish-out-of-water dynamic elevates the comedy and payoffs of Psycho Goreman. This powerful monster is beholden to the childish whims and forced to do the bidding of a child, and he hates being out of control and every moment he is forced to play with her. The begrudging acclimation makes for several fun scenarios where he learns from her and also learns how far she’s willing to go. I enjoyed PG trying to make sense of Mimi’s made-up game and its nonsensical rules, and I enjoyed the levels of bizarre family domestic drama as PG integrates himself with this terrified clan. Having a normal dinner between humans and a blood-thirsty alien marauder is rife with comedic potential, and that’s even before the additional side story of the strife between the put-upon mother and the father who is just a gigantic loser. Their ongoing relationship troubles relate to some hilarious motivational turnarounds, like the father (Adam Brooks, another Astron-6 member) resenting the mother for thinking he’s a loser, so he’ll prove her wrong by being a supportive parent, which just happens to include helping his daughter’s involvement with a killer alien. He has an inspirational speech to his daughter late in the movie that had me cackling. The movie is more than its crazy, schlocky moments of gore and rubber costumes. It’s a fun but cleverly constructed comedy that understands the tenets of what makes crazy so genuinely funny.
But along the lines of gore and rubber costumes, Psycho Goreman is like a gloriously inappropriate Power Rangers episode for adults. The elaborate care and design of these monster and alien costumes is outstanding, especially for a relatively low-budget movie. It might look cheap from time to time, though I would argue this is also part of its unassailable charm, but the filmmakers show their real priorities with their monster designs. They are so varied and weird and good looking and have levels of detail to them as well. There’s one design that is simply a living cauldron of corpses (I think voiced by Rich Evans from Red Letter Media). Every new character is a new joy to behold, and when the clashes begin, as they inevitably do, you discover the extra care put into the creature designs with how they viciously come apart. There is a simple pleasure watching the great production design of the costumes and outfits as well as the outrageous gore. I loved that a kid is turned into a giant living brain monster and nobody seems to really care and it becomes a running joke of how callously everyone has viewed this child, including his own indifferent parents. If you’re a fan of goofy monster costumes and extravagant gore, this film is a twisted treat.
Mimi is going to be a love-her-or-hate-her character because she is exactly what Angela Pickles (Rugrats) would be like if given ultimate, unchecked authority over human life. She wields her power flippantly and will joke about siccing PG on her brother to kill him. She also hoots and hollers for PG’s violence against innocents because to her it’s all a big show of amusement. I found the high level of energy of Hanna’s performance to be the difference maker for me. Her character is an unrepentant brat but she’s so entertaining to watch because she holds to this very specific vision. Hanna is downright brilliant in her smarty-pants, mean girl articulation and has great physical expression. Watching her dance in discombobulated movements like the queen of the world made me laugh every time. I thought Hanna was terrific and her comedic timing was so well-honed for being so young. I understand many will find Mimi grating or overbearing or simply too much to handle. I get it, and I don’t think Psycho Goreman will be nearly as enjoyable for anyone who dislikes Mimi. You’re not meant to approve of her actions and warpath of destruction, but you can still enjoy the mayhem all the same.
If you’re a fan of low-rent, cheesy midnight movies, the deranged and demented, and giant silly costumes and bloody excess, Psycho Goreman will be everything you hope it to be. I will admit it peters out a little right before its big showdown, but otherwise the movie is consistently entertaining, consistently strange, and consistently funny. The comedy is better than you think as the filmmakers refuse to rest on the appeal of easy jokes and easy sentiment. They know why you’re watching and deliver, but the work under the surface is impressive and admirable. The filmmakers know they have a very specific, tailored audience that will celebrate their unique retro pastiche sensibilities, and if you happen to live on that same wavelength as I do, then you too will find Psycho Goreman to be an insane near masterpiece of low-budget, high-concept schlock. Give your 2021 a boost by checking out this Canadian splatter comedy and give in to the madness.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Spontaneous is a movie that grabbed my attention immediately, made me laugh quickly, and then made me fall in love over the course of its explosive 100 minutes. The more I think back about this bizarre little movie, based on the YA novel by Aaron Starmer, the more affection I have for it and its messy accomplishments. Writer/director Brian Duffield has been one of the most exciting screenwriters for years, penning highly inventive stories that have a distinct, vivacious comedic voice that leaps off the page and smacks you across the face with how good it is, and then you ask for more (check out The Babysitter for the closest representation of what a Duffield screenplay delivers; skip the sequel though). This is Duffield’s debut as a director and I feel like he’s a natural fit for the quirky, blood-soaked material. Spontaneous is a dark comedy that can also make you feel something because it doesn’t simply treat its characters as disposable punchlines.
So the senior class of Covington High School has a serious problem. They’re spontaneously exploding. Nobody knows why, nobody knows who will be next, and even after a government quarantine, the answers aren’t any clearer. Mara (Katherine Langford) just wants to live to grow into a badass older lady who lives on the beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Her dreams of a life after graduation might never come true. Dylan (Charlie Plummer) introduces himself to Mara and they begin a tender courtship, falling in love during a precarious time where either of them could explode and soak the other in gore and viscera. Can these two crazy kids make it and grow up when their own bodies might betray their fleeting happiness?
Almost instantaneously I was drawn into the romance between Mara and Dylan, and I enjoyed deeply how each helps to shape the other, finding a sincere connection in the most extreme and unexpected of circumstances. Their budding romance dances with tragedy and dread as we worry over the fate of our lovers; surely, with this horrific premise, they won’t end happily ever after, or could they? Every time another student exploded, I winced. I laughed a few times, I’ll admit, because the context can become darkly hilarious and absurd, but it’s also a natural human reflex to relieve tension. Each one of these kids is a potential suicide bomber and they don’t know it. It’s sudden and something that you, even as a viewer, will never get used to. What you will do is start to dread who is next and whether that explosion sound was someone you liked. With an omnipresence of tragedy, it pushes the characters to make the most of their potentially short lives and that brings a greater significance to their next steps, the little attempts to “feel like an adult,” to reach for their desires, and to declare who they are while they are still standing to do so. It takes the coming-of-age setup and deftly dials up the emotional stakes.
Make no mistake though, Spontaneous is an uproariously funny movie. We’re primarily seeing the world from the perspective of Mara and her narration and occasional fourth-wall breaks. There are some fun asides where other characters take over narration duties, but this is chiefly her movie and she’s delightfully odd, prickly, and worthy of our attention. Duffield’s screenplay is brimming with wit and the conversational banter flows with such a confident cadence, all while not being overly mellifluous and self-satisfied. I adored just spending time with the characters because I was anticipating what they would say and do next. The social satire is present but not as substantial as I would have thought. The film trades in familiar stereotypes we’ve come to associate with high school movies, yet it can take some interesting detours, like when the football team cheers in support about their fellow player for coming out as gay. This is a high school movie mixed with a horror movie, where a big party to cut loose could become the latest crime scene. Most of the adults are simply scared and don’t know what to do, and that helpless vulnerability extends outward and keeps going. Just because you may be older doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. I cackled plenty from the physical humor, slapstick gross-out gags, but when Duffield wanted to be serious, you better believe I shut my trap and pulled up the blanket.
I think it’s worth acknowledging, and I don’t consider this a real spoiler, that the cause of the spontaneous combustion is never resolved. There is no explanation, and if that’s a deal-breaker for you then I think you’re prioritizing the wrong parts of what Spontaneous is offering. It doesn’t really matter why it’s happening because the movie isn’t a scientific mystery. As much as it might seem bizarre to declare, this is far more than the “kids blown into bloody bits” movie. It’s not about what is happening per se but how it emotionally affects the characters. The unknown bodily explosions could serve as a gory metaphor for modern-day threats of school shooters, terrorism, or even our current pandemic (pick your metaphor, anything really works). Students don’t know who will be next, when their time will be up, and an anxious pall hangs over their day-to-day lives as they trudge onward trying to regain a sense of normalcy during a troubling and uncertain time of numbing trauma. That’s really the core of the movie, the response to inexplicable trauma. Some characters maintain a blasé, nihilistic attitude, questioning whether their minute remaining time has value. Others look at the random threat of exploding as a motivator to overcome the obstacles that kept them from achieving their goals, ignoring social hang-ups and personal misgivings. It’s the proverbial kick that Dylan needs to finally talk to the girl he’s been crushing on. He elects to live with his remaining time on this planet, no matter how brief, and elects to be happy, which is about one of the bravest things a person can do. That’s why the combustible student body doesn’t need an explanation, and to be fair what possible explanation would ever have been truly satisfying (“Oh, we all just ate too many carbs. Huh.”)?
If she hadn’t already established herself from Netflix’s somber soap 13 Reasons Why, this would have been a star-making role for Langford (Knives Out). She’s captivating from her first moment onscreen when she discusses the mundane details of her day at school right before the girl in front of her explodes. Her sardonic and spiky attitude permeates the movie and gives the film an energetic jolt, amplified by Duffield’s stylish flourishes that reminded me at points of Edgar Wright with how playful and involved the visual transitions could get. Our leading lady is a force of nature, and after enough time, you can understand why Tess wants to be her bestie, why Dylan would fall in love with her, and why other students would be afraid of Mara. There are moments where Langford can be silly and diverting, like dressing in mourning over the 2016 election, and others where she feels like she’s harnessing the totality of youthful feminine rage (I loved a late declarative statement directed at our current president) to be a symbol. The “same old” just isn’t going to cut it when the stakes are this high. Langford isn’t just the too-cool gal spitting pithy insults from a safe distance. There’s some heavy-duty existential drama here that she carries while through the prism of her eccentric teenager’s attitude. Her romance with Plummer (All the Money in the World) is sweet and affecting and feels entirely genuine.
Sticky, sweet, and wickedly funny, Spontaneous is obsessed with death, the uncertainty of knowing when your time is up, and yet I came away feeling ultimately uplifted and moved. There are some jolting moments, both funny and heart-breaking, and Duffield wants you to take the time to feel the full experience of being young and angry and hopeful and anxious and in love and feeling weird. In a disastrous year of worldwide calamities, Spontaneous is a bright spot, and given the bloody premise, that should tell you everything you need to know about the year 2020. This is a delightful, heartfelt, and surprisingly mature teen drama that also happens to have people bursting like balloons. Duffield even touches upon the profound at points, which is hard to do with any filmmaker, let alone one playing with these crazy genre elements. Spontaneous is a coming-of-age drama with equal parts ache and warmth, gallows humor and personal insight. Find this movie, devote 100 minutes of your time, and wear a poncho if necessary.
Nate’s Grade: A
Can a fairy tale have a dark undertone below all the bubbly whimsy? Hell, the Grimm tales were barbaric before they became homogenized, sanitized, and finally Disneytized. Nurse Betty presents a modern day fairy tale with the strike of reality always below it — the strike of darkness and disappointment. Fairy tales are an escape from this, but what if one creates her own fairy tale and chooses to believe in it over the drab reality she presides in?
Neil LaBute, the director of the incessantly dark In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, collects together a whimsical modern day fable with a top-notch cast. Yes, to those fans of earlier LaBute offeriengs his name doesn’t seem synonymous with whimsical comedy – but in this flick LaBute cuts his teeth in the mainstream and earns his stripes if ever.
Baby-voiced and rosy-cheeked Renee Zellweger plays our heroine in diner worker and soap opera fanatic Betty. Betty finds solace from her life featuring a sleazy spouse, played with marvelous flair by Aaron Eckhart, in her favorite soap opera. When her louche of a hubby isn’t wiping his hands on the kitchen curtains or banging his secretary he tries proposing drug deals for shady characters. A recent drug peddling snafu sets him up to an ominous encounter with hitmen team Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock. Through a jarring scene of violence Betty’s husband is left brutally murdered and the only witness is Betty herself. The event causes Betty to slip into a fractured psychological state where she believes the world of her soap opera is alive and real with herself a vital character. She hops in one of her dead hubby’s used cars and drives off toward California to meet the doctor/soap star of her dreams in Greg Kinnear.
Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock mistake Betty for a criminal mastermind and believe her to have taken the drugs and run. They embark on their own mad dash to capture her and finish the job they were paid to complete. Along the way Betty encounters many people that are at first confused but ultimately charmed by this delusional dame. Through a series of events she meets up with the eternally smarmy Kinnear and begins to learn what happens when a fantasy is corrupted by the disappointment of reality. Allison Janey has a small part as a network executive that shines strong, and Crispin “McFly” Glovin is just nice to see in a film again. He doesn’t seem to age though. Maybe he has that Dick Clark disease.
The flow of Betty is well paced and a smart mix between drama, whimsy, and dark humor. Overlooking some sudden bursts of violence bookend the film it comes across as a sweet yet intelligent satire and fable. Betty is looking for her Prince Charming but will later learn that she doesn’t need one, that she is the fairy tale happy ending inside her.
The acting of Nurse Betty is never in danger of flat-lining. Zelwegger is a lovable and good-natured heroine. Freeman is a strong and deceptively hilarious actor along side a caustic yet down-to-earth Rock. And I make an outgoing question if there is an actor alive out there that can do smarm better than Kinnear — I think not.
Nurse Betty is a wonderful surprise. Check into your local theater, take one showing, and call me in the morning. You’ll be glad you did.
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I was high on Nurse Betty in 2000 declaring it a modern-day fable with a darker undercurrent equivalent to that of the Grimms and their mixture of the everyday and extraordinary. In reality, Nurse Betty couldn’t feel more like a holdover of the 1990s indie scene where it might have been an unwritten rule that after Pulp Fiction every indie film had to have a subplot involving quippy hitmen (consider it the equivalent of every 1980s comedy having a mafia subplot for some unexplained reason). It feels engineered from a different era, and because of this, I’m sad to say that Nurse Betty hasn’t aged as well as I hoped. It’s not a bad movie but it feels more dated and peculiar, both in design and also unintentionally with its mishmashing tones that were more enticing twenty years ago.
The premise of Nurse Betty sounds like two movies smashed together. The movie is almost split evenly among its two storylines. We have Betty (Renee Zellweger) as the put-upon wife in Kansas dreaming of a better life, and maybe a better husband, who then has a mental breakdown and travels cross-country believing she’s in a real-life soap opera. Following suit is a pair of hitmen (Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock) who bicker and track her down, having their own cross-country road trip and getting on each other’s nerves. The problem with the screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg is that these two competing stories could have existed on their own and probably would have been the better for it. It’s revealed late in the movie that Rock is the son of Freeman, and by that time of the reveal it doesn’t do much other than serve as a hasty attempt at a twist ending and to better push the fatalism of Freeman’s character, Charlie. However, if we knew from early on that this was a father-son hit team, think of the fun family squabbles and opportunities to present character development through these unique circumstances. It’s a father trying to train his son in his many years honed killing targets and not questioning why. You could tell a really quirky, compelling, and engaging family story through this dark comedy vehicle. Instead, the father-son hitmen are simply playing catch-up with Betty. Charlie becomes substantially less interesting the more obsessed with Betty he becomes because his character change is never really explained. Even he is unable to articulate why this one woman has entranced him. He stops being the scary, proud, and imposing figure who killed Betty’s husband and becomes a doddering, foolishly love-struck old man that loses his edge. Again, that arc could work but the screenplay essentially nullifies him as a threat and as a multi-dimensional character. If both of these dangerous men had driven off into their own movie, they and we would have better benefited.
The Betty half is the more entertaining portion because it’s more unpredictable and because Betty is, at her heart, a sweet human being who is looking for her dream. It doesn’t take much to emotionally identify with her mistreated character who seeks an outlet for her life’s disappointments. Her mental break produces a sizeable degree of nervous laughter whenever she encounters someone new who is taking her at literal face value. Should we be laughing at her? Should we be pitying her? Should we be worrying about her having reality crush her hopes? The movie doesn’t seem to be holding up Betty for cheap mockery, which is a relief considering the quantity of her mental illness and trauma leading her into increasingly comical scenarios. The baffled misunderstandings can supply amusement but it’s more waiting to see how Betty responds to adversity and waiting for reality to hit with crushing force, eventually snapping her back. It’s waiting for the realization, but until then you can enjoy Betty’s blissful delusion like a sitcom character being hit over the head and thinking they’re somebody new. The movie takes on a new level of entertainment when she meets the man of her desires, Dr. David (Greg Kinnear), actually the actor George in real-life, and he doesn’t reject her but becomes fascinated with her. He’s impressed by her level of commitment to Method acting, so he assumes, and is curious how far she can keep things going. Betty also seems to bring back George’s passion for acting, which has waned over years of playing the same over-the-top plot machinations of daytime television. That’s such a better storytelling choice than having her dream man push her away immediately for being outwardly crazy.
The winning feature of Nurse Betty is the relentless positivity and daffy, perky performance of Zellweger as our dream-seeker. She always has a smile and go-get-‘em attitude that makes her compelling to watch and also easy to root for, whether or not she ever comes out of her mental break. Her sunny demeanor in the face of medical horror and confused authority figures is reliably charming. Zellweger never plays like the joke should be on Betty. Often it boomerangs, like when her L.A. roommate wants to dash Betty’s dream by introducing her to the real George, but instead of disaster they walk off to spend the rest of the fancy soiree together. Zellweger is the best reason to step into Nurse Betty and her portrayal of mental illness is not meant for ridicule. After Nurse Betty, Zellweger went on a tear, getting three Oscar nominations in three years, and a win for 2003’s Cold Mountain, before disappearing from Hollywood to re-emerge with a different face.
The jumbled tones proved more amusing to me twenty years ago but now they feel sloppy and poorly integrated, hence why it feels like two separate movies inelegantly melded together. The violence can be jarring and too serious for a movie that also attempts goofball whimsy. It feels like Nurse Betty was assembled with all the loose, leftover bits of irony from the 90s indie scene. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge movie that feels like it was green-lit based upon as many of its discordant elements all appearing under the name of one movie. Soap operas. Housewives. Mental illness! Road trips! Hitmen! Oh my! The soap opera jokes and industry satire feel pretty dated and must have been stale even by the time the film was released twenty years ago. There are points watching Nurse Betty where you feel like it went shopping for its quirk and bought it whole sale.
Director Neil LaBute was a fascinating choice considering his prior work writing and directing very misanthropic small-scale ensemble dramas like 1997’s In the Company of Men where two toxic men set out to ruin an innocent deaf woman to punish the female gender they feel has done them wrong. This seemed like an odd fit but was a preview to LaBute’s attempts at being a journeyman mid-range director, helming the stunningly bad 2006’s Wicker Man remake as well as completely forgettable studio fare like Lakeview Terrace and the Death at a Funeral remake. LaBute has since found a home writing and directing in television, including writing 15 episodes of the SyFy Channel series, Van Helsing, which well and truly confounded me to learn. The man who was responsible for dark, David Mamet-esque plays about the searing depths of human depravity and toxic masculinity was writing low-budget vampire cable television. To be fair I haven’t watched a single episode so perhaps his prior writing experiences really added something to the tale of Vanessa Helsing kicking ass in a vampire-dominated future. Actually, I take it all back because that sounds like a fun show.
Nurse Betty is a dark comedy that surprises as often as it may frustrate, spinning two different stories on a collision course that would have benefited from a trial separation. It’s one of the first re-review films that has lost some of its magic for me. In 2000, this movie felt a lot more daring and hipper and I gave it credit for the inclusion of so many off-kilter elements. Nowadays, I need more from a movie than simply including unexpected elements. It has to make the most of them, incorporate them in meaningful and challenging ways, and justify their tonal integration. Reading over my original review twenty years ago, I cringe about how uncritical it proves to be. I clearly enjoyed the movie but couldn’t say much more than bad puns and obvious allusions (did you know fairy tales could be, get this, dark and unnerving?). This is not one of my finer film reviews and I won’t cut my 18-year-old self any slack because I’ve been impressed by the insights and writing style of my younger me before. I will hold my past self to higher standards, thank me.
Re-Review Grade: B-
I very much enjoyed 2017’s The Babysitter from the very start. The characters had such vitality to them, Samara Weaving (Ready or Not) gave a star-making performance, and it was a wild ride while also having an emotional core with the relationship between the babysitter and her charge, a designated Satanic sacrifice. It was silly, clever, but also satisfying with its character dynamics, and it proved successful for Netflix so they felt, well, why not do it all again? The Babysitter sequel, subtitled Killer Queen, has a strong whiff of desperation trying to awkwardly rekindle the good times. The original writer, Brian Duffield, is not here as a writer but returning director McG is one of the credited writers, which made me wary. Sequel-itis plagues the story as our surviving teen Cole (Judah Lewis) gets into ANOTHER tight spot with ANOTHER group of Satanists looking to sacrifice him to make their dreams come true, and it also happens to also include the SAME supporting villains from the first movie. Even the cheeky onscreen titles go, “Again?!” Why must these killer Satanists only obsessed with this one specific kid as a sacrifice? Diversify your options, folks. It all feels more of the same but just not as good, not as memorable, and not as entertaining. It’s a low-investment movie, something where your ceiling of demands is already pretty generous, so if you enjoy comically over-the-top gore then there are a few moments that might make this sequel palatable. It’s a movie with a “so what?” attitude, adopting a flippant nihilism that makes the attempts at drama a little more forced and inauthentic when they occur, not that the comedy is much better outside the splatterhouse violence. The ending is also rather anticlimactic because it simultaneously involves a deus ex machina while also finding a way to be derivative of another very memorable ending of another Samara Weaving movie. I didn’t think a sequel was needed, and I wasn’t expecting much from a sequel, and I got about what I was expecting. The Babysitter: Killer Queen is a fast-paced and amenable work of cinematic junk food, a genre movie that might have enough genre elements to prove tasty, but by hewing so close to the original, Killer Queen feels more imitation than imagination, and it’s clearly inferior to the original.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Imagine if Home Alone was more intense and populated with neo Nazis, and you’ll get a feel for Becky, a jubilantly gory, highly stylized indie thriller that might be as off-putting as it is entertaining. Kevin James, yes Paul Blart himself, gives an about-face turn as the leader of a group of Nazis that recently broke out of prison. With his bushy beard. swastika tattoos, and intensely quiet monologues, the stunt casting works out well, and James can be truly menacing. His band of goons are terrorizing a blended family in search for a macguffin of which just happens to be in possession of Becky (Lulu Wilson), an adolescent hellion they will soon reckon with. She knows the terrain of the family cabin and the woods and goes about picking off the bad guys one-by-one in fiendishly bloody, wildly over-the-top panache. That’s the real appeal of the movie, the various ways our pint-sized heroine takes down the Nazis. Directors Cary Munion and Jonathan Milott (Cooties, Bushwick) infuse plenty of visual style into their thrills, amplifying the intensity further, like a pounding camera edits and a walkie talkie confrontation between hero and villain where a series of pans makes it feel like they’re face-to-face. The film can be unsparingly brutal and hard to watch at times, walking a line between being darkly comic to simply being gross. Becky herself comes across like a brat and, as the killings continue, gleefully sociopathic. She’s still hurting from her mother’s death, she doesn’t want to have to save her soon-to-be stepmom and brother, but she’ll do it if it means killing more Nazis. One big tough Nazi has a crisis of conscience and demonstrates, at least onscreen, more depth than Becky. It’s all a bit too nihilistic by the end for my tastes. Becky ultimately is a movie about killing Nazis gory good and looking good doing so. If that’s enough for you, give it a watch.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I’ve been meaning to watch 2014’s Force Majeure for some time but it was one of those movies that just fell behind and got trapped by the ever-increasing backlog of “to see” films. Then I discovered that there was to be an American remake by the Oscar-winning writing team behind The Descendants and I decided now would be a good time to go back to Force Majeure. But I purposely chose not to watch the Swedish original until after having watched the American remake, Downhill, to delay prejudicing myself. Both movies have value as cringe comedies prodding fragile masculinity, though the Swedish import runs more with the cascading consequences and the English remake plays more broadly with its big stars.
Both movies follow families on skiing vacations where the father (Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas, Will Ferrell as Pete) abandon their wives (Lisa Loven Kongdli as Ebba, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie) and children when an approaching avalanche looks to be imminently deadly. It proves to be harmless but the scare it created was very real, and the damage to this family is also very real. In their dire moment of need, as death looked increasingly possible, this family watched its patriarch run away to save himself (and not before grabbing his phone). The father denies running away, finding his own slippery slope of excuses to pretend and convince his family that everything is still the same.
Downhill takes the very specific tone of the Swedish original by writer/director Ruben Ostlund (The Square) and plays it safer and more broadly. There’s an added context of the ski lodge being a couple’s resort with the idea of horny and available alternatives just a slope away for fun. The movie is practically throwing a more traditionally “manly” and virile romantic candidate at Billie and it’s so obvious and immediate that it reminded me of the sexy yoga instructor from 2009’s Couples Retreat, another movie that involved a holiday retreat with two camps, one more family-friendly and another more hedonistic. It feels too convenient and crass to immediately present our heroine with prime cheating options and have her question her own fidelity. In Force Majeure, one of the best and most awkward moments occurs when Tomas tries to portray himself as an equal victim to his own shortcomings as a man. He lists several faults, including infidelity, that don’t phase his wife, which implies she is well aware of this man’s flaws. It’s such a pathetic moment of emotional manipulation that incredulous laughter is the only natural response, and the movie makes the viewer stay in that uncomfortable squirm. Tomas lays on the floor wailing like a child, which then triggers his children to come out and lay upon their weeping father and then admonish their mother to follow their supportive lead. It’s a hilarious moment and borne from the organic developments tied to character relationships. In Downhill, by contrast, we get stuff like the sexy ski instructor and a really horny, handsy lodge lady (Miranda Otto, in thick accent).
That’s not to say the remake doesn’t find effective ways to make the most of its American infusion. There’s a scene where Pete and Billie are complaining to the ski lodge staff because someone must account for their perceived injury. The moment doesn’t go as they hoped and the security head (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) refuses to apologize or admit any wrong. He points out all the warnings that the American couple somehow missed, and this only causes Billie to grow in her impotent agitation. It’s a moment that plays to the ugly American stereotype of self-absorption and the insistence to be heard. This scene would not have worked with the Force Majeure characters at all. Billie is a more interesting character and given more ambiguity and flaws than Ebba, who is often the perplexed voice of the audience. There are adaptation changes and new jokes that work for Downhill but more often it doesn’t explore the comic avenues open to it (hashtag jokes… really?). The best jokes are frequently holdovers.
Something I enjoyed exclusively about Force Majeure was how it widened its scope to include the contagious nature of questioning masculine assumptions. The supporting characters have more significance than in Downhill. Tomas’ friend, Mats (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), begins as an awkward lifeline trying to offer meager supportive explanations to his beleaguered friend’s cowardice (“You ran away so that you could come back and dig everyone out, right?”) and then he too is negatively affected. His much younger girlfriend begins to look at him differently and with suspicion, wondering if he too would disappoint when under a similar life-threatening scenario. She questions whether it’s simply a generational divide and an older generation (Mats) just doesn’t feel as brave and selfless. This eats away at Mats and wreaks havoc with his relationship. You too might consider how well you really know your loved ones and how you might respond as well. It’s such a wonderful what-if scenario to apply to one’s self. This contagious nature of doubt makes the story feel that much more interesting when one man’s failings can spiral outward and ensnare others. This deepened the dark comedy and provided interesting and complimentary side characters. With Downhill, we don’t really get any other characters on the same level of consideration as our main couple, Pete and Billie.
The children actually play a bigger role in Downhill as the relationship between the sons and their father is on the brink. They see him decidedly different and Pete spends time trying to regain their favor and trust and, naturally, failing. With Force Majeure, the children are kept on the sidelines and they’re more worried that mom and dad may be doomed to a divorce rather than being upset or disappointed with their father. Downhill clearly aligns the sons with their mother and has Billie call upon them to provide corroborating testimony to her account in one deliciously awkward extended moment. It’s one area where Downhill bests its source material but again that’s because it also dramatically scales down the importance of supporting adults.
Ferrell (Holmes & Watson) and Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) are such an enjoyable comedy pairing and work together smoothly for Downhill’s broader aims. The Swedish actors are far more subdued, understated, and dry, dissolving into playing mundane, regular folk. You’re not going to get that with Ferrell especially. His big screen buffoon tendencies play well for Pete’s blustery self-deluded narcissism, but he lacks the bite for the destructive self-pity that emboldened Kuhnke. Ferrell’s performance is more restrained than you might assume but he still doesn’t feel like the right fit for the character and where he needs to go. He never stops being seen as Ferrell. Louis-Dreyfus is such a pro and is able to navigate the bleaker comedy with great precision. Her shaken monologue retelling the avalanche incident and pausing on “… to die, I guess” had me rolling.
Downhill is over 30 minutes shorter and yet it feels stretched thin, circling the same comic points, which can make the film feel frustratingly smaller in scope and ambition. The endings are different and come across a similar message over never knowing how a person may respond in the middle of danger. Force Majeure concludes with a scenario that allows its wounded males to save some honor and the women to question their own responses, a paradigm shift of gender expectations. The triumphant recapturing of masculinity builds to its own satirical breaking point, ready to laugh at Tomas feeling like a ridiculous John Wane-style cowboy. In contrast, the American ending doesn’t feel as rich or as earned as its predecessor.
Downhill is an accessible and funny remake that has some smart deviations from its source material to deliver its own version, and sometimes it feels like the filmmakers want to make a much more mainstream comedy. The tonal identity issues sap the comedic and dramatic momentum of the story, which can make the overall film frustrating and unsatisfying at times while you wait for it to settle. Then its 85 minutes are over and it’s done. Force Majeure, on the other hand, is the most confident, strident, and awkward viewing, not to mention longer viewing at two hours in length. It’s actually too long and with a few segments that could be trimmed or removed entirely (drone flying, the first set of friends, getting lost in a snowy fog). There’s even a running joke where the gag is simply that the ski lifts and moving sidewalks are just super slow. The movie takes its understated, dry comic sensibility even to its relaxed sense of pacing. Both movies are funny and emphasize different aspects of the premise of the consequences of cowardice. I likely would have enjoyed Downhill less had I seen Force Majeure first but it’s still a decent American remake for something that was so calculating and exact in tone, a laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t play like a comedy. Still, co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Way Way Back) have enough skill and polished instinct that even a less sophisticated, more obvious version of Force Majeure is still entertaining enough. It might lack some of the edge of the original but Downhill is an agreeable comedy of disagreeable decisions.
Force Majeure: B+