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Cadia: The World Within (2019)

Cadia: The World Within (pronounced Kuh-Dee-uh) is a fantasy film that was made in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio and directed by an alumnus of my own college. 24-year-old Cedric Gegel (The Coroner’s Assistant) wrote and directed Cadia, which was inspired by a story he was making up to entertain 12-year-old triplets backstage during a theater show. He spent years revising and elaborating that tale and elected to make it a big screen adventure, and starring those same triplets in starring roles. He even attracted known actors like Corbin Bernson and one of the two Harry Potter twins. I attended the special Capital University screening before Cadia begins hitting festivals and seeking distribution. As I have in the past, I happen to know several people that were involved in this production, primarily behind the camera, and I promise to try and be as objective as possible in this review.

Three teenagers are dealing with the recent loss of their mother. Renee (Carly Sells), David (Keegan Sells), and Matthew (Tanner Sells) are now living with their Aunt Alice (Nicky Buggs) and their Grandpa George (Bernson). One day, a magic set of stones takes the kids to another world, Cadia, where they meet Elza (John Wells) shortly after escaping a monster. They learn there are dueling factions in this realm, and Tannion (James Phelps) wants one of the siblings to tap into an elemental power supply to rewrite the cosmos for the better.

I’m going to caution that this review will likely sound more negative than I intend. I want to be supportive of local filmmakers and encourage their efforts, and any movie by itself is something of a miracle considering the countless people who work in tandem to bring together a vision. The people behind Cadia seem like genuinely sweet and thoughtful individuals who cared about the movie they were making. I wish them all well. However, it does nobody good to avoid constructive criticism where it’s warranted, because ignoring problems is unhelpful. The characters of Cadia might even agree with that sentiment. So, dear reader, let’s dive into what doesn’t quite work here and keeps Cadia from being more than the sum total of its many influences and good intentions. Much of the faults chiefly come down to the writing.

Fantasy stories are tricky because they need to be transporting but also accessible, otherwise they will feel like they’re being made up on the spot or like a private story that wasn’t intended for a wider audience (Lady in the Water, anyone?). With Cadia, the influences are easy to pick up on (Narnia, Harry Potter, Peter Pan, the Bible) but the rules and understanding of this new world feel too murky and unclear. It’s a magic world with… warring factions that are at war because… power? I never understood who just about anyone was and what their purpose served beyond allegiances. It’s too vague and the world feels too small and undeveloped, making it feel less a new world and more like a weekend excursion. What is the relationship between this family and the history of Cadia exactly as it comes to Grandpa George? Did this world come into existence with George telling the story and thus linking it to this particular family and giving them larger importance, or did it exist on its own? Why do some people have powers and what are the extents of those powers, the limitations, the costs of those powers? Is dead mom alive in this world or simply a ghost? Are there more potential ghosts? What started the factions? There are teleporting stones but are they direct portals or can they be manipulated? It feels like this should be of greater importance just from a novelty of how they can be clever (and cheap to execute). There’s one malevolent monster witnessed but otherwise it’s just a bunch of people hanging out in the woods. Too many of the too many characters are just sitting around, seemingly like they’re waiting for something to do. Cadia operates on a level that assumes you know what is happening or find this new world intriguing, but as a viewer it feels like you’re missing vital critical info to make that happen.

Fantasy world building is essential because the new world has to be teeming with interesting life and details, the stuff a viewer could immerse themselves within. Barring that, the fantasy details can be shaped and pruned to serve the thematic journey of a character, externalizing the internal. I thought Cadia was going here. It kind of does and kind of doesn’t. The central trio are dealing with their grief over their late mother, except when the movie doesn’t need them to. I thought the world of Cadia would present itself as symbol for the grief and anger of a character, luring him or her as temptation to reverse course and save dear dead mom, and therefore we would learn a lesson about healing and about facing loss. This element is present, yes, but “element” is the proper term; it’s not a theme or anything larger in plotting, it’s merely there as needed like any other sudden magic power that goes without explanation or question. Overall, the fantasy world just felt under developed in detail and scope.

I was hoping for the thematic personalization because there’s a general lack of urgency when it comes to any looming sense of danger. For being transported to a new world, these kids take it all in amazing stride. Even after a long-clawed monster chases after them, the kids are so casual and nonplussed the next scene even as they have just barely eluded this monster. Nobody seems in a hurry to return home. We’re constantly told of warring factions but the only outward danger felt is from this one monster, and even when the kids are close their fear seems fleeting. The characters they encounter don’t present (immediate) danger, which makes the film feel rather loping and without conflict and danger. It’s lacking potent stakes. What’s stopping these kids from returning? What’s stopping anyone from anything? The world of Cadia is too plain and safe, which coupled with its undeveloped nature, only makes things less interesting. If the world doesn’t present interest, it can at least present a palpable threat, and Cadia does not.

Another miscue that hampers the stakes is that the film keeps cutting back and forth between the kids in Cadia and the adults on Earth. Why? Do we really need to see Aunt Alice having coffee with her friend while the kids are lost in a new realm? Do we really need two check-ins with Grandpa George to literally watch him put together a puzzle? Cutting away from the discovery of the magic world to watch characters do mundane things back home is detrimental to pacing and establishing a growing threat. Can it be much of a threat if the kids seem chill and we cut back to puzzle formation? Without a threat, without an interesting setting, and without a personalization toward one of the main characters, Cadia feels like a less-than-magical retreat.

The characters also suffer from both being underwritten and simply having far too many of them. The main trio of real-life triplets are left as archetypes; there’s the more introverted one (The Nerd), the more rebellious, aggressive one (The Jock), and the… girl (The Girl). Seriously, that’s her characterization. The other brothers get starting points on a scale to grow from but her characterization is simply not being the things her brothers are, and also being a girl. It’s not like the characters are running away from confronting the hard truth of death and Cadia will allow them to better process their grief, like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants. Other characters talk more about their mother than the actual children of that mother mourning that mother. It’s difficult for me to go much further in describing the characters because once they travel to the fantasy realm their characterization gets put on hold as they encounter a slew of dull new people.

There are several scenes where we introduce a group of new, personality-free characters. That’s the other necessity with fantasy, writing larger, expressive, and memorable characters. There’s a Lost Boys-esque group of centuries-old Cadia dwellers, but this group could have been one person, could have been twelve, because there aren’t differentiated characters within, only actors fulfilling space in the frame. This isn’t the fault of the actors. They just weren’t given material to work with. A way to establish a memorable character is through a memorable entrance or at least with significant contrasts. Cadia has trouble with this even as it presents characters on opposite sides of its vague conflict that is eventually resolved through platitudes about love that could have been reached at any time prior to the characters’ fortuitous arrivals. The narrative feels polluted with extraneous characters that exist for no other reason than to squeeze another actor onscreen. Characters should have a purpose for their inclusion and the narrative shouldn’t be more or less the same without their involvement. With Cadia, you could eliminate 80% of the characters and still tell this story. Do we need a lady in the river? Do we need two untrustworthy schemers to tempt the kids? Is the cousin needed? When the big fight arrives, with side-versus-side, your guess is as good as mine who they are, why they are important, and what they’re even doing here.

The dialogue is also heavily expository, where characters are tasked with asking questions or making statements so that the audience will know critical points of information. Characters talk in inauthentic manners, the kind of stuff that seems like they know an audience is watching. “I know you’re having a hard time dealing with mom’s death,” sort of thing. Or you’ll have characters talk so point-of-fact, like this exchange: “Who’s good and bad?” and then, “Well that depends on who ‘you’ is. Good and bad depends.” It’s pretty on-the-nose, but even ignoring that, the two sentences in response are redundant, conveying the same idea. Naturally exposition is going to be needed when establishing an alternate, living world, but when it feels like characters are going from person to person to only digest info because the plot demands it, then it feels less like a film narrative and more of a museum display guiding you to the next exhibit.

The acting is a high-point for the movie. The triplets all handle their first big screen acting job reasonably well and demonstrate future promise. My favorite was probably Carly Sells as Renee, which is even more impressive considering she has the least amount of material to work with of the three. She has a particular sense of poise that lends to better imbuing life to her character. Keegan Sells is at his best in the beginning as he’s internalizing his grief and frustrations. Tanner Sells has a nonchalance to much of the world, which can be funny. Bernson is a lovable grump that doesn’t feel too off from his father figure in TV’s Psych. He doesn’t have much to do in the film but he’s a welcome presence who feels glad to be there. Phelps (Harry Potter) and Wells (Piranha Sharks) do a fine job as the resident schemers, concealing their intentions. Brittany Picard (Alan and the Fullness of Time) had a nice ethereal charm even in brief moments as the departed mother Maggie. Why wasn’t she in more? If mom is potentially alive, or at least corporeal in Cadia, why isn’t that a narrative resource to be tapped for further drama especially as it pertains to acknowledging loss? I was most impressed by Buggs (Powers) who was the one immediately processing the emotions of grief. She sells her scenes with subtlety and grace. Another pleasant standout was Grace Kelly (Kill Mamba Kill!) as Jade, the school guidance counselor. She has a presence that grabs you, and the fact that she’s a Marine athlete makes me yearn for her to have a starring action vehicle that can show off a full range of her capabilities. She’s a breakout star waiting to happen, so somebody make it happen.

The technical merits are pretty agreeable for being a low-budget feature, but there are a couple aspects that I think take away from the overall achievement. The cinematography is very limited in how it presents the scenes, which follows the pattern of master and then shot-reverse shot. There are very long running takes with a swooping Steadicam that centers the action. It can be impressive at points but at other points, as the scene carries on without variation, I began to wonder if this was continuing because, frankly, that was all they had to work with. The editing can also be curious with certain choices. There’s a scene where Aunt Alice runs out of the coffee shop, having learned of the children’s disappearance. Instead of the scene ending there, the moment holds for another four or five seconds on Jade’s reaction, which is fine considering later revelations. But even after that we hold on the scene and a waitress comes to ask about taking away the coffee cups, and Jade says, “Yes, you can take them.” Why was any of that necessary? The scene just carries on awkwardly after its import has literally left the building. During the family dinner, the camera circles around the table for a full minute while they gab and reach for the food. Did we need a full minute of them vamping while eating? Is this included simply because they wanted to maximize the amount of Bernson screen time they could? The costumes are pretty standard fantasy garb except when they’re not. During the big showdown, there are characters dressed in flowing robes and tunics, and then there are others just in ordinary clothes. There’s one woman in like a polka-dot skirt and it just directly draws your eye. This incongruity almost made me chuckle, and then polka-dot skirt lady is given prominence in the fight too. It’s unfair to be too critical on any technical limitations of a low-budget film as long as they don’t impede the vision and intent of the filmmakers, but these decisions occasionally took me out of the movie.

I honestly feel conflicted about writing this review because I knew it was going to have some significant criticisms. It’s genuinely impressive that a film like Cadia: The World Within got made, attracted known actors, and pulled it all off on a low budget with many artists who were eager to sink their teeth into a bigger project. I definitely think there is an audience for Cadia and that there will be plenty of people that genuinely enjoy the movie on its own terms. Afterwards, at the screening, one such fan asked about the possibility of a sequel (Gegel respectfully demurred). For me, the fantasy world felt diminished, opaque, and too often as ordinary as the “normal world.” The characters are kept at an archetypal level, or are superfluous additions, and the plot seems to lack urgency, propulsion, or needed steps to tap into larger emotions and themes or intrigue. It felt like watching a bunch of people having fun with make believe and putting on a show, and they just happened to have larger names involved in the fun. Cadia is a family fantasy that might play well for its intended audience but unfortunately is a fantasy that feels less than magical.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Escape Room (2019)

If you’ve ever been looking for a PG-13 Saw movie, then Escape Room might just be the film for you. It follows a group of strangers who have been invited to a next-level escape room, one of those group challenges where people work as a team to solve a series of puzzles to “escape” from a locked room with a variety of dangers. The movie version kicks things up by making the Escape Room essentially Cube, filled with a series of elaborate death traps that pick off our characters outlandish room by outlandish room. The enjoyment of the movie is the curiosity of the rooms and the various challenges. The production design is inventive and impressive for its minor budget. The puzzles aren’t exactly things that an audience can solve in the moment. They mostly involve clues that won’t make sense because we can’t explore the room, so it’s just waiting for characters to solve things and make connections. The fun doesn’t come from the puzzles but more what the rooms will do next. The assorted characters have a personal connection that is flimsy and leads to a late reveal of who is responsible for this wicked game. The movie is fun as you’re watching it as long as you accept that little will make sense. Once it extends beyond the rooms and tries building a mythology and a conspiracy behind the rooms, that’s where Escape Room starts to fall apart. It’s a relatively minor but enjoyable thriller that lives in the moment and, in the future, should find more time to spend in the rooms and the crazy challenges. Much like The Maze Runner, once the characters are outside the maze, I just don’t care. It works enough that I wouldn’t mind more, if the filmmakers get their priorities right.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Auschwitz (2011)

I’ve been waiting years to finally see Uwe Boll’s take on the Holocaust. It was originally filmed around 2010 but never got a home release, making me scan the Internet for a chance to see a German movie that nobody in the world seemed to want to see. I’m not surprised it took almost eight years to finally see this movie, which was widely available on YouTube in its entirety, uncut, for over a year. If you’re curious, dear reader, you can easily see it for yourself, though I might caution you against that. It is, after all, the harsh reality of the Holocaust, and it is, after all, Uwe Boll, a filmmaker not exactly known for subtlety and tact in his career. I was worried that Boll’s Auschwitz (even that phrasing seems unduly unkind) would be a disservice to the men, women, and children who perished in that horrible atrocity. I’m relieved that Boll seems to have his mind on higher ambitions than exploitation, though I don’t know how well the academic intent translates.

It’s less a movie and more of an educational special on the practices of a concentration camp and the mentality of the people sentencing others to their doom. The opening four minutes consist of Boll speaking directly to the camera, switching off talking in German and then English three times, setting up his rationale for why he would tackle a filmed recreation of an Auschwitz gas chamber. He says that young people today do not know about the Holocaust and the concentration camps and are in need of a powerful reminder (more on this later). What then follows is about six minutes of Boll interviewing various German teenagers over what they know about Hitler, WWII, the Holocaust, and the systematic eradication of European Jews. After that, Boll’s film goes into a 35-minute live-action recreation of life at a concentration camp, leading dozens of people to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. After that, Boll returns to his interviews with real German teens, interspersed with archival footage from WWII. That’s the whole movie, amounting to a little over 68 minutes long, not meeting the typical minimum.

261-auschwitz-stills-1-2362x1575As someone who has worked in education for ten years now, I can reaffirm that a distressing number of young people have a general ignorance about the Holocaust. I suppose part of this is inevitable with the passage of time; the more years pass the less people can get to know survivors and veterans of the war. As it recedes into the past it becomes less pertinent and in some ways less real for many people. This is the reason why I personally include Holocaust texts in my school curriculum to check the knowledge level of students and build upon it, to make sure something this dastardly would not be forgotten. The early interviews Boll conducts (in what appears to be a bathroom?) appear to have a slippery sense of what the Holocaust was about as well as the cruel realities that befell those Hitler found as sub-human. But the latter interviews involve different students who have an amazing command of the Holocaust, even citing centuries-old incidents of anti-Semitism. If Boll’s intent is to show that his movie is needed why include interviews with students who are clearly not ignorant of the subject? That seems self-defeating, even if I’m pleased that there are articulate, intelligent students out there.

The biggest discussion piece will be on Boll’s extended live-action recreations of the atrocities of Auschwitz. Recreating the crushing reality of the Holocaust is a delicate subject, trying to find a line to maintain respectful voracity to what the people suffered through and steer away from exploitation thrills that highlight the perverse depravity for titillation. Stanley Kubrick famously said to make a Holocaust film that would do justice to the events would make it unbearable. Boll said in a 2010 Vice interview that he didn’t want a narrative to dull the impact of his intents, citing Schindler’s List and The Pianist as fine films but flawed because they attempted stories. Ignoring that both as personal accounts, I think Boll misses the importance of narrative, a device that makes the horrors of history more palatable for viewing because of an accessible entry point. We focus on a character and their experiences, their character’s journey, and how the events impact and change this person, which provides a rooting interest to maintain watching. The other unfortunate reality of purposely removing a narrative is that it makes the recreations seem constructed merely for their shock value. They exist not in the larger realm of a story but as events meant to convey the horrific reality and nothing more. I think this was a misstep.

Boll has handled real-world violence and genocide before, from school shootings (2003’s Heart of America) to mass shooters with god complexes (the woe begotten Rampage series), to the genocide in Darfur (2009’s Attack on Darfur), and the results have been decidedly mixed. His heart may be in the right place but rarely do his message movies succeed at their ambitions. The messages often get lost amidst the exploitation elements or Boll goes overboard to wake up his audience, leaning into the suffering in a manner that can come across as indulgent. This too happens with Auschwitz, as it seems Boll is unable to restrain himself with a subject as well known as the factory of death. One could argue restraint dilutes the memory of those who died, but again it becomes a delicate balancing act to veer away from being pornographic.

Boll’s recreations are solemn and affecting. You can certainly feel his reverence for the topic and his desire to do right. The onscreen depiction follows a group arriving at the death camp, being separated, lead to a gas chamber, where the collection of women, the elderly, children, and the disabled choke to death on the fumes of poison gas. We then watch a handful of prisoners gather the dead, shave their heads, pull out their teeth, transport their clothes and shoes, and then dispose of the bodies in the ovens. It’s impossible to watch the recreations of these panicked deaths and not feel something, especially when Boll includes innocent young children in the mix. It’s horrifying and Boll films the reality of these scenes in an admirable docu-drama style. The nudity is not played for titillation but as a means of showcasing the vulnerability and humanity of the victims. It’s not shied away from but Boll’s camera doesn’t make a point of finding it either. Granted, the close-ups, especially once the gas hits, seem to predominantly feature the pained grimaces of women, but I’ll chalk that up to Boll viewing distressed women as more emotionally powerful. The people featured during these sequences are also admirably ordinary. These people look like who you would see walking down your street. They don’t look like models who were hired because their nude bodies would be something the audience would desire. There are children and they too are seen with the same vulnerability in the nude, though I’m sure the inclusion of naked children will sabotage any noble intent for some viewers.

However, Boll’s inclinations can get the better of him, like the majority of his more high-minded “message movies” that can transform into pulpy genre fare. There are moments where Boll just goes too far, chief among them the baby murdering sequence. Of course this was a reality of Auschwitz and other extermination camps because the Nazis had no need for babies. One of the most startling details in Elie Wiesel’s famous novel is his recount of watching babies hurled into a pit of fire, as it would naturally traumatize anyone for life. But just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be given inordinate attention. There’s a difference between unflinching and simply gratuitous. A child is held in the air and we see another SS officer point a pistol at the baby’s head. Rather than cut away and imply the ensuing violent death, Boll purposely stays within the scene, watching the muzzle flash and the CGI blood spray lightly (thankfully that’s the extent of whatever gore is applied to this scene). This happens three times and each time Boll makes sure we know this gun is firing at this baby’s head. Once gets the point across but three times is just excess. The same can be said for the gas chamber sequences. There are two, one presented at the very start of the arrival at Auschwitz, intercut with the people disembarking from the train and lining up. It’s unclear whether this is a flash forward but the faces seem different. Also, I have no interest in re-watching it for further study. That means in the course of 35 minutes we endure two groups of people asphyxiating to death. Here’s another instance where a lack of narrative is harmful. Without a story, without characters, this presentation is just nameless innocents suffering. What does the second sequence provide that the first lacks? It’s indulgent, and indulgence built upon human suffering is just bad.

Boll’s limited budget also constrains his ambitions. He filmed Auschwitz simultaneously as he filmed two other movies, a third Bloodrayne film and a bizarrely conceived satire of this same movie, Blubberella. Even for a workaholic like Boll, making three movies at once is insane. This might be why the live-action segment only amounts to 35 minutes and involves minimal dialogue. There are only three credited actors including Boll himself as an SS guard (the symbolism of director as participant seems ripe for dissecting). There is one extended sequence where two SS officers discuss mundane small talk, hammering home the banality of evil. But it’s right back to another gas chamber sequence from there, the director’s true preoccupation. The Auschwitz camp was half the size of Manhattan. What we see onscreen is a pittance. It feels so incredibly small. It makes me wonder why Boll felt the need to draft off the name recognition of Auschwitz. This setting could have been any concentration camp as the gas chamber outcome was not unique to Auschwitz, and that is really the only thing visualized with these recreations. It’s not life at the camp, the struggles of survival, it’s only a quick march to a painful death. There’s no reason this had to be Auschwitz.

Even with misgivings, I do think there can be an academic value to what Boll has put together. Written accounts and stories are a valuable tool, but sometimes a visceral and visual demonstration can bring to life history for people in powerful and valuable ways. This movie could rattle people and stay with them years after viewing, translating the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that is blunt, direct, and reverent. However, Boll’s yearning for profundity comes into direct conflict with his schlocky, exploitation-loving impulses, which pushes him to prolong the onscreen misery in the name of “staying true to how it was.” Without a narrative to provide a foundation, the movie becomes an uneven documentary with bouts of strained intensity. I wouldn’t judge this movie as harshly as Boll’s Rampage films. I sense his noble intents. There’s even a maturity with the filmmaking that I don’t think a younger Boll would have found. Ultimately, Auschwitz is more supplemental teaching tool than movie, and to that end it might do some needed good, proving that even Uwe Boll can make the world a little better.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Midsommar (2019)

I was not a fan of Hereditary. It had some admirable craft and a potent sense of dread, but it felt like it was being made up as it went and little came to much without exposition that was literally highlighted. I worried the same was about to transpire with writer/director Ari Aster’s newest indie horror darling with the critics, Midsommar. It has many of the same faults I found with the earlier Hereditary yet I walked away mostly pleased from his campy, weird, and disturbing follow-up. I’m still processing why I hold one over the other, so come along with me, dear reader, as I work through this conundrum.

Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are hanging on in a relationship past its prime. Each is wondering whether to end it, and then tragedy strikes and Dani’s family is killed in one large suicide. She’s lost to her grief and Christian feels compelled to comfort her and guilty to leave. He invites her to a retreat he had been intending with his friends (Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper) to the idyllic home of a Swedish-born pal, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). The group travels to the northern reaches of Sweden to attend the pagan mid-summer festival, an event that happens once every ninety years, but things are not what they appear and soon it may be too late to leave.

From a technical perspective, Aster has some serious skills even if they don’t fully amount to much. His decision to film the majority of the film in bright sunlight provides a disarming contrast to most horror films that use darkness and our primal fear of it as the backdrop for their scary shenanigans. It produces a different landscape for the movie and the illusion of tranquility that will be shaken. The photography by Pawel Pogorzelski is often gorgeous in its framing and deliberate shot compositions. Aster’s command of technical craft and his ability with actors gives him such a great starting point with his projects. I just wish they amounted to more than the sum of their parts, and I’m not sure Midsommar is different.

It’s hard not to notice that Midsommar is decidedly less ambitious and more streamlined than Hereditary, and I think this has positives and negatives. First, it makes the film more condensed and accessible. It’s also a smart move to personalize the story through the experiences of Dani and her recovery from trauma. The plot presented is pretty predictable; you’ve seen enough other cult movies to know what should be ominous and what decisions will be regretted. I strongly suspect that Aster recognizes that his audience knows these things and that’s why the narrative isn’t built around what will happen next but more so how will Dani respond to what will happen next. There’s a deadly ritual at about the hour mark that just about everyone and their invalid grandmother will be able to see coming, though that doesn’t take away from the sick brutality of the moment and some stomach-churning prosthetics. However, even though I knew it was coming, the dread was more palpable for me because I knew it would trigger Dani, so I was lying in wait to observe her response and how it reopened her fresh emotional trauma. Midsommar is filled with these moments, where the audience may know what’s coming but not exactly how Dani will respond, and that personalization and emphasis on her perspective made the simplification work.

On the other end, Midsommar is very obvious with its very obvious influences. I’m hesitant to cite by name these influences because it gives away the game as far as where the plot is headed, but if you’ve seen the trailer then you likely already have a healthy guess. Again, it feels like Aster knows what his audience is anticipating because the homages are apparent. There’s literally a bear suit at one point and a homemade lottery system to determine participation. It’s all right there, in your face, and yet the movie doesn’t move beyond these unsubtle reference points. Midsommar ends exactly where you would expect it to end and without a more satisfying sense of resolution to tie things up. While it hinges on the choices made by Dani and her response to them, it doesn’t go into the consequences or implications of those choices, and leaves the audience hanging for more meaning never to materialize.

Lord knows they could have carved some of that needed resolution from the overindulgent 140-minute running time. Much of Midsommar is methodically paced to build its unnerving and inquisitive atmosphere, to better immerse the audience in the peculiar rites and customs of this secluded cult. But a little goes a long way and after so many rituals it can become repetitious. There’s at least twenty minutes that could have been trimmed to makes this movie less meandering. The woman sitting behind me at my screening openly complained, during yet another ritual, “When is this going to be over?”

I was genuinely surprised to be laughing as often as I did, and that’s because Midsommar has a very intentional camp element at its disposal. The cult rituals and behaviors are meant to be creepy but also goofy as we view them from the perspective of the outsider. It’s the same perspective that informs the whole movie. We’re learning alongside the characters about what this hidden world is like, layer by layer, and there’s a sense of discovery that helps drive the film and kept my interest attained. These are pretty stupid characters because they should be turning around and running for home time and time again, and yet they stay behind. It becomes an unexpected dark comedy watching them ignore the many warning signs that are obvious to the audience. It’s dumbfounding that after everything these characters would still drink what they are served. Horror is rife with stupid characters being ignorant to obvious dangers, but this movie turns it into consistent humor. There are moments of pure weirdness that just forced me to laugh heartily, and it definitely feels like that is the intended response. How else should one respond when a nude woman interrupts sexual coitus to start singing in your face?

The characters aren’t exactly the Ugly American depictions we’ve come to expect in movies where we root for their demise in a foreign setting. Nobody matters except for Dani and Christian, and even he is more a foil for her. He’s not a bad person but he’s also not helping her. The movie is dominated by Dani and her emotional journey. There are many scenes of her breaking down and Pugh (the breakout from the underseen Lady Macbeth) is our emotional anchor. Her performance is more grounded than Toni Colette’s in Hereditary and a respite for the audience to come back to. The empathetic community of the pagan cult provides a comfort she is searching for. Pugh feels like a normal person struggling under trauma and relatable relationship woes.

With two horror movies under his belt, Aster’s style and signatures as a filmmaker are coming more into focus. He emphasizes atmosphere and mystery at the expense of plot. His movies have creepy images and moments, and Midsommar definitely has its spooky share, but these moments can also feel rather arbitrary. Why does someone wear a bear suit and not a moose suit? It doesn’t matter because it’s just atmospheric ephemera that doesn’t tie into the plot. Why is there a “seer” with elephantitus who happens to be the byproduct of inbreeding? Because it looks weird, and never mind that that much inbreeding would take generations. The world building feels at the behest of the imagery and not the other way around. Also, you’ll know you’re watching an Ari Aster film if there’s older full-frontal nudity, an emphasis on mental illness, suicide, religious cults, and wailing women. I mean like loud, painfully prolonged caterwauling. There are even moments where the cult acts like a chorus to the cries, climaxes, and wailing of others, and it goes from being weird to being obnoxious rather quickly.

I predict Midsommar is going to be another hit with critics and self-styled horror elites and leave most general audiences bewildered and frustrated (Hereditary received a D+ rating from opening day audiences via CinemaScore). It’s hard for me to see a broad audience willingly hopping aboard Ari Aster’s wavelength, which seems engineered to be insular. It prizes creepy atmosphere at the behest of plot and structure, the pacing can be stubbornly slow and repetitious, and you’re left wondering if anything amounted to anything. At least with Midsommar I feel like stripping down the narrative and streamlining made me more empathetic with the main heroine and her reactions, but it does make for a less ambitious and more predictable film that, despite being in bright sunlight, is content to stay hidden in the shadows of its influences.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Toy Story 4 (2019)

The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.

Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box.  It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.

In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.

Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.

The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.

If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.

It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.

As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.

Nate’s Grade: A

Late Night (2019)

Late Night follows the fictional long-running TV talk show host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) who has been informed by her network exec that his current season will be her last season. She will be replaced and the show will be retooled. Along comes Molly (Mindy Kaling), an aspiring comedy writer who works in a chemical plant. She’s hired on the spot to serve as a token and offer more diversity in Newberry’s all white, all-male writers room. She has to find herself, find her voice, stand up for herself, and try to get the show to change with the times if it’s going to potentially survive the eager network axe.

For fans of the inner workings of show business, and the ups and downs and push and pull of creatives, Late Night was made for you. I’ve always been fascinated by the nuts-and-bolts of creative ventures in the entertainment industry and especially a writer’s room where people hash out ideas, build out a storyline, and generally bring our TV to life. I enjoyed the short-lived show where Jim Rash would interview different TV showrunners about their writer’s room processes and how they would resolve creative decisions. It’s one reason I loved HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, a deeply satirical and self-deprecating look at the bowels of Hollywood. So if you’re like me and enjoy the inner workings of creative people working in tandem, then Late Night is already starting on fertile ground for you. Kaling’s world is informed by her years of television writers room experience, as well as running her own show, and that experience better informs the reality of Late Night, from the joke-writing process, to the wariness of content that may push away sponsors, to the means of staying relevant in a vastly changing landscape of how people get their media and entertainment. You feel Molly’s sense of triumph, and disappointment, when her first joke is placed into the monologue and then removed. The movie feels informed and real to its tiniest detail, which makes it all the more interesting.

The film is consistently funny because Kaling is writing with such a sharp grasp of her characters. Right away the dynamic between Katherine, a cynic with an acid tongue, and Molly, an idealist but a novice who is pushing for reforms, establishes so much wonderful conflict and eventual resolution. It’s universally enjoyable watching a character come into her own, transform the lives of others for the better, and to have characters who butted heads form a mutual friendship and understanding. That’s all present, but with Kaling’s command of writing the characters come first. They drive the story, and while the destination is rather predictable with this sort of thing, that doesn’t make the journey any less satisfying. The character of Katherine Newberry is interesting because she’s a woman who has established her own perch in late night, but she’s still older, white, and from an elitist, privileged bubble. She’s stuck in the middle, which makes her such an interesting character to explore and push into new territory. Kaling has mined some talk show headlines for her story’s drama and it doesn’t feel cheap. Past mistakes are given weight and force characters to reckon with them in a way that acknowledges the extent of the ramifications and the people that have been hurt. Kaling also has a generous sense of writing for her supporting players, giving many a small moment to make an impression and enough for serviceable secondary character arcs.

There’s a definite message afoot with Late Night and it goes about it in a way that makes it far more accessible — as entertainment. Rather than dragging out a soapbox, the movie does the smarter ploy by demonstrating why a homogeneous writers room of the same kind of voice/perspective can be limiting and potentially regressive. Molly is the long-overdue change agent to the show, to the characters, and to the old ways of thinking of what television, and by extension the entertainment industry, had to be simply because it had always been that way. The film’s sense of advocacy for representation is strong and a central tenet, but this doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story with enjoyable characters. By demonstrating through its tale, Kaling has smartly packaged her movie as an empathy test designed to expand the perspectives of its audience, to get them to think how difficult it may be for a woman, let alone a woman of color, to find work in her chosen field. It’s the kind of movie you could take your grandparents to and have them nod along in approval.

Allow me to get a little personal here as I reflect on the topic of representation. I think recognizing one’s self and one’s stories is a huge deal. The power of empathy is potentially endless but that doesn’t mean that all stories need to be told from the familiar template of a straight white dude encountering conflict and change. With good storytelling, anybody can feel for anybody’s plight, but that doesn’t mean that those in the industry should stop trying to give voice to others who have historically been marginalized. TV, and particularly late night TV, is something of a boy’s club and needing more women. A recent analysis on late night TV concluded, with the exception of TBS’ Samantha Bee, that the typical late night talk show writing staff is only one quarter female. More people deserve more opportunities to shine because we, as a society, benefit when we have a plurality of stories from a plurality of voices and perspectives. It makes us all better.

During the summer of 2018, I wrote a rom-com Web series (The Spirit Inside Me) that was told from the perspective of a bisexual woman and dealt with an eventual romance with another woman. You better believe I consulted with my queer friends to make sure every script didn’t feel like it had been written by a straight dude. Then we started to make it a real thing throughout the fall and winter of 2018/early 2019, and the mission statement of the series, and for me, was to try and get as many women involved in the production as we could. There were nine total episodes and I wanted to try and line up as many female directors as possible (if able all of them would be directed by women). Our show was from a feminine perspective, concerning an unorthodox LGBTQ relationship, and I wanted a feminine perspective to imbue as many facets of the production as possible. We put out notices for crew and emphasized that we were looking for women first. You would have thought I had just insulted people’s mothers the way some men responded back. They told me this was “reverse discrimination” and insulting and that the best talent should win out. I dismissed these whiny grievances and continued to seek and hire women. I know many women, even in our small community of filmmaking, don’t get as many opportunities as men. I wanted to give them those experiences. I felt it would make our series better and, personally, it just felt like the right thing to do because I could. With the show currently in editing (stay tuned!), it’s actually one of my happiest decisions as I really enjoyed seeing several women rise to their opportunity and shine. I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back or seek woke plaudits. This is such a slight example of mine over the overwhelming obstacles women face breaking through in a male-dominated industry that doesn’t want to share, but I felt it was worth sharing, dear reader.

Late Night was a movie that kept me smiling and feeling good all over. It warmed my heart, it made me laugh, and it gave me a group of characters to latch onto that earned my affections. Thompson is tart and witty and wonderful. Kaling is lovable and charming and hopeful. They make for a dynamic, combustible combination. Late Night is a fine example about the benefits of diversity, representation, and empathy, and it’s also a cute and funny movie that will make you happy by the time the credits roll. Tune in.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Rocketman (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: B+

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the sequel to 2014’s American re-launch, and the biggest complaint I had with that other film was how frustratingly coy it was with showing Godzilla. I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and King of the Monsters at least understands this need and supplies many of the most famous kaiju in the franchise, like Mothra, Rodan, and the three-headed King Ghidorah. The human drama is just as boring with characters I have a hard time caring about. Vera Farmiga plays a scientist who lost a child during the 2014 monster brawl in San Francisco. She develops a sonar device to communicate and domesticate the giant monsters (now totaling 17 plus). She and her teen daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by eco terrorists that want to… destroy the world and leave it back to the ancient monsters? It’s a bit jumbled. I felt more for a monster than I did any living person. The plot does just enough to fill in time between the monster battles, which can be fun but are also lacking a few key items. Firstly, the sense of scale is lost. That’s one thing the 2014 film had in spades, the human-sized perspective of how enormous these beasts are. Also the fight scenes are shot in pretty dark environments that can make things harder to watch. There is a simple pleasure watching two giant monsters duke it out on screen, and King of the Monsters has enough of these to satisfy. It’s still a flawed monster mash but at least it sheathes the itch it was designed for, and if you’re a Godzilla fan and feeling generous, that might be enough to justify a matinee with a few of your favorite fifty-story pals.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Miss Bala (2019)

At the start of 2019, there were an amazing three Hollywood remakes of foreign films released. It was a peculiar time where we had the American version of France’s global hit The Intoucheables (The Upside), the American version of Norway’s quirky and violent In Order of Disappearance (Cold Pursuit), and the American version of Mexico’s searing beauty pageant crime thriller, Miss Bala. The films didn’t seem like a studio dump job, the new regime quietly dropping doomed movies into the early months of the year to go hopefully unnoticed. The Upside was a $100-million grossing hit, once again proving the durable and international power of that story. The remake I was most concerned about was Miss Bala, which looked via trailers to have strayed so far from the original. It felt like a potent and tragic movie was being turned into an empowerment vehicle, pretty much flipping the artistic intent of the 2011 Mexican original.

Gloria (Gina Rodriguez) is a pageant makeup artist visiting her good friend in Tijuana. The nightclub they’re in becomes a scene of gag violence and Gloria is a reluctant witness to who was responsible. As a result, the cartel gang kidnaps her and forces her to do their bidding, including unwittingly driving a car full of explosives to a DEA safe house. Gloria is forced to be a DEA informant, a courier for the cartel, and all the while she’s searching to find her friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo). By the end this new “Miss Bala” (“bala” means bullet in Spanish) will be forged by fire and find her strength to fight.

This is a very different version of the Miss Bala story, and for the purposes of this review and critical clarification, I think it would be helpful to reprint my brief analysis of the 2011 film for easier comparison. So here is my 2011 review in full:

Miss Bala (Mexico’s foreign film Oscar entry for 2011) is an unwavering, startling, and deeply tense movie about one woman’s tragic and unwilling association with a powerful drug cartel. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) wants to be the next Miss Baja California, but she’s unwittingly pulled into a life of crime after she witnesses a gang hit. The cartel ensures that Laura wins the beauty pageant and becomes a courier for them. The movie takes a Lars von Trier approach to storytelling, putting its heroine through a torture chamber of anxiety and terror. This woman only wants to escape the hell she has accidentally found herself a part of, but every attempt to escape, be it going to the police or confessing assassination plots to the intended targets, gets her corralled back into the fray. For Laura, there is no escape. The movie packs a near-constant surge of paranoia, as we fear that at any time something awful will happen. In fact it’s usually only a matter of time. Laura is more a symbol of the collateral damage of Mexico’s billion-dollar drug war than a character, and she kind of becomes a numb zombie by the movie’s latter half, perhaps accepting her doomed fate. Director Gerado Naranjo favors long unwinding takes and handheld cameras, which add a gritty realism and sense of compounding dread to the picture. The movie has an unflinching level of realism to it that makes it all the more haunting, stripping the romanticism from a life of crime. Much like Italy’s heralded crime film Gomorrah, this bleak but impassioned movie shows the inescapable tentacles of organized crime and gives a face to innocents caught in the middle. Miss Bala is a testament to the hidden toll of a nation at war with itself.”

That sounds like a pretty interesting movie, right? It is and is worth checking out regardless of your feelings for the 2019 Miss Bala. The original protagonist was simply a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result she became a pawn in a larger game of leverage between warring factions. Her entire goal was to simply escape the terrible danger she was in, but every refuge just put her back into the fray or used her for their own devious purposes. The protagonist wasn’t completely passive since she’s constantly reacting to the dangers and dangerous men around her, assessing her ability to escape, who she can trust and when, but she is decidedly less empowered.

That is the biggest divergence with the 2019 Miss Bala, making our protagonist an empowered woman who struts in slow-mo in a ball gown and an automatic weapon, the kind of image you’d see in any number of schlocky Michael Bay action thrillers. Over the course of her harrowing experience, Gloria becomes a Strong Woman, a Fighter Who Fights Back, whereas the protagonist of the 2011 film, Laura, was just trying to be a Survivor first and foremost. There’s a distinct difference in intention and execution there. One is curated with more realism and the other becomes a revenge fantasy. One is meant to disquiet and jar a crowd and the other is meant to be a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser.

I’ll admit there was less action in the 2019 Miss Bala than I had feared from the commercials. However, the action that does occur is indistinguishable from other bigger budget crime shootouts. You’ve got grenade launchers, exploding cars, nightclub shootouts, and other cliché moments handled in relatively cliché ways. There is a final confrontation between Gloria and one of her chief antagonists that includes the line, “I did what I had to do. We both did!” I’m stunned they didn’t feel the need to have the villain denote, “You know you and I are not that different.” Actually, now that I think about it, I’m fairly certain this scene did exist between these characters, with the guy talking about his American upbringing as a means of making connections with her. What I’m ultimately saying is that 2019 Miss Bala kind of misses the point of 2011 Miss Bala. It’s like using the Iron Giant, a figure of pacifism (“I am not a gun”) into a weapon of war (ahem, Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One).

But why don’t you judge the movie on its own merits instead of simply comparing it to its superior source material? That’s a reasonable argument so allow me to do so, dear reader. The new Miss Bala doesn’t work as the fist-pumping crowd-pleaser because it doesn’t know what to do to build its tension and escalation. Take for instance a scene after Gloria is taken in by a rogue DEA agent (Matt Lauria) and told she works for them now. She’s sent back to the clutches of the cartel and then alone in a bedroom with a leader. This guy tells her to start taking off her clothes. It’s certainly an uncomfortable moment, and the camera weirdly lingers on Rodriguez’s breasts as she’s about to remove her bra, but the scene is merely a scuzzy guy wanting to see her skin. What if she was wearing a wire or had been hiding something from the DEA, and then removing her clothes would put her in far more danger than being uncomfortable? To further hammer this home, we have a second scene where he acts sleazy to her, touching her and making her uncomfortable, so why do we need two scenes of this making the same point?

The Gloria of 2019 Miss Bala is also a bit too predisposed to be that figure of empowerment in the face of dismissive and dangerous men. Again, nothing wrong with this storytelling perspective, it’s just the film makes it so obvious and clunky at every turn. Within the first minute of screen time, we see Gloria apply her artistic skills at home, go to work, and be dismissed by a snooty male pageant worker telling her, “We’re not paying you to think.” So, as you can see, subtlety is going to be this movie’s strength. Within the next few minutes she travels to Mexico and gets a friendship bracelet from her BFF and she declares, “You are my family.” Again, subtle. Once the club attack goes down, Gloria’s mission becomes finding her missing friend who she assumes is still alive. In the original (here I go again), the protagonist was only interested in escaping and staying alive, and here we have a main character that must save others. The problem with this development is that the movie, like the above described scene, doubles down needlessly. Gloria is already threatened by the cartel that if she escapes they will harm her godson. Why does she need two personal reasons to stay in the thick of the cartel? She already has the DEA pressuring her to do their bidding or else she’ll never find her way back to the United States. The extra conflicts don’t feel like escalations but more like redundancies.

Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) is the best thing going with the 2019 Miss Bala. She is a luminescent actress with skills and was unrecognizable for her in Annihilation. The best thing director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) does is train her camera closely on Rodriguez’s face to gauge the pained, panicked expressions playing out across her very expressive face and glassy eyes. Rodriguez is a real talent who can carry herself in an action vehicle (her muscular turn in Annihilation was a genuine pleasure). She could headline an action movie, but this isn’t the one for her. Her desperation and fear gives way to a quiet confidence that loses the “quiet” part as she undergoes a slow-mo action hero transformation when the movie needs her to zip to the end of her character arc.

I would thoroughly recommend the 2011 Miss Bala for fans of thoughtful, intense, and affecting thrillers. The paranoia and dread were strong throughout that combustible movie that had more on its mind than some cheap thrills. Comparatively, the 2019 Miss Bala remake feels only designed for cheap thrills and a misguided empowerment message. As the main character is turned from a survivor into a fighter, the edges smooth out, the complexity gets distilled, and the movie becomes any other number of action thrillers where our fragile, scared character becomes an avenging angel by the climax. If that’s your recipe for an enjoyable movie, 2019 Miss Bala still has problems with its execution and poor development. You won’t regret watching the new Miss Bala but your time would be better spent watching the original film and hoping better for Rodriguez.

Nate’s Grade: C

Red Joan (2019)

Red Joan is inspired by a true story of an elderly British woman being outed in the 1980s for being a spy for the Russians and passing along British nuclear secrets. If the real story were as boring as what appears onscreen, I doubt anyone would care. Judi Dench plays the older Joan dealing with the public reckoning decades in the making and Sophie Cookson (Kingsmen) plays the young college grad in the 1940s who lands a top nuclear physicists job with the government and alongside a married man she falls for. Some friends who might not really be her friends snooker Joan into becoming a spy, and her rationale is that the world will be a safer place if other countries have the bomb other than simply America. Older Joan says history has proven her right and she takes partial credit for helping to ensure peace. First off, this logic seems faulty. If something is dangerous, I don’t know if it’s less dangerous if more people/countries have it (see: the firearm industry). Secondly, there were numerous incidents that almost brought the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to mutually assured self-destruction including the Cuban Missile Crisis. The biggest problem with Red Joan is how shockingly boring it all is. A young woman pulled into espionage and treason, having to maintain her secrets while they eat away at her and she betrays her colleagues and loved ones, that’s the stuff of complex human drama, or at least it should be if the storytelling knows what it’s doing. The movie never seems to treat what she’s doing with great stakes. Here’s an example of how rushed and under developed the story can be: scene 1) Joan learns her co-worker doesn’t have a great marriage; scene 2) they complete a crossword together and he nudges closer; scene 3) they kiss and he declares his love for her. This sequence of events is portrayed during a travel montage or all things. The characters are so underwritten and their compromises and conflicts rarely feel real because of moments like this. The acting is generally good all around and I wish Cookson would get a starring vehicle worthy of her talents. The biggest mystery for me with Red Joan is that the story depicted onscreen is made up, diverging from the real events, so why didn’t they tell a better story with their freedom?

Nate’s Grade: C

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