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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

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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

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

This may prove to be the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my twenty years (!) of reviewing movies. How do I ever begin to describe the events of Marvel’s culminating blockbuster Avengers: Endgame without stepping too far into the dark and dangerous territory of the accursed spoilers? I thought it would be difficult talking about last year’s Infinity War considering the shocking plot events and general secrecy, but this concluding chapter to a 22-movie journey is even more secretive (the trailer accounts for only footage roughly from the first twenty minutes). I’ll do my best, dear reader, to give you the clearest impression I can of this unique experience while respecting your need to be un-spoiled. In short, Avengers: Endgame is unparalleled in our history of modern popular blockbusters because it needs to work as a clincher to a decade-plus of hugely popular blockbusters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and boy do they ever stick the landing.

The film picks up with our surviving Avengers picking up the pieces following the events of Infinity War, namely Thanos (Josh Brolin) eliminating half of life throughout the universe. The original six Avengers are all suffering through guilt, depression, and degrees of PTSD following their failure to defeat Thanos. Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) arrives after having spent time in the quantum realm and has a potential solution that will involve traveling through time to correct the mistakes of the past and bring everyone who vanished back to life. The remaining teammates assemble at the behest of Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), including Bruce Banner a.k.a. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and War Machine (Don Cheadle). However Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) needs the most convincing, as he is most afraid of making things even worse and losing more people he feels are too precious to be casualties to their failures once again.

The thing to know ahead of time is that Endgame is not for the casual fan. This is a long love letter to the fans that have pored over all 22 preceding films, not just a scant one or two. Infinity War was accessible to relative newcomers because of the structure and focus on Thanos as the main character, providing a self-contained arc that lead up to his finger-snapping triumph. It also benefited from the fun factor of simply watching a bunch of popular characters interact and team up for the first time in MCU history. Now that a majority of those characters have turned to dust, the emphasis falls back on the original core of the Avengers, bringing things full circle. In several ways, Endgame is about bringing to a close this mammoth project that began with Iron Man, this decade of storytelling ambition that has stretched out into multiple inter-connected franchises. If you love these characters, then Endgame is a movie made specifically for you. There is a long stretch in Act Two that relies upon a decent amount of fan service and sentimentality, but I don’t think either is an automatically negative attribute. Before we reach the finish line it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come and this goes for the essential characters and their long arcs. There are several fun cameos strewn throughout and the filmmakers even take an interesting tack of trying to reclaim and re-contextualize the MCU movies that fewer people enjoyed. It makes for a filmgoing experience that is heavy in references, in-jokes, Easter eggs, and cozy nostalgia, which will confuse and frustrate those not well versed in this big world.

The other thing to know, especially if you’re a long-standing fan, is that there will be tears. Oh will there be tears. I lost count of the amount of times I was crying, which was pretty much on and off nonstop for the final twenty minutes. I was even tearing up for supporting characters that I didn’t know I had that kind of emotional attachment for. The film is done so well that the first third actually could play as the MCU equivalent of HBO’s The Leftovers, an undervalued and elegant series about the long-term recovery of those that remain in a post-rapture world. The opening scene involves a character having to go through the loss of loved ones via Thanos’ snap, and it’s brutal as we wait for what we know is coming, dread welling up in the pit of your stomach. The Russo brothers, the returning directing team from Infinity War, know what scenes to play for laughs (the line “That’s America’s ass” had me in stitches), what scenes to play for thrills, what scenes to play for fist-pumping cheers, and what scenes to play for gut-wrenching drama. They allow the movie to be an existential mood piece when it needs to be, actually dwelling on the repercussions of a life post-universe culling. There’s a character who frantically searches to see if a loved one was among the missing, and that eventual reunion had me in tears. With the three-hour running time, the Russos have the luxury of allowing scenes to naturally breathe. This might be the most human many of these characters have ever seemed, and it’s after recovery and grief. Needless to say, the conclusion feels very much fitting but also unabashedly emotional, unafraid of diving deep into its feelings. I sobbed.

I was worried once the film introduced the time travel plot device that everything was simply going to be erased and invalidate the struggles that came before. The worst use of time travel is when it eliminates any urgency or danger, allowing an endless series of do-overs to correct the past. Fortunately, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Civil War, Winter Soldier) realize that in order for there to be a reversal, a glint of a happy ending, there must be a cost or else it all meant little to nothing. There are finite events in the movie that cannot change (as of now) and losses that will be permanent (as of now, if they don’t want to cheapen the journey). People died with Infinity War but we all knew, at least when it came to its dreary conclusion, that it wasn’t going to be too long lasting, which allowed the communal grief to be short-lived. After all, there’s a new Spider-Man film coming down the pike two months from now, so it’s highly unlikely the teenage web-head will remain dead. However, with Endgame, the deaths serve as the cost for resurrecting the MCU, and they will be felt for years. The screenplay provides limitations to the time travel mechanics, though I don’t think the collective hand-wave to the nagging paradoxes was as successful as the movie thinks it was. The film barrels ahead, essentially telling you to forget about the paradoxes and enjoy the ride, focusing on the characters and remembering what is really important.

Suffice to say Downey Jr. is once again his charming, self-effacing, and enormously entertaining self. The MCU began with this man and his contributions cannot be overstated. He is the soul of this universe. Evans is compelling as the straight-laced inspirational figure who takes stock of what he’s sacrificed over the years, Hemsworth showcases a potent mixture of comedic and dramatic chops, Johannson is definitely the Avenger going through the “bargaining” phase to try and make things right and she has some subtle emotional moments that belie her desperation and guilt, and Renner makes a welcomed return in a way that made me appreciate Hawkeye like I never had before. Brie Larson does reappear as Captain Marvel but the movie smartly puts her back on the sidelines protecting the many other worlds in the universe needing assistance because of how overwhelmingly powerful she can become. Larson filmed her scenes for Endgame before her own solo movie, released a month prior, so forgive the different hair and makeup, Twitter nit-pickers. I will say there is one scene that is a bit convoluted how it gets there but is destined to make women in the audience cheer with excitement as the MCU says, “Hey, that whole ‘strong female character’ thing? Yeah, we’ve had all that for years, and here you go.”

How does one properly assess a movie like Avengers: Endgame, a conclusion not just to an Infinity War cliffhanger but to a twenty-two movie prelude over the course of eleven years? The emotional investment in these characters, their journeys, has to come to something to be ultimately meaningful when it’s time to close the chapter on one massively ambitious story before starting the next. And there will be a next chapter; the MCU’s unparalleled financial success assures the fanbase they’ll have plenty more high-flying and wild adventures to come in the years, and more than likely, decades to come. Marvel had the unenviable task of wrapping up a major narrative in a way that would prove satisfying without devaluing the individual films and overall time investment. Hollywood is filled with trilogies that messed up their conclusions. Nailing the ending is just as important as getting things going right, because without a satisfying conclusion it can feel like that level of emotional investment was all for naught. Endgame reminds you how much you’ve grown to love these characters, what fun you’ve had, and genuinely how much you’ll miss these characters when they depart for good. It’s hard not to reflect upon your own passage of time with the ensuing eleven years, how you’ve changed and grown from the MCU’s humble beginnings in the summer of 2008. These heroes and anti-heroes can begin to feel like an extended family for many, and so fans desperately need the ending to do them justice. Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate fan experience.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Aftermath (2019)

I am struggling to come up with something of substance to say about The Aftermath, an adequate drama with decent performances, handsome production design, and a boring love triangle. It’s set in the aftermath of World War Two Germany in the Allied-occupied stretch. Jason Clarke plays a British officer stationed in another man’s home, a wealthy German local (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost his wife in the war. Clarke’s wife (Keira Knightley) is anxious to go home, still processing her grief from losing her child during the war and her relationship with her distant husband seems irreparable. It’s only a matter of time before Knightley and Skarsgard find comfort in one another, and they do, almost absurdly quickly. The more interesting story is Clarke trying to keep a fragile peace in the ruins of bombed-out Germany while Nazi sympathetic elements conspire to form an insurgency against the remaining officers. Now that’s a movie I would watch. That’s a way more intriguing storyline, and one I’m sure chapter after chapter was filled with sprawling, conspiratorial detail in the novel by Rhidian Brook. Alas, we’re stuck with a pretty drab love affair between two pretty people. I didn’t feel any passion between them; it felt like they were acting by-the-numbers, and ultimately maybe that was what the director had in mind all along. I found my mind drifting away for long interludes, thinking about other movies, thinking about watching other historical dramas. The acting is pretty good all around. Knightley has a standout scene where she breaks down and reveals the full extent of her maternal grief and what it has done to her marriage. The Aftermath will be readily forgotten in its own aftermath, and I don’t think too many viewers will mourn.

Nate’s Grade: C

Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.

One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.

What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.

Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.

Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.

I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.

I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.

Nate’s Grade: A

Pet Sematary (2019)

I already know my computer’s spell check is going to hate this review. In the wake of the box-office bonanza of It, prolific author Stephen King is a hot property once again for studios and everything old is new again. Pet Sematary (yes it’s intentionally misspelled) is a remake of a 1989 that was a hit back in the day. It was never regarded as a good movie but had its campy entertainment, so there was some room for improvement. Early reviews were positive and I raised my hopes for the 2019 edition, but after having seen the finished product, maybe some movies too are better off left dead.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved to small-town Maine for a little peace and quiet and to spend more time with their children, nine-year-old Ellie (Jete Laurence) and their toddler, Gage. They happen to live next to a busy road with dangerous drivers speeding at all hours. An accident claims the life of their beloved family cat, but the kindly old neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) has a piece of advice. Beyond the “pet sematary” in the woods is a place where the buried dead come back to life. The cat comes back, though is mean and different. Later, another accident takes the life of Ellie, and Louis cannot let her go. He buries her in the hallowed grounds, she comes back, but she’s not daddy’s little girl any longer, and people will pay a high price.

Eschewing a sense of camp, the film risks being overrun by its own sense of seriousness, which only works if there is room given to explore the ramifications of grief, the choices people make when they’re hurting, and the irony of good intentions. If you’re going to go in a serious direction then you need the confidence and dedication to play to that decision, and that’s not the case with the 2019 Pet Sematary. It’s lacking those important moments of contemplation or even dwelling with the horror of bringing back a loved one from the dead. There’s only so much evil hissing cat you can have before you hit a limit and start saying, “What else you got?” There’s going to be an escalation, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler, considering the nature of the premise but also its predecessor being 30 years old, that one of the children will die only to be brought back. It’s also an easy speculation that they will “come back wrong” but the drama is processing this decision and trying to mitigate the mounting consequences. How far will a parent go to protect their child even if that child is an undead murderer? The trials should strain the moral resolve or our protagonist while reveling in the grotesque.

Because every viewer is going to already expect this much, it’s the film’s job to develop this premise in a satisfying manner and/or provide surprises from our expectations. Pet Sematary 2019 unfortunately does neither, barreling through the dramatic downtime when it could be developing its horror and unleashing standard slasher jump scares. When Louis is brushing his daughter’s tangled hair he runs his fingers over the metal staples in the back of her skull holding her head together. It’s a stark reminder that she is not the same, and it goes beyond her scraggly voice and unyielding stares meant to convey the same information. The film needed more moments like this, small details to unnerve and remind, rather than making her essentially The Ring girl from the start. The movie voluntarily eliminates its own storytelling runway, giving it little room to ramp things up and being forced to simply jump to the big bad killer demon girl. The filmmakers try and compensate somewhat by giving Rachel her own independent haunting, seeing hallucinations of her dead, twisted deformed sister. Those sequences reminded me of the slow stirring sequences in 2017’s It, drawing in the audience to dread what will happen next. It’s a side plot that could be eliminated entirely and I enjoyed these sequences the most because it was at least something pregnant with possibility.

Many of the new additions feel like the filmmakers are fumbling for something else to be scary because they’ve consciously or unconsciously admitted defeat with their zombie. She’s creepy, sure, but she starts at full creepy and stays there. We get things like animal masks reminiscent of 2013’s home invasion thriller You’re Next. We get the spooky visions of ghosts that the child can see. We get Rachel’s taunting visions that never feel fully integrated into the larger whole with any thematic value. It could have tapped into her guilt praying for the demise of her sister for a well-earned sense of relief, and this same feeling coming ahead anew with her reanimated child, challenging her to reconcile her past actions and personal culpability and goad her into action. But like most aspects of the supernatural be-careful-what-you-wish-for parable, it’s given precious little deliberation and instead it’s more standard thriller moments to goose scares. I do appreciate that the film takes its sense of bleakness to the very bitter end, departing from the 1989 original for an even darker conclusion. The only problem is that it left me wanting the sequel. By the end, I think many viewers will agree that they wish a Pet Sematary movie, at least one under this oh-so-serious-slasher direction, had started at this end point instead and gone forward, exploring the full ramifications of the larger world.

As is wont for the Internet, there has been some gnashing of teeth over the fact that the remake kills a different child, but I think this is the smart move. It allows the remake to stand apart from the original and chart a path of its own, not that it’s very far. It also boosts the practicality of what it can do for horror. As any parent may attest, there’s more to worry about what a nine-year-old can do than a two-year-old. Even reanimated and filled with supernatural power, it’s still a small child that can be overwhelmed. An evil pre-schooler has a bit more limited mobility for their murder rampages.

For fans of King, or fans of genre horror, there may be enough standard thrills and chills to enjoy the new Pet Sematary. In the extremely spotty spectrum of King movie adaptations, it’s definitely somewhere in the middle, not bad per se but nothing special.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Serenity (2019)

Serenity might have the most bizarre plot twist of any film this year, or maybe even the last few years. For the sake of you, dear reader, I’ll not spoil it, but it’s hard to talk about this neo-noir crime thriller without revealing its larger grand design. I have no real idea what writer/director Steven Knight, a talented wordsmith who has written Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders, was going for with this murky genre mishmash. Matthew McConaughey plays Dill, a local fisherman who for the first 18 minutes of the movie is obsessed with a hard-to-catch tuna like it’s Moby Dick. Literally, this is the key plot for 18 minutes. Then his old flame (Anne Hathaway) comes to town and looking for Dill to help her kill her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Now we’re on fertile noir ground, and then one hour in the film throws a curve ball that nobody will see coming, and it spends another 45 minutes dealing with those repercussions. Some of this added knowledge leads to creepy exchanges where Dill is peeling back the veneer of his sleepy island town residents, but really it’s a confusing and unnecessary twist that leads to strange thematic implications and tonal oddities that may lead to unintentional laughter. The sentimental ending conclusion, born out of murder both real and imaginary, feels like it was ripped out of Field of Dreams and forcibly grafted on. So much of the drama is about following what is expected of us, and there are more than a few passing, though intriguing, Truman Show-esque moments that reward further examination, but these are put on hold to slay the abusive husband/step dad through the power of an elusive fish. I don’t know what to make out of Serenity. The acting is fairly solid, the photography is stylish, and Knight knows how to spin a mystery, but to what end exactly? It feels like a passionate albeit misguided student film trying to say New Things about old tropes. In the end, it’s a fish tale that is better off being thrown back. See, I can do fish things too.

Nate’s Grade: C

Dumbo (2019)

Director Tim Burton has always been attracted to the weirdos, the outsiders, the freaks, so it seems fitting that he attached his name to a big-budget, live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film of the flying pachyderm, Dumbo.

Shortly after World War I, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning home and reuniting with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re rebuilding in the wake of their mother’s loss and Holt’s war amputation. He and his horse-wrangling wife used to be the star attraction for their traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The circus is on hard times until Max purchases a pregnant elephant that gives birth to a big-eared baby with a special ability to fly. Suddenly the crowds come pouring back and a bigwig like V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) sees a big opportunity. He offers the circus to move to his state-of-the-art theme park, Dreamland, and for Dumbo to perform with his famed trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green, seeming to take the mantle of Burton’s Raven-Haired Muse, after Helena Bonham Carter, and before her Lisa Marie, and before her Wynona Rider — seriously, look it up, there are only four movies in his whole career that don’t feature these actresses). The big new stage only serves as a reminder of how lonely Dumbo is and the family plots to reunite him with his mother.

As we enter a precipitous new age of Disney live-action over saturation, each new remake must be asked the question, why does this film need to exist? I feel like we can classify the glut of live-action remakes into two categories, namely the older, less revered films and the newer, more revered. Take for instance two 2016 remakes, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, as both films felt enough distance from their sources’ release that they had the comfort to be different. In the case of both movies, especially the beautifully lyrical Pete’s Dragon, I’d say they are improvements. But those movies are old and the nostalgia for them is minimal. That’s the not the case for films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, where the originals are beloved by an audience that still remembers them fondly and vividly, now slightly older, and looking for fidelity rather than artistic invention. When the live-action 2017 Beauty and the Beast, an otherwise dreary and pointless remake of a new classic, makes a billion dollars, Disney has a pretty clear indication of what the wider audience wants with their remakes. Dumbo is a movie that actually has some room for new artistic life, especially with a talent like Burton adding his own signature dash of razzle-dazzle. There are some things from the source material that could use further examination, like animal abuse, and some things from the 1941 original that could deservedly be eliminated, like the racist “Jim Crows.” It may be early but I think Dumbo will be my favorite of the 2019 Disney remakes.

There’s an enjoyable sense of whimsy and wonder to the film that also belies a darker underbelly, something that Burton has featured since Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Early on, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, The Ring) establish the world by returning dear old dad back but with one less arm. It undercuts the reunion and also leads to a crossroads of mounting questions about his viability as a performer and adaptability. The children and the father are the real stars of the film, a family trying to reconfigure their new identity in the absence of their mother and the readjustment of their father after he can no longer be a headliner. It’s enough to ground the movie emotionally and provide a sense of stakes. The motley crew of circus performers and sideshow acts serves as a non-traditional family unit, a found family, and one fighting for their own slice of dignity. I’m likely reading more into this than intended but the fact that I can shows that Burton and company at least put in solid efforts to stake a foundation. The wonderfully macabre, askew Burton elements are present as well, especially in the production design for Dreamland, which looks like another fantasy neighborhood straight out of Halloweentown in Nightmare Before Christmas. The presence of Eva Green is another enjoyable highlight as a French acrobat that becomes close to Dumbo and the Farrier family as a whole. It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric, which is another fine way of describing Max Medici and DeVito’s affectionate performance. There is an offbeat sense of humor to and visual whimsy to the film that works with the standard heartwarming family elements rather than against it. It’s a movie that can hit you in the gut and then make you smile the next minute.

Dumbo is less a character than he is a symbol, but it works for the most part even if it hampers the larger storytelling prowess of the film. He’s a symbol for every person to import their own feelings, an outsider who feels like they do not belong. He’s also a symbol of innocence as a gentle animal, something to tug at the heartstrings when he’s mistreated or separated from his mother. It’s hard not to feel something when the camera gets the special close-up for his big, soulful eyes. He’s even more sad looking in garish clown makeup. The animal rights angle isn’t heavy-handed but enough to get you feeling sympathy for poor creature. It sets up a big escape to reunite mother and son and free them from captivity that reminded me of a 90s kids movies, but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that’s one of the achievements of Burton’s movie is that he has reshaped an older children’s movie model with his unique touches. It’s a far more successful alchemy than 2010’s dull Alice in Wonderland.

I also have to call special attention to Michael Keaton’s villainous character specifically because it is an obvious stand-in for Walt Disney. Not only does he own a theme park, where the customers come to him rather than the other way around, but also he’s a showman who’s underhanded, greedy, and backbiting, ready to cut anyone loose. There’s even a scene that shows him comically inept when it comes to actually performing any actual practical skill, like controlling an electrical panel (Keaton’s exaggerated movements made me think of a child pretending to be an adult at work). Keaton is also wonderfully daft as the blowhard. He feels like he’s in a very different movie that only he knows about, and while it didn’t exactly fit it made every one of his scenes more entertaining. Burton and his team were biting the hand that feeds them, calling into question the intentions and actions of the man that gave birth to the empire, and Disney miraculously approved of this. Maybe they felt they had gotten so big (sayonara, 20th Century Fox) that criticism didn’t matter, or maybe it somehow slipped under their collective radar, I cannot say, but its inclusion is both welcome and fascinatingly bizarre for a 2019 Disney release.

At its core, Dumbo is an enjoyable if limited remake, a movie that sets its ambitions low but sets out to try a few different things with modest success. There are some scenes that go too far, whether it’s the extended reaction shots of crowds vocally heckling… an elephant, or a pretty lazy message that we can all be special because of what we have inside, that reminded me what the finished film could have been, namely far worse. It doesn’t quite soar but it does rise above my expectations and kept me pleasantly entertained.

Nate’s Grade: B

Us (2019)

I think it’s important to state that Us is not Get Out and that’s perfectly okay. Not every movie can be a Get Out, an experience that was so refreshing, socially relevant, wickedly fun and dynamic that I immediately wanted to see it again and tell everyone I know to join in. Writer/director Jordan Peele shed his funnyman past and flexed his impressive genre know-how to make a knockout of a movie with an amazingly structured story, allowing all of the pieces to snap together with clever precision. It was my own second favorite film of 2017 and I was highly looking forward to Peele’s follow-up in the realm of what goes bump in the night. Don’t go into Us expecting Get Out. It’s not quite the sum of its parts and has some storytelling shortcomings that limit the impact of its visceral thrills. It’s an engaging horror movie, but it’s far more allegorical and far less tidy and satisfying.

The Wilson family is spending their summer vacation at a rental home in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are trying to enjoy a getaway with their children, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex), when strange coincidences keep occurring. This is the same beach town where many years ago Adelaide had a traumatic childhood experience getting lost from her bickering parents. Then one night Jason informs his family that there’s another family standing in their driveway. The Wilson family is hounded by mysterious doppelgangers, each a cracked mirror version of themselves. This new family wants what the Wilsons have and will use any bloody means to see that they get it.

Us is more a straight horror film and has plenty of excellent, terrifying, and smartly directed scenes to make an audience squirm in their seat. Peele has established in two movies a strong instinct for horror and how to expertly stage a scene. His camera is judicious in what it does and does not show the audience, holding onto moments to escalate tension and providing no escape for an eager audience. The majority of the second act is a home invasion thriller and these scenes and subsequent chases and escapes can be nerve-wracking. Each character has their own opponent and each has their own method of trying to outsmart or out maneuver their downtrodden doppelganger. I was getting plenty of Funny Games vibes, a movie I downright despise, but what it could have been if the creator actually cared about the inhabitants. The family and their bonding is a strong empathetic anchor for the audience, so we watch each member of the family battle a literal incarnation of their inner demons. Peele also assembles an effective collection of spooky imagery, from caged rabbits, to the slice of golden scissors, to a carnival funhouse, to even the nature of that 80s social event, Hands Across America. You can sense Peele’s love of horror and the entertainment value horror movies afford. There’s a strong central mystery to guide the narrative and the sense of discovery from Act Two onward keeps things fresh as we learn more and more about these doubles.

From a technical craft standpoint, Us has the upper hand over Get Out. This is a movie that wants to scare you and Peele has devoted great consideration into his artistic elements to achieve that key principle. Peele knows exactly how to craft a particular mood and what genre elements to pepper in and to what amount for the right response. The photography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) is evocative and makes great use of limited light to capture an eerie and unsettling feeling. The musical score by Michael Abels is also exceptional, making the most of each heightened scene and doing wonders with a dark, operatic version of the chill 90s song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. It makes for a fun, frightening, and favorable film experience in the moment-to-moment sequences of build and release.

The performances are another strength, with each member of the family getting extra range thanks to their dual roles. Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) is the standout and emotional center of the movie. Her double is the leader of her clan and the only one that has the ability to speak, except speaking isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like the words escape her throat, raspy and without intonation. It’s a remarkable commitment on her part and she tries a lot of weird character tics, most of them work, from her herky-jerky to robotically possessed physical movements, unblinking eyes, and then there’s that startling voice. Duke (Black Panther) finds his footing as a comedic foil, starting as a corny but loving dad and thrust into a family defender that gets more and more tired of the horror movie nonsense he endures. The kids all do solid, effective work with what they’re given, seizing their moments. Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays a bourgeoisie friend and has a fantastic moment with lip gloss that made me horrified and entranced all at once.

This is where the merits of the film start running into conflict with Peele’s muddled intentions and messy execution toward the finish. As I said, it’s far more allegorical in approach; meaning for the longest time it seems to be a film outside the bounds of literal interpretation. That’s fine since many horror films rely upon a heaping helping of metaphor for larger implications. I was prepared for Us to stay in this creative territory. Except Peele makes a late decision to squeeze his movie into a bizarre and distracting middle ground, where it feels like the metaphor is the real message, if you can decode it. Once you stand back and assess the full Us, it doesn’t hold together in allegory or explanation.

Even hours after seeing the movie, I cannot say whatsoever what the intended theme is for Us, and this really befuddles me since Get Out was laser-focused in this regard. Peele isn’t just cranking out fun, throwaway genre movies, he’s trying to make statements through horror and elevating the genre in artistic ways. Get Out postulated how being a black man in America was like living in a horror movie and a Stepford Wives-meets-Being John Malkovich commentary on the usurpation of minority agency and the commodification of black bodies. It’s not every day that a horror movie wins an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, let alone deserves it, and Peele’s treatise on race relations was perfectly structured, each piece snapping together and better informing the whole, with setups and payoffs galore, and at its heart was its relevant message. With Us, I don’t really know what Peele is trying to say here. There’s a simple duality theme but that seems pretty weak and underdeveloped. There may be a have/have not inequality discussion but this gets into trouble in the final act (more on that below). I don’t think race even factors into the overall message, as a late turn reveals that the doppelgangers extend beyond our central African-American family. What is Peele trying to say with Us? I’m at a real loss and I’m trying to process that confusion and my own expectations.

This might have worked better had Peele not elected to supply a hasty sci-fi explanation for why things are the way they are, and in the process he strands his film in a contentious middle zone that tries to find a logical context to plant his allegory. I won’t get into what exactly the details of this explanation are but suffice to say it doesn’t really hold together and invites far more questions, each one picking apart the reality of the film, which disintegrates at an ever-increasing speed. How far-reaching is this conspiracy? What is the ultimate goal? How do these people think they will win? Why now? There’s also a big twist ending that should be obvious for anyone paying attention, but what makes this decision worse is not that it’s predictable but that it hardly sheds any new dimension to what came before. It doesn’t really change our reading of certain people because of the time it happened and so the big meaning is its existence as a twist. It doesn’t redefine the narrative in the way that great twists should. It might play into a larger thematic point except, as described above, that area is hard to ascertain. The last third of Us gives a sense of scope and rationale but the movie also loses its form, trading in dream logic and then trying to provide a new real world context that cannot hold.

Friends have already asked me whether Us is a good movie, and I’ve found myself saying, “Yes, but…” Peele’s follow-up left me with more questions than answers and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that began to eat away at my otherwise good time in the theater. Us has some fantastic moments and tense scares but I cannot say what its muddled theme is, the hazy explanation doesn’t really work, and the overall intent left me perplexed. It’s an evocative horror movie with solid to great performances from a very game cast of characters. Given its more free-floating plot, it feels like the kind of movie that would hold together by a strong thematic core. I think most people will leave Us somewhat scratching their heads and wondering what it was all about, but not as an accessible puzzle to decode. It’s more a puzzle that doesn’t resemble the picture on the box and is frustratingly missing a few too many pieces to come together.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Front Runner (2018)

In 1987, former Colorado senator and governor Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the leading Democrat in primary polling and a sure bet to take on George H.W. Bush for the White House. In three weeks time, his campaign was in tatters and he folded. It all stems from a supposed affair he was conducting with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). They deny anything but Gary acts like he has something to hide, evading the media’s questions about his marriage and his past history with infidelity. Enough time has passed in the political landscape to take a deeper dive into Gary Hart’s disintegration in the spotlight, and the moment serves a tipping point for changing media coverage. Journalists talk about the “old days” where candidate infidelity and ailments were just ignored as a gentleman’s agreement of sorts between the gatekeepers, but should they have? While a candidate’s martial relations are significantly less important than policy and governance, they do reflect character and what he or she (but, let’s face it, mostly he) acts with authority. Strangely, The Front Runner wants to paint the hungry journalists digging into Hart’s past as the real enemy, going above and beyond the bounds of ethics for crass sensationalism. This is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman (Tully, Up in the Air), a shrewd storyteller with a knack for human drama, which makes the “both sides are bad” equivocation all the more curious. Jackman is strong and has several scenes of righteous speeches talking about how he didn’t sign away his privacy, except when you run for president, you kind of do, and the American public deserve to know if their leaders abuse power. The movie favors long takes with a wide supporting cast of players that speak like they stepped out of an Aaron Sorkin workshop (an exchange celebrating the “integrity” of news anchors wearing bad suits feels ripped right from Sorkin’s unguarded typewriter). The film is nicely sympathetic to the “other woman” in this scenario and treats her like a human being with dimension. The PR recovery and shady deeds of Hart’s team reminded me of the Chappaquiddick, which placed an unfavorable scrutiny on Ted Kennedy and his team of political spin masters after his deadly car accident. It all makes for an entertaining movie with solid performances and interesting character shading, but its perspective is too wobbly, trying to lay the blame on everyone it can find.

Nate’s Grade: B

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