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Cuties (2020)

A new Netflix movie is tearing through the Internet, igniting accusations of glorifying child porn, accusing Netflix employees of pedophilia, and triggering some to even cancel their subscriptions. Even if you’ve never watched Cuties you have probably heard something about it through the controversy that has inflamed innumerable conversations and condemnation. Cuties is a French drama that follows a young 11-year-old Amy (Falthia Toussouf) as she embarks on a new school. Her religious Muslim family has set her up for one way of life, but the popular girls at her school look so much more free, fun, and wild. The “Cuties” dance team dreams of stardom, envies the older teen dance team, and emulates salacious dance moves from videos. It’s easy to see why the movie has generated its controversy and it’s understandable why many people would ever refuse to watch it based on subject matter alone. No matter the artistic merit, watching kids behaving this way, and the natural discomfort it produces, can be too much to endure. However, for those willing to give Cuties a chance, I do think it has some artistic merit as it tells, what is essentially, a familiar story of a youth going down a wayward path of temptation and rebellion.

There are three standout moments to me in Cuties that exemplify what writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré was going for as well as the commentary attached to the controversy. I’ll be going into spoilers to discuss these scenes and why I think it adds up to a whole that has more thoughtful intentions than exploiting children for cheap buzz and leering perversion.

1) Early on, like around the ten-minute mark, Amy is dancing and hides under her mother’s bed to not get in trouble. Her mother walks around with the Great Aunt and she overhears their conversation and learns some upsetting news. Her father, who is away and yet to move back with the family, will be marrying a second wife and bringing her home. The mother is trying to put on a brave face and play her part, calling relatives to dutifully inform them about the development, but she is clearly devastated and wracked with emotion. She feels replaced and inadequate and harmed by the man she loves, and Amy registers the pain and degradation her mother is going through on a deeply personal level, and this is what serves as motivation for her later actions. When she’s making new friends and wearing crop tops and pushing her boundaries, it’s not just a young Muslim girl who wants to escape the conservative trappings of her culture; it’s a young girl who is looking to rebel and stick it to her father. Her sense of a woman’s place in this family is to be subservient to the man and his authority, and she’s angry with him, angry at causing her mother pain, angry at viewing her as a collectible, and angry at what she views is a culture that restricts her to a life she does not want for herself but worries may not have a choice. Again, this isn’t a judgment on all Muslim families but merely the relationships within this one. This overheard phone call is such an immediately powerful scene with such an emotional wallop that I was tearing up. Amy’s motivation is more complex than simply wanting to dress provocatively. She’s rejecting a fate that could as easily befall her, and in doing so, a viewpoint on women.

2) There is a moment where the girl gang is just hanging out in the woods and laughing. One girl, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), finds a deflated condom on the ground. Not thinking anything of it, she blows it up like a balloon and the other girls freak out. They declare that their friend is now tainted, gross, and possibly exposed to AIDS. Coumba, who was the loudest and most outspoken joker among the group, is frozen in embarrassment. She didn’t know what it really was because she’s simply a child. She had no real conception, and now that reminder and the embarrassment and the hysteria from her friends is making her feel so small and humiliated. She’s desperate for her friends to excuse this misstep, to be accepted by her peer circle once again, and she meekly defends her ignorance. A single tear rolls down her cheek and this scene was a fitting reminder for me that the filmmakers have never forgotten that these girls, no matter how they dress and how they act, are still very much children. They talk about sex and porn but through an uninformed understanding of the larger meaning and context let alone sense of anatomical accuracy. It’s because they’re still children! This moment was further confirmation for me that the filmmakers had not forgotten that their subjects were to be presented thoughtfully. These 11-year-olds aren’t to be sexualized, just like teenagers shouldn’t be either, no matter how eager these young people are to jump ahead in maturity and be seen as desirous and incendiary.

3) The last scene of the movie involves the father’s wedding, a moment that mother and daughter have been dreading. Amy has run away from her dance team’s big show and made her choice, choosing to return to her family and as a support for her mother. She reminds Amy that she does not have to attend the wedding but Amy is determined to be there, knowing fully what it means for her mother and the larger implications for her family. Amy must decide what to wear for the festivity and stares down the traditional dress her Great Aunt had brought. Amy looks at her skimpy dance outfit, a guaranteed attention-seeking statement if she were to wear it to her father’s wedding ceremony. Instead, she chooses a middle path and simply wears a comfortable sweatshirt and some blue jeans. She rejects the restrictions of her family’s conservative culture, she rejects the extremes of the dance troupe, and she starts to form her own sense of self. She sidles into a game of jump rope and the camera pans up, and as the camera moves so too does Amy, locked into the camera shot, rising above the world, and she’s smiling so broad that her face seems to glow with happiness, a relief and joy she hasn’t felt in some time. By the end of this tale, our heroine has rebelled, overstepped, learned something about herself, and now seems a little surer of who she wants to be as a young woman charting her life in France. For me, this conclusion reaffirms the intentions of the filmmakers and commentary that those feelings of discomfort were on purpose.

With that being said, there were of course scenes that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I would question anyone who didn’t feel the same. The Cuties’ final dance is shockingly adult. Children should not be behaving in this manner but, and I again I stress this, that is the point of the movie. The audience at the dance competition does not approve of the tween twerking; they boo, they make disgusted faces, and one mother attempts to cover her baby’s eyes. “THIS IS TOTALLY NOT A GOOD THING,” Doucouré’s film is vociferously pronouncing. When the girls are simply dancing, her camera favors wide angles or framing that doesn’t ogle their bodies. Often dances will be seen as a whole or with shoulders-and-up framing. Whenever the girls film their dances, the camera adopts the intended lascivious emulation they seek, lingering more on butts in shorts and their attempt at sensual gazes they’ve adopted from Instagram influencers and aspiring models. It’s icky but it’s only a sampling compared to the in-your-face final dance performance. What I’m trying to articulate is that the portrayal of these young girls letting loose is more tasteful than the detractors have given Cuties credit for. I’ve seen scuzzy teen-centric movies (notably by Larry Clark) where the camera was continuously fetishizing its teenage subjects as a default setting. Cuties isn’t that until it really wants to grind its cautionary message into your horrified face as you try to shield your eyes.

I had a student ask why did it have to be 11-year-olds, why couldn’t the same message have been told through slightly older figures, maybe 15 or 16-year-olds, and I didn’t have an answer. Maybe because we’ve already seen “teens go bad” movies with 16 years-olds (Kids), or even presumably 13-year-olds (Thirteen), and maybe Doucouré felt she needed to go younger to be different, or push the envelope, or to grab attention from an increasingly blasé public. Maybe the filmmaker felt we needed to go to an age before puberty so it’s less a “becoming a woman” transition and more a constant of being acknowledged as a child. I cannot say. At its core, Cuties doesn’t have to be a story that is told from a particular age because it’s a formula that we’re familiar with and it embodies universal themes of acceptance, isolation, rebellion, and belonging. It’s a better movie than the alarmist defenders of childhood virtue claim (funny how these same defenders seem so quiet in supporting a president who literally bragged about spying on tween girls while they changed clothes, but that’s another discussion). I would also advise these same critics to look up how many season Toddlers and Tiaras ran for on TV. This is not the best movie. If you’ve seen enough teen movies you’ve likely seen this story already, but Cuties is a perfectly fine movie with enough artistic merit and social commentary to potentially make it worth sitting through the obvious discomfort. I can completely understand if any person would choose to pass on this movie but it would be better if more people actually gave it a chance before sharpening those pitchforks.

Nate’s Grade: B

Almost Famous [Review Re-View] (2000)

Released September 13, 2000:

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.

Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15-year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.

The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.

The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.

Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Cameron Crowe was a filmmaker on a hit streak from his debut as a screenwriter (Fast Times and Ridgemont High), to his debut as a writer/director (Say Anything) and throughout the 1990s, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Oscar-winning and semi-autobiographical Almost Famous in 2000. This is without question the pinnacle of Crowe’s career and he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a movie that feels so assuredly magical, textured, and lived-in, an authentic trip down one’s memory that doesn’t lose itself to empty nostalgia but reminds the viewer about the genuine appeal and connection of art, the ramshackle families it can build, and a shifting sense of self under construction that can provide armor and security. And strangely enough it was all dramatically downhill for there for the former hitmaker. Crowe followed up with 2001’s Vanilla Sky, a messy remake of a Spanish sci-fi head-scratcher, and then a slew of movies about bland, melancholy dudes going home to restart their cratering personal lives with the help of a good, patient woman, from 2005’s Elizabethtown, to 2011’s We Bought a Zoo, to 2015’s Aloha (infamously known as the film where Emma Stone plays a woman of Chinese descent). A “Cameron Crowe film” stopped becoming something you looked forward to, and then they stopped even happening. The man who made big studio comedies with big heart had seemed to lose his infallible touch. His last industry credit is creating the one-season Showtime TV series Roadies, following the lives of its subjects on a tour, and it felt clearly like he’s trying to tap back into his own past success. Still, if your career high point is Almost Famous, then it’s a mighty fine pinnacle that many would kill to have as their finest hurrah. It was even turned into a theatrical musical in Britain in 2019.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited Almost Famous and in doing so for this twenty-year review I’ve now also watched the movie for the first time, so to speak. I didn’t realize I had found myself the 160-minute director’s cut (labeled “The Bootleg Cut”). I had always intended to watch this extended edition but never got around to it, and now having done so, I can’t imagine another version that better portrays the highs and lows of this story. The extra (approximately) 40 minutes are mostly extended scenes, conversations that carry on a little longer, pauses that feel more resonant, stories that have more shape, and an epic coming-of-age script set amidst the wonderful landscape of late 70s rock and roll music that now feels even more wonderfully alive. If you were a fan of the 122-minute theatrical version, I have to imagine you’ll be delighted by even more time spent in the company of these characters and inside this amiable world.

Crowe’s screenplay pools from his own personal experiences as a young reporter for Rolling Stone who traveled with The Allman Brothers Band as well as several famous anecdotes with real-life rock bands. The turbulent airplane that motivates conscious-clearing confessions was from Alice Cooper’s band with Crowe onboard. The guitarist almost being electrocuted onstage was from KISS. The journalist being pulled into the offstage pre-show huddle happened to Crowe by Pearl Jam. The “I am a golden god” line is taken from Robert Plant yelling on a hotel balcony. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based on Glenn Fry of The Eagles, and the illustrious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is an amalgamation of multiple women. But far from just feeling like a muddled recounting of hazy personal stories, Crowe has done something rare and has melded his own experiences, and the rumors and legends of rock and roll, and transformed them into a movie that is universal, accessible, and brimming with gentle wisdom and hard-won joy. It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, generously character-based but also clearly goal-oriented in William’s (Patrick Fugit) quest to get his long-delayed interview and to write his breakthrough article. It’s an easy movie to fall in love with because Crowe has so expertly put in all the care needed for you to simply immerse yourself in this world and become awash in feeling.

It’s a canvas of insecure people using one another for personal gain. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) warns young William that rock stars are not to be trusted; they only want to make him feel special so they’ll get a good article in return. The Sweetwater band is wary of William and the power he wields, as well as his discretion with what he sees and experiences with them on the road. Russell may or may not be in love with Penny Lane and desires her comfort, but he’s also a perpetual one-foot-out-the-door kind of guy, striking up repeated threats to abandon the band and strike out on a solo career. Penny Lane is so obviously in love with Russell but committed relationships might run afoul of her free spirit sensibilities and her wish to be able to blow up her life and start over at a moment’s notice, channeling a new fantasy life. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is distrustful of anyone that might sabotage the band and his ascent. He feels inferior to Russell’s talent. Manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) wants to prove himself capable in direct competition with the much more connected and professional manager, Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). The “band-aid” ladies desire proximity to fame, as well as indirectly serving as muses for the music they love. The band just “wants to look cool.” There’s so much broiling interpersonal conflict colliding, and that’s not even accounting for William’s intense, tenacious overly protective mother (Frances McDormand) who has sheltered him for his life and worries herself sick. All of these people have vibrant interior lives and are trying to project a best-case version of themselves. The illusion of rock and roll, media, and objectivity, personal and professional, eventually fades.

The performances were career-defining for many of the actors involved, two of whom were nominated for Oscars (McDormand and Hudson), but I want to first talk about Hoffman’s performance because, even though it is brief, I consider it one of his best in a storied career of great performances. Lester’s a cynic who believes rock and roll has long died from commercialization and is populated with phonies eager to taste the sweet life by any means. He’s dubious about William’s aims but becomes a trusted ally and pillar of support during his moments of doubt. He’s been where William has, swooned by interview subjects to diffuse his objectivity (“Friendship is the booze they feed you”). I think he sees himself in William and his desire to write about the industry he loves. Their final exchange is, quite simply, some of the finest writing that has ever existed in cinema. Lester connects with William over their shared “uncool” status, culminating in his greatest advice: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman starts his performance with breakneck cynicism and then by the end he’s become one of the most genuine believers in the power of human connection. The fact that Hoffman was deadly sick with the flu throughout his shooting days only makes his performance even more astonishing. While the rock and roll shenanigans prove fun, the realest relationship for me with Almost Famous was between these two “uncool” guys bonding.

Crudup (Watchmen) and Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) are so inexorably connected in their performances because their relationship forms one of the movie’s most heartfelt and heart-breaking storylines. Penny Lane is such an instantly transcendent character, drawing others into her orbit and lifting up the orphans of this world into a new family. She’s more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term first coined in response to Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown); in fact, she’s never really manic in behavior. She wears heavy fur coats, conducts herself like the ringleader of a circus, and ensnares hearts and minds. She envisions herself as a muse, a lover of music, a spiritual guide for musicians to reach new heights, and definitely not just some “groupie.” However, she can’t help but circlle Russell and go against all her better instincts of playing it safe. Her reaction to hearing the news that Russell and the band “sold her” in a card game for beer is a beautifully underplayed moment for Hudson. Penny takes in the hard news, not wanting her carefree veneer to crack, then slightly dabs at a tear rolling down her cheek, adding with a crack of bemusement, “What kind of beer?” It’s so crushing in how underplayed the moment comes across, but you can tell Penny has been deeply wounded, things have gotten too real, and inside she’s rolling (“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”). Hudson makes it inevitable that you will fall in love with Penny Lane just as rapidly as William. It’s a shame Hudson has been castigated to disposable rom-com junk for much of her career since breaking out.

Likewise, Crudup’s performance has much more self-awareness than anyone else, even when he’s flailing. He senses he’s not meeting his potential and that can cover his love life as well. He’s married but doesn’t seem too committed to maintaining those boundaries. He enjoys the fame and adulation of being a rock musician but wants more. At the same time, he desires truth, real-ness, and after being called out for his selfish stances, Russell flees the confines of the hotel with William and mingles with the “real people” at a house party. It’s a great little aside for the movie and one of the funnier sequences especially as William is forced into playing keeper. The sequence is a fun escape but it’s also emblematic of the contradiction of Russell as a character. He desires truth but cannot be fully honest with himself, his desires, and his own failings. Crudup is laid back and disarming as he opens up to Russell while still admonishing himself for doing so. By the end, the movie isn’t about William getting the girl, as my friend I saw the film with had hoped, but it’s about William getting his long-elusive interview, and by the end they’re both a little wiser, a little more world-weary, and the ending comes down to these two men and their shared love, not for Penny Lane, but for music itself and what it means to them. Originally Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were set to play the roles of Russell and Penny Lane, and I cannot imagine both actors being able to out-perform who eventually filled these roles.

Fugit (Gone Girl) was the avatar for the audience and is far more reactionary, taking in the rock and roll lifestyle with so many strange and amusing people. We’re meant to be seduced like he is, and when he hits a personal high, we feel the same elation, like his first night as a journalist when he’s practically dancing back to his mother’s car. That entire plight of William trying to get into the Black Sabbath concert is a supremely written scene how it unfolds. Crowe spends the first 15 minutes of the movie to establish key family drama for William, including the fact that his college professor mother has accelerated his academics and lied about his age. He’s really two years younger than his peers, and I wondered why even include this aspect into the movie. You could readily tell the same story with a 17-year-old William as you could a 15-year-old William. Then I realized that this opening establishes William as always feeling out of place, of trying to catch up to an adulthood he might not be prepared for, and for having to cover an insecurity over his own identity. He’s looking to remake himself just as much as Penny Lane and the Stillwater musicians. Fugit feels like a young discovery without ever getting big moments to steal attention. His performance anchors the film while also being able to be invisible, our eyes and ears into this rarefied realm. I’m a little surprised he didn’t have as big a career as he deserved after Almost Famous, mostly sticking with quirky indie ensembles (Saved!, Wristcutters). He did play as Owen in the deeply polarizing Last of Us Part II video game, a fact might just set off more than a few readers into rage spirals.

Almost Famous is the kind of movie that has so much going on yet never strays far from its artistic aims, instead taking time to better flesh out re-creating this late 70s showbiz world and the supporting characters. Even a joke character like Fairuza Balk’s “band-aid #3” part gets to have a moment to shine, like when she answers a phone call from William’s mother. She of course blurts out something she shouldn’t, confirming the drug-fueled atmosphere of the mother’s alarmist fears, but then she realizes her miscue and corrects herself. Balk’s character (Sapphire) congratulates the mother on raising William to be a very respectful and good child, lamenting how rare such a thing is becoming, and relating some of her own family experiences. Then, as a comic capper, she ends the call by saying, “Oh, and this is the maid,” and hangs up. A small moment like that serves a plot purpose, amplifying the worry of William’s mother, but it can also be an opportunity for a small character to take the spotlight to make an impression. That is the gorgeous result of Crowe’s writing, that every scene has multiple levels going on, all connected to character and theme.

This is such a bounty of a movie ether at 122 minutes or 160 minutes. It’s an affectionate, humane tale that draws you in with its warmth and genial insights. In my original review, I compared Almost Famous to receiving a hug and, twenty years later, that’s exactly the same kind of feeling I got watching. I was smiling, I was laughing, and I felt nourished by Crowe’s creative opus. It’s a special movie and one that is exactly of its time but also timeless. You can pop this film on again and drift away, and that’s the transporting power of storytelling, acting, and directing all working harmoniously in sync to create a movie that feels just as satisfying as it did in 2000. My original review didn’t go into many specifics, and was a little too overblown about McDormand’s performance, but even at 18 years old, seeing this movie early as part of a college orientation with new friends in my life, I got the big things right. This movie sings.

Re-View Grade: A

Mulan (2020)

The new Mulan looked like something I’ve been begging for in this surging era of live-action Disney remakes, namely something different. I don’t need inferior live-action versions to shorter animated classics, and as Disney enters into a more modern trove of remakes, the courage to adapt becomes noticeably less. There’s a reason the 2019 Lion King was simply a sludgier, superfluous version that was beat-for-beat the same, and it’s called $1.5 billion dollars worldwide. People want their nostalgia as they remember it, thank you very much. The Mulan remake looked to be taking a different route; it eliminated the songs, the comic relief sidekicks, and overt supernatural characters. It was going to be more serious, more mature, and more action-packed, and I was all for it. The release was pushed back several months due to COVID and finally lands on Disney+ but at an extra cost. I would advise fans to wait. This new Mulan 2020 isn’t worth your time and it’s certainly not worth an additional $30 to be disappointed by.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young maiden in old China who has trouble fitting into how society says a woman should behave. The Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to supply one male into the royal army to combat Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful witch, Xianniang (Gong Li). Mulan takes her family armor and poses as a man to take the place of her ailing father. She wants to serve but she’s also hungry for adventure, and over the course of her training, she will come to fully understand her real power.

I knew within minutes that this movie was in trouble. In a flashback, we watch young Mulan chasing after a chicken, not listening to her father, causing havoc and consternation from neighbors, but then she effortlessly climbs to the roof of her neighborhood and then, as she falls off, is effortlessly able to recapture her balance and land perfectly like she was Spider-Man. From there, the first act tells us that Mulan is not just a super-powered being of high chi (think midi-chlorians and The Force) but also potentially the Chosen One (like Anakin Skywalker) and she must hide her real power to… not bring disgrace to her family? I’m sorry but this makes little sense. I understand the oppressive cultural expectations for women at this time and how women’s real value, as judged by their society, was through marriage and child-rearing. However, we’re now in a world of magic where living super-powered beings walk among us (mutants in X-Men), but rather than valuing this, it’s shunned because she’s a girl? That seems even more preposterous to me. The screenplay followed the Captain Marvel feminist theme and it’s about a woman finally coming into her own power, shunning the restraints, and embracing her full potential against the wishes of frightened men. If after reading all of this that sounds like a good start for a movie, let alone a live-action remake of Mulan, then have at it, dear reader. For me, this began as a thematic and tonal mess that didn’t get better. By making Mulan a super-powered being it eliminates her relatability and the stakes of the movie. She’s no longer an ordinary girl who struggles to do her best. Now she’s essentially a god who just has to turn on her powers and subdue easily outmatched opponents. That’s a significant loss and mistake.

If you were going to be a martial arts epic where characters have super powers, then be that movie and give me epic showdowns between epic warriors. Give me a heavy dose of magic realism and eye-popping imagery. Chinese cinema has plenty of examples of these kinds of movies in recent years. One needs to only start cycling through the filmography of Zhang Yimou for spellbinding supernatural martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers and 2018’s Shadow. If you’re going to be a heightened world of extraordinary combat, then build your movie around that tonal decision and start from there. In Mulan 2020, people exist with amazing abilities but nobody treats this with the recognition it deserves. There appears to be a prevalent form of sexism as powerful men are seen as impressive but powerful women are seen as frightening and dangerous, often derided as witches. There was room for exploration of Gong Li’s (2046, Memoirs of a Geisha) character and the parallels with Mulan, both women feared for their powers and apparent threat to a hierarchy that wants to exploit them but not include them. My girlfriend was irate throughout the viewing and pointed specifically at the witch character and declared, “They’re going to give her a lame redemption story where she sacrifices herself at the end to save Mulan, and I will hate it.” And boy oh boy did she hate it.

Alas, Mulan 2020 cannot sustain itself as a supernatural martial arts epic. As an action spectacle, every moment is shortchanged, which is not good when you have a whopping $200 million budget. The action consists of a handful of characters, at most, and only a short display of activity. There are no strong action set pieces and well-developed sequences that keep your excitement pumping. There is some acceptable fight choreography here and there but little to tickle the imagination or approach the poetry of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don’t know if director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) feels confident enough as an action director of big visual spectacle, and that uncertainty leaks throughout the finished film. Take for instance camera movements meant to be stylish but instead becomes perplexing. As our big bad villain and his crew ride toward the outer walls of a village, they leap from their horses and ascend the walls, and the camera shifts 90 degrees to follow the movement smoothly. That’s a good stylistic choice. Then mere seconds later, as they reach the top, the camera will abruptly shift again 90 degrees, then back again, but the characters haven’t shifted their stances or perspectives. Caro has taken a stylistic flourish that had meaning and seems to be hitting it again and again, but without the earlier context, it becomes confusing, arbitrary, and annoying, and it happens multiple times. Because the movie doesn’t fully embrace being a martial arts spectacle, when it does employ super human tricks, it runs the risk of being goofy. Mulan has several moments where she kicks flying arrows into her foes as if she was a soccer player setting up a wicked trick shot. I welcomed a martial arts epic version of Mulan but the filmmakers were too timid to commit.

There are several moments that left me scratching my head in the adaptation process. Take for instance Mulan deciding to take her father’s place. In the animated film, it’s a big moment and we watch her slice her hair with her ancestral sword, put on her father’s armor, and it’s treated like the big character-defining moment that the story demands. It’s like watching a superhero transform and suit up for battle. In Mulan 2020, this moment is denied to us and we skip to her turning around already in armor and riding off. Why? Why wouldn’t you want to savor and dwell in a moment of great drama and a turning point for the character? Likewise, late in the movie, once Mulan accepts her destiny and not to compromise her powers, she strips her father’s armor piece by piece and flings it off herself while riding into battle. I understand the symbolism of her stripping away the uniform of entrenched masculinity but two things: wasn’t this her family’s armor that meant something of value, and isn’t wearing armor a good defense in a battle? What’s the point of removing the supernatural ancestral elements from the animated film to simply give Mulan a flying phoenix that mainly serves as a cursor to point her in the right direction?

Let me open up one head-scratcher and how it could have been resolved. Mulan has a younger sister but her inclusion is practically meaningless. Mulan’s parents worry about her capability of being docile and husband-material, but they have the younger sister who will serve their needs. The movie doesn’t present the younger sister’s perspective. She’s just a bonus daughter. It’s a confounding creative decision but I think, with a little more shaping, it would have justified itself. This sister could have been resentful of her big sister, for being selfish and rejecting her eldest responsibilities that would protect their family. These duties now fall onto her with the added pressure of being the only daughter who has a chance of attaining a good marriage. This could and should cause friction between the sisters, a divide that can be healed over the course of the movie. Dearly missing from Mulan 2020 is the ability of its titular heroine to share herself. She doesn’t have her magic companions coaching her, so she has no audience to confide in. As a result, Mulan feels so impassive and inscrutable. My solution: she writes a series of letters to her sister to explain her actions as well as her day-to-day fears and hopes, and in doing so it opens up the Mulan character as well as provides an outlet where her sister can learn and relate to her. That would have worked, and it would have justified the younger sister in the narrative as well as provide Mulan herself with an ongoing opportunity for reflection, expression, and confession.

Sadly, I also had serious reservations about lead actress Yifei Liu (The Assassins, Forbidden Kingdom) from her first moment onscreen as the adult Mulan. Her line readings were overwhelmingly flat. This may well be a byproduct of her speaking English as opposed to Chinese, and on that front, why couldn’t this movie have been entirely Chinese and subtitled? I understand Disney would view a foreign language version as less profitable but if you’re going for a more serious, more grown-up version of Mulan set in ancient China, how about trusting Americans to read? Regardless, Liu certainly has the right look to anchor a movie but her acting is too stilted. There are many actors who have great martial arts skills (Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee) that aren’t called upon. Why hire actors with great fighting capability and then give them precious little to show off? My favorite performer in the movie was Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell).

After watching Mulan 2020, I then re-watched the 1998 animated original, and my opinion of the live-action remake sank even lower. The animated film has it beat in every measure. The mixture of drama and comedy is deft, the emotional core of the character is fierce, and the supporting characters have distinct and discernible personalities, and the songs aren’t too shabby either. The villain is more menacing and has those very necessary moments to establish their villainy. The bad guys in Mulan 2020 have no memorable moments that make you go, “Oh, that’s a baddie.” Plus, the hand-drawn animation is beautiful and allows far more emotional expression for the characters, making it even more transporting but also engaging. If you’re a fan of the original, I cannot see how you will enjoy Mulan 2020, and if you paid $30 for that opportunity, I imagine you’ll be even more incensed. If it was going to be different, the new Mulan needed to fully embrace those differences and develop its new big screen story to be best suited as a martial arts epic for older viewers. If it was going to make Mulan a superhero, it needed to embrace this decision and heighten the world, mixing in fantasy foundations. The moments needed to matter and be a reflection of our heroine’s emotional journey. Mulan 2020 is a frustrating disappointment and another reminder for myself that live-action Disney remakes will rarely, if ever, even come close to recreating the charm and magic of their predecessors.

Nate’s Grade: C

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

I expect strange from a Charlie Kaufman movie; that goes without saying. I also expect some high concept turned inward and, most importantly, a humane if bewildered anchor. His other movies have dealt with similar themes of depression (Anomalisa), relationship entropy (Eternal Sunshine), identity (Being John Malkovich), and regret from afar (Synecdoche, New York). However, no matter the head-spinning elements, the best Kaufman movies have always been the ones that embrace a human, if flawed, experience with sincerity rather than ironic detachment. There’s a reason that Eternal Sunshine is a masterpiece and that nobody seems to recall 2002’s Human Nature (ironic title for this reference). 2015’s Anomalisa was all about one man trying to break free from the fog of his mind, finding a woman as savior, and then slowly succumbing to the same trap. Even with its wilder aspects, it was all about human connection and disconnection. By contrast, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about a puzzle, and once you latch onto its predictable conclusion, it doesn’t provide much else in the way of understanding. It’s more a “so, that’s it?” kind of film, an exercise in trippy moments intended to add up to a whole, except it didn’t add up for me. I held out hope, waiting until the very end to be surprised at some hidden genius that had escaped me, for everything to come together into a more powerful whole, like Synecdoche, New York. It didn’t materialize for me and I was left wondering why I spent two hours with these dull people.

A Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) is traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jessie Plemons) to meet his parents for the first time. It’s snowy Oklahoma, barren, dreary, and not encouraging. In the opening line we hear our heroine divulge the title in narration, which we think means their relationship but might prove to have multiple interpretations. It only gets more awkward as she meets Jake’s parents (David Thewlis, Toni Collette) and weird things continue happening. The basement door is chained with what look like claw marks. People rapidly age. The snow keeps coming down and the Young Woman is eager to leave for home but she might not be able to ever get home.

The title is apt because I was thinking of ending things myself after an hour of this movie. Kaufman’s latest is so purposely uncomfortable that it made me cringe throughout, and not in a good squirmy way that Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has perfected. Kaufman wants to dwell and drag out the discomfort, starting with the relationship between Young Woman and Jake. She’s already questioning whether or not she should be meeting his parents and their inbound conversations in the car are long and punctuated by Jake steering them into proverbial dead ends. He’s a dolt. You clearly already don’t feel a connection between them, and this is then extended into the family meet and dinner, which takes up the first hour of the movie. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tips its hand early about not trusting our senses and that we are in the realm of an unreliable narrator. Characters will suddenly shift placement in the blink of an eye, like we blacked out, and character names, professions, histories, and even ages will constantly alter. The Young Woman is a theoretical physicist, then a gerontologist, then her “meet cute” with Jake borrows liberally from a rom-com directed by Robert Zeemckis in this universe (my one good laugh). Jake’s parents will go from old to young and young to old without comment. All the surreal flourishes keep your attention, at least for the first half, as we await our characters to be affected by their reality, but this never really happens. Our heroine feels less like our protagonist (yes, I know there’s a reason for this) because her responses to the bizarre are like everyone else. The entire movie feels like a collection of incidents that could have taken any order, many of which could also have been left behind considering the portentous 135-minute running time.

There are a lot of weird moments and overall this movie will live on in my memory only for its moments. We have a lengthy choreographed dance with doubles for Jake and the Young Woman, an animated commercial for ice cream, an acceptance speech directly cribbed from A Beautiful Mind that then leads directly into a performance from Oklahoma!, an entire resuscitation of poetry and a film review by Pauline Kael, talking ghosts, and more. It’s a movie of moments because every item is meant to be a reflection of one purpose, but I didn’t feel like that artistic accumulation gave me better clarity. There’s solving the plot puzzle of what is happening, the mixture of the surreal with the everyday, but its insight is limited and redundant. The film’s conclusion wants to reach for tragedy but it doesn’t put in the work to feel tragic. It’s bleak and lonely but I doubt that the characters will resonate any more than, say, an ordinary episode of The Twilight Zone. Everything is a means to an ends to the mysterious revelation, which also means every moment has the nagging feeling of being arbitrary and replaceable. The second half of this movie, once they leave the parents’ home, is a long slog that tested my endurance.

Buckley (HBO’s Chernobyl) makes for a perfectly matched, disaffected, confused, and plucky protagonist for a Kaufman vehicle. She has a winsome matter of a person trying their best to cover over differences and awkwardness without the need to dominate attention. Her performance is one of sidelong glances and crooked smiles, enough to impart a wariness as she descends on this journey. Buckley has a natural quality to her, so when her character stammers, stumbling over her words and explanations, you feel her vulnerability on display. After Wild Rose and now this, I think big things are ahead for Buckley. The other actors do credible work with their more specifically daft and heightened roles, mostly in low-key deadpan with the exception of Collette (Hereditary), who is uncontrollably sharing and crying. It’s a performance that goes big as a means of creating alarm and discomfort and she succeeds in doing so.

I know there will be people that enjoy I’m Thinking of Ending Things and its surreal, sliding landscape of strange ideas and images. Kaufman is a creative mind like few others in the industry and I hope this is the start of an ongoing relationship with Netflix that affords more of his stories to make their way to our homes. This is only the second movie he’s written to be produced in the last decade, and that’s far too few Kaufman movies to my liking. At the same time, I’m a Kaufman fan and this one left me mystified, alienated, and simply bored. I imagine a second viewing would provide me more help finding parallels and thematic connections, but honestly, I don’t really want to watch this movie again. I recall 2017’s mother!, an unfairly derided movie that was also oft-putting and built around decoding its unsubtle allegory. That movie clicked for me once I attuned myself to its central conceit, and it kept surprising me and horrifying me. It didn’t bore me, and even its indulgences felt like they had purpose and vision. I guess I just don’t personally get that same feeling from I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s a movie that left me out cold.

Nate’s Grade: C

The One and Only Ivan (2020)

Disney’s latest talking animal movie is based on a real story. Not the talking animals part, more a gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) who lived in a strip mall as a circus performer and then became a painter and the notoriety of his art built a movement to free him. The One and Only Ivan is a good-natured family film with affirming lessons and a conservationist advocacy. Kids may laugh at some of the silly animals, or they might cry as the maternal elephant (Angelina Jolie) entrusts onto Ivan the promise to break the newest baby elephant free of bondage. Ivan was raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) who runs the strip mall circus, though times are tough and he may have lost sight of his priorities with his animals. Enter cute kid, cute baby elephant, cute and scrappy dog, and Ivan’s passion for the arts. The one element that makes this movie different, Ivan’s ability to paint his emotions and reflections, is barely included and that’s a real shame. Ivan becomes like the spider from Charlotte’s Web and uses his position to advocate for another animal, using the subsequent attention to spare this small creature. He paints once and the movie zips to its resolution. The thrust of the story is Ivan addressing his own personal tragedy and letting others in, risking his own safety and ego to protect those vulnerable. The CGI special effects are suitable if unremarkable, landing in that middle zone of meeting expectations of semi-reality but not exceeding them. I would have preferred a documentary going into the actual events of the real Ivan, getting interviews from the people who were there and mattered, their own insights and experiences, and really dwelling more on what the idea of artistic expression means for an ape and what it might mean concerning our connections to these creatures. I think there’s a compelling, enlightening, and heartfelt documentary to be had with the subject matter. The live-action talking-animal movie, however, is just more of the same inoffensive family film treacle and clearly not the one and only.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Ava (2020)

avaThe movie Ava was never meant to have this title. The spy thriller was beset with trouble when the original director, Mathew Newton, dropped off the project after domestic abuse accusations resurfaced. Jessica Chastain, serving as star and as producer, reached out to her Help director Tate Taylor to come aboard and helm the project. Even with that upheaval, the movie went through production under the title of Eve, the name of Chastain’s character. Every person refers to her by this name throughout the movie, and it wasn’t until after the film was complete that some studio executive said, “What if her name was Ava instead?” The filmmakers then had to re-record every line of dialogue referencing her name to replace with this new identity. I cannot fathom a reason for doing so unless some exec really had a thing for that name or it was a concerted move to further distance themselves from Newton, who also wrote the screenplay. Just like that, Eve becomes Ava, and suddenly it’s a whole new creative project. Too bad they didn’t go further because whatever you call it, Ava is a fairly lackluster genre exercise for all involved.

Ava (Chastain) is a former soldier who was discharged from the Army and battled an addiction to drugs and alcohol. She’s gotten better and found a job that suits her, namely killing people for hire. Her fatherly handler (John Malkovich) tells her the marks, she dispatches them, and then collects the payouts. She assumes the men on her kill list are specimens of evil but begins to have her doubts, enough so that Simon (Colin Farrell) sends agents to snuff Ava out.

ava-trailerThere’s very little presented in Ava you haven’t seen in any litany of other spy thrillers before except with this pedigree of cast. I kept questioning  why all these actors had agreed to be part of this project. The characters aren’t exactly complex or original. The scenarios aren’t exactly intricate or subversive. The action isn’t exactly well choreographed or well shot. The movie isn’t even that long at 95 minutes or so. The screenplay by Newton is unremarkable in every way, no different than any direct-to-DVD genre entry. I could just as readily see, say, Kristanna Loken (BloodRayne) filling the role of Ava than I could an actress as accomplished and in-demand as Chastain. That nagging question of what made a generic spy thriller so appealing will never be answered, because Ava offers little to a viewer already steeped in genre thrillers. It’s more of the same, just with A-list talent voluntarily “slumming it” as underwritten archetypes.

By no means am I against genre movies as a whole. I love genre movies. They can be some of the most entertaining and exciting film experiences, and under the right guidance, they can be thoroughly compelling and rewarding and even enlightening. Plus they’re just fun. Matt Damon resurrected his career as Jason Bourne. If Ava was trying to do something along those lines, re-calibrate the spy movie as a jangly, nerve-wracking thriller grounded in realism, that would have been something. Or if the movie had embraced its genre tropes knowingly, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, it could have been an over-the-top hoot. Instead, Ava just presents the same tropes without any sense of self-awareness. Ava really feels like an imitation of one of the lesser Luc Besson (The Professional, La Femme Nikita) action thrillers, or maybe one of those Besson imitations of a Besson work (3 Days to Kill). It’s going through the motions of motions.

ava-trailer-1140x641The domestic side of Ava’s life feels like a messy soap opera intruding onto a spy thriller, bordering into farce though without the awareness. Ava’s father died while she was out murdering others, and her sister Judy (Jess Wexler) hasn’t forgotten. Ava’s ex-fiancé, Michael (Common), is also now dating Judy. Michael is also struggling with his own gambling addiction and the debts he owes to local loan shark, Toni (Joan Chen), who has bad blood with Ava. Then there’s Ava’s mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), who has gone in and out of the hospital for heart problems and wants her family to get along. As you might assess, for a 90-minute movie, there is way too much going on there to keep checking in with. Every time we gain more understanding of the people in Ava’s life, the more ridiculous her life seems to evolve, and remember she also is a recovering addict who is wavering over the possibility of relapse. That’s a lot of capital D drama but the screenplay lacks the follow-through to make it matter. It feels like Newton just keeps piling on the complications rather than developing and twisting them. There’s one genuinely strong moment when Bobbi has a sit-down with her daughter and warns her about the costs of being honest and expresses her content to luxuriate in the lie of Ava’s cover story of a career. As Ava contemplates having an affair with her ex, her sister’s boyfriend, you may start to forget that you’re watching a movie about a trained assassin.

Taylor (The Girl on the Train) shows just as much affinity for directing spy thrillers as directing horror with last year’s Ma. It’s not a good fit, folks. Taylor lacks the innate ability to stage action in a pleasing and exciting manner. The fight choreography is mundane and there is no scenario that develops and transforms with complications. The final confrontation is literally a limping slow-walk foot chase that will draw more unintended laughter than suspense, especially as it keeps going and going and I questioned the character walking speed. There is one standout moment and it’s a knock-out, drag-out fight between Ava and Simon that breaks just about every stick of furniture in a hotel room. Both are left bleeding and bruised and fatigued. It’s nothing exceptional in choreography but the sustained duration is what makes it stand apart. I’ll grant Taylor some leeway considering he was a late hire for a project already moving forward. However, with the results of Ava as a finished film, I wouldn’t advise hiring Taylor for any other action movies.

AVA-PHOTO-2Chastain (It Chapter 2) is of course a strong anchor. She taps into some of that ferocious power she had with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, and I would have loved to see her kick all sorts of ass in a spy thriller worthy of her talent. Even something like 2012’s Haywire, which was built to showcase the raw fighting skills of MMA-fighter-turned-actress, Gina Carano, or 2017’s Atomic Blonde, which was expanded upon due to the balletic precision and capability of Charlize Theron. We needed something more for Ava. Chastain kicks and punches and stalks the grounds with her cold badass stares, but she could be doing so much more. The soapier plot elements betray her. At one point, she’s crying, laughing, holding a bottle and contemplating putting a gun to her head. It’s just so much that, again, it points to farce but can’t quite tonally commit.

I’m trying to fathom the reason anyone should watch Ava. It’s short. It’s got talented actors. It’s not offensive in any technical or storytelling regard. If you had 95 minutes to waste, you most certainly could do worse. But there’s nothing that separates this spy thriller from any other mundane, mediocre, cliché genre exercise. What about this script excited Chastain to produce and make sure the world could have the opportunity to see this story? Maybe it was her commercial gambit to tell more meaningful indies later, like when Michael Fassbender produced Assassins’ Creed. I’ll never know the full appeal. Maybe it all just sounded a lot better when her name was Eve.

Nate’s Grade: C

Project Power (2020)

The appeal of Project Power is immediate with its premise, which stirred a bidding war before finally ending up with Netflix. Take a pill and become a super hero for five minutes. Every person has a unique power and won’t know what that entails until they swallow that pill. However, there is also a risk that your body has a negative reaction of the exploding kind. I can see why studios would be all over that, on top of the fact that it plays into established popular cultural tropes, it still gets to be an original property. The finished film, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, and I’m convinced that this hot commodity script went through a gauntlet of rewrites and producer interference, each new obstacle dimming and diminishing what made Project Power an exciting and compelling idea from inception. Well the concept is still interesting, and its relatively grounded sci-fi world has genuine potential, but the movie falls flat and is far too generic to be special.

Drug dealers are flushing New Orleans with a super pill that activates fantastic powers, though only for five-minute integrals. Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a local police officer who secretly keeps a stash of the pills for himself, to juice up to take on the escalating criminals. His supplier is Robin (Dominick Fishback), a teenager looking for a better life, who comes into contact with the mysterious and volatile Art (Jamie Foxx). He’s a man on a mission and working his way across the streets to go from supplier to supplier, working his way up the criminal food chain until he can confront the authority behind the super pill creation and distribution.

The premise by debut screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (The Batman) is tantalizing and makes every pill its own “what if?” scenario. I’m unsure whether or not the risk of bodily explosion occurs for every person or simply those whom the drug doesn’t agree with. I think it would be more interesting if every person stood some chance of risk. I talked about it with my girlfriend, if there was a pill that granted super powers but it also ran the chance of death, would you take it? We both answered, “Of course.” Who wouldn’t want to be a super hero, even if it’s only for five minutes? Naturally, much like within the X-Men universe, not every super power is on the same level of being useful. There’s a guy who grows extra bones, which serve as spikes attached to his body. I guess that’s something. It reminded me of the unfortunate mutant in X-Men 3 who could grow porcupine quills from his face (he even managed to coax someone near him to kill them). With such a momentous shift in human evolution, and through the angle of drug addiction, you would think Project Power would be the early steps of a complete re-examination of a changing society and the forces falling behind to try and catch up. This should be a big deal, and yet it never feels that way in this world. Super-powered criminals aren’t running rampant. One invisible guy robs a bank naked and it’s comedy. Nobody seems too panicked or bothered. It weirdly feels like everyone has already not only accepted this reality but compartmentalized it. If one city has a new super drug, would it not stand that others in neighboring cities and states and countries would also desire it? Should this not be dominating the news?

The characters are remarkably generic. Our heroes include a beat cop who “doesn’t play by all the rules” and goes on a secret mission to root out this drug conspiracy, a young black woman who wants to be an aspiring rapper while she’s slinging drugs, and a military veteran who was subjected to experiments and is desperate to find and save his kidnapped daughter. We’ve seen each of these archetypes in a thousand other action thrillers, and the fact that Project Power doesn’t give us any more than this is stunning. With some minute personal details, I have laid out everything we know about the three main characters in this movie. That’s it. It’s like each character was checking an archetype box and then was forgotten to be fleshed out. The worst is Art, a character that is coasting on Foxx’s attitude and charisma but is otherwise completely vacant. The kidnapped daughter storyline is maybe the most boring motivation that a protagonist could be saddled with. He might as well be a video game character from 90s-era titles, a military man who was betrayed by his government, experimented upon, given dangerous new powers, and now he’s striking out to save his daughter. It’s so bland and generic and boring. None of the major characters exhibit an interesting personality quirk, flaw, desire, or a point to make them more interesting than if a new nameless character had suddenly taken over from the background.

This extends to the villains as well. Their evil schemes are too vague and they’re just as generic and bland. The villains are also far too easily defeated, which drains any threat from their machinations. Without memorable or effective villains, Project Power limps to a finish, lacking the needed payoffs of our heroes triumphing over their foes. Does anyone care when Art defeats a secondary antagonist that is introduced far too late in the final twenty minutes? It’s too late to be introducing a Big Bad in the movie that is meant to be savored when vanquished. It’s not satisfying when the bad guys are dumb or nebulous or too easily beaten. I felt more antipathy with a bearded henchman than I did with any of his superiors. This is such an easy thing to do, establish a worthy opposition with personality and menace, a force that an audience will feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment over their eventual defeat. Make the villains matter. Regrettably, the villains in Project Power are just as generic and underdeveloped as the heroes.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have dabbled in many genres, first documentary (Catfish), then found footage horror (Paranormal Activity 3 and 4), then youthful thrillers with social media satire (Nerve), and now super hero action cinema. The versatility is to be commended, and they certainly infuse plenty of energetic style into Project Power. The special effects are pretty good when the powers are somewhat visually chaotic, like a drug dealer who becomes the Human Torch, running through ignitable room after room, while the camera zips along, lovingly documenting the rippling flames and embers. The camerawork and lighting can definitely provide jolts of excitement and engagement when the storytelling falters. However, there are moments that should have been avoided, like violent acts presented in unclear ways, perhaps trying to avoid a harsher rating that it ultimately got anyway. Another sequence is from the point of view of a dying woman trapped inside a container, and the action from the other side of the glass is almost completely obscured. The woman’s suffering seemed so overboard that it reminded me of that poor assistant lady who had a more gruesome death in Jurassic World than its actual villain. It’s a misplaced stylistic touch. A villain takes the drug and turns into a giant CGI troll, like something from 2002’s Chamber of Secrets and is goofy and misplaced. For a movie that is trying to be gritty and somewhat grounded, a giant CGI troll is a blunder. Joost and Schulman are currently attached to write and direct a Mega Man movie next, and I imagine this was a trial run for super-powered androids blasting one another to dust.

The Project Power playbook is pretty familiar and underwhelming in its creativity and development. The concept is there but the movie too often feels content to settle for less, trading in stereotypical heroes, vague villains, and muddled action sequences goosed with flashes of style to mask their lack of personal stakes and imagination. The scope of the movie is too frustratingly myopic and under-developed, like a nascent pilot for a TV series that provides impressions with a latent promise of getting back to storylines later. Except later will never arrive. Project Power (even the name is generic) is a super hero movie that feels like everything you’ve already seen before. It’s far less than super.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Tax Collector (2020)

If you had told me that The Tax Collector was a parody of writer David Ayer’s hyper masculine, lurid, crime-ridden jaunts into the slums, police stations, and domestic lives of criminals, I would have completely believed you. We’ve been here before, with Ayer’s End of Watch, Street Kings, Harsh Times, Dark Blue, Training Day, even the fantasy-mingled Bright looked like an Ayer battleground of gangs, crooked cops, hypocritical politicians, and godly family men who someone can justify the heinous acts of violence they do. This time Ayer is following a pair of gangsters that make their monthly rounds to collect their dues from the other gangs. Their big boss, The Wizard, is rotting in jail, and a rival gangster, who also is literally a cannibalistic Satanist, takes the opportunity to make a violent power play. First off, this is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s more bad men barking threats at those they feel are underneath their authority, then lots of driving banter meant to endear us to these bad men, and then professions of how much they love family or God. With the main villain being an avowed occultist, the battle-line takes on a biblical sense or good versus evil. The problem is that I didn’t care about a single character nor did I find them interesting. For a solid hour, we’re watching David (Bobby Sotto) and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) go about their collections, argue about theology and diet, and reminisce. These guys are not interesting and more place setters for more compelling characters to be developed in later drafts that never took place. There’s a paucity of thrills and action and general tension to be had here. It’s shoddily paced. When things do pick up and The Tax Collector becomes a grisly revenge tale, the villains are so easily toppled, and in such unmemorable ways, that you understand why Ayer was putting all this off. During a bathroom brawl, the action stops for a pointless flashback to see Bobby in his martial arts class, but when he comes back he smashes a guy’s head with a toilet cover. That wasn’t a martial arts move he learned. It’s strange moments like that where The Tax Collector feels more like an old, incomplete screenplay Ayer had locked away in a drawer, a rough collection of his bombastic machismo crime thriller tropes that barely tops 80 minutes. The only passion on display is from LaBeouf, who reportedly got an entire chest tattoo for his character except his exposed chest is never clearly seen once on camera. I don’t even know why he wasn’t the main character. Bobby is boring as the humdrum hoodlum who wants out of the family business (Michael Corleone he is not). A late twist is meant to be revelatory but, beyond being predictable by the economy of characters, signifies little for Bobby. The Tax Collector is awash in the same grimy gangland stereotypes that have populated most of Ayer’s professional work, but rarely has his moral ambiguity, nihilism, and envelope-pushing “rawness” felt more like self-parody. This is a thriller bled dry.

Nate’s Grade: C-

She Dies Tomorrow (2020)

She Dies Tomorrow has unwittingly become a movie of the moment, tapping into the encroaching anxiety and paranoia of our COVID-19 times in a way where the horror of newspaper headlines and existential dread has been transformed into a memetic curse. The new indie thriller is an uncanny and unexpected reflection of our uncertain times and it makes She Dies Tomorrow even more resonant, even if writer/director Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, 2019 Pet Sematary) doesn’t fully seem to articulate her story. We’ve dealt with curses in films before and we’ve dealt with foreboding omens of impending death, but how would you respond if you knew, with certainty, that you were going to die the next day? How would you respond if you knew that your existence was itself a vector for this mysterious contagion and that by telling others you are dooming them to the same deadly fate, as well as their loved ones, and so on? Sure sounds similar to a certain invisible enemy that relies upon communal consideration to be beaten back but maybe that’s just me.

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a recovering alcoholic who knows, with complete certainty, that she will die the next day. Her boyfriend killed himself after saying he was cursed to live one last day, and now she’s convinced the same fate awaits her. Her sister Jane (Jane Adams) is worried about her  mental state and then becomes obsessed with her warning. Jane then believes she too will meet the same fate, and discusses this to her brother (Chris Messina) and his wife (Katie Aselton) and two of their dinner guests. Each comes to believe that this deadly declaration is true. They must decide how to spend their remaining hours and whether the curse spreads beyond them.

It seems like with Color Out of Space and The Beach House, 2020 is the year of movies where characters slowly succumb to forces beyond their understanding and that they cannot overcome. Halfway through She Dies Tomorrow, we have a half dozen characters that have been infected, and we watch how each respond to the recognition of their impending doom. One man wants to take care of personal decisions he’s been postponing. Another decides to come clean about wanting to end their relationship. Another debates whether it’s more humane to allow their child to pass in her sleep rather than rouse her to expire aware and conscious. That’s the kind of stuff that is intensely interesting, allowing the viewer to question what their own decisions and thoughts might be under these unique circumstances. I also liked that Seimetz keeps some degree of ambiguity (though perhaps too much for her own good). The curse is never fully confirmed. Could it simply be people going crazy and giving into a mental delusion that their fate is decided beyond their governance? Could they all be hypochondriacs giving into their worst fears and finding paranoid community? Is there a relief is adopting self-defeating fatalism?

The slow, fatalistic approach of the storytelling and the spread of the curse channels the crushing feelings of depression and helplessness, an emotional state many can identify with right now. There’s a heaviness throughout the movie that feels like an oppressive existential weight. As soon as these characters recognize the truth of the “I’ll die tomorrow” creed, they don’t fight. They don’t run. They don’t even rage against the unfair nature of their imminent demise. There isn’t a cure or even a mechanism for delay. The rules of the curse are fairly vague but it seems to follow the specifics of once you’re been exposed to an infected individual, and they mention their own impending death, that this starts the clock for your end. The characters lament how they’ve spent their lives, what they might like to have done differently, and come to terms with some marginal level of acceptance. Amy wants her body to be turned into a leather coat after she’s gone. Another woman opines how much she’ll miss trees, something that she took for granted. Another character marvels at the beauty of the sunset, which will be his last, drinking in the natural splendor with a new appreciation that he never had before. One woman says she regrets spending so much of her days talking about dumb nonsense, and then her firend disagrees, saying he enjoyed her nonsense and it brought him laughter. Taking stock of a life, there will always be regrets that more wasn’t accomplished or appreciated, and many of these same characters are determining how to spend their last hours, whether they prefer a partner or going it alone. In that sense, She Dies Tomorrow reminds me of the mopey indie version of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or the more palatable, less operatic version of Melancholia.

At barely 90 minutes, this is also a very slow and meditative movie that will likely trigger frustration in many a viewer. I’ll admit that my mind wandered from time to time with some of the, shall we say, more leisurely paced segments or redundant moments. There is a heavy amount of ennui present throughout here, so watching a woman listen to the same classical record, or laying on the floor in a catatonic daze, or staring off uninterrupted into the middle distance adds up as far as the run time. There isn’t much in the way of story here to fill out those 90 minutes. Amy infects her sister, who infects her brother and his wife, and from there they all deal with their new reality. From a plot standpoint, that’s about all She Dies Tomorrow has to offer. It has flashes of interesting character moments, like the couple who talk about their long-delayed breakup, or the couple discussing the ethics of letting their child die in her sleep, but too often the movie relies on mood over story, letting a numbing futility wash over the characters and conversely the audience. I’m not saying that mood can’t be the priority. It feels like apocalyptic mumblecore but with a screenplay with too much internalization to really take off. It can seem like an overextended short film. I can’t help but feel that Seimetz is just scraping the surface of her story potential and that these characters could have been even more compelling if they were given more than resignation.

Sheil (Equals, House of Cards) gives a suitably withdrawn and shell-shocked performance. She reminded me of a cross between Katherine Waterston and Dakota Johnson. The other actors, including familiar faces like Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez, all adjust their performances to fit the tone and mood of this world, which means much is dialed back. I wish I had more moments like when Aselton (The League) viciously unloads what she really thinks about her aloof sister-in-law. The cast as a whole feel overly anesthetized, a bunch of walking zombies bumbling around the furniture, and while it’s within Seimetz’s intended approach, it does drain some of the appeal from the film.

Given the overwhelming feeling of daily unease we live with during an ongoing pandemic, I can understand if watching a movie like She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t exactly seem desirable. It can prove engaging while also airy, navel-gazing, and adrift. It’s several big ideas spread thin with overextended melancholy and nihilism. In a way it reminds me of 2016’s A Ghost Story, another indie reaching for some big statements about the human condition and grief and our sense of self and legacy. But that movie didn’t quite have enough development to make those ideas hit. Instead, I’ll remember it always as the Rooney Mara Eats a Pie For Five Minutes movie. There’s nothing quite as memorable, good or bad, here with She Dies Tomorrow. It’s mildly affecting and generally interesting, though it can also try your patience and seems to be missing a whole act of development. If you only have one more day to live, I wouldn’t advise using your remaining hours on this movie but you could do worse.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Greyhound (2020)

I’m fairly certain I now know what my father’s favorite movie of 2020 will be. Greyhound is a World War II movie set in the cold, grey waters of the mid Atlantic and follows a cat-and-mouse game between an Allied convoy and a German submarine pack in 1942. Tom Hanks plays the beleaguered U.S. Navy captain of the Greyhound making his first voyage and the long, hard-fought campaign over five days without air cover. I wish I could have seen this in theaters with the added benefit of the immersive screen, the rumbling sound system, and my father as company. While often exciting and well rendered with visual effects, the movie isn’t so much a movie as it is a DLC video game campaign. Ostensibly this is a movie about heroic qualities like leadership and sacrifice and bravery, but it’s really all about tactics and historical realism. It reminds me of those Civil War movies in the 1990s that appealed to battle re-enactors. This feels like it’s made for the same crowd; not moviegoers looking for engaging characters and compelling drama but moviegoers looking for period jargon and historical accuracy, things incidental to storytelling. The climax comes at 75 minutes and the end credits at 81. The battle sequences can be thrilling and feel reverent to a fault, but what emotional engagement is this movie supposed to offer to someone who doesn’t fill their weekends watching streams of WWII documentaries? What characters am I to connect with? It’s not bad by any means but it also feels like it never even tries to be more than a visual manual for naval warfare. I kept thinking my own father would enjoy this movie. He happily watched the many, many hours of those Ted Turner-produced Civil War movies that paid fawning homage to the military tactics and realism (within reason, they were PG-13 after all) at the expense of character and story. The story is the battle, the characters are stuck as interchangeable faces, and the real star is the depth of historical fidelity. It almost feels like it should simply be the epic visual accompaniment to a series of talking heads for a WWII television documentary. Greyhound is an exciting experience, not much of an actual story, but it might be the most “dad movie” of 2020 if your father is anything like mind.

Nate’s Grade: B

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