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Pig (2021)

Whatever you may think Pig will be, chances are that you will be wrong. On the surface, it appears like it’s going to be another John Wick clone, with criminals stealing the beloved animal of a loner who happens to be a dangerous man who unleashes a path of vengeance. There is no real action in the movie at all. The missing pig is the catalyst to bring Rob (Nicolas Cage) back from the outskirts of Oregon and to retrace the old haunts of his old life, but the pig is more a symbol of companionship and traces back to his time with his deceased wife (another John Wick nod?). Pig is really more a meditative and reflective character study to unpack slowly. There are deeper themes and messages here, and the fact that they’re attached to a movie starring Nicolas Cage where he must find his stolen pig is all the more bizarre and exciting. This is unlike any Cage movie and, in its own way, feeds on the culmination of his own career of movies great and far from great.

This movie feels deeply personal for Cage. There is an elegiac tenderness that permeates the whole experience. It’s about loss but ultimately it’s a movie about chasing your dreams. There’s a reason the tagline for the film is, “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” If you’re expecting a gonzo Cage irony fest, this sincere summation will seem completely mismatched. But this movie isn’t a gonzo Cage irony fest. It’s very much about different people dealing with pain and sorting through heartbreak, disappointment, disconnection, and taking stock of one’s delayed pursuit of happiness. There is no irony to be found here, folks. This movie, called Pig, is bracingly sincere. There’s a standout scene where Rob and Amir are dining at a fancy restaurant and Rob asks to meet the chef. It takes a moment but the chef recognizes Rob and is starstruck and asks if Rob remembers him working in Rob’s own restaurant. He does, and Rob asks this man about his old dream, which was to open a pub-style restaurant, and why he capitulated. The man is initially defensive, citing the local market, but then he has to sit and think it over. It was his dream. It still is, and the fact that this man not only remembers him but also remembers his exact dream and calls him out, it’s like having an intervention from someone who you never knew cared as much as they did. Maybe this man will proceed with his dream of opening a pub. Maybe he won’t, but Rob reminds him and us how little time we have and to really spend it on the passions that positively consume us.

To that end, you can see the parallels with the main character and Cage’s own career. Nicolas Cage has long been an actor defined by excess to the point that he has a catalogue of outsized performances with ironic air quotes attached to them. The man owned his own island and named his son after Superman’s birth name. He has been starring in more and more direct-to-DVD low-budget thrillers, as have John Travolta and Bruce Willis, who both rarely seem to attach themselves to theatrical releases at this stage of their careers. Some might term this the decline of his career, that he is slumming it, but to Cage it’s just another gig. Unlike Willis, famous for shooting his part in a weekend while his stand-in works the rest, Cage is still putting forth quality effort. This might be a little psychological projection on my part, but Cage strikes me as a professional who enjoys his craft even if he makes some unorthodox choices. He has a passion for movies and he’s going to seek that out because it’s what defines him. We might not appreciate the projects he selects, we might not understand them, and they might even be bad, but Cage is taking the roles offered because making movies and acting is the thing he really cares about. His performance here is somber, touching, and suffused with ache. It’s one of, if not the, most restrained performances of Cage’s career and a reminder that the man can be a world-class actor.

Structurally, Pig seems to reinvent itself with every scene, providing new answers and insights as we unravel Rob’s past. It allows you to consistently re-evaluate the movie and characters and makes for a genuinely engrossing viewing because you know there will be something worth paying attention to with every scene change. There are people in the city who revere Rob, who despise him, who seem to be jealous of him, and we’re discovering more and more what that life was like and what drove Rob to being a recluse. The movie rides a line of nuance and ambiguity where not every character detail and connection is spelled out; it’s up to the individual to process meaning. Is this character grateful to Rob because his wife, who battled depression for years, had one significant happy moment she would reminisce over, Rob’s delicious dinner? Is he jealous that a meal could make her happy when he seemingly couldn’t? What emotional response does this man have? It’s up to the viewer to determine the human response to passion and the evaluation of what passions are prioritized. The character writing finds that artistic middle ground of being nuanced but also being accessible. For a movie about a man searching for his missing pig, it’s much more concerned with the man and his demons and dreams.

It’s a beguiling realization that a movie where Nicolas Cage searches for his prized pig might be one of the better films of 2021 and one of the actor’s finest performances. The movie appears like it will be dark, scuzzy, and depressing but it’s actually quite compassionate, humane, and encouraging. It’s not a story about a man cracking skulls and crossing names off a list to retrieve his stolen pet. It’s a movie about a man who left his suffering and who comes back and re-examines his life’s choices and the choices of others. He may look like a bleeding hobo for the majority of the movie, but Rob is a force for good, reminding others of their passions, the urgency of time to chase them, and the importance of spending time with the people, and pets, that matter to them, our own selective families. Pig is an absorbing, poetic, and eminently kind movie and one that doesn’t feel like it could have worked the same without Cage’s professional legacy to build from. It’s a small movie that will surprise many and reaffirms that Cage is always an actor worth watching.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Black Widow (2021)

If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.

It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.

Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.

I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.

There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.

To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.

The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.

From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.

It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B+

No Sudden Move (2021)

A star-studded collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) and screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted Face the Music), No Sudden Move is a class in how to effectively use tension and confusion to a movie’s benefit. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play a pair of low-level criminals struggling to make ends meet. They accept a quick job “babysitting” a family while the husband (David Harbour) retrieves a very valuable document that certain higher-ups are after. Very early on, you feel like something is wrong and something will quickly go wrong, and this feeling persists throughout the film’s two hours. Our two protagonists sense they’re being set up, take action, and from there the movie becomes them trying to cash out with this valuable document while constantly looking over their shoulders. There are many different parties that are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain this document. In all honesty, the screenplay by Solomon is a little too over-plotted. There are several betrayals and schemers and acrimonious relationships built upon past betrayals and mistakes that it can all be a little hard to follow at times. The dread I felt was palpable. You don’t expect these guys to get away with this, not against the forces they’re going against, and so it becomes a nerve-wracking game of assessing every moment and whether this is when disaster will strike. Soderbergh’s dashes of style don’t always jibe with the 1954 Detroit setting, like his penchant for fish-eyed lenses communicating the distortion of this murky world of shadow brokers. It feels like Soderbergh has to resort to some new gimmick to get himself excited about movie projects (at least is wasn’t filmed on an iPhone). The acting is strong throughout, though Cheadle can be hard to hear at times from his guttural, frog-in-throat speaking voice. The movie kept me guessing, with some surprise cameos, and it left me dreading what would happen next. A modest success for glamorous discomfort.

Nate’s Grade: B

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 11, 2001:

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.

I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.

Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.

It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.

It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.

The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.

Re-View Grade: C

Awake (2021)

Every so often I’ll watch a movie and be really intrigued or hopeful with the premise, something that really grabs my imagination, and then that hope crashes and burns in disappointment of a story that never fully takes advantage of all the tantalizing possibilities of its start. In short, I say, “That movie didn’t deserve its premise.” That’s the first thing I thought about after watching Netflix’s new apocalyptic thriller, Awake, where humanity is suddenly incapable of going to sleep. There’s an engrossing drama about the psychological descent and a potent political thriller about the destabilizing of civilization once people are unable to get their forty winks. The premise peculates with such promise, and for it to become yet another end times road trip, hewing so closely to a solidifying formula, is like trapping everyone in a (bird) box.

Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is a former soldier, recovering addict, and current security guard who is also selling opioids on the side to make ends meet. One day, people are no longer able to sleep, everyone except her young daughter. Jill rescues her two children, gets into a car, and drives off for a far off scientific research base where a scientist (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) studying sleep might have the knowledge of how to solve this worldwide mystery.

I think most people have dealt with the effects of sleep deprivation at some point in their life, especially if they have ever had a newborn child. The subject matter is very relatable. I had a bout of insomnia years ago where I was averaging less than two hours of sleep for weeks, and it was the worst physical endurance I’ve gone through in my, admittedly privileged, existence. I felt like a zombie, barely able to function, my head forever fuzzy, and I lost all desire to eat and had to compel my body to consume food I knew it needed for fuel. I even purchased the Ensure nutritional drinks. It was a miserable time and I was even getting a minimal amount of sleep rather than none whatsoever. I’ve had rough sleep certain nights and feel like I’m running on fumes for the rest of my workday. It takes far more time to bounce back from bad sleep, and I’m wondering if I’ll ever actually get consistently restful sleep again for the rest of my life. With all of that stated, Awake should be an easy movie to plug right into and relate to the deterioration. However, it’s so unclear and clumsy in its depictions of the world. It’s unclear until the very very end how long the world has gone without sleep, and so we run into examples that seem to paint two different pictures of our apocalyptic environment: overplaying and underplaying.

At times, Awake is overplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. At points, it feels like society has broken down so completely and over a confusing timeline. There are run-ins with a group of elderly naked people just standing around and acting serene, a prison where the inmates walk out for unspecified reasons involving the guards, and a church that has already gone full-borne cult crazy by thinking that sacrificing the little girl who can sleep means they’ll be able to share in her slumber. The movie didn’t establish these people as crazy religious fundamentalists, so this sudden bloodthirsty turn feels like a leap. Even in 2007’s The Mist, the trapped townspeople gave into the corrupting influence of the religious bigot over time and distress. It reminded me of another Netflix apocalyptic, parental road movie, 2019’s The Silence, where it seemed like it was mere hours before a select group of people started cutting their tongues out and declaring they needed to kidnap women for the purpose of re-population. I suppose some people are just looking for the first good excuse to indulge their baser impulses, but then explore more of this feature with meaningful characters that will matter when they break bad. I think the movie would have greatly benefited from a clear timeline, some helpful titles keeping up with the clock, things like “50 Hours In,” and the premise could have been revised to be a slow evaporation of sleep rather than a strict cut-off. Maybe people are only able to get two hours a night, then one hour, then 30 minutes, and people are freaking out because they know it’s getting less. Let society have some measure of reconciling with the totality of what is to come.

At times, Awake is also paradoxically underplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. For the majority of the movie, our characters aren’t really acting differently even though they have been awake for multiple days. This is what also made me so confused. How much time has passed if nobody seems to be making a big deal about it? The slips in reaction time and awareness don’t really feel integrated until the chaotic conclusion. The family comes across the wreckage of an airplane and make no big deal of it. For that matter, if we’re establishing that sleep deprivation is causing planes to fall from the sky, I think there should be thousands of these crash sites dotting the landscape, unless the airlines have wised up and decided to ground their pilots because they’re afraid of potential post-post-apocalyptic class action lawsuits. Travels with Jill become too leisurely for everything that is going on (note to self: pitch an Anthony Bourdain-style travelogue during an apocalyptic social breakdown and tasting the new culinary delicacies). She senses that she will die and needs to train her children to survive in this new world without her. However, if only her daughter can sleep, then presumably only she will be left alive in due time and it’s less about fending for herself against other people and more how to live off the land. There’s an existential and more poetic, prosaic version of Awake where Jill is trying to cram years and years of parenting into a precious couple of days, where she also tries to secure a fortified hiding place for her daughter to wait out the rest of humanity dying off before she can come out like a hibernating animal. For Jill, its about securing her child’s survival rather than reversing this plague that is dooming humanity. There’s a stronger movie that could have been made had Awake been more personal and more serious rather than schlocky and muddled.

The movie does have a few moments of bizarre effect or risible tension, but these moments are few and far between and director/co-writer Mark Raso (Kodachrome) is very transparent about his genre influences. There’s a roadside checkpoint where a group of armed people try and break inside Jill’s vehicle and pull her and anyone else out the windows. The car is still driving as the assault goes on and the camera remains inside the vehicle while rotating around the interior as the attack plays out in a real-time long take. If you’ve seen the sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men, then this description should already be ringing a few bells of recognition. It’s not that Raso cannot pay homage to the sci-fi inspirations of his tale, but when you draw direct comparisons by emulating very specific artistic choices done by superior filmmakers, you’re inviting a negative impression. A standoff between Jill and an increasing exodus of prisoners had a queasy anxiousness to it because the movie lets the scene build with direct, immediate stakes. There’s a similar scene where Jill is hiding in a garage from voices, but the stakes don’t translate as well because our knowledge of who the other men are is limited. She could just sit in a corner and wait. The plane wreckage scene is impressively designed, and there are a few genuinely surprising moments, like the crowd of naked old people, to keep things curious, but Awake too often settles again and again for the most formulaic and least interesting creative path.

If this all sounds a lot like Netflix’s Bird Box, then congrats, because you’ve likely caught onto the reason this movie exists. Both movies feature an unexplained worldwide phenomenon that results in the breakdown of society where mobs and cults have formed, and both movies feature a single mother trying to lead her two children, one boy and one girl, through the hazards of the road so they can reach a supposed secure place where authority figures will have answers, and both movies feature a normal facet of human existence that, once removed, is making people go crazy and mess with their perception. Both of the movies also provide plum roles for high-profile actresses. Rodriguez (Miss Bala) is a compelling actress who has shined in lighter, rom-com material (Jane the Virgin), in quirky character-driven indies (Kajillionaire), and in somber existential horror (Annihilation). She has the tools to be great. Awake did not give her enough. There are a couple of scenes, late, of her starting to lose her bearings, and it’s here that I wished the filmmakers had realized that showing the effects of this cataclysm would be best than underplaying or overplaying the deprivation. Awake is an apocalyptic road trip that will bore more than excite and frustrate more than engage. Who knew sleeplessness was such a snooze?

Nate’s Grade: C-

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released June 29, 2001:

A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.

In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.

It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.

David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.

There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.

It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.

I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.

The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.

A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There are two aspects that people remember vividly about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and that’s the fascinating collaboration of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time and its much-debated and much-derided extended ending. Before we get into either, though, a fun fact about its very helpful title for Luddites. Originally the title was only going to be A.I. but the studio found that test audiences were confused by the two-word abbreviation and several clueless souls thought it was the number one and not the capital letter “I.” The studio didn’t want their high-concept meeting of cinematic masters to be confused with a popular steak sauce.

In the realm of cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick rise to the top for their artistic ambitions, innovations, versatility, and great influence on future generations, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a uniquely shared sensibility. Kubrick’s films are known for his detached, mercurial perspective, flawless technical execution, leisurely pacing, and a pessimistic or cynical view of humanity. Spielberg’s films are known for their blockbuster populism, grand imagination and whimsy, as well as the director’s softer, squishier, and more sentimental view of humanity. It almost feels like a mixture of oil and water with their contradictory sensibilities. And yet Kubrick and Spielberg developed A.I. for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Kubrick optioned the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt that Spielberg was a better fit for director in the mid-1980s, but Spielberg kept trying to convince Kubrick to direct. Both took on other projects and kept kicking A.I. down the road, also because Kubrick was dissatisfied with the state of special effects to conceive his “lifelike” robot boy. Kubrick died in early 1999 and Spielberg elected to finally helm A.I. and finish their creative partnership. He went back to the original 90-page treatment Kubrick developed with sci-fi novelist Ian Watson and wrote the final screenplay, Spielberg’s first screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and his only one since 2001). I view the final movie as a labor of love as Spielberg’s ode to Kubrick and his parting gift to his fallen friend.

Watching A.I. again, it is a recognizable Kubrick movie but through the lens of Spielberg’s camera and budget. In some ways, it feels like Spielberg’s two-hour-plus homage to his departed mentor. The movie moves gradually and gracefully and, with a few delicate turns, could just as easily be viewed as a horror movie than anything overtly cloying or maudlin. The opening 45 minutes introduces a family whose child is comatose with some mystery illness and the likelihood he may never return to them. The husband (Sam Robards) is gifted with a shiny new robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), as a trial from his big tech boss (William Hurt) who wants to see if he can make a robot child who will love unconditionally. The early scenes with David integrating into the family play like a horror movie, with the intruder inside the family unit, and David’s offhand mimicry of trying to fit in can make you shudder. All it would take is an ominous score under the scenes and they play completely differently. One scene, which is played as an ice breaker, is when David, studying his parents at the dinner table, breaks out into loud cackling laughter. It triggers his parents to laugh alongside him, but it’s so weird and sudden and creepy. David’s non-blinking, ever-eager presence is off-putting and creepy and Monica (Frances O’Connor), the mother, is rightfully horrified and insulted by having a “replacement child.” However, her emotional neediness steadily whittles away her resistance and she elects to have David imprint. This is a no-turning-back serious decision, having David imprint eternal love and adoration onto her, and if she or her husband were to change their minds, David cannot be reprogrammed. He would need to be disassembled. With this family, David is more or less a house pet kept around for adoration and then discarded when he no longer serves the same comforting alternative. Once the couple’s biological child reawakens, it’s not long before jealousy and misunderstanding lead David to being ditched on the side of the road as an act of “mercy.”

From there, the movie becomes much more episodic with David and less interesting. The Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) addition furthers the story in a thematic sense and less so in plot. Gigolo Joe is a robotic lover on command, and framed for murder, and just as disposable and mistreated as David. From a plot standpoint, David’s odyssey is to seek out the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, a book his mother read to him, and to wish to become a real boy and be finally accepted as his mother’s legitimate son. Thematically, David’s real odyssey is to understand that human beings are cruel masters. In short, people suck in this universe and they don’t get any better.

People, or “orga” as they refer to organic life, are mean and indifferent to artificial life, viewing the realistic mechanical beings, or “mecha” as they are referred to, as little more than disposable toys. Despite its cheery happy ending (and I will definitely be getting to that), the movie is awash in Kubrick’s trademark pessimism. Early on, David is stabbed by another boy just to test his pain defense system. David is only spared destruction from the Flesh Fair, a traveling circus where ticket-buyers enjoy the spectacle of robot torture, because the blood-thirsty audience thinks he’s too uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be confused whether he is actually a robot considering that the adult models look just as realistic. He’s not like a super advanced model, he’s just the first robot kid, but applying the same torture spectacle to a crying robot child is too much for the fairgoers. However, this emergent reprieve might be short-lived once these same people become morally inured to the presence of robot kids after they flood the consumer market. Once the “newness” wears off, he’ll be viewed just as cruelly as the other older models also pleading for their pitiful mecha lives.

The tragedy of David is that he can never truly be real but he’ll never realize it. His personal journey takes him all over the nation and into the depth of the rising oceans, and it’s all to fulfill a wish from a benevolent make-believe surrogate mother. His programming traps David into seeing the world as a child, so no matter how old his circuits might be, he’ll always maintain a childish view of the world and its inhabitants. He’ll never age physically but he’ll also never mature or grow emotionally. Because of those limitations, he’s stuck seeing his mother in a halo of goodness that the actual woman doesn’t deserve. Monica felt like she was being helpful by ditching David before returning him to his makers, but this boy is not equipped to survive in the adult world let alone the human world. He cannot understand people and relationships outside the limited confines of a child. So to David, he doesn’t see the cowardice and emotional withdrawal of his mother. She knew the consequences of imprinting but she wanted to feel the unconditional love of a child again and when that got too inconvenient she abandoned him. Their relationship is completely one-sided with David always giving and his mother only taking. David’s goal is to be accepted by a woman who will never accept him and care for him like her organic child. She will never view David as hers no matter how hard David loves her. He cannot recognize this toxic usury relationship because he’ll never have any conception of that. David is trying to be loved by people undeserving of his earnest efforts and unflinching affections.

Do these look like robots to you?

Let’s finally tackle that controversial ending, shall we? The natural ending comes at about two hours in, with David in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean and pleading with a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island to make him a real boy. He keeps whispering again and again to her, and the camera pulls out, his pleading getting fainter and fainter. The vessel is trapped under the water, so he’ll likely live out the rest of his battery life hopefully, and hopelessly, asking for his wish. It feels deeply Kubrickian and a fitting end for a tragic and unsparing movie about human cruelty and our lack of empathy. It’s also, in its own way, slightly optimistic. Because David is so fixated, he’ll spend the rest of his existence in anticipation of his dream possibly being granted with the next request. He has no real concept of time so hundreds of years can feel like seconds. Everything about this moment screams the natural ending, and then, oh and then, it keeps going, and the ensuring twenty additional minutes try and force a sentimental ending that does not work or fit with the two hours of movie prior. Two thousand years into the future, David is rescued by advanced robots (I thought they were aliens, and likely you will too) who finally grant his wish thanks to some convenient DNA of his two-thousand-year dead mother. These advanced robots can bring the dead back to life except they will only last one day, so David will have one last day to share with his mother before she passes back into the dark. However, David’s conception of his mother isn’t the actual woman, so his rose-colored glasses distortion means he gets a final goodbye from not just a clone but one attuned to his vision. It’s false, and the fact that the movie tries to convince you it’s a happy ending feels wrong. Also, the world of 4124 still has the World Trade Center because A.I. was released three months before the attacks on September 11th. It’s just another reminder of how wrong the epilogue feels.

This extended epilogue desperately tries to attach the treacly sentimentality that was absent from the rest of A.I., which is why many critics felt it was Spielberg asserting himself. Apparently, we were all wrong. According to an interview with Variety in 2002, the opening 45 minutes is taken word-for-word from Kubrick’s outline and the extended ending, including the misplaced happy every after, is also strictly from Kubrick’s original treatment. It was Kubrick who went all-in on the Pinocchio references and parallels. Even the walking teddy bear was his idea. Watson said, “Those scenes were exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what he wanted, filmed faithfully by Spielberg.” The middle portion was Spielberg’s greatest writing contribution, otherwise known as the darkest moments in the movie like the Flesh Fair and robot hunts. The movie is much more sexual than I associate with Spielberg. There has been sex in Spielberg’s past films, but it’s usually played as frothy fun desire with cheeky womanizers (Catch Me If You Can) or as a transaction with unspoken demands (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple). Then again, when Spielberg really leaned into a sex scene, we got the awkward and thematically clunky “climax” of Munich. With A.I., the perverse nature of humanity is another layer that reflects how awful these people are to the wide array or robots being mistreated, abused, and assaulted on an hourly basis in perpetuity.

Twenty years later, the movie still relatively holds up well and is good, not great. It’s more a fascinating collaboration between two cinematic giants, and the fun is recognizing the different elements and themes and attributing them (wrongly) to their respective creator. The special effects are still impressive and lifelike even by 2021 standards. Even though the movie is set in 2124, so over 100 years into the far-flung future, everyone still dresses and looks like they’re from the familiar twentieth century (maybe it’s retro fashion?). It’s a slightly distracting technical element for a movie otherwise supremely polished. There is a heavy emphasis on visual reflections and refractions of David in his family home, exploring the wavering identity and conceptions of this robo kid. Spielberg’s direction feels in keeping with Kubrick’s personal style and sensibility. A.I. is a labor of love for Spielberg to honor Kubrick, and he went another step further with the 2018 adaptation of Ready Player One where one of the missions was exploring a virtual reality recreation of the famous Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In my original 2001 review, I took the same level of umbrage with the miscalculated ending as I do in 2021. In the many years since its release, A.I. has been my go-to example of a movie that didn’t know where to properly end. As a result, it’s still a fascinating if frustrating experience on the verge of greatness.

Re-View Grade: B

In the Heights (2021)

Weeks ago, I listened to the original Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway recording for In the Heights, the first major musical by multi-hyphenate artistic virtuoso, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I had never heard the music before and I found that, over the course of a couple hours, little of it stuck with me. There were a handful of tracks where I thought it was nice but nothing grabbed me the way that Hamilton’s soundtrack did from the very start. Because of that musical dip, my expectations lowered slightly for the long-anticipated movie musical of In the Heights. Well, dear reader, let me say what a monumental world of difference seeing the songs in their proper context, with character relationships, and the able performances of the actors can do for making the music come alive. In the Heights is an exuberantly joyous experience, one brimming with energy and good vibes and a warm-hearted welcome that serves as the best argument movie theaters can have to come back and experience the pleasures of the big screen with your friends and family.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a twenty-something bodega owner in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and dreaming about returning to his home in the Dominican Republic. His young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps him stock the shelves and keep the family business going. We follow the many faces of the neighborhood, like Abuela (Olga Merediz), who has helped raise everyone as a sweetly matronly figure, Nina (Leslie Grace), returning home from her first year at Stanford as the “girl who made something of herself,” Benny (Corey Hawkins) who was in a relationship with Nina and is looking to work his way up as a cab dispatcher, Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who is moving her popular salon into another neighborhood, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who dreams of relocating into Manhattan’s fashion district. Usnavi has been nursing a crush over Vanessa for ages, but will he finally make a move before leaving the country for good to return to the Caribbean?

This is such a positive and overwhelmingly optimistic story that it becomes infectious, a pleasing balm to sooth all that ails you. It’s very easy to get swept away in the enthusiasm and energy of the movie, enough so that after the exemplary opening number setting up our characters, our setting, and our relationships and goals, people in my theater actually clapped, and I almost felt like joining them. In the Heights succeeds through how relatable and specific it comes across, lovingly showcasing the diverse population of Washington Heights and the community that feels at home here. It’s built upon the celebration of its specific, Latin-American heritage and culture but the movie is also constructed to be so accessible and welcoming to others to learn and join in. The themes and conflicts of these people have specific touchstones to their community, like the threat of deportation and the encroachment of gentrification taking away their neighborhood, but the inner conflicts like feeling the pressure to succeed and questioning whether your dreams are practical are worries that anyone regardless of ethnic background can relate to. In the Heights finds that sweet spot where it’s reverential to its own cultural background and open for anyone.

Naturally, in a musical, much of the appeal will live or die depending upon the quality of the music and the vitality of the performances. With In the Heights, the music and lyrics are quite good and the presentation is phenomenal. If you’re a fan of Hamilton, and if you have ears I assume you would be, it’s fun to listen to the early seeds that would become the signature sound for Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are similar salsa/merengue melodies and hip-hop-infused syncopations that will be familiar to the legions of Hamilton fans, including some rhymes (“Eyes on the horizon” among others). In many ways it’s like watching a junior thesis project of a genius. The opening number does a fantastic job of table setting as well as bringing the audience into this world and getting us excited for more. Usnavi, and Ramos especially, takes full control of our attention and command of the world with fast-paced delivery and extra charisma. There are more bouncy, humorous tunes like “No Me Diga” set in a salon replete with literal bobbing weaves, more traditional Broadway ballads like “Breathe” about a character expressing her doubts and guilt, and the Cole Porter-esque smooth jazz of our young lovers dancing and declaring their affection for one another like “When the Sun Goes Down.”

But the best moments are the ones that open up the big space and bring the whole community of Washington Heights into the mix. The electricity of the opening number is rekindled in “96,000” where a trip to the local pool turns into a jumping jamboree where everyone dreams about what they would do with a winning lottery ticket sold at Usnavi’s bodega. It allows each character an opportunity to share their dream and what is important to them, providing each person a platform to be more defined. It also taps into that bubbling optimism that permeates the entire movie. The grand finale also has the same effect as characters sing their hearts out about lessons learned and wisdom gained and, thanks to the medium of film, it provides a happy ever after resolution that was unavailable on stage. Miranda is excellent at weaving musical themes to come back into multi-harmonic convergences and crescendos, and it all comes to a rousing and uplifting conclusion.

Another concern about big screen musicals is whether they can translate to the visual landscape of cinema, whether they can escape the trappings of the stage, and In the Heights is exactly how musicals should be filmed. Director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) got his filmmaking start with the Step Up dance franchise and knows, whatever the film, how to keep things moving swiftly and full of vivacious energy. Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, In the Heights doesn’t feel like it has any noticeable down time. The filmmaking choices adapt with the needs and intents of the songs, so when we have a fast-paced multi-part song and dance, the editing adopts this speed, and when we have large ensembles the cinematography widens to take in the expansive group choreography. When things need to slow down and become more intimate, Chu’s camera adopts to this and relies on longer tracking shots and close to medium shots. The pool choreography in “96,000” is splashy fun and lively and very colorful, and the quick visual cues and edits of “In the Heights” incorporates the neighborhood into the music to make New York City feel like a living participant. Chu’s direction takes full advantage of what film can offer but still makes the viewer feel the same intimacy and vibrancy of live theater.

There are two standout movie moments. The first is the song “Paciencia Y Fe” that does so much symbolic heavy lifting about the immigrant experience, discrimination, and the long struggle for personal dignity, that it made me tear up by the end for a character that, only moments before the empathetic expose, was a nominally nice old lady. The other is “When the Sun Goes Down” between Benny and Nina, which begins with them gazing out a fire escape and takes a magical turn into dancing along the walls of their building like Spider-Man. That transitional moment, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, is the only real magical realism in the show, so Chu has been saving it up for his big moment. The dance is beautiful to behold, and the perspective has an Inception-style spin that alters their balance and perspective of what is up. It’s a beautiful movie moment, captured in long takes, and reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s fanciful fantasias.

Ramos (A Star is Born) played John Laurens in the initial stage show of Hamilton, and its filmed production on Disney Plus, and now he gets his own starring vehicle. He is tremendous as Usnavi, convincingly laid back and charming while also being amusingly anxious around his crush. The awkward romantic fumbles are adorable. Ramos’ singing and skill with the flow of rap lyrics is impressive, but he’s also providing a performance first and worrying about the singing second, not that he should be worried on that front. Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) surprised me with the range of his singing, and he’s such a pleasant presence to have along. Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx) is hilarious at times, like when he’s adopting a macho voice to ask Vanessa adult questions, but he can also break your heart like when he reveals his own legal vulnerability. His poolside solo is also a delightful interjection about what his own rap skills comprise. Merediz (Godmothered) is the only holdover from the original stage show and she is so captivating in her signature number that it’s easy to understand why she was nominated for a Tony Award. There are so many amusing and enjoyable supporting characters populated by familiar faces, like the women of the salon (Rent’s Ruben-Vega, Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz, and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) providing comic relief and a playful attitude, Jimmy Smits as the noble father giving of himself for his daughter’s future, and Miranda and Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson as dueling sweet treat vendors vying for summer supremacy. You’ll enjoy your time in Washington Heights thanks to these fine folks.

It’s unfair to directly compare In the Heights to Hamilton, like looking at an artist’s portfolio and complaining it isn’t quite up to the standards of Da Vinci, but one area where In the Heights does come up short is the depth of its characterization. The film exudes good vibes as it skips over topical and important political issues with an optimism that might, arguably, borderline on naivete. This feels almost like the opposite-minded compliment to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, another tale of a New York City block one very hot day. The characters are kept at a genial level of interest that makes them enough to feel for and root for, but they’re not exactly deep portrayals with complex conflicts. All the characters have a singularly defined personal conflict that can be resolved by the end, and the lessons about learning to listen to others, appreciate family and self, and find home where you feel it are not exactly revolutionary or complex. Again, this stuff works, and I understand why the story needs characters that have lesser complexity and definition to fulfill the different levels of life. It’s just when compared to the depth of the real people of Hamilton where you realize that maybe the colorful characters of Washington Heights are held to a lesser standard and simply not as multi-dimensional.

In the Heights is a joyous experience that I think I’ll enjoy more upon re-watching and listening to the soundtrack over the summer months. I can completely understand why people fell in love with this musical upon its initial release and touring, and I can also acknowledge that it’s clearly an earlier artistic steppingstone to greater later achievements for Miranda. That’s not to take anything away from the pleasures of this particular story, these particular characters, and especially these particular songs. In the Heights is a lively and welcoming musical experience that carries a deep affection for its cultural roots and invitation for others to join that celebration. It’s powerfully optimistic that it’s so easy to be swept away and smile with its charms and uplift. In the Heights takes advantage of its cinematic opportunities, the charisma and energy of the talented cast, and the soaring and lovely melodies and catchy rhymes from Miranda. In the Heights is a great way to kick off a return to a summer season at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Holler (2021)

In the time I have spent making a concerted effort at reviewing Ohio-made indie movies, I have yet to watch one that amazed me and earned an A-grade. There are several that are enjoyable, others admirable for their technical professionalism, and many that have glaring factors beyond limited budgets that hold back whatever the intended artistic intent was. I was excited with genuine hope for Holler, a small movie shot entirely in Jackson, Ohio and following the lives of a struggling band of small-town metal scrappers looking to survive. It’s the debut feature from writer/director Nicole Riegel (based upon her 2016 short film of the same name) and has recognizable TV actors involved like Jessica Barden (End of the F***ing World), Pamela Adlon (Better Things), Austen Amelio (Dwight from The Walking Dead) and Becky Ann Baker (Girls, Freaks and Geeks). It’s even getting a wide release nationwide through IFC Films, who graciously provided me a screener link. If any movie felt like it was going to breakthrough and become the first truly outstanding Ohio indie, this seemed like a major possibility. Unfortunately, Holler doesn’t merit hollering.

Ruth (Barden) is a high school senior in a small southern Ohio town wracked by poverty, factory closures, and the aftereffects of the opioid epidemic. Her mother (Adlon) is serving time in prison for her drug offenses when she should be in a treatment center. Her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) is resigned that he’ll work himself to nothing, but he wants a better life for his bright sister and submitted her college application. Ruth and her brother join Hank (Amelio), a local scrapper who offers extra work for side projects stripping the parts from closed buildings.

While watching Holler, I noticed my heart was sinking because, even with all this professionalism and authenticity on board, I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in, and then I noticed an hour had passed and I realized, “Oh, this is the movie.” I have seen this artistic calculation with indie movies before and articulated it succinctly with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild: “sacrificing story to the altar of realism.” This feels like a very authentic movie as far as its hardscrabble details about how impoverished people in small towns eke out a life on the peripheral of society. I know people have been pushed to the brink because of desperation, whether economic or psychotropic or beyond, and that scrapping can be a dangerous and competitive landscape to make a few bucks. When you’re struggling to get by, it’s all about what can lighten that struggle. If stripping the copper wire out of an abandoned building is more profitable, and less time-consuming, than bagging aluminum cans all over town, then it seems like a natural attraction to those with limited options. However, Holler feels less like a movie with a story needing to be told than a stark setting with an impression to leave.

The characters are too interchangeable and one-dimensional here to really invest in beyond general well-wishing. These small-town Ohioans have been hit hard by circumstances and as I was watching I wanted them to find some degree of happiness or improvement by the end, but that was because they were simply people in need and I am an empathetic creature and not because of their personal stories or characterization. It would be the same as if I had watched 90 minutes of a lost puppy trying to find shelter and then, at long last, that puppy got to sleep inside a coffee shop. I’m happy, and relieved on a general level, but am I personally invested in this specific animal and this specific story? Could it have been any living being at all?

The characters of Holler are far too generalized where they keep repeating that same nub of characterization they’ve been given. The entire dynamic seems to be a universe of characters who exist to try and convince Ruth that she is better than everyone and deserves to leave. In an early scene, we watch Ruth sit down and write an essay for a friend to use as her own homework. It’s an early indication that Ruth is smart and not fulfilling her potential. It’s not her homework she’s completing but a friend’s and for money, money she initially refuses from pride. Unfortunately, the movie forgets to continue moments like this to provide further insights. Ruth is too often a walking cipher, taking in her dilapidated surroundings with alternating pensive and glum stares. She is more a symbol than a character, meant to serve as a face of those held back by economic anxieties and limited opportunities. Her mother is a symbol of the wreckage of the opioid crisis and how it has decimated rural communities. Her brother is a symbol of generational sacrifice. These characters don’t have complicated internal drama or intriguing contradictions or anything beyond the surface description because they’re designed to be specific voices meant to convey a Greek chorus of opinion. They’re sides of conversations made flesh rather than interesting or complex people. I wanted to become attached to Ruth’s plight especially as she embarks on performing more dangerous tasks for money with her scrap crew, but you never feel any real added danger or for that matter any real change. When Ruth is out scrapping in the middle of the night, the movie treats it no differently. When Ruth finally makes her decision about her life, it doesn’t feel like the culmination of her emotional journey and more so the character finally accepting the pleas of others over the course of 85 minutes.

The obvious artistic comparison point for Holler is 2010’s Winter’s Bone, another movie that explored in unflinching detail the degenerative disease of systemic poverty. Once again, we follow a young woman trying to provide for her broken family in the wake of a parental drug addiction and trying to stay one step ahead of debt collectors and eviction. Another artistic influence seems to be 1970’s Wanda, an indie featuring a housewife walking away from the malaise of her life in small-town coal country Pennsylvania. The difference with both chief artistic influences is that they had, quite simply, movies to tell with their big screen canvas. With Winter’s Bone, there’s an urgency where the protagonist has to find her absent father in short order to save her family home but also because he has made some very scary meth dealers very angry, so the way to save her family is literally to turn over the man who abandoned them to ruin. There’s a strong sense of personal stakes, there’s a ticking clock, and the themes tie into the emotional journey of our main character. With Wanda, the main character is the one abandoning her husband and children and she takes refuge with a bank robber on the run. With each of those descriptions, you can see the movie there, the reason why this story deserves your time.

With Holler, I kept waiting for some turn or escalation or something to draw out the movie. The movie feels stuck in an expository gear I would associate with Act One territory and then it ends. I really thought more would be made of the illegal scrapping-for-money angle and whether this would present our lead character with increasingly fraught choices over her well-being. I thought maybe her descent into the criminal side of desperation would force more confrontations or consequences. Maybe there would be another crew that didn’t take too kindly to an entrepreneur muscling in on their hard-won turf. Maybe she would have to hide her injuries as she got more reckless. Maybe she’d even risk getting caught by the law and serving time in prison. Anything to offer insight into this less known world of scrapping. I regret to say that the angle that gives this low-budget indie its very hook could have been replaced with any other arbitrary plot element. Ruth could have been finding lost dogs or stealing cars or selling her bath water to perverts on the Internet. The circumstances of her personal choices are so generalized and don’t produce enough direct cause-effect relationships. The events fail to feel meaningful. The solution to Ruth’s dilemma also seems as generalized – go to college. What is she going to study? Does she have a career in mind? Does she even have personal interests? She rejects one teacher’s recommendation to avoid a crushing load of student debt and to learn a skill and work up, so then what is she going to do with tens of thousands of dollars in debt attached to her name? I understand that education is aspirational and one of the few things in life that, once gained, cannot be taken away, and I champion education as a person working within that sphere. However, “get out of economic desperation by just going to college” seems naively simplistic.

Holler is admirable for its grit and empathetic with the struggles of its people. It’s professionally made with a strong score by Gene Beck (Cowboys), all mournful strings applied to lived-in details that feel authentic to the region and these inhabitants. Even the angle of scrapping-for-money seems ripe for exploration to separate this little movie from the pack of poverty pictures. It’s the storytelling that cannot live up to the good intentions of those involved. The characters are too one-note, symbolic, and disposable, and the story elements are likewise too interchangeable and lacking in meaningful connections. It’s a small-town girl who must decide to leave home to take on massive student debt (happy ending?). Anything that happens in the prior 85 minutes feels like variations on the same point being made repeatedly and without nuance or complication or contrast. It feels less like a movie and more like an expanded short absent the substance to justify its expansion. I think Riegel has promise as a filmmaker and I hope more attention goes to her characters and plot for future projects. I must continue to wait once again for that elusive Ohio-made amazing indie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021)

Three movies in, plus four spinoff films and more on the way, and The Conjuring franchise is losing some of its luster. The original director, James Wan, is still involved in an advisory capacity but his absence is felt in the director’s chair, not that The Devil Made Me Do It is poorly directed by Michael Chaves (Curse of La Llorona), but it’s starting to feel stale. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) are a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators traveling the country and solving 1970s/80s mysteries. This third entry feels the most like an expanded episode from a TV series, like X-Files, and maybe that’s because of its inherently procedural nature. The Warrens are defending a young man accused of murder but who says, as the subtitle describes, that he is not guilty by reason of demonic possession. From there, the Warrens are investigating to prove the demon exists and then trace its demonic history. The scares are low although the intensity feels cranked just as high; there are lots of scenes of gale force winds, shattered windows, characters yelling, and loud music. I miss the perfectly executed Old School horror sequences that were the hallmark of the earlier movies. It set up its rules, wound up the scene, and you just squirmed in anticipation. This franchise has never been revolutionary but more an expertly polished and honed tension machine. However, when the calibrations are off, then the franchise has even less going for it. There are some interesting ideas and elements, like Lorraine (Farmiga) being able to see from the eyes of the demonic killer, but the franchise feels more repetitive and stalled, with multiple exorcisms and Ed (Wilson)’s health being a motivating factor for his wife to prevent, again. The supporting characters are bland or broad and the mystery itself isn’t that interesting, nor is the ultimate villain. In the realm of Conjuring as weekly TV show formula, this feels like an acceptable middle episode with the expectations that they can improve the next week. The “based on true cases” selling point is also starting to grate in light of the reality that a man blamed his own actions on the devil and these controversial people sought to exonerate a murderer. The real-life version is morally abhorrent. The junky horror version can work as long as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If the other Conjuring movies were gourmet entries, then this is more the fast food version. It may still satisfy fans but it’s definitely not as well made and with questionable ingredients.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Cruella (2021)

I don’t think I’ll be shocking any readers when I disclose that this Cruella doesn’t kill a single dog in her new movie. I hope I didn’t ruin the experience for anyone hoping for mass puppy slaughter. I figured Disney was going to go this route as they developed a villain biopic for Cruella DeVil, a woman obsessed with making coats from the skin of dalmatians. How exactly does one make a character like that sympathetic? Well by essentially making her a fan fiction version of Cruella DeVil and providing an even more dislikable antagonist to root against. The question then arises does this really count as a villain biopic when the character is so reconstructed? It follows the blueprint of 2014’s Maleficent where it posits that the story we’ve been told has been a matter of misunderstandings and smear campaigns from the Powers That Be. Cruella isn’t a puppy murderer. Now she’s a school outcast, plucky orphan with her own motley crew, and up-and-coming avant garde fashion designer looking to get her big break.

It presents her as an underdog on several fronts and with a back-story that might go down in history for its reclamation. Minor spoilers ahead, considering it’s early in the movie, but Cruella’s mother was literally killed by dalmatians pushing her off a cliff. The blunt re-imagining might even draw titters of laughter as the movie says, “Here’s the real reason she dislikes dogs.” However, even this tragic revision doesn’t make this Cruella hate dogs. There’s even a cute pooch on her team. This is a Cruella that’s not so cuddly but not unlovable either. She’s presented as a scrappy underdog with a punky attitude and whether this works will depend on your adherence to what a Disney villain biopic should be. Personally, I had no fidelity to the character of Cruella DeVil so I didn’t care. I wanted an entertaining movie with a strong lead performance from Emma Stone, and that’s what I got.

Set in 1970s London, Estella (Stone) is a lonely girl born brilliant but tempered by an uncaring society. After the dalmatian-assisted murder of her mother, Estella and her pals are meeting out their days with small-time grifts and cons. Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and her boys manage to get her an entry level job at a department store. Her experimental window display gets the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a sharp-tongued and formidable fashionista that makes the world tremble. Estella adopts the identity of “Cruella,” with her natural half-black and half-white hair, to upstage the Baroness, draw publicity for her own unique fashion creations, as well as enact vengeance and retrieve her mother’s missing necklace/family heirloom stolen by the Baroness, as if you needed even more reasons to dislike this lady.

Cruella in many ways feels like The Devil Wears Prada mixed with a superhero origin tale. The Estella/Cruella dynamic is played like a secret identity, wherein she adopts one to achieve a personal goal and becomes seduced by the freedom the alternate identity has to offer. The first half plays quite like Prada, with our fashion upstart working her way up the chain, gaining attention for her insights and designs while fighting against a system meant to squash new ideas. The character of the Baroness is very clearly patterned after Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and the command she wielded in her influential position atop the established fashion industry. At first, Estella wants to gain her approval and become a protégé, and then she wants to topple her, crush her, and it becomes a matter of how far she will go, with characters saying variations on, “You’ve changed. It used to be Estella, now it’s only Cruella.” Even The Devil Wears Prada featured a similar character descent for its protagonist. Except the question never seems too in doubt with Cruella because the character of Cruella is less a person succumbing and fraying, like the Oscar-winning 2019 Joker prequel, and more a tale of self-actualization and empowerment. That’s why it feels more like a superhero origin and less like the Joker’s origin. She’s becoming more confidant, more assertive, and more accepting of her true nature.

Under the direction of Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), Cruella feels like a colorful, sprightly caper, something with more attitude and dark humor than I would have believed capable of being forged from the Mouse House with their own intellectual properties. This could have easily been a cash grab but Gillespie and his team of screenwriters, including one of the writers from 2018’s The Favourite, decides to take that big Disney checkbook and have fun with it. This movie reminded me of a PG-friendly version of 2020’s Birds of Prey for adolescents. It’s got slapstick, schemes, contraptions, narrative shuffling, charming and weird characters, and a lot of visual style and attitude to spare. Above all else, this is a fun movie, and one that assembles set pieces and mini-goals that lead to enjoyable payoffs. There’s a funny big heist as the mid-point but it doesn’t go according to plan, as so we watch as Estella and her team have to adapt and get out of a series of escalating traps. The rivalry between Cruella and the Baroness leads to some gaga dress designs I’m certain will get Oscar attention in due time. There’s plenty of life simply coursing through this movie from the actors to the visuals to the extensive music library. Even when the movie is overstaying its welcome (this could have easily been trimmed down by 15 minutes) the movie still finds ways to keep you entertaining and pleased.

Chief among those reasons is Stone (La La Land) as our star. She’s honed her British accent after her Oscar-nominated performance from The Favourite and it’s easy to see a straight-line from that cunning social climber to this new role. Stone finds the right mix of camp and pathos to make the character work. She’s no exaggerated cartoon but she needs a certain energy level to keep you charged. She’s no mousy heroine but a powerful force looking for the right armor that fits. Stone might not be playing the Cruella DeVil of the 1961 cartoon but she’s playing a version of the character that is more capable of carrying a two-hour-plus movie. Special consideration should be paid out to Paul Walter Hauser, who was so memorably dimwitted in I, Tonya, and portrays Horace, a similarly dimwitted member of Cruella’s crew. The man knows what he’s doing when he’s given these roles and it’s easy to see why he keeps getting more.

The amount of needle-drop music cues in this movie puts 2016’s Suicide Squad to shame. I was amazed how that movie could literally go from song-to-song with barely a gap, sometimes only using mere seconds to make its sonic case. The Cruella soundtrack is wall-to-wall music selections, many from the 1960s and 1970s rock and punk scene, and it’s another holdover from I, Tonya that Gillespie has brought with him. The over reliance can become distracting in itself because of the sheer volume of musical selections, many of which can be exceedingly literal (you better believe, yet again, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is called in). It’s a sign of just how powerful the Disney brand can be as I’m sure a huge chunk of the movie’s budget went toward getting all these dozens and dozens of music clearances. If you consider it like a kid’s introduction to classic rock songs, it’s excusable, but the number of songs can also be distracting.

Whether you consider Cruella a faithful or radical reinterpretation of the Disney villain, the live-action showcase is a star vehicle for its shining star. Stone is captivating and having a grand time in her fabulous fashions, and the movie makes it easy to feel her highs as well. It’s not exactly a great movie as many of its supporting characters are underwritten or overly convenient, and its question over the madness and identity of its heroine is more theory than practice, but Gillespie and his team have decided to make Cruella a fun movie, and to that end they have succeeded. It’s colorful, breezy, punky, funny, and consistently amusing, with outlandish set pieces, outlandish characters, and outlandish escapes. Yes, the mom-killed-by-dalmatians tragic back-story might elicit its own howls of bafflement, but the movie doesn’t belabor it for extra ironic impact. Cruella (or Cruella Lite, if you will) is an entertaining reinterpretation that knows what to scuttle to work on its own terms. Whether those alterations are too drastic or defang the character are up to you, but I’d rather watch a kinder, softer, yet still prickly Cruella than one skinning dogs.

Nate’s Grade: B

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