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Without Remorse (2021)

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is Tom Clancy without Tom Clancy. It bears no resemblance to the famous author’s 1993 novel even though the entire production feels remorseless about being generic military thriller genre grist. There’s nothing to spark the imagination here, no signature action sequence or well developed turn of events, no colorful personalities or hissable villains. It’s all predictable from the opening credits onward, from the opening mission that cannot go according to plan, to the assumption of the short shelf-life for the pregnant wife in Act One, to the Obvious Red Herring Antagonist and the Obvious Real Antagonist played by the big name actor, to the presumptuous preparations for building a franchise in post-credit sequences. The best thing about Without Remorse is Michael B. Jordan as our lead Navy Seal seeking vengeance and climbing the ladder of international conspiracy. Jordan gives a far better performance than this material and movie deserves, always demanding your attention. He’s charismatic even in generic thrillers like this one, and it is the definition of a generic military thriller lost in the dull minutia of a thousand other similar movies. There’s really nothing separating this movie from the glut of direct-to-DVD action thrillers starring the likes of Bruce Willis (who filmed his part over a weekend). The motivation for the villain’s plot to kick-start another global war with Russia is laughable when there’s a ideological motivation within reach that would have worked and been interesting, namely declaring Russia already an enemy of the country and forcing those in power to fight the war they are ignoring. Instead, the stated rationale is so much dumber. If you’re a fan of these kinds of action thrillers, or the sub-genre that Clancy carved out for himself for decades, then you’ll likely find enough to pass the time with Without Remorse. It had glimmers where it could have stepped outside the mighty shadow of its influences. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this was starring Dolph Lundgren rather than Michael B. Jordan.

Nate’s Grade: C

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021)

The good news is that Andra Day is a surefire star. In her debut performance, the singer makes a bold impression as Billie Holiday, with her raspy voice, sterling stage presence, and powerful singing. Day was nominated for an Academy Award, just as Dianna Ross was for her own film debut, also playing Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. The highlight of this movie is a tight close-up of Day singing “Strange Fruit,” her anti-lynching protest song, written by a Jewish schoolteacher, a song that incensed the U.S. government and essentially began the woe-begotten War on Drugs with a racist task force targeting Holiday as their first victim to make an example of. The moment is filled with rising emotions and barely held restraint and the sheer power of Day’s performance communicates the danger and anger of this politically-charged song that earned such controversy. However, the rest of the movie is a bit of an unholy mess, as director Lee Daniels (Precious) takes his signature campy, over-the-top style and cannot say no to any creative decision in his mind. I don’t know what’s harder to grasp, the clashing tones or timelines, as the movie literally and figuratively jumps all over the place, at one instant having Holiday on top of the world, and another being beaten by a parade of one-dimensional and nearly indistinguishable abusive men, to waltzing through heroin hallucinations, and cuddling close with an FBI informant (Trevante Rhodes) who is definitely a fictional character. Like the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, we divest time from the star to the men who betray her, but none of these louts and schemers are worth that precious time. It becomes an uncomfortable misery montage as we watch Holiday get abused, shoot up, cry, get harassed by the police, and repeat endlessly for 130 minutes. I don’t know if maybe Daniels was trying to make me feel like I was on drugs while watching but the antic, unfocused, and careening narrative and energy levels certainly made me feel dizzy and nauseated. An then there are ridiculous moments where I just wanted to laugh, like the backroom of racist government agents saying lines like, “This jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday woman has to be stopped.” This is based on a chapter of a book about the early War on Drugs, not Holiday’s biography, and it feels very much like her own identity and significance is being strung along just to be a martyr for the evils of government persecution. The movie paints her chiefly as a victim and then seems to glorify in victimizing her, and it all feels so garish and ghoulish and misguided. Billie Holiday deserves an amazing movie but she’ll just have to settle for an amazing performance in an otherwise melodramatic mess of a movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

Wolfwalkers (2020)

Beautifully animated with painterly water color visuals, Wolfwalkers is another treat from the acclaimed Irish studio that is single-handedly trying to bring back hand-drawn animation. The visuals are a delight and styled in a flat dimensional space reminiscent of Medieval tapestries (and Wes Anderson movies). The story brings to life 17th century Celtic mythology in a way that is still relevant today and concerns weighty themes about family identity, female independence, religious persecution, prejudice, colonial occupation and exploitation, and environmental conservation. It’s part Miyazaki and Brave and also reverent to its own cultural heritage, and it’s emotionally affecting and engrossing as well as being a treat for the eyes. We watch a young girl befriend a wild “wolfwalker,” a girl who can transform into a wolf when she sleeps. their bond will push each other to fight against forces trying to dominate the forest and morality. The filmmakers have carefully laid out the rules of their story and the implementation of the special powers so that everything happens through gradual circumstances where the plot feels as if it is following an entirely organic path. The voice acting is excellent and heartrending and perfectly paired for the exaggerated, wood-block-styled character designs. It’s a lovely and entertaining supernatural fable with enough thematic relevance, girl power, and visual grace to reaffirm just how magical traditional animation can still be.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Moulin Rouge! (2001) [Review Re-View]

Released May 17, 2001:

Director Baz Luhrmann’s last project was the MTV-friendly William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (like someone else has a Romeo and Juliet) which was adored by the under 15 set that now buy N*SYNC merchandise. Luhrmann waited a long time for his follow up with Moulin Rogue, a manic musical that seems like candy for the eyes. It may have been a long time but it was well worth the wait.

The sparkling world of Moulin Rogue is around turn of the century France. Christian (Ewan McGregor), an aspiring writer, has traveled to this place against his father’s wishes. Christian believes in the beauty of love and the pull of the heart. Within minutes of setting foot in France he gets wrapped up into a production by a dwarf (John Leguizamo) and his cadre of assistants. Christian is sent to the most provocative club in town, the Moulin Rogue. Here he attempts to persuade the most famous showgirl Satine (Nicole Kidman) to help push for their musical to get financial backing. Satine inadvertently confuses Christian for the man she is supposed to seduce for a large some of money, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). And thus the merry band of misfits get their play the backing while Christian blossoms a love for Satine. But their love must remain hidden for the Duke is led to believe that Satine is his and his alone.

Kidman owns this movie, plain and simple. From her first shattering entrance being lowered from the ceiling to the last scene, she is absolutely magnificent. McGregor gives a nice performance as the dough-eyed lover. Jim Broadbent plays the Moulin Rogue’s owner, Zidler with howling delight in all his manic expressions. Even Roxburgh gives an underwritten antagonist the right amount of weasely twitch.

One of the more surprising features is how well the two leads can actually sing. Kidman gives a soft and sexy take on “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and McGregor can belt out a tune with some admirably throaty pipes. As these two veer in and out of songs it’s a pleasure to watch and hear.

Luhrmann has crafted a musical with ADD, but I say this as a compliment. Moulin Rogue‘s pace is fast and pounding. People twirl above the sky, the camera zooms wildly through town streets, and dump trucks worth of confetti fly through the air. Moulin Rouge is exploding with glitz and never lets up. The editing and visual artistry is stirring. By about ten minutes into the proceedings when a green fairy starts singing a seductive version of “The Hills Are Alive” you know you are in for something else. And what a something else the film delivers. There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.

Moulin Rogue could be described as a musical for people who dislike traditional musicals. In traditional musicals people go along stuffy formula, then break out into great choreography song-and-dance. With Lurhmann’s musical is a breakneck of pomp where the characters zip around to exaggerated Hanna-Barbara sound effects and start chiming away with 70s and 80s pop songs that we all know. After the initial shock/humor of hearing characters belt out renditions of “Roxanne” and “Like A Virgin,” a familiarity sets in and it blends in to produce a surprising artistic addition.

The story of the movie is nothing new or extraordinary; it’s well worn territory. But where Moulin Rouge breaks apart and shines are with its style and exposure. The visuals are astoundingly lush and lively, the music is game and pumping, and the movie is just screaming to be seen. This was a true work of love.

The movie is bursting to the seams with life. I loved every single second, every single frame, every single moment of Moulin Rouge. I can’t wait to go see it again.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

This was a movie I was looking forward to revisiting and was partly dreading. With the movies that I loved in my past, there is more at stake revisiting them and finding that some of the luster, some of that original magic that enchanted me twenty years hence might be missing. Nothing is lost by re-learning that something like Freddy Got Fingered is still as awful today as it was in 2001. I had this same nagging concern with several of my favorites of 1999 and 2000, and not all of them held up (these re-reviews cannot help being partly biographical). Moulin Rouge wasn’t even a movie I had much interest in seeing back in 2001. I went at the behest of my friend Kevin Lowe and I remember my expectations being low, or maybe I wasn’t in the greatest mood, but within ten minutes that all changed. Moulin Rouge is a movie I unabashedly loved at 19 years old and watched repeatedly through my early 20s and consider a personal favorite. I was caught up in the razzle, the dazzle (especially the dazzle), but the sumptuous and crazed artistry of it all, where it could simultaneously be nostalgic and modern, irreverent and deeply serious, hopelessly romantic in the squarest of terms while being so quizzically weird. It could have been a spectacular disaster but it ended up being a spectacular spectacular. I’m happy to report that Moulin Rouge retains its charm and soaring passion even twenty toe-tapping years later.

This has and will always be a love-it-or-hate-it film. I don’t think there are many people who can watch this movie and remark, “Eh, it was okay I guess.” The opening act is relentlessly paced, anarchic and antic, bouncing all over the place, exploding with information, humor, colors, and bawdy and bizarre imagery, intending to shake you from your doldrums of what a modern big screen musical experience can entail. Under the mad genius of co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann, the movie is bracingly transporting and takes you for an immediate rush, and just as it slows down, you’re hooked. Or, if you’re in the hate-it camp, you’ve found the movie to be a scattershot, self-indulgent, ADD-addled, exhausting ride you’re eager to depart. An amusement park ride is a fine analogy for Moulin Rouge, a movie reverberating with energy and movement; it really does feel like it can’t possibly stand still. There’s a seductive green fairy line dancing, and a singing moon performing opera, and a narcoleptic Argentinian, and John Leguizamo as a dwarf, and plenty of ribald sexual humor and goofy slapstick comedy. It is, to put it lightly, a lot to handle.

With apologies to modern poets, for most of us, the poetry of our modern culture is the songs that have shaped us and our biographical experiences, the soaring ballads, the friendly singalongs, the bangers to shout at the top of your lungs, the love songs to swoon along to and melt away. Moulin Rouge is a major musical that only has one original song, the modern wedding staple “Come What May,” which was actually written for Luhrmann’s prior movie, 1995’s Romeo and Juliet, and thus declared ineligible for the Academy Award for Original Song (sorry Randy Newman, but your Monster’s Inc. song cannot compete). It is a musical composed of renditions and snippets of hit music, cementing its amalgamation as a pop-culture chimera. In many ways it previews the viral Glee music mashups and remixes, the effortless blending of one song into another, the melodies gliding like dancers and then becoming something excitingly new. It’s a different kind of creativity because it’s one thing just to hit “play” on some Greatest Hits CD and it’s another to make sure the songs track the emotional journeys and perspectives of its primary players. Early on, as Christian (Ewen McGregor) belts tunes from The Sound of Music, captivating his peers with his apparent genius, we immediately understand the instant appeal this man would have, seeming like a musical prophet to those lucky enough to listen in 1899 Paris. It’s a clever shorthand and another reflection that modern music has enough vitality and depth to serve as the romantic poetry of our age. Moulin Rouge also predates the sharp rise in jukebox musicals, using the songs of the past, usually limited to one artist, as part of the infectious fun.

The singing and song renditions are luscious and odd and beautifully re-calibrated. The introduction of Satine (Nicole Kidman) is a bold move, lowered on trapeze, her pale skin practically glowing, as she breathily sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s like the movie perceives Satine as an angel being lowered to the mores of man. A male duet of “Like a Virgin” between club owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and the villainous, twitchy, possessive and foppish Duke (Richard Roxburgh) is hilarious and at points unfathomably creepy. Watching “Roxanne” performed as a sultry tango is so good that you’ll never want to hear it any other way. The singing by the famous stars is remarkably polished and without the advent of Autotune, especially from McGregor who belts his tunes with impressive range. The blending of this sonic soundscape, especially McGregor inter-cutting with that “Roxanne” number, can be overwhelming to fully process, like the movie is trying to reach you on a pure emotional, elemental level where you feel it before you can fully process it intellectually. I think that sums up the movie and its lasting appeal well, because I can logically pick apart certain artistic choices, like the exaggerated cartoon sound effects that could have been pared back, but the movie is a messy, joyously messy, exuberant love letter to big messy emotions and cheesy romanticism even to the point of mockery. This is a big screen musical for our modern age, and it’s meant to tap the right combination of buttons to make you fall in love, and I do every time.

It’s amazing to me how Moulin Rouge feels like a crossroads of the old and new, reaching back to the big movie musicals of old but with the hyper-kinetic style of modern music videos. It’s immediately fresh but also familiar, and that clever construction most notably extends to its very specific use of music. It’s not trying to erase the old school musical but drag it into a new century, drafting off of modern music hits to reach a new audience waiting to feel that same heightened reality that those old musicals might not capture for a younger generation. The movie also begat a resurgence of big screen musicals like 2002’s Chicago, 2004’s Phantom of the Opera, 2005’s Rent and The Producers (also co-starring Kidman), 2006’s Dreamgirls, 2007’s Sweeney Todd and Hairspray, and on and on to recent musicals like 2019’s Rocketman (jukebox musical) and 2020’s The Prom (also co-starring Kidman). Everything Chicago did, I felt like Moulin Rouge did better the year before, and I’m convinced Kidman’s Best Actress Oscar for The Hours was a makeup award for being overlooked for her superior performance in Moulin Rouge a year prior. I don’t know if Kidman was ever better than she was here at this moment in her career, fresh off her divorce from Tom Cruise. I feel strongly that Broadbent should have won his 2001 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this and not Iris. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and justly won two for Best Art Direction and Costumes, both going to Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, who would also win two Oscars for her husband’s equally lush and anachronistic 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The electric editing, glittering cinematography, and all the bravura technical elements blend into a rare artistic vision so complete and so extravagantly bold at this budget level.

It should also be noted that Moulin Rouge was adapted into a Broadway stage musical in 2019, updating with more twenty-first century hits like “Crazy in Love” and “Firework” and “Toxic” and “Bad Romance” among others. Its stage run was postponed because of COVID although a national tour is planned for 2022.

From my original review back in 2001, many of my same points still hold up and it was difficult to perfectly capture the spell this movie can have, the same difficulty I’m running into today in 2021 to try and convey its unique hold on me. Regrettably, it’s another review that I felt I needed to take a potshot on “teenyboppers” from my oh so dismissive position as critic. It’s nice when I find myself agreeing with my twenty years younger self. I especially agree with this one summative statement: “There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.” Moulin Rouge is one of my happy movies and twenty years later my stupid face is still smiling.

Re-Review Grade: A

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)

After watching it twice on Netflix, I have come to the conclusion that The Mitchells vs. The Machines is my favorite animated film since 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. It’s so colorful, so exuberant, so clever, while still being heartfelt on its own terms and packing more jokes into a minute than any studio comedy in years. Everyone should check out 2021’s first cinematic treat.

The Mitchells are known as the weird family in their community. Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) is more about the outdoors and hands-on activities. His teenage daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson), is more about the digital sphere and creates her own sardonic, strange videos. She’s leaving for college and eager to fly the coop. Rick feels his last opportunity to bond with his daughter is leaving with her, so he forces the family into a cross-country road trip to drop Katie off at her school. Linda Mitchell (Maya Rudolph) is doing her best to be supportive of her husband and daughter while trying to bridge their divide. Youngest son Aaron just wants everyone to get along and talk about dinosaurs endlessly. The road trip gets even more precarious with a machine uprising and flying robots rounding up humans to eventually jettison them into space.

This is a gloriously entertaining movie that looks absolutely gorgeous. The animation is accentuated with similar styles from Into the Spider-Verse, so the filmmakers have implemented an overlay that adds a two-dimensional shaping and shading to the characters to provide more distinct definition. It’s a new design I heartily enjoyed in the Oscar-winning Spider-Verse and I hope more major animation projects employ it. It’s combining the fluidity and scale of 3D animation with the tactile and personal flavor of traditional animation. The movie also echoes its Gen Z-YouTube culture with cute hand drawn additions that will pop on the screen as accents or take over as quick freeze frames. I thought it was fun and a good indicator of Katie’s meta-drenched sense of humor and creative voice. This is also an explosively colorful movie with vibrant arrays popping off the screen. There were several visual sequences that took my breath away just at the arrangement of colors. The heavy use of neon pastels made me wonder if Nicolas Winding Refn (Neon Demon) was a visual consultant. There’s a stretch that highlights pinkish sunsets and the beautiful light blues of approaching dusk that I said this was the Nomadland of animated movies. Even when this movie has nothing happening, it’s a pleasure just to take it in and appreciate the artistry.

But oh my goodness there is so much happening with The Mitchells vs. The Machines. It’s a longer animated movie at 110 minutes but it’s also so fast-paced and antic, filled with ideas and jokes and moments it feels like it cannot wait to share. In some ways it feels like talking with a hyper-literate, boundlessly excited little kid, and I don’t mean that as a negative. I’m sure there will be more than a few viewers who will tire out early or find the pacing exhausting, but if you’re a fan of The Lego Movie and its hyperactive style of comedy, then you should be able to adapt here. The movie is densely packed with jokes, some that zip by in fractions of a millisecond to reward multiple viewings. I was laughing throughout and besides myself at several points, laughing hysterically from the slapstick to the offhand one-liners to the callbacks and silliness. There’s a little of everything here comedy-wise and it all works. It’s a buffet of laughs. One joke that is simply a tonally serious push-in on the question of mortality had me howling and it’s only a one-second gag. There’s a segment in a deserted shopping mall with the re-emergence of Furbys that is inspired lunacy (“Behold, the twilight of man!”). You have to be this good to be this smartly silly. This is the kind of comedy you can only do in the realm of animation, packing as much into the visual frame as possible and moving at the clip of the creative’s imagination. The side characters are the film’s secret weapons. The dumb dog made me laugh just about every time he was onscreen, and the fact that the movie legitimately finds a significant solution with this dog later is fantastic. The family also come across a pair of malfunctioning robots (voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen) and take them in as part of their unconventional family, and the robots are a terrific team for comedy bits, from their early entrance trying to ineptly persuade the family they are in fact humans (“Yum yum. Yum yum good.”) to their one-off remarks from a confused perspective had me laughing regularly.

The movie is more than just an assembly line of expertly calibrated gags, though again it must be said how flat-out hilarious this movie can be, like it’s disarming how instant the funny can break. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is also a well written movie from a character perspective and makes the audience genuinely care about this self-described clan of weirdos. My girlfriend looked at the running time for the movie and initially balked at how long it was, especially since we had seemingly come to a part that could serve as its Act Two break. “It better be worth that extra time,” she warned, and by the end even she agreed that it was time very well spent.

The heart of the movie is on the father-daughter relationship and while the other characters don’t get shut out, they become helpers to their various sides of this fractured relationship. The conflict is relatable, about the disconnection between two loved ones who just don’t feel like they have much in common any longer. For Rick, he doesn’t understand technology, the thing that Katie thrives in, and he’s struggling to adjust to her growing older. Those familiar daddy-daughter points of bonding don’t have the same appeal to her as a young woman increasingly embarrassed by her Luddite father. There’s a sincere warmth between the two, it’s just they don’t know how to express it fully to the other person and be seen as how they would like to be seen. It’s a generation gap, yes (Rick’s fear of technology will ring true to those with Boomer parents), but it’s also just two people who cannot use the same old tools to get the same results. The screenplay serves up both sides so that we see where each is coming from, understand their frustrations and overreaches, and pull for their reconciliation and growth. The themes are kept simple but expertly developed and with wonderful payoffs not just for Rick and Katie but for everyone. Each member of the Mitchell family unit has a character arc with a payoff, and each is utilized in a meaningful way with our outlandishly joyous climax, and that includes the dog and robots! Even the villain’s perspective is a parallel to our central family conflict, and that is just good writing. The story is deceptively clever and there’s more going on under the surface.

Besides the visuals, the comedy gold, and the heartwarming family relationships, there’s amazingly even more reasons to enjoy The Mitchells vs. The Machines. The voice acting is great, with McBride (This is the End) being a surprise standout as a loving middle-aged father. Also, of note, is that 2/3 of the principal cast of Netflix’s Disenchanted series are found in this movie (where for art thou, Nat Faxon?). The thrumming musical score by Mark Mothersbaugh is a synth-heavy blast that made me recall the scores for Blade Runner 2047 and his own Thor: Ragnarok score. The movie even features inclusivity in a casual manner; the son’s autism and the daughter being LGBTQ are treated with “yeah, sure” acceptance. At no point is either called out or featured in a moment to highlight this but neither are they dismissed as unimportant. Stick around because there are extra levels to the end credits, and I was happy for each because I didn’t want this wonderful time to end, so I kept hoping for more resolution to play out.

The movie was originally meant to be released a year and a half ago but COVID pulled its release date, and eventually Sony sold their project to Netflix for a cool $100 million. It’s hard for me to put an exact price on a work of art (what is this, an NFT? Seriously, someone explain these things to me) but I’m happy Netflix saved this movie and gave it a home. At this point, I’m willing to give producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the utmost benefit of the doubt when it comes to anything animated. After Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, Spider-Verse, and now this, they haven’t let me down yet. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is an eye-popping action movie and a superb comedy that the whole family can enjoy.

Nate’s Grade: A

A Father’s Fight (2021)

Even though it doesn’t quite count as an Ohio indie, filmed primarily in southern Indiana, I was requested to write a review for the low-budget, faith-based film, A Father’s Fight, which is currently enjoying a small theatrical run in West Virginia and in its Hoosier home state. This was a passion project years in the making for director Tyler Sansom (Restore). Its $30,000 budget was fully financed by a local church and many of the cast and crew worked as volunteers, aiding the production which was filmed during COVID. In many ways, the movie is already a success story, a lot of people worked together to see an artistic vision to completion and during some of the most dire and restrictive circumstances of modern times. A Father’s Fight is a rare Christian indie that has more in mind than preaching to the choir. It wants to entertain too as it uplifts.

Bo Lawson (Travis Hancock) is a drunk. He’s also a lousy husband, yelling at his wife, Kacie (Sarah Cleveland), and ignoring her threats to leave with their two kids. Then she does it, and Bo doesn’t know how he can get his life back together. Enter Sal Burton (John French), his old boxing trainer, with an offer of a lifetime. It seems the reigning boxing champ wants to come back to his home town to stage a charity bout for the community, and the champ has personally requested to fight his old rival, Bo. This is his chance to make a statement, to shape up, and to win back his wife and perhaps find a new strength through Christianity.

For a faith-based film, I am happy to report that A Father’s Fight is refreshingly more concerned with its characters than purporting a big message. This has been my bias for Christian movies time and again, and it’s usually reinforced by slapdash storytelling that spells out a pragmatic assessment of, “Well they’re coming for the message and not the intricacies of plot and multi-dimensional characters.” Any viewer, no matter their personal belief, deserves a story worthy of their attention and characters that have depth and care. With this movie, it’s far more a domestic drama than a sports film. It has more to do with Marriage Story than Rocky. The boxing doesn’t even come until the final five minutes, which in hindsight also feels like too little boxing. I was impressed that the screenplay by Hannah Mowery does not get pushy with its spiritual message. The first real reference to the power of faith doesn’t even occur until 45 minutes or so into the film, and Bo doesn’t attend church until after an hour into the movie. In the realm of Christian indies, this is remarkable restraint. By no means are the filmmakers soft-pedaling their affirmative message. They just realize that it will be more powerful, and accessible to a wider audience, if you’re sincerely invested in the characters, their humanity, and their redemption. The power of their story will be better translated if they feel like characters rather than bland figures.

It’s here where A Father’s Fight shines brightest, with its depiction of alcoholism and abuse. He’s spiraling, angry all the time, drinking whenever he can, projecting much of his disdain into outbursts against his wife trying to control his behavior, judging him and his failures, and we recognize it as the Drunk Abusive Husband in your standard made-for-TV melodrama. Granted, this is a faith-based film in a PG realm, so the danger of abusive behavior will only go so far, but this movie pushes it. This does a few things for the narrative. It establishes a clear baseline of bad behavior, the Before, that we can judge the protagonist’s progress against, the After period, the triumph. It also makes it more challenging to connect with Bo. He has to earn our respect just like his wife. What’s even more appreciated is how the screenplay really treats Kacie as her own character worthy of consideration, heartache, and struggle. She gets a lot of screen time here, almost equal to Bo during those first 40 minutes, and I thought it was terrific. It’s shockingly rare for the other half of an abusive relationship to be given legitimate consideration and voice. Too often movies will place the wife as a prize needing to be won through penitence or the symbol of How Far the Man Has Fallen, the chief victim that represents the toll of his decline and misery. With A Father’s Fight, my favorite moments where when the script just gives Kacie time to share her complicated feelings, and they are refreshingly complex. She’s torn over what to do, she’s upset with herself that she still worries over this man, she sees her kids and sees her husband in them, and she recognizes her value and that she deserves to be treated better. The brief monologues where Kacie pours out her heart, her frustrations, with Bo, with herself, are the highlights of the film. The characterization is nuanced and empathetic.

The other main characters stand tall. Bo is following a pretty familiar redemption arc, and the vehicle of boxing seems tailor-made for a redemption story, a man voluntarily inflicted with pain to atone or prove a larger point of sacrifice. Adding a spiritual element to that redemption story seems pretty natural and familiar for a formula. The character of Bo isn’t quite as nuanced or clear as Kacie but there’s enough there to qualify as a heartfelt if not entirely satisfying character arc. His apologies and personal growth by the end feel genuine, and his acknowledgement that he has hurt those he loved and doesn’t deserve their forgiveness sets a nice balance for a Christian message about mankind not deserving its own sinful forgiveness. It works, it just could have worked better (more on that later). Bo is strapped into the reliable redemption track but there are points that confused me. At one point, he is backing out of a parking space, almost hits a pedestrian, and the angry pedestrian provokes Bo to almost fight him. This passing incident, with a guy we’ve never seen before, is curiously the thing that almost pushes Bo off the wagon and back to drinking. Why? Why would this one incident have that drastic effect? It’s not like he did get into a fight with the guy. The early Bo is never really clarified why he’s in such a stupor. He’s angry, but angry at what and why? Does he just feel stuck? Emasculated? Unable to provide? A little more time setting up how he fell into drinking and his life before would have smoothed this out. Also, this upcoming fight is with the literal champion of boxing but we don’t ever get a strong sense of what it means for Bo. This is a big deal, something that would attract national media attention, and yet it is never treated like a big deal (Bo is only making a laughably paltry $5,000 for his participation – IN A FIGHT WITH THE CHAMPION). What does this fight, the very title of the movie, represent for him? He’s told he needs to fight for what he believes in, which will ostensibly be the lessons of family, self, faith, etc., but why boxing? Why this guy? Why a champion? Does he want to become a boxer again? Is this his failed dream? It feels just like another odd job for our blue-collar protagonist.

There are two primary areas that detract from the mighty goals of A Father’s Fight: the second act squeeze and the strange editing. There seems to be a switch about 50 minutes into the movie where Act Two and all the personal growth we’re waiting to experience gets severely truncated. It’s hard to explain but the patience and nuance that was exhibited in the first 45 minutes starts to wave and the movie gets sloppy with its storytelling shortcuts. There’s one extending grocery shopping scene that seems to be the changing point. It’s Bo explaining all the changes in his life through one methodical trip down a grocery aisle, chatting to local busybody, Tammy Lynn (Lindsay Rawert). He’s explaining all the changes he’s undergone that we haven’t witnessed. He explains the guy he greeted was his AA sponsor, shows her his chip for being sober for a month, talks about how much he enjoys his time with his kids. All of this is important information and would certainly push Bo along on his predetermined redemption arc, but why are we being told it like we’re catching up with a long-lost friend who only has a few minutes to cover the basics? Why haven’t we been seeing these moments? Why didn’t we see Bo go to an AA meeting, feel uncomfortable and out of place, and then eventually open up, talk about his own history with alcohol and the wreckage it has caused him? It would be a dramatic breakthrough. The same with his interaction with his children. Let’s witness these moments, so that we can see their attitudes changing about their father that once scared and upset them in Act One. Movies are meant to be a visual medium and the screenwriting edict is “show, don’t tell.” The first half of A Father’s Fight was following this model. The second half seems to be rushed to tell us what it feels we need to know to fulfill our redemption obligations and get to the big finish.

The work by three credited editors, including the director, is also a frequent concern. There are several weird editing choices that took me out of the movie or undercut the intended drama. First off, many conversation scenes will awkwardly jump around an assortment of angles, and the pacing feels jumbled, especially when the 180-degree rule is frequently being broken and disorienting the viewer. I’m not a stickler that the 180-degree rule in film should be ironclad but flagrant violation throughout a scene creates unconscious disconnection. That can be put to good use if you’re going for something like loopy David Lynch territory. With a faith-based film, it’s distracting. There are drone shots wedged into montages that don’t need them because the production had drone shots and by golly they were going to be utilized regardless. The inclusion of certain shots and sequences also feels baffling. In the first act, Bo is picked up from the police station by his wife, and during the drive home we get flashbacks of Bo as a child watching his drunken father berate his mother. Minutes later, Bo returns home, immediately starts drinking again, and Kacie confronts him. He berates his wife and his two kids appear, horrified and afraid of how their father is behaving. Wouldn’t it make more thematic sense to include that flashback scene here, to make the connection that he is following in his father’s footsteps, and wouldn’t the scene simply have more dramatic impact here? Likewise, at the end of the movie, when Bo is fighting in the boxing ring, the movie’s big question is not whether Bo will beat the champion but whether Kacie will be present in support (so yes, it’s basically entirely Rocky). Bo gets knocked to the mat. He looks over. He sees his wife. He smiles. He has a reason to get back up, to continue fighting, renewed and stronger. Except that’s not what happens. He gets up, and the ref is checking with him, and he looks over and there she is. This is truly baffling to me. The obvious movie moment is, when he’s at his lowest, after taking the hit, he looks over and there she is. We don’t need to see her enter. It should be a surprise for the audience too and including it at its most dramatic point. We feel Bo’s elation. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t have a plethora of these moments but enough that add up and make me wish there had been a fourth editor to help.

The acting is much more subtle and controlled than what I was expecting from a faith-based indie where big theatrical acting can make the proceedings feel overly staged and phony. The three central performers deliver. Cleveland (End of the Road) is very emotionally affecting as Kacie, and she deftly handles the multiple conflicting emotions of a woman at the end of her patience. She’s the most nuanced character in the movie and Cleveland digs deep. She is not a cliche. Hancock (A Soldier’s Secret) has the more traditional role and leans into that familiarity but carries himself well physically and emotionally. His outbursts can be wince-inducing but his pleas for forgiveness can also ring true, aided by the character’s reflection and personal growth. French (The Right to Remain) has a really strong monologue where he reflects on his own war experiences and what motivated him to keep fighting. It relates to the larger theme of the movie, allows the versatile actor to slow things down, to open up, and become very vulnerable, and it’s a welcomed humanizing aside for a character that could have just been a standard coach cheering on our hero’s conditioning from the sidelines. I must admit this monologue is hampered by poor editing choices with quick camera pans and push-ins that feel entirely wrong. You want to slow things down and let the character have the moment, not ramp things up and distract. There is one major acting curiosity I need to cite and this belongs to Rawert and her thick accent. She sounds like she’s auditioning to be on Fargo (“Oh yay, yer’ goin’ inta tha boxin’ ring, doncha know”), and it’s a pronounced lilt that’s missing from every other actor in the movie. I don’t know if maybe this was her idea of a typical “Midwest voice” or a misplaced character choice.

As a faith-based drama, A Father’s Fight has a lot going for it and a lot I wish more Christian indies would prioritize. It puts its characters and story above its feel-good message, at least for half of the movie. The second half does feel rushed and sloppy, and while it does take away from the conclusion feeling fully earned, it cannot detract from the early good feelings. It’s a strange assessment that a movie has a first act, a third act, and a smushed second act, the one meant to bridge the problems to solutions, but there you have it. It’s quite possible there was more intended for the movie and the reality of budget and filming during COVID caused unfortunate shortcuts and the like. It definitely feels like the promise of the first 45 minutes was unable to be fulfilled for the second half. At 90 minutes, the movie could have even stood an additional 20-30 minutes of material to provide room for that character development and some time to breathe. Still, this is a professional looking production for its budget and the song selections are great finds, even if they quite often literalize the inner emotional state of characters onscreen. There’s much more right than wrong with this polished production, and I’m impressed with the consideration given to the characters, especially from the wife’s perspective. Most Christian indies feel more like elaborate sermons than genuine stories (sometimes they’re just Kirk Cameron lecturing you in a driveway). I think this film will play well with its target audience and even earn some fans from outside the flock, people who recognize the humanity of the people onscreen. Even with its limitations and weird edits, A Father’s Fight knows what it’s fighting for – your entertainment value.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Chaos Walking (2021)

Chaos Walking has been shrouded under the ominous reputation of “troubled production” from its very inception. It’s based on a 2008 YA science fiction series by Patrick Ness and has gone through writer after writer, trying to hone this story into a visual medium. At one point, Charlie Kaufman was attached as the screenwriter, and if Kaufman, the man who turned his struggle to adapt a book about flowers into a meditative and meta experience, can’t find a way to make your story work, then I doubt many other Hollywood writers can. It began filming in 2017 with director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) and sat on the shelf for years, with the studio execs reportedly dismissing the finished version as “un-releasable.” Fifteen million dollars in reshoots took place in 2019, helmed by Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe), and now the finished movie has been quietly dumped to theaters and on-demand markets. Chaos Walking is, indeed, chaotic, but it’s mostly dull and simplistic with a premise that feels ripe for social commentary that the movie has no interest in because it would detract from its eighteenth depiction of another forest chase.

In the future, mankind has settled on an alien world with some unexpected results. There is a strange quirk about this planet – the men are incapable of hiding their inner thoughts, which materialize in front of their heads as visuals with their narration echoing (nick-named “The Noise”). Women, for whatever reason, are unaffected. It’s been so long since another supply ship from Earth has come that life on this alien world has begun to resemble the struggles of the early terrestrial pioneers. Todd (Tom Holland) wants to impress his small town’s authority figure, Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), and become an adult faster than he might be ready. Viola (Daisy Ridley) has made the multiple-generations trip from Earth but her spaceship crashes. Todd finds her and panics because she may very well be the only woman alive on the planet. He elects to hide her and try and reach an old technological outlet, while the Mayor leads a posse to round her up and maybe kill Viola.

Given that premise, you would think that Chaos Walking was setting itself up for some sharp, uncomfortable, and relevant social commentary about the plight of being a woman in a modern society. If Get Out was a horror story about being a black man in America, I was thinking Chaos Walking would be a horror story about being a woman in America, but I was wrong. Think about the premise, with every woman subjected to a society of men that cannot hide their unconscious objectification, their leering harassment, their distressing ulterior motives, where every man’s uncontrollable thoughts will be broadcast. It’s an empathetic and horrifying glimpse into the daily dismissal, exploitation, and condescension that woman experience. You add the extra element that women are immune and now they also become the subject of projected male resentment, that they feel judged, and this only makes the men more hostile and confrontational. Being “the last woman” also presents an obvious threat of sexual violence as well. It’s all right there, and yet Chaos Walking barely even toys with its explosive gender commentary; there’s a reason all the women are dead on the planet, but it’s not exactly revelatory, and its inclusion, at the expense of all other notable social or political commentary, makes the explanation feel more perfunctory. Why even bother having a premise that features a gender disparity if you’re not going to really say something about the treatment of women? If you think about those old movies where it’s one man on a planet entirely of women, or some similar dynamic where there is a giant gender upheaval, and they always say something about it. What would be the point of making an exception for one kind of person and then ignoring the larger implications? Well, I’ll never truly know, because Chaos Walking doesn’t seem to know either.

I can see why this premise works on the page where the reader is already able to immerse themselves in the inner thoughts of a point of view character. I’ve never read the source material but I can imagine it being like a jigsaw puzzle of first-person perspectives. It’s a little harder to translate into a visual atmosphere in a clear and meaningful way, especially when you’re limiting what it all says. As its portrayed onscreen, The Noise is often muddled and visually hard to decipher, and while it mimics the half-formed nature of thoughts (people don’t typically think in complete, declarative sentences) it’s still too abstract and confusing. The wispy visuals are opaque and glisten like sunlight in gasoline pools, which makes the imagery less easy to determine. It’s like someone made a sci-fi thriller and just ladled on extraneous visual elements but didn’t want anyone to properly decode these special effects. Sometimes the premise works, like when Todd is trying to hide his fears, like when he envisions a beat-down from a dangerous crowd, or when he purposely imagines scary imagery to spook a rival’s horse. Too often The Noise just feels exactly like that when it comes to the narrative. It’s a peculiarity that is underdeveloped and could well be forgotten. It’s such a strange experience to watch a high-concept movie where the filmmakers are seized by indifference with their high-concept. I don’t know if maybe this is a subtle acknowledgement of defeat.

There’s one character that symbolizes the futile adaptation of The Noise and that’s Reverend Aaron (David Oyelowo). He’s living in conflict with his own community and his Noise is more apocalyptic, fire and brimstone, and he views The Noise as a connection between man and God. Now that is interesting, looking at this quirk as a gift or curse from God and trying to make a spiritual understanding over why man, and only man, has been given this ability. It seems to radicalize him. At long last, here is a character with a direct and personal relationship with The Noise, the hook. How does this change his relationship with God, his sense of self, and his feeling of disconnect from being so far away from home in this alien world? Well, all of that tantalizing characterization and potential depth is cast aside. Reverend Aaron is merely a religious zealot and a boring one at that. It’s hard to determine whether he’s gone over into violent extremism or is seeking absolution, which makes him just another dangerous antagonist that appears here and there but you can’t quite square. This character could have been legitimately intriguing from the story specifics of how he would respond to drastic change, isolation, introspection, and a crisis of faith brought on by the environmental turmoil. Instead, he just becomes a secondary heavy chasing characters for vaguely unsatisfying reasons.

Chaos Walking is not a fascinating failure or a so-bad-it’s-amazing fiasco, it’s just a mediocre chase movie. It’s patterned after Westerns visually and structurally, with the frontier town being lead by a Black Hat who is chasing after the Drifter who represents a threat to the status quo. It’s not just the horses, dusty trails, vilified natives, and small-towns shootouts, Chaos Walking is very intentionally a science fiction Western, a pairing that seems to keep getting tried on by Hollywood studios like an old pair of cowboy boots they’re positive fit perfectly once long ago. As far as space Westerns go, it’s fine. The action is fine, though I grew tired of the visual mundanity of characters continuing to walk in the woods, run through the woods, and take refuge in the woods. For an alien landscape, Chaos Walking often feels frustratingly plain and unimaginative. All of these interesting science fiction asides and additions and it’s really just interested in being a second-rate space Western. The screenplay is held together as a series of rote chases. The main characters are bland and Ridley’s straw-like blonde wig gave me bad memories of Kate Mara’s bad wig from the infamous Fantastic Four reshoots. For its 110 minutes, you won’t exactly be repelled from the screen with boredom but you won’t be tempted to pay close attention either. Chaos Walking is too generic, too safe, and too derivative to be anything more than passing entertainment. I wish it was more chaotic and un-releaseable just to be more memorable and worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Another Round (2020)

In one of the best lines in The Simpsons‘ history, Homer Simpson makes a summary toast: “To alcohol, the cause of –and solution to—all of life’s problems.” This edict populates the Danish comedy Another Round, written and directed by Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd), who recently earned a surprise Academy Award nomination for Best Director. The movie follows a foursome of middle-aged school teachers trying to reclaim their lost mojo, chief among them Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a history teacher who feels adrift as a husband, father, and an educator. A friend mentions a theory from an obscure academic that human beings are born with a .05% blood-alcohol deficiency, and to operate at peak performance, a person should regularly imbibe a serving of alcohol to maintain a buzzed feeling. Martin and his three friends agree to live this experiment, sneaking booze onto school premises, and then pushing further, raising the blood-alcohol minimum to see if they can keep up.

In some ways, Another Round feels ready-made for the kind of wacky ensemble comedy territory on the peripheral of drama, something the likes of a new Judd Apatow comedy (Knocked Up), and I wish that this Danish film had followed a more mainstream and crowd-pleasing approach. I know that sounds sacrosanct, the American film critic decrying the foreign film and wanting it to be filled with more dick and fart jokes, but this is because I see the true comedic potential at play, and I know an artist with the sensibilities of an Apatow or even a Greg Mottola (Superbad) could crush this. Labeled as a comedy, Another Round is more “comedy” in broad theory than execution. You would think a group of middle-aged school teachers testing a theory about operating at peak efficiency while being buzzed from booze would lend itself to all kinds of amusing, hilarious exchanges and set pieces where the men cause trouble and get into unexpected shenanigans while trying to keep their secret. The appeal would be watching this group of men cut loose in a way that feels liberating, pushing them outside their comfort zones and discovering something about themselves and their capabilities before, of course, the dark side and going too far, chasing an increasing high. I feel like many readers can picture the Apatow comedy right there. The problem with Another Round is that nothing is ever really funny. There’s the brief occasion of physical slapstick and even briefer encounters of the men behaving goofy, caught up in their feel-good vibes. But mostly the movie is devoid of recognizable comedy, even awkward, cringe-inducing comedy. It feels like the filmmakers said, “Let’s tackle a premise that seems like an Apatow comedy but let’s play it mostly straight and see how it goes.” Well, it went.

As far as a drama, I also found Another Round to be promising but ultimately lacking. We don’t really know the supporting characters before they begin their experiment, particularly what is holding them back or what obstacle they seem to perceive is holding them back. This is a movie about drastic change and how it affects these four men, and yet we barely know where they are starting off to contrast how the experiment affects them, good or bad. The men all seem to have succumbed to a general malaise and the joy of teaching has left them. Once they begin the experiment, they find that joy has emerged and they are more engaged in their classrooms, more adept at connecting with their teen students and keeping their attention, and more likely to make the learning meaningful and impactful as it relates to their dreaded high-pressure finals. Really, it sounds like, on paper, that these men use this opportunity to simply become better teachers because they allow themselves to put more of themselves into their teaching. The men don’t seem beholden to superstition, feeling they need the alcohol to be the most effective teachers, so one would think they could take the experience and learn lessons about how they can reclaim that feeling of purpose, of being an effective educator without the catalyst of alcohol to get them there. Without a more meaningful picture of these characters and their personal ennui, it makes the experiment feel inconsequential, as if it could have been anything else that shook these men from their general malaise. It takes away from the drama of what these men went through and what it might have cost.

I suppose if the comedy was going to be muted, I was expecting Another Round to be more dramatic. Martin is our main character and his rocky relationship with his wife serves as the heart of the drama; he wants to reconcile after being too removed. We root for him but we’re not really invested. The bigger drama isn’t even involving Martin. One of the guys in the group becomes a cautionary tale of descent, not seeing a reason to stop drinking, and his downturn is played with such nihilistic certainty for tragedy that it seems strange how nobody intervenes. It would play more emotionally if this character was better developed. The other characters are missing clear arcs and more interesting and relatable character moments. I can envision the kinds of supporting characters under this scenario that populate the Apatow version of this premise, each a reflection of a different kind of malaise, each a different personality, and each finding room to progress on an arc where they learn lessons both good and bad but come out wiser. The start is right there, but without making the most of the shared time, it feels like we’re hanging out at a party with people we barely know and overhearing an anecdote we’re missing vital info from.

Mikkelsen is best known stateside for his intense villainous roles (Hannibal, Doctor Strange) and as the occasional flinty badass (Polar, Arctic), so there is a degree of appeal to watching him play a normal school teacher. Mikkelsen is solid throughout and really shines when the character’s inner life returns, thanks to alcohol and then, later, his own sense of self-worth. It’s sturdy but unremarkable acting, notable for its normalcy and the edges of humor we don;t usually see from the actor. Much is built upon Martin’s past jazz ballet class and this is the closest thing the movie has to a comedic payoff, finally gifting the audience with the sight of a joyful, fluid Mikkelsen prancing across the screen at the very end (the actor actually has legit ballet training). It’s a fun sight but, as the film’s biggest comic payoff, it’s not exactly one that could sustain your built-up imagination.

Another Round is a fine movie about friendship and recovering one’s lost sense of self, but as a comedy it’s not very funny, and as a drama it’s not very dramatic, and so it feels stilted, stuck between both realms and just kind of bouncing around a miscalculated middle-path. You won’t be angry by what you’re watching from Vinterberg and the actors but you might not be hooked. Given its surprise Best Director Oscar nomination, over the likes of Aaron Sorkin, Regina King, Spike Lee, Florian Zeller, and Darius Marder, I think I was expecting something more bracing, something more intellectually engaging, and something where the vision was so perfectly predicated by the precise tone of its nominated director. I’m sorry to say, dear reader, but I just don’t see it. I cannot see what on screen lead to Vinterberg’s unexpected nomination over a crowded field. I cannot see what on screen convinced people Mikkelsen was a Best Actor contender. I cannot see what on screen makes Another Round the odds-on favorite for Best International Film, especially in a category where Romania’s Collective is also competing. Maybe I’m just not the right audience for this movie. Maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe I’m just being unfair. It’s possible, or it’s also possible that this heralded foreign film has a muted identity crisis that saps away its comic and dramatic potential and my potential entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Memento (2001) [Review Re-View]

Released March 16, 2001:

A film is taking the nation by storm and it isn’t anything from a big studio. In fact it’s the first release of a new indie production house called New Market, and these people have lassoed a real winner. Memento is a murder mystery bubbling with perfect elements of noir, suspense, and trickery. Memento is the tale of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) who is searching desperately for John G., the culprit he believes that raped and murdered his wife. Along the way Leonard gets assistance from his friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss), a down on her luck bartender.

Except Leonard has a peculiar problem plaguing his one-man investigation for justice. After the attack on his wife the assailant knocked him out, and Leonard was left with no short-term memory whatsoever. Leonard cannot develop new memories. So if something happens to him, he is liable to immediately forget it within five minutes. To aid himself he write on small post-its telling him which car is his, what hotel he’s at, etc. all over his body are tattoos of clues he has amassed. He takes Polaroids of people and writes their names on them to remind him of the faces he sees that he won’t remember. Leonard’s investigation is about what his notes tell him. He doesn’t know whom he can trust and whom he cannot.

If this wasn’t enough to make Memento interesting the entire tale is told out of sequence and run from end to beginning. The entire film is told backwards. This action robs the audience of the same information that escapes Leonard. We too know neither who to trust. The effect could fall into gimmick territory but makes the movie fresh and adds for some great comic situations as well, like when Leonard awakens with a bottle of champagne in his hand and tells himself he doesn’t feel drunk.

Pearce is gripping as the emotionally shattered and fractured Leonard. He is a man that can trust nothing and must live from repetition but is intent on bringing his wife’s killer to bloody justice. Pantoliano and Moss provide good support as the weary characters that weave into Leonard’s plight. The acting it excellent all around. They leave us guessing and reassembling our perceptions as more of the puzzle unravels.

Memento is top-notch film noir. It’s a breathless thriller of a first rate caliber. The direction given by Christopher Nolan from his screenplay is tight and highly effective. The character of Leonard is fleshed out in all his paranoia, pain, and frustration. Nolan has delivered a gift to movie audiences always hungry for fresh material. One has to see the film a second time just to see how well the segments play together.

Memento is the coolest movie around. Rush out and see it, then see it again, and then again. It’s the best movie of 2001 by far as of now and has the Best Original Screenplay Oscar locked [Editor’s note: it lost to Gosford Park of all things.] It’s destined to be a cinematic classic people will talk about for years.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Without a doubt, there has been no filmmaker that has had the meteoric rise over the last twenty years than Christopher Nolan. The man has entered that rare, hallowed upper echelon of the Steven Spielbergs and Quentin Tarantinos where his name alone is the selling point. You go to see a Nolan movie because you know it will be an experience that no other filmmaker can quite deliver, and from 2005’s Batman Begins onward, he’s been given immense studio resources and unchecked creative control to make his big dreams come true on the biggest stage. It’s thus very fun to go back to the little 2001 indie movie where it all started for the future box-office titan. It has many of the hallmarks that have followed the director’s ascendant career, like dead wives as back-story, cool emotions, an unreliable protagonist, and especially its crackerjack, air-tight narrative. Memento already had a dynamite premise, an amateur investigator seeking justice who couldn’t hold new memories because of a mental condition. It was based on an unpublished short story by his brother Jonathan (future frequent collaborator and creator of HBO’s Westworld), which is why it qualified as an original screenplay at the Oscars, to which it would eventually lose out to Gosford Park (go figure). Nolan deliberately made the story even harder to follow in a gambit that would come to define his screenwriting experimentation. He told the entire movie backwards, so that the story began at its ending and finished at its beginning. Every few minutes, we, like our memory-challenged lead Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), are left to ask, “How did we get here?” It puts you in the stark position of the lead’s perplexed and scrambling sensibility. It’s a raised bet of a storytelling check, one that Nolan delivers with incredible panache, but twenty years later, is Memento more than a brilliantly executed magic trick?

Even after watching Memento likely half a dozen times in my life, this is still one very confusing movie to follow. There are two current storylines that crisscross and eventually overlap, like tributaries reconnecting to a source. The black-and-white segments of Leonard narrating his rules, tattoos of key clues, practices, and investigative successes as he narrows his search for the mysterious “John G.,” the man he claims assaulted him and his wife, are filmed more objectively, playing out in linear fashion, given to rampant exposition to better orient the audience to the tricks of the movie. The color segments are the main action, watching Leonard go from murdering a confidant to then explaining how we got here, roping in scummy drug dealers, violent men, sad-eyed barmaids, and people looking to take advantage of Leonard and his unique disability (the motel owner rents him multiple rooms). These sequences are played in the backwards trajectory that drives the movie, so every pit stop essentially resets the movie as we know it. It’s an amazing device because it makes every scene its own little movie with its own little payoff, with a dopamine reward for seeing how the opening of the last image came to be. Some of these are played for laughs but many are extremely well thought out to keep an audience guessing. Leonard opens a closet to find a beaten and gagged man who swears it was Leonard who did this to him. Leonard begins in mid-chase, seeing a man running parallel to him. “Oh, I must be chasing this guy,” he comments in voice over, until seeing the man’s gun in hand and his advance. “No, he’s chasing me,” he corrects, and runs in the other direction. Then there’s the question of who Leonard can trust, and your assessment of the supporting characters in his orbit will shift. You’ll feel bamboozled just like Leonard, that is, if he could remember. The backwards-narrative allows Nolan to make his revenge thriller so much more mysterious and audacious and playful, and the director takes full advantage of the possibility. It’s a rare screenplay of near genius quality.

On a later DVD release, there was a hidden special feature that could be unlocked that would play the movie in chronological order, and I feel like this would be like watching a magic performance with X-ray vision. It would completely take away the appeal. While I think the level of details and continuity and thematic connections would be even more apparent with more traditional, linear plotting, it would seriously negate much of the fun and potential of the movie. That’s not to say that Memento is only effective because of its narrative shuffling. It’s still a lean thriller with a brimming confidence that can give you an artistic contact high. The character of Leonard Shelby is a fascinating and tragic figure worth exploration, which the movie allows for deeper discussion off-board. However, when you’re witnessing a thoroughly thought-out magic trick that is performed at such a heightened degree of excellence, why blow it up with asking for convention?

It’s also fun to revisit the 2001 movie and see many of Nolan’s staples of creative collaborators. There’s his brother, who he’s co-wrote a very successful Batman trilogy with, along with Doddy Dorn as the editor (Insomnia), David Julyan (The Prestige, Insomnia) as the composer, and especially Wally Phister as the cinematographer who helmed every Nolan movie from 2001 to 2012, winning an Oscar for 2010’s Inception.

I’ll preface these next two paragraphs with a spoiler warning, which I acknowledge is perhaps overdoing it for a movie that’s been available for twenty years, but I’m going to discuss the ending (beginning) of Memento and its implications, so if you’d prefer to be surprised and are one of the people on the planet who hasn’t seen this movie, or been spoiled, then go watch it and then come back to this review. The through line of Memento is Leonard’s murder of “John G,” a.k.a. Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a supposed ally that may work in law enforcement. The movie becomes a question over whether Teddy was guilty or whether Leonard was manipulated from beyond, and this proves to be the case, though the culprit is rather unexpected. It’s not Natalie (Carrie Anne-Moss) seeking vengeance for her dead drug-dealing boyfriend, though she plays her part, but the real manipulator is none other than Leonard himself. Teddy has set up a fall guy for Leonard to take out to get his long-sought vengeance, and maybe he can remember to be satisfied, but as Teddy recounts, it always fades. They’re always back repeating their old loops. Given the circumstances, Teddy sets up his pal to take out local lowlifes and figures why not profit from the experience (his warnings to ditch the drug dealer’s car go unheeded by Leonard, who instead chooses to drive it around town and even wear the clothes of his victim, a nice visual cue that leads to the big sucker punch reveal Nolan has coiled).

Teddy’s real offense, however, is telling Leonard a truth he does not want to accept. The back-story that has driven him is deemed fictional, conflated with an ongoing anecdotal analogy about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a memory-impaired man whose wife tests him that results in her overdose on insulin. Leonard’s wife survived the assault. It was she who overdosed on insulin to test her husband’s condition. This truth runs counter to everything Leonard has defined himself by and he rejects it, and through that hostile rejection, he sets Teddy up for a cruel fate. He ensures Teddy will be hunted down as the next “John G.” suspect, and thus Leonard actively chooses to live the fiction than deal with truth. In 2021, especially after four years of a pungent presidency that shamelessly warped reality to whatever was deemed preferable, and with millions of gullible Americans still falling for the fantasy, the story of a man choosing the comforts of self-delusion over uncomfortable accountability is striking for its topicality. It’s about the lies we tell one another. Leonard says he deals with facts because memory can be fickle, it’s unreliable, and then the script proves this to be exactly the case, having hidden the answer right in front of your face. I love that the implications can be deliberated even twenty years later and the question of whether Leonard is a secret villain. He believes he’s doing righteous work, but he also proves he can never be satisfied and will very likely continue to hurt others to sustain his preferred reality. Because of the narrative trickery, or limitations of building from a foundation, it’s hard to say that Leonard is a deep character rather than a blunt force instrument. It’s in the revelation and lingering implications where the depth of Leonard Shelby emerges, and I think it’s a depth that often gets overlooked by those trying to keep up with the admittedly confusing storyline.

Revisiting Memento, there’s a definite nostalgia quality, watching two stars from The Matrix and the young upstart from L.A. Confidential bouncing around a Polaroid-snapping L.A. noir mystery from the man who would come to redefine blockbuster cinema. It’s not an understatement to say Nolan is in a class of his own, and his critical and commercial success seems to have convinced him that every movie needs his narrative sleight-of-hand. Some of those films didn’t really benefit from the extra complications. I thought the three timelines compressed on top of one another in 2017’s Dunkirk was entirely unnecessary and distracting. It got even worse in 2020’s deliberately palindromic Tenet, which was a puzzle box from Nolan I felt no desire to solve. Nolan has told movies with just about every construction of linear and non-linear plotting imaginable, and it’s hard not to feel like he’s struggling to find some new fix to hold his interest. Maybe the appeal of the Nolan signature magic trick is wearing off for me; I’ve been relatively disappointed with every Nolan movie since 2012’s Dark Knight Rises, which gets a bad rap for not being the zeitgeist-tapping flick that was The Dark Knight. Maybe he’s getting bored. It certainly felt like Tenet was more an intellectual exercise than an accessible entertainment for the masses. It would explain his experiments with indecipherable sound design. You don’t go to a Nolan movie to turn your brain off. There is an explicit demand that you will need to pay close attention. It just feels like the later films haven’t quite been worthy of the extra efforts.

Back in 2001, I recall being blown away by the narrative trickery of Memento. It was my top movie of that year, tying with Moulin Rouge! before I decided my heart was more aligned with Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy extravaganza (I’m looking forward to revisiting this one in two months). I didn’t have much in the way of critical analysis in 2001 beyond my exaltation of its greatness, declaring it a new classic that people would talk about for years. That’s partially true, but mainly because of the huge career that Nolan has undertaken since. My original review was also certain it would win that Best Original Screenplay Oscar and, honestly, this one still befuddles me (Gosford Park?). Twenty years later, Memento is still a daring and confusing movie, one that rewards close reading and invites deliberation and deconstruction. It’s a top-grade magic trick from an excellent illusionist and sometimes even that is enough. While I would argue it is more than its famous gimmick, it’s still enough to warrant two viewings for everyone’s lifetime.

Re-Review Grade: A

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.

We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.

In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.

Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.

Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.

The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.

There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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