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
I didn’t even know Music existed until a couple weeks ago. The musical was nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Comedy or Musical, and a passion project for the pop singer Sia. She wrote, directed, and cast her music video muse, Maddie Ziegler, as the titular figure Music and filmed back in 2017. Then I read about the backlash from the autism community for the film’s portrayal of autism and I became more intrigued. Currently, Music rates even lower on Rotten Tomatoes than Cats, and the reviews have been equally as baffling and unkind. Sia has responded defensively on social media to her film’s critics, and the brewing controversy has given the movie a fascinating rubberneck quality of, “You have to see this.” It is with that morbid curiosity that I sat and watched Sia’s Music, a movie awash in misguided decisions.
Music (Ziegler) is a teenager living in Los Angeles who is severely autistic and in need of care. She needs eggs in the morning, insists on a walk around the neighborhood, loves dogs, and has her headphones on to shield her from being overwhelmed by exterior noise. Music escapes into elaborate fantasies where she dances along to soaring pop songs. Her grandmother dies early and the only living relative is Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering drug addict who doesn’t want to play mom to her demanding younger sister. Eventually, Zu begins to see her sister differently and bonds with her neighbor, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), who teaches boxing classes to the neighborhood youth. Zu is getting her life straightened out and learning responsibility, though she might ultimately still decide Music is too much for even her.
Let’s tackle the biggest issue of contention, the film’s portrayal of autism. Ziegler is not autistic or, to my knowledge, neurodivergent. This fact alone doesn’t necessarily mean the movie was doomed to insincere failure. It may well become the norm that neurodivergent actors play neurodivergent characters, much as it seems has happened with trans characters and firmly established for ethnicity. However, I think much of the response to a person outside of a community portraying that community comes from the intent and the depiction. Are they coming from a good place? Are they trying to portray this life in an honest fashion? And is the portrayal harmful, derogatory, or trading in negative stereotypes? With Music, I have no doubt that Sia was coming from a good place. She has spoken about the autobiographical elements of the movie and basing the character of Music on someone that she knew personally. I know there are people like Music on the autism spectrum. It’s a spectrum for a reason. The problem comes with the depiction of a person this severely autistic from an outsider. I’ll explain in a comparison.
In 2001’s I Am Sam, Sean Penn played a mentally challenged man fighting for custody rights. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. In the film, Sam had a group of friends, all of whom were similarly mentally challenged, and some of them were played by actors who were genuinely living with that same condition and others were played by actors only pretending. It was very apparent who was who, and it made the entire movie feel uncomfortable because it felt like the real people were being caricatured in literal proximity. It didn’t feel right, and I can’t imagine twenty years later that filmmakers would make that same choice. On the other hand, with the Netflix series Atypical, the lead character is played by a neurotypical actor but the portrayal of a character on the spectrum is done with great empathy and consideration, with an outreach toward those within the autism community. Intent and depiction are the keys.
The onscreen depiction of autism in Music is pretty galling and potentially harmful for those within the community. It’s all negative stereotypes. Ziegler is constantly contorting her body, making silly putty faces, side-eye glances, hitting herself in the head, and playing to the most abrasive and controversial cliches of those living with autism. She can barely mutter more than a few words, usually in imitation. Because this is the depiction of the character, having a neurotypical actor in this role can feel plenty insulting to many viewers. Music is less a character and presented more as a burden because of her needs and challenges. She gets Zu into trouble and lashes out in public. At no point does Music come across as more than an assembly of tics and ugly stereotypes.
It’s not just that the depiction in unflattering, as all characters do not need to be unerring shining examples for their individual communities, it’s that the movie doesn’t bother to give her any inner life. There are a few of passing comments about how Music sees the world, like a savant too pure to take in all the majesty at once, but these are merely gestures. The biggest opportunity into the mind of the character would have been through the numerous musical numbers but these are, by far, the most confusing artistic choice by Sia. I was expecting the musical numbers to provide insight with Music, to give voice to a character who has trouble communicating. Someone would ask how she was feeling and we’d zoom into her mind and the singing would be her way of expressing that answer or her complicated emotions about any topic. The use of singing and music would be her voice. Alas, this doesn’t happen at all. Like at all. This is shocking to me and the movie never really recovers from this misstep. The musicals are confusing because they often seem to be from the perspective of Zu instead and communicating her own struggles. Is Music just imagining her own sister’s inner turmoil through dance? There are also musical numbers devoted to exploring Ebo’s inner turmoil. That means two other characters are given primacy over Music in her own personal imaginary musical interludes.
What is the point of the musical numbers then, besides squeezing in ten or so Sia music videos into a dramatic narrative that doesn’t appear to be connected to them? The music videos themselves are very reminiscent of Sia’s recent output, largely single takes and bursting with bright pastel colors and goofy costumes that look like a children’s TV show. The dancing is interpretative, which means a lot of emphasis through the body movement and facial expressions, and you may find it slightly lacking or perhaps too goofy that it takes away from the emotional content or attempted investment. I enjoy musicals and I even like the approach, in theory, that Sia would have been articulating, shedding light on a personal experience that re-sees the world as a more whimsical, wholesome, and friendly environment. This approach succeeded in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, where Bjork’s love of old musicals shaped the way she chose to escape from the world and highlighted the discrepancies between fantasy and reality. That’s not what Music does or even attempts to do. You could remove the musical numbers completely or just serve them on their own. The only direct story connection comes with a side character, a Chinese teenager who is pushed into being a boxer by his belligerent father. He secretly wants to be a dancer. In his lone appearance in the musical numbers, he gets to indulge in his dream and dance and sing (or lip synch) and it has emotional resonance because it’s an expression of his inner desires and the longing is felt. Why is this one supporting character, who could have easily been removed entirely from the narrative, the only one that fits with the approach to the musical interludes providing actual insight? As far as the quality of music, it sounds very much like Sia’s pop ditties and there are a couple winners. “Together” has a buoyant bounce and swooping, cheerful melodic hook that is hard to resist.
Hudson (Bride Wars) is the real main character of the movie and her struggle with responsibility is a familiar arc, from screw-up on the margins to matured adult with goals and a found family. She’s an trying to stay clean though she’s really just looking to skip out on life and enjoy a permanent vacation in Costa Rica. This is even her stated goal after inheriting the guardianship over Music. There are plans late to transfer her sister into a group home but this deliberation isn’t really given the attention it’s due, in fact I don’t think I can recall even the mention of it prior to the potential move-in day. The character of Zu is completely stock, a neo-hippie wild child that needs to learn to slow down and accept responsibility. I don’t know what that looks like because for most of the movie she’s just having her sister tag along while Ebo explains things about autism in a delicate fashion (including physical restraints, which have met with plenty of disagreements from the autism community who cite the danger they pose). You would think Zu might have a better handle on this stuff, or that her grandmother would have been more helpful with that instruction book she left behind for the care of Music. This is more a movie about a recovering addict getting her life together and bearing with her burdensome younger sister. Seriously, the character of Music could have been a coat rack for all the impact and agency displayed. Hudson does an admirable job with what she’s given even if grungy and strung out are hard for such a naturally sunny and charming actress more prone to breezy rom-coms. Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) is wasted as the kindly neighbor harboring a secret and mending a broken heart. At least he gets to sing too.
While watching Music, I kept thinking of an obvious creative choice that would have sidestepped a majority of the mushrooming controversy and spared Sia. Why not just make the character of Music someone with a different condition? Why not make her suffer from post-traumatic stress, or an anxiety disorder, something keeping her form living the life she desires and communicating all that goes on inside her person? Automatically, it eliminates the controversy over the negative depiction of autistic stereotypes from a neurotypical actress and it makes the character more a central figure in her own story that can be developed and examined. Frankly, in 2021, we don’t need portrayals like Music to better understand life with autism. This kind of movie might have been met more charitably in the 1990s but now it’s instantly problematic, and I feel like much could have been avoided by removing the autistic aspect to Music’s character, especially since it does so little to the story other than create havoc and challenge. Beyond that, Music falters because the many musical sequences fail to tie back to the characters in meaningful ways. I’m confused over the shifting perspective as well. From a technical standpoint, the movie looks and sounds like a professional movie with a polished Sia soundtrack. However, it’s the poor thinking behind these decisions that dooms the project. While it’s no Cats-level disaster, at least nobody was living with human-feline creatures at home. Music is not a good movie but it’s the kind of rare artistic flop that might be worth viewing just for its audacious missteps, like 2018’s Welcome to Marwen. I don’t think we’ll be getting a second feature film from Sia any time soon.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Wager is a gob smacking example about the utmost significance of screenplay structure and a lesson for others to learn and avoid. I was beside myself with frustration from this 90-minute movie available on Amazon streaming, occasionally yelling at my TV screen, but mostly I was dumbfounded by the storytelling choices. The wager of the title, which is also prominently noted in the synopsis attached for the film, doesn’t even occur until 78 minutes in. That’s right, you don’t get the hook of the movie until the very end. This astounds me. The Wager is an Ohio-made faith-based indie that generally bored me and occasionally made me guffaw or scream in bafflement. I’d wager unless you’re already among the faithful flock, you’re going to be unmoved and more than a little mystified by this tone-deaf drama.
Bruce (Ty Shelton) is a young man abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. He gets into trouble at school and eventually gets plunged into a life of crime against his will. As an adult (Jim Gloyd), he’s strung out on drugs and resorting to petty robbery to find his scores. His childhood friend Suzy (Stephanie Haff) runs into him at a casino and offers spiritual outreach, but Bruce wants nothing to do with God. That is until an angel enters his life with a big bet about reliving Bruce’s tortured past with a new perspective.
If you’re going to present a Christian spin on the classic It’s a Wonderful Life formula, having a guardian angel intervene in a person’s life to show them a highlight reel of memories and what could have been, why wait until there’s only ten or so minutes left in your entire movie? Once Bruce does review his tortured life, it includes scenes we’ve already seen, including his birth, which begs the question why we needed to see these moments twice. It’s not like what came before this celestial review needed 78 minutes of undivided attention. For the first 15 minutes, all that happens is that an abused woman gives birth, drops the baby on the doorstep of the police, and the officers call social services. Did we need that to take up 15 minutes? From there we witness young Bruce getting in trouble at school and then being kidnapped (oh, there will definitely be more on this later) and living life as a drug dealer. We spend an hour establishing Bruce’s life as being awful, from child to adult, and it’s repetitive and deflating. How many scenes do we need to see of Bruce sleeping on the ground or shooting up drugs or being pushed around? Not only could the far, far majority of this plotting have been condensed considerably, it would have been more impactful to watch Bruce reflect on his experiences by re-living them rather than dwelling in the extended misery that made me wonder if this was going to be a modern-day passion play. Truly, imagine It’s a Wonderful Life but we spent an hour of watching George Bailey haggle over business practices with Mr. Potter. This central screenwriting miscue is just so catastrophic to the entertainment factor.
We could have easily established adult Bruce being a troubled man and the people of his past having difficulty recognizing the man they thought they knew from the movie’s start. This would establish that bad things have happened, and he could hint at more that he doesn’t want to reveal, and then the end of your first act could be him hitting rock bottom and getting his angelic intervention. We don’t need more than 20-25 minutes to establish how crummy this man’s life is. When given an hour, it just becomes too crushing and risks undercutting the message of personal redemption. Learning with the character about his life’s hardships would be more engaging with him having to come face-to-face with the them and his guardian angel partner. It also allows us to not have to be dependent on chronology and jump around to the major events we need to best define Bruce. This obvious structure makes so much sense that I am shocked the filmmakers missed out. Having an angelic guide would also force the character into conversation and confrontation and potential reflection, giving us better insight into the man than simply watching the events on our own without commentary. Simply put, you shouldn’t name your movie after a key plot event that happens in the last 15 minutes unless you’re a disaster movie and the Big One is finally striking.
The mistakes in plot structure also harm the overall slack pacing. The pacing is practically nonexistent for long portions. The energy level is so subdued that I thought I might just fall asleep. The camera movements will often utilize long takes and slow pans with minimal cuts, which just makes the lack of energy that much more palpable. So many dialogue exchanges sound like people are just reanimated zombies, and so much dialogue feels needlessly expositional. People talk in that phony way where they’re constantly repeating what the other person says but turning it into a question. It’s an inauthentic way of conversing that reminded me of Neil Breen’s silly films. Take these examples of poor onscreen conversations and see what I’m talking about:
“I have no clue what we’re going to do in Science today.”
“Me neither. I guess we’ll find out soon.”
“You’re right. See you there.”
Wow, did we need to be privy for that vital information? Or how about:
“I know you have your troubles, but I know you.”
“No, you don’t. That’s just how I act around you. I don’t think you know.”
“Just stop. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make excuses rather than accepting yourself for who you really are.”
Isn’t writing better when characters just blurt out another person’s internal dilemma for the audience? Or:
“He asked me for Herb’s Garage.”
“Oh yeah. I remember that place.”
“We all did. So, I didn’t expect a thing.”
We needed less time with scenes like these, where it feels like characters are detached and drifting with excess time to fill. There’s one long hallway exchange between a young Bruce and Suzy that lasts over a minute of chit-chat that feels like they’re just reading off the script. The performances have that rushed feeling, of sentences starting immediately after the next, but lacking an energy level that would justify the delivery. Simply put, when two or more characters are sitting down and talking, you might as well go get a refill or hit the bathroom. The chances will be good they will still be in that same sedate conversation and you will have missed little. This is why the structural choice to spend 78 MINUTES OF MOVIE on establishment scenes is so maddening, because writer/producer/co-star Gloyd did not have the material to cover the time.
Let’s get into what I think is the most egregious portion of The Wager and that is the lengthy middle where Bruce gets kidnapped and coerced into a life of crime. I thought we were headed for some Oliver Twist territory and we’d watch Bruce’s struggles over the pressure to commit criminal acts he was uncomfortable doing, maybe even while he schemed to escape. First off, the fact that the criminals are stereotypical depictions of black males made me sigh. I also was confounded why they placed so much emphasis on kidnapping teenagers and runaways to serve as drug dealers. When you have access to money and power, you have people that will come to you for opportunities (you’re a job creator). You don’t need to kidnap children and hold them hostage to sell your wares, especially having to worry whether they will run away or whether someone will recognize them as missing. It’s stupid risk. Considering these men just sit in the car and watch young Bruce make his first street corner deal, it’s not like they’re being terribly conspicuous.
And then there’s the undetermined time jump, which is revealed during one of those static camera angle montages. It’s a nice surprise; however, it means that Bruce has been sleeping on this same dirty mattress in the same room for, like, twenty or thirty years (also none of the items on the shelves moved in that same time, meaning Bruce never touched a thing in his living quarters or he is very, very particular about where things should go). The same crime bosses are still alive and in their same position of leadership. Bruce is now played by Gloyd in a horrendous looking ratty wig and I needed to know desperately how much time has passed. Gloyd definitely looks to be in his 40s, and this significant jump in time raises so many irksome questions. The police haven’t found adult Bruce in 30 years but the same officer who found him as a baby, who is still alive and working as a security officer, can recognize him on the spot? How old are these same criminal leaders then, and Bruce hasn’t ascended higher up the organization than street dealer? If we’re jumping that far ahead, wouldn’t it make more sense for Bruce to be the new leader, letting us know he has been molded under the negative influence of his captors? If he’s just going to be a drug-addicted adult then why do we need to jump so far ahead in time? The answer, it seems, is so that the writer/producer can have a starring role. That’s fine, but we could have done more structurally to maximize the drama rather than dwelling in redundant misery.
Let’s analyze the spiritual message at the heart of The Wager. Bruce’s life is pretty bad. He’s in and out of foster homes, gets abducted and held hostage as a criminal lackey, becomes addicted to drugs and desperate, and then homeless and contemplating suicide. He’s had, by all accounts, a hard go of things. He’s understandably resentful about the forces he feels have conspired to lock him into agony, so when other characters raise the notion of a loving God that has his back and watches over him, Bruce scoffs and views his life as refutation. There’s even a nature versus nurture argument to be had. In fact, the first time Bruce went to Suzy’s church was when he was abducted. The cop character tells Bruce he’s been praying for him since the moment they first crossed paths, but considering what Bruce has endured, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of prayer. Now obviously Bruce will conclude with accepting the love of God and finding a greater purpose with his life, but why did we need to wait so long? The end is never going to be in doubt with a Christian-themed indie any more than whether or not James Bond will get out of his latest scrape. That’s why refocusing the structure onto Bruce having to confront an angel over his feelings of abandonment from God would be far more dynamic, powerful, and I’ll say it, even Christian than the message as presented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith and credentials of the filmmakers. I’m saying the way they go about telling their story makes the overall message less believably impactful.
The acting in The Wager is typically rather flat, given that energy-sapping direction that makes each scene feel twice as long. However, there is one actor I want to single out and that’s Cameron Arnett (Overcomer) as the unfortunately named Gabe Angelus (get it?). Arnett reappears in different roles, my favorite being a batty homeless man that helps out Bruce from time to time. In that moment, Arnett is so believable and arguably natural even while playing a highly mannered character. He immediately drew my attention and I remarked, “Here’s a good actor.” As for the other thespians, it’s hard for me to tell whether they just didn’t get the material to showcase their skills or whether those skills are in need of polishing. I know KateLynn Newberry (Widow’s Point, Dark Iris) as the queen of Ohio indies, and she’s pretty much wasted as a doting wife who lives to ask her husband what he wants for dinner. Fun fact: one of the crime lords is played by former Columbus resident and famous boxer James “Buster” Douglas.
With The Wager, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Obvious dramatic setups seem to be sorely missed, a structural reformatting was in dire need to maximize the hook, because without that it’s like watching one poor man spiral and suffer for an entire feature-length film. It feels like overwrought overkill. Do we need a half-hour of a guy slinging drugs and sticking needles in his arm, without any supporting characters to interact with, or can this information be conveyed with practiced brevity? I am amazed at so many choices that left me scratching my head. The movie ends with our guardian angel staring into the screen and laughing maniacally for several prolonged seconds, even over the cut to black. What? This is the kind of behavior we associate with evil beings. Why do we need a flashback of a young girl running out the door when the adult version could have just relayed this event in words? I know Christian movie audiences aren’t exactly the most discerning audiences, prioritizing message over storytelling and technical achievement, but the decisions that the filmmakers make impair that faithful message. You don’t make an It’s a Wonderful Life story and just reserve it for the last 15 minutes. I advise select people to watch The Wager simply to learn what not to do with the importance of screenwriting structure. That’s its ultimate cautionary tale.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.
Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.
Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.
Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.
Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.
The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.
Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.
Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
So twenty years later, how is that war on drugs going? Considering the billions of dollars and countless lives that have gone into trying to stop the intricate infrastructure of supply and demand for the drug trade, the United States has little to show for its efforts. If anything, there has been a dawning realization of the futility of playing cartel whack-a-mole, removing one leader just for another to take their place in the supply chain. There have also been movements toward treating addicts rather than incarcerating them. The country has stubbornly become more accommodating and understanding of the ravages of addiction; it only seemed to take the spread of the opioid crisis where affluent families in the suburbs were affected personally. Tragically, it seems too many Americans have to have an “it could happen to me!” moment before their empathy for another person’s struggles kicks in. These relaxing attitudes have translated into recreational marijuana being legal in 15 states as of this review. Many other states have decriminalized marijuana, and Oregon has recently voted to decriminalize all drugs. It seems that in 2020, our concept of the war on drugs has dramatically changed. Some may find these developments an admission of giving up, of retreating from some moral duty, but others have concluded that maybe we’ve been fighting all wrong for 50 years and the only thing we have to show for our blood-soaked efforts is that multiple criminal elements got much richer.
It’s an interesting social and cultural landscape for going back and re-watching 2000’s Traffic, the last film on my re-watch of 2000 cinema. Times have changed and this is felt in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning ensemble covering the globe-trotting scope of the war on drugs. Traffic won four Oscars, including for Soderbergh for Director, Benicio Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor, and for editing and adapted screenplay. The only Oscar it was nominated for that it didn’t win was Best Picture, losing to Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic, Gladiator. It was an ambitious movie and had over 100 speaking roles. Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer and cameraman, bringing a docu-drama versatility to the movie that added its own sense of realism. 2000 was the year Soderbergh hit his critical peak. He was an indie darling from 1989’s influential sex, lies, and videotape and puttered throughout the 90s with small, personal, weird movies (I loved Schizopolis as a teenager), and then in 1998 he gained a new level of credibility providing sheen and heat to Out of Sight, the movie that cemented George Clooney as a major movie star. The one-two punch of Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000 earned Soderbergh two Oscar nominations for director, a feat not accomplished since 1938, and after 2001’s highly successful Ocean’s 11 remake, Soderbergh had jumped to the top of the industry while maintaining his indie artistic credentials. He’s been dabbling and experimenting since (A movie shot on an iPhone!) with mixed results, but the man’s track record is hard to digest into simple categorization. He can jump from an action showcase for an MMA fighter, to a gleeful male stripper romp, to a four-hour epic covering the life of Che Guevera. With Traffic, Soderbergh was working with his biggest budget and cast yet. The decision to use different color tones is smart to easily distinguish the various storyline locations so that an audience can be immediately oriented when jumping around from place to place. It’s also extremely hard on the eyes at times. The Mexican storyline is so washed out in bleached colors that it looks like an atomic bomb just went off in the distance and is filtering the world with an excess of bright light to make you squint. Soderbergh also has a penchant for natural light coming through windows to be seen as giant blocks of white. Again, it achieves its artistic purpose but it also makes you want to avert your gaze.
The 150-minute movie is based on a sprawling 1989 BBC miniseries that totaled six hours. Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) adapted the screenplay and he does a fine job of condensing the major plot points of the mini-series into a manageable feature length. He also does a fine job of articulating the many intertwined players and motivations and contradictions of the drug trade. However, I can’t help but feel like some of the nuance and character development is lost by condensing everything into the body of a manageable American feature production. Take for example the character Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago) plays, Helena Ayala. She’s a rich southern California housewife who has her life upturned when she discovers her husband, recently arrested by the DEA, is one of the chief distributors for a Mexican cartel. Her character is in disbelief and shock at first, then she tries to make due with legal bills and mortgage payments. Things get considerably worse when the cartel threatens her children if Helena can’t pay her husband’s outstanding debts that have now fallen onto her. Her character arc goes from an ignorant, privileged housewife into a ruthless co-conspirator willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family and maintain the cushy lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Over the course of the BBC miniseries, you watch that version of the character undergo significant changes in six hours. In the 2000 film, the character undergoes significant changes in a matter of scenes. Helena goes from desperate to duplicitous in literally minutes, and the jump feels too unearned. The rushed storytelling caps some naturalism. A character can go from not trusting the DEA to providing damning evidence to the DEA in three scenes. A character can go from bored, privileged teenager to junkie prostitute in three scenes. For a movie about gritty realism, these character leaps can feel overly forced and inauthentic. There are so many characters and storylines and political points to make that the overall narrative can feel crowded, so while it’s always interesting, it can inadvertently fashion its own ceiling for emotional engagement because the many characters feel like impressions hitting their marks rather than as fully developed portrayals of people.
The storyline that has aged the worst is Michael Douglas (Ant-Man) playing Robert Wakefield, a newly installed Drug Czar learning the ropes. For the majority, he’s akin to a 60 Minutes journalist just sitting in rooms and asking various professionals about their experiences and advice from their unique positions. From there, the storyline takes up the “it could happen to me!” trapping with Robert’s private school daughter (Erika Christensen) becoming an addict. It may have been surprising for a high-profile politician to have a child as an addict, but now this kind of irony feels passe. We’re used to politicians having ironic skeletons in their closet. The ongoing plot of her descent doesn’t really humanize her even as she makes some drastic decisions to chase that next high. She’s more an ironic counterpoint to shake her father, and the audience, of their preconceived mental imagery of what an addict might look like. It feels slightly retrograde and pearl-clutching, not simply that she goes through hell but that it’s set up to register that, oh my, WHITE PEOPLE, even RICH WHITE PEOPLE, can also be junkies. In 2000, this story might have been jolting and scared some older adults into wondering if this drug menace could find its way into their hallowed gated homes too. Nowadays, it seems obvious. If the storyline of a father dealing with his addict daughter had reveled more about one another as characters it would be worth the attention, but the daughter is kept as an example, a symbol, and Robert just has to take his lumps before the inevitable conclusion that his job is a lot harder than he would have imagined. His speech at his introduction at the White House has the hallmarks of drama ready and waiting, as he chokes over the political boilerplate he no longer believes in, but he simply walks out rather than sharing what he’s learned.
The best storyline in Traffic is, no surprise, the one closest to the action with Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) playing what feels like the only honest cop left in Mexico. Obviously that’s an over simplification, but the police force and political class are heavily corrupted by the cartels and their money. The character Javier Rodriguez has to navigate this tricky world without making himself as a target for those corrupt officials who think he’s an impediment. He’s trying to do good in a deeply flawed system and maybe even he knows he’s fighting a losing battle but he’s decided to keep his integrity while trying to fight what he considers is a worthy cause. A high-ranking general seeking his services reminds him of his lowly pay as a police officer, yet Javier Rodriguez is unmoved. Del Toro made a career of playing oddballs and sleazes, so it’s interesting to watch him play a fairly noble, straight forward role and in a language he didn’t speak before production (while born in Puerto Rico, he moved early and grew up in the U.S. and knew little Spanish). I don’t know if I would have awarded him the Oscar (my favorite for 2000 was Willem Dafoe as a vampire) but it’s certainly an understated performance with real gravitas. Del Toro is the quiet, churning contemplation of this movie and I would have been happy if the whole enterprise had been devoted to his south of the border exploits. I appreciated that the moves in this storyline would have larger effects on others, like a crackdown on a cartel being a reason why they need more money and the reason they now step up the pressure on Helena to pay up or else. It best encapsulates the knotty, interconnected framework that Gaghan and Soderbergh are going for.
Traffic is one of those movies you know are good. It’s well written, well acted, and has a definite vision it’s going for that it mostly achieves. It’s also a movie that engages more intellectually than emotionally. There are some deaths and downturns but I doubt you’ll feel much regret or catharsis. The movie unfolds like an in depth journalistic article, and the leaps in rushed characterization feel like a result of a looming deadline and a hard cap with its word count. It’s unfair for me to continue comparing the movie to its miniseries when that project had almost three times the length to fill out its tale (about poppy trafficking and heroin manufacturing in tribal Afghanistan) but it’s a clear cut case of crammed plotting. My initial review back in 2000 keeps mostly to the plot and the many actors, though I think I overstated Zeta-Jones being “chilling” and I think my love of Del Toro in Way of the Gun that year transferred some extra praise for his performance here. It’s hard to remember but I was really anticipating this film my freshmen year of college. Traffic is a good movie but it’s not exactly one people get excited over. Every aspect is professional, proficient, but there isn’t exactly a lingering takeaway that changes your perception of the war on drugs. I’ll hold to the same grade and say it’s an admirable accomplishment but one better suited for a mini-series (it was adapted back into a TV miniseries in 2004).
Re-View Grade: B
Released October 6, 2000:
Rarely does a movie today affect you that when the end credits roll you’re left silent and unable to speak. Requiem for a Dream is an unforgettable and intensely harrowing experience. You can’t take your eyes away from it. Afterwards you’re left in disarray and unable to think straight for most of the day.
Requiem chronicles the lives of four individuals and their spiraling addictions and missed choices. Harry (Jared Leto) is a small time coke dealer along with his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) who can’t help to taste their merchandise and eventually end up broke again. Harry has gotten into the habit of routinely pawning his elderly mother’s TV set for some quick cash to score with. This happens so often that the pawn broker has a special folder for Sarah Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) and her televison. Harry is in love with his more positioned girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly). She’s given an annual allowance of money from her wealthy folks to spend in her own fashion, but she’s denied love or attention. It’s between these four main characters that we will go through hell with.
Ellen Burstyn shows her grace with age and utterly blows your mind with her jaw-dropping performance as the lonely and strung out Sarah. Sarah has no husband anymore or a son to look after. She is alone and old, and those are two bad ingredients. She lives in an apartment complex overlooking the decaying ruins of Coney Island. Sarah has a different addiction than her child, she is addicted to food and is overweight. One day she mistakes a random junk phone call as her ticket to appear on television. She daydreams about gliding across the stage in her red dress that she doesn’t be able to properly fill anymore. With her elderly peers aflutter she tries her best to stick to a diet to fit into her slender dress. When the temptation becomes overwhelming she consults a friend’s doctor for some special “pills” to suppress her appetite.
Harry and Tyrone are embarking on their own dealing dreams to eventually move up the ladder and score some pure coke. Marion and Harry experience their love through simultaneous shoot-ups that space them out and turn them into romantic philosophers. Harry speaks of great dreams he has and the yearning to be something. Tyrone is haunted by thoughts of himself as a child and disappointing his sweetly loving mother who was proud of her son no matter what.
The film starts off in the summer and we are in the good times for all four characters. Harry and Tyrone are successful and racking up profits. Sarah has an unusual amount of energy through her prescribed pills and feels good about herself when she sees actual results as the pounds begin to melt away. Marion dances in her love of Harry and is ambitious with plans for her own design store. Things never are as good as they are again. Fall rolls along and Tyrone and Harry lose their money and lose their ability to secure drugs to sell. Sarah is noticing her pills are not having the same effect they were earlier and decides to ignore guidelines and take them like M&Ms. Marion starts to lash out at Harry’s ineptness at scoring and begins to tear at their relationship. She gets pushed to the brink to score that she resorts to the practice of using her body to secure what she needs. This isn’t even the beginning of how dour and horrible events will become for these four.
One of the strengths of Reqiuem is the treatment of these characters. The film shows sympathy for them and their situations but never condone them. Harry and Sarah are a family that have much love between them they just don’t know how to express it. When Harry discovers his mother is on essentially speed when he pays her a visit he’s left a shattered and crying mess. Only an injection into his veins in that cab ride saves him from his emotions. The relationship between Harry and Marion is initially seen as puppy love or people brought together through a love of drugs, but there are moments where you see the true beauty they have. In the end when Harry is out of state and dramatically in the need of hospitalization he calls Marion just as she’s doing her make-up for a “special” get-together. In a hushed tone she asks when he will be coming home, to which he responds in a mix of pain that it will be soon. She then so sincerely and beautifully asks if he can come back today – to which through an array of tears he agrees. Her sincerity and emotion in this sequence is a powerful glimpse at the love that does exist between the two of them. The second time I watched this film I started crying at this moment.
Burstyn is the stand-out star and if she doesn’t at LEAST get an Oscar nomination then that is the most unjust crime of them all. It’s been some time since her roles in The Exorcist and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore but she still shines like a true gem. She magnificently portrays Sarah’s descent into madness and chemical dependency and leaves us with a chilling and haunting figure. Leto and Connelly show that they aren’t merely pretty faces and deliver their best performances of their lives. Both show incredible warmth and emotion.
Requiem was directed and adapted for the screen by Darren Aronofsky who gave us the head trip that was Pi. Here he uses camera trickery like speed up and slowed paces to show Sarah’s journey through her drugs. Other items include cameras mounted on the actors, split screens, and hyper edits to show the process of every drug shoot-up. His camera moves and tricks are never out of place though, as many gimmicky video director’s are. Each effect has a specific purpose. Aronofsky brilliantly uses a scene where Leto and Connelly are lying in bed besides one another but split screen to show the closeness they can strive but the distance that still exists. While each talks we see shots of the other’s hand carefully caress the other’s body. It’s a scene that’s as powerful as it it thematically romantic.
The tragedy of this is this film has been rated NC-17 by the MPAA and of course anyone who sees it knows the exact scene. The film is being released unrated by Artisan because NC-17 is a commercial kiss of death. The shame is this movie needs to be seen. Make it mandatory in schools. DARE isn’t working but this film will. No one with an urge to use drugs will have that same urge after seeing this harrowing film.
Nate’s Grade: A+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Requiem for a Dream was a seminal event for me. It floored me when I originally saw it during the fateful fall of 2000. I can still vividly recall wandering out into the daylight after the movie and feeling like a zombie, just left to walk aimlessly and mumble to myself. I remember my friend Kat Lewis and I were unable to even articulate sentences other than, “Wow,” and, “Ooof,” for like an hour as we processed the drug-fueled descent into madness and hell. It was a movie that struck me dumb and left a mark. I became a lifelong fan of writer/director Darren Aronofsky afterwards and haven’t been disappointed with his movies yet (his 2014 biblical epic Noah is criminally underrated). At the end of 2009, I declared it the second-best film of the decade. Requiem for a Dream is the kind of movie you can admire for its craft and crushing emotional impact but also one you may never want to watch a second time. I haven’t gone back to it for at least 15 years for that same reason, the hesitation to get back into the morass and experience the tumultuous tumble all over again. Except when I did sit and re-watch it for my twenty-year review, I was amazed how many moments felt strikingly familiar. I was anticipated specific actor inflections (“I’m lonely. I’m ollllld”), gestures, and even sound cues. It was a strange experience because it was like re-awakening dormant memories I had papered over. I thought I had forgotten the movie but, in reality, I must have watched it enough in those early 2000s days to commit so much to memory. I was afraid to dive back because of the depressing subject matter that I expected to rightfully wreck me. Instead I experienced a different sort of awakening, and that was my question whether the movie’s highs might be over inflated and whether the younger version of myself was dazzled by a movie with more evident problems.
This is not a subtle movie in the slightest, not in subject matter, form, or style, and I’m sure that was part of what 18-year-old me so valued. It’s a movie dripping with style and wild imagination with how best to visualize the elation and instability of drug abuse. The editing by Jay Rabinowitz (8 Mile, The Tree of Life) is abundantly hyperactive, amassing over 2,000 cuts over the course of only 95 minutes (an average “non-Michael Bay” film running the same length has maybe 700 edits). It is all deliberately overwhelming to convey the frenetic energy of the junkie, and the repetition of edits and structures creates visual routines that Aronofsky then escalates or deconstructs brilliantly, using the language of film to immerse the viewer in this world and blend our senses together into a rapturous contact high. It’s not hard to see the inspiration for Edgar Wright’s own hyper-kinetic visual style here. The entire movie becomes a visceral reflection of the characters’ physiological state. The photography by Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, Iron Man) can be alienating, disquieting, but also vibrantly alive and excitedly inventive. This is the first feature film I can recall that used Steadycam cameras and attached them to the actors so that as they moved through their world they remained our stable focal point. It’s such a great and unsettling convergence of perspective. We are attached to the actor close-up. The musical score by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon) is instantly iconic thanks to its sense of foreboding and the central haunting theme from the Kronos Quartet that was used in a thousand trailers afterwards because it’s that gob-smackingly, recognizably brilliant. These talented men were the essential wingmen for Aronofsky to achieve his beautifully horrible vision.
The 90s indie scene and well into the early 2000s was an audacious time that pushed the limits of film style, reshaping our sensibilities of what movies could accomplish, and Aronofsky is a world-caliber stylist. After two low-budget indie films, it’s clear why Hollywood came knocking and offered the man many high-profile titles like rebooting the inactive Batman franchise. There are entire complicated setups devoted to capturing single shots, and there are so many stylish choices that come flying that part of the appeal of the movie is simply lying in wait for what Aronofsky will deliver next, like a magician that keeps you asking for the next trick and the next trick. Some highlights include Sara (Ellen Burstyn) being taunted by her fridge and the hunger pangs she feels, including a delusion where the household appliance comes alive like a monster from an early Peter Jackson horror flick. The use of split-screen is stunning to convey coordination and also disconnect. There’s a lovely scene where Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and Harry (Jared Leto) stare at one another, their fingertips stroking different portions of their bodies, and the editing jumps around from close-up inserts to their slightly disjointed alignment face-to-face. It’s both sensual and romantic. They’re close but also far away. This is the kind of move that attaches a camera to a bungee cord and throws it off the rooftop just for a couple second shot of free fall. It’s the kind of movie that seems to test every visual and audio setting of cinema. I admire the sheer gusto of Aronofsky as a filmmaker and his drive to push himself and his story to the limit.
However, at a super-charged 95 minutes before end credits, Requiem for a Dream is just too much. Its sledgehammer approach to drama had an odd effect on me as a 38-year-old versus than as an 18-year-old. My younger self was dazzled and left profoundly affected and devastated. My current self felt empathy for the suffering of the characters but I wasn’t emotionally connecting with them in the same way I did back in 2000. After some reflection, I think this is because the movie is just trying so hard that it feels like it’s speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, all capital-D drama, that it has its own numbing effect. Things do get considerably worse for our quartet of characters as they go through hell, but because the pacing is so amped, speeding along to get to its next fix, it doesn’t ever let the movie breathe and linger before hitting you again. It’s so fast-paced that the tone becomes more overtly theatrical, and I found myself less able to connect with the characters on a deeper and meaningful level. The limits of characterization were really felt with my recent re-watch, and the love story of Harry and Marion, which felt tragic for me in the early 2000s, now feels empty. Maybe that was the point and it took me decades to see it through, that the two of them are caught under the spell of infatuation but cannot fully grow together from a co-dependent relationship built around self-destruction. Or maybe they’re just underwritten tragic bohemians. The only character that really gets worthy consideration and nuance is Sara. If the movie had slowed down, or even been 20-30 minutes longer, I think it would have more room to make its drama felt in a way that didn’t feel so anxious to the point of bordering on desperation. There are points where Requiem for a Dream feels like an overblown indie version of an after-school special on drugs.
The real heart of the movie is with Burstyn who delivers a career-best performance (she lost the Best Actress Oscar that year to Julia Roberts). Sara Goldfarb is the kind of person everyone might know, an older retiree who feels overlooked, afraid of pushing too hard against a son she can’t control, and someone who wants to feel special one more time in her life. She doesn’t see herself as an addict and the movie portrays her struggle as being analogous to the cocaine and heroin abuse of the other users. Sugar, caffeine, starch, red meat, all common items that can be just as addictive to the brain and body, and Sara’s struggles to lose weight are relatable and take on a horrifying transformation after she starts using prescription drugs as a quick solution. Burstyn is the definition of heartbreaking here and that’s even before she starts popping pills. She delivers one hell of a monologue about her sad state of needing something, anything to cling onto to give her life a glimmer of needed hope. It was the moment that made me instantly recognize the levels of sadness we’re working with. I enjoyed the little burst of happiness she felt when the other neighborhood ladies admired her for her chance of being on television. for her, this was everything. Burstyn goes through a physical transformation, from padded body suits to emaciated and sweat-stained (this is a very very sweaty movie; you can practically taste the grime coating the actors). She’s unrecognizable by the end. Burstyn is so devastatingly good as her character literally loses her mind, becoming one of those crazy people on the street. You feel such a reservoir of grief knowing what drugs have done to demolish this woman’s identity and transmute her into a living phantom.
The social commentary isn’t prevalent, beyond the universality of personal addiction, but it has one major critique and it’s the indifference of the system to those in need. Three of these characters are living through poverty and limited means of self-sufficiency. Marion has a trust fund but has to jump through hoops to maintain it, including at different points selling her body. When Sara visits her doctor to inquire about possible medicine, he never looks at her once and quickly writes her a prescription. When she’s admitted to a psychiatric ward, the orderlies barely even view her as a human being and threaten her with physical harm if she will not swallow her food. The ward doctor can clearly tell she’s not of sound mind but gets her to “sign” her permission for dangerous, experimental electroshock therapy. These are bureaucrats, professionals, and people of means that simply don’t care. The institutions of this country are geared to let people down, to slip between the cracks, and the supports are insufficient. In this regard, Requiem for a Dream is a condemnation for the system and its lack of real compassion.
The closing montage of degradation is so gut-punching, so expertly edited together for maximum symmetry, and so disturbing that I can completely understand if nobody would ever want to watch Requiem for a Dream again. Early on, while re-watching this movie alone, I thought, “My girlfriend would really be intrigued by this and appreciate the style and verve,” and then by the end I reconsidered whether or not it all might be too much to endure. You feel a little dirty by the time it’s all over. I think this time, in 2020 as opposed to 2000, it was too much for me because I was feeling less attachment to the characters and more removed from their drama because everything was so operatic and going by so fast. The movie still has so much technical and artistic ambition to drop my rating too low, but this is not the near-perfect A+ movie I highly regarded in my youth. This is not the second-best films of the 2000s. It’s still a good movie and one that will be felt and remembered long after. It’s hard to shake off its effect which are still felt even if you have difficulty engaging with the people beyond a general level of human empathy. My original review consisted of mostly reciting the plot, an aspect of my reviews I’ve tried to steer away from. I hate reviews that are 80 percent plot synopsis and then only a paragraph or two of critical analysis and deliberation. Requiem for a Dream is still a powerful and immersive movie that masterfully uses the full gamut of film tricks as its disposal. While it might not be a personally-defining movie for me any longer as an adult, it still was for years in my youth, and while it shattered me and left me a shambling mess, it also made me realize just what movies can do.
Re-View Grade: B+
The appeal of Project Power is immediate with its premise, which stirred a bidding war before finally ending up with Netflix. Take a pill and become a super hero for five minutes. Every person has a unique power and won’t know what that entails until they swallow that pill. However, there is also a risk that your body has a negative reaction of the exploding kind. I can see why studios would be all over that, on top of the fact that it plays into established popular cultural tropes, it still gets to be an original property. The finished film, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, and I’m convinced that this hot commodity script went through a gauntlet of rewrites and producer interference, each new obstacle dimming and diminishing what made Project Power an exciting and compelling idea from inception. Well the concept is still interesting, and its relatively grounded sci-fi world has genuine potential, but the movie falls flat and is far too generic to be special.
Drug dealers are flushing New Orleans with a super pill that activates fantastic powers, though only for five-minute integrals. Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a local police officer who secretly keeps a stash of the pills for himself, to juice up to take on the escalating criminals. His supplier is Robin (Dominick Fishback), a teenager looking for a better life, who comes into contact with the mysterious and volatile Art (Jamie Foxx). He’s a man on a mission and working his way across the streets to go from supplier to supplier, working his way up the criminal food chain until he can confront the authority behind the super pill creation and distribution.
The premise by debut screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (The Batman) is tantalizing and makes every pill its own “what if?” scenario. I’m unsure whether or not the risk of bodily explosion occurs for every person or simply those whom the drug doesn’t agree with. I think it would be more interesting if every person stood some chance of risk. I talked about it with my girlfriend, if there was a pill that granted super powers but it also ran the chance of death, would you take it? We both answered, “Of course.” Who wouldn’t want to be a super hero, even if it’s only for five minutes? Naturally, much like within the X-Men universe, not every super power is on the same level of being useful. There’s a guy who grows extra bones, which serve as spikes attached to his body. I guess that’s something. It reminded me of the unfortunate mutant in X-Men 3 who could grow porcupine quills from his face (he even managed to coax someone near him to kill them). With such a momentous shift in human evolution, and through the angle of drug addiction, you would think Project Power would be the early steps of a complete re-examination of a changing society and the forces falling behind to try and catch up. This should be a big deal, and yet it never feels that way in this world. Super-powered criminals aren’t running rampant. One invisible guy robs a bank naked and it’s comedy. Nobody seems too panicked or bothered. It weirdly feels like everyone has already not only accepted this reality but compartmentalized it. If one city has a new super drug, would it not stand that others in neighboring cities and states and countries would also desire it? Should this not be dominating the news?
The characters are remarkably generic. Our heroes include a beat cop who “doesn’t play by all the rules” and goes on a secret mission to root out this drug conspiracy, a young black woman who wants to be an aspiring rapper while she’s slinging drugs, and a military veteran who was subjected to experiments and is desperate to find and save his kidnapped daughter. We’ve seen each of these archetypes in a thousand other action thrillers, and the fact that Project Power doesn’t give us any more than this is stunning. With some minute personal details, I have laid out everything we know about the three main characters in this movie. That’s it. It’s like each character was checking an archetype box and then was forgotten to be fleshed out. The worst is Art, a character that is coasting on Foxx’s attitude and charisma but is otherwise completely vacant. The kidnapped daughter storyline is maybe the most boring motivation that a protagonist could be saddled with. He might as well be a video game character from 90s-era titles, a military man who was betrayed by his government, experimented upon, given dangerous new powers, and now he’s striking out to save his daughter. It’s so bland and generic and boring. None of the major characters exhibit an interesting personality quirk, flaw, desire, or a point to make them more interesting than if a new nameless character had suddenly taken over from the background.
This extends to the villains as well. Their evil schemes are too vague and they’re just as generic and bland. The villains are also far too easily defeated, which drains any threat from their machinations. Without memorable or effective villains, Project Power limps to a finish, lacking the needed payoffs of our heroes triumphing over their foes. Does anyone care when Art defeats a secondary antagonist that is introduced far too late in the final twenty minutes? It’s too late to be introducing a Big Bad in the movie that is meant to be savored when vanquished. It’s not satisfying when the bad guys are dumb or nebulous or too easily beaten. I felt more antipathy with a bearded henchman than I did with any of his superiors. This is such an easy thing to do, establish a worthy opposition with personality and menace, a force that an audience will feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment over their eventual defeat. Make the villains matter. Regrettably, the villains in Project Power are just as generic and underdeveloped as the heroes.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have dabbled in many genres, first documentary (Catfish), then found footage horror (Paranormal Activity 3 and 4), then youthful thrillers with social media satire (Nerve), and now super hero action cinema. The versatility is to be commended, and they certainly infuse plenty of energetic style into Project Power. The special effects are pretty good when the powers are somewhat visually chaotic, like a drug dealer who becomes the Human Torch, running through ignitable room after room, while the camera zips along, lovingly documenting the rippling flames and embers. The camerawork and lighting can definitely provide jolts of excitement and engagement when the storytelling falters. However, there are moments that should have been avoided, like violent acts presented in unclear ways, perhaps trying to avoid a harsher rating that it ultimately got anyway. Another sequence is from the point of view of a dying woman trapped inside a container, and the action from the other side of the glass is almost completely obscured. The woman’s suffering seemed so overboard that it reminded me of that poor assistant lady who had a more gruesome death in Jurassic World than its actual villain. It’s a misplaced stylistic touch. A villain takes the drug and turns into a giant CGI troll, like something from 2002’s Chamber of Secrets and is goofy and misplaced. For a movie that is trying to be gritty and somewhat grounded, a giant CGI troll is a blunder. Joost and Schulman are currently attached to write and direct a Mega Man movie next, and I imagine this was a trial run for super-powered androids blasting one another to dust.
The Project Power playbook is pretty familiar and underwhelming in its creativity and development. The concept is there but the movie too often feels content to settle for less, trading in stereotypical heroes, vague villains, and muddled action sequences goosed with flashes of style to mask their lack of personal stakes and imagination. The scope of the movie is too frustratingly myopic and under-developed, like a nascent pilot for a TV series that provides impressions with a latent promise of getting back to storylines later. Except later will never arrive. Project Power (even the name is generic) is a super hero movie that feels like everything you’ve already seen before. It’s far less than super.
Nate’s Grade: C
I’ve been hoping, wishing, praying for Guy Ritchie to return back to his screwball Cockney crime pictures of his splashy beginning, but the further and further I get from 2001’s Snatch, the more I think it’s a luxuriously madcap exception. The Gentlemen is a closer return to form than 2008’s RocknRolla, but it’s still a long way off from early Ritchie. The recognizable elements are there, from the convoluted story with twists and turns, the non-linear storytelling lapping and overlapping itself, the comical brushes with sudden violence, the colorful array of criminal characters, and a sense of style that seems all over the place. We follow Matthew McConaughey as a marijuana titan looking to get out of the business, though there are threats old, new, and “just business” that are trying to take his empire from him before his exit. The biggest problem with The Gentlemen is how clever it feels like it needs to be and how few characters there are to find interesting. Snatch, by contrast, forever contrast, was practically a Dick Tracy rogues gallery of all its memorable and unpredictable characters. These feel pretty rote, even our heroes, and the minority characters get even shorter shrift. The plot is also more complicated than it needs to be with an extended meta-textual layer of a lecherous Hugh Grant tabloid journalist pitching the story like it was a movie (irony: it is a movie!). It took maybe 45 minutes before I felt like the story was finally picking up momentum and stakes, and by the end, it felt like Ritchie was just extending his story with another twist and wrap-up, and then another twist and wrap-up, like the outer edges of the movie cannot be contained and somehow it’s still even going. It’s like Ritchie doesn’t know when to walk away from his own party. Because of these things the pacing is wonky and there are more than a few tedious stretches. Colin Farrell has some amusing moments but should have been the main character as a boxing trainer who takes a shine to try and reform local hoodlums. McConaughey’s character is too boring and always wins too easily, which makes him more boring. The Gentlemen is a C-level rendition of Ritchie’s best material, and Snatch only shines even brighter with each new miss.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?
Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.
I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.
The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.
The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?
There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.
The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.
The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.
With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?
Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Clint Eastwood plays a real-life 90-year-old drug mule, though I must inform you dear reader that at no point does he hide his cargo in a very uncomfortable place. The Mule is an interesting story about the most unexpected mule. Eastwood plays a man broke and on the outs with the family he’s neglected their entire lives. He takes up an offer to simply drive albeit for a Mexican drug cartel. As with most life-of-crime movies, what starts off uneasily becomes second nature as our characters get in over their heads. Except that doesn’t really happen in The Mule. I would estimate twenty percent of the movie is watching Eastwood drive and sing along to the radio. There are some tense near misses where he’s almost caught, but these are confined to the first half. In the second half the cartel becomes the chief source of danger, all because he doesn’t go by their routes. If he’s their most successful mule, having never had a ticket in his life, then why micromanage? There are some other nitpicks that nagged at me, like the cartel knows the DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) are pulling over a very specific color and kind of car, but at no point do they change out Eastwood’s car. Also, Eastwood is spending vast sums of money in public for a man who was losing his house, and yet no red flags there. Eventually Eastwood has to make a choice of family over angering the cartel and risking his life, and I think you’ll know where his character arc is destined. The dramatic shape of the movie feels a little too inert for the stakes involved, leading to an all too tidy conclusion. Eastwood delivers a fine performance, as does every other actor involved. The movie kind of coasts along, much like Eastwood in his truck, on the inherent interest of its premise and the star power of its lead/director. The Mule might have worked better as a documentary.
Nate’s Grade: B-