Mob movies are culturally beloved. I could watch Goodfellas every time I see it on TV. We know these movies, we know this lifestyle, in so much as it’s been demonstrated in our art. A feminine perspective is often the dame, the moll, the panicked wife who worries her husband will never come home and see his bratty kids again. Rarely in mob movies are there roles for women that can be considered three-dimensional. Even Diane Keaton gets shortchanged in The Godfather series. In comes Oscar-nominated Straight Outta Compton screenwriter Andrea Berlof, tackling her directorial debut and adapting a graphic novel about three mob wives fighting the system. It’s about time this under-represented perspective in some of our favorite movies got its due spotlight. It’s too bad then that The Kitchen finds ways to still leave the women behind where it counts.
Set in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in the late 70s, three mobsters get arrested one evening by the FBI and sent to prison. Their wives are now left alone to raise their families, struggle for employment, and to not be forgotten with the new pecking order of those mobsters left behind. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) think they should take over their husband’s rackets while their men are indisposed. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is more worried about what will happen when her abusive husband comes back from prison. The three women work together to make a stake at their own claim, butting heads against the existing power structure of dismissive men who don’t think organized crime is any place for a woman.
The Kitchen has such potential but it’s too often running off the fumes of other mob movies. Beyond the obvious similarities with last year’s more refined and polished Widows, this is a movie that gobbles its mafia movie clichés like a heaping helping of pasta (more clichés!). The characters aren’t terribly well defined and the story oddly moves in starts and stops, with moments either feeling too long or too short, and especially abruptly transposed, using montage to hurdle through what should have been needed onscreen development. People rightfully complained about the final season of Game of Thrones skipping over needed steps along a character’s journey to get to its intended destination, and The Kitchen is deserving of the same charge. We want to see these women in charge and others afraid, except the movie doesn’t show me any reason why these women would rise in power and what sets them apart from their steely competition. I get that they’re underestimated and they are determined, and that works in a general sense, but by the half-hour mark they’re already successful mobster entrepreneurs and I’m unsure how. Even after their rise, there is little that seems to deter them. Every new obstacle is comically taken care of in such casual fashion that you never worry for their well-being. It feels like Berloff wants to skip through all the hard work and just get to the enjoyable desserts or a life of crime, but moving up the ladder is an essential part of any power struggle story. As a result of the sloppy plotting and pacing, there is an over-reliance on clichés to stand in place, relying upon the audience’s warm understanding of the genre territory and what to expect to relieve the movie from having to do more work. It’s all telling and hardly any show.
The characters are kept as archetypes as well, at least 2/3 of the leads. Both McCarthy and Haddish seem miscast for their roles. Both are splendid comic actresses and have dramatic capabilities beyond what they get credit for, but they seem to rely upon comic instincts to get through their underwritten scenes, which further hampers the lack of tension. Each actress gets one solid scene to open up their character but it’s just so little. Ruby has a sit down where her mom credits beating the “soft” out of her daughter for Ruby’s success. That little glimpse into her past and her fraught relationship with her mother served as a tantalizing hint at what could be explored further with the Ruby character. The same with the fact that she’s a black woman who married into a very rigid Irish-American family set in their prejudices. There’s such dramatic potential to be had there. Alas, she’s tasked with being a hardass and that’s all The Kitchen asks of Haddish, treating her more as symbol than person. For McCarthy, there’s a late scene where another character tries to soft-peddle her involvement in crime, saying she did what she had to for her children, and Kathy corrects, saying, no, she did it all for her. She was tired of being a deferential doormat and wanted to feel important. That degree of self-empowerment through selfishness could be a fascinating character angle to explore, but we don’t get that. She clarifies the lens for us to view her with but by that point it’s far too late. The film is top-heavy with underwritten women and that’s a shame.
The most interesting character by far is Moss’ abused wife-turned-budding killer. Claire is the one starting at the lowest point and the one who takes to the life of crime as means of salvation. These characters are doing some pretty heinous acts but with Claire I felt the most empathy for her plight, bullied by her husband and feeling trapped, more worried about the impending release and her return to being the scared woman cowering in the corner again. She doesn’t want to go back to that life and I believed every moment of Moss blurting out her despair and desperation. That’s why her relationship with another oddball killer played by Domhnall Gleeson (The Last Jedi) was what I cared about most in the movie. You watch them grow together, him mentoring her on how to cut up a body and dispose of it down river, and you watch how each of these two people finds something missing in the other. They may not even be good for one another, enabling their darker impulses and past a point of no return, but it’s the only evolving relationship we were given an entry point to empathize with fully. This segment is also criminally underwritten but it’s clearly where the focal point of the movie should have been. This was the perspective the movie should have been locked into and the character’s journey we follow through every step.
The Kitchen isn’t a bad movie at all. The production design and period appropriate costumes are to die for. There’s always going to be a visceral enjoyment watching the underdogs move ahead and topple their doubters and competition. The ensemble doesn’t have a bad actor in the bunch. Bill Camp (Molly’s Game) shows up with a real sense of veiled menace as a Brooklyn mobster both irritated and impressed by the ladies’ advancement. The soundtrack is packed with Scorsese-riff-approved tunes, including three instances of Fleetwood Mac. There are pleasures to be had. It’s just that the ingredients to a better movie were all there, plain as day. If you’re a fan of mob movies in general, you may find enough to satisfy with The Kitchen, which has its moments but ultimately feels too much like an under-cooked dish you’ve had one too many times before (metaphors!).
Nate’s Grade: C+
I think it’s important to state that Us is not Get Out and that’s perfectly okay. Not every movie can be a Get Out, an experience that was so refreshing, socially relevant, wickedly fun and dynamic that I immediately wanted to see it again and tell everyone I know to join in. Writer/director Jordan Peele shed his funnyman past and flexed his impressive genre know-how to make a knockout of a movie with an amazingly structured story, allowing all of the pieces to snap together with clever precision. It was my own second favorite film of 2017 and I was highly looking forward to Peele’s follow-up in the realm of what goes bump in the night. Don’t go into Us expecting Get Out. It’s not quite the sum of its parts and has some storytelling shortcomings that limit the impact of its visceral thrills. It’s an engaging horror movie, but it’s far more allegorical and far less tidy and satisfying.
The Wilson family is spending their summer vacation at a rental home in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are trying to enjoy a getaway with their children, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex), when strange coincidences keep occurring. This is the same beach town where many years ago Adelaide had a traumatic childhood experience getting lost from her bickering parents. Then one night Jason informs his family that there’s another family standing in their driveway. The Wilson family is hounded by mysterious doppelgangers, each a cracked mirror version of themselves. This new family wants what the Wilsons have and will use any bloody means to see that they get it.
Us is more a straight horror film and has plenty of excellent, terrifying, and smartly directed scenes to make an audience squirm in their seat. Peele has established in two movies a strong instinct for horror and how to expertly stage a scene. His camera is judicious in what it does and does not show the audience, holding onto moments to escalate tension and providing no escape for an eager audience. The majority of the second act is a home invasion thriller and these scenes and subsequent chases and escapes can be nerve-wracking. Each character has their own opponent and each has their own method of trying to outsmart or out maneuver their downtrodden doppelganger. I was getting plenty of Funny Games vibes, a movie I downright despise, but what it could have been if the creator actually cared about the inhabitants. The family and their bonding is a strong empathetic anchor for the audience, so we watch each member of the family battle a literal incarnation of their inner demons. Peele also assembles an effective collection of spooky imagery, from caged rabbits, to the slice of golden scissors, to a carnival funhouse, to even the nature of that 80s social event, Hands Across America. You can sense Peele’s love of horror and the entertainment value horror movies afford. There’s a strong central mystery to guide the narrative and the sense of discovery from Act Two onward keeps things fresh as we learn more and more about these doubles.
From a technical craft standpoint, Us has the upper hand over Get Out. This is a movie that wants to scare you and Peele has devoted great consideration into his artistic elements to achieve that key principle. Peele knows exactly how to craft a particular mood and what genre elements to pepper in and to what amount for the right response. The photography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) is evocative and makes great use of limited light to capture an eerie and unsettling feeling. The musical score by Michael Abels is also exceptional, making the most of each heightened scene and doing wonders with a dark, operatic version of the chill 90s song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. It makes for a fun, frightening, and favorable film experience in the moment-to-moment sequences of build and release.
The performances are another strength, with each member of the family getting extra range thanks to their dual roles. Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) is the standout and emotional center of the movie. Her double is the leader of her clan and the only one that has the ability to speak, except speaking isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like the words escape her throat, raspy and without intonation. It’s a remarkable commitment on her part and she tries a lot of weird character tics, most of them work, from her herky-jerky to robotically possessed physical movements, unblinking eyes, and then there’s that startling voice. Duke (Black Panther) finds his footing as a comedic foil, starting as a corny but loving dad and thrust into a family defender that gets more and more tired of the horror movie nonsense he endures. The kids all do solid, effective work with what they’re given, seizing their moments. Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays a bourgeoisie friend and has a fantastic moment with lip gloss that made me horrified and entranced all at once.
This is where the merits of the film start running into conflict with Peele’s muddled intentions and messy execution toward the finish. As I said, it’s far more allegorical in approach; meaning for the longest time it seems to be a film outside the bounds of literal interpretation. That’s fine since many horror films rely upon a heaping helping of metaphor for larger implications. I was prepared for Us to stay in this creative territory. Except Peele makes a late decision to squeeze his movie into a bizarre and distracting middle ground, where it feels like the metaphor is the real message, if you can decode it. Once you stand back and assess the full Us, it doesn’t hold together in allegory or explanation.
Even hours after seeing the movie, I cannot say whatsoever what the intended theme is for Us, and this really befuddles me since Get Out was laser-focused in this regard. Peele isn’t just cranking out fun, throwaway genre movies, he’s trying to make statements through horror and elevating the genre in artistic ways. Get Out postulated how being a black man in America was like living in a horror movie and a Stepford Wives-meets-Being John Malkovich commentary on the usurpation of minority agency and the commodification of black bodies. It’s not every day that a horror movie wins an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, let alone deserves it, and Peele’s treatise on race relations was perfectly structured, each piece snapping together and better informing the whole, with setups and payoffs galore, and at its heart was its relevant message. With Us, I don’t really know what Peele is trying to say here. There’s a simple duality theme but that seems pretty weak and underdeveloped. There may be a have/have not inequality discussion but this gets into trouble in the final act (more on that below). I don’t think race even factors into the overall message, as a late turn reveals that the doppelgangers extend beyond our central African-American family. What is Peele trying to say with Us? I’m at a real loss and I’m trying to process that confusion and my own expectations.
This might have worked better had Peele not elected to supply a hasty sci-fi explanation for why things are the way they are, and in the process he strands his film in a contentious middle zone that tries to find a logical context to plant his allegory. I won’t get into what exactly the details of this explanation are but suffice to say it doesn’t really hold together and invites far more questions, each one picking apart the reality of the film, which disintegrates at an ever-increasing speed. How far-reaching is this conspiracy? What is the ultimate goal? How do these people think they will win? Why now? There’s also a big twist ending that should be obvious for anyone paying attention, but what makes this decision worse is not that it’s predictable but that it hardly sheds any new dimension to what came before. It doesn’t really change our reading of certain people because of the time it happened and so the big meaning is its existence as a twist. It doesn’t redefine the narrative in the way that great twists should. It might play into a larger thematic point except, as described above, that area is hard to ascertain. The last third of Us gives a sense of scope and rationale but the movie also loses its form, trading in dream logic and then trying to provide a new real world context that cannot hold.
Friends have already asked me whether Us is a good movie, and I’ve found myself saying, “Yes, but…” Peele’s follow-up left me with more questions than answers and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that began to eat away at my otherwise good time in the theater. Us has some fantastic moments and tense scares but I cannot say what its muddled theme is, the hazy explanation doesn’t really work, and the overall intent left me perplexed. It’s an evocative horror movie with solid to great performances from a very game cast of characters. Given its more free-floating plot, it feels like the kind of movie that would hold together by a strong thematic core. I think most people will leave Us somewhat scratching their heads and wondering what it was all about, but not as an accessible puzzle to decode. It’s more a puzzle that doesn’t resemble the picture on the box and is frustratingly missing a few too many pieces to come together.
Nate’s Grade: B
Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. Tom Hiddelston plays a doctor in the building and becomes the intermediary between the oblivious rich and the rabble rousing and vengeful poor. I can’t tell you why anything happens in this movie. I can’t say why the characters do what they do, why the events happen, why anything. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious. If anyone says it’s one of his or her favorite movies of all time, please kindly walk in the other direction as fast as you are able and then tell an adult.
Nate’s Grade: D
A simple yet high-concept sci-fi hook that’s nicely examined and developed for its duration, The One I Love is a relationship drama with a twist, one I won’t feel bad about spoiling considering it happens in the first 15 minutes. Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss play a married couple going through counseling to work out their trust issues. They head out to a resort home to spend a weekend getaway; however, whenever one of them enters the guesthouse, their spouse is magically there. Not just them but an idealized version of them, the best representation. The two explore what this means, establishing a series of rules of intimacy that of course will start to be ignored. The mystery of why this doppelganger honeymoon suite is happening is inconsequential. What matters is how our couple responds to it and the film thankfully allows this conflict to stew, maximizing its potential to explore the jealousies and insecurities of relationships. Duplass and Moss are terrific and have fun with their many iterations. The One I Love finds ways to continually surprise while still feeling grounded by its real-world application of its science fiction premise. The ending is a tad predictable but still satisfying, likely inspiring many conversations afterwards with would-be couples who watch the film. At its core, it’s an intriguing story that’s very well developed while never losing sight of its characters and their relatable nature. It’s smart, funny, and always interesting, and well worth exploring on your own when given the chance.
Nate’s Grade: B+
How many scene-stealers get spin-offs? That sounds like something you’d more likely find in the realm of TV, but it does happen occasionally in cinema. In 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, comedian Russell Brand played British rock star Aldous Snow. He stole Sarah Marshall and he also stole the movie. Now the stringy Brit with the crazy hair gets is own movie, Get Him to the Greek, a semi-sequel to Sarah Marshall.
Aldous Snow (Brand) has had his career hit a bit of a snag. His latest album, and lead single, “African Child” has been met with a tidal wave of bad press. Critics are calling it the worst thing to strike Africa after famine, war, and apartheid. His longtime girlfriend and fellow recording artist, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), has dumped him and gotten full custody of their son. His life, and he, has gone off the wagon. Music exec Sergio (Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs) is desperate for ideas to help make money for his company. Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) suggests to the boss man that it will be the 10-year anniversary of Snow rocking out at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, a seminal concert event. The boss tasks Hill with traveling to London, retrieving Snow, getting him to a Today Show performance in New York and then to the Greek in L.A. for an anniversary concert. Of course babysitting a drug-addled rock star and getting him places on time is easier said than done.
Get Him to the Greek is ultimately a buddy movie. Brand and Hill play off each other so well. In fact, I might say that Hill’s character is a tad too dull when he’s not around the hyperactive and impulsive Snow. You sort of feel for the guy and you’d like life to turn out well for him and his girlfriend, but you’re not completely committed to the character. However, when he’s bouncing off Brand, the movie transforms into a wild comedy with many funny moments and a few that miss the mark. Green has been entrusted to handle his high-maintenance rock star and this presents a few stellar comic setups. Green has to make sure that his star is not impaired when he performs on the Today Show, so he steals Snow’s flask of booze and joint and downs them both to protect his star. The resulting appearance on the Today Show then flips the script, having the flaky star be the straight man to the highly impaired handler. The funniest sequence for my taste involves a drawn-out drug trip in a Vegas hotel. Things spiral out of control and involve furry wall groping, mass amounts of property destruction, and Snow stabbing Green in the chest with an adrenaline needle, then being chased by an incensed Sergio who will not be stopped even after being hit by a car. It’s an exhilarating, madcap sequence that picks up comedy momentum and plows ahead. You may not be able to relate to either character, but when you put them together the movie comes alive with comic mischief and misfortune.
Being a Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) production, Get Him to the Greek has got to bring the heart with the raunch. Even though we spend the majority of the running time with two characters, the film is less character-based than other Apatow-produced products. The sentiment slips in at the end. Obviously, given the setup, you expect Green to become more aggressive motivated, Snow to become more mellow and conscientious, and we’re all better for it in the end. The two characters do begin to bond in their unusual way, which elicits much of the film’s enjoyment. I enjoyed spending time with these two guys, especially when they were together. That likeability factor got the film through some of its rough patches. As far as supporting casts, a hallmark of an Apatow-produced film, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs is the movie’s scene-stealer, mostly through sheer force of will. He’s not the funniest guy but man does he chew scenery with gusto. He’s so loud and crazed that he practically scares you into laughing as a defensive impulse.
Brand is a terrific comedy discovery. He has such an electric energy and his wild-eyed hijinks and deadpan delivery had me in stitches. I was worried that a full movie for Aldous Snow would wear thin, but Stoller and Brand have deepened the character. It would be extremely easy, and almost understandable, for Snow to just be this caricature of the rock and roll lifestyle, an easy send-up for easy jokes. But just like with Sarah Marshall, the more time you spend with Snow the more you start to like him. He’s genuinely charming. His onstage persona evokes memories of Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin, and Freddie Mercury. He’s self-destructive and egotistical but he’s not as shallow as he may appear to be (his vocabulary is a notch above, too). He’s unpredictable but he’s not stupid. He’s fairly vulnerable with some real feelings, lamenting his failed relationship with Jackie Q and yearning to be the father for a son that may not even be his. His life is filled with hangers-on and leeches, including his own parents. Brand can be good at being ridiculous but he can also be very good at being miserable. His vulnerability and attempts to be something more than the sum of his lifestyle allows for some tender moments between the babes and booze.
Hill has graduated from supporting player to “regular dude” lead in the Apatow Academy. He’s presented almost as a brazenly average everyman, albeit one who appears to be dangerously overweight (seriously, Hill has ballooned like a blowfish and I worry for the guy). This role allows Hill to showcase the most range he ever has yet. He believes in the power of music and has a personal stake in what goes down at the Greek. He sells his dramatic parts better than expected. He and his girlfriend, Daphne (Elizabeth Moss from TV’s Mad Men), make for an unconventional couple via Hollywood’s superficial standards. It’s an interesting match and somewhat refreshing that Hill isn’t dating some knock-out (Moss is quite fetching, don’t get me wrong).
Greek doesn’t measure up to Sarah Marshall and part of that is because the story is a bit too shaggy, housing gags but lacking a stronger driving plot. Many of the scenes don’t connect so much as independently exist. Also, writer/director Nicholas Stoller (who also directed Sarah Marshall) sometimes doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. The drug-addled sequences tend to get a little tedious after the third or fourth time. Granted, drugs and alcohol are all apart of the modern rock and roll experience, but watching people act weird on drugs can get tiresome unless given a different context to work with. Some of the comic setups are a tad lazy but are saved by the efforts of Brand and Hill. When Aldous orders his lackey to smuggle heroin in his rectum, it feels strained even by the standards of wacky comedies. It feels like one episode that doesn’t lead to anything other than a quick, almost absurd, comedy dead-end. And for a movie with a ticking clock constantly running down the hours before Snow needs to be at the Today Show and then the Greek Theater, there sure is a strong lack of urgency. When they run late or miss planes, you don’t really care because you know it’s a matter that will be easily solved.
A fact I really enjoyed with Sarah Marshall was that the girls were given something to do — they were allowed to be more than the joke, they could be in on the joke. Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell’s characters were allowed to be nuanced, mature yet able to make mistakes, and both were funny while being central to the story. With Greek, the female characters are mostly one-note and then given a little polish. Jackie Q is all brash sexuality and Daphne is prim and constantly exhausted. They’re extremes made for easy laughs. When Jackie Q tries to get serious, we don’t really buy it because she seemed rather pleased to soak up the unhealthy riches of fame. Her behavior is inconsistent. With Daphne, her wet blanket personality is supposed to be the joke, and then when she cuts loose toward the end, requesting a three-way between her, Green, and rock star Aldous Snow, it feels wrong for her character and weirdly reminiscent of Chasing Amy. I know Get Him to the Greek is primarily a boys movie, but it lacks the same generosity of character that aided Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Get Him to the Greek is a solid comedy helped by two strong lead performances. It’s a nice addition to Apatow’s family of character-based comedies even if it doesn’t live up to its ambitions. The movie is consistently funny throughout, which is integral to being a comedy. The character dynamics lead to some entertaining comic set-ups and sometimes some lazy ones, but the troupe of actors makes it all work. Brand and Hill are a fine team and the movie has plenty of surprises and cameos to keep things fresh when a gag misfires. I wouldn’t mind seeing the further exploits of Aldous Snow, or even listening to some of his recordings (his Sarah Marshall tune “Inside You” was criminally left off the Oscar nominees in 2008). But this movie just made me realize how much more I appreciate Sarah Marshall, and how that movie has grown on me over time. I suppose like Hill’s character, it took an extended detour with Aldous Snow to make me realize what I truly appreciate in life.
Nate’s Grade: B
The film spans one morning of a “normal” high school in Oregon (it looks like the school is a three-story motel). It’s the last day of school and everyone is ready to jump into the real world. The storylines are rife with every high school cliché that can be found. Drum roll please, and they are:
1) Good Virgin (Stefanie MacGillivray) is dumped by Jerky Jock (Will Sanderson) because she refuses to put out. The majority of this storyline takes place in the guy’s car where he sadistically tells her all the details of the many other girls he was “forced” to sleep with (“The whole school f***s. Everybody except you.”). One of these girls is the transient High Girl (Elisabeth Rosen), who has fallen in love with Jerky Jock over the course of him using her for sex.
2) High Girl has no parental involvement and lots of free time. She thusly gets high a lot and trips out for most of the movie. Dealer Dude spends all day implausibly hanging around the high school with sacks of drugs to sell. He’s stopped by Idealist Guidance Counselor (Maria Conchita Alonso) who wants to make a difference.
3) Good Student apparently wasn’t good at contraceptive planning because she’s pregnant. She wants an abortion and her life back. She’s also really snotty to her Boyfriend who wants to keep the baby and support her but is also willing to support whatever decision she makes. Man, he’s such a jerk. Way jerkier than Jerky Jock.
4) Mean Creative Writing Teacher (Michael Paré) gets a good talking-to by the school principal (Jurgen Prochnow). The teacher is struggling with his own writing and taking out his frustrations by being overly critical of his students’ works. His grades appear to be unfair and unprofessional. One of his students is High Girl.
5) A team of bullies regularly beat up and humiliates Barry (Michael Belyea) and Daniel, who masterminds a plot for revenge. Daniel (Kett Turton) is tormented by his abusive father (Clint Howard) who just laughs when he sees bruises and black eyes on his son. The bullies are lead by King Bully (Brendan Fletcher) who is visited by his older brother, Former King Bully (Steve Byers), who reminisces about the good ole days of beating people up because they were different. These storylines mix and match until our inevitable shoot-em-up conclusion.
Heart of America is based on a story by Boll and written by Robert Dean Klein (Blackwoods). The plot structure is competent and the film is mildly entertaining, which was a great surprise for me. The cinematography is above average for its budget and the score is quiet and reflective. Heart of America, with all its shortcomings, is still a better movie than Gus van Sant’s school shooter opus, Elephant (I dread to see this statement on the front of a re-released DVD).
Despite all of its simplicity, Heart of America makes some boneheaded decisions. It closes with lengthy text detailing other school shooters in the previous years. The text takes away from the drama and has no significant purpose other than to say, “You’ve just watched kids shoot up their school. Here’s how some other kids did it. If you’d like to learn more, visit your local library.” Heart of America also lacks subtlety; every item that is meant to carry a message of significance is hit so hard you’ll wonder if a gong is rattling. Then again, Boll isn’t well known for subtlety. This should explain Heart of America’s aches and pains with revealing its twists and revelations.
For two acts we’re led to believe that Daniel and Barry are the ones who are going to shoot up their school. Daniel IM’s his co-conspirator and reminds them not to “punk out on him.” Then minutes before the bloodbath it’s revealed that his co-conspirator is . . . another person! It’s High Girl, who takes a gun and gladly goes about killing classmates. Heart of America intentionally teases the viewer whether Barry will not follow through and this twist is intended to be something of a surprise. Trouble is someone should have told that to the DVD manufacturing folks. On the Heart of America DVD cover (as you can see for yourselves above) are the faces of Daniel and High Girl side-by-side. Superimposed over them is a list of school shooting locations that have been crossed out (it’s little wonder that Boll held back from the final one saying, “Anytown, U.S.A.”). Below all of these images is another picture of High Girl, this time standing in class and pointing an accusatory finger at some unforeseen figure. Any person intending to watch Heart of America will instantly associate High Girl with Daniel and already be thinking they’re Bonnie and Clyde. You can’t have a twist when you’re advertising it on the front cover of your DVD. Would The Sixth Sense have been as effective if the poster had Bruce Willis walking through walls like Ghost Dad (no respect to Ghost Dad intended)?
The most disturbing moment in Heart of America doesn’t even take place around the school. It involves a story Big Brother tells his bully clan about his greatest accomplishments. One of these is inviting a mentally challenged girl into his basement, getting her drunk, and then gang-banging her. At first I thought it was rather unwarranted and unethical to have flashbacks of Big Bro’s story so that we can actually see the rape. Then it hit a slightly interesting juxtaposition, as Big Bro’s positive recount of his victim’s experience doesn’t exactly match what we see happening. So I was willing to let it slide until the film hit a deplorable low – a gratuitous nude scene of the mentally challenged girl (dubbed “Slow White”). You can tell it’s gratuitous too because most of the scene isn’t even shot at angles that expose the breasts. It’s disturbing on the level that Boll was knowingly trying to shoehorn in some nudity and elicit titillation. The decision actually detracts from the power of the scene because it feels so tackily gratuitous. Is it too much to ask that if we have a mentally challenged girl being raped that we don’t also have a needless nude scene? This whole moment is egregiously disgusting because it’s done for titillation.
Once the end credits start to roll, the casual viewer will think two things: 1) What is that awful, tonally inappropriate pop song playing that actually has the lyrics, “The roads you made are the ones you pave,” and 2) what the hell was the message of Heart of America? In the first ten minutes or so we see teens on drugs, teens on medication, teens with no parental involvement, teens with parental abuse, and teens bullying to feel better about themselves. Do any of these things cause school violence, or is it some kind of magic combination? I never expected Heart of America to fashion a thesis on why kids grab guns and shoot up their schools but the ending feels ridiculously, artlessly devoid of meaning.
To further get into this point of discussion I will be spoiling all of the major plot lines of the movie, so in the rare instance anyone is remotely interested in watching Heart of America and/or its sick mentally challenged nude scene, scroll down. You won’t be missing much, trust me.
As expected, Daniel and High Girl get revenge primarily upon their tormentors. What I don’t get is that before High Girl sweeps into her classroom for her vengeance, she tells Dealer Dude, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” Huh? Does she mean she wouldn’t have gone to these lengths had she not be high? Or is this statement farther reaching, like blaming Dealer Dude for being apart of a system that has turned her into a degenerate drug user? I have no idea, but High Girl struts into class and kills Creative Writing Teacher, who had made fun of her and forced her to read her poetry aloud. Got it. But then she aims her pistol at Jerky Jock, whispers “I love you,” and then shoots Good Virgin to death. Apparently High Girl did not catch the news that Jerky Jock had dumped her minutes earlier. So what is the point of Good Virgin’s storyline? The only thing I can surmise is that if you don’t have sex you will be killed. If Good Virgin had given up her goodly virginity then Jerky Jock wouldn’t have been on the prowl, and he wouldn’t have used High Girl for throwaway sex, and then she wouldn’t have shot Good Virgin in jealousy. You see how this works? It’s the exact opposite of a horror movie. Daniel also shoots and kills Good Student’s boyfriend/father of her baby. What is that saying? Is it some kind of ironic statement on abortion? Why couldn’t any of the shooters have clipped Patrick Muldoon’s nails-on-the-chalkboard horndog sex ed teacher? It seems Boll has a soapbox but he has nothing understandable to say.
Heart of America makes the audience not only side with the school shooters but also practically roots for them. Daniel and Barry undergo constant bullying from the get go. The film, in its simplistic approach, plays the bullies as irredeemable assholes and Daniel and Barry are the hapless victims. Heart of America practically justifies its characters resorting to violence. Sure some innocent people get caught in the fray, but then aren’t they all to blame somehow? Again, I have no idea what Boll is trying to say.
Despite Boll having no command with actors (Muldoon is a constant reminder of this), the younger actors in Heart of America give pretty good performances. Turton (Saved!, Walking Tall) really festers with anger and discontent but also gives insights into a fragile kid just wanting to live. Belyea really works his nervous indecision to a nub, going so far as to hide his mother’s car keys so she won’t chance going to his school. Fletcher (Freddy vs. Jason) is a grinning monster as a bully but, in the film’s lone turn at character depth, also shows how uncomfortable he is being a bully. It seems that he too is just doing it to fit in. Fletcher’s pained and awkward reactions are a welcome sign of humanity, though it seems to be too little too late when we the climax hits. Rosen seems decidedly disconnected and dead-eyed scary.
It’s puzzling that the top listed actors in Heart of America’s credits are as follows; Jurgen Prochnow, Michael Paré, Patrick Muldoon, and Maria Conchita Alonso. All four of those actors amount to about ten minutes of total screen time; Muldoon essentially has a grating cameo. Why are the kids not credited as the rightful stars of the show? The adults give terrible performances (seriously, I cannot overstate how creepy Muldoon is) but the kids are all right. The most shocking fact about the cast is that somewhere in this mix is Emmy-nominated Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss. Look for her in here somewhere as “Robin Walters.”
Heart of America works with paint-by-numbers characters and Boll only doles out one color. The jock is a jerk. The virgin is good. The bullies are mean. The stoners are high. Very seldom does the film delve any deeper than these cursory characterizations. Because of this simplicity Heart of America strains credibility during its more unrealistic moments. At one point, King Bully and his posse force Daniel and Barry to eat dog poop and the moment is played as a defining point of drama. Does this stuff really happen? If it does then it certainly doesn’t happen often enough to be included in Boll’s depiction of a “normal” school. Then again, Boll’s idea of a normal American educational environment also involves raping mentally challenged girls. The name of the movie itself indicates how typical everything is supposed to seem.
This is a thought-provoking film, with the main thought being “What the hell is the movie trying to say?” Heart of America wades in a kiddy pool of high school clichés. The characters are paint-by-numbers and lack definition beyond their social title (Virgin, Jock, Bully, etc.). This film is awash in unresolved statements and stacks the deck so the audience will practically root for the school shooters. With no help from Uwe Boll, the younger actors are the movie’s stars and give good performances despite the limited range of their characters. You won’t know anything deeper after watching Heart of America. It’s Boll’s Big Statement Film but your guess is as good as mine as to whatever that is. Violence breeds violence? Parents need to spend more time with their kids? Don’t force kids to eat poo if they’re not ready? Heart of America is unrealistic, strained, unfocused, shallow and clumsy, and it’s also Boll’s best work to date.
Nate’s Grade: C