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Tully (2018)

Tully is a Young Adult reunion, bringing back writer Diablo Cody (Juno), director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and star Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde), and for people without kids, it can feel more like a horror movie. Numerous movies have conveyed the challenges of parenthood, the put upon moms and dads struggling to juggle schedules and lunches and homework, all without much time to themselves for self-care. Usually these movies will begin by displaying the hardships of parenthood but ultimately put a cheery bow on things by the end and conclude, “Yeah, but it’s all worth it.” Tully doesn’t provide that easy bow and I appreciated that. Motherhood can be a real bitch.

Marlo (Theron) is a 40-year-old mother who feels overwhelmed with life. She’s about to have baby number three and her “atypical” youngest son requires a lot of intensive supports and is upsetting his school. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is away for work often and late at night he plays online games and keeps to his side of the bed. Marlo’s rich brother (Mark Duplass) takes it upon himself to hire a “night nanny,” a person who watches the newborn baby during nighttime hours and allows the mother to get some restful sleep. Marlo is adamant about not letting a stranger watch over her child but soon relents and calls for the nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a mid-twenties godsend who is wise beyond her years, competent, and nonjudgmental. With Tully’s assistance, Marlo is able to make steps toward becoming the person she remembers.

Through its depiction, it feels like parenthood has a lot in common with incarceration. It feels like a new parent goes away for a multi-year sentence, loses all sense of sleep, is indentured into work often without any compensation, and required at a moment’s notice at all hours. Marlo’s life is certainly unglamorous but it’s also taking its toll. The needs of her children, including one with undiagnosed special needs, are snuffing out her sense of self and taking an unremitting physical and mental toll. The opening of the film has Marlo days away from her third pregnancy and she looks like she’s smuggling a beach ball. Her brother’s wife cheerfully adds, “You look glowing,” that age-old pregnancy praise, and Marlo’s unfazed reaction is more of a, “Really?” She then proceeds to compare herself to the trash barge that floated along the East Coast in the 1980s, a perfectly plucked pop-culture allusion from Cody. At no point do you doubt the love Marlo has for her family, but the servitude is driving her crazy and with no relief in sight with baby number three. There’s a pristine montage of her daily routine of feeding, pumping, changing diapers, and absent sleep, the days just melting into one another, and it’s so horrifying in its mind-numbing execution that it reminded me genuinely of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream montages of drug-abuse and despair.

It’s a third of the way into the film when Tully enters the picture and serves as the long-needed change agent for Marlo. She’s the miracle worker nanny that works at night like a whimsical little elf, and the next morning the house is clean, the baby is taken care of, and Marlo has been allowed a rejuvenating night of sleep. You can chart the change in the quality time with the family, where quickie microwave pizza dinners become more advanced home-cooked meals with multiple ingredients and food groups. You can also chart the change through the magnificent performance of Theron, who appears to be regaining her sense of self and placement in the family. Tully serves as a refreshing, therapeutic conversationalist, able to get Marlo to introspectively reflect upon her life’s goals and setbacks and her sense of what she should be as a woman and not just as a mother. Tully is wise but also winsomely hopeful and optimistic; she recharges the battery for this family and Marlo in particular. These gentle, observational conversations are the best part of the film and Theron and Davis are wonderful together. Each woman seems to be learning from the other and providing a support system.

Cody’s early screenwriting was dinged for its obsession to be quippy and hip, but it has matured and depended over the years. Young Adult was an incisive character study in kamikaze narcissism, and it was as cold as Tully is warm, even-handed, and honest. Having a talent as surefire as Theron is a great asset, but it’s Cody’s storytelling that gives the movie its sting and its sweetness. This is something of a comfy thematic middle ground between the ironic, quippy yet sentimental Juno and the dark spiral of stunted growth in Young Adult (seriously, rent that movie again if you can, it’s vastly underrated). Tully is a movie that is lifted on wry observations and honest dialogue. It feels very real, so much so that I was convinced the reality show-within-a-show Gigolos (Marlo is a bashful fan) was the real deal for most of the movie [Edit: it has come to my attention this is a real show. Ahh, still a nice detail about Marlo character]. I also loved the drive into Brooklyn being relegated to jump cuts, each new jump playing a different Cyndi Lauper track on an album, which feels very biographical and authentic. The details of Cody’s story feel sharply developed and authentic, and that’s the biggest draw of this movie. It’s an unvarnished look into the realities of motherhood and each little detail helps further contribute to the larger portrait of Marlo’s exhausted life. The supporting characters do get a bit of short shrift here, kept as one-dimensional peripheral portrayals. I was expecting more from her husband Drew since their relationship and the platonic valley they’ve found themselves stuck in is another significant aspect. However, the movie is really about the relationship of Marlo and Tully and how they build up one another. Marlo even sees herself in the younger nanny, and she’s also wistful of a time that her body more closely resembled that of Tully’s flat tummy and compact derriere.

Theron continues to establish with role after role what a phenomenal acting chameleon she can be. I know we gush about Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, and Kate Winslet as the finest actresses of their generation, but I feel like Theron deserves to be in that same hallowed Pantheon. She gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in 2003’s Monster and I think she was deserving of nominations for work as varied as a one-armed post-apocalyptic feminist warrior. Theron gained fifty pounds for this beleaguered role, which is an impressive commitment, but she doesn’t just let the weight gain serve as the focal point of her performance. She uses every exhausted muscle to communicate Marlo’s plight. When she’s slumped over in a chair and just rips her off stained shirt, you feel her utter defeat and desperation (“Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” one child asks). This is a woman who is tired to the bone. She’s taking everything life gives her and soldiering onward, afraid to speak up. This is best voiced when she describes her relentless day and staring into a closet and thinking, “Didn’t I just do this?” Theron’s renewed vitality as mother, wife, and most importantly, person, is a rewarding development to tag along with. Theron’s breadth of tenderness, sadness, and hard-won insight is easily relatable and emotionally engaging.

The one thing that holds me back from fully embracing Tully is a late story decision that I’m still wrestling over. It feels a bit like tonal whiplash and I immediately felt like it was completely unnecessary and that I was happy with the movie already being told. It left me jarred although I admit this decision helped provide better context for some unexpected turns in the middle between characters. Having deliberated for a couple of days, I can see how this decision plays into a larger sense of theme and character, while also tapping into something primal about motherhood and the emergency lifelines needed and provided. I’m warming to Cody’s decision and can see the rationale behind it. Still, there will be plenty of audience members that will be left questioning the thought process here.

Tully is the third collaboration between Cody and Reitman and they bring out the best in one another. After two duds in a row, I was worried that Reitman had become all too mortal after his 2006-2011 run of amazing films. It’s reassuring to find Reitman back in finer form and to also experience the maturing growth of Cody’s exceptional writing. I wish there was more with the supporting characters but this is a character study of our main momma. The late plot turn will divide audiences (I’ve already identified with both sides) but it serves the film’s larger focus on the well-being and recuperation of Marlo. Tully is a funny, compassionate, and unflinching movie about the perils of motherhood and the steps we all need to take to activate a little necessary self-care.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Super Troopers 2 (2018)

Sixteen years after the original film, Super Troopers 2 is coming to theaters thanks to a record-breaking campaign on the fundraising site Indiegogo. The comedy team, Broken Lizard, finds itself somewhat in a similar lace Rob Thomas and the Veronica Mars team did after their successful Kickstarter haul got them a feature film. It’s primarily the fans that have supplied the funds for the project, and in doing so proven a viable audience for any other potential future financial backers. Therefore, when the finished product comes together, are you designing the movie for that core base of fans that may or may not be looking for more of what they enjoyed the first time around. Does servicing the fans outweigh telling something original and expanding the brand? Credit to the Broken Lizard team that very few of the jokes from the first film are outright repeated and there are sparing references in general to the earlier movie. Super Troopers 2 exists on its own merits; however, it feels like a shaggy, and amiable if mostly lackluster comedy.

In the years since the first film, the state troopers for Vermont have been reassigned to a new task. The Canadian border is being renegotiated, and a swath of Canada is now going to be declared American territory. The troopers, Mac (Steve Lemme), Rabbit (Erik Stolhanske), Thorny (Jay Chandrasekhar, also serving as director again), Foster (Paul Soter), and Farva (Kevin Hefferman), are reunited with their old Captain (Brian Cox) and entrusted by the Governor (Lynda Carter) and a local, small town mayor (Rob Lowe) with upholding law and order. The guys uncover a smuggling conspiracy that plans on using the switching border to great financial gain, but mostly they just mess with people.

All the guys are back and they’re back to their old hijinks and now they’re all pushing fifty, which makes things feel a little weird. The Super Troopers style of comedy is pretty juvenile, silly, slapstick-heavy, with the occasional meta-textual aside. It’s a low-key sort of comedy that provides chuckles but rarely the bigger, memorable laughs. Your mileage will vary, as all comedies do, but I chuckled about five to ten times in the movie. There are a couple solid running jokes that are nicely set up for payoffs, like an oft-referred to tragic accident involving Fred Savage and the troopers. There are glimpses of a stranger, more interesting comedy here that will never be seen, like an opening segment that takes some unexpected turns. The Super Troopers 2 that ends up on screen feels a bit like a flailing act that is still trying to find laughs after the joke ends.

The plot doesn’t matter in this kind of movie so much as the jokes, and the quality of jokes is rather mediocre, falling back on tired tropes and dated stereotypes. The jokes about Canada rehash lots of well-worn clichés about our neighbors to the north (hockey, vowels, politeness, hockey). Here’s an example of the untapped potential for the comedy. There’s a funny bit where Farva goes to a local restaurant, discovers a buy-ten-liters-get-a-free-dessert punch card offer, and orders ten liters of soda to drink all at once. It’s drawn out in a way that feels like it’s going to be the setup for a big punch line. The man has ten liters of soda occupying his bladder. I’m thinking maybe Farva’s powerful stream of urine will save the day unexpectedly from the villains at a fortunate moment. At least something, right? All that happens is he’s later seen peeing in the woods. That’s it. Why even bother with something as outlandish as this setup if there is no inspired payoff?

Worse, there are entire lanes of humor that feel painfully dated, unfunny, and like leftovers from an earlier version of the script from the early 2000s. Thorny becomes addicted to female hormone pills (“Flova Scotia”) and behaved with tired gender tropes like becoming overly emotional and bitchy (see, it’s funny because… that’s what ladies… yeah…). It’s Thorny’s whole character for the movie and it feels so depressingly lazy. You get a sense that everyone was so happy to be back together that the comedy development took a back seat to the fun of the reunion. It feels like a loose collection of untapped comedy premises. Super Troopers 2 has a lot of free time and for a good while becomes a wacky, prank battle between the Americans and Canucks. It’s just that a group of fifty-year-old dudes behaving like children can come across as past its prime comedy without further characterization.

As someone who found the original Super Troopers to be overrated, what saved the sequel for me was the exuberance of the performances to balance out the lackluster laughs. The Broken Lizard guys have built up an outstanding chemistry and camaraderie together over the course of several decades. These guys an be very funny and they go above and beyond to sell their zany jokes and larger-than-life characters, best typified with Hefferman (Sky High). Farva is meant to be obvious, obnoxious, and buffoonish, and my God does Hefferman seem to be exploding with energy. His spirited line readings seem to exercise every muscle in his face. It’s so committed and enthusiastic that Hefferman elevates okay jokes into newly funny jokes. In a similar fashion, the Canadian side characters played by Will Sasso, Tyler Labine, and Hayes MacArthur provide some genuine laughs from their hyperactive and at times incomprehensible cartoon Mounties. Every time they were onscreen I knew I would, at minimum, be amused. Watching skilled performers have fun and actually put forth a worthy effort is a recipe that can make an otherwise boring comedy worth watching, and that’s Super Troopers 2. I must also add that the Broken Lizard guys have aged tremendously well and look remarkably similar to how they did in the mid 2000s. Chandrasekhar even appears shirtless and with a toned physique. Again, all pushing fifty. Congrats on the amazing genetics, gang.

The Broken Lizard guys may have not had a comedy released since 2009’s The Slammin’ Salmon and haven’t had a theatrically released film since 2006’s Beerfest. Perhaps their time of relevance as a comedic group has come and gone, so it makes sense to go back to their biggest hit. The original Super Troopers may have been their breakout but I still find their first film, 1996’s Puddle Cruiser, as the group’s best. It’s a sweet rom-com with enjoyable characters and wit. I’ve enjoyed the ideas and performances in several of their movies, but their first film managed to bring it all together the best (I think the crazier Beerfest is their second best). Even with lesser material, the Broken Lizard guys have a genial, likable screen chemistry that can smooth over comedy misfires and dropped potential. Super Troopers 2 is like a reheated meal you remember enjoying but lacks that same sense of flavor. You could do worse but you could also certainly do better.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Quiet Place (2018)

I’m going to write a sentence I’ve never written in my history of writing about film: make sure you get all the gas out of your system before sitting down to watch A Quiet Place in the theater. This intense little thriller relies upon a nearly silent film experience which makes you, in the audience, hyper aware of just about every little noise permeating your surroundings. Munching popcorn, opening candy wrappers, brief coughs, you’ll become highly attuned to the faintest of noises. This is why you, dear reader, should be advised to make sure you have no bodily gasses stored in your system. Unless that’s your plan all along, to break the tension with a well-timed expelling of flatulence, going from screening to screening, finding new purpose with being that guy, eating plates of beans in preparation for the long withholding. With all that being said, A Quiet Place is an ingenious little thriller with near flawless execution.

It’s over a year into a world overrun by monsters that are trained to attack the smallest of sounds. What’s left of humanity has had to adapt to a very quiet way of life. The Abbott family has ironically be given a head start to adapt into this scary new world that prioritizes silence. Lee (John Krasinski, also co-writer and director) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have a daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, so the family has learned to communicate via sign language. The family walks barefoot on paths of sand and resides in a farmhouse on the edge of a rural community. The Abbott clan is still overcoming the loss of their youngest child who, at and innocent and naïve four years old, was taken by the monsters. Now Evelyn is expecting a new child and the Abbotts must stick together if they are going to survive.

A Quiet Place is a brilliantly simple concept that’s exceptionally well developed and executed. Using the very concept of sound itself as the monster, or the prelude to the monster, is so clever and completely relatable. It trains the audience to fear sound itself. It also serves the role of placing the audience in a hyper aware state of continuous dread. Any little sound we deeply dread, and there are so many ways to make sound in this world above a whisper. The emptiness of the aural landscape creates a template to build upon, so that any small noise feels like an alarm to the sense. The gripping sound design brings a sense of the looming dangers as we hear the thundering claps and crashes of the monsters approach. Krasinski also very cleverly communicates the world from Regan’s deaf perspective. When the camera focuses on her, the sound levels drop entirely, and then when another character is onscreen, they rise back up. It’s an extremely effective and smart way to drop the audience into her vulnerable position.

This is a movie that sets up the stakes upfront. A young child dies for doing something stupid but entirely in character for a young child (whom I’m assuming never personally encountered these creatures). A Quiet Place establishes immediately that this new world is unforgiving of mistakes. A distracted mind, a false step, a sudden impulse, and anyone can be gone forever.

Like the similarly themed Don’t Breathe, the fun is setting up the world, the playing space, and the rules, and then watching it all play out. A Quiet Place does a great job of establishing its world and surroundings and once the action hits midway through it doesn’t let up until the end credits. Fortunately, the thrills never get old too because Krasinski and the other screenwriters, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, keep finding new and intelligent challenges to explore. The pieces all add up and the details make this world feel extremely well realized, from the marked squeaky floorboards to the routines if separated to the colored warning lights. The tension is already at a constant simmer from its very effective opening sequence that sets the mood. A simple exposed nail on a stair can be a returning point of tremendous uncertainty time and again. The very presence of a pregnancy with a looming due date feels like a bomb waiting to explode. How in the world will a baby be born in a world that punishes sound? I watched this movie with my hand covering my mouth for a far majority of it. Even the jump scares feel well distributed and earned in this movie. Mostly, it’s a film that makes you twist in that delicious sense of anxiety as you wait. It’s nerve-rattling in the best possible way.

Another aspect of what makes the film so worthwhile that won’t get as many headlines is how well developed it is as a drama about a family overcoming grief and guilt. Each member of the Abbott family feels some level of blame for the tragedy and is punishing his or herself. In a way, the events of the film are about processing that grief and handing over the protection of the family. It’s an unspoken shroud that hangs over the entire family, you can see it on their faces, with the heaviness in their eyes, and in their day-to-day anxiety. The film does a great job through the character of Marcus (Noah Jupe), the middle child, of showcasing how this terrifying new normal would affect and fray one’s psyche. He’s petrified with fear and consumed with the scary burden of having to ascend into the role of protector and provider that his father is trying to groom him for when the inevitable comes. The happy version of “the inevitable” is Evelyn and Lee growing old and feeble. The more realistic version is the two of them at some point being felled by these murderous monsters. When Marcus is given a moment to let his guard down, to not worry about the volume of his voice, it’s a sweet father/son moment of bonding that feels entirely fulfilling as well as insightful about this new, peculiar way of life.

A central conflict is the friction between Regan and her father and their desire to understand and empathize with one another. The film’s biggest emotional moment is the conclusion of this, and it feels so fully earned and poignant that even typing it out now stirs me. It’s the culmination of a well-structured screenplay that has found its moments for character development in a nearly silent movie, so that when declarations are made, even with the monsters and its creepy gimmick, you’ll still feel something. These characters matter and their struggles are universal and emotionally appealing. The acting all around by the young children and Krasinski and Blunt is completely believable and engaging.

For a relatively low-budget thriller, I was surprised how much of the monsters we actually saw onscreen. Krasinski still prefers to keep his monsters on the peripheral or in the background, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the horrifying rest. That’s where I thought the movie would stay, but it does not. There are several close-ups of the creatures at work, a mass of teeth and auditory sensors. Their heads open up like blossoming flowers. I know the designs are CGI and yet they looked very realistic, as realistic as a fanciful monster can, naturally. It had the sheen of practical effects, which is the best compliment. The monsters reminded me of the Cloverfield creatures mixed with the Pitch Black aliens. It’s a spooky design and under Krasinski’s attention the menacing creatures never stop being scary.

Who knew John Krasinski had this in him? The affable actor best known for portraying Jim Halpert on the long-running American version of The Office has directed before, an adaptation of a David Foster Wallace book and an indie family dramedy. He’s never ventured into genre filmmaking before. But then again, neither had fellow funnyman Jordan Peele, who came out of nowhere in 2017 with Get Out and rode that to box-office riches, critical acclaim, and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Maybe more performers we view simply through the lens of comedy have tremendous potential to be genre virtuosos. A Quiet Place is not an outright silent movie but one where silence is most keenly felt. The simple premise is beautifully realized, the characters and their plights are affecting, the details are fully thought through (though newspaper publishing is questionably late into this sound apocalypse), and the structure is smartly placed and paced. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, intense, and invigorating movie, A Quiet Place feels like a work out for the senses.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Unsane (2018)

Steven Soderbergh is a restlessly experimental filmmaker who enjoys adopting new technology to tell familiar stories. Unsane was shot entirely on an iPhone (7s, if you must know) but I’ll never know the reason other than to see if it could be done. Otherwise, Unsane is Soderbergh’s woman-in-peril Lifetime movie of the week. Claire Foy (Netflix’s The Crown) plays a harried woman on the edge that accidentally commits herself to an in-patient mental hospital. That’s the best part of the movie, the first twenty minutes, as she diligently tries to convince everyone she is not crazy and there has been some sort of mistake. From there she begins seeing images of her stalker (Joshua Leonard) from another city. Is she really crazy? Is he really there? Has he followed her and gotten a job at a mental hospital and been waiting his time anticipating she would commit herself to this exact facility? The film answers this question ridiculously early and finds the most boring yet also preposterous route to go with its pedantic thrills. There’s a good concept here with the idea of a person trying to navigate the Byzantine, bureaucratic system to prove their sanity from behind bars, but it’s so poorly developed as to feel like a promising TV episode stretched thin. There simply are not enough twists and turns to keep an audience consistently engaged. Soderbergh has played in the trashy B-movie realm before with 2013’s Side Effects to much better effect. There aren’t enough credible characters to grapple onto. Foy is enjoyably incensed and erratic and keeps your attention, though I think she studied at the Kate Winslet School of American Accents. Gorgeous looking movies have been shot on cell phones, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine. This movie looks like it was shot on someone’s phone while it was dying. It looks so ugly on the big screen, flat and over-saturated in lighting, and just unappealing. It’s deeply un-cinematic and Soderbergh has the skills to do better. Unsane is un-good.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Thoroughbreds (2018)

Thoroughbreds is a dishy, tart little treat that kept me squirming, laughing, and gleefully entertained. Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and Ana Taylor-Joy (Split) are outstanding as privileged teenagers trying to resuscitate their former friendship through collaborative murder. Cooke plays Amanda, a sociopath who cannot feel anything, who is incurably honest, and has stopped caring what others think. Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a self-involved young lady that feels overwhelmed by life and is skilled at dissembling. Together, the girls scheme to kill Lily’s boorish stepfather and enlist the aid of a hapless small-time dealer with big plans (Anton Yelchin, in his final performance) through blackmail. The story from writer/director Cory Finley is immediately engaging with how it naturally reveals the complicated histories between Amanda and Lily as well as what makes each questionable. These are two very interesting people and just watching their probing push-and-pull was entertaining enough, especially with such strong performances. The characterization of a sociopath without a heavy moral condemnation was refreshing. We assume Amanda will be the bad influence but it really becomes the other way around, with Lily faking for her own purposes. Thoroughbreds is more dread-filled and unsettling than conventional thriller, and while there are some gallows humor to be had from the abnormal characters, this is less a dark comedy. There are drawn out tracking shots and methodical push-in camera movements meant to build audience anticipation, and they’re mostly effective. The first half is a bit more engaging than what it ultimately delivers as a climax. It’s still satisfying and well handled, but Finley throws in some misdirects that don’t add a rising sense of stakes. The stakes are really more personal, which works since the crux is on the relationship between the girls and whether they are being honest or manipulative with one another. By the end, I thought I could argue either way who was manipulative and when. Small irony: the last scene you see of Yelchin is him as a valet parking other people’s cars.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.

Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.

Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.

Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.

One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.

Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.

I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Tragedy Girls (2017)

I wanted to enjoy Tragedy Girls. I really did. There’s a good starting point with a story about two self-involved teenagers who turn to murder to raise their social media profiles. I like the lead actresses, Alexandra Shipp and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand, and the film has a quirky sense of style by co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre. The opening is even great where Hildebrand purposely lures a lover to his sacrificial death in order to trap a familiar slasher film-styled villain. Where it all goes wrong is that Tragedy Girls doesn’t have enough substance or commentary to outweigh its arch nihilism. The message is very flimsy (millennials are shallow, social media is harmful) and the film wants you to revel in the girls’ violent, gory murders but also be repelled by them. It’s a sisterhood of slaying. There are some interesting story ideas that don’t feel better attended. The girls are clumsy at their murders and luck into some absurd Final Destination-worthy kills, but the film doesn’t embrace this concept and makes them untouchable. They kidnap a local serial killer in the opening and demand he train them, but the guy refuses and is shoved to the side for almost the entire movie, stranding another interesting possibility. The high school characters are thinly designed and unworthy of their demises, though that’s also the point. Tragedy Girls doesn’t earn its candy-colored nihilism. It ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth and I found it off-putting and empty. It thumbs its nose with prickly devil-may-care attitude but without anything to really say.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Mom and Dad (2018)

The appeal of the indie thriller Mom and Dad is its frenetic, gonzo, absurdist spirit that accelerates into delicious dark comedy with a maniacal glee seldom seen in movies. The nature of the movie and its bloody violence will put off many viewers; however, if you have a healthy appetite for the bizarre and tonally incongruous, then Mom and Dad will serve as a thrilling and hilarious treat.

The Ryan family, father Brett (Nicolas Cage), mother Kendall (Selma Blair), teen daughter Carly (Ann Winters), and young son Josh (Zackary Arthur), are a typical suburban family with their share of secrets and antipathy. It’s a normal day until it isn’t. While at school, a mob of parents forms to collect their children. A rumor of a terrorist strike has circulated widely. But when the parents get close to their children they viciously harm them. It seems someone or something has flipped that parental instinct to protect one’s child at all costs. Now the urge is to kill one’s young. Carly and her friends escape the school mob and have to survive their homicidal parental units.

I didn’t realize it while watching but it became obvious in hindsight that this was the fodder of one of the debased, juvenile, and altogether hyperactive minds from the Crank movies, a series best described as debased, juvenile, and hyperactive. Brain Taylor takes a Twilight Zone premise and shoots it full of adrenaline and mescaline and whatever else was lying around on the ground. The action gets going in a relatively efficient fashion, establishing our family unit, and then setting them up for a collision course. From the 45-minute mark onward, it becomes more a self-contained thriller inside the family home, pitting our kids against their homicidal elders. It reminded me a tad of Don’t Breathe in its ability to set up a playing field and have its characters find organic ways to get into trouble, escape it, and get into worse trouble. It’s a series of moving pieces that feel elegantly arranged on the playing field. It keeps the movie barreling forward while still finding room for surprises and payoffs, including a glorious late Act Three payoff that I had long ago forgotten about its setup. It’s not quite dues ex machina because there’s more to come after, but it made me so happy.

This is a movie that strangles the concept of tone, and yet it decidedly knows what points to hit up the darker comedy, what moments need more drawn out suspense, and what moments can straddle the difference. The build-up of dread can be beautifully applied and then turned for laughs. Take for instance a moment when a teen girl comes home and notices an open blender with margarita mix, implying her mother is home. Just as a signifier of terror, it’s kind of fun, but then she leans closer and reaches into the open blender, her hand picking the blades. We’re leaning in, waiting for the blender to turn on all of a sudden, and then… she walks away, and the moment passes. Then we laugh to ourselves about how something so ordinary was turned around to be menacing. Taylor finds other little moments like this to assure the audience he’s thought through the premise and found ways to properly develop it to its potential. I was covering my face at parts in tense anticipation and I was cackling to myself at other times.

Cage (Snowden) is one of the few actors that seems to get exponentially more compelling to watch the nuttier he acts, and his crackpot zeal can elevate bad movies into something approaching unintended hilarity, like 2006’s woeful Wicker Man remake. There are few actors that go for broke regardless of how silly they eventually come across. In the wrong hands, this is an attribute that can betray Cage’s efforts and sink a movie. In the right hands, like Taylor’s, it provides the spark of madness needed to push a movie into another level of irascibility. Cage finds humor in the strangest of places, and it’s not a derisive sort of humor but more a genuine delighted bafflement at the character. If you love crazy Cage, you’ll have plenty to love in Mom and Dad.

Blair (Hellboy 2) is the more restrained parent while still getting scenes to cut loose. She’s having terrific fun getting to play bad. When she’s teamed with Cage, they form a darkly funny couple bonding over their shared intent for murder. It becomes an oddball romantic comedy in the darkest sense. Blair also impresses in her scenes of dramatic response. She’s one of the last parental figures to succumb to the hysteria, so we get to witness her process the shock and confusion of the day. There’s a great scene where she’s present in a hospital birthing room. Blair scrambles to save the newborn and try to understand what is happening, and it’s a personal kind of fear and betrayal that registers.

One of the more surprising aspects of Mom and Dad was how it’s able to build the parents as characters in clever and genuinely sincere ways. This is a crazy movie, and that’s its main appeal, but it can also find room to take things seriously. Taylor will momentarily pause the action to insert choice flashbacks that are enjoyable little asides, monologues that provide texture to the world and the characters. The flashback relating to a pool table’s demise opens up an entire analysis of a rocky marriage, a middle-aged man raging against his life’s mediocrity and the faded glory and promise of his youth, and the despair of losing your sense of self through parenthood. It builds and builds and allows the actors to unload. It doesn’t serve as significant a narrative point as other character-based flashbacks setting up ironic convergences. It’s just Brett and Kendall being able to voice their insecurities and disappointments. It’s about this point where the movie positions both as unswayable evil forces, so giving them a chance to come across like genuine human beings before they’re kill-crazy cartoons is unexpected and effective.

I know I’m having a great time with a movie when the worst thing about it is the last few seconds. Mom and Dad just sort of ends. It almost feels like there was some kind of editing accident and you may turn and say, “Wait, is that it?” I didn’t want Mom and Dad to end. This is a raucous dark comedy with an anarchic spirit but a strong sense of pacing, tone, and structure, layering in surprises and escalations dutifully while still finding equitable space to better shade the characters. If you’re looking for a risky dark comedy that will make you feel a tad crazier for watching, give Mom and Dad a whirl. This is the kind of movie you might hate yourself for loving.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Hostiles (2017)

A slow-paced Western with A-list actors, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a ponderous Western that feels too lost in its own expansive landscapes. It’s about an Army captain (Christian Bale) reluctantly taking the lead to escort a Cheyenne chief to die on his native soil. As you could expect from that premise, Hostiles is reverent and meditative to the point of boredom. It deals with Major Themes about man’s place in the world, connection to nature and the land, and our treatment of Native Americans, but it feels like it believe it’s saying a lot more than it accomplishes. The final film is over two hours but I kept waiting for the movie to feel more substantial, for the real story to start. The premise is workable and there are some interesting side characters, notably Rosamund Pike as the sole survivor of her family’s Native American attack, but it all feels underdeveloped to serve the central figure. It’s a story of one man having to come to terms and forgive himself for the cruel things he’s done in the past in the name of glory, honor, and patriotism. There are too many moments where characters reach out to remind him that he is, in fact, a Good Man. It gets to be too much. The talented supporting cast is generally wasted. Bale (The Big Short) is very internal, almost far too insular as a man speaking with looks and eyebrow arches, as he feels the weight of his soul over the course of this journey. I just grew restless with the movie and kept waiting for it to change gears or get better. Hostiles is not a poorly made movie, nor without some artistic merit, but it’s too languid and lacking.

Nate’s Grade: C+

After (2018)

Filmed throughout central and southern Ohio, After is the passion project of special effects wizard Ben Brown who wrote and directed it (and, yes, did the special effects). Many brilliant people lent their time and talents behind and in front of the camera, and I once again must confess to personally knowing several of them. I’m trying to keep my biases at bay through this review but acknowledge that may be impossible. Still, After is a pretty, heartfelt movie about Big Things that has some structural miscues and plot padding that left me from fully dubbing this an unqualified indie success.

Charles Galloway (Lee Slewman) lies dying in an alley having being fatally stabbed by a mugger. He reflects back on his life as a younger man (Dan Nye) and the people who shaped his experiences, notably Marie Granger (Tifani Ahren Davis), a free-spirited artist who captured his heart and then left it in tatters. Also, Clare (Carolyn Schultz) is an EMT worker who is having a hard time living with the rigors of her job. She’s haunted by the people she could not save and turned to drinking to self-medicate. She tries to get her life back on track by putting herself out there and discovering more of who she is.

After is a movie I would not be primed to enjoy that much based upon my own artistic tastes, namely a very earnest ode to the deeply felt, prosaic works of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life). With that in mind, if you are a lover of Malick’s divisive films (I’m not a fan) then I think you’ll find a recognizable artistic ambition worth celebrating in After. Being loosely plotted means much is meant to be felt through the experience, the combination of the images building off the next, a tone poem of contemplation. It follows a dream logic and either you can immerse yourself in the overall experience or you’ll be left waiting. The very Malick-styled cinematography by Gil Whitney (The Street Where We Live) makes the colors look lush, the outdoors inviting, and the spaces around characters cavernous to communicate distances and isolation. The special effect sequences present arresting visuals exploring Charles’ mind fraying. There was one shot where Clare woke up from post-sex activities and her hair is magnificently arranged. It’s a little detail but it did not go unnoticed, and that kind of doting care is evident in many of the shot compositions and dreamy visual aesthetics. There’s a gorgeous shot over a cityscape of Cincinnati that evokes a romantic mood worthy of cinema. This is a nice looking movie and the actors are putting in strong uniform efforts. It’s a man’s life uncovered as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, and putting the pieces together is part of the fun. Adult Charles has to learn about responsibilities, what it means to be a man, and the consequences of letting others in, of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and having your heart broken. If I had to surmise a theme I would say it’s about the unexpected detours and unintended consequences of life, the longer effects of our choices bringing opportunity even in our many failures on this Earth.

After is so sincere and radiating with big emotions that I felt rotten for not being moved more. It’s a pleasant film that wears its mighty heart on its sleeve, has strong visuals and technical attributes, and skilled actors, so why was I thwarted from being more engaged? After some time and searching, I think it has to do with the underdeveloped plot structure and with a character that is given undue attention.

I started questioning whose movie this was with the divided focus, and Clare was not justifying her presence and the time spent with her. It’s almost like they’re co-leads that the film keeps cutting back and forth with; however, you keep waiting for her larger relevance to make itself known. Because why would the life of the EMT on the scene after the death of the supposed protagonist be worth this much attention? So we keep waiting for something more to be revealed but the character is unfortunately too underdeveloped, formed from customary cues of people suffering from Heavy Life Things (alcoholism, depression, poor social interaction, haunted by the ones she cannot save). She’s established early as being something of a zombie sleepwalking through life but this characterization is more stopping point than starting point. Even when she starts an awkward romance with a police officer we’re waiting for movement, change, some new insight into the character, and when that doesn’t arrive the question becomes even more pertinent over why exactly this character is absorbing so much precious screen time.

The non-linear narrative structure has some elegant visual symbolism but also feels somewhat underutilized. The framing device is Charles lying mortally wounded in a dirty alley, his life flashing before his eyes, reviewing the Big Moments. This is also mixed in with Clare, who conflicts with the framing device until the very end of the film reveals how these specific pieces snap together. I think if this story had been told chronologically it would be more obvious how the eventual purpose of our depressed and haunted EMT was mostly for the impact of the eventual reveal. It’s masking the reality that she’s more a plot device than a person, a lesson to be learned. If a character is given the second most screen time and is mostly here as a reflection or foil to the lead then it’s hard for them to stand on their own. Because of all of this, whenever the film kept coming back to Clare and her life I felt like it was intruding on more interesting plotlines.

I was hoping the film would take the bones of its story and put them to more use. A dash of something a little high-concept could have juiced the appeal and mystery, like a simple time travel element that provides even more stakes for an out-of-time man looking back over his confusing life. That opens more narrative possibilities for the ages of the Charles character at various points in his life, plus it would also naturally start to bleed memories into one another, allowing the repetition to provide more intriguing insight. Speaking of bleeding memories, I thought what if the framing device remains and it’s almost an Eternal Sunshine-style internal recount of one man’s life. Charles could literally be retreating into the safe confines of his old memories, chased by the hooded mugger who represents Death. Finally, rather than running away, he confronts the mugger and accepts his fate, accepts passing away, and cherishes the life he’s had. Or if you wanted something more conventional, then explore the unexpected relationship with the young fan (Tisha Michele Hanley) who is the only person to appear at Charles’ latest book signing, an unexpected older/younger friendship that could inform both of them. After is a concept with possibility but it feels more a corralling of various story elements than a fully formed story.

The acting is relatively strong throughout the production, able to sell those big feelings pulsating out like ripples. The three Charles Jr.’s all perform ably. The youngest, Trevor Bush, only has one scene but makes his character felt. It’s inaccurate to say all Sleeman (Those Who Kill) does is spend half the movie lying on his back. Much of his performance is inherently nonverbal through alternating awed and fearful expressions, and Sleeman communicates the years of regret and joy with aplomb. He has a wry sense of hard-won wisdom to him. Nye (Harvest Lake) shows quite a bit of range as the adult version of Charles, going big during key dramatic moments and very insular during the fallout. Nye’s at his best when he’s with his best scene partner, Bridgette Kreuz (Perennial) as his “little sister” Colleen. The two have a very easy chemistry to them that sells their sibling bond. Kreuz reminded me of Portia Doubleday from Mr. Robot, a strong woman peeking out behind a deceptively gentle exterior. Kreuz can communicate so much through her tremulous eyes. The older “little sister” (big little sister? Old little sister?) played by Heather Caldwell (The Turn Out) is given much of the exposition being a therapist tying together the two main characters. She covers the exposition hurdles with grace. The two biggest female roles are enhanced from the talents of the actresses imbuing what is absent from the page. Schultz (Prism) is suitably harried and unsure of herself as Clare, and Davis (Clever Girl) is suitably charming without slipping into full Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode as Marie Granger. The movie rightfully treats Davis as an ethereal spirit worth remembering for the rest of one’s life on this Earth.

I want to single out a few supporting actors who do incredible feats with less. Ralph Scott (Stitches) is a blessing. The man is capable of communicating such emotion with subtlety, which is why his few scenes registered so much for me. He’s coaching his son, Charles Jr., on a very mournful day. His son asks why his father isn’t sad, and in the subtleties of facial glimpses, Scott shows you the sadness he’s keeping at bay, the pained recognition, and then the character must move onward, for his sake and his son’s. It’s the performance that does the most with the smallest amount in the movie. Also of striking note is Hanley (Bong of the Living Dead) as the awkward and adoring fan at the bookshop. Her performance is so natural, stripped of any overt actorly artifices, and the character seems pleasant and hopeful, that I wanted more scenes with her and her character. Hanley left such an impression that I was rewriting the story in my head to get her more involved.

After is a movie that wants to make people think and feel, and for many it will have this desired effect. It’s powerfully earnest and well-intended, a loving recreation of the Terrence Malick spiritual aesthetic of art and reality, and a movie with important things to say. The underdeveloped story occasionally gets sucked up into the power of the visuals, though I believe much is meant to be communicated from the poetic imagery. It’s a conscious choice that I don’t think helps the greater story and characters but that’s also because Terrence Malick’s ponderous poetic interludes are not my kind of movies. While I don’t feel like the finished film is the best version of its own story, the completed movie showcases the hard work and sincerity of many artists. After is an tribute to the burgeoning film scene in Columbus, Ohio and its many talents. Look for it with festivals in the future.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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