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Donnie Darko (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 26, 2001:

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Reagan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.

One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”

Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey-type rabbit.

The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.

Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.

Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.

Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Not to sound too annoying, but I’ll cash in my hipster points here and declare that I was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon from the start. The eventual cult phenom was originally released in October 2001, mere weeks removed from 9/11, dooming its commercial appeal considering a major plot point happens to involve deadly airline debris. I was a sophomore in college across from a little indie movie theater, the Drexel, that was like a wonderful escape for a budding cinephile looking for his next fix of weird and daring movie experiences. I recall seeing the trailer for Donnie Darko and being immediately intrigued, but its release date kept bouncing back month after month until it finally opened at the Drexel in February 2002, and I was there opening day. I saw it twice, brought friends with me, and I wrote about it as one of my earliest reviews as my college newspaper’s film critic. I wanted to get the word out that this was something special. The first day it was available on DVD, I went to Best Buy looking for a copy and the store employee was deeply confused about its existence. He probably knows now, as the movie achieved cult status on DVD and became an iconic indie fixture for many a Millennial.

Revisiting the films of 2001 has been reliving many films that made such formative impacts on my life: Memento and its airtight structural sleight-of-hand, Moulin Rouge and its ambitious and messy celebration of old, new, reverent and irreverent, and now Donnie Darko (this isn’t even counting films I never wrote reviews for and thus were ineligible for this re-watch, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Amelie – 2001 was an excellent year at the movies). I have probably watched this movie more than any other in the 2000s, with the late exception perhaps of The Room that came on strong for me at the end. My friends and I would debate it, quote it, and work toward bringing others into the cult of Darko. Looking back now twenty years, I’m happy to report the movie’s power is still just as alluring and transcendental. What earned this movie its fawning fandom? Why did writer/director Richard Kelly, only in his early 20s, find success with his weird little indie while others went painfully ignored? I think it comes down to Kelly’s ambiguous approach, threading a delicate needle so that there are enough pieces present to put together an interpretation that can prove satisfying while personal and potentially different from your friend or neighbor with an equally valid interpretation.

What helps is that Donnie Darko doesn’t feel like it’s weird for weird’s sake, like a formless collection of strange ideas and confounding imagery operating on an unknowable surreal dream logic. What Kelly has done is mix and match parts of an intriguing apocalyptic puzzle. There’s relatable high school drama about pushing back against the hypocrites and phonies of the adult world, there’s a mystery about who or what is behind Frank the bunny, the creepy otherworldly figure serving as Donnie’s Virgil-like guide, and the character study of a lonely, troubled kid trying to find a better sense of understanding of himself, his place in the world, and his sense of what lies beyond. I could just as readily view Donnie Darko as a spiritual refresher, and I’ve always sided more with a divine interpretation than sci-fi. Donnie and his therapist talk about the question over God’s existence and Donnie says he doesn’t feel like he can get anywhere debating it, so he has simply agreed to give up. Donnie talks about dying alone and how if everyone is resigned to do so then this must be a condemnation of God. Kelly establishes these early conditions as the beginning of an arc that leads to Donnie not just accepting a messianic status but volunteering for one, dying alone but in a manner that serves as victory. This to me is why he laughs at the end after being transported back to a fateful spot. He rolls over in his bed and closes his eyes knowing an end for him is not an end but a vindication (the honking from Frank the second time serving as a “we did it” victory celebration). Through his sacrifice, the world will continue (“I hope when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”). Through bizarre circumstances, a young man has found spiritual renewal, bringing him to a personal fulfillment as well as the larger picture of averting a looming apocalypse for a tangent world.

This has been my preferred reading of Donnie Darko, with divine forces selecting Donnie as the universe’s lone hero and mysteriously guiding him along his journey, each intervention and urging from Frank leading to the culmination of events that would convince Donnie of his duty. When Donnie is talking to Frank the bunny in an empty movie theater (playing a double feature of Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ, one of my favorite jokes), he asks Frank, “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” Frank turns and asks, “Why do you wear that stupid man suit?” Under my interpretation, Frank is a supernatural force, call it an angel or whatever you want, but he is not human and only using the form of a doomed man as a necessary vessel. When Donnie breaks into his school and breaks the water main, under the hypnotic control of Frank’s urging, we see that the vandal has also spray-painted “They made me do it” on the school mascot. The school and police go class-by-class and have students rewrite the phrase on a chalkboard, analyzing their handwriting. Donnie’s handwriting is clearly different. Could it be that Donnie, under the influence of Frank, also wrote as him, adopting his handwriting? With that, perhaps instead of Donnie writing a would-be confession it was actually Frank. “They made me do it,” Frank writes in apology to Donnie, not just for prodding him along but ultimately for the pain and suffering the real Frank of this world will cause for Donnie. “I’m sorry that all of this has to happen to you, Donnie. It wasn’t my choice. They made me do it for their plan.” I think that’s a more intriguing examination than Donnie just saying he was told to flood the school by his imaginary friend.

This is one reason why I was not a big fan of Kelly’s eventual director’s cut DVD release in 2004, which added twenty minutes to the film and changed many edits, song choices, and special effects sequences. The director’s cut went too far for me, specifically spelling out Kelly’s vision of time travelers from the future trying to coach Donnie as their variable. Whole sections from Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, were printed on screen, explicitly connecting the various pieces in a way that had previously been left as ambiguous. My disappointment with the director’s cut reminded me of the disappointment Star Wars fans felt when George Lucas went back and tinkered with the original trilogy. Lucas has said the re-releases were the films he had always intended them to be, that the earlier theatrical editions were the imperfect versions of his creative intentions. The problem is that millions fell in love with those versions of the movie, even if they were an imperfect vision of their creator. Richard Kelly always intended for the opening song to be INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” but hearing that felt wrong to me after watching the same scene played to Echo and the Bunnyman’s “The Killing Moon” with the theatrical cut. Kelly’s imperfect version was the one I fell in love with, the one that spoke to me as a 19-year-old and as a 39-year-old, and that’s the one I vastly prefer.

Another reason for Donnie Darko’s success is more than likely the appeal and performance of young Jake Gyllenhaal. Over twenty years, Gyllenhaal has become one of the best actors of his generation and criminally overlooked by the Academy. He’s only been nominated for one Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, not for 2017’s Stronger, or 2007’s Zodiac, or, most egregiously, for his hypnotically disturbing portrayal in 2014’s Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has mesmerized for so long and handles the many confusing aspects of Donnie with aplomb. It would be easy to play Donnie as a cliched rebellious teenager, but Gyllenhaal really digs into his questioning nature; he’s hungry for answers, desperate even, and tired of being disappointed in the adults of his life. That’s why it becomes emotionally satisfying for me when Donnie appears to achieve some semblance of answers by the end, his laughter is victorious and cathartic.

Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific but the rest of the cast is outstanding. This was the first time I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Donnie’s older sister, one year before her star-making turn in 2002’s Secretary (stay tuned, 2022). Jena Malone (The Hunger Games sequels) was a remarkably downhearted presence, able to imbue teenage heartache and unease so preternaturally. Ever since her role as the snitty, judgmental gym teacher Kitty Farmer, I perk up whenever I see Beth Grant in a movie or show. To this day I still consider her wondrous line reading of, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” to be one of the greatest achievements in mankind’s history. Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) has two scenes that still get me as Donnie’s mother, where she fights back tears at the suggestion of Donnie’s therapist to up his medication as doing what she thinks is right for her son, and a final scene with that same son where she responds to his query that having a “weirdo for a son” is, in fact, wonderful. The parental care and empathy that she exudes is poignant. I still laugh when Holmes Osborne, as Donnie’s father, cannot contain his inappropriate titter to hearing about his son’s vulgar outburst directed at Ms. Farmer. The adult actors (Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle) all got the bigger headlines at the time, but it’s these actors that have stayed with me the most.

With so many people being launched into success and acclaim from this movie, it’s a sad surprise that Richard Kelly himself was never able to recreate his winning alchemy. He wrote the shooting draft for 2005’s Domino, a needlessly excessive and irritating movie. His big follow-up, 2008’s Southland Tales, was a disaster at the Cannes Film Festival and Kelly cut a half-hour before it was ultimately released stateside to head-scratching. I was eagerly anticipating Southland Tales and then I watched it and minute-by-minute the sinking realization set in that this was not going anywhere and anytime soon. It was like Kelly was trying to throw every dispirit idea he ever had into one movie for fear he’d never make another. I haven’t re-watched it since and feel no need to do so. The last movie Kelly directed was 2009’s The Box, an adaption of the William Matheson short story featured on newer incarnations of The Twilight Zone. It too failed at the box-office, suffered from a confusing and muddled narrative, and from there Kelly was radioactive to Hollywood. He hasn’t a credit to his name since. With each directorial effort, you can feel Kelly trying to recreate that formula from Darko, bringing the different weird pieces and tones together by the end to form a satisfying mosaic open to interpretation. Southland and The Box both feel over-extended, strained, and cluttered with too much salient junk. I truly wish Kelly has another shot to tell a big screen story after everything he’s been through. I’m sure he has more stories to tickle our brains. Maybe he just needs an editorial guidance.

The other thing of curious note is that a sequel, S. Darko, was released in 2009 starring Donnie’s little sister Samantha, played by Daveigh Chase (The Ring). It’s not very good at all and strains to be an imitation of its predecessor, right down to Samantha having to be the sacrifice to go back in time and save her friend’s life. Kelly had nothing to do with the sequel, which was written by Nate Adkins, who would go onto create the Netflix franchise, The Christmas Prince. There is nothing of note in this cash-grab of a sequel to even reward your curiosity in watching it.

Donnie Darko was a movie I loved when I originally saw it and I’m happy so many others were able to become fans and share the good news of Darko. I’m happy this movie exists and has stuck with me all these years. It’s still transporting and invigorating and funny and soulful and tantalizing. I still love the lilt of Michael Andrews’ minimalist score. I love the scene of Donnie reaching out to Cherita Chen, the target of rampant bullying, to promise her one day everything will be better for her. I still get fascinated by the instant-iconic design of that Frank the bunny mask, an image that has lead to thousands of Halloween costume imitations. My original review was more driven by distilling its plot so that I could hook a reader into making the trip for themselves. Otherwise, my thoughts remain relative the same in twenty years of reflection. This is a gem of a movie that was never really recreated by its creator, which makes it all the more remarkable and special. If you haven’t joined the cult of Donnie Darko, there’s no time like the present, folks.

Re-View Grade: A

The Green Knight (2021)

The Green Knight is an indie drama heavy on atmosphere and mood and a little lax on pacing, falling into yet another A24 discrepancy between critics and audiences. Much like the contentious differences of opinion over It Comes at Night and Hereditary, it seems like general audiences are a little more indifferent to hostile for this arty release than the critics. Maybe they were expecting something more conventional, which is a mistake considering it’s written and directed by David Lowery, who has dabbled in a studio sphere (Pete’s Dragon, the upcoming Disney Peter Pan remake) but seems more at home with introspective, quiet, occasionally overly obtuse art-house pictures, the kind like 2016’s A Ghost Story where Rooney Mara eats a pie for ten minutes (I will never forget this puzzling movie moment). It’s not surprising then that The Green Knight would be a polarizing film of differing expectations. It’s got good graces, an artistic vision, and a preponderance on atmosphere that can feel a little strained at points.

Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew to the King of England (Sean Harris). He longs to be accepted as a respected knight but he has no adventures to his name. Then one Christmas, a Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters the kingdom and challenges any daring knight to a game. That knight can inflict whatever blow or mark upon him, but then the Green Knight will return the exact favor in one year’s time. Full of bravado, Gawain takes mighty Excalibur and decapitates the Green Knight. Turns out the knight is not dead. He only picks up his fallen head and promises that in one year, he’ll deliver the same to Gawain. The months pass and Gawain is drinking and sleeping away his last remaining time before finally accepting to meet his fate. He rides out of Camelot in search of the Green Knight and perhaps a solution out of his predicament.

Where The Green Knight excels is with the distillation of mood and myth-making while not losing sight on its own sense of humanity. This is an Arthurian legend that is potentially a thousand years old, and when it comes to big screen adventures steeped in the mythology of cultures, it’s easy to get swept up in the fantasy spectacle of monsters and heroism. The vulnerability of the heroes is often cast aside to provide further attention to the grandiosity of the experience and entertainment. Lowery positions his movie from the perspective of an eager naïf yearning for a proper adventure to bring him respect and legacy, but he’s also a scared young man who is dreading the worst possible outcome that could be his only outcome. As Gawain sets off on his quest, he sets off proud, striding along his horse, not looking back at his home as he rides off to face his destiny, and then he’s immediately beset by treachery that removes the pristine shine off the tales of old. He’s taken advantage of by highway robbers and placed at an even greater risk of failure. As the movie progresses, Gawain becomes more and more anxious about the potential of getting himself out of his predicament. It truly seems like he’s marching off to meet his executioner, and that realization forces him to quickly adapt into the heroic mold he’s been aspiring for, the legendary knight, bold and brave and meeting death square in the eye. That sounds good in theory but it’s a lot harder to realize in real life. If any one of us, dear reader, knew that our lives were coming to an end with certainty, summoning the courage to meet that would be a herculean effort, and many of us would crumble under the pressure. It all doesn’t seem like enough time. This is what I appreciated throughout The Green Knight. It has its weird, atmospheric mythology and fantasy elements, but it also grounds the drama in relatable and nervous human emotions.

Where the movie goes astray, at least for me, is the time it devotes to achieving its poetic atmosphere. This is a two hour-plus movie that feels every bit of it, even if you’re enraptured by all the pretty style and ponderous pontificating. That’s because the movie is very episodic by nature, which at least breaks it up into manageable chunks each with something new to draw our attention, but it also makes it feel like less is being earned or amassed. In one segment, Gawain rescues the head of a ghostly woman (Erin Kellyman). In another segment, this one quite awkward to experience, he is tempted by both the lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander) of a household, keeping his vow while something most distracting is taking place simultaneously. Another segment has Gawain interacting with giants, including one breastfeeding a little giant. There’s also a fox who occasionally talks and tries to plead with Gawain to turn away from meeting the Green Knight. I suppose if you’re being charitable you could surmise each of these stops is like a test of his skills of knighthood, from compassion to chastity to dedication, but it feels less like an accumulation and more like Lowery is simply finding time to explore other weird offshoots of this crazy fantasy medieval world.

A term I first used describing the films of Nicolas Winding Refn (Neon Demon), a filmmaker I’m not particularly fond of, is the use of empty space, where the narrative feels stretched out and the audience is intended to provide that extra level of meaning for the dead air. To me, it’s narrative forfeiture. The Green Knight could have been trimmed down, it could have been reordered, it could have been given more specific meaning, but that would potentially detract from its tone poem qualities. If that cinematic sensation works for you, and you fall under the film’s sway, then congrats. If you’re looking for more or at least more meaning in the plot and chain of events, then you’re going to be left grasping for more significance. Sometimes things just feel put into the movie because, beyond all else, it’s simply cool. That’s fine, though I found too many of the asides to be lacking once the initial obstacle was established. Lowery has a larger thesis under the surface about environmental awareness considering the Green Knight is literally made of wood and plants, he goes out to the forest to live on his throne amongst the wilderness, and there’s even an extended fiery monologue by Vikander about the enduring power of “green” and how it will outlive us all and grow over our corpses (if you were being pedantic, you could argue that all color will outlive us as I doubt there will be a nightmare future without, say, the color orange). The larger thesis, however, doesn’t feel supported by the asides and episodes of Gawain. I guess it’s about thinking of the consequences of our actions and, in a way, proportionality or response. Maybe more people would reconsider their carbon footprint if nature was going to cut off their heads as a consequence of using too many plastic straws. Maybe.

Where Lowery’s plot and ambition do come together, thankfully, is with his conclusion, which I will spoil in the following two paragraphs. In the original Medieval legend, Gawain meets the Green Knight who proves to be the lord of the manor in disguise. The man playfully chides Gawain for flinching and wearing a sash he felt would spare him of harm. He then says Gawain is “the most blameless knight in all the land,” which makes little sense, and then Gawain joins the other knights, and they all have a big laugh about the jape played on Gawain. That’s not exactly a satisfying ending and takes away any personal growth Gawain might have earned. In the movie, the Green Knight is for real. Gawain initially lowers his head, trying to summon the courage to meet his death, but he flees and apologizes, escaping the Knight’s retribution.

In a nearly wordless epilogue, we watch Gawain’s life over the course of decades, inheriting the throne, siring an heir, abandoning the mother, leading his people to war, losing his son, and eventually being such a disliked leader that his own people revolt including his own family members. All the while he wears that magical sash to thwart his own demise. This epilogue is revealed to be a flash forward for Gawain, who returns to the moment of consequence with the Green Knight. Rather than flee his fate, he now chooses to accept it, to avoid this future where Gawain goes down a path of corruption and neglect. Better to die now than become a cruel despot that will harm others. He even removes the sash. It is here where the Green Knight finally acknowledges Gawain with respect. It’s this ending that really hits home the themes and the character arc for Gawain. He’s become a knight worthy of legend but has no audience, and is choosing to have no audience, to die alone rather than live in infamy. He’s found his sense of bravery at long last because of his fear of what avoiding his fate will cost. It’s an ending that feels earned and when the Green Knight is giving him an “atta boy” you want to join in.

The Green Knight is going to be a different experience for each viewer depending upon your patience for ambiguity and pacing. I found myself at points marveling over the mood and visual style of Lowery’s vision, and at other points I found myself getting restless with the episodic side quests and the stalled character development. It all comes together by the end with a finale that really cements Lowery’s big ideas and drives homes the personal journey of Gawain. It’s all a mixture of bold and beautiful and a little bit boring.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nine Days (2021)

Oddly enough, over the course of less than a year, we now have two movies about young souls competing to find their sense of self before being born. Will (Winston Duke) lives in a small cottage in the middle of the desert. Or so it would appear. He’s a former human who now serves as a spirit who watches over the lives of a select group of others on Earth through P.O.V. monitors. After a car accident, one of his people is killed, leaving a new opening. It’s Will’s job to interview a group of candidates and determine who is best equipped to handle being born. Will takes the process very seriously but he is also more emotionally affected by the loss of life under his guidance than he admits. Where did he go wrong, or is right and wrong even the right markers for assessment? Will must choose wisely over nine days of deliberation and insight into what it means to be human and what it means to live.

Nine Days is a tender and thoughtful movie that has much under the surface given its metaphysical context and probing questions about spirituality, identity, and existence, but it doesn’t simply rely upon the artistic weight of ambiguity. There’s a genuinely involving emotional drama here that’s accessible while offering greater depth to be unpacked by the viewer who enjoys metaphor and implication and debate. At its essence, the movie is about a series of job interviews but for a position that we don’t fully understand what the requirements are and if even meeting the requirements is enough for the hire. It’s a primarily dialogue-driven procedure but it’s also character-focused as the entire process examines what animates Will, what haunts him, and why he does what he does. Early on, the surreal nature of what should be an ordinary event, job candidates interviewing with a boss, gives the movie an air of mystery and offbeat humor. The candidates are showing up, going through a series of questions and role play scenarios, and with each session, the candidates evolve into the personas that will define them. There’s something mildly profound about watching the development of an identity before it’s even been born. As the movie progresses, Will turns down candidates and the news is truly devastating. Not only will these spirits/souls miss out on being born on Earth, they will cease to ever exist and fade away. That is some heavy stuff. Watching each one come to terms with that sort of death can be heartrending. Just imagining having to accept the end before life ever even began.

Rather than simply fade away into the blank of nothingness, Will chooses to help these souls get one last moment of peace before their ultimate end. He becomes a celestial one-man Make-A-Wish spiritual service. It’s unknown whether these “positive memories” are from the souls’ own development or their observation of the souls that have been placed on Earth. Regardless, each rejected candidate gets a moment that Will studiously recreates as an act of kindness. This section can be rather moving as each soul gets a personal sendoff and, in those final moments to savor, we watch them become affected with the generosity and the fleeting moment of life that will be tragically denied to them. One candidate climbs aboard a stationary bicycle, and Will positions one screen after another, each with projection from that angle of the street. When taken together, it creates the illusion of a nice bicycle ride through a town square. The homemade production, even sprinkling cherry blossoms and a swinging light to illustrate a traveling through a tunnel, provide small moments of affectionate conviction. I found each of these moments to be emotionally rich and beautifully rendered on screen. The care and craft Will puts into these acts is wonderful and a tremendous insight into who he is as a character and what he values in others.

Will is haunted by the idea that he may have been oblivious to the pain of one of his pupils, and this indecision is coloring his interview process for a replacement soul. It’s unclear what exactly Will is, or his boss, or his duties, but he vaguely amounts to a guardian angel. He has a bank of old TVs that he monitors and obsessively documents the lives of a few. He takes particular pride in one soul on Earth and listens to her virtuoso violin playing as a means of personal relaxation. Her sudden death rocks him, and when it’s revealed that she was depressed, he tries to make sense of being able to see and hear everything these souls do but not fully knowing them. Did he get something wrong in his clerical assessment? Did his understanding of her have its limits? Could she have been hiding something so all-consuming without his suspicion? It all upends Will and fosters self-doubt. He’s trying to make sense of something that may not ever make sense. That is how inscrutable human beings can be and how tragically fleeting life can become in an instant.

The other change agent for Will is the presence of Emma (Zazie Beetz), a candidate who shows up late, questions the nature of the questions she is given, and is empathetic to a fault. The other candidates are playing within the rules of Will’s questions but she’s pushing back, and it only makes Will think more and more about her and her aims. I don’t consider it too much of a spoiler that Emma will be one of two final candidates for the open spot for life. Her character causes Will to reassess his own biases, his own way of doing things as they have, and his own conception of himself and what life can be about including how own time spent on Earth, which he likes to remind the others like it’s bragging rights. I suppose one could argue that, yet again, we have a quirky female character in service of teaching the male hero about the importance of embracing life to the fullest, but I think the general makeup of the characters is superfluous to the impact of the story. We’re dealing with spirits taking a physical form here. Their appearance is immaterial to their identity at this point, at least in an otherworldly realm that (hopefully) knows no sexism and racism.

Nine Days is the film debut from commercial director Edson Oda and the movie is utterly gorgeous from a technical standpoint. The photography favors gleaming sunsets and pristine vistas to communicate the exquisiteness and otherworldly plain of existence. The desert landscape is beautifully filmed, and the interiors are also pleasing with their visual arrangements and the mingling of natural and artificial light. Oda won a screenwriting award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and for good measure. This isn’t just a good-looking indie, which it assuredly is, but there is deep melancholy and beauty and transcendence to be had with the very humane and compassionate storytelling trying to get at larger truths about our limited time. The storytelling has plenty of ambiguity and nuance and metaphor, but there’s an accessible core that I believe most viewers can align with and then, if they choose, can discover further meaning. There is a slightly basic “stop and smell the roses” moral, but I found there to be more lyrical beauty at different points that affected me deeper than any condensed message. The conclusion hinges on a recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and it conveys not just Whitman’s celebratory humanism but also taps into Will’s own character arc. The poetic performance itself is an expression with multiple levels, celebrating life in multiple ways, and serving as a heartfelt and personal goodbye. It’s a lovely ending for a lovely little movie.

Nine Days is packed with recognizable acting faces (Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgaard), several of whom have graced Marvel superhero movies (Duke, Beetz, Benedict Wong), and there must have been something compelling for them to all accept this low-budget, contemplative indie about the human condition. It’s a little movie with a lot on its mind but it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. There’s a sturdy foundation to begin with but enough ambiguous room for discussion and debate. It reminds me of 2003’s beguiling, divisive, and highly metaphorical indie Northfork. Both movies are poetic, understated, and deeply involved in human connection and spiritual meaning while providing room for interpretation. There’s plenty here to unpack but even on a literal level the movie works as an emotional experience. I found myself under the gentle sway of Nine Days and its mighty beating heart of humanism that extends even beyond the realm of flesh and blood.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Pig (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: B+

Werewolves Within (2021)

Surprisingly based upon a PlayStation VR video game by Ubisoft, Werewolves Within is a fun horror comedy that plays out like a demented Agatha Christie drawing room mystery. Sam Richardson (The Tomorrow War) is a new park ranger assigned to a small snowy town that may or may not be threatened by a werewolf hiding among the townspeople. A series of bloody murders and mangled gas generators points toward some monstrous beast, and over the course of one long night, characters will accuse one another of being the hidden werewolf, and tensions and paranoia mount as the body count rises. Part of the fun comes from the wild whodunit speculation that the filmmakers are aware of. Early on, I started accumulating my band of suspects, and then my red herring suspects, and the movie seems to be fully knowledgeable of this as well, so there’s plenty of little details spilled that, in an ordinary movie would prove conclusive to the detail-oriented viewer; however, Werewolves Within is full of motivations and clever fleeting details to throw you off. Richardson is wonderfully nonplussed as the supremely nice and easy-going ranger who finds himself frantically trying to be the voice of calm and security as the town breaks down. The supporting characters are rather one-note nutjobs but each has a different personality to sprinkle into the chaotic mix. The eventual reveal of the culprit involves a lot of explaining to cover hidden character deception that could have used more setup to feel less forced. I also wished the humor and the horror was a bit crazier. I knew the horror wasn’t going to be pronounced, as most horror-comedies typically favor one more than the other, but I wished the comedy had escalated as the characters further gave in to the insanity of the ridiculous situation. It’s a movie that’s easy going in charm and finely punctuated with some sharp one-liners and silly visual gags. It’s agreeable to its core and a lighthearted yet gory way to spend 90 minutes. By default, it’s also one of the best video game adaptations made into a movie. That’s primarily because it’s a recognizable murder mystery structure just with a genre kick. I wish everything had been given an extra dose of elevation and hijinks, comedy and horror, but that might detract from the overall droll charm, lead by Richardson. Werewolves Within makes me wish for an anthology franchise just transplanting its premise across new settings. Imagine The Hangover but having to also figure out which of your recovering blackout drunk friends was a werewolf. It just works.

Nate’s Grade: B

Black Mamba (2019)

William X. Lee is an Ohio filmmaker who has found credible success on his own terms and over decades, a fact that deserves celebration. The writer/director knows the business of filmmaking as a genre specialist and has even become an adjunct professor of film at two different universities. With his many years on the fringes of the indie business, I expect Lee has a lot of wisdom about the particulars of the industry and finding a market that is welcoming to content that can be messier in execution. His latest movie in pre-production is called Bulletproof Jesus and, sight unseen, I legitimately love that title with my every fiber. His 2020 film, Black Wolf, literally involves a 58-year-old man having to track down and kill his high school bullies, all of whom miraculously grew up to become terrorists. That sounds hilarious. I believe Lee’s personal story is compelling and acknowledge that genre filmmaking could use more voices and visions from under served perspectives. However, the results on film show indifference or even disdain for accessible storytelling and entertainment value. Black Mamba is a 2019 supernatural action revenge available on Tubi, as many of Lee’s films currently are for free, and it’s indicative of the man’s sense of style and storytelling, both of which I have plenty to talk about in excrutiating detail.

Kyiera Stone (Angela D. Williams) was killed by local criminals. She’s brought back to life by angels who give her a second chance to exact revenge. Kyiera is pitted against an endless assembly line of villains that all want to return Kyiera to her state of decay.

I may sound like a scold, but it is near inexcusable that this movie is two hours long. Far be it from me to instruct a creative how much time they need to tell their story, but you have to think about an audience when you intend a platform for your efforts. What is going to keep someone glued to that screen and justify their investment in every one of your minutes? This is the kind of movie that can barely creak over the 80-minute feature-length finish line, and to push forward to two hours is excessive without an engaging story that needs that extra room to grow.

There is no real plot to speak of beyond our main character coming back to life to wreck vengeance. The movie is patterned after Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself patterned over hundreds of genre movies, but it’s like Lee said, “Well, why stop with five bad guys to overcome when you can have 100!” Black Mamba (also the code name for the lead in Kill Bill) is stuffed to the breaking point with villainous characters and some of them are even being introduced with ten minutes left. The critical hit involves like a half dozen bad guys, and then there are more bad guys, and then hell is introducing its own bad guys, and then there’s like a fighting champion from hell, and witches, and I stopped caring because every scene played out exactly the same. The settings may vary, the person might be different, though with a cast list of rogues as long as this one good luck keeping them straight, but the scene plays out exactly the same. Some evil character gets the jump on Kyiera and within a minute she will kill them. That’s it. That’s all there ever is in these confrontations, many of which are hilariously short-lived. At no point will you fear or doubt Kyiera because she never seems to be in danger of losing. It makes the entire two hours extremely boring and repetitive. It also makes the majority of its two hours expendable. Rare is a two-hour movie where I could legitimately say that you could cut it down by 90 minutes, and yet that is the case with Black Mamba. It’s a movie of treading water.

Some of this could be mitigated by providing characters with big personalities, memorable flaws or quirks, or even interesting killing utensils, but Black Mamba feels more like a ramshackle improv fest where actors are entering scenes as “characters” with props or costumes they just assembled off-screen. I love genre movies and I love the way characters can be written for genre. Watch the TV series Justified because it is a masterclass in writing for character. Every character, even the bit-part villain of the week, is written with a distinct voice, an identifiable trait, an angle, something to make them stand out and feel more like a flesh-and-blood person in the stylized, hard-boiled universe of the show. The movie’s extended running time could have devoted scenes to showing why we should fear certain characters, their killing techniques that we would then anticipate seeing how they are applied to our heroine. Think of every movie you can with crazy killers and you see them apply their killer skills early because that’s how you get to fear them. Just being told, “so and so is deadly,” without seeing them in action is dull. In Black Mamba, often characters are over explaining things for the sake of the audience or seeming to narrate what is happening on screen. The dialogue is filled with profanity because it feels like nobody knew what else to say from scene to scene. There aren’t any tense exchanges and showdowns or clashes of viewpoints. It’s all just yelling, boasts, and non-clever insults.

The story doesn’t make much sense. There are angels that bring back Kyiera because it’s “not her time,” but then they want to use her in a celestial war? Was she lied to by the higher authorities in order to manipulate into an ongoing and endless war between heaven and hell? Is this a high-concept version of Munich and Kyiera is being used to perpetuate endless conflict regardless over culpability? No, well at least I doubt it. The larger workings beyond our heroine are left vague and seemingly shifting. The first thirty minutes could have been consolidated to ten to introduce the premise of Kyiera dying and being resurrected, but then there’s nary a section that couldn’t be consolidated, like the litany of interchangeable supporting characters.

Can you tell there are three people in this scene?

Halfway through the movie, we suddenly jump to hell and it doesn’t really alter the direction of the story but only provides more witnesses to commentate on the action. This is where Esmerelda comes in. She’s the queen of hell and played by Dawna Lee Heising, a 65-year-old actress who got her (un-credited) start as a stripper in Blade Runner and has a long list of campy T&A roles in low-budget genre fare. She feels like the production’s big “get” and so she gets a lot of unnecessary screen time. The character is annoying and the entire addition of hell as an environment feels tacked-on. I thought I knew who the big bad final boss was, and then hell is introduced with its own cadre of damned killers, and I didn’t know who the final boss should be. There’s no feeling of a direct line for Kyiera’s goals. Think again to Kill Bill as a prominent example. She had a small list, each name crossed off brought her closer to her biggest target, but each became harder to accomplish and more personally reverent as she climbed the ladder of revenge. There was a feeling of progression and payoff as The Bride worked through her bloody vengeance. With Black Mamba, she’s inundated with one face after another, but you never feel progression because the movie only feels like it’s stuck in a Sisyphean loop of disposable foes. The structure of this movie doesn’t have the groundwork to provide forward momentum.

The first thing you’ll notice about Black Mamba right away is the choice to up the contrast so high that it may hurt your eyes at time. There are times where the color contrast is so extreme that it obfuscates what is happening on screen. You’ll see faces disappear into shadow in a room, and not in a way that feels intentionally ominous, and every time a character is driving outside it looks like an atomic bomb is going off in the background. It’s chiefly a distraction and an ugly one and one that feels like it was done to make the footage look more like a grungy grindhouse movie of old. Going for a specific visual aesthetic is a fine marker, but when it harms the clarity of what is happening then maybe it’s worth revisiting. There are simple things that could have been done to better orient the viewer. The color contrasts and color palette could have better been paired with specific locations so that the audience knows exactly where they were or whose story they were following, much like in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. We even literally have the denizens of hell as one frequent setting, so why not crank the contrast high and more fiery in colors, favoring oranges and reds, and then go for a cooler color palette for action on Earth? Or even have a section that isn’t contrasted to death? It’s a stylistic choice that grates severely.

I would be forgiving of some of the obvious technical limitations for a low-budget indie aiming for the feel of other classic low-budget indies, except that, reportedly, Black Mamba had a budget of $250,000. When I read that I burst out in incredulous laughter. Maybe it was a decimal error, or maybe Lee was very generous and paid his sizeable cast and minimal crew handsomely, or maybe there are other reasons why a quarter of a million dollars does not, in the slightest, look to have been translated onto the finished product. Where did all that money actually go?

I’ve been watching enough micro-budget indies in my pursuit of reviewing homegrown cinema that I feel more adept at better gauging a potential budget. There are locations to consider, though Black Mamba seems to reuse a lot of empty warehouses, alleyways, and church parking lots, and there is action to consider, though Black Mamba uses a lot of plug-in special effects and limited fight choreography, and there are actors to consider, which Black Mamba has in excess, and there is the general professionalism of the look and sound of the movie, which Black Mamba is definitely lacking. There are persistent sound issues (the louder yelling is so screechy and high-pitched that I had to cover my ears) and there is a dearth of editing coverage. Apart from the fight scenes, it feels like every scene was designed with one shot in mind to connect directly to the next. This can make things awkward in conversations that would flow better with alternate angles rather than one person with their back to the camera or in extreme close-up. I geuss it just didn’t matter or they didn’t have the time, and yet with the budget being reportedly a quarter of a million dollars? This movie feels far more like a $10,000 budget indie than $250,000. To be blunt, I have watched movies with budgets under $15,000 look and sound much better than this quarter-million-dollar movie.

I thought about watching other Lee original movies available on Tubi but I only watched about 15 minutes each of 2017’s Six Feet Below Hell, 2016’s King Killer, and 2008’s Kill Every Last One. I don’t think I could take watching all of these movies even for objective review purposes, each of which appears to have the same faults and high contrast value as Black Mamba (one of those films is an astounding 133 minutes long!). While designed to be sold, these movies do not feel designed to actually be watched and enjoyed. There are no real characters to fall in love with, conflicts to draw intrigue, or well-developed plots to thrill and surprise. These movies feel like empty product to line an endless array of schlock DVD shelves.

This brings me to my final complaint registered at Black Mamba. More than halfway through the movie, yet another character is introduced, this time a formidable fighting champ from hell. Upon hearing the man’s name, the queen of hell falls onto the floor and begins gyrating in pleasure, moaning the man’s name and declaring him to be an amazing god among men. This character is played by none other than… the writer/director himself. I almost walked away from the movie at that point. It’s difficult to critique something like Black Mamba. The people involved don’t seem to have any aspirations that what they were making was serious, and yet maybe they should have taken it more seriously. Because of the punishing two-hour length, because of the repetitive and stretched thin plot, because of the over population of unmemorable and disposable characters, because of the technical flaws that still persist after a decade of filmmaking, because of the lack of accessibility for providing an engaging story and characters for an outside audience, and because of its reportedly sizeable budget, I regret to deliver my first failing grade for an Ohio-made indie. I wish Mr. Lee and his team well but this is assuredly a case where if you’ve seen one of the man’s movies, you’ve seen every one of the man’s movies, and unless you were in these movies, you shouldn’t watch them even for irony.

Nate’s Grade: F

Holler (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: C+

Immortal Combat: The Code (2020)

In many ways, the Cleveland-made indie Immortal Combat feels like a bigger version of what a bunch of little kids might accomplish with a camera, a backyard, a bunch of pretend weapons, and a lively imagination fed from martial arts epics and actions movies of old. There is a certain charm to it, escaping into the pure play of childhood, including wrist devices that are merely tapping your bare wrist, but as an actual movie, it might have some problems. Look, this is a martial arts action movie. You watch a martial arts action movie to be entertained with the feats of action, and that’s what you should be looking for with any movie with “combat” in the title (albeit in a misguided font that looks like a child’s chalk). On that front, Immortal Combat is flawed but still passable entertainment, though it feels like a project that was never intended to entertain more than its own select cast and crew.

Neil (Ben Zgorecki) is a member of the villainous Four 11 gang. He’s tasked with infiltrating the rival Five Elements gang but he turns against his former gang. The Five Elements have come into possession of a code that will save humanity from environmental disasters. The world is running low on breathable air and implantable medical devices are malfunctioning. The gangs are going to war to control this code and thus control the trajectory for mankind’s future.

The performers have physical skills they have honed over years, and director Johnny K. Wu (Innserself) emphasizes angles and cuts to fully appreciate those skills. There are extended shots where you can admire how much the performers practiced and memorized their routines. However, that deference also comes at the expense of the vitality of the action as depicted on screen. Because we’re at a medium range or farther distance, because there are longer takes, we’re watching the actors perform and realizing just how slow everyone is with their pacing. Without quicker cuts, the energy level of these fights comes across as too often lackluster, with many of the fighters just kind of hanging around and treating these battles as less life and death and more like a grocery aisle they cannot commit to. I can appreciate someone doing a fancy spin kick from a technical standpoint, but it feels less impressive when everyone else around them seems gassed or drugged in response. There is a lot of fighting in Immortal Combat but the editing and staging choices make it feel less believable, exciting, and potent. That’s why it feels like a bunch of grown-up kids running around, falling over, and continuing their pretend fighting rather than something, say, along the lines of a John Wick, an action franchise that is built around the appeal of expertly executed fight choreography.

The plot of Immortal Combat, written by Wu, Andras Zoid, and Linda Robertson, ignores the first rule of hidden conspiracies and alternate fantasies, which is to shepherd your audience gradually and not to make assumptions. I see this plenty of times with fantasy films that incorrectly assume an audience has as much understanding as the filmmakers do about the histories of their world, the intricacies, the rules and challenges, etc. A new world, or a conspiracy, needs to be unraveled slowly and in pieces to be accessible, to not overwhelm the audience. We need the right components as if they were building blocks, creating a sturdy foundation to attach new information and new rules and lessons. If you have a mysterious Chosen One, you don’t vomit up every last bit of expositional know-how right away, you have to draw things out at a natural, inclined pace. With Immortal Combat, we have an entry point into this new world through the rather non-intimidating character Neil (a.k.a. “Cloud”). He’s our learning curve. The problem is that Neil just runs with any information at once and this presents a confusing overload. The world of Immortal Combat resembles ours except there are martial arts gangs, some of them with elemental powers, or at least names, and a vast corporate conspiracy with implanted medical devices and environmental disaster, but the communication of these elements is so muddled that I kept having to rewind the movie to try and follow. Take the opening narration as an example:

“IN OUR future, one simple breath could mean life or death. As we search for a solution, pollution engulfs our world. If we don’t find an answer fast, all living things shall perish. We are the Five Elements, we strive to protect humanity… Years ago, many warriors came to us seeking change, joined our way of life. Right after, A Code was discovered that could save the world and was injected into one of us. We even lost one of our clan’s mate. Now we must fight for our lives to bring the code – to the world…or die trying. With the MediCan Research Corporation and The FOUR 11 gang on our tails….We must protect the code….AT ALL COSTS.”

I guess the pollution is killing everyone, yet we don’t really get a sense of this impending and immediate danger because life seems pretty normal; people are hanging out at bars, strolling around, not rationing what might be their final breath. Because of this pollution, a corporation is looking for a solution for its implantable medical devices, yet why is this even introduced except to provide another batch of shadowy bad guys with a plot crowded with shadowy villains? The corporation wants a solution, a code, which is what the heroes have, and the heroes want to get the code out to save humanity, so why aren’t they actively working together? Why introduce two sides who have the same goal if they are never going to meaningfully interact? I suppose the evil corporation would exploit the code for profit, but why not express this through actions? Also, why is this world-saving code only injected into one person rather than, say, uploaded to the Internet? Why risk your only vessel containing the world-saving magic code getting hit by a bus? If the goal is proliferation, there seems to be more safety in diversifying the code-carriers. The rival evil gang, the Four 11s, are a criminal syndicate but their leader has a sick child. Wouldn’t this code also help cure this child? Why are all these organizations working against one another? The world building of this universe feels cluttered and confusing and lacking narrative purpose. It resembles a little kid making up the rules as they go for a game you didn’t recognize.

As Neil is introduced into the Five Elements gang, we’re inundated with names but not so identifying personalities and things to better cement the deluge of characters. We have Cloud, Water, Earth, Fire, Wood, Gold, and if you forced me to identify who was who I would not even under penalty of law. There are so many characters in this movie and very few, if any, leave a favorable impression at all. They are repositories of kicks and punches and the occasional grunt. Water (the exquisitely named Crystle Paynther Collins) keeps bringing up her dead sister to the point that I waited for her to reference it every time she was onscreen, and she did not disappoint. Naming your main character Neil, and sticking him in khakis to perform martial arts, made me laugh. It’s not that his code name “Cloud” is that much more intimidating. When you introduce characters in movies, it’s a good idea to give them a moment to set them apart, and through action, which will better convey who they are and through visual storytelling. This is one of those movies where a character says, “You need to see Earth and Gold or else Wood and Fire will combust,” and you just shake your head and try and determine who these people are and what are their connections. It’s clumsy writing and there are too many characters to keep track of without stronger involvement. After watching 80 minutes, everyone just blurred together into People Who Kick (except for Neil and his mighty fighting khakis).

The problem with Immortal Combat is the same I’ve seen with other low-budget indies, namely that these movie projects were not made for a mass audience. They play like an insular group project for friends and family of the production, people who are already in the know and on board, and the writing and development are tailored for this narrow band rather than a broader outside audience. To make a movie for others, you’d have to carefully explain your plot in a way that would be engaging, clear, and escalating, with characters distinguishable by personality, goals, and choices, and you’d want to integrate them in meaningful ways that also push our protagonist or heroes to victory. You’d have to put the work in to make it an actual movie. Immortal Combat feels like it was made strictly for its friends and family, like finding excuses to squeeze in extras for gang group shots despite the fact that the very presence of “non-threatening-looking” members calls into question the hiring practices and determination of this vicious martial arts gang. When people who look like your ordinary neighbors are in a martial arts gang, do you fear them? This also extends to our invisible special forces team. Some of these guys have a noticeable deficit in their effort or duty to their job. There’s nothing wrong with creating art with a small intended audience. I’m sure corporate offices make little videos all the time only intended to play to their employees. If you’re thinking beyond your immediate circle, however, then you must put more thought into your storytelling choices and make the plot and characters matter rather than finding room for everyone to fit onscreen.

Immortal Combat plays like an overextended martial arts demo reel and a plot was strung together to justify more and more exercises, resulting in a calamitous collection of confusing characters that are nearly interchangeable and often extraneous and expendable. The impact and excitement of all that martial arts choreography is blunted somewhat by the choices how to present the fighting and revealing the lackluster energy levels of some of the performers. I know in reality that fight sequences are often at a slower speed when filmed, same with car chases that typically only go at speeds of 30 miles per hour, but you make choices to obscure those nagging parts of reality to maintain the illusion that these kicks are furious and these cars go fast. It’s the same thinking when it comes to casting and crafting a story that naturally widens rather than simply polluting it with more names and faces that will only leave a dent for making dents. It looks like the actors and people behind Immortal Combat had fun making a movie, and to that end I have no qualms with any of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the elements to reach beyond its circle.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Side note: the poster for this movie is wildly inaccurate. Like amazingly inaccurate. There are no characters in the movie resembling those on the poster, which definitely seems designed to be the Asylum version of Mortal Kombat.

A Father’s Fight (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: B-

Slaxx (2020)

You would imagine a movie about a possessed pair of pants would be outrageously entertaining, and yet the Canadian horror comedy Slaxx is too stretched out and made from conflicting material. This movie needed to be more… something; more ridiculous, more exploitative, more gory and over-the-top, more satirical. It feels like a lost Tales From the Crypt episode that is over-extended and repeating the same points and carnage over and over. The haunted pants are unleashing a trail of vengeance against a department store’s employees one long night before a social media star makes an special live appearance. The kills are bloody without being very memorable or clever given the unique circumstances of the monster. Much of the gore is done off-screen as well, denying one more potential point of appeal for a movie that is supposed to be crazy. I found the movie and its social commentary to be rather tame and limited, which meant I was watching the same annoying, one-note joke supporting characters repeat the same abrasive activities and points. It got so redundant, and without really outrageous kills, that I just became bored as the movie dithered. The jeans are haunted by the victims of overseas child labor, and the serious points about labor exploitation are undercut by the goofy asides, like the pants dancing a Bollywood jig from unseen puppeteers (the highlight of the movie). By the time it concludes at the 70-minute mark, Slaxx feels like it’s been creatively gasping for some time. It’s not scary. It’s not really funny. It’s not gross. It’s not crazy enough. It’s just a killer jeans movie that could have been condensed down into an entertaining short film of fifteen minutes max. As a feature, Slaxx is slack.

Nate’s Grade: C

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