Longtime Hollywood go-to genre screenwriter Alex Garland has only directed two other movies, 2015’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation, both using the realm of science fiction to explore feminine trauma and the sea change of societies on a precipice. I loved Ex Machina and admired but didn’t fully enjoy Annihilation. His newest movie, a small-scale indie horror titled Men, lands somewhere in the middle. It’s in keeping with his other movies, following a woman named Harper (Jessie Buckley) dealing with trauma, and it’s atmospheric while still maintaining a clear point of view that could likely rub people the wrong way. It’s an uncomfortable nightmare of a horror movie and one that isn’t as deep as it appears to be.
Men accomplishes what I had been hoping with 2021’s Chaos Walking, namely portraying everyday life as a woman as a living horror movie. It’s a highly metaphorical and atmospheric movie but, at its core, it’s all about the danger, discomfort, and indignities that women endure on a near daily basis dealing with men. I don’t think the movie has as much to say on the topic or is as ambiguous as others are presenting (more on this later), but its central theme is so bracingly direct and deeply unsubtle but sometimes a sledgehammer is better than a scalpel. This is an intense movie from the start and a frequent reminder of the hazards of being female in a patriarchy. Each of the men that Harper encounters represents a different facet of toxic masculinity. The seemingly kindly priest, who places his hand on Harper’s thigh to “calm her,” is projecting guilt and blame onto her for the actions of men and views her femininity as a corrupting and tempting influence, very akin to Eve. The little boy, who likes wearing creepy masks, is a brat who refuses to accept no for an answer and turns on a dime into verbal attacks, much like the men of the Internet ready to flip at a moment’s notice. The police officer is dismissive of Harper’s account of being harassed and threatened, representing a legal arm that often downplays and diminishes women as victims. There’s even Geoffrey, who seems almost like the best man in town by default, is aloof, doesn’t understand boundaries, and is trying to present himself as a “nice guy” looking for his delayed dues. The only person in town that seems sympathetic to Harper is the one female police officer who takes her statement. Each man is played by Rory Kinnear (Our Flag Means Death) for thematic reasons. I’ve read people complain, “Why wouldn’t Harper realize this obvious similarity in the town’s men?” The answer is simple: it’s because the men do not literally all look the same. It’s meant to reflect Harper’s perspective, much like 2015’s Anomalisa where the protagonist viewed every person as looking and sounding like Tom Noonan until one unique voice cuts through the malaise and monotony. This movie is wall-to-wall with uncomfortable, seething misogyny in many forms, and given the times we live in, I wouldn’t blame any woman saying, “No thanks.” I’m glad I watched this one alone and without my now-fiance, as she would have brought this up forever as a “You made me watch…” tease.
The flashbacks with Harper’s unstable ex-husband James (Paapa Essiedu) are the most personally illuminating and make up a significant portion of the narrative, as Harper is forced into her painful memories from her present encounters. Her husband showcases clear signs of being mentally ill and is also verbally and physically abusive to her. He greets her news about seeking a divorce by declaring that if she doesn’t take him back, he will kill himself. This emotional blackmail feels par for the course in this relationship and another sign why Harper would want out for her own well-being. The movie opens with Harper watching James fall to his death, and this trauma is what she’s processing through every male interaction. James is indicative of a kind of man that imposes demands on their partner without holding themselves to the same standards, but it goes beyond hypocrisy; it’s about a damaged person who holds another hostage with further threats of their damage. It’s a person who puts the entire onus of their existence onto another, removing their own personal responsibility, and thus blaming the convenient external party when something inevitably goes wrong. This central relationship is revisited in different ways throughout the movie, and you could even argue that Men is a metaphorical journey of Harper trying to shed herself from the weight of this disturbed dead man.
However, the real draw of Men is its allegorical nature and that is bound to rub plenty of viewers differently. The best comparison I can make is 2017’s mother!, a deeply polarizing movie from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) that completely existed as a none-too-subtle Biblical allegory as the primary plot. Usually, screenwriters will work with metaphor and allegory as subtext, adding extra depth and meaning to their storytelling. We don’t expect it to serve as the primary narrative. With Men, like mother!, it is indeed the primary narrative. I can reduce the plot down to this description: woman explores English countryside and is harassed by men of various forms. To be fair, Jaws could be reduced to “guys try to kill big shark,” so this is a little reductive. The emphasis is on exploring the experiences that Harper is enduring, her exploration of nature and seclusion that, at each turn, gets sabotaged by a man. If you’re not open to a narrative that is a little looser and more atmospheric, you’ll find the movie to be plodding and overwrought. When Act Three kicks in, the movie goes full-on into bonkers horror and isn’t even flirting with a direct correlation with reality any longer. I can safely say that some of the bizarre imagery is truly some of the strangest and grossest things I’ve ever seen in any movie. The chief symbol (toxic men begetting toxic men) is central to the icky body horror cavalcade.
However, the movie’s allegory doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of interpretation. That’s not exactly a creative hindrance; stories can simply be what they are intended to be. Men is fairly obvious what it’s about even from the starting point of its one-word title. It’s a movie heavy in allegory but the allegory itself is also pretty unambiguous and straightforward. There may be interpretation for this symbol or that but Garland’s horror movie is pretty much thematically obvious. It all supports his theme about the horror of being a woman in modern society, magnified across a metaphorical horror movie canvas. I’m sure there will be others who go into great detail to dissect this movie but all of it seems to come to the same basic conclusion, and that’s fine.
Men is the kind of movie that almost wears out its welcome at 100 minutes. The technical merits are strong, the photography and imagery are lush and transporting, and Buckley (The Lost Daughter) is a great actress to hinge a story of mounting distress and terror. If you’re the kind of person that seeks out new cinematic avenues of nightmare fuel, then the final act and its chief monster with its distinct disfigurement will sate your morbid appetite. It’s an effective and evocative movie but it’s also the same thesis statement hammered again and again. While the movie has some perplexing moments, there isn’t much to unpack as far as meaning, and ultimately that can limit some of the play of a movie built on the engine of metaphor. It feels like a scream against the overwhelming and entrenched social forces of misogyny, and I cannot say whether it’s worth 100 minutes of squirm-inducing discomfort of art imitating all-too-real life.
Nate’s Grade: B-
David Cronenberg returns to the thing David Cronenberg is best known for. It’s been twenty-plus years since the director has gone back to his body horror roots, and Crimes of the Future is certainly a gross gross movie. If that’s what you’re hoping for, then the discomfort and bizarre sexual analogies might be a selling point for you. For me, I just felt nauseated without an interesting core to keep my mind from drifting away. In the future, people have evolved (?) pain tolerance and infection rates, so our protagonist Saul (Viggo Mortsensen) turns surgery into public performance as his assistant/lover (Lea Seydoux) removes the vestigial organs his body produces. Kirsten Stewart’s antsy, horny character states that “surgery is the new sex,” and you’ll get plenty of parallels as we watch person after person get all squirmy while being cut open. My problem with the movie is that there isn’t anything beyond the shock value. The commentarry about body experimentation as a form of sensuality feels trite and more an opening for weird moments, like when Saul gets a zipper installed across his pelvis and his assistant decides to open it and somehow pleasure this… pouch? There’s a hint of an interesting movie here. Saul is being asked to serve as a confidential informant for the government hunting down an extremist group trying to kick-start evolution so that children will be able to consume plastics. That would have put our main character into a discovery role for this world that would have provided more than shock value. The movie begins, literally, with a child being suffocated by his mother, so that sets the tone as to where Cronenberg is headed. Crimes of the Future is essentially a geek show of a movie absent meaningful social/sexual commentary and interesting characters. It’s more a movie of pliable body parts.
Nate’s Grade: C
I was taken immediately and repeatedly by the many charms and intriguing personal details of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (hence referred to as Leo Grande for the sake of my typing). This little indie played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is primarily two people in one hotel room talking for the entirety of its 97-minute run time, and oh how early I was enraptured. This is a small-scale but laser-focused character-driven drama with edges of comedy and romance. It’s sex positive, very mature and tasteful given its subject matter, and the general awkwardness of watching two strangers combat sexual and personal hang-ups and vulnerabilities melted away thanks to the deftly superior acting, writing, and directing of those involved.
Emma Thompson plays Nancy Stokes (not her real name), a retired school teacher who worked for a parochial institution and taught Christian religion. Her husband has died and she reveals that, over the course of their thirty years together, she has never truly known physical pleasure. She seeks to change that by hiring a professional sex worker, Leo Grande (not his real name), played by Daryl McCormack. We will chart Nancy’s sexual awakening over four intimate encounters.
What stood out immediately to me was how well developed the story unfolds at such a natural pace. I’ve watched more than a few indies that simply don’t know what to do with their premise, that feel like they’re biding time to get to feature-length, and some that are likewise constrained to single or minimal locations but fail to secure the most essential need: providing a reason for the audience to care. Whether a movie takes place in one room or a hundred rooms, you have to make the time spent meaningful whether through compelling characters or a story that keeps you engaged and waiting for more. You need to connect to the characters or be intrigued by the revelations to come, and Leo Grande does both immediately. Its setup is rife with drama and conflict, two people navigating their relationship to physical intimacy, two people who have never met until now for a transactional evening. There are obvious, natural personal conflicts to be explored here, with the novice out of their depth in many senses. There are also plenty of intriguing possibilities, because as these two get to know one another so too are we getting to know each and getting glimpses of who each of them are outside of this room. Both people are putting on fronts of some sorts, trying to settle into a performance of who they could be, and peeling away the layers of this subterfuge becomes even more intimate and engaging. Writer Katy Brand, known for outrageous British sketch comedy, skillfully maps out the story so that each conversational stop, detour, and ramp-up feels organically composed. It takes a great writer to keep your attention from a movie about two people talking, and Brand is that good. The contrast between our characters and intimacy, from forced to unlocked, keep us glued intently.
I also think there’s an interesting generational character study here, though the film doesn’t ever make any grand pronouncements about the symbolic representation of its heroine. Nancy is over 60 and at a point where she’s used to compliments with the added qualifier of “for her age.” When she discusses her sexual history with her husband, it’s almost like a confession that she’s been unable to get off her chest for decades, an acknowledgement of her disappointment and longing. Her husband was the kind of man who would lie in bed, roll on top, and then a minute later roll off, mission accomplished (no wonder this woman has never experienced an orgasm). Talking through this embarrassment, it brings Nancy to tears, realizing she’s lived so much of her life without accessing physical pleasure, a joyful repose that so many others seem to revel in. This bold step, hiring a sex worker online, is her making a leap outside of her comfort zone, and the subsequent return engagements give her new opportunities that have eclipsed her for so long.
In essence, this is woman who feels like she’s playing catch-up. Her character is from a generation where women didn’t make as much of a fuss about reciprocal pleasure. Her view of her aging body is one of general shame. She will repeatedly say she has no idea what she’s doing. Nancy feels like she’s been missing out for so long and wants what has been denied to her. However, she also has her own personal sexual hang-ups she’s pushing through, with decades of religious upbringing and enforcing moral codes with her students and their wardrobe choices. All of it adds up as far as her view on sex and her body. Leo asks her if she just wanted sex why not find a man in a pub and go from there, and she curtly says she doesn’t want an old man, an old man that will simply be another version of her husband, another disappointment in a lifetime of unrealized intimacy; she decidedly wants a young man. She’s indulging in her desire and a young man best represents a promise of sexual fulfillment (and she definitely doesn’t have any teacher/student fantasy, she will let you know). I think there are many more Nancy’s in the world, older women who soldiered through their lives, carrying the burdens of others while sacrificing their own pleasure, and are now at point in their lives where they are hearing more about body positivity, about female pleasure, and about being worthy of physical intimacy on their own terms and desires. Nancy is a character having a delayed sexual re-awakening; in her confession with Leo, she details her first impulse of desire when she was 17, a feeling that she hasn’t experienced as surely for the decades hence. While being a unique and well-rounded character, Nancy also serves as a representative of an older generation and perspective coming into conflict and revelation with a modern sense of intimacy and self.
Leo Grande is a smooth and charming man but one who doesn’t feel oily or like he’s obnoxiously masculine. With McCormack’s kind eyes and soothing Irish balm of a voice, it’s easy to see how this man could set others at ease. But then you also have to remember that Leo Grande is not who this man really is; it’s a character he’s playing, and as Nancy opens herself up to this man, she’s looking for him to do the same, for them to share something more special than a simple client-professional relationship. The more that Nancy pushes and pries, the more that Leo himself is pushed outside his own comfort zone. Leo is willing to talk about some things, like his frayed relationship with his mother, a point of unity with Nancy and her adult children, and his cover story of being away and working on an oil rig, an outlandish excuse that makes Nancy and eventually Leo break into laughter. By the nature of this character dynamic, Leo must be the more confident and assured participant to better contrast with Nancy’s personal and cultural insecurities. He’s the pro and she’s the novice. However, that doesn’t mean emotionally he’s as self-assured and without regret. Listening to these two characters bounce off one another and come in and out of intimate contact is fully entertaining.
I hope that Thompson (Cruella) gets nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal. She’s in just about every second of the movie and so much of it hinges upon her baring herself, physically and emotionally, to this man and us, the tacit observers. It’s a performance of radical self-love in so far as Nancy is reclaiming her body as a point of pride rather than as one of shame. In some ways, she’s shedding her past sins, easy judgement on the mores of others and their bodies. Thompson goes through such a wide range of emotion and gets to play so many different revealing sides to this woman putting herself in a most unfamiliar position. It’s Nancy coming to terms with her own disappointments, misgivings, and hypocrisy, and Thompson is splendid at every moment. She gives so much life to this character without sacrificing her complexity or occasional coldness. By the end, when her character hits her arc’s climax, it feels like a journey fully earned.
Another 2022 Sundance indie, this recipient of the Audience Award and a plum Apple Plus streaming spotlight, feels less smooth despite its title. Cha Cha Real Smooth is from writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, the twenty-five-year-old up-and-coming filmmaker best known for 2020’s Shithouse, a talky and introspective movie about older teens trying to gravitate with the adult world they feel ill-equipped to handle. While I found some promise with Raiff’s naturalistic dialogue, I found the lead characters to be too dull to really care about. Enter Cha Cha (which will also, henceforth, be how I refer to the title) which benefits from deploying more recognizable rom-com and indie movie plot mechanics. Working from a more familiar movie template, it actually helps Raiff better temper his writing and focus his story. While I enjoyed the movie overall, I would say it still has not won me over to the charms of Raiff just yet.
Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad who is still very much trying to figure out his life. He knows he doesn’t like his mother’s (Leslie Mann) new husband (Brad Garrett). He also doesn’t like his job working at a mall food court. He’s also not happy that his ex-girlfriend broke things off before leaving for Barcelona. He’s struggling to plan his “what comes next” when he stumbles into a job being a “party starter” after his enthusiastic chaperoning of a local bar mitzvah. Soon the neighbors are all seeking Andrew’s party-starting ability to make their next bar or bot mitzvah a fun time. Andrew becomes attached to a thirty-something single mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and he autistic teen, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), he persuades onto the dance floor to loosen up. Domino is intrigued by the younger man and asks him to babysit Lola, especially since the two have bonded and earned a trust. Andrew doesn’t know whether Domino is feeling the same level of attraction but someone who would not be happy is her fiancé, Joseph (Raul Castillo).
You spend a lot of time with Raiff as the lead, so your ultimate determination on Cha Cha will hinge on your perception of Andrew and as Raiff as a performer. He’s got an easy smile and his enthusiasm can be endearing at points, like he’s incapable of being still in thought. I found the scenes where he encourages little kids to be cute and easy to enjoy. He’s an infectious presence when he’s dealing with children. However, when Andrew is dealing with adults or people his own age, he seems to be out of his depths with arrested development. He’s rude and pissy with his stepfather for no real discernible reason given. He’s fairly thick-headed about romantic ideals about following his girlfriend to Spain, who declines his grand offer. Andrew’s uncertainty about charting his own path is a familiar story, and Raiff takes advantage of the overall coming-of-age blanket of tropes. The problem is that too many of them feel easily discarded. The only characters that seem to matter in Cha Cha are Andrew and Domino. Even Andrew’s younger brother (Evan Assante), who loves his big brother so much that he is constantly asking for advice on romancing a girl he likes, and the kid even cries at the prospect of his brother moving out of his room, is just another underwritten foil like Andrew’s mother, always supportive, and stepfather, always wary, and friend-with-benefits girl, always… there? These characters are meant to be reflections of our main character, serving to make him look charming or sincere or naïve or deluded but always serving Andrew. This can work in screenwriting but it helps if the characters don’t feel so obviously cultivated to make our hero look good.
I did find the central will-they-won’t-they relationship between Andrew and Domino to actually be entertaining. Much of this helps from Johnson sliding into a role that definitely fits her skill set. The role doesn’t even seem too different from her struggling thirty-something mother in The Lost Daughter. In the last few years, I have grown as a fan of Johnson with strong supporting turns in Bad Times at the El Royale, Peanut Butter Falcon, and as a dying mother in Our Friend. In each one of these roles, there is an inherent melancholy to her that she so effectively radiates. She has certainly broken free from the long shadow of the Fifty Shades franchise. Much of Domino feels from the point of view of a young man projecting onto her, and I think that is also Raiff’s larger thematic point. In Shithouse, a significant plot development is when Raiff’s central character has a different interpretation of a sexual encounter. He bombards the young woman with eager texts and is carried away with making an attachment, whereas she did not view their college hookup on the same terms. Although, this hard wisdom is undercut at the end of Shithouse by this same lady relenting and saying, “Yeah, okay, I’ll be your girlfriend.” To Andrew, Domino is a wounded soul looking for a rescue and he’s her dutiful man in shining armor. From his perspective, she is crying out for kind attention and support that he feels is being neglected. The learning curve for Andrew is that Domino can distinguish between a person who excites her and a person she can see herself settling down with. Their age discrepancy is never really addressed until the very end, though Johnson herself is only 32 years old, which doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap though Domino’s age is kept purposely vague. I would have preferred the movie being told from her perspective as she had the most interesting role. Johnson and Raiff have an easy-going chemistry, with his overeager charmer meshing with her subdued, glassy-eyed, taking-it-all-in openness. She makes him feel a little more excited, but ultimately, that may not be as important as other more practical concerns.
This leads to what seems like the lesson of Cha Cha, because for a movie that seems to operate on a powerful level of irony-free sincerity, the big life lesson it seems to impart is that becoming an adult is one about accepting compromise and disappointment. Sure, that’s an important lesson, to adapt as well as process personal reflections, but with Raiff’s movie, Domino’s lesson seems to be she’s accepted that her fiancé doesn’t make her feel all the things that young Andrew does but he will provide stability for her and her daughter and that means more at this point. I cannot say whether the movie is asserting that Dakota’s reasons are mature and something Andrew will come to understand in time when he gets a little older or whether we’re supposed to see her as someone willfully forgoing her personal happiness to settle for something less and that, to Raiff, is what adulthood means, settling for less. The way that writer/director Raiff could have shore his thematic intentions would be with the supporting characters, seeing this larger nugget of wisdom reflected in his own mother’s relationship with the stepdad who Andrew could attempt to understand better rather than view with contempt. This is where underwriting the supporting characters can also undermine the artistic aims of your movie. It appears like Raif, at 22, is saying that growing up means essentially giving up on some level, which is a strangely pessimistic lesson for a movie that trades in such earnestness and sunny go-go positivity.
I sound more negative with Cha Cha Real Smooth than I’m intending. It’s a relatively breezy movie to watch with fun exchanges, solid jokes, and characters that I found amusing and some of them even engaging. It has its charms and sweetness and I can completely understand falling under Raiff’s spell. This is definitely a step in the right direction for Raiff as a filmmaker after his 2020 debut, and I think he’s going to continue to grow and tell these personal, highly verbose little indie dramas with big feelings where whomever Cooper Raiff portrays learns some life lesson, likely from his interaction with the person of the opposite sex he desires. As such, every Raiff movie from here on out seems likely to rest upon your feelings about him. With Cha Cha, the sequences between Andrew and Domino or Lola were my favorite, so the film mostly worked.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Cha Cha Real Smooth are both fine examples of indie filmmaking supporting distinct voices adding their stamp on the larger contours of the romantic comedy genre. Leo Grande is a grand example of character writing and it’s even poignant and a little sexy. It’s extremely tasteful and nuanced and even empowering for an entire movie about two strangers meeting in a hotel room for sex. Cha Cha is a fun and formulaic coming-of-age movie and with Dakota Johnson hitting her stride with a winning character with pools of depth. There are some writing and thematic shortcomings but it’s still a charming experience. Both movies can definitely brighten your mood and generate their share of smiles for 100 minutes.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: A-
Cha Cha Real Smooth: B-
Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.
I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.
It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).
So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.
So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.
I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.
From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.
With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?
At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”
As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.
For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.
Terror Trips: C-
Adam Deierling is a native Ohioan who spent ten years in the hustle and bustle of the L.A. film scene before relocating back to the Buckeye State in 2008. He has since focused on wedding videography and short films and spoken that his goal was to get a professional feature film off the ground locally, an admirable goal, and he wanted to create a family-friendly adventure film that could inspire others. That result is The Other Side of Darkness, written and directed by Deierling and filmed entirely in Ohio and West Virginia. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t know what to do with its major plot elements and feels a bit too lost by its own creative indecision.
Taylor Jo (Maggie Callahan), a.k.a. TJ is turning sixteen soon and eager to leave her small Ohio town. She works in her foster father’s auto shop and hates it and the direction of her life. Then one day she gets a mysterious note in the mail with a key that leads to an old Jeep. Turns out, the Jeep belonged to her biological mother and the note is from her still-living grandfather, Jack (Scott C. Davis). She hops in her new car, her best friend Hannah (Olivia Billings) and her cute brother Patrick (Drake Tobias) come along for the ride, and they head out to meet gramps. However, he might not be all that he seems, and a looming threat emerges that might cause the power system to go down, and then who can these beleaguered teens trust in these troubled times?
The Other Side of Darkness is like several different scripts stitched together, none of them richly developed or integrated to the other, which makes for an unfulfilling and tedious experience. Each of the half hours feels like a different movie. The first 30 minutes establishes the small-town life for TJ and her desire to escape, especially her predator of a foster parent. Then the next 30 minutes is about TJ and her friends going on a road trip to West Virginia to meet her biological grandpa and for TJ to learn more about her departed mother. Then the next 30 minutes is a mystery of whether or not the grandparent is who he says he is and discovering the terrain. Then the final 30 minutes is an action thriller to thwart homegrown terrorists. Each of these sections goes on far longer than it needs to, each of them presents very little sustained character development, and each of them feels adrift when compared to the other section. In the barest sense, these sections have a tenuous cause-effect relationship; however, the difference is whether the narrative feels like it’s actually building from scene-to-scene or just biding its time. I don’t know why we need a full half-hour to establish how awful TJ’s life is, especially throwing in the topic of sexual molestation, a serious subject that feels shoddily mishandled. The hook of this movie is the idea of our power system falling. Even the tagline says, “Who will you become when the power fails?” Well fear not, dear reader, because, spoiler alert, you’ll never have to wonder because the power grid doesn’t go down at all. The marketing sure looks like it’s going to be about people surviving in a world without power, with society possibly breaking down, but in reality, it’s about stopping two yokels from blowing up their local power station. That’s right, it’s not some far-reaching conspiracy that would trigger the crumbling of America’s interconnected infrastructure like the downfall of the Death Star. Nope. So, even if they blew up this lone power station, the power company would just come out and restore power. For a movie literally called The Other Side of Darkness and playing up a powerless world of survival, the actual employment of these big plot elements is strangely myopic and half-hearted.
Perhaps the title is in reference to the personal journey of our protagonist and her self-discovery, and I’ll humor this charitable interpretation and explain why this still doesn’t work. TJ’s story feels like it should have the right material to be engaging and even inspiring. The first part of the movie establishes her attitude, her plight, and eventually her escape via mysterious family member. This sets us off on her to discover her birth family and perhaps a little more of herself. When she meets her grandfather, he has one teary-eyed monologue, and then the rest feels like everyone is just dithering around and waiting for instructions on what to do. Grandpa gives TJ taped recordings her mother made with the intention of her daughter to one day listen. I don’t understand why this plot element was not explored far more in depth. This is her direct line of communication with her mother, her ability to hear her voice, listen to her singing, and emotionally connect with a woman who has long since departed her life. I also don’t understand why TJ isn’t interrogating her grandfather non-stop about her mother and father, or even simply bonding with dear old grandad and he her. It feels like right after everyone establishes their identities, the characters are just aimlessly hanging around loitering. In one early scene, it looks like Hannah and her brother are asleep on the couch behind TJ as she talks to grandad for the first time. I was mistaken because Hannah then moves, so she’s not asleep but she looks transparently bored (I’m sorry this family reunion couldn’t be more exciting for you). The writing for the characters keeps their conversations very surface-level. Every person is flat-out telling each other what they feel, who they are, what their personal journeys constitute. It’s a clunky, inauthentic manner of speaking that shows the writer’s too obvious hand.
Another factor that keeps me emotionally distant from the movie is how little it makes use of its near two-hour running time. There are long stretches that resemble a glorified car commercial. TJ, Hannah, and her brother go riding along and the music rises in celebratory volume and then things just keep going from there. With the drone shots of the car passing along a dusty trail, the interior shots of the characters laughing and smiling maniacally, and the attached camera angles to show the wheels flying across the muddy roads, all you’d need is to slap “Life is a Highway” and some ad copy at the bottom and it would be indistinguishable from any glossy car commercial. Why does this bother me? It’s because the movie is unmistakably filling time, dragging out its plot with extended sequences of transportation. There are numerous sequences of people walking from Point A to Point B, especially trouncing through the woods, and rather than see one sequence of a character walking to establish distance, we get four or five. This is all at the expense of storytelling and character, and that’s what I chafe at. Let’s take as another example the best friend character Hannah. In the first 30 minutes, the film establishes her as TJ’s only friend and a supportive outlet, enough so that she agrees to come along when TJ wants to track her out-of-state grandfather. Hannah and her brother spend what appears to be days away from home and I kept wondering what their parents would be doing, whether they would be calling the police, especially since Hannah cannot get cell service. This plot point bothered me for two reasons: 1) why can’t Hannah just travel in the car to reach an area where she has service, and 2) why does Hannah even need to be here at all? At least her brother becomes an underdeveloped romantic interest for TJ. Hannah’s role is inconsequential. And, again, all of these dawdling decisions are at the expense of the dramatic potential of the plot, of a granddaughter learning about her mother and bonding with her grandfather for the first time. Once the movie reunites its characters, it feels so shiftless and waiting for delayed instruction.
From a technical standpoint, The Other Side of Darkness is low-budget but has a nice sheen of professionalism for a $15,000 budget. I have seen movies with ten to twenty times that budget that don’t look as good as this. The cinematography by co-producer Vinny Sisson is crisp and with satisfying visual compositions. The acting is generally competent. Nobody will astound but nobody took me out of the movie with a bad performance. I thought Davis (Chosen, Between the Walls) has a warm and weathered presence that improved the role. Callahan reminded me of Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland, I Still Believe). Billings reminded me of Sarah Yarkin (2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I can only imagine what these people could have done with a superior screenplay that allowed them the material and space to really dive into their character dilemmas with nuance and emotional authenticity. The one technical aspect that needed some curtailing is the overzealous musical score by Niklas Wempe. The score is everywhere and never subtle; it is loud, in your face, and trumpeting what is happening onscreen, pushing moments into unintended levels of farce, like people walking through the woods now feel like they must be running for their lives when the reality of the circumstances is nowhere near as urgent. The musical score is so intrusive and old fashioned that it reminded me of 1940s moviemaking.
At almost two hours long, The Other Side of Darkness is a frustrating viewing experience. It’s not the movie it advertises itself as delivering. Just looking at that poster, you might surmise a post-social breakdown thriller like The Trigger Effect, or maybe even a nostalgic 80s adventure like The Goonies. You would be let down by either genre expectation. Sadly, the movie cannot live up to its own dramatic premise of a family reunion between grandfather and granddaughter sharing their common link, a deceased loved one they can relive with the other. It’s bizarre to watch a movie with such potent storytelling elements and seeming so indifferent to them or confused what should be done. This feels like a first draft of a screenplay, where characters are just expositing their direct feelings and desires, unencumbered by subtext. Too often the movie just has its characters milling about, and at two hours in length this is inexcusable. The power outage thriller concept feels almost entirely tacked on to provide more of a marketable angle. It’s shockingly underdeveloped and relatively unimportant in the film’s grand scheme of human drama. Often with first-time filmmakers also dabbling in their screenwriting, I find the stories that would have sufficed as short films expanded into feature-length but not given the attention for the adaptation to succeed. The Other Side of Darkness proves that Deierling has the technical chops to make the most with a micro-budget. I just hope his next feature takes more time to really establish what it wants to be and how best to develop and achieve these goals. The Other Side of Darkness is a little too much in the dark.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Imagine a world where anyone can create a clone, a perfect, or almost perfect, copy of yourself so that after you’re gone your family will never have to theoretically lose you? That’s the premise of Dual, an indie that played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is now available online. Sarah (Karen Gillan) is generally miserable with her life. She doesn’t return her needy mother’s phone calls and texts. She’d rather watch porn than talk with her distant boyfriend. She’s also leaving disconcerting blood stains on her bed sheets. Turns out Sarah has a rare and incurable illness, and so she is eligible for the Replacement Program, an opportunity to get her own clone. She is gifted a clone (also Gillan), a reported exact replica except for eye color (the company offers a five percent discount for the defect). Sarah takes her doppelganger home and attempts to teach her about her life and how best to fit in. It’s not long that the Sarah clone has her own ideas about what her life could be. However, when Sarah’s terminal diagnosis improves, she intends to abort her clone. The clone triggers a legal clause that says that the ultimate decision over who gets to live as the only Sarah will be a televised duel to the death in exactly one year’s time.
Dual is a puzzling movie. I haven’t watched writer/director Riley Stearn’s other movies, notably 2019’s The Art of Self Defense, though I’ve read Dual is in keeping with his exaggerated, deadpan style, but to me it feels very much like an attempt to recreate a Yorgos Lanthimos world. Lanthimos is most famous for films like The Lobster and was even nominated for Best Director for 2018’s The Favourite. Lanthimos is excellent as creating these worlds that are reflections of our own but detached, deadpan, aloof, and irregular. The world of The Lobster is bizarre as a means of satirizing our social values when it comes to romantic relationships. In that world, if you cannot find a suitable mate within a period of probation, you will be transformed into an animal of your choosing. That world is bizarre in its very inception but there’s a reason that Lanthimos makes use of his stilted, stylized dialogue, to better reflect the absurdities of our culture. With Dual, the world never feels that wholly separate from our own and actually a little under-explored. The fact that society has cloning is woefully underutilized. What else does this mean about our concept of self, identity, legacy? What about clones that abandon their intended families? What about clones that murder their originals before their court-arranged duels? What about people that cheat the system and get more than one clone? What about a clone getting a clone? As the movie progressed, I kept feeling the unmistakable pull of wanting this story to be told straight and without the hip ironic posturing (I suppose that’s Swan Song, a 2021 movie I have yet to watch on Apple Plus). It just felt like there was so much more intriguing dramatic potential to be had here playing things straight, a woman facing her impending mortality, getting a “replacement you” and finding her not sticking to the script, endangering her fragile sense of preservation, and then the crisis of your friends and family preferring the clone over her. That’s some juicy stuff, but it all gets downplayed thanks to Stearn’s selected tone.
It would be one thing if Dual was hilarious with its cracked mirror approach but I just found little to actually laugh about. There are a few moments that I did chuckle, like Sarah and Trent (Aaron Paul) providing a play-by-play of their slow-motion brawl and the consequences of their amassed injuries, and the doctor that informs Sarah about her tragic diagnosis are the most well realized moments with tone (“This is why most doctors are depressed”). The bone dry, matter-of-fact style of speaking is too often the only joke. Just because characters are speaking in a detached manner does not mean you can skip over the same tenets of comedy construction. Lanthimos doesn’t just rest on his characters talking in a manner that is unexpected. There’s genuine work to make them seem of their weird world. The characters in Dual just seem like hyperactive, overly literal irritants. Often, they’ll just keep speaking about a subject and the joke is the length of the details. The Sarah duplicate doesn’t know how to drive, and as she watches her original, she remarks, “Oh, and I suppose you turn the big wheel left and the car goes left. Turn the big wheel right and the car goes right. Easy enough.” I suppose the joke is that she describes two pointless examples? Even the scenes with the doctor, which I laughed at, suffer from Stearns overwriting his dialogue exchanges. It’s not enough for the doctor to make an absurd, Kafkaesque remark, but the character must circle back and underline this over and over. The overall feeling is tiresome. There’s one example of what Dual could have been, where Trent suggests to Sarah during her money problems that she might provide “other means of payment.” The movie then cuts to them both dancing and Trent remarks, “Thank you for the hip-hop dance instruction. I’ve always wanted to learn but was too nervous.” That joke works. It’s a subversion that doesn’t overstay. I wish Stearns had pulled back and trusted his audience to get the joke without his incessant redirection of comic emphasis.
The real reason to watch Dual is for the dueling Gillan performances. She gets to play two same-but-different versions of a character, and she really shines in the subtle differences she takes advantage of. I enjoyed the passive aggression of the clone re-examining the faults of her original, and I enjoyed how quickly she was interrogating her original while making casual, catty judgements. Paul (Breaking Bad) is also enjoyable but only appears in the second half of the movie and is underutilized. Stearns seems drawn to the mentor-pupil relationship dynamic (The Art of Self Defense) and the interaction between Paul and Gillan is a regular highlight of the movie. The actors generally elevate the material even as Stearns restricts the acting tools they can rely upon.
I’m sure there will be viewers that will genuinely enjoy the distaff comedy and pathos of Dual. There’s a clear artistic vision here by Stearns, it just didn’t fully gel for me because I felt the choices of tone and plot limited what could have been a far more emotionally engaging and intellectually fascinating story. The comedy too often settled on being quirky and too often it reminded you of this by circling and re-circling the same joke for diminished returns. Dual is not a bad movie, more a frustrating experience, one with big ideas and talent in front of the camera and behind, but it could have used more shaping and tone calibration to be its best version of itself. As it stands, it’s a fittingly amusing dark comedy with two solid performances from Gillan, and that could be enough for many to justify a 90-minute investment. For me, it felt too much like Lanthimos lite.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman jumped on to Hollywood’s A-list when his feature debut Being John Malkovich was unleashed in 1999. Malkovich was a brilliant original satire on identity, be it celebrity or sexual, and was filled with riotous humor but also blended beautifully with a rich story that bordered on genius that longer it went. Now Kaufman tries his hand expounding at the meaning of civilization versus animal instinct in Human Nature. As one character tells another, “Just remember, don’t do whatever your body is telling you to do and you’ll be fine.”
Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a woman burdened with excessive body hair ever since she was old enough for a training bra (with the younger version played by Disney’s Lizzie McGuire). Lila feels ashamed by her body and morbidly humiliated. She runs away to the forest to enjoy a life free from the critical eyes of other men. Here she can commune with nature and feel that she belongs.
Nathan (Tim Robbins) is an anal retentive scientist obsessed with etiquette. As a young boy Nathan was sent to his room for picking the wrong fork to eat his meal with. He is now trying his best to teach mice table manners so he can prove that if etiquette can be taught to animals it can be ingrained toward humanity. Lila and Nathan become lovers when she ventures back into the city, eliminating her body hair for now, because of something infinitely in human nature – hormones. The two of them find a form of content, as neither had known the intimate touch of another human being.
“Puff” (Rhys Ifans) is a grown man living his life in the woods convinced by his father that he is an ape. One day while walking through the woods, Nathan and Lila discover the ape-man and have differing opinions on what should be done with him. Nathan is convinced that he should be brought into civilization and be taught the rules, etiquette, and things that make us “human.” It would also be his greatest experiment. Lila feels that he should maintain his freedom and live as he does in nature, how he feels he should.
What follows is a bizarre love triangle over the reeducation of “Puff,” as Nathan’s slinky French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) names him. Lila is torn over the treatment of Puff and also her own society induced shame of her abundant amount of body hair. Nathan feels like he is saving Puff from his wayward primal urges, as he himself becomes a victim of them when he starts having an affair with Gabrielle. Puff, as he tells a congressional committee, was playing their game so he could find some action and “get a piece of that.”
Kaufman has written a movie in the same vein as Being John Malkovich but missing the pathos and, sadly, the humor. Human Nature tries too hard to be funny and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Many quirky elements are thrown out but don’t have the same sticking power as Kaufman’s previous film. It’s a fine line between being quirky just for quirky’s sake (like the atrocious Gummo) and turning quirky into something fantastic (like Rushmore or Raising Arizona). Human Nature is too quirky for its own good without having the balance of substance to enhance the weirdness further. There are many interesting parts to this story but as a whole they don’t ever seriously gel.
Debut director Michel Gondry cut his teeth in the realm of MTV making surreal videos for Bjork and others (including the Lego animated one for The White Stripes). He also has done numerous commercials, most infamously the creepy-as-all-hell singing navels Levi ad. Gondry does have a vision, and that vision is “Copy What Spike Jonze Did as Best as Possible.” Gondry’s direction never really registers, except for some attractive time shifts, but feels more like a rehash of Jonze’s work on, yep you guessed it, Being John Malkovich.
Arquette and Robbins do fine jobs in their roles with Arquette given a bit more, dare I say it, humanity. Her Lila is trapped between knowing what is true to herself and fitting into a society that tells her that it’s unhealthy and wrong. Ifans has fun with his character and lets it show. The acting in Human Nature is never really the problem.
While Human Nature is certainly an interesting film (hey it has Arquette singing a song in the buff and Rosie Perez as an electrologist) but the sum of its whole is lacking. It’s unfair to keep comparing it to the earlier Malkovich but the film is trying too hard to emulate what made that movie so successful. Human Nature just doesn’t have the gravity that could turn a quirky film into a brilliant one.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’m at a loss with 2002’s Human Nature. I thought in the ensuing twenty years I would have more to say with coming back to the early burst of brilliant writer Charlie Kaufman in the immediate wake of his successful debut, 1999’s Being John Malkovich. 2002 was a big year for Kaufman; he had three movies released that he wrote, all of them wildly different. His best work was Adaptation, a reteaming with Malkovich’s Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze, that earned Chris Cooper a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Kaufman was close to winning for Best Original Screenplay and sharing the honor with his pretend twin brother, the both of whom were portrayed by Nicolas Cage. It was the most challenging and creative and fulfilling of the three. There was also Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the debut for George Clooney as a director, was a lark of a movie, taking Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography” where he claimed he was doubling as a CIA black ops hitman. I recently re-watched this one months ago and my opinion even lowered because there’s nothing to the movie beyond the central irony of the unexpected reality of this unexpected man being a spy and assassin. There’s no real insight into Barris as a character and he comes across as scummy and unworthy of a big screen examination. It’s a story that only exists to be ironic and missing the messy humanity and pathos of Kaufman’s best.
But Kaufman’s most forgotten movie in his screenwriting career is definitely Human Nature, the debut film for Michel Gondry, one of Kaufman’s other collaborators along with Jonze, both men having gained great acclaim for eclectic and visionary and just plain weird music videos. It follows three main characters, each debriefing their tale to an audience. Lila (Patricia Arquette) is accused of murder and discussing her lifelong malady of growing intense amounts of body hair, enough so that she worked as a gorilla woman in a circus sideshow. Puff (Rhys Ifans) is a man raised in the wild who intended to be an ape and returned to society, been trained in etiquette, and become an example of the transformative power of civilization. Dr. Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins) is telling his story after death with a bullet hole in the middle of his pasty forehead, as the scientist who found Puff, trained him, and romanced Lila before cheating on her with his French assistant (Miranda Otto). Immediately, the movie presents questions for us to unpack: how did Nathan die? Who was really responsible? What will be the connections between these three very different characters? Then there are assorted kooky side characters that come in and out, but the focus is mostly on this trio, perhaps a foursome with Otto, and the shame is that there is only one really interesting character among them.
Lila is the only protagonist worth following. She feels like a freak, even served in a “freak show,” and must hide her secret from lovers who would object to her untamed mane. She’s vulnerable and hopeful but pressured to conform to be accepted, and her journey to radical self-acceptance would have been an entertaining movie all on its own. However, by fragmenting the narrative with Puff and Nathan, she gets far less attention and her story becomes, for far too long, just her willfully sublimating herself to Nathan’s standards of beauty. Lila frustratingly feels like a character furiously trying to do whatever she can to keep the affections of a bad man. It’s reductive to the movie’s most interesting character. Puff and Nathan, in contrast, just feel like ideas, opposite poles in a discussion over the differences between animal instinct and the ideals of human civilization in all its hypocritical splendor. Even though both men are given comic-tragic back-stories, neither is really a richly defined character. Puff is all impulses and his urges become a tiresome comic device when we watch him hump somebody or something for the eightieth time. Nathan’s preoccupation with social niceties is meant to be absurd (teaching table manners to mice?) and petty, a meaningless articulation of “high culture and values.” I did laugh out loud when Nathan was teaching Puff how to respond at the opera, complete with a constructed box seat. Nathan is a satirical punching bag for a bourgeois sensibility. Neither him nor Puff feel like characters, instead more like conflicting points of view of humanity.
The other disappointing aspect to Human Nature is as I declared in 2002, it feels like quirky for quirky’s sake screenwriting. Kaufman has become a screenwriting legend and he’s able to marry absurd, bizarre, and dangerous elements into meaningful and subversive and satirical masterstrokes, but the man cannot be expected to perform at the highest heights every time. Human Nature is stuffed full of wacky moments and wacky characters and it doesn’t feel like it ever amounts to more than the sum of its transitory parts. In contrast, 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once is an example of how one can take the most bizarre ideas and still find ways to tie them back in meaningful ways that braid into the larger theme. However, much of Human Nature feels like a quirk dartboard being hit over and over, a catalog of strange visuals and goofy ideas (Lila breaks out into song!) that fails to coalesce into a larger thesis like an Adaptation or an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the vastly underrated Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s directorial debut. He’s a master of the idiosyncratic, but Human Nature suffers because ultimately what does it have to say? Puff is set up for ridicule. Nathan is set up for ridicule. Even Lila is set up, though for murder. In the end, when Puff returns to the wild in a public galivanting that feels like a ceremonial bon voyage from the society that came to love him, he then scampers out of the woods and escapes back to the comforts of society with Nathan’s French mistress. In the end, is the point that we’re all rubes and hypocrites?
This was Gondry’s first film and it feels like a training vehicle for what would be his real masterpiece, 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite films ever. Gondry’s style is still recognizable, especially reminiscent of his tactile, kitschy, avant garde music videos he directed for Bjork, the queen of weird 1990s music videos. Gondry’s hardscrabble, idiosyncratic style was a natural match with Kaufman’s vivid imagination. It’s surprising that they never reunited after Eternal Sunshine. Gondry had a few movies (2006’s The Science of Sleep, 2008’s Be Kind Rewind) but they felt lacking, trifling without a stronger writer to guide and ground them in human drama. Gondry even tried his hand at studio action to middling results with 2010’s The Green Hornet. He mostly retreated back to music videos and commercials and had a short lived series on Showtime with Jim Carrey as a former children’s TV entertainer whose fantasy is blending with reality. It seemed like a good fit for Gondry, and a nice starring role for Carrey, but it was canceled after two seasons. Even the realm of music videos seems so far removed now, where Hollywood was snatching up every visual virtuoso.
Human Nature has plenty of familiar faces, no doubt eager to attach their names to a daring Kaufman movie. Arquette is winning and the best part of the movie. She would later win an Academy Award for her decade-in-the-making performance in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Now I enjoy her in a chilly, villainous role as the shady corporate boss on Apple TV’s stunning sci-fi satire, Severance. Robbins is officious to a fault here. He too would later win an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River. Poor Ifans, so big after his scene-stealing role in 1999’s Notting Hill, who never seemed to capitalize on his success (even his Spider-Man villain got the weakest treatment in No Way Home). He’s had a long career and prominent TV roles with Berlin Station and the Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. I did laugh out loud at his “yahoo” after being zapped by his electric shock collar. You’ll also see Rosie Perez, Peter Dinklage, Robert Forster, Toby Huss, Hillary Duff, and Mary Kay Place. As I said in 2002, acting is not the problem with Human Nature. It’s the writing and characterization that lets these people down.
I usually like to devote a paragraph to going back and re-evaluating my initial words from twenty years ago, but I agree with everything I wrote. Everything. That’s initially why I thought this would be a shorter review. What more am I going to say other than my initial opinion of this movie is the same opinion I have upon re-watching? With the distance, it’s even more clear to me that Human Nature is the weakest film of Kaufman’s career. Even a movie I didn’t really gel with, like 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, at least has a lot more ambition I can recognize. It’s a character study obfuscated with too much eccentric clutter but there’s still an artistic vision there, even if it didn’t work for me. Kaufman is too unique a voice to only have made three movies in the last 14 years, and it makes it even more frustrating when I don’t connect with his long-in-the-making projects. Human Nature is too limited in scope and characterization. It’s slightly interesting as a footnote to a great screenwriter but little more.
Re-Review Grade: C
Horror is likely the most forgiving genre out there for being derivative. Just about every modern horror movie wears its many influences, even the recent trend of elevated horror movies that are trying to say Big Things with equal amounts of arty style and bloodshed. There’s only so many monsters that can chase so many teenagers. Ti West (House of the Devil) is a director I haven’t fully enjoyed, though I would say X is his most accomplished film to date for me. It’s clearly going for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe and docu-drama aesthetic. It’s set in 1979 and we follow a ragtag film crew trying to make “a good dirty movie.” They’ve rented a guest house in the middle of nowhere Texas as their film site because who knows. The octogenarian couple who owns the farm property doesn’t seem to approve of these young folk, and the old lady ends up becoming the slasher killer that mows down the randy young adults. Turns out the old lady has her own urges that the old husband is no longer physically able to satisfy, so she seeks out solace one way or another with the newcomers, whether that be through her sexual satisfaction or through violence. To West’s credit, he has given more attention to his characters. These people are not going to be confused with three-dimensional figures but there’s enough character shading that made me more interested in spending time with them and a little more rueful that most of them will probably die horribly soon enough (Chekhov’s alligator). The slow burn is not wasted time or dawdling, and there are some very well-executed squirm-worthy moments of discomfort. I don’t think X quite works on that elevated horror level of late; it’s mostly a slasher movie with a dollop more complexity and style. The real reason to appreciate X is from the dual performances from actress Mia Goth (Suspiria), the first as a stripper-turned-ingenue that sees pornography as a path of possible self-actualization, but she’s also secretly the killer old lady under piles and piles of makeup. Her wild performances, including scenes where she is facing off against herself, makes the movie far more interesting. Goth goes for broke. I don’t think the X is as fun as it thinks it is, nor is it as thoughtful as it thinks it is, and I don’t know if I care about a prequel that was shot back-to-back that illuminates the killer old lady’s younger life. Is this character really that interesting to warrant her own movie? As a horror movie, it’s disturbing and bloody and surprising in equal measure even as it doesn’t do much with re-configuring the many conventions of its genre.
Netflix’s Choose or Die is one of those spooky horror movies that wants the audience to play its deadly games alongside the unfortunate characters, much like Saw and Would You Rather?, and I typically enjoy these kinds of movies and thinking what options or strategies I would undergo if I was in their place. The structure is pretty straight forward, with a young woman (Iola Evans) and her programmer friend (Asa Butterfield) coming across a cursed old school text-based computer video game that forces its users to make awful choices. The game turns itself on every 24 hours, so there’s a natural delivery of set pieces, each increasing in its personal stakes. There’s the amateur investigation of the history of this 80s video game and uncovering the possible owner who might be benefiting from all this cruelty and sadism. This is a movie built around its set pieces and they start strong. When the protagonist sees the game in action, with a poor diner worker force-feeding herself broken pieces of glass, it’s truly horrifying and the sound design makes it so much worse. The movie isn’t s gory as it could have been and implies a lot more than it shows. The problem with Choose or Die is that there are too many leaps in logic and characters doing silly things just for the sake of the plot. There needs to be an established system of rules or else everything will feel arbitrary, and eventually that is what dooms Choose or Die. Even while we get more of an explanation behind the makers of the game and their occult connections it never feels like we’re better positioned to beat the game. I will say the final act, the Boss Battle, is where the movie cranks things up and gets really intense and darkly humorous. There’s a showdown that involves a key concept of self-harm that plays out in moderately clever, bizarre, and surprising ways, and this splashy, silly finish made me wish the rest of the movie could have lived in this tonal space. I found the overall sound design to be very annoying as it cranked up the volume on lots of glitchy electronic noises that just made me want to turn it off. There are some good ideas here, like the criticisms of being too nostalgic to the past, and of misogynist men believing nobody else is deserving of being the hero of their story, but this is a movie that lives or dies on its killer set pieces, and those just fall flat after its unsettling first level. Watching someone vomit VHS tape is not scary. Watching people move their bodies like they have no control over them will inherently look goofy. Choose or Die wouldn’t be the worst choice of a movie to kill 85 minutes but it’s certainly not much more than the sum of its parts, and even those are overly derivative and been done better by its predecessors.
Choose or Die: C
Even after only two movies, I would trust the directing duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) with any movie. They have earned a lifetime pass from me. If these men can make the farting corpse of Harry Potter not just one of the weirdest movies of 2016, not just one of the best films of that year, but also one of the most insightful toward the human condition, then these men can do anything. It’s been six long years for a follow-up but it sure has been worth it. Everything Everywhere All At Once is, to be pithy, a whole lot of movie. Everything Everywhere (my preferred shorthand from here) is a miracle of a movie. It’s a wonder that something this bizarre, this wild, this juvenile, this ambitious, and this specific in vision could find its way through the dream-killing factory that is Hollywood moviemaking. This is the kind of movie you celebrate for simply existing, something so marvelously different but so assured, complex but accessible, and deliriously, amazingly creative. I’m throwing out a lot of adjectives and adverbs to describe the experience of this movie and that’s because it filled me with such sheer wonder and divine happiness. I am thankful that the Danirels are making their movies on their terms, and two movies into what I hope is a long and uncompromising career, I can tell that both of these gentlemen deserve all the accolades and plaudits they have coming. I’ll try my best not to sound like a simpering moron while I try to explain why this movie is so thoroughly outstanding.
Evelyn (Michelle Yeaoh) is a middle-aged Chinese immigrant who is taking stock of her disappointing life. She and her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), own a floundering coin-operated laundromat. They’re under audit by a dogged IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis). Evelyn’s disapproving father, Gong Gong (James Hong, still so great even into his 90s), has moved from China to live with the family, and he was never a fan of Waymond, looking down on his daughter for marrying the man. Then there’s Joy (Stephanie Hsu), Evelyn and Waymond’s twenty-something daughter, who wants to bring her girlfriend to dinner but mom still doesn’t accept her daughter’s queerness and uses the excuse of Gong Gong’s generational disapproval. Then, at the IRS agency, Waymond’s body is taken over by another Waymond, Alpha Waymond, who informs Evelyn that she is the key to saving a universe of universes, and she’ll have to tap into her alternate selves and their abilities to battle the evil destroyer, Jobu Tupaki, who wants to destroy all existence, and who also happens to be an alternate universe version of Joy.
Multiverses are definitely all the rage right now as they present nostalgic cash-grabs and cameos galore, but Everything Everywhere is a multiverse that is personal and specific. It’s based on all the paths the protagonist never took, and each allows her confirmation of what her life could have been, often more glamorous or exciting or initially appealing. A movie star. A famous singer. A ballerina. A skilled chef. Evelyn is a character paralyzed by the disappointment of her life’s choices, the malaise that has settled in, and the nagging feeling that things could have and should have been better. In one of the best jokes early on, Evelyn is told she’s the Chosen One not because she is special but because she is, literally, living the worst of all possible lives of the multiverse of Evelyns (then again the pinata Evelyn didn’t look like an upgrade). She has taken all the many bad paths and dead ends, but this positions her as the only one who has the power to tap into every other power and ability from her multiverse duplicates. It’s one thing to be feeling like you should have made a different choice in the past, and it’s another to get confirmation. This backhanded revelation could just serve as its own joke but it actually transforms into a philosophy that coalesces in the final act, that of all the universes and possibilities we could have had, the best one is the one we are actually present for. In another universe, one very much styled like In the Mood for Love, where a Waymond who was rejected by Evelyn long ago reconnects with her, mournful of what could have been, and says, “In another life, I would have really liked doing laundry and taxes with you,” in reference to Evelyn’s dismissive summation of what his unrequited romantic “what if” would have lead to. It’s such a poignant moment. By the end of the movie, it’s become a journey of self-actualization but tied to self-acceptance, where kindness and empathy are the real super weapons and the answer to the tumult of postmodern nihilism.
Smartly, the Daniels have made sure that a universe-hopping threat is actually connected to our hero in a meaningful manner. By making the villain an alternate version of Joy, it raises the stakes and forces Evelyn to have to confront her own parenting miscues and frayed relationship with her daughter. It’s the kind of decision-making that reinforces the emotional and thematic core of a movie that is spinning so fast that it feels like you might fall off and vomit new colors. Joy is an avatar of generational disconnect, inherited disappointment and resentment, but what really makes her relatable is the growing feeling of being over it all. Given the power to see everything in every universe, Joy concludes that life is overwhelming and without meaning. It’s the same sort of nihilism we might feel today as we doom scroll through our phones, eyes glazed over from the barrage of bad news, outraged click bait, and feeling of abject helplessness while the world spins on in an uncertain direction. It’s not hard to feel, as Joy, that it’s all too much to bear, and if she can experience everything then does it present value to anything? If she can always just sidestep to another universe, what does that do to the value of life? That’s the ethical conundrum with Rick and Morty, a show where they can swap characters from other dimensions to fix more costly mistakes. What Daniels attempts with Everything Everywhere is to tackle the same question but approaching a different answer: that despite everything, life matters, our relationships matter, and kindness and empathy matter most. Watching Evelyn and Joy, and their many different versions of mother and daughter, try to reach an understanding, it’s easy to feel that struggle and relate to wanting to feel seen. As Evelyn encouragingly says to one character at their lowest point, “It is too much to handle, yes. But nobody is ever alone.”
This is a dozen different kinds of movies, all smashed together, and each of them is utterly delightful and skillfully realized and executed. If you like martial arts action, there are some excellent fight sequences including a showstopper where Waymond wrecks a team of security guards with a fanny pack. The action is exciting and the martial arts choreography is impressive and filmed in a pleasing style that allows us to really appreciate the moves and countermoves. If you like wild comedies, there are many outlandish moments that combine low-humor and highbrow references. I’ll simply refer to one as finding payoffs for IRS auditor trophies shaped like butt plugs. This is one of the funniest American comedies in years. If you like family dramas, there is plenty of conflict across the board between Evelyn and Waymond and Joy, plus the specter of Gong Gong, and each person trying to communicate their dissatisfaction and desires for a better life. If you removed all of the crazy sci-fi elements, googly eyes, people’s heads turning to confetti, and what have you, this would still be a compelling human drama. When the movie isn’t working through ridiculous tangents, or eye-popping action, or a staggering combination of kitsch and intelligence, it’s building out its emotional core, the heart of the movie, the thing that makes all the gee-whiz fun matter, the family in flux. Likewise, this is a powerfully optimistic movie, life-affirming in all the best ways without being pandering, and one that is without any flash of ironic condescension. Sincerity is powerful and all over.
The movie is elevated even higher by the strength of the performances. Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) has spent decades as a martial arts master, and of late she’s been branching out in more demanding dramas, but this is easily the finest performance of her career for nothing less than playing a dozen different characters. She is sensational. The early Evelyn is full of despair and regret, and as she gets to explore each new version of herself, there’s an excitement that’s bristling, as she gets to see the successes she could have been and celebrate. Yeaoh is hilarious and deeply affecting in the central role and still very much a badass. She showcases starting range, it makes you weep that she has never gotten to play so many different kinds of roles because she’s so good at all of them. Hsu (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is the wounded soul, and her sneers and seen-it-all attitude are killer without losing track of the pain at the core of the character. Her emotional confrontations with her mother still hit hard. But the secret weapon of this movie is Quan, the former child actor best remembered as playing Data in The Goonies and Short Round in Temple of Doom. Yes, that same actor. He too gets to play such a wide, wild variety of Waymonds, from the doting and meek husband, to the confidant warriors, to the smoldering former flame, but with each new Waymond, Quan makes you fall in love with the original more. The character of Waymond and his central philosophy of kindness is so moving and needed, that we almost get to fall in love and re-evaluate this man the same way Evelyn does. Also of note, Curtis (Knives Out) is having an absolute blast as her menacing IRS agent.
It’s truly amazing to me that a movie can have some of the silliest, craziest, dumbest humor imaginable, and then find ways to tie it back thematically and make it yet another important thread that intricately ties into the overall impact of the movie. The genius of Daniels is marrying the most insane ideas with genuine pathos. Take for instance that one of the many multiverses involves people with hot dogs instead of fingers. It’s a goofy visual, and it could simply have been that, a passing moment to make you smile, but the Daniels don’t stop there. They continue developing their ideas, all of their ideas, and find additional jokes and purposes few could. Okay, so this is a big divergence from history, so how could humans evolve to have hot dogs for fingers? Well the movie actually showcases this moment in a hilarious 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. And then the film says, “Well, if this was the way of life, what other practices would evolve from here when it comes to communication and intimacy?” It’s that level of development and commitment that blows me away. The same with what starts as Evelyn’s misunderstanding of the Pixar movie Ratatouille. It works just as a joke in the moment, but then it comes back as its own reality, and even that reality has a thematic resonance by the end. This level of imagination, to take the weirdest jokes and make them meaningful, is special. In one second, I can cry laughing from a raccoon and in the next second a rock can make me want to cry. In essence, even though Everything Everywhere is beyond stuffed, nothing is merely disposable.
That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t also fall victim to repetition at points. My only criticism, and it might even be eliminated entirely after a second viewing, is that Daniels can over indulge when it comes to their narrative points. Some things can get stretched out, so that they hit points with five beats when three could have been sufficient. It’s this kind of mentality that pushes the running time to almost two hours and twenty minutes, which feels a bit extended. However, the messiness and overstuffed nature of the movie is also one of its hallmarks, so I don’t know if this criticism will even register for many, especially if you’re fully on board their wacky wavelength.
If you can, please go into Everything Everywhere All At Once knowing as little as possible. The carousel of surprise and amazement is constant, but the fact that there is a strong emotional core, that all the many stray elements become perfectly braided together, no matter how ridiculous, is all the more impressive. This is stylized filmmaking that is very personal while also being accessible and universal in its existential pains and longing. It’s style and substance and exhilarating and genius and emotionally cathartic and moving and everything we want with movies. It’s the kind of movie that reignites your passion for cinema, the kind that delivers something new from the studio system, and the kind that deserves parades in celebration. Simply put, as I said before, this is a miracle of a movie, and you owe it to yourself to feel this blessing.
Nate’s Grade: A
When is a 90-minute movie egregiously too long? When it’s like Windfall and lacking plot and direction and tone to justify all those minutes. The scaled-down production follows three characters confined to the grounds of one location. Nobody (Jason Segel) is trespassing and living on a fancy estate, complete with orange grove, but when the rich owners, CEO (Jessie Plemons) and Wife (Lily Collins), come home and find the mysterious man, he holds them hostage. From there, you would think the movie might be a comedy of errors, a social satire, and it’s not really. Or maybe you would think it’s a taught thriller with each side trying to manipulate the other, and it’s not really. It’s not really a comedy and not really a thriller, so its laughs are minimal, its thrills are trifling, and it comes down to spending too much time with characters that lack the depth to justify the investment. This movie is strictly kept at parable level, so the characters are meant as ciphers, hence the generic title names. These people are not that interesting to spend this much time with. The movie feels like an anecdote stretched beyond the breaking point and by writers I respect (Seven‘s Andrew Kevin Walker and Charlie McDowell, the writer/director of 2014’s The One I Love). That beguiling little indie movie also revolved around one luxury vacation home and a feuding couple but it had an intelligent sci-fi twist that kept things focused on characters and creative ingenuity. There is no such turn with Windfall. It’s all kept so frustratingly obvious, so the movie just feels plodding and meandering, like we’re simply waiting with the characters for things to end too. The insights are too few. The burst of violence at the end as climax feels unearned and too little too late to raise the stakes. Mostly, Windfall is a hostage drama that doesn’t want to be a hostage drama, a social satire that doesn’t want to be a social satire, a thriller that doesn’t want to be a thriller, and a movie that doesn’t have a consistent tone or direction or entertainment value.
Nate’s Grade: C