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Black Bear (2020)

What an intriguing little movie Black Bear turns out to be that inspires so much interpretation and dissection. I spent time reading through different interpretations on Reddit about writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s (Always Shine) surreal indie, each one providing new insights and connections. It all just made me realize even further how intriguing and rare a movie like Black Bear can be, an accessible puzzle that still works outside of the guise of sifting the pieces for larger meaning.

Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a director who is looking to rebound her career. She takes a retreat to a bed and breakfast out in the woods run by a husband and wife Gabe (Christopher Abbot) and Blair (Sarah Gadon). There’s a lot of tension between these two and perhaps some unwanted romantic advances toward Allison. Then the movie changes, and now Allison is an actress in a movie filming at the same cabin in the woods. Gabe is now her director and her husband, and Blair is now the co-star that she suspects is having an affair, both with her real husband and the husband character in the movie they are making. Things get a little weird from there.

There are really three primary stories here: 1) Allison sitting on the dock and then trying to write, 2) Allison coming into the realm of a dysfunctional married couple and adding extra jealousy and combustion, and 3) Allison is starring in an independent film that appears loosely connected to the second story, and this time she is being manipulated by her director/husband into thinking he is having an affair in order to add more realism to her screen performance. From there, the movie invites you to build your own connections from its many surreal parallels that fold onto one another begging for discussion. Is the second story what really happened in real-life to Allison and then the third story is the film version of these events, with the roles swapped for greater personal anguish? Is the third segment what really happened in real life and, in her anguish, she has projected her hard feelings into her own movie version of her torment, achieving a delayed vengeance? Are both segments mere fictional accounts from Allison in the first segment struggling through serious writer’s block? Dear reader, I cannot say because any of the interpretations I have cited, and many more, would be valid with enough careful corroborating evidence. I was delighted to read new takes. Part of the movie’s fun becomes building the meaning and finding more hidden clues after you’re done with it.

The second story plays like an identifiable mumblecore indie and one of the most awkward dinners you’d never want to be part of. Allison becomes the catalyst that pushes the husband and wife to open up their mounting disagreements and simmering conflicts with one another. He’s feeling like he’s compromised too much as an artist who still wants to be considered an artist, so he seeks a solidarity with their guest. She wants to bring a dash of reality to Gabe’s sense of self, which includes pushing him to adapt rather than holding onto a version of himself that no longer fits. Blair also seeks solidarity from a fellow woman to call out Gabe’s questionable viewpoints where he says life was simpler and perhaps better when gender norms were rigid. The night starts out amenable but ratchets up the discomfort moment by moment, opening up the characters and their histories and looking for allies through a cross-section of confrontation. We’re put in Allison’s position and different people might find fault with either husband or wife. Allison seems to enjoy being contrarian, admitting she was even lying about key points just to get or stifle a reaction from the others. As the night wears on, you worry mistakes will be made.

The third story is about twice as long and has multiple times the participants. Whereas the first film is a tightly wound threesome, this new story involves a small family of indie filmmakers. You start to notice repetitions and your mind begins to form potential connectivity. Allison is now starring in a movie directed by her husband, Gabe, who is carefully constructing a cruel ruse that he is engaging in an onset affair with her co-star, Blair. In the previous story, Allison was the interloper and thought to be the homewrecker, and now in this tale Allison and Blair have swapped positions. Gabe’s rationale is that he is pushing his wife to give the best performance of her career, where her powerful emotions will feed the role of the jealous wife breaking down. It’s blatant manipulation and again I was growing in fear that this was going to build to something calamitous and that a misunderstanding could have tragic, possible fatal results. The third story calls into question the complicity of artists when it comes to abusive behavior. Everyone benefits from Allison delivering a headline-grabbing comeback performance, their careers get a boost, and yet the torment she goes through is undeniable and it sure doesn’t feel justified for the sake of art.

Despite an amusing and diverse ensemble of the film crew, this is really a three-person movie and Plaza (Child’s Play) is the constant. For those saying Plaza will only be able to play some variation on her famous sarcastic, detached persona, I happily invite you to watch Black Bear because she is capable of so much more. The second story, the mumblecore version, is playing upon the kind of role we’re used to seeing from Plaza, which I must think the filmmakers anticipate. That’s why the next version either deconstructs it or perhaps contrasts it. With the third version, Plaza digs deep and unleashes some startling dramatic outbursts, enough that the crew feel entirely uncomfortable and perhaps a little guilty over how far things have gone. There are moments with Allison breaking down that reminded me of like Gena Rowlands in a John Cassavetes movie. There’s an extra meta layer to the performance where if you argue Plaza is going bigger than she should, well perhaps that is her portraying an actress who is modeling her breakdown after depictions in movies and award-caliber movies. Had I watched Black Bear mere hours before I handed in my critics’ nominations, I would have found a place for Plaza on my shortlist.

I invite you to watch Black Bear and join the discussion. It’s well written and engaging from moment-to-moment, so even if you don’t care about larger textual connections you can still enjoy yourself watching interesting characters simmer and explode. If your mind does enjoy rearranging the building blocks into more meanings, then the movie becomes even more fun. It’s also just a great showcase that proves Plaza is more than an actress stuck playing snide comedic roles. Seek out Black Bear, read other interpretations, and then craft your own.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)/ Unpregnant (2020)

Abortion is one of the most hot-button cultural issues even almost 50 years after the landmark legal case made the procedure legal in the United States. Two 2020 movies elected to normalize the topic of abortion as a healthcare option but through very different approaches.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always plays out like a horror movie but not just with the hard-hitting reality of abortion access for many in this country, it’s also a horror movie about being a teenage girl in modern America. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is 17 years old, a budding musician, and about 18 weeks pregnant with the baby of her abusive boyfriend. She’s living in small-town Pennsylvania and the closest clinic that will treat her and not require parental permission and notification is in New York City. Her best friend, Skyler (Talia Ryder), steals a stash of cash from their supermarket job and books bus tickets to the big city. They travel on their own without informing their parents. However, the two girls must run around the city to jump through bureaucratic hoops while their dwindling money supply makes their options more desperate.

The movie is steeped in realism, which at different points comes across as an indictment on the burdens placed upon young women, but it’s also an understated case that wants to preach through its actions rather than any hokey soap box moments. Writer/director Eliza Hitman keeps things simple and to the bone for her narrative. We follow Autumn sneak out and try and get an abortion, only to have to wait longer and longer, with no place to stay overnight in a city she and her friend are unfamiliar with. I was fearing for both Autumn and Skyler as their stay increased and their money supply decreased. Just about every man depicted onscreen has an ulterior motive. Autumn’s boyfriend is controlling and abusive (inspiring a song Autumn performs for a school talent show in the opening scene). The supermarket boss insists on kissing the girls’ hands when they turn in their registers at the end of their shift. The creepy guy on the bus clearly has his sights set on Skyler. The guy on the subway just starts masturbating while staring at them. Being alone, far from home, and limited in means and transportation, you feel an overwhelming dread that something bad is going to happen to these two girls and it will be at the hands of men. They are victimized in small ways and large throughout their very existence. This dread does not go away until the very end of the movie. Skyler walks away to make some risky choices to earn needed money, and it’s not exaggerated but you do worry you may never see her again. Surely, many will reflect, it shouldn’t be this arduous for women to seek legal medical procedures, and when mostly-male legislators create extra burdens, it pushes desperate people into danger. At no point does anyone opine about body autonomy or anything overtly political. However, the movie’s entire function is to demonstrate these undue burdens.

Flanigan has been getting serious Oscar buzz for her performance and deservedly so. Autumn is definitely intended to be a relatable representation for many women going through similar struggles. Much of the performance relies upon her guarded acting through a veil of emotional detachment. She’s been ground down by her small town, by her family, by her abusive boyfriend and his jerk friends, and this can make her seem like a numb zombie at points. Autumn isn’t, though, she’s just trying to stay afloat from trauma and anxiety eating away at her. Flanigan has a quiet strength to her that keeps you pinned to the screen. She does have one standout scene that I’m sure would be her Oscar clip. At one New York clinic, an employee runs through a standard questionnaire (where the film gets its title from) and hits upon whether Autumn has been coerced into sex she didn’t want to have, and that’s when the emotions of Flanigan’s performance break through, her eyes welling with tears, her inability to answer while still answering. The off-screen employee recognizes the confirmations and responds with adept compassion. With that you also can glean how many times this clinic employee has heard these same gut-wrenching responses.

Beyond being a dread-filled horror movie of discomfort, Never Rarely Sometimes Always also becomes an unexpectedly touching movie about the great lengths that friends will go for one another. While there aren’t extensive conversations about how much they love one another, the actions speak for themselves, much like the rest of the understated movie. It’s Skyler who takes the lead in putting together this journey, keeping track of their progress, and eventually doing what needs to be done to gain money to go home. Both Skyler and Autumn support one another and rely upon one another and will go the extra mile for one another. A hand held tightly can be all the confirmation we need of their love and friendship during the most trying of times.

Unpregnant is easily the more entertaining and light-hearted of the 2020 abortion movies, using a raucous road trip of misadventures to reform the friendship of two high school girls. While applying a lighter touch (it is, after all, titled Unpregnant) it doesn’t trivialize the experiences of those making these choices. Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is 17 years old, the valedictorian, and 6 weeks pregnant, Her lousy X-Games-aspiring boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) thinks it means they’re meant to be together forever. Veronica is mortified and certain she’s not ready to be a mother, let alone having Kevin’s baby. She’s afraid to tell her parents, her snooty friends at school, and so the only ally she can find is the outcast Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a former friend with access to a working car. They must travel from Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico to find the nearest state and clinic without first requiring parental permission and notification.

Unpregnant is very much a road trip movie with the assorted mishaps along the way pushing the two teens together and reminiscing about how close they used to be as friends until going down separate paths in high school. Naturally, the formula calls for them to each confront their own personal demons, assert themselves, and reconcile, and it happens at regular pit stops, but that doesn’t mean that Unpregnant isn’t satisfying just because you suspect where it’s going. The overall comedic tone takes you off guard, at least it did for me, and it happens immediately. We’re used to movies where abortion is a central storyline being heavy and depressing (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), and when they do go for some degree of comedy, it’s usually quite dark (HBO’s Girls) or satirical (Citizen Ruth). Unpregnant lets you know right from its peppy start that it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to find humor in the awkwardness. It’s also okay to assess choices relating to an unplanned pregnancy without the stigma of shame or guilt. The movie doesn’t downplay the character’s dilemma, but instead of the conflict being whether she will keep the baby or not, the crux of conflict is, much like Never Rarely Always Sometimes, on equitable access to abortion services. Whereas that Sundance drama overwhelms with dedication to its real-life hardships and hurdles, Unpregnant chooses to take on these same hurdles with incredulous defiance and an F-you attitude that still feels political but aligned with its tone.

All road trips are dependent upon the co-pilots, and Unpregnant is an infectiously enjoyable experience spending time with Veronica and Bailey bantering and ultimately reconnecting. They are fun, and despite the circumstances that make this movie’s plot, they still find ways to have fun with one another. There’s an easy affection for one another that warms your heart. They clearly care about one another and watching them reunite and grow in their admiration for one another makes me like them even more. With any road trip movie, you must enjoy the people you’re stuck with. I appreciated both making amends of their past, why they fell out as friends, and what moments shaped each into being the headstrong woman they are today. Bailey uses this opportunity to try and reconnect with her absentee father. Veronica uses it to test her boundaries of what she felt needed sacrificing to stay on her master plan of academic success. Their kinship reminded me of Booksmart. The chemistry is so good, the dialogue snappy without being self-conscious, and the big dramatic moments nicely felt without being cloying, that Richardson (Split) and Ferreira (TV’s Euphoria) really feel like amusing best friends.

As per road trip comedy rules, we go from place to place getting into new hijinks. I appreciated that the mishaps don’t derail the light-hearted tone and direction even when they get broad. The girls become potential criminals when Bailey confesses their getaway vehicle might belong to her mom’s boyfriend and she might not have gotten his permission. This raises the stakes while still keeping things fun and feisty. A pit stop in Texas turns into a suspense thriller parody as the girls discover the kindly couple giving them a ride might be religious zealots who won’t let them leave. This leads to a wacky chase scene that ends in a hasty faked death and trying to jump onto a speeding train like “old timey hobos.” There’s also a running gag where Kevin keeps resurfacing, not exactly taking no for an answer, and arguing his nice guy credentials that aren’t being as respected as he deems necessary. For those worrying out there, Unpregnant does not condemn all men in this heightened universe or look upon them with dark suspicion.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that Veronica does, in fact, get to her appointment and have an abortion. I also think its noteworthy how this is portrayed and its aftermath. She’s lead through the different steps of the procedure with the calm instruction from an empathetic nurse, they don’t sensationalize any of the medical realities, and afterwards Veronica comes back home and has a heart-to-heart with her mother who, while admitting she would not make the same choice, still emphatically confirms her love for her daughter. Veronica also admits that she feels like she should feel bad or ashamed or guilty and she doesn’t. She feels relieved, she feels deep down that she made the right call. Never Rarely Sometimes Always covers this same ground with level-headed clarity but I think there’s something extra appreciative for Unpregnant. Between the two, this is going to be the more widely viewed film. Its very ambition is to be a crowd-pleasing road trip comedy built upon the bond of female friendship. I would expect an indie drama to try and normalize abortion, but it’s another thing when a light-hearted and readily accessible comedy (it’s PG-13!) has the sensitivity to normalize abortion. Many viewers will find this approach refreshing and helpful. The topic of abortion should never be made flippant but it doesn’t need to be a condemnation of inevitable ruination and regret either.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a hard-hitting drama that’s understated, realistic, compelling, but also a little too numbing. It’s quite artistic and empathetic and yet it can also be quite grueling to endure. I was wincing when Autumn felt the need to batter her own pregnant stomach. It’s more than effective but also sometimes its understatement can be a hindrance. On the complete other end of the tone spectrum is Unpregnant, a funny and entertaining road trip that doesn’t dismiss the certainty of its female characters and their choices. Both movies are worthy of being viewed and will leave an impression and could change some hearts and minds on the subject of abortion if those same people are willing to listen. I just found one film to be more generally entertaining.

Nate’s Grades:

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: B

Unpregnant: B+

The Wager (2020)

The Wager is a gob smacking example about the utmost significance of screenplay structure and a lesson for others to learn and avoid. I was beside myself with frustration from this 90-minute movie available on Amazon streaming, occasionally yelling at my TV screen, but mostly I was dumbfounded by the storytelling choices. The wager of the title, which is also prominently noted in the synopsis attached for the film, doesn’t even occur until 78 minutes in. That’s right, you don’t get the hook of the movie until the very end. This astounds me. The Wager is an Ohio-made faith-based indie that generally bored me and occasionally made me guffaw or scream in bafflement. I’d wager unless you’re already among the faithful flock, you’re going to be unmoved and more than a little mystified by this tone-deaf drama.

Bruce (Ty Shelton) is a young man abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. He gets into trouble at school and eventually gets plunged into a life of crime against his will. As an adult (Jim Gloyd), he’s strung out on drugs and resorting to petty robbery to find his scores. His childhood friend Suzy (Stephanie Haff) runs into him at a casino and offers spiritual outreach, but Bruce wants nothing to do with God. That is until an angel enters his life with a big bet about reliving Bruce’s tortured past with a new perspective.

If you’re going to present a Christian spin on the classic It’s a Wonderful Life formula, having a guardian angel intervene in a person’s life to show them a highlight reel of memories and what could have been, why wait until there’s only ten or so minutes left in your entire movie? Once Bruce does review his tortured life, it includes scenes we’ve already seen, including his birth, which begs the question why we needed to see these moments twice. It’s not like what came before this celestial review needed 78 minutes of undivided attention. For the first 15 minutes, all that happens is that an abused woman gives birth, drops the baby on the doorstep of the police, and the officers call social services. Did we need that to take up 15 minutes? From there we witness young Bruce getting in trouble at school and then being kidnapped (oh, there will definitely be more on this later) and living life as a drug dealer. We spend an hour establishing Bruce’s life as being awful, from child to adult, and it’s repetitive and deflating. How many scenes do we need to see of Bruce sleeping on the ground or shooting up drugs or being pushed around? Not only could the far, far majority of this plotting have been condensed considerably, it would have been more impactful to watch Bruce reflect on his experiences by re-living them rather than dwelling in the extended misery that made me wonder if this was going to be a modern-day passion play. Truly, imagine It’s a Wonderful Life but we spent an hour of watching George Bailey haggle over business practices with Mr. Potter. This central screenwriting miscue is just so catastrophic to the entertainment factor.

We could have easily established adult Bruce being a troubled man and the people of his past having difficulty recognizing the man they thought they knew from the movie’s start. This would establish that bad things have happened, and he could hint at more that he doesn’t want to reveal, and then the end of your first act could be him hitting rock bottom and getting his angelic intervention. We don’t need more than 20-25 minutes to establish how crummy this man’s life is. When given an hour, it just becomes too crushing and risks undercutting the message of personal redemption. Learning with the character about his life’s hardships would be more engaging with him having to come face-to-face with the them and his guardian angel partner. It also allows us to not have to be dependent on chronology and jump around to the major events we need to best define Bruce. This obvious structure makes so much sense that I am shocked the filmmakers missed out. Having an angelic guide would also force the character into conversation and confrontation and potential reflection, giving us better insight into the man than simply watching the events on our own without commentary. Simply put, you shouldn’t name your movie after a key plot event that happens in the last 15 minutes unless you’re a disaster movie and the Big One is finally striking.

The mistakes in plot structure also harm the overall slack pacing. The pacing is practically nonexistent for long portions. The energy level is so subdued that I thought I might just fall asleep. The camera movements will often utilize long takes and slow pans with minimal cuts, which just makes the lack of energy that much more palpable. So many dialogue exchanges sound like people are just reanimated zombies, and so much dialogue feels needlessly expositional. People talk in that phony way where they’re constantly repeating what the other person says but turning it into a question. It’s an inauthentic way of conversing that reminded me of Neil Breen’s silly films. Take these examples of poor onscreen conversations and see what I’m talking about:

“I have no clue what we’re going to do in Science today.”

“Me neither. I guess we’ll find out soon.”

“You’re right. See you there.”

Wow, did we need to be privy for that vital information? Or how about:

“I know you have your troubles, but I know you.”

“No, you don’t. That’s just how I act around you. I don’t think you know.”

“Just stop. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make excuses rather than accepting yourself for who you really are.”

Isn’t writing better when characters just blurt out another person’s internal dilemma for the audience? Or:

“He asked me for Herb’s Garage.”

“Oh yeah. I remember that place.”

“We all did. So, I didn’t expect a thing.”

We needed less time with scenes like these, where it feels like characters are detached and drifting with excess time to fill. There’s one long hallway exchange between a young Bruce and Suzy that lasts over a minute of chit-chat that feels like they’re just reading off the script. The performances have that rushed feeling, of sentences starting immediately after the next, but lacking an energy level that would justify the delivery. Simply put, when two or more characters are sitting down and talking, you might as well go get a refill or hit the bathroom. The chances will be good they will still be in that same sedate conversation and you will have missed little. This is why the structural choice to spend 78 MINUTES OF MOVIE on establishment scenes is so maddening, because writer/producer/co-star Gloyd did not have the material to cover the time.

Let’s get into what I think is the most egregious portion of The Wager and that is the lengthy middle where Bruce gets kidnapped and coerced into a life of crime. I thought we were headed for some Oliver Twist territory and we’d watch Bruce’s struggles over the pressure to commit criminal acts he was uncomfortable doing, maybe even while he schemed to escape. First off, the fact that the criminals are stereotypical depictions of black males made me sigh. I also was confounded why they placed so much emphasis on kidnapping teenagers and runaways to serve as drug dealers. When you have access to money and power, you have people that will come to you for opportunities (you’re a job creator). You don’t need to kidnap children and hold them hostage to sell your wares, especially having to worry whether they will run away or whether someone will recognize them as missing. It’s stupid risk. Considering these men just sit in the car and watch young Bruce make his first street corner deal, it’s not like they’re being terribly conspicuous.

And then there’s the undetermined time jump, which is revealed during one of those static camera angle montages. It’s a nice surprise; however, it means that Bruce has been sleeping on this same dirty mattress in the same room for, like, twenty or thirty years (also none of the items on the shelves moved in that same time, meaning Bruce never touched a thing in his living quarters or he is very, very particular about where things should go). The same crime bosses are still alive and in their same position of leadership. Bruce is now played by Gloyd in a horrendous looking ratty wig and I needed to know desperately how much time has passed. Gloyd definitely looks to be in his 40s, and this significant jump in time raises so many irksome questions. The police haven’t found adult Bruce in 30 years but the same officer who found him as a baby, who is still alive and working as a security officer, can recognize him on the spot? How old are these same criminal leaders then, and Bruce hasn’t ascended higher up the organization than street dealer? If we’re jumping that far ahead, wouldn’t it make more sense for Bruce to be the new leader, letting us know he has been molded under the negative influence of his captors? If he’s just going to be a drug-addicted adult then why do we need to jump so far ahead in time? The answer, it seems, is so that the writer/producer can have a starring role. That’s fine, but we could have done more structurally to maximize the drama rather than dwelling in redundant misery.

Let’s analyze the spiritual message at the heart of The Wager. Bruce’s life is pretty bad. He’s in and out of foster homes, gets abducted and held hostage as a criminal lackey, becomes addicted to drugs and desperate, and then homeless and contemplating suicide. He’s had, by all accounts, a hard go of things. He’s understandably resentful about the forces he feels have conspired to lock him into agony, so when other characters raise the notion of a loving God that has his back and watches over him, Bruce scoffs and views his life as refutation. There’s even a nature versus nurture argument to be had. In fact, the first time Bruce went to Suzy’s church was when he was abducted. The cop character tells Bruce he’s been praying for him since the moment they first crossed paths, but considering what Bruce has endured, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of prayer. Now obviously Bruce will conclude with accepting the love of God and finding a greater purpose with his life, but why did we need to wait so long? The end is never going to be in doubt with a Christian-themed indie any more than whether or not James Bond will get out of his latest scrape. That’s why refocusing the structure onto Bruce having to confront an angel over his feelings of abandonment from God would be far more dynamic, powerful, and I’ll say it, even Christian than the message as presented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith and credentials of the filmmakers. I’m saying the way they go about telling their story makes the overall message less believably impactful.

The acting in The Wager is typically rather flat, given that energy-sapping direction that makes each scene feel twice as long. However, there is one actor I want to single out and that’s Cameron Arnett (Overcomer) as the unfortunately named Gabe Angelus (get it?). Arnett reappears in different roles, my favorite being a batty homeless man that helps out Bruce from time to time. In that moment, Arnett is so believable and arguably natural even while playing a highly mannered character. He immediately drew my attention and I remarked, “Here’s a good actor.” As for the other thespians, it’s hard for me to tell whether they just didn’t get the material to showcase their skills or whether those skills are in need of polishing. I know KateLynn Newberry (Widow’s Point, Dark Iris) as the queen of Ohio indies, and she’s pretty much wasted as a doting wife who lives to ask her husband what he wants for dinner. Fun fact: one of the crime lords is played by former Columbus resident and famous boxer James “Buster” Douglas.

With The Wager, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Obvious dramatic setups seem to be sorely missed, a structural reformatting was in dire need to maximize the hook, because without that it’s like watching one poor man spiral and suffer for an entire feature-length film. It feels like overwrought overkill. Do we need a half-hour of a guy slinging drugs and sticking needles in his arm, without any supporting characters to interact with, or can this information be conveyed with practiced brevity? I am amazed at so many choices that left me scratching my head. The movie ends with our guardian angel staring into the screen and laughing maniacally for several prolonged seconds, even over the cut to black. What? This is the kind of behavior we associate with evil beings. Why do we need a flashback of a young girl running out the door when the adult version could have just relayed this event in words? I know Christian movie audiences aren’t exactly the most discerning audiences, prioritizing message over storytelling and technical achievement, but the decisions that the filmmakers make impair that faithful message. You don’t make an It’s a Wonderful Life story and just reserve it for the last 15 minutes. I advise select people to watch The Wager simply to learn what not to do with the importance of screenwriting structure. That’s its ultimate cautionary tale.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Minari (2020)

Gentle, heartwarming, and deeply authentic, writer/director Lee Issac Chung’s semi-autobiographical movie about growing up in rural Arkansas in the 1980s won the top honors at Sundance and is poised for an Oscar run by its studio into 2021. Each moment in Minari feels plucked, fully realized, from the personal experiences of Chung. There’s an intimacy here that cannot be imitated. It’s a story about immigration, assimilation, hopes and the American dream, as well as struggles, setbacks, economic anxiety, and fitting in and figuring out the world around you. We spend time equally between the parents (Steven Yeun, Jeri Han) and their youngest child, David (Alan S. Kim), as the Korean transplants try their luck as farmers. Their elderly grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) moves in with them to provide childcare and assistance where able. At first, the kids declare their grandmother is “not a real grandmother” as she doesn’t bake cookies or do typical grandmother pastimes, but in time, she learns the ways of the new culture and becomes a lover of televised professional wrestling. It’s a small-scale story about a family trying to stake their claim at a better life and beset with challenges; the son has a heart murmur, their property is so far from other Korean immigrants to be part of a community, the land’s sources of water can be fickle for crops, the mounting mortgage payments. It ultimately becomes a push between personal goals and family unity, and then Minari ends in a way that made me feel like I was cheated out of a real ending. I suppose there’s a lesson to be had about life just moving on, resetting after tragic setbacks, and this plays into the real-life rhythms of this gently observational movie with its well of compassion. I also found myself starting and stopping the movie often and stretching out my viewing as I was distracted with other tasks. I never doubted Chung’s love for his story and his characters. Like the similarly themed Nomadland, this is a movie of quiet moments, and your mileage will vary whether they add up to a more complete whole or understanding. There are moments that tugged at my heart, like the grandmother hugging her grandson tight and swearing to protect him from any death coming in his sleep, or the kids folding paper airplanes that declared “Don’t Fight” as their parents argue. It’s a mostly restrained, quiet, slow-moving sort of story that gives you a peak into the lives of others. It’s so specific and finely textured to be genuinely authentic. The family’s very normality as an American immigrant experience is the movie’s big thesis and a reminder that there are thousands more stories to be told about what it means to be an American.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nomadland (2020)

Part poetic elegy for an America of old, part sunset-tinted road trip, part condemnation of economic fragility, part character study of a lost soul who prefers wide open spaces, Nomadland is a small indie trying to say a lot but in as few words as possible. Consider writer/director Chloe Zhao’s film a mixture of the compassionate, languid colorful character-driven slice-of-life Linklater movies and the romantic, spiritual hymns to nature and the universe from Terrence Malick. It’s ultimately about Fern (Frances McDormand) as a woman who travels the American southwest from season to season in her van, going from one temporary job to another. The temptation would be to make it about her running away from her past, her pain, and need to finally process her grief in a transformative way before she can settle down and make herself a home. Zhao’s movie rejects that easy formula; there are several moments where characters implore Fern to plant roots, to have a comfortable life with a man who adores her, but she can’t. She has to keep moving, from job to job and state to state. It’s not like a rejection of privilege and standing like 2007’s Into the Wild. If Fern could be rich, she’d happily not have to crap into a bucket in her van or sleep in parking lots or scrounge for food. She’s one of millions on the fringes of society because of how disposable so many corporations view their laborers. The opening text tells us that within one year of the factory in Fern’s hometown closing, the chief employer of the town, that its zip code was dissolved. Nomadland doesn’t ever feel like a preachy movie but it definitely has points it wants to raise about how we treat people in need, how business exploits them and their lack of options, and how others view these itinerant Americans and their plight. Really, though, it’s a movie of moments and there are some that are beautiful and powerfully poignant, like a woman stricken with cancer talking about her final desire to return to a lake frequented by birds, or another character discussing the death of his son and how that has informed his view of God and an afterlife. It’s these moments where a character just seems to take center stage and become fully developed, adding to Zhao’s humanist thesis about how every person, no matter their circumstances, is worthy of compassion and consideration. I enjoyed McDormand (Three Billboards) and thought she was a fine entry point into this under-seen world. I also think she was better served as a sort of living journalist letting us discover non-professional actors that open up their hearts and lives and feel like genuine human beings with a wealth of life inside them just waiting to be learned. That gracious, affirmative spirit hangs over every lovely frame and moment in a movie that could be described as Frances McDormand Tries All the Jobs. Still, it’s a movie of moments, and some of them truly sing and others just sort of go by without leaving as much of an impression. Nomadland is a pretty, thoughtful, meditative movie about persistent, stubborn creatures, namely us.

Nate’s Grade: B

Promising Young Woman (2020)

“I’m a gentleman,” says a man at his bachelor party, trying to bashfully turn down any sexual antics with the women paid to entertain him and his friends for one boozy night. He’s also trying to indicate he’s “not like those other guys” and genuinely respects women. He gets it. “Well,” says the woman in the shiny fetish outfit, “I’ll have you know in my experiences that ‘gentlemen’ can often be the worst.” This line summarizes Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller in a post-Me Too era that is unsparing to all those who would proudly say, “Well, I support women.”

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) was the top of her class at med school. Then her best friend was sexually assaulted at a party while she was inebriated, which allows the university to paint her as guilty and the accused as blameless (“What do you expect when you get drunk?” kind of victim-shaming). Years later, Cassandra has never been the same. She poses as a drunk at clubs and waits for her knight in shining armor to take her home, and often these modern men of chivalry prove to be creeps looking to take advantage of women and in needing of some harsh medicine.

This is a movie that walks a fine line to stay out of the shadow of becoming just another exploitation film with a higher gloss. I was yelling at the screen early about the choices men were making with susceptible women in their care. Admittedly, it plays upon that icky genre and taps into our inherent feelings associated with it as well as vengeance thrillers, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (TV’s Killing Eve) smartly subverts our expectations and loyalties. We want Cassandra to achieve her righteous vengeance regardless of the moral or psychological effect it has upon her because vengeance is satisfying. We want to see bad people who have escaped punishment suffer, but Fennell challenges the audience to see how far we’re willing to go for this goal. There are moments where it appears that Cassandra is going to go the extra step to antagonize her targets, and this might involve facilitating other innocent women into potential danger. It’s a sharp turn that asks the audience how badly they want to hold onto that righteous sense of indignation. Do all ends justify the means? Now I won’t confirm whether or not Cassandra follows through for the sake of spoilers but this is one very knowing movie about how to make its audience uncomfortable. Obviously, dealing with the subject of sexual assault and predatory men, it should be uncomfortable because of the nature of the subject, but Fennell has a wicked sense of when to twist her audience into knots. She doesn’t let anyone off the hook easily and that includes her heroine and those close to her. Nobody looks clean here. It makes for a truly surprising experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective.

One early scene stood out to me and let me know that Promising Young Woman was going to have more on its mind than bloodshed. Cassandra is walking home from a night out in her same soiled clothing and eating a sloppy hotdog with ketchup running down her body. A group of construction workers watch her and begin yelling from across the street, harassing her with unwanted sexual advances while they yuk it up. Cassandra stops, turns her head, and simply stares them down. She doesn’t glare at them or shout at them; all she does is look in silence. The workers get quiet very fast and then after several seconds they become angry and defensive, uncomfortable from her attention, and they walk away insulting her. Didn’t they want her attention? Weren’t they boasting? By merely drawing her focus onto these men and making them mildly reflective of their behavior they became uncomfortable and elected to leave. This scene only plays out for like twenty seconds and yet it serves as a symbol for what Fennell has planned with the rest of her thriller. She is going to take what you want and make you re-examine it with a fresh perspective that might just make you rather uneasy and disgusted with yourself.

The first half of the movie establishes a routine that explains what Cassandra has been doing since dropping out of med school. She’s never been able to move on from the trauma of her past and so she seeks out new potential perpetrators to inflict pain upon or scare straight through tests. By the second incident, we adjust to her formula and lie in wait for Cassandra to strike back. She’s the smartest person in the room and it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch her enact her plans. This avenging angel routine runs into a roadblock when she reunites with a friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon. They share a meet cute that involves Ryan drinking a coffee that Cassandra has spit into as a declarative sign of his interest (trust me, I’m making it sound far creepier than it plays onscreen). They go on several dates and have a palpable romantic chemistry together. This is aided by Fennell’s excellent dialogue, which can be cutting when it needs to and also supremely charming when it wants to be. It’s a peculiar rom-com but on its own terms, including unashamedly reclaiming a forgettable Paris Hilton pop song with full sincerity. At this point, Promising Young Woman is sizing up a choice between following vengeance and following romance. It’s a formulaic fork in the road and Fennell completely understands this, as she’s also testing the audience how much they are willing to sacrifice to see Cassandra check off her guilty names. This storyline doesn’t feel like a cheap alternative either. I liked Ryan and Cassandra together. However, Fennell stays true to her poison-tipped plans and this storyline becomes another chapter in her larger thesis on the condemnation of “boys will be boys” rationalization.

There is another scene worthy of being hailed because it goes against your and the character’s expectations (some spoilers). Cassandra tracks down the lawyer responsible for defending the university and discrediting her friend once she came forward with her rape accusation. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is this man and he’s quite antsy because he has been waiting for months for a visitor he anticipated would inevitably arrive. He’s been let go from his firm after having what they refer to as a “psychotic break” and what he refers to as a crisis of conscience. He’s made a career over sliming victims’ reputations, a fact he confesses has been made infinitely easier by modern technology. “We used to have to go digging through the trash,” he says, “But now all we need is one picture on Facebook of the girl at a party and you’ve got jury doubt.” Cassandra is taken aback by how eager this man is, not for absolution which he believes he will never earn, but to be punished. It’s not like a weird fetish but a genuine accounting of what he feels he deserves. It’s a short scene but it challenges Cassandra and the audience about the potential of redemption and forgiveness. This is what she wants after all, people to account for their part in the injustice that happened to her friend and to make amends for their guilt.

Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Mulligan has been an enchanting and empathetic actress since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, the source of her lone Oscar nomination. I’ve never seen her quite like this before. She has a natural sad-eyed expression, which made her perfect for Daisy Buchannan in the new Great Gatsby. With this role, she’s taken those natural sad-cute instincts and carved them out and replaced it with bile. Mulligan gets to play multiple false versions of Cassandra as she adopts disguises and personas to dupe her prey. This also makes the viewer subconsciously question which version they see is the real Cassandra. Is it a distortion upon a distortion? How well can we ever get to know this woman? I think Mulligan is most deserving of her second Academy Award nomination for this bracing, incendiary turn.

This is Fennell’s directorial debut and it will not be her last time in the director’s chair. Her command of pace and visuals can be sneaky good, framing figures to squeeze in potent symbolism as well as ratchet up tension and discomfort. The visuals can also be comedic poetry, like the opening images of men in khakis gyrating and thrusting on a dance floor. She also demonstrates supreme restraint where needed. The sexual assaults of past and present are never visualized but they are not mitigated either. She also has a tremendous ear for music. This soundtrack is sensational from the club bangers to the old timey country ditties. It feels as exceptionally selected as any Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. The score by Anthony Willis is deeply emotive with its use of strings and cello. They deliver a cello cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s as if the filmmakers made this choice specifically for me.

If there is one slight downside, I’d have to say many of the supporting characters are under developed. There are plenty of famous faces in this enterprise, like Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but most of them are deposed for a scene and then vanish. It starts to feel like a series of guest appearances from actors as they’re passing through town. Alison Brie (Happiest Season) has a longer and slightly more nuanced part as a former college friend who betrayed Cassandra when she needed her most. This character, along with Birtton’s school dean, illustrate that just because you happen to be a woman does not automatically mean you will be a helpful ally. I view it less as a snide “girls can be bad too” equivalency and more an indication just how insidious and prevalent rape culture can be and condition people into gross excuse-making complacency. I will say that it was nice to have Clancy Brown play a normal dad role and he was sweet too.

Beware, men of the world, the next time you size up a pretty young thing who looks meek and helpless. Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”

Nate’s Grade: A-

I’m Your Woman (2020)

I’m Your Woman does for the gangster/crime genre what You Were Never Really Here did for the loner revenge thriller, namely demystify popular tropes and find a humanity often missing below the surface. We’ve been inured to gangster cinema for decades and love following the criminal antics of bad men without fully thinking about the collateral damage on the periphery of their story. I’m Your Woman imagines a typical crime story but from a very human perspective, focusing on the wife who has to deal with the confusion and fallout from her husband’s misdeeds. It’s a refreshing and modern take that works as moody paranoia thriller just as much as it does a subversion of them.

It’s the 1970s. Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is married to a man who she knows does some very bad things. One day Eddie (Bill Heck) comes home with a baby that he declares is theirs. Where did this baby come from? Jean cannot say but she chooses to raise this child as her own son. Another day, her husband goes out with some friends and never comes back. One of his associates barges into her home in the middle of the night, bloodied, and tells her that Eddie is gone and she needs to likewise be leaving in a hurry. He tasks Cal (Arinze Kene) to drive Jean and her baby out of town, watch over her, and wait until the heat dies down or everyone else just ends up dead.

And with that, the movie is off to a gallop and Jean doesn’t know what’s happened to her life, only that it’s bad, and she doesn’t know where her husband may be, or even if he’s alive, but she’s told that people will be coming for her to get to him or to punish him, and so she must be whisked away in the middle of the night into hiding. We as the audience are left very much in the dark with Jean, and this precious little information allows us to very strongly feel her paranoia and anxiety. Every scene when she’s been left alone and sees a car coming closer, every knock on the door, it raises the suspense because your mind, like hers, is questioning everything. Admittedly, some will find this to be rather boring and a lacking perspective, but I thought the approach of director/co-writer Julia Hart (Stargirl) was to highlight the perspective of a character often taken for granted and forgotten in gangster cinema and its celebration of doomed antiheroes. We’re used to criminals neglecting their molls, and I’m Your Woman declares its allegiance right in the title. We’re on the run with this woman, trying to make sense of the plight as we go, and being trapped in a position of limited information is an intriguing and relatable dash of realism.

There are violent outbursts from time to time, but much like You Were Never Really Here (the two of these movies would make a good double-feature, folks), the violence is far from glorified and often denied to the viewer. Much of the violence is depicted off-screen and we watch Jean stumble upon its awful consequences, again linking up with the perspective of a bystander to the careening violence and mayhem from her romantic attachment to a life of crime. There’s a mass shooting inside a club that is deeply unnerving because of our limited perspective. We’re tethered to Jean and hear the off-screen gunshots getting closer, the screams of civilians, and the camera keeps running without a cut as she dashes down a long corridor but cannot find an exit. She ducks into a phone booth and we watch armed men pass by. She waits and makes her escape, tripping over bleeding bodies, and the camera continues in one ongoing take. It’s nerve-wracking but it also denies us coherency or clarity which makes it so much scarier (I was having visions of what people might have gone through with the Pulse nightclub massacre). Given its subject, there are moments of sudden, shocking violence but often it’s to disorient us and not as some delivery system of satisfaction. It would be very easy to follow a more traditional formula for Jean where being thrust into fending for herself turns her into a steely killer that lays waste to the men hunting her as finds her own means of authority. That was essentially the plot of last year’s The Kitchen, a fairly mediocre and disappointing movie about threatened mob wives. That’s not this movie. Jean doesn’t become a ruthless mob boss. She certainly attains an agency that she didn’t have at the start of the film and a well-earned resilience, but she’s always a grounded, frantic, and relatable person trying to keep their wits and not serve up a witty retort.

Because much of the movie involves the protagonist in wait and picking up small pieces of information to reform her sense of self and her dire circumstances, the digressions had better be worth it. I fully believe I’m Your Woman is going to be a divisive movie and it will entertain likely as many people as it leaves cold. I found the small digressions to be interesting and doing their part to strip away the movie world heroics and trappings, allowing people to simply act like recognizable people. There are little things that stand out, like a kind neighbor simply recognizing how exhausted a new mother looks, or a method of soothing a baby passed down from father to son, or the discussion of making a child laugh being the clincher for parental ties. There’s a lovely moment halfway through where Jean and Cal are stopping at a café. She delivers a monologue about her unexpected child, about her inability to carry a pregnancy full-term, about her prior miscarriages and her divining what that means about her involvement in crime, and it’s one of those moments where it feels like a character is just baring their soul. Jean is so vulnerable, so remorseful, but also so lost yet hopeful of what being a mother could mean for her, a title she says she tries to downplay but had really been her heart’s desire. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Cal and those he links Jean up with later. There’s a found family aspect of dislocated people trying to navigate the hand they’re dealt without pity or commiseration. When the movie stops to take a breath, that’s when it kept solidifying its growing authenticity for me.

Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is a fine anchor. She has to constantly be alert and anxious, as well as exhausted, so even when she’s at rest her character can never fully be rested. It means that even during the quiet moments alone, Bosnahan is giving the viewer a terrific sample of non-verbal acting prowess. I appreciated that Jean isn’t stupid. She’s ignorant insofar as she lacks crucial knowledge, but throughout I’m Your Woman she responds to potential threats and suspicions in ways you would hope and avoids more than a few disasters. Brosnahan also has an easygoing chemistry with Kene (How to Build a Girl) that makes them a winning team.

I found I’m Your Woman to be a refreshing take on crime stories by re-examining life from a character very often left behind while the men run their schemes and accrue their violent demise. It’s an interesting character study of a gangster’s moll and what living with the consequences of a bad marriage can involve. There’s terror and bloodshed but it never feels sensationalized or glamorized. Our heroine proves herself capable of surprising those who discount her, but that doesn’t mean she transforms from a scared, confused, and desperate person into an action hero. The filmmakers have brought a reflective and humanist take on the gangster genre, and your appreciation will likely also benefit from familiarity with the genre and its tropes. If you’re subverting expectations, knowing those expectations is somewhat essential to the desired effect. I’m Your Woman is worth your time if you ever wondered about the life of so many of those underwritten, possibly stock supporting roles in a gangster movie and asked about their interior lives.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Ammonite (2020)

Fair or unfair, my mind kept comparing Ammonite to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another period film about repressed women, furtive expressions of forbidden love, and isolation-fueled intimacy, and Ammonite was inferior in every regard. In all fairness, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of the best films of 2019 and deeply emotional, romantic, and sumptuous. It would be hard for many films to compete in direct comparison, and as such Ammonite can’t compare.

In 1840s England, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a nationally renowned paleontologist. She spends her days digging up fossils along the rocky shore of her small town, caring for her aging mother, and keeping to herself. Her life is turned upside down when Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) becomes her boarder while recuperating from some melancholia following a miscarriage. Charlotte wants to learn from Mary but Mary is more annoyed, and yet the two lonely women find a kinship in one another that turns into a romantic courtship neither knows where it will lead.

Repressed romances work best when you feel the connection between the characters, a growing hunger or desire, and you’re compelling them together from afar. This was the case for me with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This was not the case for me with Ammonite. I cannot tell you why either Mary or Charlotte fall for one another. Neither is a very interesting character, especially Mary, who is very private and closed-off. She’s been hurt in the past with a previous gay romance (an underused Fiona Shaw) so likely gun-shy about risking vulnerability once more. There are mentions about her career and the satisfaction it provides but much of it is kept as generalized motivation, a woman making a name for herself in a man’s world. Charlotte is recoiling from a personal tragedy and an absent husband, but why do these two feel any spark of romance for one another in this oppressively drab setting? There’s more intense heat between Winslet and her fossils than with Ronan. It feels like we’re only at this point out of boredom and a lack of better options.

For a movie about repressed passions, Ammonite is decidedly grey. This muted color palette and tone extends to everything about the movie. It’s all grey skies, grey pebbles, grey shores, grey bonnets, grey leggings, grey carts, grey houses, grey this, grey that, irrepressible grey. This dreary life is effectively conveyed and saps the movie’s energy. The characters go about their dreary lives that you, as the viewer, are begging for some renewed life to emerge. We’re begging for these characters to find something with one another because the world, as depicted, is bereft of life and excitement. To that end, the movie has established a favorable threshold to succeed and yet it still falls short.

This stark, stately, and tight-lipped style of writer/director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) smothers the resulting romance and drama at play. These two women should be able to unwind with one another, open up, become their true selves the rest of the world is denied, something that cannot be manifested separately. They should be more interesting together, plain and simple. This person should unlock something within. I don’t feel like I gained any more insight into either Charlotte or Mary when they were together. Part of this is because it takes so long to get there and also because their coupling seems, in retrospect, to be completely surface-level in personal meaning. Looking back from its completion, it appears that each woman seems to misread the other person and what their intimacy has meant. I’ll credit the filmmakers for at least tacking on a resolution that amounts to more than “woman returns to husband and they can never ever be together again because Evil Patriarchy.” There is an ending but it’s not that much better than the two of these women sadly parting knowing they’ll never see one another again and that this brief time together will remain precious. I don’t know if I’m supposed to leave with the impression that Charlotte and Mary have the opposite conclusion. While they likely enjoyed the companionship and sex, as the camera seemed to, it seems like maybe both women are realizing that’s where it stops. If this was the intended goal, that’s fine, but don’t set up the entire estate of your storytelling upon this romance if it’s meant to fizzle. This ends up becoming the latest film example of Women Looking Sad in Bonnets.

I’m sorry dear reader but I was growing bored with this movie. In comparison, I was spellbound with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and found its awakened passions to be luminous and directly tied to two interesting characters. Charlotte and Mary are quite boring. Again,  they have potential to be interesting; any lesbian romance set in the 1840s certainly has potential for appealing drama. I was asked by my girlfriend, who herself was giving voice to an argument carrying on social media, why there must be no shortage of forbidden queer romances, and why can’t gay audiences just have movies where gay characters can fall in love and be comfortable being gay? It’s a legitimate question, though my only answer is that these period piece queer tales inherently involve internal struggles given the secrecy and consequences that make for ready drama for big-time actors. There’s also the fact that Mary Anning is a celebrated paleontologist and recognized superstar in her field and there is no evidence that any of her close female friendships were anything more than that. I’m fine with rewriting historical figures as queer and changing things up (I heartily enjoyed the queer revisionism in The Favourite) as long as it still makes the people interesting. Imagine taking a historically celebrated female paleontologist, making her gay, and then somehow making this character even more boring? How do you even do that?

Winslet (Steve Jobs) does a fine job of looking and acting glum. My trouble was trying to determine what points of life were recognizable with her character. How does one acknowledge what this change agent is doing to her when she’s, by nature, so insular and shut off? Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses and can do so many amazing things, and yet her guiding directorial note must have been, “Can you dial it back even more?” There’s a fine line between subtlety and just being lifeless. Ronan (Little Women) has even less substance to work with. At first, her character is suffering and lonely, but she leaps at companionship with abandon. Her character doesn’t seem like she’s wild or reckless or impulsive in any other regard. She stops wearing black when she embraces her feelings for Mary (Get it? She’s no longer in mourning). Still, Charlotte’s ultimate view of the world is one of privilege but this doesn’t inform her character until the very end. Ronan does her part making an audience believe she’s lovesick for Mary, but feeling it is another matter, and even an actress of Ronan’s caliber cannot accomplish this with this flagging script.

Ammonite is so drab, so passionless except during its sweaty sex scenes, that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would even bother making this story come alive in the first place. If you’re all about furtive gestures and glances and the color grey, well you might be in luck. Look, I’m just going to be blunt. If you’re even remotely thinking about watching Ammonite, just seek out and watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s superior in every regard and a forbidden romance that is actually, surprise surprise, romantic and full of evocative feeling. Plus it’s French, so automatically more romantic. Watch that instead.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Alan and the Fullness of Time (2020)

I don’t think I’ve come across a movie with a title as curious in recent years as Alan and the Fullness of Time. This Ohio-made indie was created for a predominantly Christian marketplace so, fairly or unfairly, I went in expecting more emphasis on the message than the storytelling. I figured the titular “fullness of time” would be a larger lesson about using the time God has given you, seizing the day and such, or maybe even related to time travel (no such luck). What I got certainly felt like it was far from the fullness of its own meager running time and ideas.

Alan (Brooks Harvey) is a normal teenage boy except he isn’t. His parents belong to a Christian sect that has for generations plotted to protect a special savior. Alan wants to live a normal life, hanging with friends and going to parties, but he is thrust into a war between heaven and hell. After an attack at home, Alan is on the run to learn about his identity and accept his destiny.

This movie is maddeningly unclear in just about every aspect of storytelling. It feels like you’re watching a Mad Libs version of a story with missing blanks where there should be essential information. It seems like Alan is a classic Chosen One archetype along the lines of a Christian Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Writer/director Markus Cook (The Deceived) repeatedly reminds the viewer how important Alan is in the larger scheme and how special he is but this is never fully explained except in very general terms meant to apply to any person watching, contributing to the idea that every life is important. That works as a comforting message but it doesn’t work explaining why Alan alone is so special. Likewise, if he’s so special and in hiding, why was he allowed to leave the house or go to a public school? The character would be far more compelling if he was a recluse not allowed to leave the house because his parents were overly protective with good reason. Sending the Chosen One that demons are looking for to a public school just seems careless (not an indictment on the quality of education). For that matter, why do these demons even bother waiting to attack? The Act One break involves demons attacking Alan’s parents and forcing him on the run, but if they’ve already infiltrated his school and are posing as his friends, why are they waiting? These are the kinds of things that add up and make a plot feel careless and under developed, and it starts early and often with Alan.

This lack of clarity extends beyond the first act and muddles so much of the conflict and characterization. After Alan’s parents are harmed, why does he not go to the police? What reason would he have for hiding at his school? He doesn’t know his fellow students were demons, at least not in a fully confirmed way of this hidden world of monsters. For that matter, why is Alan on the run and there is national media attention given to what happened to his parents? What reason does he have to not resort to the police? It would make far more sense for the demons to frame Alan for the violence at his home. That way he would have a reason not to turn to the authorities and make him feel more isolated and hunted. He would be limited seeking out help and refuge. This would also better explain why anyone even remotely cares about finding this kid from a media standpoint. I can’t imagine round-the-clock media updates on where the son of one crime has been if he is not clearly the chief suspect. Alan spends much of the rest of the movie learning about his parents’ hidden life and his own part in a larger war, but the world-building is far too vague for a story involving hidden conspiracies of good guys and bad guys. I think the movie is presenting an alternate world where some Christianity is outlawed by the government but this too is flagrantly unclear. Are these people being persecuted for their beliefs? It doesn’t feel like it onscreen aside from a few snarky comments from Alan’s teenage peers about his perceived boring life (and remember, they were really demons). Regardless, there is a branch of the NSA (or some other acronym) that is being run by a a centuries-old demon with Jedi mind trick powers, and yet even this is unclear too. What are the rules here? What are the limitations? What are the objectives? What are the stakes? If you’re presenting a “hidden world” story with powerful creatures and faith as a weapon, then we need a lifeline to grasp.

Alan is a fairly boring blank of a character. He’s angry because he keeps moving schools and feels like he doesn’t fit in, but once he’s on the run Alan becomes a receptive set of ears for people to fill him in on the power of faith, God, and his divine place in the world. Will Alan triumph? You know the answer but I can’t exactly explain it beyond him simply having more faith. Frankly, this character is not interesting enough to warrant a franchise. Even his vague powers as a Chosen One are not interesting enough to warrant further adventures. The most interesting character, by far, is Weston (Lucas Bentley) and he could have been cut completely from the narrative. He’s introduced early, apparently trying to escape to… the Chinese border for… reasons I’m still unsure about from the opening that literally begins with footage and audio of 9/11 (this inclusion is never fully earned and, at best, quite tacky). He was part of the same splinter group that Alan’s parents belong to, but Weston lost his faith after his wife was killed. He seems like he’s on a redemptive arc, the old gunslinger being called into one last battle to save a youth and find something worth fighting for. This doesn’t exactly happen but this setup made Weston the character I knew the most about, who had the most accessible struggle, and who could have easily been the lead perspective of the movie rather than the vacant Alan.

I think the filmmakers were going for a combination of an indie Christian YA character and their own version of a Jason Bourne spy thriller (you better believe I’m trademarking the term “Jesus Bourne” for future franchises). This would not have been the first indie to treat a Christian protagonist as a fugitive being hunted down for their beliefs, an externalization of a self-persecution complex I’ve never personally understood when a majority of Americans identify as some form of Christian. This scenario plays into the fears of its ready-made audience and it at least also provides a ready-made story for danger and intrigue. Rarely, however, have I seen a Christian indie that seems so taken with providing the “other half” of a Bourne movie, and by that I mean the desk jockeys clacking keyboards. With every Bourne movie, there is the Chief Chaser and his or her team of NSA agents manning banks of computer terminals and tracking down the whereabouts of our target. In normal spy thrillers, these moments provide scene changes and exposition, but they can also ratchet up tension as we, the audience, know how much closer these antagonists are getting to our hero. With Alan and the Fullness of Time, there are numerous check-ins with the agent half of this pursuit but it never raises tension or provides helpful clarity about the world or this agency. Part of this is because the boss Malkam (no first name, just… Malkam) is established as supernatural too early. Do the other agents know they’re working for a demon? Detective Lowell (Brittany Picard) pushes back occasionally saying they are misusing their government office, but nobody else seems to give much mind. I even think the end involves a siege of a church with literal gunshots and people killed, but again, the movie is too vague to clarify whether or not this escalation and the consequences made much sense.

It’s not like there wasn’t room to better develop this story, its world, the history and lore, and the characters. Alan and the Fullness of Time clocks in at 82 minutes, but for my online screening, the first three was an introduction by the lead actor, and if you wanted to discount opening credits and a minute of closing credits before a mid-credits sequence (why?), that means that Alan is actually approximately 76 minutes of material. There was more than enough space there to better flesh out, well, anything. If it was a concern about budget limitations, I don’t fully accept that because budget doesn’t limit how well you write for characters and conversations. The movie concludes with “Alan will return” and the promise of a sequel with a very Percy Jackson-sounding string of subtitles, Alan and the Rulers of the Air. If I had paid good money to watch this movie, I might be chuffed that the movie wants to carry over into a sequel when they didn’t even have enough material for 76 paltry minutes.

The dialogue can often be painful and stilted. For an action movie, there isn’t very much action. Most of the scenes from the Act One break onward are people chatting in cars, people chatting in churches, people chatting in homes, people chatting on the street. That would be great opportunities for the needed clarity and characterization lacking. It doesn’t help when these conversations include clunkers like, “At least we have that in common – dead parents. At least half of mine.” Dear reader, that line made me outwardly wince in pain. At another point the villain shows up with armed guards and says, “This is real lead and real brass, and they will pump you full of it.” Alan says he doesn’t have time and another character says, “Time has you, Alan. It has all of us. And it’s squeezing.” In reference to his school friends, who I remind you were demons that harmed his parents, he says, “They’re not my friends anymore.” Well, that’s good to know given the circumstances. Alan turns on a turncoat and says, “You sold me out. No wonder you can’t call us family.” I was a little worried about the implications of the line, “If you can pray, then you can fight.” At the conclusion, a character asks Alan how to teach her how to fight, and he hands her a bible, and we cut to credits. These are just the examples that stood out to me of bad dialogue. If we’re left with these characters and their thoughts, it is apparent that the filmmakers just were not equipped to provide them with appealing words to speak.

I don’t blame the performers because it feels like they were all following the same poor direction. Everyone in this movie is so subdued that I thought they would slip into a coma. This is intended to be a spy thriller, a chase movie, a world where demons can take human form and hunt the Chosen One, and nobody seems to be acting like it’s urgent. This does a tremendous disservice to establishing and maintaining tension. It completely saps the energy out of the movie. If the characters aren’t anxious or worried, then why should we be watching them? It’s too early to land a verdict on Harvey as an actor as this is his debut. I hope the future adventures of Alan provide the actor a better showcase and more energy. I want to single out one actor who was only onscreen for a few minutes but left quite an impression. In a movie filled with vague evildoers that seem too low-key, Kira Wilson (The Right to Remain) is definitely felt as the spooky principal to Alan’s school. She has a fun malevolence that is missing from the other bad guys and I can tell the actress is enjoying her wicked side. We could have used more of her.

I will credit the filmmakers for making a film that looks and sounds like a professional movie. The cinematography by Josh Bedsole doesn’t have a lot of focus depth but it looks crisp. The persistent hand-held camerawork provides an extra dose of energy to the proceedings and is another reminder of the film’s aspirations to be its own Bourne-style escapade. It’s a low budget movie, all things considered, but it doesn’t feel glaringly so that it’s distracting or compromising. The best part about the movie is the score by Josh McCausland and Jake Halm that adds excitement when it’s not being felt otherwise from the writing and direction. At points the electronic-infused score even reminded me of the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Alan and the Fullness of Time doesn’t really justify your own investment of time. When you don’t provide enough explanation for your world when it’s different, when you don’t make it clear what the rules and limitations are, and when you don’t produce relatable and engaging character arcs, then you’re not really making a movie and more so making an inaccessible puzzle for the audience to piece together for their own fledgling entertainment. Alan and the Fullness of Time is not exactly an audience-friendly movie, despite the fact that its core audience will likely ignore its storytelling pitfalls because it admires its core message. I can feel the lack of storytelling finesse, as if the filmmakers shrugged and said, “It only has to be good enough to get us the next one.” I’ll even admit that the clips for the upcoming sequel look much more enticing and action-packed, but I haven’t been given enough from the first movie to hold out faith the second will deliver. This could have been Jesus Bourne, people.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Shithouse (2020)

This should have been a winner for me. I’m a fan of mumblecore dramas that drop you into people’s ordinary lives. They’re character-driven and built upon naturalistic dialogue that can still be compelling and revealing of its participants. However, Shithouse seems to have found that middle zone between stylized dialogue and naturalistic dialogue; throughout the 100 minutes, the movie involves ordinary people sounding like they’re having real conversations, which means they are generally boring. If you were eavesdropping on these people in real life you would leave. There’s a fine difference between natural but still plot-driving and engaging dialogue and dithering dialogue that holds to the awkward starts and stops of real life but fails to keep your attention. Just because the scene feels realistic does not mean it is the same as being interesting. Writer/director Cooper Raff stars as Alex, a college freshman with a serious case of homesickness. He spends one long night with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), and it feels like maybe these two will connect and become romantic. The problem with Shithouse is that it feels like each half-hour is its own different movie. The first is introducing an emotionally fragile young man having difficulty adjusting to collegiate life away from his family. The problem is that I didn’t care about Alex and I didn’t find him being mopey intriguing. It took too long to open him up. The next part is the film’s best and it’s Alex and Maggie spending hours together walking, chatting, having little adventures on the path to burying her dead turtle. It’s the best part of the film and where I felt the movie was starting to coalesce, even with a protracted setup. This is the Before Sunrise part. However, the next morning, Alex and Maggie seem to have very different views of their long night and eventual hookup. He’s overloading her with messages and she’s being distant and indifferent, and this is where the movie becomes like 500 Days of Summer, holding up for scrutiny the romantic aspirations of those grown up with the media of pop-culture happy endings. Had Raff left us in this direction, I could even argue that his structure served a larger point of condemning his protagonist’s viewpoint. I might not enjoy it but I could mildly respect it. However, Shithouse then undoes this part with a resolution set two-plus years in the future that doesn’t feel earned and is tonally disjointed from this prior section. If this was the intent, then why did Raff even prolong us with this extended morass of missed Instagram messages and angry outbursts over misreading what the night meant to both parties? Regardless, there are glimmers and moments in this gentle little movie that worked, that hit upon a deeper truth, but mostly you’re stuck with dull people having boring conversations.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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