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My Son Hunter (2022)

I’ll never understand the pathological obsession people have with Hunter Biden and what may or may not be on his laptop. This fixation on President Biden’s son seems so unshakably quixotic, hoping that with each new murky examination somehow, magically, there will be impropriety and criminality if you only look right. This dogged obsession with, at best, a tertiary figure to the true target of conservative ire reminds me of the crackpot theories concerning Vince Foster, a deputy White House counsel who took his own life in 1993. It was ruled a suicide by five investigations, and yet there are still enough people that are unsatisfied with this provable reality and want to see something more nefarious, more suspect, and simply more. Surely Vince Foster must have been assassinated by the Clintons, and especially Hilary, because he knew too much. It’s nonsense but to some it’s the only thing that makes sense. Such is the same with the Hunter Biden laptop, which some have deluded themselves into thinking could have been the difference maker between a President Biden winning by eight million more votes and a second-term for Trump. It’s difficult for the rational mind to fathom how many ordinary voters would truly care about a presidential candidate’s son’s liaisons, especially when that person is a private citizen and not employed in government.

I figured it was only a matter of time before a rapacious conservative media bankrolled a Hunter Biden Laptop Movie, and it seems only natural as Breitbart’s first foray into narrative filmmaking. The movie takes a lot of style and attitude notes from the latter films of Adam McKay, borrowing liberally from the mixture of documentary and cheeky fourth-wall breaking motifs from The Big Short and Vice. I’ll admit it makes for a slightly more entertaining movie, and My Son Hunter wasn’t the complete disaster that I had dreaded. It’s still not a good movie, by far, and its points are leaden and misleading at best and downright false and speculative at worst, but I’d rather watch a conservative movie that attempts to ape better filmmakers. Trying and failing is at least better to watch for 80 minutes than simply preaching to the converted and not even trying.

Hunter Biden (Laurence Fox) is drifting through life, parties, and may be the biggest hindrance to a would-be President Joe Biden (John James). Hunter left his laptop at a repair shop but thankfully the media refuses to cover the story, instead downplaying it as a possible Russian disinformation campaign in the last weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Joe can’t have anything go wrong so close to his possible big victory, but Hunter, at least in this not-at-all biased interpretation, seems like a walking catastrophe waiting for his next landmine.

Before even discussing the filmmaking merits, let’s tackle the chief purpose of this movie, which is to defame Hunter Biden and by association Joe Biden. It’s not exactly breaking news that Hunter Biden has lived a troubled life. The man has been upfront about his own struggles with addiction; he wrote about it openly in his own 2021 memoir. Watching Hunter snort anything within reach, party with hookers, and hang out with lowlifes just feels gratuitous because it’s the same characterization over and over. That’s all the movie covers for its first 30 minutes, Hunter partying with strangers and strippers (but still in a demure way where nobody, even before passing out on the floor, removes their clothes). It feels like we’re wallowing in a man’s degradation and it’s unseemly because the intention is not meant to be empathetic. The target audience watching this won’t likely care about Hunter genuinely getting better as a person. That’s not what this expose is for, trying to better understand his humanity and vulnerability. This is merely a roundabout way to taint Joe Biden, a figure too boring by himself, so the critics have to settle for Hunter and his salacious escapades and work on grimy guilt by association.

I can hear some griping that the movie presents Hunter in a more sympathetic light, at least early, with him recognizing his own screw-up nature but feeling powerless to rise above. He also talks about the grief of losing his mother and sister at such a young age, as well as his older brother in 2015. However, any pretense of humanizing goes out the window once big daddy Joe arrives, and Hunter becomes a sniveling sycophant who shrugs his way through life, not just aware of his nepotistic privilege but fully comfortable with his participation in corruption and graft. Any introspection is abandoned and it makes any prior introspection appear phony. It’s hard to square the Hunter in the beginning who talks about the wounds of losing his mother with the Hunter who complains that his dad never supports his art, complete with cutaway to his finger painting. There’s an entire six-minute stretch where Hunter is lectured to, by his stripper named Kitty (Emma Gojkovic) who just happens to be the estranged child of Christian missionaries, about China’s concentration camps for its Uyghur population, and he stares slack-jawed, as if he hasn’t kept up with the news in years (the reprehensible concentration camps for Muslims have been well-documented by the mainstream media). This Hunter is merely a stand-in for vague political corruption, an irredeemable naif that is only meant to make his father appear worse, and that’s also why now that Republicans have won the House, you’ll see a lot more of Hunter Biden’s name in 2023 because, obviously, investigating his previous business handling as a private citizen is the cure for inflation and higher gas prices.

So what does the movie profess to expose, especially so that had this evil laptop of incriminating evidence been properly adjudicated, then Donald Trump, the most unpopular president in the modern era, would have easily won re-election? It’s a rehashing of what led to Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and he most definitely got that position because of his name, and of course this is the only instance in the history of the world where that has happened before to the scions of the rich and famous. When Jared Kushner, who actually worked in Trump’s White House, was offered over two billion dollars by the Saudi royal family upon leaving his taxpayer-paid position, I’m sure it was completely for his unparalleled expertise on Mid-East diplomacy. Anyway, this Burisma position was already investigated internally by the State Department for conflicts of interest, and the Ukrainian prosecutor that Joe Biden pressured to be removed as VP was not threatening to investigate Hunter. This prosecutor was corrupt and refused to investigate Russian-backed assets; he even refused to investigate Burisma. There was no inappropriate arm-twisting to protect Hunter or Joe Biden, as thoroughly debunked during the 2019 impeachment trial. It’s all pretty established, but that doesn’t matter to its target audience, the same group who keeps desperately re-shaking a disparate collection of incorrect election anecdotes to produce a bigger picture like one of those pesky Magic Eye pictures that only “true American patriots” can properly see.

That’s really the majority of the specific accusations against Hunter. It impugns his associates, like Devon Archer who was sentenced for defrauding a Native American tribe in 2022, but too many of the accusations are broad and reaching, much like the Burisma condemnation. Biden did invest in shares of a Chinese technology company, Face++, as part of a larger portfolio, and China has reportedly used this technology to surveil citizens it’s looking to persecute. This is not great, but I wonder how many other venture capitalists have holdings with connections to other similarly sundry applications, especially with technology. I’m not excusing this, I’m just saying this “a ha!” accusation isn’t quite the deathblow the movies seems to assume. If it was, it wouldn’t need a character to literally explain the context of why this is so damning. The larger accusations of bribery and funneling ill-gotten monies back to daddy Joe are weak too, no matter how many times the movie adds titles to tell us, “This really happened” (but it didn’t). So many of these accusations are like Burisma, where it’s a purposely misconstruing of events and a deliberate ignoring of context or corroborating information that would deter their argument.

Hunter Biden isn’t the world’s greatest businessman by any measure. He’s also not the world’s most infamous criminal who fails to be held accountable because of his cushy connections. Hunter Biden hasn’t even been banned from operating a non-profit in New York state because he used a kids-with-cancer charity like a personal piggy bank (sorry, that was Trump’s children). Let it be known by this self-professed progressive, if Hunter Biden is guilty of a crime then prosecute him. Put him in jail. I don’t care. He doesn’t deserve special treatment. But at the same time, if he’s just a guy with problems, he doesn’t deserve this crazy level of unbridled antipathy.

Following the McKay model, characters will stare directly into the camera for comedic effect, to add additional commentary, like when the movie flatly states, “This is not a true story… except for all the facts.” Of course, the screenwriters have a harder grasp of those stubborn facts. These are the same writers of The Obamagate Movie, which proposes to expose the “Deep State conspiracy to undermine the Trump administration and the fake Russian collusion narrative.” Again, facts are stubborn things, especially when the end of the movie laments when, oh when, will truth matter over lies and the powerful be held responsible for their corrupt actions (were these people just willfully hibernating during the scandal-a-week Donald Trump presidency?). The attempts at humor are often juvenile and stupid, like an opening scene where Hunter has a psychic conversation with a tiny dog while he’s high on drugs, and this is after a cartoon graphic of Hunter’s heart pops onscreen. The jabs against Joe Biden are mostly of the creepy hair-smelling and loony grandpa variety with groan-inducing malapropisms (“Nothing can threaten my erection;” see instead of “election” the dumb man said “erection”). The movie also squeezes in other conservative grievances, like opening with a Black Lives Matter protest and admonishing the media for its portrayal. I think having one of the protesters working as a stripper (to pay off her college loans, she tells us) is meant to be some insult to liberal protestors or even higher education. The same with having a stripper announce her pronouns. Is this the nightmare world the liberals all demand when even the people sleazy men pay to get naked would inform us of their preferred pronouns? I’m surprised they went the entire movie without a trans joke.

I don’t know why Fox (Inspector Lewis, White Lines) would agree to portray Hunter Biden. He doesn’t exactly resemble the man. He looks like a more gaunt version of Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Girls, The Bear). Fox provides the best reason to watch the movie because he’s not acting like he’s in lazy agitprop. Give credit where it’s due, the man gives a dark journey-of-the-soul kind of desperate sheen to this man, that is, until the script just turns him into a shrugging and sulking man-baby. Gina Carano (The Mandalorian) makes a brief appearance as a Secret Service detail to the Bidens, who never missed an opportunity to snidely confide to the camera about how much she loathes these men. John James (Dynasty) doesn’t work as Joe Biden at all, but he seems like he could have been a Sopranos-style goombah goon character reference for Paulie Walnuts. Many of the Eastern European actors who the production utilized from its Serbia filming site seems to have been dubbed over, so I don’t know how much criticism to offer Golkovic as Kitty, the stripper who also happens to be a former lawyer too. She’s a Swiss army knife of uses, including the intended moral uprising the filmmakers would like to believe they can engender.

I’d like to conclude as a reminder why journalists believed that the Hunter Biden laptop story, which broke in the final weeks of the 2020 election, and was teased by none other than Rudy “Hand down my pants” Giuliani, would be met with skepticism. For an election about competency, a national COVID response, and basic human empathy, it seemed awfully strange that Hunter Biden’s name was coming up again so late, and once more from Giuliani, the man who was caught meddling in American diplomacy so that he could strong-arm Ukraine into pushing a sham investigation to slander Joe Biden. It was all just a bit too convenient, and especially when there wasn’t any corroborating evidence at the time, just one business shop’s word that, no for real, this must be Hunter Biden’s legit laptop. In the end, I doubt any voters could have been persuaded by the laptop, and those that were would have voted for Trump already. Nobody cares about Hunter Biden. And nobody should care about this silly and slimy movie trying to make him into the new conservative obsession. Go after Joe Biden for policy reasons, go after him for his age, but his son? In Joe terms, that’s baloney, man.

Nate’s Grade: D

Barbarian (2022)

It’s rare for a movie to be truly surprising, which is why I would suggest if you’re unfamiliar with Barbarian to try and go in with as little advance knowledge as possible. This is a movie that delights in upending its audience and making them reconsider what they previously thought, re-examining characters and situations with new key pieces of evidence, swapping allegiances and sympathies. It begins ordinarily enough with a young woman, Tess (Georgina Campbell), arriving at her Air B&B rental with a mysterious stranger (Bill Skarsgard) already there claiming it’s his rental. He invites her inside, and she hesitates but follows, and from there the night will go down as one to remember, if she survives it. The joy of Barbarian is how it keeps changing its gears, leaving the audience guessing what could possibly happen next, and the movie will make some remarkable tone and time jumps. Writer/director Zach Cregger (part of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’Know) has made a Jordan Peele-esque leap into the realm of horror with starting results. Cregger really knows his genre goods, and his camera will elegantly frame his visuals while letting the dread compound, as we nervously anticipate what’s to come, often the result of investigating something we know will only lead to bad ends. For a low-budget indie horror movie, the photography and production design work wonders at building suspense and unease. The lingering flaw of Barbarian is that it’s a surprise show, a haunted house ride that doesn’t have much more to it than the entertaining yet finite experience. I don’t think there’s much in the way of re-watchability and many of the plot and thematic elements feel too timidly explored, ladled on haphazardly when they could have earned far more attention, especially with the reveals in the second half. Still, if you’re looking for a delightfully unpredictable and squirm-inducing horror movie that delivers on the WTF moments, then Barbarian is ready for you, whether or not you’re ready for its many deranged detours.

Nate’s Grade: B

Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio (2022)

When you have a catchy title like Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, you know you have to deliver the goods. This gleefully schlocky suburban satire horror comedy (how many more adjectives you want?) is the follow-up from director/co-writer Kyle Rayburn, an unabashed genre enthusiast. I was granted an advance copy to review this new Ohio-made indie and I’ll try to remain as objective as possible, dear reader, despite the fact that Kyle is one of the nicest men on Earth and even allowed me to film an episode of my rom-com Web series in his own home. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is more low-key than you may be expecting. Its chill vibes and relaxed, ironic humor are more indicative of a stoner hangout movie than something with demon figures and threats of damnation. I think plenty of viewers could latch onto the fun, weird wavelength of an undemanding silly comedy, although there are places I wish Satanic Soccer Mom had gone even further with its spirited sense of creativity.

Annie (Gracie Hayes-Plazolles) is trying to hold it all together in suburban Ohio. Her husband won the lottery and then vanished, and her suburban community is awash in gossip and speculation about what has happened to him. Annie is trying to raise her two kids alone, keep ahead of adult responsibilities like bills and soccer practice shuttling, and holding back from snapping at the clucking hens of the neighborhood, the Karens, lead by chief Karen Green (Valerie Gilbert). It all changes when she accidentally summons a horned demon, Balthazar (Brian Papandrea), who is willing to grant her three wishes at a price, as per proper Faustian bargains.

There is a breezy charm to Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, a casual, shoulder-shrugging amiability that invites you not to think too hard about the proceedings and just have fun, and if you can connect on that wavelength, then the meandering nature can also be part of that unexpected charm. It’s easy to see the works of Kevin Smith as a reference for Rayburn, but I was also reminded of the hangout cinema of Richard Linklater, where you adjust to the rhythms of characters and their daily lives and interactive camaraderie. Of course, nobody had their boobs literally fall off in Linklater’s world (though there’s still time yet), but it’s that same relaxed tone and feeling that permeates Satanic Soccer Mom. There’s something most amusing about populating your movie with fantastic creatures but keeping a deadpan sense of mundane reality. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the short-lived Adult Swim series Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, a workplace sitcom set in an office literally in hell. If done well, the surprising triviality of the fantastic setup provides its own sly sense of humor. I enjoyed that the movie didn’t have apocalyptic stakes but instead illuminated conflicts very relatable to many: getting over a painful relationship, struggling to juggle the responsibilities of adulthood, fitting in but also knowing when to push back and assert your independence. Having the duplicitous neighborhood Karens be a bigger pain for Annie than an actual demon is a fun reversal. Same as Annie wasting her magically granted wish on ordinary adult requests, like a never-ending cup of iced coffee. The unblinking, roll-with-the-punches attitude of the characters made the movie entertaining even when little was going on from a plot standpoint, and that’s a big boon for an 80-minute indie.

I consider Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio to be a silly buddy film, and it improves greatly once Balthazar becomes entwined in Annie’s domestic drama. This is also because Papandrea (Feaster Sunday) is the funniest performer in the movie. I loved the bickering dynamic between Annie and her demonic little helper. They reminded me of squabbling siblings, cemented even further during a contentious and competitive game of Mario Kart. This is also the key character dynamic for the movie, the ordinary in conflict with the extraordinary, the protagonist suffering and the relief with the strings attached. The movie is never better when these two are sharing the screen. Plazolles-Hayes (Night Work) has a spunky Parker Posey energy to her, an incredulity to her wide-eyed stares and eyebrow arches that feels earned. She’s the straight woman in a series of crazy developments, and Plazolles-Hayes doesn’t get lost in the craziness. Papandrea is a natural hell-raiser, a mischievous performer who makes the most of his material and elevates it with a grinning desperation that makes it all funnier, like a failing comic on stage. Balthazar is also highly engaging when he’s pretending to be a “normal human,” and his obvious, schticky delivery and mannerisms reminded me of Vincent D’Onofrio’s physical performance in Men in Black. I can still recall the moment he was trying to quickly hide from Annie’s children and just lifted whatever objects were near to badly obscure him (“What are you… four?” Annie berates him). The casual shade Papandrea imbues the line, “Okay… sinner,” is simply award-winning comedy. It’s also a diverting commentary that Annie gets along better with a demon than most humans, though I’m sure there are many among us who could relate. It endears Annie to the audience and proves how unflappable she is despite her troubles, worldly and other-wordly.

I also want to mention a few other performances that made the most with their screen time. Gilbert (Straitjacket) is so amusingly self-satisfied without becoming a full-blown suburbanite caricature of “Midwest nice.” I especially enjoyed the few moments she dropped the act and revealed the curdled reality behind her sweet-smiling facade. Virgil Schnell (Night Work) is hilarious with how transparently desperate he is to be with another woman, even willing to whip off his shirt to help a woman clean up a slight dab of spilled wine. Ellie Church (Harvest Lake, Jessie’s Super Normal Regular Average Day) is well-acquainted with low-budget horror and provides a welcomed sense of easy-going camaraderie for Annie as her lone friend in town.

As one of those who previously watched Rayburn’s first film foray, 2019’s Men in Black-meets-True Blood caper, Night Work, I can see definite growth as a filmmaker. Both movies were made on shoestring budgets (only $5,000 total) and filmed primarily on a iPhone camera, though the low-budget look isn’t a big point of detraction for either movie. You can’t judge a small indie movie made for $5000 and filmed on the weekends by the same technical standards of bigger movies. You have to accept some tech shortcomings, like the absence of dynamic lighting or polished audio or complex camerawork. There’s very little visual coverage in Satanic Soccer Mom, many scenes composed of a closed shot-reverse shot circuit of edit choices, but it took me out of the movie only sparingly. The rough-around-the-edges DIY aesthetic can provide its own micro-budget charm too, and Rayburn and co-writer Ben Reger (Night Work) are aware enough to write around technical limitations and emphasize ideas and quirky character interactions. He even has a character joke in narration, “That’s what we could afford to show you.” Rayburn is also smart to cast well and get out of the way of his actors. The ensemble feel like they’re gelling on the same comedic wavelength, which is harder to do than most would think, and thus each performer feels in concert no matter the wild turns. The makeup effects for Balthazar are stylish and effective on a budget, and his whole denim jacket and button-heavy attire and punk rock attitude reminded me favorably of Viv from the short-lived but brilliant British comedy TV series The Young Ones, formative to my own burgeoning sense of humor.

However, even with the emphasis on the ideas, there are enough moments that left me wanting more. I can understand some viewers feeling cold to its blase tone with its fantastical characters. Some viewers will not be able to get over the fact that a woman has a demon wish-granting service and the creativity only goes so far, mellowing in shallow waters for its own good vibes. With all the wish-granting, reality-altering possibilities that a demon represents, it can be something of a letdown for the wishes to be so mundane and minute. One of Annie’s wishes is for her (minor spoiler warnings) to be able to go out in town and pretend to be someone else, so she magically transforms into a different actress (Nickii Rayburn, the director’s wife, so good husband points there) for one raucous night. I can understand that this wish gets at Annie’s distaste for the oppressive negativity of her town, but couldn’t she just have gone to a different bar in a different town where nobody would know her? She could also just wish for the idiots in town to forget about her. It’s the same for why Annie even chooses to hang out with the Karens if she despises their company so much. I understand why the scene exists from a plot standpoint, as another contrast between Annie and the suburbanites she doesn’t fit in with, but then why even bother spending time with these women? There are engaging character aspects with Annie that feel only briefly touched upon, chief among them her complicated feelings about being abandoned by her husband. There’s a nice moment where Balthazar confirms her suspicions and Plazolles-Hayes gets to emote, finally able to process a key point of grief, and it’s one of the few genuine dramatic moments of the movie. However, without prolonged comedy set pieces, the movie would have benefited with more scenes like this for balance. The movie coasts a bit too long without a larger plot direction, so it can feel very scene-to-scene. Then the end includes multiple deus ex machinas, which can make the preceding problems feel too slight.

While I chuckled throughout, the comedy felt too subdued and too easily satisfied creatively. I’m surprised, given the premise, that there aren’t really comedy set pieces. I suppose there’s one, Annie and her pal getting stoned and attending craft night with the Karens, but that’s it. Much of the humor is ribald banter, so much will rest upon the quality of the dialogue writing. It helps having such sharp contrasts for conflict. I laughed throughout but kept wanting the movie to go further, to build off its gags and complications and peculiar turns. One of the dunder-headed Karens flippantly remarks about what could have happened to Annie’s husband, saying, “become a horse man,” and this would have made a fine opportunity to have her continue this weird fantasy tangent, accidentally revealing her own strange sexual kinks, something to separate her from the herd and then shame her back into social submission. That could have been a running gag. Or Bathazar’s one runty horn being a source of insecurity, something he has to defend (“I’ll have you know, plenty of lady demons have referred to my horns as ‘more than adequate.’”). There’s a truly wonderful random gag about the Karens raising money for “Saxophones for the Homeless,” and I was pleading for a visual representation of this concept, with a homeless man shrugging at the useless gift. I often wish there were comedy scenes and jokes that pushed beyond the first idea, taking one joke and finding a deeper, more belly laugh-inducing bit rather than settling for a passing chuckle. I’m talking about scenes where Annie gets stoned and giggles, or the inclusion of a record scratch sound effect to really ensure that a punchline landed and was meant to be unexpected. I wish Rayburn and Reger demonstrated as much confidence with all their jokes as they do their final gag involving an angel and the selected color of her wings (it’s definitely a memorable exit).

Two movies in and Rayburn is starting to establish a penchant for establishing weird and wild worlds with goofy, profane characters, rich in crude banter and crazy ideas, but worlds that I wish to explore further. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is an amusing and charming movie, especially if one can gel with its overall amiable tone and forgive the inevitable technical shortcomings. I’m far more forgiving of tech issues than I am with narrative and comedy shortcomings, because those are strictly on the creative brain trust fully developing their story potential and exploring the possibilities of their funny. It’s hard not to feel like Satanic Soccer Mom is a solid first draft of a story and could have benefited from a few more passes and polishes to really punch up the comedy and better explore the character dynamics. That stuff isn’t budget dependent. Again, it’s easy to feel the passion everyone had for this project and especially the good times. We need movies that can provide that level of entertainment, no matter their flaws, and Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is likely going to be the most feel-good buddy movie ever with this title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Fall (2022)

It’s no more, no less than its bald premise, but with the benefit of some nifty aerial photography to heighten viewer veritgo, some seamless special effects, and a streamlined story structure, Fall is serviceable survivor escapsism. The motivation is pretty inconsequential as to why these two young women (Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner) are climbing an old radio tower, but they do, they reach the top, and then the ladder crumbles below them, trapping them way up high. From there, it becomes a survival thriller that isn’t as dumb as its straightforward title and premise might have you believe. I recall 2010’s Frozen, not the popular Disney musical, but the small indie thriller about a group of characters stranded on an abandoned ski lift. It’s a similar scenario and becomes less of a question over whether they will get down and more how they will endure the elements and simply survive long enough to draw attention to their plight. If you have a fear of heights, there are several deft moments that draw out that anxiety-ridden tension; I even gasped a few times at the movement from teetering positions and leaps. There’s a late twist I wasn’t expecting that I think is handled well, and there’s just enough character introspection to keep things interesting without de-escalating the urgency and tension of the premise. Also, Fall originally had a lot more swearing and 30-some F-bombs and these were eliminated from the use of a Deep Fake A.I. software that swapped the actors’ mouths into contorting new PG-13-approved syllables. I didn’t even notice it, which is a sign of how remarkable the technology has become and how cost-effective (the budget for Fall was only $3 million). There’s little else to this than being a well-developed, well-executed 100-minute thrill ride (you get Jeffrey Dean Morgan for exactly two whole scenes) and when you’re looking for fleeting fun, that’s certainly agreeable disposable entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Clerks III (2022)

I’m at a crossroads with writer/director Kevin Smith. Well, I might actually have already switched sides but don’t want to fully admit it yet even if it’s self-evident. I’ve written about this before but Smith was one of those major cinematic voices that helped shape my sense of indie film and even comedy during my formative teenage years. I became a diehard fan, watched every movie several times and had all their interconnected Easter eggs memorized, and I’ve seen the man in person three times, one time recorded for a college Q&A DVD release. In short, I was most definitely a Kevin Smith super fan. Then over the last five years or so, things began to change, or more accurately my perception of Smith’s movies began to change. The attempts at humor were strained, obvious, and gassed, and it felt like his biting wit and raunch had transformed into mawkish nostalgia. The man in his twenties who made comedies I identified with and loved became a man in his forties with different priorities and a different perspective. He evolved. However, I am no static creature, and I too was evolving, and my fanfare for Smith’s comedy sensibility has transformed into more of a pained grimace. I re-watched Dogma in 2019 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2021, as well as its second-banana imitation Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in 2019, and my assessment was only reaffirmed with each movie: I’ve outgrown my old influence. As a big screen storyteller, Smith has become more and more insular, inaccessible, and beholden to eroding fan-service, almost like he too is trying to bid goodbye to his own universe of characters. Maybe that will be the big reveal, Smith putting all his toys back away while he still can.

Clerks III is a return to the old QuickStop convenience store in Red Bank, New Jersey, last seen in 2006 with friends and malcontents Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) as the new owners. Clerks II seemingly ended on a moment of triumph, of the guys returning to their roots but also stepping up, assuming ownership responsibilities. However, many can also view the ending as a darker indictment on what the future held for these men. Sixteen years later, what have these men accomplished? That’s the thrust of this third film, following Randal’s brush with death from a heart attack (based upon Smith’s own life-threatening experience). He re-evaluates his life at 50 and yearns to make a movie about his life and his personal experiences, which just happens to be life in service at the QuickStop. He bands together with Dante as producer and they put together a ragtag crew, including old buddies now selling their own state-approved brand of bud, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), to make their movie.

In many ways, Clerks III is like a remake of Clerks with the characters of Clerks making their own version of Clerks only thirty years removed from the actual scenes of Clerks. There’s a bit of a snake eating its own tail feeling; many scenes are re-creations of moments from the original Clerks and with the same actors. It’s slightly fun to see even the smaller non-actors come back to recreate these moments, but it also makes the movie feel like an extended high school reunion (“Oh look, that guy lost his hair.”). If you were not a fan of Clerks, well you shouldn’t really be watching the third film in the series, but if you didn’t have an attachment to these characters and this odd world, seeing older versions of former fleeting characters, from the Chewlie’s Gum rep to the angry ruse-baiting video store customer or the woman who manually masturbates caged animals, would feel like flipping through someone else’s photo album, devoid of whatever nostalgic or emotion was intended.

As a lifelong fan of Smith’s filmography, or at least a former lifelong fan now transitioning to accepting a parting of ways, it’s neat to see this reunion of sorts, but it’s also ultimately pointless from a narrative standpoint. Smith is treading the same ground now with irony and distance. Actually, the irony gives way more to sentimentality. It’s not an insult to say that Smith has gotten increasingly softer as he’s gotten older, blunting much of his comedy edge. He comes across as a sincere man who really cares for the people in his life, including these very people that contributed their time and efforts in 1992 to help make a young man’s dream come true. I understand his desire to pay back all the little people, to check back with them one more time, and to have Clerks III serve as a love letter to those who were there from the very beginning. If you’re plugged into this universe, you might smile and you might also feel some of the love.

There are famous cameos to balance out the lesser known faces from the original Clerks. You’ll see Ben Affleck hamming it up, Justin Long doing a funny voice, Fred Armisen grasping for something to do, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first film role since 2012 and first live-action film role since 2009’s Possession (Gellar was a voice on Smith’s Masters of the Universe animated series on Netflix). The two big additions from Clerks II also return. Trevor Fehrman, returning as the socially awkward coworker Elias, is the funniest part of the movie as his character goes through a spiritual crisis. He feels let down by Jesus and commits himself to Satan, and his runway show’s worth of crazy outfits and cosplays throughout the movie is the funniest joke that never even bears mentioning, which only makes it funnier (he too has his own Silent Bob-esque quiet sidekick played with good spirits by Austin Zajur). Elias was the voice of a younger generation of Internet fandom in Clerks II, allowing Smith his opportunity to criticize modern geek pop-culture, like the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really happen in Clerks III despite 16 years of Dante and Randal’s cinematic absence. Smith doesn’t even nibble or good-naturedly rib any pop-culture landscape. Even the jokes about NFTs feel hesitant and wishy-washy and lazy. Smith was defined by his ribald wit and hyper-literate dialogue, and now his comedy has become inane slapstick and pandering nods meant to serve as a replacement for an absent punchline. It’s disappointing how little the comedy registers now.

The biggest addition to the Clerks trilogy was Rosario Dawson, now even more popular as she’s firmly solidified in the Star Wars TV empire. I figured she would have been written out of the franchise as her availability was going to be far more limited. It’s not a spoiler considering it’s revealed within the first minute or so, but Dawson’s character, Becky, who was pregnant with Dante’s child and this presented a new route for his future, is dead. Not only is Becky gone but she died in 2006 from a drunk driver, which means that her unborn child with Dante also died, though this is never touched upon and that seems truly bizarre because much of Dante’s characterization in this movie will be his prison of grief he’s been unable to break from. It’s been 16 years and Dante has not moved on, and I wish more of this was explored thoughtfully. He views himself as a man stuck, now in his 50s, and having missed his off-ramp to another and better life. Without more careful attention, it can come across like a schlub holding onto his grief as a mistaken form of identity. Even that description could be interesting, but you’re not going to get that level of drama in something like Clerks III. Dawson does have a few appearances as a ghostly memory trying to help Dante move on, though if this is the case, I feel like she should be reaching some kind of breaking point after 16 years of effort.

By the end of Clerks III, it’s clear that Smith intends for this to be the concluding chapter, sending off these characters as reflections of his own film history. The focus of the final act is far more dramatic, as the act of retelling one’s life story as a movie becomes its own way of sharing the love and admiration of a decades-long friendship. I don’t quite think Smith gets to the dramatic heights he’s reaching for, even when some pretty significant and surprising events play out. Too much of the movie is like watching a low-budget remake of Clerks thirty years late, and while I’m a sucker for movies about the making of movies, and those fun found families of creatives banding together, the structural vehicle and conceit for Clerks III left much to be desired. If you remember the scenes of 1994’s Clerks, watching Clerks III is like reliving them as a strange Lynchian dream where the edges are smudged and everything isn’t quite as it should be. At this point, a new Kevin Smith movie is made strictly for the most diehard of fans. I can see that ever-shrinking pool of fans warmly smiling and chuckling from the movie but more in nostalgic recognition of time gone by. It’s nice to revisit these characters, as I’ve been eager to see what life has dealt them since Clerks II. You can feel Smith’s affection for these people, the ones who catapulted him into fame, but the movie is too backward-looking and uninterested in its own comedy as Smith winds down.

Nate’s Grade: C

Secretary (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released September 20, 2002:

Secretary is a new romantic comedy with a few kinks to it. It’s actually the most romantic S&M movie ever. It’s the first S&M romantic comedy since maybe Garry Marshall’s disastrous 1994 Exit to Eden. I’m still trying to get the image of Rosie O’Donnell in a bondage mask out of my ongoing nightmares.

Lee Halloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh from a stop at a mental institution for her hazardous habit of cutting herself to feel relief. Her overbearing mother stashes the entire kitchen cutlery in a locked cabinet. The sheltered Lee resorts back to a kiddy make-up box stashed under her home bed. Instead of colorful brushes and arrays of lipstick, she has a selection of sharp objects. Lee goes job hunting to step back from her habit, and is hired as a secretary to E. Edward Gray (James Spader). He is a rigid taskmaster who delights in pointing out typographical errors with his red marker, his weapon of choice. Gray enjoys his dominance and Lee complies, even if it’s routing through garbage. He ticks away Lee’s flaws like a checklist of annoyance but also appears to have genuine concern for her. When he notices her wounds Gray confronts her and convinces Lee to stop cutting herself.

The turning point arrives when Gray orders Lee into his office one afternoon. He commands her to bend over his desk and then delivers a sound spanking. Lee stares at her purple rump with fascination, like something has been awakened inside her. Soon enough Lee purposely makes typos so she can re-assume her spanking position.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a cinematic find with a fearless and breathtaking performance that is at once delicate, nervous, self-controlled, seductive and delightful. Gyllenhaal, with her heart-like face and pert lips, radiates star quality. She allows the audience into Lee”s head and we quickly fall in love with this peculiar yet charming heroine. If there is any justice in this world Gyllenhaal should at least get an Oscar nomination (she didn’t). Spader can do this left-of-center creepy character stuff in his sleep.

Secretary on the surface may seem like a fetish flick but it’s no different than boy (sadist) meets girl (masochist) and falls in love. Director Steven Shainberg treads carefully around serious subject matter, like Lee’s self-mutilation, to focus on these two very special characters. Secretary isn’t making any loud statements on sadomasochism or post-feminism, it’s just showing us that S&M is the route these two people take to find true love. It doesn’t judge them for their unconventional tastes and neither should we. This is one of the finest romances in recent memory and it seems to come from one of the most unlikely places.

Sadomasochism has been predominantly shown involving pain or some leather-masked madman evoking torture. Secretary may be the film that shows there can be pleasures with pain. Some people regard what Lee and Edward do as sick, perverted, or downright wrong. Secretary is a foot in the door to get people to understand what willing sadomasochism really is about. We all have fetishes and interests, and S&M is the number one fetish truth be told. This isn’t your everyday romance.

Obviously, this is a movie that will not appeal to everyone. The relationship between our leads is surprisingly complex but gentle and even sweet (if that’s the proper word for an S&M romantic comedy). Secretary shows that it truly takes different strokes and, despite an overly silly ending, is the most pleasing romance of the year. You’ll never look at red felt pens the same.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, because I think you deserve that. I didn’t recently re-watch Secretary. I did re-watch it a year or two ago, and the return experience was so jarring that I didn’t feel that I would greatly benefit from watching it so soon again, but I knew I would have to include it on my 2002 re-watch list when it was time. When I first watched it in 2002, I was smitten with its offbeat charms about an unconventional romance through the BDSM community and a young woman’s self-actualization through accepting her kinks. It was a star-making performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (originally was going to be Gwyneth Paltrow) and as a sucker for quirky romances, it was one of my favorite films of the year. Nearly two decades later, I took out my DVD copy to share with my now fiancé, who is also a fan of quirky romances and who had never watched Secretary. Surely, I thought, she would be entertained. Dear reader, she was very not entertained. She was horrified. She was shaking with disgust. She was having a literal violent reaction to the movie and its onscreen display of what constituted romance, and I will say it struck me differently too. I understand that not every film will age well, as our sense of what is funny or acceptable or what is even compelling will change over time as our culture inevitably shifts. That’s art. But hoo boy has Secretary aged about as well as milk in the ensuing twenty years. 

The very nature of the S&M relationship between boss and secretary was already problematic when it was released in 2002, but in a post-Me Too universe it is inexcusable and taints any charms the movie may have had. Mr. Grey (James Spader), the dominant boss and rigid stickler for rules, is the villain of the movie and not its Byronic hero, the brooding and damaged man that a pure-hearted woman just needs to find a magical way to reach and reform. He is not romantic. He is appalling, and the early critical praise, myself included, excused far too much of his behavior. While not condoning his excesses, critics may have given more leeway because the end result was framed as a happy ending, with Lee (Gyllenhaal) being cared for by Mr. Grey. However, he completely uses his position of authority in many inappropriate manners, and while they do develop a mutual relationship, eventually, the power dynamic is not equal at all. This takes away the agency of Lee and makes the romance feel like a false choice. Much of her relationship can be summarized by the awful moment he ejaculates on her back: she just has to take whatever he dishes and like it. That’s not romantic. That’s not cute. That’s toxic. It also hurts the overall movie that the way Lee proves her devotion as the film’s climax is to stay fixed at her boss’ desk for many days, to the detriment of her physical health. Yes, Mr. Grey gets Lee to kick her habit of self-harming but she replaces one need with another. He resembles a predator by most every definition, and to try and say, “Well, he’s just complicated,” is bad man excuse-making. 

I tried imagining tweaks and alterations that could make this all work, but anything where he is her boss muddies the issue of consent. Maybe if he was a visiting businessman, but that would also offer a questionable dynamic. The core of Secretary is built upon the secretary/boss interplay and imagery. The tagline is, “Assume the position,” and depending upon the poster, you might only get a woman’s rear in fishnets as the sole imagery. Director Steven Shainberg (Fur) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe, The Girl on the Train) are clearly veering into the obvious office power dynamics for provocation. They are very intentional about subverting romantic clichés and looking for something different for our heroine. We have a nice guy, played with squirmy energy by Jeremy Davies, who just won’t cut it. He’s too vanilla for her and afraid to be too forceful in his spanking. It’s like the filmmakers are declaring that Lee demands more, and her specific combination of qualities just so happens to align with this gross man. The movie wants us to hold our judgment, and I could in 2002 in a “love is love” declaration, but what I see on-screen in 2022 is not indicative of love. It’s obsession. It’s codependency. It’s sad. 

The other problem, sadly, is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fragile performance. The choices she makes collapse Lee, greatly infantilizing her and magnifying all the icky feelings I had. She’s playing Lee less like an adult woman who is struggling to figure out her confusing life, and impulses, and more like a teenager who woke up in the body of an adult woman. Part of this is the screenplay but it’s not helped by the acting choices that Gyllenhaal engages with. I do really enjoy her as an actress, and it’s easy to see why she could captivate so many circa 2002 with this performance, but it plays so differently now. Today, she comes across as another young woman trying to remodel herself to please a man. Her little girl acting choices only make the courtship feel even more abhorrent. I wonder if they were trying to aim for the movie to be its own kinky fable, wherein the infantilization would harken back to older fairy tale tropes and Mr. Grey as the unorthodox knight in shining armor. 

This is one of the biggest critical swings I’ve had since re-watching twenty-year-old movies and my initial reviews, and I’d say even one of my biggest changes on any movie I’ve watched. I do think you can make a funny and sexy S&M rom-com; for years I thought Secretary was it. Not so. I wouldn’t even recommend this movie and it used to be in my top of 2002. I suppose people who are curious could give it a chance, but I think the objections outweigh whatever positives can be gained from viewing. Oh well. That’s the nature of art. Not every movie or book or song will have the same power over time. They stay the same but we, the prism upon which art is judged and related, are constantly in flux. That’s just the way it is. This won’t be the last movie where my opinion changes dramatically. I just won’t watch Secretary again, and that’s okay. 

And you’ll never be able to convince me that E.L. James didn’t take her BDSM character’s name from this film.

Re-View Grade: D

Social Media Monster (2022)

In the age of social media, the concept of a troll is a constant, a person who lives to torment and provoke strong outrages. These proverbial bomb throwers live to antagonize, and Ohio filmmaker Peter John Ross (Horrors of War) has a personal relationship with one, a 40-something wannabe activist and filmmaker, but what he’s most known for is his ever-expanding litany of harassment and reality-defying martyrdom status. Social Media Monster is a new documentary that gives the man his platform, though likely not as he would request. Ross specifically explores the relatively recent interactions between his troll and the bemused citizens of St. Joseph, Missouri (population: 75,000) as he caused general chaos, discord, and confusion throughout 2018.

The biggest boon for Ross, as a filmmaker, and we, as viewers, is that there is no shortage of recordings of its troll. For whatever reason, he recorded himself extensively, likely exemplifying his narcissistic personality and desire to be famous, and the fruits of those loquacious labors are an amazing resource for the movie. To have your subject offer to dictate all their thinking, quite often contradicting earlier statements, makes the job of the filmmaker so much easier. Your subject is providing their own insights and contrasts. I’m curious what his reported documentary on being homeless in America could offer. This troll isn’t a wholly fascinating figure alone, but his victim complex can serve as a microcosm of others that present challenges to a larger society, people fueled entirely by grievance even when they have none to speak of because someone must be to blame and it won’t be them. He appears so eager to be deemed special, to be seen as a hero, someone fighting the good fight. He’s bounced from being a journalist to an activist to a documentary filmmaker, and at one point a Wagyu steak salesman, and is still searching for whatever magic combination will give him what he’s seeking, respect and sense of importance. In another light, this could be the stuff of tragedy, but he is too much of an incessant antagonist to feel lasting sympathy for. He spent the day bombarding one guy on social media who just reached out to ask if he was simply okay (the movie brings receipts for all the profane and incensed texts and messages). He’s targeting real people, making real threats, and leading to real distress, and amazingly, he’s recording himself doing and discussing much of it. Social Media Monster has an intriguing mystery man of a central subject that happens to want this very spotlight, so in some ways it’s a perfect match.

The troll appears a troubled individual, the kind we might hold up for mockery and dismiss in the past but now we see all-too often lashing out. The entire 90 minutes feels like the unsettling biopic of a man before he went on a violent rampage. He mentions having bipolar disorder, among several other possible mental diagnoses, and he is clearly harassing and threatening many individuals who unfortunately cross his path. Even those who are allies can quickly become the latest villain in an ongoing nebulous conspiracy of the world seemingly in unison fighting to thwart his noble endeavors. Mentally unstable loners with easy access to money and weapons, and simmering grievances that will never cool over, are too often dismissed by law enforcement when they happen to be white guys. This troll could be yet another example of the danger of dismissal, and Ross argues that his troll has been getting away with his misdeeds for so long that it has emboldened him into more egregious actions. The man has made literal terrorist threats about attacking nuclear facilities and police officers. It’s hard to imagine someone getting away with these same threats if they just happened to be, oh I don’t know, Muslim or black (especially a black Muslim).

Why then is he seen as more an irritant than a credible threat? Beyond obvious implicit racial bias, I think it’s because the bulk of his harassment happens to be online, and the world of online discourse is one law enforcement would rather ignore. Just look at the inconsistent application of revenge porn laws to protect victims from abusers. It feels like nobody wants to intervene because he is considered a keyboard warrior, a nuisance the equivalent of some guy yelling on a street corner. That’s a risky judgment. Hope it doesn’t look foolish later.

Social Media Monster knows that its subject is its strongest selling point, so Ross keeps things tied to his access to the St. Joseph locals and their strange stories. Not all of these are of equal footing, but the movie has so much ammunition and doesn’t dwell on any singular anecdote too long, so you just have to be patient and a new development will unfurl shortly. The interviews are direct and generally punchy, with many all too happy to expound on their strange interactions with this unknowable individual. I loved every time the impressively bearded local city councilman was able to speak again. Between the candid interviews, the copious amount of existing footage, and no shortage of bizarre anecdotes of bizarre behavior, Social Media Monster is a movie that I wished was longer and larger in scope. I’m used to documentaries tackling a larger macro subject through an example that we follow in more specific detail, but Ross avoids making any significant social pronouncements. It almost feels like the title is a bit misleading.

This is one of the few times that a post-credit scene actually made me reflect differently on the film beforehand, let alone with an Ohio-made indie release. After the relatively short closing credits there’s a stream of clips cut together showing that targets extended beyond the incidents we have spent 90 minutes documenting. He harassed a writer on Modern Family, the Cartoon Network, Megadeth, Dr. Phil, local news reporters, and activists including Erin Freakin’ Brockovich. All these incidents will be explored in… Social Media Monster: The Series, and as soon as that promise was made, I deflated a little. The movie ends up becoming an extended pilot for the ongoing weekly adventures of this troll and his trail of confused victims.

My biggest complaint of Social Media Monster is the constrained nature of its scope, keeping almost exclusively to a one-year period of concentrated harassment on the citizens of St. Joseph in 2018. The director has a pre-existing relationship with this troll going back a decade, and yet it is strangely kept to a minimum in the film. I kept wanting the movie to break free of its closed focus, especially with the question of who is this man and charting his own actual history. The story behind where he got all his money is anticlimactic and needing more inquiry. We’re told about past disagreements like his contention that Adult Swim ripped off his proposed short-form TV concept/pitch for the Cartoon Network. We even see a brief clip of this, and oh I wanted more on this strange odyssey. I wanted to know more about these other crazy incidents rather than going into even more granular detail with the same residents of St. Joseph, and at the very end, the movie reveals that it could have done exactly that but elected not to. The movie was hoarding its other titillating non-St. Joseph anecdotes and interviews and evidence to lead into a TV series. It made me feel cheated out of the better movie that was being held captive to leverage interest into a sequel series.

Social Media Monster is a fun and often funny 90 minutes with a preposterous subject that is all too eager to provide his own tools for public scrutiny and mockery. The movie barely scratches the surface on who this man is, beyond of course as an unstoppable troll. There is more to be had here especially with the wealth of material available to Ross and his crew. For the sense of a documentary film, I wish Ross had taken full advantage of that cinematic wealth at his disposal.

Nate’s Grade: B

Licorice Pizza (2021)

It took me many months but I’ve finally watched the last of the 2021 Best Picture nominees, and now I can safely say, I just don’t understand all the love for Licorice Pizza. It’s writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Phantom Thread, Boogie Nights) nostalgic L.A. hangout movie, but the axiom of hangout movies is that they only really work if you actually want to hang out with the participants. I’m not certain I needed or wanted to watch either of our lead characters navigate the curious bounds of their possible romantic entanglement. Alana Haim plays Alana, an under-achieving 25-year-old looking to better define herself, and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in five prior PTA movies, plays an over-achieving 15-year-old that is in a hurry to grow up and conquer the adult world. He’s crushing on her, she’s flattered but says it’s not appropriate, and over two hours we watch a series of meandering episodic adventures that test their will-they-won’t-they determination. I found Haim’s character to be generally unlikable and, worse, uninteresting. She’s petulant, needling, prone to jealousy but also clearly likes the attention but doesn’t know how far to test it. Hoffman’s character, based in part on Tom Hanks’ childhood friend and producing partner Gary Goetzman, is like a human puppy dog, so overwhelming and sunny and anxious to be liked, but I can’t see any more depth to him or her. They’re just kind of annoying and maybe that’s the point about looking back. I don’t see the larger thesis or theme in many of Anderson’s small and unfunny asides. He’s trying so delicately to recreate a feeling of time and place of early 1970s Los Angeles, but the movie doesn’t succeed in answering why anyone else should really care about this personal PTA slice of nostalgia. The best part of the movie, by far, is the segment where Bradley Cooper plays the lascivious and self-absorbed hairdresser-turned-producer John Peters. Too many of the other misadventures feel like table anecdotes brought to overextended life with technical pizazz and minimal emotional accessibility. Licorice Pizza left me cold and unfulfilled.

Nate’s Grade: C+

River Road (2022)

I was asked to review River Road by an Ohio producer, although he is the lone Ohio connection and it was filmed in British Columbia, so it doesn’t exactly count as an official Ohio indie. It’s written and directed by Rob Willey, a Canadian commercial and music video director with one previous feature credit, 2016’s Dark Cove, a horror thriller with a budget of only $25,000. Willey is definitely a talented visual stylist, that much is apparent from watching clips of his shorts or the trailers for his movies. He sure makes a pretty picture. My issue with River Road as a drama is that the plot, characterization, and structure felt not nearly on par with the alluring visuals.

Travis (Cody Kearsley, Daybreak) is a Vancouver guitarist living a wild life of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. He meets Zoe (Lexi Redman) at his journaling spot while he’s luxuriating at a friend’s home on the eponymous River Road. She’s an American visiting a friend and over the course of a party they hook up in more ways than one. Zoe’s cocaine ends up being heroin and now both become inexorably tied together, two addicts sinking lower and relying upon one another for support. Travis empties his bank account, sells his belongings, including his prized guitar, and then considers increasingly risky crime to be able to afford more drugs. This brings him and Zoe to their most dangerous option: robbing local drug lord, Fresno (Steven Roberts), and making a very bad man a very clear enemy who will want very real and violent vengeance.

In short, I found these characters to be insufferable. This is billed as a crime movie but it’s really more of an addiction narrative following the descent of two people into more desperate and self-destructive behavior. As an addiction narrative, it’s best to start with some tangible semblance of what the “before times” are like so we have a baseline to contrast with the damaging effects of drug abuse. If we followed a story about a deranged homeless man with alcoholism who suddenly started using crack, that’s not enough of a dramatic contrast to effect much added drama and tension. This is the first error of River Road. Our introduction to Travis is that he’s a traveling hedonist, playing in a rock band and going through women like water. He has a montage about “getting clean” after the band’s last tour but this literally lasts minutes before he’s right back to snorting cocaine at the local parties (maybe we have different definitions of “clean”). With Zoe, we have one meet-cute first encounter, and then she’s already at the same party snorting cocaine and introducing Travis to heroin. This all happens fifteen minutes into the movie, so not enough time to effectively establish a “before” phase, but Willey errs by failing to give us more to either Travis or Zoe as characters. They were vague before and now, for the next hour, they will be defined by the depths of their addiction. However, I was never emotionally engaged with either of them so I found much of their rather redundant wallowing to be tedious and, shocking, failing to provide further needed characterization.

My engagement was also hampered by much of the clunky and inauthentic dialogue. When people speak, you don’t really feel like you’re learning much about them; it’s like empty air unless they’re directly expositing what is, by all other means, unclear. Travis says, via helpful future narration, that he never met someone “so alive” like Zoe and he was won over by her sense of humor. I shook my head and wondered where the evidence for this was, because the previous twenty minutes did not establish either of these aspects. The dialogue often falls into being redundant or exceedingly expository. We’re told Zoe has a great sense of humor, but where did we see it? We’re told this romance was electric, but where did we see it? The conclusions are being dictated to us rather than shared and earned. And then paradoxically we’re given scenes where characters will talk in circles but just hit the same note into oblivion. I found every scene with music producer Cash Dirty (Sunee Dhaliwal) to be excruciatingly long and unnecessary. I think he’s supposed to be “comic relief” but he’s just a more verbose version of most of the men, trading in the same levels of hedonism and casual misogyny. The big villain likes to keep taking but it’s the same improv note with too much time to fill. I’ve seen this kind of haphazard writing before in other indies that confuse “authenticity” with uninteresting and bland dialogue.

If you’re making an addiction movie you chiefly go one of two tonal routes: tragedy or immersion. Naturally, you can combine the two like Requiem for a Dream, but usually a filmmaker wants you to feel an emotional connection or a vicarious immersion with an overload of style. So, if you’re falling short from a characterization standpoint you can at least provide a satisfying array of style to bring to haunting visual and auditory life what the addiction process is like. I suppose one could argue that depictions of addiction without even the attempted integrity of characters and drama is simply cheap exploitation, and that can be true. With River Road, the characters don’t cut it to supply the tragedy. It’s just not there. I think it was another screenwriting error to provide not one but two framing devices, Travis and Zoe each narrating from the future when they’ve both gotten some form of treatment or help. I understand why this would be appealing to Willey because you can immediately plug into a scene of the past and cut to the character literally explaining, via voice over, what they were thinking at any moment. The problem with this is that the insight of these future narrators is pretty deficient. We don’t need future Zoe to tell us such obvious statements like “once you’re high there is no pain, there are no worries.” I think we understood that through the serene expressions on their faces, plus the general nature of drugs. They’re appealing for a reason. The other problem is that having both of our participants in this doomed love story as future storytellers means they won’t die. It eases some of the tension of its more fraught Act Three when they begin their dangerous decisions.

There’s also a misplaced twist at the one-hour mark that I find absolutely self-defeating, but to explain further will require some spoilers, so if you want to remain pure dear reader, skip to the next paragraph. From the fifteen-minute mark until the one-hour mark, we’re beset with redundant scenes of Zoe and Travis getting high, wandering around, being happy, and then being mopey during their withdrawal times, which shockingly don’t take up more time. It’s awkward to watch Travis mess up recording his guitar part for a song, and this is one of the few instances where we at least get a semblance of personal before/after contrast, but how many stagnant scenes do we need of people getting high, then begging people for money, then getting high again? This descent into debauchery doesn’t feel like we’ve regressed too far. Then at the one-hour mark the twist detonates that Zoe… actually knew about Travis when she saw his band perform in New York City. She stalked him online and followed him and planned her “chance meeting,” and my response was to merely shrug. So what? What does this twist do for the narrative? They were addicted to heroin before the first act was finished, so what does her being a stalker change with their current addiction crisis? After he demands she leave, Zoe comes back, and it’s as if this weird twist never happened for all its minimal impact. Travis does get to scream that Zoe hooked him on heroin on purpose, to try and control him, but, again, this is not evident with what we’ve seen onscreen. Also again, what does it matter? They’re stuck now. The manipulative woman trope, added onto the crazy groupie trope, is tacky, though I don’t know if we’re supposed to adopt Travis’ assessment when he learns the real truth. If this twist were going to be effective, we needed a lot more work done with Zoe’s characterization, with more time spent establishing a clear persona before the drugs became the dominant force. As it’s written, the twist plays like, “Hey, that vague girl who got addicted to drugs really quickly had maybe some other motives while she was vague.” You can’t earn that Gone Girl-style twist without putting in the proper time and effort for the rug pulling to genuinely upend the viewer.

From a technical standpoint, River Road is a slick-looking movie with moody, neon-drenched cinematography and an atmospheric and evocative film score, both done by Willey (he also edited and produced too). There are some fantastic visual compositions here and that’s where I think Willey has his true passion. The movie makes extensive use of montage where you can tell the shot composition and arrangement and editing are just much more ambitious. It almost feels like the drug montages and time lapse montages were what Willey enjoyed making the most. In contrast, the scenes of characters talking have less appealing composition, often relying upon a stifling shot-reverse shot rhythm where each person is left in a single shot. After a while, the discerning viewer can start to categorize the scenes that Willey prioritized more. Every filmmaker invariably does this to some degree; it’s just more apparent with River Road. The drug use sequences are entrancing, like the first taste of heroin leading to Zoe and Travis losing one another in the cosmos with snow falling on them being overlapped. I’m surprised we don’t have more visual sequences trying to convey the highs. Much of the scenes after this initial jolt are watching people close their eyes and nod in contentment. The editing in the montages is also smooth and seamlessly melting from shot to shot with ease. There are other scenes where the editing gets less prioritized as well. A scene where Zoe is laying perpendicular across Travis’ stomach kept cutting at sharp forty-five-degree angles that it ruined the flow of the scene. Likewise, a climactic foot chase is hampered from edits where the proximity is hard to judge. We needed more shots of Person A being seen with Person B. Without, or without clear markers to denote progression of the chase, it’s a jumble of frantic images without forming an important visual continuity.

River Road is a production where I would recommend just about every element with one big exception, the storytelling. I don’t blame the technicians nor the actors. It’s the screenplay that doesn’t know what to do with its 85 minutes, the wasted and redundant characterization, and the shrug-worthy climax (why do I care about an ultimate showdown between the big bad dealer and the guy who Travis works with at the gym?) that mitigate the other shining qualities. I think Willey is a filmmaker with some serious chops but maybe defer on the screenwriting next time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Adeline (2022)

The story behind Greg James, the filmmaker from Ohio, is surprisingly tied to, of all things, dodgeball. In 2004, the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was released and grossed $168 million worldwide, but there were two legal challenges accusing copyright violation to writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, and both have central Ohio connections. The first was by writers Ernando Ashoka Thomas and David Price, a Bexley, Ohio native that put his own experiences as an adult dodgeball tournament organizer into the script. Where things get interesting is that this other script, entitled Dodgeball: The Movie, was passed along in March 2001 to Shaun Redick, who worked for an agency and was friends with Thurber. This was one month before Thurber finished and registered his draft of his dodgeball screenplay. During the copyright lawsuit in 2005, a judge determined that a jury might “reasonably infer” that Thurber had access to the other dodgeball screenplay via Redick. There were other similarities between the two scripts that appear to be more than just formula and genre trappings, like both featuring a wheelchair-bound former dodgeball champion who becomes a coach and dies in a freak accident midway through before the big game but then reappears as a ghost to cheer them on.

The second and lesser-known suit was for authorship of that other dodgeball script, and that’s where James comes in. He and Thomas worked together under the YNOT production company they founded. They directed and produced a movie in 2001, Raw Fish, that Thomas wrote. Afterwards, in 2001, Thomas was working on the dodgeball script and James claims he was a co-author (Price was not listed as co-author until 2004 in screenplay registration). Thomas listed himself as the sole author on all the drafts he copyrighted and shared, and because James did not assert his copyright dispute until 2005, the statute of limitations ran out. James said that Thomas removed James’ name from the cover page before submitting the draft but never inquired further because he trusted his would-be partner. Lacking proof of collusion, and beyond the three-year window, James’ case was dismissed. The suit with Thomas and Price against Fox was later settled for an undisclosed sum, and James was left with nothing.

James returned to Columbus after 25 years in L.A. and was inspired to make a local story into a feel-good family film that could inspire others. Adeline is based on a horse at Serendipity Stables that provided therapeutic care for children with disabilities and those on the spectrum. In 2002, a tornado struck and Adeline reportedly held people against a barn wall to protect them rather than running away from danger. The horse’s bravery was rewarded by locals donating over $15,000 to allow Adeline to receive life-saving surgery (Adeline lived another three years). Adeline is James’ homecoming, and it’s sweet and slickly produced to look like any number of other faith-based inspirational family films, and that’s also its problem, if you find that to be a problem.

In a small Ohio town, Kay (Jane Mowder) moves onto a horse ranch and her presence changes everything. Bethany (Orli Gottesman) is running from foster home to foster home for setting fires, but one encounter with Adeline the horse and she’s rethinking her pyromania. The town preacher John (David Chokachi) and his wife Terry (Erin Bethea) have an autistic son who takes a shine to Adeline and actually speaks. John is skeptical and worries putting faith into Kay and her holistic solutions will lead to another disappointment. He challenges his parishioners to not lose sight of where to place their faith, and then the big tornado comes twistin’ through.

If you’re fans of sweet feel-good movies, Adeline will likely hit most of what you’re looking for, but I found the central idea a little too simplistic to the point of incredulity. In short, this is a magic horse. This is the only conclusion I must derive from what I see onscreen. I love animals. I always have. As my fiancé would attest, they flock to me. With that being said, I have a problem with animal movies because too many of them feel lazily projected onto the animal as its symbol. I had this same feeling with the 2020 inexplicably Oscar-winning My Octopus Teacher: “Does this octopus really see this man in a snorkel as a friend or an ally? She reaches out a tentacle to touch the appendage of this underwater man, but what does that mean? Is this signaling a friendship or is it merely signaling an animal taking stock of its surroundings? I don’t know and depending upon your personal relationship with the animal world, you will either accept everything [this man] says at face value without skepticism or you will see him as a slightly foolish romantic.” Adeline is such a magic horse that all it takes is Bethany looking once into her eyes to break her free from her fire-setting impulses. Adeline is such a magic horse that all it takes is a couple of rides and the preacher’s autistic son is now talking. This horse is spoken about in such grandiose terms and yet the screenplay by Sam Lewis doesn’t make the horse a character, which can be done for animals (see: Seabiscuit). The problem is that if effort is not put into giving the horse something, then the horse is merely a plot device for easy miracles. It might as well have been a magic couch whereupon every sit heals thy sitter. Given this horse’s track record, I’m surprised the town didn’t trot Adeline into their office to fix any budget shortfall. I know this is based on a true story, and I’m being more than a little facetious, but we need more from the drama than “Person A nuzzles horse or rides horse. Person A is now better. Repeat.”

Where the movie seems to want to go is the idea of alternate routes of healing, and this has dramatic potential that’s never fully realized. Much of the conflict revolves around John being skeptical and unwilling to see the benefit of the horse. His job asks him to put his faith in God and not a horse. He’s also hurting because of the frustrations with raising a non-verbal autistic child that he has difficulty communicating and connecting with. At one point, he even says he blames God for cursing his family (yikes). It looks like Adeline is going to be a conflict between traditional faith and alternative healing, an Old School versus New Age kind of battle. It appears that John might even feel threatened by the horse, like his parishioners will start looking to the special horse for answers and healing rather than their local minister. Does he feel threatened? Does he think his authority is being challenged by the horse or by God? Had the script really explored this personal crisis it could have made for an interesting character study about belief systems in conflict. Instead, it mostly plays as John being the most stubborn man who has to be the last one to accept the gift of Adeline. Lacking that depth, it means we’re just waiting for John to finally come around to the obvious, and it can be a frustrating waiting game. Even after the horse protects a dozen people from a tornado, David still pushes back. He even lays out a theory that since the horse farm was the only one hit by the tornado that God must disapprove (people literally groan and walk out of church in disgust after he proposes this theory). I think re-centering the movie on one man’s crisis of faith, accelerated by already feeling shaken from his son’s diagnosis, would be the smarter storytelling foundation rather than making the horse the magic new neighbor.

The story has too many characters and subplots that don’t get enough attention, but at the same time Adeline benefits from a pacing standpoint by having more stories to switch over. The Bethany storyline could have been its own movie but she feels more like Exhibit A for the miraculous potential of the horse. We’re told that she can’t stop starting fires and bounces from foster home to foster home, and all of a sudden Kay agrees to adopt her on the spot, and why not if all it takes is one encounter with Adeline to prove curative for Bethany’s troubles? Because this conflict is amazingly resolved so quickly, we have to add the extra conflict of the town teenagers bullying Bethany for her past, though this is comprised to one scene where the kid she may or may not have a crush on, Jason (Jake Satow), stands up for her and punches the lead bully. This is the end of Bethany being picked on for her past. Having an outcast character in a small town is a good viewpoint and a natural source of conflict going up against community expectations. Unfortunately, Bethany is just treated like a testimonial. Likewise, the autistic child is merely a plot device, and the script then transforms Terry into little more than a pleading support network. She wants her husband to acknowledge the healing power of the horse. That’s about it. She’s the sweetly smiling, eyes-glistening “why won’t you see?” figure in these kinds of movies. I think the character that suffers the most is Kay. She doesn’t feel like a person but yet more of a plot device. She stirs up the status quo, and she has a mysterious past, and yet she’s just deliverer of miracles without further dimension.

Even though its budget was half a million dollars, Adeline looks and sounds like a professional movie that would ably fill the scheduling slots of a Hallmark or Christian TV network. The cinematography by Dan Parsons (Treasure Lies) is rich and autumnal in its color palate, and the use of dappled lighting and depth of field visual arrangements helps add an extra pleasing cinematic quality to the movie. The score is also quite nice by Erik Schroeder, a man with over 100 scoring titles to his name. It’s pleasant and twinkly without overwhelming the emotions on screen. The special effects with the tornado and its destructive wake are quite good for the budget. The acting is above average too. Mowder (Foxcatcher) is dignified, Chokachi (Baywatch) is perfectly flummoxed, Bethea (Fireproof) is winsome, and Gottesman (1-800-HOT-NITE) has a natural presence that makes me think she has even bigger opportunities on the horizon. Plus, there’s the always enjoyable Ralph Scott (Double Walker) as John’s unflappable friend and soothing voice of reason.

There is plenty to enjoy with Adeline. It’s a passion project where you can feel the affection of everyone, and James has an invisible ease behind the camera. The acting and technical merits are solid and the pacing keeps things moving smoothly. Where Adeline frustrated me is with its screenplay that settled too often on its staid formula. We’ve seen these kinds of movies before and Adeline rests upon that familiarity a little too often for me. Genre fans will find enough to satisfy them, and everything is kept at such a family-friendly level of nice (even the disagreements are short and never more than G-rated) that is wholesome without feeling overly maudlin. I think the screenplay could have done much more with its pieces, but my opinion is going to be a minority for the movie’s target audience. Adeline is a nice movie about good people experiencing good tidings and will leave many people feeling, mostly, good.

Nate’s Grade: C

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