Catherine Called Birdy (2022)/ Sharp Stick (2022)
Lena Dunham is a controversial creator, even more so since the conclusion of her hit HBO comedy Girls back in 2017. I’ve been a fan of her creative voice from the very first episode of Girls, and I appreciated how well she could write self-involved, self-destructive, myopic characters and her directing instincts as well, all at the age of 25. From her zeitgeist-tapping TV success came Lena Dunham the brand, the industry, and with that her feminist newsletter, book deals, personal appearances, and a perennial case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. It makes it more difficult to carry that fandom when the figure says cringey things like she wished she had had an abortion to better understand the plight of those who have. Some of the early criticisms against Dunham were simply mean-spirited, like gross insults regarding her body and her penchant for nudity on her own TV series, as if women don’t exist who resemble Dunham’s shape. However, with each new public example of bourgeois entitlement, I began to wonder whether Dunham’s satirical skills at sizing up self-involved characters was maybe a little less satirical. I’ve been curious what creative projects Dunham would gravitate to next. Her first was Camping, a short-lived 2018 remake of a British comedy that was cancelled after one season. But aside from producing some more HBO shows, and occasional acting appearances like in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Dunham has been relatively silent. And then in 2022, she had two new movies as writer and director. I thought it would be telling to review them both together, as they share many similarities, and as further insight into Dunham as an artist still exploring her voice.
Sharp Stick was released first, though only a couple months before Catherine Called Birdy. Both movies are coming-of-age comedies about young women finding their place in a world that is all too ready to package them into tidy offerings for male desire. Both movies are about their plucky heroines pushing social boundaries and being exploited by lustful men, but one of these films is far better developed, more charming, and with clear ideas and consistent commentary. In short, watch the delightful Catherine Called Birdy and skip the rather dulled Sharp Stick.
Catherine Called Birdy is based on the 1994 children’s book by Karen Cushman and modeled as a young girl’s diary from thirteenth century England. Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is the only child of the lord of a small village. Her mother (Billie Piper) has suffered five miscarriages or stillborn births, and her spendthrift father (Andrew Scott) is bewildered at what to do with his headstrong daughter. She’s 14 and rejecting her father’s assembly of suitors, as he tries to marry her off and recoup some money to stabilize the family’s looming debt. Catherine narrates her very important year where she starts her period, hides it, and learns about love and life and finding her place.
Right away, I was taken with the sprightly energy and strong personality of our narrator, who would prefer to go by Birdy, thank you very much. We open with her literally slinging mud with the neighborhood kids and laughing and wilding out, enjoying the thrills of being young. The contrast of the movie will hinge upon the distinction of what is childish and what is mature, as these youngin’s are thrust into adult roles because society says that as soon as they can menstruate, they are ready to be married off and become baby factories. Birdy is angry with her mother for continuing to try and have children, especially after the painful recuperation of burying sibling after sibling. She resents the idea of being a mother, and especially so early into a life that still feels bound by the stirrings of being a child. Girls should be allowed to be girls, she demands, and by that she means running around, talking with her friends, and absent the pressures and limitations of adulthood. She’s defiant against the larger Medieval system of valuing women for their fertility. Dunham is smart enough to frame the movie in credible terms. It’s not like Birdy, through her tenacity, is going to overthrow an entire centuries-old system of gender norms, but the story is positioned in more personal terms, in breaking through to her father to see her on her own terms rather than as a convenient investment portfolio. That’s more achievable and will be more gratifying for us because of what winning him over will mean.
The movie is also fast-paced and funny, with Birdy’s casual and catty observations delivered in quick succession. In some ways this reminded me of a Medieval version of 2011’s Submarine, another charming indie coming-of-age movie with an eccentric pop-culture obsessed teenage weirdo. There’s Medieval covers of contemporary pop songs strewn throughout for a youthful energy, and lots of onscreen titles and graphics that have their own jokes. The disconnect between Birdy’s viewpoints of the world and the common ways of thinking provide snarky commentary and plenty of progressive attitude. It’s a constant entertainment to watch this precocious little lady tweak the gender and social norms, riling up buffoonish and fragile male psyches. She’s an upstart, and there’s joy in watching her upset those in power and privilege, though she too is reminded of her own privilege considering she is the daughter of the lord and not merely some dirt-poor peasant. If it wasn’t for the sharp character-focused writing, Ramsey’s performance wouldn’t achieve the same comic and emotional heights.
Ramsey was a supreme scene-stealer on Game of Thrones, so much so that producers turned a one-scene part into a multi-season role, even giving her a badass death scene. Ramsey is the anchor of Catherine Called Birdy and perfectly in tune with her character’s feisty yet limited worldview. She’s such a winning character and represents our more modern worldview chaffing up against the very real reality of Medieval life. In some ways, she’s a case study in having to grow up too soon, and surely not the only woman to have done so. Ramsey is heartfelt and hilarious and headed for stardom (she’ll be co-headlining the HBO Last of Us series along with Pedro Pascal).
Attaching the audience to this character is a rewarding experience, and Dunham as screenwriter has balanced the adaptation of going from a first-person diary-based narrator into a film world where we can get outside viewpoints that complicate and challenge our perceptions. I appreciated the widened scope of the narrative. It’s not just the women who are expected to perform their social duties. Birdy’s beloved older uncle, George (Joe Alwyn), is definitely in love with Birdy’s best friend, but that marriage will not do. He’s expected to marry from an established pecking order to better protect his family. There’s a village boy who is also clearly gay but will never be allowed to marry whom he loves, again emblematic of plenty of people who would be left behind in this system. Sophie Ookonedo (Hotel Rwanda) appears as a widowed noble lady who speaks about the freedoms she enjoys having “played the game” and waiting her turn, speaking to a possibility for Birdy working within a broken system. She’s savvy but graceful, with the hint of sadness just on the outer edges of her words. Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn (Piper), is similar, hoping to make the best of limited options, and trying to ready her daughter for a life she knows she will be ill-prepared for. It’s what any parent feels, trying to ease your child for the reality to come while still holding onto their innocence as long as possible. She has some heart-rending moments especially during a difficult childbirth scene, and it’s that moment that really showcases Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo (Scott). Until this point, her father has been frustrated by his impetuous daughter, but it’s this moment where she, and by extension us, see the depth of his caring for his family. It’s wonderfully played by Scott, and it reminds us that even the stooges and fools of this world have their own hidden depth.
Catherine Called Birdy is also something of a Game of Thrones reunion, pairing Ramsey with David Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Paul Kaye, and Ralph Ineson. It’s like Dunham used the HBO series as a quick casting cheat sheet since she’s already seen them in a Medieval setting. Special mention to Russell Brand (Death on the Nile) who also just kills it in one scene as a confused and easily swayed suitor. I would have loved more appearances from this man but having him continually foiled by Birdy and never learning from his gullibility.
Moving onto Sharp Stick, an original story from Dunham, you can see points of similarity immediately, framing the narrative around the self-discovery of Sarah Jo (Kristine Forseth). She’s 26 years old and still a virgin, a point she feels more uncomfortable about because of how open her half-sister Treina (Zola’s Taylour Paige) and mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) are about their own sexuality and their many paramours. Sarah Jo has her sights set on Josh (Jon Bernthal), a seemingly kind stay-at-home dad taking care of his special needs son that Sarah Jo babysits. If she’s going to lose her virginity to someone, she wants it to be him, but with this comes consequences as well as a steep learning curve for Sarah Jo on the realities of intimacy.
My issue with Sharp Stick is that it feels far more dawdling and confused about what it wants to say and explore with its brief 86-minute running time. This feels more like a handful of ideas or short story beginnings that Dunham inartly smashed together, and the proceeding movie has moments of levity and insight but is overall too messy and shambling and underdeveloped. Let’s start off with the main character who I would have assumed was a teenager by the way that she was acting. When the script tells me she is 26 years old, I was flabbergasted. She was behaving like a much less mature adult, not to say 26 is the height of maturity or that everyone matures at the same speed. Still, Sarah Jo comes across as very naïve and infantilized about adult relationships and human sexuality, which is confusing considering how open her family is about sex and pleasure. It’s not like she’s growing up in a conservative or repressive environment. She’s literally helping her sister record twerking videos for her social media account. The chief reason I think Dunham made an explicit reason for aging our protagonist 26 was to remove some of the ickier consent issues from coming-of-age stories about inappropriate relationships between underage teens and adults (American Beauty, Towelhead, The Diary of a Teenage Girl). She wanted to preemptively remove those criticisms, and so she made Sarah Jo 26, and she also had her uterus removed, something meant to make her seem more adult, at least on paper. Except this is the most childish 26-year-old I may have ever seen. The problem is that Sarah Jo’s naivete has shackled her character, so her sexual awakening feels more akin to a teenager’s than a mid-twenties adult.
Update: I did some research and discovered that Sarah Jo was originally written to be autistic, which would explain more of her social awkwardness. Dunham reached out to an expert on compassionate representations of autism and physical intimacy but then reportedly cancelled on her. I guess she just decided to make Sarah Jo neurotypical but didn’t change anything else. Needless to say, this was not the best decision and its impact is all over the oblivious sense of naivete that pervades the character and her choices.
I found it hard to take Sarah Jo that seriously as a character, as her education seemed to be obvious and a little too arch and twee in delivery for the rest of the movie. Once she has her sights set on Josh, Sarah Jo looks to Internet pornography to learn about what she may do to better please her partner. She is titillated by watching porn but less from the simple carnal activity and more from her fixation on one very commanding actor, played with nonchalant exuberance by Scott Speedman. Sarah Jo studies the annals of porn and creates a colorful construction-paper-heavy checklist of sexual acts she would like to experiment with, and she even alphabetizes it. It’s stuff like this that paints Sarah Jo as being infantilized. It’s not like we were shown her penchant for arts and crafts or taking larger tasks and breaking them down into cutesy checklists before. She even starts soliciting men online to better help her check things off her list, although this doesn’t come to any danger beyond a few lackluster men not living up to her expectations. And that’s the big takeaway here, that what porn promotes is more fantasy than reality, that actual intimacy between consenting adults is its own very different thing. This is too simple a revelation to rest the entire movie upon wuthout a more in-depth character, which Sarah Jo is not. Again, it’s confusing because this character will seem like she is ignorant to the world of sexuality and yet her family is so direct. The Sarah Jo character feels like she’s been ported from another story about a sheltered wallflower learning about her body and her pleasure versus how she’s been told to act to better turn on men.
I don’t fully understand what the entire storyline with Josh was meant to add up to. He’s her first sexual experience, and while he’s awkward and hesitant, he eventually gives in to this young woman’s ego-stroking infatuation, and then they embark on an affair behind the back of his pregnant wife (played by Dunham). I’m going to go into spoilers to better assess this storyline, so be warned dear reader. He eventually confesses to his wife about the affair and breaks down into tears, apologizing and saying he couldn’t help himself, and the moment is squarely to make us see Josh as a pathetic loser. His tears are performative, and he’s throwing around shifty excuses like that he did it for them. He admonishes himself but it’s not contrition we see but manipulation, meant to provoke forgiveness or at least mitigation of his actions by his wife. That’s when she shakes her head and talks about the many, many other women that Josh had had affairs with, proving that this tryst was not out of character. In fact, this seemingly “good guy” dad is actually a creep. Okay, but then Dunham’s character stays with him and they continue living their lives, obviously with the absence of Sarah Jo now. She even returns to them to yell to Josh that she’s getting much better at sex, like she will win him back as a lover. I suppose Dunham was setting up Sarah Jo’s object of desire being less than her expectations and instead as another scuzzy and coddled man-child. That’s fine. But then why does Sarah Jo still seem so determined to win him back? It’s like she hasn’t learned from this.
There are moments that work in Sharp Stick, little pieces that click together with insight or well-honed character writing. I enjoyed Sarah Jo’s mom going into full monologue mode to describe how she met and fell in love with Treina’s father. When Sarah Jo asks about her own father and her story about meeting him, her mom just shrugs and says her dad was just some guy. The disappointment is palpably felt. I also appreciated that children with special needs are presented in a straightforward and un-stigmatized fashion as just being kids. I thought the conclusion with life advice from Speedman was a great scene-stealing deluge of wisdom from the most unexpected place. I just wish it felt more earned for Sarah Jo and her awkward personal odyssey.
Dunham hasn’t directed a movie since her indie breakout in 2010, Tiny Furniture, and now she has two movies within weeks of one another. Catherine Called Birdy is the much stronger outing, allowing Dunham to adapt her voice and talents into a PG-13-firendly universe while still keeping her sharp wit and attention to character detail. Sharp Stick, in contrast, feels like several ideas that never fully coalesce, and the messy decisions with the main character makes the entire enterprise feel strange and lacking better-earned wisdom from her journey. After six seasons of Girls, I’ll always be intrigued about a new Dunham creative project, but they are not all equal. Catherine Called Birdy is Dunham flying far above the routine criticisms about her writing and her perspective, as well as showing her adaptability in an unfamiliar setting. Sharp Stick, sadly, is a reconfirmation of those criticisms and the sloppy execution of bigger ideas.
Catherine Called Birdy: B+
Sharp Stick: C
King Richard (2021)
King Richard confounds me and also doesn’t. I can understand what the point was and shrug my shoulders at its choice of narrative perspective. It’s a hagiography that settles on audience foreknowledge to alleviate any tension, or sustained interest, and at its core is a contradiction of a man deserving scrutiny but served up for celebration. As my pal Michael Galusick put it, “I can’t believe there’s a movie about the rise to greatness for the Williams sisters [Venus and Serena], and it’s centered around their dad.” King Richard is an awards-season hopeful, produced by the Williams sisters, and a questionable biopic with a questionable perspective aimed at telling the hidden story behind the meteoric success of two of the greatest tennis stars of all time.
In the late 1980s, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is working all night as a security guard and spending his mornings to train his two pre-teen daughters, Venus and Serena, in tennis. Richard is convinced they will be superstars, that he and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis, Lovecraft Country) will be rich and move from their Compton, California neighborhood. Richard gets beaten by local gangs, studies tennis magazines and instructors, and tries to get his girls formal training from professionals while holding them back to his demands. He has a plan, he repeatedly tells others, for their success, and nothing will dissuade him from it.
Firstly, we finally get a movie about the Williams sisters and their dominant rise through the world of tennis, and the movie is almost entirely centered upon their demanding father and his vigilant bordering on abusive training regimen? Richard is meant to be a contradiction and had the movie explored his contradictions in full this could have been an illuminating character study and warts-and-all biopic. However, it’s a movie that fully relies on every viewer’s implicit understanding of the great success of the Williams sisters, so the entire movie serves as a two-hour-plus “I told you so” to Richard’s doubters. Silly neighbor, questioning whether forcing his daughters to perform for hours in the pouring rain constitutes child endangerment. Silly wife, questioning why Richard has insisted his family move into the neighborhood of Compton to better raise his children through adversity and still complain about the dangers that Compton presents and that his daughters must rise above to leave and make something of themselves. Silly tennis coaches, questioning Richard, a man who has no tennis background himself, for demanding his sideline coaching be prioritized over the professionals. Silly “tennis parents,” the kinds that Richard says should be shot, even though he behaves the same way. Silly Williams children, feeling that their demands will be heard and acknowledged as far as their own personal paths and that the other Williams sisters will earn a similar level of attention and affection. Silly sports agents, for being skeptical about this man who says he had a 70-page “plan” for athletic success before his kids were even born and preaching that his unorthodox methods, including paying neighborhood kids to harass and intimidate his girls while they played, would be proven correct. Because, I suppose, it all worked out because Venus and Serena had tremendous success and were inspirations to millions of young African American kids who could finally see themselves in a sport that was privileged and exclusive for generations. He was right, so all of his unorthodox, crazy, dubious methods must have worked, so intuits the movie. It’s less because Venus and Serena have talent and skills and more that their dad worked really really hard and suffered.
With the involvement of the Williams sisters, King Richard only ever goes so far when it comes to critical analysis of its title character. He is certainly presented as a dedicated, hard-working dreamer, but his eccentricities and self-aggrandizing get sanitized as “tough father” when that toughness can cross over into obsession and abuse. It’s like watching 2014’s Whiplash but turned into a feel-good inspirational tale for the ages. At least Whiplash explored the harm of obsession and the pessimistic belief system that whatever it takes to a achieve greatness is excusable. With King Richard, the movie is not at all critical of this ethos. Oh sure, there are points where Brandy Williams speaks up with measured irritation at her husband making rash decisions, excluding the involvement and contributions of others to see his great plan through, and these moments are easily the best in the movie. Finally, someone is pressing this man on his methods and making him confront himself and his flaws. But then Brandy blends back into the background until another half hour goes by and the movie needs to tap her services again. This is the same woman, by the way, who in real life Richard hid her birth control pills in order to back her into a pregnancy and begin his master plan. That’s real. That happened. Same with intentionally keeping his children in Compton so they would learn adversity (tragic side note: one of his older daughters, Yetunde, died in 2003 near a gang house in Compton). And also the fact that Richard walked out on his previous family before Brandy, leaving behind five children all under the age of eight. When he speaks in the movie about always being there for his girls, unlike his father who ran out on him, it rings hollow with the full unflattering context.
The movie seems to adopt Richard’s belief that if he didn’t push so hard for so long, while also withholding them from the tennis juniors circuit, denying them matches for three years, then perhaps they too would have burnt out and gone down a similar path as young superstar Jennifer Capriati. Except Venus’ first breakout success is because of her own insistence and Richard finally, at long last, acquiescing to the choices being made by his own daughters. Who knows, maybe she would have had success even earlier and not burnt out? It’s just as plausible considering that Richard’s regimen included forcing the girls to earn all As in high school on top of rigorous training. I think this detail is meant to make Richard seem like he values their education on par with their sports performances, but it reads to me as another high-pressure burden he’s beset upon his beleaguered daughters to meet his personal definition of success.
Again, if the movie portrayed this man in a more honest approach, questioning his methods and bringing light to his inherent contradictions, holding people to standards he was unable to hold to himself, taking credit solely for the success of the hard-working women in his family, then the movie would have been an intriguing and revelatory character drama. It would have justified shifting the perspective from Serena and Venus to Richard. But the script by Zach Baylin is too uninterested about those interesting details and contradictions. It knows Serena and Venus succeed so it all becomes a long journey of people doubting him only to be proven wrong. The movie feels more than enough like it reaches its emotional climax, father acceding to daughter as she approaches the big stage, and then there is twenty more minutes of tennis action. Why do we need a drawn-out tennis match at this point? The montage of real-life footage of tennis championships achieves the same emotional effect. If the decision was to finally dwell in the excellence and tenacity of Venus as an athlete cutting loose, then why does director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, Monsters and Men) keep favoring other people’s perspectives during the climactic debut match? We keep cutting back to Richard watching, or those in the crowd, or a squat TV screen monitor. I understand the nature of editing coverage, but if this is celebrating Venus’ moment and handing over the baton to her, then why not give her our full focus rather than repeated check-ins on Richard basking in the ascendant triumph of his hard work?
Anyway, if you can take King Richard on its own terms, maybe it will prove fitfully entertaining and inspirational as it follows its formula to the bitter end. It’s received widespread critical praise especially for Smith’s humbled performance. I think Smith is perfectly good, but I also think his inherent charisma, and a generation of audience good will, project onto the character to more excuse Richard’s questionable actions. It would be like watching Tom Hanks portray Jeffry Dahmer; you might not condone all his actions but, come one, that’s American treasure Tom Hanks eating human flesh there. As a sports movie or a father/daughter movie, certain fans of those features might plug into the emotional beats of a feel-good universe and ignore the problematic parts. Maybe we’ll get a story of Venus or Serena from their own perspective, one that sees their father in less flattering terms. In the meantime, King Richard is a feel-good biopic that made me feel bad the more facts I uncovered, and its hero worship of a, at best, complicated man without adequate hesitation made me feel like this was a gift from the Williams sisters for their dear old dad’s ego and legacy.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Many Saints of Newark (2021)
If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark, and if you’re not a fan of The Sopranos, I can’t say you’ll enjoy The Many Saints of Newark. It’s a prequel set in the early 1970s, decades before an adult Tony Soprano was ruling his turf in New Jersey and going to therapy to deal with his rising panic attacks. The Sopranos was an era-defining, ground-breaking show for HBO and creator David Chase would captivate and infuriate audiences in equal measure, mixing shocking violence, twisted comedy, strange side steps, pessimistic psychoanalysis, and stubborn subversive storytelling to its very end with a polarizing finale that still elicits debate to this day (count me in the Tony-is-dead camp). It would be too much to expect a return to that world to pack in all the entertainment and enrichment of a peak TV series, but I was at least hoping that Chase’s return to his mobster magnum opus would present an engaging story that would add further insight or intrigue into the series and its characters. After two hours, I’m left shrugging like Silvio Dante and about as clueless as Paulie Walnuts.
As personal background, I watched all seven seasons of The Sopranos and eagerly anticipated its finale in 2007. I was one of those people that even questioned whether my cable had somehow gone out as the series suddenly shifted to a black screen without further warning. I enjoyed the show though I haven’t watched it since it originally concluded over ten years ago. It would be a worthy series to re-watch in our binge era, but I think I would keep my initial interpretation of the show and its self-loathing patriarch, Tony. I think over the course of 8 years Chase intended to demystify the perverse allure of organized crime and the glamor of Hollywood myth-making. I think he subversively took a familiar setup, a family man trying to fight for respect from his family and his Family, and knew many people would find themselves rooting for Tony Soprano and his underdog status and his potential redemption through therapy and self-analysis. Except, Chase’s point, is that these bad men are not complicated, they’re not geniuses, and they’re not capable of real empathy. Tony’s near-death experience and inevitable return to his old ways was proof of that. Chase created a vehicle where people sided with the anti-hero lead and he systematically provided more and more evidence that this man was cruel, impulsive, selfish, and incapable of redemption, and every episode, especially in that final season, pushed the viewer to ask, “How much longer can you look the other way? How many more excuses can you give?” It was Chase taking the appeal of mob movies and anti-heroes and testing viewer loyalty, making people question the appeal of these kinds of stories about these kinds of men. That’s my reading.
As a prequel, The Many Saints of Newark might appeal to the most diehard fans of The Sopranos who just want to have two hours more in this world, seeing these characters again one more time. Perhaps fans will thrill to see James Gandolfini’s son, Michael Gandolfini, play teenage Tony Soprano. Perhaps they’ll thrill to see Tony’s mother at a younger age but recognize some of her self-pitying and antagonistic quirks that would define her as an elderly woman. Perhaps they’ll thrill to watch Christopher Moltisanti’s father, Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), as Tony’s uncle, the man he said from the series who was so influential to him. In essence, this story, written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, is about how Tony got to be on his doomed path of crime. The fact that Tony is merely a supporting character in this tale is not a grievous structural fault. However, the fact that Dickie is such an uninteresting lead character in such an uninteresting and glum story is a significant fault.
The Sopranos was dark and frustrating too, though your emotional investment was grander, but it was rarely boring. The majority of my time with Newark was spent stooped and patiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. There were bloody murders and gunfights and love affairs, but I kept waiting for it to seem like it mattered to the overall bigger picture. Very little in this movie ever felt important, because the movie doesn’t invest in its own characters and its own story on their own terms, it merely coasts off the attached appeal of the TV show it’s meant to link up to and coasts off the good will of its audience. If you removed the names of the characters, thus denying its creative inheritance, then I doubt even the most ardent fans of mob movies would find that much to appreciate here. If this wasn’t a Sopranos movie, it wouldn’t have gotten this platform and attention, and that seems less a reason to run with an underdeveloped story with a dull protagonist stumbling through mundane mob cliches.
If Dickie is meant to be so influential, I don’t understand the appeal. I guess he’s slightly more emotionally stable than Tony’s father, played by Jon Bernthal, but that’s not saying much. Dickie violently confronts his father, “Hollywood Dick” (Ray Liotta), over his abuse of his young new bride from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), to defend her. That’s good? But when Dickie takes up an affair with the same woman, his stepmom, he proves just as depressingly violent. That’s bad. The problem is that Dickie is not a complex character to hang a movie upon. I thought there was going to be a slow temptation to begin an affair with his new stepmom, but that happens far too early, which places her as simply the “goomah” on the side he retreats to for sexual gratification and empty promises of building a life. She goes right from being a potentially interesting character, a woman with agency and danger, to another mob movie cliché, the arm candy waiting on her bad man to patronize her. Dickie says that his wife has had trouble conceiving, so I thought maybe this new stepmom would be revealed to be Christopher’s actual birth mother. That’s why she was here in this story. Nope, yet again this possibility is dismissed early. The Many Saints of Newark frustratingly takes every tedious story detour it can when presented.
The movie is set primarily in the late 60s and early 70s in Newark, barely tackling the riots of 1967 to use them as a cover for a storytelling choice for Dickie. The entire subplot featuring the struggles of the African American community feel tacked on to this movie, as if Chase is responding to criticisms that his series wasn’t diverse enough. The rise of Harold (Leslie Odom Jr.) as a gangster is given such little significance. He begins as an employee of Dickie’s and then becomes a rival, but this complicated relationship isn’t played like it’s complicated. Every time Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) appeared I kept hoping that finally the movie was going to give him something to dig into, to really explore this perspective in a meaningful way. The rivalry between Harold and Dickie doesn’t even feel significant because both of these men are criminally underwritten. The Newark riots are played so incidentally and without consequence. Why begin to explore racial unrest and police brutality if you’re just going to ignore it after twenty minutes of movie?
As a movie, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. As a Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark did not work for me. I had some mild amusement and intrigue with moments like Corey Stoll going full force in his impression of a young Uncle Junior, with Vera Farmiga chewing the scenery as Tony’s mother, and the impeccable resemblance of Gandolfini to his late father. I enjoyed the weirdness of Liotta playing twin brothers. I enjoyed the period appropriate production values and music choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a vital experience that lends better understanding and insight into the Sopranos universe. Again, some fans may just be happy enough to exist in this universe for two more hours, to soak up even the most superfluous of details (I know I would be for my TV show favorites). That’s fine, but for me, what’s on screen barely resembles the daring and complex characterization of the series. Maybe a movie was always set up to fall short but this one falls short even as a mediocre mob movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
If I told you I had a movie where Angelina Jolie is on the run from a team of assassins and under the backdrop of a raging forest fire, you’d likely be intrigued. Then if I said that it was co-written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, one of the best screenwriters working today who excels at taking muscular genres of old and providing uncommon depth and poetry, then you might say, “Why aren’t we watching this right now?” Those Who Wish Me Dead, based on the book by Michael Koryta, is Sheridan’s second directing effort after 2017’s excellent Wind River, and while I would not classify it as a bad movie, it is easily Sheridan’s weakest film to date. There’s so much amazing potential here with these plot elements, this cast, and this rising filmmaker, and to only produce a square, straightforward 90s action throwback feels deeply unsatisfactory. There could have been so much more.
We follow Hannah (Jolie) and her team of Montana forest fire fighters. She is still recovering from a recent tragedy where she was unable to save campers from a fire. She’s been reassigned to a lonely lookout tower to deal with her guilt and PTSD. Along comes Connor (Finn Little) whose father is being hunted down by a team of hired assassins (Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult). His father is killed but Connor escapes, finding refuge with Hannah and wary of trusting anyone new. The two of them make a trek to find help while the killers narrow their search and start a forest fire to provide a very attention-grabbing distraction for the local authorities.
The problem with the plot description I just provided is that there really isn’t much more to anything. You can probably see the progression of Hannah’s character arc immediately, having to confront her past trauma through combating the forest fire and saving this young boy’s life to make amends mentally for those she could not save in her past. The Sheridan of his past work would recognize that familiar arc and provide extra nuance, commentary, and make the character more emotionally resonant. Unfortunately, this version only produces a lead protagonist that is, shockingly, disposable. You could have eliminated the entire character of Hannah from this movie for all the personal significance she provides for this story, and that stunned me. We don’t really get insight into he beyond generic observations. She doesn’t really bond with this kid in any meaningful way. She doesn’t really teach this kid anything generally useful for his own safety. This is the type of relationship dynamic where the adult teaches the kid some means of defense, and then in a pivotal moment in Act Three, the child uses that technique to save themselves or the adult. It’s textbook (think: Face/Off with the butterfly knife as but one example). This movie doesn’t do that. In fact, once this kid hands over to Hannah the “unseen paper carrying dead dad’s important information” then he also comes across as disposable. I guess he’s still a witness to murder but the valuable intel seemed more pertinent to thwart. The fact that these two characters can arguably be removed from the story, either entirely or far earlier, is not a good assessment of their value added.
The competing storyline with Jon Bernthal (The Punisher) is surprisingly the one that feels most attached to the events of the plot and could have been its lead vehicle. He plays Ethan, a small-town sheriff’s deputy who happens to be Connor’s uncle. Ethan also has a pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), and they both take up a generous amount of screen time. There’s a good reason for this because they’re the best part. The loving yet pointed interactions between the two of them are the best example of characterization evident in the movie. When Allison is confronted by the assassins, she’s sees through their law enforcement disguise easily. When the bad men want to torture her to get key information, she manages to subdue them and escape, all while being seven months pregnant. In two short scenes, this woman proves more capable and fearless and badass than our lead character.
It’s easy to see a version of Those Who Wish Me Dead where the Ethan character and his drama completely cover the same narrative territory that Hannah offers. Ethan’s wife is pregnant, the baby is due soon, and yet Ethan feels scared and unsure about whether he has what it takes to be a father. He comes across a young boy on the run from big trouble and protects him, and over the course of their shared experiences, he bonds and discovers paternal capabilities within himself, he teaches the kid a thing or two about defense, and he becomes more self-assured about his own personal future. Admittedly, you could say that’s a simplistic character arc, but is the one presented any less simple where we watch a person haunted by trauma confront that trauma by the end? My point in this revisionary hypothetical is that this version would be more aligned with the plot elements that seem to get the most care and screen time. I know it’s based on a book, but it clearly feels like Sheridan has shown what parts he cares about more so embrace those parts.
It’s also quite easy to identify the parts of the movie Sheridan did not care as much about. There is a surprising sloppiness to much of the setup here, where key connecting information is excluded from the viewer perhaps out of a sense of trying to be ambiguous but also perhaps out of a sense of general indifference. I was confused why the assassins blew up a house in their opening moment, what information Connor’s father had stumbled upon, and even who these killers were and what their connections were with an unexpected Tyler Perry cameo where he appears to be their boss or handler or buyer or someone. The plotting can also be disappointingly redundant, as Hannah and Connor fall into a frustrating pattern of leaving the lookout tower, going back to the lookout tower, leaving the lookout tower again, repeat. Perhaps most egregiously, the raging inferno doesn’t even seem to matter. How can you make a movie about a forest fire where the forest fire barely matter in the scheme of things. It exists as an immovable obstacle but more so as a means of emotional catharsis for Hannah’s prior trauma. Far too often it feels like the fire is practically standing still, watching the actors from afar and not wanting to interrupt, and then at the very end, it’s comically overcharged, zooming at super speeds to compensate for its earlier lazy pacing. There aren’t any real specific survival scenarios tailored to the circumstances of a forest fire, which means this movie could have easily been a flood or earthquake or any disaster or none at all.
Those Who Wish Me Dead reminds me of the vanishing mid-level thrillers that Hollywood used to crank out on a near weekly basis. That’s probably also part of the reason it feels like a throwback to an earlier time, a time where a big star could be thrown into a disaster and given evil-doers to topple and we’d all gladly gobble it down with a heaping helping of popcorn. Perhaps that unassuming nostalgia will prove enough for some people, especially in the wake of a year of minimal big screen blockbusters. There are still moments here that feel like the Sheridan of old, but too much of this movie cannot escape the gravity of being a dull action movie without anything to say and without characters to invest in. It’s not even that the movie is too simple, because simplicity can be its own virtue, but that it’s underwritten, with characters that could be exorcised completely from the narrative, and a batch of villains lacking entertaining personalities or memorable menace. It’s hard not to feel like everyone’s talents involved were wasted somewhat on something so basic, which is even more baffling when you again recognize those fantastic story elements. Chases. From assassins. Into a forest fire. There’s an obvious movie to be had there. Unfortunately, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t capitalize.
Nate’s Grade: C
Ford vs. Ferrari (2019)
I don’t care one lick about cars and I was greatly entertained by Ford vs. Ferrari, a thrilling look back where the gear-heads at Ford wanted to build a new model of racing car that could challenge the seemingly unbeatable Italians at the Le Mans raceway. The smartest move the movie makes is placing this as a character-driven story with a group of big personalities solving a puzzle and trying to prove the arrogant suits wrong. It has such winning elements that it’s got crowd-pleaser DNA all over it, even if you’ll likely predict every step of the story. Even if you know nothing about the history of racing and motor vehicles, you can suspect that designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) will, through grit and confidence and outside-the-box thinking, overcome their obstacles to win the 1966 Le Mans race. The movie even realizes this, and that’s why the climax of the movie isn’t whether or not Ford will triumph but on a very personal dilemma and choice. It’s less about the mechanics of cars and more about simply solving problems with innovative solutions, and there’s a great satisfaction in watching characters we care about get closer to solving a puzzle that has outwitted the masses. As the characters get excited, we get excited because the personal is what is felt most. Miles is an arrogant, disgraced driver that Ford doesn’t want being the face of anything for the company. Shelby is trying to transition from being in a car to the head of a company, and he’s the heat shield for his team, taking the corporate ire and laying more and more on the line for their experiments. Damon is great, and sounds uncannily like Tommy Lee Jones, but this is chiefly Bale’s movie and he is fantastic. He once again just disappears into a character, this time the lanky, cocky, hard-driving family man, and the scenes with Miles’ wife and son actually provide important dimension to all the participants. They aren’t simply there to express concern or admiration. The screenplay by the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) have opened up these characters, their fear, anxieties, hopes, and dreams in a way that feels genuine and considerate. They hook us in with the characters early, so that the rest of the film serves as a series of payoffs for our investment. The racing sequences are thrilling as director James Mangold (Logan) has his camera career around the cars, placing the audience in the middle of the RPMs and feeling that immersive sense of speed. I never knew that the Le Mans race is 24 hours long, and the scene of these 1960s cars, with 1960s windshield wiper technology, driving in the rain and dark at 200 miles-per-hour is starkly terrifying. I still don’t care much about cars or their history, but you present me engaging characters and Oscar-caliber performances to boot, and I’ll watch those people anywhere. Ford vs. Ferrari is a bit long (150 minutes) but a well-crafted, potent crowd-pleaser with exhilarating racing and strong characters worthy of cheering.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Wind River (2017)
With just two finished movies attached to his resume as screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan has enjoyed immediate success. Sicario and Hell or High Water were both some of the finest films of their respective years. Sheridan has a classical sense of structure but he also pumps his big, bold Hollywood dramas with meaningful commentary and substance to communicate a systemic rot from within, whether it is the spiraling war on drugs, the rapacious banking industry, or an entire enclave of people that are ignored as an act of historical penance. When you come to a Taylor Sheridan movie, you leave feeling full on a banquet of superior screenwriting. Wind River is his next feast.
A young Native American woman, Natalie (Kelsey Asbillie), is found barefoot and dead in the snow on a Wyoming reservation the size of Rhode Island. A confluence of law enforcement officers investigate while questioning who has rightful jurisdiction, the state police, the Native police, or FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s frustrated that, while the coroner will confirm she was raped the night of her death, Natalie is not being dubbed a homicide because of the cause of her death. Jane seeks out the assistance of Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife hunter for the Fish and Game Department who watches out for predators. He knows the land, he knows the people, he personally knows Natalie’s family, and he knows the loss of a daughter. Cory agrees to help Jane discover who is responsible for the murder and seek justice and, possibly, vengeance.
This is a deeply felt character-driven mystery that examines the lingering damage and defenses of a group of people often left on their own and often forgotten. Sheridan is quickly establishing himself as cinema’s finest voice when it comes to a twenty-first century cowboy ideal, the taciturn, wounded man soldiering onward in an unfair world. Sheridan has a commanding sense of place and character, but his perspective rarely connotes judgment. He’s more an observer, a therapeutic device for his characters to finally express themselves and their brokenness and how the world made them this way. He can be downright poetic but his instincts are for a large canvas with Hollywood thespians. He writes meaty, distinguished, and humane characters all around, not just for the leads. One of the hallmarks of Sheridan’s writing is how precise and generous he can be with his stable of supporting actors. As the story develops, we see just how the death affects the small community, a community struggling to hold itself together anyway through poverty, drug abuse, and limited work opportunities (according to a 2012 New York Times feature, life expectancy on the reservation was 49 years). There is a pervading sense of hopelessness that carries over the land. The people in this movie feel real, lived in, and haunted, and the location feels exactly the same. The ending text leaves a stark reminder of this feeling like a world on our peripheral: no statistics are kept for missing Native American women. Nobody has any sense how high that figure could be.
The leading man of Wind River is Renner (Arrival) but the real star is his character, a gritty and experienced wildlife hunter with an abiding reserve of unresolved issues pertaining to his own teenage daughter’s murder. He has some beautiful monologues in this movie, exquisitely written by Sheridan to showcase characterization and back-story. The first is when he helps his grieving friend by sharing the routine he went through with his own personal loss, specifically how forgetting the person, and the pain of their loss, is the worst thing one can do to honor them. “Take the pain. It’s the only way to keep her with you,” he says. Renner delivers his best performance since 2010’s The Town and it’s one that asks him to slow things down. This isn’t a flashy role, and even though there are some stunning monologues, it’s a role that asks for more understatement. Sheridan has a clear favorite archetype but he finds ways to make each person distinct.
Elisabeth Olsen’s (Ingrid Goes West) character is intended as the audience entry point into the land and history, so as such she will suffer as the rookie who always seems to be out of her depth. This is exemplified by just about every assailant getting the drop on her, even after a meth head answered the door by spraying her with pepper spray. To her character’s credit, other characters befell these same missteps but they aren’t the next most significant character. She’s an outsider trying to find her footing in delicate territory. Olsen is the one asking questions often, pushing others to explain, which usually means much of her performance is reactive, with characters uncorking those fantastic monologues. However, her best moment is during the end, when Cory is talking her through a traumatic recovery. It’s so obvious that he’s saying the words he always wish he could have said to his daughter, and so the psychological projection becomes too much for Jane who breaks down sobbing, serving as therapeutic vessel for empathy. It’s a powerful scene and the closest thing to catharsis the movie has to offer.
As such, the story is more a reflection and outlet for the characters, but it’s also an intriguing mystery until Sheridan decides to just throw up his hands and explain everything. Until the third act, the central mystery of who killed Natalie is filled with curious and dangling questions that are made all the more interesting from the unique setting and circumstances. Her lungs exploded from the cold after she ran, barefoot in the snow, for six miles for help before collapsing. That’s an interesting aspect I’ve never considered before when it comes to environmental dangers. Tracing back the events of her last night, Sheridan opens up an analysis on the precipitous lives of small-town America, except it’s a Native American reservation that’s sovereign from America. It’s an engrossing look into a culture and way of life few ever see. It’s a very unique setting that unfurls gradually over time, allowing the viewer to engage with the people, their fraying community, and the pain endured. And then the film hastily introduces its obvious culprits, shifts into an extended flashback sequence that explains everything, and zooms right into its tense climax. It all still works, don’t get me wrong. You’ll feel the mounting dread gnaw away at you during that flashback, and you’ll feel the rush of adrenaline during the shootout, and the sense of vindication by its conclusion. However, Sheridan was doing such a fine job at parceling out his elegiac story before that it almost feels like he quickly looked at the time and decided to rush into the finish.
This is also Sheridan’s first time behind the camera as director and he acquits himself well enough. A distinct sense of style doesn’t emerge but his directorial instincts follow his screenwriting strengths; the man knows when to get out of the way. The conclusion has a nasty snap of tension to it and the action hits its marks with power, having given quite the windup. Sheridan is best at directing his actors, who as stated above, give strong, emotive performances that linger with you. Wind River doesn’t prove that Sheridan has more to offer from a directing chair, but it does provide a baseline for a start to grow. I imagine from here on, having built up a reputation for writing critically acclaimed adult thrillers that big name actors flock to, that Sheridan will be directing the majority of his favorite scripts. He might not have the visual acuity or sense of vision that a Denis Villeneuve has, but he’ll reliably deliver strong performances from capable actors. He’ll also be the best steward for his stories, and I need so, so many of them.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Baby Driver (2017)
Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.
Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.
It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.
The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.
As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Accountant (2016)
How much do I have to pay for Ben Affleck to do my taxes?
Christian Wolff (Affleck) is autistic and one of the top accountants in the world, able to quickly penetrate stacks and stacks of numbers to analyze trends and problems. His clientele varies from an older couple trying to save their family farm to the mob. He’s also a very dangerous assassin who takes out bad guys with exacting precision. As a young boy, Christian’s autism caused great anxiety within his family, and his father was determined that his son would be able to fight back against a world that didn’t accept him. Ray King (J.K. Simmons) is a retiring Treasury agent trying to track down the identity of Christian and possibly bring him to justice for his vigilante status. On the run from hired guns, Christian decides to stay and fight rather than flee and start a new identity because a co-worker, Dana (Anna Kendrick), is also targeted. Together they must stay one step ahead of killers and the ensnaring investigation of Ray King.
It would be easy to dismiss the movie as an autistic Bourne imitation, except that The Accountant is exactly that and takes ownership over its more ridiculous plot turns. The major problem with the Bourne series, which I believe is only now fully coming to light now that Jason Bourne has run out of legitimate past memories to remember, is that its lead character is a bore. Jason Bourne is a pragmatic and resourceful killing machine, but you wouldn’t want to talk to him at a party. He’s a boring character who is only interesting when he’s moving forward and inflicting damage. The Accountant has a lead character with the same set of skills but it also makes sure that he’s compelling even when he’s not killing the bad guys. Christian Wolff is a compelling lead character because he doesn’t fit in, he doesn’t relate easily to others, and he has social and emotional vulnerabilities that make him easy to root for while also serving to ground him. I’m not saying that those on the autism spectrum would make the world’s greatest assassins, though the job does require a dispassionate, detail-oriented mind. I was amused just watching Christian talk to others because I didn’t know how he would respond or how others would respond to him. He acts differently and it makes regular interactions interesting, and that’s before he becomes a superhuman assassin later. He’s leading a double life, and that provides just about every scene with an extra layer of irony, mystery, and intrigue. Christian is an intelligent warrior, working through strategy and improvisation but also luring his opponents into traps. He’s deadly but also efficient. He goes for headshots and dutifully moves along. He doesn’t play around and neither does the movie. When Dana is trapped in her bathroom with a hired killer on the other side, she takes the toilet lid and smashes the guy’s hand. That’s exactly what a thinking person should do in this life-or-death scenario. I appreciated that even with the action thriller heroics that the actions of the characters were still credible to their behavior.
The larger world is also populated with interesting characters and a complex story structure to match. I’ll readily admit that the screenplay by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) doesn’t need to utilize all of the subterfuge it does. We open on one perspective, circle back later with a richer understanding, jump around in time, and then we even sit down with Ray King and the movie takes a 10-15 minute pit stop to explain everything. It’s a strange moment where Ray gives us his full back-story, which is unexpected and unnecessary in the overall big picture but I enjoyed the commitment to larger world building. Another great addition was Brax (Jon Bernthal), treated as a parallel storyline for the first half of the film. In two very effective scenes he’s introduced with menacing efficiency and he’s a memorable foil we know will have to be faced later. I recently watched the atrocious revenge thriller I Am Wrath that was filmed in my city of Columbus, Ohio. There wasn’t one enjoyable moment, memorable villain, or even memorable death. In one scene with The Accountant, where Brax convinces his target the reasons why he should kill himself with an insulin overdose, I had an interesting and intimidating foe. The impression is immediate and unmistakable and in one scene you establish his danger. There’s a level of detail that isn’t seen that often in these kinds of films. There are several storylines and timelines and lingering questions but by the film’s end they’re all reasonably put back together and the audience is left satisfied. There will be some twists that a quick-witted viewer will be able to anticipate knowing the economy of characters but that doesn’t take away from their impact.
Affleck has rightfully earned serious acclaim as a director and screenwriter during his career rebirth but the man deserves his due for his acting as well. By most accounts, he was the best thing about the steaming pile that was Batman vs. Superman, and this is after the Internet exploded in apoplectic fits over his casting. With The Accountant, he gets to play a superhero and a socially challenged outcast, which must seem like the best of both worlds for an actor. Affleck is wonderfully dry and matter-of-fact as Christian. When he jumps into action he has a disciplined sense of purpose that can be fascinating. It’s a great lead role for Affleck and he finds interesting ways to demonstrate various emotions through an unorthodox lens. Christian doesn’t break down and blab his feelings, nor does he necessarily process emotions in the same conventional sense. He commands the screen whether he’s talking or running and shooting bad guys, and that’s all I can ask for.
After leaving The Accountant, I desperately wanted more adventures with this lead character and this world, and I was even dreaming up the idea of adapting this concept into a weekly TV crime procedural. It’s rare that a movie leaves me wanting more, and it’s even more rare when a movie leaves me wanting to watch a weekly variation of Christian Wolff living as whiz kid accountant by day and enforcer of justice by night. Director Gavin O’Connor (Jane Got a Gun) has given me a glimpse of a world that has plenty of shades of moral ambiguity but still dishes out the action thriller goods. It begins like A Beautiful Mind, shifts into a Bourne adventure, and then concludes like a mixture of Haywire and O’Connor’s own Warrior. There is far more action than I thought there would be. It blends the influences and tones without losing its own sense of identity as well as its pinpoint sense of what an audience craves for entertainment value. The movie doesn’t treat those on the autism spectrum as freaks or as “others.” It feels far less exploitative or borderline manipulative with its inclusive message than, say, Rain Man. The reason he’s a super assassin isn’t because he has autism but because his insane father trained him to be Batman to combat his autism. The non-linear narrative doesn’t need to be as purposely hard to follow but it does keep the audience guessing until the climax. The Accountant is a character study, a twisty thriller, an exciting action movie, an overall satisfying slice of good vs. evil, and a world that I need weekly adventures, please.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.
Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.
Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.
Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.
Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.
With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.
Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused with doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up Alejandro, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.
There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.
It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
In many ways Me and Earl and the Dying Girl feels like the perfect specimen that was programmed and brought to life in some mad scientist Sundance film lab. It’s got a hip point of view, a meta commentary on its plot and the directions it doesn’t take, style to spare with lots of self-aware camera movements, and even Wes Anderson-styled intertitles and colorful visual inserts, including stop-motion animation. It’s about two amateur filmmaking teenagers, Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl (R.J. Cyler), who befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to have terminal leukemia. The movie has a good heart and it deviates from convention with its storyline, though it has to stop and add narration to point out how it does this, like it demands a pat on the back for not being a “typical cancer weepie.” The big problem is that we’re stuck with the perspective of Greg, who is the least interesting character and just trying to stay invisible. He has a low opinion of himself and his friendship with Rachel will somehow make him a better person. Earl and Rachel are both tragically underwritten but valiantly played by their actors. The annoying aspect is that Greg makes everything about him and so does the movie. The supporting parts are broadly portrayed and fit awkwardly with the larger setting, like Greg’s overenthusiastic teacher, Rachel’s lush of a mother who seems one drink away from committing statutory rape, and Greg’s mom, who forces Greg to hang out with Rachel, even though they were acquaintances at best, because the plot demands it. The script by Jesse Andrews, based upon his YA book, sets up the completed tribute film as an emotional climax that cannot be met, and the abstract movie results prove it. This is a likeable, funny, and entertaining indie with a sense of style and wit. It’s good, but it could have been better. I wish the “Me” had been removed from its title.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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