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6 Underground (2019)/ Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.

The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.

6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.

6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.

There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.

Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.

At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).

Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.

When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.

I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.

The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.

6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.

Nate’s Grades:

6 Underground: C-

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A

John Wick: Chapter 3 (2019)

When we last left human killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) he was on the run. He had just committed the cardinal sin in this world of professional hired guns — killing a protected man on safe ground. As a result, The High Table, which governs this ordered realm of trained assassins, has excommunicated Mr. Wick and placed a $15 million dollar bounty on his head. John is desperate for an exit and leans on old pals (Angelica Huston, Halle Berry) before coming home once again to face off against all the gun-toting wrath The High Table can offer.

Plenty of Hollywood action movies can elicit cheers and thrills, and John Wick 3 is definitely in that mix, but what sets it apart is the sheer number of “Oooo”s, “Oww”s, and, “Holy shit”s. Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments. There are numerous examples just in the opening action sequence. There’s one long extended fight where John uses whatever is at his disposal, including knives and shards of broken glass and mirror, to take down his mounting enemies, and then he pulls these deadly projectiles out of their bodies to use again in a pinch. By the end of this action sequence, my preview audience burst into applause. I can’t think of another movie where this happened especially in Act One. The movie has lots of standout action sequences and the good sense to let the audience enjoy the disciplined, imaginative fight choreography in full with long expansive takes. There are moments that are just incredible to witness, like John Wick utilizing a kicking horse to his advantage, or seeing the full take-down effect of whirling attack dogs in combat, and a two-on-one fight where every glass cage in sight must be smashed to bits. For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.

Another hallmark of the series is its sense of macabre humor and the world building peculiarities. Amidst the wild carnage and bloodshed, there are moments that shocked me with how funny they were. I was almost in tears toward one baffling moment toward the very end. I loved that the chief antagonist, a samurai sword-wielding Zero (Mark Dacascos), can also be a fanboy. During a rare moment of downtime, he gets to gush and freak out that he’s actually interacting with the John Wick. There’s a new character played by Asia Kate Dillion (TV’s Billions, Orange is the New Black) who behaves like a peeved middle manager trying to get back on the next red-eye home. She’s the best new addition in Chapter Three. Don’t expect much from high-profile new faces like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry as their screen time is brokered into short segments. There’s a sequence where John combats trained soldiers in body armor, and so he has to constantly be reloading because it takes multiple precise shots to down the bad guys. It’s a smart way to escalate the stakes of the scene while staying true to its world, because who wouldn’t wear everything and the kitchen sink when being tasked with killing John Wick? I laughed out loud when Wick returned to an armory perturbed that he had to reload so soon, muttering to himself in agitation.

The action is relentless and all kinds of fun to watch but the movie starts to lose its momentum by the conclusion. Part of this is by the sense of lowered emotional stakes in its finale (more on that below) and another factor is its general plot-less nature. The entire story of John Wick 3 is the title character trying to outrun the people set out to kill him, jumping from one supposed safe landing spot to another. This works for a frenetic sense of pacing, knowing that any lag time will be minimal before the next kickass brawl. Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise I can think of. There’s nothing here that challenges the brilliant set pieces and organic complications from the last Mission: Impossible movie. It’s a fun action franchise but it runs the risk of resting on its (considerable) laurels, feeling too same-y, and that can prove deadly. The clever fight choreography, sense of humor, and conviction of Reeves does enough to mask the negative effects of this artistic choice. This may affect people differently especially fans of the series, as lavishly produced action can be rewarding enough to ignore other pressing faults. For me, I was feeling as gassed as John Wick by the end.

The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was wiling Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any longstanding personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax. The John Wick franchise is magnifying this accelerating problem; by making the conflict carry over into an additional movie, and now into another additional movie, the audience is getting further and further distance from the origin of this conflict, and thus its resolution becomes less of a desirable and satisfying goal and more a perfunctory endpoint. I would recommend the John Wick team review 2008’s Quantum of Solace to see a recent example of a big action movie hampered by overextending a thin storyline.

If you’re coming to John Wick 3 for another heaping of high-quality action, you won’t leave disappointed on that front. If you’re looking for signature moves, dark humor, and lots and lots of casual headshots, then you won’t leave disappointed. If you’re looking for a thrilling good time at the movies, you won’t leave disappointed. As a fan of the series, this was the movie I was wanting from the first sequel, dealing with the larger consequences of his rule-breaking life-and-death decision. As the third act ramped up for John Wick 3, I turned to my friend and said, “If this was the second movie, it would end right here.” Perhaps if you watch John Wick 2 and the third movie in short succession some of the problems would be smoothed out, namely a depleted sense of personal stakes and too little plot stretched over multiple movies and counting. I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures. In the meantime, John Wick 3 will more than delight those action urges and sate the action appetites of its fans.

Nate’s Grade: B

Polar (2019)

Polar is such a thoroughly unpleasant film experience I was wondering if Lars von Trier had somehow made a comic book movie. I enjoy exploitation movies, I enjoy slick hitman spectacles, and I enjoy audaciously stylish indie films with their own lingering sense of cool, but Polar is gratuitous in every sense of the word and a chore to sit through.

Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is the top assassin in an organization filled with colorful personalities with guns. The head of the agency, Blut (Matt Lucas), has a surefire plan to pay off his debts. Rather than pay the assassins their pensions once they hit the mandatory retirement age of 50, he’ll just kill them. Brilliant. Duncan sets off to enjoy his last few days before his big birthday by settling down in a sleepy small town, getting to know his meek neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens). This quiet new life is interrupted by a team of crazy killers determined to eliminate their colleague and collect his riches.

The tonal disparity with Polar never settles down, which makes it hard to find any sense of a baseline of what is acceptable reality. What is normal here? The film veers from grotesque, brutish, gory violence to cartoonish, grating, juvenile slapstick. The violence is far too gross and brutal for the light tone it wishes to maintain. It’s the kind of violence where every gunshot necessitates a lurid explosion of blood, and why stop at one gunshot when a dozen will do? There’s an extended torture montage that lasts a total of four days when it could have just been a single session if the point is to kill the hero. It’s close-ups of skin peeling and being penetrated, and I’m not averse to gore effects and exploitation elements but when it’s paired with this flippant, nasty tone it cheapens the violence. This is a film that wallows in the grotesque, tittering to itself and trying so damn hard to be so provocative that it becomes exhausting. It’s jam-packed with style-for-style’s-sake choices that further call attention to its overall emptiness. I started counting the number of shots that existed simply to highlight a woman’s butt, and mostly that of Ruby O. Fee (The Invisibles). I swear her entire role seems to be butt-centric. Then there’s one shot composed entirely of butts shaking in Katheryn Winnick’s (Vikings) face. She’s having a phone call and her face is squeezed between two strippers shaking butts just because. It’s hilariously and transparently gratuitous. So many edits, shots, and even scenes exist just to call attention to its supposed sense of cool. However, cool movies, just like people, don’t have to convince you that they’re cool, they just are.

Let’s take the evil assassins that chase after Duncan. They’re the kind of glib movie assassins that all seem defined by one or two quirks and costume styling guidelines. It’s a diverse group of ridiculous cartoon villains who seem reverse-engineered as toy figures. Why are they also working for an employer that plans on killing them all to escape paying them upon retirement? Why would you willfully work for someone who is so open about betraying you? It’s astoundingly shortsighted thinking. Regardless, other movies have utilized colorful criminals to better establish a sense of fun, particularly the early works of Guy Ritchie. These villains bounce from person-to-person tracking down their target, killing with callous indifference mixed with childish glee, but there’s no personality, no menace, so the bloodletting feels gratuitous and ugly. Scene after scene feels like the actors had large trunks of costumes and props and were told to dig around and grab anything they wanted before they began filming. It makes every one of their appearances feel annoying and trite, especially when one scene, again, exists simply to highlight Fee’s butt in jean shorts. The killers’ big plan is to shoot their target while receiving oral sex from Fee’s character. Then the others will bulrush and shoot some more. Or, and I’m not an expert here, they could simply break in while their target sleeps and shoot them in the back? This lame group of hired killers is the big threat… and then they’re taken out with half the movie left. They are removed with such haste that I was shocked. We had spent so much time with these antagonists and then they’re gone. It’s a fantastic waste of time for a group of characters that didn’t even merit one minute. There’s even one scene where Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) shows up and is never seen again.

The supreme villain is played by Matt Lucas (Doctor Who) and it just does not work. It’s like Toby Jones’ second cousin found the relics of Elton John’s closet and decided to try and play a Bond villain. I enjoy Lucas normally for his daft comedy roles and I think he’s trying to adopt a Goldfinger impersonation but it does not work. Once again it’s the entire tonal execution and narrative development at fault here. Blut is an officious dweeb prone to yelling at people and running away. He has no standout scene and poses no real threat once the hired guns and goons are taken care of. He cannot hold his own. This is why killing off the team of assassins with half the movie left relates to a dire misstep.

The only thing that does work in this movie is Mikkelsen (Rogue One), who is doing everything in his power to provide an anchor for the pitiable audience. He is way too good for Polar. He takes everything one hundred percent seriously and is genuinely emoting while everyone else is chewing whatever scenery isn’t nailed down. It very much feels like Mikkelsen is in some other different movie, or is pretending to be in a different, better movie. His interactions with Hudgens are a high point, taking her under his wing and showing small glimpses of sympathy and guilt. Their ultimate relationship is predictable, and she disappointingly becomes trapped as a damsel in distress for the final act. Mikkelsen does have a terrific brawl in a hallway (the location of all film fights now it seems) that is well choreographed and very physical without feeling like he’s superhuman. I wish I were watching the better movie Mads Mikkelsen thought he was in.

Everything about Polar feels unnecessary. The sex scenes are gratuitous, the violence is gratuitous, the style is gratuitous, and when everything feels tacked on for cheap thrills, the movie becomes hollow, calculated, and lazy. The suspense sequences should be exciting or an example of our protagonist’s expertise but little feels clever. There are one or two moments, glimmers of what could have been had more attention been given to developing the sequences. As I was watching this two-hour cartoon I was strongly reminded of the 1990s Tarantino knock-off, The Big Hit, which was an exaggerated cartoon of tiresome depravity. It tried so hard to evoke a carefree hipness when it came to its criminals, their depraved acts, their comedic interactions, the debauched humor, that it all felt like two hours of collective flop sweat. Polar is very much in that same description, a movie that is trying too hard to be a fun, breezy, exploitation movie. Except it feels adrift and phony and unpleasant. Polar doesn’t deserve Mads Mikkelsen and it doesn’t deserve a minute of your time, butts and all.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.

In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.

There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.

The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.

The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.

This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.

And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.

Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Peppermint (2018)

I invite all my readers to re-watch the trailer for Peppermint and apply this simple listening test. It opens with Jennifer Garner repeating the precious nursery rhyme claim about her daughter’s virtues. She has “love in her heart, snow in her eyes,” and the final claim, “peppermint in her blood.” At least I’m certain it’s got to be “blood,” because the first time I watched this trailer and my ears got a hold of that line, it genuinely sounded like Garner was saying “peppermint in her butt.” This flummoxed me and even more so that they would name the movie after this. Try it yourself and see what you hear, then listen for the other word (it’s like the new yanny/laurel aural conundrum). If I concentrate on either interpretation, I can hear it. Regardless of whether this “butt” vs. “blood” mystery can ever be resolved, the filmmakers decided to cut the entire verbal exchange from the finished version, leaving no reason for Peppermint to be called Peppermint other than the daughter’s passing affinity for the ice cream flavor. As asinine and odd as this whole endeavor reads for you, this might actually be the best part of Peppermint, a rote and tiresome action exercise that does too little too often and squanders the resources of a perfectly game Garner.

Our heroine, Riley North (Garner), started as mild-mannered mom and bank teller. Then one day Latinx gang members brazenly gun down her husband and child. A corrupt legal system lets the killers go free and Riley disappears for five years. When she returns, she’s become a ninja trained in an array of weapons. She takes her one-woman crusade against the gang, the cartel, and the corrupt judges and lawyers who serve them, while the police, lead by John Gallagher Jr., try and stop her from going too far and becoming the very monster that she’s been fighting to protect others from.

This is basically another Death Wish-style grisly revenge thriller when, as a true sign of how repeated this formula has become, we already even had a literal Death Wish remake with Bruce Willis earlier in 2018. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the lurid revenge fantasy, but they require more effort than Peppermint is willing to provide if they’re to rise above the litany of direct-to-DVD drivel. I’m in no way against this kind of movie, or direct-to-DVD action entities, but it all comes down to development and execution, and that’s where Peppermint slips up, having peaked at the idea stage. Clearly this was sold to film executives as a “lady Punisher or Taken” and it’s from the director of the first Taken, Pierre Morel. Garner was kicking (peppermint) butt and taking names for years on TV’s Alias. Why not? The problem is that there’s so little thought put to the characters, the plot, the action, and even the structure of basic payoffs. Here’s a telling example. The three gang members responsible for killing Riley’s family are themselves killed around the 45-minute mark, and they’re killed off-screen in a terribly anti-climactic and abrupt plot move robbing the viewer of any sort of emotional punch watching our heroine gain her years-in-the-making vengeance. Think this over. The only characters we’re really rooting for her to topple, to watch them be punished on screen for their misdeeds, and it’s off-screen. This isn’t No Country for Old Men here; it’s barely the eightieth rendition of Death Wish.

Garner’s character is too opaque to be that interesting. She’s allowed to vacillate between Grieving and Angry but that’s the extent of her depth. We never really get a sense of what’s going on with her, how her actions are affecting her. She’s not even that interesting as an action lead. There’s no real glimpse of a personality here. She’s more a weapon poised to her next target, with little down time between. Garner gets into toned fighting shape and has a flinty, F-you vibe and it all feels wasted on creatively lacking fight choreography. Riley becomes a social media avenger and this is about as much commentary or depth the film affords her. Because we squandered the catharsis of seeing the guilty gang members get their just rewards, the movie has to manufacture more disposable Latinx criminals, like they put out a casting call for characters they forgot they were going to need. From a structural standpoint, you never get a great sense of where Peppermint is going after that 45-minute mark. It just opens on one location after another and we watch Riley wreck havoc on personality-free bad guys we never got a chance to know and loathe. It starts to feel like a series of mundane video game stages to be cleared.

Many of the shortcomings can be forgiven if the action delivers, and it simply cannot. It’s one bland fistfight and shootout after another. There isn’t a sequence I can remember that stands out. There are moments, punctuations of vicious violence that has a brusque, darkly comic accentuation. There’s nothing remotely John Wick, or Atomic Blonde, when it comes to the fight choreography. The geography is too rarely taken into account and there are few organic complications. This is flabbergasting when you remember that Morel also directed the vividly kinetic French action movie District B13. The editing here also feels very choppy, taking more away from Garner’s physical skills having their showcase. One of the great moments of 2017 was the brutal and brutally long tracking shot following Charlize Theron’s super spy pummeling men through her growing fatigue. It was a sequence designed to showcase the choreography and the actress’ refined skills. What constitutes Riley North’s own “particular set of skills”? There’s nothing especially clever about how she dispatches with the bad guys. Her path to vengeance comes across as too easy. She’s able to torch an entire piñata warehouse of gang members like a cheap… piñata. The easy victories and lazy action development are the final reminders that this is a rote genre paycheck and little more.

Whether the peppermint was in her daughter’s blood, her butt, or any other personal cavity, it’s a terrible title for an R-rated action movie and reeks of the forced sweet/nasty irony I think the filmmakers, or marketing team, want to employ by having a woman as their Charles Bronson-styled deliverer of death and destruction (what, a woman as a killer?). The action is forgettable, the characters are barely one-dimensional clichés, and Garner deserves better. She’s 47 years old and as spry and captivating as ever. Give her an Atomic Blonde of her own. Peppermint isn’t it. If your expectations are generous, you may find just enough to keep your interest with Peppermint. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Thoroughbreds (2018)

Thoroughbreds is a dishy, tart little treat that kept me squirming, laughing, and gleefully entertained. Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and Ana Taylor-Joy (Split) are outstanding as privileged teenagers trying to resuscitate their former friendship through collaborative murder. Cooke plays Amanda, a sociopath who cannot feel anything, who is incurably honest, and has stopped caring what others think. Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a self-involved young lady that feels overwhelmed by life and is skilled at dissembling. Together, the girls scheme to kill Lily’s boorish stepfather and enlist the aid of a hapless small-time dealer with big plans (Anton Yelchin, in his final performance) through blackmail. The story from writer/director Cory Finley is immediately engaging with how it naturally reveals the complicated histories between Amanda and Lily as well as what makes each questionable. These are two very interesting people and just watching their probing push-and-pull was entertaining enough, especially with such strong performances. The characterization of a sociopath without a heavy moral condemnation was refreshing. We assume Amanda will be the bad influence but it really becomes the other way around, with Lily faking for her own purposes. Thoroughbreds is more dread-filled and unsettling than conventional thriller, and while there are some gallows humor to be had from the abnormal characters, this is less a dark comedy. There are drawn out tracking shots and methodical push-in camera movements meant to build audience anticipation, and they’re mostly effective. The first half is a bit more engaging than what it ultimately delivers as a climax. It’s still satisfying and well handled, but Finley throws in some misdirects that don’t add a rising sense of stakes. The stakes are really more personal, which works since the crux is on the relationship between the girls and whether they are being honest or manipulative with one another. By the end, I thought I could argue either way who was manipulative and when. Small irony: the last scene you see of Yelchin is him as a valet parking other people’s cars.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Tragedy Girls (2017)

I wanted to enjoy Tragedy Girls. I really did. There’s a good starting point with a story about two self-involved teenagers who turn to murder to raise their social media profiles. I like the lead actresses, Alexandra Shipp and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand, and the film has a quirky sense of style by co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre. The opening is even great where Hildebrand purposely lures a lover to his sacrificial death in order to trap a familiar slasher film-styled villain. Where it all goes wrong is that Tragedy Girls doesn’t have enough substance or commentary to outweigh its arch nihilism. The message is very flimsy (millennials are shallow, social media is harmful) and the film wants you to revel in the girls’ violent, gory murders but also be repelled by them. It’s a sisterhood of slaying. There are some interesting story ideas that don’t feel better attended. The girls are clumsy at their murders and luck into some absurd Final Destination-worthy kills, but the film doesn’t embrace this concept and makes them untouchable. They kidnap a local serial killer in the opening and demand he train them, but the guy refuses and is shoved to the side for almost the entire movie, stranding another interesting possibility. The high school characters are thinly designed and unworthy of their demises, though that’s also the point. Tragedy Girls doesn’t earn its candy-colored nihilism. It ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth and I found it off-putting and empty. It thumbs its nose with prickly devil-may-care attitude but without anything to really say.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard feels like a 90s Tarantino knockoff remake of Midnight Run, and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. This is a movie that knows exactly what it aims to be and strikingly new and original isn’t one of those qualities. When you deliver a late summer movie that has this much depraved entertainment and energy, I don’t mind.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is a disgraced bodyguard-for-hire who lost a high-profile client to an out-of-nowhere sniper. Stuck shielding coked-out white-collar traders, he still knows more than a thing or two about keeping a client safe. His former flame, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), is tasked with getting notorious contract assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Kincaid is the only living witness who can testify against Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), a former Belarus military dictator. Coincidentally, all of the witnesses and evidence against him seem to always disappear. Roussel’s team is ambushed and she reluctantly seeks out Bryce for assistance. He has 24 hours to keep Kincaid alive and transport him to The Hague, but Kincaid has some ideas of his own, like arguing, escaping, and visiting his wife (Salma Hayek). It’s a battle of wills and a healthy deployment of the versatile F-word.

When it comes to genre filmmaking, especially in action or horror, the level of entertainment is much more related to the singer and not the song. Sure a well developed script with interesting characters, organic complications, and memorable set-pieces connected with payoffs are still desired, but often it’s execution that separates the brashly fun bombast from the dreck that dots late night cable. The selling point of this movie is its central pairing of Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) and Reynolds (Deadpool). Hell, both of them aren’t straining too hard from their familiar big screen personalities, Jackson the gleefully stubborn badass and Reynolds as the incredulous smart-alleck with the quick wit. Some critics will chafe and say that the actors are stuck in stale riffs and acting on autopilot. I look at this as a certain virtue of the film. They hired Jackson and Reynolds and let them do exactly what we demand that Jackson and Reynolds do. They were hired for a specific reason. Their crackling repartee keeps the movie alive even as the first half feels too sludgy getting everything going. The comedy can be a tad forced (riding on a bus with chirpy nuns! Gatorade bottle of pee?) and exaggerated at times (really, a fart joke, sound designers?) but this isn’t a film for subtlety, and Jackson and Reynolds, who can outdo just about every working actor for sarcasm and volume, are at their best when they’re big and broad. The rapport elevates even moments that would otherwise be redundant.

I thought the action scenes were going to take a backseat to the Jackson/Reynolds buddy road trip, popping up here and there to move things along and kill off an antagonist or two. To my great surprise, the action in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is uniformly great. Director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) makes each action scene its own story and he thankfully varies the scenarios so they nicely stand out. There’s a terrific motorcycle chase through Amsterdam’s canals and streets, smashing things to bits in the most exciting ways. The action is often divided into two parallel points following Jackson and Reynolds, which allows the film to pair the right sequence for the right character. There’s a late foot chase that’s filmed in refreshing long takes (newest Hollywood action trend?) that stops into the back kitchen of a restaurant and then a hardware store. Each location is well utilized to provide a unique opportunity for the fight choreography and use of props. The movie does a very successful job of approaching action by thinking how to use geography, character, and purpose to plot. Hughes also has a solid inclination when to punch for humor with visual gags, including a few gems involving a minivan. When the comedy wasn’t completely working, I knew I could rely upon the dependable thrills.

The movie also has one of the dumbest attempts at injecting urgency into a story. The plot hinges upon Darius Kincaid arriving at The Hague at an exact time to testify against Oldman’s dictator. In a moment that made me blurt out laughing, an expositional device/news lady informs us that if nobody comes forward to testify then The Hague has to drop all charges, Oldman’s dictator goes free and apparently becomes the president of Belarus immediately again, and probably the end of democracy. First, this false sense of urgency requires witnesses to arrive at a court. That’s not how testimony works. You can give a sworn statement anywhere. You can appear in court via teleconference. The location is not the problem here. And then his testimony is aided by (slight spoilers) photographic evidence of the dictator’s genocide… except it’s all digital pictures. This entire movie hinged on the mad rush to get Jackson to The Hague when he could have just made an email attachment with the incriminating pictures at any wifi spot. There’s also the factor that if it was one second after five or so the court would not accept any testimony. I don’t think courts work that way, especially when it’s a decision over dictators and due process. And yet a wall clock is treated like the ticking clock on a bomb detonator. It’s so dumb I question whether the filmmakers were self-aware and making a satirical riff.

While being an enjoyably profane experience, The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t know when enough is quite enough. It has problems walking away and routinely falls upon overkill in several elements. There’s almost way too much plot here. Every character has a back-story that nabs a lengthy flashback with an ironically chosen pop song. There are obvious betrayals that the film thankfully doesn’t belabor in revealing the culprits, but did we need them anyway? Hayek seems to have said yes just to be a vulgar badass that would attract Jackson. It’s fun but her shtick gets old quickly. She’s all unchecked exaggeration. Hayek’s character is just here to provide a counterpoint for Kincaid to wax poetic about romance and relationships, to nudge Bryce to “man up” and realize what he’s let slip away. The romantic elements are presented on the same wavelength as the comedy, meant to be a shoulder-shrug of cocksure cool. When they try and get earnest on their own terms it doesn’t quite work out tonally. The movie also runs rampant with false endings, going from one escape to another just as it should be winding down. It’s like the filmmakers were having so much fun they didn’t know when to walk away from their story.

I think every ticket-buyer knows what they’re getting when they walk into The Hitman’s Bodyguard. It’s two actors doing what they do best, in an action vehicle that cribs from Midnight Run, and with a sense of style and attitude that resembles a bluntly ironic return to 90s R-rated action excess. Fortunately, the execution of these genre tropes and elements lead to one of the more profanely entertaining popcorn flicks this summer season. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, coasts on above average action and the charged comic chemistry of its two loud-mouth leads. It’s a movie that doesn’t require much thought and rewards you for the effort. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is everything you want it to be, and if that’s good enough for you, then you’ll find satisfaction here.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Bad Batch (2017)

Days after viewing writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, I’m still contemplating what I just saw. That can be the sign of a good, thought-provoking movie, or it could be further proof that The Bad Batch is really an empty experience.

In a not-too-distant future, the United States has found a unique solution to crime. Those deemed irredeemable are tattooed with “bad batch” and abandoned into the American Southwest. It’s a dusty land of outlaws that the U.S. doesn’t even recognize. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is deposited into the wastes of the Southwest and she is abducted by cannibals who make a meal out of her right arm and leg. She escapes and finds Comfort, a small outpost where she can heal and find community. The makeshift leader of Comfort is The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a messianic figure who doles out free drugs to the townspeople. He also has a harem of pregnant women. Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the hunkier cannibals, loses his daughter and forces Arlen to help him.

I’m going to summarize the sparse two-hour plot, dear reader, to share with you just how little there is to this film (will keep spoilers mild). Arlen gets kidnapped. She escapes. Months later she kills one of the cannibals. She quasi-adopts a little girl. Her father goes searching for her. Arlen loses the little girl. The father finds Arlen. They find the little girl who was unharmed. They eat a bunny. The end. Now admittedly any movie can sound rather flimsy when boiled down to its essential story elements (Star Wars: “Space farmer accepts call to adventure. Rescues princess.”) but the counterbalance is substance. Characters, world building, arcs, plot structure, setups and payoffs, all of it opens up the film’s story beats into a larger and transformative work. That’s simply not there with The Bad Batch. It’s a vapid film that has too much free time to fill, so you get several shots that are simply people riding motorcycles up to the camera. I grew restless waiting for something of merit to happen. Arlen simply just walks out into the desert like three different times, and this is after she was captured by roving cannibals that are still out there in healthy numbers. If you went to a store and the owner captured you and cut off your arm, would you venture back in that direction? Maybe there’s a commentary about victimhood and the cycle of abuse and exploitation, or maybe I’m left to intuit some kind of grander implication out of a filmmaker’s lack of effort. There’s just not enough here to justify its running time. It feels stretched beyond the breaking point.

If the film is meant to be about immersion, something that holds together via hypnotic Lynchian dream logic, then it better work hard to hold my attention since plot has already been abandoned. This is where The Bad Batch also lost me. It’s just not weird enough, though even weird-for-weird’s-sake can be insufferable, like Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home at Night) has an innate feel for visual arrangements and little quirky touches that can burn into your memory, like the sight of Arlen sidling next to a magazine clipping of a model’s arm she taped to a mirror or a well-armed pregnant militia. The most interesting elements of the story are left unattended though. This is a vague dystopia where the government has decided to let the “bad batch” fend for themselves in a desert. It screams neo-Western with a lawless land populated with criminals and killers. There are only ever two locations we visit: the cannibal’s junkyard and the outpost of Comfort. Do we know anything about these locations? Are they at war? Is there some kind of understanding between them wherein Comfort offers sacrifices for protection? Is there an uneasy peace that could be spoiled thanks to Arlen’s vengeance? It’s all just vast wasteland, but even when they get to actual places, it still feels like empty space. How can you make something about dystopian cannibals be this singularly boring?

The characters just aren’t worth your attention and ultimately don’t matter in service of story or even a potential message. Arlen is much more of a figurehead than a person, and perhaps that’s why the director chose Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as her lead. The former model certainly makes a visually striking figure and knows how to arc her body in non-verbal ways to communicate feelings. However, I don’t know if there’s a good actress here. There’s no real reason to take away her arm and leg except that it looks cool and edgy. Initially it presents a visceral vulnerability for her and a disadvantage of escape, but after she arrives in Comfort, it’s as if she’s just any other able-bodied character. It feels like the director just liked the look and thought it would grab attention or say something meaningful. Momoa (Justice League) has a natural intimidating screen presence but he’s given so little to do. He’s just on glower autopilot. Miami Man is a killer and we watch him cook people’s limbs for some good eats. It’s almost like the movie wants you to forget this stuff when his paternal instincts kick in. Rather than embracing the light-and-dark contradictions, the movie just has him shift personality modes. There’s no confrontation or introspection. Reeves (John Wick 2) gets an idea of a potentially menacing character but even he isn’t presented as an antagonist. The Dream is living large thanks to the cooperation of those in Comfort. He has a harem of willing ladies for breeding but he doesn’t seem dastardly. He’s like the grown-up rich kid throwing the party that everyone attends. Then there are near cameos by Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey, and Diego Luna, which make you wonder why they ever showed up.

The depressing part is that The Bad Batch starts off with a bang and had such potential. Amirpour is so assured early on and draws out the terror of Arlen’s plight in a gripping and satisfying manner. Her drifting is then met by a futile escape, and then we witness the relatively tasteful dismembering of our heroine. It’s disorienting but establishes the conflicts of the scene in a clear and concise fashion. The odds are against her and Arlen uses her captors underestimating her to supreme advantage. The opening twenty minutes are thrilling and well developed, presenting a capable protagonist and a dire threat. And then the movie just drops off the face of the Earth. I haven’t seen a movie self-sabotage an interesting start like this since perhaps Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The first twenty minutes offer the audience a vantage point and set of goals. We’re learning about Arlen through her desperate and clever acts of survival. The rest of the movie is just bland wandering without any sense or urgency or purpose exhibited in that marvelous opening (hey, the amputated limbs special effects look nice).

Vacuous and increasingly monotonous, The Bad Batch valiantly tries to create an arty mood piece where it re-purposes genre pastiche into some kind of statement on the broken human condition. Or something. The story is so thinly written and the characters are too blank to register. They’re archetypes at best, walking accessories, pristine action figures given life and camera direction. It’s flash and surface-level quirks with distressed art direction. It feels like it’s trying so hard to be a cult movie at every turn. I’m certain that, not counting Keanu’s cult leader, there might only be 100 words spoken in the entire film. I feel like The Bad Batch is going to be a favorite for plenty of young teenagers that respond to its style and general sense of rebellion. Until, that is, they discover movies can have both style and substance.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Free Fire (2017)

I don’t understand the praise and hype heaped upon filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He’s got a nice eye for visuals but whenever I see his name attached as a screenwriter, my expectations sink. His 2016 film High Rise was on my list of the worst films of last year. To my mind, Wheatley is Nicolas Refn (Neon Demon) lite, and I don’t even care for Refn. With that being said, the premise and star power for Free Fire looked enough to even out my immediate hesitation about watching another Wheatley film. It looked like fun. How could it not be? Well I’m now debating whether I disliked Free Fire more than High Rise, a scenario with no real winner.

In 1978, two gangs meet in a Boston warehouse to make an exchange of guns and drugs for money. Things go wrong, tempers flare, and bullets are exchanged. Both parties are pinned down, fighting for cover, and looking to come out alive and on top. There’s Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley among this dingy dozen.

Exiting my theater screening, I got into a discussion with my pal, Ben Bailey. He was adamant that the story premise of Free Fire could not be done as a feature film and was, at best, the sort of material for a 20-minute shoot-em-up short. I argued that with the proper development there could be a scraggly feature film here but the key phrase is “proper development,” something that is sorely lacking from Free Fire. Ultimately it feels more like Ben’s assessment: 20 minutes of thin material and thought stretched out to an interminable 85 minutes.

Once the shootout commences, it feels like Wheatley just succumbs to the cacophonous confusion of the action and more or less gives up. For a solid twenty minutes or so, the movie is nothing more than a series of disjointed shots of people firing and people taking cover from wooden boxes and planks, rarely if ever coalescing to produce a sense of direction, momentum, and geography. I didn’t know where anybody was and especially in relationship to anyone else. That is a crucial factor in action sequences especially in a limited location action sequence. You need to know who is where and establish different mini-goals and new challenges. Wheatley only introduces new elements late into the proceedings, and when he does they are anticlimactically resolved.  When complications do arrive they are brushed aside and we go back to shooting. Why not involve the guns in those crates as something to be fought over to gain extra leverage? That seems like an obvious goal but not to the characters on screen. I lost track of which characters were with which side, and the movie even tries to make the same joke, as if knowingly acknowledging this aspect forgives Free Fire for its plotting misfires.

As minute after minute of blind shooting went on, I started making connections to a question I have had with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song to Song) movies, namely how does one edit these things? If you’ve never seen a modern Malick movie, first consider yourself fortunate, but the man is known for his whispery, stream-of-consciousness spiritual connections with nature. My question with Malick movies: how does someone know that this shot of light through the leaves needs to be here, and definitely before this shot of a caterpillar moving along a tree branch? How do you edit what is bereft of a traditional coherency? I wondered the same question during Free Fire. Without those mini-goals, how does one edit just gunshot after gunshot after gunshot without any credible change in the story’s impetus as guidance?

Compounding my boredom and general confusion is the reality that these criminal lowlifes are dull characters and not worth the investment. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump fail to provide interesting personalities or quirks or anything memorable to enliven these tough-talking bad-shooting bad guys. Some of them have accents, one of them is a woman, one of them likes to smoke pot, but really they’re all slight variations on the same excitable, profane, and shallow archetype, the kind of character that gets their own poster in marketing with a nickname like “The Kid” or something cool-sounding like that, but it’s all posturing. I thought that Free Fire might be reminiscent of the rise of Tarantino knockoff films in the 90s (The Big Hit, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings) but this movie actually made me yearn for a Tarantino knockoff.

These people are so lifeless. I didn’t care who lived and who died. They were all boring. Some faces are recognizable like Hammer and Smiley and Murphy but a majority of the characters are not, at least initially visually distinctive. It’s a failing of creativity to separate them, make them distinct. Much of the acting is just reacting to squibs going off and squirming on the ground. If you have a fetish for Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island) wriggling, this is your film. By default the best actor is Copley (Hardcore Henry) as he seems to be on an uncontrollable improv stint, rapidly saying whatever things comes to mind. Something has to fill the audio between gunfire.

Free Fire wants to be a scuzzy, crazy, fun movie that knows it’s trashy and revels in its bad taste and loony characters with nose-thumbing glee. Instead, Free Fire is a nihilistic and tedious enterprise lacking entertaining characters, coherent action, and most importantly any general sense of fun. Watching characters that are unmemorable, who you don’t care about, fire guns indiscriminately for a long time is not a movie, and it’s most certainly not a good movie. It’s a glorified training manual for firearms. Free Fire takes too long to get started with poorly developed characters and when it does kick into action the movie doesn’t really improve too much. Free Fire is a Tarantino knockoff that doesn’t have the courage of its own B-movie convictions. It thinks just dressing the part is enough, substituting style and a blithe attitude for not even substance but the appearance of substance. It only has one truly memorable, queasy death, so even when it comes to bizarre violence it falters. This is one movie that wants to look cool and irreverent but ends up merely firing blanks.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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