I didn’t even plan on writing this review. I knew of the indie musical Moondance because I was familiar with several crew members who worked on the $500,000 project and watching their pictures on social media, but when I discovered it had been filmed entirely outside the state of Ohio, primarily in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I decided to exclude it from my mission to professionally review Ohio-made indies. As of this writing, it was available on the website Tubi for free with ads, so I started it on a whim to show my girlfriend what I had intended to watch, and then I kept watching, and then I didn’t want to continue but I felt compelled to, and now I feel compelled to dissect this movie as best as I can, even with its tangential connection to the Ohio indie film scene. Moondance is a confounding experience for a lover of big screen musicals because it’s a musical that doesn’t really want to be a musical, a comedy that doesn’t know how to do comedy, and a drifting drama bereft of characters to root for and reasons to cheer.
The story is familiar. We have our boy, in this instance Oscar (Jonah Robinson), a composer suffering writer’s block, and he meets our girl, Abby (Carolyn Rabbers), a dancer. Oscar is instantly smitten and tries tracking Abby down, while his “best friend” Pat (Sam Jones) schemes with his very David Rose-esque assistant Sean (Brandon Stewart) to have her for his own. In between these shenanigans, Cooper Flannigan (credited as “Self”) appears to be a hipster friend of Oscar but also the god of this universe as he routinely breaks the fourth wall and is played by the actual writer/director.
I have to give credit for anyone having the gumption to try and create a low-budget musical. That’s a tall creative order and unfortunately Moondance can’t quite match its toe-tapping ambitions. There are only four songs in the entire musical before the end credits (I’ll get to those later). By the 45-minute mark, I had only experienced one legitimate song-and-dance number and I was wondering if the reality of this movie had simply abandoned being a musical. There are a couple additional dance numbers as one would expect with Abby being a dancer, some set to performances from musicians, but for the first hour there are only two honest-to-goodness moments where characters break out into song. Why is there no opening musical number that introduces the different characters and their different perspectives, stations, plights, goals? That would be an economical way to establish the world and its players. There seems to be real hesitancy onscreen with embracing its musical identity. The musical numbers are meant to give us insight into the characters who can’t help but blurt out their feelings, and yet during the requisite boy-and-girl-on-the-outs part, there is no musical number. There isn’t even a musical number for their growing affection for one another. We’re missing a love theme, and for a romance-heavy musical that’s meant to evoke the feeling of Old Hollywood, that seems like a massive oversight.
The staging and performance of the musical numbers, when they do appear, can also be underwhelming and counter-productive. From a choreography standpoint, much more emphasis is placed on the background players including a superfluous “intermission” dance. There is one number where the key characters do little more than literally ride a bicycle in a circle, and I would argue this is the best number in the film. There is more dancing than singing and that seems the primary reason why Rabbers was chosen as the lead female role. She certainly has talent as a dancer. As a singer is another matter. I feel unkind even articulating this but for a musical it needs to be said: Moondance would have been better off dubbing Rabbers. Her singing voice is just not there. I don’t see any harm to the production if the filmmakers had dubbed her singing. Another issue is that Abby’s dancing feels a bit too chaotic and chaotically edited. There’s a moment of sorrow where she dances out her feelings, but the choreography isn’t conveying the emotions of the scene any differently than a previous dance for us to compare with, and the editing isn’t helping, until it concludes with her pounding a wall in frustration and falling into a crumple on the floor. The camera could have locked onto her face, so as she moved and performed the emphasis was on her emotional state and what the dancing signifies. Whether it’s the lackluster songs, singing, and the nascent choreography that needs to communicate more personality for the big players, Moondance stumbles as a musical.
From a comedy standpoint, let me focus on one small scene that I think exemplifies the pitfalls of comedy construction that Moondance suffers from throughout. We start a scene with Oscar and Cooper at an ice-skating rink watching a curling team practice. Oscar opens the scene by declaring, “22 dance studios!” to tell us he has struck out trying to find Abby, and then for good measure he repeats the line to better establish his bafflement. “What am I supposed to do now?” he asks Cooper, who asks whether Oscar has considered the possibility his dream girl doesn’t exist. “No, I haven’t considered the possibility she doesn’t exist,” Oscar replies, weirdly echoing the exact wording just to hammer this home for the audience. He sees Cooper distracted, sighs, and says, “I’m going to go to the bathroom, or the parking lot or… something.” He then leaves and then Cooper addresses the camera and informs us on the mechanics of the sport of curling. This will never come up again in the entire movie. So, dear reader, let’s deconstruct this scene. It begins with Oscar stating his futility. He repeats his line twice. His friend offers no help, makes a reference to Oscar’s mental state, not a joke but a reference, to which Oscar simply repeats the assertion rather than supply a joke response or anything that can be constituted a response. Because of this, Cooper has nothing funny to build off from, so he asks a simple “what next” and rather than supply a joke that showcases Oscar’s pitiful state, he offers two suggestions, neither of them funny, then doesn’t even provide a third suggestion, instead giving up and not even following the age-old comedy rule of three. From there, Cooper informs us about something that will not matter and is not funny. Why does this scene even need to exist if even the characters can’t be bothered to come up with jokes?
I was dumbstruck by the ineffectual comedy throughout Moondance. This is the kind of movie that has characters devise a stakeout and disguise themselves in bear costumes for no reason. Do they do anything in these costumes? No. The joke, I assume, is that they’re in funny costumes. This is akin to a character walking into a room with a silly hat, and the director saying, “Hey you, look at this comical hat being worn. Isn’t it so unlike normal hats? A normal person would never wear a hat like this. What a cut-up to wear this hat. Are they going to do anything differently because of this hat? Well, no, but what a silly hat, right? Please laugh.” Just stopping at this conception and doing nothing else is not comedy. There need to be setups, payoffs, subversion, running jokes, subversion of running jokes, something, anything. There is a stark sense of desperation throughout Moondance when it comes to its sense of humor. Take for instance a dinner where the group is hob-knobbing but then the girls meet below the table to share their real thoughts under the excuse of retrieving a fallen fork. Why not repeat this setup, making it more outlandish and obvious as you go? Why not present one perception, above table, of the girls, and one below where they are their true selves and confessing distaste? There are moments where it feels like the writer/director just had little grasp on humor and lost track of opportunities. The jokes are rarely accessible; it feels like you’ve entered into a private conversation and are left to put the pieces together. Sean is definitely slotted as “comic relief” but he feels overexposed. I was confused what his relationship was supposed to be with Pat. Is he the assistant, lover, or friend? Eventually I learned that he was Pat’s brother, but why did I have to fight so hard to understand this fact? The writing doesn’t make it easy for the audience to follow along, and this extends to its comedy writing. The fourth wall breaks are tone-breaking but, again, not funny. They feel included just as a fun way to include the crew in the movie, which, again, feels like a private party indulgence. The comedy of Moondance is primarily dormant. It’s over-compensating a lack of funny on the page by asking its actors to dial up their performances, so all the unfunny dialogue and antics now just seem like they’re being performed by crazy people on illicit substances.
If this movie was going for satire, I think it missed it by a wide margin. I don’t know why we have a character with godlike powers and this is treated like a lame party trick. Why not refocus the entire movie from this perspective and have Cooper be the god of a rom-com musical universe, and he’s the only one who knows he’s in a movie, and he’s pulling out every stop to get his chosen guy and chosen girl to get their big happy ending. That way it would play upon our knowledge of genre tropes and bring something fresh, while utilizing the fourth wall breaks as essentially strategy planning and introducing a team of helpers that would see through his efforts. Instead, we get the jovial character of Cooper who strolls around and offers few insights into the nature of romance or the nature of romance movies and our association of them. He feels like a magic hobo. I sense the homage to the Old Hollywood musicals and the big band accompaniment for all those jazz hands and hoofing, but it’s more intention than actuality. It’s going through the motions, and without enjoyable characters and an engaging story, it’s an homage that ends up empty.
My final criticism might be the one that made it the hardest for me to embrace Moondance, and this is how aggressively unlikable nearly all of the characters come across. In a romantic musical, you can have less than stellar singing, dancing, and even songs but your audience needs to care about the people onscreen. You need to feel the desire for them to get together, find their happiness, and at a basic level, you have to enjoy spending time with your core group of characters. Otherwise you’re stuck, and dear reader, stuck is what I felt with these people. I never cared about Abby and Oscar getting together because I never found them to be remotely interesting. Oscar is a bland protagonist. The only thing we know about him is that he writes symphonies. He immediately becomes obsessed with Abby to the point that, even before he ever speaks his first word to her, he declares Abby “his girl” in a creepy act of possession. He’s in love with her but cannot explain why. Would have been perfect for a song there to articulate his new feelings, right? We know even less about Abby. She’s a dancer and wants to save an old dance studio, but anything else? Well during a scene where she lunches with a friend, she has a giant burger as her meal. Does she eat it? No, but just being seen with this pound-plus of beef is meant to do the work the screenplay hasn’t and imbue useful characterization. She’s not some prim “just east a salad” kind of girl, oh no, give her a honking burger. To my best estimation, Abby and Oscar go on two dates (one of which she apparently has harassed a waiter, and this is supposed to be endearing?) so when they part ways before Act Three, this short-lived breakup doesn’t exactly feel as earth-shattering as the characters try to convince us. We’re simply not invested. Rabbers and Robinson (Jack Jonah) don’t have strong chemistry together but it’s not their fault. The script gave them nothing to work with and no points of characterization to better define them as people or make either of them interesting to watch.
The character of Pat is pompous and entitled and I don’t know how anyone would remotely take his involvement in what is angled as a love triangle with any seriousness. He is a terrible character and a terrible person and he just seems to exist in a daydream of privilege. What does he do all day? He buys expensive paintings for his… Rubens parties (again, another point of accessibility made challenging for the audience when this is referenced without context and it took my third stab at understanding what it meant to gain clarity). Later in the film, he monologues to his paintings before setting them ablaze, and it’s played like the mental break of a serial killer, and it’s so tonally off to induce whiplash. Pat’s the cartoonish fop character that would be presented as the rich buffoonish bad boyfriend in any other movie, and yet here he’s supposed to be the best friend to Oscar, yet we see no behavior that communicates their close personal relationship. This is a trenchant problem throughout Moondance, the screenplay constantly having to tell you of something rather than show you. It’s like watching characters thrown into an improv game and grasp for any fragile means of escape from scene to scene.
With all of these words spent in constructive critique, it might seem like Moondance is without notable artistic merit and that is not the case. The photography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is well lit and at its best when it has plenty of movement to give a sense of energy that is usually flagging from the page and performances. The smoky jazz number makes fun interplay with shadow to better establish an evocative mood. The musical productions are heavy with big band sounds and brass instruments, enough so that I started wondering if anyone has done a ska indie original musical. The opening segment involves a band performing in a studio space and it was a pleasant experience to set a tone. The musical performances are solid. The musical compositions are competent if unmemorable. I don’t know why the production didn’t just fully go the jukebox musical route with local artists if we were only getting four original songs (though the titular “Moondance” song lyrics were a bit childish, reminding me of the Hokey Pokey). Hey, they got TV’s Adam Conover (Adam Ruins Everything) to be a brief narrator, a role that seems even less necessary when Cooper is breaking the fourth wall repeatedly as a would-be guide for the audience since he’s already our stand-in god.
Moondance ends on a two musical numbers, the first a kind of curtain call on a theater stage that allows every character, including the dry cleaner guy, to get a sendoff and also break the fourth wall. Afterwards, Cooper addresses the audience and acts as emcee through the various departments and crew members who worked on the movie, with the camera moving in and out of rooms with an impressively agile tracking shot, and ending on several spirited dances, one of which serves as the still image on the Tubi page. The problem is that this is, easily, the most involved musical number and it’s reserved for the end credits. I can imagine Cooper and the filmmakers thought they were ending on a high note to say a fun goodbye to their audience, but by reserving it for the end credits that roll over the scene, it makes it harder to read the credits that are spaced so far apart and it makes it harder to pay attention to the song and dance because of the rolling credits. Why not go split-screen? For me, this sums up the misapplied application of Moondance and its throwback ambitions. It’s not whimsical. It’s not charming. It’s not funny at all. There aren’t characters to care about. The musical numbers are too few and far between. The potential hook to separate this, its satirical behind-the-scenes god at play in a musical world, is not incorporated in a vital and clever manner. Moondance is a strange passion project because it’s hard to feel any passion for this story and characters. It pains me to be as blunt as I am but there are too many issues to go ignored. I wish everyone with the production good luck in the future. This will stand as an artifact of bewilderment for me. See it for yourself on Tubi and whether it casts a bewitching spell on you, dear reader, or leaves you just as confused and disappointed.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Not really a Birds of Prey movie, not really a Suicide Squad sequel (see you in 2021), this is really more of a Harley Quinn solo spinoff that’s fun, colorful, bonkers, edgy, and a smile-inducing delight… when Margot Robbie is onscreen as Harley. Robbie is a charming, hyperactive live wire that commands your attention, and giving her the reigns of the storytelling, quite literally in some Deadpool-esque meta storytelling tweaks, is the best decision the filmmakers make. I enjoyed the frivolity, visuals, and narrative trickery, but I noticed something whenever Harley took a powder off screen. None of the other supporting characters are that interesting. I don’t know anything about Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco), the plot device that everyone is after because of the prized diamond she swallowed. She’s more attitude than person. There’s also Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who doesn’t do much and has a super power she doesn’t use until the end. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) provides the police angle and references to cop movie cliches (a hat on a hat). Huntress (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead) is almost a self-parody as the young girl growing up to be an elite assassin to avenger her murdered family and the movie treats her like an also-ran. The only other person of interest is the villain, Roman Sionis a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), because the performance is campy while also being menacing. Birds of Prey suffers absent Robbie because its additional pieces cannot carry the movie on their own. The vacuum of charisma is too noticeable. The fight choreography is impressive and with plenty of longer takes to fully appreciate the cool moves. I enjoyed how every action sequence was different from the last and director Cathy Yan makes excellent use of her environments; a police lock-up is a fantastic place for an action scene with all the evidence/props to utilize. A romp inside a fun house also keeps things fresh even though the goons never bring guns to their big fight. Birds of Prey works very hard with quirk and narrative shuffling, and it feels like a decided attempt to dazzle as well as distract, because there’s not much to this movie. It’s style and personality over substance, and that’s fine, but it does make the second half feel a bit like coming down from a sugar rush. I know there will be plenty that celebrate a group of strong women taking ownership of their own stories and fighting together against toxic men. I know there will be plenty of my friends that love this movie. For me, it was an enjoyable experience that made me realize just how much I enjoy Robbie as an actress, as this character, and when given extra room to roam with an R-rating. Birds of Prey is the kind of tasty junk food you just crave from the cinema every now and then, but without Robbie it’s decidedly less flavorful.
Nate’s Grade: B
If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you can probably stop reading now. I encourage you to continue but I don’t know if anything will be of help for you from here on out because, frankly, I don’t understand you. Jarmusch is a longtime staple of indie film and I’ve watched three of his films (Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog) and disliked all three to varying degrees, and that’s fine. There are plenty of hallowed names in filmmaking that are just beyond me, like Terrence Malick and Nicolas Refn, but I can at least partially understand what the fans of those auteurs value, an immersive visual, sensory experience at the sacrifice of narrative and coherency. When it comes to Jarmusch, I just don’t understand the appeal whatsoever. This is a man who found a way to make vampires crushingly boring, and now he finds a way to do the same with zombies. The Dead Don’t Die is the widest release of his career and it might be the worst movie I’ve seen in a theater all this year. It certainly feels like the longest.
In a sleepy small Ohio town, the police force consists of Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver), and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). They’re going about their typical day, warning Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), listening to the alarmist worries of Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), and picking up supplies at the hardware store run by Hank (Danny Glover) and Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones). There’s a traveling group of students, lead by Zoe (Selena Gomez), as well as a group of kids in a juvenile detention center. Then the dead come back and small-town life will never be the same.
Anyone walking in expecting a zany comedy from the premise and cast, not to mention marketing materials, will be sorely disappointed, because what The Dead Don’t Die better resembles are the humorless anti-comedies of late-night Adult Swim blocs. It’s not so much that there are jokes, it’s more the absence of jokes, and somehow that might be the joke? The humor is stuck in one mode throughout the film. A character will slowly say something understated or obvious (Example: “That’s not good”) and then the reaction of others will be delayed, and then after that nobody will say anything for several painful seconds later. That’s about it, folks. It’s hard to find humor with that. The deadpan jokes are too obvious and too uniform to really strike any potent comedy targets. The consumer “satire” is brittle to the point of breaking. Various zombies will shamble around and say one-word items of whatever was important to them, ranging from “Coffee,” to, “Fashion,” to, “Chardonnay.” It’s like the one-word utterances are the entire joke (Hey, this dead guy liked fishing, isn’t that a riot?). It’s not satire and it’s not funny. How about the characters of Rosie Perez and Tilda Swinton being named Posie Juarez and Zelda Winston? Is that the kind of humor that sounds appealing? How about Tilda Swinton flexing a samurai sword to slice and dice the undead. Is that supposed to be cool? Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be funny that it’s trying to be “cool”? What is anything?
Later, the film inserts a new comedy element with meta asides where people seem to know they’re in a movie, and yet again the jokes are obvious and uniform, except now it’s even lazier, relying upon the meta recognition to simply stand in the place of a joke. If anything can happen in the small town, especially toward its crazy end, then why do these things have to happen? Or better yet why don’t better things happen? Because of the deadly pacing it makes every attempted bad joke feel that much more unbearable.
This movie is only 105 minutes but it felt so much longer. the pacing not just as a whole but scene-to-scene and even line-to-line from conversations is deadly still. Every moment feels stretched out but it doesn’t ever feel like you’re going anywhere. Characters will be introduced and given meet-cute moments and little indicators they might be significant players later, and then we’ll just find them dead. Other characters will be introduced and then never leave their locations, having no bearing on the larger story. It’s rare that I could honestly say there are entire supporting swaths of this movie that could be cut completely and not impact the story at all. It makes the many storylines we hopscotch across feel like they don’t matter and are generally wasting our valuable time.
Then there’s the ending where Jarmusch just instructs Tom Waits to unleash a torrent of narration bemoaning how society deserves whatever downfall it incurs and that we’re all just zombies anyway. It’s so clumsy and overbearing and unearned after an entire movie where the cultural criticism amounted to a racist saying he doesn’t like his coffee black and then pointedly staring at the only black man in the movie. Even if we got more moments like that I might say some of the ending vitriol is justified, but the commentary gets muted in the middle until Waits has to finally tell us what the point is. There are scant political and environmental references but they feel like tossed asides themselves.
I don’t blame the cast for any of this although I can’t say what on the page must have seemed attractive. Murray is always going to be an amiable screen presence and Driver is a fun partner, slipping into a skillful deadpan and straining to find humor where there is precious little. Everyone feels wasted on screen because even if you’ve never seen these actors before you know, instantly and instinctively, that they have been far better.
The Dead Don’t Die is further proof that I am not a Jim Jarmusch fan. I can’t fathom how someone can actually be a fan of this writer/director. I was tempted to walk out at several points but I held in there. The jokes are too obvious and barely jokes, the pacing is awfully slack, and the whole movie is reprehensibly boring. Even when it has moments of weirdness it finds ways to make it boring. The structure does little to nothing with a large ensemble of very good actors. The movie and premise had potential. The idea of a zombie outbreak in a small town where everybody knows everybody is ripe for comedy and tragedy. Ultimately The Dead Don’t Die feels like one egregiously long in-joke that the audience isn’t privy to. The joke’s on us, folks.
Nate’s Grade: D
Everything might not be awesome but it’s still pretty great for this creative, heartfelt, and hyperactive family franchise that is better than it has any right to be thanks in part to returning writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. It’s not quite as fresh and clever as the first go-round but it manages to better its predecessor in some key ways. Now that we know the colorful and zany antics of the animated Lego characters are also simultaneously the imaginative play of a real-world family, it provides a deeper thematic subtext with the unseen nature of siblings in conflict. I remember my own younger sister wanting to play with me and my toys, and me rebuffing her, and the film struck home some key emotional points about the inclusion of cooperative play. The different styles of play are on display as our characters are abducted by a shape-shifting space queen (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) who is determined to marry Batman and possibly rule the universe. A fantastic running joke is how transparently malevolent the queen is, which leads to an even better payoff. There are more songs and each is pretty well constructed, relevant to the story, and assuredly catchy, like “Catchy Song” used to brainwash people through pop, and a mournful version of “Everything’s Not Awesome” that becomes genuinely inspirational and uplifting by its climax. The life lessons are easily digestible and the sense of breezy fun is still alive and well. I was laughing throughout, sometimes quite hard, and the brother/sister subtext had me wondering if I owed my younger sister a decades-late apology for my behavior (sorry, Natalie). Lego Movie 2 is a worthy sequel that finds new and interesting ways to build off the irreverent original’s model. Bring on the Toy Story 3-style ending where our grown-up owner says goodbye to his childhood toys and friends. At this point, Lord and Miller can do anything and imbue it with wild wit, whimsy, and unparalleled mass entertainment (except Star Wars, I suppose).
Nate’s Grade: B+
If Oscar-winning funnyman Adam McKay can take the arcane, convoluted world of finance and spin it into one of the most entertaining, accessible, and enraging films of that year, then just imagine what he could do with the life of Dick Cheney?
We follow Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his early days as a college washout, to Washington intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), to youngest chief of staff in a White House administration, to Wyoming Congressman, and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) where Cheney redefined the VP role as a defacto second president. This is the story of his 60 years shaping the annuls of political power.
If you have one reason to watch Vice, it’s the staggering performance by Bale (Hostiles). As is custom, the man completely transforms himself into his subject, gaining weight, building muscle in his neck to simulate the Cheney shoulder hunch, and going unrecognizable in startling older age makeup. He doesn’t just look the spitting image of Dick Cheney but he sounds like him too, exhibiting his cadences and mannerisms, and fully inhabiting the man every second he’s onscreen. It’s a compelling, captivating turn that ranks up there with Bale’s best. He’s beyond great but strangely nobody else is. Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife and shrewd political partner, and her worst acting moment is her introductory scene where she lays into the young Cheney. It’s like an audition where the actor is hitting the wrong notes too strongly. Adams regains herself as the film carries on but never has a standout scene. Nobody else other than Bale is given the material to stand out. Rockwell (Three Billboards) and Carell (Beautiful Boy) are enjoyable and aided by impressive makeup, especially old Rumsfeld, but they’re given one note to play. Their roles become more impression than performance and both men drop out of the movie for long periods of time. The next best actor might by Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) as Colin Powell, and maybe that’s because Perry is used to brokering nonsense with his own array of nonsensical characters. He’s already the weary adult.
The meta interludes and fourth wall breaks that helped The Big Short succeed conversely are part of the problem with Vice. Most Americans know a decent amount about the Iraq War and its documented fallout, so there’s less need to have celebrities interject and explain complex scenarios and institutions (the absence of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will always be felt). The narration by Jesse Plemons (Game Night) doesn’t feel necessary, and his ordinary identity becomes a guessing game for most of the film, trying to link him with Cheney. I was thinking he would be an Iraq War soldier and get killed later on, that way establishing a stand-in for the thousands of men and women who are no longer walking this Earth as a direct result of Cheney’s misguided action. Nope. When his identity is finally revealed you’ll go, “Oh,” and that’s it. Because he wasn’t really a character, he was a narrative device and one that didn’t stand for anything larger. The visual metaphors can also be very, very obvious. There are consistent cuts to Cheney fly-fishing in a river, meant to evoke him luring others into his desired machinations. Even the end credits feature fly-fishing imagery, in case you had forgotten about this enduring metaphor. The conclusion literally involves a heart being removed and the sequence cut along a more figurative betrayal, and you can feel McKay vigorously pointing at the screen and yelling, “See, it’s because he’s heartless, get it? Do you get it?” We get it. The documentary-style and comedic techniques that allowed The Big Short to be as entertaining and accessible, and one of the best films of 2015, are paradoxically the things that seem at odds with Vice.
The meta breaks are meant to provide a degree of comedy to the picture, which is generally absent comedy otherwise, unless you count the rise of Cheney’s reign as the darkest of comedies. I suppose Cheney’s nonchalant recognition of his heart attacks (he’s had five) could be a potential comedic lifeline if you’re being generous. One second we’re told people don’t speak in Shakespearean soliloquies in real life, and the next second the Cheneys are talking in Shakespearean verse. When it looks like the Cheneys will drop out of public office to spare their gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) the inevitable storm of harassment, the movie has a fake-out end credit sequence to sum up their hypothetical lives. To demonstrate Cheney’s knack for making the most ridiculous statement sound statesmen, he recommends that the Oval Office team put miniature beards on a part of their anatomy and perform an adult puppet show, which draws solemn nods of approval from the others. It’s a joke that feels too glib, like the intended point is being lost by the lewd nature of the comedic aside. The only meta aspect that feels earned is the final one, where Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, acknowledging he can feel their contempt but refuses to apologize for his actions in order to keep people safe. Because he’s having the final say, because he’s offering a rebuff to his movie, it feels more earned and fitting, and it would have had even more power if it were the only break in the movie rather than the last. It’s hard to call this a comedy; it’s more an incredulous indictment looking for its mob.
I honestly think a straightforward biopic might have been the better route for Cheney. The first half of the film is more interesting and successful because it is the more illuminating half. I never knew that Lynne Cheney’s father likely killed her mother. That’s a pretty bold charge on behalf of the filmmakers. The early Cheney years are the moments the majority of Americans don’t know about, whereas the later years have been well documented by a slew of hard-hitting documentaries, books, and journalistic exposes. There are whole movies about topics like the Valerie Plame leaking (Fair Game), the mounting mistakes after the invasion of Iraq (No End in Sight), the administration’s policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side, Standard Operating Procedure), the drumbeat to the war and snuffing out of critical journalism (Shock and Awe, Lions for Lambs), the missing WMDs (Green Zone, Body of Lies), the Bush deferment memos (Truth), the long-term consequences for those servicemen who survive (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Stop-Loss, Last Flag Flying, In the Valley of Elah, American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service) and anything that Michael Moore sets his sights on. This list is not exhaustive by any means. Because of that the film seems to become a rudimentary montage once the Iraq War kicks off, sprinting through the rest as an intended tableau of hubris as Cheney’s star and influence falls. I would rather have learned more about Cheney’s early years in the Nixon, Ford, and H.W. Bush administrations and gleaned more personal insights into the man before he becomes this shadowy, mythic figure that seems downright Machiavellian in his control of government. It’s interesting to watch Cheney and his cohorts plot their unchecked executive power behind the back of President Bush, but then what?
It’s the “then what?” question I keep revisiting with McKay’s film, trying to figure out the larger intended message, themes, and dire warnings. I feel like because of the expanse of time covered, and the meta quirks applied, that the film too often feels like it’s just scratching the surface of Cheney, providing a slight gloss to a political caricature. The biggest takeaway is the slippery slope of the “unitary executive theory,” a term you’ll hear often, that basically follows Nixon’s own words: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” This questionable interpretation of Article II of the Constitution gives the president powers that approach a monarch, which seems antithetical the Founders’ intents. McKay warns that any president could take advantage of this theory to do whatever he or she (sad trombone noise… sigh) desires. This is clearly meant to draw a line right to President Trump, but it’s not like the 45th president needs sketchy legal cover to do his misdeeds. The idea that the Justice Department memos would be a lurking danger is quaint. A bad man with power is not going to look for the rules to allow him or her to break them. The idea that a president could be above the law is also a legally specious argument and one I don’t believe our courts would readily back, even with the “unitary executive theory” (at least I hope so). With that in mind, Vice becomes a cautionary tale about the expenditure of power but lacks the adequate follow-through.
Vice is a tricky biopic for a tricky subject and I wonder if it would have worked better being stripped of its prankster, meta interjections and tricks. It’s a condemnation of Dick Cheney but it doesn’t feel like it goes far enough if McKay’s eventual thesis is that the current world problems began, or were grossly exacerbated, by the actions of Cheney. Climate change warnings going unheeded, ISIS formations going ignored, the generational consequences for unsettling the Middle East, and laying the foundation for an authoritarian strongman to be an acceptable political position for millions of Americans. These charges are clearly intended to be a denunciation of Cheney’s legacy, but the end results play out somewhat differently, like a slap on the wrist. I think Dick Cheney could even watch this movie and nod in appreciation. That seems like a mistake. McKay is still a talented writer and filmmaker that knows how to keep his movie flowing and entertaining, buoyed by an outstanding performance from Bale. It’s a movie with great components but seems to clumsily get in its own way with its presentation. If you’re going to expose Dick Cheney as a heinous manipulator of power that has wrecked havoc for billions, then maybe you don’t want to dilute your message.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Under the thumb of writer/director Dan Fogelman (TV’s This Is Us), the lives of several inter-connected characters in Life Itself are bonded by a seemingly endless assembly of human tragedy. That’s life, he seems to say, but there’s also a lot of death here. There’s death by accident, death by suicide, death by cancer, parental abandonment, addiction, mental illness, let alone fleeting mentions of sexual abuse and incest. Throughout it all, the characters of Fogelman press onward, making whimsical observations about human existence and perception, some of which I don’t think are quite as profound as he may think. What does “life is an unreliable narrator” exactly mean? I understand the implication of unexpected twists and turns, but life is objective, it’s more a medium for events that others will impart differing perceptions… it doesn’t matter. We jump around through multiple chapters across generations, though it all looks like it takes place in the same five or so years, waiting for the final revelations of what connect these different people and their stories of heartache. Much of the story hinges on these connective revelations because a far majority of the characters have little characterization other than broad strokes. they are pieces meant to form a puzzle. Because of its ensemble nature, some storylines are just more interesting than others, and some characters are given more meaningful things to do onscreen. The film gets significantly better once we transition away from Oscar Isaac as an over-caffeinated smarty-pants reflecting about his pregnant ex-wife (Olivia Wilde). From there we go overseas to an olive ranch in Italy and Antonio Banderas, who uncorks a swell Spanish monologue to a man he wants to ingratiate into his family. Fogelman alternates his hearty doses of old melodrama with meta asides, some of which work like a grandfather-granddaughter sit-down where they express the verbose subtext out loud, and some of them do not, like Samuel L. Jackson appearing as a literal flesh-and-blood narrator. An ongoing diatribe about a Bob Dylan song from his 1997 comeback album also seems a strange student film-level pretentious linchpin. I liked individual performances, individual moments, but Life Itself cannot escape the smothering effect that Fogelman employs as a dramatist, trying to turn every moment into a mosaic he feels will gain beauty and clarity if he just keeps pulling further and further back to reveal the grand design. It wants us to take comfort in the big picture but the details are misery.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It took the leaked release of the Deadpool test footage, and the ensuing enthusiastic fan response, before Fox finally decided to invest in a big screen, R-rated superhero movie. The result was 2016’s Deadpool, a huge smash and proof that a lucrative audience will turn out for more adult-oriented, outrageous, grisly versions of comic book movies. Because of Deadpool, we finally got an R-rated Logan that proved to be an outstanding swan song for Hugh Jackman’s iconic hero. Now Deadpool is getting the spotlight he has earned with a big, splashy summer release, but with success come expectations. Can it live up to the ever-increasing hype? In short: if you were a fan of the original, you’ll be happy enough, because Deadpool 2 isn’t much more than the sum of its zany parts.
Wade Wilson a.k.a. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is killing bad guys for hire and considering starting a family with the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Trouble emerges when Cable (Josh Brolin) travels from the future to kill a rebellious, troubled young mutant teenager, Russell (Julian Dennison), who will one day grow up to be a monstrous villain. Deadpool reaches out for help and forms an elite squad of determined heroes, notably the luck-assisted Domino (Zazie Beetz). Can Deadpool save the kid, save the day, save the future, and save himself from incessant fourth wall breaks?
I was worried that a Deadpool sequel would fall into some of the same detractions that a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel did, and this is still applicable. Deadpool, much like the original 2014 Guardians film, was a breath of fresh air and a far looser, weirder, funkier super hero movie with a nose-thumbing, prankish attitude. We didn’t know what to expect from a Deadpool movie and now we do, and with that knowledge comes an anticipated formula of checklists to adhere to, and so any resulting sequel will invariably feel less fresh. It happened with Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 so to compensate James Gunn concentrated on fleshing out secondary characters into people you might shed a tear over. Deadpool 2 doesn’t bother because Deadpool 2 doesn’t take anything really seriously. That’s one of the hallmarks of the series and also one of the aspects that holds it back. There can never be a sense of stakes with a gleeful, fourth wall-breaking cartoon of a character who bounces back like Wile E. Coyote. The sequel introduces a sense of stakes with a startling turn in the first ten minutes of the movie, but by the end, even that will be corrected so that the Deadpool universe returns to stasis. The limitation of the Deadpool universe is that nothing feels meaningful or even ambitious. The movie wants to be a cheeky, transgressive good time and it achieves this single goal.
The appeal of Deadpool 2 is still its comedic voice and unpredictability. The laughs will be frequent and there are some subversive and unexpected directions that fully take advantage of the R-rating and the anarchic, nasty comic spirit of the franchise. The formation of the X-Force team and how their first big mission plays out had me howling with laughter. The meta humor commenting on the nature of super hero movies, as well as the film industry in general, begins with the very opening image (a nod to another successful R-rated super hero movie of last year) until the very last moment where Deadpool goes back in time to prevent some stinging cinematic grievances (there is no post-end credit scene, so you can skedaddle early). This is clearly the role Reynolds feels a spiritual kinship with, and his caddish, charming, persistent persona makes the perfect conduit for the film’s vulgar insanity. Whether it’s spitting insults, splashing in over-the-top violence, or making odd observations about the similarities between the songs from Frozen and Yentl, Deadpool 2 is first and foremost a bloody, depraved meta comedy.
Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) steps in for the departing original film’s director, Tim Miller, and continues his hot streak of stylish, action thrillers. Leitch has shown a propensity for staging intense action sequences to best showcase intricate choreography. With Deadpool 2, the most exciting moments are when the camera and editing allows the audience to fully appreciate the creativity of the choreography and stunt team. A shot of Cable leaping over the speeding caravan about to smash into him brings on a well-earned wow. Coming from that bruising world, I’m continually impressed with how Leitch approaches his action and finds organic points to develop and complicate matters. The prison caravan attack is the action peak with well-constructed, parallel lines of activity to follow and collaborate upon. It’s our first taste of Deadpool and X-Force versus the might of Cable. The characters enter the fray at different points and get separated from the runaway caravan, which keeps the momentum going. While the comedy is prioritized, Deadpool 2 can still unleash enough exciting, silly, and satisfying action.
The biggest additions to the sequel are an adversary and an ally, and both leave a favorable impression while still making you wish that Deadpool 2 had done more with them. Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) bulked up considerably to play the gruff cyborg from the future, and his super serious, macho straight man provides a terrific comic foil for Deadpool, much like the stuffy Colossus in the first film. Brolin’s character is a capable fighter with a pretty streamlined back-story (shades of Looper abound) but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointment with how he’s ultimately utilized. He’s a great asset that feels put away for too long. Zazie Beetz (TV’s Atlanta) has a fun introduction especially as it relates to her mutant power, great luck. Deadpool scoffs at this as a power, and “being deeply un-cinematic,” but Domino proves otherwise as she’s able to dodge split-second danger in grand, complicated, Final Destination-like circumstances. Every time she’s onscreen, Domino brings a curiosity quality to the movie, and it’s usually something imaginative and fun. Beetz has an innate spunky energy, which makes it sad when the movie often asks her to be dour and dismissive. It’s taking such a lively character and constricting what makes her amusing and unique.
The biggest thing holding back the film, besides a general sense of “more of the same” or its inherent lack of stakes, is that the entire storyline is built around saving a mutant teen…. and I kind of hated the kid. My first impression was not good and it didn’t get much better from there. Part of it may be that Russell is meant to be an angry, obnoxious teenager, and maybe part of it is the generally grating performance from Dennison (Hunt for the Wilder People), but I could not care about this kid. Unfortunately, a lot of thematic emphasis is placed on saving the soul of this one annoying, wayward teenager. He’s supposed to be a point of redemption for Deadpool and a promise to be fulfilled, but my pal Ben Bailey came up with an instantly better revision. Instead of introducing this new teen character who will one day grow up into a super villain that slaughters Cable’s future family, why not have it be Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)? We already have an investment in her character and it would provide a better, more personal sense of stakes for the story. Plus, Hildebrand (Tragedy Girls) is actually a good actress.
If you were one of the many fans who enjoyed the irreverent antics of the first Deadpool, then you’ll enjoy Deadpool 2 as it’s more or less the same movie with a slightly limited freshness date. These movies are fun, funny, and ridiculous, but they’re also good for little else than a wicked good time, and that’s okay. There isn’t much ambition to be anything more than an irreverent satire on super heroes with edgy humor and explosive violence. The running theme of the sequel questions what Deadpool has to keep on going, and he’s told it’s one very specific F-word: “family.” I think it’s a different F-word, namely “franchise.” Fox (Disney?) will need the services of the merc with the mouth for an extended engagement as long as audiences do not tire of the same studio brand of naughtiness reheated with a few different ingredients added per revisit.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Lego Batman Movie intends to expand the world of a movie that was designed to sell toys and was far better than anyone ever imagined. It’s frenetic, silly, and paced at spoof level speed with genial gags flying fast every ten seconds or so. It’s also flat, and while intermittently amusing I only chuckled, at best, a handful of times. Will Arnett’s self-involved Batman was a fun side character in the original Lego Movie but there’s not exactly enough there for his own starring vehicle (Jack Sparrow Syndrome). He’s saddled with a weak plot about letting others get closer and not having to be a loner. Besides a brief comedy bit about a cataclysm, the movie could have just been a broad Batman movie. It doesn’t really utilize the landscape of a Lego universe in any way. While many of the jokes didn’t work for me, I knew another one was mere seconds later, so I shrugged off the misfires. The final act of the movie involves a separate league of villains, all conveniently connected to other Warner Brothers properties. Lego Batman wore me down after the opening sequence where Batman battles his entire rogues gallery. It was high-energy but its aim was just too low for my tastes, and the results made me appreciate even more the cleverness and plain comedic accomplishments of the original Lego movie. There aren’t any memorable moments or jokes and there’s far too much Batman rapping. It’s colorful, it’s wacky, it’s filled with fine vocal actors with very little to do other than Arnett and an amusingly awed Michael Cera as The Boy Wonder himself, adopted sidekick Robin. It’s an acceptable albeit numbing experience that I wanted to enjoy more. I don’t know if this is the start of Lego spin-off movies but if it is I hope others do better with their own building blocks.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Deadpool is easily the most fan service of comic characters, so it makes sense that his big screen spotlight is a movie that feels a fan service movie. The “merc with a mouth” is a character that doesn’t take himself seriously and neither does his big screen adventure, which is the biggest appeal of an otherwise standard super hero formula hiding under waves of winking irony, crass humor, and gleefully bloody violent mayhem. Ryan Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a hired gun that undergoes a risky experimental treatment by a shady black ops organization to cure his terminal illness. It makes him generally indestructible with a rapid healing ability but his flesh is also horribly scarred and Wade is afraid his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a hooker with a heart of gold, will reject him. Even in the opening credits, you know this isn’t going to be a typical super hero movie. The time is ripe for a film that knowingly ridicules the tropes of the super hero film industry, and Deadpool scores some big laughs when its making fun of itself and its super peers. The dark humor can often surprise with how go-for-broke it can get, like Wade and his Vanessa’s flirty one-upsmanship of hypothetical sexual trauma. There’s a clever montage of Wade and Vanessa’s romantic history told through sexually-specific holiday celebrations, and the inclusion of a couple of low-rent X-Men provides a comic foil for Deadpool to bounce off from. The action is fun and the movie is entertaining from its opening credits to the now-mandatory post-credits bonus. Reynolds is spiritually attuned with the irreverence of the anti-hero, finally plugging into a part that makes full use of his charm, motor mouth, and physicality. Deadpool’s runaway box-office success (grossing more than any X-Men film and on at least half the budget) will hopefully allow Hollywood to feel comfortable allowing their less than family-friendly comic titles to stay true to their intentions. Then again maybe they’ll just take all the wrong messages and think that audiences just want to hear more swearing from people in spandex. Deadpool is a super hero movie that prioritizes fun over everything else, and while it may not be for everyone, at least it’s trying to be for someone different.
Nate’s Grade: B
When 21 Jump Street was proposed as a movie, nobody thought it was a good idea. Even its stars and writers. They used that as an opportunity to craft one of the more charming, surprising, and hilarious films of 2012, a movie so good that it was also one of the best films of a relatively great year at the movies. Now that was something nobody expected with a 21 Jump Street movie. As often happens, Hollywood looks to keep the good times going, and 22 Jump Street is knocking at the door. In Hollywood tradition, sequels usually follow the “more of the same” format with a dash of “bigger is better,” a fact that 22 Jump Street takes to heart.
Having successfully busted a high school drug ring, Officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are the toast of their unit. That is until they let a dangerous criminal (Peter Stormare) get away with a shipment of drugs. It’s back to the Jump Street program, as their police chief (Nick Offerman) laments that everybody just needs to do the exact same thing that worked the last time. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) has assigned Schmidt and Jenko to go undercover at the state university to sniff out where the student body is getting a powerful and deadly designer drug. Schmidt grows close to Maya (Amber Stevens), an art major who knew a girl who overdosed on the new drug. Likewise, Jenko is falling for team quarterback Zook (Wyatt Russell), or more accurately the bond they share as two athletes with a similar brain. The partnership of Schmidt and Jenko may be in trouble for the long haul if they can’t work together.
This may be one of the most meta movies of all time, existing outside itself in tandem to always provide a winking dose of commentary about its own silliness, excess, and corporate mentality about replicating success through the least creative means possible. There’s even a character with a literal red herring tattooed on his bicep. There are plenty of in-jokes without breaking down the fourth wall, and the meta cleverness is an entertaining way to pave over the general same-ness that goes along with the limited undercover premise. While cracking wise for its full running time, 22 Jump Street really is “more of the same.” For most, myself included, that is completely acceptable since the first 21 Jump Street was an unexpectedly witty and comically brash outing. Seeing another adventure with this same team is more than justifiable, especially with the kind of comic kinship that Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Tatum (White House Down) share. Once again the guys go undercover to bust a drug operation, and once again they each get close to a different set of students, and once again their relationship takes a personal hit. It’s the same plot beats but with different jokes (like the R-rated version of Anchorman 2). The entire “going undercover as a school student” concept is so dated to begin with, and neither Hill nor Tatum can credibly pass at this point, so the entire enterprise feels like they’re squeezing the most they can while they can, enjoying the good times, the good chemistry, being silly on the studio dime, and counting their luck.
The end credits for 22 Jump Street deserve special praise just for the appearance of burning down its franchise. Throughout the film the guys are mocking the very notion of a sequel. By the end, they mock, without abandon, the idea of a franchise. We flash through an absurd array of new assignments, new sequels, and new school-setting undercover gigs, and it’s almost like a flash-forward into the timeline of the movie, like the finale of Six Feet Under. There are some amusing cameos and business satire to mock with as well as the general ludicrous nature of repeating this plot/formula (Magician school?). The end credits leave the audience feeling buzzy and giggly, a perfect comic high, and it’s the best end credit high since the original Hangover.
The real enjoyment is watching Hill and Tatum continue to mine what has become one of film’s best onscreen bromances of all time. I never would have pictured these two fitting together so smoothly, or Tatum being such an unexpectedly natural comedic talent. Thank goodness for the 21 Jump Street movies for offering us these untold comic gifts and for knowing what the main attraction is and how to properly develop it. The relationship between friends/colleagues/bros Schmidt and Jenko is the most consistently interesting, surprisingly emotional, and comically ripe subject in the film. We have two great actors and watching them butt heads is just as fun as watching them get along. In the sequel, the guys go through what serves as an analogue for a separation, wanting to see other partners. We know in our hearts these two are meant to be together, and so much of the fun is watching just how this odd coupling now seems so indispensable to one another, with Tatum’s zigs blending ever so delightfully with Hill’s zags. I could watch another movie of just these guys doing paperwork.
In the first film, Jenko and Schmidt were set up to fall back into stereotypical roles before the movie found a better solution. Jenko was going to be the jock with sports classes, and Schmidt the nerd with AP classes and drama. Then a mix-up, and they have each other’s identities, and the movie is that much better, forcing each out of their comfort zone and finding the better comic scenario. With 22 Jump Street, the movie falls back to the old social order. Jenko hangs with the football jocks and the frat brothers and gets to be the super popular student-athlete, while Schmidt is left to investigate the art majors who knew the dead coed. It has them falling back into their high school roles (popular vs. outsider) and it’s not nearly as interesting, especially after seemingly growing beyond these moments. The side characters aren’t as interesting either, many lacking material to develop beyond one-note joke machines, like Zook. I was mildly intrigued by H. Jon Benjamin (TV’s Archer, Bob’s Burgers) as a football coach obsessed with protecting the goalpost, but I wanted more. Twin stoners who talk at the same time are not enough.
There is one supporting actor given enough material to shine and that is Workaholics’ actress Jillian Bell. She plays such a deadpan, biting, sarcastic, no-nonsense roommate who won’t entertain for one second that Schmidt is who he says he is, and she is wonderfully brutal with her insults. There’s a later scene where she keeps wrongly misinterpreting a fight with Schmidt into something else. It’s a highlight of the movie, a great example of her physical comedy skills and sense of timing, and it’s a plumb example of taking a topic that a situation that could be uncomfortable and finding the right balance to guide an audience along for the best laugh.
Like before, once the movie adapts to its action-filled climax, the jokes start taking a backseat to the action theatrics. Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) have kept their same brand of rambunctious spirited comedy alive and well, which keeps the movie’s pace brisk and always open to fresh weirdness. While some jokes don’t work as well the second time (Vietnamese Jesus, the drug freak-out fantasy sequence, though its use of Creed music almost makes up for that), this is still more sequel than retread. This is not an Austen Powers that repeats the exact same jokes with slightly different settings. Lord and Miller understand how to satiate an audience without overt pandering. They know how to build payoffs that are small and payoffs that are big, ones directly linked to character goals. There are strong comedic set pieces unrelated to any sort of meta commentary, Schmidt’s impromptu slam poem being one of them. It’s a manner of giving people what they want while still finding new ways to surprise, because otherwise comedy is dead without the subversion of expectations.
“More of the same” is the best and worst summary for 22 Jump Street, and despite 1500 words of film criticism, all you really need to ask yourself. Is more of the same good enough for you when it comes to another 21 Jump Street movie? Sure, we’d all wish for the same sort of unexpected cheeky revelation that was the first film, but then again no one had any expectations that a 21 Jump Street movie would be anything worth watching, let alone one of the best films of that year. 22 Jump Street is hilarious, witty, aggressive, irreverent, and even when it has to take on the role of action-comedy, it does so with a consistent wink, pointing toward all the sequel tropes and absurdity without rubbing your nose in every single reference and gag. The second time around Jump Street is, by definition, never going to be as fresh, but the company is still top-notch, the jokes are still layered and cracking, and the determination is high. It’s a sequel that delivers what it promises. I’m ready to take this franchise as far as it can conceivably go for two men well into their 30s-posing-as-high-schoolers. Magician school, here we come.
Nate’s Grade: B+