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Pieces of a Woman (2020)

More an acting exercise than a fully developed movie, Pieces of a Woman is a punishing experience for the audience as much as the actors onscreen. The entire first 30 minutes is comprised of watching a home birth in an extended long take, which doesn’t so much immerse you in the situation as beg the question of, “How’d they do that?” The sequence concludes with a rushed delivery and an asphyxiated child, and then we cut to the title screen. From there, it’s 90 minutes of what agonizing grief does to this family. Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) plays the mother and she doesn’t want to let go but also feels uncomfortable that their flustered midwife is being charged with negligent homicide. Her boyfriend (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to maintain their relationship and move past their shared tragedy. Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) is a domineering presence and wants the boyfriend gone and the midwife in jail. It’s all very well acted and Kirby does a fine job dredging up pure emotional devastation. The problem is that Pieces of a Woman has seemed to confuse drama with plot. There are many dramatic moments that occur but they don’t really provide greater insight into the main characters who are, at their core from that half-hour mark onward, broken people coming to terms with their response to the unimaginable. It seems paradoxical because the concept of a grieving family, angry and looking to blame someone, a relationship splintered where each party is potentially having an affair to feel something diverting, mother-daughter head-butting, it all seems like foundational elements of compelling drama. The problem is that we don’t ever get progression with the characters and their emotional states from these very dramatic events. They’re suffering, they’re unhappy, they’re numb to the pain yet carrying on, but are they interesting? Are we getting more of a sense over who they are or how they’ve changed? I would argue no. The movie feels locked into stagnation. I think a major stumbling block was spending so much time establishing a realistic birthing sequence opening, aided by a roving and unblinking camera, when the same information could have been covered in the first ten minutes and not first 30. It’s excessive and repetitive, but then so are the 90 minutes that follow that wallow in unchecked misery. It’s an approach that can take some of the devastation out of the horrific. Pieces of a Woman will be available on Netflix streaming starting tomorrow and despite its artistic merits and good acting I can’t exactly argue that it’s worth enduring the pain over.

Nate’s Grade: C+

I’m Your Woman (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: B+

Run (2020)

With Run, now available through Hulu thanks to COVID, we follow Chloe (newcomer Kiera Allen) as she yearns to leave home for college. She was born with multiple physical maladies and has been living at home in her wheelchair. Her mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson), tends to her needs but runs a tight ship, holding Chloe to a high academic standard. One day, while looking for college returns, Chloe finds a prescription for her mother that she denies is hers. This causes Chloe to investigate the myriad of medications she’s on and her mother’s cagey behavior. She comes to one conclusion: she is being held prisoner by her own mother.

I don’t consider it a spoiler to confirm that Run is exactly the movie it assures you from its start. Because the movie was so early and upfront about its distrust with the mother, part of me began to wonder, after watching so many Hollywood thrillers over the years, if I was being set up into false complacency. I began theorizing what a late twist could be, how we’re being lulled into one perspective so maybe the final twist would be that the big bad mom is actually the hero. This is not the case at all. There are later revelations that clarify just how disturbed and committed Diane is as a doting mother, but the core relationship dynamic is the same from the get-go. That means that Run might not have much going for it other than as an escape thriller. It’s not going to give you deeper insights into life with mental illness or physical disabilities, nor is it going to channel some relatable struggles with motherhood. It’s about a crazy woman holding a teenager captive and the great obstacles that teenager must overcome to reach freedom and safety. That’s all the movie has to offer but under the guidance of its filmmakers it does so with finesse.

Let Run serve as a prime example of how you can take a simple story and create a lean, mean thriller that provides doses of satisfaction and triumph. The focus is so condensed that writer/director Aneesh Chaganty (Searching) can provide set piece after set piece to demonstrate his skills in suspense. The first act involves Chloe learning of her alarming state and getting confirmation that her medicine and ailments might not be true. From there, the next two acts are a series of planning escapes and escalating attempts at escape. There is a lovely sense of fulfillment in watching smart characters intelligently think their way through challenges. I recently re-watched 2015’s The Martian and was reminded how enjoyable it can be to just watch smart people smartly confront problems. Chloe is a formidable young woman with obvious vulnerabilities to overcome, but she has a sharp mind for science and can act like a plucky Zoomer MacGyver. It’s resolutely fun to watch her overcome her challenges. Each new set piece and setback presents a challenge and her thinking is logical and capable throughout. Even when the plot isn’t much more than a series of escape attempts, every time I wondered to myself how exactly Chloe was going to get through the next dilemma and admiring her as she persevered.

The photography, editing, and score work nicely in tandem to raise the level of suspense. The command that Chaganty has over all facets of filmmaking to serve a common purpose is impressive. It’s the same kind of assured vision he displayed with 2018’s Searching where the film screen was confined to the parameters of a computer monitor. As with that earlier inventive thriller, Chaganty has an innate understanding of how to make his moments matter, where every twist and turn has a connection to what came before it so it all feels of a whole. That is essential especially for a filmmaker working within a thriller genre. If you can tell even the simple stories well, where the pieces connect with perfect precision, and ratchet up tension efficiently no matter the scenario, then you’re already operating at an extremely high level. Given his first two entries, I would watch any movie, especially a thriller, that has Chaganty’s name attached.

This is primarily a mother-daughter two-hander in terms of acting, though Paulson is off-screen for long portions. After several Ryan Murphy TV series, including Netflix’s Ratched, I’ve come to automatically assume I should be wary of whatever character Paulson is playing. This role is well within her unstable wheelhouse and she gets to better shine in her increased desperation in the second half when Diane no longer has to pretend to be sane. Her doting manipulation and intense mood changes can be quite creepy. The real star is Allen in a very physical performance. There is much the young actress has to communicate non-verbally, from her distress and paranoia to her doubts and fears and righteous anger. Plus all the crawling. She’s great, and I fully imagine this will be the start of Allen’s promising career as she finds even more high-profile roles to demonstrate her talent.

If you’re a fan of slick, intelligent, and sneaky fun thrillers, and why wouldn’t you, then seek out Run (not to be confused with the TV series of the same name on HBO in 2020). It’s well honed, well developed, and smartly constructed to deliver enjoyable thrills and payoffs for viewers. It might not have more on its mind than entertainment but that’s fine when the movie is this well done.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Street Where We Live (2019)

I was fortunate enough to actually hear co-writer/director John Whitney and co-writer/star Dino Tripodis discuss their hardscrabble indie drama, The Street Where We Live. It’s an Ohio indie that was filmed over the course of several weekends from the fall of 2015 to the summer of 2016, had its festival run throughout 2017-2018, and became available for the general public to watch via Amazon Prime in 2019. I was lucky to hear both men talk about their experiences making this movie on a small budget under a constrained time frame, as well as their hopes for it, paying homage in particular to the hard-working mothers that both men credit for their upbringing.

We follow Mary (Kristina Kopf), a recently unemployed factory worker, struggling to stop her family’s descent into greater financial ruin. Her children, Jamie (Katie Stottlemire) and Thomas (Dylan Koski), are trying to hide the shame of their living conditions, though it’s getting harder. Things go from bad to worse as this family tries to regain their stability.

The film does a very good job of communicating the vulnerability and struggle of poverty as well as how susceptible a majority of people living on the fringes are. As has been said, many Americans are simply two paychecks away from disaster; in a survey, a majority of Americans would be unable to pay for a sudden expense of $400, meaning most Americans lack even that amount when it comes to personal savings. That day-to-day anxiety of simply getting by, of persevering and not prospering, is best expressed by the layers of sad, quiet resignation that hang on lead actress Kopf’s face. Hers is a performance steeped in quiet suffering (more on that later) and her fight for dignity and opportunity. This isn’t a very dialogue-driven movie and instead is more like one long sigh slowly eliminating all breath. One calamity leads to another in a succession of setbacks, and it’s clear to understand just how difficult it is to reset your life when that chasm seems more insurmountable by the day. You don’t have enough money to pay electricity leads to not enough money to pay for rent, leads to living in your car and washing in the bathrooms of gas stations, leads to having your car towed, leads to an impound that expects even more money if it cannot be immediately paid, and all the while that deficit grows and grows. The Street Where We Live is at its best when it’s opening up about the slippery slope of poverty and how it’s not some choice, not the result of trenchant laziness, but just bad timing, bad luck, and limited opportunities. In that way, the film works extremely well as an empathy project to convey the toll of poverty on the human condition and one’s hope.

Much like the mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas, the observational little details and natural give-and-take are what help give the movie its sense of authenticity. This feels like a world where Whitney and his crew are well versed and can supply exacting insights. There are a few devastating moments in the movie, one of them being how out-of-touch a person can feel in a quickly changing marketplace. Mary has held her factory job for years and is applying for, what she has been told, is a simple secretarial position in an office, something she feels she can at least keep up with even if her typing skills are mediocre. Instead, she’s pummeled with questions of technical insurance jargon, and each one further shatter the idea that a “simple secretarial” job is within reach for Mary. Her sinking realization that this job is closed to her is such a hard moment to watch and Kopf, once again, plays it tragically and beautifully. It’s a small sucker punch of a moment, and from here she’s fighting even to get underpaid dish washing gigs. There are some aspects that are stretched a bit in order to maintain the family’s tragic desperation (one would think Mary wouldn’t have to venture all the way out of the state to contend for a paying job). It’s excusable because we’re meant to feel the crushing uncertainty of a character struggling with what is the best of her limited bad options. The only aspect of The Street Where We Live that didn’t feel realistic was the seconds before the factory workforce was about to find out their jobs were all gone, because I have to think everyone was suspecting the worst and wouldn’t be so amped for noisy chit-chat prior to the news.

The acting is another component that helps compliment the movie’s valued sense of reality. The Street Where We Live and its success hinges on two fulcrums: 1) its everyday realism, and 2) Kopf. The characters feel very recognizable and the performances rely on subtlety more than histrionics. More is gained by watching the pained expressions of ordinary people than listening to a character explode in a well-polished monologue about the hardships of living in poverty. There are a few emotional outbursts but they’re saved for the end, and even these moments are crafted to better maintain that well-earned sense of cinema verité.

Much of the film’s impact is reliant upon Kopf (Constraint, Axe Giant) and the micro-expressions that cross her face. Hers is a role about suffering in silence, her weathered gaze its own shattering scream, and you study her to see how she’s coping with each new added indignity. A terrific moment is when Mary is trying to square a very personal, moral-crossing decision she made for the greater good of her family only to have a cruel man use his small amount of power to further wound. You feel how powerless this woman is and while you want her to punch the creep, there will be no release. You want the “movie moment” where she can upstage her tormentor but it won’t happen. Kopf has long been a staple of Ohio indies and there’s a very good reason why. Tripodis (Bottom Feeders) has an immediate well-worn charm that’s heartwarming. One of the best scenes in the movie is his character Ben and Mary sharing a small moment of compassion after hours of hunting for recyclables to turn in for meager money. This moment is so naturally written, with their interplay feeling relaxed, natural, and organic, that I instantly wanted more. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls, My Friend Dahmer) has begun to branch out into bigger movies and her burgeoning talent is clear to witness. She follows Kopf’s lead and works in underplayed tones to great effect. Koski gets the least to do as Thomas, like him strumming his father’s guitar is all that is needed to communicate his longing to connect to his past. There are also small roles and cameos from other central Ohio indie faces like Ralph Scott (After), Daniel Alan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Heather Caldwell (After), and Richard Napoli (After), and several others.

If there is one thing holding back the film from achieving a greater level of success and viewer engagement, it’s that the characters are defined entirely by their ongoing suffering. I call it the Lars von Trier School of Storytelling (not that it’s only associated to the Danish sadist) where you establish a character that takes the slings and arrows of their society, but this props up a protagonist as more of a symbol/metaphor/martyr than a human being. This approach can still work when given a major theme that is complex enough to take on the extra brunt of attention. However, this approach can also make the protagonist feel less active, more reactionary, and also less complex. If you were deconstructing Mary as a character, I know very little about her as a person. I know she had a job for many years. I know she lost her husband. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable asking others for help. I know she’s willing to make sacrifices for her children. Internally, I don’t know much about her, nor do I know much about her personality, interests, flaws, quirks, the things that make people more fleshed out, nuanced, and appealing. Mary certainly serves a purpose and she voices this in the film’s very last scene as Whitney unleashes his thesis statement about how our society should be better with its inherent social promises. For some, this will be a minor quibble and for others it will be, in essence, a cap for their empathy levels.

The Street Where We Live is an affecting and honest little movie about the everyday hardships many people face when their lives are suddenly in free fall. It’s a potent drama packed with small, telling details that better create a world that feels lived-in, compassionate, and authentic. The acting is mostly sharp and anchored by a standout performance from Kristina Kopf. The technical details are pretty solid overall for a movie made for less than $13,000 and under the start-stop circumstances that the filmmakers had available. The cinematography and editing can feel like there wasn’t much in the way of additional options, but the look of the movie, muted greys and rusty browns, adds to the overall dreary tone. It’s a sparse film in execution but that’s because it doesn’t need bells and whistles and fancy camera setups to make its story felt. It’s a deeply empathetic movie that could open some hearts about the struggles of others. It’s so easy to fall down and much harder to get back up without a support system. The movie might be hitting repeated points without enhanced characterization but it still hits its marks. The Street Where We Live is the kind of movie where its small budget can actually be a plus, not just in forcing creative ingenuity from the filmmakers but also in lending a blue-collar validity. It’s a story that resonates because of its universal themes and lessons in empathy, and it’s worth watching to see what a group of well-meaning artists can do when inspired to do good.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bird Box (2018)

As a film critic, I feel compelled to write about Bird Box because, apparently, one third of the entire Internet is currently talking about this Netflix sci-fi horror movie. It’s about killer monsters that cause people to violently kill themselves upon sight. Netflix has reported that over 40 million customers have watched Bird Box in its first week of its streaming release, which basically means 35 million people likely fell asleep to Netflix and it started playing the new high-profile movie on auto play. I know people that love this movie. I know people that hate this movie. I know people who hate this movie with a passion and go into apoplexy trying to describe their disgust. Bird Box isn’t a movie worth strong feelings, both good and bad. It’s a fittingly entertaining movie with too many structural flaws, underdeveloped ideas, and diminished tension and stakes.

Malorie (Sandra Bullock) is trying to navigate the post-apocalyptic world of monsters. She’s traveling down river with her two children, all blindfolded. Meanwhile, she flashes back to the first few days of the monster outbreak when she found security in a stranger’s home until things went from bad to worse to murderous.

Part of the problem with Bird Box is that the monsters never feel that threatening because the hazy rules manage to defang them. Given the unknowable nature of monsters, I’m not expecting a textbook but some level of consistency that won’t rip me out of the film. The monsters are only a threat when you look at them, which is fine, except they cannot or choose to refrain from physically interacting with their human targets. I don’t know if this is a natural limitation, a choice, or simply anecdotal evidence that will be disproved. Just because the monsters haven’t done something yet doesn’t mean they might not be able to. Just because the monsters don’t attack anyone wearing a blue sweatshirt with a googly-eyed reindeer doesn’t mean this is standard. We see at one point the collateral movement of a monster chasing after Sandy and the kids, shoving trees and other forest vegetation aside. They do physically interact with the world; they just do not interact with our characters. This takes away much of the danger of these creatures. There’s one scene where a character is struggling to get indoors and, oh no, the garage door is opening. Look out; all he has to do is… continue not looking at the monsters as he was doing without effort. It makes me think of The Simpsons Halloween episode where the key to defeating killer mutant advertisements was not to look (it had Paul Anka’s guarantee).

The monsters also adopt the voices of loved ones, so survivors would start to learn from these experiences and begin to carry a deep skepticism about suddenly prevalent loved ones begging for blindfolds to be removed. Does this mean the monsters can psychically read the thoughts of human beings to know what voices to tap into? It made me think of The Bye Bye Man and its Bye Bye Man-induced hallucinations (“Is this cop’s face really oozing black blood through empty eye sockets, or is that you Bye Bye Man, you scamp?”). This is an interesting aspect that never feels fully developed, the mistrusting nature of the calls for help. Instead of adopting the voice of dead loved ones, I wish the monsters had chosen more judiciously. You could feature a sequence with someone genuinely calling for help and being left behind by Sandy because, in their blindfolded state, they cannot tell the difference in the authenticity of the speaker’s claims.

But what I kept coming back to is why can’t the monsters go indoors? This was a hurdle I could never fully get over because it cheapened the threat for me. As with any apocalyptic or viral outbreak, there is danger in having to leave the sanctuary, and there will be a need to gather supplies, but once you have a home base the monsters can’t enter, it loses a level of stakes. It makes me think of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs where space aliens can travel the stars but cannot open a pantry door. Having limitations on your monsters is essential or else the threat will feel too overwhelming, but these limitations need to make consistent sense. The monsters in A Quiet Place had superior hearing but were essentially blind. The monsters in Bird Box are deadly to look at, will tempt you with auditory siren songs, but as long as one remains indoors and stays away from windows, you can live a happy and healthy albeit sheltered life of repose.

This is one reason why the story has to find a new threat that is allowed to venture into the safe spaces. There are certain people who seem immune to the suicidal impulses of the monsters. The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Arrival) implies people who were crazy beforehand are unaffected, though what degree of crazy or mental instability is up to interpretation. These people worship the monsters and actively try to force others to look at them, to also be enlightened. This could have been an interesting addition to the world of Bird Box but it plays it too straight. These cultist people are just another obstacle, a group of standard movie crazy killers. I was hoping that the screenplay was playing coy with this subject and biding its time only to introduce this group in a more meaningful and manipulative fashion later. It never happens. They’re just crazy killers meant to enter buildings and pose a new indoors threat. Now you can’t trust anyone!

The structure of Bird Box constrains the overall impact of its story. The movie is divided almost equally between two different timelines, one shortly after the start of the monster attacks and one five years later. I was waiting for these two different storylines to inform one another, and they do in essentially superficial ways. We know in the future story that it’s only Sandy and the kids, so it’s only a matter of time before everyone in this house will end up dead. It also hurts that this segment is best described as “dime store Stephen King.” We’re stuck with a group of strangers who have all been given one note to play, therefore the extra time feels tedious because we don’t care about them or what happens to them next (sorry John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong, and others). Winnowing these extended flashbacks and sticking with the current day storyline would have improved the movie. There’s a more immediate threat and it presents a more intriguing scenario of being on the run and learning as we go about the monsters and the accrued survival tactics. I think learning on the run would be more exciting rather than conveniently finding refuge with a guy who explains everything because he was doing a book report on the supernatural and somehow knows the rules. This would also better hone the theme because the “before” of our before-and-after dynamic doesn’t establish Sandy enough as a disinterested mother.

Much of this could be forgiven or mitigated if the suspense sequences were engaging and smartly developed. I can forgive any nagging plot quibble with A Quiet Place (Why don’t they live closer to the waterfall? Why don’t they have a sound system to draw away monsters?) because the suspense sequences were brilliantly executed and highly unnerving. This just isn’t the case with Bird Box. There is one clever sequence that seems to capitalize on the possibilities of its sight-challenged premise. During the house half, the gang climbs into a car and uses its motion sensors and GPS to navigate a trip to the local grocery store for a supply run. It’s fun and decently staged. The inclusion of caged birds being a monster alarm is interesting until it starts to become more ridiculous. People never seem to listen to these birds and pay the price. The initial outbreak in the opening, with cars flipping and people flipping out, has a nice escalation into madness and chaos. The movie never quite recovers that same tense feeling. Watching people wander with blindfolds doesn’t make for great visual tension unless we see what they do not and dread what’s to come. Bird Box settles into a generic paranoia thriller about who can be trusted, and that’s even before the crazy cultists come knocking. Outside in the woods, the final act involves running to sanctuary, but without the killer cultists, it’s only running away from a thing that can’t touch them. It makes for a curiously inept climax and a sentimental resolution that feels unearned.

The arc of the movie is about Sandra Bullock’s character accepting motherhood and attachment to others but this theme is murky. She named her children “Girl” and “Boy” because she didn’t want to think of them as her own. This is the kind of thing that seems more symbolic and meaningful in theory than practice. She tells the children that in order to survive in this brave new world that they must be ready to cut another person loose at any moment. Attachments to others will get you killed, or so Sandy argues but not in deed. Because this storyline covers half of the film, the relationship she has with the kids feels underdeveloped but not by Sandy’s choice, by the filmmakers. If Sandy’s character arc was going to end at the destination of her realizing love is not a detriment even in a horrible, terrifying world, then we needed more time spent on this emotional journey, which is another reason why we could have used more time in the present-day storyline. A degree of self-sacrifice feels missing to better signify the theme of attachment and the emotional stakes.

I reiterate that Bird Box is not worth the strong feelings of love or hate. It’s got a wobbly structure where either half fails to better inform the other, the limitations of the monsters guts too much of the tension and stakes, and the actors deserve better. Bullock delivers a strong central performance and serves as our entertainment anchor. She makes the movie more watchable and does her best with some less-than-stellar expository dialogue. It’s enough to make you wish this movie was better and better realized with its spooky premise.

Nate’s Grade: C

Vox Lux (2018)

I don’t know what this movie was trying to say about anything. Vox Lux stars Natalie Portman as the adult Celeste, a survivor of a school shooting as a teen who became an international pop star in the months after. Is there something writer/director Brady Corbet wants to say about the transformation of tragedy into mass entertainment? The dulling effect of an entertainment industry to grind up human beings and re-purpose them into shiny, inauthentic, easily marketable figurines? I don’t know. I warily thought as we open on an upsetting school shooting, “I don’t know if the final product will justify this tone,” and it doesn’t. There are decisions that feel like they should mean something, like having the same actress, Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), play both young Celeste and her eventual teen daughter, but what? It feels like an idea looking to attach to an interpretative message. Then there’s a modern terrorist group dressing like one of Celeste’s iconic music videos. She distances herself from the violence and even publicly challenges the perpetrators. This will obviously come back and mean something, drawing upon her own beginning stages of fame derived from the bloodshed of others, right? Or during her big concert the terrorists will invade and attack her, bringing the main character face-to-face with the ramifications of hubris. None of these things happen. Instead, Portman enters the scene at the 45-minute mark and proceeds to lash out at others, lament her parenting deficiencies, gets drunk, and then puts on her show. That’s it. It’s like Vox Lux forgot to be a movie for the final 20 minutes and just becomes a numbing series of EDM pop dance numbers. Portman is actually very good and digging deep into her anxious, entitled, and spiraling pop star, rounding out her dimmed humanity when Corbet cannot. There’s a solid storyline here between the adult Celeste trying to reconnect with her teen daughter who she’s been neglecting. This isn’t it. The pretension level of the pedantic exercise made me think of Lars von Trier as filmed by Darren Aronofsky. Skip it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary has built up a great roaring buzz from film festivals and its oblique marketing. Numerous critics are hailing writer/director Ari Aster’s debut film as one of the scariest movies of a generation. The studio, A24, which has built up a fine reputation for art movies and genre fare, is releasing it. Except A24 has some trouble when it comes to its horror thrillers. Last year’s It Comes at Night was similarly beloved by critics yet audiences generally disliked it, angered by the misleading marketing that framed it as a supernatural horror (there was none, no titular “it” to come at night). I wonder if A24 learned their lesson and that’s why the trailers and ads for Hereditary have been intentionally hard to follow. After watching Hereditary and feeling let down, I wonder if A24 is in for another disparity between critics and audiences. This is a sloppy, unfocused film with little sense of structure, pacing, or payoffs. It’s a movie of moments and from there your mileage will vary.

Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) are ordinary middle-class parents living with two teenage children, the older Peter (Alex Wolff) and the younger Charlie (Millie Shapiro), a girl given to peculiar habits. Following a tragic accident, the family is struggling to come to terms with their loss and their new lives. Annie seeks out comfort from a group meeting, and that’s where she meets Joan (the great Ann Dowd) who shows her how to contact the spirits of the dead via a handy incantation. From there, Annie tries to establish a connection to the realm beyond and possibly unleashes a spirit targeting her family.

With the rapturous critical acclaim that Hereditary has garnered, I was expecting something far more engrossing and far less sloppy. Structurally, this movie is a mess. It feels very directionless from a story standpoint, like the movie is wading around and blindly looking for an escape route into the next scene. Rarely will scenes have lasting impact or connect to the following scene; you could literally rearrange the majority of the scenes in this movie and not affect the understanding whatsoever. That’s, simply put, poor screenwriting when your scenes lack a more pertinent purpose other than contributing to an ongoing atmosphere of paranoia (more on that later). I’m struggling to make broader connections or add lasting thematic relevance to much of the plotting, and that’s because it feels so convoluted and repetitious for so long, until Aster decides it’s time to throw the audience the most minimal of lifelines. There is a moment late in the second act where a character finds a convenient exposition dump by looking through a photo album and a book that is literally highlighted. That at least explains the intent of the final act, but even as that plays out, by the end it’s still mostly confounding. The film ends with another exposition dump, this time as voice over, and I got to thinking that if it wasn’t for these two offhand moments you would have no idea why anything is happening. I had a friend whose girlfriend had been bugging him for Hereditary spoilers for months, so I carefully explained the movie to them as precisely as I could. By the end, he told me, “I still don’t get it.” Yeah, I didn’t get it either and I was actively trying.

There is a type of horror fan that will lap up Hereditary, namely the kind that places the creation of dread and atmosphere and memorable moments above all else. If you’re a gushing fan of David Lynch movies or Dario Argento and their sense of strange dream logic, you’ll be more ready to prize the sum rather than the whole of Hereditary. The aesthetics are pleasurable thanks to crafty production designer Grace Yun (First Reformed) and the moody photography from Pawel Pogorzelski (Tragedy Girls) that maximizes the space and draws out the anticipatory dread. There are effective moments where I gasped or squirmed, but there were also moments where I wanted to laugh. The key term is “moments.” Without a structure, sense of development, and attachment to the characters and their lives, Hereditary left me chasing fleeting entertainment.

Now when it comes to horror moments, I’ll again admit that everyone’s mileage will vary. Some people will watch Hereditary and be scared stupid. Others will shrug. That’s a deeply personal response. I can look at a movie like A Quiet Place and point to its intricate structure and execution to explain why its suspense was so affecting and satisfying. With Hereditary, because all it supplies is moments, I can’t explain why something will work or won’t for a person. Maybe you have a thing against headless corpses. Maybe you have a thing for jump scares (there are more than a few). Maybe you have a thing for invisible girls making clicking noises with their tongues. Then again maybe you’d enjoy a narrative that gave you a better reason to care and that organically built meaningful scares through tangible circumstances.

If you can hang onto the final nightmarish act, that’s when Hereditary is at its best, finally picking up a sense of momentum and finality. The first forty-five minutes of this movie more closely resemble something like Manchester by the Sea, a family unit becoming undone through grief and guilt, simmering grievances just under the surface. It’s well acted, especially by Toni Collette (Krampus) as a mother barely escaping the pull of her boiling anger at her son and the universe as a whole. She gets a few quality moments to blow up and it feels like years of painful buildup coming out. The awkward family interaction is chilly but missing greater nuance. It has marked elements that should bring nuance and engagement (Personal Tragedy, Mental Instability, Blame, Guilt, Obsession), but with Aster’s undercooked screenplay those elements never coalesce. This is a movie experience that is never more than the sum of its spooky parts. Byrne (The 33) is essentially just there, and the fact that the 68-year-old actor has two teenage children is a little hard to swallow. Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) does a fine job of showing his deteriorating mind late in the movie. The problem is that these characters just aren’t that interesting, so when the supernatural acceleration creeps in, there’s already a ceiling as far as how much we, the audience, will care about what befalls them. What are the stakes if you don’t understand what’s happening and don’t genuinely care about the central characters?

My pal Ben Bailey chided me after seeing Hereditary that I was trying to do the movie’s work for it by looking for deeper connections and foreshadowing clues. Is there some greater meaning for the headless women motif? Is there a larger reason why the dollhouse God imagery is prevalent? Is there a reason, after finding out about the haunting, that the family still leaves their beleaguered son alone? Is there a mental illness connection or is it all a manifestation of hysterical grief? The English teacher discusses the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia (see: a better movie following this model, 2017’s Killing of a Sacred Deer) and whether being predestined for sacrifice is more tragic than choosing your own self-destruction, and is that a glimpse at thematic relevance in a way that seems almost half-hearted? The problem with a long, incoherent story built upon a heaping helping of creepy imagery and atmosphere is that it can often fall into the lazy trap where the filmmaker will just throw up their hands as if to say, “Well, it’s up for interpretation.” I don’t mind a challenging movie experience (I was on the side that enjoyed, if that’s the correct term, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!). I can appreciate a movie that’s trying to be ambiguous and ambitious. However, the pieces have to be there to form a larger, more meaningful picture to analyze and discuss, and Hereditary just doesn’t offer those pieces. It’s an eerie horror movie with its moments of intrigue and dread but it’s also poorly developed, too convoluted, and prone to lazy writing and characterization. I’ll highlight it for you, Hereditary-style: if you’re looking for more than atmosphere and tricks, seek another horror movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

Life of the Party (2018)/ Breaking In (2018)

Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend comes two eminently bland, safe, and unmemorable movies that generally waste their female stars. Melissa McCarthy has proven herself one of the most funny and dynamic performers in comedy, but Life of the Party is a listless and groan-inducing back-to-school comedy that feels tonally off, adopting the persona of its tacky, talky, and awkward middle-aged mother. You would think the premise would lead to plenty of R-rated shenanigans, but instead the film adopts a very sedate PG-13 atmosphere, dulling the wild collegiate experience into something so predictable and safe as to be completely inoffensive. It feels like a caricature reminiscent of a feature-length rendition of a Saved by the Bell: The College Years. McCarthy falls back on tired, corny jokes that don’t attempt to be anything else, and the supporting cast is left to gasp and grasp for anything to spark laughs (special credit Gillian Jacobs for doing everything possible as “coma girl”). McCarthy is best when given room to improvise and discover interesting odd angles for jokes, but she also needs a stronger comedic vision, and that’s not going to come from husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone (Tammy). It feels like they had a general outline for a comedy and, in grand collegiate tradition, pulled an all-nighter and sloppily finished a serviceable draft. I chuckled about four times, mostly involving an exuberant Maya Rudolph and the one clever structural payoff revolving around a much younger fraternal hookup. Mostly, Life of the Party lacks a sense of stakes, credibility, surprises, development, and laughs, though the middle-aged mothers in my preview screening lapped it up, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if the trailer seemed moderately appealing for you.

On the other side, Breaking In is a mundane, low-budget home invasion thriller that disappears almost instantly from memory. I’m struggling to even come up with enough to say in this review that isn’t just repetitions of the word “boring.” Gabrielle Union (Bring it On) plays a mom who brings her two children to visit the estate of her recently deceased, estranged father. Also visiting is a trio of stupid robbers searching for a hidden stash of money. They take the kids hostage though keep them locked in a room and in little danger. Union’s determined mother must break in and save her children. It’s a thriller without anything genuinely thrilling to experience, as each chase or near miss hums along ineptly and tediously, finding the least interesting conclusion. There are no well-drawn suspense set pieces to quicken the pulse, no clever escapes or near-misses, no intriguing villains with strong personalities, and no entertainment to be had through its strained 88 minutes. There are glaring plot holes, chief among them why doesn’t she just flag down a car and call the police rather than hack it alone. Depressingly, Breaking In is actually directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) who seems to have exhausted any sense of style and excitement he may have had earlier in his directing career. It feels like nobody really cared about the movie they were making, and that lack of enthusiasm and effort translates into one very boring and very poorly written and executed thriller. Union deserved a better showcase but, then again, the audience deserved a better movie too.

Nate’s Grades:

Life of the Party: C-

Breaking In: D+

Tully (2018)

Tully is a Young Adult reunion, bringing back writer Diablo Cody (Juno), director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and star Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde), and for people without kids, it can feel more like a horror movie. Numerous movies have conveyed the challenges of parenthood, the put upon moms and dads struggling to juggle schedules and lunches and homework, all without much time to themselves for self-care. Usually these movies will begin by displaying the hardships of parenthood but ultimately put a cheery bow on things by the end and conclude, “Yeah, but it’s all worth it.” Tully doesn’t provide that easy bow and I appreciated that. Motherhood can be a real bitch.

Marlo (Theron) is a 40-year-old mother who feels overwhelmed with life. She’s about to have baby number three and her “atypical” youngest son requires a lot of intensive supports and is upsetting his school. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is away for work often and late at night he plays online games and keeps to his side of the bed. Marlo’s rich brother (Mark Duplass) takes it upon himself to hire a “night nanny,” a person who watches the newborn baby during nighttime hours and allows the mother to get some restful sleep. Marlo is adamant about not letting a stranger watch over her child but soon relents and calls for the nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a mid-twenties godsend who is wise beyond her years, competent, and nonjudgmental. With Tully’s assistance, Marlo is able to make steps toward becoming the person she remembers.

Through its depiction, it feels like parenthood has a lot in common with incarceration. It feels like a new parent goes away for a multi-year sentence, loses all sense of sleep, is indentured into work often without any compensation, and required at a moment’s notice at all hours. Marlo’s life is certainly unglamorous but it’s also taking its toll. The needs of her children, including one with undiagnosed special needs, are snuffing out her sense of self and taking an unremitting physical and mental toll. The opening of the film has Marlo days away from her third pregnancy and she looks like she’s smuggling a beach ball. Her brother’s wife cheerfully adds, “You look glowing,” that age-old pregnancy praise, and Marlo’s unfazed reaction is more of a, “Really?” She then proceeds to compare herself to the trash barge that floated along the East Coast in the 1980s, a perfectly plucked pop-culture allusion from Cody. At no point do you doubt the love Marlo has for her family, but the servitude is driving her crazy and with no relief in sight with baby number three. There’s a pristine montage of her daily routine of feeding, pumping, changing diapers, and absent sleep, the days just melting into one another, and it’s so horrifying in its mind-numbing execution that it reminded me genuinely of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream montages of drug-abuse and despair.

It’s a third of the way into the film when Tully enters the picture and serves as the long-needed change agent for Marlo. She’s the miracle worker nanny that works at night like a whimsical little elf, and the next morning the house is clean, the baby is taken care of, and Marlo has been allowed a rejuvenating night of sleep. You can chart the change in the quality time with the family, where quickie microwave pizza dinners become more advanced home-cooked meals with multiple ingredients and food groups. You can also chart the change through the magnificent performance of Theron, who appears to be regaining her sense of self and placement in the family. Tully serves as a refreshing, therapeutic conversationalist, able to get Marlo to introspectively reflect upon her life’s goals and setbacks and her sense of what she should be as a woman and not just as a mother. Tully is wise but also winsomely hopeful and optimistic; she recharges the battery for this family and Marlo in particular. These gentle, observational conversations are the best part of the film and Theron and Davis are wonderful together. Each woman seems to be learning from the other and providing a support system.

Cody’s early screenwriting was dinged for its obsession to be quippy and hip, but it has matured and depended over the years. Young Adult was an incisive character study in kamikaze narcissism, and it was as cold as Tully is warm, even-handed, and honest. Having a talent as surefire as Theron is a great asset, but it’s Cody’s storytelling that gives the movie its sting and its sweetness. This is something of a comfy thematic middle ground between the ironic, quippy yet sentimental Juno and the dark spiral of stunted growth in Young Adult (seriously, rent that movie again if you can, it’s vastly underrated). Tully is a movie that is lifted on wry observations and honest dialogue. It feels very real, so much so that I was convinced the reality show-within-a-show Gigolos (Marlo is a bashful fan) was the real deal for most of the movie [Edit: it has come to my attention this is a real show. Ahh, still a nice detail about Marlo character]. I also loved the drive into Brooklyn being relegated to jump cuts, each new jump playing a different Cyndi Lauper track on an album, which feels very biographical and authentic. The details of Cody’s story feel sharply developed and authentic, and that’s the biggest draw of this movie. It’s an unvarnished look into the realities of motherhood and each little detail helps further contribute to the larger portrait of Marlo’s exhausted life. The supporting characters do get a bit of short shrift here, kept as one-dimensional peripheral portrayals. I was expecting more from her husband Drew since their relationship and the platonic valley they’ve found themselves stuck in is another significant aspect. However, the movie is really about the relationship of Marlo and Tully and how they build up one another. Marlo even sees herself in the younger nanny, and she’s also wistful of a time that her body more closely resembled that of Tully’s flat tummy and compact derriere.

Theron continues to establish with role after role what a phenomenal acting chameleon she can be. I know we gush about Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, and Kate Winslet as the finest actresses of their generation, but I feel like Theron deserves to be in that same hallowed Pantheon. She gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in 2003’s Monster and I think she was deserving of nominations for work as varied as a one-armed post-apocalyptic feminist warrior. Theron gained fifty pounds for this beleaguered role, which is an impressive commitment, but she doesn’t just let the weight gain serve as the focal point of her performance. She uses every exhausted muscle to communicate Marlo’s plight. When she’s slumped over in a chair and just rips her off stained shirt, you feel her utter defeat and desperation (“Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” one child asks). This is a woman who is tired to the bone. She’s taking everything life gives her and soldiering onward, afraid to speak up. This is best voiced when she describes her relentless day and staring into a closet and thinking, “Didn’t I just do this?” Theron’s renewed vitality as mother, wife, and most importantly, person, is a rewarding development to tag along with. Theron’s breadth of tenderness, sadness, and hard-won insight is easily relatable and emotionally engaging.

The one thing that holds me back from fully embracing Tully is a late story decision that I’m still wrestling over. It feels a bit like tonal whiplash and I immediately felt like it was completely unnecessary and that I was happy with the movie already being told. It left me jarred although I admit this decision helped provide better context for some unexpected turns in the middle between characters. Having deliberated for a couple of days, I can see how this decision plays into a larger sense of theme and character, while also tapping into something primal about motherhood and the emergency lifelines needed and provided. I’m warming to Cody’s decision and can see the rationale behind it. Still, there will be plenty of audience members that will be left questioning the thought process here.

Tully is the third collaboration between Cody and Reitman and they bring out the best in one another. After two duds in a row, I was worried that Reitman had become all too mortal after his 2006-2011 run of amazing films. It’s reassuring to find Reitman back in finer form and to also experience the maturing growth of Cody’s exceptional writing. I wish there was more with the supporting characters but this is a character study of our main momma. The late plot turn will divide audiences (I’ve already identified with both sides) but it serves the film’s larger focus on the well-being and recuperation of Marlo. Tully is a funny, compassionate, and unflinching movie about the perils of motherhood and the steps we all need to take to activate a little necessary self-care.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Blockers (2018)

Blockers (nee Cock Blockers, and changed on some posters to appear like Rooster-Shape Blockers) is like getting two fairly funny sex comedies in one. We have the perspective of the panicked parents (Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz) who are doing whatever they can to thwart their daughters from seeing through their presumed deflowering pact on prom night. We also have the horny teen perspective from the teen girls (Kaitlyn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Adlon). Each group has their own character arcs and comic set pieces, flunkies and wild supporting characters, and as they criss-cross over the course of one debauched night, lessons will be learned and, more importantly, feel earned. I was steadily impressed with how much Blockers does and does well, chiefly maintaining a sex positive attitude and never supporting the parents in their hysterical, generally sexist alarm. Each parent has to confront their feelings about really letting their daughter grow up, and that relationship leads to a sweet moment for each to acknowledge the error of their ways and grow closer with their child. If this had come out in the 80s or 90s, I’m sure the film would have adopted the parental viewpoint as correct. Hell, if it came out in the 80s, the fact that one of the daughters is gay would have been a source of shock or shame. Today, the father already knows and supports his daughter being a lesbian (he frets she’ll feel pressured to lose her virginity to the wrong sex). Oh, on top of all that, the movie is pretty funny from start to finish thanks to a deep cast of characters. Cena impressed with 2015’s Trainwreck and he shows yet again the promise of his heretofore-untapped comic resources. There is one comic set piece involving blind couple foreplay that feels downright inspired as it develops. Blockers is a raunchy sex comedy with more on its mind than yuks. It’s got a sweet center that allows the characters and their relationships to feel genuine. When you care about the people onscreen, it helps eliminate the sense of downtime.

Nate’s Grade: B

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