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The Hand of God (2021)

For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Passing (2021)

Actress Rebecca Hall’s debut as a screenwriter and a director was snatched up by Netflix and now poised as an Oscar contender. It’s set in the 1920s and follows two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Both women come from the same neighborhood but have lived different though fruitful lives, though Clare’s fortunes hinge on a secret she hides even from her rich husband. She’s a light-skinned Black woman but she has been posing as being white, and she’s reaped the rewards. As the two former friends reconnect, Clare visits the clubs and parties of Harlem as if a tourist, and she seems to have charmed Irene’s husband to spark unrest in her home. The movie is very tasteful and stately, filmed in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, communicating the boxes these women felt trapped in by society’s racial aptitudes. The problem is that Passing has so much explosive drama at its core but it’s too demure to a fault, which leads to a lot of wheel spinning and pensive glances. The movie almost follows the “uninvited guest” plot device, where Clare makes herself more at home in Irene’s world to her chagrin. There’s a general danger of whether Clare’s secret will come out, especially since her husband is overtly racist, but she seems so blase about her situation. The movie seems to feel like it’s lacking a potent sense of dread for these women, leaving it more implied than felt. It’s a character study but the primary characters seem more like archetypes, symbols intended for a larger social debate after the film’s conclusion. Both actresses are terrific, however, and would be worthy nominees for awards. Negga (Loving) has the more locked-in performance as the woman living her facade, only offering glimpses of what the real Clare thinks about herself. Thompson (Dear White People) is the one trying to hold it all together while she tries to assess whether her former friend has figured out a social cheat code, is deluding herself, or is herself a corrupting influence. The ending is so abrupt that I had to rewind to better understand what had happened. It’s left for interpretation about culpability and intent, but it’s further confirmation that the characters are meant as symbols more than people, and their fates feel a little too tailored for study. Passing is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but one that left me checking the time a little too often to see how slowly it was passing.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Every year, it seems that Netflix’s crown jewel for their big Oscar hopes ends up getting marvelous critical acclaim, and then when I finally watch it I am left disappointed. It happened in 2018 with Roma. It happened in 2019 with The Irishman. And it happened in 2020 with Mank. I haven’t disliked any of those movies, but I was unable to see the highly laudable merits as other critics. Now here comes their big Oscar play for 2021, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a Western that has been gracing the top of more critics lists than any other American film this year (I’ll be getting to you soon enough, Drive My Car). As I burned through awards movie after awards movie to assess, I held back from The Power of the Dog for a time. I just didn’t want to find that once again I was disappointed with the latest Netflix Oscar contender. I’m still chewing over my feelings with The Power of the Dog, which has a lot going on under the surface and a palpable tension that you’re unsure of how and when it will erupt. It’s also a movie that touches upon repression, toxic masculinity, manifest destiny, grooming, emotional and physical manipulation, and the danger of unstable men who are unable to process who they really are.

Set in 1925 Montana, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jessie Plemons) own and operate a cattle ranch. George marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings his new wife and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live at the ranch. Phil resents his new sister-in-law, looks down on her son, and torments both repeatedly. Rose sees Phil as an enemy, someone who will not stop until he forces her out, and his target becomes her son, Peter.

This is less a traditional Western in several respects and more a tight character study that happens to be set at the conclusion of a Western fantasy for America, transitioning to modernity. It goes against our preconceived notions of a Western, not in a deliberately deconstructive way like 1992’s brilliant Best Picture, Unforgiven, but more in providing contrary thematic details that often get squeezed out. I was expecting the movie to take place maybe during the 1870s or 1880s, but the fact that it’s taking place five years removed from the Great Depression offers different story opportunities and larger reflection. There’s a reason this story is told well after the halcyon days of the Old Wild West. The movie is about certain characters holding onto an exclusive past that has eclipsed them and others ready to move forward by shuttling over their past and the obstacles standing in the way of personal progress.

There are thematic layers expertly braided together that touch upon the larger question over what it means to be a man in society. Each of the primary male characters (Phil, George, Peter) is an outsider to some degree, someone who doesn’t neatly fit into what constitutes a conventional man of the times. George is soft, empathetic, meek yet in a position of power from his family’s status; Peter is rail-thin, academic, odd, effeminate at turns, a dandy presented for ridicule; Phil is the one who presents as a “man’s man,” a hard-driving, hard-drinking man of the land who imposes his will on others. However, deep down, Phil is hiding a key part of himself that would conflict with his society’s view of masculinity. Each man bounces around points of conflict and connection with one another, familial bonds fraying, and a slow-burning battle for supremacy escalating.

The movie could have also been charitably nick-named “Benedict Cumberbatch is a jerk to everyone,” as this is much of what Campion’s script, based upon the 1957 novel by Thomas Savage consists of. The movie is absent a primary perspective. We drift from person to person in the small-scale ensemble, elevating this next character and their views and worries and priorities. Phil could be deemed the primary protagonist and antagonist, especially the latter. He’s a mean man. Phil is a man who likes to make others uncomfortable, who needles them, and he takes great interest in targeting Rose, partly because he doesn’t like the influence she has on his only brother, and partly because he can get away with it. When he sets his sights on Peter, you don’t quite know what this hostile man will do to get his way. Will he manipulate Peter to turn him from his mother? Will he endanger Peter as a threat to Rose? Will he go further and possibly kill Peter? Or, as becomes more evident, does he see Peter in a very different light, a special kinship that had defined Phil’s own secretive past.

I suppose it’s a spoiler to go further so if you want to, dear reader, then go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. Phil reveres “Bronco Henry,” a deceased rancher that taught him many things when he was younger. The movie heavily, heavily implies that this long-departed older man had a romantic relationship with Phil when he was much younger, something the grown Phil cherishes, caressing himself in private with a scrap of fabric belonging to Henry. The lazy characterization would be, “Oh, Phil is homophobic because he’s really gay, and he’s angry because he cannot accept himself.” With Campion, Phil could be viewed as a victim too. He was likely groomed by an older man, and maybe that relationship was viewed by Phil as more romantic and consensual than it was, but it’s the lingering nostalgic memory of the intimate happiness that he holds onto, afraid to move on because of the danger of letting go and the danger of possibly reaching out, being vulnerable again. Yes, dear reader, this is more a gay cowboy movie than Brokeback Mountain (which, to be fair, were sheep herders). Savage himself was also gay. As Phil takes Peter under his wing, you don’t know whether this man is going to kill or kiss him, and the tension is ripe enough that either way it can ties you up into anxious knots.

The acting is extremely polished all around, with each performer having layers of subtext to shield their true intentions. Cumberbatch (Spider-Man: No Way Home) is a thorn in so many sides and it isn’t until much later that the veil begins to drop, ever so slightly, allowing you to finally see extra dimension with what appears to be a bully character for so long. He might just be too impenetrable for too long for some viewers to develop any empathy. Plemons (Jungle Cruise) and Dunst (Melancholia) are sweet together, and I enjoyed how each one leans upon the other for support. Rose is the butt of much of Phil’s torment and teasing, so we watch Dunst break down under the constant abuse of her berating brother-in-law. When her character sees a way to gain an upper hand, it becomes like a light in the darkness for her momentary relief. I felt heartbroken for Rose as she studied a piano tune for weeks to impress esteemed guests of her husband’s, only to succumb to her nerves and insist she couldn’t play because she didn’t think she could be good enough. Then to watch Phil cruelly needle her further about her disappointment by whistling that same tune is even worse. This is the best acting of Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) since he was vying with Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) for every preteen lead in big studio features. There’s a deliberate standoffish quality to the character, to Peter’s way of viewing others. It’s like he’s part alien, studying the things that make people tick. Like Cumberbatch, there are multiple layers to this performance because his intentions are equally if not more guarded. You almost need to watch the movie a second time to better identify what Smith-McPhee is doing in scene after scene.

The Power of the Dog is a terrific looking and sounding movie. The photography is beautiful, the New Zealand landscapes are awe-inspiring, the production design is handsome, the musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is discordant strings that enhances the tension permeating through the movie. Campion hasn’t directed a movie in over ten years, and this is only her second movie since 2003’s misbegotten erotic thriller, In the Cut, starring an against-type Meg Ryan. It feels like she’s had no time away with how controlled and resonant her directing plays. I wish her script was less ambiguous to a fault; it errs somewhat I believe by holding out key revelations about Phil for too long, leaving us with the man being an unrepentant bully for too long. There are significant turns in the concluding minutes that will reorient your interpretation of the entire film, and I have every reason to believe that when I watch The Power of the Dog another time it will be even more impressive.

Congratulations, Netflix, on breaking your streak of disappointing me with your prized awards contenders. I’ve included many Netflix movies in my best lists, and worst lists, over the years, as that is the lot when you have such an enormous library in the prestige streaming arms race. The Power of the Dog is an intimate and occasionally even sensual Western that pushes its put-upon characters to their breaking point, and perhaps the audience, while rewarding the patient and observant viewer. There’s gnawing, uneasy tension that gets to be overwhelming, but the movie benefits from the unexpected destination for where that tension will lead. Will it be violence? Will it be passion? Will it be a crime of passion? The acting is great, the artistic quality of the movie is high, and each scene has much to unpack, allowing for further rewarding examination. I wish there was more of the last half hour when things better come into sharper focus, and I wish the movie was a little less ambiguous for so long, but this is one of the better films of 2021 and Campion’s best movie since 1993’s The Piano (I fully expect her to become the first female director nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar). The Power of the Dog is a lyrical, surprising drama, a sneaky character study, and proof that my Netflix overrated front-runner curse has been lifted (for now).

Nate’s Grade: A-

Don’t Look Up (2021)

A scorched Earth satire that flirts with a literal scorched Earth, Don’t Look Up is writer/director Adam McKay’s star-studded condemnation of everything stupid and myopic in media, politics, and pop culture. Jennifer Lawrence plays a doctoral student who discovers a comet heading for direct cataclysmic impact with Earth, and she and her astronomy mentor (Leonardo DiCaprio) are trying to sound the alarm but nobody seems to be listening. Not the president (Meryl Streep) and her inept chief of staff/son (Jonah Hill). Not the greedy CEO (Mark Rylance) of a tech company. Not the media where morning TV co-hosts (Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry) are more compelled by music star breakups than pressing science. It makes a person want to stand up and scream about priorities, and that’s McKay’s point, one that will be bludgeoned again and again. This movie is animated with seething rage about the state of the world and the cowardice about facing obvious problems head-on. It’s fit as a climate change allegory but COVID-19 or any scientific crisis could be applied as well. It’s about choosing ignorance and greed, about deferring to our worst instincts, and those in power who profit from inaction. I laughed at several points, some of it good cackling, and the movie is dark to its bitter end. This is the bleakest movie of McKay’s foray into his more sober, activist movie-making (The Big Short, Vice). It’s less Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, exploring the foibles of humans reconciling their last moments of existence, and more Idiocracy, where there is a lone voice of reason and the rest of the population are aggravating morons that refuse to accept reality even if it literally means just looking up with their own eyes. In some ways, the dark laughter the movie inspires is cathartic after years of COVID denials and mask tirades and horse medicine. The satire is bracingly blunt but also one joke on repeat. If you’re the right audience, that one joke will be sufficient. I don’t think the movie quite achieves the poignancy it’s aiming for by the end of its 138 minutes, but the anger is veritably felt. Don’t Look Up wants us to save the world before it’s too late, though the people that need to see the movie the most will be the ones fastest to dismiss it. Still, congrats to McKay for making a movie this depressing and relevant for the holidays.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Lost Daughter (2021)

As a film critic part of a credited organization, I’m used to getting goodies in what I call “screener season,” the months of October to December when studios want to court critical favor for year-end consideration of their assorted movies for awards and titles. Netflix has sent me enough heavy coffee table books that I could, in Cosmo Kramer-style, fashion a literal coffee table made from them. For The Lost Daughter, Netflix sent me quite a bundle, including the film’s source material, a 110-page novella written by Italian author Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend), which I read, and an actual bottle of sauvignon blanc wine. This was the first time a movie studio had sent me alcohol (my girlfriend drank a glass and did not like it, so thanks anyway, Netflix, but we dumped the bottle). I found the novella to be well written with plenty of poetic insights and turns of phrase, but I didn’t see the movie there. After sitting down and watching the two-hour feature film, I still don’t quite see the movie in this story.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is 48 years old, a literary professor, and vacationing on a small villa in Greece. Her time away is disrupted by a large, boisterous family sharing her resort. Leda is intrigued by a mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her young daughter, Elena. It makes her reflective of her own time as a mother (played in flashback by Betty Buckley) to her two daughters, now both in their early twenties and having little to do with their mother. One day, Leda picks up Elena’s forgotten doll from the beach with the intention of returning her to the child, and then she simply does not do this. Leda grows closer to Nina, disapproving of her arrogant husband, her boorish relatives, and some of her risky personal choices, and we’re left to question whether she’s relating to this young, besieged mother or judging her from afar.

This is one of those character study films that will ebb and flow on the level of the performers, and the actors elevate the material beyond what is present on the page. There are several intriguing conversations that shed light on characters and their view of parenthood, like Leda explaining how she feels that she gave the best of herself to her daughters when they were born, and now what she’s left with are the scraps. It’s not breaking new ground to view motherhood in non-glamorous terms. I thought 2018’s Tully did this with great observational detail, unsparing honesty, and great empathy. The Lost Daughter is not exactly Tully, which explored the hardships of motherhood with a put-upon woman who was valiantly struggling to keep her head above water, but it was a woman who wanted to be in the fight. With this movie, you never quite get a clear sense of Leda’s relationship with her two children, who are mostly kept to flashbacks when they are very young. Writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal (yes, that Maggie Gyllenhaal) employs a non-linear plot to better inform the interior thinking of Leda, so we’ll have past and present juxtaposed for our ongoing evaluation. This is a smart way to follow the imprecise nature of hazy memory. There will be moments that will cause you discomfort, like when one of Leda’s young children is pleading through tears for her mother to kiss her wounded finger, and Leda withholds doing this as a power play, as an act of spite, as a knowing punishment for her wailing child. It’s also potentially relatable for others out there who too have, at the apex of their frustrations and exhaustion, lashed out at children and regretted it later, acknowledging that every parent will fail at some point over the long journey of time and to only attempt to minimize the inherent damage that will be left.

The Lost Daughter becomes an exercise in how long you want to spend with a pleasantly unpleasant woman. Leda is complicated, yes, but she’s also admittedly cruel and selfish, and the movie is trying to make her a case study, to shed our moral judgements and acknowledge that parenthood can be a draining experience. I understand the intention for embarking on empathy for unsympathetic characters; hundreds of movies have invited us into the minds of unlikable and downright psychopathic characters. I’ve always said that I need not like a character, I only need to find them interesting to keep me watching. Leda is an interesting woman because of where she veers from common practice. Most of us would return a missing doll to her rightful owner, especially as that child is grief-stricken and her wave of terror is affecting everyone in her family. Most of us would recognize others suffering and our ability to ease this, to absolve that suffering in an instant, and we would do so. Then the question becomes why isn’t Leda returning this doll to this child? The movie is an elusive attempt to answer, and each person’s interpretation will undoubtedly be different. I don’t know if this doll, perhaps the “lost daughter” of the film’s title, is Leda attempting to hold onto her own daughters, reclaim a version of motherhood that suits her, that doesn’t require of her. Or maybe she views the doll with derision. Whatever the case may be, have at it, dear reader, and enjoy not getting this question resolved.

I completely understand viewers growing frustrated with watching two hours of a middle-aged woman holding onto a child’s doll and refusing to return it. It’s spiteful, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe Leda wants to impart the same lessons of hardship she endured as a struggling mother at her wits end. Maybe it’s her way of trying to shake Nina to re-examine whether being a mother is a role she is cut out for. Maybe it’s simply the continuation of a sadistic rationalization, “I had to suffer through this, so then you should have to suffer too” that props up whenever sociopolitical reforms and progress are met with generational push-back. By the end of the movie, I don’t know if Leda has seriously changed her outlook or sense of self. I don’t know if anything has really changed, and I don’t know if we’ve gotten to understanding her any better. Again, maybe that’s the point; people are complicated and possibly unknowable. But as a filmmaker showing us a character’s interior life and flashbacks, maybe you should try.

There is a late revelation in the movie that is going to be a deal-breaker for many. I won’t spoil it, though I will say that this reveal is covered in the first chapter of the novella, providing you this key piece of info as a prism for your early assessment. It explains why Leda has a strained relationship with her adult daughters and why thinking back about her perceived parenting failures causes her shivers of grief and guilt. At the same time, there are plenty of feminist stories about women shirking societal demands, so others could perceivablly view this revelation as an act of empowerment or self-determination, and others may just find it as the final straw in giving up in trying to sympathize with an already difficult person.

Fortunately, if you’re going to build a movie around a challenging character, Colman (The Father) and Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) are two of the most compelling actors for the cause. Much of their performances is naturally guarded, requiring each actress to hold back and utilize more subtle acting muscles. Colman’s middle-aged Leda is more set in her perception of self, more settled though not quite self-assured, so her performance seems more like cracking through a veneer and pushing back, trying to find the real Leda’s feelings about her life and the people she is socializing with. Colman is mesmerizing as always. Buckley’s young Leda is the version that is fraught with being an attentive mother as well as a burgeoning literary academic. Hers is the role of frustration, of shutting down, of desiring an escape hatch from the perils of motherhood. When young Leda is away on an academic retreat, she’s like a completely different person, and Buckley makes it clear that she covets this version of herself. Both women are gifted actresses and provide lifelines for the viewer to better analyze and unpack Leda as a puzzle.

Gyllenhaal makes an impressively natural debut as a director. Her camera is usually very closely tied to her actors, bobbing to catch up and keep them in frame, afraid of leaving their sights. Her attention to detail is solid and her command of the actors is strong across the board. Her adaptation makes smart choices to better visualize the drama. After I read the novella, I genuinely wondered how the movie could even convey the material. It was so insular, so personal, and again, much of the onscreen drama was a woman hiding a doll from a child. I was worried the movie might become a ridiculous thriller of waiting for Leda to be caught, how she had to go to greater lengths to keep her secret, and thankfully that is not the case.

I can easily foresee The Last Daughter becoming a polarizing movie upon its Netflix streaming release at the end of the month. Some will hail it for being challenging and thorny, an indictment on the expectations of motherhood from a society that sets ambitious women up to fail. Some, and I predict the majority of viewers, will find the movie to be an insufferable character study of a misanthropic protagonist. I know the movie wasn’t trying to make an audience like its lead character, but I don’t know if by the end we are better at understanding her and her choices. It leads to a sort of, “That’s all there is?” ending that will frustrate many. The acting is strong to excellent overall and Gyllenhaal has a bright future ahead as a director, but The Lost Daughter might be too lost for too many to care. Just give the kid back her doll already, lady!

Nate’s Grade: B-

tick… tick… BOOM! (2021)

Netflix’s tick, tick… BOOM! is a cause celebre that has attracted none other than the likes of Lin Manuel-Miranda. This is Miranda’s directorial debut, which Netflix won in a bidding war, and it’s filled to the brim with Broadway legends and theater titans who all want to rally to the cause of bringing alive the other show of Jonathan Larson’s tragically short career. Larson would go on to create the hit musical Rent but died before it opened to the public, succumbing to a sudden aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the tremendous success of Rent and that legacy is the emotional substance of tick, tick… BOOM!, if you happen to know about it. The story, and consequently the movie, feel like a lob to the insulated world of theater aficionados. The movie is semi-autobiographical about Larson (Andrew Garfield) on the verge of turning 30 in New York City in 1990 without achieving his big artistic dreams. He’s been toiling with a satirical sci-fi musical opus for years and is close to finishing it for a make-or-break presentation. The movie is based on Larson’s one-man show detailing his creative process and being young and hungry in New York in the early 90s. It was moderately successful and paved the way for Rent, but it was further adapted in 2001 into a three-person show, which has expanded even further with the film. The songs, written and composed by Larson, are enjoyable but none of them really stand out. I may have liked the least substantial one the best where Larson sings about his distaste at serving brunch patrons in a parody of Stephen Sondheim’s Sundays in the Park with George. The sequence is also wall-to-wall with Broadway cameos. I could not better emotionally connect with the movie. It hangs with looming tragedy of Larson’s surprise death, only five years away, as he wants to do something great with his life and make artistic waves. I think if you removed that added dramatic irony of tragedy, it’s watching a young artist struggle in the theater scene and hold onto his vision, integrity, and friendships, something we’ve seen but benefits with the verve of perosnality. As a story, it’s fallen into a trap where the struggles can be quite relatable to aspiring creatives and also not specific enough to greatly care about Larson as a character onscreen. Garfield sings well and is perfectly charming. Miranda proves apt with the language of film to translate from the confines of the stage. The entire project feels suffused with admiration and good intentions. tick, tick… BOOM! is a labor of love from many theater professionals. It’s an amusing but emotionally limited musical experience. Still, with this much talent, heart, and good will, it’s worth watching for no other reason to see what Miranda and his theater brethren can do together when trying to celebrate one of their own.

Nate’s Grade: B

Army of Thieves (2021)

So were you ready for the feature-length back-story for the safe-cracker character in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead so that you could feel more emotional involvement and understanding why he was so obsessed with cracking that special super vault in Vegas? Oh, you didn’t, well Netflix decided to spin off the goofy, energetic German character, once again played by Matthias Schweighöfer, who also directs the movie too, and now here it is. The character is too goofy to justify anything terribly dramatic, so the prequel becomes about how he was roped into a heist gang after becoming a star in the… underground safe-cracking betting ring. I would say that seems far-fetched but Netflix’s Squid Games pretty much explained its existence with, “Eh, the rich are bored and will bet on anything.” The most fun part for me was when the movie would take a few self-aware winks, as if it knew it was a movie, and characters would express how, if this were a Hollywood heist movie, this would happen, or that would happen, and then it inevitable does. It’s a small thing but it was something that slightly gave the movie its own identity because everything else is so rote and without charm or intrigue. The requisite gang has their requisite tensions and requisite betrayals and requisite unrequited romances. I just didn’t care much and the set pieces never elevated the suspense or interest level. The heist movie formula is ready-made for enjoyable setups and payoffs, as long as you see it through and hopefully give us fun characters and unexpected complications to overcome and improvise. Army of Thieves feels like a slapped-together action thriller that would have served as the years-later direct-to-DVD franchise ripoff except we got it the same year as its zombie franchise launch. And that’s the thing, this movie is literally taking place during a time there is a zombie outbreak and we’re just shrugging and going along with a standard heist that could have existed in any non-zombie outbreak universe? When even your supporting police characters say, “Hey, shouldn’t we pay more attention to that, you know, zombie apocalypse thing?” then maybe you heed their advice.

Nate’s Grade: C

Misha and the Wolves (2021)

The Sundance documentary Misha and the Wolves, now available on Netflix streaming, is a movie about trauma, lies, and ultimately proves to be unfulfilling due to the circumstances of its own narrative limitations, both in subject and approach. It’s worth watching at only 90 interview-packed minutes, but it’s also a case of a movie that could have gone much deeper into a troubled subject that demanded more scrutiny and psychological examination than what the film has to offer.

Misha Defonseca was an elderly Belgian immigrant living in a small Pennsylvania town when she decided to share her personal story of survival one day at her community synagogue. When she was seven years old, her parents were taken by Nazis during the Holocaust. She was living with a Catholic family and hiding her real identity but she wanted to be with her parents, so she set out on foot across the country to find them, and in the process stumbled upon a pack of wolves who grew to accept her as one of their own. Misha’s story was immediately engaging, and a local publisher snapped up the rights to sell her story. Oprah’s talk show wanted to make Misha’s story their next book club selection. Disney wanted to buy the film rights. This story was going to be huge, but then Misha backed down from both media suitors. It picked up in Europe where Misha traveled and gave lectures on her spellbinding experience and they made it into a French movie in 2008. It is a truly remarkable story. The problem is that her unbelievable true story wasn’t actually true.

It’s a story that even one interview subject admits sounded “too fantastic to be true,” and in hindsight it’s one of those stories that I’m sure many would feel foolish for believing – a little girl at the age of seven trekking hundreds of miles, on her own, through the war, in enemy territory, and then accepted by a friendly wolf pack. It definitely beggars belief but nobody wants to think skeptically of someone who claims to be a Holocaust survivor. I wouldn’t want to assume the worst of anyone’s personal experiences during such a hellish time. The primary interview subject is Misha’s first publisher she sued who is the one that first started investigating the voracity of this amazing tale. She relates how disgusted she felt doing what she did, suspecting the worst in someone who had experienced her own set of traumas. She says she felt like a villain in a story that she didn’t sign up for. Admittedly, she could have researched Misha’s claims early on to verify her account but chose not to because she was thinking of how much money she could make. However, there have been so many amazing tales of survival from the atrocities of the Holocaust so maybe Misha could have been accepted by a pack of wolves and offered protection. Maybe she did stab and kill a Nazi as a child like she said. Maybe. That need to believe survivors and the fear of calling out the storyteller for their accompanying proof is what Misha exploited to continue spinning her phony story. She exploited the good will of being a survivor and the communal sympathies of others. Why she did what she did is another matter that frustratingly goes unexplored.

There is one big narrative twist that I was predicting early on and that I think most viewers will be able to anticipate once they start asking their own questions, but for the sake of spoilers I’ll caution that this paragraph is going to talk about this gambit because I don’t know how to discuss the implications and how it dulls the movie without being specific. With that being said, early in the movie we have Misha being interviewed but there are limits to what she is responding to, limits that become more notable as her story continues at points that you’re positive a documentary filmmaker would want their subject’s direct personal input rather than having others speak for them. That’s when I began suspecting that the Misha on camera was going to be revealed to be an actor, and two-thirds of the way through the film that is exactly what happens. Our fake Misha pulls off a wig and peels off the elaborate makeup. Aha, a story about a phony Holocaust survivor has itself made use of fictitious representations. I can understand some viewers feeling hoodwinked and perhaps a little angry from this deception. I can also understand why the filmmakers elected to go this route thematically so that they could replicate the feel of what Misha’s friends and neighbors and supporters may have felt. There’s also the very pragmatic issue of not having access to the subject of your documentary. It’s a missing hole that seriously hobbles the impact and reach of the movie, and that’s where Misha and the Wolves starts to disappoint. It’s understandable to supply your own stand-in version of Misha to respond to the claims and accusations. It’s a necessary perspective. Once the jig is up, and you know for certain that Misha will not be available to explain anything, then you realize the movie is a whodunnit where it would have been far more engrossing as a whytheydunnit. There are questions we want answered for such a heinous fabrication, and I wish the film had been structured not in the details of uncovering Misha’s false identity but in trying to explain why someone would do such a thing. The movie is lacking psychological insight and without that it becomes any other well-made but disposable episode of ordinary true crime television.

It begs the question that I wish the documentary would have gone much deeper into, namely why would anyone fashion a Holocaust story for themselves? Defonseca is far from the only person who fabricated a story about their Holocaust history. Rosemarie Kocz was an artist who said she escaped from two concentration camps and whose art hung in museums around the world including Yad Vashem in Israel. She was a fraud. Herman Rosenblat embellished his own Holocaust survival with a love story of reconnecting with the young girl who gave him apples in the camp and that was completely made up. Joseph Hirt said he met Dr. Mengele and then, upon confrontation, said he had lied to “keep the memories alive” about Holocaust history. That justification offends me and likely should offend you too, dear reader. The numerous dead do not need the stories of phony victims to keep their memories alive. When people greedily co-opt another human’s tragedy as their own, they are knowingly diminishing it by trying to transform this horror into something appealing about their own life story and experiences. If anything, these stories are making it more likely for pernicious Holocaust denial to spread, with deniers pointing to these phony personal accounts and saying, “See.” It dishonors the dead and their memory.

The story behind Misha and the Wolves is interesting and inflammatory but also very surface-level in substance ultimately, about uncovering the truth behind a liar’s lies. There is a certain level of interest in watching how the investigation picks up momentum and makes the necessary connections to finally reveal the disappointing truth, but then the movie doesn’t go a step further. It’s about how a liar’s story fell apart but there seems more potential with exploring why people falsify such stories of real-life trauma. For Misha, her own personal experiences involved tragedy at the hands of Nazis, so why was that not enough? Misha said that her story might not be reality but it is her reality. I don’t fully understand her position, but I will likely never understand why someone like Misha Defonseca does what they do. I suppose there’s an inherent attention-seeking intent. Maybe a projection of pretending to be someone else, a person who has survived amazing ordeals and come out the other side. One of the film’s subjects, Evelyn Haendel, a Holocaust survivor and investigator, declares Misha both a victim and a villain, but she dismisses the idea of these fabrications as acceptable outlets for troubled souls. In an era of increasing Holocaust denialism, these phony accounts are unfortunate fuel and are even more incendiary. Misha and the Wolves is an okay documentary on a topic that demands more attention.

Nate’s Grade: B-

He’s All That (2021)

I’m sure there aren’t too many who consider 1999’s She’s All That a great film, or even a great high school comedy film, but I know there are fans and I know nobody was clamoring for a Netflix gender-swap remake starring one of Tik Tok’s most famous users. We didn’t need the original but it was a mildly amusing version of My Fair Lady, or its older inspiration Pygmalion, set in the superficial class system of an American education system. It came out during the heyday of 90s teen cinema remaking older literary concepts (Ten Things I Hate About You) and made short-lived careers for stars Freddie Prinze Jr. and Rachel Leigh Cook. My amazement is Netflix rehiring the same writer, R. Lee Fleming Jr., now 50-something, and asking him to remake his twenty-year-old hit for the voice of Generation Z (It’s not even like “all that” has held up in slang parlance). This movie feels every bit the dismal corporate-sponsored, cash-grabbing, star vehicle that it is. Nobody in Generation Z cared about She’s All That, and now very few will really care about He’s All That.

This time we follow Padgett Sawyer played by Tik Tok star Addison Rae (83 million followers in real life!). Padgett is a high school senior who has millions of online followers who hang onto her every word of advice. She uses her position as an influencer to even help pay the bills at home to relieve her overworked mom (Rachel Leigh Cook, not the same character) and maybe pay for her college. She live streams catching her boyfriend cheating, loses her cool, and becomes a meme thanks to an unfortunately timed snot bubble. Now she has to earn back those lost followers and her respect or else she might not still maintain her ascendant social media standing and pay for school. Her catty friend challenges her to makeover a loser guy at school and the hopeless case ends up being Cameron Kweller (Tanner Buchanan), a sarcastic, arty loner who wears a beanie and has long hair (a wig) and rides horses and practices karate. What a loser. She buddies up to Cameron and through that friendship she starts to question her own sense of self and learns what’s really important as she physically changes this guy to be more acceptable to a mainstream opinion of people she’ll never meet in real life. Or something like that.

The inordinate influence of social media is a very worthwhile avenue to explore for modern satire as a means of separating this He’s All That from its predecessor and making it relevant. The problem with He’s All That is that the movie refuses to go very deep or hard-hitting with this topic because it’s also meant to be a vehicle for fame to launch the feature acting career of Rae. I’ll fully admit, dear reader, that I had no idea who Rae was until watching this movie and I don’t really get the appeal (more on her acting ability later). In this movie, Padgett is obsessed with maintaining her carefully curated online image, a ruse that relies upon a fantasy that no human being could adequately maintain. She wakes up and goes through an entire routine of makeup and hair styling before she records herself “just waking up.” It reminded me of a joke from the fabulous TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel where the title character makes sure her husband never fully sees her in the morning how she actually looks. It was funny then because it commented on the pressure of wives in the 1950s, let alone those from Jewish families, to live up to an impossible beauty standard to appeal to the man’s comforts and desires. With He’s All That, it really becomes the last joke at the expense of our main character. The movie is too afraid to delve any deeper for fear of directing negative attention toward its star and her influencer ilk. It even conveniently sets up the good of her position, what with her able to pay some bills. She can’t be all bad, you’ll say, because she’s helping her mom. I guess we like social media facades now.

Padgett’s plight really doesn’t make much sense in the context of the movie. She’s dropped perhaps a fifth of her many followers after the embarrassment of her public breakup with her louche of a boyfriend, a wannabe recording artist. First off, I don’t know why this personal incident would be so detrimental to her character. Her boyfriend was clearly bad, she stood up for herself, and I would think that would only make people like her more and draw more followers to her brand. The only reason she has to worry is because we’ve awkwardly included Kourtney Kardashian and an even bigger social media influencer. I don’t know why we have a Kardashian here, and I don’t know why she doesn’t merely play herself, unless that too would be another example of striking too close to home with the satirical depictions. Regardless, Padgett is worried she’ll have to, gasp, potentially take out student loans for college. She believes that picking someone to grant a makeover would get back lost followers, which makes some sense, but then her friend also elects to make a personal bet about selecting some campus schlub and turning them into a heartthrob. Why does our main character need two motivating forces for why she agrees to participate in this bet? It’s needlessly extra for a movie with so little else going on.

Another fault is that there is no chemistry between our leads, which kills the investment in any romantic comedy. The two actors are not a good fit from the beginning, and this comes down to two factors, the underwritten characterization and the limited acting ability of Rae. It was a joke in Not Another Teen Movie, a not-so-great spoof over those popular 90s/early 2000s teen comedies, that the thing separating the obviously beautiful girl from “plain Jane” territory was merely glasses and a ponytail. Cameron is already an appealing guy so when he gets his big physical transformation it’s really just scrubbing off stubble dust and removing the beanie. His character, a self-described outsider, would be unlikely to be seduced by the wiles of popularity. There’s also precious little to be uncovered with the character of Padgett, so the movie can’t even have Cameron fall for Padgett as he realizes she isn’t like his preconceived notions. There’s no heat or sizzle or any point of intrigue between these two that would compel an audience to root for their eventual coupling. Cameron, we’re told, like “Kurosawa, Kubrick, and kung-fu movies,” and he’s basically the gender reverse of a shallow rendition of a manic pixie dream girl who is ultimately just there to get the protagonist to stop and appreciate life and then sublimate their own interests and desires to that of the protagonist. This is a romance where you root for irrevocable heartbreak.

Rae might be an overall pleasant presence but she’s not quite there in the acting department yet. Her limited range really dampers many of the dramatic moments. Her line readings are extremely monotone. There are moments where I thought she was just going to smile her way through a scene. There were several scenes where I was convinced they could only have filmed two takes because this had to be the best one by default. I don’t want to pile on Rae. I don’t know the woman and she’s only twenty years old and this is only one role. Except He’s All That has also clearly been tailored for her and she cannot live up to these standards at this time. There’s an egregiously long dance battle at the prom that goes on forever just to take advantage of Rae’s dance skills from her Tik Tok dances. It’s the same kind of contortion done to make room for Buchanan’s (Cobra Kai) martial arts skills with a silly fight with Padgett’s ex-boyfriend.

If I was overly cynical, I would estimate that the producers of He’s All That sought an older IP that might still have some pull with an older audience that could be stripped down to its parts and slapped together with a formula that could platform its young stars while also barely hitting that 80-minute feature running time requirement. Except that sounds exactly like what’s happened with He’s All That as well as the preponderance of product placement. This entire movie is a cynical enterprise. It’s not funny at all. It feels completely inauthentic with its portrayal of modern teenagers and social media lifestyles and even the appeal provided by a social media following of fans giving instant validation to every coordinated effort to be your phony best self. The director is Mark Waters, a man who helmed Mean Girls, the 2003 Freaky Friday, and the dark indie comedy The House of Yes. He has talent. He knows how to shoot a comedy. He knows that not every scene needs to be overly lit like night and shadow have no meaning and it all looks so cheap. While watching He’s All That, you’re left with the strong impression that everyone should know better, and you should know better than spending 80 tepid minutes of your time watching this cynical exercise.

Nate’s Grade: D

Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)

The reason we typically watch crime/action movies is for the slick style, the gonzo action, and the over-the-top characters cutting loose in the most violent of manners. We watch these movies to capture that whiff of cool, something flashy and entertaining with its eye-popping combo of sight and sound. Think Snatch, and Drive, and Atomic Blonde, and what appears to be the upcoming James Gunn Suicide Squad sequel. By these standards of stylized violence and colorful anti-heroes, Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake falls too flat to be duly satisfying.

Sam (Karen Gillan) is a hired killer working for the secretive order, The Firm. Her handler (Paul Giamatti) has accidentally assigned her the son of a commanding mobster who now demands vengeance. Her lone way to keep the protection of her employers is to kill a man who robbed them, which she does, but then regrets her actions. The troubled man had stolen the money to pay the kidnappers ransoming his daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam decides to get involved and save this girl, and in doing so loses protection. The scornful mobster sends teams of goons to track Sam and kill her, forcing her to find refuge with her absentee mother (Lena Headey).

The problem with playing in this stylized sandbox is having little to back up the attitude and style. Admittedly, those two aspects go far in a sub-genre dominated by appearances, but if you just have tough-looking shells of characters posturing and acting tough, it doesn’t matter how much style you dump onto the screen, it will only distract for only so long. The characters in Gunpowder Milkshake are so powerfully bland and all adhere to the same lone character trait. They’re all glib and badass and brusque and smug and fairly boring. It’s like somebody took the John Wick universe of clandestine killers and copied and pasted the same default personality.

If everyone is super cool, and super deadly, and super nonchalant, then you need to put even more work into making the characters stand apart. They’ll need specific quirks, competing goals, faults and obsessions, some key nub of characterization even if its superficial (a guy with one eye he’s insecure about it, etc.). With Gunpowder Milkshake, there’s nothing to work with. The screenwriters made this so much harder on themselves. I guess we’re merely supposed to be won over by the casting and the imagery of these bad ladies holding powerful weaponry. The protagonist is boring. She is the familiar hired killer who grows an inconvenient conscience. That’s an acceptable starting point but the moral growth is hindered when her young charge, the little girl that forces her paradigm shift, wants to be her apprentice to learn to kill people. The fraught mother/daughter relationship resorts to a lot of “I didn’t want this life for you,” “It’s the only life I’ve known” roundabout conversations, and neither furthers our understanding of either side.

With all that being said, there are moments of bloody fun that can be enjoyed. There’s a middle portion of the movie that gave me hope the film had transformed. At one point, Sam is indisposed and unable to use her arms, which dangle without any muscle control. She’s about to be beset by angry if bruised bad guys and must plan what to do. The resulting clash is a burst of creative choreography and an excellent demonstration of Sam’s resourcefulness and drive. Watching her dispatch a dozen armed men so indifferently, always knowing where and when to turn and dodge is not nearly as entertaining or engaging as watching her struggle and solve a problem. This sequence is extended and makes clever use of its location and the elements that would be available. Then we go a step further, as Sam and her youngster must drive a car to flee except the uncontrollable arm problem persists. Sam will pump the pedals and give directions while Emily sits on her lap and turns the steering wheel. This made me excited. We had organic complications and potential solutions that involved both characters having to rely upon one another. That is solid screenwriting and finding a way to spice up an ordinary parking garage chase sequence. By the end of this sequence, my hopes started to dwindle because Sam reverted to her earlier super cool, impervious version. She knew every exact move to make, and the small-scale car chase started losing my interest even with the extra driving dynamic. I wish the filmmakers could analyze how these sequences differed to better harness that creative surge.

The concluding act of Gunpowder Milkshake is a deluge of false climaxes and waves of bad guys that never pose any discernible threat. It all feels too repetitive and like a video game. This group of people need to be killed, and then this next group of people need to be killed, and then this next next group of people need to be killed, and I just started getting bored. There is the occasional fun burst of violence and style, but the enemies are stock and dispensable, so it doesn’t feel like it matters what the numbers are. Whether it’s a dozen or a thousand, nothing really seems to matter because our super team of badass women will never be stopped. If you’re going to establish the protagonists as so far ahead of their competition, then work needs to be done to provide another outlet for audience interest. Use that time to explore the peculiarities of the cracked-universe world, like in the John Wick franchise. Use that time to meaningfully push the characters toward personal confrontations with one another. Alas, it’s all slapdash style with the same dead-eyed cool stare from start to finish (with the noted exception above). The entire final act could have been five minutes or fifty. It’s filler violence until the director tires out.

The cast is blameless and eminently watchable. I’ve been a fan of Gillan’s since her early Doctor Who days, and it’s been fun to watch her come into her own with the major spotlight afforded from franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. She’s more than capable of kicking ass and looking cool doing so but this is the thinnest of characters. Once Sam chooses to put her safety at risk to save an innocent girl, it’s the end of her character growth. I suppose you can argue everything she does from there further proves the lengths she will go to solidify this important choice. Gillan deserves a worthy star vehicle. It’s fun to watch Angela Bassett, Michell Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Headey push back with a grin against the misogyny of the overconfident wicked men who wish to do them harm. I wish they were better integrated into the world to have more significance other than as old allies who double as a weapons depot. There’s only so many guns-in-books jokes you can have before it too feels overdone.

For fans of stylized violence, there may be enough cooking with Gunpowder Milkshake to meet out its near two-hour investment. The neon-infused, candy-colored production design and cinematography can enliven moments. The actors are fun to watch. Some of the fighting is brutally choreographed and cleverly executed, like the sequence where Gillan has no control over her arms. It’s got slow-mo violence set to wailing pop music tracks. If you’re looking for a pretty movie with some style, then it might be enough. If, however, you’re looking for a movie with interesting characters with memorable personalities, well-developed action with variance, and a story with a nice array of twists and turns and payoffs, then maybe look elsewhere.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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