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The Old Guard (2020)

What do you do with an action movie where the action is actually the least interesting part? The new Netflix film, The Old Guard, is based on a comic book series by Greg Rucka (Whiteout) about a mercenary squad staffed with immortals through the ages. Lead by Charlie Theron, whose character Andy traces back to at least the Medieval period, leads the team and sees promise in their newest recruit, Nile (Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), a U.S. soldier who is shocked to discover she can come back to life. It’s through this new recruit that we get an introduction to the hidden world of immortals and their hidden history, and it’s these flashbacks that I found the most entertaining aspect of the entire two-hour movie. Watching Theron swing a Viking battle axe is a lot more fun than watching her stalk corridors with a gun. There’s also some great little moments that show an attention to developing the characters and their psychology. Andy has a centuries-old love that was trapped in a suit of armor and thrown into the sea. Besides the fact that drowning is horrifying, imagine dying, then reviving, and then drowning again and again, every few minutes, for an eternity. Wow that is a new level of horrifying. Each of the characters has an interesting history and some degree of dimension, and it’s these soul-searching conversations that I enjoyed the most as they discuss the costs of living forever. However, it’s not quite forever, because immortal heroes have an obvious problem about holding stakes, so at some point the immortals will lose their healing ability, though they don’t know when. It’s something, but it feels more arbitrary, and the super smarmy pharma CEO villain (Harry Melling) is a non-starter as a threat. The action sequences almost feel like a chore, like the filmmakers are checking boxes instead of using them to advance the plot in meaningful and exciting ways. The action isn’t bad but just mundane, lacking memorable set pieces or engaging complications. Even their use of taking punishment is under-utilized in the design. Simply put, a movie with this kind of premise and with Theron as your lead should be more exciting. I loved Mad Max: Fury Road. I loved watching Theron lay waste to goons and gangsters in 2017’s Atomic Blonde, a movie built around her physical capabilities and smartly constructed action set pieces. However, the action we get with The Old Guard lacks the same transformative ability and fight choreography. It’s just thoroughly fine, at best, and I kept wondering if they were saving themselves for a big finish. Sorry to disappoint, it’s just more office hallways with limited gunplay. The energy level is lacking and the music choice throughout the film affects this as well, with the same kind of downer tracks playing again and again. I would rather have spent these two hours listening to the immortal stories around a campfire.

Nate’s Grade: C

365 Days (2020)

I never thought I would say these words but I am now reconsidering the artistic merits of the 50 Shades of Grey franchise, and that’s because 365 Days is an even more problematic and pathetic imitation of something that was already problematic and pathetic. The Netflix sensation is a Polish movie based on a trilogy of Polish books, and it’s been one of the most watched movies on the streaming service for months, all but guaranteeing that the remaining two novels by author Blanca Lipinski will find their way to the small screen in the near future. 365 Days is a gross distortion of romance and an uncomfortable watch for many reasons of taste and entertainment.
Massimo (Michele Morrone) is the son of a slain mafia boss. Laura (Anna Maria Sieklucka) is an ordinary woman in a bad relationship with a man who expresses little interest in her. One night, in Sicily, she’s kidnapped by Massimo and wakes up as a prisoner in his mansion. He’s been obsessed with her since he first saw her and is convinced that he can make Laura fall in love with him. He promises never to do anything against her will (as he literally gropes her that second) and that she will remain a captive for 365 days. If she doesn’t fall in love by then, he promises to let her go.

If you’re not troubled by that icky starting point for a modern romance, I worry about your concept of what consent means because this ain’t it. This is not the first story to use a brooding, dangerous, misunderstood man as its heartthrob, or a woman who despises a man before falling for him, nor is it even the first pseudo romance utilizing Stockholm syndrome. Laura even cites Beauty and the Beast by name. However, 365 Days seems inordinately confused about the simple concepts of consent and romance. Massimo is meant to seem gentlemanly when he says he’ll allow Laura to come to her own conclusions; he’s just so confidant in his charms. If that was simply the case, he wouldn’t need to kidnap and imprison her. He could try introducing himself and dating her. When her romantic desire is directly linked to her freedom, there is no real possibility for consent here. Laura attempts to run away at one point and inadvertently sees a mafia underling executed, which should motivate her more to flee or motivate Massimo even more to keep her locked up. It does neither. She never attempts escaping again even though she does leave the compound and runs into strangers. I suppose she accepts her captivity, though at one point she almost single-handedly instigates a war with a rival mafia family and that would have been an excellent act of rebellion. That would have been the more intriguing, feminist-friendly version. Instead we get the version where Laura bleaches her hair to appear more like Massimo’s blond ex-girlfriend. Commence heavy sighing.

Massimo isn’t some sad little puppy dog who needs love. He’s the head of a crime family, and the movie doesn’t present any potential softer side or moral code or vague introspection for the man. Sure, he kills a guy who was trafficking in children, but he seems to be nonchalant about trafficking adults. I was completely astonished that no redeeming qualities are ever presented for this dude (unless you count his bank account). He’s a creep. He’s awful. He’s got obvious anger and control issues. At one point, Laura starts wearing revealing lingerie and even stripping in front of him, all to tease him. It’s not so much an act of defiance and agency, and it only makes Massimo more agitated and aggressive. He grabs her forcefully and warns her not to “provoke me.” The implications are that he’s not responsible for his own actions because of her behavior. He tries to make Laura jealous but his actions are gross, like forcing her to watch another woman fellate him. He tries to charm her but his actions are gross, like his repeated use of the come-hither line, “Are you lost baby girl?” which is also the first thing he ever says to her face-to-face before kidnapping her. I shuddered every time he said it. The only selling points for this man are his physical looks (to me he looks like any disposable Euro trash villain in a Taken sequel) and his lavish lifestyle. The fantasy of living a life of privilege I suppose is enough for Laura, and fans of the movie and novels, to excuse the innumerable warning signs.

The bigger attention-grabber for this modestly budgeted foreign romance is the graphic sex. While not crossing over into un-simulated sex scenes, these uncomfortably long scenes cross more than a few lines. The first thing you’ll likely note is how aggressive Massimo comes across The very first sequence is inter-cut between Laura masturbating on her bed, to showcase her untapped passion from her bad boyfriend, and Massimo getting a blowjob from a stewardess who very much does not look to be enjoying herself. He is forcibly grabbing this poor woman’s head and repeatedly shoving it downward, enough to look to generate her tears. Again, I must stress, this is the first impression of sex we get from 365 Days. This behavior reappears when Massimo is trying to make Laura jealous through forced voyeurism. The sex scenes feel so drawn out that 365 Days does begin to feel like a high-gloss version of soft-core porn. The plotting is just as empty and careless as we fill time from one sexual act to another. Just because there’s a lot of thrusting and writhing bodies not make onscreen sex automatically erotic. You have to feel the heat, feel the passion of the characters being unleashed, but also have empathy for those coupling, and empathy is a hindrance for Massimo and Laura. This movie doesn’t even know how to do simple storytelling right. It should present some kink of Laura’s in Act 1, before she meets Massimo, to show she has a secret wild side, and then that’s the avenue that could have been accessed for her to peel away those inhibitions. Even that is sleazy but it’s better storytelling structure.

The ending of 365 Days also made me scream at the screen because of how disastrously incomplete it is. It’s not an ending but a cliffhanger and one that doesn’t even serve as a meaningful cliffhanger knowing there are two whole books left to adapt (366 Days?). I was baffled by the appeal of 365 Days, so I looked up the plot synopses of the other stories ahead and, dear reader, believe me when I say that it only gets worse and more outlandishly soap operish from here on out. We’re talking identical twin brothers, dead dogs shipped in the mail, and even more trashy love affairs.

365 Days is two hours of rearing back in your seat wincing and groaning. While the cinematography is lush and the locations in Italy are idyllic, there is nothing sexy about this movie whatsoever. That’s because it’s built on a reprehensibly flawed premise of romance that doesn’t remotely understand consent. At no point does Laura really have an actual choice here. She is a prisoner who falls in love (or so she says) with her abuser. The fundamental draw of an onscreen romance, the desire to see people together, is absent with this twisted power dynamic. I want to see Laura escape, not twirl around with a shopping bag and dressing up for her man. This should have been a completely foreign-language production because when the foreign actors speak in English, they already sound disjointed, affect-less, like they’re victims of a bad dub. When they speak in their natural languages, it’s remarkably night and day. This is bad. All the way bad. Please don’t even spend one solitary day of your life, even during a pandemic, on 365 Days.

Nate’s Grade: D

Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Given the current political climate, there might not be a better filmmaker to seize the moment than Spike Lee. The controversial director has been making controversial, thought-provoking, inflammatory movies for over 30 years, and after the Oscar-winning success of 2018’s excellent BlackkKlansman, he’s on an artistic resurgence not seen since the early 2000s (please watch 2000’s Bamboozled, an underrated media satire that’s only gotten more relevant). In comes Netflix and their deep pockets and wide creative latitude for filmmakers and the result is Da 5 Bloods, a stirring movie that seems like a modern Kelly’s Heroes but becomes so much more.

“Da 5 Bloods” is the nickname for a group of Vietnam War vets, all African-American. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) venture back to Vietnam to discover a cache of gold bars they had hidden in 1971 as G.I.s. They’re also going to bring back the remains of their fallen leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who died after they struck literal gold. The land has changed in the ensuing decades, with American culture finding its complacent commercial footing (a dance hall has an “Apocalypse Now” party presented by Budweiser), but then the men have also changed. Paul has brought along his adult son, David (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco), in an attempt to better understand one another and bridge their divide. When the multi-generational Bloods go for their buried treasure, it becomes a question over how far they will all go to get out of Vietnam rich.

Lee’s commentary on art, war, and the commoditization of history happens early and with great deliberation. The most notable choice is how the flashbacks back to the group’s Vietnam experiences are portrayed. The aspect ratio squeezes to 4:3, akin to news footage or home movies over these memories, but Lee’s stylistic vision goes further. You’ll notice very early into the flashbacks that they take on a sort of heightened quality, coming across more like a movie version of the Vietnam War than the real experiences. The guys complain about the Rambo movies and then these flashbacks feel like their own Rambo rendition. The editing is quick, the shots are tight, and the boys are bursting with bravado, none more so than Stormin’ Norman, their celebrated friend who they believed was the best of them, and he’s played by a big-time movie star and a real black superhero of popular culture. The flashbacks take on an unreliable quality, exaggerated and fed by the bombastic war depictions of popular culture. This is later proven correct with a late personal reveal. The sequences feel more like preferential memories, and this is exemplified by the choice to have all the older actors play themselves in the flashbacks. It takes a little mental adjustment but I enjoyed the choice. It added to that surreal quality that made the scenes more worthy of analytical unpacking. It also gave our established characters more to do as they are slipping into their literal flashbacks coming back to Vietnam. Gratefully, Lee has also forgone any de-aging CGI spackle over his actors’ faces. Consider this the anti-Irishman, and it didn’t take me out of the movie at any point. I appreciated the choices.

The movie is about war and its representations in movies, as evidenced from those flashbacks, and then Da 5 Bloods becomes its own war movie. When the violence happens for real, it’s played differently than how it appears through the gung-hp flashbacks. It’s grislier, uglier, and hits you in the stomach. It’s not the rah-rah moments to celebrate in jingoistic fashion. As the Bloods get closer to their gold, the movie transforms into its own hybrid of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and pushes the characters to reconcile how far they will go to keep their secret. This pushes some characters to challenge others on a shifting plane of morality, and you never really get a sense of what might just happen next. When a French woman was talking about visiting Vietnam with the purpose of finding and detonating leftover landmines from the war, I knew it was only a matter of time before this scenario resurfaced with a vengeance. When the Bloods are exploring a hillside with a metal detector, I kept wincing, waiting for an eventual click and an explosion. There is a taut rescue sequence that also taps into a relationship showcase for two characters. That’s the greatness of what Lee has done here, because on top of mixing genres and tones and political commentary, he also makes sure that the action, the real action, actually means something.

The last act of the movie is a big standoff with genuine stakes, and while it serves as a fun example of our older underdogs more than holding their own, it gets into the major theme of legacy. What will be these men’s legacy? What will the legacy be for a son who has never felt close to his father? What about a daughter who never knew her father? What will last beyond these men? The legacy of Stormin’ Norman informs and haunts the other Bloods; Paul practically breaks into tears confessing that he sees Norman’s ghost on a near daily basis. They all feel guilt over being unable to save Norman but also being unable to bring his remains home until now. Going back is not just about financial windfalls, it’s also about making good on a delayed promise. Talking about what the men will do with their shares of the loot allows each to fantasize about a more perfect life ahead, while at the same time coming to terms with their life’s regrets. This is where Eddie gets his most potent opportunity to stand out. The character too often just feels present rather than integrated in the narrative, but here he opens up about how his life might not be as perfect as his friends tease him about. Inherent in this ongoing discussion is the notion of what does sacrifice mean and for whom. Lee repeatedly threads historical footnotes of African-Americans being shortchanged after serving their country in wartime. Even though only making up ten percent of the U.S. population during Vietnam, black soldiers made up over 30% of the grunts on the ground. Paul says, “We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours for rights we didn’t have.” The Bloods view this gold as their long overdue reparations for being black in a racist country. However, it’s Eddie who won’t allow the Bloods to merely deal in grievance. He cites Stormin’ Norman and how they can improve the lives of the next generation even at their own expense. Even as the gunfire picks up and we have a misplaced mustache-twirling villain (Jean Reno), Da 5 Bloods is an action flick that has much more on its mind, looking to the past, present, and a better future.

This is a compelling ensemble tale but Da 5 Bloods is clearly Lindo’s movie. Lindo has been a hard-working actor for decades, with roles in Get Shorty, The Core, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Good Fight, and a bevy of Lee’s films (er, “joints”) like Crooklyn, Clockers, and Malcolm X. But it’s the role of Paul that will serve as the actor’s finest career performance. There is so much pain and anger coursing under the surface with this character. Paul wears a red MAGA hat in proud defiance and to the jeers of his pals. Paul is a Trump voter who wanted to shake up the system, the same system that had let him down for his life. He’s haunted by his past, and even decades later, he can admit returning to the jungles is still affecting him. The gold represents something elemental, mythical to him, a lifetime-defining event that he needs to accomplish. As this zeal overtakes him, Lindo unleashes spellbinding monologues looking directly into Lee’s camera as he marches along, narrating his stormy inner thoughts, and trying to assess the contradictions of his life. Lindo doesn’t just play Paul as a hardass grumpy old man. He’s still reeling, from service, from fatherhood, from the decades having vanished, and from the setbacks to retrieve the gold. Paul’s odyssey takes on a religious passion play that builds him into a symbol of America’s unmet promises and fallibility. Even in uncertain COVID-19 times, I’d be shocked if Lindo isn’t nominated for an Oscar.

Netflix’s Da 5 Bloods is a great movie and invigorating reaffirmation that when Spike Lee really gives a damn he is one of our most essential filmmakers, even after 30-plus years in the director’s chair. The movie is packed with rich detail and character moments, little things to keep you thinking, and a blending of tones and texts that invites further analytical examination. At its core, it’s a story of friendship and legacy, and the actors are a great pleasure to watch grouse and weep and laugh together. Even at a taxing 154 minutes, I was happy to spend the extra minutes with these men and better understand them and their pain and their relationships. Even though the movie delves in loss and grievance, I found it to be ultimately hopeful and galvanizing. Something as simple as a hand-written letter can turn out to be more restorative than millions in gold bars.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Last Days of American Crime (2020)

Even by relaxed standards which we judge widely-available Netflix movies during a time of quarantine, The Last Days of American Crime is a staggering waste of 150 minutes. It’s based on a 2009 graphic novel series and even by the sliding scale of shut-your-brain-off action movies, it’s numbing, dreadfully dull, incoherent, and stitched together with hoary genre clichés and little creative forethought. It’s rare that I come across a movie that seems so willfully ignorant to explore the implications of its own premise.

In the near future, the U.S. government is in the final stages of implementing the American Peace Initiative (API), a special radio signal that stops crime in its tracks. It acts as a brain blocker on anything illegal, stopping the user from being able to follow through. Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramirez) finds out the hard way when his bank robbery crew become some of the first test subjects. American citizens are desperate to flee to Canada before the API goes live. Bricke gets seduced by computer hacker Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster) to pull off one big score. The government is readying to destroy a billion dollars in currency before going digital, and Shelby’s fiancé, Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt), has the connection to pull off the heist of the century.

Firstly, there is not nearly enough material here to justify the gargantuan Avengers-esque running time. You could realistically slice down a whole hour and not impact its middling entertainment value or clarity. While I was watching it didn’t even feel like a movie, more like a series designed to be binge watched, where the plotting becomes much more slack because the filmmakers anticipate their show will be digested in quick succession and that they have earned patience. It irritates me in television and it certainly irritated me here as well. Don’t blithely assume that your audience has infinite patience when you haven’t given them a proper story to properly engage with. Just about every scene could be trimmed down and some of them go on punishingly long, especially scenes where people are getting shot. There’s one late scene that goes on for what feels like five minutes of just watching two characters get shot. It’s so gratuitous, like much else in the movie, that it borders into unintentional anti-comedy.

As for the action, director Oliver Megaton (Taken 2 and 3) delivers very little of note. There’s a car chase here, a shootout there, but no set piece that actually develops or proves that memorable. It’s all just disposable noise that amounts to little, not even fleeting, escapist entertainment. This is a heist movie where the actual heist planning is ignored. The most enjoyable part of a heist movie is the intricate planning and then execution of that plan, combating the unforeseen complications and overcoming for triumph. If your entire movie is centered on a big heist, don’t treat that like it’s another meaningless plot element. I cannot believe the filmmakers failed to realize that if the viewer doesn’t know what the dangers, problems, and scheme of the upcoming heist will be, then everything feels arbitrary and unsatisfying, and it does so here. The actual heist, pulled off around the 90-minute mark, is not worth the buildup and lack of accessibility. It’s just another haphazard action set piece, not the culmination of planning and an important payoff for carefully manufactured setups. If you’re tuning in for fun action, you’ll be sorely disappointed to find there’s more time spent torturing people onscreen than there is for sustained and exciting action.

The awful characters we’re left to spend 150 minutes with are hardly worth that investment. Everyone is kept strictly as stock archetypes, and even when the screenplay tries to develop them, it follows a strictly predictable path to minimal results. Oh, someone has a family member in custody and is being pressured to snitch? Oh, our silent-and-seemingly-conflicted protagonist wants to avenge his dead brother because he cares and stuff? Oh, our oddball criminal scion wants to make a big name for himself outside of his father’s shadow? The fact the movie spends so much time with these characters while giving them so little dimension, little personality, and little to do is another indictment on the bloated pacing. If we’re spending this much time with our criminal rogues, the least you can do is make them interesting and dramatic and colorful. The protagonist’s name is Graham Bricke, which sounds so boring that it must have been generated by an A.I. The femme fatale super hacker lady is really here just to look sad or sexy, here to deliver three uncomfortable sex scenes including a near rape as well. The other notable female roles in this movie include News Anchor, Lesbian 1 and Lesbian 2, Female Tweeker, and Female Cop. Hooray for depth.

There are two characters that had a chance of being interesting but are so mishandled. The first is Kevin Cash, our wannabe gangster. Pitt (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) brings a much-needed dose of energy and theatrics, like he’s trying everything in his power to desperately hold your flagging attention. Even his pathetic overcompensating nature is tiresome. A scene where he, his father, and his younger stepmother (another fine example of female character representation in the movie) shriek and bicker at one another is just embarrassing and misplaced comic relief. He’s boring. The only other potential was with Sharlto Copley (District 9) as a disgraced police officer. We spend plenty of time with him early in the movie, establishing his outsider status, perhaps some regret, and hoping that his position of authority will be better explored as he wrestles with whether the police force is worthy of its state-decreed exemptions to the API. Nope. He just becomes another dude in the final act that could have been replaced by anyone else. It would be like devoting so much time to Henchman #12 and his personal crisis of self in a Bond movie only to watch the lug unceremoniously die in a final action rush. Was that worth the time spent?

Its Purge-like premise sounds intriguing and worthy of exploration until, that is, you really think about how silly it all is. So a magic radio signal is going to inhibit your brain from committing known wrongs, but does that mean that the radio signal will have to blare constantly in order to have a lasting effect, otherwise its enforcement will be limited? What happens to sociopaths who don’t even register right from wrong? They will be able to move and act without abandon. Then there’s the day-to-day corruption, graft, greed from all pillars of society, politicians and Wall Street and officials that exploit their positions for illegal gains. Seriously, if this radio signal inhibits the fruition of illegal acts, would Wall Street just shut down? Would the factory owners who knowingly skirt worker safety for profits be able to operate? Would criminal defense attorneys be able to operate or would they use the ethical justification that everyone, no matter how heinous, deserves legal representation? If you think about a capitalist society, it’s built upon people behaving not so nicely, so would all facets of the economy grind to a screeching halt?

There is one aspect of this world building, even with what the meager story has established, that could be interesting to explore, and that’s the exceptions to this new order. Police officers are getting implants that make them immune to the effects of API, though in a world where a radio wave eliminates criminal acts, do you still need a police force to protect and serve? Regardless, this special class of exception is deserving of further exploration, a socially relevant angle to tap into the inherent advantages offered to the top one percent who don’t think the rules apply to them. In fact, if Last Days of American Crime was going to run with its silly premise as is, and during the pre-activation countdown timeline, they should have presented a story about those who are given the state-sanctioned privilege to act with impunity. Let’s watch the elite get their special exemption chips and plan for the New World where they maintain their vaunted privileges. It would at least make the movie socially relevant as well as a better development of its sci-fi premise.

Watch, dear reader, as I present you two better scenarios with this silly premise. The first is the most obvious and that’s life AFTER the implication of the AFI, presenting life under a new fascist order and a group of revolutionaries trying to thwart the radio waves. Imagine a group not plotting to pull off a bank heist but ridding their community of the AFI and giving them autonomy over their minds and bodies again? There’s an ever-present hostility that forces the characters to keep their thoughts on safe topics, having to communicate with subterfuge to not set off their brain jailers. It would be like a dystopian version of that classic Twilight Zone episode where little Bill Mumy where everyone had to think “good thoughts” or else he would magically banish them to the cornfield. That’s interesting, that’s genuine conflict, that’s characters under great duress trying to escape a fascist nightmare without tipping off the invisible sensors in their own minds that could trigger. There’s a larger goal of freeing their fellow citizens from this tyranny as well. That’s already one hundred times better than simply trying to steal money before the clock strikes zero. If it was only ever going to be “one big last score” then why even bother with the mind-control antics? It could have been anything at all.

However, if you wanted something more low-key, you could take a different path with the idea of the bucket list before the API goes live. Think of two teenagers who don’t have the means to escape and feel like they haven’t fully lived and a whole lifetime of rebellion and adventures they had been dreaming towards will now be snuffed out. The screenplay already floats the idea of a criminal bucket list but why not run with that idea as the core of your movie? Two teenagers making the most of their time together over the course of one long crazy night of cutting loose, testing their boundaries, and acting out the best ways they know how, learning about each other and the depth of their friendship before their minds will not fully be their own. It takes the teenager coming-of-age model, feeling like a stranger in your own body, and gives it a PG-13-Purge twist, with the distant tragedy of the looming tyranny ahead to up the stakes. Even that development would be better than “one last score,” and these are just two ideas I’ve come up with while writing this film review. Think what could be accomplished if a professional screenwriter spent weeks fleshing out a better version.

Alas, the version of The Last Days of American Crime we do receive is powerfully plodding, incoherent, empty and arbitrary, and definitely not worth your precious 150 minutes. With the current state of the world where thousands of U.S. citizens are protesting in the streets over a militarized police state and wanton brutality, it makes Last Days look even more phony and ill-conceived as entertainment. It doesn’t examine the implications of its own fascist police state, it only uses it as a pointless backdrop for an arbitrarily plotted  “last score” heist before it all just falls apart, spent of imagination and intent.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Lovebirds (2020)

The tepid advertising for The Lovebirds gave me little motivation to see the movie. Even with the same director and star of The Big Sick, it just did not look funny with its trailer, so it was already gearing up to be mentally banished to a “see it eventually” field that might never be fulfilled. Then after COVID-19, it was bought by Netflix and now I had easy access to a brand-new 2020 movie previously targeted for a wide theatrical release. I watched The Lovebirds the day it debuted and was pleasantly surprised to notice just how much I was laughing early on, and that laughter continued throughout the movie’s entire running time. Kumail Nanjiani (Stuber) and Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) have a winning chemistry but they’re even better when they’re at odds, and the movie smartly frames the on-the-lamb misadventure during their dissolution as a couple. Through the harrowing events, we get a fuller picture of why their relationship didn’t work out, the issues each has, and why it might just work out over the course of some rather outlandish events trying to clear their names for murder. I found more to like in the riffs and weird diversions the movie would find itself circling, where an observational joke or offbeat moment could extend and find new life. The comedy set pieces are fine, though an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy is a bit lazy without going into more humor on the group and their stuffy rules. I wish there were more meaningful and colorful supporting characters but the emphasis is on our main couple. I found myself smiling and nodding along and being taken by the low-key charms of a brisk comedy that didn’t ask much more of me than to have a good time with some appealing actors. It’s not The Big Sick but it’s not a big bomb either. On Netflix streaming, The Lovebirds is a perfectly enjoyable 100 minutes to stretch out to and chuckle to yourself and think back on how the abysmal advertising really undersold the funny.

Nate’s Grade: B

Extraction (2020)

The new Netflix action movie Extraction is based on a graphic novel, co-authored by the Russo brothers, starring Thor himself Chris Hemsworth, and directed by longtime stunt choreographer Sam Hargrave. It has quite a pedigree, and after the wild success of the John Wick series, I’m genuinely excited to see what kind of action stuntmen-turned-directors can unleash. The best thing Extraction has going for it is its brutal, fluid, and immersive action sequences, including an extended sequence meant to convey a single take of relentless intensity. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing this movie has going for it. The plot is very formulaic, with Hemsworth being brought in to retrieve a high-value target and then being betrayed, having to go on the run to protect the son of an imprisoned Indian mob boss. Hemsworth’s character is also haunted from personal tragedy and reluctant to get back into the fight, yet this final stand could allow him a late attempt at redemption for a lifetime of bloodshed. What I’ve just described could be a hundred other movies, minus the particulars of the Indian mob boss. The characters never really pop, even Hemsworth. The kid he’s tasked with saving never seems to get a moment to shine, to present a personality, or even a sense of growth or toughness. He might as well be a low-grade A.I. in a video game escort mission. The relationships don’t seem to matter. When it’s pumping, the action has an immediate appeal and Hemsworth acquits himself nicely with the more complicated fight choreography and stunts. As I kept watching, something didn’t quite feel right, and then it came to me. This movie doesn’t work from a tone standpoint. The John Wick-style action, glorifying in the fun and gory nature of slick violence done smoothly, conflicts with the setting and wider story of Extraction, namely the poverty-drenched streets of Bangladesh with child assassins thrown into duty by villainous gang leaders. It feels like you dropped John Wick into the searing reality of City of God, and the two styles of violence, and their larger social implications, do not really mix without uncomfortable consequences. It doesn’t help that so many of the characters just seem blank and replaceable. If you can ignore those misgivings, Extraction can offer some enticing thrills and above-average fight choreography.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Platform (2019)

What better time to Netflix and chill than when the state is demanding it? I recently watched The Platform, a Spanish sci-fi flick steeped in mystery and metaphor. Get ready for what could be dubbed “a vertical Snowpiercer.”

Goreng (Ivan Massague) wakes up in what looks like an endless stone tenement building. There are two people per floor and a large hole in the middle of the room. The food arrives via a descending platform that begins as a feast. Each floor has two minutes to eat, cannot hoard any food, and will have to subsist off what those above them left behind. Goreng’s floormate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) is one month away from being released from his time. He also might be losing his mind and definitely resorted to cannibalism before. Goreng has to decide what lines he’s willing to cross in order to survive and also to protect others.

The metaphors for The Platform are very heavy-handed and obvious but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective in their blunt force. It’s a literal dystopian tower of human beings with the lower floors eating off the spoils of those residing above them. There’s only so much to go around but charity isn’t on the mind of too many of the residents. Better to feed when you get an opportunity than worry about who comes after you. Goreng asks about trying to talk to the neighbors above and below and this notion is scoffed at by his floormate. The people above will not talk to them because, simply, they are beneath them. The ones below Goreng and Trimagasi? Who cares, they’re beneath and thus inferior. Trimagasi takes a wine bottle and smashes it rather than let the men below him have it. Why perform this spiteful action? “It’s what’s been done to me,” he says without irony. I’m reminded of the reticence some have about easing student debt and other penalties; “I had to suffer, so why should these people not have to suffer the same?” The disregard seems to fluctuate depending upon how close one becomes to the prized top floor. Every month the inhabitants will randomly change floors, so someone who was closer to the top must now reconcile with being lower, and the food only goes so many floors before it’s picked clean. This perspective of being on the bottom doesn’t so much alter behavior as engenders a ravenous sense of “get what you can when able” to pervade. The people so many floors down will simply never even be granted the opportunity to eat unless those above change their consumption habits and sense of empathy. Nobody even knows how far down the floors go. 150? 250? More? Where is the proverbial bottom?

The story is kept in a vague explanation but that doesn’t stop the fun. We enter with Goreng and learn as he does what this place does to its people. He learns the rules of this new reality which is part dystopian prison, part game, part experiment. The stated utility of such a place is rather hard to fathom, so it’s best that screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero keep the action confined to simply exploring the world within the vertical structure. There are a handful of flashbacks showing the interview process to enter the facility (Trimagasi is shocked to learn his floormate volunteered to enter such a place) but they are brief and could have been excised. This is one of those sci-fi conceits like Cube where the location is the story and simply learning more about how the day-to-day operates, its rules of functioning, its punishments, and the dangers is where the real draw of the story comes from. With the monthly reallocation, the movie keeps things interesting by dramatically changing Goreng’s standing. Just as it feels like he’s understanding his surroundings, they change, and force him into a new dilemma. When he’s stuck on a far lower floor one month, will he resort to cannibalism to survive? When he’s high above, will he use his fleeting power to enforce some social justice on the floors below, ensuring that lower floors get an opportunity to dine by rationing the food? Each new placement keeps things interesting and challenging for our protagonist, which is what good sci-fi should do.

Because of its general vague nature, The Platform relies more upon the strength of its ideas, metaphors, and discovery than on its structure for answers. There really isn’t an ending here. There is an end but it’s more symbolic and implicit than definitive, which makes sense considering that the preceding 94 minutes is running off metaphor and mystery primarily. The last act becomes either a foolish or brave attempt to make a difference despite the unique conditions of the location. The characters have theories and rumors, as well as a nagging suspicion that something has gone wrong from the original design, but they don’t know like the rest of the audience whether or not change is even possible from above. The ending is pretty open-ended and left to interpretation whether or not this attempt would even be recognized. Do the people who engineered this whole experiment/prison really care? It can spark discussion with friends but it’s also a development that might leave as many viewers unsatisfied by the lack of substantial answers or anything that can be viewed as definitive. Much like Cube, the space just carries on with more bodies and that invites sequel potential as well as a feeling of inertia that could also frustrate.

It’s a very limited space to work with but director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia has style to spare. The general claustrophobic setting is played to fine effect but the bizarre touches are what makes the movie feel almost like it was ripped from the world of anime. The floating table, so affectionately adorned with fine foods and platters, is such a startling central image. The red-light late-nights conditioned me to be on edge because of the danger of the flying platform returning. The gore is sporadic but very effective at ratcheting up the suspense or horror. There’s also the subtle visual comedy of discovering as we travel from floor-to-floor the personal items each inhabitant has brought with them for their extended stay. I loved the absurd nature of some of them, like a surfboard or a child’s inflatable pool. Why would people bring these items?

I’m glad Netflix is able to bring small, strange, foreign movies like The Platform to, arguably, the biggest audience platform in the world. It’s an easy movie to plug into because there is much to unpack and learn. I was never bored throughout its brisk 94 minutes. Even as the movie’s metaphors are heavy-handed, the movie doesn’t become so in execution. It’s operating on a pure level of discovery and rejecting the status quo. There is plenty of room to score easy connections with its thematic interpretations but the movie still just works even as a collection of vignettes in a very strange setting. It’s not in the same level of ambition as Snowpiercer but I’d place it on par with the byzantine Cube series. The Platform is an enjoyable movie that may not be rich in much than its themes and mystery, but during our national time of need, 94 minutes of well-executed weird can be just enough to satisfy the soul.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grades:

6 Underground: C-

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A

Marriage Story (2019)

Noah Baumbach is a writer and director most known for acerbic dramas with a very dark, pessimistic viewpoint. That changed somewhat once he began a filmmaking partnership with actress Greta Gerwig that began with 2013’s Frances Ha. Gerwig has since gone on to become an accomplished filmmaker in her own right with 2017’s Lady Bird, which earned her Oscar nominations for writing and directing. The partnership seemed to bring out a softer side for Baumbach and they became a romantic couple who had a child earlier in 2019. Hell, Gerwig and Baumbach are even circling writing a Barbie movie together. This is a changed filmmaker and he brings that changed perspective to Marriage Story. It’s very different from Baumbach’s other movie about divorce, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. I found that movie difficult, detached, and hard to emotionally engage with. Marriage Story, on the other hand, is a deeply felt, deeply observed, and deeply moving film experience that counts as one of the finest films of 2019.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are heading for divorce. He’s a successful theater director. She was a successful movie actress who relocated to New York City and has gotten an offer to shoot a pilot in L.A. Both say they want what’s best for their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) but this will be tested as Charlie and Nicole push one another for what they feel is their best version of their family.

The observational detail in Marriage Story is awe inspiring. I was floored by how involved I got and how quickly, and that’s because Baumbach has achieved what few filmmakers are able to, namely present a world of startling authenticity. There is a richness in the details, small and large, that makes the entire story feel like you’ve captured real life and thrown it onscreen. I wouldn’t pry but Baumbach himself went through divorce around the time he was writing this, and I have to think some of those feelings and details seeped into this screenplay. Baumbach’s direction favors clarity and giving his actors wide berths to unleash meaty monologues or dynamic dialogue exchanges. The writing is sensational and every character is given a point of view that feels well realized. Even the combative lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta) have perspectives you can see why they’re fighting for what they believe is right. But it’s watching Charlie and Nicole together that brings the most excitement. Watching the both of them onscreen allows for so much study of the little histories behind their words, their gestures, their impulses, and they feel like a great mystery to unpack. It feels like a real relationship you’ve been dropped into and left to pick up the histories and contradictions and all the rest that make people who they are.

It’s very easy and understandable for divorce dramas to essentially pick sides, to present a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist, like 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s easier for an audience to have a clear side to root for and a clear villain to root against, someone who they can see is more responsible for this breakdown of the family unit or for the infliction of emotional pain. What Baumbach does is something rare and exceedingly compassionate; he makes us like these two people as a couple in the opening ten minutes so that we can see how they could have shared a loving relationship for so long. The opening is mirrored voice over where each spouse narrates what they love or admire about the other person, and by doing this it’s like we too get to see these people in this adoring light. It’s like a ten-minute love letter and then it gets ripped away. However, by starting with this foundation, Baumbach has invested the audience immediately. We care about both of these people because we’ve seen them at their best, and now as things get more acrimonious and harder, it hurts us too because of that emotional investment. Marriage Story does not adopt a side or ask its audience to choose. It presents both parties as essentially good people but with their flaws and combustibility that point to them being likely better apart. That doesn’t mean they don’t still care for one another or have essential elements of friendship. A simple shoelace tying at the very end of the movie nearly had me in tears because of its everyday act of kindness. These are complex human beings with needs, desires, egos, pressure points, and we watch both of them struggle through a stressful process where they’re trying to do right but that definition keeps morphing with every next step. If there are villains, it’s the lawyers, but even they are given degrees of explanation and perspectives to explain why they fight as hard as they do.

I have read several reviews that disagree with my “no sides” assessment, citing how the movie presents more of Charlie’s perspective during Act Two, and this is true. The extra time onscreen, however, doesn’t erase his faults as a husband. The transition to this handover is Nicole unburdening herself to her lawyer (Dern) in a gorgeous seven-minute monologue. It’s a thrilling moment for Johansson as the character begins guarded and afraid of saying anything too harsh, and then as she starts talking it’s like you watch layer after layer get pulled free, allowing this woman to open up about her untended wants and desires and to legitimately be heard in perhaps the first time in a decade, and it’s so powerful and sympathetic and natural. To then think that Baumbach intends to portray this same woman as a villain seems like a misreading. The second act does involve Charlie being more reactive to the new obstacles of divorce, like being forced to hire a lawyer to officially respond, to start a residence in L.A., and to eventually be observed by an evaluator of the court. He holds to the belief that he and Nicole don’t need the acrimony, don’t need the pain, and that they can be adults when it comes to deciding their end. Whether this is naivety will depend on your own worldview, but holding to this belief gets Charlie playing catch-up a lot and having to roll with changes for fear of being seen as an uncooperative parent, like when Nicole’s friends don’t want to go trick-or-treating with Charlie present so he’s forced into a second later more pathetic outing. We do get to see Charlie beset with challenges but that doesn’t erase Nicole’s challenges too.

For a movie as deeply human as this one, it’s also disarming just how funny it can be. The humor is never cheap or distracting but just another element that makes Marriage Story so adept. While the movie has its lows, it can also find delicate and absurd humor in the moment, reminding the audience that life isn’t always doom and gloom even when things are going poorly. The sequence where Nicole and her sister (Merritt Weaver, wonderful) are bickering over the exact steps to legally serve Charlie divorce papers reminded me of a screwball comedy, how the nerves and fumbles of the characters were elevating the experience into touching the absurd. Nicole’s entire family is a great comedic array of characters including her mother (Julie Hagerty) who says she has her own personal relationship with her daughter’s ex-husband that she wishes to maintain. They even have pet names for one another (this brought back memories for me as I’ve had mothers of ex-girlfriends still want to talk with me weeks after their daughter dumped me). The legal asides are also filled with absurdist moments of comedy about double-speak and the arcane or idiosyncratic rules of divorce and representation in the courts. The sequence of Charlie being watched by the deadpanned court evaluator (Martha Kelley, TV’s Baskets) is a terrific example of cringe comedy. He’s trying to impress her but she’s generally unflappable, to hilarious degree, and it only leads to more miscues that Charlie tries to ignore or downplay to win her favor.

Make no mistake, Marriage Story is also one of the hardest hitting dramas of the year. Because we like both participants, because there is something at stake, watching them tear each other apart is a painful and revelatory experience. There is one gigantic confrontation that, like Nicole’s first confession, begins small and cordial and builds and builds in intensity, to the point where walls are punched, threats are unleashed, and both parties end in tears. It’s a thrilling sequence that feels akin to watching the defusing of a bomb ready to explode. Baumbach never feels the need to artificially inflate his drama, so we stick with that observational and compassionate ethos that has guided the entire film, even during the ugly moments. These are two people with pain and frustrations who both feel they have been wronged and are in the right. They’re both entitled to their pain, they’re both at fault for letting things get to this precipice, and they can both acknowledge that as well. Because even at their worst, Nicole and Charlie are still portrayed as human beings and human beings worthy of our empathy. They aren’t heroes or villains, they’re simply real people trying to navigate a hard time with conflicting feelings and needs.

The acting is outstanding. Driver (BlackkKlansman) is sensational and goes through an emotional wringer to portray Charlie, trying to stay above it all for so long and losing parts of himself along the way. His outbursts are raw and cut right through, but it’s also his smaller moments of ignorance, dismissiveness, or tenderness that linger, providing a fuller picture of who Charlie is, why one could fall in love with him and why one could fall out of love. I fully expect Driver to be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. He even gets to sing a Sondheim tune and uses it as a reflection point. A late moment, when he’s reading a particular letter, drew tears and got me choked up. He’s always been such a visceral actor, a man with a magnetic charisma and animalistic sense of energy that draws your attention. He’s finally found a role that showcases how brilliant an actor Driver can be. This is also easily the best work of Johansson’s (Avengers: Endgame) career. Let there be no doubt – this woman can be a tremendous actress with the right material. She’s struggling with her sense of identity, being tied to Charlie for so long, and “wanting my own Earth” for so long that the dissolution process is both tumultuous but also exciting for what it promises. Nicole can take those chances, her Hollywood viability still alive, and strike out doing the things she’s wanted to do, like direct. Her character has felt like a supportive prisoner for so long and now she gets to make a jailbreak. Johansson is an equal partner onscreen to Driver, trading the tenderness and hostility moment-for-moment.

This is Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date, and I adored Frances Ha. I was expecting a degree of bitterness from the normally prickly filmmaker, and that’s to be had considering the subject matter of divorce. What I wasn’t expecting was the depth of feeling and compassion that flows from this movie’s very steady beating heart. It feels real and honest in a way that a movie simply about the horrors of divorce and breakups and custody battles could not. Baumbach’s characters aren’t just meant to suffer and inflict pain, they’re meant to come through the other side with something still intact. I’d argue that Marriage Story, even with its suffering, is ultimately a hopeful movie. It shows how two people can navigate the pain they’ve caused one another and still find an understanding on the other side. Driver and Johansson are fantastic and deliver two of the finest acting performances of this year. Baumbach’s incredible level of detail makes the movie feel instantly authentic, lived-in, and resonant. I was hooked early, pulling for both characters, and spellbound by the complexity and development. There isn’t a false note in the entire two-plus hours onscreen. It feels like you’re watching real people. Marriage Story is a wonderful movie and I hope people won’t be scared off by its subject matter. It’s funny, empathetic, and resoundingly humane, gifting audiences with a rich portrait. It should be arriving to Netflix streaming by December 6, so fire up your queue and have the tissues at the ready.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Irishman (2019)

In 2018, Netflix crashed through Oscar biases with Alfonso Cuaron’s personal epic Roma and this year they have their sights set on even bigger prizes. The streaming service has built an empire of original content (and debt) and put up the $150 million budget for Martin Scorsese’s decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It’s a fitting reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino on top, well it all makes for one supremely entertaining and occasionally striking movie experience. However, I think some critics are getting a bit too carried away with their plaudits. While entertaining throughout its mammoth 3.5 hours, this is much more Casino than Goodfellas.

We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, it’s Frank Sheeran who says he pulled the trigger killing Hoffa (is this a spoiler?).

There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it can feel exhilarating. There’s a rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and mob politics, and once Hoffa comes onscreen the movie becomes something more and better. It’s just as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment. Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating. It makes a difference on its running time, making 3.5 hours feel more mercifully like 2.5 hours. Of course, once it’s released onto Netflix, I feel like its size and scope will become less unwieldy for viewers.

Because of that surfeit of detail, I think The Irishman would have better benefited from being adapted into a miniseries than as a single movie that happens to be 15 minutes longer than Titanic. The finished film feels rather episodic, like three movies attached into one; the introduction into a life of crime and rising in the mob, the friendship and fall of Hoffa, and the finale as an old man. All of these segments have genuine interest and compelling drama but I think they would have been even more compelling with a larger narrative canvas to play out upon. That way each episode could have its own beginning/middle/end and play its part adding to the larger whole, which is essentially what scenes should be doing anyway for a story. The problem is that The Irishman gets a little lost in its own minutia in the middle and the plot stalls. It feels a little too taken with itself. It feels like we’re experiencing the same information just in more settings. How many moments do we need to show Hoffa pushing away sound advice, making enemies of allies, and dooming himself? Admittedly, the Hoffa portion of the movie is the most compelling, and longest, segment of the movie. It’s the best because of Pacino’s spotlight and from the personal involvement in Sheeran, pushing his loyalties to the test when he genuinely grows close to Hoffa and realizes he’ll be the one that has to eliminate his friend. It’s the most dramatic and harrowing and most interesting part of the movie (and no, not the somber final 30 minutes). I think it would have had even more punch over the course of multiple episodes of material and momentum. By going the miniseries route, the film could have also stripped its second and entirely unnecessary framing device, having the men drive their wives across the Midwest to attend Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) wedding. The short scenes fail to lead to any import until it’s revealed late what also happened during this fateful weekend. It’s a long wait to justify its placement, and even after that it doesn’t feel like the occasional road trip updates were worthwhile.

Much has been made from several dazzled film critics and online pundits about the movie’s concluding half hour, which follows the “after” of a mafioso’s life. We got a taste of this in the conclusion of Goodfellas after Henry Hill and family were relocated to schlubby mundanity through witness protection, implying the boring life that awaited, but The Irishman dedicates its conclusion to demystifying these mob men. Few of them live to old age, so already Sheeran is the exception (he died at age 83 in 2003) but he’s also incapable of introspection. That gives the final half hour a change of pace and an air of contemplation but it’s stagnated. Frank’s family wants nothing to do with him, everyone from his earlier life has passed away, and he shows little regret for his life’s actions, shocking a priest, his only regular visitor. I suppose one could surmise the self-deluded and sad existence of this man who refuses to accept accountability, but I found this final thirty minutes to be interesting, yes, but far from revelatory. I think critics are doing a fair amount of projection by searching for some kind of tidy, accumulative meaning, as if Scorsese is providing some wise, decades-earned statement on his own famed works highlighting the flashy lives of very bad people doing very bad things. People are a little too desperate for The Irishman to provide that neat hook, that definitive statement, and it’s just not there. It may have been too “movie land convenient” but I was begging for a final confrontation from Peggy.

The de-aging CGI is the source of much of the film’s gargantuan budget, which was why studios balked before Netflix welcomed Scorsese with eager arms. The first display of the de-aging effect is jarring and jarringly bad. We see Pesci and De Niro as 40-year-old men and it’s initially horrifying. The effect looks wrong, like somebody drew over their faces to provide some degree of cell-shaded dimension (think of the video game Borderlands). There are also elements that will just never look right, namely the elasticity of the skin, which looks overly smooth and polished, reminding me of the doll faces of the stop-motion film, Anomalisa. It gets better from there. Interiors and lower-light environments are better at masking the unreality. After a while you simply grow accustomed to it and the characters are aging anyway, which means the effect is rarely used after the first half of The Irishman. It’s impressive at parts but even with the digital facelift, these are still 70-year-old men moving their 70-year-old bodies with new shiny faces. There’s a moment when a younger Sheeran beats and stomps on a grocer and it reminded me of professional wrestling with the stiff movements of one participant followed by the extravagant physical overreaction of the recipient. Captain Marvel is still the champ at actor de-aging.

There’s also the fairly strong possibility that Sheeran made all of this up. Well into his twilight years, he reportedly recounted his amazing tale to a medical malpractice lawyer before he died, and that became the 2003 book, I Heard You Paint Houses. An August 2019 article by Slate.com writer Bill Tonelli (“The Lies of the Irishman”) gives a pretty thorough rundown of the facts of the case, which align in one direction. All of the FBI agents during Sheeran’s time, as well as the local officials, and surviving criminal actors, all come to the same conclusion that Sheeran has grossly overstated his role in mob matters and outright fabricated his most sensational claims. According to Tonelli: “Most amazingly, Sheeran did all that without ever being arrested, charged, or even suspected of those crimes by any law enforcement agency, even though officials were presumably watching him for most of his adult life. To call him the Forrest Gump of organized crime scarcely does him justice. In all the history of the mafia in America or anywhere else, really, nobody even comes close.” It does seem far-fetched, but the next question is whether the enjoyment of the movie matters at all if the story it’s based upon is ninety-nine percent hooey? While I think the impact of the movie is slightly blunted with a fictional account, it plays larger into a self-aggrandizing theme and the first framing device of the movie, having Sheeran narrate his life experiences as an old man, left to rot in a nursing home. Perhaps he’s exaggerating to make himself feel more important and grant himself something of a legacy that is denied to him by a lifetime of self-serving choices that have left him abandoned by family. In this regard, there’s a strange meta-textual level that even helps support the larger tragedy and loneliness of these men, in case you needed it underlined.

There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema. There are so many characters that it can be hard to keep things straight as we zip through decades, de-aging, framing devices, Boardwalk Empire supporting actors, prison time, nursing homes, and Jim Norton as a young Don Rickles. I wish the story had been parlayed into an epic miniseries rather than a movie. The finished film is certainly long and imposing but also compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and quiet role of his career. I wish he would continue acting. De Niro is suitably gruff and has a few scenes of trying to hold back a cascade of emotions, but he’s more our impassive face into a world of crime and vengeance. I don’t think the final conclusion has the power that others have claimed and is a result of projection. The Irishman is an entertaining deep dive that I only wish could have gone even deeper.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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