William X. Lee is an Ohio filmmaker who has found credible success on his own terms and over decades, a fact that deserves celebration. The writer/director knows the business of filmmaking as a genre specialist and has even become an adjunct professor of film at two different universities. With his many years on the fringes of the indie business, I expect Lee has a lot of wisdom about the particulars of the industry and finding a market that is welcoming to content that can be messier in execution. His latest movie in pre-production is called Bulletproof Jesus and, sight unseen, I legitimately love that title with my every fiber. His 2020 film, Black Wolf, literally involves a 58-year-old man having to track down and kill his high school bullies, all of whom miraculously grew up to become terrorists. That sounds hilarious. I believe Lee’s personal story is compelling and acknowledge that genre filmmaking could use more voices and visions from under served perspectives. However, the results on film show indifference or even disdain for accessible storytelling and entertainment value. Black Mamba is a 2019 supernatural action revenge available on Tubi, as many of Lee’s films currently are for free, and it’s indicative of the man’s sense of style and storytelling, both of which I have plenty to talk about in excrutiating detail.
Kyiera Stone (Angela D. Williams) was killed by local criminals. She’s brought back to life by angels who give her a second chance to exact revenge. Kyiera is pitted against an endless assembly line of villains that all want to return Kyiera to her state of decay.
I may sound like a scold, but it is near inexcusable that this movie is two hours long. Far be it from me to instruct a creative how much time they need to tell their story, but you have to think about an audience when you intend a platform for your efforts. What is going to keep someone glued to that screen and justify their investment in every one of your minutes? This is the kind of movie that can barely creak over the 80-minute feature-length finish line, and to push forward to two hours is excessive without an engaging story that needs that extra room to grow.
There is no real plot to speak of beyond our main character coming back to life to wreck vengeance. The movie is patterned after Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself patterned over hundreds of genre movies, but it’s like Lee said, “Well, why stop with five bad guys to overcome when you can have 100!” Black Mamba (also the code name for the lead in Kill Bill) is stuffed to the breaking point with villainous characters and some of them are even being introduced with ten minutes left. The critical hit involves like a half dozen bad guys, and then there are more bad guys, and then hell is introducing its own bad guys, and then there’s like a fighting champion from hell, and witches, and I stopped caring because every scene played out exactly the same. The settings may vary, the person might be different, though with a cast list of rogues as long as this one good luck keeping them straight, but the scene plays out exactly the same. Some evil character gets the jump on Kyiera and within a minute she will kill them. That’s it. That’s all there ever is in these confrontations, many of which are hilariously short-lived. At no point will you fear or doubt Kyiera because she never seems to be in danger of losing. It makes the entire two hours extremely boring and repetitive. It also makes the majority of its two hours expendable. Rare is a two-hour movie where I could legitimately say that you could cut it down by 90 minutes, and yet that is the case with Black Mamba. It’s a movie of treading water.
Some of this could be mitigated by providing characters with big personalities, memorable flaws or quirks, or even interesting killing utensils, but Black Mamba feels more like a ramshackle improv fest where actors are entering scenes as “characters” with props or costumes they just assembled off-screen. I love genre movies and I love the way characters can be written for genre. Watch the TV series Justified because it is a masterclass in writing for character. Every character, even the bit-part villain of the week, is written with a distinct voice, an identifiable trait, an angle, something to make them stand out and feel more like a flesh-and-blood person in the stylized, hard-boiled universe of the show. The movie’s extended running time could have devoted scenes to showing why we should fear certain characters, their killing techniques that we would then anticipate seeing how they are applied to our heroine. Think of every movie you can with crazy killers and you see them apply their killer skills early because that’s how you get to fear them. Just being told, “so and so is deadly,” without seeing them in action is dull. In Black Mamba, often characters are over explaining things for the sake of the audience or seeming to narrate what is happening on screen. The dialogue is filled with profanity because it feels like nobody knew what else to say from scene to scene. There aren’t any tense exchanges and showdowns or clashes of viewpoints. It’s all just yelling, boasts, and non-clever insults.
The story doesn’t make much sense. There are angels that bring back Kyiera because it’s “not her time,” but then they want to use her in a celestial war? Was she lied to by the higher authorities in order to manipulate into an ongoing and endless war between heaven and hell? Is this a high-concept version of Munich and Kyiera is being used to perpetuate endless conflict regardless over culpability? No, well at least I doubt it. The larger workings beyond our heroine are left vague and seemingly shifting. The first thirty minutes could have been consolidated to ten to introduce the premise of Kyiera dying and being resurrected, but then there’s nary a section that couldn’t be consolidated, like the litany of interchangeable supporting characters.
Halfway through the movie, we suddenly jump to hell and it doesn’t really alter the direction of the story but only provides more witnesses to commentate on the action. This is where Esmerelda comes in. She’s the queen of hell and played by Dawna Lee Heising, a 65-year-old actress who got her (un-credited) start as a stripper in Blade Runner and has a long list of campy T&A roles in low-budget genre fare. She feels like the production’s big “get” and so she gets a lot of unnecessary screen time. The character is annoying and the entire addition of hell as an environment feels tacked-on. I thought I knew who the big bad final boss was, and then hell is introduced with its own cadre of damned killers, and I didn’t know who the final boss should be. There’s no feeling of a direct line for Kyiera’s goals. Think again to Kill Bill as a prominent example. She had a small list, each name crossed off brought her closer to her biggest target, but each became harder to accomplish and more personally reverent as she climbed the ladder of revenge. There was a feeling of progression and payoff as The Bride worked through her bloody vengeance. With Black Mamba, she’s inundated with one face after another, but you never feel progression because the movie only feels like it’s stuck in a Sisyphean loop of disposable foes. The structure of this movie doesn’t have the groundwork to provide forward momentum.
The first thing you’ll notice about Black Mamba right away is the choice to up the contrast so high that it may hurt your eyes at time. There are times where the color contrast is so extreme that it obfuscates what is happening on screen. You’ll see faces disappear into shadow in a room, and not in a way that feels intentionally ominous, and every time a character is driving outside it looks like an atomic bomb is going off in the background. It’s chiefly a distraction and an ugly one and one that feels like it was done to make the footage look more like a grungy grindhouse movie of old. Going for a specific visual aesthetic is a fine marker, but when it harms the clarity of what is happening then maybe it’s worth revisiting. There are simple things that could have been done to better orient the viewer. The color contrasts and color palette could have better been paired with specific locations so that the audience knows exactly where they were or whose story they were following, much like in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. We even literally have the denizens of hell as one frequent setting, so why not crank the contrast high and more fiery in colors, favoring oranges and reds, and then go for a cooler color palette for action on Earth? Or even have a section that isn’t contrasted to death? It’s a stylistic choice that grates severely.
I would be forgiving of some of the obvious technical limitations for a low-budget indie aiming for the feel of other classic low-budget indies, except that, reportedly, Black Mamba had a budget of $250,000. When I read that I burst out in incredulous laughter. Maybe it was a decimal error, or maybe Lee was very generous and paid his sizeable cast and minimal crew handsomely, or maybe there are other reasons why a quarter of a million dollars does not, in the slightest, look to have been translated onto the finished product. Where did all that money actually go?
I’ve been watching enough micro-budget indies in my pursuit of reviewing homegrown cinema that I feel more adept at better gauging a potential budget. There are locations to consider, though Black Mamba seems to reuse a lot of empty warehouses, alleyways, and church parking lots, and there is action to consider, though Black Mamba uses a lot of plug-in special effects and limited fight choreography, and there are actors to consider, which Black Mamba has in excess, and there is the general professionalism of the look and sound of the movie, which Black Mamba is definitely lacking. There are persistent sound issues (the louder yelling is so screechy and high-pitched that I had to cover my ears) and there is a dearth of editing coverage. Apart from the fight scenes, it feels like every scene was designed with one shot in mind to connect directly to the next. This can make things awkward in conversations that would flow better with alternate angles rather than one person with their back to the camera or in extreme close-up. I geuss it just didn’t matter or they didn’t have the time, and yet with the budget being reportedly a quarter of a million dollars? This movie feels far more like a $10,000 budget indie than $250,000. To be blunt, I have watched movies with budgets under $15,000 look and sound much better than this quarter-million-dollar movie.
I thought about watching other Lee original movies available on Tubi but I only watched about 15 minutes each of 2017’s Six Feet Below Hell, 2016’s King Killer, and 2008’s Kill Every Last One. I don’t think I could take watching all of these movies even for objective review purposes, each of which appears to have the same faults and high contrast value as Black Mamba (one of those films is an astounding 133 minutes long!). While designed to be sold, these movies do not feel designed to actually be watched and enjoyed. There are no real characters to fall in love with, conflicts to draw intrigue, or well-developed plots to thrill and surprise. These movies feel like empty product to line an endless array of schlock DVD shelves.
This brings me to my final complaint registered at Black Mamba. More than halfway through the movie, yet another character is introduced, this time a formidable fighting champ from hell. Upon hearing the man’s name, the queen of hell falls onto the floor and begins gyrating in pleasure, moaning the man’s name and declaring him to be an amazing god among men. This character is played by none other than… the writer/director himself. I almost walked away from the movie at that point. It’s difficult to critique something like Black Mamba. The people involved don’t seem to have any aspirations that what they were making was serious, and yet maybe they should have taken it more seriously. Because of the punishing two-hour length, because of the repetitive and stretched thin plot, because of the over population of unmemorable and disposable characters, because of the technical flaws that still persist after a decade of filmmaking, because of the lack of accessibility for providing an engaging story and characters for an outside audience, and because of its reportedly sizeable budget, I regret to deliver my first failing grade for an Ohio-made indie. I wish Mr. Lee and his team well but this is assuredly a case where if you’ve seen one of the man’s movies, you’ve seen every one of the man’s movies, and unless you were in these movies, you shouldn’t watch them even for irony.
Nate’s Grade: F
In the time I have spent making a concerted effort at reviewing Ohio-made indie movies, I have yet to watch one that amazed me and earned an A-grade. There are several that are enjoyable, others admirable for their technical professionalism, and many that have glaring factors beyond limited budgets that hold back whatever the intended artistic intent was. I was excited with genuine hope for Holler, a small movie shot entirely in Jackson, Ohio and following the lives of a struggling band of small-town metal scrappers looking to survive. It’s the debut feature from writer/director Nicole Riegel (based upon her 2016 short film of the same name) and has recognizable TV actors involved like Jessica Barden (End of the F***ing World), Pamela Adlon (Better Things), Austen Amelio (Dwight from The Walking Dead) and Becky Ann Baker (Girls, Freaks and Geeks). It’s even getting a wide release nationwide through IFC Films, who graciously provided me a screener link. If any movie felt like it was going to breakthrough and become the first truly outstanding Ohio indie, this seemed like a major possibility. Unfortunately, Holler doesn’t merit hollering.
Ruth (Barden) is a high school senior in a small southern Ohio town wracked by poverty, factory closures, and the aftereffects of the opioid epidemic. Her mother (Adlon) is serving time in prison for her drug offenses when she should be in a treatment center. Her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) is resigned that he’ll work himself to nothing, but he wants a better life for his bright sister and submitted her college application. Ruth and her brother join Hank (Amelio), a local scrapper who offers extra work for side projects stripping the parts from closed buildings.
While watching Holler, I noticed my heart was sinking because, even with all this professionalism and authenticity on board, I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in, and then I noticed an hour had passed and I realized, “Oh, this is the movie.” I have seen this artistic calculation with indie movies before and articulated it succinctly with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild: “sacrificing story to the altar of realism.” This feels like a very authentic movie as far as its hardscrabble details about how impoverished people in small towns eke out a life on the peripheral of society. I know people have been pushed to the brink because of desperation, whether economic or psychotropic or beyond, and that scrapping can be a dangerous and competitive landscape to make a few bucks. When you’re struggling to get by, it’s all about what can lighten that struggle. If stripping the copper wire out of an abandoned building is more profitable, and less time-consuming, than bagging aluminum cans all over town, then it seems like a natural attraction to those with limited options. However, Holler feels less like a movie with a story needing to be told than a stark setting with an impression to leave.
The characters are too interchangeable and one-dimensional here to really invest in beyond general well-wishing. These small-town Ohioans have been hit hard by circumstances and as I was watching I wanted them to find some degree of happiness or improvement by the end, but that was because they were simply people in need and I am an empathetic creature and not because of their personal stories or characterization. It would be the same as if I had watched 90 minutes of a lost puppy trying to find shelter and then, at long last, that puppy got to sleep inside a coffee shop. I’m happy, and relieved on a general level, but am I personally invested in this specific animal and this specific story? Could it have been any living being at all?
The characters of Holler are far too generalized where they keep repeating that same nub of characterization they’ve been given. The entire dynamic seems to be a universe of characters who exist to try and convince Ruth that she is better than everyone and deserves to leave. In an early scene, we watch Ruth sit down and write an essay for a friend to use as her own homework. It’s an early indication that Ruth is smart and not fulfilling her potential. It’s not her homework she’s completing but a friend’s and for money, money she initially refuses from pride. Unfortunately, the movie forgets to continue moments like this to provide further insights. Ruth is too often a walking cipher, taking in her dilapidated surroundings with alternating pensive and glum stares. She is more a symbol than a character, meant to serve as a face of those held back by economic anxieties and limited opportunities. Her mother is a symbol of the wreckage of the opioid crisis and how it has decimated rural communities. Her brother is a symbol of generational sacrifice. These characters don’t have complicated internal drama or intriguing contradictions or anything beyond the surface description because they’re designed to be specific voices meant to convey a Greek chorus of opinion. They’re sides of conversations made flesh rather than interesting or complex people. I wanted to become attached to Ruth’s plight especially as she embarks on performing more dangerous tasks for money with her scrap crew, but you never feel any real added danger or for that matter any real change. When Ruth is out scrapping in the middle of the night, the movie treats it no differently. When Ruth finally makes her decision about her life, it doesn’t feel like the culmination of her emotional journey and more so the character finally accepting the pleas of others over the course of 85 minutes.
The obvious artistic comparison point for Holler is 2010’s Winter’s Bone, another movie that explored in unflinching detail the degenerative disease of systemic poverty. Once again, we follow a young woman trying to provide for her broken family in the wake of a parental drug addiction and trying to stay one step ahead of debt collectors and eviction. Another artistic influence seems to be 1970’s Wanda, an indie featuring a housewife walking away from the malaise of her life in small-town coal country Pennsylvania. The difference with both chief artistic influences is that they had, quite simply, movies to tell with their big screen canvas. With Winter’s Bone, there’s an urgency where the protagonist has to find her absent father in short order to save her family home but also because he has made some very scary meth dealers very angry, so the way to save her family is literally to turn over the man who abandoned them to ruin. There’s a strong sense of personal stakes, there’s a ticking clock, and the themes tie into the emotional journey of our main character. With Wanda, the main character is the one abandoning her husband and children and she takes refuge with a bank robber on the run. With each of those descriptions, you can see the movie there, the reason why this story deserves your time.
With Holler, I kept waiting for some turn or escalation or something to draw out the movie. The movie feels stuck in an expository gear I would associate with Act One territory and then it ends. I really thought more would be made of the illegal scrapping-for-money angle and whether this would present our lead character with increasingly fraught choices over her well-being. I thought maybe her descent into the criminal side of desperation would force more confrontations or consequences. Maybe there would be another crew that didn’t take too kindly to an entrepreneur muscling in on their hard-won turf. Maybe she would have to hide her injuries as she got more reckless. Maybe she’d even risk getting caught by the law and serving time in prison. Anything to offer insight into this less known world of scrapping. I regret to say that the angle that gives this low-budget indie its very hook could have been replaced with any other arbitrary plot element. Ruth could have been finding lost dogs or stealing cars or selling her bath water to perverts on the Internet. The circumstances of her personal choices are so generalized and don’t produce enough direct cause-effect relationships. The events fail to feel meaningful. The solution to Ruth’s dilemma also seems as generalized – go to college. What is she going to study? Does she have a career in mind? Does she even have personal interests? She rejects one teacher’s recommendation to avoid a crushing load of student debt and to learn a skill and work up, so then what is she going to do with tens of thousands of dollars in debt attached to her name? I understand that education is aspirational and one of the few things in life that, once gained, cannot be taken away, and I champion education as a person working within that sphere. However, “get out of economic desperation by just going to college” seems naively simplistic.
Holler is admirable for its grit and empathetic with the struggles of its people. It’s professionally made with a strong score by Gene Beck (Cowboys), all mournful strings applied to lived-in details that feel authentic to the region and these inhabitants. Even the angle of scrapping-for-money seems ripe for exploration to separate this little movie from the pack of poverty pictures. It’s the storytelling that cannot live up to the good intentions of those involved. The characters are too one-note, symbolic, and disposable, and the story elements are likewise too interchangeable and lacking in meaningful connections. It’s a small-town girl who must decide to leave home to take on massive student debt (happy ending?). Anything that happens in the prior 85 minutes feels like variations on the same point being made repeatedly and without nuance or complication or contrast. It feels less like a movie and more like an expanded short absent the substance to justify its expansion. I think Riegel has promise as a filmmaker and I hope more attention goes to her characters and plot for future projects. I must continue to wait once again for that elusive Ohio-made amazing indie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In many ways, the Cleveland-made indie Immortal Combat feels like a bigger version of what a bunch of little kids might accomplish with a camera, a backyard, a bunch of pretend weapons, and a lively imagination fed from martial arts epics and actions movies of old. There is a certain charm to it, escaping into the pure play of childhood, including wrist devices that are merely tapping your bare wrist, but as an actual movie, it might have some problems. Look, this is a martial arts action movie. You watch a martial arts action movie to be entertained with the feats of action, and that’s what you should be looking for with any movie with “combat” in the title (albeit in a misguided font that looks like a child’s chalk). On that front, Immortal Combat is flawed but still passable entertainment, though it feels like a project that was never intended to entertain more than its own select cast and crew.
Neil (Ben Zgorecki) is a member of the villainous Four 11 gang. He’s tasked with infiltrating the rival Five Elements gang but he turns against his former gang. The Five Elements have come into possession of a code that will save humanity from environmental disasters. The world is running low on breathable air and implantable medical devices are malfunctioning. The gangs are going to war to control this code and thus control the trajectory for mankind’s future.
The performers have physical skills they have honed over years, and director Johnny K. Wu (Innserself) emphasizes angles and cuts to fully appreciate those skills. There are extended shots where you can admire how much the performers practiced and memorized their routines. However, that deference also comes at the expense of the vitality of the action as depicted on screen. Because we’re at a medium range or farther distance, because there are longer takes, we’re watching the actors perform and realizing just how slow everyone is with their pacing. Without quicker cuts, the energy level of these fights comes across as too often lackluster, with many of the fighters just kind of hanging around and treating these battles as less life and death and more like a grocery aisle they cannot commit to. I can appreciate someone doing a fancy spin kick from a technical standpoint, but it feels less impressive when everyone else around them seems gassed or drugged in response. There is a lot of fighting in Immortal Combat but the editing and staging choices make it feel less believable, exciting, and potent. That’s why it feels like a bunch of grown-up kids running around, falling over, and continuing their pretend fighting rather than something, say, along the lines of a John Wick, an action franchise that is built around the appeal of expertly executed fight choreography.
The plot of Immortal Combat, written by Wu, Andras Zoid, and Linda Robertson, ignores the first rule of hidden conspiracies and alternate fantasies, which is to shepherd your audience gradually and not to make assumptions. I see this plenty of times with fantasy films that incorrectly assume an audience has as much understanding as the filmmakers do about the histories of their world, the intricacies, the rules and challenges, etc. A new world, or a conspiracy, needs to be unraveled slowly and in pieces to be accessible, to not overwhelm the audience. We need the right components as if they were building blocks, creating a sturdy foundation to attach new information and new rules and lessons. If you have a mysterious Chosen One, you don’t vomit up every last bit of expositional know-how right away, you have to draw things out at a natural, inclined pace. With Immortal Combat, we have an entry point into this new world through the rather non-intimidating character Neil (a.k.a. “Cloud”). He’s our learning curve. The problem is that Neil just runs with any information at once and this presents a confusing overload. The world of Immortal Combat resembles ours except there are martial arts gangs, some of them with elemental powers, or at least names, and a vast corporate conspiracy with implanted medical devices and environmental disaster, but the communication of these elements is so muddled that I kept having to rewind the movie to try and follow. Take the opening narration as an example:
“IN OUR future, one simple breath could mean life or death. As we search for a solution, pollution engulfs our world. If we don’t find an answer fast, all living things shall perish. We are the Five Elements, we strive to protect humanity… Years ago, many warriors came to us seeking change, joined our way of life. Right after, A Code was discovered that could save the world and was injected into one of us. We even lost one of our clan’s mate. Now we must fight for our lives to bring the code – to the world…or die trying. With the MediCan Research Corporation and The FOUR 11 gang on our tails….We must protect the code….AT ALL COSTS.”
I guess the pollution is killing everyone, yet we don’t really get a sense of this impending and immediate danger because life seems pretty normal; people are hanging out at bars, strolling around, not rationing what might be their final breath. Because of this pollution, a corporation is looking for a solution for its implantable medical devices, yet why is this even introduced except to provide another batch of shadowy bad guys with a plot crowded with shadowy villains? The corporation wants a solution, a code, which is what the heroes have, and the heroes want to get the code out to save humanity, so why aren’t they actively working together? Why introduce two sides who have the same goal if they are never going to meaningfully interact? I suppose the evil corporation would exploit the code for profit, but why not express this through actions? Also, why is this world-saving code only injected into one person rather than, say, uploaded to the Internet? Why risk your only vessel containing the world-saving magic code getting hit by a bus? If the goal is proliferation, there seems to be more safety in diversifying the code-carriers. The rival evil gang, the Four 11s, are a criminal syndicate but their leader has a sick child. Wouldn’t this code also help cure this child? Why are all these organizations working against one another? The world building of this universe feels cluttered and confusing and lacking narrative purpose. It resembles a little kid making up the rules as they go for a game you didn’t recognize.
As Neil is introduced into the Five Elements gang, we’re inundated with names but not so identifying personalities and things to better cement the deluge of characters. We have Cloud, Water, Earth, Fire, Wood, Gold, and if you forced me to identify who was who I would not even under penalty of law. There are so many characters in this movie and very few, if any, leave a favorable impression at all. They are repositories of kicks and punches and the occasional grunt. Water (the exquisitely named Crystle Paynther Collins) keeps bringing up her dead sister to the point that I waited for her to reference it every time she was onscreen, and she did not disappoint. Naming your main character Neil, and sticking him in khakis to perform martial arts, made me laugh. It’s not that his code name “Cloud” is that much more intimidating. When you introduce characters in movies, it’s a good idea to give them a moment to set them apart, and through action, which will better convey who they are and through visual storytelling. This is one of those movies where a character says, “You need to see Earth and Gold or else Wood and Fire will combust,” and you just shake your head and try and determine who these people are and what are their connections. It’s clumsy writing and there are too many characters to keep track of without stronger involvement. After watching 80 minutes, everyone just blurred together into People Who Kick (except for Neil and his mighty fighting khakis).
The problem with Immortal Combat is the same I’ve seen with other low-budget indies, namely that these movie projects were not made for a mass audience. They play like an insular group project for friends and family of the production, people who are already in the know and on board, and the writing and development are tailored for this narrow band rather than a broader outside audience. To make a movie for others, you’d have to carefully explain your plot in a way that would be engaging, clear, and escalating, with characters distinguishable by personality, goals, and choices, and you’d want to integrate them in meaningful ways that also push our protagonist or heroes to victory. You’d have to put the work in to make it an actual movie. Immortal Combat feels like it was made strictly for its friends and family, like finding excuses to squeeze in extras for gang group shots despite the fact that the very presence of “non-threatening-looking” members calls into question the hiring practices and determination of this vicious martial arts gang. When people who look like your ordinary neighbors are in a martial arts gang, do you fear them? This also extends to our invisible special forces team. Some of these guys have a noticeable deficit in their effort or duty to their job. There’s nothing wrong with creating art with a small intended audience. I’m sure corporate offices make little videos all the time only intended to play to their employees. If you’re thinking beyond your immediate circle, however, then you must put more thought into your storytelling choices and make the plot and characters matter rather than finding room for everyone to fit onscreen.
Immortal Combat plays like an overextended martial arts demo reel and a plot was strung together to justify more and more exercises, resulting in a calamitous collection of confusing characters that are nearly interchangeable and often extraneous and expendable. The impact and excitement of all that martial arts choreography is blunted somewhat by the choices how to present the fighting and revealing the lackluster energy levels of some of the performers. I know in reality that fight sequences are often at a slower speed when filmed, same with car chases that typically only go at speeds of 30 miles per hour, but you make choices to obscure those nagging parts of reality to maintain the illusion that these kicks are furious and these cars go fast. It’s the same thinking when it comes to casting and crafting a story that naturally widens rather than simply polluting it with more names and faces that will only leave a dent for making dents. It looks like the actors and people behind Immortal Combat had fun making a movie, and to that end I have no qualms with any of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the elements to reach beyond its circle.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Side note: the poster for this movie is wildly inaccurate. Like amazingly inaccurate. There are no characters in the movie resembling those on the poster, which definitely seems designed to be the Asylum version of Mortal Kombat.
As I’ve been tackling more Ohio-made indies recently, I’ve gotten to know local filmmakers and started having films suggested for me by people within he local film industry, and as I’ve watched more and more that do not work, I’ve begun to dread writing these reviews. Nobody wants to be the killjoy after so many people have sacrificed time and money to bring a movie to life. It’s hard work. Ride or Die is a low-budget indie written and directed and edited by Aly Hardt (Lilith) and filmed in Cincinnati. It’s currently available on Amazon streaming but I wouldn’t advise a casual viewing. It’s confused and meandering and hard to process what is happening frequently without attachment to compelling characters.
Ashley (Vanessa Allen) is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her bestie, Mandy (Hannah Brooks). When a boyfriend mistreats Mandy, that’s when Ashley takes matters into her own hands. She kills an abusive (ex?)boyfriend (Raavian Rehman) and the witness, a girl he was dating called Lemonade (Celeste Blandon) too. Ashley hides the bodies and learns shocking secrets from Mandy that make her reconsider everything she knew about her BFF.
Ride or Die could support a hasty drinking game because scene-to-scene you have no idea what to expect. That can be a bonus if your tone allows for it like a mystery that keeps you upended or a wacky comedy, and for a short period of time I thought that this indie was headed in a black comedy direction. After our protagonist has killed two people within ten minutes, she’s beset by another interloper, a woman who works at a café delivering food (without a car?) and needing a ride. Ashley, who has just stashed bodies in her trunk, reluctantly agrees to help, and as this new woman is yammering away about any topic that enters her brain, I started to wonder if this was what the rest of the movie would be like, a series of outrageous pile-ups that result from the opening murder, becoming harder and harder to cover-up. Nope. After this scene, and the “comedy” of mistaking the blood on Ashley’s fingertips as a sign of her menstruation (“It must be a bad period. I just finished mine.”), we will never see this self-involved whipped cream-loving woman again, and we will never really cover the tone of intentional comedy again short of a no-nonsense Uber driver. Ride or Die wobbles severely from tone to tone, never settling down, and feeling inauthentic whatever the current tonal footing featured. As things were getting serious, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something ridiculous would happen to ruin it. As things were crazy, I knew it was only a matter of minutes before something self-serious and disjointed would happen to ruin it. If you’re expecting constant tonal self-sabotage, then you won’t be disappointed with the results of this wildly messy 76-minute experiment. Tone switches can work, even serious to darkly funny as demonstrated so skillfully in Promising Young Woman. This movie just can’t manage the abrupt shifts.
The worst part for me was how these tonal shifts and creative decision-making harmed the thematic implications around domestic violence. There are serious subjects at play with Ride or Die and I don’t want to say that humor cannot be found in even the most uncomfortable of topics. It just requires a deft touch, a touch sorely lacking from this movie. In the first TEN MINUTES alone, we endure watching Mandy get assaulted by her bad boyfriend, Ashley gets assaulted by her bad father or step-father (Chris Dettone, Confiend), and then Ashley murders two people, one of whom admits to being a victim of rape from high school before inexplicably falling head-over-heels for Ashley. The first three women introduced onscreen are all victims of sexual abuse. It’s a lot to handle, and I was worried this path was going to continue and every female character introduced would have their own story, not because this would be unlikely from a statistical standpoint of unreported assaults but because it would possibly approach self-parody through blunt overuse.
However, the good intentions of highlighting the struggle to reclaim your identity after sexual abuse is seriously compromised by a late revelation (spoilers to follow, you are warned). After getting drunk, Mandy reveals that she really appreciated the ferocity of protection from her bestie, so she would lie about past abuse from past boyfriends so that Ashley would “take care of her.” She even admits to giving herself the black eye she sports for most of the movie. In a post-Me Too era where victims are fighting to be heard, it’s morally queasy to have a main character falsify numerous assaults for attention. Any good feelings I had for this movie vanished after that point. I don’t know if Mandy fully understood what Ashley would do in response but she had to pick up some disconcerting theory considering all these people went mysteriously absent after Mandy’s accusations. Either her selfish ignorance has led to all these supposedly innocent people being harmed and/or killed or she knew what the consequences would be and set them up for deadly retribution. Whatever the scenario, Mandy is an irredeemably bad person and I couldn’t care about her whatsoever, not that the prior development meaningfully rounded her out. This happens at the halfway mark and the movie cannot sustain itself with 40 minutes after to spend. For a movie that features so many victims of sexual abuse dealing with the long-term effects, it seems very irresponsible to go this route while also trying to treat the topic with reverence.
Another ongoing problem that really tears apart Ride or Die is that there are so many moments that well and truly make no sense. The entire character of Lemonade is getting her own paragraph of confusion. Why does Lemonade respond at all like she does? Ashley has a gun against her head and threatening her if she doesn’t forget her face, providing an out, and Lemonade chooses this moment to come onto her attacker (“What if I don’t want to forget your face?” she coos). I accepted her confessing her own abuse as a means of eliciting sympathy from her attacker, but to get a horny case of Stockholm syndrome instantaneously is beyond bizarre. The kiss triggers Ashley to think about her father (or stepfather) and she kills Lemonade. This scene made me scream “what?” to my TV screen for several prolonged utterances. The entire Lemonade character makes no sense to me. Ashley is haunted by Lemonade’s pale ghost because, we’re told much later, she was her first innocent she killed. However, this confession is occurring directly after she learns about Mandy’s secret, meaning this is entirely false. Maybe beforehand she thought she was an innocent, fine, but why does this woman who spent exactly two minutes on camera before being killed merit such attention? Lemonade then becomes a personification of Ashley’s guilt or self-destruction, or maybe she is a ghost and looking for payback, either would be credible here. I laughed when ghost Lemonade brings it to Ashley’s attention that driving around in the stolen car of the person she may have just killed might not be the best decision. In this moment, the literal ghost trying to murder Ashley is also trying to be the voice of reason, because inexplicably Ashley needs to go dancing and find herself a companion at this exact moment. “I need this for me,” she says, trying to guilt the ghost whose job it is to guilt her. What is going on?
I kept expecting there to be, you know, consequences for the trail of bodies, but apparently the police in this universe can’t be bothered to investigate crimes with scads of physical evidence. I guess no detective has bothered to put together the coincidental nature of all of the men who Mandy goes on dates with or forms relationships with winding up missing. No worried family member? No nosy neighbor? If Ashley were like a professional at murder and body disposal, maybe I’d give her more leeway because she’s demonstrated that she knows what she’s doing after a wealth of experience. This is not the case. She chooses to store the dead bodies in her home, and not buried in the yard but in an accessible space where it’s only a matter of time before the smell spreads. The conflict of covering up the dead bodies feels resolved far too easily and without necessary tension. Because of this, the girl time spent between Mandy and Ashley can become insufferable and filled with awkward dialogue exchanges like, “Why don’t you ever talk about why your parents left you behind?” and, “Maybe this question’s more for me because I don’t know how to deal with losing my mom, and I know it’s not the same thing, but when my mom died, I was just crushed. I mean, your parents might as well be dead with what happened.” Characters explain things they obviously would already know with their years of BFF-ing, like asking to talk about your happiest childhood memory, which happens to be when they first met. The inauthentic, overly expositional dialogue is often a bad sign that a screenplay needs a few more drafts of work.
So much of this movie is built upon a friendship we’re repeatedly told is super close, but they interact less like friends who have known one another since the fourth grade and more like sorority sisters who have shared the same floor for a couple of weeks. The writing just isn’t there to sustain anything character-centric with Ride or Die, which is why the characters seem to flip flop at random in frustrating and annoying ways, when they too aren’t being frustrating and annoying. It’s a clear case of being told relationship importance and bonds rather than witnessing them. There are no real supporting characters. The off-screen grandmother is always heard and never seen and a one-joke character where the joke was never even funny. There are propagators of trauma, like the bad men of the past, and there are victims, like the all-purpose ghost, but it’s the story of these two women and they are so boring together even with repeated murder and cover-ups.
Ride or Die is unlikely to win over any fans who aren’t already personally connected with the indie production. There are definite technical limitations given the budget was only $16,000. The sets never seem to feel lived in. The dialogue often sounds like it was dubbed over. The music drones on and on and at a volume that needs to be dialed back. The acting is flat across the board, with Allen (Girl/Girl Scene) sounding overwhelmingly monotone no matter the intensity of the scene. Scrolling through the end credits, I noticed the same names appearing over and over. Most everyone on this crew worked four or five jobs to see Ride or Die get made. That’s commendable, but I have to ask what about this story deserved all their hard work and dedication? It’s the script that sinks this movie. We get stuff like a ten-second “in media res” opening when we simply get caught up within eight minutes. That’s not how that should work. Likewise, why even bother with a three months earlier/three months later timeline that only muddles things? Was it Ashley’s stepfather or father who committed her abuse? The movie needs clarity but it really needs a driving plot to tie things together. The confusing fantasies, the wildly fluctuating characters and tone, the meandering plot, the overwrought dramatic elements, it all starts to coalesce into a sporadically baffling example of modern camp. I hope everyone involved enjoyed working on this. I don’t think many others will find much to enjoy on the merits of its storytelling and execution. Unfortunately, it’s best left in the rear view.
Nate’s Grade: D
Indie drama The Turn Out frustrated me because I got excited by its premise and thought, “Here might be the first truly great Ohio indie I’ve watched for review,” and alas it let me down. It’s not a bad movie but it has such promising storytelling elements and to see them misused feels like a bigger regret than if the movie had never even had those important building blocks.
Jeff (James J. Gagne Jr.), a.k.a. “Crowbar,” is a hard-living truck driver also addicted to crack. He’s got a teen daughter, Amanda (Katie Stotllemire), and an exasperated wife, Kelly (Heather Caldwell), back home in southern Ohio. Crowbar is no stranger to the prostitutes that call truck stops their corner, but one young lady makes him reconsider his assumptions. He learns that Neveah (Regina Westerviller) is still in high school as well as in his own daughter’s class, and this revelation makes him contemplate whether he should get involved and help her.
Let’s take the central story of Crowbar and his relationship to the teenage prostitute, Neveah. If I were to tell you the movie was about a truck driver addicted to drugs who wrestles with what to do when he stumbles upon the reality of sex trafficking connected to truck stops, your mind already starts putting that movie together with clear arcs. It becomes something like a modern-day Western, where Crowbar is a man of the road, a contemporary high-plains drifter, and he makes the decision to reject his isolation in order to help this one girl. I asked my girlfriend, after describing the basic premise, what kind of relationship that Crowbar would have with his own teenaged daughter. “Oh, it’s got to be bad or non-existent, right?” she commented. You would think that but nope. He actually has a great relationship with his daughter, who is constantly trying to call and talk with dear old dad. See, if his relationship was poor and perhaps he had even elected to a life on the road rather than being a present father, this would force the character to confront his own life choices and legacies and see Neveah as a surrogate daughter he can save. You could argue it’s cliché and been portrayed in other neo-Westerns, but it works. The same confusion applies to Crowbar’s relationship with his wife. Our introduction to her is with the local police imposing a restraining order, which nobody throughout the movie takes seriously. The daughter frequently breaks it. The uncle who admonishes Crowbar about the restraining order will then enable Crowbar to break it to see his daughter at choir practice. He even meets up with his wife in a bar to reminisce about their relationship, which means even she is breaking her own restraining order. If everyone is going to be this flippant then why even bother with including it? A strained relationship between husband and wife can be communicated through other means. These are the kind of things that pecked away at the consistency, coherency, and natural dramatic potential.
As it stands, I don’t really know what the motivation is for Crowbar throughout The Turn Out. What is his motivation for getting better? He already has a positive relationship with his daughter and apparently a workable relationship with her mother, and that’s while he’s smoking crack. He is already in a good place with the people that he cares about, so now what? You could say his motivation is to save this girl he comes into contact with through chance, but this is hard to argue as well considering the amount of time he takes to take fledgling steps to intervene. For a solid hour of the 74-minute movie (pre-end credits), Crowbar meets with Neveah and even visits her home but her situation isn’t any different from the start. It should be obvious that her family knows about her and is supporting her prostitution or forcing her to turn tricks. Even that description is a disservice because it’s not like Neveah has much of a choice in these matters. She’s a victim too, and the fact that our protagonist just kind of hangs around until the very end when the bad people get even more obvious about being bad, it questions his thinking. Why does he take so long to call the police? Is it because of his own personal fear of getting caught as a drug user? Well, that could be avoided with an anonymous tip. When he eventually elects to kick his drug habit, your guess is as good as mine why this is the moment for him. It feels too arbitrary, like any of these events could have happened earlier as they lack direct cause-effect connectivity.
It takes far too long for Crowbar to actually assert himself and try and make a difference but we’re absent the inner turmoil to justify the delay. I think there was a character arc here where Crowbar had to reconcile with his own contribution to a culture that has allowed truck stop prostitution to flourish. He’s partaken with these woman (all adults, mind you, but did they start as adults?) and he even argues, “They make good money.” His own guilt could be a worthy exploration but it takes a vision of his daughter in a predator’s van and the entreaty of child prostitution to finally shake him from his doldrums, and then the movie is pretty much over (again, only 74 minutes total). Otherwise, it feels like we spend a lot of redundant time watching the man drift through his life, smoking plenty of crack, and occasionally running into Neveah and conversing with her. There are points that prove he’s changing, like brandishing his fellow drivers over the CB radio for their gross demeaning chatter, and he even gets that Big Movie Moment of Symbolic Torment, sitting in a shower. The problem with The Turn Out is that these momentary glimpses don’t feel consistent enough to matter. As a character, Crowbar is too dependent on his substance abuse as a defining characteristic, and yet it feels less like a burden or addiction to the man and more like a hobby to pass the time. It doesn’t feel consequential.
Again, the storytelling possibility was right there within reach, with his decision to save this young woman as the Act One break and not the climax of a relatively short movie. Then Act Two would have been them bonding and finding parallels and a genuine surrogate father-daughter affection over the course of a long road trip as Crowbar attempts to return her to the last vestige of her family that she left. Then, upon leaving her with this family in Act Three, Crowbar learns it’s just not as easy as that and that Neveah’s family might not be icky sex traffickers but they’re not helpful, and so he helps her set up an independent life and realizes he must now return home to mend his own relationship with the daughter he has left behind. Amanda should want nothing to do with her father rather than try and call him every chance she gets. Crowbar has nothing really to repair on this front, and the daughter is portrayed as a fawning fan who only jogs, tries to call dad, and sings in the choir. The same shrift characterization is given to every supporting player. Neveah wants to be an artist. She goes out looking for johns as a means of protecting her younger sister. That’s all we get as far as her inner life. It seems like a disservice to make this character so blank. I don’t understand Crowbar’s wife at all. I don’t understand why Amanda jealously cyber bullies Neveah because she sees her in a diner one time with her father, especially when dad hasn’t been playing favorites. I don’t understand why Crowbar seems to only be at the same local truck stop despite the nature of his job taking him all over.
The acting is a highlight of the movie and Gagne Jr. (When Skies Are Gray) delivers a convincing, lived-in performance. The very look of his hangdog face is enough to communicate what the screenplay doesn’t, the past years weighing on him, the accumulation of good times coming due. He’s also simply just got a great face for the part. He has some moments that test his resolve and I wish he had even more to push his acting prowess further. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls) has plenty of talent which is why I wish her character had some actual anguish to her relationship with her father. Caldwell (After) likewise gives a solidly conflicted performance that made me wish she factored more into Crowbar’s interaction and turmoil. My favorite actors ended up the one-scene characters that provided a dose of vibrant local color, the tweakers and addicts and vagabonds, the diner owners, the other truckers, the people that feel genuinely authentic and well chosen. Unfortunately, I was not as big a fan of Westerviller in her debut film role. I can’t tell if her performance is very monotone and inexpressive because of the actress’ limited range or as a directing note from director Pearl Gluck (Divan) to convey the numbness that Neveah felt. Either way, it presents a dilemma as her relationship is the most essential.
From a technical standpoint, The Turn Out is a very professional looking and sounding movie. The usual sound design headaches I find with local low-budget indies are nowhere to be found here, and the frequent introspective, country-styled songs by Chris Rattie add a really nice impression that makes the whole enterprise feels accomplished. The reported $200,000 budget might be the highest of all the Ohio indies I’ve reviewed. There are some beautiful shots from the cinematography of Stephen Balhut, Jon Coy, and Daniel Garee, especially at sunset and twilight. The look of the movie is rich with details, like the run-down stores, and the dilapidated Rust Belt small towns providing a broader sense of economic desperation. I was expecting the movie to tap into its own Hillbilly Elegy-style social commentary on the decline of the American worker through the reality of this truck stop and the women who work it. Gluck handles her directorial duties with sensitivity but without flinching from harsh truths either.
It may sound like I’m more negative than intended with The Turn Out, and this is merely because I’m disappointed by the squandered potential. A truck driver deciding to do right and help a young girl, the victim of sex trafficking, has so much dramatic potential it hurts. Even if you wanted to avoid a more traditional thriller route, this could have been a powerful character study of two lonely, hurt souls finding a comfort with one another over a long journey and being able to start a healing process to pick up the pieces of their lives. It would be the kind of character examination that thrives in indie film, and from a topic I cannot recall other movies touching, namely the rings of prostitution trapping women along truck stops. I’m sure everyone involved was coming from a good place and wanting to highlight and not exploit the reality of sex trafficking. Gluck even based her script on her extensive research with trafficking survivors. Alas, the storytelling miscues and dawdling pacing make the movie feel like an overextended news article. This is still a decent movie with authentic details, good intentions, and solid acting with some exceptions. However, it’s the screenwriting shortcomings that drag down The Turn Out from its real potential and turn it into a message in search of a stronger narrative.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Wager is a gob smacking example about the utmost significance of screenplay structure and a lesson for others to learn and avoid. I was beside myself with frustration from this 90-minute movie available on Amazon streaming, occasionally yelling at my TV screen, but mostly I was dumbfounded by the storytelling choices. The wager of the title, which is also prominently noted in the synopsis attached for the film, doesn’t even occur until 78 minutes in. That’s right, you don’t get the hook of the movie until the very end. This astounds me. The Wager is an Ohio-made faith-based indie that generally bored me and occasionally made me guffaw or scream in bafflement. I’d wager unless you’re already among the faithful flock, you’re going to be unmoved and more than a little mystified by this tone-deaf drama.
Bruce (Ty Shelton) is a young man abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. He gets into trouble at school and eventually gets plunged into a life of crime against his will. As an adult (Jim Gloyd), he’s strung out on drugs and resorting to petty robbery to find his scores. His childhood friend Suzy (Stephanie Haff) runs into him at a casino and offers spiritual outreach, but Bruce wants nothing to do with God. That is until an angel enters his life with a big bet about reliving Bruce’s tortured past with a new perspective.
If you’re going to present a Christian spin on the classic It’s a Wonderful Life formula, having a guardian angel intervene in a person’s life to show them a highlight reel of memories and what could have been, why wait until there’s only ten or so minutes left in your entire movie? Once Bruce does review his tortured life, it includes scenes we’ve already seen, including his birth, which begs the question why we needed to see these moments twice. It’s not like what came before this celestial review needed 78 minutes of undivided attention. For the first 15 minutes, all that happens is that an abused woman gives birth, drops the baby on the doorstep of the police, and the officers call social services. Did we need that to take up 15 minutes? From there we witness young Bruce getting in trouble at school and then being kidnapped (oh, there will definitely be more on this later) and living life as a drug dealer. We spend an hour establishing Bruce’s life as being awful, from child to adult, and it’s repetitive and deflating. How many scenes do we need to see of Bruce sleeping on the ground or shooting up drugs or being pushed around? Not only could the far, far majority of this plotting have been condensed considerably, it would have been more impactful to watch Bruce reflect on his experiences by re-living them rather than dwelling in the extended misery that made me wonder if this was going to be a modern-day passion play. Truly, imagine It’s a Wonderful Life but we spent an hour of watching George Bailey haggle over business practices with Mr. Potter. This central screenwriting miscue is just so catastrophic to the entertainment factor.
We could have easily established adult Bruce being a troubled man and the people of his past having difficulty recognizing the man they thought they knew from the movie’s start. This would establish that bad things have happened, and he could hint at more that he doesn’t want to reveal, and then the end of your first act could be him hitting rock bottom and getting his angelic intervention. We don’t need more than 20-25 minutes to establish how crummy this man’s life is. When given an hour, it just becomes too crushing and risks undercutting the message of personal redemption. Learning with the character about his life’s hardships would be more engaging with him having to come face-to-face with the them and his guardian angel partner. It also allows us to not have to be dependent on chronology and jump around to the major events we need to best define Bruce. This obvious structure makes so much sense that I am shocked the filmmakers missed out. Having an angelic guide would also force the character into conversation and confrontation and potential reflection, giving us better insight into the man than simply watching the events on our own without commentary. Simply put, you shouldn’t name your movie after a key plot event that happens in the last 15 minutes unless you’re a disaster movie and the Big One is finally striking.
The mistakes in plot structure also harm the overall slack pacing. The pacing is practically nonexistent for long portions. The energy level is so subdued that I thought I might just fall asleep. The camera movements will often utilize long takes and slow pans with minimal cuts, which just makes the lack of energy that much more palpable. So many dialogue exchanges sound like people are just reanimated zombies, and so much dialogue feels needlessly expositional. People talk in that phony way where they’re constantly repeating what the other person says but turning it into a question. It’s an inauthentic way of conversing that reminded me of Neil Breen’s silly films. Take these examples of poor onscreen conversations and see what I’m talking about:
“I have no clue what we’re going to do in Science today.”
“Me neither. I guess we’ll find out soon.”
“You’re right. See you there.”
Wow, did we need to be privy for that vital information? Or how about:
“I know you have your troubles, but I know you.”
“No, you don’t. That’s just how I act around you. I don’t think you know.”
“Just stop. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make excuses rather than accepting yourself for who you really are.”
Isn’t writing better when characters just blurt out another person’s internal dilemma for the audience? Or:
“He asked me for Herb’s Garage.”
“Oh yeah. I remember that place.”
“We all did. So, I didn’t expect a thing.”
We needed less time with scenes like these, where it feels like characters are detached and drifting with excess time to fill. There’s one long hallway exchange between a young Bruce and Suzy that lasts over a minute of chit-chat that feels like they’re just reading off the script. The performances have that rushed feeling, of sentences starting immediately after the next, but lacking an energy level that would justify the delivery. Simply put, when two or more characters are sitting down and talking, you might as well go get a refill or hit the bathroom. The chances will be good they will still be in that same sedate conversation and you will have missed little. This is why the structural choice to spend 78 MINUTES OF MOVIE on establishment scenes is so maddening, because writer/producer/co-star Gloyd did not have the material to cover the time.
Let’s get into what I think is the most egregious portion of The Wager and that is the lengthy middle where Bruce gets kidnapped and coerced into a life of crime. I thought we were headed for some Oliver Twist territory and we’d watch Bruce’s struggles over the pressure to commit criminal acts he was uncomfortable doing, maybe even while he schemed to escape. First off, the fact that the criminals are stereotypical depictions of black males made me sigh. I also was confounded why they placed so much emphasis on kidnapping teenagers and runaways to serve as drug dealers. When you have access to money and power, you have people that will come to you for opportunities (you’re a job creator). You don’t need to kidnap children and hold them hostage to sell your wares, especially having to worry whether they will run away or whether someone will recognize them as missing. It’s stupid risk. Considering these men just sit in the car and watch young Bruce make his first street corner deal, it’s not like they’re being terribly conspicuous.
And then there’s the undetermined time jump, which is revealed during one of those static camera angle montages. It’s a nice surprise; however, it means that Bruce has been sleeping on this same dirty mattress in the same room for, like, twenty or thirty years (also none of the items on the shelves moved in that same time, meaning Bruce never touched a thing in his living quarters or he is very, very particular about where things should go). The same crime bosses are still alive and in their same position of leadership. Bruce is now played by Gloyd in a horrendous looking ratty wig and I needed to know desperately how much time has passed. Gloyd definitely looks to be in his 40s, and this significant jump in time raises so many irksome questions. The police haven’t found adult Bruce in 30 years but the same officer who found him as a baby, who is still alive and working as a security officer, can recognize him on the spot? How old are these same criminal leaders then, and Bruce hasn’t ascended higher up the organization than street dealer? If we’re jumping that far ahead, wouldn’t it make more sense for Bruce to be the new leader, letting us know he has been molded under the negative influence of his captors? If he’s just going to be a drug-addicted adult then why do we need to jump so far ahead in time? The answer, it seems, is so that the writer/producer can have a starring role. That’s fine, but we could have done more structurally to maximize the drama rather than dwelling in redundant misery.
Let’s analyze the spiritual message at the heart of The Wager. Bruce’s life is pretty bad. He’s in and out of foster homes, gets abducted and held hostage as a criminal lackey, becomes addicted to drugs and desperate, and then homeless and contemplating suicide. He’s had, by all accounts, a hard go of things. He’s understandably resentful about the forces he feels have conspired to lock him into agony, so when other characters raise the notion of a loving God that has his back and watches over him, Bruce scoffs and views his life as refutation. There’s even a nature versus nurture argument to be had. In fact, the first time Bruce went to Suzy’s church was when he was abducted. The cop character tells Bruce he’s been praying for him since the moment they first crossed paths, but considering what Bruce has endured, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of prayer. Now obviously Bruce will conclude with accepting the love of God and finding a greater purpose with his life, but why did we need to wait so long? The end is never going to be in doubt with a Christian-themed indie any more than whether or not James Bond will get out of his latest scrape. That’s why refocusing the structure onto Bruce having to confront an angel over his feelings of abandonment from God would be far more dynamic, powerful, and I’ll say it, even Christian than the message as presented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith and credentials of the filmmakers. I’m saying the way they go about telling their story makes the overall message less believably impactful.
The acting in The Wager is typically rather flat, given that energy-sapping direction that makes each scene feel twice as long. However, there is one actor I want to single out and that’s Cameron Arnett (Overcomer) as the unfortunately named Gabe Angelus (get it?). Arnett reappears in different roles, my favorite being a batty homeless man that helps out Bruce from time to time. In that moment, Arnett is so believable and arguably natural even while playing a highly mannered character. He immediately drew my attention and I remarked, “Here’s a good actor.” As for the other thespians, it’s hard for me to tell whether they just didn’t get the material to showcase their skills or whether those skills are in need of polishing. I know KateLynn Newberry (Widow’s Point, Dark Iris) as the queen of Ohio indies, and she’s pretty much wasted as a doting wife who lives to ask her husband what he wants for dinner. Fun fact: one of the crime lords is played by former Columbus resident and famous boxer James “Buster” Douglas.
With The Wager, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Obvious dramatic setups seem to be sorely missed, a structural reformatting was in dire need to maximize the hook, because without that it’s like watching one poor man spiral and suffer for an entire feature-length film. It feels like overwrought overkill. Do we need a half-hour of a guy slinging drugs and sticking needles in his arm, without any supporting characters to interact with, or can this information be conveyed with practiced brevity? I am amazed at so many choices that left me scratching my head. The movie ends with our guardian angel staring into the screen and laughing maniacally for several prolonged seconds, even over the cut to black. What? This is the kind of behavior we associate with evil beings. Why do we need a flashback of a young girl running out the door when the adult version could have just relayed this event in words? I know Christian movie audiences aren’t exactly the most discerning audiences, prioritizing message over storytelling and technical achievement, but the decisions that the filmmakers make impair that faithful message. You don’t make an It’s a Wonderful Life story and just reserve it for the last 15 minutes. I advise select people to watch The Wager simply to learn what not to do with the importance of screenwriting structure. That’s its ultimate cautionary tale.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.
Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.
Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.
Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.
Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.
The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.
Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.
Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
So twenty years later, how is that war on drugs going? Considering the billions of dollars and countless lives that have gone into trying to stop the intricate infrastructure of supply and demand for the drug trade, the United States has little to show for its efforts. If anything, there has been a dawning realization of the futility of playing cartel whack-a-mole, removing one leader just for another to take their place in the supply chain. There have also been movements toward treating addicts rather than incarcerating them. The country has stubbornly become more accommodating and understanding of the ravages of addiction; it only seemed to take the spread of the opioid crisis where affluent families in the suburbs were affected personally. Tragically, it seems too many Americans have to have an “it could happen to me!” moment before their empathy for another person’s struggles kicks in. These relaxing attitudes have translated into recreational marijuana being legal in 15 states as of this review. Many other states have decriminalized marijuana, and Oregon has recently voted to decriminalize all drugs. It seems that in 2020, our concept of the war on drugs has dramatically changed. Some may find these developments an admission of giving up, of retreating from some moral duty, but others have concluded that maybe we’ve been fighting all wrong for 50 years and the only thing we have to show for our blood-soaked efforts is that multiple criminal elements got much richer.
It’s an interesting social and cultural landscape for going back and re-watching 2000’s Traffic, the last film on my re-watch of 2000 cinema. Times have changed and this is felt in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning ensemble covering the globe-trotting scope of the war on drugs. Traffic won four Oscars, including for Soderbergh for Director, Benicio Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor, and for editing and adapted screenplay. The only Oscar it was nominated for that it didn’t win was Best Picture, losing to Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic, Gladiator. It was an ambitious movie and had over 100 speaking roles. Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer and cameraman, bringing a docu-drama versatility to the movie that added its own sense of realism. 2000 was the year Soderbergh hit his critical peak. He was an indie darling from 1989’s influential sex, lies, and videotape and puttered throughout the 90s with small, personal, weird movies (I loved Schizopolis as a teenager), and then in 1998 he gained a new level of credibility providing sheen and heat to Out of Sight, the movie that cemented George Clooney as a major movie star. The one-two punch of Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000 earned Soderbergh two Oscar nominations for director, a feat not accomplished since 1938, and after 2001’s highly successful Ocean’s 11 remake, Soderbergh had jumped to the top of the industry while maintaining his indie artistic credentials. He’s been dabbling and experimenting since (A movie shot on an iPhone!) with mixed results, but the man’s track record is hard to digest into simple categorization. He can jump from an action showcase for an MMA fighter, to a gleeful male stripper romp, to a four-hour epic covering the life of Che Guevera. With Traffic, Soderbergh was working with his biggest budget and cast yet. The decision to use different color tones is smart to easily distinguish the various storyline locations so that an audience can be immediately oriented when jumping around from place to place. It’s also extremely hard on the eyes at times. The Mexican storyline is so washed out in bleached colors that it looks like an atomic bomb just went off in the distance and is filtering the world with an excess of bright light to make you squint. Soderbergh also has a penchant for natural light coming through windows to be seen as giant blocks of white. Again, it achieves its artistic purpose but it also makes you want to avert your gaze.
The 150-minute movie is based on a sprawling 1989 BBC miniseries that totaled six hours. Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) adapted the screenplay and he does a fine job of condensing the major plot points of the mini-series into a manageable feature length. He also does a fine job of articulating the many intertwined players and motivations and contradictions of the drug trade. However, I can’t help but feel like some of the nuance and character development is lost by condensing everything into the body of a manageable American feature production. Take for example the character Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago) plays, Helena Ayala. She’s a rich southern California housewife who has her life upturned when she discovers her husband, recently arrested by the DEA, is one of the chief distributors for a Mexican cartel. Her character is in disbelief and shock at first, then she tries to make due with legal bills and mortgage payments. Things get considerably worse when the cartel threatens her children if Helena can’t pay her husband’s outstanding debts that have now fallen onto her. Her character arc goes from an ignorant, privileged housewife into a ruthless co-conspirator willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family and maintain the cushy lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Over the course of the BBC miniseries, you watch that version of the character undergo significant changes in six hours. In the 2000 film, the character undergoes significant changes in a matter of scenes. Helena goes from desperate to duplicitous in literally minutes, and the jump feels too unearned. The rushed storytelling caps some naturalism. A character can go from not trusting the DEA to providing damning evidence to the DEA in three scenes. A character can go from bored, privileged teenager to junkie prostitute in three scenes. For a movie about gritty realism, these character leaps can feel overly forced and inauthentic. There are so many characters and storylines and political points to make that the overall narrative can feel crowded, so while it’s always interesting, it can inadvertently fashion its own ceiling for emotional engagement because the many characters feel like impressions hitting their marks rather than as fully developed portrayals of people.
The storyline that has aged the worst is Michael Douglas (Ant-Man) playing Robert Wakefield, a newly installed Drug Czar learning the ropes. For the majority, he’s akin to a 60 Minutes journalist just sitting in rooms and asking various professionals about their experiences and advice from their unique positions. From there, the storyline takes up the “it could happen to me!” trapping with Robert’s private school daughter (Erika Christensen) becoming an addict. It may have been surprising for a high-profile politician to have a child as an addict, but now this kind of irony feels passe. We’re used to politicians having ironic skeletons in their closet. The ongoing plot of her descent doesn’t really humanize her even as she makes some drastic decisions to chase that next high. She’s more an ironic counterpoint to shake her father, and the audience, of their preconceived mental imagery of what an addict might look like. It feels slightly retrograde and pearl-clutching, not simply that she goes through hell but that it’s set up to register that, oh my, WHITE PEOPLE, even RICH WHITE PEOPLE, can also be junkies. In 2000, this story might have been jolting and scared some older adults into wondering if this drug menace could find its way into their hallowed gated homes too. Nowadays, it seems obvious. If the storyline of a father dealing with his addict daughter had reveled more about one another as characters it would be worth the attention, but the daughter is kept as an example, a symbol, and Robert just has to take his lumps before the inevitable conclusion that his job is a lot harder than he would have imagined. His speech at his introduction at the White House has the hallmarks of drama ready and waiting, as he chokes over the political boilerplate he no longer believes in, but he simply walks out rather than sharing what he’s learned.
The best storyline in Traffic is, no surprise, the one closest to the action with Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) playing what feels like the only honest cop left in Mexico. Obviously that’s an over simplification, but the police force and political class are heavily corrupted by the cartels and their money. The character Javier Rodriguez has to navigate this tricky world without making himself as a target for those corrupt officials who think he’s an impediment. He’s trying to do good in a deeply flawed system and maybe even he knows he’s fighting a losing battle but he’s decided to keep his integrity while trying to fight what he considers is a worthy cause. A high-ranking general seeking his services reminds him of his lowly pay as a police officer, yet Javier Rodriguez is unmoved. Del Toro made a career of playing oddballs and sleazes, so it’s interesting to watch him play a fairly noble, straight forward role and in a language he didn’t speak before production (while born in Puerto Rico, he moved early and grew up in the U.S. and knew little Spanish). I don’t know if I would have awarded him the Oscar (my favorite for 2000 was Willem Dafoe as a vampire) but it’s certainly an understated performance with real gravitas. Del Toro is the quiet, churning contemplation of this movie and I would have been happy if the whole enterprise had been devoted to his south of the border exploits. I appreciated that the moves in this storyline would have larger effects on others, like a crackdown on a cartel being a reason why they need more money and the reason they now step up the pressure on Helena to pay up or else. It best encapsulates the knotty, interconnected framework that Gaghan and Soderbergh are going for.
Traffic is one of those movies you know are good. It’s well written, well acted, and has a definite vision it’s going for that it mostly achieves. It’s also a movie that engages more intellectually than emotionally. There are some deaths and downturns but I doubt you’ll feel much regret or catharsis. The movie unfolds like an in depth journalistic article, and the leaps in rushed characterization feel like a result of a looming deadline and a hard cap with its word count. It’s unfair for me to continue comparing the movie to its miniseries when that project had almost three times the length to fill out its tale (about poppy trafficking and heroin manufacturing in tribal Afghanistan) but it’s a clear cut case of crammed plotting. My initial review back in 2000 keeps mostly to the plot and the many actors, though I think I overstated Zeta-Jones being “chilling” and I think my love of Del Toro in Way of the Gun that year transferred some extra praise for his performance here. It’s hard to remember but I was really anticipating this film my freshmen year of college. Traffic is a good movie but it’s not exactly one people get excited over. Every aspect is professional, proficient, but there isn’t exactly a lingering takeaway that changes your perception of the war on drugs. I’ll hold to the same grade and say it’s an admirable accomplishment but one better suited for a mini-series (it was adapted back into a TV miniseries in 2004).
Re-View Grade: B
I don’t think I’ve come across a movie with a title as curious in recent years as Alan and the Fullness of Time. This Ohio-made indie was created for a predominantly Christian marketplace so, fairly or unfairly, I went in expecting more emphasis on the message than the storytelling. I figured the titular “fullness of time” would be a larger lesson about using the time God has given you, seizing the day and such, or maybe even related to time travel (no such luck). What I got certainly felt like it was far from the fullness of its own meager running time and ideas.
Alan (Brooks Harvey) is a normal teenage boy except he isn’t. His parents belong to a Christian sect that has for generations plotted to protect a special savior. Alan wants to live a normal life, hanging with friends and going to parties, but he is thrust into a war between heaven and hell. After an attack at home, Alan is on the run to learn about his identity and accept his destiny.
This movie is maddeningly unclear in just about every aspect of storytelling. It feels like you’re watching a Mad Libs version of a story with missing blanks where there should be essential information. It seems like Alan is a classic Chosen One archetype along the lines of a Christian Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Writer/director Markus Cook (The Deceived) repeatedly reminds the viewer how important Alan is in the larger scheme and how special he is but this is never fully explained except in very general terms meant to apply to any person watching, contributing to the idea that every life is important. That works as a comforting message but it doesn’t work explaining why Alan alone is so special. Likewise, if he’s so special and in hiding, why was he allowed to leave the house or go to a public school? The character would be far more compelling if he was a recluse not allowed to leave the house because his parents were overly protective with good reason. Sending the Chosen One that demons are looking for to a public school just seems careless (not an indictment on the quality of education). For that matter, why do these demons even bother waiting to attack? The Act One break involves demons attacking Alan’s parents and forcing him on the run, but if they’ve already infiltrated his school and are posing as his friends, why are they waiting? These are the kinds of things that add up and make a plot feel careless and under developed, and it starts early and often with Alan.
This lack of clarity extends beyond the first act and muddles so much of the conflict and characterization. After Alan’s parents are harmed, why does he not go to the police? What reason would he have for hiding at his school? He doesn’t know his fellow students were demons, at least not in a fully confirmed way of this hidden world of monsters. For that matter, why is Alan on the run and there is national media attention given to what happened to his parents? What reason does he have to not resort to the police? It would make far more sense for the demons to frame Alan for the violence at his home. That way he would have a reason not to turn to the authorities and make him feel more isolated and hunted. He would be limited seeking out help and refuge. This would also better explain why anyone even remotely cares about finding this kid from a media standpoint. I can’t imagine round-the-clock media updates on where the son of one crime has been if he is not clearly the chief suspect. Alan spends much of the rest of the movie learning about his parents’ hidden life and his own part in a larger war, but the world-building is far too vague for a story involving hidden conspiracies of good guys and bad guys. I think the movie is presenting an alternate world where some Christianity is outlawed by the government but this too is flagrantly unclear. Are these people being persecuted for their beliefs? It doesn’t feel like it onscreen aside from a few snarky comments from Alan’s teenage peers about his perceived boring life (and remember, they were really demons). Regardless, there is a branch of the NSA (or some other acronym) that is being run by a a centuries-old demon with Jedi mind trick powers, and yet even this is unclear too. What are the rules here? What are the limitations? What are the objectives? What are the stakes? If you’re presenting a “hidden world” story with powerful creatures and faith as a weapon, then we need a lifeline to grasp.
Alan is a fairly boring blank of a character. He’s angry because he keeps moving schools and feels like he doesn’t fit in, but once he’s on the run Alan becomes a receptive set of ears for people to fill him in on the power of faith, God, and his divine place in the world. Will Alan triumph? You know the answer but I can’t exactly explain it beyond him simply having more faith. Frankly, this character is not interesting enough to warrant a franchise. Even his vague powers as a Chosen One are not interesting enough to warrant further adventures. The most interesting character, by far, is Weston (Lucas Bentley) and he could have been cut completely from the narrative. He’s introduced early, apparently trying to escape to… the Chinese border for… reasons I’m still unsure about from the opening that literally begins with footage and audio of 9/11 (this inclusion is never fully earned and, at best, quite tacky). He was part of the same splinter group that Alan’s parents belong to, but Weston lost his faith after his wife was killed. He seems like he’s on a redemptive arc, the old gunslinger being called into one last battle to save a youth and find something worth fighting for. This doesn’t exactly happen but this setup made Weston the character I knew the most about, who had the most accessible struggle, and who could have easily been the lead perspective of the movie rather than the vacant Alan.
I think the filmmakers were going for a combination of an indie Christian YA character and their own version of a Jason Bourne spy thriller (you better believe I’m trademarking the term “Jesus Bourne” for future franchises). This would not have been the first indie to treat a Christian protagonist as a fugitive being hunted down for their beliefs, an externalization of a self-persecution complex I’ve never personally understood when a majority of Americans identify as some form of Christian. This scenario plays into the fears of its ready-made audience and it at least also provides a ready-made story for danger and intrigue. Rarely, however, have I seen a Christian indie that seems so taken with providing the “other half” of a Bourne movie, and by that I mean the desk jockeys clacking keyboards. With every Bourne movie, there is the Chief Chaser and his or her team of NSA agents manning banks of computer terminals and tracking down the whereabouts of our target. In normal spy thrillers, these moments provide scene changes and exposition, but they can also ratchet up tension as we, the audience, know how much closer these antagonists are getting to our hero. With Alan and the Fullness of Time, there are numerous check-ins with the agent half of this pursuit but it never raises tension or provides helpful clarity about the world or this agency. Part of this is because the boss Malkam (no first name, just… Malkam) is established as supernatural too early. Do the other agents know they’re working for a demon? Detective Lowell (Brittany Picard) pushes back occasionally saying they are misusing their government office, but nobody else seems to give much mind. I even think the end involves a siege of a church with literal gunshots and people killed, but again, the movie is too vague to clarify whether or not this escalation and the consequences made much sense.
It’s not like there wasn’t room to better develop this story, its world, the history and lore, and the characters. Alan and the Fullness of Time clocks in at 82 minutes, but for my online screening, the first three was an introduction by the lead actor, and if you wanted to discount opening credits and a minute of closing credits before a mid-credits sequence (why?), that means that Alan is actually approximately 76 minutes of material. There was more than enough space there to better flesh out, well, anything. If it was a concern about budget limitations, I don’t fully accept that because budget doesn’t limit how well you write for characters and conversations. The movie concludes with “Alan will return” and the promise of a sequel with a very Percy Jackson-sounding string of subtitles, Alan and the Rulers of the Air. If I had paid good money to watch this movie, I might be chuffed that the movie wants to carry over into a sequel when they didn’t even have enough material for 76 paltry minutes.
The dialogue can often be painful and stilted. For an action movie, there isn’t very much action. Most of the scenes from the Act One break onward are people chatting in cars, people chatting in churches, people chatting in homes, people chatting on the street. That would be great opportunities for the needed clarity and characterization lacking. It doesn’t help when these conversations include clunkers like, “At least we have that in common – dead parents. At least half of mine.” Dear reader, that line made me outwardly wince in pain. At another point the villain shows up with armed guards and says, “This is real lead and real brass, and they will pump you full of it.” Alan says he doesn’t have time and another character says, “Time has you, Alan. It has all of us. And it’s squeezing.” In reference to his school friends, who I remind you were demons that harmed his parents, he says, “They’re not my friends anymore.” Well, that’s good to know given the circumstances. Alan turns on a turncoat and says, “You sold me out. No wonder you can’t call us family.” I was a little worried about the implications of the line, “If you can pray, then you can fight.” At the conclusion, a character asks Alan how to teach her how to fight, and he hands her a bible, and we cut to credits. These are just the examples that stood out to me of bad dialogue. If we’re left with these characters and their thoughts, it is apparent that the filmmakers just were not equipped to provide them with appealing words to speak.
I don’t blame the performers because it feels like they were all following the same poor direction. Everyone in this movie is so subdued that I thought they would slip into a coma. This is intended to be a spy thriller, a chase movie, a world where demons can take human form and hunt the Chosen One, and nobody seems to be acting like it’s urgent. This does a tremendous disservice to establishing and maintaining tension. It completely saps the energy out of the movie. If the characters aren’t anxious or worried, then why should we be watching them? It’s too early to land a verdict on Harvey as an actor as this is his debut. I hope the future adventures of Alan provide the actor a better showcase and more energy. I want to single out one actor who was only onscreen for a few minutes but left quite an impression. In a movie filled with vague evildoers that seem too low-key, Kira Wilson (The Right to Remain) is definitely felt as the spooky principal to Alan’s school. She has a fun malevolence that is missing from the other bad guys and I can tell the actress is enjoying her wicked side. We could have used more of her.
I will credit the filmmakers for making a film that looks and sounds like a professional movie. The cinematography by Josh Bedsole doesn’t have a lot of focus depth but it looks crisp. The persistent hand-held camerawork provides an extra dose of energy to the proceedings and is another reminder of the film’s aspirations to be its own Bourne-style escapade. It’s a low budget movie, all things considered, but it doesn’t feel glaringly so that it’s distracting or compromising. The best part about the movie is the score by Josh McCausland and Jake Halm that adds excitement when it’s not being felt otherwise from the writing and direction. At points the electronic-infused score even reminded me of the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Alan and the Fullness of Time doesn’t really justify your own investment of time. When you don’t provide enough explanation for your world when it’s different, when you don’t make it clear what the rules and limitations are, and when you don’t produce relatable and engaging character arcs, then you’re not really making a movie and more so making an inaccessible puzzle for the audience to piece together for their own fledgling entertainment. Alan and the Fullness of Time is not exactly an audience-friendly movie, despite the fact that its core audience will likely ignore its storytelling pitfalls because it admires its core message. I can feel the lack of storytelling finesse, as if the filmmakers shrugged and said, “It only has to be good enough to get us the next one.” I’ll even admit that the clips for the upcoming sequel look much more enticing and action-packed, but I haven’t been given enough from the first movie to hold out faith the second will deliver. This could have been Jesus Bourne, people.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B
I implore all filmmakers to be cautious about titling your movies. When you use absolutes in your titles, it’s laying forth a claim that you better be able to back up, and when you also present easy-to-apply summations of your movie in the title, it’s another dare I hope you’re capable of meeting. Nobody should name their movie Waste of Time and make a pointless and lazy movie because you can already see the summary blurb that awaits. In the case of the new low-budget Ohio-made comedy Worst. Christmas. Ever., you better be plenty funny to avoid the obvious put-down, “Worst. Christmas. Movie. Ever.” Unfortunately, while this low-budget movie has energy and bad taste to spare, it’s woefully short on ideas, jokes, characterization, and fun.
It’s Christmas Eve in East Jesus, Ohio and Sophia (Raychael Lane) has learned that she is pregnant. Her loser boyfriend Trey (Leonardo Mancini) is the father, though he doesn’t seem like a good prospective parent as he’s shiftless and cheating on her with Madison Fatcheck (KateLynn Newberry). Sophia doesn’t know what to do and definitely can’t tell her mom and stepdad. We interact with different bizarre locals, drug dealers, trigger-happy cops, crazy relatives, and an ex-con mall Santa (Craig Brophy) who breaks into homes. Over the course of one long crazy night, Sophia must decide what she wants to do with her life and the possible new life inside her.
There is a grand tradition of the irreverent anti-Christmas comedy, a holiday setting brimming with sentimentality. Whether it’s A Christmas Story or Gremlins or Bad Santa, there’s something appealing about undercutting all that holiday good cheer with a little irreverent fun. The problem with Worst. Christmas. Ever. is that writer/director Johnny Chechitelli (a credited writer for FOX Sports and UFC fights) settles too often on the easiest joke, that is, when there are jokes. Sometimes it feels like the film has just gone on auto-pilot, like an improv session gone awry. That drifting, directionless feel pertains especially to the characters, which are uniformly boring. There are some strong archetypes that have potential, especially a lecherous Santa up to no good. There are just too many disposable characters cluttering this narrative that seem to exist in their own alternate universe movies with too few jokes. The world of East Jesus, Ohio feels wacky but without forethought. This is the kind of movie where a former overweight girl has the last name Fatcheck, and apparently this factor is what defines her character. There are small moments of satire but they’re never really honed into a more coherent or clever message. The stepfather plays a violent video game as an armed Jesus shooting Santa Claus to death. A rap song about a bad Santa seems to revel in gaudy cliches without providing commentary or entertaining contrasts. The treatment of African-American characters seems to play tragedy as cheap comedy, setting them up for traumatic police encounters that lack commentary on racism or ignorance. Sophia goes off on a team of carolers for their religious beliefs, but the movie seems too timid to go further with mocking Christmas rituals or religious hypocrisy. There are ideas here, not all of them good, but rarely do the ideas evolve into sustained plot beats or jokes.
Let’s analyze one scene in particular and why it doesn’t work from a comedy standpoint and what could have been done with a little more attention. Sophia and her pal Noah (Chase Crawford) go to her boyfriend’s house. Sophia is defending him but Noah says he’s likely just sitting around and getting high. When they peek through the window, they find Trey sitting around with marijuana, and Sophia tries to excuse it, not wanting to admit that Noah’s negative characterization was correct. Then he smokes a pipe and a scantily clad Madison Fatcheck comes in and nuzzles up beside him. Trey sees Sophia watching and freaks out. I ask you, dear reader, where was the joke? The fact that Trey is a loser is already assumed, so that reveal isn’t enough. What could have happened was Sophia’s pained attempts to continue denying the obvious reality. Rather than catch her bad boyfriend with drugs and then a new girl, this scene could have been extended to make things even more ridiculous. He had drugs, but Sophia was saying maybe he was just sorting it, and then he’s using the drugs, and Sophia says well at least it’s not hard stuff, and then he breaks out a hypodermic needle and she says, well maybe he just needs an insulin shot. It’s a comedy scenario that prospers from escalating desperation and absurdity. It could have been funny. Instead, we’re given maybe one joke, which is obvious, and little else. There is a lack of creativity when it comes to the comedy construction throughout Worst. Christmas. Ever.
There is a difference between a gross-out gag and something that is simply gross. Making your audience experience discomfort can be a useful resource for comedy, but you have to be aware of what the returns are for the indulgence. I’m reminded of a scene in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Days to Die in the West where Neil Patrick Harris defecates into a cowboy boot. He’s humiliated, it’s extended, and the joke lands, but then McFarlane cannot help himself and has to show a two-second insert shot of the messy feces inside the boot. The joke would have worked best without literally getting into the muck. Think back on Dumb and Dumber with Jeff Daniels and his epic diarrhea sequence atop that unfortunate toilet. It’s all in the performance and the cascading and noxious sound effects. The Farrelly Brothers didn’t need to put us in the bowl. This brings me to our Worst. Christmas. Ever. because I think its uses gross shock humor to cover for its poor comedy efforts. This happens early with Sophia throwing up in a Salvation Army collection bucket. That alone works as a joke, but then the director puts us in the vomit and uses this image to put his credit onscreen. There it is, he seems to say, I’m the guy responsible for this mess. There’s another scene where a character pees into a toilet and we just watch multiple seconds of a stream of urine and then on the floor as well. I kept thinking that maybe the movie would come back to this, that taking so much time to set up pee on the floor would lead to an accident later, but nothing happened. I guess just the sight of urine was supposed to be funny, just like the sight of vomit in a bucket was supposed to be funny. This lazy ethos pervades the movie and is dispiriting.
There are crude animated sequences in Act One that I initially had hopes for. It’s a stylistic touch to separate the movie but it could also have been a smart way around larger set pieces that would have been too expensive. These are mostly confined to Sophia’s flashbacks about her dead father and then this device is never seen again after the 20-minute mark. The six-minute segment about her bad drug addict father using the last of his money on drugs, then robbing a convenience store to also use on drugs is simply not a story demanding six minutes of our time. It’s not funny and it’s not informative and it gets tiresome and repetitive. This same information could have been conveyed with Sophia through a monologue of why she hates the holidays and it would have had a more immediate and lasting emotional impact than an animated interlude. The animated segments reminded me of MS Paint but with more detail. The style is fine but the purpose is questionable. The story we get through the animation isn’t necessary other than it provides an additional six-plus minutes of running time to desperately get us to a feature-length.
This brings me to the fact that this 80-minute movie is really only a scant 63 minutes long. The end credits begin shortly after the one-hour mark and from there we’re treated to short additional scenes for resolution and then bloopers and then an extended music video of our rapping Santa. The actual credits move at a snail’s pace to reach that magical 80-minute runtime. This is the problem with a scattershot narrative that doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere. One could argue that Worst. Christmas. Ever. is not the kind of movie beholden to character arcs and great strides in personal growth but you still need to do something with the time you have as a storyteller. For a comedy, we need more escalation than some dead bodies by the end. There needs to be amusing complications, there needs to be struggles, and there needs to be variation. Worst. Christmas. Ever. has the feeling of watching several short films that have been stitched together with minimal care. The consequences feel as throwaway as everything else in this movie. There is a dearth of satisfaction by the end because it’s missing all the important things like clear goals, meaningful character development, and culminating gags built around careful setups and escalation. I was a bit flabbergasted by the movie essentially giving up at 63 minutes but also grateful for the end.
It’s my duty to find some highlights to praise for Worst. Christmas. Ever. and I think the cast is generally a strong asset. Given the low-budget nature, not everyone is quite so polished, but the amateurism actually adds an authenticity to the proceedings of making a real small-town indie in Youngstown, Ohio. Lane (To See the Moon in the Morning Sky) has a wholesome appeal as our protagonist. Brophy creates a welcomed impression as a sleazy Santa, and his rap skills aren’t too shabby either. The entire rap video sequence is actually one of the best in the film. The song production is more accomplished than I would have expected given the low-budget. By far the actor I enjoyed the most was Wantatah (The Con) as the stepfather. His performance is the one where the actor melts into the character and you see the least amount of “acting.” He just is, and it’s entertaining to watch his grumpy incredulity and then inebriated disasters. I hope Wantatah can get even more work from here that takes advantage of his fine comedy instincts and commitment.
I’m not going to lie, Worst. Christmas. Ever. was a difficult movie for me to watch. Even at little over an hour, I struggled to keep my attention and I rarely laughed. More often I was befuddled at the sloppy attempts at comedy that too often settled on shock value and bad taste because it couldn’t be bothered to actually think about jokes. There’s a difference where poop is a funny joke and when it’s just gross, and this movie doesn’t quite comprehend that distinction. Frankly, there just isn’t enough going on here to merit your time. From a comedy standpoint, there’s little to leave you satisfied. I laughed more from Killer Raccoons 2. From a character standpoint, there are weirdos who get their individual scenes but the main character’s unplanned pregnancy feels like an afterthought for how little it pushes the other characters. Imagine Juno if nobody paid attention to Juno’s pregnancy. From a production standpoint, there are definitely limitations given the lower budget and the wintry Midwestern climate but this doesn’t lead to necessary creative ingenuity. This is more a premise and an attitude than it is a full-fledged movie. Worst. Christmas. Ever. peaks at its poster.
Nate’s Grade: D