Consider writer/director Robert Eggers’ bloody Viking revenge movie as a companion piece to 2021’s The Green Knight. Both movies take mythical, supernatural-aided tales of heroics and medieval masculinity and feed into the spectacle while also cleaving the legend to make way for a sense of humanity. We follow Amleth (Alexander Skatsgard) who is a displaced prince who has sworn to kill his treacherous uncle and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman). It’s a tale so old that it inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, though that play could have benefited from a climax involving two hulking naked men dueling to the death atop an exploding volcano. The Northman reminds me a lot of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, a movie I described back in the day as “an art film for jocks.” It’s immersive and impressive down to the exact detail, and it doesn’t shirk on the blood and combat. It’s also unmistakably the work of Eggers, a very precise and idiosyncratic indie director whose prior movies felt like stylistic dares. The camerawork is often long with single takes, making all the visual arrangements and coordination that much more impressive. It’s staggering that a studio provided Eggers with $90 million to go make his version of Conan the Barbarian. At a lugubrious 140 minutes, there’s enough sticky carnage to satiate fans of brutish medieval action movies, but I appreciated how Eggers keeps his story purposely streamlined and simplistic until a few keen reveals force the audience and protagonist to re-examine the assumptions and fleeting honor of vengeance in this harsh, unfair environment of men out-killing one another. It’s a movie that provides the red meat and then makes you question whether you might want to go vegan. There’s more that can be unpacked but I wish Eggers had cut back at points. This is a slow movie, which does contribute to its mood and atmosphere, but I also wish Eggers had gotten to some of his plot points with a bit more haste and vigor. The Northman is transporting and bold and also more than a bit bloated. You could laugh at some of its over-the-top machismo but I feel like Eggers is inviting criticism of that very machismo, so enjoy the movie on one level where it indulges all the Old World violence, and then enjoy it on another level where it subverts and castigates the same Old World violence. Or you could just watch for the glistening muscles, famous faces, bad accents, bad wigs, guttural score, and weird imagery.
Nate’s Grade: B
“I’m a gentleman,” says a man at his bachelor party, trying to bashfully turn down any sexual antics with the women paid to entertain him and his friends for one boozy night. He’s also trying to indicate he’s “not like those other guys” and genuinely respects women. He gets it. “Well,” says the woman in the shiny fetish outfit, “I’ll have you know in my experiences that ‘gentlemen’ can often be the worst.” This line summarizes Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller in a post-Me Too era that is unsparing to all those who would proudly say, “Well, I support women.”
Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) was the top of her class at med school. Then her best friend was sexually assaulted at a party while she was inebriated, which allows the university to paint her as guilty and the accused as blameless (“What do you expect when you get drunk?” kind of victim-shaming). Years later, Cassandra has never been the same. She poses as a drunk at clubs and waits for her knight in shining armor to take her home, and often these modern men of chivalry prove to be creeps looking to take advantage of women and in needing of some harsh medicine.
This is a movie that walks a fine line to stay out of the shadow of becoming just another exploitation film with a higher gloss. I was yelling at the screen early about the choices men were making with susceptible women in their care. Admittedly, it plays upon that icky genre and taps into our inherent feelings associated with it as well as vengeance thrillers, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (TV’s Killing Eve) smartly subverts our expectations and loyalties. We want Cassandra to achieve her righteous vengeance regardless of the moral or psychological effect it has upon her because vengeance is satisfying. We want to see bad people who have escaped punishment suffer, but Fennell challenges the audience to see how far we’re willing to go for this goal. There are moments where it appears that Cassandra is going to go the extra step to antagonize her targets, and this might involve facilitating other innocent women into potential danger. It’s a sharp turn that asks the audience how badly they want to hold onto that righteous sense of indignation. Do all ends justify the means? Now I won’t confirm whether or not Cassandra follows through for the sake of spoilers but this is one very knowing movie about how to make its audience uncomfortable. Obviously, dealing with the subject of sexual assault and predatory men, it should be uncomfortable because of the nature of the subject, but Fennell has a wicked sense of when to twist her audience into knots. She doesn’t let anyone off the hook easily and that includes her heroine and those close to her. Nobody looks clean here. It makes for a truly surprising experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective.
One early scene stood out to me and let me know that Promising Young Woman was going to have more on its mind than bloodshed. Cassandra is walking home from a night out in her same soiled clothing and eating a sloppy hotdog with ketchup running down her body. A group of construction workers watch her and begin yelling from across the street, harassing her with unwanted sexual advances while they yuk it up. Cassandra stops, turns her head, and simply stares them down. She doesn’t glare at them or shout at them; all she does is look in silence. The workers get quiet very fast and then after several seconds they become angry and defensive, uncomfortable from her attention, and they walk away insulting her. Didn’t they want her attention? Weren’t they boasting? By merely drawing her focus onto these men and making them mildly reflective of their behavior they became uncomfortable and elected to leave. This scene only plays out for like twenty seconds and yet it serves as a symbol for what Fennell has planned with the rest of her thriller. She is going to take what you want and make you re-examine it with a fresh perspective that might just make you rather uneasy and disgusted with yourself.
The first half of the movie establishes a routine that explains what Cassandra has been doing since dropping out of med school. She’s never been able to move on from the trauma of her past and so she seeks out new potential perpetrators to inflict pain upon or scare straight through tests. By the second incident, we adjust to her formula and lie in wait for Cassandra to strike back. She’s the smartest person in the room and it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch her enact her plans. This avenging angel routine runs into a roadblock when she reunites with a friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon. They share a meet cute that involves Ryan drinking a coffee that Cassandra has spit into as a declarative sign of his interest (trust me, I’m making it sound far creepier than it plays onscreen). They go on several dates and have a palpable romantic chemistry together. This is aided by Fennell’s excellent dialogue, which can be cutting when it needs to and also supremely charming when it wants to be. It’s a peculiar rom-com but on its own terms, including unashamedly reclaiming a forgettable Paris Hilton pop song with full sincerity. At this point, Promising Young Woman is sizing up a choice between following vengeance and following romance. It’s a formulaic fork in the road and Fennell completely understands this, as she’s also testing the audience how much they are willing to sacrifice to see Cassandra check off her guilty names. This storyline doesn’t feel like a cheap alternative either. I liked Ryan and Cassandra together. However, Fennell stays true to her poison-tipped plans and this storyline becomes another chapter in her larger thesis on the condemnation of “boys will be boys” rationalization.
There is another scene worthy of being hailed because it goes against your and the character’s expectations (some spoilers). Cassandra tracks down the lawyer responsible for defending the university and discrediting her friend once she came forward with her rape accusation. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is this man and he’s quite antsy because he has been waiting for months for a visitor he anticipated would inevitably arrive. He’s been let go from his firm after having what they refer to as a “psychotic break” and what he refers to as a crisis of conscience. He’s made a career over sliming victims’ reputations, a fact he confesses has been made infinitely easier by modern technology. “We used to have to go digging through the trash,” he says, “But now all we need is one picture on Facebook of the girl at a party and you’ve got jury doubt.” Cassandra is taken aback by how eager this man is, not for absolution which he believes he will never earn, but to be punished. It’s not like a weird fetish but a genuine accounting of what he feels he deserves. It’s a short scene but it challenges Cassandra and the audience about the potential of redemption and forgiveness. This is what she wants after all, people to account for their part in the injustice that happened to her friend and to make amends for their guilt.
Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Mulligan has been an enchanting and empathetic actress since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, the source of her lone Oscar nomination. I’ve never seen her quite like this before. She has a natural sad-eyed expression, which made her perfect for Daisy Buchannan in the new Great Gatsby. With this role, she’s taken those natural sad-cute instincts and carved them out and replaced it with bile. Mulligan gets to play multiple false versions of Cassandra as she adopts disguises and personas to dupe her prey. This also makes the viewer subconsciously question which version they see is the real Cassandra. Is it a distortion upon a distortion? How well can we ever get to know this woman? I think Mulligan is most deserving of her second Academy Award nomination for this bracing, incendiary turn.
This is Fennell’s directorial debut and it will not be her last time in the director’s chair. Her command of pace and visuals can be sneaky good, framing figures to squeeze in potent symbolism as well as ratchet up tension and discomfort. The visuals can also be comedic poetry, like the opening images of men in khakis gyrating and thrusting on a dance floor. She also demonstrates supreme restraint where needed. The sexual assaults of past and present are never visualized but they are not mitigated either. She also has a tremendous ear for music. This soundtrack is sensational from the club bangers to the old timey country ditties. It feels as exceptionally selected as any Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. The score by Anthony Willis is deeply emotive with its use of strings and cello. They deliver a cello cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s as if the filmmakers made this choice specifically for me.
If there is one slight downside, I’d have to say many of the supporting characters are under developed. There are plenty of famous faces in this enterprise, like Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but most of them are deposed for a scene and then vanish. It starts to feel like a series of guest appearances from actors as they’re passing through town. Alison Brie (Happiest Season) has a longer and slightly more nuanced part as a former college friend who betrayed Cassandra when she needed her most. This character, along with Birtton’s school dean, illustrate that just because you happen to be a woman does not automatically mean you will be a helpful ally. I view it less as a snide “girls can be bad too” equivalency and more an indication just how insidious and prevalent rape culture can be and condition people into gross excuse-making complacency. I will say that it was nice to have Clancy Brown play a normal dad role and he was sweet too.
Beware, men of the world, the next time you size up a pretty young thing who looks meek and helpless. Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”
Nate’s Grade: A-
Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?
The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.
Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.
What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.
The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.
The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.
Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.
Nate’s Grade: A-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
As Russell Crowe famously barked, “Are you not entertained?’ It was hard to argue in 2000 and it still holds true to this day. Gladiator was a big-budget throwback to the swords-and-sandals epics of old Hollywood. It was a box-office hit, made Crowe a star, and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. My own elderly grandmother loved it so much that she saw it three times in a theater that summer, which was practically unheard of in her later years (she also, inexplicably, loved the 1999 Mummy movie). It was a millennial DVD staple. I can recall everyone on my freshman dorm hall owning it and hearing it on regular rotation. As studio projects were getting bigger with more reliance on CGI, Gladiator felt like a refreshing reminder on how powerful old stories can be with some modern-day polish. Re-watching Gladiator twenty years later, it still resonates thanks to its tried-and-true formula of underdog vengeance.
We all love a good story where we follow a wronged party seek to right those wrongs, plus we all love a good underdog tale, and given the pomp and circumstance of the gladiatorial arena, it’s easy to see how this movie was engineered to be a success from the page. This isn’t a particularly new story. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus mined the same territory with an even bigger scope, both in politics and in war, and there have been many movies covering the same history around the rise of Commodus, like 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Two Gladiators. We’ve seen this kind of story before even in this setting but that doesn’t matter. The familiarity with a story isn’t a hindrance if the filmmakers take their story seriously and make an audience care about its characters. It all comes down to execution. As long as the filmmakers don’t get complacent and take that formula familiarity for granted, old stories can have the same power they had for decades because, deep down, cooked in their structure, they just work.
Gladiator gives us everything we need to know by the conclusion of its first act, introducing us to Maximus, showing his leadership and loyalty, giving us the strained father-son relationship with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the expectations of the son of his ascendancy, the regrets of the father and hope for a return to a Republic, the reluctance of Maximus to be more than a general of Rome, and finally after the murder of the old emperor, a decisive choice for Maximus that challenges his morals and responsibility. From there, screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (The Aviator), and William Nicholson (Les Miserables) put our hero and villain on parallel tracks heading for a collision. Maximus rises through the ranks of gladiators and builds a name for himself, getting called to the major leagues of bloodsport, and Commodus schemes to have his old enemy killed with increasingly dangerous trials in the Coliseum. It’s a natural progression and escalation, which makes the storytelling satisfying as it carries on. Gladiator never had a finished script when they began filming, which has become more common with big budget tentpoles with daunting release dates and rarely does this work out well. However, this is the exception (the screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar). It should be stated that the events of Gladiator pay very little to the actual history but fidelity is not necessary to telling a compelling story (the real-life Commodus rose to power after dear old dad died from plague). Use what you need, I say.
Ridley Scott was on an artistic hot streak during the start of the twenty-first century, directing three movies within one and a half years of release and earning two Oscar nominations. He wanted to veer Gladiator away from anything too cheesy of older swords-and-sandals epics, as reported. This isn’t about homoerotic wrestling with men in unitards (in Jerry Seinfeld voice: not that there’s anything wrong with that) and instead about the grit and superficial glory of Rome. The opening battle in Germania is meant to show Maximus in action but it also shows just how overpowering the Roman Empire was during this time period. They just massacre the remaining German tribe, and there’s a reason we don’t focus on battle strategy and instead on the chaos. The conclusion of the battle is a shaky camera mess of bodies and flames and dark shapes. It’s a bloody mess and not something to be glorified. Maximus is tired. His men are tired. Even Marcus Aurelius is tired of his decade-long conquering of a map, adding little inches to an already gargantuan territory. When is it all enough? When is war a self-perpetuating quagmire?
This same dismissive view over conquest and glory carries throughout. When Maximus becomes a slave, he must play the blood-thirsty appetites of the crowd to reach his goals. He disdains the theater of combat, the delaying of strikes simply to draw out the drama of two men fighting to the death. Later, these same venal interests of the mob form a protection for Maximus. He’s too popular to just be assassinated because the Roman people just love watching how he slays opponents. There’s an implicit condemnation of popular entertainment built around the suffering of others. Scott has a purpose for his depictions of violence, and you could even make the argument he is drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of the Coliseum and modern-day moviegoers screaming for violence. What are the human costs for this entertainment? It’s not explicitly stated, and some might even say this level of commentary for a movie awash in bloodshed makes any such condemnation hollow or hypocritical. Maybe. The violence feels like it has weight even when it can border on feeling like a video game stage with enemies to clear.
Crowe (The Nice Guys) was already making a name for himself as a rugged character actor in movies like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but it was Gladiator that made him a Hollywood leading man, a title that he always seems to have felt uncomfortable with. Crowe wasn’t the first choice of Scott and the filmmakers (Mel Gibson turned Maximus down saying he was too old), but it’s hard to imagine another person in the role now. Crowe has a commanding presence in the film, an immediate magnetism, that you understand why men would follow him into hell. That flinty intensity plays into the action movie strengths, but there’s also a reflective side to the man, a sense of humor that can be surprising and rewarding. There’s more to Maximus than avenging his wife and child, and Crowe brings shades of complexity to an instantly iconic role. He finds the tired soul of Maximus when he could have simply been a kickass killing machine. Between Crowe’s three Best Actor nominations in a row from 1999-2001, I think he won for the wrong performance. It’s a shame Crowe hasn’t been nominated since, which seems downright absurd. People have forgotten what an amazing actor Crowe can be, singing voice notwithstanding (I need a sequel to Master and Commander please and thank you).
This was also a breakout role for Joaquin Phoenix (Her), who has risen to become one of the most celebrated and chameleon-like actors of his generation. The character of Commodus is your classic example of an entitled child who doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He’s a sniveling villain prone to temper tantrums (“I am vexed. I am very vexed”). Much like his co-star, Phoenix finds layers to the character rather than resting on a stock villain characterization. He’s really the jealous son who envies the preference and love given to Maximus, first from his father, then from his widowed sister (Connie Nielsen), and then from the Roman people. He whines that they love Maximus in a way he will never deserve. It’s hard not to even see a Trumpian psychology to Commodus, a man not equipped for the position of power he occupies who longs for adulation he hasn’t earned. You can hate the man, but you might also feel sorry for him despite yourself. When he wants to be pompous, he can be hilarious (I adored his quick reaction shots to the theatrical combat). When he wants to be creepy, he can be terrifying. You can even see some of the broken pieces here that Phoenix would masterfully use to compose his Oscar-winning Joker performance.
The supporting cast was gifted with great old actors getting one last victory lap. Richard Harris was so stately and grandfatherly that it got him the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. It also served as a great sendoff for Oliver Reed (Oliver!) as Proximo, the selfish, trash-talking former gladiator turned gladiator trainer. Reed died months into the production and before he had wrapped his part, requiring extensive reworking from the screenwriters (Logan was on set for much of the production to cater to the immediate day-to-day story needs). Scott used a body double and parlayed visual effects to recreate Reed’s face, much like what 1994’s The Crow was forced to do after the unfortunate death of its star, Brandon Lee. I kept looking for what moments would be Reed and what moments would be the CGI-enabled Reed double, and it was harder to determine than I thought, so nice job visual effects team. Reed had a reputation of being a carousing reprobate, so having a final performance that allowed him to tap into those old impulses plus the regrets of older age was a wonderful final match.
The other big takeaway upon my twenty-year re-watch was how recognizable and stirring Hans Zimmer’s famous score was, which lost the Oscar that year to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that seems insane to me. Zimmer has been in a class all his own since the 90s with classic, instantly hum-able scores for True Romance, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from his theme for Gladiator. The score greatly adds to the excitement and majesty of the movie and can prove transporting by itself.
A truly bizarre post-script is the story of how the studio tried to develop a sequel. Gladiator was hugely successful but any sequel presented problems. Given the death of its star, following another character makes the most sense, and yet that’s not the direction the screenplay took. Eventually, the sequel to Gladiator was going to follow the ghost of Maximus as it travels through time including to modern-day. Just take a moment and dream of what could have been. Alas, we’ll likely never get time-traveling ghost Maximus now and we simply don’t deserve it as a society.
Reviewing my original film critique from 2000, I feel that my 18-year-old self was more entranced with making snappy, pithy blurbs than going into further detail on my analysis. My early reviews were far more declarative, saying something was good or bad and giving some detail but not dwelling on going deeper into the examination. This line, “The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp,” makes me cringe a little because it’s just trying too hard to be casually clever. I do enjoy the Mena Suvari rose petal joke. Still, I celebrated that a studio movie could emphasize its story first and foremost and my observations are still valid. I’m all but certain the only reason I knew who Steve Reeves was back then was because of his many appearances via Mystery Science Theater 3000 covering his cheesy swords-and-sandals films of old that Ridley Scott was so eager to avoid recreating (“Do you like films about gladiators?”)
Because the movie does so much so well, with some exceptional, it’s hard for me to rate Gladiator any lower than my initial grade of an A-, so that’s where I’m keeping it twenty years later. I think the national conversation has cooled on Gladiator, forgotten it because it wasn’t quite as audacious as other examples of early 2000s films, but it sets out to tell a familiar story on a big canvas and deserves its plaudits for somehow pulling it all off with style and gravity. It would be flippant to say Gladiator still slays the competition but it’s still mighty entertaining.
Re-View Grade: A-
I think it’s important to state that Us is not Get Out and that’s perfectly okay. Not every movie can be a Get Out, an experience that was so refreshing, socially relevant, wickedly fun and dynamic that I immediately wanted to see it again and tell everyone I know to join in. Writer/director Jordan Peele shed his funnyman past and flexed his impressive genre know-how to make a knockout of a movie with an amazingly structured story, allowing all of the pieces to snap together with clever precision. It was my own second favorite film of 2017 and I was highly looking forward to Peele’s follow-up in the realm of what goes bump in the night. Don’t go into Us expecting Get Out. It’s not quite the sum of its parts and has some storytelling shortcomings that limit the impact of its visceral thrills. It’s an engaging horror movie, but it’s far more allegorical and far less tidy and satisfying.
The Wilson family is spending their summer vacation at a rental home in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are trying to enjoy a getaway with their children, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex), when strange coincidences keep occurring. This is the same beach town where many years ago Adelaide had a traumatic childhood experience getting lost from her bickering parents. Then one night Jason informs his family that there’s another family standing in their driveway. The Wilson family is hounded by mysterious doppelgangers, each a cracked mirror version of themselves. This new family wants what the Wilsons have and will use any bloody means to see that they get it.
Us is more a straight horror film and has plenty of excellent, terrifying, and smartly directed scenes to make an audience squirm in their seat. Peele has established in two movies a strong instinct for horror and how to expertly stage a scene. His camera is judicious in what it does and does not show the audience, holding onto moments to escalate tension and providing no escape for an eager audience. The majority of the second act is a home invasion thriller and these scenes and subsequent chases and escapes can be nerve-wracking. Each character has their own opponent and each has their own method of trying to outsmart or out maneuver their downtrodden doppelganger. I was getting plenty of Funny Games vibes, a movie I downright despise, but what it could have been if the creator actually cared about the inhabitants. The family and their bonding is a strong empathetic anchor for the audience, so we watch each member of the family battle a literal incarnation of their inner demons. Peele also assembles an effective collection of spooky imagery, from caged rabbits, to the slice of golden scissors, to a carnival funhouse, to even the nature of that 80s social event, Hands Across America. You can sense Peele’s love of horror and the entertainment value horror movies afford. There’s a strong central mystery to guide the narrative and the sense of discovery from Act Two onward keeps things fresh as we learn more and more about these doubles.
From a technical craft standpoint, Us has the upper hand over Get Out. This is a movie that wants to scare you and Peele has devoted great consideration into his artistic elements to achieve that key principle. Peele knows exactly how to craft a particular mood and what genre elements to pepper in and to what amount for the right response. The photography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) is evocative and makes great use of limited light to capture an eerie and unsettling feeling. The musical score by Michael Abels is also exceptional, making the most of each heightened scene and doing wonders with a dark, operatic version of the chill 90s song “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. It makes for a fun, frightening, and favorable film experience in the moment-to-moment sequences of build and release.
The performances are another strength, with each member of the family getting extra range thanks to their dual roles. Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) is the standout and emotional center of the movie. Her double is the leader of her clan and the only one that has the ability to speak, except speaking isn’t quite the right word. It’s more like the words escape her throat, raspy and without intonation. It’s a remarkable commitment on her part and she tries a lot of weird character tics, most of them work, from her herky-jerky to robotically possessed physical movements, unblinking eyes, and then there’s that startling voice. Duke (Black Panther) finds his footing as a comedic foil, starting as a corny but loving dad and thrust into a family defender that gets more and more tired of the horror movie nonsense he endures. The kids all do solid, effective work with what they’re given, seizing their moments. Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays a bourgeoisie friend and has a fantastic moment with lip gloss that made me horrified and entranced all at once.
This is where the merits of the film start running into conflict with Peele’s muddled intentions and messy execution toward the finish. As I said, it’s far more allegorical in approach; meaning for the longest time it seems to be a film outside the bounds of literal interpretation. That’s fine since many horror films rely upon a heaping helping of metaphor for larger implications. I was prepared for Us to stay in this creative territory. Except Peele makes a late decision to squeeze his movie into a bizarre and distracting middle ground, where it feels like the metaphor is the real message, if you can decode it. Once you stand back and assess the full Us, it doesn’t hold together in allegory or explanation.
Even hours after seeing the movie, I cannot say whatsoever what the intended theme is for Us, and this really befuddles me since Get Out was laser-focused in this regard. Peele isn’t just cranking out fun, throwaway genre movies, he’s trying to make statements through horror and elevating the genre in artistic ways. Get Out postulated how being a black man in America was like living in a horror movie and a Stepford Wives-meets-Being John Malkovich commentary on the usurpation of minority agency and the commodification of black bodies. It’s not every day that a horror movie wins an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, let alone deserves it, and Peele’s treatise on race relations was perfectly structured, each piece snapping together and better informing the whole, with setups and payoffs galore, and at its heart was its relevant message. With Us, I don’t really know what Peele is trying to say here. There’s a simple duality theme but that seems pretty weak and underdeveloped. There may be a have/have not inequality discussion but this gets into trouble in the final act (more on that below). I don’t think race even factors into the overall message, as a late turn reveals that the doppelgangers extend beyond our central African-American family. What is Peele trying to say with Us? I’m at a real loss and I’m trying to process that confusion and my own expectations.
This might have worked better had Peele not elected to supply a hasty sci-fi explanation for why things are the way they are, and in the process he strands his film in a contentious middle zone that tries to find a logical context to plant his allegory. I won’t get into what exactly the details of this explanation are but suffice to say it doesn’t really hold together and invites far more questions, each one picking apart the reality of the film, which disintegrates at an ever-increasing speed. How far-reaching is this conspiracy? What is the ultimate goal? How do these people think they will win? Why now? There’s also a big twist ending that should be obvious for anyone paying attention, but what makes this decision worse is not that it’s predictable but that it hardly sheds any new dimension to what came before. It doesn’t really change our reading of certain people because of the time it happened and so the big meaning is its existence as a twist. It doesn’t redefine the narrative in the way that great twists should. It might play into a larger thematic point except, as described above, that area is hard to ascertain. The last third of Us gives a sense of scope and rationale but the movie also loses its form, trading in dream logic and then trying to provide a new real world context that cannot hold.
Friends have already asked me whether Us is a good movie, and I’ve found myself saying, “Yes, but…” Peele’s follow-up left me with more questions than answers and a nagging sense of dissatisfaction that began to eat away at my otherwise good time in the theater. Us has some fantastic moments and tense scares but I cannot say what its muddled theme is, the hazy explanation doesn’t really work, and the overall intent left me perplexed. It’s an evocative horror movie with solid to great performances from a very game cast of characters. Given its more free-floating plot, it feels like the kind of movie that would hold together by a strong thematic core. I think most people will leave Us somewhat scratching their heads and wondering what it was all about, but not as an accessible puzzle to decode. It’s more a puzzle that doesn’t resemble the picture on the box and is frustratingly missing a few too many pieces to come together.
Nate’s Grade: B
Neil Breen is the closest thing we have today to a living Ed Wood, a filmmaker so determined to tell his stories without a clue how to accomplish this feat, routinely finding new and astounding ways to transform the medium of film into an incomprehensible experience that can only be best appreciated through the howls of incredulous laughter. In 2013, Neil Breen came to attention among a certain select audience seeking the pleasures of a so-bad-it’s-good movie, and I count myself chief among this nation. I was fascinated by Fateful Findings and have since sought out Breen’s other films, using them as the main attraction for a gathering of like-minded friends and adult beverages. He may not be the next Tommy Wiseau or produce an accidental masterpiece like The Room (I don’t think an Oscar-nominee will be playing Breen in any biopic, though I pick Eric Roberts). Breen is taking advantage of the pocketbooks of eager midnight movie enthusiasts but he refuses to see his movies in that derisive light. To him, and God bless him, they are legitimate pieces of art and he personally disallows any marketing of them as “midnight” or “cult” movies (I saw portions of his actual contract he sent to our local art house theater playing his newest picture). His latest is Twisted Pair, a “psychological thriller” with double the onscreen Breen. It may not rise to the craptacular heights of Fateful Findings, but Twisted Pair is a worthy and hilarious entry in the ever-expanding yet mordantly redundant Neil Breen cinematic universe.
To explain the premise or story is almost superfluous, like trying to find a logical interpretation in a David Lynch movie or a Jackson Pollack splotchy painting. I’ll try. Cade and Cale Altaire (Breen) are twins who were… abducted by aliens… and given supernatural powers thanks to… A.I. technology? Back on Earth, Cade (or Cale?) has a wife (Sara Meritt) and plant bombs in the buildings of evil corporations, I think. Cale (or Cade?) is addicted to drugs (maybe?), has an addict girlfriend, and abducts corrupt CEOs, politicians, and authority figures and chains them in a murder dungeon where he lectures them and occasionally shoots them casually in the kneecap or shoulder. There’s also a conspiracy about trying to… do nefarious things with a cutting-edge A.I. virtual reality program… that shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands? Cade (or Cale?) must stop these evil forces from doing… evil things… by blowing them up? Also, his wife may be a spy.
If the above sounds like pure insanity straight from the cuckoo source, then you have read it clearly. Twisted Pair doesn’t abide by any traditional standards of film or storytelling. There isn’t so much a plot with a beginning, middle, and end as there are a jumble of scenes that could have been placed in any order whatsoever and lost nothing. With Neil Breen as writer and director, we typically get a lot of visual repetition; whatever info can be imparted in one moment Breen decides to impart in five. On the other side, storylines and characters will be summarily dropped or introduced with little context. Take for instance the villain who, as best I can tell, speaks with a voice-modulated tone in real life. It’s not like he’s holding some mask to his mouth or anything that would alter his voice to that super deep register. Apparently he just speaks this way normally, and it’s hard to understand half of what he says, and it’s hilarious. Does this character matter in the scheme of things? Not really. He’s there to be another face to a vaguely defined conspiracy of forces that Breen is determined to thwart. The villainous character just happens to fondle dollar-store costume jewelry as a side bonus.
As another sign of repetition, Neil Breen obviously bought a package of special effects, and he is determined to get all his money’s worth. Thanks to the alien A.I. (I think), Cade and Cale are gifted with super powers but these only seem to involve jumping. Cade will form a Super Mario Bros.-esque jumping pose, or spread out onto the ground like Spider-Man, and then magically leap fifty feet in the air. It’s a cheesy effect that looked more realistic on the Six-Million Dollar Man in the 1970s, but Breen is going to make sure you become familiar with it again and again. Sometimes the jumping seems more trouble than it’s worth, as Breen’s character could have more easily taken a flight of stairs. A similar effects package must have been explosions, so you’ll see the same fiery effect over and over across a variety of surfaces, though never impacting those surfaces or leaving anything resembling debris. You may become more familiar with this oft-repeated explosion than the faces of your own relatives. There’s also a strange addition where whenever Cade touches a presumably locked door a little light goes on, as if to communicate he is unlocking it. This happens a lot. The last scene of the movie, Cade addresses the camera directly, touches his heart with two fingers that glow, and says without a hint of irony, “I’ll be right here.” He has to know he’s ripping off E.T., right? By the rules clearly established, does this mean he’s unlocking his own heart?
The side storyline with the twin could have been cut entirely (not that there’s much that genuinely serves a larger story). I was expecting more interaction between the two Breens and for each to reflect some sort of dichotomy between good and evil. Nope. The second Breen, Cale, is a vengeful vigilante in a hooded sweatshirt and a gloriously fake beard. He shouts questions like, “Who am I? What am I?” but doesn’t seem that torn up. He kidnaps some corrupt officials and promises to hold them an undetermined period of time, occasionally shooting or beating them. Then the screen starts to have other images of other chained officials superimpose while an eerie soundtrack kicks in, seemingly implying the sheer numbers of Cale’s victims. At no point are we meant to see Cale as a wayward figure succumbed to his darker impulses. In fact, Cale and Cade aren’t that different at all; both of them destroy the apparatus of corruption and take human life. The prisoners have a hilarious moment that feels like an improv run amok as they try and top one another with all the bad things they have been committing. They almost run over each other in their carefree confessions of moral decay. Yet these missing people, presumably important enough to attract the attention of the police and investigators, never impact the larger plot. You would think only naturally that an identical twin kidnapping people would have some direct mistaken identity complications. Either the bad guys come after Cade or the authorities do, thinking he’s the other brother. Nope. Strangely, the brothers only interact in dreams and brief flashbacks.
There’s a distinct reason that Neil Breen’s onscreen characters are always lionized as heroes. It’s filmmaking as therapy session, and as I wrote for my Fateful Findings review: “Assessing the film, it sure comes across like Breen’s attempt to bolster his sense of self. In every scenario, people treat him as a treasured human being, he’s at the center of a diabolical conspiracy, he’s gifted with magic powers that separate him from normal men, all women want to seduce him, and then in the end he’s the one who makes the world a better place by exposing corruption. It sounds like a hero complex to me. Even acts that deserve harsh scrutiny, like his enabling of his wife’s addiction or his blasé attitude about carrying on an affair, are ignored. In this universe, [Breen] is always right, always desired, always respected, and always special.” This may be why even his “twisted pair” is spared any sort of scrutiny for their own bad behavior.
There are numerous sequences that just make you shake your head. My favorites include an interlude with a slow-motion hawk that Breen nuzzles up next to. Seriously, there is a lot of green screen work throughout the film including a Wiseau-style fixation on things that shouldn’t need green screen. Why green screen the exterior of a building? Could Neil Breen not find one building exterior in all of his home state of Nevada? There’s a sequence where a woman materializes and literally turns on another Neil Breen movie, firmly establishing the connected universe theory. This same woman leads a man inside a literally red-lit abode (more on lighting below) and you suspect someone will be killed, either the woman or the mysterious john you never see above the neck. Nothing comes of it. Occasionally we’ll get a wide shot and watch Cade or Cale walking… for thirty seconds, and sometimes a tree will obstruct our view and we’ll wait for him to appear on the other side of the tree…. but instead he’ll be in the tree! Aha, you weren’t suspecting that, were you, complacent audience member? I would estimate a solid 80 percent of the movie’s dialogue is Breen’s voice over stating the obvious or the preposterous. In consecutive lines of voice over he says, “I miss my brother,” and, “I miss what I never knew.” But you knew your brother; we’ve seen footage of you two together.
The relationship with Cade’s wife is baffling. It begins with Cade running into a woman and profusely apologizing and declaring he will make it up with dinner. She is not interested in the slightest but he doesn’t acknowledge her discomfort at all and persists. He then FOLLOWS her home. He then BREAKS INTO her home. He then ATTACKS her and ostensibly tries to rape her while calling her a “bitch.” This awkward moment then transitions into the eventual revelation that it was all one big role-play. What? Neil Breen purposely staged his character attempting rape and made it into a sex game for he and his ever-accommodating wife? That’s so weird and off-putting. I don’t think Neil Breen is the kind of artist to attempt something approaching Elle.
The technical specs are spotty, especially the lighting. There seems to be two prevalent styles of lighting a scene: 1) overblown to hell, casting harsh shadows, and 2) with a small diagonal sliver. This sliver approach happens in numerous scenes and always seems to find the faces of the actors in the scene, or Breen or whoever will use it as a mark, walking into that small sliver of light and exposing their face. It happened so often that my rowdy theatrical audience turned it into a game, loudly cheering whenever a character “met their mark” and was highlighted by that available strand of light. I think this is what Breen thinks makes a professional looking movie or a film noir.
The acting hasn’t gotten any better over time. As I wrote about Breen’s performance in Fateful Findings: “Let’s start with Breen himself, who is fairly listless and deadpan throughout. He raises his voice but rarely does he change how he’s responding. He’s aloof and strikingly self-serious at the same time.” Since there are two Breens, consider this observation even more fitting. The rest of the actors don’t have much to work with. There isn’t a natural performance in the film. Often the delivery is stilted or overemphasized, pausing at weird points or simply raising the volume for effect. At least with previous Breen outings there was another actor or two to single out, usually not in a positive way mind you. With Twisted Pair, it’s all Breen, all the time, for better or worse.
So ultimately where does Twisted Pair fall on the curve of so-bad-it’s-good cinema? It is a hoot, a misguided and poorly executed sci-fi thriller with baffling and repetitious plot turns, characterization, and puzzling decisions at nearly every level of filmmaking. Having digested five Breen movies (and lived to tell the tale) I can attest that there are patterns that emerge in each one of his films. He’s always going to be portrayed as a crusading hero against the corrupt forces out there bewildering the little guy, he’ll have a dash of supernatural elements that will never be adequately explained, his idea of romance is comically chaste and usually involves women face down and topless, and he’ll gift the audience with head-smacking redundancy of scenes, motifs, messages. If you have to skip out to the bathroom at any point, whatever you miss will be covered again. Twisted Pair is mid-range Breen, not quite as high as his crowning achievement, Fateful Findings. It runs out of steam in the final fifteen minutes and even my rowdy midnight-movie crowd sensed the drop-off. The movie is playing one-night-only screenings across the country. If you get a chance, and love the weird world of sincerely made bad movies, then I highly recommend gathering a group of friends and checking out Twisted Pair and doing your best to make sense of it during and after the film.
Nate’s Grade: F
Entertainment Value: A-
I invite all my readers to re-watch the trailer for Peppermint and apply this simple listening test. It opens with Jennifer Garner repeating the precious nursery rhyme claim about her daughter’s virtues. She has “love in her heart, snow in her eyes,” and the final claim, “peppermint in her blood.” At least I’m certain it’s got to be “blood,” because the first time I watched this trailer and my ears got a hold of that line, it genuinely sounded like Garner was saying “peppermint in her butt.” This flummoxed me and even more so that they would name the movie after this. Try it yourself and see what you hear, then listen for the other word (it’s like the new yanny/laurel aural conundrum). If I concentrate on either interpretation, I can hear it. Regardless of whether this “butt” vs. “blood” mystery can ever be resolved, the filmmakers decided to cut the entire verbal exchange from the finished version, leaving no reason for Peppermint to be called Peppermint other than the daughter’s passing affinity for the ice cream flavor. As asinine and odd as this whole endeavor reads for you, this might actually be the best part of Peppermint, a rote and tiresome action exercise that does too little too often and squanders the resources of a perfectly game Garner.
Our heroine, Riley North (Garner), started as mild-mannered mom and bank teller. Then one day Latinx gang members brazenly gun down her husband and child. A corrupt legal system lets the killers go free and Riley disappears for five years. When she returns, she’s become a ninja trained in an array of weapons. She takes her one-woman crusade against the gang, the cartel, and the corrupt judges and lawyers who serve them, while the police, lead by John Gallagher Jr., try and stop her from going too far and becoming the very monster that she’s been fighting to protect others from.
This is basically another Death Wish-style grisly revenge thriller when, as a true sign of how repeated this formula has become, we already even had a literal Death Wish remake with Bruce Willis earlier in 2018. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the lurid revenge fantasy, but they require more effort than Peppermint is willing to provide if they’re to rise above the litany of direct-to-DVD drivel. I’m in no way against this kind of movie, or direct-to-DVD action entities, but it all comes down to development and execution, and that’s where Peppermint slips up, having peaked at the idea stage. Clearly this was sold to film executives as a “lady Punisher or Taken” and it’s from the director of the first Taken, Pierre Morel. Garner was kicking (peppermint) butt and taking names for years on TV’s Alias. Why not? The problem is that there’s so little thought put to the characters, the plot, the action, and even the structure of basic payoffs. Here’s a telling example. The three gang members responsible for killing Riley’s family are themselves killed around the 45-minute mark, and they’re killed off-screen in a terribly anti-climactic and abrupt plot move robbing the viewer of any sort of emotional punch watching our heroine gain her years-in-the-making vengeance. Think this over. The only characters we’re really rooting for her to topple, to watch them be punished on screen for their misdeeds, and it’s off-screen. This isn’t No Country for Old Men here; it’s barely the eightieth rendition of Death Wish.
Garner’s character is too opaque to be that interesting. She’s allowed to vacillate between Grieving and Angry but that’s the extent of her depth. We never really get a sense of what’s going on with her, how her actions are affecting her. She’s not even that interesting as an action lead. There’s no real glimpse of a personality here. She’s more a weapon poised to her next target, with little down time between. Garner gets into toned fighting shape and has a flinty, F-you vibe and it all feels wasted on creatively lacking fight choreography. Riley becomes a social media avenger and this is about as much commentary or depth the film affords her. Because we squandered the catharsis of seeing the guilty gang members get their just rewards, the movie has to manufacture more disposable Latinx criminals, like they put out a casting call for characters they forgot they were going to need. From a structural standpoint, you never get a great sense of where Peppermint is going after that 45-minute mark. It just opens on one location after another and we watch Riley wreck havoc on personality-free bad guys we never got a chance to know and loathe. It starts to feel like a series of mundane video game stages to be cleared.
Many of the shortcomings can be forgiven if the action delivers, and it simply cannot. It’s one bland fistfight and shootout after another. There isn’t a sequence I can remember that stands out. There are moments, punctuations of vicious violence that has a brusque, darkly comic accentuation. There’s nothing remotely John Wick, or Atomic Blonde, when it comes to the fight choreography. The geography is too rarely taken into account and there are few organic complications. This is flabbergasting when you remember that Morel also directed the vividly kinetic French action movie District B13. The editing here also feels very choppy, taking more away from Garner’s physical skills having their showcase. One of the great moments of 2017 was the brutal and brutally long tracking shot following Charlize Theron’s super spy pummeling men through her growing fatigue. It was a sequence designed to showcase the choreography and the actress’ refined skills. What constitutes Riley North’s own “particular set of skills”? There’s nothing especially clever about how she dispatches with the bad guys. Her path to vengeance comes across as too easy. She’s able to torch an entire piñata warehouse of gang members like a cheap… piñata. The easy victories and lazy action development are the final reminders that this is a rote genre paycheck and little more.
Whether the peppermint was in her daughter’s blood, her butt, or any other personal cavity, it’s a terrible title for an R-rated action movie and reeks of the forced sweet/nasty irony I think the filmmakers, or marketing team, want to employ by having a woman as their Charles Bronson-styled deliverer of death and destruction (what, a woman as a killer?). The action is forgettable, the characters are barely one-dimensional clichés, and Garner deserves better. She’s 47 years old and as spry and captivating as ever. Give her an Atomic Blonde of her own. Peppermint isn’t it. If your expectations are generous, you may find just enough to keep your interest with Peppermint. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Call it swash without the buckle. While The Count of Monte Cristo does an adequate job of telling the Alexander Dumas story (heavily editing chapters and making the leads friends in this version) the whole experience feels very rote. The sword fighting scenes are nowhere what they were billed as and the direction is surprisingly lackluster. Only the actors allow this film to arise mediocrity particularly with a devious turn from Guy Pierce (Memento). Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) directed this film and proves he doesn’t need Kevin Costner to screw something up. Somewhere Costner is laughing. Actually, somewhere Costner is likely crying in his beer wondering what happened to him. “I was the king of the cinema…”
Nate’s Grade: C+