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Crossroads (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released February 15, 2002:

When informed that her feature film debut was receiving shrieks of laughter during advanced screenings for critics, Britney Spears said she was glad because she never likes the same films the critics do. Well Ms. Not That Innocent, the truth hurts; you’re not a girl, not yet an actress. Crossroads is really the filmic adventures of Britney Spears and her ever-present navel. The navel should get second billing, but alas, we do not live in a society of equality for navels.

The film opens up with three 10-year-old best friends burying a box of wishes and dreams and promising to be bestest friends forever and ever. They make a pact to come back and dig up the box on the night of their high school graduation. Flash to the present and the word “bestest” isn’t what it used to be. Lucy (Britney Spears) has become the virginal nerd preparing to give her speech as valedictorian. Kit (Zoe Saldana) has become the haughty popular snob, obsessed over getting married ever since she got her first Bridal Barbie. Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant and become the trailer trash girl that everyone sees fit to remind her of. Despite their growth apart they all do come together to reopen their box of dreams. Mimi informs the others that she plans to head to California to audition for a record deal in an open contest. Kit decides to use this opportunity to check up on her boyfriend at UCLA who has been strangely evasive. Lucy complains that by having her nose in a book her entire high school experience she never got to go to a football game or even “hang out.” Somewhere a small violin is playing. She decides to jump at this chance and possibly see her mother in Arizona, who ran out on Lucy and her father (Dan Akroyd) when she was only three. The wheels of their adventure are provided by guitar-playing mystery Ben (Anson Mount). He pilots them on their travels to the Pacific coast, though the girls think he might have killed someone, but oh well.

Crossroads is filled to the brim with every imaginable road trip cliché. The girls “open up” after getting drunk, have a scuffle in a bar, reap in the sights of nature, and perhaps create some sparks of romance with their hunky heartthrob of a driver. The car also inevitably breaks down and the girls have to find a way to scrape some quick cash together. They enter in a karaoke contest and Britney proceeds to sing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” with her two gal pals providing backup. But no, this isn’t the last time you’ll hear Ms. Brit sing. In an effort to pad as well as become a showcase for its star, Crossroads gives us many scenes of the girls just singing to the radio. Besides Jett, Shania Twain’s “Man I Feel Like a Woman” and Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” are also on the chopping block. You’ll also be accosted by the movie’s single “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” several times, including one scene where Poet Britney is asked to share her poem and it ends up being the song’s lyrics.

Saldana (Center Stage) is not given much, as the attention is always centered on Britney, so she merely comes off like a token conceited character. Only Taryn Manning (crazy/beautiful) comes away with a little dignity. She gives Mimi a lot more heart than should be there and shows some honest reflections for her character. She also, coincidentally enough, looks like a dead ringer for Joan Jett with her black bangs.

Crossroads is nothing but a star vanity project for Spears, with some not-so-subliminal Pepsi product placement here and there. This was not a script looking for a lead; this was something Britney’s management team suited for her, and Crossroads is perfectly suited for Britney. It allows for many ogling periods of booty shaking. The majority of the film’s drama doesn’t even concern her, and when she does have to act, her scenes are cut short to help her when the real drama unfolds. The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes.

Crossroads moves along on gratuitous skin shots of Spears half-naked body every 20 minutes until it reaches its torture chamber of a final act. In this very melodramatic period we get abandonment, date rape, infidelity, and even a miscarriage in one of the film’s most shameless plot devices. Of course none of these horrors matter, especially a psychologically damaging miscarriage, because Britney has to get to her BIG audition in order to perform, yep you guessed it, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” She also has to wear what looks like kitchen drapes while she sings.

You’ll walk out of the theater wondering many things. Why does Britney wear pink in EVERY single scene she’s in? There’s even one scene where she changes from a pink top to another pink top and is FOLDING a third pink top into a suitcase. Are we to believe that Akroyd and Spears share some kind of genetics? In what high school would Britney be considered a nerd?

Hopefully Crossroads will be the pop princess’ last foray into film, but I strongly doubt this is the last we’ve seen of Britney Spears. Crossroads is a terrible girl-power trip. Only Spears’ target demographic will enjoy this melodramatic mess. Truly, the two largest groups that will see this film are adolescent girls and creepy older men who fawn after adolescent girls. Crossroads is exactly everything you’d expect.

Nate’s Grade: F

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ve been waiting for this mea culpa for twenty years. In 2002, I saw Britney Spears’ movie debut, Crossroads, opening weekend with some friends with the chief purpose of seeing how bad it would be and tearing it to shreds for my collegiate newspaper. I graded it an F and sharpened my knives to eviscerate the star vanity project and everything it supposedly represented, eventually declaring it the worst film of 2002. Many years later, I have to wonder just exactly what was I so upset about with a middling road trip drama? What made this movie more deserving of a critical take-down than any other movie of that year? Had Spears not been its star, I doubt I would have expelled as much vitriol. So then the big question becomes, what did Britney Spears do to deserve so much ire from the 19-year-old version of myself? After some further reflection, I think I have some answers, and I’m glad I’ve had some significant growing up since then. I think it comes down to a personal animus blinding me as a critic, and this is something I’ve tried to push through and shed as I’ve gotten older and hopefully more experienced at evaluating art.

Flashback to the mid-to-late 1990s, and it was a golden time for fans of alternative rock, such as myself, bands that were cutting edge, audacious, and reaping the commercial rewards as well. MTV was filled with bizarre and exciting music videos from eclectic artists that were given an elevated platform. I grew my sense of self through my burgeoning musical taste, enveloping myself in the sounds of the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Tori Amos, and many more. And then the pop infusion began in 1997 with Hanson and really exploded with the emergence of the boy band craze and young pop stars like Spears and Christina Aguilera and others. Suddenly the music I was accustomed to, the music that to me was built on artistic integrity and depth, was being pushed aside for music that felt shallow and inferior, driven by exploiting the clean-cut physical beauty of the performers as compensation for substance. My younger self felt irritated that the music I considered to be genuine and revelatory was supplanted by bubblegum pop ditties. In my sophomore year of high school, for a Canterbury Tales group assignment, I co-wrote an epic quest for a strange band of characters to go to a Hanson concert and kill the three mop-headed brothers (I also had the collective pre-teen audience rise up and retaliate, killing our band of heroes). Looking back, there’s nothing new about any of this. Music has gone through many spells where pretty pop stars have coasted because of their looks and sex appeal. For whatever reasons, it felt personable, like an attack, and that is such a misplaced assessment on the winds of popularity.

I’ve tried to eliminate anything that feels like a personal attack from my film criticism, because at the end of the day it’s just a movie, and whether or not it works for me, and it may work for others, it’s still only a movie. It’s not like the filmmakers personally robbed me of anything other than my time, and as my friends will often chide me, I chose to watch these movies I knew would be almost certainly dubious entertainment options. I’ve re-read several past film reviews and winced as I found myself resorting to low blows or critiques about body appearance. My review of 2008’s The Hottie and the Nottie (for the record: not a good movie) was a glorified take-down of Paris Hilton and everything she supposedly represented, a prized vapidity. I deleted heavy portions of it, especially those shaming Hilton for her promiscuity. It made me ashamed. As I’ve grown, I’ve tried to focus solely on the art and story of each movie. If the performance was weak, it’s just a reflection of a bad performance and not a bad person deserving of some sort of misplaced score-settling by yet another angry random guy on the Internet.

That brings me back to the star of Crossroads, Britney Spears, who in the ensuing decades had the culture rally to her back as well as re-evaluate the treatment of the paparazzi-heavy targets of the 2000s. She was celebrated for her sexuality and demonized for it as well, again not exactly new in the realm of media. After so many years under the harsh scrutiny of the public spotlight, in 2007, Spears shaved her head, attacked a paparazzi car, and checked in for much-needed mental help, and in doing so essentially signed her life away for the next 14 years to her father, who had the final say over her finances and tour commitments and even whether or not Spears could have an IUD removed. She was finally released from her conservatorship after a groundswell of public support in 2021. She’s released many more albums, had a long-standing residency in Las Vegas, and has even talked about turning her struggle for agency into a big screen movie.

Crossroads is an odd concoction because of how many people went on to have robust careers. Chief among them is the credited screenwriter Shonda Rhimes who would become one of the preeminent TV power producers of the twenty-first century with Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Bridgerton. Fans of Rhimes’ adult soaps might find recognizable traces of her plotting with the overly melodramatic third act of Crossroads. This was also one of the earliest movies for Zoe Saldana, an integral part of THREE high-profile, highly successful sci-fi series, Avatar (where she has blue skin), Guardians of the Galaxy (where she has green skin), and the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (natural skin). She was also in the first Pirates of the Caribbean just a year after Crossroads. Then there’s Taryn Manning who found memorable parts in 8 Mile, Hustle and Flow, before redefining her career as the memorable, and dental-deficient, Pensatucky on Orange is the New Black. Anson Mount would later go on to prominence in TV series like Hell on Wheels and Star Trek Discovery (less so Marvel’s Inhumans). Apparently many of the other actors in Crossroads agreed to sign on just to meet Spears, like Dan Akroyd, Kim Catrall, and Justin Long. Even Mount was hesitant until the urging of none other than Robert DeNiro, who read lines with Mount from the Crossroads script during their downtime on 2002’s City by the Sea (DeNiro reed Britney’s lines, which makes me wonder what he could have done in the lead).

Reading back over my original 2002 review, I actually think most if not all the criticisms of the movie still land. The movie is rife with road trip cliches. The third act is indeed a torture chamber that really tilts the drama into overdrive, though smartly places the workload on the abilities of Saldana and Manning. There is definitely an unsettling preoccupation with Spears’ sexuality with the film. I wrote, “The movie’s true intentions are revealed when Britney is shown in her pink underwear twice in the first 15 minutes,” and I can’t disagree. It’s an uncomfortable watch at points, not because anything on screen is so salacious or ribald (Spears in fact insisted on her character’s use of profanity to be stricken to maintain her image) but because of what it thinks its audience wants. I suppose there were thousands of teenage girls looking to someone famous like Britney Spears for inspiration, and the lesson of waiting until you feel comfortable with a partner, and it’s your choice, is worthy, but the primacy emphasis on Spears’ body feels wrong.

My concluding line in my review was meant to summarize my stance, indicating that Crossroads is “exactly what you expect it to be,” and in 2002 I guess that meant the worst of the worst. In 2022, that just means a familiar, formulaic road trip movie with lots of melodrama. Yes, it’s a star vehicle for Spears’ acting career and there are many opportunities for singing, but that doesn’t make it any worse than any other mediocre drama aimed at a teenage demographic. And in 2022, I can say that I appreciate the pop music of the 90s. There were some real top-notch ear worms there and they still stand up to this day, easily hum-able when they reappear on radio. Spears and her ilk did not get the full credit they deserve during their reign. Crossroads is, to excuse a forced metaphor, a sort of crossroads for myself as a critic, something I’ve tried to improve upon as I got older. Movies are good and bad. Their intentions might even be noble or prurient or purely driven by money, but they’re still only movies and not personal attacks. I’m sorry Ms. Spears for unfairly maligning you, your acting ability, and your movie. Crossroads is easily not the worst movie of 2002. It’s merely mediocre at best and undeserving of antipathy.

Re-View Grade: C

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)

After watching it twice on Netflix, I have come to the conclusion that The Mitchells vs. The Machines is my favorite animated film since 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse. It’s so colorful, so exuberant, so clever, while still being heartfelt on its own terms and packing more jokes into a minute than any studio comedy in years. Everyone should check out 2021’s first cinematic treat.

The Mitchells are known as the weird family in their community. Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) is more about the outdoors and hands-on activities. His teenage daughter, Katie (Abbi Jacobson), is more about the digital sphere and creates her own sardonic, strange videos. She’s leaving for college and eager to fly the coop. Rick feels his last opportunity to bond with his daughter is leaving with her, so he forces the family into a cross-country road trip to drop Katie off at her school. Linda Mitchell (Maya Rudolph) is doing her best to be supportive of her husband and daughter while trying to bridge their divide. Youngest son Aaron just wants everyone to get along and talk about dinosaurs endlessly. The road trip gets even more precarious with a machine uprising and flying robots rounding up humans to eventually jettison them into space.

This is a gloriously entertaining movie that looks absolutely gorgeous. The animation is accentuated with similar styles from Into the Spider-Verse, so the filmmakers have implemented an overlay that adds a two-dimensional shaping and shading to the characters to provide more distinct definition. It’s a new design I heartily enjoyed in the Oscar-winning Spider-Verse and I hope more major animation projects employ it. It’s combining the fluidity and scale of 3D animation with the tactile and personal flavor of traditional animation. The movie also echoes its Gen Z-YouTube culture with cute hand drawn additions that will pop on the screen as accents or take over as quick freeze frames. I thought it was fun and a good indicator of Katie’s meta-drenched sense of humor and creative voice. This is also an explosively colorful movie with vibrant arrays popping off the screen. There were several visual sequences that took my breath away just at the arrangement of colors. The heavy use of neon pastels made me wonder if Nicolas Winding Refn (Neon Demon) was a visual consultant. There’s a stretch that highlights pinkish sunsets and the beautiful light blues of approaching dusk that I said this was the Nomadland of animated movies. Even when this movie has nothing happening, it’s a pleasure just to take it in and appreciate the artistry.

But oh my goodness there is so much happening with The Mitchells vs. The Machines. It’s a longer animated movie at 110 minutes but it’s also so fast-paced and antic, filled with ideas and jokes and moments it feels like it cannot wait to share. In some ways it feels like talking with a hyper-literate, boundlessly excited little kid, and I don’t mean that as a negative. I’m sure there will be more than a few viewers who will tire out early or find the pacing exhausting, but if you’re a fan of The Lego Movie and its hyperactive style of comedy, then you should be able to adapt here. The movie is densely packed with jokes, some that zip by in fractions of a millisecond to reward multiple viewings. I was laughing throughout and besides myself at several points, laughing hysterically from the slapstick to the offhand one-liners to the callbacks and silliness. There’s a little of everything here comedy-wise and it all works. It’s a buffet of laughs. One joke that is simply a tonally serious push-in on the question of mortality had me howling and it’s only a one-second gag. There’s a segment in a deserted shopping mall with the re-emergence of Furbys that is inspired lunacy (“Behold, the twilight of man!”). You have to be this good to be this smartly silly. This is the kind of comedy you can only do in the realm of animation, packing as much into the visual frame as possible and moving at the clip of the creative’s imagination. The side characters are the film’s secret weapons. The dumb dog made me laugh just about every time he was onscreen, and the fact that the movie legitimately finds a significant solution with this dog later is fantastic. The family also come across a pair of malfunctioning robots (voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen) and take them in as part of their unconventional family, and the robots are a terrific team for comedy bits, from their early entrance trying to ineptly persuade the family they are in fact humans (“Yum yum. Yum yum good.”) to their one-off remarks from a confused perspective had me laughing regularly.

The movie is more than just an assembly line of expertly calibrated gags, though again it must be said how flat-out hilarious this movie can be, like it’s disarming how instant the funny can break. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is also a well written movie from a character perspective and makes the audience genuinely care about this self-described clan of weirdos. My girlfriend looked at the running time for the movie and initially balked at how long it was, especially since we had seemingly come to a part that could serve as its Act Two break. “It better be worth that extra time,” she warned, and by the end even she agreed that it was time very well spent.

The heart of the movie is on the father-daughter relationship and while the other characters don’t get shut out, they become helpers to their various sides of this fractured relationship. The conflict is relatable, about the disconnection between two loved ones who just don’t feel like they have much in common any longer. For Rick, he doesn’t understand technology, the thing that Katie thrives in, and he’s struggling to adjust to her growing older. Those familiar daddy-daughter points of bonding don’t have the same appeal to her as a young woman increasingly embarrassed by her Luddite father. There’s a sincere warmth between the two, it’s just they don’t know how to express it fully to the other person and be seen as how they would like to be seen. It’s a generation gap, yes (Rick’s fear of technology will ring true to those with Boomer parents), but it’s also just two people who cannot use the same old tools to get the same results. The screenplay serves up both sides so that we see where each is coming from, understand their frustrations and overreaches, and pull for their reconciliation and growth. The themes are kept simple but expertly developed and with wonderful payoffs not just for Rick and Katie but for everyone. Each member of the Mitchell family unit has a character arc with a payoff, and each is utilized in a meaningful way with our outlandishly joyous climax, and that includes the dog and robots! Even the villain’s perspective is a parallel to our central family conflict, and that is just good writing. The story is deceptively clever and there’s more going on under the surface.

Besides the visuals, the comedy gold, and the heartwarming family relationships, there’s amazingly even more reasons to enjoy The Mitchells vs. The Machines. The voice acting is great, with McBride (This is the End) being a surprise standout as a loving middle-aged father. Also, of note, is that 2/3 of the principal cast of Netflix’s Disenchanted series are found in this movie (where for art thou, Nat Faxon?). The thrumming musical score by Mark Mothersbaugh is a synth-heavy blast that made me recall the scores for Blade Runner 2047 and his own Thor: Ragnarok score. The movie even features inclusivity in a casual manner; the son’s autism and the daughter being LGBTQ are treated with “yeah, sure” acceptance. At no point is either called out or featured in a moment to highlight this but neither are they dismissed as unimportant. Stick around because there are extra levels to the end credits, and I was happy for each because I didn’t want this wonderful time to end, so I kept hoping for more resolution to play out.

The movie was originally meant to be released a year and a half ago but COVID pulled its release date, and eventually Sony sold their project to Netflix for a cool $100 million. It’s hard for me to put an exact price on a work of art (what is this, an NFT? Seriously, someone explain these things to me) but I’m happy Netflix saved this movie and gave it a home. At this point, I’m willing to give producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the utmost benefit of the doubt when it comes to anything animated. After Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, Spider-Verse, and now this, they haven’t let me down yet. The Mitchells vs. The Machines is an eye-popping action movie and a superb comedy that the whole family can enjoy.

Nate’s Grade: A

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)/ Unpregnant (2020)

Abortion is one of the most hot-button cultural issues even almost 50 years after the landmark legal case made the procedure legal in the United States. Two 2020 movies elected to normalize the topic of abortion as a healthcare option but through very different approaches.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always plays out like a horror movie but not just with the hard-hitting reality of abortion access for many in this country, it’s also a horror movie about being a teenage girl in modern America. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is 17 years old, a budding musician, and about 18 weeks pregnant with the baby of her abusive boyfriend. She’s living in small-town Pennsylvania and the closest clinic that will treat her and not require parental permission and notification is in New York City. Her best friend, Skyler (Talia Ryder), steals a stash of cash from their supermarket job and books bus tickets to the big city. They travel on their own without informing their parents. However, the two girls must run around the city to jump through bureaucratic hoops while their dwindling money supply makes their options more desperate.

The movie is steeped in realism, which at different points comes across as an indictment on the burdens placed upon young women, but it’s also an understated case that wants to preach through its actions rather than any hokey soap box moments. Writer/director Eliza Hitman keeps things simple and to the bone for her narrative. We follow Autumn sneak out and try and get an abortion, only to have to wait longer and longer, with no place to stay overnight in a city she and her friend are unfamiliar with. I was fearing for both Autumn and Skyler as their stay increased and their money supply decreased. Just about every man depicted onscreen has an ulterior motive. Autumn’s boyfriend is controlling and abusive (inspiring a song Autumn performs for a school talent show in the opening scene). The supermarket boss insists on kissing the girls’ hands when they turn in their registers at the end of their shift. The creepy guy on the bus clearly has his sights set on Skyler. The guy on the subway just starts masturbating while staring at them. Being alone, far from home, and limited in means and transportation, you feel an overwhelming dread that something bad is going to happen to these two girls and it will be at the hands of men. They are victimized in small ways and large throughout their very existence. This dread does not go away until the very end of the movie. Skyler walks away to make some risky choices to earn needed money, and it’s not exaggerated but you do worry you may never see her again. Surely, many will reflect, it shouldn’t be this arduous for women to seek legal medical procedures, and when mostly-male legislators create extra burdens, it pushes desperate people into danger. At no point does anyone opine about body autonomy or anything overtly political. However, the movie’s entire function is to demonstrate these undue burdens.

Flanigan has been getting serious Oscar buzz for her performance and deservedly so. Autumn is definitely intended to be a relatable representation for many women going through similar struggles. Much of the performance relies upon her guarded acting through a veil of emotional detachment. She’s been ground down by her small town, by her family, by her abusive boyfriend and his jerk friends, and this can make her seem like a numb zombie at points. Autumn isn’t, though, she’s just trying to stay afloat from trauma and anxiety eating away at her. Flanigan has a quiet strength to her that keeps you pinned to the screen. She does have one standout scene that I’m sure would be her Oscar clip. At one New York clinic, an employee runs through a standard questionnaire (where the film gets its title from) and hits upon whether Autumn has been coerced into sex she didn’t want to have, and that’s when the emotions of Flanigan’s performance break through, her eyes welling with tears, her inability to answer while still answering. The off-screen employee recognizes the confirmations and responds with adept compassion. With that you also can glean how many times this clinic employee has heard these same gut-wrenching responses.

Beyond being a dread-filled horror movie of discomfort, Never Rarely Sometimes Always also becomes an unexpectedly touching movie about the great lengths that friends will go for one another. While there aren’t extensive conversations about how much they love one another, the actions speak for themselves, much like the rest of the understated movie. It’s Skyler who takes the lead in putting together this journey, keeping track of their progress, and eventually doing what needs to be done to gain money to go home. Both Skyler and Autumn support one another and rely upon one another and will go the extra mile for one another. A hand held tightly can be all the confirmation we need of their love and friendship during the most trying of times.

Unpregnant is easily the more entertaining and light-hearted of the 2020 abortion movies, using a raucous road trip of misadventures to reform the friendship of two high school girls. While applying a lighter touch (it is, after all, titled Unpregnant) it doesn’t trivialize the experiences of those making these choices. Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) is 17 years old, the valedictorian, and 6 weeks pregnant, Her lousy X-Games-aspiring boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) thinks it means they’re meant to be together forever. Veronica is mortified and certain she’s not ready to be a mother, let alone having Kevin’s baby. She’s afraid to tell her parents, her snooty friends at school, and so the only ally she can find is the outcast Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a former friend with access to a working car. They must travel from Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico to find the nearest state and clinic without first requiring parental permission and notification.

Unpregnant is very much a road trip movie with the assorted mishaps along the way pushing the two teens together and reminiscing about how close they used to be as friends until going down separate paths in high school. Naturally, the formula calls for them to each confront their own personal demons, assert themselves, and reconcile, and it happens at regular pit stops, but that doesn’t mean that Unpregnant isn’t satisfying just because you suspect where it’s going. The overall comedic tone takes you off guard, at least it did for me, and it happens immediately. We’re used to movies where abortion is a central storyline being heavy and depressing (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), and when they do go for some degree of comedy, it’s usually quite dark (HBO’s Girls) or satirical (Citizen Ruth). Unpregnant lets you know right from its peppy start that it’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to find humor in the awkwardness. It’s also okay to assess choices relating to an unplanned pregnancy without the stigma of shame or guilt. The movie doesn’t downplay the character’s dilemma, but instead of the conflict being whether she will keep the baby or not, the crux of conflict is, much like Never Rarely Always Sometimes, on equitable access to abortion services. Whereas that Sundance drama overwhelms with dedication to its real-life hardships and hurdles, Unpregnant chooses to take on these same hurdles with incredulous defiance and an F-you attitude that still feels political but aligned with its tone.

All road trips are dependent upon the co-pilots, and Unpregnant is an infectiously enjoyable experience spending time with Veronica and Bailey bantering and ultimately reconnecting. They are fun, and despite the circumstances that make this movie’s plot, they still find ways to have fun with one another. There’s an easy affection for one another that warms your heart. They clearly care about one another and watching them reunite and grow in their admiration for one another makes me like them even more. With any road trip movie, you must enjoy the people you’re stuck with. I appreciated both making amends of their past, why they fell out as friends, and what moments shaped each into being the headstrong woman they are today. Bailey uses this opportunity to try and reconnect with her absentee father. Veronica uses it to test her boundaries of what she felt needed sacrificing to stay on her master plan of academic success. Their kinship reminded me of Booksmart. The chemistry is so good, the dialogue snappy without being self-conscious, and the big dramatic moments nicely felt without being cloying, that Richardson (Split) and Ferreira (TV’s Euphoria) really feel like amusing best friends.

As per road trip comedy rules, we go from place to place getting into new hijinks. I appreciated that the mishaps don’t derail the light-hearted tone and direction even when they get broad. The girls become potential criminals when Bailey confesses their getaway vehicle might belong to her mom’s boyfriend and she might not have gotten his permission. This raises the stakes while still keeping things fun and feisty. A pit stop in Texas turns into a suspense thriller parody as the girls discover the kindly couple giving them a ride might be religious zealots who won’t let them leave. This leads to a wacky chase scene that ends in a hasty faked death and trying to jump onto a speeding train like “old timey hobos.” There’s also a running gag where Kevin keeps resurfacing, not exactly taking no for an answer, and arguing his nice guy credentials that aren’t being as respected as he deems necessary. For those worrying out there, Unpregnant does not condemn all men in this heightened universe or look upon them with dark suspicion.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that Veronica does, in fact, get to her appointment and have an abortion. I also think its noteworthy how this is portrayed and its aftermath. She’s lead through the different steps of the procedure with the calm instruction from an empathetic nurse, they don’t sensationalize any of the medical realities, and afterwards Veronica comes back home and has a heart-to-heart with her mother who, while admitting she would not make the same choice, still emphatically confirms her love for her daughter. Veronica also admits that she feels like she should feel bad or ashamed or guilty and she doesn’t. She feels relieved, she feels deep down that she made the right call. Never Rarely Sometimes Always covers this same ground with level-headed clarity but I think there’s something extra appreciative for Unpregnant. Between the two, this is going to be the more widely viewed film. Its very ambition is to be a crowd-pleasing road trip comedy built upon the bond of female friendship. I would expect an indie drama to try and normalize abortion, but it’s another thing when a light-hearted and readily accessible comedy (it’s PG-13!) has the sensitivity to normalize abortion. Many viewers will find this approach refreshing and helpful. The topic of abortion should never be made flippant but it doesn’t need to be a condemnation of inevitable ruination and regret either.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a hard-hitting drama that’s understated, realistic, compelling, but also a little too numbing. It’s quite artistic and empathetic and yet it can also be quite grueling to endure. I was wincing when Autumn felt the need to batter her own pregnant stomach. It’s more than effective but also sometimes its understatement can be a hindrance. On the complete other end of the tone spectrum is Unpregnant, a funny and entertaining road trip that doesn’t dismiss the certainty of its female characters and their choices. Both movies are worthy of being viewed and will leave an impression and could change some hearts and minds on the subject of abortion if those same people are willing to listen. I just found one film to be more generally entertaining.

Nate’s Grades:

Never Rarely Sometimes Always: B

Unpregnant: B+

Nomadland (2020)

Part poetic elegy for an America of old, part sunset-tinted road trip, part condemnation of economic fragility, part character study of a lost soul who prefers wide open spaces, Nomadland is a small indie trying to say a lot but in as few words as possible. Consider writer/director Chloe Zhao’s film a mixture of the compassionate, languid colorful character-driven slice-of-life Linklater movies and the romantic, spiritual hymns to nature and the universe from Terrence Malick. It’s ultimately about Fern (Frances McDormand) as a woman who travels the American southwest from season to season in her van, going from one temporary job to another. The temptation would be to make it about her running away from her past, her pain, and need to finally process her grief in a transformative way before she can settle down and make herself a home. Zhao’s movie rejects that easy formula; there are several moments where characters implore Fern to plant roots, to have a comfortable life with a man who adores her, but she can’t. She has to keep moving, from job to job and state to state. It’s not like a rejection of privilege and standing like 2007’s Into the Wild. If Fern could be rich, she’d happily not have to crap into a bucket in her van or sleep in parking lots or scrounge for food. She’s one of millions on the fringes of society because of how disposable so many corporations view their laborers. The opening text tells us that within one year of the factory in Fern’s hometown closing, the chief employer of the town, that its zip code was dissolved. Nomadland doesn’t ever feel like a preachy movie but it definitely has points it wants to raise about how we treat people in need, how business exploits them and their lack of options, and how others view these itinerant Americans and their plight. Really, though, it’s a movie of moments and there are some that are beautiful and powerfully poignant, like a woman stricken with cancer talking about her final desire to return to a lake frequented by birds, or another character discussing the death of his son and how that has informed his view of God and an afterlife. It’s these moments where a character just seems to take center stage and become fully developed, adding to Zhao’s humanist thesis about how every person, no matter their circumstances, is worthy of compassion and consideration. I enjoyed McDormand (Three Billboards) and thought she was a fine entry point into this under-seen world. I also think she was better served as a sort of living journalist letting us discover non-professional actors that open up their hearts and lives and feel like genuine human beings with a wealth of life inside them just waiting to be learned. That gracious, affirmative spirit hangs over every lovely frame and moment in a movie that could be described as Frances McDormand Tries All the Jobs. Still, it’s a movie of moments, and some of them truly sing and others just sort of go by without leaving as much of an impression. Nomadland is a pretty, thoughtful, meditative movie about persistent, stubborn creatures, namely us.

Nate’s Grade: B

Chef (2014)

chef-posterChef must have been something of a needed break for its star, writer, and director, Jon Favreau. He’s directed three large-scale Hollywood sci-fi mega movies in a row, a long way from Favrieau’s first big break, Swingers, which he wrote for himself. It was time for something a little smaller, quieter, and more personal, and Chef is just the ticket, a familiar but still greatly satisfying slice-of-life movie about a frustrated chef finding his mojo. Favreau plays a famous chef who cracks under the pressure of delivering the same safe food day in and day out. He loses his job after an increasingly hostile Twitter war with a food critic who calls him out for his safety in blandness. This pushes Favreau out of his comfort zone; he starts an independent food truck, bonds with his son, and generally begins to embrace his new invigorating freedom. Don’t see this movie on an empty stomach because it will be torture. The food preparation shots are tantalizing as are the general discussions over the adoration of food, the heavenly feel of a good meal (an aspect that’s even utilized as foreplay in the film). The entire film is stoked by a laid back charm, an amiable camaraderie between Favreau and his cast, so much so that we don’t care when the film sort of stalls. It’s a far lengthier period between Favreau losing job and getting the food truck than necessary, and the ending is abrupt with an almost absurd amount of resolution tie-ups crammed together without additional progression. The characters are likeable enough, funny, and their passions have a way of enveloping the audience, so much so that a fairly predictable plot is excusable. Chef is a lovely little palate cleanser at the start of the summer movie season and an enjoyable excursion. Just fill up before seeing it or else.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Guilt Trip (2012)

1901A funny thing happened after seeing The Guilt Trip. My father asked me what else Seth Rogen had been in that he had seen. And I was stumped (in retrospect, I could have said 50/50). I think that summarizes the mishmash of audiences for this mother/son road trip comedy. Rogen teams up with the ultimate Jewish mother, played by Barbara Streisand (Meet the Fockers), to travel the country. From that premise alone, it’s pretty much exactly everything you’d think it would be. The comedy is rather flat mostly because both characters feel mismatched from a comedy perspective; neither is given enough edge. I was surprised then when I found the warmhearted dramatic parts so much more skilled than the comedy (remember, sliding scale). The heart is better than the laughs. The deteriorating mother/son relationship is given some thoughtful consideration, and there are a few sweet emotional turns at the end to find a satisfying departure. It’s a rather nice movie, nothing too special or interesting, but nice can be perfectly fine under the right circumstances. I’m a Rogen fan and always enjoy his cocksure presence onscreen, and Streisand, at 70 years old, is still a natural movie star. The post-credits outtakes point to funnier material from their pairing, but director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) sticks to the well-worn path of the road trip movie. It’s fairly inoffensive and safe, but The Guilt Trip has some light-hearted pleasures to offer its older audience, especially middle-aged parents and grandparents. Simply put: if you have to see one older-appealing movie with your family this holiday season, Parental Guidance or The Guilt Trip, take the trip.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Due Date (2010)

Due Date feels less a wholesale rip-off of 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and more of a full-blown film inspired by the one sequence where Steve Martin unleashes a profane tirade at an airport clerk. It has two talented actors (Robert Downey Jr., Zack Galifiankas) in situations that should come across as funny, but the movie only gets so many laughs. The road trip angle has been done to death but the mismatched pairing of Downey, acerbic anger, and Galifianakas, continued goofball man-child, should have compensated for any stale genre formula leftovers. I think Due Date, under the direction of Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School), really just doesn’t know what to do with all its misplaced mean-spirited rage. So we end up with kids getting punched, people being beaten by disabled veterans, multiple cars crashing in spectacular fashion, public masturbation with dogs, people enduring great injury, and somehow the characters bond through all the adversity, even though neither changes at all. The comedy setups are all fairly transparent and can only deliver medium-sized payoffs; when a man’s ashes are kept in a coffee can, you know it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs. For better or worse, this is a two-man operation; the supporting actors are all wasted, particularly Downey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star Michelle Monaghan (Eagle Eye) as Downey’s pregnant wife. She isn’t even given one funny thing to say or do the whole movie. Due Date is a comedy that will make you laugh sporadically but it should have performed better. It’s a mid-level comedy with medium-level payoffs that ultimately prove to be underwhelming given the upper-level talent involved.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Eat Pray Love (2010)

Eat Pray Love is based on the best-selling memoir about Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a woman in her 40s trying to recover from personal setbacks. She’s divorcing her husband and she’s generally unfulfilled with her life. It seems to be missing meaning. Her solution is to set off on a journey to Italy, India, and Bali in order to rediscover who she is and what is missing in her privileged life.

Granted I am not in the target demo for this movie’s audience, but I found the main character to be rather hard to relate with. The film opens with her deciding to end her marriage to Billy Crudup (Watchmen). So far I’m okay. The dissolution of a marriage, especially when you’re older, is a prime starting point to reevaluate your life now that you’re on your own and, frankly, terrified by that prospect. But then the movie presents Gilbert as a rather self-involved and almost callous individual. Her husband is devastated, but she’s only tear-eyed one night as she prays to God why she’s in her marriage. The movie throws out some half-hearted excuse, saying her husband is wishy-washy about his career, but it’s a smokescreen. Why even leave this stuff in there if we’re just going to dislike Gilbert? That’s like including an opening scene in Schindler’s List where Schindler beats a child. A hyperbolic example, yes, but proof that it’s a terrible idea to have an early scene harm audience sympathy.

And so Gilbert goes about on her globetrotting voyage of self-discovery, chiefly to fulfill her health, spirit, and heart. Except the movie seems to get worse with every stop on the map. The overly long beginning in New York shows that our flighty main character shacks up with a hunky theater actor (James Franco), and then agonizes over how unhappy she is with this new guy. She needs to learn to love herself before anybody else, she says. In Italy, she finds freedom in losing herself to food. She feasts on fine Italian cuisine and doesn’t obsess over her weight gain. In fact, she and a buddy treat shopping for larger sized jeans as a joyous celebration. I’m pleased that people can become more comfortable with their bodies. This Italy section focuses on food and fellowship, and Gilbert learns the language, enjoys the company of a group of locals, and cooks a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her new friends. This is easily the most likeable Gilbert will be in the film.

First off, a film about a character finding personal discovery and self-awareness is going to be hard to pull off. Internal journeys of self-actualization and enlightenment don’t necessarily scream great movies, a medium of images and movement. For this to work you need a good story and a character worth rooting for, somebody who the audience can empathize with and cheer on the arduous path to personal grace. Elizabeth Gilbert is not that character. The other two segments in India and Bali are a true test of patience. Watching Roberts sway around, chant to herself, and look forlorn waiting for enlightenment to come is not the best use of 40 minutes. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) gives the film’s best performance in the most tedious segment, which kind of reignites the “tree falling in a forest” scenario. When Indians have spiritual crises do they travel to New York? The end feels even more leisurely paced and I found myself nodding off here and there. The movie was failing to keep my attention short of some lovely scenery.

Director Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TV’s Glee, knows that his audience wants beautiful countryside, beautiful food, beautiful men, and Julia Roberts smiling. To that end, Eat Pray Love is a success. Murphy seems to enjoy filming the food sequences the most. The food is portrayed like a glamour reel. It’s easy to feel the rumbles of hunger while watching this movie. Pizza from Naples looks divine. But Murphy also serves as co-writer, along with Jennifer Salt, so he should have known better about the plot deficiencies that keep the audience at a distance from embracing Gilbert. The actors all seem to be having a good time, and why wouldn’t they? Visiting exotic places and stuffing their faces with local delicacies? It feels like I’m watching someone else’s boring vacation videos that go on for 135 laborious minutes.

Eat Pray Love seems to be missing something, namely the soul of its journey. By design, so much of this existential crisis is internal, which is where the book can fill in all the clarifying and illuminating details to make this feel like a full story. As a movie, it just doesn’t work on screen no matter how powerful Roberts smiles. The main character is hard to relate to. How many people can solve a midlife breakdown by flying across the world for over a year? How did Gilbert afford this? I’ll tell you how. Gilbert pitched the idea to a publisher and then used the advance to pay for her yearlong trek of dining and self-discovery. It makes me doubt how genuine this whole journey really was, considering she sold the ending before she ever reached her catharsis. Maybe the title should have been Eat Pray Cash Check.

Nate’s Grade: C

My Life in Ruins (2009)

Tacky on nearly all fronts, this Big Fat Greek Wedding wannabe sequel features that hit movie’s star, Nia Vardalos, and plops her in Greece as an unhappy, uptight, undersexed tour guide. The movie follows her exploits to regain her “kefi,” Greek for “mojo.” My Life in Ruins paints in obnoxious broad strokes with its bus of fools, making sure the Australian tourists are never without a can of Fosters in their hand. The stereotypes are plentiful. The lame jokes are easily telegraphed and usually lowbrow (the bus driver’s name is “Poupi Kakas”), the acting is hammy, and the stabs of drama thanks to Richard Dreyfuss as a traveling widower feel alien. Being a romantic comedy replete with stock characters, naturally everything is predictable. Vardalos does a credible job here trying to hold this mess together, though she’s too prone to going for funny faces as a saving grace. Twice characters tell her that she’s not funny, and to this the audience will easily agree. I am dumbfounded that longtime Simpsons writer Mike Reiss wrote this crap. The only real enjoyment you’ll receive from this movie is marveling at all the fabulous Greek sights, from the ancient ruins to the seaside villas. I understand why the cast and crew would sign up to film this movie in Greece, but does that mean I have to subsidize their vacation with my own money? No thank you.

Nate’s Grade: C

Wild Hogs (2007)

It’s hard to imagine that this lowbrow, homophobic, uninspired, painfully nostalgic film is the top grossing comedy of the year so far. I don’t really want to further elaborate on what this says about the general public. The boys (John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, William H. Macy, a more random grouping of actors I challenge you to find) are all henpecked and unhappy with their dull, predictable, socially comfortable lives, so what’s a group of men facing midlife crises to do? Road trip. The idea of the freedom of the open road and the rebelliousness of touring the country on the back of a motorcycle seems quaint and naive at this point in life. What follows on their biker odyssey is a lot of lame slapstick and each actor trying to outdo the other in masculinity. A protracted third act standoff brings the film to a halt that it can never recuperate from. Wild Hogs isn’t a comedy disaster of sorts but it’s definitely got enough aimless misogyny and retroactive Boomer nostalgia to make you gag.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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