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Shithouse (2020)

This should have been a winner for me. I’m a fan of mumblecore dramas that drop you into people’s ordinary lives. They’re character-driven and built upon naturalistic dialogue that can still be compelling and revealing of its participants. However, Shithouse seems to have found that middle zone between stylized dialogue and naturalistic dialogue; throughout the 100 minutes, the movie involves ordinary people sounding like they’re having real conversations, which means they are generally boring. If you were eavesdropping on these people in real life you would leave. There’s a fine difference between natural but still plot-driving and engaging dialogue and dithering dialogue that holds to the awkward starts and stops of real life but fails to keep your attention. Just because the scene feels realistic does not mean it is the same as being interesting. Writer/director Cooper Raff stars as Alex, a college freshman with a serious case of homesickness. He spends one long night with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), and it feels like maybe these two will connect and become romantic. The problem with Shithouse is that it feels like each half-hour is its own different movie. The first is introducing an emotionally fragile young man having difficulty adjusting to collegiate life away from his family. The problem is that I didn’t care about Alex and I didn’t find him being mopey intriguing. It took too long to open him up. The next part is the film’s best and it’s Alex and Maggie spending hours together walking, chatting, having little adventures on the path to burying her dead turtle. It’s the best part of the film and where I felt the movie was starting to coalesce, even with a protracted setup. This is the Before Sunrise part. However, the next morning, Alex and Maggie seem to have very different views of their long night and eventual hookup. He’s overloading her with messages and she’s being distant and indifferent, and this is where the movie becomes like 500 Days of Summer, holding up for scrutiny the romantic aspirations of those grown up with the media of pop-culture happy endings. Had Raff left us in this direction, I could even argue that his structure served a larger point of condemning his protagonist’s viewpoint. I might not enjoy it but I could mildly respect it. However, Shithouse then undoes this part with a resolution set two-plus years in the future that doesn’t feel earned and is tonally disjointed from this prior section. If this was the intent, then why did Raff even prolong us with this extended morass of missed Instagram messages and angry outbursts over misreading what the night meant to both parties? Regardless, there are glimmers and moments in this gentle little movie that worked, that hit upon a deeper truth, but mostly you’re stuck with dull people having boring conversations.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Moondance (2020)

I didn’t even plan on writing this review. I knew of the indie musical Moondance because I was familiar with several crew members who worked on the $500,000 project and watching their pictures on social media, but when I discovered it had been filmed entirely outside the state of Ohio, primarily in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I decided to exclude it from my mission to professionally review Ohio-made indies. As of this writing, it was available on the website Tubi for free with ads, so I started it on a whim to show my girlfriend what I had intended to watch, and then I kept watching, and then I didn’t want to continue but I felt compelled to, and now I feel compelled to dissect this movie as best as I can, even with its tangential connection to the Ohio indie film scene. Moondance is a confounding experience for a lover of big screen musicals because it’s a musical that doesn’t really want to be a musical, a comedy that doesn’t know how to do comedy, and a drifting drama bereft of characters to root for and reasons to cheer.

The story is familiar. We have our boy, in this instance Oscar (Jonah Robinson), a composer suffering writer’s block, and he meets our girl, Abby (Carolyn Rabbers), a dancer. Oscar is instantly smitten and tries tracking Abby down, while his “best friend” Pat (Sam Jones) schemes with his very David Rose-esque assistant Sean (Brandon Stewart) to have her for his own. In between these shenanigans, Cooper Flannigan (credited as “Self”) appears to be a hipster friend of Oscar but also the god of this universe as he routinely breaks the fourth wall and is played by the actual writer/director.

I have to give credit for anyone having the gumption to try and create a low-budget musical. That’s a tall creative order and unfortunately Moondance can’t quite match its toe-tapping ambitions. There are only four songs in the entire musical before the end credits (I’ll get to those later). By the 45-minute mark, I had only experienced one legitimate song-and-dance number and I was wondering if the reality of this movie had simply abandoned being a musical. There are a couple additional dance numbers as one would expect with Abby being a dancer, some set to performances from musicians, but for the first hour there are only two honest-to-goodness moments where characters break out into song. Why is there no opening musical number that introduces the different characters and their different perspectives, stations, plights, goals? That would be an economical way to establish the world and its players. There seems to be real hesitancy onscreen with embracing its musical identity. The musical numbers are meant to give us insight into the characters who can’t help but blurt out their feelings, and yet during the requisite boy-and-girl-on-the-outs part, there is no musical number. There isn’t even a musical number for their growing affection for one another. We’re missing a love theme, and for a romance-heavy musical that’s meant to evoke the feeling of Old Hollywood, that seems like a massive oversight.

The staging and performance of the musical numbers, when they do appear, can also be underwhelming and counter-productive. From a choreography standpoint, much more emphasis is placed on the background players including a superfluous “intermission” dance. There is one number where the key characters do little more than literally ride a bicycle in a circle, and I would argue this is the best number in the film. There is more dancing than singing and that seems the primary reason why Rabbers was chosen as the lead female role. She certainly has talent as a dancer. As a singer is another matter. I feel unkind even articulating this but for a musical it needs to be said: Moondance would have been better off dubbing Rabbers. Her singing voice is just not there. I don’t see any harm to the production if the filmmakers had dubbed her singing. Another issue is that Abby’s dancing feels a bit too chaotic and chaotically edited. There’s a moment of sorrow where she dances out her feelings, but the choreography isn’t conveying the emotions of the scene any differently than a previous dance for us to compare with, and the editing isn’t helping, until it concludes with her pounding a wall in frustration and falling into a crumple on the floor. The camera could have locked onto her face, so as she moved and performed the emphasis was on her emotional state and what the dancing signifies. Whether it’s the lackluster songs, singing, and the nascent choreography that needs to communicate more personality for the big players, Moondance stumbles as a musical.

From a comedy standpoint, let me focus on one small scene that I think exemplifies the pitfalls of comedy construction that Moondance suffers from throughout. We start a scene with Oscar and Cooper at an ice-skating rink watching a curling team practice. Oscar opens the scene by declaring, “22 dance studios!” to tell us he has struck out trying to find Abby, and then for good measure he repeats the line to better establish his bafflement. “What am I supposed to do now?” he asks Cooper, who asks whether Oscar has considered the possibility his dream girl doesn’t exist. “No, I haven’t considered the possibility she doesn’t exist,” Oscar replies, weirdly echoing the exact wording just to hammer this home for the audience. He sees Cooper distracted, sighs, and says, “I’m going to go to the bathroom, or the parking lot or… something.” He then leaves and then Cooper addresses the camera and informs us on the mechanics of the sport of curling. This will never come up again in the entire movie. So, dear reader, let’s deconstruct this scene. It begins with Oscar stating his futility. He repeats his line twice. His friend offers no help, makes a reference to Oscar’s mental state, not a joke but a reference, to which Oscar simply repeats the assertion rather than supply a joke response or anything that can be constituted a response. Because of this, Cooper has nothing funny to build off from, so he asks a simple “what next” and rather than supply a joke that showcases Oscar’s pitiful state, he offers two suggestions, neither of them funny, then doesn’t even provide a third suggestion, instead giving up and not even following the age-old comedy rule of three. From there, Cooper informs us about something that will not matter and is not funny. Why does this scene even need to exist if even the characters can’t be bothered to come up with jokes?

I was dumbstruck by the ineffectual comedy throughout Moondance. This is the kind of movie that has characters devise a stakeout and disguise themselves in bear costumes for no reason. Do they do anything in these costumes? No. The joke, I assume, is that they’re in funny costumes. This is akin to a character walking into a room with a silly hat, and the director saying, “Hey you, look at this comical hat being worn. Isn’t it so unlike normal hats? A normal person would never wear a hat like this. What a cut-up to wear this hat. Are they going to do anything differently because of this hat? Well, no, but what a silly hat, right? Please laugh.” Just stopping at this conception and doing nothing else is not comedy. There need to be setups, payoffs, subversion, running jokes, subversion of running jokes, something, anything. There is a stark sense of desperation throughout Moondance when it comes to its sense of humor. Take for instance a dinner where the group is hob-knobbing but then the girls meet below the table to share their real thoughts under the excuse of retrieving a fallen fork. Why not repeat this setup, making it more outlandish and obvious as you go? Why not present one perception, above table, of the girls, and one below where they are their true selves and confessing distaste? There are moments where it feels like the writer/director just had little grasp on humor and lost track of opportunities. The jokes are rarely accessible; it feels like you’ve entered into a private conversation and are left to put the pieces together. Sean is definitely slotted as “comic relief” but he feels overexposed. I was confused what his relationship was supposed to be with Pat. Is he the assistant, lover, or friend? Eventually I learned that he was Pat’s brother, but why did I have to fight so hard to understand this fact? The writing doesn’t make it easy for the audience to follow along, and this extends to its comedy writing. The fourth wall breaks are tone-breaking but, again, not funny. They feel included just as a fun way to include the crew in the movie, which, again, feels like a private party indulgence. The comedy of Moondance is primarily dormant. It’s over-compensating a lack of funny on the page by asking its actors to dial up their performances, so all the unfunny dialogue and antics now just seem like they’re being performed by crazy people on illicit substances.

If this movie was going for satire, I think it missed it by a wide margin. I don’t know why we have a character with godlike powers and this is treated like a lame party trick. Why not refocus the entire movie from this perspective and have Cooper be the god of a rom-com musical universe, and he’s the only one who knows he’s in a movie, and he’s pulling out every stop to get his chosen guy and chosen girl to get their big happy ending. That way it would play upon our knowledge of genre tropes and bring something fresh, while utilizing the fourth wall breaks as essentially strategy planning and introducing a team of helpers that would see through his efforts. Instead, we get the jovial character of Cooper who strolls around and offers few insights into the nature of romance or the nature of romance movies and our association of them. He feels like a magic hobo. I sense the homage to the Old Hollywood musicals and the big band accompaniment for all those jazz hands and hoofing, but it’s more intention than actuality. It’s going through the motions, and without enjoyable characters and an engaging story, it’s an homage that ends up empty.

My final criticism might be the one that made it the hardest for me to embrace Moondance, and this is how aggressively unlikable nearly all of the characters come across. In a romantic musical, you can have less than stellar singing, dancing, and even songs but your audience needs to care about the people onscreen. You need to feel the desire for them to get together, find their happiness, and at a basic level, you have to enjoy spending time with your core group of characters. Otherwise you’re stuck, and dear reader, stuck is what I felt with these people. I never cared about Abby and Oscar getting together because I never found them to be remotely interesting. Oscar is a bland protagonist. The only thing we know about him is that he writes symphonies. He immediately becomes obsessed with Abby to the point that, even before he ever speaks his first word to her, he declares Abby “his girl” in a creepy act of possession. He’s in love with her but cannot explain why. Would have been perfect for a song there to articulate his new feelings, right? We know even less about Abby. She’s a dancer and wants to save an old dance studio, but anything else? Well during a scene where she lunches with a friend, she has a giant burger as her meal. Does she eat it? No, but just being seen with this pound-plus of beef is meant to do the work the screenplay hasn’t and imbue useful characterization. She’s not some prim “just east a salad” kind of girl, oh no, give her a honking burger. To my best estimation, Abby and Oscar go on two dates (one of which she apparently has harassed a waiter, and this is supposed to be endearing?) so when they part ways before Act Three, this short-lived breakup doesn’t exactly feel as earth-shattering as the characters try to convince us. We’re simply not invested. Rabbers and Robinson (Jack Jonah) don’t have strong chemistry together but it’s not their fault. The script gave them nothing to work with and no points of characterization to better define them as people or make either of them interesting to watch.

The character of Pat is pompous and entitled and I don’t know how anyone would remotely take his involvement in what is angled as a love triangle with any seriousness. He is a terrible character and a terrible person and he just seems to exist in a daydream of privilege. What does he do all day? He buys expensive paintings for his… Rubens parties (again, another point of accessibility made challenging for the audience when this is referenced without context and it took my third stab at understanding what it meant to gain clarity). Later in the film, he monologues to his paintings before setting them ablaze, and it’s played like the mental break of a serial killer, and it’s so tonally off to induce whiplash. Pat’s the cartoonish fop character that would be presented as the rich buffoonish bad boyfriend in any other movie, and yet here he’s supposed to be the best friend to Oscar, yet we see no behavior that communicates their close personal relationship. This is a trenchant problem throughout Moondance, the screenplay constantly having to tell you of something rather than show you. It’s like watching characters thrown into an improv game and grasp for any fragile means of escape from scene to scene.

With all of these words spent in constructive critique, it might seem like Moondance is without notable artistic merit and that is not the case. The photography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is well lit and at its best when it has plenty of movement to give a sense of energy that is usually flagging from the page and performances. The smoky jazz number makes fun interplay with shadow to better establish an evocative mood. The musical productions are heavy with big band sounds and brass instruments, enough so that I started wondering if anyone has done a ska indie original musical. The opening segment involves a band performing in a studio space and it was a pleasant experience to set a tone. The musical performances are solid. The musical compositions are competent if unmemorable. I don’t know why the production didn’t just fully go the jukebox musical route with local artists if we were only getting four original songs (though the titular “Moondance” song lyrics were a bit childish, reminding me of the Hokey Pokey). Hey, they got TV’s Adam Conover (Adam Ruins Everything) to be a brief narrator, a role that seems even less necessary when Cooper is breaking the fourth wall repeatedly as a would-be guide for the audience since he’s already our stand-in god.

Moondance ends on a two musical numbers, the first a kind of curtain call on a theater stage that allows every character, including the dry cleaner guy, to get a sendoff and also break the fourth wall. Afterwards, Cooper addresses the audience and acts as emcee through the various departments and crew members who worked on the movie, with the camera moving in and out of rooms with an impressively agile tracking shot, and ending on several spirited dances, one of which serves as the still image on the Tubi page. The problem is that this is, easily, the most involved musical number and it’s reserved for the end credits. I can imagine Cooper and the filmmakers thought they were ending on a high note to say a fun goodbye to their audience, but by reserving it for the end credits that roll over the scene, it makes it harder to read the credits that are spaced so far apart and it makes it harder to pay attention to the song and dance because of the rolling credits. Why not go split-screen? For me, this sums up the misapplied application of Moondance and its throwback ambitions. It’s not whimsical. It’s not charming. It’s not funny at all. There aren’t characters to care about. The musical numbers are too few and far between. The potential hook to separate this, its satirical behind-the-scenes god at play in a musical world, is not incorporated in a vital and clever manner. Moondance is a strange passion project because it’s hard to feel any passion for this story and characters. It pains me to be as blunt as I am but there are too many issues to go ignored. I wish everyone with the production good luck in the future. This will stand as an artifact of bewilderment for me. See it for yourself on Tubi and whether it casts a bewitching spell on you, dear reader, or leaves you just as confused and disappointed.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Spontaneous (2020)

Spontaneous is a movie that grabbed my attention immediately, made me laugh quickly, and then made me fall in love over the course of its explosive 100 minutes. The more I think back about this bizarre little movie, based on the YA novel by Aaron Starmer, the more affection I have for it and its messy accomplishments. Writer/director Brian Duffield has been one of the most exciting screenwriters for years, penning highly inventive stories that have a distinct, vivacious comedic voice that leaps off the page and smacks you across the face with how good it is, and then you ask for more (check out The Babysitter for the closest representation of what a Duffield screenplay delivers; skip the sequel though). This is Duffield’s debut as a director and I feel like he’s a natural fit for the quirky, blood-soaked material. Spontaneous is a dark comedy that can also make you feel something because it doesn’t simply treat its characters as disposable punchlines.

So the senior class of Covington High School has a serious problem. They’re spontaneously exploding. Nobody knows why, nobody knows who will be next, and even after a government quarantine, the answers aren’t any clearer. Mara (Katherine Langford) just wants to live to grow into a badass older lady who lives on the beach with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). Her dreams of a life after graduation might never come true. Dylan (Charlie Plummer) introduces himself to Mara and they begin a tender courtship, falling in love during a precarious time where either of them could explode and soak the other in gore and viscera. Can these two crazy kids make it and grow up when their own bodies might betray their fleeting happiness?

Almost instantaneously I was drawn into the romance between Mara and Dylan, and I enjoyed deeply how each helps to shape the other, finding a sincere connection in the most extreme and unexpected of circumstances. Their budding romance dances with tragedy and dread as we worry over the fate of our lovers; surely, with this horrific premise, they won’t end happily ever after, or could they? Every time another student exploded, I winced. I laughed a few times, I’ll admit, because the context can become darkly hilarious and absurd, but it’s also a natural human reflex to relieve tension. Each one of these kids is a potential suicide bomber and they don’t know it. It’s sudden and something that you, even as a viewer, will never get used to. What you will do is start to dread who is next and whether that explosion sound was someone you liked. With an omnipresence of tragedy, it pushes the characters to make the most of their potentially short lives and that brings a greater significance to their next steps, the little attempts to “feel like an adult,” to reach for their desires, and to declare who they are while they are still standing to do so. It takes the coming-of-age setup and deftly dials up the emotional stakes.

Make no mistake though, Spontaneous is an uproariously funny movie. We’re primarily seeing the world from the perspective of Mara and her narration and occasional fourth-wall breaks. There are some fun asides where other characters take over narration duties, but this is chiefly her movie and she’s delightfully odd, prickly, and worthy of our attention. Duffield’s screenplay is brimming with wit and the conversational banter flows with such a confident cadence, all while not being overly mellifluous and self-satisfied. I adored just spending time with the characters because I was anticipating what they would say and do next. The social satire is present but not as substantial as I would have thought. The film trades in familiar stereotypes we’ve come to associate with high school movies, yet it can take some interesting detours, like when the football team cheers in support about their fellow player for coming out as gay. This is a high school movie mixed with a horror movie, where a big party to cut loose could become the latest crime scene. Most of the adults are simply scared and don’t know what to do, and that helpless vulnerability extends outward and keeps going. Just because you may be older doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. I cackled plenty from the physical humor, slapstick gross-out gags, but when Duffield wanted to be serious, you better believe I shut my trap and pulled up the blanket.

I think it’s worth acknowledging, and I don’t consider this a real spoiler, that the cause of the spontaneous combustion is never resolved. There is no explanation, and if that’s a deal-breaker for you then I think you’re prioritizing the wrong parts of what Spontaneous is offering. It doesn’t really matter why it’s happening because the movie isn’t a scientific mystery. As much as it might seem bizarre to declare, this is far more than the “kids blown into bloody bits” movie. It’s not about what is happening per se but how it emotionally affects the characters. The unknown bodily explosions could serve as a gory metaphor for modern-day threats of school shooters, terrorism, or even our current pandemic (pick your metaphor, anything really works). Students don’t know who will be next, when their time will be up, and an anxious pall hangs over their day-to-day lives as they trudge onward trying to regain a sense of normalcy during a troubling and uncertain time of numbing trauma. That’s really the core of the movie, the response to inexplicable trauma. Some characters maintain a blasé, nihilistic attitude, questioning whether their minute remaining time has value. Others look at the random threat of exploding as a motivator to overcome the obstacles that kept them from achieving their goals, ignoring social hang-ups and personal misgivings. It’s the proverbial kick that Dylan needs to finally talk to the girl he’s been crushing on. He elects to live with his remaining time on this planet, no matter how brief, and elects to be happy, which is about one of the bravest things a person can do. That’s why the combustible student body doesn’t need an explanation, and to be fair what possible explanation would ever have been truly satisfying (“Oh, we all just ate too many carbs. Huh.”)?

If she hadn’t already established herself from Netflix’s somber soap 13 Reasons Why, this would have been a star-making role for Langford (Knives Out). She’s captivating from her first moment onscreen when she discusses the mundane details of her day at school right before the girl in front of her explodes. Her sardonic and spiky attitude permeates the movie and gives the film an energetic jolt, amplified by Duffield’s stylish flourishes that reminded me at points of Edgar Wright with how playful and involved the visual transitions could get. Our leading lady is a force of nature, and after enough time, you can understand why Tess wants to be her bestie, why Dylan would fall in love with her, and why other students would be afraid of Mara. There are moments where Langford can be silly and diverting, like dressing in mourning over the 2016 election, and others where she feels like she’s harnessing the totality of youthful feminine rage (I loved a late declarative statement directed at our current president) to be a symbol. The “same old” just isn’t going to cut it when the stakes are this high. Langford isn’t just the too-cool gal spitting pithy insults from a safe distance. There’s some heavy-duty existential drama here that she carries while through the prism of her eccentric teenager’s attitude. Her romance with Plummer (All the Money in the World) is sweet and affecting and feels entirely genuine.

Sticky, sweet, and wickedly funny, Spontaneous is obsessed with death, the uncertainty of knowing when your time is up, and yet I came away feeling ultimately uplifted and moved. There are some jolting moments, both funny and heart-breaking, and Duffield wants you to take the time to feel the full experience of being young and angry and hopeful and anxious and in love and feeling weird. In a disastrous year of worldwide calamities, Spontaneous is a bright spot, and given the bloody premise, that should tell you everything you need to know about the year 2020. This is a delightful, heartfelt, and surprisingly mature teen drama that also happens to have people bursting like balloons. Duffield even touches upon the profound at points, which is hard to do with any filmmaker, let alone one playing with these crazy genre elements. Spontaneous is a coming-of-age drama with equal parts ache and warmth, gallows humor and personal insight. Find this movie, devote 100 minutes of your time, and wear a poncho if necessary.

Nate’s Grade: A

Palm Springs (2020)

I am a sucker for a clever time travel tale, or parallel universes, a sci-fi story where the creative ingenuity is front and center, and Palm Springs is a delightful new rom-com bursting with imagination. By this rate, most audiences should be familiar with the time loop formula, from comedy classic Groundhog Day to Source Code to Edge of Tomorrow to Netflix’s audacious series, Russian Doll. It’s a creative conceit that rests on building patterns and subverting expectations, allowing a writer an unparalleled opportunity to retell a story, pulling at the edges and getting to answer an assembly of “But what if?” questions. It builds out its world and makes it feel richer and more intricate, all the little stories and characters that might have been missed had there only been a single avenue. It requires a creative storyteller with a big imagination for details, but when done correctly, the time loop movie can be a wealth of satisfying payoffs and intriguing detours. Palm Springs deserves to be added to that list of hallowed time loop movies.

It’s the day of the wedding for Sarah’s (Cristin Milioti) sister. There’s one wedding guest that seems to stand out. Nyles (Andy Samberg) seems prescient on the dance floor, has a prepared speech that earns tears, and strolls through the reception like he owns it. Sarah becomes smitten with him and, against her better judgment, follows him into a mysterious glowing cave. She wakes up in her bed and relives the wedding day again, learning she too is now trapped in that 24-hour loop with Nyles. He laments that she followed him, having once encouraged another person to join him in the world of no tomorrows (a rueful Roy, played by J.K. Simmons). But with a partner, the many days have a new relevance, and Nyles and Sarah depend on each other, but is there a chance that they can escape or are they doomed to perform the Electric Slide forever?

Right away, you can tell that writer Andy Siara (TV’s Lodge 49) has given his story tremendous thought, and the fun of it is watching our main characters go through the process of discovery while learning more about each. The rules of the universe are straightforward; whether death or sleep, they will wake up back that fateful wedding morning. Nyles has felt trapped for so long and the prospect of another companion going through his same purgatory fills him with guilt, but he cannot help feeling a new purpose when he finds a partner for this weird world. Initially she’s looking for an escape, but then she opens up to the possibility to a life permanently on pause, without consequences, and how freeing this can be. Then the appeal dampens as we come to understand why this day is a personally painful one for Sarah and why she would be desperate to live another day, any other day. When she drops out for a solid stretch in the second half, you miss her just as much as Nyles and better realize what a great team they made. Palm Springs has plenty of fun with the possibilities (Nyles requests a quick death over a long drive to “beat the traffic”) but it doesn’t lose sight over why we should care about these people. It doesn’t really matter how the time loop began or whatever theory will end the loop. It’s the central relationship that will ultimately provide the emotional anchor, and it’s because of that attention that by the conclusion of Palm Springs I felt uplifted, buoyant, and happy (a mid-credits scene thankfully answers the one lose thread, providing an even more welcomed conclusion).

Make no mistake, this is a funny movie and I laughed often. Samberg (TV’s Brooklyn 99) and Milioti (Black Mirror) are terrific together and genuinely seem to enjoy one another. They have a combustible spark to them that reminded me of older screwball comedies. Having a willing partner allows Nyles to cater to different impulses but also pushes him to re-examine his perspective when he has someone new who sees the excitement in their unique position. However, except for Roy and his long drive from Irvine, they are hopelessly alone, unable to move forward, and the question arises can there be anything of significance without consequences? The screenplay has a natural dark streak with its humor, so even when things get heavy with existential quandaries, it doesn’t stop the movie from being smart and enjoyable. There are so many wonderful little payoffs, little running gags, and larger payoffs to be had with the time loop formula. It also hooks an audience by watching a character fail, and fail, and fail, only to succeed. Palm Springs is a romantic comedy that can be funny, romantic, and make me care.

Debut director Max Barbakow keeps the pacing swift and has fun playing with bold primary colors across the desert setting. The tone of the movie is delicate as it can go into silly revelry, like a surprise coordinated dance routine and a wedding outburst involving a bomb, into yearning romance, into heartfelt pathos, and then even the occasional stomach punch. For as rightfully beloved as Groundhog Day is, there’s nothing that comes close to feeling like an emotional gut punch. With Palm Springs, the time loop is given its sci-fi examination, the comedy is given is full exploration, but it’s the characters that matter most, and Barbakow prioritizes the right feelings at the right times. By the end, you feel sweetly fulfilled by these 90 charming minutes.

At first, I wondered why the Roy character was included except as a cautionary tale why Nyles would not want to rope someone else into his purgatory. But then as we visited with the older man, I realized, as he does, that he’s meant to symbolize the change in perspective (mild spoilers to follow). The family that he couldn’t stand before his loop-life has now become his personal oasis. He’s grown in appreciation and love of his family bonds. He is the example for Nyles about how one can personally grow and change when given dedication and enough time to see it through. It’s a nice moment, and while Simmons (Whiplash) is always wildly entertaining when he’s bulldozing over others, giving Roy a poignant sendoff made me feel like he was a much more integral character and his earned wisdom was its own special reward.

Palm Springs is a great detox of movie, with enough sunny comedy and winning romance to make you smile and enough tortured existential drama to provide substance. Everyone involved, from the writer to the director to the cast, is having a blast and it’s fun to join in the good times. When it comes to time loop cinema, Palm Springs is a respite of entertainment and smartly developed and richly realized execution. Find it on Hulu and kick back.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Hamilton (2020)


Multi-hyphenate sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton sounds like a bizarre misfire, a hip-hop-infused musical about one of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and yet not only does it succeed so magnificently, so transcendentally, it’s one of those rare artistic pinnacles that lives up to its own momentous hype. This is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the twenty-first century. I’m exceedingly grateful for a filmed version of the vaulted stage experience, with the original cast, that allows me that front-row view my bank account never would afford. This is going to be a film review of what is, essentially, a live theatrical performance, but really this written review is going to be a celebration of Hamilton and what I consider to be so phenomenal.

In 1776, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) is an immigrant looking to make his name in the American colonies and the looming war with Britain for independence from King George III (Jonathan Groff). He meets and befriends Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious upstart who seems fatefully linked with Hamilton through the decades. Hamilton falls in love and marries Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) but also has a close relationship with her older sister, Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who keeps her real feelings at bay to protect her sister. Eager to get into the action, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s (Chris Jackson) right-hand man as the battle comes to New York and the colonists do the unthinkable and defeat England as we conclude the musical’s first act. “You’ll be back,” King George retorts.

Next comes the tricky part of building a functioning country in the aftermath. Hamilton is appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury by newly elected President Washington, but his federalist principles are fought against by some pretty big names in the cabinet, like James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Both are wary of a centralized government and prefer more power to be held by the states. The Founding Fathers jostle for ideological supremacy and Hamilton gifts his opponents with the burgeoning nation’s first political sex scandal with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Aaron Burr rises in local and national politics but sees Hamilton as a constant thorn in his side. With the presidential election so close in 1800, Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr is the final straw, and Burr demands satisfaction in a duel against Hamilton that will prove tragic.

For fans of musical theater, Hamilton is a two-hour-and-forty-minute joyously exuberant celebration of a bold artistic vision, the electricity of live theater, and broadening American history in a manner that makes it far more accessible, relevant, and humane for a modern audience. The very nature of having minority actors portraying the Founding Fathers and their famous wives is part of Miranda’s appeal that he wanted to tell the story of America with the America of today. Ordinarily, African-Americans would never get an opportunity to play Washington or Jefferson, or a Chinese-American woman playing the role of Eliza Hamilton, and there is definite power in representation, in seeing these different faces playing these historical figures. The deliberate color-blind casting makes America’s history feel more inclusive. It’s such a simple act, opening the ethnicity of historical roles, but it produces a beautiful result and provides even more cross-textual commentary, like slave-owning presidents played by black thespians.

Another miraculous effort by Miranda is his ability to generously humanize many of the characters, including the man who eventually murders Hamilton himself. Very often when we talk about the Founding Fathers and other Great Figures of History from oh so long ago, they take on a mythic quality and seem less human, less flawed, and less relatable. They seem practically superhuman, absent our doubts and desires. Miranda’s portrayal of the men and women of America’s founding does the opposite and makes these people feel relatable, flawed, and human yet again.

This includes Hamilton as well. He’s obsessed with his sense of legacy, has a pretty healthy ego that gets him into trouble, and might have been having an emotional affair with his sister-in-law, never mind an actual affair with Maria Reynolds. He’s so concerned about his “good name” and rumor of impropriety (he was accused of embezzling government money to pay for Ms. Reynolds’ husband’s extortion) that he literally confessed to his marital misdeeds and published it. Hamilton is consumed with writing his ideas (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) and an impending early death, something he amazingly escaped during a hurricane in the Caribbean that destroyed his village as well as his mother’s fatal illness. He was so eager to get into the heat of war that Washington had to sit him down to persuade him that dying as a martyr isn’t as glamorous as living and seeing through your ideals. Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr is likely the most widely known fact about both duelists, but the musical brings each to glorious and troubled life with unerring compassion without excusing their real failings.

Burr serves as the narrator of our near three hours, setting the stage for Hamilton’s story with his own regrets and jealousies framing his recounting. He’s a complex character worthy of his own biopic, an orphan who finished college in two years, had an affair with the wife or a British officer, lost her at sea, and championed retail politics centuries before it was the norm. His personal philosophy was one of caution, diametrically opposed to Hamilton jumping after whatever he wanted no matter the consequences. Burr longs for being near the real center of power, and his showstopping number “The Room Where It Happens” is an ode to his desire. He begins as a friend and ally of Hamilton, then political rival, and finally as a mortal enemy. He’s too calculated with his personal beliefs, never wanting to be too challenging and at risk, which is an embodiment of his social-climbing ambition as well as his callow decision-making. To Burr, avoiding risk and not accruing enemies is simply smart business. The musical does an excellent job of humanizing Burr (“Now I’m the villain in your history book”) and offering a perspective in opposition to Hamilton but not without its own measurable merits.

The domestic side of Hamilton could be its own movie to itself. The relationship between Alexander, Eliza, and Angelica is complicated to say the least. Angelica was the elder sister and in her stellar song “Satisfied” she details the social pressures of being in that position, being expected to marry into a desirable match that will see the family name and fortune to prosper. Feeling initially unsure about Hamilton’s intentions, she introduces him to her sister Eliza instead, and it’s a choice that she feels conflicted about ever since. Angelica dearly loves her sister (“I love my sister more than anything in this life/ I will choose her happiness over mine every time”) but cannot help but still feel a yearning for her brother-in-law. However, when the Reynolds scandal comes to light, she will defend her sister to her dying breath. That sisterly deference makes Angelica such a fascinating figure, and it certainly makes the Hamilton marriage more intriguing and roiling with pent-up desires. Eliza sings about removing herself from the narrative in “Burn” and how her husband has “forfeited the rights to my heart.” She’s been trying to impress upon her husband to be happy in the moment (“Look around, look around/ How lucky we are to be alive right now”) and enjoy his accomplishments rather than looking ahead. Her eventual forgiveness of Hamilton is one of the most emotional moments of the show that causes me to tear up. And she serves as a final testament to Hamilton’s legacy during the final number, after his death, and fills in the gaps of history by asserting her own agency back into the observed “narrative.”

I’ve gone over 1300 words, dear reader, and I haven’t even talked in depth about the music, so allow me to say that Hamilton as a musical is just about music perfection. Hip-hop is such a densely wordy platform that allows so much information to be imparted at lightning speed, which means that lyrically these songs are jam-packed with clever asides, allusions, and rhyming recitations of history. The songs are instantly quotable and filled with deep consideration from witticisms to also important dramatic themes and perspectives. I was amazed at Miranda’s composition skills in particular how he’s able to weave and build off character leitmotifs. It’s brilliant how something like Hamilton’s declarative early song “Not throwing away my shot” about his ambitions can come back during his duel with Burr where he raises his pistol in the air, away from Burr, and literally throws away his shot. Or how the beat of a song can imitate a failing heartbeat in a fractious moment of tragedy. Or how King George’s self-involved songs are fashioned to be like 1960s British invasion pop ditties. Or how cabinet arguments become riotous battle raps between Jefferson and Hamilton. Or how the same actors who played Hamilton’s wartime buddies in Act 1 are playing his political rivals in Act 2 (“Have you forgotten Lafayette?” he asks of Jefferson, the same man who portrayed Lafayette). There are layers and layers to the compositions here and the music is remarkably assured; almost every song is a certified earworm, and it’s an entirely sung musical. Every person will have their favorites, and for me they include “Satisfied,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “Dear Theodosia,” “One Last Time,” and the moving finisher, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Even if you don’t like rap music, Miranda’s offerings are so catchy, so accomplished, and so bursting with excitement, that it’s near impossible to resist.

This movie was filmed in 2016 from the original Broadway cast, many of whom earned Tony awards for their sensational work (Diggs, Goldsberry, and Odom Jr.). Everyone is truly excellent but my favorite performer, by far, is Diggs (Blindspotting). He gets to spit lightning-fast rhymes in a French accent as Lafayette, and his portrayal of Jefferson as a dandy in the style of Andre 3000 from Outkast is enormously entertaining. His “What Did I Miss?” introductory number is a perfect impression for Jefferson’s arrival onto the stage. Diggs’ is so charming even when he’s being a scoundrel trying to plot the doom of Hamilton. His battle raps with Miranda are a highlight and Diggs also seems to get the most tricky lyrical arrangements because of his peerless skills at maintaining flow and diction (“I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in/ Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it/ If Washington isn’t gon’ listen/ To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference./ This kid is out!”). There’s a reason Diggs has become the other breakout star of the show.

Soo (The Code) breaks my heart with her Act 2 solo numbers and then mends it back as she reasserts herself on “Who Live, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) has such a fire to her. Groff (Mindhunter) is hilarious as King George, though his singing involves a lot of literal spitting. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) is exceptional as the titular character who comes from nothing and through the power of his ideas creates America’s financial institutions that are still standing to this day. But it’s his personal relationships that better define him in the play. The fatherly relationship he has with Washington is affectionate (“One Last Time” has an extra poignancy knowing Washington died shortly after leaving office) and his hopes for his newborn son (“You’ll Blow Us All Away”) speak to a larger truth about parenting that also links up with the foundation of a nation in infancy. There’s also his complicated love divided between Eliza and her sister. Miranda has such a natural charm and swagger and earnestness that seeps into his performance and every performer.

So is there anything about this movie-wise to separate it from a bootleg of the show? Director Thomas Kail (also the director of the musical) does make smart use of when to go tighter on his actors, to zero in on the emotions and expressiveness, and when to go wider for best impact. The stage is designed like a bullseye with a rotating circle, which can play up the dramatic confrontations between foes, especially the duels. I was impressed at points where the movement of the stage would be perfectly timed with camera focus and edits, allowing other characters to loom over the shoulder, or pop into focus, giving the production a greater sense of filmed visuals. However, this is really a filmed version of the stage show, so as a movie, it’s only going to do so much with those trappings. The unreality of theater has to be accepted but the movie version does a great job of maintaining the intimacy of the shared theatrical experience. It’s even nice to hear the applause after the musical numbers or some of the laugh lines hit home.

By this time, you’ve likely heard about the Broadway-smashing Hamilton success story of Miranda and his crew but do yourself a real favor and watch the movie with the OG cast. Yes, there are historical shortcuts taken for dramatic license and not everything you see on stage will be one hundred percent accurate with the long record of history, but it all clicks for the greater storytelling aims. Some might be uncomfortable with the re-visioning of the Founding Fathers, either by the open-ethnicity casting or glossing over their slave-owning faults, but Miranda’s larger goal of making history reflective of the people who currently live today is admirable. In short, unless you have the kind of money to blow on a front-row ticket, enjoy the Hamilton movie experience until Miranda eventually wrangles his artistic milestone into a more movie-movie version.

Movie Grade: A

Show Grade: A+

365 Days (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: D

The King of Staten Island (2020)

The King of Staten Island is a semi-autobiographical vehicle for its star and co-writer, Pete Davidson. He plays Scott, a shiftless young twenty-something bumming through life and trying to find his sense of self as a wannabe tattoo artist. His father was a fireman who died on 9/11 and his mother (Marissa Tomei) has just started dating a new man (Bill Burr), also a fireman, and that triggers Scott, who fights to sabotage his mother’s new relationship. I’ve never been impressed with Davidson from his fleeting appearances on Saturday Night Live, but I genuinely enjoyed him here and, yes, the character is a natural fit with his awkward, sarcastic, deadpan sensibilities. It’s another in director Judd Apatow’s style of loping big screen comedy, so we have many scenes of hanging out with friends and reprobates, with Scott trying different things to get a better concept of what he wants to do with his life. It’s a movie that coasts on the good feelings with the characters and their easy camaraderie. However, from a plotting standpoint, The King of Staten Island could have used more at the end and less in the middle. It’s only the last 40 minutes or so where Scott moves into the firehouse, which seemed like a more central focus from the advertising. The abrupt conclusion left me on a note of, “Oh? Okay.” The movie is already an unwieldy 137 minutes long, so there was plenty of hanging out moments that could have been trimmed to better position the actual personal triumphs and character resolutions. Some of the payoffs don’t exactly feel earned either. Scott’s wants to keep things casual with a woman he sleeps with (Bel Powley) and uses his mental illness as the excuse, and she says she deserves better, but then they just end up together and it doesn’t feel earned or like Scott has learned how to be a better boyfriend. It’s like Apatow is saying, “Oh, yeah, and he got the girl. The end?” I would put this on par with 2015’s Trainwreck, though that film has a more clearly defined character arc, but both serve as fitting vehicles that play to the strengths of their individual comedians. I enjoyed the overall mood, I laughed, I enjoyed the various vignettes of the fun supporting characters. I wish there was a bit more shaping with the plot and a more fitting conclusion, but The King of Staten Island allowed me to enjoy Davidson as a performer. That’s a triumph for a guy I didn’t care much for prior to this moment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Valley Girl (2020)

valley_girlIf you’re a big fan of 80s music and looking to congenially pass 90 minutes, I suppose you could watch the new musical Valley Girl as it whisks you away on a cloud of simple nostalgia. That’s the word for this movie. Everything is very simple, from the stock characterizations, to the boy-meets-girl romance, to even the performance of the dozens of popular 80s songs, which are reworked into being blander vanilla versions that reminded me of what Kids Bop does to music. We follow a titular valley girl (Jessica Rothe, so great in the Happy Death Day franchise) as she falls for a punk rocker (Josh Whitehouse, struggling in the singing department) from the wrong side of the tracks. The romance is very familiar as are their trials of stepping outside their individual comfort zones for the other person. The big problem with Valley Girl is that the first half feels like it’s at warp speed; nary a minute goes by without a song-and-dance number barreling onto the screen. The second half, in contrast, has only a handful of these numbers and tries to expand the characters but by that point it’s too late. I don’t care about them. Since it’s a jukebox musical, the songs should be selected to provide better insights into the characters’ emotional states, but too often they feel superfluous and clunky. “Hey Mickey” introduces our selfish jock (Logan Paul of YouTube infamy) at a pep rally. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is about having fun on the beach. “Boys Don’t Cry” about dealing with being sad. It’s that kind of application. There’s a frame device where an older mom (Alicia Silverstone) is recounting her 80s experiences to her teenage daughter, and this could have provided a satirical and clever development, allowing the recounted experiences to blend into fantasy and her hazy memory. Valley Girl isn’t a bad movie, just one lacking significant purpose outside nostalgia and cleaning out a big music clearance account. If watching watered down 80s hits sounds like your thing, then party to the max, man.

Nate’s Grade: C

Down to You (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released January 8, 2000:

The latest sacrifice to almighty gods that are the teenage market with wide pockets arrives and proves not only is the teen comedy dying, it is having its grave danced upon. And with eight inch heels worn by the fiend known as Down To You.

Want an old-fashioned love story? Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl again, and boy gets girl. Pretty old and pretty much nothing more to Down to You, minus the addition of two porn stars and a nymphomaniac. The story is the same well-beaten path where they keep the leads as far away from each other and just let ’em loose at the end. Everyone hugs and we can all go home. Geez, I’ve seen more substance in a bag of fat-free potato chips.

The movie is very uninteresting and rather pointless as it drones on. Freddie Prinze Jr. can smile all he wants to but I’ll still never believe he’s a down on his luck college coed. At least he’s out of high school in this one. Everything in this movie has a recycled feel to it, so much so that some environmentalist group should confiscate this entire movie. People, it’s that bad. Imagine every cliché, expanded character stereotype, redundant joke, and you still have no idea how bad this script is. What the writer/director believes is quirky and cute falls closer to annoying and irresponsible.

The rest of the actors are faceless unknowns that you might as well search for on the back of a milk carton. Julia Stiles and Freddie Prinze Jr. have zero chemistry between them and are either bickering or blushing in embarrassment. Doesn’t sound like a good relationship worth a dozen flashbacks to me. Stiles at least puts forth an effort but Prinze just runs through the motions of another teen flick for his resume and comes off as nothing more than a mannequin with a goofy grin.

I stand and make a plea; please for the love of God end this Hollywood fascination with high school romantic comedies. It might have been cute to start out with but this trend has run its course. The only way the madness of teen romantic comedies will end is if the teens themselves stop supporting them. Wise up America. Take action! If this comedy is supposed to be about the school of life I’d say it overslept its class.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ve been wondering for years if maybe, just maybe, I was too hard on the forgettable rom-com, Down to You. Not that it was a great movie but maybe the 17-year-old version of myself at that time in my senior year of high school had an axe to grind against blandly popular art. I can recall vividly how incensed I felt as a teenager growing up in the 90s with the rise of pop music like Britney Spears and Hanson and boy bands, the idea that these fleeting confections were somehow squeezing out the spaces for the bands and artists that I felt were more deserving of attention, alternative rock bands that were formidable for me, like Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. I can feel that intensity in my derogatory use of the term “teenybopper” to describe art that was made for mass appeal. Now, decades hence, I look back at my younger self and wonder why I got so upset about people liking art that didn’t appeal to me and why I felt such a passionate intensity to take down the art I personally disliked. Who cares? You don’t like Taylor Swift’s music? Fine, but what does it matter if others happen to like it? I can appreciate the pop stylings of Ms. Spears and the boy bands of yore. I’ve learned through time not to take offense that people just have different tastes (unless people enjoy the Friedberg-Seltzer “comedies,” because that is all the judgement I need).

That’s why I was wondering whether Down to You was a victim of my teenage animus and might, upon retrospect, perhaps be a better movie than I gave it fair credit for back in 2000, the dawn of a new century. Dear reader, I am here to inform you that, having recently re-watched this Freddie Prince Jr.-Julia Stiles romance, that Down to You is even worse than my teenage-self had warned.

For starters, this movie rings astoundingly inauthentic with every moment. It was written and directed by Kris Isacsson (Husband for Hire) who was close to thirty years old when Down to You was released but it feels like a 50-year-old was trying to replicate the speaking patterns of hip young twenty-somethings and flailing badly. Every word of dialogue just has that unshakable feeling of being off, or bring cringe-worthy, or failing to articulate the rhythms of youth. It’s not even in the Kevin Williamson-Dawson’s Creek style of hyper-verbal, overly clever youth that never existed except in television writers’ rooms. It’s not even entertaining in-authenticity.

These college students sound interchangeable from their older parents; one pompous thespian friend (Zak Orth, channeling Orson Welles) feels completely transported from another movie. He has a test where he challenges Al to drink out of two cups, one representing true love and the other representing illusion. I did not understand the point of this game. I assume it was like Three Card Monty and he had to pick the right one after watching it be shuffled, but that’s just proving Al can follow a cup. This moment is played like some grave insight and it makes no sense. Even more than that, the behavior of the “kids being kids” can be downright cringe-inducing. Imogen will turn on music and walk around lip synching to the adoration of any crowd, but it just feels so awkward to watch, and it happens multiple times. Rosario Dawson (Men in Black II) is a one-note “hippie” friend who makes lame drug jokes. Selma Blair (Hellboy) is an active porn star and an active student at the school but is just a vampy attempt to tempt our male lead. He even keeps naughty pictures of Blair under his bed even after he’s dating Imogen. There’s also Ashton Kutcher (The Butterfly Effect) as an obtuse artist. Every character feels phony and bereft of charm and wit.

Romantic comedies live and die on two things: 1) your level of amusement in the characters, and 2) the chemistry of the lead characters. Down to You regrettably whiffs on both accounts. These are very boring characters and even by the end of the movie we know very little about them. Al says he wants to be a chef but we never see him do any cooking on his own, which seems like quite an oversight for a budding relationship. She’s an aspiring artist and we at least see her paint and describe why she likes art. Isacsson employs a Woody Allen-esque device where both participants break the fourth wall from the future to talk about their relationship ups and downs. You would think this framing device would allow for better insights and you’d be wrong. At one point, Imogen leaves for France for three or more months for an internship. You would think this would provide a difficult period for boyfriend and girlfriend to adjust and maintain intimacy, perhaps throwing some question over whether they’re fully invested. One minute later, she’s back and this entire excursion has meant nothing to their relationship. Why even include it?

Their coupledom feels as inorganic as everything else, and this is magnified by the powerful lack of chemistry between Prinze Jr. (She’s All That) and Stiles (The Bourne Identity). You don’t feel any urge compelling Al and Imogen to get together because they seem like chummy friends at best. When they have sex for the first time, three months into their collegiate relationship, the camera slowly lingers over their faces and uncomfortably frames their dispassionate and awkward kissing far too long. I defy anyone to watch that scene and argue that these two people have a spark of chemistry. I even hate their names. “Imogen” feels like it’s trying too hard and “Al” not hard enough. With the poor character writing, bad plotting and development, and no palpable chemistry, it makes Down to You feel like a painfully confounding experience lacking romance and comedy.

I was amazed at Isacsson’s sense of scene building and how wrong many of the endings come across. A scene, when well written, should serve as its own mini-movie with a beginning, middle, and end, and hopefully some conflict to explore. In a comedy, the conclusions of scenes would end on an upturn or a downturn but it’s also a good idea for there to be a discernible punchline the previous moment was leading up to. There’s one scene where Al’s roommate (Shawn Hatosy), a peculiar presence throughout that never knows what to do in any given moment, is drunk at a party and talking to an inflatable gorilla wearing a brassier. Al grabs the gorilla away and his inebriated roommate whimpers. That’s it. The generally off nature to all the writing is compounded in the comedy writing, which is compounded in its lazy or non-existent punchlines.

The worst example is when Al literally drinks a bottle of Imogen’s shampoo in a misguided suicide attempt. This is the thing I’ll always remember this absurd movie for. Al has his stomach pumped and undergoes a psychological review in the hospital, where he argues he was testing himself to see if he “needed the shampoo” and turns out he still did. This reckless act of self-destruction should provide more insights and changes to our male lead and those around him; he did, after all, attempt to end his life over being distraught from an ex-girlfriend. Al shrugs and it’s forgotten. What was the purpose of doing something this weird and harmful if it wasn’t going to matter in the bigger picture? Don’t transform a suicide attempt into a quirky anecdote for a non-dark comedy. This is what Down to You feels like as a whole, a series of contrived anecdotes crashing against one another.

There is one lone saving grace for this entire enterprise and that’s Henry Winkler (so brilliant on HBO’s Barry) as Al’s father, a famous TV chef who has an exciting idea for a reality TV show. He’s modeling it after Cops, that stalwart of 90s television, but it would be called Chefs. It would feature a traveling truck of chefs that would come to a stranger’s home, prepare a delicious meal, and teach the family how to do it themselves. Not only does that sound like a great idea for a TV show in 2000, I’m positive some show has run with this concept and had great success since. I would have rather watched the movie from Winkler’s point of view trying to get this show on the air and dealing with a son who drinks shampoo as a cry for help.

Looking back on my original review in 2000, I was wincing at how many joke-slams I was attempting at the film’s expense. Look, Down to You is still a bad movie but I didn’t need to add lines like, “I’ve seen more substance in a bag of fat-free potato chips,” and, “if this comedy is about the school of life I’d say it overslept its class.” This was still less than a year into my pursuit of critically reviewing movies, so I think I was forcing ready-made blurb-tendencies. My critical charges were on par but failed to go into more detail and seemed too general, which is why I wondered if my charges were colored by my teenage biases at the time. Given the time and distance, Down to You feels even more phony and confusing to watch as an adult. I was muttering to myself and my girlfriend while re-watching it and trying to understand the distaff storytelling choices. It’s flabbergasting and dated and even worse than I remembered. Down to You might be the nadir of the teen comedy movement from the early 2000s. I will never have to see this again. So, future me reading these words, heed this warning – stay away. Stay far away.

Re-Review Grade: D

Another Version of You (2019)

As for my Ohio indies round-up, Another Version of You (available on Amazon Prime) was recommended to me, and even though it was filmed in Tennessee I want to contort to consider it an Ohio-related project. One of the producers, Ryan Hartsock, seems to hail from Ohio. One of the supporting actresses, Brittany Belland, grew up in Cincinnati and attended Ohio State. It even features a cameo from famous Ohio State Heisman Trophy-winning running back Eddie George. For these reasons, I’m considering Another Version of You (formerly titled Other Versions of You) as Ohio-adjacent. I want to consider it Ohio-related because it’s very entertaining and well made. Another Version of You is a delightful and imaginative little gem of a movie that is proof positive how concept and the right people are how you make a standout lower-budget indie.

Diggsy Ellston (Kristopher Wente) is heartbroken. His longtime friend and secret crush, Suzette (Sara Antonio), has just gotten married to another man. Daphne (Belland) tries her best to remind her brother that there are more fish in the proverbial sea. Then at the bar a mysterious stranger (George) takes pity on him and gifts Diggsy a magic key that fits any lock and opens doors to parallel worlds. Diggsy is skeptical but curious. He uses the key and steps out into a brave new universe, and he decides to keep going until he can find a Suzette for him.

I’m a sucker for time travel and parallel universe stories because they involve so many playful possibilities and imagination and don’t need huge special effects or expansive sets. You can tell a fascinating time travel/parallel world tale with a single apartment building. It’s all dependent upon the ingenuity of the storyteller and I’ve always loved the sheer open possibility inherent (I’ve written my own time travel and parallel world screenplays). I had a lot of hope with Another Version of You simply based upon the premise, and after the first fifteen minutes, I was finding myself smitten. There were several segments in the first hour where I was urging the movie to take a new turn, to follow through on an advantageous dramatic development, and then it dived right in and I pumped my fist and celebrated. Writer/director Motke Dapp (The Many Monsters of Sadness) must have been secretly plugged into my brain, waiting for my anticipation, and then ready to reap my mental high-fives. The twists and turns kept me glued to the movie and then something began to rise inside me I haven’t experienced during my viewing of most local movies, and that was, to paraphrase the dearly missed President Obama, the audacity of hope. I felt like I had something special blooming before me on my TV. While it doesn’t quite nail the ending (more on that later), I was highly entertained throughout this swoon-worthy concoction of romance, destiny, science fiction, and dramatic left turns.

Naturally, having an unlimited access to parallel worlds invites plenty of questions about rules, so it’s understandable that the different realms we hop between aren’t all that different. It’s not like a Rick and Morty episode where in one world the Nazis won World War II (why is this always to go-to for parallel worlds/alternative timelines?) or in another world dinosaurs never died out and evolved into humanoids. It’s okay to be limited, so every time Diggsy moves from one universe to another, he inevitably runs into the same faces from his familiar life even if he’s overseas in Iceland. Given the breezy rom-com tone, I thought this was a smart move, like that no matter the world the characters are anchored to one another. I will say there was room for further comedy and exploration with the differences in universes (Will Smith not passing on The Matrix), but since it’s about core character relationships, focusing on the people and less the new worlds guarantees the best audience investment. The different worlds themselves are almost inconsequential. It’s about who the people are in these spaces and how that reflects on Diggsy.

That doesn’t mean that Another Version of You lacks a strong sense of the implications of its rules. From the get-go, there is no set number of universes, which means the chances of Diggsy returning to his own universe seem near impossible. I thought about his sister at home being distraught that her brother was lost to her. While the movie doesn’t dwell on this reality, it doesn’t remove it. There are some real unsettling consequences to this power. There are people that Diggsy runs into that get trapped in other parallel worlds, absent the ability to escape. Again, sometimes it’s played for laughs but other times it’s played for tragedy. What happens when you’re a refugee from another world and there’s already one of you occupying your spot? I wondered if Another Version of You would go into even darker territory, reminiscent of the final season of the brilliant TV series Mr. Robot, where the transplanted Diggsy accidentally, or intentionally, murders the native Diggsy so there is only one version present. I thought about him trying to pay for anything in these worlds. Would his prime universe credit card even work? Otherwise he seemed destined to run out of on-hand cash soon. This perspective isn’t ever really explored in great detail, and that’s fine, but my mind kept bouncing to intriguing implications and dangers from the premise.

One of the hardest hitting moments relates to the best part of the movie, and that’s the magnetic and talented actress Brittany Belland (The Sleeper, Clowntergeist). Early on she’s a winning and warm presence, but then her reappearance once the universe-hopping occurs complicates things. This universe Daphne has lost her brother and she’s overwhelmed to see him magically back. When he talks about leaving, she fights to keep him, breaking down and arguing the pain of losing Diggsy and then having this amazing opportunity to have him back in her life, to tell him all that she never had the chance to say to her departed brother. It’s a moment of stunningly felt acting from Belland who doesn’t go over-the-top with her performance. I was thrilled when her character stayed in the story longer and found her own version of a happy ending; the movie got better once Diggsy had an out-of-state partner. After having seen this Daphne at an emotionally distraught low point, it was very pleasing to watch her have fun, get flirty, and beam that incandescent smile. Belland can do heavy scenes. She could do light-hearted fizzy scenes. She could do it all. Belland reminded me at turns of Lake Bell or Carrie Coon; she felt like a real discovery, like I was watching someone excitingly new who had the versatility to make it big. I felt like I had found a future star. Then I saw the movie dedicated to Belland, and I was confused. I looked it up and quite sadly learned that Belland passed away in late 2018. I never knew this woman and I legit felt like I was in some degree of mourning. A pall came over me. I’m making a point of watching as many of her available performances as I can. She was so good, dear reader. I mean it.

The other actresses are also notable highlights, particularly Antonio (The Reason, Christmas at Graceland) who gets the most versatility in the cast. She’s the object of Diggsy’s desire so just about every pit stop in every universe involves some version of Suzette appearing. Antonio demonstrates real impressive range; this whole movie could be her acting reel for any future part. She gets to play the manic pixie dream girl on crack cartoon version of Suzette, a sultry and aggressive version of Suzette, a sunny and domestic version, a terminally ill and wizened version of Suzette, and the romantic drama version, the one who would top-line a movie, a slightly awkward, vulnerable but undeniably appealing version. She’s great. Another surprise is C.J. Perry (Pitch Perfect) as a cafe worker named Gwyneth who comes into Diggsy’s orbit. Perry is best known to WWE fans as “Lana,” a world I’m generally ignorant of. She has a natural charisma and presence and, in another world, I could have seen her finding her footing in a world of features than a ring.

This is also one of the best looking lower-budget indies I’ve ever watched. The cinematography by Micah Simms is chock full of vibrant color and visual arrangements that feel ready-made for postcard replication. Even the opening segment caught my attention, as we go from a bride and groom being whisked away in their car only to reveal Diggsy drinking away his disappointment as the car drives out of the frame. That is sharp and direct and impactful visual storytelling. I knew I was in good hands already. I can see why Dapp works in commercials. He has a dynamic feel for putting together pleasing visual arrangements that don’t become self-consciously arty. The compositions with foreground and background can be blessed. The interior sets are impeccably designed and dressed to provide personality and, later, contrasts. For a movie mostly told from a series of rooms, Simms and Dapp choose different locales prudently to avoid redundancy. The footage from Iceland and its unique landscapes is refreshing. It’s not like there’s a glut of overly stylized camera movements. The film’s sense of style is not a creative trap that dooms many indie productions, boxing them in. It’s twee without being overbearingly so. I don’t recall even much in the way of camera movements. Dapp knows how to frame, light, and color a scene and doesn’t need to rub it in your face. I was impressed from the opening wedding march to the last shot. I will completely be in this man’s camp for his next film project and, if there’s a crowdfunding campaign, I would gladly contribute. Dapp has a clear understanding of how to tell a story visually and how to get the best from his skilled actors.

The story keeps moving forward with such intrigue and playfulness, cleverly tapping into its potential for exploration and complication, that I was worried whether or not the ending could keep up. The last act isn’t disappointing by any means but it lacks that same heightened level of promise the first hour exuded. It’s a central reason why Another Version of You is so tantalizingly close to total greatness: the character of Diggsy just isn’t terribly interesting. Early on, our introduction is that he’s lovesick over his crush getting married. When we cut to the requisite flashback of his regret, the moment he could have opened up to her about how he really feels, I felt very little for Suzette and Diggsy being together. They didn’t feel like a couple that I would root for. They didn’t even feel like close friends in that flashback. It was a misfire for the character as far as making me board his mission. He literally leaves his friends and family to chase after a universe where he can get his ideal version of his girl. Even forgetting that, there are several universes he discovers where he and Suzette are even together romantically but there are factors Diggsy doesn’t want. In one universe, Suzette has a child, in another she’s pregnant, with the indication it’s Diggsy’s baby, and the guy skedaddles hastily out the door (“I didn’t sign up for kids.”). I thought maybe the film would relay a commentary about Diggsy’s sense of possession of a Suzette like in 2012’s Ruby Sparks, an underrated and disturbing movie about the negative lengths of trying to manufacture and own/entrap one’s idealized mate. Nope.

The compound effect of the first act makes Diggsy seem overly selfish and a bit of a douche. I was never sold on wanting to see him get this girl, and as a result I wasn’t really interested in any of his relationships. Diggsy, as a character, is very opaque, his identity caught up in chasing after his dream of a woman. He’s even told, from one of those versions of that woman, that his idea of her may not even exist. That’s a good lesson but Diggsy seems stubbornly slow to learn. Kristopher Wente (Legal Action, Hour of Lead) does fine work in the role but Diggsy is too often more a reactive vehicle for the audience’s otherworldly exploration.

Whimsical, exceedingly cute, heartfelt without being cloying, and surprisingly dark at points, Another Version of You is close to everything I could want from its clever, budget-friendly premise. I don’t want to make it seem like this movie is cheap. It’s a sunny and could measure up with any general Hollywood indie in technical accomplishments. This is an easy movie to get sucked into and it doesn’t take long to get running. It reminded me of The Adjustment Bureau (a personal fave, and an inspiration for my own time travel script too) and About Time. The storytelling here just flat-out works, more so with the supporting characters and the intricate and playful possibilities, best demonstrated with the character of Daphne and the excellent Belland. I was getting really excited as the movie kept going, following through with its fun potential. Clearly Dapp has thought through his film, but I honestly could have even used another 20-30 minutes to maximize the emotional investment in the lead character and his lovesick cause. This is one of the best indies I’ve had the pleasure of watching as I started my critical Ohio indie odyssey (even though it was filmed in Tennessee). I advise lovers of brainy rom-coms and human-scale sci-fi to check out Another Version of You. It’s a true keeper.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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