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Moulin Rouge! (2001) [Review Re-View]

Released May 17, 2001:

Director Baz Luhrmann’s last project was the MTV-friendly William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (like someone else has a Romeo and Juliet) which was adored by the under 15 set that now buy N*SYNC merchandise. Luhrmann waited a long time for his follow up with Moulin Rogue, a manic musical that seems like candy for the eyes. It may have been a long time but it was well worth the wait.

The sparkling world of Moulin Rogue is around turn of the century France. Christian (Ewan McGregor), an aspiring writer, has traveled to this place against his father’s wishes. Christian believes in the beauty of love and the pull of the heart. Within minutes of setting foot in France he gets wrapped up into a production by a dwarf (John Leguizamo) and his cadre of assistants. Christian is sent to the most provocative club in town, the Moulin Rogue. Here he attempts to persuade the most famous showgirl Satine (Nicole Kidman) to help push for their musical to get financial backing. Satine inadvertently confuses Christian for the man she is supposed to seduce for a large some of money, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). And thus the merry band of misfits get their play the backing while Christian blossoms a love for Satine. But their love must remain hidden for the Duke is led to believe that Satine is his and his alone.

Kidman owns this movie, plain and simple. From her first shattering entrance being lowered from the ceiling to the last scene, she is absolutely magnificent. McGregor gives a nice performance as the dough-eyed lover. Jim Broadbent plays the Moulin Rogue’s owner, Zidler with howling delight in all his manic expressions. Even Roxburgh gives an underwritten antagonist the right amount of weasely twitch.

One of the more surprising features is how well the two leads can actually sing. Kidman gives a soft and sexy take on “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and McGregor can belt out a tune with some admirably throaty pipes. As these two veer in and out of songs it’s a pleasure to watch and hear.

Luhrmann has crafted a musical with ADD, but I say this as a compliment. Moulin Rogue‘s pace is fast and pounding. People twirl above the sky, the camera zooms wildly through town streets, and dump trucks worth of confetti fly through the air. Moulin Rouge is exploding with glitz and never lets up. The editing and visual artistry is stirring. By about ten minutes into the proceedings when a green fairy starts singing a seductive version of “The Hills Are Alive” you know you are in for something else. And what a something else the film delivers. There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.

Moulin Rogue could be described as a musical for people who dislike traditional musicals. In traditional musicals people go along stuffy formula, then break out into great choreography song-and-dance. With Lurhmann’s musical is a breakneck of pomp where the characters zip around to exaggerated Hanna-Barbara sound effects and start chiming away with 70s and 80s pop songs that we all know. After the initial shock/humor of hearing characters belt out renditions of “Roxanne” and “Like A Virgin,” a familiarity sets in and it blends in to produce a surprising artistic addition.

The story of the movie is nothing new or extraordinary; it’s well worn territory. But where Moulin Rouge breaks apart and shines are with its style and exposure. The visuals are astoundingly lush and lively, the music is game and pumping, and the movie is just screaming to be seen. This was a true work of love.

The movie is bursting to the seams with life. I loved every single second, every single frame, every single moment of Moulin Rouge. I can’t wait to go see it again.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

This was a movie I was looking forward to revisiting and was partly dreading. With the movies that I loved in my past, there is more at stake revisiting them and finding that some of the luster, some of that original magic that enchanted me twenty years hence might be missing. Nothing is lost by re-learning that something like Freddy Got Fingered is still as awful today as it was in 2001. I had this same nagging concern with several of my favorites of 1999 and 2000, and not all of them held up (these re-reviews cannot help being partly biographical). Moulin Rouge wasn’t even a movie I had much interest in seeing back in 2001. I went at the behest of my friend Kevin Lowe and I remember my expectations being low, or maybe I wasn’t in the greatest mood, but within ten minutes that all changed. Moulin Rouge is a movie I unabashedly loved at 19 years old and watched repeatedly through my early 20s and consider a personal favorite. I was caught up in the razzle, the dazzle (especially the dazzle), but the sumptuous and crazed artistry of it all, where it could simultaneously be nostalgic and modern, irreverent and deeply serious, hopelessly romantic in the squarest of terms while being so quizzically weird. It could have been a spectacular disaster but it ended up being a spectacular spectacular. I’m happy to report that Moulin Rouge retains its charm and soaring passion even twenty toe-tapping years later.

This has and will always be a love-it-or-hate-it film. I don’t think there are many people who can watch this movie and remark, “Eh, it was okay I guess.” The opening act is relentlessly paced, anarchic and antic, bouncing all over the place, exploding with information, humor, colors, and bawdy and bizarre imagery, intending to shake you from your doldrums of what a modern big screen musical experience can entail. Under the mad genius of co-writer/director Baz Luhrmann, the movie is bracingly transporting and takes you for an immediate rush, and just as it slows down, you’re hooked. Or, if you’re in the hate-it camp, you’ve found the movie to be a scattershot, self-indulgent, ADD-addled, exhausting ride you’re eager to depart. An amusement park ride is a fine analogy for Moulin Rouge, a movie reverberating with energy and movement; it really does feel like it can’t possibly stand still. There’s a seductive green fairy line dancing, and a singing moon performing opera, and a narcoleptic Argentinian, and John Leguizamo as a dwarf, and plenty of ribald sexual humor and goofy slapstick comedy. It is, to put it lightly, a lot to handle.

With apologies to modern poets, for most of us, the poetry of our modern culture is the songs that have shaped us and our biographical experiences, the soaring ballads, the friendly singalongs, the bangers to shout at the top of your lungs, the love songs to swoon along to and melt away. Moulin Rouge is a major musical that only has one original song, the modern wedding staple “Come What May,” which was actually written for Luhrmann’s prior movie, 1995’s Romeo and Juliet, and thus declared ineligible for the Academy Award for Original Song (sorry Randy Newman, but your Monster’s Inc. song cannot compete). It is a musical composed of renditions and snippets of hit music, cementing its amalgamation as a pop-culture chimera. In many ways it previews the viral Glee music mashups and remixes, the effortless blending of one song into another, the melodies gliding like dancers and then becoming something excitingly new. It’s a different kind of creativity because it’s one thing just to hit “play” on some Greatest Hits CD and it’s another to make sure the songs track the emotional journeys and perspectives of its primary players. Early on, as Christian (Ewen McGregor) belts tunes from The Sound of Music, captivating his peers with his apparent genius, we immediately understand the instant appeal this man would have, seeming like a musical prophet to those lucky enough to listen in 1899 Paris. It’s a clever shorthand and another reflection that modern music has enough vitality and depth to serve as the romantic poetry of our age. Moulin Rouge also predates the sharp rise in jukebox musicals, using the songs of the past, usually limited to one artist, as part of the infectious fun.

The singing and song renditions are luscious and odd and beautifully re-calibrated. The introduction of Satine (Nicole Kidman) is a bold move, lowered on trapeze, her pale skin practically glowing, as she breathily sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It’s like the movie perceives Satine as an angel being lowered to the mores of man. A male duet of “Like a Virgin” between club owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and the villainous, twitchy, possessive and foppish Duke (Richard Roxburgh) is hilarious and at points unfathomably creepy. Watching “Roxanne” performed as a sultry tango is so good that you’ll never want to hear it any other way. The singing by the famous stars is remarkably polished and without the advent of Autotune, especially from McGregor who belts his tunes with impressive range. The blending of this sonic soundscape, especially McGregor inter-cutting with that “Roxanne” number, can be overwhelming to fully process, like the movie is trying to reach you on a pure emotional, elemental level where you feel it before you can fully process it intellectually. I think that sums up the movie and its lasting appeal well, because I can logically pick apart certain artistic choices, like the exaggerated cartoon sound effects that could have been pared back, but the movie is a messy, joyously messy, exuberant love letter to big messy emotions and cheesy romanticism even to the point of mockery. This is a big screen musical for our modern age, and it’s meant to tap the right combination of buttons to make you fall in love, and I do every time.

It’s amazing to me how Moulin Rouge feels like a crossroads of the old and new, reaching back to the big movie musicals of old but with the hyper-kinetic style of modern music videos. It’s immediately fresh but also familiar, and that clever construction most notably extends to its very specific use of music. It’s not trying to erase the old school musical but drag it into a new century, drafting off of modern music hits to reach a new audience waiting to feel that same heightened reality that those old musicals might not capture for a younger generation. The movie also begat a resurgence of big screen musicals like 2002’s Chicago, 2004’s Phantom of the Opera, 2005’s Rent and The Producers (also co-starring Kidman), 2006’s Dreamgirls, 2007’s Sweeney Todd and Hairspray, and on and on to recent musicals like 2019’s Rocketman (jukebox musical) and 2020’s The Prom (also co-starring Kidman). Everything Chicago did, I felt like Moulin Rouge did better the year before, and I’m convinced Kidman’s Best Actress Oscar for The Hours was a makeup award for being overlooked for her superior performance in Moulin Rouge a year prior. I don’t know if Kidman was ever better than she was here at this moment in her career, fresh off her divorce from Tom Cruise. I feel strongly that Broadbent should have won his 2001 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this and not Iris. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and justly won two for Best Art Direction and Costumes, both going to Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, who would also win two Oscars for her husband’s equally lush and anachronistic 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The electric editing, glittering cinematography, and all the bravura technical elements blend into a rare artistic vision so complete and so extravagantly bold at this budget level.

It should also be noted that Moulin Rouge was adapted into a Broadway stage musical in 2019, updating with more twenty-first century hits like “Crazy in Love” and “Firework” and “Toxic” and “Bad Romance” among others. Its stage run was postponed because of COVID although a national tour is planned for 2022.

From my original review back in 2001, many of my same points still hold up and it was difficult to perfectly capture the spell this movie can have, the same difficulty I’m running into today in 2021 to try and convey its unique hold on me. Regrettably, it’s another review that I felt I needed to take a potshot on “teenyboppers” from my oh so dismissive position as critic. It’s nice when I find myself agreeing with my twenty years younger self. I especially agree with this one summative statement: “There was not a moment I didn’t have a smile glued to my stupid face.” Moulin Rouge is one of my happy movies and twenty years later my stupid face is still smiling.

Re-Review Grade: A

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)

Reader, I love time loop movies and their very playful nature of storytelling that allows for plenty of payoffs and creativity and inherent pathos of being stuck reliving life experiences. Palm Springs was my second favorite movie of 2020, so how soon am I ready for yet another time loop romantic comedy, this time from a very Young Adult perspective and with an overly precious title? The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is very much a time loop formula by heavy amounts of YA twee whimsy and worldly lessons. It’s charming, witty, predictable, and maybe a little too content, much like its central characters, to meander when there was more meaning to explore.

17-year-old Mark (Kyle Allen) lives in a small town and is stuck in a time loop living the same day over and over. He argues with his younger sister, rolls his eyes at his out-of-work father’s Civil War novel he’s devoted to writing, and skateboarding around town and skipping school. His buddy Henry is stuck on the same video game level, his mom leaves for work before he wakes up, and every night his father tries to talk to Mark about what he wants to do with a future that he will never see. Then Mark meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton) who appears to be aware of the same loop. Now he has a partner and together they have fun being mischievous in a world where people are eternally asleep and unaware, a world without larger consequence.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is an immediately entertaining movie that glides by on charm and cuteness before bringing the heavier emotional catharsis we know is coming. Kyle’s daily routine is reminiscent of the beginning of Palm Springs (for fairness, I’ll try to refrain from making comparisons at every turn) where we see the breadth of the man’s knowledge and implication of how long he’s had to accrue this god-like understanding of timed events. It’s fun to watch Mark push a man out of the way before getting pooped on by a bird, or catch a falling book in the library, or know the answer before a person can even ask their question. The movie takes a while to fully get going but it keeps entertaining you in the meantime with these pleasant quirks. This is indicative throughout the movie. Even when the plot is just coasting, screenwriter Lev Grossman (adapting from his own short story) keeps things swift and entertaining. There’s a montage of Mark getting awful haircuts and sending pictures to Margaret, and then lamenting maybe they can meet up the next day instead once his hair resets. The script is packed with quick-witted jokes and fun visuals that it can return to for elevated and imaginative payoffs. Each side character has their own sustained loop and checking in on each is a reminder that they all have their own little universe of struggle and desire and despair. It’s one of those benefits of time loop movies; they are like getting 32 flavors of stories in one delicious 90-minute serving.

Just like Palm Springs (I lied), the big plot change comes with the discovery of a partner also re-living the same day in infinity. From there, the story becomes a very standard YA romance but set in an extraordinary setting. Margaret doesn’t qualify as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but she is more blunt, assertive, and seeking out a deeper meaning for their shared purgatory. She’s not the quirky free spirit we associate with the type. She’s more goal-oriented and literal than Mark, and she even takes on teaching him algebra. Once the love interest is introduced, the movie starts a countdown clock for how long it will take for a romance to kindle. Mark is clearly lonely and we see his failed attempt to spark up a potential romance with another girl who will forever be trapped in, at best, a first date mentality. You can’t build a relationship when everyone else only has 24 hours unless it’s like Before Sunrise. Margaret expresses a deep reluctance about anything going beyond the platonic, especially if she and Mark are the only two humans in this “temporal anomaly” for a potential eternity. Just imagine a failed relationship with a co-worker and having to uncomfortably mingle at the same job for years. Mark, being the headstrong young lad in a YA drama, is certain he can win her over in the long run and that his feelings must be true and therefore honored. Since the movie is being told from his perspective, his yearning is given primacy and it makes for an uncomfortable arc.

But it’s the last act of the movie where the larger emotional connection takes root and where the actual life lessons are to be had. This is not a movie about stopping to enjoy the little things in life that otherwise might go ignored. That element is present, and the subsequent scavenger hunt across town to catalogue all the cute little moments of humanity and nature dominates Act Two. It’s a cute little premise and something we’ve seen in countless other YA tales, finding the hidden beauty right under our noses in our lives. The message is clear and fine, but it’s what takes place toward the end where The Map of Tiny Perfect Things takes off from its YA orbital decay of preciousness. If you’ve watched enough movies, you should likely start to guess where Margaret disappears every day after six o’clock and what secrets she may be hiding. I won’t spoil what is revealed but I was waiting for Mark to wise up as quickly as I did. He does, and the movie takes on a transformation toward the end that changes perspective, weight, and even provides a little subversion on the previous male gaze that was our primary filter. The end provides a satisfying enough conclusion that examines the nature of grief and processing. The way the secret design of this universe is discovered is slight and ridiculous, but it doesn’t take away from the movie successfully landing the most difficult part of its emotional journey.

It also helps that both of our leads have great chemistry and are genuinely likeable. Allen (All My Life) has a laid-back presence that fits nicely with the genial vibes of the movie. He’s funny without being obnoxious and emotive without being melodramatic. He starts off sardonic and flip but becomes more earnest as his character learns to stop and listen and invest in others. Newton (Freaky) is enjoyably no-nonsense without being prickly. Margaret is a character with layers and ultimately, you’ll wish the movie had been retold from her point of view from the very beginning. There’s a reason for this, but there’s much more depth and sadness to Margaret. Still, even just hanging out with them as they observe the day, share their stories and discoveries, and pop-culture-heavy banter back and forth is entertaining because the writing and acting carry the day.

What holds The Map of Tiny Perfect Things back is that it never really goes into larger questions of self, identity, and the existential conundrum of at once being the center of a universe with limitless time and being unable to move forward. It feels a bit too content to stay on a lower level and dust off many familiar YA tropes to have a diverting good time. That’s fine, though in direct comparison to something like Palm Springs (my apologies), it can feel lacking. Think about Mark’s inability to see his mother again and how that unique circumstance forms its own loss. More attention to these details would have been preferred than on-the-nose pop-culture references and deep cuts for hipster points. It’s a good cheerful time with plenty of wry amusement and some well-earned emotions, but it also feels a little too content to simply hang around and follow the YA map for programmed spiritual affirmation. It manages to subvert the quirky-girl-shows-guy-how-to-carpe-his-diem formula, but that’s not before devoting plenty of time walking the same walk for a little longer than needed. If you’re a fan of time loop parables, YA stories, or unconventional rom-coms, check out The Map of Tiny Perfect Things and then, maybe, if you haven’t already, also Palm Springs.

Nate’s Grade: B

Locked Down (2021)

I’m already starting to dread the inevitable onslaught of movies and fictional narratives tackling the COVID crisis, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to be truly inviting for me. After the near year of pandemic fatigue, I can’t see myself wanting to relive the experience through my media. Naturally, this is partially because of how fresh everything is. Years down the road I may hold a different opinion and find COVID-19 stories more engaging. I’m sure there will be worthy ones to explore with the best storytellers that movies and television can afford. Right now, I’m not looking forward to the rom-coms about couples being forced together, or forced apart, and I’m not looking forward to the zombie movies that seem all too obvious in commentary. It is with this context that I watched the new 2021 movie Locked Down with wary curiosity. It was filmed during the quarantine in London over 18 days. It stars big actors, has a director and writer who have worked on highly esteemed projects, and it’s the first big project to feature the pandemic while we’re still in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. It has temporary notoriety but is it any good?

Linda (Anne Hathaway) and her husband Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are stuck at home like everyone else in London thanks to COVID-19. He’s struggling for work and she’s struggling with the mental weight of her job and the impending knowledge her friends and co-workers will soon be laid off by Linda herself. The couple is also heading for a divorce, though they’re keeping that quiet from concerned family members checking in. Paxton’s sense of self is falling apart, and the rebellious biker who got into one unfortunate bar fight long ago seems to be fading. Now he doesn’t know what he’ll be and he’s forced to sell his prized motorcycle. Linda gets the idea to pull off a jewelry heist that she and Paxton have an unique opportunity for. Could it be the thing that makes them feel excited again? Could it bring them back together?

Locked Down has some significant tonal shifts but more so in ambition than execution, because at its core its really a talky, mumblecore relationship drama, but one that I found a little too lax and shapeless and ponderous to jibe with. Screenwriter Steven Knight can be a tremendous writer. He’s written Eastern Promises, Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, and created Peaky Blinders. He knows plot, he knows character, he knows structure. This, though, doesn’t feel so much like it was a script needing to be told as it was an experiment in could they make a movie about the pandemic and film it during the pandemic. The heist elements are rather haphazard and ultimately mean little to the overall storyline, merely serving as an instrument to reconcile our couple and force them to rely upon one another for a shared triumph (this shouldn’t be a spoiler). I think your overall view of Locked Down will depend upon your opinion of how the heist elements are handled. If it seemed like the start of something more exciting, more engaging, then you’ll be disappointed. If you didn’t care about the particulars of a heist during COVID times, and you didn’t want a more purely genre plot device to take over from the character-driven relationship drama,then you might be more charitable. For me, I love heist movies and the formula is ready-made for payoffs and entertainment. However, I also enjoy character-driven relationship dramas but I just wasn’t connecting with this one.

The characters of Paxton and Linda felt too overly written for me and lacking the more intriguing nuances that I find in the best of observational mumblecore cinema. To be fair, being overly written is not an indictment in itself. Quentin Tarantino characters are overly written and we love them. Viewers love big characters that demand your attention and equipped with monologues that we wish we could recite when life’s challenges afforded us the opportunity to wax poetic. The central agreement we have with characters, whether they’re realistically drawn or idiosyncratic or cartoonish, is that they need to at least be interesting. You need to want to spend time with the characters.

With Locked Down, I was getting as restless as the onscreen couple. I didn’t find them interesting because the same character notes were being hit over and over with little variation. The monologues, while having moments of life and personality, didn’t provide me greater insight at minute 80 than they did at minute 40. The experience felt like watching actors workshop characters and looking for extra meanings that seemed to be elusive. Listening to these characters talk more should make them more interesting, make them more personable, and make them more complex, right? While they uncork some well written asides, they’re each just rubbing the same nub of an identity crisis. The pacing also made the repetitive portions feel even longer. The metaphor of what Paxton’s motorcycle represents is so overblown and simplified. After spending so much time listening to these two bicker and argue in the same rooms, I was hoping for the heist as a needed escape, something that could finally serve to motivate the characters out of their pity parties and force them into a new conflict. I needed something, anything more to hold my waning attention. Alas, I finished Locked Down in the same patient, pursed-lip stupor as it began. These characters did not deserve this much extra breathing room.

I like Hathaway (Colossal) and Ejiofar (12 Years a Slave). Watching them leap into what is essentially a two-hander filmed play sounds like a good bet for entertainment, especially with a writer with the credentials of Knight (we’ll ignore the outlandishly bonkers 2019 Serenity). Hathaway and Ejiofor are good together too. They have a spark that works, her anxiousness melding well with his dismissive pessimism. Again, the characters they’re portraying aren’t poorly written. There just isn’t enough polished material for them. That’s why each feels like they’re grasping to discover the character like it’s being formed in the moment. The entire movie feels like an overextended improv workshop everyone involved is developing in the moment. Good mumblecore movies can make you feel like a fly-on-the-wall with real people, but these characters are so overly written that an improv feeling doesn’t so much replicate the recognizable rhythms of life as it does an ungainly acting class in search of more direction and discretion. There are some other celebrity appearances in the form of Zoom cameos, and that’s something I’m not looking forward to with the incoming COVID movies, the ugly selfie aesthetic prevalence.

Locked Down feels more like an experiment to see if the filmmakers could make a movie under such unique and trying circumstances.  It feels more like an acting exercise in need of more development and a little more vitality. There are fleeting moments that seem to tap into a universal despair and uncertainty many of us have wrestled with during our COVID isolation, but then the movie will just as likely throw in a hidden patch of poppies in a garden and a joke about nobody seeming to recognize the name Edgar Allen Poe. I watched Locked Down over the course of two nights, and mt girlfriend and I literally had forgotten we watched the first hour until coming across it again and going, “Oh yeah, we need to finish that after all.” I feel like that sums up the movie well. Within a day, I had already forgotten it, and that was before I even finished the full movie. They made a movie during COVID. Now make better ones in the future.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Wrong Missy (2020)

I knew by the end of 2020, as I was trying to assess the highest highs and lowest lows of cinema, that I was destined to come back around to Netflix’s The Wrong Missy. The Adam Sandler-produced sex comedy looked quite abysmal from its trailer so I knew I’d have to watch this eventually. I tried putting it off for months, and I used it as an incentive for me to try and watch Kelly Reichardt’s well-regarded indie, First Cow. I have disliked every ponderous, monotonous, meandering Reichardt movie I have watched, and despite the critical acclaim, I knew I needed more motivation to keep me going. I told myself if I couldn’t last 30 minutes into First Cow, I’d punish myself and finally watch The Wrong Missy. Well, my feelings for Kelly Reichardt movies proved to be the same and I left First Cow after 30 plot-less, boring minutes. The Wrong Missy is a special kind of bad where it feels like an endurance test to punish you for expecting anything beyond having an unpleasant person screaming in your face for an hour. This isn’t just an obnoxious comedy but an aggressively obnoxious comedy, one that wants to push the envelope with edgy situations and crazy characters but instead just wholly depresses.

Tim (David Spade) is an insurance adjuster still reeling from his former fiancé (Sarah Chalke) abruptly dumping him for a work colleague. Tim goes out on a blind date with Missy (Lauren Lapkus) and it’s a complete disaster. He then encounters Melissa (Molly Sims) at the airport and they share a meet-cute and seem to have the start of something romantic sparking. Tim has a work retreat in Hawaii and he intends to invite Melissa but, instead, invited the infamous Missy. Now Tim has to pretend Missy is the desirable Melissa he’s been bragging about and to tame her wilder impulsive behavior so that he can make a better impression with the big boss.

The Wrong Missy teeters into offensively bad with its questionable content but its biggest artistic miscalculation is that it dials the Missy character up into a horrifying cartoon psychopath that nobody would want to send a second with, and then it tries to say we should fall in love with her like Spade’s character eventually does for some inexplicable reason beyond Stockholm syndrome. The difficulty with making the oddball character lovable is knowing how odd to make them, to establish a baseline of what is normal and what is beyond the pale. The Wrong Missy goes wrong almost immediately with the introductory first date. It’s not just a bad date or one where Missy is too weird; she is categorically insane and truly scary. At one point she brandishes a machete and follows Tim into the bathroom. There’s also so much yelling. So much. Some people don’t have off switches but Missy doesn’t even have a dial to turn down. From the very start, Missy is repellent. There is no salvation here. Any person who encounters her should run for their lives in the other direction. People should be alerting the police. She already is brandishing a knife and has threatened others onscreen. She is a danger to all.

The key problem with the screenplay’s conceit of its mix-up is that Missy is so repellent, and the first date not just bad but legendarily mortifying, that it makes no sense whatsoever that Tim would still have Missy’s contact information in his phone. He would have deleted her completely to try and forget that night ever happened. I too have been lax about getting around to trimming my social media friends and phone contacts, but if I underwent the first date that Tim had, the first thing I would do with a woman that ensured a hospital visit was delete her very presence on my phone and block any means of her contacting me again. This is the fallout of the broad miscalculation in intensity. By making Missy so powerfully obnoxious and the date so horrendous, the next part plot-wise becomes harder to believe. It’s harder to believe Tim would even attempt to go along with this ruse rather than tell Missy to go back home on her own. If he considers her such a liability, what does he have to gain from prolonging the risk by keeping her around? I know the reason is to eventually fall in love with her, but what did he have to lose by immediately jettisoning her once he discovered she was, in fact, the wrong Missy? Nothing.

Much of the humor is just patently gross. I expect a sex comedy to feature bad taste but it’s another matter when the movie feels like it’s trying to so hard to make you uncomfortable, and failing that, The Wrong Missy will just resort to being obnoxious and loud. Take for instance when Tim wakes up on the plane ride to find Missy furiously jerking him off below a blanket. He did not consent to this while conscious let alone when he was unconscious. Imagine if the genders were reversed and a woman woke up with a man’s hand under her pants and he had been doing something without consent while she was asleep or unconscious? We would be horrified and we should still be, and yet this scene is played for laughs. Missy also hypnotizes Tim’s boss into retching whenever he hears a co-worker’s name, so there’s even more questionable consent issues with Missy wreaking havoc on the lives of others. There’s also a sequence late in the film where Missy suggests a threesome between her, Tim, and Tim’s former fiancé. This moment is meant to convey the growing connection between Tim and Missy, and emphasize him moving on from his lingering breakup. This is covered by the fiancé character getting repeatedly hit in her head while Tim and Missy are oblivious to her very existence. It’s just uncomfortable and not funny, especially since it’s the same bad joke over and over. It’s the same with Missy, who often just blurts out something profane, crude, and loathsome. She has a screechy voice she calls “Hellstar” that is neither charming nor funny. I feel like the filmmakers were trying to test an audience into what they might accept under the false pretense of tolerance because Missy is a woman (“Would you not laugh at an obnoxious dude, huh?”) and therefore it would be sexist to call her out for her bad behavior. The problem is that Missy is barely a recognizable human.

Spade (The Do Over) just seems far too old for this kind of movie. He’s 56 years old now and this part is better suited for someone twenty years younger. He’s on smarm autopilot, which is hard to distinguish between playing to his deadpan strengths and him just being bored. Lapkus (Jurassic World) is a comedian I’ve enjoyed from her many TV appearances from Orange is the New Black to Crashing. The only reason for this movie to exist is as a comedy vehicle for her, and she is fully unrestrained and in your face. It’s hard for me to fathom enjoying her character but I suppose there can be points of entertainment just watching the actress go full-out for the majority of the movie. It’s a big, broad, physical performance, though the energy level peters out in the second half as the movie attempts to make her a more acceptable romantic option. I don’t fault Lapkus but I couldn’t stand her grating performance played to the hilt and stuck on repeat.

I think the fact that Sandler’s wife Jackie plays a prominent supporting character (consistently in a bikini) likely tells you all that you need to know about The Wrong Missy’s production. It’s another one of the Happy Madison excuses for Sandler and his pals to have an extended vacation, this time in Hawaii. Sandler’s kids even make cameos as tourists that Missy, naturally, screams at. When you’re using a movie production as a glorified vacation, things like story and character and emotional investment and payoffs tend to fall by the wayside. The director, Tyler Spindel, served as a second-unit director on several Sandler productions from the 2010s. I doubt without the intervention of Sandler that David Spade would still be top-lining romantic comedies in 2020. Lauren Lapkus deserves better and a real star-making vehicle for her to display her physical comedy talents. The Wrong Missy is wrong in about every way a comedy can go and it’s, easily, one of the worst films of 2020.

Nate’s Grade: D

Promising Young Woman (2020)

“I’m a gentleman,” says a man at his bachelor party, trying to bashfully turn down any sexual antics with the women paid to entertain him and his friends for one boozy night. He’s also trying to indicate he’s “not like those other guys” and genuinely respects women. He gets it. “Well,” says the woman in the shiny fetish outfit, “I’ll have you know in my experiences that ‘gentlemen’ can often be the worst.” This line summarizes Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller in a post-Me Too era that is unsparing to all those who would proudly say, “Well, I support women.”

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) was the top of her class at med school. Then her best friend was sexually assaulted at a party while she was inebriated, which allows the university to paint her as guilty and the accused as blameless (“What do you expect when you get drunk?” kind of victim-shaming). Years later, Cassandra has never been the same. She poses as a drunk at clubs and waits for her knight in shining armor to take her home, and often these modern men of chivalry prove to be creeps looking to take advantage of women and in needing of some harsh medicine.

This is a movie that walks a fine line to stay out of the shadow of becoming just another exploitation film with a higher gloss. I was yelling at the screen early about the choices men were making with susceptible women in their care. Admittedly, it plays upon that icky genre and taps into our inherent feelings associated with it as well as vengeance thrillers, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (TV’s Killing Eve) smartly subverts our expectations and loyalties. We want Cassandra to achieve her righteous vengeance regardless of the moral or psychological effect it has upon her because vengeance is satisfying. We want to see bad people who have escaped punishment suffer, but Fennell challenges the audience to see how far we’re willing to go for this goal. There are moments where it appears that Cassandra is going to go the extra step to antagonize her targets, and this might involve facilitating other innocent women into potential danger. It’s a sharp turn that asks the audience how badly they want to hold onto that righteous sense of indignation. Do all ends justify the means? Now I won’t confirm whether or not Cassandra follows through for the sake of spoilers but this is one very knowing movie about how to make its audience uncomfortable. Obviously, dealing with the subject of sexual assault and predatory men, it should be uncomfortable because of the nature of the subject, but Fennell has a wicked sense of when to twist her audience into knots. She doesn’t let anyone off the hook easily and that includes her heroine and those close to her. Nobody looks clean here. It makes for a truly surprising experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective.

One early scene stood out to me and let me know that Promising Young Woman was going to have more on its mind than bloodshed. Cassandra is walking home from a night out in her same soiled clothing and eating a sloppy hotdog with ketchup running down her body. A group of construction workers watch her and begin yelling from across the street, harassing her with unwanted sexual advances while they yuk it up. Cassandra stops, turns her head, and simply stares them down. She doesn’t glare at them or shout at them; all she does is look in silence. The workers get quiet very fast and then after several seconds they become angry and defensive, uncomfortable from her attention, and they walk away insulting her. Didn’t they want her attention? Weren’t they boasting? By merely drawing her focus onto these men and making them mildly reflective of their behavior they became uncomfortable and elected to leave. This scene only plays out for like twenty seconds and yet it serves as a symbol for what Fennell has planned with the rest of her thriller. She is going to take what you want and make you re-examine it with a fresh perspective that might just make you rather uneasy and disgusted with yourself.

The first half of the movie establishes a routine that explains what Cassandra has been doing since dropping out of med school. She’s never been able to move on from the trauma of her past and so she seeks out new potential perpetrators to inflict pain upon or scare straight through tests. By the second incident, we adjust to her formula and lie in wait for Cassandra to strike back. She’s the smartest person in the room and it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch her enact her plans. This avenging angel routine runs into a roadblock when she reunites with a friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon. They share a meet cute that involves Ryan drinking a coffee that Cassandra has spit into as a declarative sign of his interest (trust me, I’m making it sound far creepier than it plays onscreen). They go on several dates and have a palpable romantic chemistry together. This is aided by Fennell’s excellent dialogue, which can be cutting when it needs to and also supremely charming when it wants to be. It’s a peculiar rom-com but on its own terms, including unashamedly reclaiming a forgettable Paris Hilton pop song with full sincerity. At this point, Promising Young Woman is sizing up a choice between following vengeance and following romance. It’s a formulaic fork in the road and Fennell completely understands this, as she’s also testing the audience how much they are willing to sacrifice to see Cassandra check off her guilty names. This storyline doesn’t feel like a cheap alternative either. I liked Ryan and Cassandra together. However, Fennell stays true to her poison-tipped plans and this storyline becomes another chapter in her larger thesis on the condemnation of “boys will be boys” rationalization.

There is another scene worthy of being hailed because it goes against your and the character’s expectations (some spoilers). Cassandra tracks down the lawyer responsible for defending the university and discrediting her friend once she came forward with her rape accusation. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is this man and he’s quite antsy because he has been waiting for months for a visitor he anticipated would inevitably arrive. He’s been let go from his firm after having what they refer to as a “psychotic break” and what he refers to as a crisis of conscience. He’s made a career over sliming victims’ reputations, a fact he confesses has been made infinitely easier by modern technology. “We used to have to go digging through the trash,” he says, “But now all we need is one picture on Facebook of the girl at a party and you’ve got jury doubt.” Cassandra is taken aback by how eager this man is, not for absolution which he believes he will never earn, but to be punished. It’s not like a weird fetish but a genuine accounting of what he feels he deserves. It’s a short scene but it challenges Cassandra and the audience about the potential of redemption and forgiveness. This is what she wants after all, people to account for their part in the injustice that happened to her friend and to make amends for their guilt.

Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Mulligan has been an enchanting and empathetic actress since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, the source of her lone Oscar nomination. I’ve never seen her quite like this before. She has a natural sad-eyed expression, which made her perfect for Daisy Buchannan in the new Great Gatsby. With this role, she’s taken those natural sad-cute instincts and carved them out and replaced it with bile. Mulligan gets to play multiple false versions of Cassandra as she adopts disguises and personas to dupe her prey. This also makes the viewer subconsciously question which version they see is the real Cassandra. Is it a distortion upon a distortion? How well can we ever get to know this woman? I think Mulligan is most deserving of her second Academy Award nomination for this bracing, incendiary turn.

This is Fennell’s directorial debut and it will not be her last time in the director’s chair. Her command of pace and visuals can be sneaky good, framing figures to squeeze in potent symbolism as well as ratchet up tension and discomfort. The visuals can also be comedic poetry, like the opening images of men in khakis gyrating and thrusting on a dance floor. She also demonstrates supreme restraint where needed. The sexual assaults of past and present are never visualized but they are not mitigated either. She also has a tremendous ear for music. This soundtrack is sensational from the club bangers to the old timey country ditties. It feels as exceptionally selected as any Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. The score by Anthony Willis is deeply emotive with its use of strings and cello. They deliver a cello cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s as if the filmmakers made this choice specifically for me.

If there is one slight downside, I’d have to say many of the supporting characters are under developed. There are plenty of famous faces in this enterprise, like Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but most of them are deposed for a scene and then vanish. It starts to feel like a series of guest appearances from actors as they’re passing through town. Alison Brie (Happiest Season) has a longer and slightly more nuanced part as a former college friend who betrayed Cassandra when she needed her most. This character, along with Birtton’s school dean, illustrate that just because you happen to be a woman does not automatically mean you will be a helpful ally. I view it less as a snide “girls can be bad too” equivalency and more an indication just how insidious and prevalent rape culture can be and condition people into gross excuse-making complacency. I will say that it was nice to have Clancy Brown play a normal dad role and he was sweet too.

Beware, men of the world, the next time you size up a pretty young thing who looks meek and helpless. Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”

Nate’s Grade: A-

Ammonite (2020)

Fair or unfair, my mind kept comparing Ammonite to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another period film about repressed women, furtive expressions of forbidden love, and isolation-fueled intimacy, and Ammonite was inferior in every regard. In all fairness, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of the best films of 2019 and deeply emotional, romantic, and sumptuous. It would be hard for many films to compete in direct comparison, and as such Ammonite can’t compare.

In 1840s England, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a nationally renowned paleontologist. She spends her days digging up fossils along the rocky shore of her small town, caring for her aging mother, and keeping to herself. Her life is turned upside down when Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) becomes her boarder while recuperating from some melancholia following a miscarriage. Charlotte wants to learn from Mary but Mary is more annoyed, and yet the two lonely women find a kinship in one another that turns into a romantic courtship neither knows where it will lead.

Repressed romances work best when you feel the connection between the characters, a growing hunger or desire, and you’re compelling them together from afar. This was the case for me with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This was not the case for me with Ammonite. I cannot tell you why either Mary or Charlotte fall for one another. Neither is a very interesting character, especially Mary, who is very private and closed-off. She’s been hurt in the past with a previous gay romance (an underused Fiona Shaw) so likely gun-shy about risking vulnerability once more. There are mentions about her career and the satisfaction it provides but much of it is kept as generalized motivation, a woman making a name for herself in a man’s world. Charlotte is recoiling from a personal tragedy and an absent husband, but why do these two feel any spark of romance for one another in this oppressively drab setting? There’s more intense heat between Winslet and her fossils than with Ronan. It feels like we’re only at this point out of boredom and a lack of better options.

For a movie about repressed passions, Ammonite is decidedly grey. This muted color palette and tone extends to everything about the movie. It’s all grey skies, grey pebbles, grey shores, grey bonnets, grey leggings, grey carts, grey houses, grey this, grey that, irrepressible grey. This dreary life is effectively conveyed and saps the movie’s energy. The characters go about their dreary lives that you, as the viewer, are begging for some renewed life to emerge. We’re begging for these characters to find something with one another because the world, as depicted, is bereft of life and excitement. To that end, the movie has established a favorable threshold to succeed and yet it still falls short.

This stark, stately, and tight-lipped style of writer/director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) smothers the resulting romance and drama at play. These two women should be able to unwind with one another, open up, become their true selves the rest of the world is denied, something that cannot be manifested separately. They should be more interesting together, plain and simple. This person should unlock something within. I don’t feel like I gained any more insight into either Charlotte or Mary when they were together. Part of this is because it takes so long to get there and also because their coupling seems, in retrospect, to be completely surface-level in personal meaning. Looking back from its completion, it appears that each woman seems to misread the other person and what their intimacy has meant. I’ll credit the filmmakers for at least tacking on a resolution that amounts to more than “woman returns to husband and they can never ever be together again because Evil Patriarchy.” There is an ending but it’s not that much better than the two of these women sadly parting knowing they’ll never see one another again and that this brief time together will remain precious. I don’t know if I’m supposed to leave with the impression that Charlotte and Mary have the opposite conclusion. While they likely enjoyed the companionship and sex, as the camera seemed to, it seems like maybe both women are realizing that’s where it stops. If this was the intended goal, that’s fine, but don’t set up the entire estate of your storytelling upon this romance if it’s meant to fizzle. This ends up becoming the latest film example of Women Looking Sad in Bonnets.

I’m sorry dear reader but I was growing bored with this movie. In comparison, I was spellbound with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and found its awakened passions to be luminous and directly tied to two interesting characters. Charlotte and Mary are quite boring. Again,  they have potential to be interesting; any lesbian romance set in the 1840s certainly has potential for appealing drama. I was asked by my girlfriend, who herself was giving voice to an argument carrying on social media, why there must be no shortage of forbidden queer romances, and why can’t gay audiences just have movies where gay characters can fall in love and be comfortable being gay? It’s a legitimate question, though my only answer is that these period piece queer tales inherently involve internal struggles given the secrecy and consequences that make for ready drama for big-time actors. There’s also the fact that Mary Anning is a celebrated paleontologist and recognized superstar in her field and there is no evidence that any of her close female friendships were anything more than that. I’m fine with rewriting historical figures as queer and changing things up (I heartily enjoyed the queer revisionism in The Favourite) as long as it still makes the people interesting. Imagine taking a historically celebrated female paleontologist, making her gay, and then somehow making this character even more boring? How do you even do that?

Winslet (Steve Jobs) does a fine job of looking and acting glum. My trouble was trying to determine what points of life were recognizable with her character. How does one acknowledge what this change agent is doing to her when she’s, by nature, so insular and shut off? Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses and can do so many amazing things, and yet her guiding directorial note must have been, “Can you dial it back even more?” There’s a fine line between subtlety and just being lifeless. Ronan (Little Women) has even less substance to work with. At first, her character is suffering and lonely, but she leaps at companionship with abandon. Her character doesn’t seem like she’s wild or reckless or impulsive in any other regard. She stops wearing black when she embraces her feelings for Mary (Get it? She’s no longer in mourning). Still, Charlotte’s ultimate view of the world is one of privilege but this doesn’t inform her character until the very end. Ronan does her part making an audience believe she’s lovesick for Mary, but feeling it is another matter, and even an actress of Ronan’s caliber cannot accomplish this with this flagging script.

Ammonite is so drab, so passionless except during its sweaty sex scenes, that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would even bother making this story come alive in the first place. If you’re all about furtive gestures and glances and the color grey, well you might be in luck. Look, I’m just going to be blunt. If you’re even remotely thinking about watching Ammonite, just seek out and watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s superior in every regard and a forbidden romance that is actually, surprise surprise, romantic and full of evocative feeling. Plus it’s French, so automatically more romantic. Watch that instead.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Happiest Season (2020)

It’s about time that gay people were better represented in holiday rom-coms (according to my girlfriend, 2020 was the first year Hallmark featured a gay protagonist in a Christmas movie, which is astounding). Why shouldn’t queer people be able to enjoy cute, low-key holiday fluff that also better represents their stories and perspectives? That’s the goal of Happiest Season, written and directed by Clea DuVall, an actress best known for her 90s output like The Faculty and But I’m a Cheerleader who has transitioned behind the camera. The story follows a lesbian couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), celebrating their first Christmas together. Harper invites her girlfriend to meet her family, however, she hasn’t come out to her conservative parents and sisters. Abby will have to pretend to only be the “roommate” and from there the movie sets us up farcical misunderstandings and comic mishap. The problem with Happiest Season is that everyone is a big jerk. Harper’s parents are jerks. Her overly competitive sister played by Alison Brie is a jerk. Even her young niece and nephew are jerks. Why would it be such a big deal for a conservative politician’s daughter to be gay… in 2020? Hell, Dick Cheney has a gay daughter and he’s done okay for himself. Why would Harper want her girlfriend to spend upwards of five days with these awful people and under the guise of having to hide who she is and their relationship? I think it’s because Harper is also a jerk. She dismisses Abby’s feelings and misgivings, ditches her to hang out with an old boyfriend, and doesn’t seem to recognize how uncomfortable any of this is making the woman she reportedly loves. And then it’s revealed that Harper outed her high school girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) and said she was obsessed with her in an effort to not be seen as gay when she was younger. That’s not endearing. This person doesn’t deserve Abby, and that’s the problem because when the happy ending and sweet kisses fortuitously come I wasn’t feeling joy but contempt. I kept yelling at turn after turn for Abby to leave this family to their own miserable devices. I wanted the movie to somehow transform into a separate story about the only people I genuinely liked, Dan Levy as Abby’s friend and Mary Holland as the youngest daughter, a sweet goofball, the only one in Harper’s family with a soul. The comedy bits run the gamut between cute and clumsy, though the escalations don’t rise to the farcical levels you would expect from compounded misunderstandings and secret-keeping. Happiest Season is an adequate holiday movie, and a boon for greater representation even in a genre with a low bar, but it would have been even better with characters you actually liked and wanted to spend the yuletide season with.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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

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