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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+

Emma. (2020)

If you’re going to see a Jane Austen movie, chances are you already know what you’re signing up for. This new edition of Emma. (with extra punctuation at no charge) feels like a slightly more arch version, given a dose of the stilted whimsy of Wes Anderson. It’s only a dash but it’s definitely enough to set the movie apart from its more austere brethren, which will either make it a fresh and reinvigorating take on the material for an audience or a quirky misfire not playing to the strengths of its source material. I fall somewhere in the middle, as I’m not the biggest fan of Austen’s comedic voice but appreciate her point of view and the way she can drop you into these very specific, very rarefied world of class, privilege, and ignorance. The movie’s pacing is quite slack and the scene-to-scene urgency can seem a bit in doubt, which works with the more arch portrayal but also makes the movie feel very long and borderline tedious at parts. The technical asides of Emma. are impressive, with the glorious costuming and art direction transporting an audience back to that early pastoral 19th century time period. Ana Taylor-Joy (Glass) is a sprightly choice as the titular matchmaker and her best moments are when she embraces the extremes, whether it’s being haughty, awkward, contentious, or the occasional dose of slapstick. She navigates the complicated minefield of others affections, trying to stay above it, while finding herself drawn to the free-spirited Mr. Knightly (Johnny Flynn), who is the only reason this movie is rated PG thanks to a brief flash of rear nudity. Mia Goth (Suspiria) is winning as a demure women feeling the highs and lows of love thanks to Emma’s friendly intervention. It is such an amusing change of pace for Goth, often performing as a sexpot. The real standout are the comic actors doing the most with their supporting turns. Bill Nighy (Detective Pikachu) is highly amusing as the fussy hypochondriac father and Miranda Hart (Spy) is a welcomed presence as the oblivious, constantly nattering Miss Bates. It’s Emma’s show, though, and Taylor-Joy is an enjoyable lead surrounded by an exquisitely manufactured world of old. If you’re an Austen fan, Emma. is worth a watch. If you’re not, this won’t exactly be the movie that brings you over into the fanbase.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Photograph (2020)

The Photograph is a romantic drama that is unfortunately tethered to three very uninteresting lead characters. They all have potential; a journalist (Lakeith Stanfield) getting closer to a story than he anticipated, a woman (Issa Rae) learning more about her artistic, ambitious, and self-involved mother (Chante Adams) after her death. The problem is that these characters all feel trapped in boxes, confined, and the personal growth onscreen is minimal. Sure, we still get the boy-meets-girl and boy-loses-girl paces expected but there’s precious little depth given to these people. It feels like writer/director Stella Meghie (Everything Everything) should be mining more insights and revelations from this mother/daughter re-examination, but by the end we haven’t learned anything we didn’t already know in the first thirty minutes. It’s a strange experience because even as things are, on paper, moving forward, the movie feels stagnant. This is also a byproduct of the nascent chemistry between Stanfield and Rae, two genial, good-looking people that just don’t have that spark or urgency when they’re comfortably close. It’s a movie that seems to stay in the same languid gear throughout the movie, even as the couple is progressively getting closer. It’s a competently made movie with good actors but my mind kept wandering and wondering what a full movie following the mother chasing her dreams might resemble, or a full movie following Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) and his adorable family, the character who entertained me the most. The story elements are here for an engaging and potent romantic drama but the mix feels undercooked and stale.

Nate’s Grade: C+

6 Underground (2019)/ Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.

The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.

6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.

6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.

There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.

Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.

At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).

Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.

When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.

I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.

The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.

6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.

Nate’s Grades:

6 Underground: C-

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A

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