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Nope (2022)

Within two movies, and most likely just with his first in 2017, Jordan Peele catapulted himself as a brand name in the world of horror. At this point, you’ll see a Peele horror movie sight unseen because you know what you’re getting is going to be a unique experience. There are plenty of modern horror directors that have built a rabid fandom, like Ari Aster or James Wan, but nobody seems to be given the same platform as Peele has earned at this juncture. The writer/director has become what M. Night Shyamalan used to exhibit, the director whose creative visions were each highly anticipated event movies. Nope is Peele’s first foray into science fiction territory and the results are messy, disturbing, and, at points, astounding.

The Haywood family ranch has been involved in the motion picture industry since its very beginning. One of the first film images, a black man astride a horse, was the great-great-great grandfather of Emerald (Keke Palmer) and Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya). The brother and sister are trying to save the family ranch after the untimely and strange passing of their father (Keith David) who was felled by debris falling from the sky. Their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is spinning his notoriety as a child actor into a Western theme park attraction. Ricky’s claim to fame was being one of two survivors of a 1990s sitcom where the trained chimpanzee, who in the context of the show was his adopted sibling, snapped and went on a killing spree. Emerald and Otis Jr. begin to suspect that there is a real unidentified flying object hanging over their land, so they set out to capture living proof and become rich and famous. The alien, hiding in an unmoving cloud over the course of six months, has other plans and intends to assert its claim on the Haywood territory.

Peele is proving himself more and more as a major director of genre spectacle and vision. Each of his three directorial efforts will hit people differently; I think they’ve incrementally gotten a little sloppier in the writing department, but Peele is only growing stronger as a visual stylist and orchestrator of big screen spookery. There is a grandeur to the visual arrangements, owing as much to the expansive language of Westerns and the awe of early Steven Spielberg. I wish I had seen the movie in IMAX as Peele intended, since he went to all the trouble of planning specific sequences for the grand IMAX cameras. There are several moments that are jaw-dropping and stirring in horror and wonder. A literal rain of blood and viscera and expelled non-organic items is a striking image. Even the unnatural way that helpless people are thrown off the ground can be jolting and primal. There’s a claustrophobic interior sequence of desperate people that really conveys the terror of the doomed. A big addition to the eerie atmosphere is the brilliant sound design. The otherworldly-ness of the alien encounters is heightened by a really in-depth sound design that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. Even the sound of rain, and its distance, can be an indicator of the proximity of danger. There are also the distant sounds of horrible screams circling through the clouds high above, and it’s a deeply unsettling design trick that works every time. Even when the movie wasn’t quite as engaging from a narrative or thematic standpoint, Nope is always engaging on a simple delivery system of spectacle. The way Peele distributes his visual clues and keys, sometimes literally, always provides something for an audience to anticipate.

I was also starting to grow impatient from Peele’s coy narrative games. The plot moves in frustrating starts and stops, teasing an intriguing development or proffering a question and then skipping backwards, denying the viewer a sense of gathering momentum. There’s a toying sense of teasing out how far he can go before an audience gets too impatient and quits. Much of the first half also takes place during night or sequences of sustained darkness, which can definitely play into the the fear of what could be in those shadows, but it makes for a fitfully frustrating experience when you’re trying to unravel a science fiction mystery. I kept wondering how all these pieces were going to come together, especially the ongoing subplot about this killer chimpanzee, but I had faith in Peele (mostly). That faith was rewarded but I’ll admit for the first hour I was wondering if Peele was too evasive for his own good.

Nope begins as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then transitions into Jaws and stays there, and it was during the second half that my interest magnified exponentially. It’s around the hour mark that the movie finally puts all its cards on the table and declares what it is and what the remaining movie is going to be about. All the stutter steps and vagaries are cast aside, and the movie finally shifts into its grand entertainment of a group of humans learning about an overwhelming and unusual threat and plotting their unorthodox plan of attack. I’ll still try and play around spoilers without getting too deep into specifics. It’s a great relief when Peele no longer has to tease his threads and mysteries and can at last be open and let the conflicting components come together. The annoyances I felt in the first half melted away, and I was satisfied as the movie picked up a genuine momentum and smartly tied in many prior plot elements for the bigger picture, like the inflatable tube men, old timey picture-taking souvenir machines, and even the very vague almost carwash-esque imagery from the opening credits. The second half of the movie is more fun because it’s a big hunt and it allows our characters to make use of what they have learned to form conclusions and strategic moves and adjustments. It’s characters making smart decisions. It’s a scenario that finally allows Peele to finally play with all the setups he’s spent an hour cheekily hiding around.

While the climax is great, and the movie gets consistently better, I don’t feel like all of its many thematic ties come together. Being a Jordan Peele horror movie, we’re now expecting there to be extra layers of social-political commentary and allegories. The back-story for Ricky as a child actor is given a lot of attention and screen time for a two-hour movie, and I don’t know if what it adds up to is equal to the time it was given. Thematically, you can make some speculative reaching about the exploitation of animals for spectacle, about underestimating and not respecting nature, and even setting up for later tragedy, but it all seems less meaningfully integrated than any other Peele movies’ elevated subplots. With the Ricky back-story, there is even a literal anticipation of a literal shoe to drop, which seems so obvious as a visual metaphor but I cannot link it directly with what follows. I can keep digging and find connections but it requires far more effort than Peele’s other works of horror. The family history of working for Hollywood as horse wranglers feels underdeveloped. There are also rules that it establishes that Peele isn’t fully consistent (just don’t look?) that left me questioning. I figured that colonialism would be an obvious parallel with invading aliens (H.G. Welles even made use of the analogy 120 years ago), but maybe that was too obvious territory for someone like Peele. My friend Ben had a crazy early theory that the aliens themselves would resemble horses and thus they were returning to free their equine brothers and sisters from human exploitation. I guess I’ll go ahead and spoil you, dear reader, that this does not happen in any shape with Nope.

I’d rank Nope the third best Jordan Peele horror venture, and while it clearly makes use of science fiction concepts and its rich iconography, it’s still very firmly a movie rooted in horror, the horror of the unknown, the horror of being small and helpless, the horror of being left behind. Not all of Nope’s many ambitions quite land, and the themes feel a bit more jumbled or underdeveloped, but I want Jordan Peele to continue making the movies he wants on his terms. Not every one is going to hit exactly the same for me, or for any viewer, but we’re all better when unique artists like Peele are given the latitude and support to bring their personal visions to the big screen. As long as he’s still achieving a baseline of quality, something that befell the middle Shyamalan period, then I say swing away and let’s see where you’ll take us all next, Jordan Peele.

Nate’s Grade: B

S1mone (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released August 23, 2002:

Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) needs a hit. His new movie is in the can but his temperamental star (Wynona Ryder in a juicy cameo) pulls out and demands all footage of her be left on the cutting room floor. The studio is close to dropping Taransky’s film deal, and the studio head just happens to be Taransky’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Under this intense pressure Taransky retreats to mourn his failed potential, until an eccentric one-eyed computer engineer gives him the key to his solution. It seems that instead of interacting with actors and their egos and trailer demands, Taransky has found a new movie star — one completely made up of ones and zeroes named Simone. Taransky edits Simone into his film and soon after the nation is in love with the digital blonde. Simone mania sweeps the nation and soon her smiling image graces all sorts of memorabilia. The public can’t get enough of the mysterious Simone who never goes to public functions and only seems to speak or appear for Taransky.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) has some fun with the premise but tries to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his satire. S1mone starts out satirizing egotistical stars, then the Hollywood system, then the press, then the public as star worshipers. The movie is all over the map trying to have something witty to say about all these different topics but is too busy to settle down on any one for a while. The satire S1mone embodies feels deflated from all the work it’s trying to do.

Pacino has always been able to do comedy but seems wearier than ever. He indulges in his comic like over-the-top aggression he’s been doing since Dick Tracy. Keener plays another of her icy businesswomen roles although she thaws quite easily and quickly in the film.

There’s a rather funny subplot involving Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters on the prowl of the elusive Simone that deserves much more attention than it gets. The bulk of the movie could have been these two entertaining characters.

When Taransky finds that his creation has become more than he can handle he tries to discredit her through a series of funny public appearances and avante garde film choices. But then S1mone sadly goes back to its more mediocre roots. Taransky tries to get rid of Simone but it all horribly backfires.

As the film progresses you start to realize all the gaping holes that come up – like how can Taransky, a self-described computer illiterate, handle the most technical computer program of all time? How come no one would find out that Simone lacks a birth certificate, social security number or even tax records for her studio work? And why does the audience have to sit through the disgustingly cute daughter of Taransky and Keener, who just happens to be a computer whiz-kid, besides the fact she’ll have a late fourth quarter save of dad?

It’s not that S1mone is necessarily a bad film; it just has this missing piece to it when you watch it. Some scenes are funny, many drag, and the whole thing needed to be tighter and punchier. And to clear up any confusion, it is indeed an ACTRESS who plays Simone. Her name is Rachel Roberts.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I cannot stand movie titles that try and force numbers into the place of letters. Don’t be Fant4stick, be Fantastic Four. Don’t be Thir13en Ghosts, be Thirteen Ghosts. Don’t be L4yer Cak3, be Layer Cake. Even one of my favorite movies of all time, Se7en, is guilty of this. I hate the implication of how you’re intended to say the new forced titled (Examples: Fant-Four-Stick, L-Four-Yer Cak-Three, Se-Seven-En). I find this all to be annoying, and I refuse to type S1mone as it was originally entitled, with a one replacing the “I” and a zero replacing the “O.” You get one number, that’s it, because it’s all my power to only do that much. End of re-view preface.

I thought going back to 2002’s S1mone could be interesting considering it was about cutting-edge technology possibly replacing actors and revolutionizing the film industry. Around 2001, with advancing special effects starting to touch the possibility of photo realism, this seemed like a possible turning point. Writer/director Andrew Niccol even considered using an all-digital actress for the title role of his industry satire after viewing footage of 2001’s Final Fantasy movie. He eventually decided against it, and we’re all the better for it because imagine re-watching this movie with twenty-year-old technology that fools the entire world into thinking Simone is real (cue teenage snickering). The character was played by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts and her identity was kept a big secret around the time of the movie to keep the illusion that S1mone was cutting-edge technology. It’s ultimately proof that the real thing, whether that’s practical in-camera effects or even live actors, will always age better and have a place in moviemaking. As I said revisiting Final Fantasy: “Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.” But hey, Roberts and Niccol have been married since 2002 and have two children together, so at least something came out of S1mone besides a title that causes me pain to type.

The big problem I have with S1mone, besides its title spelling, is that its satire with no bite, and its chosen point of view is actually the villain. First, this movie just isn’t funny. I was more charitable when I originally reviewed it back in 2002 but I didn’t laugh once throughout the near two hours. It weirdly feels absent much in the way of social commentary. Simone is an instant star and everyone falls in love with her. There’s a beginning entry into commentary when her creator, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), attempts to sully her image but only proves to make her more popular, but then that’s it. There’s a goofy, near-farcical quality to Taransky trying to hide the pretend nature of the world’s most desired actor. He even drives a car while operating a mannequin to provide cover. If Niccol wanted to really push this angle, there would be considerably more challenges for Taransky to maintain his illusion, getting more and more outrageous like steam building to a blowup. It’s not that this doesn’t happen but that Niccol’s screenplay makes it so absurdly easy for Taransky. He dictates that Simone wishes for her privacy and occasionally leaves behind some detritus of human life and that’s all it takes to establish a convincing existence. Nobody challenges him, at least not in a serious manner, which negates the conflicts and possible comedy of keeping the farce. Everything comes so easily and it makes the ensuring comedy barely explored if evident.

Another major drawback is that Taransky is the villain but the movie thinks otherwise. He’s sick and tired of the demands of actors. He has his complaints about working within the contradictory Hollywood studio system, but his major gripe is with working with actors. When the possibility of a photo-realistic replacement that will do whatever he says is offered, he snatches it. It’s because Viktor doesn’t view actors as people, and he feels the need to control and not to collaborate. He’s an artist with a capital-A but it’s the actors with their unwieldy egos, of course. It’s even more nefarious when you add an icky layer of misogyny to his actions. He wants a young woman who will do anything and everything he demands for his pictures. When the studio boss questions the extensive level of nudity for his next movie, Taransky says Simone will do it without hesitation because that’s what the role requires to accomplish his true vision. All he wants is a living doll to respond to his button-pushing without reserve or complaint. He wants an actor, and especially a woman of conventional attraction, to do his every selfish bidding.

At no point does the movie present our hero’s actions as being questionable or possessive. For him, all actors should just be replaced with ones and zeroes that will do whatever he wants, even nudity, and his perspective is strangely rewarded given Simone’s instant success within the industry. She literally ties with herself for the Best Actress Oscar. There may be a satirical commentary available about how quickly the public falls in love with their oblivious perception of celebrity, and how little they actually know the person behind the headlines, much like all celebrities of old and new, but the thematic work isn’t there. I kept waiting for Viktor to earn his delayed comeuppance, humility, or at least learn something of value, but through this misadventure he’s able to relaunch his career and even get his ex-wife back, so hooray?

This is also a peculiar outlier for Niccol as both a screenwriter and a director. He favors high-concept sci-fi scenarios, like 1997’s genetic have/have nots allegory, Gattaca, or 1998’s reality TV gone to its extremes drama, The Truman Show. 2005’s Lord of War is a powerful and slickly stylish condemnation on the global impact of arms dealers and gun trafficking and the bloody footprint of capitalism. S1mone is the lightest movie of the man’s career. Maybe he wanted a break from working on high-concept studio releases. 2011’s disappointing In Time likely lead him to a safer studio territory of adapting and directing 2013’s The Host based upon the YA novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. I didn’t even know that Niccol has made two other movies since, 2014’s Good Kill and 2018’s Anon on Netflix. He’s listed as being the screenwriter for a 2027 Monopoly adaptation, so that could be a thing. Niccol is the kind of storyteller I want more often, a man with clear visions and ideas, but S1mone proves that he’s best suited for headier realms. Comedy is not the best fit for this man’s talents (I think we’re supposed to laugh at the very image of Pacino applying lipstick to kiss autograph photos).

Is there anything of entertainment value here? There are ideas that could work with more attention and development. I liked the team of Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as investigators tracking down the pieces that don’t quite add up about Simone. I think there was a real opportunity to deconstruct the star-system of Hollywood and have Taransky finally able to launch his true artistic pursuits that had previously been denied without Simone’s attachment. Perhaps the movie just narrows completely to the window of Taransky making his dream project while maintaining his deep secret. Perhaps even make the movie a mockumentary, like the documentary camera crew has discovered this amazing fact and are promised continued access as long as they can help keep the secret for like two years, enough for the director to see his vision through and then use this as his swan song. Then the movie becomes focused on the mishaps and chaotic complications of getting one project off the ground while having asides that can tweak the egos of actors and producers and studio suits eager to work with the next big thing. I think that would have been an improvement over a movie where an aging director gets his groove back by fooling the world and suffers next to nothing in the process. The climax is low stakes just like the rest of the movie because the protagonist gets everything he desires with minimal effort. S1mone is an intriguing idea of movie that suffers from misapplication, under development, and a bad protagonist to celebrate and reward.

My initial review in 2002 was too kind. There’s too little below these ones and zeroes to count.

Re-View Grade: C-

Prey (2022)

Prey is the kind of Predator movie I have been clamoring for years to make. The franchise was in some major need of a mojo rejuvenation, and instead of constantly repeating the same stories to lesser and lesser effect (see: 2018’s sloppy release), the filmmakers finally saw the obvious and exciting answer. By placing the Predator into different points and places in world history, the producers have finally tapped into the creative potential of the equation of [cultural warriors] vs. alien bounty hunter. Each new movie allows a new selling point jumping from famous warrior to famous warrior. Imagine samurai versus the Predator, or Crusaders versus the Predator, or Vikings versus the Predator, or a Wild West showdown against the Predator. It would be like an intergalactic Deadliest Warrior franchise. It’s a super advanced alien species, so why can’t we establish that they’ve been flying to Earth for centuries for their recreational sport? Each movie can establish a larger mythology, but it also just supplies the fun of seeing history’s greatest warriors and different settings and cultures versus a powerful alien monster. Prey is the best Predator sequel, by far, and arguably as entertaining and engaging as the 1987 original.

In 1719, we follow a tribe of Comanche in the Northern Great Plains. Naru (Amber Midthunder) wants to be a respected warrior like her big brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who cautions her about the weight of responsibility. She discovers strange tracks and is convinced that their tribe is not safe from a new predator. How little does she know how right she is.

Within minutes, Prey had me. I’ve seen complaints that the first half is slow, but I think people are discounting the time needed to establish the ordinary baseline life of this community, their relationships and conflicts and goals and hopes, before introducing the change agent. That takes time if you want to be able to understand this different life but also if you want to really connect with the characters. The first half provides the foundation for the second half to run with and have bloody mayhem that counts as more than surface-level entertainment. The best compliment I could provide for screenwriter Patrick Aison (plus director Dan Trachtenberg) is that had the Predator never beamed down, I still would have found the story to be interesting. The details are rich and build an authentic picture of life 300 years ago before European colonists would completely upend indigenous life. The Predator series, at its core, has been a nativist underdog tale, where the primitive people of Earth have battled against the technologically superior alien warrior. The dynamic makes it easy to root for the Earthly heroes, but it’s even easier when you have a protagonist like Naru, fighting for respect as a woman already. The character is shown as headstrong but capable, and her mistakes provide opportunities for her to learn and better strategize later. I genuinely gasped when certain indigenous characters died. I’ve never had an emotional response to any Predator film.

The reveal of the Predator is cautiously handled, with the big guy taking time to explore his own surroundings. I enjoyed that this Predator also isn’t as advanced as his more modern ilk. He wears an intimidating alien skull mask and has more limited, though still high-tech, weaponry. I also enjoyed that this Predator feels like he has more of a personality. It’s not just a mirthless tall guy in a thick suit. The actor, Dane DiLiegro, is still providing a tactile, physical performance, and he has moments that reveal the cruelty of this alien but also its volatile temper, which is kind of hilarious. He encounters the wildlife and goes from snake to bear to man, right up the food chain, but some of his more violent kills demonstrate an almost petulant attitude. This is a Predator that doesn’t quite have it all together, and it makes the eventual battle with the Comanche feel like a conflict that has two sides that are worthy but also with their vulnerabilities. It makes the final showdown more interesting. It also allows us to take perverse pleasure in the big guy mowing down a team of predatory French fur trappers that imprison Naru and use her as bait. Oh boy, the gory comeuppance is fun.

The action sequences are smoothly handled by Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) who favors verisimilitude without sacrificing the visual artifice. The photography is gorgeous, and the emphasis on natural light and environments add so much the overall authenticity. Trachtenberg also knows what visual style will work best with which moments. There’s one scene where Naru sneaks back into the trapper camp and her vengeful fury is portrayed in a breathless long take to make the moment even more intense and enjoyable to appreciate the beat-by-beat fight choreography. The scenes with the Predator stalking in the fog play with claustrophobic suspense. The action has a very pleasing sense of construction that clearly presents the pieces that are needed for the scene-to-scene goals, and then the characters will adapt as necessary through organic complications. This is just good action construction, and Trachtenberg fields each like an expert.

Another fun addition with Prey is that they filmed it with two audio tracks, an English-language track and one fully in the Comanche language. It’s not the most necessary option since most viewers will likely simply watch it in English, or not know about the alternative until after watching, such as myself, but it’s an impressive addition that can make the movie even more immersive and authentic and generally considerate of another culture and language.

Now, with all my points of praise for Prey, why oh why did Disney shunt this movie straight to its secondary streaming arm with Hulu? After the Fox merger, I understand that the Mouse House doesn’t quite see the same level of value in every Fox property not named X-Men or Avatar. This was restarting a franchise that still has some life in it, but even more than that, this is a good movie with plenty of artistic acumen that would have played splendidly on a big screen and an excellent sound system to really sell every fleshy slice and alien gurgle. It seems preposterous to me that a new Predator movie, let alone an actually great one, is denied theatrical release. I know the domestic box-office is still not what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. I understand that Fox’s leftovers don’t have the same sexy appeal to the new bosses. It just puzzles me that nobody thought that they would make money off of Prey, which has proven to be a big hit on Hulu with critics and fans (ignoring cranky misogynists questioning the physical ability of women). Prey is a great action movie built upon solid characters and patient, clear plot and action development. When it comes to gore, I wish it wasn’t as heavily CGI and a more memorably gruesome, but that’s my only real criticism of what is fundamentally a fun and exciting movie. Give me more like Prey.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Lightyear (2022)/ Luck (2022)

After two years and three movies sent straight to Disney’s burgeoning streaming service, Pixar returns with a theatrical movie that taps back to the very beginnings of this storied storytelling company. We’re told, via opening text, that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie and thus the reason he was so excited to bring home a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story. However, if this is Andy’s “favorite movie,” then this kid needs to be exposed to more movies. It’s an acceptable sci-fi story about Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) learning the value of others and that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. He’s a space ranger stranded on an alien world. Every time he attempts to restart their fuel system, it jumps him forward in time four years, and soon enough he’s a man out of time and those stranded have built a colony civilization over 100 years. There’s a band of misfits, who aren’t terribly funny, and some laser fights and action sequences, which aren’t terribly exciting, and the third act twist is predictable. The animation is top-notch, but the storytelling is definitely a few notches below infinity and beyond. What astounds me is that Andy could watch this movie and want a Buzz toy instead of the real breakout, the robotic cat Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) who is wonderfully droll. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and desiring owning another character above this delightful supporting character. This movie makes me think a little less of Andy as a discerning arbiter of pop-culture zeitgeist. Lightyear is fine as escapist entertainment but too facile and inessential to the Toy Story universe.

Luck is the first animated feature from Skydance, a production company that entered the animated realm by hiring former Pixar head John Lasseter as their chief creative executive. In some ways, Luck feels reminiscent of early Pixar movies, exploring the “secret life of” those in charge of dictating the forces of luck. The problem with Luck is that it is overwritten and overburdened with world building that crushes the emotional core. We follow a young woman aging out of the foster system and she’s been besieged with bad luck all her life. She follows a talking cat and discovers a hidden world where workers mine luck crystals and have lucky pennies as portal generators and there’s a dragon, for some reason, as the CEO of Good Luck, and to get back home she needs to team up with the cat to find a thing, but to find that thing they need to go to a place, but to go to that place they need to – and you get it. The plot is overworked with a chain of tasks that explain more of this world’s mechanics without connecting to the emotional journey of the character, like in 2015’s Inside Out. I was amazed that this woman lacks even a shred of bitterness about her own trenchant bad luck. There’s a nice message about accepting the bad with the good in life, and how both are opportunities for growth, but I kept wondering why our hero didn’t once lash out at those responsible. I’m also a little hesitant about using whether a little girl will be stood up by her potential new foster family as the stakes of completing the good luck reset goal. That seems pretty heavy for wackiness. The animation isn’t quite at the level of Pixar, or the best of Dreamworks, but it’s colorful and bright even if lacking more advanced lighting and texture. Luck lacks enough gravitas and development to really appeal to adults but it’s also probably too busy and convoluted to entertain small kids.

Nate’s Grades:

Lightyear: B-

Luck: C+

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Thor: Love and Thunder reminds me a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, admittedly a film I’ve come more around on since my initial viewing in 2017. When Ragnarok was released later that same year, it was an irreverent blast, a breath of fresh air for a franchise that didn’t really know what to do with its hero, and under director Taika Waititi’s sensibility, the character had new, witty life. A similar response occurred with the original Guardians of the Galaxy as the world fell in love with the offbeat characters and storytelling and style from writer/director James Gunn. Before 2014, we didn’t know what to expect with a Guardians movie. When the sequel was released, we had a template of expectations, and the follow-up didn’t feel quite so fresh, quite so lively, and falling back on repeating too many of the same moments or jokes because it’s what was expected. It felt a bit burdened with the creative shackles of upholding these expectations. The same feeling of same-ness permeates Love and Thunder, and to be fair that’s also because the success of Ragnarok raised our expectations for a Waititi MCU movie.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is trying to find his way after the events of 2019’s Endgame. He’s gotten in shape, spent some time palling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy (returning in 2023!), and reconnected with the love of his life, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). She’s been chosen by Thor’s old broken hammer to be its new wielder, granting her superhero status. Except in her human status, she’s dying from stage four cancer. Just as Jane comes back into his life, Thor might have to come to terms with losing her all over again.

This movie just doesn’t feel like it has the same natural prankish energy of Ragnarok, though part of this again might be myself acclimating to Waititi as a filmmaker and storyteller. Prior to Ragnarok I had only known him for the delightful vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and since Ragnarok Waititi has become his own industry, winning a screenwriting Oscar, lending his name and acting to hit TV shows, including a version of What We Do in the Shadows, and even Disney wants his mark on Star Wars. In short, the man is everywhere. In 2022, we now have a much better idea of what to expect from a typical Waititi project. Love and Thunder is recognizable to the man’s omnipresent brand, and still a fun movie with some solid gags, but it also feels a bit sloppy and repetitive.

I kept thinking about all the powerful dramatic potential in the different storylines that are barely explored because the driving plot is a universe-hopping caper to save a bunch of kidnapped children (yes, the children represent something, the next generation, renewal, legacy, but let’s carry on). Tackle the pathos of Jane Foster, who in her normal human state has her body betraying her. She feels weak and incapable of the greatness she feels burdened to still accomplish with her declining time. With the power of Thor, she becomes a superhero, and with super swole arms. However, this power trip also has its own ironic downside. Every time she powers up, the magic hammer is actually draining more of her life force, meaning she’s actually speeding up her terminal illness. Here is a character given a dire situation and an escape and yet that escape only worsens the illness. There’s such powerful drama there to explore as she comes to terms with how to spend her final moments, among them reconnecting with her super ex-boyfriend. This could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from her perspective.

Then there’s Gorr the God Butcher, gloriously played by Christian Bale like he’s in a James Wan horror movie. Here is another example where the villain doesn’t just have a sympathetic back-story but where they are correct in their aims, though maybe not in their methods (think Killmonger arguing Wakanda should do more). Gorr is tired of the gods crushing the little guy with their general entitlement, indifference, and selfishness. These fancy deities aren’t worthy of worship. The power structure needs upending. It’s easy to get behind Gorr’s plight and see connections to our own imbalanced world. This too could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from his perspective. Now, things could have gotten even more interesting and complicated for Jane, because she’s not officially a god unless she’s yielding Thor’s hammer and joins those rarefied ranks. It would pose another question of whether wielding this power would be worth her remaining time, especially with a heat-seeking missile coming for her on a righteous quest of vengeance that is slowly eating him alive. Both are dying but can they fulfill their goals?

If these storylines had been given careful development and the necessary time to breathe, Love and Thunder could have been one of the most interesting movies in the ever-expanding MCU cannon. Instead, it’s galloping to work so hard to stick to the Waititi brand expectations, to reignite our feelings of Ragnarok, and so these promising elements ultimately get shortchanged by hit-or-miss comedy bits. I liked several of them even despite myself. The set piece where Thor and Jane and friends travel to Omnipotence City has such imaginative heights. Russell Crowe is having a grand time as a hilarious Greek caricature of Zeus that is more concerned about the upcoming company orgy and brushing feta crumbles from his beard. I loved the almost Lego Movie-esque zany sight gags of the cohabitation of gods from different religions (Korg’s god sits on an iron throne of scissors, its own visual joke). It’s such a fascinating concept that I wish we could have spent even more time here. Let’s see the Egyptian gods mingling with the Sumerian gods while pranking some weird alien deity. The set piece serves two narrative purposes: gathering a powerful magic weapon, and learning the gods are sitting out the battle with Gorr for their own short-sighted self-preservation. It’s mostly a pit stop. Again, there was more pathos that could have been explored here as people meet gods, but this is my cross to bear. The general banter is amusing and has more hits than misses even if the hit percentage is lower. I laughed every time the magic axe would silently pop onscreen in jealous judgement. I even enjoyed the screaming goats even though from their first moment they are the exact same joke. Regardless, whenever Thor and company would travel to a new place and I heard that familiar goat scream, it would make me giggle despite my reservations.

I also had my qualms with the concept of Eternity, a magical place located at the center of the universe but destined to grant a wish to whomever gets there first. It’s too transparent as a plot device and its very existence this far into the MCU creates too many nagging questions. In the history of the universe, no other creature successfully reached this wish-granting locale? And if this existed at least to Thor’s understanding, then why didn’t the characters think about this as an option to thwart Thanos and his universe-halving finger snap? I know the answer, because it wasn’t written into a movie until now, but this is the drawback of throwing ultimate power plot devices without more careful context. Eternity could have been a secret just to the inner circle of the famous gods, unknown to all but a few, but even that strains some credulity. If Zeus is such a carousing hedonist of legendary status, I’m sure he would have either blabber-mouthed its existence or sought it ought for his own gain. I genuinely liked the set piece at Eternity, a small planet that sucks all color from existence, making the imagery even more striking like the inky panels of a comic. The same question happens when Thor shares his power late in the movie. Couldn’t the Avengers have used this too?

I fully acknowledge that my criticisms are butting against the movie Waititi wanted to tell. I’m pushing for its inherent dramatic potential while it wants to be a more comic and romantic adventure about the power of love. I think by the end it gets there, and the dramatic confrontations have some emotional weight to them, especially about the idea of what we leave behind for others after we’re gone. Although, even this is mitigated by the general stakes-lowering reality that death never seems so permanent in the world of comics and monetarily useful IP. It’s a joke how many times Loki has been brought back from the dead and Thor doesn’t even know that his trickster brother has been brought back from the dead again (again again). We’ve now established time travel and an emphasis on the multiverse of alternate universes, which means at a moment’s notice, any meaningful death or sacrifice has the possibility of being undone. This is also the reality of a moneymaking machine that has dominated the movies and pop-culture landscape for 14 years. No death is ever going to be for real in this environment so why should I put so much emphasis on the dramatic potential of what losing a loved one, or your sense of self, can have? I can sit back and enjoy the lesser, but still enjoyable, Waititi quirk on display for two hours of silly.

Hemsworth (Spiderhead) is so sharply skilled at comedy that I feign to remember his previous existence as a dramatic actor. He’s still on the same sublime, charismatic yet blithely self-effacing vibe he was with Ragnarok. Portman (Annihilation) comes back after close to a decade for a clear reason to leave her mark on what had been an otherwise forgettable character and giving her a renewed sense of power and direction and agency. Bale (Ford v. Ferrari), as mentioned, is fantastic. I appreciate that his character isn’t physically huge and bulky. He looks quite the opposite, like he’s wasting away, like somebody slathered an ashy coat of paint from living-skeleton Bale after The Machinist (yes, also the obvious Voldermort comparison). He is relishing every teeth-stained syllable as a nightmare creature living from the shadows. The prologue with his character is heartbreaking and yet understated (and truth be told, having young children in my household, it hit me more personally), and I turned to my fiancé and said, “I’m supposed to not like this guy?” I wish the opening credits were then a montage of Gorr seeking and slaying wicked gods. Bale is playing his role like he’s definitely not in a Waititi movie about goofy screaming goats; he’s playing Gorr like a tragic hero of myth. This is why I would have been happy had the whole movie been told from his perspective. The new characters from Ragnarok suffer the most and become sidelined as “Others Along on the Quest.” For Korg, this is fine, but for Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, I mourn her absence. Also, both characters are definitively queer now, though Korg might be more a question, making Love and Thunder the gayest movie in the MCU, and just after Pride Month, so take that for what you will, folks.

As a fun matinee, Love and Thunder will amuse and brighten, even if its comedy highs don’t quite hit as high this time under the burden of franchise expectations. Love and Thunder is a movie that will be best known for Portman and Bale, both of whom elevate the scattershot material with their dedication and professionalism. It might even be known for Crowe’s hammy scene-stealing, or the super-powered cadre of cute kiddos, or even the screaming goats. It’s a movie more of moments and ideas, too many underdeveloped or lacking the gravitas they deserve, especially concerning Jane and Gorr. I feel like a grump bemoaning that the big superhero movie should have more time spent on a woman contemplating her own existential demise as well as man’s relationship and fealty to our gods. Still, it’s Waititi doing his signature brand of quirk with $200 million of house money from Disney. Thor: Love and Thunder is a lesson in diminished returns but when you have Ragnarok as your starting point, it’s at least guaranteed to still be worth your two hours once and deliver some chuckles and smiles.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

Jurassic World: Dominion has received, by far, the worst reviews and reception of the six-film franchise that has taught us the valuable life lesson that dinosaurs will eat people. Director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) is back though he remained a screenwriter for the entire World trilogy along with Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed). It’s also bringing the band back together by including Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum as their beloved original trilogy characters (there’s also B.D. Wong, again, if that does anything for ya). I’ve delayed seeing the movie because of my own sense of caution and resignation. Is it as bad as feared?

It’s years after dinosaurs have become reintegrated into the human world. Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) are living out West together with the clone girl from 2018’s Fallen Kingdom. He’s lassoing wild dinos and she’s breaking them out of illegal testing sites. The BioSyn CEO (modeled after Apple’s Tim Cook, here played by Campbell Scott) has big plans for… world domination? It’s actually unclear besides general profit. The evil businessman hires kidnappers to abscond with the little clone girl, the baby dinosaur to Blue, America’s favorite family-friendly raptor, and for good measure, he’s also unleashing swarms of killer locusts. Owen and Claire are hopping the world to find their missing family (Owen promises the raptor he will return her baby) and uncover yet another evil scheme from an evil rich person.

There is a lot going on with Jurassic World: Dominion and yet so little is happening, at least from an intellectual standpoint. This feels like three different movies inartly slammed together and it is overstuffed with subplots all competing for screen time, so every few minutes feels like a possible off-ramp for another episode of what the opening concept portends. The concept of a world where humans are forced to co-exist with dinosaurs is a genuinely exciting starting point, and it’s a Jurassic movie I would want to see, and I do… for a montage to open and close the movie. It’s a shame that the most interesting part of this movie, the global acclimation of creatures of an older millennium rejoining our ecosystem, is kept as literal background. I suppose by the end nature just took care of itself. Instead, the majority of the movie is split between two less engaging stories: giant locusts and a rich guy’s private dino enclosure. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. After five movies of dinosaurs in parks, where we begin with dinosaurs in the real world, it’s back to spending time in another glorified dino park, and would you believe that something goes wrong at this park too? Why even bother setting up an exciting premise if it’s abandoned so completely? The movie we do get is a lesson in diminished returns and accepting disappointment. This feels more like a giant locust movie for half, about a villainous corporation weaponizing genetically modified plagues to kill their competitors’ stock. It’s certainly something that seems plausible for a massive corporation, but what is this doing in my Jurassic World movie? Why did we need another blankly evil CEO, this time the guy who appeared in one scene in Jurassic Park, as if that mattered? Why do we need more extraneous characters taking away oxygen from the legacy characters returning especially when they seem too similar to the already established characters? Why should I care about three dinosaurs fighting at the end like I’m personally invested in any of these creatures? My sadness manifested watching this franchise descend into even more farcical dumb blockbuster nonsense.

The best part of this movie might actually be its most ridiculous. There’s a mid-movie set piece where our heroes infiltrate an underground dinosaur fighting ring in Malta. That’s cool, and we’re introduced into new secondary villains we can enjoy get their just desserts once the dinosaurs inevitably get set loose. The lead trafficking lady says the raptors have been trained to kill anything that she shines a laser pointer on, which was also introduced in the last film. She targets Claire and then it becomes a foot chase between Claire and a determined raptor. It’s a silly excuse for a chase but it has an extra sense of urgency. It’s also completely ridiculous and ridiculously fun. Claire transforms immediately into Jason Bourne and is leaping from rooftop to rooftop and crashing through windows. Owen is riding a motorcycle through the narrow streets while being chased himself. It’s all action movie pablum and it works for what it is in the moment. Treverrow’s action set pieces have some moments that pop, especially Claire cautiously slipping into a pond to escape a supposedly blind dinosaur. There are even dinosaurs with feathers now. Alas, the movie can only work as dumb fun for so long before it just becomes infinitely more of the latter.

There are so many moments on repeat here that Dominion feels like it’s stitched together like another genetically modified dinosaur clumsily patched with parts of the franchise’s past. Oh, and you better believe we’re going three movies in a row with a new genetically-modified super monster to better sell toys (at least this one isn’t stated as being part raptor). The appeal of this movie, besides the concept abandoned above that I mentioned, is the old characters coming back together, even though Goldblum and Neill each headlined a Jurassic sequel. This action is also a tacit condemnation of the investment in the new trilogy’s main characters. I doubt anyone is going to say, “Wait, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing are back for another movie? Count me in.” I bet most people didn’t even remember either of their names. But if we’re bringing back important characters of franchise past, let’s give them something important to do. They get into danger and scrapes but it’s also always with a wink and a nod that is grating. Goldblum gets to wave his arms around to distract like he did in Jurassic Park. Dern gets to cuddle a triceratops like she did in Jurassic Park. Even Neill features in a dangerous teetering automobile like he did in Jurassic Park. The contrivances to get them all in the movie were already there, but then you give them little to do other than go through the motions of their past (I will always demand more Goldblum time). There are certain dinosaurs reappearing to hit that nostalgia button. It’s the poison-spewing dinos, the ones that blinded and killed Nedry (Wayne Knight), and they’re back, except they can also have their mouth grabbed shut in the most unintentionally hilarious moment. Why even bring back an evil CEO barely mentioned in 1993? Do we need that strained connection for a role recast because the original actor is in jail for assaulting a minor? It’s an excellent example of losing track of the appeal of nostalgia by metric volume.

As far as I’m concerned, that little clone girl, a.k.a. Maisie (Isabella Sermon), is responsible for all the pain and suffering in the world because of deadly dinosaurs. At the end of Fallen Kingdom, this little kid single-handedly rescues the dinosaurs from extinction because, as she said, “They’re alive, like me.” I guess her reasoning is they weren’t supposed to exist, but they do, so we should value life. The problem with that occurs when that creature also happens to be a predator. I would have loved Dominion to explain why Maisie is living in an isolated cabin is because she’s the world’s most wanted person, as mobs of victims blame her for their loved ones dying at the hands, feet, and claws of dinosaur mayhem. The world is in chaos because of this little kid’s rash decision. This cloned girl storyline was the worst part of Fallen Kingdom and now she gets to be the worst part of Dominion as well. Her entire presence is once again as a plot device. I guess she served a purpose as her realization over her identity lead to her decision to save the poor dinosaurs, but here she’s a literal savior cure with legs. Apparently, the reason why the big bad corporation kidnaps her, along with baby Blue, is because her DNA is the key to eradicating genetic disorders. Fortunately, you only need some blood or saliva for a DNA sample and kidnapping seems like overkill. You could have just asked her nicely for a sample, fellas.

Why would this gesture work on other dinosaurs?

However, the dumbest aspect of this requires some sticky spoilers discussion, so you have been warned. Maisie was the grandchild of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), a retcon character to elbow in another rich co-founder of Jurassic Park that we just never heard about until the fifth movie. Except she was really his daughter but as a clone. Well now we get even more retconning because Maisie’s mom, herself, gave birth to her… self. The adult Maisie impregnated herself with her own clone (because this was the easiest way to have a child?) but she’s also genetically modified her DNA to exclude a terminal disorder killing the adult Maisie. If adult Maisie wanted to save others from having her genetic disorder, why not publicize this valuable information? Why not tell her colleagues? Why leave her clone as the lone evidence? This new info makes me kind of hate the adult Maisie. She brought her clone into the world and made her a target. This seems cruel and unnecessary. It also doesn’t make sense for a person supposedly valuing life or the larger scientific community or even her own child. I’ll say it: she’s a bad mom.

The wild swings and retcons reminded me of what happened with the newer Star Wars trilogy. In 2015, both The Force Awakens and Jurassic World are released to massive success and kickoff reboots of their respective franchises. Both of the movies purposely leaned onto nostalgia for their originals, even repeating similar plot beats and reminders to trigger positive association. Then both directors, J.J. Abrams and Treverrow, left the franchise and the second movies, 2017’s The Last Jedi and Fallen Kingdom, took big swings, tried to be something different from the mold, and were met with divisive responses from the larger fanbase. I appreciate both of these movies attempting to do something different with something so entrenched in formula. Then for the concluding movie, both franchises had the original director return to essentially retcon the retcons, to bring the movies back to what was familiar and ultimately dull. It’s even more interesting when you take into account that Treverrow left the Jurassic series to spend a year of his life developing Episode 9 before being fired and hastily replaced with Abrams.

I remember the meta-commentary in Jurassic World about modern audiences becoming jaded and complacent to scientific wonders mirroring movie audiences becoming blasé to what used to marvel us in the realm of special effects extravaganzas. As it leaned into its considerable nostalgia, it was doing so in a thinly veiled satirical criticism of, “Is this what you want?” Now all the meta-commentary and irony have been stripped clean and it’s simply a big, dumb, lumbering beast awaiting its own creative extinction as it meets an end. The franchise is still a colossal moneymaker and Dominion has a chance of topping one billion in box-office, so there will be more adventures cannibalizing the past for inevitably diminished returns, and then we’ll get the special reappearances of, like, Jake Johnson’s character or Guy at Computer #4 to the celebration of few if any. None of the Jurassic movies have ever come close to capturing that certain magic from the first movie but they have all been, in some way, serviceably entertaining even at their worst. Dominion is the worst of the franchise and feels devoid of passion and awe and curiosity. To paraphrase a clever man, the studio execs were too busy thinking about whether they could and less busy worrying about whether they should. I guess you could shut off your brain and possibly enjoy it but that’s admitting defeat. Jurassic World: Dominion makes dinosaurs dull and that’s a disservice of imagination.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Spiderhead (2022)

Before writing this film review I sat down and read George Sanders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” published by The New Yorker in 2010 and available to be read here. It would probably a better use of your time than watching the Netflix movie adaptation, and it surely won’t take 90 minutes, though that’s an assumption on my part. The story follows Jeff (Miles Teller), a prisoner who is undergoing experimental drug trials for a lighter sentence. Chris Hemsworth is miscast as the sunny, smarmy head of the drug trials, mostly featuring a drug that induces extreme feelings of desire and love and attachment. The movie is simply too predictable once you acknowledge the plot elements of secret drug trials and tests of loyalty and emotions. You’ll likely foresee the movie’s big reveals far before the screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, 6 Underground) reaches the obvious ploys for twists to turn Sanders’ more introspective, nuanced, and psychological story into a rah-rah formula sci-fi action movie. The first act is relatively promising and close to its source material, but the intriguing and philosophical questions about human connections, guilt, compliance, free will, and corporate hegemony are brushed aside for a silly series of action scenes, brawls, and big escapes. Mostly, I found Spiderhead to be dull because it was too predictable and because it didn’t have much more to say than any over-extended Black Mirror episode. It’s a passable sci-fi allegory that’s light on allegory and settles for being another anesthetizing streaming byproduct.

Nate’s Grade: C

Crimes of the Future (2022)

David Cronenberg returns to the thing David Cronenberg is best known for. It’s been twenty-plus years since the director has gone back to his body horror roots, and Crimes of the Future is certainly a gross gross movie. If that’s what you’re hoping for, then the discomfort and bizarre sexual analogies might be a selling point for you. For me, I just felt nauseated without an interesting core to keep my mind from drifting away. In the future, people have evolved (?) pain tolerance and infection rates, so our protagonist Saul (Viggo Mortsensen) turns surgery into public performance as his assistant/lover (Lea Seydoux) removes the vestigial organs his body produces. Kirsten Stewart’s antsy, horny character states that “surgery is the new sex,” and you’ll get plenty of parallels as we watch person after person get all squirmy while being cut open. My problem with the movie is that there isn’t anything beyond the shock value. The commentarry about body experimentation as a form of sensuality feels trite and more an opening for weird moments, like when Saul gets a zipper installed across his pelvis and his assistant decides to open it and somehow pleasure this… pouch? There’s a hint of an interesting movie here. Saul is being asked to serve as a confidential informant for the government hunting down an extremist group trying to kick-start evolution so that children will be able to consume plastics. That would have put our main character into a discovery role for this world that would have provided more than shock value. The movie begins, literally, with a child being suffocated by his mother, so that sets the tone as to where Cronenberg is headed. Crimes of the Future is essentially a geek show of a movie absent meaningful social/sexual commentary and interesting characters. It’s more a movie of pliable body parts.

Nate’s Grade: C

Terror Trips (2022)/ Isolated (2022)

Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.

I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.

It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).

So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.

So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.

I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.

From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.

With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?

At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”

As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.

For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.

Grades:

Terror Trips: C-

Isolated: C

Dual (2022)

Imagine a world where anyone can create a clone, a perfect, or almost perfect, copy of yourself so that after you’re gone your family will never have to theoretically lose you? That’s the premise of Dual, an indie that played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is now available online. Sarah (Karen Gillan) is generally miserable with her life. She doesn’t return her needy mother’s phone calls and texts. She’d rather watch porn than talk with her distant boyfriend. She’s also leaving disconcerting blood stains on her bed sheets. Turns out Sarah has a rare and incurable illness, and so she is eligible for the Replacement Program, an opportunity to get her own clone. She is gifted a clone (also Gillan), a reported exact replica except for eye color (the company offers a five percent discount for the defect). Sarah takes her doppelganger home and attempts to teach her about her life and how best to fit in. It’s not long that the Sarah clone has her own ideas about what her life could be. However, when Sarah’s terminal diagnosis improves, she intends to abort her clone. The clone triggers a legal clause that says that the ultimate decision over who gets to live as the only Sarah will be a televised duel to the death in exactly one year’s time.

Dual is a puzzling movie. I haven’t watched writer/director Riley Stearn’s other movies, notably 2019’s The Art of Self Defense, though I’ve read Dual is in keeping with his exaggerated, deadpan style, but to me it feels very much like an attempt to recreate a Yorgos Lanthimos world. Lanthimos is most famous for films like The Lobster and was even nominated for Best Director for 2018’s The Favourite. Lanthimos is excellent as creating these worlds that are reflections of our own but detached, deadpan, aloof, and irregular. The world of The Lobster is bizarre as a means of satirizing our social values when it comes to romantic relationships. In that world, if you cannot find a suitable mate within a period of probation, you will be transformed into an animal of your choosing. That world is bizarre in its very inception but there’s a reason that Lanthimos makes use of his stilted, stylized dialogue, to better reflect the absurdities of our culture. With Dual, the world never feels that wholly separate from our own and actually a little under-explored. The fact that society has cloning is woefully underutilized. What else does this mean about our concept of self, identity, legacy? What about clones that abandon their intended families? What about clones that murder their originals before their court-arranged duels? What about people that cheat the system and get more than one clone? What about a clone getting a clone? As the movie progressed, I kept feeling the unmistakable pull of wanting this story to be told straight and without the hip ironic posturing (I suppose that’s Swan Song, a 2021 movie I have yet to watch on Apple Plus). It just felt like there was so much more intriguing dramatic potential to be had here playing things straight, a woman facing her impending mortality, getting a “replacement you” and finding her not sticking to the script, endangering her fragile sense of preservation, and then the crisis of your friends and family preferring the clone over her. That’s some juicy stuff, but it all gets downplayed thanks to Stearn’s selected tone.

It would be one thing if Dual was hilarious with its cracked mirror approach but I just found little to actually laugh about. There are a few moments that I did chuckle, like Sarah and Trent (Aaron Paul) providing a play-by-play of their slow-motion brawl and the consequences of their amassed injuries, and the doctor that informs Sarah about her tragic diagnosis are the most well realized moments with tone (“This is why most doctors are depressed”). The bone dry, matter-of-fact style of speaking is too often the only joke. Just because characters are speaking in a detached manner does not mean you can skip over the same tenets of comedy construction. Lanthimos doesn’t just rest on his characters talking in a manner that is unexpected. There’s genuine work to make them seem of their weird world. The characters in Dual just seem like hyperactive, overly literal irritants. Often, they’ll just keep speaking about a subject and the joke is the length of the details. The Sarah duplicate doesn’t know how to drive, and as she watches her original, she remarks, “Oh, and I suppose you turn the big wheel left and the car goes left. Turn the big wheel right and the car goes right. Easy enough.” I suppose the joke is that she describes two pointless examples? Even the scenes with the doctor, which I laughed at, suffer from Stearns overwriting his dialogue exchanges. It’s not enough for the doctor to make an absurd, Kafkaesque remark, but the character must circle back and underline this over and over. The overall feeling is tiresome. There’s one example of what Dual could have been, where Trent suggests to Sarah during her money problems that she might provide “other means of payment.” The movie then cuts to them both dancing and Trent remarks, “Thank you for the hip-hop dance instruction. I’ve always wanted to learn but was too nervous.” That joke works. It’s a subversion that doesn’t overstay. I wish Stearns had pulled back and trusted his audience to get the joke without his incessant redirection of comic emphasis.

The real reason to watch Dual is for the dueling Gillan performances. She gets to play two same-but-different versions of a character, and she really shines in the subtle differences she takes advantage of. I enjoyed the passive aggression of the clone re-examining the faults of her original, and I enjoyed how quickly she was interrogating her original while making casual, catty judgements. Paul (Breaking Bad) is also enjoyable but only appears in the second half of the movie and is underutilized. Stearns seems drawn to the mentor-pupil relationship dynamic (The Art of Self Defense) and the interaction between Paul and Gillan is a regular highlight of the movie. The actors generally elevate the material even as Stearns restricts the acting tools they can rely upon.

I’m sure there will be viewers that will genuinely enjoy the distaff comedy and pathos of Dual. There’s a clear artistic vision here by Stearns, it just didn’t fully gel for me because I felt the choices of tone and plot limited what could have been a far more emotionally engaging and intellectually fascinating story. The comedy too often settled on being quirky and too often it reminded you of this by circling and re-circling the same joke for diminished returns. Dual is not a bad movie, more a frustrating experience, one with big ideas and talent in front of the camera and behind, but it could have used more shaping and tone calibration to be its best version of itself. As it stands, it’s a fittingly amusing dark comedy with two solid performances from Gillan, and that could be enough for many to justify a 90-minute investment. For me, it felt too much like Lanthimos lite.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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