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Donnie Darko (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 26, 2001:

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Reagan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.

One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”

Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey-type rabbit.

The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.

Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.

Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.

Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Not to sound too annoying, but I’ll cash in my hipster points here and declare that I was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon from the start. The eventual cult phenom was originally released in October 2001, mere weeks removed from 9/11, dooming its commercial appeal considering a major plot point happens to involve deadly airline debris. I was a sophomore in college across from a little indie movie theater, the Drexel, that was like a wonderful escape for a budding cinephile looking for his next fix of weird and daring movie experiences. I recall seeing the trailer for Donnie Darko and being immediately intrigued, but its release date kept bouncing back month after month until it finally opened at the Drexel in February 2002, and I was there opening day. I saw it twice, brought friends with me, and I wrote about it as one of my earliest reviews as my college newspaper’s film critic. I wanted to get the word out that this was something special. The first day it was available on DVD, I went to Best Buy looking for a copy and the store employee was deeply confused about its existence. He probably knows now, as the movie achieved cult status on DVD and became an iconic indie fixture for many a Millennial.

Revisiting the films of 2001 has been reliving many films that made such formative impacts on my life: Memento and its airtight structural sleight-of-hand, Moulin Rouge and its ambitious and messy celebration of old, new, reverent and irreverent, and now Donnie Darko (this isn’t even counting films I never wrote reviews for and thus were ineligible for this re-watch, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Amelie – 2001 was an excellent year at the movies). I have probably watched this movie more than any other in the 2000s, with the late exception perhaps of The Room that came on strong for me at the end. My friends and I would debate it, quote it, and work toward bringing others into the cult of Darko. Looking back now twenty years, I’m happy to report the movie’s power is still just as alluring and transcendental. What earned this movie its fawning fandom? Why did writer/director Richard Kelly, only in his early 20s, find success with his weird little indie while others went painfully ignored? I think it comes down to Kelly’s ambiguous approach, threading a delicate needle so that there are enough pieces present to put together an interpretation that can prove satisfying while personal and potentially different from your friend or neighbor with an equally valid interpretation.

What helps is that Donnie Darko doesn’t feel like it’s weird for weird’s sake, like a formless collection of strange ideas and confounding imagery operating on an unknowable surreal dream logic. What Kelly has done is mix and match parts of an intriguing apocalyptic puzzle. There’s relatable high school drama about pushing back against the hypocrites and phonies of the adult world, there’s a mystery about who or what is behind Frank the bunny, the creepy otherworldly figure serving as Donnie’s Virgil-like guide, and the character study of a lonely, troubled kid trying to find a better sense of understanding of himself, his place in the world, and his sense of what lies beyond. I could just as readily view Donnie Darko as a spiritual refresher, and I’ve always sided more with a divine interpretation than sci-fi. Donnie and his therapist talk about the question over God’s existence and Donnie says he doesn’t feel like he can get anywhere debating it, so he has simply agreed to give up. Donnie talks about dying alone and how if everyone is resigned to do so then this must be a condemnation of God. Kelly establishes these early conditions as the beginning of an arc that leads to Donnie not just accepting a messianic status but volunteering for one, dying alone but in a manner that serves as victory. This to me is why he laughs at the end after being transported back to a fateful spot. He rolls over in his bed and closes his eyes knowing an end for him is not an end but a vindication (the honking from Frank the second time serving as a “we did it” victory celebration). Through his sacrifice, the world will continue (“I hope when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because there will be so much to look forward to.”). Through bizarre circumstances, a young man has found spiritual renewal, bringing him to a personal fulfillment as well as the larger picture of averting a looming apocalypse for a tangent world.

This has been my preferred reading of Donnie Darko, with divine forces selecting Donnie as the universe’s lone hero and mysteriously guiding him along his journey, each intervention and urging from Frank leading to the culmination of events that would convince Donnie of his duty. When Donnie is talking to Frank the bunny in an empty movie theater (playing a double feature of Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ, one of my favorite jokes), he asks Frank, “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?” Frank turns and asks, “Why do you wear that stupid man suit?” Under my interpretation, Frank is a supernatural force, call it an angel or whatever you want, but he is not human and only using the form of a doomed man as a necessary vessel. When Donnie breaks into his school and breaks the water main, under the hypnotic control of Frank’s urging, we see that the vandal has also spray-painted “They made me do it” on the school mascot. The school and police go class-by-class and have students rewrite the phrase on a chalkboard, analyzing their handwriting. Donnie’s handwriting is clearly different. Could it be that Donnie, under the influence of Frank, also wrote as him, adopting his handwriting? With that, perhaps instead of Donnie writing a would-be confession it was actually Frank. “They made me do it,” Frank writes in apology to Donnie, not just for prodding him along but ultimately for the pain and suffering the real Frank of this world will cause for Donnie. “I’m sorry that all of this has to happen to you, Donnie. It wasn’t my choice. They made me do it for their plan.” I think that’s a more intriguing examination than Donnie just saying he was told to flood the school by his imaginary friend.

This is one reason why I was not a big fan of Kelly’s eventual director’s cut DVD release in 2004, which added twenty minutes to the film and changed many edits, song choices, and special effects sequences. The director’s cut went too far for me, specifically spelling out Kelly’s vision of time travelers from the future trying to coach Donnie as their variable. Whole sections from Roberta Sparrow’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel, were printed on screen, explicitly connecting the various pieces in a way that had previously been left as ambiguous. My disappointment with the director’s cut reminded me of the disappointment Star Wars fans felt when George Lucas went back and tinkered with the original trilogy. Lucas has said the re-releases were the films he had always intended them to be, that the earlier theatrical editions were the imperfect versions of his creative intentions. The problem is that millions fell in love with those versions of the movie, even if they were an imperfect vision of their creator. Richard Kelly always intended for the opening song to be INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart,” but hearing that felt wrong to me after watching the same scene played to Echo and the Bunnyman’s “The Killing Moon” with the theatrical cut. Kelly’s imperfect version was the one I fell in love with, the one that spoke to me as a 19-year-old and as a 39-year-old, and that’s the one I vastly prefer.

Another reason for Donnie Darko’s success is more than likely the appeal and performance of young Jake Gyllenhaal. Over twenty years, Gyllenhaal has become one of the best actors of his generation and criminally overlooked by the Academy. He’s only been nominated for one Oscar for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, not for 2017’s Stronger, or 2007’s Zodiac, or, most egregiously, for his hypnotically disturbing portrayal in 2014’s Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal has mesmerized for so long and handles the many confusing aspects of Donnie with aplomb. It would be easy to play Donnie as a cliched rebellious teenager, but Gyllenhaal really digs into his questioning nature; he’s hungry for answers, desperate even, and tired of being disappointed in the adults of his life. That’s why it becomes emotionally satisfying for me when Donnie appears to achieve some semblance of answers by the end, his laughter is victorious and cathartic.

Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific but the rest of the cast is outstanding. This was the first time I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Donnie’s older sister, one year before her star-making turn in 2002’s Secretary (stay tuned, 2022). Jena Malone (The Hunger Games sequels) was a remarkably downhearted presence, able to imbue teenage heartache and unease so preternaturally. Ever since her role as the snitty, judgmental gym teacher Kitty Farmer, I perk up whenever I see Beth Grant in a movie or show. To this day I still consider her wondrous line reading of, “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” to be one of the greatest achievements in mankind’s history. Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica) has two scenes that still get me as Donnie’s mother, where she fights back tears at the suggestion of Donnie’s therapist to up his medication as doing what she thinks is right for her son, and a final scene with that same son where she responds to his query that having a “weirdo for a son” is, in fact, wonderful. The parental care and empathy that she exudes is poignant. I still laugh when Holmes Osborne, as Donnie’s father, cannot contain his inappropriate titter to hearing about his son’s vulgar outburst directed at Ms. Farmer. The adult actors (Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle) all got the bigger headlines at the time, but it’s these actors that have stayed with me the most.

With so many people being launched into success and acclaim from this movie, it’s a sad surprise that Richard Kelly himself was never able to recreate his winning alchemy. He wrote the shooting draft for 2005’s Domino, a needlessly excessive and irritating movie. His big follow-up, 2008’s Southland Tales, was a disaster at the Cannes Film Festival and Kelly cut a half-hour before it was ultimately released stateside to head-scratching. I was eagerly anticipating Southland Tales and then I watched it and minute-by-minute the sinking realization set in that this was not going anywhere and anytime soon. It was like Kelly was trying to throw every dispirit idea he ever had into one movie for fear he’d never make another. I haven’t re-watched it since and feel no need to do so. The last movie Kelly directed was 2009’s The Box, an adaption of the William Matheson short story featured on newer incarnations of The Twilight Zone. It too failed at the box-office, suffered from a confusing and muddled narrative, and from there Kelly was radioactive to Hollywood. He hasn’t a credit to his name since. With each directorial effort, you can feel Kelly trying to recreate that formula from Darko, bringing the different weird pieces and tones together by the end to form a satisfying mosaic open to interpretation. Southland and The Box both feel over-extended, strained, and cluttered with too much salient junk. I truly wish Kelly has another shot to tell a big screen story after everything he’s been through. I’m sure he has more stories to tickle our brains. Maybe he just needs an editorial guidance.

The other thing of curious note is that a sequel, S. Darko, was released in 2009 starring Donnie’s little sister Samantha, played by Daveigh Chase (The Ring). It’s not very good at all and strains to be an imitation of its predecessor, right down to Samantha having to be the sacrifice to go back in time and save her friend’s life. Kelly had nothing to do with the sequel, which was written by Nate Adkins, who would go onto create the Netflix franchise, The Christmas Prince. There is nothing of note in this cash-grab of a sequel to even reward your curiosity in watching it.

Donnie Darko was a movie I loved when I originally saw it and I’m happy so many others were able to become fans and share the good news of Darko. I’m happy this movie exists and has stuck with me all these years. It’s still transporting and invigorating and funny and soulful and tantalizing. I still love the lilt of Michael Andrews’ minimalist score. I love the scene of Donnie reaching out to Cherita Chen, the target of rampant bullying, to promise her one day everything will be better for her. I still get fascinated by the instant-iconic design of that Frank the bunny mask, an image that has lead to thousands of Halloween costume imitations. My original review was more driven by distilling its plot so that I could hook a reader into making the trip for themselves. Otherwise, my thoughts remain relative the same in twenty years of reflection. This is a gem of a movie that was never really recreated by its creator, which makes it all the more remarkable and special. If you haven’t joined the cult of Donnie Darko, there’s no time like the present, folks.

Re-View Grade: A

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

After dominating the cinemas for over the last decade, Marvel took 2020 off thanks to that great menace even its own superheroes couldn’t overpower. Now in 2021, we’re eager for those big popcorn thrills of old, of a time before lockdowns and denials and vaccine misinformation. There’s a gauntlet of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies coming down the chute, including The Eternals (November), Spider-Man 3 (December), Doctor Strange 2 (March), Thor 4 (May), Black Panther 2 (July), and Captain Marvel 2 (November). That’s eight movies from July 2021 to November 2022, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings might just be the one that has the least recognition with the general public (I had never heard of him, sorry). And yet, I entered a theater for the first time in two months to see Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster on the big screen, and as the MCU’s first foray into the fantastical world of martial arts epics, Shang-Chi is a mostly agreeable success in the realm of expert face punching.

Shang-Chi (Simu Lei) is the son of a very dangerous and powerful man, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has lived for thousands of years thanks to the power of ten magic rings that give him tremendous power to annihilate armies. Shang-Chi ran away as a teenager, leaving his sister Xialing (Meng-er Zhang) behind. She sends word requesting her brother’s assistance; dear old dad is on the warpath, and the two siblings might be the only ones who can stop him. Shang-Chi, living as Shawn in San Francisco, is trying to avoid larger responsibility as a valet with his good pal Katy (Awkwafina). However, he cannot ignore the assassins his father has sent, and so he and Katy travel back to China to regroup with Shang-Chi’s sister and face his destiny.

This is the most fantasy-heavy movie of a universe that previously defined the magic from the Thor universe as just another advanced form of science. The entire third act looks like it’s taking place in Narnia itself; legitimately, the color palate and overly lit, CGI-assisted green landscapes reminded me so much of the 2005 adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel. Within the extended prologue over the history of the ten rings, the movie is acclimating you toward its larger-than-life universe that it treats with sincerity and graceful appreciation. The courtship of Shang-Chi’s parents is handled in that flirt-fight style reminiscent in classic martial arts films, and the balletic wire work and dreamy slow-motion, set to the soothing flute-heavy musical score, evokes romantic memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Very early on, the work goes into convincing you that Marvel is taking this assignment seriously, and I appreciated that assurance and the follow-through. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, Shang-Chi works as a martial arts action film because it’s filmed and edited like one should be. The camerawork is vividly fluid and consistently roaming around the space of battle to better showcase the choreography and effort of the performers. The editing is also likewise very smooth and patient, with lots of longer takes blending together so that we can see multiple moves and counter moves, and if there are throws, we’ll travel with the fighters to continue the fight. I enjoyed a fight taking place on multiple levels of scaffolding. It all made my girlfriend nauseated in our theater, so you might be affected as well if you have a susceptibility to cinematic motion sickness. This movie allows you in on the martial arts fun.

I wasn’t expecting this kind of leap from co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. This man was responsible for one of the best films of 2013, and the 2010s-decade, Short Term 12, which starred (drumroll please) future Oscar-winner Brie Larson, future Oscar-winner Rami Malek, future Oscar-nominee LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99, In the Heights) and the best-known actor at the time of release, John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom). Wow that cast is an all-timer. This is like the Millennial Outsiders with a cast of up-and-coming actors who have gone on to ascendant and award-winning careers. It’s also a hard-hitting, deeply emotional and upending movie worth your time. Cretton has stuck to adult dramas based upon real stories of people struggling through the justice system (Just Mercy) and parental dysfunction (The Glass Castle). A big-budget martial arts epic I wasn’t expecting, and perhaps the Marvel Machine makes it easy for indie auteurs to plug right in, but it feels like Cretton clearly has an affection and at least a tacit understanding of favorable stylistic genre choices. At this point I shouldn’t discount what filmmakers can make those big artistic leaps with a studio project. James Gunn can go from Super to the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so Cretton can go from Short Term 12 to helming a large-scale, CGI-heavy martial arts fantasy.

Another aspect I found pleasantly surprising was the amount of work put into its primary villain and the ensuring father/son dynamic. I’m not going to say that Xu Wenwu, a.k.a. The Real Mandarin, is one of the more complicated or nuanced villains in MCU history, but he’s given more dimension than a simple “destroy and/or conquer the world” motivation. In fact, that was the motivation for the man before he met Jiang Li (Fela Chen), Shang-Chi’s eventual mother. Real Mandarin (or RN as I’ll refer to him because I’m lazy) was going about the whole conquer and raze kingdoms thing for thousands of years, establishing another one of those all-powerful yet still clandestine and very vague shadow societies pulling the levers of power. He found a person who made him want to reform, to put his old ways of violence behind, and it’s her death that spurs him back to his views of power absolving all conflicts, so the most powerful is the one who can have the most say and protect the people close to him or her. If he had the full power of those ten rings, ordinary gangsters wouldn’t have dared to threaten or harm his loved ones. He trained his son to follow by example, and despite the fact that he sent trained killers after his son rather than a more constructive and clearer message, RN declares his love for his children. He is moving forward to return his beloved back to the land of the living. Being motivated by grief and wanting to see a departed loved one no matter the cost is a relatable struggle and one that brings degrees of nuance that Leung can imbue with his great pained, hangdog expressions. Having a father be the villain but still love his children and be primarily motivated by bringing back his dead wife and honestly assessing how she made him a better person is a breath of fresh-ish air.

Liu (Kim’s Convenience) is easily charming and demonstrates a sharp affinity for the martial arts training and choreography. With the longer takes and clean edits, it’s clear that Liu is performing many of the moves, and he moves with great skill and balance to believably crack some skulls. A fight aboard a city bus is our real intro into seeing this man as he’s avoided, as a well-trained fighting machine, the identity of his father that he’s been attempting to run away from. Liu has a self-effacing charm to him that doesn’t cross over into smug. Awkwafina (The Farewell) is her reliable comic relief asset, though too often the movie resorts to just spotlighting her for a riff or one-liner when the context doesn’t provide the opportunity. It’s rather mystifying why her supporting character, a normal human, would accompany her pal into the word of underground martial arts ninja conspiracy fantasy, let alone that she could take up a bow and arrow and becomes a valuable member of a fighting force. Leung (2046, The Grandmaster) is just movie royalty, so getting him to read the phone book would have been an acceptable start. He sits out for long periods and his absence is noted. He brings such a heaviness, a quiet yet dignified despondency to the character, and there are several instances where he undersells his character’s danger and power, which just makes him so much more intimidating. I feel like Leung is finding connections with the somber, brooding heartache of his War Kong Wai roles, and yes film nerds, I just made that connection for a Marvel movie.

Not everything quite works in this MCU outing. There are several jumps in the screenplay that feel like further revision or clarity were necessary. I don’t really know why Shang-Chi is finally able to take on his father at the end except for some abstract concept of, I guess, believing in himself more. The power of the rings feels a little too unexplored for deserving of the movie’s subtitle. The rings come almost as an afterthought for much of the movie. There are a few moments where I was trying to connect how characters understood what they were supposed to do in any given moment, and I just gave up, which is kind of what the film also feels like it’s doing. There are clear characters included with the sole decision to sell merchandise. I don’t know if the nation’s children will be screaming for a faceless winged furry ottoman but that’s the gamble Marvel execs took and by God, you’re going to get many appearances. The sister addition to the movie feels decidedly undernourished, like she’s drafting from the father/son relationship that’s getting all the narrative attention. It feels like occasionally the movie pans to her to nod and go, “Oh yeah, me too.” The visual color palate is so brightly colored for so long, and then once the big splashy Act Three battle commences between CGI good and CGI evil, the visuals become so grey and murky and definitely hard to keep track of in the scrum. I wish the fantasy rules were more streamlined and explored rather than feeling grafted on when needed and forgotten when inconvenient, but this is their first foray into this sub-genre of action and while Marvel doesn’t need a sliding scale at this point, it’s still a moderate achievement.

Look, this isn’t exactly The Raid or Ip Man or anything that will challenge the most heart-pounding, intense, acrobatic heights of the crossover martial arts epic. Consider it a solid effort at watering down a Hero or House of Flying Daggers and switching over to the typical Marvel formula final act complete with onslaught of weightless CGI. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun action movie that does just enough right to land it in the cushy middle-of-the-middle for the annuls of the MCU (I would rank it around the level of Black Panther). The fight choreography and presentation, as well as the exploration of the father/son dynamics, are surprisingly refined, which is good considering one provides the entertainment value for the eyes and the other the emotional connection for everything to matter more than flashes of punches and kicks and fireballs. It doesn’t transcend its genre or the tried-and-true Marvel formula, but it’s packed with enough to even keep a casual fan entertained for most of its 130 minutes. It’s more of a one-off that doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the two dozen other MCU titles, so Shang-Chi might be just the right Saturday morning cartoon of a movie to introduce new people to the larger world of Marvel movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

Reminiscence (2021)

Reminiscent of other moody sci-fi/noir mashups like Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor (oh the 1990s), I mostly wish that Reminiscence had been less devoted to film noir trappings and explored more of its intriguing sci-fi setting and implications. Set in a future where seas have covered much of Miami, Hugh Jackman plays a memory specialist who helps clients/nostalgia addicts find peace by reliving their past experiences through tech tanks. It’s an interesting start and of course, as per noir rules, he’ll stumble across a mysterious woman (Rebecca Ferguson) with a troubled past that he can’t help but fall in love with even as it becomes clear she had ulterior motives for meeting our hero. There’s an obvious and potent commentary at play about worshiping the past at the expense of the future and the consequences of our actions, played on a personal level and a larger ecological warning. The problem is that it takes far too long for me to care about the movie. As expected, the mysterious woman vanishes, and Jackman is determined to find her, but I didn’t care about their relationship nor find this woman charming or anything other than a plot catalyst. We needed a more urgent sense of stakes to increase audience engagement. It wasn’t like she framed Jackman who then had a certain amount of time to clear his name with bad people or the police. There’s no real reason to root for Jackman to find this missing woman besides that he’s sad. This Chinatown-meets-The Cell movie is written and directed by Lisa Joy (co-creator of HBO’s Westworld), and there are interesting ideas to go along with its near-future world, and yet it all feels like a few drafts away from honing its real potential. I feel that the noir trappings strangle the storyline as far as what its ultimate imagination can be as it tries to fit into a familiar formula. Jumping into people’s memories as an investigation seems far more exciting than pounding the flooded pavement for answers. Reminiscence is a bit more conceptional than what it can deliver. It’s not terrible but it’s not terribly interesting either. Why isn’t there more with the police utilizing this technology to solve crimes or invade people’s privacy? That seems like a better starting point for conflict than “mysterious woman comes into shop.” There are some stunning visuals and points of excitement, like a fistfight that tumbles into a sunken concert hall. The ending is fitting and slightly poetic though heavily predictable given the preoccupation with repeating select conversations about the tragic nature of love stories. The problem with Reminiscence is it’s too reminiscent of too many other genre influences without providing enough of a story or characters or mystery or world to stand apart. If you’re a fan of Dark City, you might want to check out another stylish sci-fi/noir mashup, or you could just re-watch Dark City.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Suicide Squad (2021)

When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?

It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.

The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.

The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.

Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.

Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.

As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Tomorrow War (2021)

Amazon’s new movie, The Tomorrow War, is the costliest original blockbuster of the summer, and it’s skipping theaters entirely. The $200 million-dollar sci-fi movie was originally slated for theatrical release in December 2020, then pushed to summer 2021, then sold to Amazon streaming for the cost of its production budget. It’s easy to grasp the excitement of its premise and how it could translate into engrossing escapism. At the 2022 World Cup, a flash of light transports a team of future soldiers who need enlistments. In a matter of months, the world will be facing a war between alien monsters, and by 2050 we will be on the verge of losing for good. Dan Forrester (Chris Pratt) is a science teacher/ex-veteran who is conscripted into the future war, along with some other unlikely soldiers, and thrown into the future. His tour will last one week and then he’ll be sent back to 2022, if he survives, and only twenty percent come back.

Perhaps it was the allusions or homages to Starship Troopers, but I found the first act and the action before the action to be the most interesting part of The Tomorrow War. I was hoping with its time travel premise of a future war fought by the past that there would be some attention paid to the world building and implications of its premise, at least before it became hunting down monsters and shooting in corridors, and thankfully the movie actually takes some sweet time to lay its foundations before being conscripted itself into action movie spectacle. Much like Starship Troopers, we have people unprepared for a war against an alien species and essentially being tossed into basic training as cannon fodder for the military industrial complex. I enjoyed that the screenplay by Zach Dean (Deadfall) actually plays out some of the larger effects that its future confirmation would stir. Effectively, humanity knows that in thirty years it’s all over. There is a definitive end date. Knowing that thirty years is all civilization has remaining would cause all sorts of global, social, and psychological upheavals. Why bother going to school if it’s all over in thirty years? Why try and start that business if it’s all over in thirty years? Why start a family if your children will be doomed in thirty years or less? Society would be irrevocably changed, and sectors and populations would refuse to go back to the way things were, and instability would flare up with generations sore over their lack of Earthly inheritance.

That’s just one factor that gets attention during this first 45-minute section. The nature of the future conscripting people of the past to fight their war has plenty of political commentary about generational conflict, proxy wars, and how the poor are disproportionately affected with less choice. The soldiers being taken from the past are older and an unorthodox pool of candidates that wouldn’t meet contemporary military recruitment standards. This is because the people being sent to fight are already dead by the time 2050 rolls around to avoid any time paradox concerns. There are interesting implications here. It’s like their own governments are saying, “Well, you’ll be dead anyway, so you might as well die now rather than much later and maybe you’ll provide a more immediate need other than taxes. Thank you for your service, now die.” Again, the psychology and ripples of that can be fascinating. I’m skeptical why more 2022 Americans are not disputing why they should fight 2050’s war with their own flesh and blood. I suppose I wanted this intriguing premise to be played out more in the span of an ongoing TV series, something along the lines of the elegant existential bummer of HBO’s The Leftovers. As a feature, The Tomorrow War gets beaten into blockbuster shape to become another noisy sci-fi spectacle, but the potential of its premise and the bombshells of its world-building deserved even more deliberate consideration.

When the action picks up, The Tomorrow War follows a predictable path of alien invasion military thrillers. Dan’s unit must go into enemy territory and retrieve an important thing before the aliens overrun the facility as well as before the Army firebombs the block. There are many ticking clocks built into the plot mechanisms, from Dan’s week-long sojourn into the future ticking clock, the overall “humanity’s last stand” ticking clock, the ticking clock of getting needed lab components before destruction, the ticking clock of synthesizing a magic alien cure, and there’s likely others I haven’t even noticed. That cluttering of urgency extends also to its personal exploration of two sets of frayed familial relationships, father/daughter and father/son across three generations. It’s simply too much and detracts from more time and attention being given to the elements that demand the most development. The father/daughter relationship has the most meaningful drama considering it covers multiple periods of time and pushes Dan into thinking more critically about sacrifice and legacy. The broken father/son relationship between Dan and his absentee dad (a buff J.K. Simmons) is unnecessary and put on hold for too long and then hastily tied together. The Tomorrow War is an unlikely candidate of having too many conflict elements and points of urgency that they can dilute one another.

This also gets into an extended third act that feels entirely tacked on. After a critical climax, I grabbed my remote to pause the movie with the belief that things were wrapping up shortly. I was shocked to see I still had another 30 minutes left to go. The mountain-set final action set piece feels like a late studio addition rather than an outgrowth of what was established in the screenplay. Strangely, the characters don’t seem to be acknowledging the reality of cancelling out the alien-invasion nightmare future with their actions. If Dan has the magic elixir to thwart aliens, and goes back to 2022, then he can prevent the billions of eventual deaths. I suppose that does nothing for those in 2022 that got zapped into 2050 and died in the line of duty, but it spares everyone else from 2023 onward. I started yelling at the screen that preventing the terrible future meant good things.

As far as the quality of action, it’s a cut above thanks to director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), making his live-action film debut. I’ve noticed with other directors who primarily got their start in the realm of animation that they have such a great command of filling up the screen. Brad Bird, Travis Knight, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and Tim Burton, all of them have an extra artistic sense of how to use the space of the frame to immerse the viewer. I greatly appreciated that many of the sequences where the soldiers fight the alien monsters use long takes and clear editing. There’s one scene where soldiers are trying to wrangle a monster as a hostage and all the fighting and buckling is impressively presented with sufficient distance so we can see the soldiers react and go flying. The introduction of the alien monsters is drawn out of the shadows, but from that moment onward the movie presents the monsters clearly, and I enjoyed the squid-meets-feline creature design enough that I welcomed more closeups. There’s also a horrifying and darkly comic tech mishap where the future accidentally zaps its new recruits into 2050, but instead of re-materializing five feet above the ground it’s 100-plus feet high, so we watch people hurtle to their awful deaths. McKay can replicate standard studio action movie grist seen in plenty of other big-budget blowouts (there are multiple examples of characters slow-motion jumping out of the way of explosions), but more often McKay has a natural eye for visual compositions and how to bring out more with his sci-fi spectacle.

One of the bigger miscues of the movie was the hiring and prominence of Pratt (Jurassic World) as the lead. He’s got the presence and build to be convincingly ex-military, but he’s not a good fit for an everyman, let alone a family man everyman scientist. He’s a high school science teacher going through personal malaise because he feels like he’s meant for something bigger (what’s bigger than saving humanity, guy?) and this ordinary life just ain’t cutting it. Except Pratt can do charming and affable, he can even do heroic, but this part does not play to the actor’s strengths, so Dan often comes across as plain and bland. He’s stuck as the square-jawed straight man for the movie and is boring once he goes into action or thinking mode.

I wished the movie had been retold from the point of view of Charlie, played by reliable comic Sam Richardson (Veep, Werewolves Within). He’s a welcomed voice of panic and reason among the avalanche of sci-fi, science, and military jargon. He’s a widower, losing his wife on her own tour of duty, and he feels greatly out of place. The actor is so amusing and the character so unexpectedly entertaining that I wish Pratt’s hero had bit the dust early as a meta head-fake (think of Seagal getting killed off early in 1996’s Executive Decision) and we were left to follow Charlie as humanity’s unexpected savior. Along the conversation of waste, Betty Gilpin (The Hunt) is shortchanged as Dan’s wife in 2022 world. They introduce a plot point that family members can be conscripted in place, and then there’s the transport glitch that kills all but a few, so I assumed that an actress of Gilpin’s kick-ass capability would find herself in the future fighting too. Alas, dear reader, Gilpin is just here to be the concerned wife at home waiting for her man to return.

The Tomorrow War is an original story though it’s built from older, recognizable parts, a little Independence Day here, a little Alien there, and a dash of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s derivative but it still has its own points of interest, chief for me is the world building and premise. The action is solid and filmed well. The scope of the special effects fits comfortably in the blockbuster studio range. It’s a good-looking movie with plenty of action and enough time travel quirks, though your attention may also flag as the movie lurches to a protracted close with its extended third act. It does more right than wrong as blockbuster spectacle. I think it had offshoots of better potential that could have been tapped, but as a big screen entertainment ported to your smaller home screen, The Tomorrow War is destined to win fans with lowered expectations and 140 minutes of free time.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 11, 2001:

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.

I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. 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.

Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.

It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.

It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.

The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.

Re-View Grade: C

Awake (2021)

Every so often I’ll watch a movie and be really intrigued or hopeful with the premise, something that really grabs my imagination, and then that hope crashes and burns in disappointment of a story that never fully takes advantage of all the tantalizing possibilities of its start. In short, I say, “That movie didn’t deserve its premise.” That’s the first thing I thought about after watching Netflix’s new apocalyptic thriller, Awake, where humanity is suddenly incapable of going to sleep. There’s an engrossing drama about the psychological descent and a potent political thriller about the destabilizing of civilization once people are unable to get their forty winks. The premise peculates with such promise, and for it to become yet another end times road trip, hewing so closely to a solidifying formula, is like trapping everyone in a (bird) box.

Jill (Gina Rodriguez) is a former soldier, recovering addict, and current security guard who is also selling opioids on the side to make ends meet. One day, people are no longer able to sleep, everyone except her young daughter. Jill rescues her two children, gets into a car, and drives off for a far off scientific research base where a scientist (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) studying sleep might have the knowledge of how to solve this worldwide mystery.

I think most people have dealt with the effects of sleep deprivation at some point in their life, especially if they have ever had a newborn child. The subject matter is very relatable. I had a bout of insomnia years ago where I was averaging less than two hours of sleep for weeks, and it was the worst physical endurance I’ve gone through in my, admittedly privileged, existence. I felt like a zombie, barely able to function, my head forever fuzzy, and I lost all desire to eat and had to compel my body to consume food I knew it needed for fuel. I even purchased the Ensure nutritional drinks. It was a miserable time and I was even getting a minimal amount of sleep rather than none whatsoever. I’ve had rough sleep certain nights and feel like I’m running on fumes for the rest of my workday. It takes far more time to bounce back from bad sleep, and I’m wondering if I’ll ever actually get consistently restful sleep again for the rest of my life. With all of that stated, Awake should be an easy movie to plug right into and relate to the deterioration. However, it’s so unclear and clumsy in its depictions of the world. It’s unclear until the very very end how long the world has gone without sleep, and so we run into examples that seem to paint two different pictures of our apocalyptic environment: overplaying and underplaying.

At times, Awake is overplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. At points, it feels like society has broken down so completely and over a confusing timeline. There are run-ins with a group of elderly naked people just standing around and acting serene, a prison where the inmates walk out for unspecified reasons involving the guards, and a church that has already gone full-borne cult crazy by thinking that sacrificing the little girl who can sleep means they’ll be able to share in her slumber. The movie didn’t establish these people as crazy religious fundamentalists, so this sudden bloodthirsty turn feels like a leap. Even in 2007’s The Mist, the trapped townspeople gave into the corrupting influence of the religious bigot over time and distress. It reminded me of another Netflix apocalyptic, parental road movie, 2019’s The Silence, where it seemed like it was mere hours before a select group of people started cutting their tongues out and declaring they needed to kidnap women for the purpose of re-population. I suppose some people are just looking for the first good excuse to indulge their baser impulses, but then explore more of this feature with meaningful characters that will matter when they break bad. I think the movie would have greatly benefited from a clear timeline, some helpful titles keeping up with the clock, things like “50 Hours In,” and the premise could have been revised to be a slow evaporation of sleep rather than a strict cut-off. Maybe people are only able to get two hours a night, then one hour, then 30 minutes, and people are freaking out because they know it’s getting less. Let society have some measure of reconciling with the totality of what is to come.

At times, Awake is also paradoxically underplaying the effects of the mental breakdown of society. For the majority of the movie, our characters aren’t really acting differently even though they have been awake for multiple days. This is what also made me so confused. How much time has passed if nobody seems to be making a big deal about it? The slips in reaction time and awareness don’t really feel integrated until the chaotic conclusion. The family comes across the wreckage of an airplane and make no big deal of it. For that matter, if we’re establishing that sleep deprivation is causing planes to fall from the sky, I think there should be thousands of these crash sites dotting the landscape, unless the airlines have wised up and decided to ground their pilots because they’re afraid of potential post-post-apocalyptic class action lawsuits. Travels with Jill become too leisurely for everything that is going on (note to self: pitch an Anthony Bourdain-style travelogue during an apocalyptic social breakdown and tasting the new culinary delicacies). She senses that she will die and needs to train her children to survive in this new world without her. However, if only her daughter can sleep, then presumably only she will be left alive in due time and it’s less about fending for herself against other people and more how to live off the land. There’s an existential and more poetic, prosaic version of Awake where Jill is trying to cram years and years of parenting into a precious couple of days, where she also tries to secure a fortified hiding place for her daughter to wait out the rest of humanity dying off before she can come out like a hibernating animal. For Jill, its about securing her child’s survival rather than reversing this plague that is dooming humanity. There’s a stronger movie that could have been made had Awake been more personal and more serious rather than schlocky and muddled.

The movie does have a few moments of bizarre effect or risible tension, but these moments are few and far between and director/co-writer Mark Raso (Kodachrome) is very transparent about his genre influences. There’s a roadside checkpoint where a group of armed people try and break inside Jill’s vehicle and pull her and anyone else out the windows. The car is still driving as the assault goes on and the camera remains inside the vehicle while rotating around the interior as the attack plays out in a real-time long take. If you’ve seen the sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men, then this description should already be ringing a few bells of recognition. It’s not that Raso cannot pay homage to the sci-fi inspirations of his tale, but when you draw direct comparisons by emulating very specific artistic choices done by superior filmmakers, you’re inviting a negative impression. A standoff between Jill and an increasing exodus of prisoners had a queasy anxiousness to it because the movie lets the scene build with direct, immediate stakes. There’s a similar scene where Jill is hiding in a garage from voices, but the stakes don’t translate as well because our knowledge of who the other men are is limited. She could just sit in a corner and wait. The plane wreckage scene is impressively designed, and there are a few genuinely surprising moments, like the crowd of naked old people, to keep things curious, but Awake too often settles again and again for the most formulaic and least interesting creative path.

If this all sounds a lot like Netflix’s Bird Box, then congrats, because you’ve likely caught onto the reason this movie exists. Both movies feature an unexplained worldwide phenomenon that results in the breakdown of society where mobs and cults have formed, and both movies feature a single mother trying to lead her two children, one boy and one girl, through the hazards of the road so they can reach a supposed secure place where authority figures will have answers, and both movies feature a normal facet of human existence that, once removed, is making people go crazy and mess with their perception. Both of the movies also provide plum roles for high-profile actresses. Rodriguez (Miss Bala) is a compelling actress who has shined in lighter, rom-com material (Jane the Virgin), in quirky character-driven indies (Kajillionaire), and in somber existential horror (Annihilation). She has the tools to be great. Awake did not give her enough. There are a couple of scenes, late, of her starting to lose her bearings, and it’s here that I wished the filmmakers had realized that showing the effects of this cataclysm would be best than underplaying or overplaying the deprivation. Awake is an apocalyptic road trip that will bore more than excite and frustrate more than engage. Who knew sleeplessness was such a snooze?

Nate’s Grade: C-

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released June 29, 2001:

A.I. is the merger of two powerhouses of cinema – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The very mysterious film was given to Spielberg by Kubrick himself who thought ole’ Steven would be a better fit to direct it. The two did keep communication open for like a decade on their ideas for the project until Kubrick’s death in March of 1999. What follows is an imaginative futuristic fairy tale that almost grabs the brass ring but falls short due to an inferior ending. More on that later.

In the future technological advances allow for intelligent robotic creatures (called “mechas”) to be constructed and implemented in society. William Hurt has the vision to create a robot more real than any his company has ever embarked on before. He wants to make a robot that can know real love. Flash ahead several months to Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) who are dealing with their own son in an indefinite coma. Henry is given the opportunity to try out a prototype from his company of a new mecha boy. His wife naturally believes that her son could not be replaced and her emotions smoothed over. Soon enough they both decide to give the boy a try and on delivery comes David (Haley Joel Osment) ready to begin new life in a family. David struggles to fit in with his human counterparts and even goes to lengths to belong like mimicking the motions of eating despite his lack of need to consume. Gradually David becomes a true part of the family and Monica has warmed up to him and ready to bestow real love onto their mecha son.

It’s at this point when things are going well for David that the Swinton’s son Martin comes out of his coma and returns back to his parents. Sibling rivalry between the two develops for the attention and adoration of their parents. Through mounting unfortunate circumstances the Swintons believe that David is a threat and decide to take him away. The corporation that manufactured David had implicit instructions that the loving David if desired to be returned had to be destroyed. Monica takes too much pity on David that she ditches him in the woods and speeds off instead of allowing him to be destroyed.

David wanders around searching for the Blue Fairy he remembers from the child’s book Pinocchio read to him at the Swinton home. He is looking for this magical creature with the desire she will turn him into a real boy and his human mother will love him again. Along David’s path he buddies up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pleasure ‘bot that tells the ladies they’re never the same once he’s through. The two traverse such sights as a mecha-destroying circus called ‘Flesh Fairs’ complete with what must be the WWF fans of the future, as well as the bright lights of flashy sin cities and the submerged remains of a flooded New York. David’s journey is almost like Alice’s, minus of course the gigolo robot of pleasure.

There are many startling scenes of visual wonder in A.I. and some truly magical moments onscreen. Spielberg goes darker than he’s even been and the territory does him good. Osment is magnificent as the robotic boy yearning to become real, but Jude Law steals the show. His physical movement, gestures, and vocal mannerisms are highly entertaining to watch as he fully inhibits the body and programmed mind of Gigolo Joe. Every time Law is allowed to be onscreen the movie sparkles.

It’s not too difficult to figure out which plot elements belong to Spielberg and which belong to Kubrick, since both are almost polar opposites when it comes to the feelings of their films. Spielberg is an idealistic imaginative child while Kubrick was a colder yet more methodical storyteller with his tales of woe and thought. The collaboration of two master artists of cinema is the biggest draw going here. A.I.‘s feel ends up being Spielberg interpreting Kubrick, since the late great Stanley was dead and gone before he could get his pet project for over a decade ready. The war of giants has more Spielberg but you can definitely tell the Kubrick elements running around, and they are a gift from beyond the grave.

I thought at one point with the first half of A.I. I was seeing possibly the best film of the year, and the second half didn’t have the pull of the first half but still moves along nicely and entertained. But then came the ending, which ruined everything. There is a moment in the film where it feels like the movie is set to end and it would’ve ended with an appropriate ending that could have produced lingering talk afterwards. I’m positive this is the ending Kubrick had in mind. But this perfect ending point is NOT the ending, no sir! Instead another twenty minutes follows that destroys the realm of belief for this film. The tacked on cloying happy ending feels so contrived and so inane. It doesn’t just stop but keeps going and only gets dumber and more preposterous form there. I won’t go to the liberty of spoiling the ending but I’ll give this warning to ensure better enjoyment of the film: when you think the movie has ended RUN OUT OF THE THEATER! Don’t look back or pay attention to what you hear. You’ll be glad you did later on when you discover what really happens.

The whole Blue Fairy search is far too whimsical for its own good. It could have just been given to the audience in a form of a symbolic idea instead of building the last half of the film for the search for this fictional creature’s whereabouts. The idea is being pounded into the heads of the audience by Spielberg with a damn sledge hammer. He just can’t leave well enough alone and lets it take off even more in those last atrocious twenty minutes.

A.I. is a generally involving film with some wonderfully fantastic sequences and some excellent performances. But sadly the ending really ruins the movie like none other I can remember recently. What could have been a stupendous film with Kubrick’s imprint all over turns out to be a good film with Spielberg’s hands all over the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There are two aspects that people remember vividly about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and that’s the fascinating collaboration of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time and its much-debated and much-derided extended ending. Before we get into either, though, a fun fact about its very helpful title for Luddites. Originally the title was only going to be A.I. but the studio found that test audiences were confused by the two-word abbreviation and several clueless souls thought it was the number one and not the capital letter “I.” The studio didn’t want their high-concept meeting of cinematic masters to be confused with a popular steak sauce.

In the realm of cinematic titans, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick rise to the top for their artistic ambitions, innovations, versatility, and great influence on future generations, but you’d be hard-pressed to see a uniquely shared sensibility. Kubrick’s films are known for his detached, mercurial perspective, flawless technical execution, leisurely pacing, and a pessimistic or cynical view of humanity. Spielberg’s films are known for their blockbuster populism, grand imagination and whimsy, as well as the director’s softer, squishier, and more sentimental view of humanity. It almost feels like a mixture of oil and water with their contradictory sensibilities. And yet Kubrick and Spielberg developed A.I. for decades, starting in the late 1970s when Kubrick optioned the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. Kubrick felt that Spielberg was a better fit for director in the mid-1980s, but Spielberg kept trying to convince Kubrick to direct. Both took on other projects and kept kicking A.I. down the road, also because Kubrick was dissatisfied with the state of special effects to conceive his “lifelike” robot boy. Kubrick died in early 1999 and Spielberg elected to finally helm A.I. and finish their creative partnership. He went back to the original 90-page treatment Kubrick developed with sci-fi novelist Ian Watson and wrote the final screenplay, Spielberg’s first screenwriting credit since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and his only one since 2001). I view the final movie as a labor of love as Spielberg’s ode to Kubrick and his parting gift to his fallen friend.

Watching A.I. again, it is a recognizable Kubrick movie but through the lens of Spielberg’s camera and budget. In some ways, it feels like Spielberg’s two-hour-plus homage to his departed mentor. The movie moves gradually and gracefully and, with a few delicate turns, could just as easily be viewed as a horror movie than anything overtly cloying or maudlin. The opening 45 minutes introduces a family whose child is comatose with some mystery illness and the likelihood he may never return to them. The husband (Sam Robards) is gifted with a shiny new robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), as a trial from his big tech boss (William Hurt) who wants to see if he can make a robot child who will love unconditionally. The early scenes with David integrating into the family play like a horror movie, with the intruder inside the family unit, and David’s offhand mimicry of trying to fit in can make you shudder. All it would take is an ominous score under the scenes and they play completely differently. One scene, which is played as an ice breaker, is when David, studying his parents at the dinner table, breaks out into loud cackling laughter. It triggers his parents to laugh alongside him, but it’s so weird and sudden and creepy. David’s non-blinking, ever-eager presence is off-putting and creepy and Monica (Frances O’Connor), the mother, is rightfully horrified and insulted by having a “replacement child.” However, her emotional neediness steadily whittles away her resistance and she elects to have David imprint. This is a no-turning-back serious decision, having David imprint eternal love and adoration onto her, and if she or her husband were to change their minds, David cannot be reprogrammed. He would need to be disassembled. With this family, David is more or less a house pet kept around for adoration and then discarded when he no longer serves the same comforting alternative. Once the couple’s biological child reawakens, it’s not long before jealousy and misunderstanding lead David to being ditched on the side of the road as an act of “mercy.”

From there, the movie becomes much more episodic with David and less interesting. The Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) addition furthers the story in a thematic sense and less so in plot. Gigolo Joe is a robotic lover on command, and framed for murder, and just as disposable and mistreated as David. From a plot standpoint, David’s odyssey is to seek out the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, a book his mother read to him, and to wish to become a real boy and be finally accepted as his mother’s legitimate son. Thematically, David’s real odyssey is to understand that human beings are cruel masters. In short, people suck in this universe and they don’t get any better.

People, or “orga” as they refer to organic life, are mean and indifferent to artificial life, viewing the realistic mechanical beings, or “mecha” as they are referred to, as little more than disposable toys. Despite its cheery happy ending (and I will definitely be getting to that), the movie is awash in Kubrick’s trademark pessimism. Early on, David is stabbed by another boy just to test his pain defense system. David is only spared destruction from the Flesh Fair, a traveling circus where ticket-buyers enjoy the spectacle of robot torture, because the blood-thirsty audience thinks he’s too uncomfortably realistic. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be confused whether he is actually a robot considering that the adult models look just as realistic. He’s not like a super advanced model, he’s just the first robot kid, but applying the same torture spectacle to a crying robot child is too much for the fairgoers. However, this emergent reprieve might be short-lived once these same people become morally inured to the presence of robot kids after they flood the consumer market. Once the “newness” wears off, he’ll be viewed just as cruelly as the other older models also pleading for their pitiful mecha lives.

The tragedy of David is that he can never truly be real but he’ll never realize it. His personal journey takes him all over the nation and into the depth of the rising oceans, and it’s all to fulfill a wish from a benevolent make-believe surrogate mother. His programming traps David into seeing the world as a child, so no matter how old his circuits might be, he’ll always maintain a childish view of the world and its inhabitants. He’ll never age physically but he’ll also never mature or grow emotionally. Because of those limitations, he’s stuck seeing his mother in a halo of goodness that the actual woman doesn’t deserve. Monica felt like she was being helpful by ditching David before returning him to his makers, but this boy is not equipped to survive in the adult world let alone the human world. He cannot understand people and relationships outside the limited confines of a child. So to David, he doesn’t see the cowardice and emotional withdrawal of his mother. She knew the consequences of imprinting but she wanted to feel the unconditional love of a child again and when that got too inconvenient she abandoned him. Their relationship is completely one-sided with David always giving and his mother only taking. David’s goal is to be accepted by a woman who will never accept him and care for him like her organic child. She will never view David as hers no matter how hard David loves her. He cannot recognize this toxic usury relationship because he’ll never have any conception of that. David is trying to be loved by people undeserving of his earnest efforts and unflinching affections.

Do these look like robots to you?

Let’s finally tackle that controversial ending, shall we? The natural ending comes at about two hours in, with David in a submersible at the bottom of the ocean and pleading with a statue of the Blue Fairy in Coney Island to make him a real boy. He keeps whispering again and again to her, and the camera pulls out, his pleading getting fainter and fainter. The vessel is trapped under the water, so he’ll likely live out the rest of his battery life hopefully, and hopelessly, asking for his wish. It feels deeply Kubrickian and a fitting end for a tragic and unsparing movie about human cruelty and our lack of empathy. It’s also, in its own way, slightly optimistic. Because David is so fixated, he’ll spend the rest of his existence in anticipation of his dream possibly being granted with the next request. He has no real concept of time so hundreds of years can feel like seconds. Everything about this moment screams the natural ending, and then, oh and then, it keeps going, and the ensuring twenty additional minutes try and force a sentimental ending that does not work or fit with the two hours of movie prior. Two thousand years into the future, David is rescued by advanced robots (I thought they were aliens, and likely you will too) who finally grant his wish thanks to some convenient DNA of his two-thousand-year dead mother. These advanced robots can bring the dead back to life except they will only last one day, so David will have one last day to share with his mother before she passes back into the dark. However, David’s conception of his mother isn’t the actual woman, so his rose-colored glasses distortion means he gets a final goodbye from not just a clone but one attuned to his vision. It’s false, and the fact that the movie tries to convince you it’s a happy ending feels wrong. Also, the world of 4124 still has the World Trade Center because A.I. was released three months before the attacks on September 11th. It’s just another reminder of how wrong the epilogue feels.

This extended epilogue desperately tries to attach the treacly sentimentality that was absent from the rest of A.I., which is why many critics felt it was Spielberg asserting himself. Apparently, we were all wrong. According to an interview with Variety in 2002, the opening 45 minutes is taken word-for-word from Kubrick’s outline and the extended ending, including the misplaced happy every after, is also strictly from Kubrick’s original treatment. It was Kubrick who went all-in on the Pinocchio references and parallels. Even the walking teddy bear was his idea. Watson said, “Those scenes were exactly what I wrote for Stanley and exactly what he wanted, filmed faithfully by Spielberg.” The middle portion was Spielberg’s greatest writing contribution, otherwise known as the darkest moments in the movie like the Flesh Fair and robot hunts. The movie is much more sexual than I associate with Spielberg. There has been sex in Spielberg’s past films, but it’s usually played as frothy fun desire with cheeky womanizers (Catch Me If You Can) or as a transaction with unspoken demands (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple). Then again, when Spielberg really leaned into a sex scene, we got the awkward and thematically clunky “climax” of Munich. With A.I., the perverse nature of humanity is another layer that reflects how awful these people are to the wide array or robots being mistreated, abused, and assaulted on an hourly basis in perpetuity.

Twenty years later, the movie still relatively holds up well and is good, not great. It’s more a fascinating collaboration between two cinematic giants, and the fun is recognizing the different elements and themes and attributing them (wrongly) to their respective creator. The special effects are still impressive and lifelike even by 2021 standards. Even though the movie is set in 2124, so over 100 years into the far-flung future, everyone still dresses and looks like they’re from the familiar twentieth century (maybe it’s retro fashion?). It’s a slightly distracting technical element for a movie otherwise supremely polished. There is a heavy emphasis on visual reflections and refractions of David in his family home, exploring the wavering identity and conceptions of this robo kid. Spielberg’s direction feels in keeping with Kubrick’s personal style and sensibility. A.I. is a labor of love for Spielberg to honor Kubrick, and he went another step further with the 2018 adaptation of Ready Player One where one of the missions was exploring a virtual reality recreation of the famous Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In my original 2001 review, I took the same level of umbrage with the miscalculated ending as I do in 2021. In the many years since its release, A.I. has been my go-to example of a movie that didn’t know where to properly end. As a result, it’s still a fascinating if frustrating experience on the verge of greatness.

Re-View Grade: B

Infinite (2021)

The cast and crew of Infinite were taken by surprise when their corporate overlords decided to shuttle the big-budget action movie to its fledgling streaming service, Paramount Plus. Fortunately for me, I had just purchased a yearlong subscription plan because I wanted to watch Bar Rescue whenever I pleased, so I was one of the lucky ones to gain access to this first “Paramount Plus Original Movie” as it quietly premiered. It might be for the best after all. Infinite is a high-concept action movie by committee that feels so lacking in just about every critical department.

Evan McCauley (Wahlberg) is a man suffering from schizophrenia, or so he believes. He has strange visions in his head from past historical time periods and he instinctively knows how to forge a samurai sword. He’s interrogated by Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who recognizes Evan as an ancient foe that he has fought through multiple past lives. Bathurst wants to kill Evan before he can remember who he is and stop Bathurst’s evil scheme. Evan is rescued by Mora (Sophie Cookson, Kingsman) who informs him that he is one of the Believers, a group of immortals who get reincarnated after each death. They’re waging a secret war against the Nihilists, lead by Bathurst, who want to obliterate the world rather than be reborn into it again. Evan must relearn his many pasts and help the Believers recover a hidden doomsday weapon his past self hid.

You’d be forgiven if you thought you had watched Infinite before, perhaps in a past life, because it’s so highly derivative. The story runs on two very well-worn tracks of science fiction storytelling, the Chosen One plot and the Secret War plot. You’ve seen variations on both in plenty of familiar sci-fi action movies, comic books, and the central pillars for countless Young Adult titles. Think about being told this statement: “Your ordinary life has been merely an elaborate cover, and you’re no ordinary person but secretly a powerful and important [fill in the blank] and there’s been a war going on in the shadows between [fill in the blanks] and you’re the key to solving this ages-old conflict.” I bet many of you can already think of similar titles that apply. There’s Harry Potter and Highlander and The Matrix and the Assassin’s Creed series and even more specific examples like Wanted, where it too features a sexy woman rescuing our lead in a sexy car and fending off bad guys while she informs him of his secret true calling. Even Ejiofor was in a strikingly similar movie just last year, 2020’s The Old Guard. It’s all so vaguely familiar at every moment that you’ll question whether it’s all built from spare parts.

Then there’s the added reincarnation angle, where people have amazing skills that they never knew they possessed (The Matrix, Wanted) and souls going from host body to host body (Cloud Atlas). In fact, David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, essentially wrote this very story in his 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks. In that novel, we learn that there are two factions of immortals who are reborn after every death, one group that preys upon the souls of mankind and another trying to defend the innocents. That book explores a lot more in the realm of identity (characters are reborn in different genders and races), time, and purpose than with Infinite, which settles for a recycled B-movie doomsday plot that even video games are getting tired of now. If past lives and reincarnation is just another disposable gimmick for super powered beings duking it out over a cataclysmic MacGuffin, then why bother with the existential possibility of the premise?

For a movie that takes so much time to spit out clunky exposition, Infinite is fairly incoherent and, occasionally, self-defeating. When you’re entering any new territory, there’s going to be a learning curve. Imagine how Neo learned about his misconception of reality, the war and history with the machines, and his capabilities he was opening himself up to. Exposition is best done in portions equally spaced out and tied to action, so our characters can learn through doing and failing and then succeeding. With the gimmick of past lives, it could open up such intrigue and possibility about human potential as well as the difficulty of these immortals finding one another across the globe for centuries, restarting with every rebirth (a fact explored in The Bone Clocks). It also would lend itself to characters being reckless with action movie stunts because, at worst, they die and take a twenty-year or so timeout before getting back into the action. Nothing of real interest happens with the past lives gimmick. The movie treats it as a shortcut to give its characters superpowers, and by tapping into those memories, now they have all these crazy super abilities that no mortal could accomplish in merely a single lifetime (sorry Bruce Lee). Imagine if in The Matrix, instead of Neo learning and training that they just uploaded everything into a Chosen One 3.0 security patch they downloaded (yes, he downloads skills, but we see the process demonstrated as visual progression). It’s boring to watch. The movie even could have explored more about these past lives, experiences, and lessons learned rather than in kaleidoscopic flashbacks. For the entire premise, Infinite seems so strangely limited in scope.

Then there’s the plot device that destroys the scheme of the villains. The Nihilists are tired of the eternity of being reborn and stuck with the accumulation of their memories. Bathurst says when he begins anew in the womb, he is a fully cogent adult brain and it’s nine months of torture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the only interesting component in the entire movie that relates to the reincarnation premise. The Nihilists want to destroy all life so then they can never be reborn again, though this still seems theoretical. They have also developed a special device that will store a person’s consciousness onto a computer hard drive or microchip, supposedly stopping that consciousness from being reintegrated into a new host body. If this is the case, why isn’t Bathurst and his Nihilist fellows taking advantage of this? They’ve already developed a solution that works and doesn’t involve the destruction of all life on the planet. I don’t even know why Infinite introduces this absurd plot mechanic considering the damage it does. I guess it was an attempt to raise the stakes with immortals where death isn’t permanent, but for the purposes of the movie, a death means they are taken out of this present fight for the fate of the world. The stakes are still there. The implications are also nebulous, as they talk about souls as currency but can human souls be downloaded onto a portable technological deice? This entire plot device is silly in conception and even worse in execution, with big swirly bullets that also glow as they zip along.

Wahlberg (Spenser Confidential) is on autopilot for the entire movie. He’s laconic and nonplussed and without any hint of humor or fun to be had. His under-performance is compensated by the overacting of Ejiofor (Doctor Strange) in a disastrous dynamic that reminded me of the 2011 Oscar hosting performance by the tandem of James Franco (under performing) and Anne Hathaway (over performing). At least Ejiofor is holding my attention with his high energy level and a maniacal glee that reminded me of James Bond villains. The problem is that nobody else is delivering this same arch level of camp. Everyone else in the cast is trying to play things so icy cool and nonchalant, and it just makes all the characters feel like boring robots.

And yet all of this could be forgiven if Infinite had some memorable and exceptionally exciting or well-developed set pieces to entertain. Much can be excused or mitigated if an action movie delivers upon its action. Alas, Infinite cannot escape the orbital decay of its lack of imagination. The derivative nature extends to the action, which consists of a series of rote chases and gunfights. There is one sequence that had promise for the scale of its destruction, a car chase through the different floors and levels of a police building. It’s viscerally entertaining to watch all of the many things gets smashed while raising the question just how fragile concrete walls are constructed to be in downtown metropolitan architecture. This is also the moment that Evan is brought into the new world, which means it’s all downhill from here. Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) is an action genre veteran and can be counted on for some degree of style to jazz up the proceedings, but he can only do so much with sequences lacking points of interest and tension. Infinite would play better as campy nonsense, but it won’t acknowledge this identity.

Given how derivative everything appears, it’s surprising Infinite is based on an original work, the self-published 2009 novel The Reincartionist Papers by D. Eric Maikranz. The author offered his readers ten percent of his advance for whoever helped get him to sell the film rights to Hollywood (true to his word, Maikranz paid out in 2019). Already, this is more entertaining to me than anything provided in the 106 plodding and incoherent minutes of Infinite as a movie. The high-concept premise is reduced to a lazy shortcut for superpowers for a group of know-it-alls trying to act cool and strut while delivering exposition by the truckload. The action is stifled, the characters are dull, and the world feels so sprawling but without needed definition. This could have been any combination of Chosen One and Secret War story elements. What about Harry Potter battling the bullet-curving killers from Wanted? Or what about Neo facing off against the ancient society of werewolves and vampires in sleek lather catsuits? Or an immortal special ops crew that must track down other immortals before they can do lasting harm? This mix-and-match formula belies how truly interchangeable the story elements are with Infinite. It closes on voice over by Wahlberg that genuinely made me guffaw. Looking to the future, he says, literally, “Well the possibilities are… infinite.” For this hopeful film franchise, I strongly doubt that.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Spiral (2021) / A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

Chris Rock seems like an odd choice to spearhead a revival of the dormant Saw franchise, but the actor was a rabid fan of the grisly horror series and came to producers with an idea for a new Saw movie, and the results are Spiral: From the Book of Saw, like it’s a Biblical chapter. A Jigsaw copycat killer is targeting corrupt police officers and those who protected them, and Rock plays a detective who dared to turn in his partner after he murdered a crime scene witness. Rock’s character is seen as a traitor by his fellow brethren in blue, and as the Jigsaw copycat continues his or her bloody rampage, the history of police abuse and cover-ups comes to light. The problem with Spiral is that it feels like an entirely different independent script that somebody attached gory Saw set pieces and said, “Reboot.” The Saw set pieces get increasingly ludicrous and gross and the drama in between, where Rock tracks clues and barks at his peers, feels like boring connective tissue the movie can’t even bother to pretend is worth the effort. Both parts feel rote, the police conspiracy thriller and the gory death traps. The movie is also entirely predictable by the nature of the economy of characters. Within 15 minutes, I was able to predict the identity of the copycat killer as well as their connection and motive. This movie desperately needed more time with Rock and Samuel L. Jackson together. Another issue is that the movie ends abruptly and with a needed extra turn missing, perhaps where Rock agrees to work with the killer and justifies the executions as righteous reform. I wanted this new Saw to be more in keeping with Saw 6, the best sequel and most topical of the franchise where health care employees were put to fiendish ironic tests to punish them for denying medical coverage. It feels like targeting bad cops would produce more social commentary, but I guess that would get in the way of watching people try and sever their own spine on a single nail. Spiral doesn’t feel any more promising than the other attempted Jigsaw reboot in 2017 even with its topical elements. It might be cheap enough to earn a sequel, but it feels like a franchise eternally going in circles.

A Quiet Place Part II is the first movie I’ve seen physically in theaters since the middle of March 2020, and I genuinely missed the experience. It’s been the longest I’ve ever gone in my adult life without seeing movies in the theater, and this was one that felt like the presentation would be elevated by the big screen and superior sound system. Taking place nearly minutes after the conclusion of the 2018 hit, the surviving Abbott family ventures off their farm to find refuge and potentially find a way to protect themselves and neighboring communities from the killer monsters attracted to noise. The opening is the only flashback we get; everything else is forward-looking. I would have enjoyed getting more Day One experiences where the monsters first attacked, especially as we become open to new characters and their own harrowing journeys. The movie, written and directed by John Krasinski, isn’t quite as novel and brilliantly executed as its predecessor, but it’s still a strong sequel that gives you more while leaving you wanting more by the end. The majority of this lean 97 minutes is split between the family, one half staying put in a warehouse basement, and the other traveling out into the open to find a radio tower. The set pieces are still taut though rely more on jump scares this go-round, granted well executed jump scares that still got me to jolt in my seat and squeeze my girlfriend’s hand a little tighter. Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) is the most significant addition as an Abbott family friend who has lost his whole family since that opening flashback. He’s a broken-down man, a parallel for Krasinski’s father figure from the first film, and at points it feels like he’s being set up to appear sinister, or at least hiding some dark secret that never really comes to fruition. The world building is expanded and introduces a very Walking Dead-familiar trope of desperate people being just as dangerous as deadly monsters, though in a world of hearing-enhanced creatures, I would think there’s more danger in larger numbers than security. The movie earns its triumphant ending even if the staging, and cross-cutting, is a little heavy-handed. A Quiet Place Part II is a successful sequel that understands the unique appeal of its franchise and how to keep an audience squirming while also remain emotionally involved and curious for more.

Nate’s Grades:

Spiral: C

A Quiet Place Part II: B+

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