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Love and Monsters (2020)

Imaginative, quirky, and monstrously fun, Love and Monsters is a winning sci-fi monster movie and more evidence to the unique amusements provided in full from a Brian Duffield (Spontaneous, The Babysitter) story. In the near future, after blowing up a world-threatening asteroid, the ensuing chemical debris causes many lizards and insects to grow to world-threatening sizes, killing a majority of the population, and forcing the survivors to live underground in vaults. Our hero is Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a very Jessie Eisenberg-esque guy who isn’t so good at survival skills in this new world. His group looks at him like he’s a helpless kid who can’t defend himself. Joel discovers that his teenage crush, the girl he’s been writing letters to, is alive and he pledges to make the 80-mile trip on the surface to reunite with her. The resulting journey can be episodic but each section is impactful, each monster encounter is different and contributes to a fuller understanding to the world, and the character arc finds ways to surprise you, like when it acknowledges that Joel’s foolhardy romantic gesture is exactly that, him not fully accepting how the world has changed both he and the object of his desire. That sparkling creative voice of Duffield’s is alive and well throughout. His worlds feel well thought out, lived in, crazy but with purpose, and his characters are often teenagers with pointed attitude but they feel like characters rather than mouthpieces for overt stylized dialogue and pithy banter. O’Brien (The Maze Runner) is an interesting choice and gets to be far more neurotic and physically comedic than I’ve ever seen him. He’s an underdog that’s easy to root for. There are moments of wonder, moments of unexpected empathy, moments of suspense and terror, and plenty of moments of comic bemusement in the face of this crazy world. Joel befriends a very Woody Harreslon-esque father (Michael Rooker) with an adopted daughter in tow (the Zombieland character dynamics are pretty apparent but not a major detraction) and they form an enjoyable fractured family to help Joel become a better survivalist. I loved a small moment with a beaten down robot helper that manages to be sentimental as well as subverting sentimentality. The conclusion feels like a Walking Dead episode but it brings together many of the dangling storylines and proves satisfying for the character’s arc, a better understanding of the creatures in this world, and for Joel’s sense of self and community. The special effects are amazing for a movie that shockingly only had a tiny $28 million budget. Love and Monsters is a movie that makes the most of its time and money to tell a bigger story but one with enough wit, heart, and personality to draw you in and leave you happy for more post-apocalyptic monster adventures. All hail Duffield, king of spry and accessible quirk within the Hollywood system.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Spontaneous (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: A

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

Bill and Ted might be one of the most inexplicable franchises in Hollywood. It began as a riff on 80s high school movies by writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, taking the California surfer/stoner goofball supporting character staple and saying, “What if people deeply uninformed about history traveled through time?” 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure movie was a comic delight, and Bill and Ted became unexpected icons, action figures, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. The 1991 sequel could have easily repackaged another escapade through time but instead it went a completely different, darker, and weirder direction. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey followed its characters through death, hell, heaven, and back again. It’s been almost thirty years since Bill and Ted left the pop-culture spotlight behind. What more challenges could you present? Bill and Ted Face the Music is a sweet sequel that explores the, dare I even utter the word, legacy of these cheery doofuses, and while it’s not at the same level as its clever predecessors, I was more than happy to take one last trip with these gents. Most excellent.

It’s been decades since Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) hit the big time with their band Wyld Stallyns but life hasn’t quite worked out how they imagined. They had been told their music would bring peace to the world, but they’re in their 50s now, fame now behind them, and they have yet to live up to those heavy expectations. Bill and Ted are struggling to still write that perfect, magical song, the one they were destined for, but both men have growing doubts over whether or not they can make it happen. Their adult daughters (Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine) want to help and take the ole phone booth time machine for a spin, collecting famous great musicians throughout time to help collaborate with their dear old dude dads before all of reality unravels if that fabled song cannot be written.

Just as Bogus Journey rejected being a lazy reprise, Face the Music inclines to chart its own path as a sequel rather than replicating the hits of old while also staying reverent to why people loved the originals. This is more a time travel movie, and the daughters even go on their own Excellent Adventure rounding up famous musicians through history as a B-story, but the main story is squarely on Bill and Ted facing off against themselves and their collective insecurities. When challenged, the Bill and Ted of present-day figure that they can skip ahead to the future and simply take the world-saving song from their future selves, who obviously would have written it by then. It’s a move the franchise has used before, relying upon future actions to take care of present problems, so it’s fitting for the characters but this is the first film to explore this as a negative. Bill and Ted are desperate and looking for an easy solution and skipping to the end will do that. However, their future selves are pathetic has-beens who have yet to write the ultimate song, and they resent their past selves for setting them up for failure. There are many face-to-face meetings between present and further future versions of Bill and Ted and their interactions become an adversarial tit-for-tat. I looked forward to each new pit stop with future Bill and Ted to see how their lives were and if they were still trying to set up the past Bill and Ted for a long-simmering retribution. The fact that this storyline has a genuinely sweet and even poignant reconciliation is a joyous addition.

Thankfully, Bill and Ted are still the same lovable, affable, and relentlessly positive dudes we’ve known and loved since the 1980s. I appreciate over three movies how much these guys legitimately appreciate and love each other. That’s one reason why it’s so enjoyable to hang out with these guys regardless of what their adventures entail. It would be easy for Bill and Ted to have become jaded in their old age, cynical from not fulfilling their hallowed destiny. They could have some animosity between the two of them that need to be buried in order to work together, rekindle that old magic, and save the world. But the screenwriters know who these characters are. Even when things aren’t going their way, they stay who they are, hopeful and supportive. I also appreciated how this translates to their relationships with their daughters, who clearly love their fathers and want to follow in their footsteps. They even refer to them as “dads” rather than “dad.” The conclusion rests on the daughters and fathers working together, and the positivity that radiates through their relationships allows the ending to reach a surprisingly emotional high for a family of good-natured goofballs.

Face the Music is a bit overstuffed with subplots and characters, and I do wish there could have been some careful pruning to allow more room for the daughters. Bill and Ted’s wives, the princesses from Medieval England, have been recast again (Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mayes), and once again they are barely featured. There is an early conflict between the wives and husbands, and the prospect of losing them motivates Bill and Ted to save their marriages, but this conflict is entirely sidelined after the “end of the world” dilemma overtakes the plot. The wives are in their own subplot and also traveling through time or to parallel dimensions, though we never spend any time with them. There must be entirely cut scenes with them. Their perspectives could have been a whole other movie but they’re only an afterthought, as these characters have always been. Kristen Schaal (My Spy) appears as the daughter to Rufus (the late George Carlin), and we’re introduced to her mother, a deadly robot (Barry’s Anthony Carrigan) set to kill Bill and Ted for questionable reasons, the return of the Grim Reaper (William Sadler), plus all the assembled historical figures with the daughters. Also, just about every supporting family character makes an appearance too. It feels like too much, like the movie is constantly racing forward, juggling people and stories, when we didn’t need it all.

The daughters are more reflections of their fathers than independent characters. Each character, Thea and Billie, is a younger impression of their father and little else. They like the same music their dads like. They have the same goals their dads have. They have the same personalities their dads have. Both actresses are fun and Brigette Lundy-Paine (Netflix’s Atypical) does a wicked impression of a young Reeves, including adopting his sway-heavy gait, but I wish they had more to chew over. It seems cliché to make the central conflict of a third Bill and Ted movie an inter-generational one, where the fathers cannot relate to their daughters, and the four of them go on a fantastic journey that helps to bridge their differences and allow each side to better understand and relate. It might sound cliché but it could also have been compelling as well, and it would have elevated the daughters and their relationship into a primal position, rather than using the relationship with the near non-existent wives as the throwaway motivation for their call to action.

It’s been quite a while since Winter and Reeves have played these parts, and while they both have clear affection for their characters, it’s not quite a seamless relaunch. Reeves (John Wick) has been playing hardass action heroes for so long that it feels like he can’t easily recapture goofball energy. His line deliveries can feel far more stilted and low-energy. Winter hasn’t acted onscreen since 2013 and has transitioned into being a documentary director. He delivers a more spirited performance and hits the comedy notes more effortlessly than Reeves, but the time apart from acting shows. Watching both men imitate their younger selves and going through the same shtick can have a different impact on the viewer. Hearing the same catch-phrases but with deeper, gravely voices isn’t quite the same thing and serves as a warning of the enterprise living in its own shadow. My pal Ben Bailey found an old Bill and Ted to be rather sad. I think that’s part of what Face the Music leans into (including its knowing title). They haven’t succeeded like they wanted. That weighs on them. Neither character is about to contemplate suicide but there is a sense of disappointment about how their careers turned out that they’re barely staying ahead of, which adds a melancholy dimension to these characters still falling back on what they know because it’s all that they know how to do. It’s not overpowering but it’s an acknowledgement of the loss of time.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a charming, likable, and sweet-natured sequel that wraps up the franchise well, reminding fans why the Bill and Ted characters were so enjoyable from the start. In our COVID times, I’m finding it easier to shrug away some of the movie’s flaws, like its low-budget being noticeable, chintzy CGI special effects, and too many supporting characters on top of not integrating the daughters into the main action in a more significant fashion. It’s 90 minutes of laid back, light-hearted fun with actors and filmmakers who clearly love this franchise, and the screenwriters could have merely coasted and did no such thing. We didn’t need a third Bill and Ted big screen adventure but I’m happy that it still feels, even thirty years later, remarkably like Bill and Ted.

Nate’s Grade: B

Project Power (2020)

The appeal of Project Power is immediate with its premise, which stirred a bidding war before finally ending up with Netflix. Take a pill and become a super hero for five minutes. Every person has a unique power and won’t know what that entails until they swallow that pill. However, there is also a risk that your body has a negative reaction of the exploding kind. I can see why studios would be all over that, on top of the fact that it plays into established popular cultural tropes, it still gets to be an original property. The finished film, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, and I’m convinced that this hot commodity script went through a gauntlet of rewrites and producer interference, each new obstacle dimming and diminishing what made Project Power an exciting and compelling idea from inception. Well the concept is still interesting, and its relatively grounded sci-fi world has genuine potential, but the movie falls flat and is far too generic to be special.

Drug dealers are flushing New Orleans with a super pill that activates fantastic powers, though only for five-minute integrals. Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a local police officer who secretly keeps a stash of the pills for himself, to juice up to take on the escalating criminals. His supplier is Robin (Dominick Fishback), a teenager looking for a better life, who comes into contact with the mysterious and volatile Art (Jamie Foxx). He’s a man on a mission and working his way across the streets to go from supplier to supplier, working his way up the criminal food chain until he can confront the authority behind the super pill creation and distribution.

The premise by debut screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (The Batman) is tantalizing and makes every pill its own “what if?” scenario. I’m unsure whether or not the risk of bodily explosion occurs for every person or simply those whom the drug doesn’t agree with. I think it would be more interesting if every person stood some chance of risk. I talked about it with my girlfriend, if there was a pill that granted super powers but it also ran the chance of death, would you take it? We both answered, “Of course.” Who wouldn’t want to be a super hero, even if it’s only for five minutes? Naturally, much like within the X-Men universe, not every super power is on the same level of being useful. There’s a guy who grows extra bones, which serve as spikes attached to his body. I guess that’s something. It reminded me of the unfortunate mutant in X-Men 3 who could grow porcupine quills from his face (he even managed to coax someone near him to kill them). With such a momentous shift in human evolution, and through the angle of drug addiction, you would think Project Power would be the early steps of a complete re-examination of a changing society and the forces falling behind to try and catch up. This should be a big deal, and yet it never feels that way in this world. Super-powered criminals aren’t running rampant. One invisible guy robs a bank naked and it’s comedy. Nobody seems too panicked or bothered. It weirdly feels like everyone has already not only accepted this reality but compartmentalized it. If one city has a new super drug, would it not stand that others in neighboring cities and states and countries would also desire it? Should this not be dominating the news?

The characters are remarkably generic. Our heroes include a beat cop who “doesn’t play by all the rules” and goes on a secret mission to root out this drug conspiracy, a young black woman who wants to be an aspiring rapper while she’s slinging drugs, and a military veteran who was subjected to experiments and is desperate to find and save his kidnapped daughter. We’ve seen each of these archetypes in a thousand other action thrillers, and the fact that Project Power doesn’t give us any more than this is stunning. With some minute personal details, I have laid out everything we know about the three main characters in this movie. That’s it. It’s like each character was checking an archetype box and then was forgotten to be fleshed out. The worst is Art, a character that is coasting on Foxx’s attitude and charisma but is otherwise completely vacant. The kidnapped daughter storyline is maybe the most boring motivation that a protagonist could be saddled with. He might as well be a video game character from 90s-era titles, a military man who was betrayed by his government, experimented upon, given dangerous new powers, and now he’s striking out to save his daughter. It’s so bland and generic and boring. None of the major characters exhibit an interesting personality quirk, flaw, desire, or a point to make them more interesting than if a new nameless character had suddenly taken over from the background.

This extends to the villains as well. Their evil schemes are too vague and they’re just as generic and bland. The villains are also far too easily defeated, which drains any threat from their machinations. Without memorable or effective villains, Project Power limps to a finish, lacking the needed payoffs of our heroes triumphing over their foes. Does anyone care when Art defeats a secondary antagonist that is introduced far too late in the final twenty minutes? It’s too late to be introducing a Big Bad in the movie that is meant to be savored when vanquished. It’s not satisfying when the bad guys are dumb or nebulous or too easily beaten. I felt more antipathy with a bearded henchman than I did with any of his superiors. This is such an easy thing to do, establish a worthy opposition with personality and menace, a force that an audience will feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment over their eventual defeat. Make the villains matter. Regrettably, the villains in Project Power are just as generic and underdeveloped as the heroes.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have dabbled in many genres, first documentary (Catfish), then found footage horror (Paranormal Activity 3 and 4), then youthful thrillers with social media satire (Nerve), and now super hero action cinema. The versatility is to be commended, and they certainly infuse plenty of energetic style into Project Power. The special effects are pretty good when the powers are somewhat visually chaotic, like a drug dealer who becomes the Human Torch, running through ignitable room after room, while the camera zips along, lovingly documenting the rippling flames and embers. The camerawork and lighting can definitely provide jolts of excitement and engagement when the storytelling falters. However, there are moments that should have been avoided, like violent acts presented in unclear ways, perhaps trying to avoid a harsher rating that it ultimately got anyway. Another sequence is from the point of view of a dying woman trapped inside a container, and the action from the other side of the glass is almost completely obscured. The woman’s suffering seemed so overboard that it reminded me of that poor assistant lady who had a more gruesome death in Jurassic World than its actual villain. It’s a misplaced stylistic touch. A villain takes the drug and turns into a giant CGI troll, like something from 2002’s Chamber of Secrets and is goofy and misplaced. For a movie that is trying to be gritty and somewhat grounded, a giant CGI troll is a blunder. Joost and Schulman are currently attached to write and direct a Mega Man movie next, and I imagine this was a trial run for super-powered androids blasting one another to dust.

The Project Power playbook is pretty familiar and underwhelming in its creativity and development. The concept is there but the movie too often feels content to settle for less, trading in stereotypical heroes, vague villains, and muddled action sequences goosed with flashes of style to mask their lack of personal stakes and imagination. The scope of the movie is too frustratingly myopic and under-developed, like a nascent pilot for a TV series that provides impressions with a latent promise of getting back to storylines later. Except later will never arrive. Project Power (even the name is generic) is a super hero movie that feels like everything you’ve already seen before. It’s far less than super.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Cell (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released August 16, 2000:

Welcome to the not too distant future where the miracle of science (i.e. red bodysuits and washcloths over people’s faces) allow you to transport your mind into that of another individual. So what happens when a serial killer snags a catch only to be dropped into a coma with no way of discovering where his victim is before time runs out? Well we send Jennifer Lopez into his head — duh! The Latina songstress (and as my girlfriend would say, “Thankfully song-less.”) transports herself to learn the secrets of Mr. Madman before his next victim becomes just a number on a sheet. Sound contrived, like the movie was in production before they had a workable script? You’re not alone. One-named director Tarsem is from the land of music videos but for the life of me I can’t think of one he’s done.

Perhaps the excruciatingly long Nine Inch Nails promo would be less frustrating if the outpourings of creepy imagery meant something. Despite the desire to explain the inside cerebrum of a crazy man, 90% of the imagery is there for the simple sake that it looks cool. Lopez plays Alice to a lumbering wonderland of dark images and a mind-numbingly clattering musical score. Would someone please explain to me why a CGI vine grew on screen for five minutes then went away?

Lopez speaks in whispers, Vaughn speaks like he’s on Ritalin, and the movie speaks that if you had abuse as a kid it’s okay to trap women in self-filling aquarium cubes and bleach them into albino Barbies. Won’t see that in your typical after school special.

The Cell may present some things you’ve never seen before, like a jack-in-the-box theme to twirling intestines, but too often it presents things you have seen much too often in film — boredom.

Nate’s Grade: D

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I really thought The Cell might be better twenty years later but no. I was fairly critical back in 2000, referring to it as one of the worst movies of that year, and twenty years later it put me to sleep. Never a great sign for your entertainment. I had to re-watch the final act of this movie twice, and then I reviewed certain scenes a few more times just for good measure to make sure I wasn’t missing anything essential. The Cell doesn’t really play like a movie. It plays more like the film adaptation of a video game. The premise is promising, a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) that has to venture into the twisted mind of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) in order to extract key info before time runs out finding his latest victim. We got something there. However, the actual movie becomes little more than an enterprise for director Tarsem Singh (Immortals) to get drunk on his lavish visual self-indulgences. As my 18-year-old self observed, it does feel like a 90-minute Nine Inch Nails music video.

I suppose The Cell could have been a harbinger of a sub-genre of movies that has multiplied in indie horror, namely the atmospheric movie where the atmosphere is the entire point. Forget story, forget characters, forget setups and payoffs, forget basic emotional investment; the film is simply constructed to deliver strange and memorable imagery and an overwhelming feeling of discomfort and/or transcendence. This isn’t a new sub-genre. David Lynch has been dabbling in this realm for decades, and Terrence Malick fully converted around the time of The Cell’s theatrical release (granted his atmospheric dawdles are considered more high-art). Dear reader, I’ll fully admit my own filmmaking tastes and biases and confess this sub-genre rarely does much for me. That’s because, in my personal experience, the atmosphere gets repetitious and predictable and without greater investment I just grow bored. I completely acknowledge that there is an audience that feels the opposite, that celebrates the immersive quality of giving one’s self into the visual decadence of a filmmaker creating a vivid dream to tempt and confuse your senses. I get it, but it’s not for me, and so I found The Cell to be overall empty and tedious.

Credit where it’s rightfully due, the visuals on display are often striking and luscious, as are the amazing costumes that were shockingly not nominated for the Academy Award that year (The Cell did receive a nomination for Best Make-Up). The sequences are gorgeously composed starting with the opening of Lopez riding a black horse through the desert and then scaling the dunes, each shot so artfully composed that it could be mass produced as a postcard. Tarsem is a gifted visual artist and has been from his early days as an in-demand music video director in the 1990s (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” En Vogue’s “Hold On”). The mind of a serial killer allows the man to open up the bizarre and grotesque imagery we would expect from that slippery setting. There’s one scene where a series of glass partitions slice a horse into slimmer portions and then spread out the still-breathing remains. There are definite nods to classical baroque painting, like Caravaggio. The various incarnations of our serial killer’s demons gave me a reason to keep watching. There’s demon horn version, giant purple curtain caped version, Alice in Wonderland version, and a final incarnation that resembles a Star Trek alien crossed with Michael Keaton’s Birdman. There is a draw to exploring a brain built upon trauma and abuse and mental illness. It’s like the horror version of Inception. However, while commendable from a production and visceral standpoint, the plot diversions have the feel of visiting the most messed up museum, taking in display cases and then moving onto the next. There’s little here beyond the superficial and the imagery, while artful, is too disposable and ephemeral.

I’m slightly surprised Tarsem hasn’t had a bigger career in feature films. He delivers pretty much what you would ask a visually decadent director to do with this material. It took him many years to get his next film up and running, 2006’s The Fall, and from there it’s been a series of studio-friendly jobs, each further neutering his distinct visual style (watch 2015’s Self/less and tell me it’s the same director of The Cell). He seemed like the kind of artist who might follow Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) path but it didn’t seem to play out that way.

Music videos in the 1990s became the fertile training ground for Hollywood to snatch up-and-coming talent for their projects, but looking back, very few of those directors had lasting feature film careers. Not everyone is going to be a David Fincher or a Spike Jonze or even a Francis Lawrence. Many of the most influential and prominent names, like Hype Williams (Belly), Samuel Bayer (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2009), Joseph Kahn (Torque), Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways), Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Jonus Akerlund (Spun), and Dave Meyers (The Hitcher 2007) only got one or two movies to prove themselves as long-form filmmakers. You have your directors that were attached to action movies, like McG, Marc Webb, Marcus Nispel, Mark Pellington, and most successfully, Michael Bay (strange that they all start with “M”). I’m sure my general ignorance of contemporary music videos (beyond Billie Eilish it would seem) has kept me from citing more names that made the big leap. I guess this paragraph was just examining that most prominent music video directors don’t seem to last in the studio system unless they can prove themselves to be reliable purveyors of mainstream action.

The only real actor worth noting here is D’Onofrio (Men in Black). He gets to be gleefully weird, his favorite kind of acting. He looks like he’s having fun scaring Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) and inhabiting the different demons of a very disturbed soul. Lopez is perfectly fine but almost entirely reactionary here, like she’s a video game avatar going from one dark corner to another as she clears stage after stage. Her biggest acting was simply putting on the weighty costumes. Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) is completely wasted as a determined F.B.I. agent desperate to find the last victim before she drowns in one of those movie-world elaborate death traps. All of the scenes outside the killer’s psyche are a general waste and serve as monotonous running-time padding. That also includes a deleted scene, restored for the BluRay release, where the killer suspends himself from metallic piercings over a corpse and masturbates onto her body while watching another woman drown in his elaborate death trap. It’s so absurdly try-hard that it’s stunning. This scene offers no further insights into the character, only another gratuitous excuse to be transparently “edgy.”

Looking back at my original review at age 18, I’m struck by how much I agree with my younger self (good job, me). I didn’t have much to say beyond my general dissatisfaction with the boring narrative and the pretty yet vacant visuals. I would classify this review as one of my glibber entries, something I’ve noticed with bad movies and generally being a smart allecky teenager. I do think that perhaps I should raise my grade only slightly due to the level of visual flair. It’s certainly not a fun movie, or an interesting one, or even a good one, but The Cell is first-rate fetish wallpaper.

Re-View Grade: C-

X-Men (2000) [Review Re-View]

Released July 14, 2000:

Take a storied franchise that has long been the backbone of Marvel comics and develop it into a feature film where the last superhero movie was the purple-spandex-in-the-jungle The Phantom and you’re just asking for trouble. A nation of fans is breathing down the neck of the film crew nitpicking every fine detail. Studio execs want the film done as fast as possible and under budget regardless of the numbers of effects needed. Despite what would seem like a cataclysmic set-up, X-Men proves that Hollywood can occasionally take a comic book and get it right. For the most part.

X-Men is basically the pilot for a movie franchise. It sets up characters, conflicts, origins, but periodically forgets its audience. Numerous people are introduced and then given a grocery list sized amount of dialogue to read. Some even have atrocious John Watters-like wigs they are forced to wear. It’s a good thing then that the film centers mainly around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), the three most interesting characters.

Often times the action in X-Men is surprisingly lackluster and contained. The battle royale finale atop the Statue of Liberty might induce more than a few eye rolls. I can’t help but hope that with all the groundwork laid out with this film that the eventual sequel will be more efficient with its action set pieces.

For the most part the dialogue in X-Men is passable and it even has a few rally snazzy sound bites. However, there is that ONE line delivered by Ms. Berry (“You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightening? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) that is groan-worthy and destined to be notorious.

It may sound like I’m coming down hard on X-Men, but for a comic adaptation it got a whole hell lot more right than wrong. I want to congratulate director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) for the amount of pressure he had looming over his head and what he pulled through with. X-Men is no campy nipple-plate festival but an attempt at possibly serious drama with tortured characters. The whole mutant/racism metaphor may be a little bludgeoned at times but for the most part is handled very well. The best aspect X-Men has is its patience. The film is in no rush and takes its time even if it is only like an hour and 40-some minutes. Still, it’s a welcome change in the summer action.

Singer’s direction is smooth and well executed. The casting of the movie is near perfection with some minor exceptions. Stewart and McKellen were born to play their dueling think tank leaders. Jackman is an exciting breakout in a role that was supposed to be occupied by Dougray Scott (thank you MI:-2 delays). I look forward to more from this actor. And does anyone know when young Oscar recipient Anna Paquin became so attractive? Someone buy this casting director a fine steak dinner.

X-Men may have its flaws, one of which is an absolute mundane score, but the film is one of the better summer entries into the world of explosions and noise. I just hope the sequel(s) will be a tad better.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

It’s hard not to understate just how eventful the first X-Men movie was back in 2000. Beforehand, the public’s conception of super heroes was that they were kids’ stuff, fed by recent duds like Batman and Robin and Steel. Then came X-Men and it changed everything. There wouldn’t be a Spider-Man without X-Men. There wouldn’t be a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), arguably the defining cultural franchise of the twenty-first century, without X-Men. It was an immediate hit with audiences and would go onto spawn two sequels, four prequels, three direct spinoffs, and two indirect spinoffs (Deadpool) over the course of 19 years. It’s a franchise that has made over $6 billion dollars worldwide and will soon be intermingled into that MCU, re-imagined with new actors filling out the famous names for the first time in decades. I can recall the importance of the X-Men in my own maturation and love of comics. I grew up adoring the animated series in the early 90s, and this began my relationship with the Marvel universe. I have boxes filled with old comics and I even started one of my own in my junior high school years (it’s unfinished and about 160 pages). I fondly recall seeing X-Men opening weekend with my pal Kevin Lowe and both of us just being relieved. A big studio had done it justice. They got it right.

Twenty years later, one must remember how different X-Men was with the super hero landscape. The more grounded, more political, and more reverent take on splash pages and spandex was in direct contrast with the cheesier, dumber, and more slapstick-heavy comics movies. Sure, you’d have your occasional hit like Blade, but the vampire genre inoculated it from larger scrutiny as a “comic book venture.” Director Bryan Singer wanted to make a brooding, serious version of the X-Men, a fact bolstered by his opening a summer super hero blockbuster with a Holocaust flashback. The mutant metaphor inherent in the X-universe has always lent itself to broad social commentary, easy to apply to any disadvantaged and targeted group for simply being different. It had men and women, and aliens and robots and more, doing amazing feats of derring-do, but it also featured these same characters fighting for equality with a public that increasingly feared and despised them for their gifts. Singer recognized this greater political allegorical relevancy and wanted his foray into blockbusters to be more meaningful than another disposable punch-em-up to consume mass quantities of popcorn. The X-Men franchise might not have ever been as successful without Singer’s early vision, and of course, many years later upon its demise, the producers might wish differently given the director’s righteous career reckoning.

But let’s talk about the movie first before we get into the controversy of the man in the director’s chair. I haven’t watched the original really since the superior X-2 came out in 2003, and I was amazed at how patient and assured the movie plays. For a super hero action movie, there really isn’t that much action until the final act. There are confrontations and what I would call “action beats” but nothing lasting longer than a minute in conflict. In its place is a patient movie that takes its time to establish its world, its ideological counterpoints, and its characters and their relationships. We have two entry point characters with Wolverine (High Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) being hunted and taken in by Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Even though the final movie is barely longer than 100 minutes, it doesn’t feel rushed in its pacing. It has a lot to do in establishing a new world but by grounding it with a scared runaway and a lonely drifter followed by trouble, the movie taps into Western archetypes to act as a helpful surrogate guideline. Fortunately, screenwriter David Hayter (and un-credited writers Ed Solomon, John Logan, Christopher McQuarrie and a heavily rewritten Joss Whedon) anchors us with the most interesting characters who have the most to fear and rebel. Wolverine and Rogue are an excellent pair and Jackman and Paquin have a real nurturing onscreen connection that provides an emotional investment. By taking its time to set up characters and their internal conflicts, X-Men makes a wide audience care about what’s to come.

When it does transition to action, you can see the beginnings of something great tempered with the growing pains of staking out new territory. The special effects are still relatively good, especially Rogue’s life-draining powers on the human body. That’s another thing the screenplay does well is finding ways to demonstrate and then incorporate every mutant’s special ability. We learn about Wolverine’s metallic claws through him being antagonized, and his healing ability from going headfirst through a windshield after Rogue admonishes him about wearing his seat belt. Later Rogue uses her powers to tap in Wolverine’s healing ability to save herself, setting up the Act Three climax where she is the key to Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) evolutionary-charged scheme. One more note on that (I apologize for the deluge of digressions) because Magneto’s big evil scheme is really about empathy. He plots to turn the world’s leaders into fellow mutants so they can understand the plight of a subjugated minority class, and yes, sure, some of them will not survive the genetic re-calibration, like the prejudiced firebrand Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), but it’s not like Magneto wants them all dead. He wants them to understand (at least until the next sequel where he welcomes an opportunity to kill all non-mutant humans). Thanks to Singer, the movie has plenty of dynamic visual compositions and a few wow-moments to pack a trailer. I was reminded what an excellent visual artist Singer can be as he stages his scenes. The placement of figures, the depth of focus, the fluidity of his camera movements. He was certainly one indie darling ready for a bigger stage, at least in an artistic sense and not necessarily a personal one.

It’s impossible to think of any other actor than Jackman as Wolverine but it almost never happened. Dougray Scott was in place but because of Mission: Impossible 2 delays which themselves were previously affected by Eyes Wide Shut delays, the role had to be recast already weeks into filming. Jackman entered the picture per a suggestion from Russell Crowe, to our collective pop-culture elation. Jackman is rugged, rebellious, funny, gruff, secretly warm-hearted yet clearly still the enjoyable F-You anti-hero, and watching him inhabit what, in comics lore, was a short, stout, hairy Canadian grump is a reminder that you can still recognize star-making performances when you see them. He fully inhabits the character and brings him to startling life. Jackman would become indispensable to the X-Men franchise and earn three spinoff movies, culminating in 2017’s R-rated and Oscar-nominated neo-Western, Logan. It’s only a matter of time before the MCU reboots this character because he, like Batman, is simply too valuable an IP to keep on the sidelines. It feels like heresy to consider another actor in this role, much like it will if anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. steps into the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. This is a role defined by its signature actor where possible early choices now seem offensively wrong (like Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, or Christopher Walken as Harrison Ford, or John Travolta as Forrest Gump).

The ensemble was extremely well cast with Oscar-winners and nominees past (Paquin, McKellen) and future (Halle Berry, Jackman). Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) was born to play Professor X, enough so that when he first viewed X-Men comics he said, “What am I doing on this cover?” McKellen brings a gravitas to his villainous role as well as a smirky flair that makes him hard to hate. He had his shooting schedule re-arranged to accommodate the Lord of the Rings shoot in early 2000. Most people can only hope for one generational, pop-culture defining role, and McKellen had two after the age of 60. Paquin was making her transition from child-actor to adult, which was further solidified with HBO’s bloody and steamy vampire series, True Blood. Marsden was filling out his fledgling leading man potential, though he’s always been more appealing to me as a charming comedic actor (27 Dresses, Enchanted). Supermodel Rebecca Romijn (Femme Fatale) made a favorable impression as the shape-shifting Mystique thanks to low expectations and a costume made of 100 scales covering her nearly nude body that took nine hours to apply. The only real miss for me was Berry (Monster’s Ball) because I always envisioned Angela Basset (Black Panther) as my Storm. This is also the only X-Men where Berry adopts her character’s Kenyan accent.

Looking back over 19 years of movies, the wonky timelines of the X-Men world begin to break apart if given even cursory contemplation. Given what happens in the prequels set in the 1970s and 80s, including Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) launching all of the world’s nuclear missiles, it certainly seems like the worldwide perception of mutants would be more pronounced. Then there’s characters being alive, like Mystique, when she dies in the 1990s in the last X-Men film, 2019’s Dark Phoenix. The back-story of Jean Grey (first Famke Janssen, later Sophie Turner) and her Phoenix powers got two big screen showcases that also happen to be two of the worst movies. The biggest issue was the prequels arbitrarily following a movie-a-decade model, hopping from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2011’s X-Men: First Class to the 1990s three films later. That means that somehow within less than ten years that Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and James McAvoy (Split) were going to resemble old men McKellen and Stewart. Do they get exposed to radiation? The conclusion of X-Men: Days of Future Past was meant to rewrite the timeline miscues, erasing the bad X-Men movies at that point from existence (2006’s Last Stand and 2009’s first solo Wolverine). Instead, the producers then followed with two more of the worst films of the franchise. You tried.

And now it’s time we discuss the controversy that has followed Singer for decades from film set to film set. There have been uncomfortable rumors and allegations that have surfaced ever since 1998’s Apt Pupil when Singer filmed a high school shower scene and insisted two underage actors be physically naked during the onset filming. Seems pretty questionable, right? This was eventually settled out of court, as were other allegations of abuse. According to a revealing Hollywood Reporter article, the teen who played Pyro, Alex Burton, was personally flown from L.A. to the Toronto X-Men set. This is quite bizarre considering he doesn’t have any lines and the part is a glorified cameo. Burton said he was held hostage by Singer and his wealthy friends for months and was repeatedly raped. Singer has been out as a gay man in Hollywood early into his career, and he would host regular all-male parties that reportedly descended into lurid bacchanals. Ironically, his status as a prominent and out gay director in the industry might have afforded him an aura of perceived protection, the idea that any journalist snooping too closely would be accused of homophobia or a double standard. It wasn’t just Singer but also the company he kept. Several associates of Singer have been accused of sexual abuse and against underage men that have led to undisclosed settlements.

These allegations of abuse continued when Singer rejoined the X-universe again in 2014’s Days of Future Past but he weathered it out, and then again during the filming of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and this time he wouldn’t be able to weather it out. He was fired with a month left to film and Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman) was brought onboard to finish directing the eventual Oscar-winning and shockingly successful Queen blockbuster (nobody seemed to cite Singer by name in their acceptance speeches). Singer also built a reputation of showing up to his sets extremely late, sometimes impaired, and for sudden and unknown disappearances. It’s amazing that with all of this chronic misbehavior he was still getting big studio offers, but the man kept producing hits, including the long-running TV show House, and so his shady behavior was overlooked until, finally, it wouldn’t be in a post-Me Too world. Even after he was attached for a Red Sonja remake for a time until another round of accusations made him too radioactive for the time being. I would not be surprised if in a few years some production company happily offers him another project. Singer seems like a new test subject as far as what can be forgiven for the hitmakers.

So, what do we as viewers do with this damning profile of Singer? It’s become a regular habit now of re-examining an artist’s legacy in light of new or old allegations of wrongdoing. I personally have no interest in ever listening to a Bill Cosby comedy album again or watching any of his many heralded TV shows. I feel different listening to Michael Jackson’s music now. I wince when I watch Kevin Spacey in performances now and try to only see the character instead (Spacey won his first Oscar for 1995’s Usual Suspects, directed by… Bryan Singer). Can you watch the early X-Men films, or the later sequels, and still enjoy them knowing that Singer has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct including against minors? I have no answer. This is a deeply personal call for every person. I have too much personal attachment to 1999’s American Beauty to cast it aside, and that’s a movie that prominently features Spacey lusting after an underage girl. I’ll never look at the film the same but I cannot discard the whole. X-Men might mean too much to too many to disregard as well.

Looking back on my original review in 2000, I’m genuinely a little stunned because it’s almost word-for-word my assessment upon re-watching in 2020. It does feel more like a pilot to a franchise, laying the groundwork for the world and character relationships. The action is surprisingly contained. The “toad struck by lightning” dialogue line did become notorious. The casting was marvelous. The score was weak, greatly improved by the addition of John Ottman as editor and composer in the sequel (that Nightcrawler assassination attempt scene is a matserclass of editing and shot design). I even note the patience. I even think my original grade is fair. The original X-Men is a perfectly good movie but it led the way for great movies to come.

Re-View Grade: B

The Beach House (2020)/ Archive (2020)

Sometimes when watching a movie I will get disappointed because I sense a path not taken that should have been, an intriguing premise that hasn’t fully been developed, and I get sad that the movie I’m watching isn’t really the best version of its potential story. Call it the Black Mirror Syndrome (oh, hot take). I felt this same assessment while watching two small indie films recently released on demand, one horror and one science fiction. Each has its own artistic merits and each I felt wasn’t the best version of itself.

The Beach House follows a twenty-something couple on a beach side retreat. They have problems in their relationship, there’s an older couple who arrive at the same house, and after awhile the film essentially becomes The Color Out of Space, an atmospheric horror movie about humans dealing with a biological unknown. Something from the sea is coming out, via mist or jellyfish or… something, and it’s affecting human psychology and physiology. The Beach House is far too vague for its own good and takes far too long getting its story moving. I started falling asleep at several points, so my attention was not exactly rapt. It ends in an expected downbeat manner but without greater explanation or even theories about what is happening, and there’s just not enough story and drama present to fill that void. The characters come across a subdivision of beach homes mysteriously absent any neighbors. It reminded me of a Stephen King story beginning, an environment where something bad has transpired and the new characters have to figure it out. As far as creepy atmosphere goes, it’s fine, and there are moments of unnerving body horror, like a protracted sequence where our heroine fishes out a jellyfish tentacle inside her wounded foot. Still, the general obtuse nature of the entire enterprise, and the underdeveloped characters we’re stuck with, made this feel like a disappointment for all but the most desperate for atmospheric horror.

Archive follows one scientist (Theo James) trying to replicate his dead wife Jules (Stacy Martin) into a physical robotic form. She died in a car accident but he was able to save her consciousness onto a server available to consumers, but it will fray over time and only delays her inevitable passing, so he’s toiling away at a remote mountainous lab to create a new host to download her into. He’s gone through two different robots, each more complicated and more representational of Jules’ full brain; the first (J1) is like a box with legs and has the capacity of a child, the second robot (J2) is more like a teenager and reminiscent of the robot from I Am Mother, and the the third one (J3), under construction, looks the most human and will contain the full brain activity and hopefully the full Jules. Archive is fine and goes just about where you would expect, with exception to a last-minute twist that doesn’t make any sense. You can pick apart why it doesn’t work but I guess they wanted something shocking. The problem is that this movie needed to be told from a different lead perspective. Rather than being told from the scientist’s point of view as he doggedly tries to save the woman he loves, Archive should have been told from the second robot’s perspective. J2 looks at what her master is doing with the third, seeing the time and attention he’s putting into her, making her more feminine, and J2 feels pangs of jealousy and loneliness. She pleads for her master to make her better, asks why she isn’t good enough, and wants to be better while he essentially strips her for parts for her replacement. I felt so much for this second robot and her sad plight with a cold, selfish, oblivious creator. If Archive had been told from J2’s perspective, it could have been something special. She is going through a wealth of emotions, desiring to be all the things her creator projects onto his latest project, and she feels like she is failing him. When Archive focuses on its robots it’s at its best, and when it goes back to its human trying to avoid losing his wife one last time, it becomes too ordinary. It does have some commendable production values and special effects for a lower budget indie. I wish the movie could have been rewritten from the start and given us the superior dramatic perspective to serve as our guide.

Nate’s Grades:

The Beach House: C

Archive: C+

The Old Guard (2020)

What do you do with an action movie where the action is actually the least interesting part? The new Netflix film, The Old Guard, is based on a comic book series by Greg Rucka (Whiteout) about a mercenary squad staffed with immortals through the ages. Lead by Charlie Theron, whose character Andy traces back to at least the Medieval period, leads the team and sees promise in their newest recruit, Nile (Kiki Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), a U.S. soldier who is shocked to discover she can come back to life. It’s through this new recruit that we get an introduction to the hidden world of immortals and their hidden history, and it’s these flashbacks that I found the most entertaining aspect of the entire two-hour movie. Watching Theron swing a Viking battle axe is a lot more fun than watching her stalk corridors with a gun. There’s also some great little moments that show an attention to developing the characters and their psychology. Andy has a centuries-old love that was trapped in a suit of armor and thrown into the sea. Besides the fact that drowning is horrifying, imagine dying, then reviving, and then drowning again and again, every few minutes, for an eternity. Wow that is a new level of horrifying. Each of the characters has an interesting history and some degree of dimension, and it’s these soul-searching conversations that I enjoyed the most as they discuss the costs of living forever. However, it’s not quite forever, because immortal heroes have an obvious problem about holding stakes, so at some point the immortals will lose their healing ability, though they don’t know when. It’s something, but it feels more arbitrary, and the super smarmy pharma CEO villain (Harry Melling) is a non-starter as a threat. The action sequences almost feel like a chore, like the filmmakers are checking boxes instead of using them to advance the plot in meaningful and exciting ways. The action isn’t bad but just mundane, lacking memorable set pieces or engaging complications. Even their use of taking punishment is under-utilized in the design. Simply put, a movie with this kind of premise and with Theron as your lead should be more exciting. I loved Mad Max: Fury Road. I loved watching Theron lay waste to goons and gangsters in 2017’s Atomic Blonde, a movie built around her physical capabilities and smartly constructed action set pieces. However, the action we get with The Old Guard lacks the same transformative ability and fight choreography. It’s just thoroughly fine, at best, and I kept wondering if they were saving themselves for a big finish. Sorry to disappoint, it’s just more office hallways with limited gunplay. The energy level is lacking and the music choice throughout the film affects this as well, with the same kind of downer tracks playing again and again. I would rather have spent these two hours listening to the immortal stories around a campfire.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Last Days of American Crime (2020)

Even by relaxed standards which we judge widely-available Netflix movies during a time of quarantine, The Last Days of American Crime is a staggering waste of 150 minutes. It’s based on a 2009 graphic novel series and even by the sliding scale of shut-your-brain-off action movies, it’s numbing, dreadfully dull, incoherent, and stitched together with hoary genre clichés and little creative forethought. It’s rare that I come across a movie that seems so willfully ignorant to explore the implications of its own premise.

In the near future, the U.S. government is in the final stages of implementing the American Peace Initiative (API), a special radio signal that stops crime in its tracks. It acts as a brain blocker on anything illegal, stopping the user from being able to follow through. Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramirez) finds out the hard way when his bank robbery crew become some of the first test subjects. American citizens are desperate to flee to Canada before the API goes live. Bricke gets seduced by computer hacker Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster) to pull off one big score. The government is readying to destroy a billion dollars in currency before going digital, and Shelby’s fiancé, Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt), has the connection to pull off the heist of the century.

Firstly, there is not nearly enough material here to justify the gargantuan Avengers-esque running time. You could realistically slice down a whole hour and not impact its middling entertainment value or clarity. While I was watching it didn’t even feel like a movie, more like a series designed to be binge watched, where the plotting becomes much more slack because the filmmakers anticipate their show will be digested in quick succession and that they have earned patience. It irritates me in television and it certainly irritated me here as well. Don’t blithely assume that your audience has infinite patience when you haven’t given them a proper story to properly engage with. Just about every scene could be trimmed down and some of them go on punishingly long, especially scenes where people are getting shot. There’s one late scene that goes on for what feels like five minutes of just watching two characters get shot. It’s so gratuitous, like much else in the movie, that it borders into unintentional anti-comedy.

As for the action, director Oliver Megaton (Taken 2 and 3) delivers very little of note. There’s a car chase here, a shootout there, but no set piece that actually develops or proves that memorable. It’s all just disposable noise that amounts to little, not even fleeting, escapist entertainment. This is a heist movie where the actual heist planning is ignored. The most enjoyable part of a heist movie is the intricate planning and then execution of that plan, combating the unforeseen complications and overcoming for triumph. If your entire movie is centered on a big heist, don’t treat that like it’s another meaningless plot element. I cannot believe the filmmakers failed to realize that if the viewer doesn’t know what the dangers, problems, and scheme of the upcoming heist will be, then everything feels arbitrary and unsatisfying, and it does so here. The actual heist, pulled off around the 90-minute mark, is not worth the buildup and lack of accessibility. It’s just another haphazard action set piece, not the culmination of planning and an important payoff for carefully manufactured setups. If you’re tuning in for fun action, you’ll be sorely disappointed to find there’s more time spent torturing people onscreen than there is for sustained and exciting action.

The awful characters we’re left to spend 150 minutes with are hardly worth that investment. Everyone is kept strictly as stock archetypes, and even when the screenplay tries to develop them, it follows a strictly predictable path to minimal results. Oh, someone has a family member in custody and is being pressured to snitch? Oh, our silent-and-seemingly-conflicted protagonist wants to avenge his dead brother because he cares and stuff? Oh, our oddball criminal scion wants to make a big name for himself outside of his father’s shadow? The fact the movie spends so much time with these characters while giving them so little dimension, little personality, and little to do is another indictment on the bloated pacing. If we’re spending this much time with our criminal rogues, the least you can do is make them interesting and dramatic and colorful. The protagonist’s name is Graham Bricke, which sounds so boring that it must have been generated by an A.I. The femme fatale super hacker lady is really here just to look sad or sexy, here to deliver three uncomfortable sex scenes including a near rape as well. The other notable female roles in this movie include News Anchor, Lesbian 1 and Lesbian 2, Female Tweeker, and Female Cop. Hooray for depth.

There are two characters that had a chance of being interesting but are so mishandled. The first is Kevin Cash, our wannabe gangster. Pitt (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) brings a much-needed dose of energy and theatrics, like he’s trying everything in his power to desperately hold your flagging attention. Even his pathetic overcompensating nature is tiresome. A scene where he, his father, and his younger stepmother (another fine example of female character representation in the movie) shriek and bicker at one another is just embarrassing and misplaced comic relief. He’s boring. The only other potential was with Sharlto Copley (District 9) as a disgraced police officer. We spend plenty of time with him early in the movie, establishing his outsider status, perhaps some regret, and hoping that his position of authority will be better explored as he wrestles with whether the police force is worthy of its state-decreed exemptions to the API. Nope. He just becomes another dude in the final act that could have been replaced by anyone else. It would be like devoting so much time to Henchman #12 and his personal crisis of self in a Bond movie only to watch the lug unceremoniously die in a final action rush. Was that worth the time spent?

Its Purge-like premise sounds intriguing and worthy of exploration until, that is, you really think about how silly it all is. So a magic radio signal is going to inhibit your brain from committing known wrongs, but does that mean that the radio signal will have to blare constantly in order to have a lasting effect, otherwise its enforcement will be limited? What happens to sociopaths who don’t even register right from wrong? They will be able to move and act without abandon. Then there’s the day-to-day corruption, graft, greed from all pillars of society, politicians and Wall Street and officials that exploit their positions for illegal gains. Seriously, if this radio signal inhibits the fruition of illegal acts, would Wall Street just shut down? Would the factory owners who knowingly skirt worker safety for profits be able to operate? Would criminal defense attorneys be able to operate or would they use the ethical justification that everyone, no matter how heinous, deserves legal representation? If you think about a capitalist society, it’s built upon people behaving not so nicely, so would all facets of the economy grind to a screeching halt?

There is one aspect of this world building, even with what the meager story has established, that could be interesting to explore, and that’s the exceptions to this new order. Police officers are getting implants that make them immune to the effects of API, though in a world where a radio wave eliminates criminal acts, do you still need a police force to protect and serve? Regardless, this special class of exception is deserving of further exploration, a socially relevant angle to tap into the inherent advantages offered to the top one percent who don’t think the rules apply to them. In fact, if Last Days of American Crime was going to run with its silly premise as is, and during the pre-activation countdown timeline, they should have presented a story about those who are given the state-sanctioned privilege to act with impunity. Let’s watch the elite get their special exemption chips and plan for the New World where they maintain their vaunted privileges. It would at least make the movie socially relevant as well as a better development of its sci-fi premise.

Watch, dear reader, as I present you two better scenarios with this silly premise. The first is the most obvious and that’s life AFTER the implication of the AFI, presenting life under a new fascist order and a group of revolutionaries trying to thwart the radio waves. Imagine a group not plotting to pull off a bank heist but ridding their community of the AFI and giving them autonomy over their minds and bodies again? There’s an ever-present hostility that forces the characters to keep their thoughts on safe topics, having to communicate with subterfuge to not set off their brain jailers. It would be like a dystopian version of that classic Twilight Zone episode where little Bill Mumy where everyone had to think “good thoughts” or else he would magically banish them to the cornfield. That’s interesting, that’s genuine conflict, that’s characters under great duress trying to escape a fascist nightmare without tipping off the invisible sensors in their own minds that could trigger. There’s a larger goal of freeing their fellow citizens from this tyranny as well. That’s already one hundred times better than simply trying to steal money before the clock strikes zero. If it was only ever going to be “one big last score” then why even bother with the mind-control antics? It could have been anything at all.

However, if you wanted something more low-key, you could take a different path with the idea of the bucket list before the API goes live. Think of two teenagers who don’t have the means to escape and feel like they haven’t fully lived and a whole lifetime of rebellion and adventures they had been dreaming towards will now be snuffed out. The screenplay already floats the idea of a criminal bucket list but why not run with that idea as the core of your movie? Two teenagers making the most of their time together over the course of one long crazy night of cutting loose, testing their boundaries, and acting out the best ways they know how, learning about each other and the depth of their friendship before their minds will not fully be their own. It takes the teenager coming-of-age model, feeling like a stranger in your own body, and gives it a PG-13-Purge twist, with the distant tragedy of the looming tyranny ahead to up the stakes. Even that development would be better than “one last score,” and these are just two ideas I’ve come up with while writing this film review. Think what could be accomplished if a professional screenwriter spent weeks fleshing out a better version.

Alas, the version of The Last Days of American Crime we do receive is powerfully plodding, incoherent, empty and arbitrary, and definitely not worth your precious 150 minutes. With the current state of the world where thousands of U.S. citizens are protesting in the streets over a militarized police state and wanton brutality, it makes Last Days look even more phony and ill-conceived as entertainment. It doesn’t examine the implications of its own fascist police state, it only uses it as a pointless backdrop for an arbitrarily plotted  “last score” heist before it all just falls apart, spent of imagination and intent.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Another Version of You (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: B+

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