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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+

The Platform (2019)

What better time to Netflix and chill than when the state is demanding it? I recently watched The Platform, a Spanish sci-fi flick steeped in mystery and metaphor. Get ready for what could be dubbed “a vertical Snowpiercer.”

Goreng (Ivan Massague) wakes up in what looks like an endless stone tenement building. There are two people per floor and a large hole in the middle of the room. The food arrives via a descending platform that begins as a feast. Each floor has two minutes to eat, cannot hoard any food, and will have to subsist off what those above them left behind. Goreng’s floormate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) is one month away from being released from his time. He also might be losing his mind and definitely resorted to cannibalism before. Goreng has to decide what lines he’s willing to cross in order to survive and also to protect others.

The metaphors for The Platform are very heavy-handed and obvious but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective in their blunt force. It’s a literal dystopian tower of human beings with the lower floors eating off the spoils of those residing above them. There’s only so much to go around but charity isn’t on the mind of too many of the residents. Better to feed when you get an opportunity than worry about who comes after you. Goreng asks about trying to talk to the neighbors above and below and this notion is scoffed at by his floormate. The people above will not talk to them because, simply, they are beneath them. The ones below Goreng and Trimagasi? Who cares, they’re beneath and thus inferior. Trimagasi takes a wine bottle and smashes it rather than let the men below him have it. Why perform this spiteful action? “It’s what’s been done to me,” he says without irony. I’m reminded of the reticence some have about easing student debt and other penalties; “I had to suffer, so why should these people not have to suffer the same?” The disregard seems to fluctuate depending upon how close one becomes to the prized top floor. Every month the inhabitants will randomly change floors, so someone who was closer to the top must now reconcile with being lower, and the food only goes so many floors before it’s picked clean. This perspective of being on the bottom doesn’t so much alter behavior as engenders a ravenous sense of “get what you can when able” to pervade. The people so many floors down will simply never even be granted the opportunity to eat unless those above change their consumption habits and sense of empathy. Nobody even knows how far down the floors go. 150? 250? More? Where is the proverbial bottom?

The story is kept in a vague explanation but that doesn’t stop the fun. We enter with Goreng and learn as he does what this place does to its people. He learns the rules of this new reality which is part dystopian prison, part game, part experiment. The stated utility of such a place is rather hard to fathom, so it’s best that screenwriters David Desola and Pedro Rivero keep the action confined to simply exploring the world within the vertical structure. There are a handful of flashbacks showing the interview process to enter the facility (Trimagasi is shocked to learn his floormate volunteered to enter such a place) but they are brief and could have been excised. This is one of those sci-fi conceits like Cube where the location is the story and simply learning more about how the day-to-day operates, its rules of functioning, its punishments, and the dangers is where the real draw of the story comes from. With the monthly reallocation, the movie keeps things interesting by dramatically changing Goreng’s standing. Just as it feels like he’s understanding his surroundings, they change, and force him into a new dilemma. When he’s stuck on a far lower floor one month, will he resort to cannibalism to survive? When he’s high above, will he use his fleeting power to enforce some social justice on the floors below, ensuring that lower floors get an opportunity to dine by rationing the food? Each new placement keeps things interesting and challenging for our protagonist, which is what good sci-fi should do.

Because of its general vague nature, The Platform relies more upon the strength of its ideas, metaphors, and discovery than on its structure for answers. There really isn’t an ending here. There is an end but it’s more symbolic and implicit than definitive, which makes sense considering that the preceding 94 minutes is running off metaphor and mystery primarily. The last act becomes either a foolish or brave attempt to make a difference despite the unique conditions of the location. The characters have theories and rumors, as well as a nagging suspicion that something has gone wrong from the original design, but they don’t know like the rest of the audience whether or not change is even possible from above. The ending is pretty open-ended and left to interpretation whether or not this attempt would even be recognized. Do the people who engineered this whole experiment/prison really care? It can spark discussion with friends but it’s also a development that might leave as many viewers unsatisfied by the lack of substantial answers or anything that can be viewed as definitive. Much like Cube, the space just carries on with more bodies and that invites sequel potential as well as a feeling of inertia that could also frustrate.

It’s a very limited space to work with but director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia has style to spare. The general claustrophobic setting is played to fine effect but the bizarre touches are what makes the movie feel almost like it was ripped from the world of anime. The floating table, so affectionately adorned with fine foods and platters, is such a startling central image. The red-light late-nights conditioned me to be on edge because of the danger of the flying platform returning. The gore is sporadic but very effective at ratcheting up the suspense or horror. There’s also the subtle visual comedy of discovering as we travel from floor-to-floor the personal items each inhabitant has brought with them for their extended stay. I loved the absurd nature of some of them, like a surfboard or a child’s inflatable pool. Why would people bring these items?

I’m glad Netflix is able to bring small, strange, foreign movies like The Platform to, arguably, the biggest audience platform in the world. It’s an easy movie to plug into because there is much to unpack and learn. I was never bored throughout its brisk 94 minutes. Even as the movie’s metaphors are heavy-handed, the movie doesn’t become so in execution. It’s operating on a pure level of discovery and rejecting the status quo. There is plenty of room to score easy connections with its thematic interpretations but the movie still just works even as a collection of vignettes in a very strange setting. It’s not in the same level of ambition as Snowpiercer but I’d place it on par with the byzantine Cube series. The Platform is an enjoyable movie that may not be rich in much than its themes and mystery, but during our national time of need, 94 minutes of well-executed weird can be just enough to satisfy the soul.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bloodshot (2020)

Bloodshot is the kind of junky sci-fi action movie you might have seen in the 90s before The Matrix, the kind of thing that an X-Files episode would have covered, probably with a better sense of storytelling. Based on a Valiant comic book, and reportedly the first step in a hopeful Valiant Cinematic Universe (oh boy), Vin Diesel stars as dead soldier given new life thanks to tiny nanites living in his blood that magically repair his body, making him nigh invincible. He gets vengeance on the man who killed his wife or so he believes, as Diesel’s memory is wiped after every successful kill and re-implanted with new memories of a new identity of his wife’s murderer. The movie plays this as a big twist even though it was central in the trailer and advertising, and despite the fact that it seems too convoluted a path for a science project in the billions, it’s pretty predictable. That’s the problem with Bloodshot is that it’s a two-hour action movie that feels like it’s going through the motions, built upon the spare parts of other better movies, and heading in one direction that’s too telegraphed. The action is over-edited and under developed, with first-time director Dave Wilson (an esteemed director of video game cut scenes and promo trailers) getting lost in the “cool stuff” of his world, little gizmos and side characters rounding out Diesel’s super-powered teammates and later opponents. You can feel that certain visual compositions are here just to look cool for a trailer. I was looking for the super-powered action sequences to be a major source of fun with this one and they left me shrugging. There’s one CGI-heavy fight scene down 50 stories of elevator shaft that has some moments to it, but as a whole Bloodshoot feels bloodless with its excitement. The appearance of Diesel being rebuilt by the wispy nanites reminded me of Apocalypse’s weird sand powers in X-Men: Apocalypse. Having its main character essentially be invulnerable takes the stakes out of his fights, which means even more thinking needs to go into the action design to maximize this effect. The final confrontation between Diesel and his tormentor (Guy Pearce, making a home for himself as this kind of character) has a clean and clever resolution I appreciated, but it was a long slog to get to something clever in construction and execution here. If you’re looking for a pretty straightforward action movie that you won’t have to burden much thought with, you could do worse than Bloodshot. This also has Eiza Gonzalez in another movie where she plays a CGI-augmented version of herself (Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen), so there’s that too. At this rate, I don’t think we’re going to be getting that Valiant Cinematic Universe if this is the inauspicious kickoff.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Invisible Man (2020)

Does everyone remember the Dark Universe, the attempted relaunch of classic Universal monsters that were going to be played by the likes of Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp? It’s okay if you do not, though the stars got paid regardless. It was all going to be kicked off with Tom Cruise in 2017’s The Mummy, and one under-performing movie later the entire cinematic universe was discarded by spooked studio bosses. But IP will only stay dormant for so long, and so we have a new attempt to relaunch the same horror figures that first terrified audiences almost 90 years ago. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has a long career in genre filmmaking, having started the Saw and Insidious franchises with James Wan, but it was 2018’s bloody action indie Upgrade that really showed what he could do as a director. He was tapped by powerhouse studio Blumhouse to breathe life into those dusty old monsters, going the route of lower budget genre horror rather than blockbuster action spectacles. The Invisible Man is an immediately gripping movie, excellent in its craft, and proof Whannell should be given the remaining monsters to shepherd.

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) has recently run away from her long-time abusive boyfriend, Adrian (House on Haunted Hill’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Just as she’s taking comfort in friends and her sister, Adrian takes his own life and lists Cecilia as the sole beneficiary, but there’s a catch. She must undergo a psych evaluation and be cleared. Cecilia is ready to move on with her life and start over but she can’t shake the feeling that Adrian might not be dead after all and is still watching her.

Whannell has grown as a genre filmmaker and has delivered a scary movie that is confident, crafty, and jarringly effective. From the intense opening sequence, I was generally riveted from start to finish. The shots that Whannell chooses to communicate geography and distance so effectively allow the audience to simmer in the tension of the moment. Whannell’s visual compositions are clean and smart. Another sign how well he builds an atmosphere of unease is that I began to dread the empty space in the camera frame. Could there be an invisible man hiding somewhere? Could some small visual movement tip off the presence of the attacker? Much like A Quiet Place taught an audience to fear the faintest of noise, The Invisible Man teaches its audience to fear open space. It places the viewer in the same anxious, paranoid headspace as Cecilia. It’s also a very economical decision for a horror filmmaker, training your audience to fear what they don’t see. And there is a lot more in a movie that is not seen. The suspense set pieces are so well drawn and varied yet they all follow that old school horror model of establishing the setting, the rules, and just winding things up and letting them go, squeezing the moment for maximum anxiety. It’s reminiscent of the finer points of another old school horror homage, The Conjuring franchise. At its most elemental, horror is the dread of what will happen next to characters we care about, and The Invisible Man succeeds wildly by placing an engaging character in shrewdly designed traps.

I jumped even during its jump scares and that happens so rarely for me. The jump scares don’t feel cheap either, which is even more impressive. They’re clever little visual bursts of sudden spooks, and they feel just as well developed as the other scary set pieces, complimenting the nervous tension and compounding it rather than detracting. There is one moment that happens so fast, that is so unexpected, that I was literally blinking for several seconds trying to determine if what I was watching was actually transpiring. It was so shocking that I was trying to keep up, and yet, like the other decisions, it didn’t feel cheap. I’m convinced this one “ohmygod” buzz-worthy moment will go down in modern horror history, being discussed in the same vein as the speeding bus in the first Final Destination film. I have this level of praise even for the jump scares.

The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse that Cecilia endures, nor does it exploit her pain and suffering for tacky thrills. This is a socially relevant reinterpretation of the source material. The movie examines toxic masculinity and gaslighting but with a supernatural sci-fi spin, but it never loses the grounding in the relatable plight of its protagonist. Cecilia is a character that has suffered trauma that she cannot fully even process, so that even when she’s on her own, she’s still discovering the depth of how exactly this very bad man has reshaped her perception and fears. We don’t need to see Adrian explicitly abuse Cecilia to understand the impact of his toxic relationship. Within minutes, Whannell has already told us enough with how terrified and cautious she is when making her late-night escape from the bed of her sleeping monster. Her all-consuming fear is enough to fill us in. This is a woman who is taking a big risk because she feels her life depends upon it. Later, nobody believes her fantastic claims about her ex still haunting her and posing a threat, convincing her it’s all in her head, and some of them questioning whether the abuse was made up as well. The correlations with domestic violence and gaslighting are obvious, yes, but this dramatic territory is given knowing sympathy and consideration from Whannell. It’s not something tacked on simply to feel bad for our heroine, or to feel relevant with headlines of monstrous man accounting for years of monstrous actions preying upon women. It’s a complete reinvention of a classic to suit our times as well as taking advantage of what that classic source offers. This is how you can adapt stories we’ve seen dozens of times to feel fresh.

Much of the film rests upon Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is truly fantastic. We’re living in an exciting new era where horror movies have reclaimed their social relevance, and they are providing talented actresses to unleash Oscar-caliber performances (Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Ana Taylor-Joy in The Witch). The role requires Moss to demonstrate much through a series of emotional breakdowns. It’s not just getting glassy-eyed and looking scared. Cecilia is a survivor struggling to regain her security while also being heard, and her breaking points of sanity and desperation cannot be one-note. Moss is no stranger to enduring the indignity of condescending men from her TV roles, and she was beautifully unhinged in a memorable moment from Us. She’s the perfect actress to take Whannell’s character and give credence to her vulnerability, uncertainty, and inner strength.

The movie isn’t perfect but it accomplishes a clear majority of its artistic aims with confidence and style. It’s too long at over two hours. I’m glad Whannell doesn’t waste too much time whether or not Cecilia believes her bad man has gone invisible. The supporting characters are a bit underwritten and utilized primarily as Sympathetic Figures Turning to Concerned Figures and then as Potential Targets. This extends to the relationship between Adrian and his brother (Michael Dorman). There has to be more that could have been explored there, especially as it relates to Cecilia. The musical score is heavy on loud, ominous tones and rumbling interference. The special effects are sparingly used, and the invisible suit was initially a design that made me shake my head. In practice, it actually looks pretty interesting and threatening. There is one misstep that feels glaring. Before the end of the movie, there have been a few “hey what about… ?” instances, but they were easy to put out of mind. Whannell drops one major announcement late in the movie but seems to gloss over the extra leverage it provides Cecilia, and her inability to capitalize on this turn of events seems odd considering her antipathy for her attacker as well as the weakness that she can exploit.

As I walked out of my screening for The Invisible Man, I kept reviewing just how many different moments, elements, sequences, and choices added up to a thoroughly suspenseful, satisfying, and entertaining trip at the movies. Whannell has a natural feel for genre horror as well as how to treat it in an elevated manner where it can say real things about real issues while also doing a real good job of making you really anxious. Intense from the first moment onward, this is a streamlined, finely honed horror movie for our modern age. Even the jump scares work! This is already turning into a promising year for indie horror, and The Invisible Man is the first great film of the new year and the new decade.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Color Out of Space (2020)

Color Out of Space is based on one of the short stories by famous horror author H.P. Lovecraft, but what’s even more noteworthy is that this is the first feature film from director Richard Stanley in 24 years. Stanley made a name for himself with early 90s gory cult movies Hardware and Dust Devil. Hollywood came calling and he was given directing duties on 1996’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, a production so plagued with troubles that Stanley was fired, replaced with John Frankenheimer, and then Stanley disguised himself and snuck onto the set again as one of the animal-human hybrids. There’s a fascinating documentary about the whole disastrous clash called Lost Soul that’s well worth watching for any fan of behind-the-scenes exposes (it would make a great double-feature with 2002’s Lost in La Mancha). Stanley has never been a man to put on airs about the material he gravitates to. He likes weird genre stories, and as a lover of weird genre stories, I’m glad to see that the man has broken from his sabbatical. Color Out of Space is a mostly successful, eerie, and occasionally stomach-churning little horror movie, and hopefully its release will make it that much easier for Stanley to deliver the next one.

A strange meteor crashes into the family estate of the Gardners. The parents, Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and Theresa (Joely Richardson), are struggling to make life “in the sticks” work with their family. Mom is trying to advise stock portfolio clients. Dad is tending to their prized alpacas. A land surveyor (Elliot Knight) is testing the drinking water and its safety after the meteor hits. Strange things begin to happen almost immediately. Young son Jack (Julian Hillard) is hearing voices and talking to an entity living in the well. Bright explosions of pink color come and go, followed by an oppressive cloud of static. And the animals are behaving differently, gaining pink glows in their eyes, and becoming more violent and deranged and dangerous.

This is the kind of movie that you want to be weird, unpredictable, and terrifying, and Color Out of Space achieves these desires with a florid, downright Cronenbergian relish. There are several kinds of horror movies here mashed together, which don’t fully gel as a whole but it does exacerbate the overall effect of how screwed these characters are. There’s the cosmic invasion/outbreak angle with small weird changes going around the environment, from pink-hued flowers spreading to the bizarre effect it has on the wildlife. There’s a descent into insanity angle as the parental figures seem most affected and are tearing away the security of the kids. Cage’s character seems to be mentally slipping into his grandfather’s snitty persona, either implying mental illness, some degree of ghostly resurrection, or just general creeping madness. There’s the alien nature of being able to trust your own senses and body, as characters will lose hours of time in the blink of an eye and not be fully cognizant of their own actions. There’s the isolation of the invading force shutting down escape routes, blocking telephone calls (anyone want to try texting?), and trapping the family inside this hot zone. And then there’s the body horror as creatures begin physically merging together in nauseating displays that conjure the best/worst of the nightmares from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Stanley elects to build the horror and then dwell on it. There’s a scary development with a specific pair of characters, and Stanley lets the unknown of what will happen, as long as the dread of what seems to be happening, make it worse. He punctuates this moment with some gut-churning cries of anguish that run on a loop, to the point that you might be thinking yourself whether a merciful death was advisable. To the film’s credit, it switches back and forth between these different threats and alternating styles of horror. It allows a movie with a limited plot (meteor hits, bad things happen) to feel bigger.

A draw for any lower budget indie horror movie starring middle-aged Nicolas Cage is the desire to see the gonzo actor unleashed. You get tiny glimpses early, with his off-key line deliveries that might incite a few giggles. It’s halfway through where he starts to crack, breaking into an effete British accent, gesticulating more wildly and theatrically with his hands, and then breaking into protracted screaming fits. His references to the alpacas got some genuine goofy laughs out of me, as does passing moments where it feels like he’s channeling John Travolta in his performance style. The cult of Crazy Cage that found much to love with 2018’s moody Mandy should find extra enjoyment levels with Color Out of Space. These Cage-isms don’t detract from the movie or rip you out of the reality because it’s all about disintegration, mental and physical, so deploying Nicolas Cage losing it actually better serves the film’s cracked tone.

Being a Lovecraftian horror adaptation, there is some leeway to be had for its incoherence. We’re dealing with a life form that defies our understanding by its inter-dimensional nature. Some of this will be mitigated simply by having to transpose Lovecraft’s more ethereal concepts into a functional visual medium. Characters call the strange incidents a “color, it’s only a color” but it’s not really just a color when you turn that literal concept into a movie. On the page, you can get away with something more obscure and abstract, but movies require a visualization, and so the “monster” of the film isn’t “just a color” but essentially a sentient neon energy cloud. I was reminded frequently of 2018’s Annihilation, a movie I admired but was indifferent to, just like its intended lesson about nature’s relationship to man’s existence. It’s a takeover that defies explanation because our puny human brains aren’t capable of perceiving what is happening. Therefore, when weird nonsense happens, we don’t need a tidy explanation. The breakdown of the family unit, both figuratively and literally, is enough to anchor our attention. We might not know why these things are happening but they are destroying this family slowly like an infection, and we’re watching them break down one-by-one, and that’s what matters. As the movie started picking up momentum and getting weirder and grosser, I wondered what possible ending could even be presented that might work. I think Stanley finds a workable solution that mostly suffices. Nobody wants to be in the business of explaining too much and damaging the reality of the movie (see: Us) but you still want to provide some set of rules, even if the larger picture is an incomprehensible design. Color Out of Space keeps things relatively vague but keeps to the few clues it offers, which at least makes the overall production feel forgivably vague.

There are elements I wish Stanley had fleshed out further or curtailed more. The supporting authority figures are mostly empty suits, including the willfully ignorant mayor running for re-election played by Q’orianka Kilcher, if you’re curious what she’s been up to since playing Pocahontas in 2005’s The New World. They don’t even qualify as “characters here just to be killed gruesomely later.” Then there are interesting personal aspects to the Gardners that deserved more integration into the story, like the teen daughter’s (Madeleine Arthur) interest in Wiccan spells and unorthodox spiritual practices. What does she fully believe? She’s trying to tap into something elemental to spare her mother, who is a recent cancer survivor who lost both breasts to the disease. When her husband begins to get physically intimate, she pauses, expressing that she doesn’t know if she still feels like herself, or desirable, after her surgery and recuperation. This is meant to serve as a launching pad for the body horror that will arrive later, with the mother already feeling violated by an entity, but it feels like something that should be more integral to the demonstration of the character than her angry demands to get the wi-fi fixed. Tommy Chong appears very briefly as an aged hippie living on the Gardner estate, and I wish that the movie had more to do for him besides slotting him as more or less Neighbor #1.

For fans of Lovecraft, indie horror, body horror, Nicolas Cage, practical effects, atmosphere, and even Stanley’s past titles from long ago, there’s something to enjoy with Color Out of Space. It’s a movie that can get under your skin on its own terms, even if I wanted it to go deeper at points. It’s the right kind of airy atmosphere, switching styles and horror threats to keep things interesting, as well as not overstaying its welcome. It uses confusion and curiosity to its sneaky advantage and Stanley finds new ways to make old genre tropes still feel spooky. It’s nothing revelatory but Color Out of Space is a fitting visual translation of Lovecraft’s elemental nightmares and madness-inducing chaos. I don’t think it will take Stanley another 24 years before another production decides to take a chance on his next directing effort.

Nate’s Grade: B

Underwater (2020)

It may be rather derivative but Underwater is a solid genre thriller that is streamlined to deliver an enjoyable 90-minute ride. You start off right in the middle of conflict, as we follow a group of undersea scientists and workers trying to escape from a deep sea drilling station under attack. The movie is atmospheric and effective because that deep underwater is basically like pitch black night. As they stumble from one clearly defined and varied set piece to another, the movie plays into the elemental fear of the dark, coupled with a rising claustrophobia. Kristen Stewart is genuinely terrific as a steely action leading lady and the other supporting roles, rounded out by the likes of Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, John Gallgher Jr., and Jessica Henwick, create a cast of characters that I was rooting for even if they aren’t exactly fleshed out. It’s a trade-off. More time could have been spent finding room for added characterization and history, but when we know the majority of these people are slated to die from monsters, it feels like the movie made the better choice to jump into the thick of things. Yes, this is a monster movie, as the drilling potentially unsettled an unknown species, and their creature design is nice and creepy. There’s a wonderful moment where a hungry monster swallows a person whole, like a snake unhinging its jaw to consume an antelope. In Act Three, Underwater gets even bigger in its scope of the threat, and I won’t spoil the circumstances but, suffice to say, it approached epic. For a PG-13 monster thriller released in January, the usual dumping ground of studio losers, this is a far better movie and a far more entertaining experience than you would be lead to believe. It’s nothing spellbinding but there should always be room for smart, effective B-movies performed with grit and acuity. It looks like it was based on an anime, from the setup to the monsters to especially the design of the heavy undersea suits that look like mech armor, but no. This is an original film. Well, it’s an original story building off the foundation of other movies, mostly from James Cameron. Underwater is a slickly made, tense, atmospheric little thriller that is worth the dive.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

In 2017, there was a great disturbance in the Force when Star Wars Episode 9 director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was unceremoniously jettisoned. He had spent over a year developing a script for the concluding film in this new Star Wars trilogy (he’s still listed in the credits for story) and I guess the producers must have had some strong feelings. Trevorrow was out and J.J. Abrams returned to close out the saga he had kicked off with 2015’s The Force Awakens. It felt like a safe choice, the return of an artist best known for dabbling in other people’s established worlds. 2017’s The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out), was, to say the least, divisive with the fanbase. It made sense to jump back in with Abrams who had delivered a fun, lively kickstart that made box-office records. Surely Abrams and his army of magicians would steer the franchise into safe territory and provide a satisfying ending to the character he created?

Note: I promise to keep this review free of significant spoilers beyond some minor plot points. If you want to avoid reading anything further until after having seen the film, I understand.

The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and well and offering a fleet of planet-destroying starships if Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will kill Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s trying to uncover hidden clues about her parentage and still believes she can reform Kylo from the dark side. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are chasing after a series of artifacts to find the secret location for the Emperor’s secret planet and rebuild the fledgling resistance. Kylo and Rey are headed for a final confrontation to determine whether they turn to the light side or the dark side.

It is with a heavy heart that I feel like I have to admit that there wasn’t a single storytelling choice that I enjoyed in The Rise of Skywalker. It feels like Abrams and company were in a mad panic after the divisiveness of The Last Jedi and retreated to the safety of nostalgia and fan expectations. This feels like the producers made a list of fan demands and then acceded to them. It certainly feels like an overblown course correction, let alone discarding major changes and characters from Episode 8. Now fan service in itself is not a negative; there is such a thing as good fan service and bad service. The difference is that bad fan service relies heavily on pandering and reference points, leaving an audience unchallenged, and that certainly feels like Episode 9, a movie ever beholden to its calcifying past. My anecdotal evidence already tells me that many fans will love this movie, more than likely the same contingent that found such stinging fault in Episode 8, and I don’t wish them ill. I’m happy for them. For me, Episode 9 is a mess of bad plotting, rushed pacing, truncated character arcs, useless cameos, and a reheated Return of the Jedi climax that was as boring as it was exhausting and dispiriting. It’s supposed to be an end to this new trilogy, and a trilogy of trilogies, but the backwards-looking franchise will never be done paying homage to its cherished past while it eats its own tail until it vomits. This movie is so eager to please as many fans as possible that it feels like an anxious hostage.

I think it was a major mistake for The Emperor to come back into play this late. The very reappearance already cheapens the sacrifice Darth Vader made in Return of the Jedi, and it begs the question what has this evil old man been doing for three decades? Has he just been hanging around his completely empty rock planet sitting on his uncomfortable rock throne? Abrams throws some haphazard lip service that Palpatine was really behind everything, we just never knew it, but that feels cheap. It’s like in 2015’s Spectre when Christoph Waltz emerges and says, “Hey James Bond, while you’ve never met me until this moment, I’m responsible for every bad thing that happened in your life, not those other bad guys, and I just didn’t feel like saying anything.” It wasn’t a satisfying plot development then and it isn’t now. The “boss’ boss” manipulating in the shadows is simply an aggravating shell game. If Palpatine lived even after the second Death Star exploded, then what’s to say if he can ever be defeated? Even if he is toppled in Episode 9, what’s stopping him from being resurrected in Episode 12 to serve as another quick excuse for a major villain? This decision to bring him back to life also taps into a further reverence for bloodlines that The Last Jedi was valiantly fighting against. Star Wars may take place in a different galaxy but it frustratingly feels like only three families populate it. The Last Jedi proposed that you didn’t have to come from select magic bloodlines to be somebody important, that your past was irrelevant, and now Abrams and company sharply reverse course, hugging the concept of the Chosen One until it bursts. It feels creatively starved.

Too much of the movie’s 142-minute run time was devoted to hasty, convoluted plotting that served little else than to fill time. By the concluding movie in a trilogy, there should be no moments left to fill time, nor should we really be introducing new worthless side characters rather than using the people we’ve already established. The first 90 minutes of this movie could be condensed to “get a thing to get a thing.” It’s one superfluous obstacle after another, one item to gain another, that reminded me of video game fetch quests. Even worse, none of it felt like setbacks or difficulties because the movie was rushing through every sequence. If we have to rush through to cover four abbreviated action set pieces, why can’t we consolidate to two really good and developed action set pieces instead? A great way to make your movie forgettable is to cram it full of disposable plotting and short action sequences that never take off. I kind of liked one lightsaber battle along the surf of the ruins of a Death Star (of course there has to be another Death Star!) but that was it for the action. There wasn’t anything onscreen that even came close to replicating the thrills or suspense from Episodes 7 and 8. I felt more suspense in The Last Jedi for Rose’s doomed sister than I did for anyone in Rise of Skywalker. There was space where Abrams and company could have expanded and developed important themes and given characters room to grow, but the pacing feels so breathless in order to distract from the hasty plot retreats.

Characters feel like they zapped to the end of their character arcs because that was what was expected, but why they reached these milestones feels arbitrary from a plotting standpoint. It reminded me of, I’m heartbroken to even say, the final season of Game of Thrones; fans didn’t object on their face to character destinations but the journey to reach these points felt like it was missing key moments to serve as connection. Why redemption now? Why tempted by the dark side now? It plays more like Abrams said, “Well, we ran out of time folks, so let’s skip to the end.” Looking back on the trilogy, it was clearly Rey and Kylo’s story first and foremost, but the supporting characters ultimately feel abandoned and wasted. Finn had a great perspective, a Stormtrooper who defects, but that unique position is cast aside by introducing a new side character that serves no purpose other than to remind you that Abrams must have really not liked Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran). Seriously, Rose is sidelined to study monitors. Abrams tapped an old Lost alum, Dominic Monaghan, for this thankless duty, so why can’t Rose at least be the sidekick? We don’t need another new sidekick this late. Poe is another wasted character. He learns greater responsibility and teamwork in Last Jedi, but he’s really just a Han Solo stand-in, the rakish rogue quick with a quip. Episode 9 gives him an old flame but not much in the way of additional characterization. He feels the same from his first scene in Episode 7. Oh, and all the forced cameos Episode 9 makes time for feels almost like a Star Wars reunion special. That’s including the awkward use of existing General Leia footage to cobble together something for her. I’m wishing more and more that it was Leia that went badass kamikaze in Episode 8 as her exit.

At every point, the movie seemed determined to undercut itself when it came to themes, when it came to character growth, and when it especially came to sacrifices and stakes. There are four fake outs when it comes to deaths. What’s the point of sacrifices when it can just be reversed with little explanation? What’s the point of learning when the Force can just serve as a magic hand-wave solution for anything you need? There are some pretty remarkable leaps in what exactly the Force can do in Episode 9. The Rise of Skywalker even resets some pretty inane things, like Kylo Ren gluing his smashed helmet back together or a certain character getting a long-overdue medal for valor. The themes Abrams works with are extremely broad and lack the questioning of the inerrancy of the Jedi order from Episode 8. It’s also confusing when the theme is that your destiny is not written by your station when the movie repeatedly elevates the mythic at the expense of the nuance and human. It’s like saying your past doesn’t dictate your future while slavishly venerating the past at the expense of the present story.

Given the budget, talent involved, and Abrams’ natural pedigree for blockbuster filmmaking, Rise of Skywalker still has moments of grand spectacle and fun. The actors are still enjoyable to watch and Adam Driver (Marriage Story) is the definite MVP of this new trilogy. His character is, by far, the most interesting and the one that goes on the biggest emotional roller coaster. Abrams slides in some rather pleasing visual compositions. The score by John Williams serves as kind of a greatest hit collection of his many themes over the course of the 40-year saga. The denouement feels right, even if I quibble with the final line spoken. There are things to like, plenty, and I know many fans will find even more, but the good is trounced by the mistakes and miscalculations which just happen to be the really big stuff (plot, resolutions, characterization, action development, structure, payoffs, etc). Abrams himself has joked that he’s really good at starting stories and not so great at finishing them, so maybe choosing to have Episode 9 function as a conclusion not just to three movies but to three times three was overburdening.

I’ve seen it twice now and given some time to think it over, and I think I’ll declare Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as my least favorite of the nine core movies. I know these are inflammatory words, and for an easily-inflamed fanbase, but my level of disappointment is immense. I’ve enjoyed both of the previous Star Wars saga installments but I wasn’t quite expecting this. I groaned throughout the movie more than I laughed. Even the much-derided Phantom Menace had less at stake, and that’s why I hold the disappointment of Rise of Skywalker as the more grievous of the two. It had much to accomplish and much to payoff and its missteps cast a shadow over the previous movies. It also reconfirms for me my worry that there will only be a small world for Star Wars, a set of pre-approved parameters that creatives must adhere within, taking the same pieces and delivering variations of the same story. There are definite ideas that could work here with Episode 9, but the rushed pacing, inconsequential plot filler and side characters, and its use of nostalgia as a heat shield (look at that cameo please!) doom its execution. As much as Abrams wants to reject destiny, his Star Wars are still driven by a devotion to destiny. We won’t be getting another Star Wars for several years until 2022 and I think that’s a good thing (also without the Thrones writing team now too). The producers need some distance to determine where to go next. I just hope they understand they have an awfully big universe of untapped stories at their disposal and a wealth of eager storytellers with fresh ideas. Star Wars will always be Star Wars but it can also be much more if it wanted to be.

Nate’s Grade: C

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

By general consensus, it’s been 28 years since the world had a truly great Terminator sequel. What has been so challenging for filmmakers to continue this franchise? The absence of creator James Cameron is obvious, as it’s hard to find anybody with the blockbuster acumen to fill that empty director’s chair. I submit that I think it’s because the Terminator franchise is, at its core, a very limited franchise of stories (I never saw the short-run TV series starring Lena Headey as Sarah Connor). It’s about a killer robot after its target. That’s it. There’s some time travel jazz thrown in but that’s never been given tremendous contemplation, especially 2015’s brain-hurting alternative timeline reboot, Terminator: Genisys (with Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor). Now comes another attempt to revitalize this dormant franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate and this time they’re not just bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger but also the original Sarah Connor as well, Linda Hamilton. The early trailers and ads did not exactly give me much optimism. It looked like the same. Another killer Terminator. Another good Terminator. I saw little to earn enthusiasm. Then the positive reviews poured in. I’m here to report that Dark Fate is the best of the sequels, a satisfying mix of action, character, and world building, but I’m also ready to let this series go away into its own dark fate.

Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has been hunting down different Terminators for the last twenty years. Her path crosses with Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican autoworker who happens to be a very big deal to a future human resistance against future angry machines. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a future soldier sent back through time and given enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. She is to serve as protector for Dani, though Sarah seems to feel she has a claim to that position as well. Together the women will try and outrun a new Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and seek shelter from an unlikely ally, a retired and reformed Terminator (Schwarzenegger).

The Terminator franchise has been one built upon chase scenes, trying to escape a nigh unstoppable being and find refuge while it lasts. Because of that and a generally simplistic “save X to prevent future Y” goal, the franchise can often be reduced to a series of successful or unsuccessful set pieces, and as the movies continued the characterization flattened out, replaced by an influx of humor (Terminator 3), grimness (Terminator 4), or confusion (Terminator 5). What made the Cameron movies special was his magical ability to apply character to action, pushing everything forward so that every set piece felt naturally developed, with organic complications and mini-goals relating to the arcs and needs of the people on screen. The action in Dark Fate gets closest to that Cameron gold standard with some engaging sequences of big screen violence but tailoring it better to specific location and character dynamics. When Grace first rescues Dani, it’s at the factory where, oh great irony, machines are replacing human workers. The machinery of this factory floor gets utilized for the rough and tumble activity. There’s a mid-air collision that goes through a series of stages as things get worse and worse, including an extended sequence of zero gravity fisticuffs that is extremely fun to watch. The action is solid throughout.

Thankfully, the strong action under director Tim Miller (Deadpool) is aided by the storytelling core of three strong women. Arnold doesn’t even come back into the picture until much later. Each of these women has a different style to her, a different personality, and a different goal, whether it’s killing all Terminators first, spare the future leader at all costs, or looking for a sane middle ground that keeps everyone alive. It’s refreshing to watch the franchise return to its roots of strong female lead characters being given the reigns. The screenplay by David S. Goyer (Batman vs. Superman), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Justin Rhodes puts the spotlight where it belongs and tweaks some of the politics of old; Dani is derisively told by Sarah that it’s a woman’s womb that presents the biggest threat to the system, as they share the notoriety of being mothers of future male saviors. There’s a level of polish given to the characters that I appreciated, providing room to have them butt heads in a manner that felt genuine. There are some significant differences that makes this trio interesting but also satisfying when they work together for their common survival. The general mystery around the back-story of our genetically-enhanced human being Grace was a plus rather than another blank slate robot bodyguard.

Hamilton is back and so is Arnold, though he was also pretty central in 2015’s failed alternate timeline reboot. Fortunately for the audience, Dark Fate actually gives them things that matter. Both are given characters going through a sense of loss and rediscovery, working together to rid the world of a common evil, one out of vengeance and duty and the other out of penance. The interplay between them is rich in dramatic potential, as is the prospect of a Terminator model that wants to be moral without having its programming fiddled with by some enterprising human. This is a Terminator that wants to change and adhere to a code of ethics and principles. That’s interesting, and adding layers of personal animus just makes it more interesting. The screenplay lets the characters have enough little grace notes, smaller moments to breathe and remind you that these action stars were also more fleshed-out characters once long ago. I’m not going to say there’s some great lost play somewhere in a Terminator movie, but I was very appreciative of some of the smaller, more contemplative moments that dwelt on accountability and redemption. It’s not just all apocalyptic doom and gloom, there can be room to explore mature characterization too.

Another aspect I was not expecting was how politically relevant Dark Fate would become with the U.S. immigration crisis. Our heroes are traveling north via a caravan of immigrants, and for a while it felt like I was watching Sin Nombre but with killer robots. Then they have to sneak across the border and are captured and placed in crowded detention centers. There’s an entire jail break sequence with Terminators in an ICE-style prison. The evil Terminator makes use of the government surveillance network to track the other characters on their trek along the border, using the machinations of a police state to hunt down these fugitives. There’s not much in the way of commentary to be afforded beyond the simple empathy of watching other human beings struggle for a better life and being treated as less than human by an indifferent bureaucracy. There’s even a mixed-race blended family that serves as a focal point of a change of conscience. There’s a refreshing amount of diversity. I wish the movie had gone even further or staked more with commentary but I also suppose there’s a reason that none of this was seen in advertisements. I suppose the Dark Fate filmmakers didn’t want to turn away the dollars of any sensitive conservative ticket-buyers.

I have some general questions not so much for this movie, though they do apply, but for the Terminator franchise as a whole, and I figure I should address these as a separate section:

1) Why does the future only ever send one killer Terminator robot at once? If the goal is to kill one special target and it seems one Terminator keeps getting foiled, why not send more than one to accomplish the mission? Maybe there’s some technological limitation of time travel where only one machine can be sent at a time and there needs to be sufficient time to recharge. If you’re machines, you got time, and the way time travel works, it would not matter when robots were sent, just that they are arriving at the same date. I began to envision what this might look like and started composing a comedy sketch in my head where a classic Terminator T-100 knocks on a door, asks about seeing John Connor, and then an old landlord says, “Oh, he sure is popular today, come on in.” It’s here where the T-100 would come inside and be seated in a room with other Terminator robots throughout the ages. What would then proceed would be an argument among the many Terminators over who deserved to be the one to kill John Connor. One would say they were transplanted 30 years prior and had been waiting diligently until this moment in time, another would argue they are the most advanced, newer model and would have the best likelihood of success, and another would argue they had gotten the closest to him, etc. I’m sure someone may have already had this same idea but it amused me highly.

2) We’ve had shape-shifting Terminators since the first sequel in 1991 and there hasn’t been too much variance on them after. The problem is once we enter into the liquid metal, body-reshaping era, there doesn’t seem like there’s much more advancements to be had. The Terminator in the third film could also do some technical wizardry. The fifth one made use of nanobots, I think. I’ve tried to forget much of Terminator: Genisys, including the spelling of the subtitle. With Dark Fate, we get a new Terminator who can… have its metal skeleton jump out of its body… and serve as a duplicate? I don’t really know whether once the skeleton leaves if the “body” is more vulnerable or whether there are limitations. It’s unclear world building. Also, there are tentacle-enhanced Terminator robots seen in the future that would be deadlier. Regardless, none of these updates are as big a leap as the T-100 to the T-1000 and its shape-shifting. You have a master hunter that can take on any face, so why does it keep settling on the same face even after its targets know who they should be running from? Why do the shape-shifting Terminators not adopt a host of disguises in order to get closer to their prey? If I knew one face in the crowd to run away from, I would think my predator would not want to keep that face. I can understand from a filmmaking standpoint why you’d want a default look so the audience knows which character is which visually. I feel like these killer robots are undervaluing the shape-shifting.

3) Why do the Terminators have to work harder, not smarter? You have one target, usually, to murder to wipe out futures, so why take any chances with one assassin limited by their bipedal arms and legs? Why not send a thousand drones to blow up one human from the sky? Why not place a reward on the Dark Web and see how long it might take? Or, even better, why not send a robot with a nuclear bomb in its chest? That way all the Terminator needs to do is get its target in slight visibility and boom. It’s not like the machines seem to be worried about collateral damage.

4) No matter how many Judgment Days are averted, it seems like there will always be another down the line, so is mankind just biding its time before an eventual robot apocalypse? In the timeline of Dark Fate, mankind eventually creates a new A.I. that eventually attacks its human overlords, and it’s a new albeit delayed Judgment Day. Does this mean that the franchise is locked into an endless cycle of repetition, where victory just means postponement? A central theme throughout the series is “making your own fate,” the rejection of destiny, and the fluidity of personal choice and agency, and if the movie says, “Eh, human beings will keep making the same mistake over and over no matter how many interventions,” doesn’t that conflict?

I’m sure there are more questions for the Terminator franchise to be had but I’ll leave it at those. Dark Fate is the most accomplished of the Terminator sequels, post-T2, but this is still one franchise that feels low on creativity and interest. The prospect of another Terminator movie doesn’t fill me with any palpable degree of excitement. Even with this sequel that serves as yet another reboot, I’m not excited for further adventures. If there’s another movie, I’ll see it but mostly out of a sense of obligation. If this was the last we saw any of the original Terminator characters, it works as a fitting sendoff and as satisfying an ending as any before. What started as a special sci-fi series with one of the greatest action sequels of all time has become just another franchise on the decline with a fading brand name that studios keep picking at every few years, reassembling with new pieces that they hope might convince audiences there’s still vitality. Dark Fate is a perfectly good action movie with more thought and polish then I anticipated, finding legitimate reasons for bringing back its stars of old and giving them meaningful things to do. I had a good time with the movie but feel like this is one franchise that is ready for a merciful termination.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Gemini Man (2019)

Gemini Man is one of those scripts that has been kicked around for decades in Hollywood. At one point Clint Eastwood was attached to be the old and young versions of an elite hitman, which goes to show you how long it’s been in development hell. Part of this delay was getting the technology to a point that it could effectively achieve de-aging an A-list actor, but here’s a thought I’m going to offer for free, as I usually do – why not try makeup? Surely you can find another actor who looks close to your lead and can have practical makeup applied? Or why not have that same actor’s own son play the younger version of him? Or, and here’s an even more daring idea, why not just have a different actor, period? If the premise is a younger clone, who’s to say why that younger clone would appear exactly like an exact representation of the older version. What if younger clone had an accident? Anyway, nobody listened to me and Gemini Man waited and waited, finally landing Will Smith playing two versions of himself thanks to CGI magic. Is the finished film worth the decades of toil and waiting to finally make this vision come alive?

Henry Brogan (Smith) is an elite hired assassin for the government and on the verge of retirement. His handlers (Clive Owen) have misgivings about tying up loose ends and send an assassin to take out Brogan. It just happens to be –wait for it– a clone of himself at 25! Now Brogan must team up with a pair of underwritten government agents (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong) to battle his younger self once and for all.

This movie feels like a dozen screenplays stitched together with every other third scene missing. You can feel the full, tortured, decades-long development process and how it has become an impenetrable force that weighs down the eventual movie and squanders whatever potential its premise could have provided. There is a movie here, that’s for sure. An older hitman confronting a clone of his younger self could make for an excellent personal reckoning as well as present a unique situation where the mature man is trying to outsmart the younger, stronger version of himself. Gemini Man doesn’t seem to know what to do with this concept at all. Why not have the clone of Henry Brogan (I hate this name) respond differently than the old man expects? Because while he’s made of the same genetic material, this younger version doesn’t have the same formative experiences and could have a very different psychology than older Henry, never mind the fact that older Henry has an additional 20-30 years of experiences to make him who he is. That alone could tackle the nature vs. nurture argument in a way that could still be entertaining and surprising. Or the movie could embrace the killing machine nature it veers to later, where our villain talks about selective editing to eliminate pesky things like morality and the ability to feel pain from his highly suggestible super soldiers. If this is even in question, why are we even dealing with clones who might rebel against their requested missions? If you can specifically select DNA abilities, then why is one man’s genetic code even that necessary? Why not make a super soldier that’s part raptor? I’ve never seen a movie before where that went wrong. I don’t even know why we need clone killers in the age of inexpensive drones.

The easiest thing the movie could have done is treat the younger clone as a metaphor for his troubled past he needs to confront. Early into the film, Henry talks about his distaste for seeing his reflection because, you see in a very subtle gesture, he doesn’t want to see the Man He Has Become. Yet, if this were the case, I feel like the movie needed to do a lot more legwork to establish how haunted he has become. He feels like a standard, charming Will Smith hero and less a man tearing up hotel rooms because of his nightmares and more the kind of guy hanging out with shady rich dudes on yachts. The movie even messes up the easiest angle to take, the bad man confronting the literal representation of his bad past and trying to come to terms with his legacy. Gemini Man pays some lip service to this notion but it’s so poorly executed. There’s an almost laughable moment where Henry unloads like a two-minute monologue explaining who his clone is, you know, on the inside, that goes uninterrupted. The movie attaches a strangely paternal father/son relationship for Henry and the clone, where he’s trying to get the young man to sit up straight and fly right in the world of hired killing. It makes for some truly awkward scenes where the two men act like they have a more potent relationship than they should. Just because the older Henry is technically his dad doesn’t mean the clone should feel any sense of fidelity to the old man. Think back on 2012’s Looper. Those weren’t even clones but the past selves murdering their older selves. If you’re being hired to kill, I don’t think an absentee “father” is going to be the one to break through to your underdeveloped moral code.

Somebody had to direct this movie but did it have to be Ang Lee? The man has given us some of the most intimate, impressive, and ground-breaking cinema of the last decade, from Crouching Tiger to Brokeback Mountain to Life of Pi. This feels like it could have been directed by anyone, except for a few quirks that seem entirely Lee’s. Much like Lee’s last movie, 2016’s gone-in-a-flash war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he filmed this movie at 120 frames per second (industry standard is 24 frames per second). When Peter Jackson released the first Hobbit films, there was a special presentation of them at 48 frames per second, and there were positives and negatives but it never caught on with the public, which is why the last Hobbit movie didn’t even come with the option of the higher frame rate shows. The extra frames take away that dreamlike fluidity we’re accustomed to but do wonders for the immersive nature of the presentation, and I found myself enjoying The Hobbit at 48 frames, even if everyone acted overly caffeinated. When Billy Lynn was coming out, there was only a small handful of theaters even capable of presenting it at the intended 120 frames, which begs the question I have with Gemini Man as well, namely what is the point? What is the point of filming a movie at a frame rate that nobody will ever see? That’s like filming a movie in sepia but it only works if people squint and a super projector plays it onto a special screen. Why bother at that rate? Is this for posterity, and Lee’s sitting back like, “Oh, when we finally get those 120-frame rate super TVs around 2030, you better believe the first movies everybody is gonna buy will be Billy Lynn and Gemini Man.” The higher frame rate feels like the gimmick Lee needed to get out of bed.

For the record, the movie does look brighter than I think it normally would but I didn’t find the visuals to be any more immersive. There is a slight smoothing to the depth of field but this can also play havoc during the action sequences with old and young Henry. Their movements can go by really quickly but in an awkward unreality, like early 2000s where CGI people would slide into action sequences to mixed results (see: The Matrix sequels with the CGI person brawls). The de-aging special effects are the highlight of the movie. The young Will Smith looks remarkably like the 90s super star we remember. Even more impressive is the level of nuance that the animators, and Smith, are able to imbue in his performance. There’s a real subtlety to the eyes that makes the figure feel startlingly real at times. The effects don’t always work well under all circumstances but it’s a worthy technological advance for an eerie process.

Even the action feels recycled from a dozen other, better movies. I wish there was more to keep my attention in Gemini Man like some solid action set pieces, but the final product just sort of goes through the motions in every sense. There is one sequence that might prove memorable for its action but it might be for the wrong reasons. A motorcycle chase starts out partially exciting in Columbia as younger Henry zooms after older Henry. There’s even a fun shot that follows the movement of the bike from a fixed perspective, though this moment was wildly oversold to me in other film reviews (it lasts a total of 20 seconds, people). Later, older Henry is knocked off his bike and the younger clone tries to fight him… with his own motorcycle. Like he tries to sweep the leg with the bike, seemingly kick and punch him with the vehicle, and it’s so weird and specific that I started to chuckle and wonder if the clone was just very particular about his gamesmanship or was just fooling around. Other than that tiny morsel, it’s two hours of rather boring fist fights and gun battles without any real thought given to mini-goals, organic complications, geography, or other essentials that provide the lifeblood of viable action movies.

What does Gemini Man have to offer the discerning moviegoer? Not much. It’s built on the parts of other movies, Will Smith’s past and present charisma, and the idiosyncratic interests of a talented director who definitely seems to be slumming it with this generic, predictable material. I still want to emphasize that the premise could afford a really exciting, contemplative, and engaging action movie, but it needed better writing, better direction, better action, better characters, old and new, and better, well everything now that I think about it. If you’re a gigantic Will Smith fan you might get a kick out of seeing two Big Willie Styles on screen (or more?) as a novelty. The final film just feels so lifelessly inert, bled of anything interesting beyond its core premise. And yet, dear reader, the people sitting in my row clapped when it was over, and no, it was not some rebellious ironic act. Maybe you can find enough to enjoy with Gemini Man if you set your expectations extremely low, but then maybe you and I deserve better movies than this.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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