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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

Becky (2020)

Imagine if Home Alone was more intense and populated with neo Nazis, and you’ll get a feel for Becky, a jubilantly gory, highly stylized indie thriller that might be as off-putting as it is entertaining. Kevin James, yes Paul Blart himself, gives an about-face turn as the leader of a group of Nazis that recently broke out of prison. With his bushy beard. swastika tattoos, and intensely quiet monologues, the stunt casting works out well, and James can be truly menacing. His band of goons are terrorizing a blended family in search for a macguffin of which just happens to be in possession of Becky (Lulu Wilson), an adolescent hellion they will soon reckon with. She knows the terrain of the family cabin and the woods and goes about picking off the bad guys one-by-one in fiendishly bloody, wildly over-the-top panache. That’s the real appeal of the movie, the various ways our pint-sized heroine takes down the Nazis. Directors Cary Munion and Jonathan Milott (Cooties, Bushwick) infuse plenty of visual style into their thrills, amplifying the intensity further, like a pounding camera edits and a walkie talkie confrontation between hero and villain where a series of pans makes it feel like they’re face-to-face. The film can be unsparingly brutal and hard to watch at times, walking a line between being darkly comic to simply being gross. Becky herself comes across like a brat and, as the killings continue, gleefully sociopathic. She’s still hurting from her mother’s death, she doesn’t want to have to save her soon-to-be stepmom and brother, but she’ll do it if it means killing more Nazis. One big tough Nazi has a crisis of conscience and demonstrates, at least onscreen, more depth than Becky. It’s all a bit too nihilistic by the end for my tastes. Becky ultimately is a movie about killing Nazis gory good and looking good doing so. If that’s enough for you, give it a watch.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Rhythm Section (2020)

I like Blake Lively as an actress. I like spy thrillers. I think Reed Moreno has real talent as one of the signature directors of TV’s Handmaid Tale series. So where did The Rhythm Section go wrong, besides its clunky title (it’s a reference to different parts of the body working together like an orchestra so…. yeah)? I think it’s because the movie, based on a book by Mark Burnell, is stuck in a tonal middle ground between spy escapism and spy realism, and it doesn’t quite work. The movie is filmed with the herky-jerky docu-drama camera movements of a Paul Greengrass Bourne flick, which when done well creates a visceral sense of immersion, but here it just creates an unstable atmosphere that makes it hard to settle on what is important. The story has Lively as Stephanie, whose family died in an airplane crash that may have been a terrorist bombing. She is trained by former MI6 agent Jude Law and then sets off on a messy path of vengeance tracking down the suspected perpetrators. Stephanie’s actually really terrible as a killer and it makes for an amusing, and confusing, batch of run-ins, as Lively’s character is far more vulnerable than the famous names of spy fiction. It should make the missions and fights more exciting but The Rhythm Section is drained of most excitement. It’s so suffocating and dreary. The characters aren’t well developed or even given memorable personalities. Stephanie, once she is set off on her mission, fails to grow as a character or, really, as an assassin. It makes the entire movie feel hard to engage with emotionally or intellectually. There are some interesting moments of combat or suspense but nothing that carries over into a sustained sequence. A car chase shot entirely within Stephanie’s vehicle should be exciting but it just felt underdeveloped too. The plot is packed with needless flashbacks and obtuse to the point I had to read a Wikipedia summary after the movie was over. It’s not fun spy hi-jinks with interesting characters to draw our appeal, and it’s not really a twisty John le Carre thriller (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) that’s dense in its plotting, character ambiguities, and the realities of actual spycraft. It’s just a non-invigorating mystery with blandly developed action and suspense sequences, when you can make out what’s going on, and very minimal characterization. It’s a thoroughly mediocre bore.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hunt (2020)

hunt_ver2Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.

A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.

c7f31a20-4d03-11ea-9bfd-a9714bb423baI was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.

I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.

However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.

11hunt-superJumbo-v2Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.

Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.

106072660-1565465049545the-hunt-gal-1-5d407ec97db7c-1croppedThe Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.

Nate’s Grade: B

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-

The Street Where We Live (2019)

I was fortunate enough to actually hear co-writer/director John Whitney and co-writer/star Dino Tripodis discuss their hardscrabble indie drama, The Street Where We Live. It’s an Ohio indie that was filmed over the course of several weekends from the fall of 2015 to the summer of 2016, had its festival run throughout 2017-2018, and became available for the general public to watch via Amazon Prime in 2019. I was lucky to hear both men talk about their experiences making this movie on a small budget under a constrained time frame, as well as their hopes for it, paying homage in particular to the hard-working mothers that both men credit for their upbringing.

We follow Mary (Kristina Kopf), a recently unemployed factory worker, struggling to stop her family’s descent into greater financial ruin. Her children, Jamie (Katie Stottlemire) and Thomas (Dylan Koski), are trying to hide the shame of their living conditions, though it’s getting harder. Things go from bad to worse as this family tries to regain their stability.

The film does a very good job of communicating the vulnerability and struggle of poverty as well as how susceptible a majority of people living on the fringes are. As has been said, many Americans are simply two paychecks away from disaster; in a survey, a majority of Americans would be unable to pay for a sudden expense of $400, meaning most Americans lack even that amount when it comes to personal savings. That day-to-day anxiety of simply getting by, of persevering and not prospering, is best expressed by the layers of sad, quiet resignation that hang on lead actress Kopf’s face. Hers is a performance steeped in quiet suffering (more on that later) and her fight for dignity and opportunity. This isn’t a very dialogue-driven movie and instead is more like one long sigh slowly eliminating all breath. One calamity leads to another in a succession of setbacks, and it’s clear to understand just how difficult it is to reset your life when that chasm seems more insurmountable by the day. You don’t have enough money to pay electricity leads to not enough money to pay for rent, leads to living in your car and washing in the bathrooms of gas stations, leads to having your car towed, leads to an impound that expects even more money if it cannot be immediately paid, and all the while that deficit grows and grows. The Street Where We Live is at its best when it’s opening up about the slippery slope of poverty and how it’s not some choice, not the result of trenchant laziness, but just bad timing, bad luck, and limited opportunities. In that way, the film works extremely well as an empathy project to convey the toll of poverty on the human condition and one’s hope.

Much like the mumblecore sub-genre of indie dramas, the observational little details and natural give-and-take are what help give the movie its sense of authenticity. This feels like a world where Whitney and his crew are well versed and can supply exacting insights. There are a few devastating moments in the movie, one of them being how out-of-touch a person can feel in a quickly changing marketplace. Mary has held her factory job for years and is applying for, what she has been told, is a simple secretarial position in an office, something she feels she can at least keep up with even if her typing skills are mediocre. Instead, she’s pummeled with questions of technical insurance jargon, and each one further shatter the idea that a “simple secretarial” job is within reach for Mary. Her sinking realization that this job is closed to her is such a hard moment to watch and Kopf, once again, plays it tragically and beautifully. It’s a small sucker punch of a moment, and from here she’s fighting even to get underpaid dish washing gigs. There are some aspects that are stretched a bit in order to maintain the family’s tragic desperation (one would think Mary wouldn’t have to venture all the way out of the state to contend for a paying job). It’s excusable because we’re meant to feel the crushing uncertainty of a character struggling with what is the best of her limited bad options. The only aspect of The Street Where We Live that didn’t feel realistic was the seconds before the factory workforce was about to find out their jobs were all gone, because I have to think everyone was suspecting the worst and wouldn’t be so amped for noisy chit-chat prior to the news.

The acting is another component that helps compliment the movie’s valued sense of reality. The Street Where We Live and its success hinges on two fulcrums: 1) its everyday realism, and 2) Kopf. The characters feel very recognizable and the performances rely on subtlety more than histrionics. More is gained by watching the pained expressions of ordinary people than listening to a character explode in a well-polished monologue about the hardships of living in poverty. There are a few emotional outbursts but they’re saved for the end, and even these moments are crafted to better maintain that well-earned sense of cinema verité.

Much of the film’s impact is reliant upon Kopf (Constraint, Axe Giant) and the micro-expressions that cross her face. Hers is a role about suffering in silence, her weathered gaze its own shattering scream, and you study her to see how she’s coping with each new added indignity. A terrific moment is when Mary is trying to square a very personal, moral-crossing decision she made for the greater good of her family only to have a cruel man use his small amount of power to further wound. You feel how powerless this woman is and while you want her to punch the creep, there will be no release. You want the “movie moment” where she can upstage her tormentor but it won’t happen. Kopf has long been a staple of Ohio indies and there’s a very good reason why. Tripodis (Bottom Feeders) has an immediate well-worn charm that’s heartwarming. One of the best scenes in the movie is his character Ben and Mary sharing a small moment of compassion after hours of hunting for recyclables to turn in for meager money. This moment is so naturally written, with their interplay feeling relaxed, natural, and organic, that I instantly wanted more. Stottlemire (Tragedy Girls, My Friend Dahmer) has begun to branch out into bigger movies and her burgeoning talent is clear to witness. She follows Kopf’s lead and works in underplayed tones to great effect. Koski gets the least to do as Thomas, like him strumming his father’s guitar is all that is needed to communicate his longing to connect to his past. There are also small roles and cameos from other central Ohio indie faces like Ralph Scott (After), Daniel Alan Kiely (Bong of the Living Dead), Heather Caldwell (After), and Richard Napoli (After), and several others.

If there is one thing holding back the film from achieving a greater level of success and viewer engagement, it’s that the characters are defined entirely by their ongoing suffering. I call it the Lars von Trier School of Storytelling (not that it’s only associated to the Danish sadist) where you establish a character that takes the slings and arrows of their society, but this props up a protagonist as more of a symbol/metaphor/martyr than a human being. This approach can still work when given a major theme that is complex enough to take on the extra brunt of attention. However, this approach can also make the protagonist feel less active, more reactionary, and also less complex. If you were deconstructing Mary as a character, I know very little about her as a person. I know she had a job for many years. I know she lost her husband. I know she doesn’t feel comfortable asking others for help. I know she’s willing to make sacrifices for her children. Internally, I don’t know much about her, nor do I know much about her personality, interests, flaws, quirks, the things that make people more fleshed out, nuanced, and appealing. Mary certainly serves a purpose and she voices this in the film’s very last scene as Whitney unleashes his thesis statement about how our society should be better with its inherent social promises. For some, this will be a minor quibble and for others it will be, in essence, a cap for their empathy levels.

The Street Where We Live is an affecting and honest little movie about the everyday hardships many people face when their lives are suddenly in free fall. It’s a potent drama packed with small, telling details that better create a world that feels lived-in, compassionate, and authentic. The acting is mostly sharp and anchored by a standout performance from Kristina Kopf. The technical details are pretty solid overall for a movie made for less than $13,000 and under the start-stop circumstances that the filmmakers had available. The cinematography and editing can feel like there wasn’t much in the way of additional options, but the look of the movie, muted greys and rusty browns, adds to the overall dreary tone. It’s a sparse film in execution but that’s because it doesn’t need bells and whistles and fancy camera setups to make its story felt. It’s a deeply empathetic movie that could open some hearts about the struggles of others. It’s so easy to fall down and much harder to get back up without a support system. The movie might be hitting repeated points without enhanced characterization but it still hits its marks. The Street Where We Live is the kind of movie where its small budget can actually be a plus, not just in forcing creative ingenuity from the filmmakers but also in lending a blue-collar validity. It’s a story that resonates because of its universal themes and lessons in empathy, and it’s worth watching to see what a group of well-meaning artists can do when inspired to do good.

Nate’s Grade: B

Birds of Prey (2020)

Not really a Birds of Prey movie, not really a Suicide Squad sequel (see you in 2021), this is really more of a Harley Quinn solo spinoff that’s fun, colorful, bonkers, edgy, and a smile-inducing delight… when Margot Robbie is onscreen as Harley. Robbie is a charming, hyperactive live wire that commands your attention, and giving her the reigns of the storytelling, quite literally in some Deadpool-esque meta storytelling tweaks, is the best decision the filmmakers make. I enjoyed the frivolity, visuals, and narrative trickery, but I noticed something whenever Harley took a powder off screen. None of the other supporting characters are that interesting. I don’t know anything about Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco), the plot device that everyone is after because of the prized diamond she swallowed. She’s more attitude than person. There’s also Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who doesn’t do much and has a super power she doesn’t use until the end. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) provides the police angle and references to cop movie cliches (a hat on a hat). Huntress (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead) is almost a self-parody as the young girl growing up to be an elite assassin to avenger her murdered family and the movie treats her like an also-ran. The only other person of interest is the villain, Roman Sionis a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), because the performance is campy while also being menacing. Birds of Prey suffers absent Robbie because its additional pieces cannot carry the movie on their own. The vacuum of charisma is too noticeable. The fight choreography is impressive and with plenty of longer takes to fully appreciate the cool moves. I enjoyed how every action sequence was different from the last and director Cathy Yan makes excellent use of her environments; a police lock-up is a fantastic place for an action scene with all the evidence/props to utilize. A romp inside a fun house also keeps things fresh even though the goons never bring guns to their big fight. Birds of Prey works very hard with quirk and narrative shuffling, and it feels like a decided attempt to dazzle as well as distract, because there’s not much to this movie. It’s style and personality over substance, and that’s fine, but it does make the second half feel a bit like coming down from a sugar rush. I know there will be plenty that celebrate a group of strong women taking ownership of their own stories and fighting together against toxic men. I know there will be plenty of my friends that love this movie. For me, it was an enjoyable experience that made me realize just how much I enjoy Robbie as an actress, as this character, and when given extra room to roam with an R-rating. Birds of Prey is the kind of tasty junk food you just crave from the cinema every now and then, but without Robbie it’s decidedly less flavorful.

Nate’s Grade: B

Little Women (2019)

By my count, this is approximately the 182nd version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War sisterhood. There must be something universal about the trials of the March sisters and their struggles for independence, agency, love, and happy endings on their own turns. Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Oscar nominations for Lady Bird, has given Little Women a decidedly modern spin. The story flashes back and forth between past and present, sometimes in consecutive shots, and feels full of authentic youthful energy. It’s also the first adaptation I’ve watched that has fixed the problem of Amy (Florence Pugh, affecting), widely regarded as the least liked sister. Through Gerwig’s telling, she becomes a self-determined woman, just like Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who recognizes the social trappings holding her back but chooses to do her best within this unfair system rather than rage against it. It’s like an empathetic reclamation for this often reviled character. The enjoyment of Little Women is how vibrant and different each of the March sisters is and how an audience can see degrees of one’s self in each little woman. Jo is by all accounts our lead and her struggle to be a successful writer pushes her against conventions of the era. There is an invented and very amusing bookend where Jo bickers with a blowhard male publisher (Tracy Letts) about “women’s melodrama.” It’s a meta commentary on Alcott’s book herself, especially with the helping of marriages and happy endings by story’s end. Ronan is a force of nature in the film and sweeps up everyone around her with charm. Meryl Streep is supremely amusing as an older rich aunt bemoaning the girls won’t get anywhere without marrying a wealthy man. The limited options for a working-class family are given great consideration, but it’s really a movie that seems to pulsate with the exciting feelings of being young, having the world stretch out before you, and chasing your dream, rain or shine. It’s also gorgeously shot and feels so assured from Gerwig as a solo director. There are a few detractions for this new 2019 Little Women, the biggest being how confusing it can get with its melded chronologies. If this is your first exposure to Alcott’s story, I fear you’ll get lost more than a few times trying to keep everything in order. The love story with lovesick pretty boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) feels tacked on even though it’s a feature of the novel. This newly structured, reinvigorated, charming remake of a literary classic feels definitely of the period and of today. It’s the first Little Women adaptation that made me realize how timeless this story really can feel in the right hands. It may be the 182nd version but it might be the best one yet.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bombshell (2019)

More an expose on toxic work environments than anything overtly political, Bombshell is an effective true-life drama about the many pitfalls, humiliations, traps, harassment, and compromises that women face in the workforce. We follow the downfall of news magnate Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the imposing man who built the Fox News empire and who also bullied his employees and solicited sexual favors from the many women who were on his payroll. Margot Robbie plays an invented character meant to provide that entry point into Ailes the creep in creepy action. She’ll be harassed and pressured for sex by a man described as “Jabba the Hut,” and Robbie is terrific in her big dramatic moments portraying what the pressure and shame does for her ambitious anchor. The other two main characters wrestle with how far to go in a corporate culture of keeping secrets from very powerful, very dirty old men. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is consulting lawyers for a personal harassment lawsuit against Ailes the person, not Fox News, but she needs other women to come forward. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is struggling with the scrutiny she has endured after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump turns his small Twitter thumbs against her. The Fox bigwigs won’t go on record to defend her, and their journalists, because they need Trump to drive ratings. The movie uses several Big Short-style narrative tricks to help tell its sordid tale, including swapping narration and fourth-wall breaks; a run through of hearing from Ailes’ past victims in their own words is striking, especially a woman who says she was only 16 at the time. Part of the fun are the many many cameos and just watching actors portray different Fox News personalities (Richard Kind as Rudy Guiliani!). The makeup is also phenomenal and Theron looks unrecognizable as Kelly. The film itself doesn’t feel like it’s telling you anything you already don’t know about the subject; people will compromise their morals for personal gain, power leads to exploitation, women are unfairly treated, and it’s easier to fall in line than stand up to power. There’s still a thrill of watching the downfall of a serial abuser, and the acting is strong throughout, but Bombshell can’t shake the feeling of being a slicker, more star-studded TV movie version of recent history. Even with the urgency of the topic, it feels light, and not because of its use of incredulous humor. I could have used more behind-the-scenes details, and maybe that’s where Showtime’s miniseries The Loudest Voice comes in, retelling the same story with Russell Crowe as Ailes. It’s a solid movie on a very pertinent subject and worth seeing but it also makes me wish for a harder-hitting, more widely sourced expose on this very bad man who felt forever protected by the status quo of power.

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

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