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Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.

We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.

In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.

Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.

Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.

The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.

There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Big, colorful, and brimming with optimism easy to scoff at, Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) is finally here to save Christmas and maybe movie theaters and it’s an escapist treat. It won’t register among the best of superhero cinema but will likely keep a smile on your face.

In 1984, Diana (Gald Gadot) is working at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and fighting crime as her costumed alter ego. She’s never quite moved on from the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) back in WWI and she dearly needs some friends. Barbara (Kristen Wiig) is a mousy co-worker who comes across a mystical artifact, a rock that magically grants wishes. Barbara wishes to be strong like her boss/idol Diana and she gains new intoxicating power. Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) is a wannabe TV pitchman and an empty suit, fleecing investors and barely keeping ahead of his own Ponzi scheme. He learns of the magic rock and wishes himself to become the rock itself, turning him into a living genie. From there, Max’s wishes are spinning out of control, placing the world in greater crisis. Diana is torn because, before Max absconded with the wish rock, she wished for her heart’s desire, the return of Steve. Stopping Max and reversing the effect of the wishes means having to say goodbye to Steve all over again.

The original Wonder Woman was a break from the pallid doom and gloom motifs that Zack Snyder established, and the sequel goes even further with its candy-colored recreation of the 1980s. I was wondering if there would be a good reason to set the movie specifically during the 80s, and it’s mostly for the Cold War and Yuppies. I was pleasantly surprised that Jenkins and company don’t overdo the 80s nostalgia or the fish-out-of-water comedy for Steve Trevor. I thought this was going to be the entire reason for the throwback setting, and this time instead of Diana marveling at a modern world she did not understand it would be Steve. If you’ve watched the film’s trailer, then you’ve seen all of those jokes at Steve’s expense. That’s it. WW84 can manage to surprise you, mostly in a pleasant manner. Its sincerity is its biggest virtue. It’s a movie about plenty of goofy things but at its core it’s about relatable desires and struggle.

WW84 is an improvement over the original in the action department. Returning director Patty Jenkins feels freed of emulating Snyder’s house style and brings a welcomed sense of levity and playfulness to the action. The fight choreography makes significant use of Diana’s lasso, opening up the playing field for her to swing around wildly, at times even literally riding the lightning. At points the lasso seems to have a mind of its own and able to divide into fragments. It’s something that helps separate WW84 from the glut of other superhero movies and it offers pleasing visual variance for the fights. There’s a car chase midway through the film where Diana has to leap from speeding truck to speeding truck, dodging goon gunfire. It’s an exciting and sustained action sequence, yet even across the Middle East, chase clichés will reappear, like dumb kids playing in the street ignorant to any emerging noise like a caravan of speeding vehicles. Jenkins seems even more adept behind the camera for the action, delivering big stunts and memorable spectacle ready to make a splash on a big screen. However, some of the CGI can be shockingly dodgy for a big-budget blockbuster and a final confrontation with a CGI-hybrid creature unfortunately reminded me of the lamentable Cats.

The magic wish rock setup shouldn’t be any harder to believe than, say, a secret island of immortal female warriors or just about anything in the absurd and absurdly entertaining 2018 Aquaman feature film. If I can accept a drumming octopus, I can accept a magic wish rock. WW84 hinges on the concept of the drawbacks of creating your own false reality where every wish comes with a cost and an increasing flood of alarming consequences. It it better to just accept the comfort of lies or accept hard truths? The characters even name-check the classic short story The Monkey’s Paw recognizing the ironic trap. That doesn’t stop characters from struggling with the pull of their burning desires, and it makes for an agreeable return for Steve Trevor. Ever since it was revealed that Pine’s character was returning, I was worried what the possible explanations could have been, pessimistic it would be satisfying. Is he going to be a clone? Reincarnation? The grandson who happens to look identical? The screenplay by Jenkins, Geoff Johns, and Dave Callaham finds a way to make it work by bringing him back through magic but with restrictions. In a very Source Code sort of style, Steve is operating in someone else’s body, but only Diana sees Steve. It’s a decision that frames the return in a personal way that also reminds us what is eating at her. It’s been 70 years and she hasn’t moved on from the man she loved, which can be viewed as sad, romantic, and unquestionably unhealthy. It’s a familiar character arc, having to move on from a loved one and accept grief, but it still works, and it humanizes this mighty Amazon warrior woman. It’s a worthwhile development that opens up these living gods into emotional, vulnerable beings.

With the wish plot comes some gripes and lingering questions. I kept asking, “Is everyone simply not seeing what’s happening?” or, “Is everyone forgetting what has happened?” The scale of the wish consequences is substantial and very public but it never feels like the world is registering just how fantastic these supernatural shenanigans are. In 1984, Wonder Woman is fighting crime as a hobby but still not a named and identified hero. The world does not seem aware of the presence of super beings and amazing powers living among us. So as Max continues his wish-granting ways there are immediate consequences of huge staggering scale, but nobody seems to register how weird and not normal things are, like a giant 50-foot wall suddenly appearing in Egypt. People should be asking what is going on or what others are doing. Therein lies the lingering problem with setting this movie in the past. Much like the 80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, the events presented generate questions to why future-set movies seem to be ignorant of these same events. If Wonder Woman comes forward and addresses the world, why is she still hiding her identity in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman? And if she learns more about her own super abilities, why does she not make use of these very helpful skills in 2017’s Justice League? These sound like quibbles, and they mostly are, but the movie would have benefited from being a little more judicious with its rules and applications because I started wondering if everyone was oblivious.

I was genuinely surprised how much screen time and consideration was afforded to the primary villain. No, I’m not talking about Barbara/Cheetah, who could have been completely cut from the film. I’m talking about Max Lord. He’s arguably in the film as much as Diana. He’s a con man trying to be a successful TV pitchman and oil tycoon but really he’s trying to be a “somebody” to make his son proud. The problem is that his goal always seems to be just out of reach no matter what is gained. This part confused me. After successful wishes with power and money, Max seems to desperately continue searching for more. I suppose it could just be a general “power-hungry corruption” explanation but I kept asking when enough was enough, and that’s likely the point. I don’t know if Max Lord is a character deserving of this much consideration, but the approach appeals to the film’s empathetic mentality that no one is beyond reach. Rather than the villain having to be physically defeated, WW84 rests on emotionally appealing to a broken man’s sense of self. It makes for a more intriguing conclusion in a superhero realm than merely out-punching the CGI antagonist, like the clunky, lumbering finale from the prior Wonder Woman movie.

The conclusion of WW84 rests upon millions having to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good, which is a lovely sentiment that we could all use at this point after a dispiriting 2020. However, this year has also proven for me that the conclusion of WW84 is pure escapist fantasy. Throughout a deadly pandemic, the United States has been beset by too many people refusing to endure inconveniences in the name of protecting others and saving lives from COVID-19. The cost-benefit doesn’t add up for many if they can’t see the results, never mind the harsh yet sterile reality of over 300,000 dead Americans and counting aided by this selfish obstinance.

Gadot might not ever escape the long shadow of playing a famous superhero but she’s settled into the role nicely and even gets to flex some untapped acting muscles. I was skeptical of Gadot early when she was hired but became a believer in 2017. She definitely has an unmistakable presence onscreen. Gadot’s best moments aren’t even the punching and kicking, which she does with gusto, but the moments where she has to make grand appeals and hard decisions. There are a few emotional moments where Gadot’s familiarity with the character blends together and she and the filmmakers are not afraid to show strength in other ways other than brawn. Gadot still has a very enjoyable chemistry with Pine (Hell or High Water) that makes them a winning pair. One of the film’s highlights is a personal flight through fireworks that delivers sheer joy for Steve Trevor. His awe about the future and getting one more spin with life itself is heartwarming. Pascal (The Mandalorian) is going big and hammy with his performance that reminded me of the Richard Donner Superman movies. Wiig (Ghostbusters) is the big miss for me. She’s not convincing as a threatening foe and her early scenes as a klutzy, put-upon dweeb feel overdone and yet insufficient. We needed more establishment of Barbara’s life before her wish to better recognize why she would never want to go back. One reoccurring street harasser doesn’t cut it.

Wonder Woman 1984 is fun, splashy, and doesn’t lose sight of its characters and their emotional states even as it elevates the world-annihilation stakes. It’s a movie that seems more confident in its identity than the first film. It accepts that it can be silly, it can be sincere, it can be exciting, it can be smaller and more personal, it can be hokey, it can appeal to your best self. It’s overly long (the opening flashback of young Dianna in the Amazon Games could have been ditched entirely) and not everything works, but the problems are easier to digest and forgive with what does work. It might be the last blockbuster for some time given the uncertain theatrical landscape so I’ll take it. WW84 isn’t the swaggering solo venture the first film proved to be, but I would say it still makes for a mostly satisfying and fun experience that plays to the strength of the creative team.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Promising Young Woman (2020)

“I’m a gentleman,” says a man at his bachelor party, trying to bashfully turn down any sexual antics with the women paid to entertain him and his friends for one boozy night. He’s also trying to indicate he’s “not like those other guys” and genuinely respects women. He gets it. “Well,” says the woman in the shiny fetish outfit, “I’ll have you know in my experiences that ‘gentlemen’ can often be the worst.” This line summarizes Promising Young Woman, a revenge thriller in a post-Me Too era that is unsparing to all those who would proudly say, “Well, I support women.”

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) was the top of her class at med school. Then her best friend was sexually assaulted at a party while she was inebriated, which allows the university to paint her as guilty and the accused as blameless (“What do you expect when you get drunk?” kind of victim-shaming). Years later, Cassandra has never been the same. She poses as a drunk at clubs and waits for her knight in shining armor to take her home, and often these modern men of chivalry prove to be creeps looking to take advantage of women and in needing of some harsh medicine.

This is a movie that walks a fine line to stay out of the shadow of becoming just another exploitation film with a higher gloss. I was yelling at the screen early about the choices men were making with susceptible women in their care. Admittedly, it plays upon that icky genre and taps into our inherent feelings associated with it as well as vengeance thrillers, and writer/director Emerald Fennell (TV’s Killing Eve) smartly subverts our expectations and loyalties. We want Cassandra to achieve her righteous vengeance regardless of the moral or psychological effect it has upon her because vengeance is satisfying. We want to see bad people who have escaped punishment suffer, but Fennell challenges the audience to see how far we’re willing to go for this goal. There are moments where it appears that Cassandra is going to go the extra step to antagonize her targets, and this might involve facilitating other innocent women into potential danger. It’s a sharp turn that asks the audience how badly they want to hold onto that righteous sense of indignation. Do all ends justify the means? Now I won’t confirm whether or not Cassandra follows through for the sake of spoilers but this is one very knowing movie about how to make its audience uncomfortable. Obviously, dealing with the subject of sexual assault and predatory men, it should be uncomfortable because of the nature of the subject, but Fennell has a wicked sense of when to twist her audience into knots. She doesn’t let anyone off the hook easily and that includes her heroine and those close to her. Nobody looks clean here. It makes for a truly surprising experience. When I say that Promising Young Woman makes some bold choices, it really makes some bold choices. There were points I was sighing heavily and others where I was stunned silent. It brought to mind No Country for Old Men. The commitment that Fennell has to her excoriating artistic vision is startlingly provocative and effective.

One early scene stood out to me and let me know that Promising Young Woman was going to have more on its mind than bloodshed. Cassandra is walking home from a night out in her same soiled clothing and eating a sloppy hotdog with ketchup running down her body. A group of construction workers watch her and begin yelling from across the street, harassing her with unwanted sexual advances while they yuk it up. Cassandra stops, turns her head, and simply stares them down. She doesn’t glare at them or shout at them; all she does is look in silence. The workers get quiet very fast and then after several seconds they become angry and defensive, uncomfortable from her attention, and they walk away insulting her. Didn’t they want her attention? Weren’t they boasting? By merely drawing her focus onto these men and making them mildly reflective of their behavior they became uncomfortable and elected to leave. This scene only plays out for like twenty seconds and yet it serves as a symbol for what Fennell has planned with the rest of her thriller. She is going to take what you want and make you re-examine it with a fresh perspective that might just make you rather uneasy and disgusted with yourself.

The first half of the movie establishes a routine that explains what Cassandra has been doing since dropping out of med school. She’s never been able to move on from the trauma of her past and so she seeks out new potential perpetrators to inflict pain upon or scare straight through tests. By the second incident, we adjust to her formula and lie in wait for Cassandra to strike back. She’s the smartest person in the room and it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch her enact her plans. This avenging angel routine runs into a roadblock when she reunites with a friend from med school, Ryan (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon. They share a meet cute that involves Ryan drinking a coffee that Cassandra has spit into as a declarative sign of his interest (trust me, I’m making it sound far creepier than it plays onscreen). They go on several dates and have a palpable romantic chemistry together. This is aided by Fennell’s excellent dialogue, which can be cutting when it needs to and also supremely charming when it wants to be. It’s a peculiar rom-com but on its own terms, including unashamedly reclaiming a forgettable Paris Hilton pop song with full sincerity. At this point, Promising Young Woman is sizing up a choice between following vengeance and following romance. It’s a formulaic fork in the road and Fennell completely understands this, as she’s also testing the audience how much they are willing to sacrifice to see Cassandra check off her guilty names. This storyline doesn’t feel like a cheap alternative either. I liked Ryan and Cassandra together. However, Fennell stays true to her poison-tipped plans and this storyline becomes another chapter in her larger thesis on the condemnation of “boys will be boys” rationalization.

There is another scene worthy of being hailed because it goes against your and the character’s expectations (some spoilers). Cassandra tracks down the lawyer responsible for defending the university and discrediting her friend once she came forward with her rape accusation. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is this man and he’s quite antsy because he has been waiting for months for a visitor he anticipated would inevitably arrive. He’s been let go from his firm after having what they refer to as a “psychotic break” and what he refers to as a crisis of conscience. He’s made a career over sliming victims’ reputations, a fact he confesses has been made infinitely easier by modern technology. “We used to have to go digging through the trash,” he says, “But now all we need is one picture on Facebook of the girl at a party and you’ve got jury doubt.” Cassandra is taken aback by how eager this man is, not for absolution which he believes he will never earn, but to be punished. It’s not like a weird fetish but a genuine accounting of what he feels he deserves. It’s a short scene but it challenges Cassandra and the audience about the potential of redemption and forgiveness. This is what she wants after all, people to account for their part in the injustice that happened to her friend and to make amends for their guilt.

Mulligan is ferocious and on another level with this performance. She’s listed as a producer so I assume she had a personal connection with the material because she feels so aligned with the character that she can make you shudder. Mulligan has been an enchanting and empathetic actress since her breakout in 2009’s An Education, the source of her lone Oscar nomination. I’ve never seen her quite like this before. She has a natural sad-eyed expression, which made her perfect for Daisy Buchannan in the new Great Gatsby. With this role, she’s taken those natural sad-cute instincts and carved them out and replaced it with bile. Mulligan gets to play multiple false versions of Cassandra as she adopts disguises and personas to dupe her prey. This also makes the viewer subconsciously question which version they see is the real Cassandra. Is it a distortion upon a distortion? How well can we ever get to know this woman? I think Mulligan is most deserving of her second Academy Award nomination for this bracing, incendiary turn.

This is Fennell’s directorial debut and it will not be her last time in the director’s chair. Her command of pace and visuals can be sneaky good, framing figures to squeeze in potent symbolism as well as ratchet up tension and discomfort. The visuals can also be comedic poetry, like the opening images of men in khakis gyrating and thrusting on a dance floor. She also demonstrates supreme restraint where needed. The sexual assaults of past and present are never visualized but they are not mitigated either. She also has a tremendous ear for music. This soundtrack is sensational from the club bangers to the old timey country ditties. It feels as exceptionally selected as any Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino movie soundtrack. The score by Anthony Willis is deeply emotive with its use of strings and cello. They deliver a cello cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it’s as if the filmmakers made this choice specifically for me.

If there is one slight downside, I’d have to say many of the supporting characters are under developed. There are plenty of famous faces in this enterprise, like Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Connie Britton, Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell, Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but most of them are deposed for a scene and then vanish. It starts to feel like a series of guest appearances from actors as they’re passing through town. Alison Brie (Happiest Season) has a longer and slightly more nuanced part as a former college friend who betrayed Cassandra when she needed her most. This character, along with Birtton’s school dean, illustrate that just because you happen to be a woman does not automatically mean you will be a helpful ally. I view it less as a snide “girls can be bad too” equivalency and more an indication just how insidious and prevalent rape culture can be and condition people into gross excuse-making complacency. I will say that it was nice to have Clancy Brown play a normal dad role and he was sweet too.

Beware, men of the world, the next time you size up a pretty young thing who looks meek and helpless. Promising Young Woman wears the skin of an exploitation movie but it’s so much more. Fennell has created a tart, twisted, and powerful film that is coursing with righteous fury. It’s a female revenge vehicle but with far, far more ambition than simply providing tingles to baser instincts. The artistry here is special and transforms the iconography of exploitation movies into a contemplative and jolting experience. Promising Young Woman is a definite conversation-starter and the first thing you might say upon its conclusion is a breathless exclamation of, “Wow.”

Nate’s Grade: A-

I’m Your Woman (2020)

I’m Your Woman does for the gangster/crime genre what You Were Never Really Here did for the loner revenge thriller, namely demystify popular tropes and find a humanity often missing below the surface. We’ve been inured to gangster cinema for decades and love following the criminal antics of bad men without fully thinking about the collateral damage on the periphery of their story. I’m Your Woman imagines a typical crime story but from a very human perspective, focusing on the wife who has to deal with the confusion and fallout from her husband’s misdeeds. It’s a refreshing and modern take that works as moody paranoia thriller just as much as it does a subversion of them.

It’s the 1970s. Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is married to a man who she knows does some very bad things. One day Eddie (Bill Heck) comes home with a baby that he declares is theirs. Where did this baby come from? Jean cannot say but she chooses to raise this child as her own son. Another day, her husband goes out with some friends and never comes back. One of his associates barges into her home in the middle of the night, bloodied, and tells her that Eddie is gone and she needs to likewise be leaving in a hurry. He tasks Cal (Arinze Kene) to drive Jean and her baby out of town, watch over her, and wait until the heat dies down or everyone else just ends up dead.

And with that, the movie is off to a gallop and Jean doesn’t know what’s happened to her life, only that it’s bad, and she doesn’t know where her husband may be, or even if he’s alive, but she’s told that people will be coming for her to get to him or to punish him, and so she must be whisked away in the middle of the night into hiding. We as the audience are left very much in the dark with Jean, and this precious little information allows us to very strongly feel her paranoia and anxiety. Every scene when she’s been left alone and sees a car coming closer, every knock on the door, it raises the suspense because your mind, like hers, is questioning everything. Admittedly, some will find this to be rather boring and a lacking perspective, but I thought the approach of director/co-writer Julia Hart (Stargirl) was to highlight the perspective of a character often taken for granted and forgotten in gangster cinema and its celebration of doomed antiheroes. We’re used to criminals neglecting their molls, and I’m Your Woman declares its allegiance right in the title. We’re on the run with this woman, trying to make sense of the plight as we go, and being trapped in a position of limited information is an intriguing and relatable dash of realism.

There are violent outbursts from time to time, but much like You Were Never Really Here (the two of these movies would make a good double-feature, folks), the violence is far from glorified and often denied to the viewer. Much of the violence is depicted off-screen and we watch Jean stumble upon its awful consequences, again linking up with the perspective of a bystander to the careening violence and mayhem from her romantic attachment to a life of crime. There’s a mass shooting inside a club that is deeply unnerving because of our limited perspective. We’re tethered to Jean and hear the off-screen gunshots getting closer, the screams of civilians, and the camera keeps running without a cut as she dashes down a long corridor but cannot find an exit. She ducks into a phone booth and we watch armed men pass by. She waits and makes her escape, tripping over bleeding bodies, and the camera continues in one ongoing take. It’s nerve-wracking but it also denies us coherency or clarity which makes it so much scarier (I was having visions of what people might have gone through with the Pulse nightclub massacre). Given its subject, there are moments of sudden, shocking violence but often it’s to disorient us and not as some delivery system of satisfaction. It would be very easy to follow a more traditional formula for Jean where being thrust into fending for herself turns her into a steely killer that lays waste to the men hunting her as finds her own means of authority. That was essentially the plot of last year’s The Kitchen, a fairly mediocre and disappointing movie about threatened mob wives. That’s not this movie. Jean doesn’t become a ruthless mob boss. She certainly attains an agency that she didn’t have at the start of the film and a well-earned resilience, but she’s always a grounded, frantic, and relatable person trying to keep their wits and not serve up a witty retort.

Because much of the movie involves the protagonist in wait and picking up small pieces of information to reform her sense of self and her dire circumstances, the digressions had better be worth it. I fully believe I’m Your Woman is going to be a divisive movie and it will entertain likely as many people as it leaves cold. I found the small digressions to be interesting and doing their part to strip away the movie world heroics and trappings, allowing people to simply act like recognizable people. There are little things that stand out, like a kind neighbor simply recognizing how exhausted a new mother looks, or a method of soothing a baby passed down from father to son, or the discussion of making a child laugh being the clincher for parental ties. There’s a lovely moment halfway through where Jean and Cal are stopping at a café. She delivers a monologue about her unexpected child, about her inability to carry a pregnancy full-term, about her prior miscarriages and her divining what that means about her involvement in crime, and it’s one of those moments where it feels like a character is just baring their soul. Jean is so vulnerable, so remorseful, but also so lost yet hopeful of what being a mother could mean for her, a title she says she tries to downplay but had really been her heart’s desire. I enjoyed getting to spend time with Cal and those he links Jean up with later. There’s a found family aspect of dislocated people trying to navigate the hand they’re dealt without pity or commiseration. When the movie stops to take a breath, that’s when it kept solidifying its growing authenticity for me.

Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) is a fine anchor. She has to constantly be alert and anxious, as well as exhausted, so even when she’s at rest her character can never fully be rested. It means that even during the quiet moments alone, Bosnahan is giving the viewer a terrific sample of non-verbal acting prowess. I appreciated that Jean isn’t stupid. She’s ignorant insofar as she lacks crucial knowledge, but throughout I’m Your Woman she responds to potential threats and suspicions in ways you would hope and avoids more than a few disasters. Brosnahan also has an easygoing chemistry with Kene (How to Build a Girl) that makes them a winning team.

I found I’m Your Woman to be a refreshing take on crime stories by re-examining life from a character very often left behind while the men run their schemes and accrue their violent demise. It’s an interesting character study of a gangster’s moll and what living with the consequences of a bad marriage can involve. There’s terror and bloodshed but it never feels sensationalized or glamorized. Our heroine proves herself capable of surprising those who discount her, but that doesn’t mean she transforms from a scared, confused, and desperate person into an action hero. The filmmakers have brought a reflective and humanist take on the gangster genre, and your appreciation will likely also benefit from familiarity with the genre and its tropes. If you’re subverting expectations, knowing those expectations is somewhat essential to the desired effect. I’m Your Woman is worth your time if you ever wondered about the life of so many of those underwritten, possibly stock supporting roles in a gangster movie and asked about their interior lives.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Run (2020)

With Run, now available through Hulu thanks to COVID, we follow Chloe (newcomer Kiera Allen) as she yearns to leave home for college. She was born with multiple physical maladies and has been living at home in her wheelchair. Her mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson), tends to her needs but runs a tight ship, holding Chloe to a high academic standard. One day, while looking for college returns, Chloe finds a prescription for her mother that she denies is hers. This causes Chloe to investigate the myriad of medications she’s on and her mother’s cagey behavior. She comes to one conclusion: she is being held prisoner by her own mother.

I don’t consider it a spoiler to confirm that Run is exactly the movie it assures you from its start. Because the movie was so early and upfront about its distrust with the mother, part of me began to wonder, after watching so many Hollywood thrillers over the years, if I was being set up into false complacency. I began theorizing what a late twist could be, how we’re being lulled into one perspective so maybe the final twist would be that the big bad mom is actually the hero. This is not the case at all. There are later revelations that clarify just how disturbed and committed Diane is as a doting mother, but the core relationship dynamic is the same from the get-go. That means that Run might not have much going for it other than as an escape thriller. It’s not going to give you deeper insights into life with mental illness or physical disabilities, nor is it going to channel some relatable struggles with motherhood. It’s about a crazy woman holding a teenager captive and the great obstacles that teenager must overcome to reach freedom and safety. That’s all the movie has to offer but under the guidance of its filmmakers it does so with finesse.

Let Run serve as a prime example of how you can take a simple story and create a lean, mean thriller that provides doses of satisfaction and triumph. The focus is so condensed that writer/director Aneesh Chaganty (Searching) can provide set piece after set piece to demonstrate his skills in suspense. The first act involves Chloe learning of her alarming state and getting confirmation that her medicine and ailments might not be true. From there, the next two acts are a series of planning escapes and escalating attempts at escape. There is a lovely sense of fulfillment in watching smart characters intelligently think their way through challenges. I recently re-watched 2015’s The Martian and was reminded how enjoyable it can be to just watch smart people smartly confront problems. Chloe is a formidable young woman with obvious vulnerabilities to overcome, but she has a sharp mind for science and can act like a plucky Zoomer MacGyver. It’s resolutely fun to watch her overcome her challenges. Each new set piece and setback presents a challenge and her thinking is logical and capable throughout. Even when the plot isn’t much more than a series of escape attempts, every time I wondered to myself how exactly Chloe was going to get through the next dilemma and admiring her as she persevered.

The photography, editing, and score work nicely in tandem to raise the level of suspense. The command that Chaganty has over all facets of filmmaking to serve a common purpose is impressive. It’s the same kind of assured vision he displayed with 2018’s Searching where the film screen was confined to the parameters of a computer monitor. As with that earlier inventive thriller, Chaganty has an innate understanding of how to make his moments matter, where every twist and turn has a connection to what came before it so it all feels of a whole. That is essential especially for a filmmaker working within a thriller genre. If you can tell even the simple stories well, where the pieces connect with perfect precision, and ratchet up tension efficiently no matter the scenario, then you’re already operating at an extremely high level. Given his first two entries, I would watch any movie, especially a thriller, that has Chaganty’s name attached.

This is primarily a mother-daughter two-hander in terms of acting, though Paulson is off-screen for long portions. After several Ryan Murphy TV series, including Netflix’s Ratched, I’ve come to automatically assume I should be wary of whatever character Paulson is playing. This role is well within her unstable wheelhouse and she gets to better shine in her increased desperation in the second half when Diane no longer has to pretend to be sane. Her doting manipulation and intense mood changes can be quite creepy. The real star is Allen in a very physical performance. There is much the young actress has to communicate non-verbally, from her distress and paranoia to her doubts and fears and righteous anger. Plus all the crawling. She’s great, and I fully imagine this will be the start of Allen’s promising career as she finds even more high-profile roles to demonstrate her talent.

If you’re a fan of slick, intelligent, and sneaky fun thrillers, and why wouldn’t you, then seek out Run (not to be confused with the TV series of the same name on HBO in 2020). It’s well honed, well developed, and smartly constructed to deliver enjoyable thrills and payoffs for viewers. It might not have more on its mind than entertainment but that’s fine when the movie is this well done.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Charlie’s Angels (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released November 3, 2000:

These angels aren’t exactly what your father was enjoying when your mother was away fulfilling errands. These angels aren’t delegated as mere sex objects running around providing the jiggle entertainment that is (or was) supplied by today’s Baywatch. The 90s is a different decade after our minority movements and today’s woman is just as apt to do a flying kung-fu face plant into a baddie as any man. The angels of the film are action heroes for an armada of small girls needing some female empowerment when their only other choices consist of a barely clothed Britney or a barely covered Christina. These angels aren’t just the sex objects that the classic assortment of angelic 70s stars were; these angels are also tough-as-nails, resourceful, and not afraid to tussle or tango. Now that this exposition is out I can concentrate on the scattershot film Charlie’s Angels.

The film has been rumored to have at a minimum of 17 writers who tried shaping a story for Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Lui. The story is pretty much shelved toward the back so the forefront is our trio of ladies kicking ass then shaking it with zig-zaggy and wild camera movements from debut filmmaker and video director McG.

Charlie’s Angels is whiz-bang dumb fun. The overall feel of the film is something more difficult to get a grasp on. At times it shows itself as tongue-in-cheek and satirical but then at other times it seems overly serious or overly dumb. The characters are non-existent and basically only discernible by hair color. The characters are very wooden and I actually found more enjoyment watching the villains and seeing more of them; call it the Austin Powers dilemma. Diaz makes the only notable attempt as her goofy and light-hearted angel connects with the audience best. Lui plays a techno-babe dominatrix but is easy to see that she was the last angel chosen and doesn’t exactly gel with the others as much as she could have.

Charlie’s Angels is best when the action is pumping. The scenes are cut together in a jam-packing sequential way adding distinct flavor and style. McG is a true surprise in the effectiveness he can orchestrate his action motifs even if the Matrix effects and moves make absolutely no sense in the real world.

Crispin Glover shows himself as a silent assassin nicknamed “the thin creepy man.” Glover is so suave and slick in his role of the non-verbal Oddjob henchman role that he exhilarated me with every presence he made on screen. Goodness, he was too cool in this film and everyone gets brownie points for allowing him. He has such energy and charisma that I wanted the film to veer off into him and desert our angels. Seeing our ageless McFly perform action scenes and choreographed fights is something I will be pleased with until my grave. seeing Crispin in the excellent Nurse Betty and now huge exposure in this is a true joy. And man… he smokes a cigarette way too cool every time he’s in this film. Some people can smoke cool some of the time but Crispin does it all of the time. His mere presence almost cancels out the annoyance of Barrymore.

The line is drawn with Charlie’s Angels in that it’s sex-kitten jiggle and an acrobatic arrangement of (light) feminism and humor. These gals know they’re sex objects and they’ll use it to their advantage delighting in every second of it. Therefore, you could argue successfully that Angels is exploitation hiding as meaningful but hell… why think about this stuff? The movie rolls along at a fast pace where you don’t keep track of these issues. It’s just an easy sit down.

The gigantic success of Charlie’s Angels makes sequels and a possible franchise all but certain. I’d be happy for McG to hop back in his directorial chair but have a unique idea for Angels 2: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut… it involves Glover kicking a lot of ass really cool like.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

The 2000 Charlie’s Angels seems to understand that nobody should take this seriously. It even opens with an in-joke of T.J. Hooker: The Movie being inflight entertainment and an undercover character lamenting how bankrupt Hollywood is when it comes to recycling old TV shows. From there, our undercover angel literally exits with her target in the middle of the air and plummets to the water below, safely landing via parachute with a team meeting via helicopter aerial hook-up and a speedboat below. Why any of this? What sense does any of it make? It doesn’t matter in the slightest, and from the opening scene onward the movie lives by this credo, doing its best to be silly and have fun and just not care about the rest, and it shows. Twenty years ago, I think Charlie’s Angels benefited from low expectations as I recall mostly enjoying it. Now, having re-watched the movie for the first time in ages, I will say the fizzy appeal seems to be diluted. It’s still got energy to spare, though it feels a little too antic, a little too episodic and slipshod, and a little too proudly shallow, and that’s before you re-examine its depiction of the angels.

It took 17 writers and considering every under-30 actress in Hollywood to put together Charlie’s Angels. Drew Barrymore had bought the remake rights and wanted to make a big screen splash with a trio of kick-ass heroines that could better relate to the culture of the new century. I understand that Barrymore and her team wanted the angels to be sexy, yes, but also smart and funny and goofy and fearsome and all the things that little girls should believe possible. That’s commendable from a positive representation, but then so much emphasis is placed on their bodies and their off-the-charts sex appeal to bamboozle men that the goal becomes eclipsed. One could argue that Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Lui are embracing their sexuality, and that taking control of this is empowering, and if you feel empowered by Charlie’s Angels, by all right enjoy that and bless you. However, twenty years later, this feels less like the girls are in charge are more like they’re just being exploited in a manner we’re being sold as new feminism.

There are so many examples where the angels are in skimpy clothing or objectified. There was an entire clip of Diaz dancing in her underwear that I remember Harry Knowles of the early 2000s mainstay Ain’t It Cool News devoted a gross drooling essay to his obsession (“But to sum up, Cameron Diaz’s Swirling Ass is one of the greatest images and objects in the whole of human existence.”). Barrymore’s character is constantly getting undressed and using her body to disarm men. Again, duping men through their hormones can be a key asset as a spy, but it’s happening in every scene and at her disservice as well. She tumbles down a ravine naked in a last-second escape, and the movie treats it as cheeky comedy (no pun intended). Lui adopts a series of disguises that routinely sexualize her, from a masseuse to the most overt, a domineering corporate boss that resembles a dominatrix. They’re straight fetish roles. I’m surprised a Catholic schoolgirl outfit wasn’t adopted as a disguise. The movie’s depiction of its female stars and the emphasis on their bodies feels retrograde for its ideals. I know they wanted to improve upon the portrayals from the 1970s but we still got problems. McG’s stylish direction prioritizes the angels’ sexuality. They can be smart and kick ass but also in a sexy way, the movie is telling you. Thandie Newton was supposed to be an angel but schedule overruns from Mission: Impossible II got in the way, and later she admitted she had strong misgivings because her character was going to be introduced with a closeup of her denim-clad butt. No one is arguing that women should be barred from taking ownership of their sensuality, but the lens Charlie’s Angels utilizes is strictly a male gaze, and these women are repeatedly objectified.

As a result, the movie has a new sheen of discomfort during all the silly, sudsy spy missions and wardrobe changes. Before you might think, “Oh look, they’re dressing up as Japanese geisha girls, what fun,” and now you’re like, “Oh, somebody at the studio was getting off on this.” Before you might think, “Oh look, they’re dressing up as Middle Eastern belly dancers, what fun,” and now you’re like, “Oh, somebody at the studio was getting off on this.” There are a lot of ethnic disguises that would likely get axed today as cultural appropriation. The carefree, frivolous attitude of the movie is meant to be charming and low stakes, but when it’s applied to the exploitative nature of how the women are depicted, it all becomes a bit dodgier to accept.

This was the first real blockbuster after The Matrix reshaped action cinema and the stylish choices can run the gamut between exciting and cool to dated and shallow. Twenty years later, it’s just not as impressive that they used wires to swing their actors around for stunt choreography, or that they replicated key Matrix touches like bullet time. The fighting sequences are often choppy in editing and some of the moves meant to demonstrate the power of the angels just feel silly, like a moment where Diaz went full Lui Kang with her flying kicking feet. It’s moments like that where the style gets away from McG. The tonal trick is finding a balance between goofy and cool, exciting and cheesy, and I don’t think the movie achieves this with its action. The set pieces feel built around “cool moments” rather than using geography, organic complications, and escalation. It means that Charlie’s Angels has its share of cool moments but then they are fleeting and ultimately meaningless because they don’t better connect to character, story, or even simply their own satisfying action compositions. It’s like immediately disintegrating cotton candy. The dozens and dozens and dozens of needle-drop music cues feel like another potent example of this charge as well as some anticipated attempt to distract from its shallow and diverting design.

I was dreading revisiting my original review as an 18-year-old because I was convinced my younger self was going to conflate the portrayal of the women as taking ownership. I just knew this would be something I had bought into in 2000, and yet it wasn’t quite so: “The line is drawn with Charlie’s Angels in that it’s sex-kitten jiggle and an acrobatic arrangement of (light) feminism and humor. These gals know they’re sex objects and they’ll use it to their advantage delighting in every second of it. Therefore, you could argue successfully that Angels is exploitation hiding as meaningful but hell… why think about this stuff? The movie rolls along at a fast pace where you don’t keep track of these issues. It’s just an easy sit down.” Hooray for my younger self seeing through this movie’s sheen of empowerment. At the time, it bothered me less because the movie was dumb fun, and now it just seems less fun and also dumber. I was so taken with Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) and his creepy cool style, much of which was Glover’s doing. His character was supposed to have dialogue except he hated the lines and asked to be silent. That’s one way out of memorizing, and it worked because he was a breakout and appeared in the 2003 sequel. Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards) was also a fun discovery though he only gets good once he’s revealed as a baddie. He would reuse those dancing moves for Iron Man 2.

By the time 2003’s sequel Full Throttle rolled out, the appeal was gone. In my own brief review, I summarized, “It all seems so ho-hum and excessive at the same time. Quite an accomplishment. No more please.” I feel like the 2000 film also falls into this summary. It’s clearly not intending to be anything more than a goofy action movie, and I suppose the right person could still likely turn off the necessary parts of their brain to enjoy the rush of sights, sounds, and cleavage. There shouldn’t be a “wrong kind of feminism” so if this works for you, great. Many years later I felt that the male gaze was more ogling the women in the name of celebrating them. And yet Sony still felt there was material to be mined when they tried again with a failed 2019 reboot. The original Charlie’s Angels film is a cocktail of style with a creeping hangover right behind.

Re-Veiw Grade: C

Enola Holmes (2020)

I’m shocked this isn’t the pilot for a new series, and maybe it one day will serve as such, because Enola Holmes is such a sprightly, effervescent, enjoyable rehash of the classic sleuth but this time from the girl power point of view of a younger sister. Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) shines as the headstrong, quirky, loquacious Enola Holmes setting off on her own adventure to find her missing mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and to push against her older brothers Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and their perceptions of what is appropriate for a lady. The best moments are when Brown gets to showcase her pluck and grit, proving presumptions wrong, and winning fans along the way. There is nothing new about this kind of movie where a young woman fights against sexism and proves herself capable and heroic. It’s a tried-and-true formula that works because, with enough polish, an underdog is always going to draw in the audience to watch them triumph over their doubters. Add a dash of feminism to boot and bake as necessary (not a joke on feminism, mind you). The actual plot is secondary to the situational mishaps and character bickering, which is good because there isn’t really a mystery to uncover. Enola gets pulled into protecting a young royal on the run from a wealthy family benefactor that wants to make sure he doesn’t live to collect his inheritance. Their interaction adopts a screwball romance sort of tone, which provides Brown ample opportunity to be sunny, exuberant, and overall delightful, a side rarely seen as the somber, alienated Eleven. I enjoyed the stylistic asides and visual inserts to better showcase Enola’s hyperactive thinking and sleuthing, borrowing a page from the new Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock TV series to visualize the processes of rapid-fire thought in a pleasing and amusing manner. Cavill is perhaps the most dashing Sherlock put to screen and provides a suitable establishment stand-in of accepted masculinity and intelligence that serves as contrast for what Enola is pushing against. Given that almost all the main players are attached to ongoing Netflix series (The Witcher, The Crown) I feel like we should expect more adventures down the line with the irascible Enola Holmes, and with a bubbly Brown seizing the mantle, that’s fine by me.

Nate’s Grade: B

Antebellum (2020)

Antebellum was originally supposed to come out in the spring and yet it only feels even more relevant today in the wake of months of protests over police brutality, the removal of Confederate monuments, and whether or not black Americans can attain justice in an imperfect system. Antebellum has also been flagged with overly negative reviews and accusations of being just another movie that exploits the horror of slavery for cheap thrills. After having seen the movie, I feel perplexed that so many of my critical brethren could not connect with the film and its finer points on the world we lived in and the world we live in today, inextricably linked.

Eden (Janelle Monae) is an enslaved woman surviving on an eighteenth-century Southern plantation run by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and the mistress of the land, Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Then there’s Veronica (Monae) who looks identical to Eden and lives in modern-day. She’s an author and academic speaker on social oppression and politics. How these two women are related, as well as past and present, will be revealed over the course of 100 minutes.

Antebellum is divided almost equally into 30-minute thirds, and it’s the structure that helps to aid in its mystery while also stiffling its larger implications. The first third is watching a plantation and the horrors of slavery; however, there are clues that something strange is happening. Little touches, character responses, a tattoo that seems too eerily modern. From there, we jump forward to the next third with what appears to be the same Eden, this time as a featured academic author. From here, if your mind is similar to mine, you’re attempting to bridge this connection and uncover how the past and present have become entwined. Is Veronica experiencing a deeply felt dream? Is it time travel? That was my guess before starting the film based upon the advertisement. I thought it was going to be a story about horrible racists from America’s past kidnapping black Americans to enslave. It’s a sci-fi angle that can make the material feel fresh, as there are more things to say other than the obvious and profound statements that “Slavery was terrible,” and, “It should never be forgotten or mitigated of its horror.” I also think it would serve as a rebuttal to those who ignorantly argue, “It was so long ago, why does it still matter? Get over it.” The past, in that instance, is literally ensnaring the present and forcing citizens to relive generational trauma. It’s that final third where Antebellum reveals what it really has been all along, and it’s a surprise but it also makes sense in the world that its meant to represent, leaning into a contemptible degree of human avarice that reminded me of HBO’s Westworld. It’s a fitting revelation and, as one would expect, the final third charges into an emotional catharsis as we watch Eden/Veronica fight for her freedom at last.

However, and this is a word I can already tell I’m going back to repeatedly to qualify my reservations, once the Big Reveal is known I wish we could have spent far more time dwelling in the implications of what exactly it means. I won’t spoil what exactly that reveal is but it’s definitely something that has plenty of social and political commentary and a reflection of our modern times and the injustices that have only been further highlighted this year. It’s such an interesting angle that I almost wish the filmmakers had re-prioritized their movie. Rather than structuring to best serve a mystery with a Shyamalan-style twist, it could have had its Act Two break be its inciting incident, revealing its twist as the starting point for the real terror. As a viewer, while I enjoyed the mystery and portentous mood of the movie, it presents a potent storytelling avenue that is far more compelling than the first two-thirds, but by then it’s too late. It works as context for the behavior and setting we’ve seen, both past and present, but Antebellum strangely suffers from trying to be too clever when a more straightforward version could have better tapped into its full dramatic and political commentary potential.

I was intrigued early on and came away genuinely impressed with the technical skills of debut writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The photography is often stunning and that goes for their visual compositions as well as their specific camera movements. The opening scene involves a tracking shot that starts from the front of the plantation facade, and that’s the best word, all prim and proper and beatific in appearance, before swooping behind and into the slave quarters to see the ugly reality behind that illusion. I didn’t feel like the filmmakers were simply using the backdrop of slavery as cheap genre exploitation. I felt their intentions were good. The horror of slavery isn’t downplayed but it’s also not overtly recreated just to add an easy splash of violence or terror. The movie relies more on implications, like Eden sleeping next to the plantation owner every night or an enslaved man finding his wife’s necklace in a charnel house among a scattering of ashes. The implication of the larger horror is there without having to be explicit. I’m reminded of the abrasively negative condemnations of Netflix’s Cuties insofar as people seemed to be missing obvious artistic intent. These are challenging and uncomfortable movies but movies with something to say, and Antebellum is not just a simple rehash of slavery tropes to turn black people’s historical suffering into slapdash slasher pulp.

Monae (Hidden Figures) is strong throughout and continues to build her case as a leading lady. She must register her fear in subtle ways without going into larger histrionics, but she maintains a quiet strength that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. Her time spent in the present, as the author calling out aging racist ideology, is bold and confidant and serves as a counterpoint to the woman we’ve experienced on the plantation. We know that woman is still inside Eden. Monae has a late scene set in slow-motion, with the music swelling, that simultaneously feels badass, uplifting, and like an American Valkyrie blazing against unchecked Confederate revisionism.

Antebellum is better than its reputation and offers more from an artistic standpoint than hitting the same points and rehashing the same traumas of the past. It’s a movie built around its mystery when I feel like it had much more it could have said with restructuring and more time spent after its final explanations. As a mysterious thriller, it’s tasteful, thematically involving, and technically impressive. It doesn’t even use the N-word once, which could be decried by some as unrealistic but also a sign of the filmmakers’ good faith to not merely use a shameful historical legacy for base titillation. It works as a thriller with more on its mind. However, and this is my last usage of that word, it’s that mind I was more intrigued by. Antebellum is a B-movie with A-level ambitions but a story structure that keeps it stuck as a well-polished B-movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mulan (2020)

The new Mulan looked like something I’ve been begging for in this surging era of live-action Disney remakes, namely something different. I don’t need inferior live-action versions to shorter animated classics, and as Disney enters into a more modern trove of remakes, the courage to adapt becomes noticeably less. There’s a reason the 2019 Lion King was simply a sludgier, superfluous version that was beat-for-beat the same, and it’s called $1.5 billion dollars worldwide. People want their nostalgia as they remember it, thank you very much. The Mulan remake looked to be taking a different route; it eliminated the songs, the comic relief sidekicks, and overt supernatural characters. It was going to be more serious, more mature, and more action-packed, and I was all for it. The release was pushed back several months due to COVID and finally lands on Disney+ but at an extra cost. I would advise fans to wait. This new Mulan 2020 isn’t worth your time and it’s certainly not worth an additional $30 to be disappointed by.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young maiden in old China who has trouble fitting into how society says a woman should behave. The Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to supply one male into the royal army to combat Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful witch, Xianniang (Gong Li). Mulan takes her family armor and poses as a man to take the place of her ailing father. She wants to serve but she’s also hungry for adventure, and over the course of her training, she will come to fully understand her real power.

I knew within minutes that this movie was in trouble. In a flashback, we watch young Mulan chasing after a chicken, not listening to her father, causing havoc and consternation from neighbors, but then she effortlessly climbs to the roof of her neighborhood and then, as she falls off, is effortlessly able to recapture her balance and land perfectly like she was Spider-Man. From there, the first act tells us that Mulan is not just a super-powered being of high chi (think midi-chlorians and The Force) but also potentially the Chosen One (like Anakin Skywalker) and she must hide her real power to… not bring disgrace to her family? I’m sorry but this makes little sense. I understand the oppressive cultural expectations for women at this time and how women’s real value, as judged by their society, was through marriage and child-rearing. However, we’re now in a world of magic where living super-powered beings walk among us (mutants in X-Men), but rather than valuing this, it’s shunned because she’s a girl? That seems even more preposterous to me. The screenplay followed the Captain Marvel feminist theme and it’s about a woman finally coming into her own power, shunning the restraints, and embracing her full potential against the wishes of frightened men. If after reading all of this that sounds like a good start for a movie, let alone a live-action remake of Mulan, then have at it, dear reader. For me, this began as a thematic and tonal mess that didn’t get better. By making Mulan a super-powered being it eliminates her relatability and the stakes of the movie. She’s no longer an ordinary girl who struggles to do her best. Now she’s essentially a god who just has to turn on her powers and subdue easily outmatched opponents. That’s a significant loss and mistake.

If you were going to be a martial arts epic where characters have super powers, then be that movie and give me epic showdowns between epic warriors. Give me a heavy dose of magic realism and eye-popping imagery. Chinese cinema has plenty of examples of these kinds of movies in recent years. One needs to only start cycling through the filmography of Zhang Yimou for spellbinding supernatural martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers and 2018’s Shadow. If you’re going to be a heightened world of extraordinary combat, then build your movie around that tonal decision and start from there. In Mulan 2020, people exist with amazing abilities but nobody treats this with the recognition it deserves. There appears to be a prevalent form of sexism as powerful men are seen as impressive but powerful women are seen as frightening and dangerous, often derided as witches. There was room for exploration of Gong Li’s (2046, Memoirs of a Geisha) character and the parallels with Mulan, both women feared for their powers and apparent threat to a hierarchy that wants to exploit them but not include them. My girlfriend was irate throughout the viewing and pointed specifically at the witch character and declared, “They’re going to give her a lame redemption story where she sacrifices herself at the end to save Mulan, and I will hate it.” And boy oh boy did she hate it.

Alas, Mulan 2020 cannot sustain itself as a supernatural martial arts epic. As an action spectacle, every moment is shortchanged, which is not good when you have a whopping $200 million budget. The action consists of a handful of characters, at most, and only a short display of activity. There are no strong action set pieces and well-developed sequences that keep your excitement pumping. There is some acceptable fight choreography here and there but little to tickle the imagination or approach the poetry of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don’t know if director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) feels confident enough as an action director of big visual spectacle, and that uncertainty leaks throughout the finished film. Take for instance camera movements meant to be stylish but instead becomes perplexing. As our big bad villain and his crew ride toward the outer walls of a village, they leap from their horses and ascend the walls, and the camera shifts 90 degrees to follow the movement smoothly. That’s a good stylistic choice. Then mere seconds later, as they reach the top, the camera will abruptly shift again 90 degrees, then back again, but the characters haven’t shifted their stances or perspectives. Caro has taken a stylistic flourish that had meaning and seems to be hitting it again and again, but without the earlier context, it becomes confusing, arbitrary, and annoying, and it happens multiple times. Because the movie doesn’t fully embrace being a martial arts spectacle, when it does employ super human tricks, it runs the risk of being goofy. Mulan has several moments where she kicks flying arrows into her foes as if she was a soccer player setting up a wicked trick shot. I welcomed a martial arts epic version of Mulan but the filmmakers were too timid to commit.

There are several moments that left me scratching my head in the adaptation process. Take for instance Mulan deciding to take her father’s place. In the animated film, it’s a big moment and we watch her slice her hair with her ancestral sword, put on her father’s armor, and it’s treated like the big character-defining moment that the story demands. It’s like watching a superhero transform and suit up for battle. In Mulan 2020, this moment is denied to us and we skip to her turning around already in armor and riding off. Why? Why wouldn’t you want to savor and dwell in a moment of great drama and a turning point for the character? Likewise, late in the movie, once Mulan accepts her destiny and not to compromise her powers, she strips her father’s armor piece by piece and flings it off herself while riding into battle. I understand the symbolism of her stripping away the uniform of entrenched masculinity but two things: wasn’t this her family’s armor that meant something of value, and isn’t wearing armor a good defense in a battle? What’s the point of removing the supernatural ancestral elements from the animated film to simply give Mulan a flying phoenix that mainly serves as a cursor to point her in the right direction?

Let me open up one head-scratcher and how it could have been resolved. Mulan has a younger sister but her inclusion is practically meaningless. Mulan’s parents worry about her capability of being docile and husband-material, but they have the younger sister who will serve their needs. The movie doesn’t present the younger sister’s perspective. She’s just a bonus daughter. It’s a confounding creative decision but I think, with a little more shaping, it would have justified itself. This sister could have been resentful of her big sister, for being selfish and rejecting her eldest responsibilities that would protect their family. These duties now fall onto her with the added pressure of being the only daughter who has a chance of attaining a good marriage. This could and should cause friction between the sisters, a divide that can be healed over the course of the movie. Dearly missing from Mulan 2020 is the ability of its titular heroine to share herself. She doesn’t have her magic companions coaching her, so she has no audience to confide in. As a result, Mulan feels so impassive and inscrutable. My solution: she writes a series of letters to her sister to explain her actions as well as her day-to-day fears and hopes, and in doing so it opens up the Mulan character as well as provides an outlet where her sister can learn and relate to her. That would have worked, and it would have justified the younger sister in the narrative as well as provide Mulan herself with an ongoing opportunity for reflection, expression, and confession.

Sadly, I also had serious reservations about lead actress Yifei Liu (The Assassins, Forbidden Kingdom) from her first moment onscreen as the adult Mulan. Her line readings were overwhelmingly flat. This may well be a byproduct of her speaking English as opposed to Chinese, and on that front, why couldn’t this movie have been entirely Chinese and subtitled? I understand Disney would view a foreign language version as less profitable but if you’re going for a more serious, more grown-up version of Mulan set in ancient China, how about trusting Americans to read? Regardless, Liu certainly has the right look to anchor a movie but her acting is too stilted. There are many actors who have great martial arts skills (Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee) that aren’t called upon. Why hire actors with great fighting capability and then give them precious little to show off? My favorite performer in the movie was Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell).

After watching Mulan 2020, I then re-watched the 1998 animated original, and my opinion of the live-action remake sank even lower. The animated film has it beat in every measure. The mixture of drama and comedy is deft, the emotional core of the character is fierce, and the supporting characters have distinct and discernible personalities, and the songs aren’t too shabby either. The villain is more menacing and has those very necessary moments to establish their villainy. The bad guys in Mulan 2020 have no memorable moments that make you go, “Oh, that’s a baddie.” Plus, the hand-drawn animation is beautiful and allows far more emotional expression for the characters, making it even more transporting but also engaging. If you’re a fan of the original, I cannot see how you will enjoy Mulan 2020, and if you paid $30 for that opportunity, I imagine you’ll be even more incensed. If it was going to be different, the new Mulan needed to fully embrace those differences and develop its new big screen story to be best suited as a martial arts epic for older viewers. If it was going to make Mulan a superhero, it needed to embrace this decision and heighten the world, mixing in fantasy foundations. The moments needed to matter and be a reflection of our heroine’s emotional journey. Mulan 2020 is a frustrating disappointment and another reminder for myself that live-action Disney remakes will rarely, if ever, even come close to recreating the charm and magic of their predecessors.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Old Guard (2020)

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

Nate’s Grade: C

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