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Encanto (2021)

2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Petite Maman (2021)

There are two things to know about the deeply heartfelt new French movie, Petite Maman. The first is that it’s the follow-up by Celine Sciamma, the writer and director of one of 2019’s absolute best movies, the sumptuously romantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was reason enough to watch this relatively short movie. The next is a twist that I’ll save for the body of this review but that makes this childhood examination on loss, grief, and the future far more compelling and emotionally striking. It’s further proof to me that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount; just as I was enveloped in the romantic swell of Portrait, I was charmed and enchanted by this wholesome movie that’s so winsome that you could watch with the whole family, that is, if you can convince children to watch a 75-minute French drama with you, and if so, congrats.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is mourning the recent loss of her grandmother. She and her mother and father have camped to grandma’s old home to pack it up. Everyone is sad and one day Nelly’s mother leaves without warning. She doesn’t know when mom is coming back. In the meantime, Nelly makes a friend with a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s living with her mother and nervous about an upcoming operation to fix a genetic malady. However, in the meantime, these two little girls find solace in playing with one another, building a fort in the woods, and creating role play scenarios that allow each to hone their acting skills. Over the course of a few days, Nelly learns to understand her family more while learning to say goodbye on her own terms.

I’ll save the spoilers for the next paragraph because I feel like they are unavoidable to truly get at what makes this movie special. One non-spoiler merit of this movie is how persuasively it is told from the perspective of childhood. Our little eight-year-old heroine is the protagonist, and we see the world from her understanding. That doesn’t mean the movie ever leans on narration or a reality-bending imaginative framework; it’s simply told with the understanding of what it’s like to be a child with questions and emotions that you don’t quite know how to handle. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Nelly is forlorn because she didn’t know her last exchange with her grandmother would be their final interaction, and that ache is relatable no matter the age. Nobody knows when their last interaction with a loved one could be, so it’s easy to feel that same lament that more wasn’t made to achieve a better sense of closure. There’s a sweet moment between Nelly and her mother where they role play what that final exchange could have been, and all Nelly wishes is to say goodbye one more time but with more forceful feelings behind the words, and it was a moment so pure and innocent. The entire movie is like this moment, a lingering earnest sensation that is universal and expertly delicate.

Here comes the spoilers, so dear reader be aware if you still want to remain as pure as this movie, although I would argue knowing this spoiler ahead of time will improve your movie-going experience by giving you a necessary part of the puzzle. Petite Maman translates to “Little Mother” and it’s more than simply little kids pretending to be adults. It turns out that Marion is actually the eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, and her house they retreat to after playing in the woods is an older version of Nelly’s grandmother’s home. There are clues early, like the same distinct wallpaper and interior design of the house, but you might be able to dismiss that as maybe there are just similar houses being built in this neighborhood. After a while, though, you start to realize there’s more going on here, and the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Nelly flat out tells Marion that she is her child from a future. From there, the movie becomes a fully felt inter-generational bonding experience, where daughter gets to talk to her mother on her own level, answer questions for her curious young mother, and they talk about dealing with sadness as they know it. When Marion asks if Nelly was planned, she says yes, and Marion says, “That makes sense. I can’t stop thinking about you already,” and tears come to my eyes even typing the words. This twist brings so much more meaning to everyday activities; instead of Nelly staying one last night to make pancakes with her new friend, now it’s Nelly having only one more opportunity to bond with her mother when they’re both at the same age, saying goodbye while telling her how much she loves her, not knowing if when they part that she may even see her adult mother again. Wow, that is so much going on. Nelly even gets another shot to find that closure with her grandmother.

The two young actresses are twin sisters, and both are terrific. Given the gentle nature of the movie, neither is given any great moment where they tearfully break down, shout their feelings, or chew the scenery in general. These feel like real kids dealing with real emotions under some unique circumstances. Each of the Sanz sisters is a delight and realistically subdued and not just poor actors incapable of effectively showing emotion. When Nelly and Marion are play acting a scene, with one pretending to be an investigator interrogating the other as a suspect, they both have a twinkle to them as they admire each other’s acting ability, saying they should become an actress. It’s a nice moment for each of the Sanz sisters because they’re living their own dreams in the scene.

Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and our relationships itself. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021)

At this point, William Shakespeare’s tragedy of witchy regicide has been adapted into over 30 movies, most recently in 2015 with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotilard, so with any new Macbeth the question arises: what will this one offer? The pedigree behind this 2021 film is mesmerizing: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and director Joel Coen. That’s enough reason to see another rendition of the Bard, although the best acting comes from a surprise, theater vet Kathryn Hunter who portrays all the witches as one person (plus more). She’s captivating and haunting and the highlight of the movie. This is the most, for lack of a better term, ordinary film in Coen’s quirky career and his first without brother/collaborator Ethan. It finds a dreamy middle ground between film and theater, utilizing imposing and stark sound stages and striking chiaroscuro black and white photography to feel otherworldly. The eerie, shifting imagery and alien presentation makes the movie feel like a transporting dream oiled by the lugubriousness of Shakespeare’s brilliant words. This version also demonstrates some of the more violent actions typically reserved for offstage implications (poor Macduff son). This Macbeth is also shockingly fast-paced, barely clocking in at 105 minutes, about half of the running time for the unabridged stage play. The acting is uniformly good but I was slightly let down by the leads. I guess I was expecting more indulgence in the sheer thespian feast and was surprised they made more of a tiny meal of things. If you’re familiar with the source material, there should be enough here to appeal to you, though I still hold the Patrick Stewart BBC production as the best film adaptation yet. Go into The Tragedy of Macbeth expecting good, not transcendentally great, and lean back and enjoy the aural pleasures of theater.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

As I stated in my review for the 2016 Ghostbusters, allow me to wax nostalgic and explain my own private history with the franchise: “Growing up in the 80s, other kids had Transformers, or G.I. Joe, or He-Man, but I was a Ghostbusters kid. I fell in love with the 1984 original movie, slept below the poster for most of my childhood, and obsessively collected all of the action figures and toys, watched with glee the animated TV series, and hold the world and its characters in a special personal place.” This franchise means something to me. I think about the hours I spent playing in this world and my imagination and my own stories illustrated with marker and crayon, and it makes me extremely happy as well as reminds me how I fell in love with weird storytelling and macabre, ironic humor. I’ve been waiting for more Ghostbusters movies for my adult life. The 2016 movie was fine, I wasn’t enraged by it in the slightest, but it didn’t scratch that itch. While replicating some of the same plot beats, the 2016 movie was not reverent to its source material. Now the 2021 Ghostbusters, delayed over a year and a half from COVID, goes completely in the other direction. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is reverent to a fault, and while it has been met with mixed reviews and complaints of overdosing on slavish fan nostalgia, I found it to be a charming and fun family adventure that left me laughing, cheering, and even crying.

Egon Spangler (Harold Ramis, R.I.P.), original Ghostbuster, is dead, killed by a malevolent spirit. His estranged adult daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon), and her two teen children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mackenna Grace), are shocked to learn of his death and their unexpected inheritance: a dirt farm in small-town nowheresville Oklahoma. They don’t know much about their grandfather and the kids are not exactly excited about relocating to a secluded mining town. Phoebe starts discovering weird pieces of technology hidden in the old house of her grandfather’s. A presence seems to be reaching out and trying to get the family to understand their real legacy. It appears that Gozer the Gozerian was not fully defeated on top of that New York City skyscraper in 1984, and Phoebe and her family must learn about the past in order to make sure we all have a future.

I can understand the charges of Afterlife being too nostalgic, but I don’t understand the charges of it being so enamored with its past that it poses a disservice to the movie standing on its own. This movie is intended at its very DNA to live within the shadow of the original films. The director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, is the son of the original films’ director, Ivan. It’s going to be reverent but that’s not an automatic bad thing. Whereas the 2016 reboot shrugged at past convention and went completely comedic, this edition takes the opposite approach, hugging onto the lore and past of Ghostbusters with heartfelt affection. If you’re a fan of the franchise, this adoring approach will likely be more favorable, not that the 2016 film is wrong for eschewing the established canon of the franchise and trying something new. If Afterlife had been a completely original story set in a Ghostbusters universe, I would have happily accepted that. However, just because something is outwardly nostalgic, or taps into fan service, does not mean it is destined to be an exclusive retread that only satisfies the hardcore base. I didn’t need the gratuitous Easter eggs of passing shots of a twinkie or Crunch bar, but they’re blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments that don’t really relate to anything of consequence, so I can excuse them. Afterlife is similar to The Force Awakens in that it uses familiar plot beats to mirror events of its predecessors to ease back fans and new members to the fanclub, most especially in Act Three where Gozer’s demonic pooches are unleashed. I can understand many chaffing at this, but I feel that Afterlife does enough to justify its own creative existence even in facsimile rather than as some insular, facile, fan-stroking cash-grab.

This is, by far, the most dramatic of the Ghostbusters movies, a series that has existed in the realm of comedy. The prior movies were never spooky on adult terms, but they reached back into a primal, childlike curiosity and anxiousness over the unknown that made them creepy when they wanted to be. I don’t understand the umbrage some have expressed over Afterlife being more of a drama. First, the comedy is present throughout the movie with the characters making specific and wry observations that feel fitting for their situation. The humor is not as forced as the loping line-a-rama improv jazz riffs of Paul Feig’s 2016 film. I think this universe can sustain different kinds of stories being told, and I think that drama is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s earned, just like the comedy or horror elements. The central premise involves an estranged family coming to know the secret life of an absentee relative who abandoned them, so the more they learn about his Ghostbusting past and responsibilities, the closer they come to uncovering a clearer picture of who this man really was as well as their connections to him. Reitman and co-screenwriter Gil Kenan (Monster House) have smartly connected the investigation of the past into the development of personal relationships. We in the audience know the significance of the Ecto One and the ghost traps, but the new characters do not. We await them to understand the knowledge we already attain, but the movie doesn’t play this as characters dawdling. Each discovery unlocks new potential for the characters to shape who they choose to be, and each one gets them closer to their grandfather and reshaping their conception of the man who they wrongfully believed abandoned them for folly.

This all leads to a climax that had me genuinely in tears. I won’t exactly spoil it but Afterlife’s conclusion is less concerned with beating the Big Bad Gozer yet again and saving the universe. Reitman and company have smartly placed the real climax as an emotional catharsis; it’s more in keeping with Field of Dreams than some huge Marvel apocalyptic showdown. The ending is personal, emotional, and reaches into our universal desire for closure, for having that one last moment with a beloved who we no longer have any moments left to share, Reitman is clearly missing Ramis, a close family friend and inspiration who died in 2014, and this is his own way of processing his personal grief, offering an emotional output for the fans to share in, and allowing a grieving character/surrogate to find that needed release. It serves as a fitting conclusion and a special end note for any Ghostbusters fan who has held this franchise close to their heart for several decades, especially if shared with a paternal figure who may be gone.

The film also successfully channels a childhood perspective of awkward and awesome. It’s hard to create a story where a group of precocious adolescents discover strange things cooking in their sleepy small town without suggesting Stephen King and Stranger Things, but this isn’t necessarily a total negative. The earlier movies were always from a more cynical adult perspective. Yes, there were characters like Ray (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon who were true believers, but they were often set up for easy laughs. The tone of the series was mostly tied to the irony of the character of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) that looked at the supernatural with droll detachment. This is the first Ghostbusters entry where the primary perspective is from children, and there’s something hopeful and heartfelt about a younger point of view with the supernatural material. These kids are excited and eager to learn more about the somethings strange in their neighborhood. It becomes endearing to ride along with them as they get to jump into the action. I loved the concept of a sidecar gunner seat for the Ecto One and how it felt like a childhood dream coming true. But it’s more than fan service because it serves as a point of progression for Phoebe’s sense of self, of embracing her scientific interests and roots, and taking charge in the face of unknown danger. It’s a coming out of sorts. When the kids are driving through (the always empty?) town and chasing a runaway ghost, wrecking storefronts from the boom of the proton pack, it’s a blast for them and us.

This is Reitman’s most commercial and mainstream film of his Oscar-nominated career. It’s interesting to me that this indie darling, who was on such a hot streak in the late 2000s, hit some speed bumps with the critical misfires of 2013’s Labor Day, 2014’s Men, Women, and Children, and 2018’s The Front Runner, so the next movie is a retreat to a big-budget franchise film. Reitman doesn’t necessarily have the best feel for large-scale spectacle, but he knows intimate character dramas and guides his actors well. Grace (Gifted, Haunting of Hill House) is wonderful as our plucky lead. Unfortunately for Wolfhard (It, Stranger Things), his dull character has nothing to do but pine for a local girl, scoff at his family, and then fix up the old ghostbustin’ mobile. Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) is as charming as ever as the school science teacher, especially as he nerds out over interacting with the Ghostbusters paraphernalia like an excitable fanboy living out his childhood dream. I wish Coon (The Leftovers) had more to do, but that’s my primary complaint in any movie where Carrie Coon is a supporting actress. Her chemistry with Rudd is strong and they could have done so much more together as adults trying to make sense of madness. They could have eliminated Wolfhard’s mopey older brother character entirely and given us more time with the goofy adults too. One feels like there is some secret contract where anything relating to 80s nostalgia requires the hiring of Wolfhard on hand.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife will not be the best movie of 2021. There are areas that could have been improved and streamlined and better developed. However, Ghostbusters: Afterlife will most assuredly be my favorite film experience of 2021. It’s a heart-warming continuation for fans with enough wit and whimsy to charm while owning its obvious and intended connections to the original. I may not be the most objective source on this particular matter, but I know what I like, and this movie had moments of pure happiness that just shot right through to my dopamine center. We’ll see if this movie can restart the dormant franchise, and strike more on its own, but even if this lone 2021 entry is all that we eventually get, I’m happy I got to experience this magic once again. I can’t wait to see it again with my dad.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Double Walker (2021)

After watching so many nominal Ohio-made indies, it’s a welcomed surprise to come across one that falls into the category of an “almost” movie, and by that I mean one with clear ambition and talent that almost fully works as a legit movie without any lingering qualifiers. Double Walker, filmed partially in Columbus and now given a national digital release, comes so tantalizingly close to being a full recommendation without hesitation. I can see what it’s going for, and with a little more careful development and clarity I think it would have achieved all of its genre-busting goals.

Sylvie Mix plays Ghost, a young woman who appears in a white nightgown in the woods. Who is she? What does she want? She is escorted by a young man into his home, disrobes, and then murders him. We come to learn that this adult woman is the ghost of a deceased child, and she’s chosen to walk the Earth as a spirit to seek vengeance. She’s only able to be seen by believers and sinners, though technically every person is a sinner unless there is an unspecified threshold to pass. The Ghost makes a friend, visits with her grieving parents, and reevaluates what it means to be human.

The first thing to know about this movie is that it is only 65 minutes long, short of the 80 minutes typically seen as the minimum expectation for a theatrical release. It’s not that far from meeting that goal, though the airy nature of the movie also makes it feel already stretched out. The other thing you should know about the movie is that you could describe it as Promising Young Woman meets The Crow, an avenging angel targeting the bad men responsible for her death, except tonally it’s not really a hard-hitting revenge thriller. It has those elements where our Ghost is stalking her very bad men, luring them into positions of vulnerability, and striking back for justice, but the movie seems more aligned in tone with something more ponderous and poetic like 2017’s A Ghost Story (though absent ten minutes of Rooney Mara eating a pie – thus fulfilling my obligation to mention this dumbfounding cinematic moment whenever I have the opportunity, you’re welcome).

For those people looking for sundry exploitation thrills, seized by the striking central image of its poster, you may be left checking your watch, but I found this middle ground between thriller and art film to be an interesting space for Double Walker to inhabit. The screenplay drops you into its bizarre scenario and unfolds slowly, which I think worked to the film’s potent atmosphere. You don’t really know what’s going on or what the character relationships are like. At first you see a grieving family, and next we cut to a man discovering a pale woman who seems lost in the woods. She comes across ethereal and mysterious. Then there is a murder, and from there we’re trying to identify the character connections and back-story, which comes across at a gentle yet assured pace that trusts the audience to put the different pieces together to form a whole. This works well except for an ending that comes across as too confusing, muddling an already convoluted system of supernatural rules that the movie seems to be undercutting, unless the whole thing is presented as a hopeful but passing dream, and if that’s the ending then I’m going to be quite disappointed. Still, this is a movie at its core more interested with the question over being human, being remembered, and personal identity than as a blood-soaked revenge thriller.

Again, it has its moments of blood, but there’s a somber tone poem quality to the movie that elevates its ambitions and also ties down its ultimate execution. Director and co-screenwriter Colin West is using the structure of an exploitation film to do more than deliver sleazy thrills. He devotes much more time to watching our Ghost character adjust to life as a spirit. The Ghost is the same spirit as the little girl we saw being eulogized in the opening. This presents some awkwardness for the character and the viewer. For the character, she’s gone from the mind of a child to being in the body of an adult, and it’s not determined whether this adult body is what she would have eventually grown into being or whether it’s just a default model. This allows for an even more curious performance as a character that feels alien in their own skin but also fascinated by that change in perspective, like Scarlet Johansson in Under the Skin. I understand the Ghost studying her adult body with curiosity. However, for the viewer, the numerous nude scenes can make you uncomfortable with the understanding that this is a little girl transported into the body of an adult and she is using her sexuality to lure men to their perverted doom. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to this connotation, and “using her sexuality” seems like an overstatement as she’s simply a woman being present with predatory men. I will say the nude scenes are tastefully portrayed where the camera doesn’t feel like it’s going to painful lengths to feature flesh. I was about to accuse the movie of possibly being skeevy with its plurality of nude scenes (does the Ghost need to run out into the woods in the buff?) when I noticed that Mix is also the producer and co-screenwriter. I assume she approved of her depiction.

Because of her newfound identity, and separation from most living beings, Double Walker presents a main character who is trying to form connections but cannot. The Ghost tries to console her grieving mother but is unable to be seen or felt by her. She does meet a kind man (Jacob Rice) at a movie theater who helps her out and who is not looking to take advantage of her. He shares his family’s home movies, which is a slightly strange thing to do so soon with a nearly mute stranger, and compares the images captured on film like ghosts, crystalized memories of people no longer with us. I have thought of this comparison myself and will morbidly watch background extras in old movies and think, “Here they are, alive once more, but likely gone for some time.” The direct connection of ghosts and memory allows the movie another layer to provide additional meaning. However, Double Walker feels more like a stretched out short film than a fleshed-out feature. With a few extra wrinkles and plot development, this could have readily afforded a larger story. Later on, the Ghost makes a rash decision and an innocent is harmed in her path to vengeance. I think that’s an interesting direction and questions the righteousness of her cause, while at the same time the script finds a personal way to make that mistake even more grueling. Again, the script really could have gone into this consequence and pushed the character into more inner turmoil, to question the cost of her mission, and to question her perception of human life. There are areas where the movie could have gone into further deliberation, but they feel short-changed. Double Walker is settled being the extra long version of the movie it presents in its first act.

This is a very professional looking and sounding movie and probably has the best photography of any Ohio-made indie I’ve watched yet. West also served as his director of photography, and his eye for visuals is crisp and pleasing. The use of light, shadow, foreground and background, composition, movement, it was very deliberate as well as being artistic in a way that didn’t feel like it was overly self-indulgent. West achieves an artistry without making it flashy, and that’s even harder to accomplish. The score and sound design are also polished as well. When the Ghost is luring a victim, the eerie sound is reminiscent of metallic scraping to elicit unease. The costuming keeps our Ghost in white outfits, noting her innocence but also visually connecting you to the associated color of traditional spirits (an also, maybe, A Ghost Story). It makes her standout on the screen. Speaking of that, Mix (Poser) is a natural actor. She has a presence to her and ably communicates the curiosity and otherworldly nature of her character’s dilemma. She doesn’t talk much, nobody really does in this movie, but there’s a melancholy to her that feels more pained than forced. The other actors do well with their minor roles, including other Ohio actors I’ve covered before like Justin Rose (False Flag) and Ralph Scott (Constraint) playing bad men who become ghostly prey.

By the end of Double Walker, I was left feeling almost satisfied, one of those film experiences where you can see the better movie just on the peripheral, the one that was so close. As it stands, it’s an arty and contemplative movie that uses the exploitation formula as a vehicle to explore more existential questions. I wish the movie had developed the story more from the potential on display, and what potential is on display. The filmmakers here feel like they are headed for great things. West has already filmed another movie he wrote, Linoleum, starring Jim Gaffigan and Tony Shalhoub about a science teacher who always wanted to be an astronaut and builds his own rocket ship in his garage. That sounds amazing and it has big names to fill out the cast. I’m rooting for West. This guy has the talent and ability to be a rising indie director and can do Ohio proud. Double Walker could end up being the flawed but promising start to a burgeoning film career. It’s worth watching but be warned that it might not be the movie you anticipate at first glance.

Nate’s Grade: B

Last Night in Soho (2021)

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho is the writer/director’s first work of genuine horror and it’s in many ways unlike his previous movies, both in good ways and not as good. We follow an aspiring fashion student, Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), as she leaves her small town for the bright lights of London. She has difficulty fitting in with the snobby city girls at school and her new apartment might be haunted. When she goes to sleep, under the alternating neon light filtering through her window, she wakes up back in the 1960s and takes the form of another woman, Sandie (Ana Taylor-Joy). Eloise investigates what happened to Sandie and grows increasingly consumed with solving the crimes of the past and possibly getting lost in it as well.

This is the least Wright-ian movie when it comes to his signature sense of frenetic visual decadence and creative, intuitive editing. This is a more modulated and patient movie, one that doesn’t ape the style of other flashy genre movies for post-modern, meta-textual in-joke commentary. If you had told me that Last Night in Soho was directed by another filmmaker, I would have believed you. It’s a different kind of story and movie, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917, Penny Dreadful), and while mysteries have factored into other Wright films, this one is built upon one. The technical recreation of the swinging ‘60s in London is impressive on every level. The film has an acute sense of style that doesn’t overshadow the unsettling mood of its horror. There’s a period of discovery that keeps your attention into the first half. When Eloise travels back in time, she’s attached as the reflection of Sandie, and this creates very beguiling and imaginative images, like watching Eloise keep pace with Sandie down a mirrored staircase. It made me start to mentally dissect the filming ingenuity, even though it was likely filming the scene in separate pieces, but part of me wondered if they just got the two actresses precise at timing one another’s movements. There are some knockout disturbing images to crank up the horror, like hands reaching out from all manner of spaces, and the grey faces of male phantoms blurring together. There is one visual shot that is so striking on multiple levels, watching the panic of eyes in the reflection of a knife and it plunges in and out of the frame, only increasingly bloodier. Even though I’d consider Soho to be perhaps less visually audacious as Wright’s past works, it’s still a cut above even the better giallo genre homages.

Last Night in Soho is a clear homage but the spooky story ultimately gets caught up in its own machinations and narrative off-ramps. Once the central premise is established by the end of Act One, I was ready for the movie to develop its plot by establishing further rules as we explore the mystery. Is it time travel? I thought if this was established the movie could go several different enticing routes. Perhaps Eloise is going to solve the 1960s tragedy by collecting evidence and investigating witnesses through two different time periods, including people and leads that are lost in present-day. Perhaps Eloise was going to steal the fashions of the 1960s she found as inspirations for her class assignments, becoming more and more dependent on taking the ideas of others rather than trusting her own creative instincts. Is it physical or psychic possession? Perhaps Eloise is finding a freedom in pretending to be someone else and gets addicted to that power and possibility. Perhaps it’s a partnership where both women interact to resolve an unresolved murder case and avenge a past wrong. Perhaps it’s Sandie who discovers the new freedom of being able to be alive in modern-day and it becomes a battle over who will have dominance over Eloise’s body and soul. What about Eloise seeing her dead mother? Does this mean she herself has a special connection to the dead? Will her mother follow her to aid in her safety? Or could Eloise use her trips to the past to find her grandmother? Could this be a manner of learning more about her grandmother while they were similar ages? There are many routes that Wright could have gone, and I would have been interested by any of them with careful plotting and natural development to layer the intrigue and complications. To my surprise, Last Night in Soho doesn’t really clarify or develop its out-of-body setup with more rules.

Without additional rules or development from the plot, it comes down to watching the personal impact this has on Eloise, and at least there the film provides enough of its attention. She’s becoming haunted by the tragic story of Sandie. The movie is very much about the horror of rape culture and how it can traumatize for decades after. It may have been postponed a year due to COVID but it feels very much in response to the Me Too movement that raised awareness of sexual harassment and assault. For Wright’s position, his last movie, 2017’s Baby Driver, starred two actors that have since had their careers affected by reports of predatory behavior, Kevin Spacey and Ansel Elgort, and it almost feels like Soho is a reflective response, in a manner of speaking. It’s Wright’s latent acknowledging how ensnared one can find themselves in an industry or system that profits from the exploitation, humiliation, and silencing of women. Naturally, Hollywood has been an exploitation factory from its very troubled start, with many young women arriving with stars in their eyes only to be taken advantage of by hungry men looking for their next fix. This acknowledgement is nothing new, but Soho feels like repackaging the woman-terrorized-by-unknown giallo films into something more socially relevant and reflective.

The story of Sandie is meant to be an intentional stand-in for thousands of other women who have suffered similar fates at the hands of predatory men promising fame and fortune. It has an undeniable horror, but it’s also somewhat limited with its impact or intrigue because Sandie is kept chiefly as symbol. I didn’t find the extended excursions with her in the past to be as interesting as I’d hoped because Sandie herself isn’t presented as a multi-dimensional figure. That doesn’t mean she’s undeserving of sympathy, it just means I found her to be rather boring. We don’t really learn more about her, until a third act twist that creates some very uncomfortable and potentially troublesome questions. There was a moment where I thought, “Is Wright really trying to make me root for…?” and it did not work. The ending twist feels more like the kind of thing you’d find in the hacky direct-to-DVD version of this kind of genre homage, not from the likes of Wright, a master study on genre recreation. The story of Sandie serves as an industry cautionary tale but by the end I don’t know if Eloise or the audience have learned anything more meaningful other than bad things happen to women.

This is Dame Diana Rigg’s last performance. She died on September 10, 2020 at the age of 82 (the movie opens with a dedication, “For Diana”). The woman who came to fame from the BBC’s Avengers spy series in the 1960s and renewed resurgence from playing the tart-tongued Queen of Thorns on Game of Thrones has a final role that lets her go out in grand style. By the end, it might not fully make as much sense, and invites all sort of questions that tear away the logic of staying in her living conditions for 50 years, but it’s fun to watch this octogenarian go all-in on the messy horror. She’s also the best actor in the movie. Too many other characters are meant as symbols, stand-ins, or conflations, and in fact I wish other characters had been conflated but that’s going into potential spoiler territory to detail. McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) is a solid lead but not as much is asked of her that could have been. I was expecting her character to become more mentally and emotionally undone, though she sells her fear with effective wide-eyed terror. Matt Smith looks alarmingly identical in 2021 as he did in 2011 with Doctor Who.

I mean no great offense to say that Last Night in Soho is the least of Wright’s impressive and exciting filmography. It’s a solid genre movie with style and intrigue, and while it doesn’t live up to the tantalizing possibilities of its premise, as a horror movie, as a character study, and as a genre homage, it’s still plenty entertaining and with a relevant message about how often women in our society have been the sacrificial victims, not just in the movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mulholland Drive (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 19, 2001:

Mulholland Dr. has had a long and winding path to get to the state it is presented today. In the beginning it was 120 minutes of a pilot for ABC, though it was skimmed to 90 for the insertion of commercials. But ABC just didn’t seem to get it and declined to pick up David Lynch’s bizarre pilot. Contacted by the French producers of Lynch’s last film, The Straight Story, it was then financed to be a feature film. Lynch went about regathering his cast and filming an additional twenty minutes of material to be added to the 120-minute pilot. And now Mulholland Dr. has gone on to win the Best Director award at Cannes and Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Association.

Laura Harring plays a woman who survives a car crash one night. It appears just before a speeding car full of reckless teens collided into her limo she was intended to be bumped off. She stumbles across the dark streets of Hollywood and finds shelter in an empty apartment where she rests. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is a young girl that just got off the bus to sunny California with aspirations of being a big time movie star. She enters her aunt’s apartment to find a nude woman (Harring) in the shower. She tells Betty her name is Rita after glancing at a hanging poster of Rita Hayworth. Rita is suffering from amnesia and has no idea who she is, or for that fact, why her purse is full of thousands of dollars. Betty eagerly wants to help Rita discover who she is and they set off trying to unravel this mystery.

Across town, young hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is getting ready to go into production for his new film. He angers his mob producers by refusing to cast their chosen girl for his movie. After some harassment, threats, and a visit by an eyebrow-less cowboy assassin (God bless you David Lynch), he relents.

In the meanwhile, people are tracking the streets looking for Rita. Betty and Rita do some detective work and begin amassing clues to her true identify. As they plunge further into their investigation the two also plunge into the roles of lovers. Rita discovers a mysterious blue box and key in her possession. After a night out with Betty she decides to open it, and just when she does and the audience thinks it has a hold on the film, the camera zooms into the abyss of the box and our whole world is turned upside down.

David Lynch has made a meditation on dreams, for that is at the heart of Mulholland Dr. His direction is swift and careful and his writing is just as precise. The noir archetypes are doing battle with noir expectations. The lesbian love scenes could have been handled to look like late night Cinemax fluff, but instead Lynch’s finesse pays off in creating some truly erotic moments. Despite the population of espresso despising mobsters, wheelchair bound dwarfs, and role-reversal lesbians, the audience knows that it is in hands that they can trust. It’s Lynch back to his glorious incomprehensible roots.

Watts is the true breakthrough of Lynch’s casting and she will surely be seen in more films. Watts has to play many facets of possibly the same character, from starry-eyed perky Nancy Drew to a forceful and embittered lesbian lover.

One scene stands out as a perfect example of the talent Watts possesses. Betty has just been shuffled off to an audition for a film and rehearsing with Rita all morning. She’s introduced to her leathery co-star and the directors await her to play out the audition scene of two kids and their forbidden love. As soon as the scene begins Betty vanishes and is totally inhabited by the spirit of her character. She speaks her lines in a breathy, yet whisper-like, voice running over with sensuality but also elements of power. In this moment the characters know, as the audience does, that Betty and Naomi Watts are born movie stars.

It’s not too difficult for a viewer to figure out what portions of the film are from the pilot and what were shot afterwards. I truly doubt if ABC’s standards and practices allows for lesbian sex. The pilot parts seem to have more sheen to them and simpler camera moves, nothing too fancy. The additional footage seems completely opposite and to great effect. Mulholland Dr. has many plot threads that go nowhere or are never touched upon again, most likely parts that were going to be reincorporated with the series.

The truly weirdest part of Mulholland Drive is that the film seems to be working best when it actually is still the pilot. The story is intriguing and one that earns its suspense, mystery, and humor that oozes from this noir heavy dreamscape. The additional twenty minutes of story could be successfully argued one of two ways. It could be said it’s there just to confound an audience and self-indulgent to the good story it abandons. It could also be argued that the ending is meticulously thought out and accentuates the 120 minutes before it with more thought and understanding.

Mulholland Dr. is a tale that would have made an intriguing ongoing television series complete with ripe characters and drama. However, as a movie it still exceeds in entertainment but seems more promising in a different venue.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

How much is a dream worth to you? That’s my main takeaway re-watching David Lynch’s surreal indie Mulholland Drive twenty years later from its release. Lynch has had plenty of his own run-ins with the dream makers of Tinseltown, from the difficulty to see his admittedly weird projects off the ground to the swift cancellation of his once zeitgeist, and deeply weird, TV series, Twin Peaks. It’s common knowledge now that Mulholland Drive began as a 1999 TV pilot that Lynch re-conceived as a movie, shot 30 minutes of additional footage, and earned a 2001 Best Directing Oscar nomination for his perseverance and creative adaptability. The movie has since taken on quite a reputation. The BBC and Los Angeles Society of Film Critics have both hailed it as the best film of the twenty-first century (so far). Lynch has retreated back to his insular world of weirdness with hypnotic, over-indulgent retreads, Inland Empire, and bringing back his signature TV series for a Showtime run in 2017. In 2001, Mulholland’s Drive’s success seemed to be the last point with Lynch working with the studio system he so despised. In a way, this is his farewell letter to chasing his own dreams of stardom, at least as far as a director can have creative control and a steady supply of protection and money to see his vision through. Watching Mulholland Drive is like stepping through a dream, which has been the hallmark of Lynch’s more celebrated, obtuse filmography from 1977’s Eraserhead onward. The movie is meant to operate on a certain dream logic, sustained with choices that seem artistically self-destructive, but the journey might feel as emotionally or intellectually fleeting as a dream as well, so I ask you, dear reader, to think as you continue, how much is a dream worth?

The failed pilot serves as a majority of the film’s running time and it’s filled with peculiar beginnings that will never pay off. There are actors like Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and Brent Briscoe (Sling Blade) who show up for one whole scene and then are never seen again. Presumably, the roles would have been more significant as detectives snooping around from the peripheral. There are mysterious forces chasing after “Rita” (Laura Harring), an important-looking woman who has conveniently lost her memory and adopted her name after seeing a poster of Rita Hayworth. She’s got a bag filled with money, a gun, and blue key. One would assume over the course of a network season that we would get closer to discovering the real identity of our amnesiac leading lady. There are also scenes that seem to exist as their own short films, like the darkly comedic hapless hitman and the scared man detailing his spooky dream to a concerned friend in a diner. These characters, presumably, would come back for more significance or at least larger interplay. The same with the mysterious locked box and key. You can practically identify the J.J. Abrams “mystery box”-style of storytelling for future intrigue. The role of a TV pilot is to serve up a storytelling engine that can keep churning, as well as ensuring that there’s enough curiosity to hook an audience through commercial breaks. Lynch is used to inserting strange symbols and starts in his movies that potentially go nowhere, so the difference between a Lynch pilot and a Lynch movie aren’t terribly noticeable. These characters, clues, and moments were perhaps intended to be developed further, or perhaps they never were. It’s as if the movie itself is a nightmare of different television programs colliding incoherently.

There does seem to be a consensus interpretation for Mulholland Drive, one that synchs up the various doubles and symbols. For two hours, we’re riding along with Betty (Naomi Watts) as she moves to L.A. with big dreams and perky naivete. She finds the amnesiac Rita in her aunt’s apartment and takes it upon herself to give her a home and investigate her identity. They grow close together, Betty nails her big acting audition, and then Betty and Rita become lovers. They go to a club (Silencio) where performance artists insist “everything is recorded,” and thus already happened, phony, and a replication of memory, and then Rita inserts that mystery blue key into the mystery box and mysteriously vanishes. We next return to the scene of Diane, who at first was a dead body that Rita and Betty found during their investigation. Now it’s Betty, or at least Watts playing her, and she’s a struggling actress who is jealous of the success and favor her girlfriend, Camilla (also played by Harring), is indulging in from their seedy director, Adam (Justin Theroux). Overcome with torment, she hires a hitman to kill Camilla. From there, she’s attacked by a homeless monster, tiny versions of the people portraying Betty’s parents in the first part, and she takes her own life in grief and guilt. The most common interpretation is that the final twenty or so minutes with Watts as Diane is the real story and that the proceedings 110 minutes was Diane’s dream trying to process her guilty conscience and mixed emotions. The blue key, the symbol from Diane’s hired hitman of a job completed, is the point of transportation between the dream and returning to a living nightmare of regret. Adam’s prominence in the first two hours is explained as punishment from Diane’s mind, so this is why he is emasculated repeatedly, from being robbed of control over his movie, his marriage, and ultimately his future.

Just because this is the most prominent interpretation, and even perhaps the author’s intended one, doesn’t mean other viewers cannot find equally valid and differing interpretations. That’s the appeal or point of frustration with Lynch’s most Lynchian work. However, the problem with asserting that the first two hours of your two-hour-plus movie were all a dream can make it feel overindulgent and unsatisfying. The TV pilot segments are shot in a way that evokes the cliché storytelling stye that prevailed at the time, with overly lit scenes and flat acting. I cannot say for certain but it feels like Lynch purposely told Watts (King Kong) to try and be hammy. Lynch has been known to purposely ape the style of prime-time soaps to provide subtle satirical contexts. Is Watts doing a bad job with the purpose of making us think of other bad actors from soaps? The one scene Betty comes alive is during her audition scene. We’ve already seen her act it out once so we’re expecting more of the same, but in that moment, she comes alive with sensuality, taking control from the aged acting partner who was just there to exploit some young new starlets. The intensity she unleashes, a mixture of carnal desire and self-loathing, is nothing like bright-eyed Betty. Is the irony that when Betty is pretending to be someone else that’s when the performance excels? You can see the points for interpretation, especially considering the ending thesis, but if so, it’s such a bold gamble by Lynch that could prove so alienating. You’re deliberately having your lead actress act in a cliched and stilted manner to perhaps make a point fewer will grasp? Obviously, the ending wasn’t intended to pair with the pilot parts, so it feels like projecting an unintended meaning onto the intentions of acting decisions, but dreams are murky that way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if just as many people are tested by Mulholland Drive as they are mesmerized. It’s a combination of different genres and film iconography, from Manning as a living-breathing femme fatale, to dark whimsical comedy, to surreal mystery, to tawdry erotic drama, to industry-obsessed soap. As much as it feels like a pilot retooled into a new beast, it also feels like a collection of genres being retooled for whatever intended association Lynch wants to impart. It’s ready-made for dissection and ready to take apart the Hollywood studio system. I enjoyed some of the strange moments that felt most ancillary, like the mobster with the extremely refined taste for espressos, and the eyebrow-less cowboy assassin threatening Adam. That scene in particular still has an unsettling menace to it, as Lynch takes what could have been absurd and finds a way to make this man overtly threatening without ever explicitly doing anything threatening. His browbeating to Adam over the difference between listening and hearing is well written and ends perfectly: “You will see me one more time, if you do good. You will see me… two more times, if you do bad. Good night.” I wish more sequences like this could stand on their own. So much of Mulholland Drive seems intended to provide a skeleton for meaning to be provided later as the added meat that Lynch didn’t value as highly.

Watts became a star from this movie and was taken to another level with the success of 2002’s The Ring. From there, she was in the Hollywood system of stars and after toiling for ten years from rejected interviews to rejected interviews. She was thinking of quitting acting and going back to her native Australia at the time she got asked to play Betty/Diane. The audition scene, the later distraught and frail Diane, as well as the mannered Betty served as an acting reel for every casting agent that had rejected her. Here was Watts, capable of doing it all and then some (she was nominated for two Oscars – 2003’s 21 Grams and 2012’s The Impossible).

My original review in 2001 is also wrestling with the question over interpretation versus intention, with the genre mash-ups as symbolic satire or as laborious TV pandering. Mulholland Drive is like watching a dream and trying to dissect its many meanings. Some people will relish the puzzle pieces that Lynch has provided and finding further hidden mirrored meanings, and other people will throw up their hands and ask for a road map, or lose interest by then. I don’t think this is the best film of the first twenty years of this new century. I don’t even think it’s close. I think at its best it can be hypnotic and intriguing; it’s a shame that these are only moments for me, and twenty years later these moments felt even further spaced apart. I just didn’t find Lynch’s movie quite worth the long, surreal drive into the dark of his imagination.

Re-View Grade: B-

Donnie Darko (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 26, 2001:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-View Grade: A

Malignant (2021)

Thank goodness for James Wan. The horror hit-maker has earned enough creative cache in the industry after fostering three separate horror franchises (totaling near two billion dollars), plus two other high-profile action superhero blockbusters, that he can do whatever he wants and thankfully what Wan wants to do is make really weird movies that take tremendous risks. Malignant is a movie that starts slow, appearing to be another in the line of horror thrillers about a psychic connection between a troubled soul and the imaginary friend that seems to be coming back. The movie begins feeling like high-end camp in a flashback, takes a very serious and uncomfortable turn into domestic violence and miscarriages, and then builds into a psychic serial killer investigation where our main character (Annabelle Wallis) is having creepy visions of the killer exacting bloody revenge. For the first half of the movie, there’s a lot to keep up with and it’s easy to get confused with bland characters, their often baffling actions and decisions, and then it plops you down for heavy exposition via asylum VHS tapes. However, from that point forward, Wan lays out all his cards and it’s so absurd, so entrancingly weird, and so enthusiastic about all of it, that you may burst out laughing in the best possible way. Before its drunken rampage of schlocky delight, Malignant is a horror mystery and stylishly directed with some bravura shots and angles. It’s worth your time, but everything is in service to setting up the final act where it gets so much bigger, more bonkers, and deliriously more entertaining. Wan is clearly going for messy giallo horror camp and gives the audience permission to laugh along with the insanity. It acknowledges how goofy looking and bizarre its eventual monster looks, let alone the logistics and circumstances involved, and it all veers into that. Whereas Old felt like M. Night Shyamalan was trying to escape camp and kept falling back into its morass, Malignant feels expressly like the movie James Wan wishes to make. There’s even a spooky abandoned child experiment-heavy hospital on a cliff, and rather than have something spooky happen, the character then safely arrives back home with an armload of incriminating medical VHS tapes. The deliberate asides, misdirects, and eventual revelations feel so purposeful to yank around the audience and deliver a frantic and unpredictable ride of a movie that leaves the audience screaming and howling with laughter. I can understand people hating Malignant. I can understand people loving Malignant. I can understand people having trouble even making sense of Malignant. However, you cannot watch this movie and have a passive response. I wish I could have seen this in a packed theater pre-COVID. I think I figured out my inexpensive Halloween costume for 2021.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Old (2021)

Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, seems ripe for parody, perhaps even upon delivery in theaters. The “can’t even” bizarre energy of this movie is off the charts and bounces back and forth between hilarious camp and head-scratching seriousness with several frustrating and absurd artistic decisions by Shyamalan. If you viewed this movie as a strange comedy, then you would be right. If you viewed it as an existential horror movie, then you would be right. If you viewed it as a heightened satire on high-concept Twilight Zone parables, then you would be right.

We follow a family on a vacation to a Caribbean resort. Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are keeping secrets from their two children, six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and eleven-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). The parents are planning on separating and Prisca has a tumor, though benign for the time being. The hotel manager offers an exclusive secluded beach for those who would really enjoy this special experience. Guy, Prisca, and their kids join another family with a six-year-old daughter, a married couple, and an old lady with her dog, and they drive off into the jungle. Except this beach is not what it appears to be. There are strange artifacts of past visitors, and every time people try and pass back through the path to leave, they pass out. Also, everyone is aging rapidly, about one year for every 30 minutes elapsed. The children become adults, the elderly succumb first, and everyone worries they may not ever leave.

Old is not one of Shyamalan’s worst movies but it’s hard to classify it as good without attaching conditional modifiers. It might be good, if you enjoy movies that are campy and schlocky. It might be good, if you enjoy movies that throw anything and everything out there just because. It might be good, if you enjoy movies that produce a supernatural concept, drop rules established whenever convenient, and then try to wrap everything up neatly with an absurdly thorough explanation for everything. It might be good, if you think Shyamalan peaked with 2006’s Lady in the Water. This is going to be a polarizing experience. I think Shyamalan doesn’t fully understand what tone he’s going for and how best to develop his crazy storyline in a way that makes it meaningful beyond the general WTF curiosity. Even when it goes off the rails, Old is entertaining but some of that is unintentional. There are points where it feels like Shyamalan is trying for camp and other points where it feels like he is aiming for something higher and just can’t help but stumble, Sisyphean-style, back again into the pit of camp absurdity.

The premise is a grabber and takes the contained thriller conceit that Hollywood loves for its cheap cost and applies a supernatural sheen. It’s based upon a French graphic novel, Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, though Shyamalan has taken several creative liberties. It’s an intriguing idea of rapid aging being the real trap, and it forces many characters to confront their own fears of mortality and aging but also parental failures. Every parent likely thinks with some degree of regret about how quickly their little ones grow up. These adults have to watch their children rapidly age in only hours and not have any way to stop the relentless speed of time. The extra level of fear is produced by the fact that mentally the children are still where they began that morning. Even as Trent ages into the body of a teenager, he still has the mind of a six-year-old, and that is a horror unto itself. As his body rapidly changes, his parents are helpless to stop this terrifying jolt into adulthood and unable to shield their child from the terror of physical maturation but being trapped in the mindset of a child who cannot keep up with their mutating body. There are definite body horror and existential dread potential here, though Shyamalan veers too often into lesser schlocky thriller territory. For him, it’s more the mystery or the foiled escape attempts than actually dwelling on the emotional anxiety of the unique predicament. There’s enough born from this premise that it keeps you watching to the end, even as you might be questioning the actions of the characters, their ability to somehow miraculously guess the right answers as a group about what is happening, and the inconsistency of the rules about what can and cannot happen on this accursed beach.

There is one sequence that deserves its own detailed analysis for just how truly bizarre and avoidable it could have been, and to do so I will need to invoke the warning of spoilers for this paragraph. One of the other six-year-olds, Kara, gets a whole traumatic experience all her own that is morally and artistically questionable. Midway through the movie, Kara (Eliza Scanlan) and Trent (Alex Wolff) come back from a jaunt off screen together and they’re older and Kara is clearly pregnant. Given the rules that were established, that means that these six-year-old children experimented with their newly adult bodies to the point of fertilization (oh God, writing this makes me wince). I must reiterate that these characters are still six-years-old. Before you start realizing the gross implications, Kara is quickly entering labor and within seconds the baby is suddenly born and within seconds the baby just as suddenly dies silently from, what we’re told, was a lack of attention. What he hell, Shyamalan? Did you have to throw a dead baby into your movie to make us feel the visceral horror of the situation? It feels tacky and needlessly triggering for some moviegoers. This entire sequence doesn’t impact the plot in any meaningful way. Kara could have died in childbirth because of the circumstances of the beach. That would be tragic but matter. Just having her get suddenly pregnant and then suddenly the recipient of a deceased child seems needlessly cruel and misguided. And then, in the aftereffect of this trauma, Kara’s mom tearfully recounts her first love, a man she still thinks about to this day but doesn’t understand why. What does this have to do with anything? Re-read this entire scenario and let it sink in how truly uncomfortable and gross it comes across. It could have been avoided, it could have even been better applied to the characters and themes of the story, but it’s empty, callous shock value.

Another hindrance of Old is that the characters lack significant development and nobody ever talks like a recognizable human being. As Shyamalan has embraced being more and more an unabashedly genre filmmaker, he’s lost sight on how to write realistic people. You see this throughout 2008’s The Happening with its curious line readings and clunky, inauthentic dialogue being legendary and unintentionally hilarious (“You should be more interested in science, Jake. You know why? Because your face is perfect.”). I feel like Old is the most reminiscent of The Happening, the last time Shyamalan went for broke with ecological horror. The way these characters talk, it sounds like their dialogue was generated by an A.I. instead. “You have a beautiful voice. I can’t wait to hear it when you’re older,” Prisca says, which is a strange way for a parent to say, “I like what you have but wishing it was better.” She also has the line to her husband, “When you talk about the future, I don’t feel seen.” There’s also a running theme of characters just blurting out their occupations as introductions, “I’m a doctor,” followed by, “I’m a nurse,” like it’s career day on the beach. Frustratingly, all the characterization ends once the people wind up on this fated beach. Many of these characters are simply defined by their maladies and professions. This character has seizures. This character has a blood disorder. This character has a tumor. This character has MS. Noticing a pattern? You would expect that with such a unique and challenging conflict that it would better reveal these people, push them to make changes, especially as change is thrust upon them whether they like it or not. Imagine your uncle being cursed with rapid aging but all he does is still complain about his lousy neighbor. That limited tunnel vision is what Old struggles with. And one of the characters is a famous rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan but without a hint or irony or showbiz satire. Mid-Sized Sedan!

The way Shyamalan shoots this movie also greatly increases its camp appeal. This movie is coursing with energy and contrarianism. Shyamalan is often moving his camera in swooping pans and finding visual arrangements that can be frustrating and obtuse. Sometimes it works, like when we have the child characters with their backs to the camera and we’re anticipating how they have changed and what they might look like. Too often, it feels like Shyamalan trying to interject something more into a scene like he’s unsure that the dramatic tension of the writing is enough. There are scenes where what’s important almost seems incidental to the visual arrangement of the shot. Some of the sudden push-ins and arrangements made me laugh because it took me out of the moment by making the moment feel even more ridiculous. This heightened mood to the point of hilarity is the essence of camp and that’s why it feels like Shyamalan can’t help himself. If he’s trying to dig for something deeper and more profound, it’s not happening with his exaggerated and mannered stylistic choices being a distraction.

The ending, which I will not spoil, tries to do too much in clearing up the central mysteries. It feels overburdened to the point of self-parody, having characters pout expository explanations for all that came before and supplying motivation as to what was happening. Still, Shyamalan cannot keep things alone, and he keeps extending his conclusion with more and more false endings to complicate matters; the more he attempts to tidy up the less interesting the movie becomes. I would have been happy to accept no explanation whatsoever for why the beach behaves as it does. The best Twilight Zone episodes succeed from the mystery and development rather than the eventual explanation (“Oh, it was all a social experiment/nightmare/whatever”). Once you begin to pick apart the explanation with pesky questions, the illusion of its believability melts away. I had the same issue with 2019’s Us. The more Jordan Peele tried to find a way to explain his underground doppelganger plot, the more incredulous and sillier it became.

Old is a Shyamalan movie for all good and bad. It’s got a strong central premise and some memorable moments but those memorable moments are also both good and bad. Some of the moments have to be seen to be believed, and some of those moments are simply the odd choices that Shyamalan makes as a filmmaker as well as a screenwriter. It’s hard to say whether the movie’s weirdness will be appealing or revolting to the individual viewer. It feels like camp without intentionally going for camp. Rather, Shyamalan seems to be going for B-movie schlock whereas his older movies took B-movie premises and attempted to elevate them with themes, well-rounded characters, and moving conclusions (don’t forget the requisite twist endings). The worst sin a movie can commit is being boring, and Old is rarely that. I can’t say it’s good for the entire duration of its overextended 100 minutes but it does not prove boring.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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